Thursday, October 29, 2015

Dukkah-roasted Cauliflower

Cauliflower is like a blank canvas to a painter. It is not the most exciting vegetable. In Britain, cauliflower is mostly dressed in a cream sauce. Sicilians smother it with chopped anchovies, saffron, currants and almonds and doused it in olive oil. Moroccans put it in tagines. Greeks combine it with tomatoes and dill. Cauliflower can be anything but bland with the right treatment.

It can take on other exciting flavors, like dukkah, and be instantly transformed into food that grabs your attention and imagination. With the oven turned up to 425°F roasting temperature, the cauliflower florets get very browned. I have seen them become almost entirely charred in restaurants. You know, before you opens the oven door, by the aroma from the spices wafting off the caramelized cauliflower, that the dish is going to be amazing.

The word "Dukkah" is derived from the Arabic for "to pound" since the mixture of spices and nuts are pounded together after being dry roasted to a texture that is neither powdered nor paste-like. It is an Egyptian spicy mixture consisted of hazelnuts, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, and salt and pepper. Since I have all the nuts and seeds ingredients in the pantry, it's just a matter of "pounding" them in a spice grinder or a mini food processor. Turn them into a ground mixture to the consistency of very coarse cornmeal. Viola, you've just made your home-style version of dukkah, which is gaining popularity in the US. I found this wonderful recipe in David Lebovitz's My Paris Kitchen.

The flavor of the spices are best released by toasting them. This may sound like a time consuming task to toast each kind of nuts and seeds separately. Coriander seeds take longer to brown than cumin or fennel seeds. You don't want to burn them. The key is to get all the ingredients line up and ready to go. It doesn't take long, just minutes, for all the nuts and seeds to be toasted evenly. In the end, you have dukkah for dressing up roasted vegetables. It can also be made into a dipping paste with olive oil to be served with baguette or pita bread. Or sprinkle it on eggs for breakfast. Any extra dukkah will keep for about a month when stored in an airtight container at room temperature.

In my opinion, this recipe is about making dukkah as it is about roasting cauliflower. Having a well stocked pantry, with all sorts of spice mixture, condiment, sauce and pesto, encourages experimentation and sparks creativity in the kitchen.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Apple Pielettes

How do you like eating the beloved apple pie as finger food? Or if you like to touch and taste food in your hand, the way kids enjoy their food, this recipe embraces that. For sure, you'd make these tiny pies and present them as a small dish or a dessert sampler. These delicate and dainty pielettes win out hands-down with their miniature and tactile quality. Visit Tuesdays with Dorie (TWD) to see how this recipe is received by other bakers.

Another feature I like about this recipe is the ease and pleasure in working with this specific dough, a galette dough. (Dorie said it has become her go-to pie dough for this purpose.)

Mix 204 grams (1 1/2 cup) of all-purpose flour, 2 tablespoons of sugar, sprinkle of salt, a stick (113 grams) of cold butter and 60 ml (1/4 cup) of ice water until they come together in a food processor.

It feels like receiving another gift from Dorie Greenspan. The dough does not tear as it is rolled out. Tender and crispy to the bite.

No special pan is needed other than a generic muffin tin. With juices bubbling over and caramelized sugar dripping to the sides, the pielettes managed to pop out of the pan with no resistance. I used a silicone pan and every pielette came out perfectly. Those are the little things that delight the baker and sooth the nerves.

It may take extra time to shape the dough in those tiny spaces inside the muffin mold. In the end, you are rewarded with some delicious and charming little apple pies. I'd make them again when time allows.

Postscript — The next morning, I saw these leftover scraps of galette dough and apple fillings hanging out in the fridge, looking a little lost. They were taking up too much valuable real estate in the fridge. I took them out and, mindlessly, put them in a ring mold. Fired up the oven. This was what I got: a freeform apple tart. Without consciously finding or making the time to bake it, I had the best time letting it all happen serendipitously. I like the freeform a lot with greater proportion of fillings to crust. And it's effortless, almost!

Freeform apple tart

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Roast Butternut Squash with Red Onion, Tahini and Za'atar - 100th Post

This is a sequel to the last post, curried butternut squash soup, as well as the 98 posts preceding it. Butternut squash from the Fitzgerald's farm is going to be the main ingredient and the farm-to-table theme carries on. Importantly and incidentally, this is the 100th post since I started this food blog over a year ago, an occasion worthy of a special celebration. I had the faintest idea what and why I wanted to blog. There is more clarity, finally, one year into the journey.

Lucky for me, my dear friend R invited me to a food talk at New York 92nd St Y yesterday. The guest speaker was none other than the acclaimed chef and food writer I greatly admire, Yotam Ottolenghi. He and Ramael Scully, the head chef at one of Ottolenghi's restaurants in London, NOPI, were on tour to launch their latest cookbook, NOPI.

I was thrilled to attend Ottolenghi's talk, covering the genesis of his culinary career, how he has influenced the food world and his collection of recipes. He started by answering the question who taught him how to cook. He credited his style of cooking and his palate to his parents, both are keen and adventurous cooks.

Obviously he loves to eat, especially vegetables. Me too, Yotam! However, he can't possibly be a big eater judging his trim waistline and quick steps. Not an extra ounce of fat on him. Working in the test kitchen and tasting a lot of dishes is part of his job. I'd like to believe he must be eating all the right stuff. The right stuff being a variety of vegetables, but without being a vegetarian. Some of his recipes include meat, fish and dairy. Just the way I like to eat.

I am all for eating more fresh vegetables and without sacrificing big flavors. The first time I read Plenty More, I was hooked by the vibrant color, texture and flavor of Ottolenghi's dishes. 24 out of the 100 posts I've written on this blog are his recipes. A few of them are on my list of all-time favorites. I guess I am considered one of his big fans.

Ottolenghi said he worried not being able to develop new recipes, for the Guardian's food column, in the beginning of his career. With growing confidence, his skill and repertoire continue to expand. The latest incarnation is NOPI. He and Scully are drawing inspiration and innovation from Asia. Star anise and ginger are likely to show up in more places in the new cookbook. I am ready for it!

Butternut spuash was mentioned here and there. His toddler son used to eat it too, until there was a change of appetite.

I found the recipe for roast butternut squash with red onion, tahini and za'atar on his website. I want to make the dish, since there is an open jar of tahini in the refrigerator. But I was out of za'atar. I bought some from Whole Foods to make the dish. (Too powdery and not as bright as I'd like.) I wish Ottenlenghi would offer a recipe for a homemade version of za'atar.

My travel to Turkey and the Spice Market in Istanbul a few years ago had stimulated my senses; I've been intrigued by Middle Eastern flavors. Cooking along and guided by Ottolenghi's recipes has helped me to develop a more diverse palate. A long list of unfamiliar herbs and spices no longer deters me to try making the dish. There is no going back.

There was a question asked about what Ottolenghi would like to eat for his last meal. For Scully, it is mom's curry. For Ottolenghi, it's a rice dish with lentil, fried onions and lots of spices.

Roast Butternut Squash with Tahini

Apricot Walnut Lavender Cake

I have two of my own, both are Ottolenghi's recipes, if I have to answer the same question. Should there be no tomorrow, I would indulge myself with abandon over his stirring, delectable and sweet/savory treats: apricot, walnut and lavender cake, and squash quince and Stilton quiche. But that is subject to change after I try his new dishes from NOPI. Top on the list is the beet and honey cheesecake.

Squash Quince and Stilton Quiche

Tidbits: Do you know that Ottolenghi began his career as a chef in the pastry department of the Capital Restaurant in Knightsbridge, moving on to become head pastry chef at Baker and Spice? No wonder his dessert recipes are out of the world. I bet he can write a sweet/savory cookbook with the same healthful, fruity, vegetable-forward style as his other cookbooks. That'd be huge success considering the long lines every morning for cronuts outside of Dominique Ansel Bakery on Spring and Thompson St.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Curried Butternut Squash Soup

An all-American hoedown party to bid farewell to summer took place last weekend, at a magical place in the rolling foothills of the Shenandoah Valley, dubbed "Camelot." (For the international readers, the term refers to, admiringly in the U.S., the shining moments of JFK presidency.) The Fitzgeralds, our hosts, happen to own a farm next door to a family, the Kennedys (another common last name), hence the name "Camelot." True story! According to some scholars: "Camelot, located no where in particular, can be anywhere."

The four-foot long roasted pig, the straw bales, the bandanas, horseback riding and live country music set the tone of this spectacular weekend gathering. We thoroughly enjoyed it, soaking in as much as we can the golden sunshine and the invigorating mountain air of October in Virginia. If all that was not enough, the guests were welcome to a barrel full of butternut squash harvested on the farm to take home.

I took more than my share. If I were the last person to depart, I'd have emptied the entire barrel. To show some measure of restraint, I took a basket full. My head was running through a long list of squash-centric recipe ideas. I learned that butternut squash would keep well when stored in a cool place for months. Just what I needed to hear!

The following day, I saw the print of Alice Waters, standing under a Mulberry tree in the Edible School Yard, displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Alice Waters' commitment to local organic food and her farm-to-table movement is legendary. The idea of getting food from farm to table resonates with me, loudly and unequivocally.

The basket of butternut squash from the Fitzgeralds' farm will be simmered in soups, tossed into salads, roasted with other root vegetables and baked into quiches and breads, in the manner that Alice Waters would approve. All will be transformed in various fashion into good eats on our seasonal table and beyond. Kudos to mother earth and our hosts who grew them!

I followed primarily Ellie Krieger's recipe of curried butternut squash soup with a few changes to deepen the flavor. I put in some tomato paste, as I sweated the aromatics and the squash, as well as a piece of ginger and a few kaffir lime leaves, as the stock was added to the soup. Topped it off and served with a dollop of sour cream.

The squash soup, seeing it up close, has this screamingly orange tone. The butternut orange that speaks and echos the warm palette of fall foliage. The soup is the ultimate comfort food: soothing and inviting. We can't help but feel blessed with the beauty and bounty of the season, and "Camelot", as we say farewell to summer!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

No-churn Chocolate Coffee Ice Cream

This no-churn recipe makes it possible for me to make ice cream without an ice-cream machine. This is a one-step, no-fuss and foolproof recipe what requires very few ingredients: heavy cream, sweetened condensed milk, instant espresso powder and espresso liqueur. Nigella Lawson knocks it out of the park with this creation. No eggs to be tempered with and no custard to be made. Condensed milk is used as the cream base, then aerated by the whipped cream. That's it. You do need a freezer to chill the cream mixture. The only real work, if you can call it that, is whipping up the heavy cream to a soft peak. With a mixer or a whipping siphon, even whipping cream can be outsourced.

I consider this a core stripped-down recipe from which many variations can take shape as there are ice-cream flavors around. Nigella Lawson has at least six similar recipes: pina colada, pomegranate, chestnut, margarita and bitter orange. The common ingredient is the heavy cream. Some of these other recipes use confectioner's sugar instead of condensed milk. I thought the addition of alcohol is needed to prevent the ice cream from turning hard and icy, and to enhance a rich and smooth texture. Looking at Nigella's other recipes, even alcohol can be skipped. In those cases, fruit juices are used to punch up the flavor. This no-churn ice cream is so easy to do and takes so little time to put together. It encourages experimentation.

For a twist, I added some grated bitter sweet chocolate, very generic, to fold into the cream mixture for some added texture. But that's entirely optional. The finished ice cream is so incredibly buttery and silky, giving any premium ice cream brand a run for your money.

It'd be great fun to experiment with some exotic fruits, nuts, herbs or to reach deep in the liqueur cabinet to come up with some unique flavor of your own. How does Fernet-Branca ginger ice cream sound? Stay tuned.

This homemade ice cream has an incredibly creamy texture

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Tiger Cakes

Any cakes that are made with buttery almond and chocolate get my attention. To make something resembling the natural stripes of a tiger is surely an adventure to the wild not be missed. There will be more fanciful cakes of all stripes on this week's blogroll at TWD, "Tuesdays with Dorie" online baking group, using Dorie Greenspan tiger cakes recipe from Baking with Chez Moi.

This was a fun bake. The tiger cakes remind me of one of my favorite cakes, financiers, which are made similarly with almond flour, egg whites and brown butter.

Three large egg whites aerated one cup (100g) of almond meal/flour. Other dry ingredients: sugar, three tablespoons of all-purpose flour and salt, were added next. One stick of melted butter went into the batter, followed by 85 grams very finely chopped bittersweet chocolate. Next time, I'll make sure to chop the chocolate in an elongated rather than a stubby shape I did here. The streak of chocolate is what creates the tiger stripes after it's baked. The batter was distributed into greased silicone molds, one rectangular and one round. Baking time was relatively brief; 15 to 18 minutes in a 350°F oven was all it took.

The fun part was glazing the cakes with the chocolate ganache. It's optional, according to Dorie. The chocolate ganache makes the cakes richer and more decadent. I don't usually decorate my cakes; they get eaten quickly once they leave the oven. But the idea of replicating a striated tiger pattern caught my fancy. I took off outside the box with that!

Inspiration for the tiger stripes

Friday, October 9, 2015

Mussels with Verjus / White Wine Mustard Sauce

Do you know that Dijon mustard was once made using verjus, the acidic unfermented green juice from unripe grapes? (That is, besides the key ingredient: mustard seeds.) Then it was subsequently and permanently substituted with white wine when wine became more readily available. I like using white wine to deglaze. White wine sauce is a different matter. I find it to be overpowering and sometimes bitter for my palate, unless most of the alcohol is evaporated. But that won't define a white wine sauce, will it?

The idea of comparing the sauces, using verjus in one and white wine in the other is intriguing to me. I've been attempting to find a non-alcoholic, milder and less acidic alternative to the white wine sauce. (I am not a wine drinker.) I want to find out which one wins out in a side-by-side comparison, in terms of flavor.

The mussels with white wine mustard sauce recipe comes from Ellie Kreiger, a nutritionist and cook book writer and the IHCC's featured chef for the next six months. I appreciate and practice her health-conscious approach to food. Her recipes, like this one, are very simple, pared down and no thrill, the way to prepare certain food at times.

I split the recipe into two separate pots. First, sweat the aromatics in a heavy saucepan with olive oil, add liquid to deglaze. One using verjus, the other with white wine. Add in the mussels as the liquid comes back to a boil. Let them simmer with the lid on. Mussels are ready in about three minutes when their shelves open up. One teaspoon, each, of Dijon mustard and butter is whisked in to finish the sauce.

The verjus sauce gets the thumbs up. It's complex, more nuanced and vibrant. Unexamined sauce, like an unexamined life, tends to be lackluster. The verjus sauce is anything but. You taste it and taste it again. You do a double take. You can't exactly pinpoint what it is. It does not have the common flavor we are accustomed to. It defies description; perhaps it's the so called "umami," distinct from any other flavors!

The verjus sauce adds a distinct and vibrant flavor

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Zuni Cafe Chicken – A Benchmark

One of the best chickens I've ever eaten

My family was not a fan of roasted chickens. In their heads, it is not a good idea that I squander my time in the kitchen and make the boring chicken. There are too many of those rubbery chickens served in catering or convention halls everywhere. There's nothing special about them.

That's one reason why I haven't posted a single chicken dish since I started blogging over a year ago. But I have tasted the most spectacular roasted chicken in French bistros in Paris before. You can smell the aroma of pitch-perfect roasted chicken in the air as you walk into the restaurant. That's my quest — that ephemeral ultimate succulent chicken.

The chase is over; I have found it in the Zuni cafe chicken. For my husband and daughter, they said they weren't hungry, but they couldn't stop eating the Zuni cafe chicken. They've become converts of the home-roasted chicken, no arguments. This chicken dish will see many happy returns to my dining table. All other chicken dishes will be compared to this one.

The Zuni cafe chicken is better known in the Bay area. We are on the East (wrong) Coast. In fact, there was a local cult following, diners and chefs alike, for this legendary dish at the cafe. The recipe is published by Judy Rodgers in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, based on her restaurant. The recipe goes on for pages. They are very good reads. I wrote a condensed version of it here so that I can quickly review it while cooking. The ingredients are few, its all about the technique.

The key to success for this recipe is threefold. First, a small bird, preferably less than 3 lb. They are hard to find. I used one that's close to 4 lb. Not ideal but it still works. The smaller bird provides the right amount of skin to meat ratio that keeps the skin crispy and the meat tender and moist. Next, the long cold seasoning with fresh herbs, salt and pepper spanning two days, resulting in the deepest flavor like none other. The swells of fresh rosemary, thyme and sage infuse the chicken meat with intoxicating earthy aroma. Last, the high roasting and searing temperature at 475°F keeps the bird sizzling almost the entire time it is in the oven. You know something great would emerge by the sounds and the smell of the roast.

I inserted as many rosemary, sage and thyme springs as they can fit

I made the mistake of turning on the convection setting of the oven, thinking convection bake would better circulate the air in the oven and produce even cooking. There was so much oil spattering around the chicken. Turning on the oven fan created an excessive amount of smoke inside, as well as outside, the oven. I did not want firefighters to show up when the alarm screamed: fire, fire! (I had too many similar experiences before.) I quickly turned off the convection bake and used regular bake with no fan. Still, the amount of grease on the bottom of the oven required a fair amount of cleaning afterwards.

Instead of putting the chicken on a rack in the pan, I used a vertical rack so that the whole chicken sat upright. I guess an empty beer can could achieve the same. That eliminates the need to turn over the chicken midway. I only needed to reposition the pan, not the chicken, once. Another warning: beware of the splattering hot oil when you open the oven door. The high oven temperature and sizzling oil may be a familiar scene in a professional kitchen, not in the home front. Now you know you're teetering on the edge.

The kitchen still smelled the smoke and fury of the roast on the next day. The taste of the herbaceous and juicy bite of chicken makes a lasting impression on all of us. One of the best chickens I've ever eaten!

Trussing is not necessary

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Barley Porridge Flaxseed Bread — Tartine No.3

50% whole wheat and 50% barley porridge, 77% hydration dough
When you taste this bread, you won't know that it is made with 50% whole grain. There is no bitterness or coarseness. There is the custard-like texture that makes you think you're eating moist white bread, but softer. It's been a challenge to reduce the amount of refined white flour while maintaining the open and tender crumb structure. Cooking the grain, in this case the barley, and folding it in the dough solve all those textural issues. On top of that, the complex flavor and nutritional benefits of making grains more digestible are working in favor of the porridge breads. That's a game changer; changing the way I make whole-grain bread.

I have made porridge breads from cooked brown rice, farro and oat, now barley, with equally successful results. It opens up a wide range of possibilities. I can practically make breads from any kind of cracked, rolled, or flaked grains I find in the food market. It's very exciting to find this approach in making whole-grain breads that's not only tasty good, but also good for my health.

To believe it is to bake it. Barley is one of the oldest grains and generally used to make beer. Barley contains a small amount of gluten and barley flour is not ideal in making open crumb bread. Following this porridge bread recipe from Tartine Book No 3, barley porridge makes up 50% of the total flour weight. Not an insignificant amount. The best way I've found to prepare the porridge is by using a rice cooker which takes out most of the moisture and requires less drying time. That's the short cut as well as a foolproof method to keep the hydration level manageable at 75%-80%. (If you don't have a rice cooker, prepare porridge by cooking it with 2 parts water and 1 part barley over medium heat. Stirring occasionally, cook until barley is softened, about 15-20 minutes. Be sure the porridge is as dry as possible before folding it in the dough.)

The fact that this bread has 50% of total flour, in both whole wheat and barley porridge, and still manages to achieve the desirable open crumb that it does is stupendous. I break out a happy dance!

Barley and flaxseed are cooked in a rice cooker

50% barley and 5% flaxseeds