Thursday, July 30, 2015

Gazpacho, Seville-style

After reading yesterday's New York Times article, "Gazpacho is the New Orange," I decided to test drive what was proclaimed to be the best gazpacho.

The orange tone of this gazpacho comes from the red tomatoes which are abundant and great-tasting at this time of year. Close to two pounds of them went into the Vitamix container to make about a quart of gazpacho. The bright orange color, the juice-like mouth feel of this gazpacho, served in glasses — not soup bowls, are distinctly Andalusia of southern Spain. (Seville is the capital of the region.)

Summer weather is sizzling hot in Seville making this the preferred chilled beverage/soup to hydrate, drink or eat. The texture is creamy and smooth, like a smoothie, but lighter. I can chug this down in one big gulp after a hard workout at the gym because it is silky as well as savory. Not the sweet fruity smoothie drink. After sweating so much, I crave salt in my replenishment drink. Gazpacho, Seville-style, is well suited for that and a satisfying eat when you're hungry. No sugar added. Just fresh vegetables front and center. It’s so light and refreshing, you want to drink it from a glass.

Traditionally, gazpacho was made by pounding the vegetables in a mortar with a pestle. Originating in Southern Spain in the Andalusian region, gazpacho has ancient roots since the Romans. There are a lot of variations out there. But no recipe is needed. Every one has their own favorite recipes. It is about figuring out what you like.

Here is a modern version. No lumps and no mess. A high-power blender is the equipment of choice. What gives this gazpacho the desired smoothness is the olive oil. After all the ingredients are added in the blender, extra-virgin olive oil is drizzled in until the mixture turns bright orange and emulsified. You need to blitz the mixture in a turbo-charged blender like the Vitamix for a few minutes to get it really smooth and homogeneous. Otherwise, you need to strain the final mixture through a fine-mesh strainer or a food mill. Since the recipe calls for a half cup of olive oil, the taste of olive oil comes through loudly. Be sure to use a deep-flavor, high-quality and golden-colored olive oil.

The new orange: best gazpacho

The other supporting ingredients are there to add body and a light flavor to the gazpacho. They are there to support and not to compete with the star ingredients: tomatoes and olive oil. One light long green pepper, like Anaheim, one cucumber, one small mild onion, one clove of garlic and two teaspoons of sherry vinegar rounded out the list. You'd barely notice these ingredients. Vegetables and vinegar provide all the liquid needed. No bread or other garnishes. No spices or herbs. An appropriate purist approach that works fast and uncomplicated for hot summer days. This is a winning gazpacho given the seasonal best tomatoes and a good-tasting olive oil.

What goes well with this gazpacho: artisan country bread and jamon. Splendid!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Vanilla-Mango Panna Cotta with Pistachio Tuiles

There is something ethereal about panna cotta amid the heat and humidity of summer. It’s cool, silky, light and rich, all at once. And holds its own against the much-loved summer dessert, the ice cream, although a bit more grown-up in its presentation. It is easier to chill and serve panna cotta in glasses. No unmolding is necessary. Paired it with mango puree (as in this recipe) or a berry coulis, you have a beautiful and luxurious dessert made — fit for summer entertaining.

A perfect make-ahead dessert served at the end of a meal. It does not take long to put it together. A few hours of chilling in the refrigerator for the panna cotta to set is all it takes. Panna cotta can be refrigerated for up to five days.

Plain vanilla-mango panna cotta

The vanilla-mango panna cotta recipe can be found in Dorie Greenspan’s Baking with Chez Moi (p.370). Mango puree is made from blending ripe mangoes with some lime juice. I used an immersion blender and blended three mangoes (pits removed), more than what the recipe calls for, in a small bowl, while tasting it along the way. Dorie recommends adding some honey. I left that out since I like the tartness of the lime juice against the sweetness of the mango and the panna cotta. The flavor combination is just right. I love the taste and the color of the ripe mango — vibrant with a tropical note.

The flavor of vanilla (accented by the pulpy seeds from one bean) is infused in an equal portion of whole milk and heavy cream mixture. The mixture was then thickened with one envelope of unflavored powdered gelatin. Nothing more involved than that. Except one: I strained the panna cotta mixture through a fine-mesh strainer. I can't quite decide which one I like better: the vanilla-flavored panna cotta or the mango puree? I vary the proportion of these two components in each glass so everyone can choose the right combination for their liking.

What might be lacking, perhaps, is textural contrast. I played up to that by topping the panna cotta with some pistachio tuiles. That’s the first bite before digging into the panna cotta. I always enjoy having that crunchy crackling crown of a thin cookie on top of the soft and soothing cream underneath, the way it's served in some restaurants. That’s my inspiration to recreate a more dressed-up panna cotta, layered with the pistachio tuiles on top. A real cool dessert, texture and all!

Topped with pistachio tuiles

I submitted this post to "Tuesdays with Dorie," my second one. You can find wonderful postings on how other bakers have approached this recipe here.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Cabbage and Kohlrabi Salad

A healthful salad of kohlrabi, cabbage and sour cherries

The trip to the farmers' market in the early morning on the weekends is invigorating and filled with great anticipation. You never know what you'll find and what you'll bring home. There is no shopping list on hand. I'd buy the seasonal best ingredients, and the least expensive, that appeal and intrigue. Then work my menu around them. I found these beautiful purple kohlrabi piled high in one of the stands the other day that I simply couldn't ignore. It's shiny, colorful with a smooth surface that invites touching — too perfect and adorable to be made into food. They honestly looked like garden ornaments. I inquired about it and bought a few with no idea what I'd do with them. Bought purely on impulse and felt good about it!

Serendipitously, I found this cabbage and kohlrabi salad recipe on Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty. He said, "I think I have found the absolute best use for a kohlrabi. It is wonderfully fresh-tasting, with a good lemony kick and some sharp sweetness. You may end up going looking for kohlrabi, and it isn't very easy to find."

Somehow my food journey is like meandering along some winding roads with unexpected twists and turns. Many times, it feels as if the invisible knowledgeable hands are guiding me through the maze. Random finds and delicious meals are there waiting to be discovered. No lines, no reservations. Merely open the door and take a seat at the table. Not quite. More like: put on the apron and start cooking.

New technique: Massage vegetables together to soften them

For this salad, no cooking is involved. Only chop, massage the vegetables to soften them (seriously!) and assemble. I skipped the alfafa sprouts; that's hard to find. I could imagine the sprouts would provide a different bite. A different texture. I am not a big fan of a slaw made with cabbage, but this salad belongs to a league all its own.

This post will join other IHCC home cooks for this week's potluck spread of seasonal dishes around the globe.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Blender Hollandaise with Roasted Asparagus

There is always that bottle of store-bought mayonnaise sitting on the refrigerator door. Is there any chance that it'd go away for a vacation once and a while? I wonder. Hollandaise is similar to mayonnaise in many respects. They are egg-emulsified butter sauce, except hollandaise is served hot. Since I’ve never made either one of these sauces, may be it’s high time to give it a try. I am making hollandaise for the mother sauce challenge this week with other home cooks at IHCC. Sounds fun, or treacherous?

Can you guess which one of the five mother sauces IHCC home cooks gravitate to? Bechamel, hollandaise, veloute, tomato or espanole?

Being a mother sauce, hollandaise is the foundation for many derivatives created by adding or changing ingredients, such as the bĂ©arnaise sauce or sauce mousseline. Clearly, there are good reasons to embrace the hollandaise sauce. What’s preventing me from jumping in with both feet is the apprehension over numerous occasions previously when I came face to face with a curdled and broken sauce. Not quite ready for more horrors.

My challenge here is to find not only a sound and reliable methodology to make a hollandaise sauce that works for me, but to uncover ways to prevent the egg-butter sauce from curdling and breaking.

Jacques Pepin has two recipes for hollandaise sauce, the classic and the quick blender one. The classic method requires whipping eggs with a whisk in a double boiler over simmering water for 8 to 10 minutes, the way to prepare a sabayon. That does not appeal to me. So I went for the blender recipe which makes a good sauce, as Pepin explained, but with a firmer texture, not as delicate and light as the classic method.

I carefully followed the blender hollandaise recipe, but made a few necessary changes. The recipe calls for 3 sticks of unsalted butter with 4 large egg yolks. I reduced the amount of butter by half. By doing so, the resulting sauce is lighter and healthier with lower fat content. Instead of melting the butter in a saucepan over low heat, I melted the butter in the microwave oven for about one minute. The sauce takes almost no time to make. To me, this effortless hollandaise is a success — especially for a sauce that is known to require a fair amount of skill and practice to prepare. Horror averted for the time being!

The making of this blender hollandaise may be effortless, but you still have to be mindful on the execution part. Here are some pointers I've found helpful in stabilizing the hollandaise sauce and lowering the risks of curdling and separating:

• All the ingredients should be at room temperature since warmth speeds the transfer of emulsifiers from the yolk particles to the fat droplet surfaces, and bonding them to each other.

• Hot melted butter heats the egg yolks just enough to thicken the emulsion, but not as much the yolk proteins coagulate into little solid curds. This happens at around 160°-170°F.

• Heating the yolks with lemon juice (or other acid) also minimizes curdling.

• Blend slowly at first and more rapidly as the emulsion thickens.

• The sauce is best held at around 145°F. Keep it warm to prevent the butter from solidifying.

• To revive a sauce that has been refrigerated, add one tablespoon of warm water while whisking the sauce to melt the butterfat crystals.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Buttermilk Cake with Mixed Berries (and a Secret Code)

One of the best things I like about the summer season is the abundance of fruits and vegetables. The fresh and diverse choices in the markets are so tempting; I invariably end up buying an excessive amount. Then I have to find new and creative ways to use them. Hence the genesis of this cake: a buttermilk cake filled with all kinds of berries: blackberries, raspberries and blue berries.

More than a recipe, I am presenting a rough guide which has helped me to master the world of quick cakes. The general ingredients to bake a cake are widely known. They are: flour, eggs, sugar, butter and liquid leavened by baking powder. (To simplify the current discussion, I’ll leave out leavening for the time being. The rule for baking powder is shown in the cheat sheet below.) No surprise there.

The surprise is how simple it is if you’d just follow a few codes that would start to unshackle you from looking up hundreds of similar quick cake recipes. Remembering this simple set of guideline for quick cake has empowered me to bake more confidently and efficiently — from quick cakes, to muffins, pancakes to waffles. Baking without the use of recipes is liberating. Rather than following recipes, you have the capacity and freedom to create your own recipes. That enables me to be a better baker.

Let’s step back to the buttermilk cake. Grab a cup of all-purpose flour, one egg, one stick of butter and 1/2 cup of buttermilk on a tray. Call it tray A. That’s enough to bake a 9-inch cake. These are the fundamental building blocks for the buttermilk cake or any quick cakes. The ingredients do not generally change much. You might substitute using different kinds of flour or milk. All you need to remember is the relationships between the amounts of each ingredient in terms of ratio. Roughly, most quick bread recipes follow the working ratio in weight (ounces or grams) terms of:

Two parts of flour/ one part of egg/ one part of butter/ two parts of liquid (or 2-1-1-2).

Let’s start with one egg which weighs two ounces, you need to use four ounces of flour (two parts), two ounces of butter (one part) and four ounces (two parts) of milk to make a 9-inch cake. This is exactly what you have put together in tray A above. The only difference is tray A is quoted in volume terms and here they are measured in ounces. Identical but with different units of measurement, if you will.

I left out sugar in this general cake code for good reasons. The amount of sweetness varies widely depending on what other ingredients are added to the cake. You'd need more sugar in cakes with berries or apples and less for bananas. If you want the batter less sweet, use less sugar. The general rule is to add as much sugar as butter.

One of the best practices for any bakers: use a scale and weigh your ingredients. It is more accurate to weigh your ingredients on a scale than to measure them in cups. Even when using calibrated spoon and cup measures, it is nearly impossible to measure volumes with precision and accuracy. How finely the food is processed, how firmly it is packed, how rounding was done to get to the nearest common fraction can throw off volume measurements by up to 15%, enough to diminish the quality of some recipes.

The rule for cakes works the same way for muffins. The difference is the shape of the vessel used in baking them. Cakes are baked in cake pans and muffins are baked in muffin tins. The batter used for cakes works for muffins as well.

Pancakes are thin muffins made with half the amount of butter. Similarly, pancake code is a variant of quick cake code and follows the working ratio in weight terms of:

Two parts of flour/ one part of egg/ 1/2 part of butter/ two parts of liquid (or 2-1-1/2-2).

If you are making pancakes for the entire family and want to double the recipe, you choose to do a two-egg batter. You would need 8 ounces of flour, 4 ounces of egg, 2 ounce of butter and 8 ounces of milk at the ratio of 2-1-1/2-2.

There you have it.  The 2-1-1-2 code would get you through myriad of quick cakes, muffins and pancakes without referencing any recipes. All you need is a scale. Should you decide to scale up or down, the control dial is at your fingertips. If you want to use 200 grams of flour, the amount you need for sugar, butter and milk are 100 grams, 100 grams and 200 grams, respectively. You are going beyond basic baking to a more creative style once you understand and apply this ingredient ratio. It’s a powerful tool, indeed.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Halibut on Fresh Polenta with Pepper Oil

This fish dish gives the impression that you've been laboring in the kitchen. Poached halibut set on top of a bed of polenta and a red pepper sauce. Looks complicated. But looks can be deceiving. What's appealing about this dish is the simplicity of using only four ingredients, if you don't count salt, pepper, olive oil and butter. The unadulterated flavor of fresh corn, raw red pepper and fish has decidedly won me over. Now I'm inspired to find similar dishes like this. Simple and quick preparation. A handful of ingredients working its magic to elevate all their natural flavors into mouthfuls that surprise and delight. You just don't expect that in a fish dish.

This recipe comes from Jacques Pepin. I am joining the other home cooks at IHCC this week in showcasing "fast food Jacques's way." Other interesting dishes like this one that is done in less than 30 minutes can be found here.

The most winsome of the ingredients, to me, is the fresh corn. I used white corn (Jersey Silver Queen) from the local farmers' market. I can't get enough of them when they are at the peak of the summer harvest — juicy, milky and sweet. Clearly, polenta will take on a yellower tone if yellow corn is used.

A quick puree of the corn kernels in the Vitamix followed by a brief 30-second boil in a saucepan with butter was all that's needed to bring the polenta together. It took me more time cleaning the Vitamix container than making the polenta!

The pepper oil, combining chunks of red bell pepper with olive oil, is also prepared in the blender. It took even less time than making the polenta. Pepin's recipe calls for peeling the bell pepper with a vegetable peeler. I kept the skin on. First, a quick blend in the Vitamix until the red pepper and olive oil mixture is smooth. No cooking is involved. The pepper oil is then heated up in the microwave before service. No fuss and no sweat!

White corn gives polenta a whiter color

Vibrant red of the pepper oil gives the dish a pop

Mission critical is poaching the halibut steaks. Other fish that can be substituted in this recipe are: striped bass, swordfish or even salmon. Poaching the fish in boiling water requires no more than two to three minutes. Time can pass in a blink before you realize the halibut steaks become overcooked. Since I'd rather have my fish underdone, I had the skimmer in my hand ready to take the fish out the minute I dropped them in the boiling water. My heart may have skipped a beat. In the end, it's all worth it.

More than anything else, the key to a successful quick dish is getting the best and freshest raw ingredients. They don't really need any cooking or my minding them. Going through this recipe, I truly understand and appreciate the notion that less can be more.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Zucchini Focaccia with Levain Pizza Dough

The first dish I posted on this blog was a roasted vegetables focaccia less than a year ago. It's the summer season. Zucchini of different colors and shapes are gorgeous and plentiful in the farmers' market once again. I couldn't help but going back to the vegetable focaccia. This time with a versatile pure levain pizza dough without added baker's yeast. A full character dough that can be used for both pizza and focaccia.

The dough needs an overnight rest, but the resulting complex flavor of the focaccia is worthy of the extra time and finesse. This artisanal focaccia written by Ken Forkish was inspired by the Neapolitan or New York-style pizza. Focaccia like this one is here and here to stay in my kitchen.

Despite the hot summer weather, my oven continues to burn radiant hot. My pizza crust is getting thinner over time as I gain experience in tossing and shaping the dough. Other than pizzas baked in the inferno of wood-fired ovens, this focaccia is as good as any artisanal one. Fortunately, I have a dual-fuel oven that can be cranked up to 550°F. The oven temperature has to be very high (or at the highest temperature setting of your oven) so that the top, the bottom and the rim of the crust all turn golden brown with a slight char. This combination of look and texture is harder to achieve than just a good-tasting pie. Go for these structural characteristics, it's a beautiful thing!

Next time I'd consider raising the oven temperature to 550°F

I especially like making focaccia for a crowd; it's more forgiving than making pizza. It's good served at room temperature. Hence you can bake it up to an hour ahead of time. Focaccia can be baked in a cast-iron skillet or on a sheet pan, much less intimidating than transferring a pizza on a peel and onto the pizza stone.

Overproofing the dough is not an issue with focaccia since you're not looking for optimal oven spring. In fact, overproofing allows the dough to spread out and hold the finger dents where you want them. A great convenience when it comes to flexibility of dough development. Top the focaccia with whatever you like or whatever you have on hand. Or, if you so desire, keep it minimalist. Simply drizzle extra-virgin olive oil and some small-flake sea salt. You have a wonderful focaccia made!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Strawberries and Cream

What do strawberries and cream and forty-love have in common? Yes, it’s the Wimbledon. Wimbledon is the oldest and the most prestigious tennis Grand Slam played on grass courts over a fortnight in June and July, when strawberries are in season. This food duo was adopted early in Wimbledon's history, partly in response to the fashionability of strawberries in Victorian England.

To ensure utmost freshness, strawberries are picked the day before and arrive at Wimbledon at 5:30am, prior to being inspected and hulled. They are meant to be something special — fashionable yet steeped in tradition. World-class tennis matches are played in a garden setting where spectators and royals munch strawberries and cream. I ate mine in front of the television, watching live from Wimbledon via ESPN. Enthralled by the game. The center-court atmosphere may not be evenly matched at home, but there is no lack of imagining having breakfast or afternoon tea at Wimbledon while munching strawberries and cream.

My version of strawberries and cream takes on a healthier spin, using vanilla yogurt in addition to heavy cream in a 50/50 ratio. You can use any kind of yogurt you have on hand, except Greek yogurt, which is too thick for this operation. Whipping the cream assumes a modernist twist with the help of a whipping siphon. Other than relying on another piece of equipment that you may or may not have in your kitchen, using the siphon simplifies the whipping task. It’s instant, easy and environmentally sound. Fill the siphon with the yogurt and cream mixture, screw on the cream charger, then shake and serve. The unfinished cream can be refrigerated in the canister for later use. No cans of whipped cream have to be disposed of in landfills. This is a forty-love sort of winning technique I've come to lean on over and over again for an easy-to-do frothy and creamy accompaniment to fruits and vegetables.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Seaweed, Ginger and Carrot Salad

Mise en place or putting in place, as in set up, is not something I do regularly. In my home kitchen, I loosely organize the ingredients all over the counter, pantry, and fridge and do not always have all the items ready in one place. You don't want to see the kitchen while I'm cooking! This is definitely an area I can improve to become more effective. Or perhaps, there are some recipes which are more conducive to the process of "mise en place," like this seaweed salad.

There is nothing complicated in making the salad other than assembling the vegetables, seeds and nuts, and ingredients for the dressing. The primary vegetables are seaweeds, ginger, carrots, cucumber and mango. Peeled and shredded, with the help of a mandoline, then they are ready to go. (I zested the ginger using a Microplane rasp grater, instead of cutting it into strips.) Only the carrots need to be parboiled for about two minutes before joining the assembly line.

I put all the vegetables on one plate. Took an "mise en place" picture, first one of this kind! I always seem to be in a such a hurry to get to the finish line. I have to keep reminding myself that I'm not involved in a "Chopped" competition.

I love fruits in salads. The combination of mango, ginger, carrots and cucumber is a brilliant one. The finished dish is visually appealing and refreshing with a nod to Japanese cuisine. I wish I can come up with this delicious combination. Again, I rely on Yotam Ottolenghi. He never disappoints.

I have more than three ingredients to satisfy the July Mystery Madness challenge at IHCC: seaweed, sesame seeds, parsley, mango and mint. This is an easy group of ingredients to work with. Salad was my first thought and it works. It is always fun to find out what dishes other IHCC home cooks put together using the mystery ingredients.

I can see wrapping all the vegetables in a sheet of nori
Used walnuts and walnut oil instead of peanuts 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Tartine Olive Oil Brioche

Substituted honey for sugar
45% flour weight in olive oil

Brioche is one of my favorite breads. I don't make it as often as I'd like because of the amount of butter in it. But there is no denial that butter is why brioche tastes so incredibly rich. The olive oil brioche may be coming close to the buttery version. Give it a try. You might not miss the butter as much as you'd think, at least I don't. Use a good strong flavor extra-virgin olive oil, this brioche can stand on its own. Flavoring with orange blossom water is traditional, but not essential, to this recipe which comes from southern France, a region where olive oil is more prevalent than butter.

This recipe is similar to the Tartine Brioche posted earlier: using natural leaven and an overnight poolish. Butter is substituted with olive oil and sugar with honey. It's a lighter version following all the same bread-making steps. The dough is forgiving and versatile. Think French toast or ice cream sandwich. Stale crumbs can find new uses on the bottom of fruit tarts. You can freeze the dough after bulk fermentation for later use. Just thaw the dough in the refrigerator, shape and proof and then bake. My breakfast is complete having a freshly-baked olive oil brioche and a cup of cafe latte — in my pajamas. No guilty pleasure; simply pure pleasure!

Made half (50%) the recipe weights