Monday, February 21, 2011

Cold Winter

Basil @ the Union Square Farmer's Market in sunnier times
Like everyone else in the Northeast (well anyone normal in the Northeast) I am beyond ready for winter to end.   My friends all over the country call me to talk about the weather.  My parents (in Florida!), call to gloat, er I mean check in on us.  Twitter, Facebook, blogs(!), the news, chit-chat at school drop-off... It's all weather, weather, weather, weather, weather!

And then there was Friday.  Mother Nature threw us a bone.  A 65 degree, glorious, spring-is-in-the-air, sunny, take-off-the-winter-coat bone.  Then, just to show us who's boss, she gave us the gift of a 3"of snow this morning.  And if that wasn't bad enough, I used up the remainder of the pesto I made with the last of the summer basil and stashed in the freezer for winter emergencies such as this.  To say I'm "done" with winter is an understatement.

I think the song "Cold Winter" by The Kinks pretty much sums up how I'm feeling: 

I've seen you, cold winter,
I know you, cold winter.
You showed me no mercy,
Still I shan't forget the warning.

You'll never know how it feels to be loved.

However,  I think I may have found one antidote to all this WINTER.  It's green and fragrant.  It reminds you that Spring is (technically) just around the corner.  It makes use of items readily available in *winter* and it tastes delicious.  It's great on the ultimate winter comfort food (pasta) and it's a cinch to make.  What could this wonder recipe be you ask.  It's pesto.  But this version is made with pumpkin seeds and parsley instead of the traditional pine nuts and basil.  Try it.  I think you'll like it.  And maybe it will brighten an ugly winter's day for you, too.

Pumpkin Seed Pesto
Yields approximately 1 1/2 cups

With the prevalence of nut allergies I have many friends who have eliminated pesto from their repertoires out of concern for their childrens' health and safety.   That is one of the main reasons why I love this recipe - it's nut-free.  Plus, since they are delicate and perishable, I rarely have pine nuts on hand.  Pumpkin seeds (also known as pepitas) are now available in most grocery stores.  In NYC I have found them at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Fairway and online at Fresh Direct.  If you prefer you can substitute walnuts, almonds or pine nuts for the pumpkin seeds.  Delicious on pasta this recipe is also great as a spread on sandwiches, as a marinade for chicken, as an accompaniment to steak or diluted with some buttermilk and a little additional olive oil as a salad dressing.

  • 1/2 cup pumpkin seeds (try to buy them roasted and unsalted - if you cannot find them unsalted just be mindful when seasoning the recipe at the end)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed or roughly chopped
  • 1 1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves
  • 2 TBS fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2 TBS grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Combine the pumpkin seeds and garlic in the bowl of a food processor.  Pulse on and off until the seeds are almost ground (about 30 seconds).  
  2. Add in the parsley and the lemon juice and pulse on and off for an additional 30 seconds or so until everything is evenly combined
  3. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.  With the motor running add in the olive oil and keep mixing until the pesto resembles a paste with texture (you don't want something uniformly smooth).
  4. Transfer to a bowl.  If using immediately mix in the Parmesan cheese.  If freezing for later use do not add the cheese (add it in when you defrost the pesto).  Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.  
  5. Can be refrigerated for up to three days or frozen for up to six months.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Obligatory Valentine's Day Recipe Post

The offspring's handiwork.  All rights reserved.

Cupcakes are over.  I'm not sure what will replace them but I'm fairly certain the cupcake trend is on its way out.  I realize they won't disappear completely.  People will always eat them.  Children will always love them and want them for their birthday parties. Cupcake bakeries peddling mediocre product will continue to exist but lately I'm noticing a lot of French macaroons and pies creeping into bakeries.  I'm sensing a shift.

But before we mourn the cupcake let's talk about the most talked about kind:  Red Velvet.

I know they're cliche.  I know they're controversial (all that unnatural food coloring!).  I also know that my daughter l-o-v-e-s them.    Personally I'm not a huge fan.  I find they are often devoid of any recognizable flavor and unbelievably dry.  Their worst offense: they are usually cloaked in way too much of an overly-sweet cloying frosting.  However, even armed with this knowledge, when your daughter wants to pretend that she's living out an episode of "Cupcake Wars" it's hard to resist playing along.

Have you ever watched Cupcake Wars?  Until recently I hadn't.  Basically 4 people are pitted against each other in 3 rounds of "competitive" cupcake baking (snort).  A panel of judges votes out one contestant each round until a winner is announced.  The cupcakes are judged on flavor and appearance.  Appearance we can see for ourselves. For the flavor we have to rely on the judges: Candace Nelson (the owner of Sprinkles and the woman I blame for this ridiculous cupcake craze), Florian Bellanger (a snooty Frenchman with a perfectly stereotypical accent - the Simon Cowell of the panel) and a random guest judge.  To my great disbelief each baker repeatedly attempts to reinvent the wheel because this is a SERIOUS COMPETITION.   Occasionally something interesting is presented but people, really, THESE ARE CUPCAKES, not a cure for cancer.   The kid likes the show and hey, I'd rather watch it than another episode of Spongebob Squarepants.  So off I went in search of a recipe that would satisfy the aesthetics of a 7 year old and my jaded palate.  I did a lot of research online and in my cookbook collection and came up with what I think is a pretty darn good red velvet recipe based on what I read, some experimentation and the ingredients I wanted to use.

Red velvet has a long-established culinary history in the American south and numerous recipes abound.   Traditionally the reddish hue comes from the interaction between baking soda, vinegar and the cocoa powder.  Somehow, over time, the recipe evolved to include frightening quantities of red food coloring.  With a 7 year old head baker I knew these cupcakes had to be red but I wasn't willing to use an entire 2 oz bottle of food coloring(!).  I read about using beet juice, beet powder and even tomato paste.  The results were mixed and definitely not universally positive (I'm being tactful here).  I bit the bullet and decided to use some food coloring.  Several different recipes suggested using gel food coloring and diluting it with water to make up for the moisture that would ordinarily be in a 2 oz bottle of liquid food coloring.  The gels are much more concentrated and result in strong pigment without having to use too much.  I started using them back when I went to culinary school and have used them ever since. They are used in my recipe for chocolate cupcakes (in the frosting) and in my recipe for cut-out cookies. 

To make up for the general lack of flavor in the cake I decided to increase the amount of cocoa powder so that the chocolate flavor would be more pronounced and recognizable.  My daughter wanted to add cinnamon because she loves the combination of chocolate and cinnamon and I thought why not.  In went a teaspoon of cinnamon.  I also wanted a cake that had a moist, rich and tender crumb.  I used buttermilk, oil and cake flour to achieve what I think is the perfect consistency.  The batter was a beautiful brick-red - not the scary fire engine red of most commercial bakery red velvet cupcakes.  It baked into a gorgeous fluffy and moist cake that was recognizably red but not shocking and definitely wouldn't color your insides.

Now onto the frosting.  Influenced by "Cupcake Wars" my daughter wanted to make something "more interesting and more flavorful" than a traditional cream cheese icing.  She decided ours had to have maple and vanilla in it.  Sounded good to me.  Good doesn't begin to describe this frosting.  It has a beautiful consistency (creamy and light) and the maple plays nicely against the chocolate and cinnamon in the cake.

Red Velvet:  tasteless, dry and cloying no more and the perfect recipe for Valentine's Day.

Red Velvet Cupcakes
(Adapted from various sources)
Yields approximately 18 standard sized cupcakes and enough icing to generously ice all of them and allow for some quality control sampling

  • 1 3/4 cups cake flour
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon 
  • 1 tsp good quality vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp gel food coloring in red mixed into 3 TBS warm water to dissolve  (or 1 ounce [half a bottle  *gulp*] of liquid food coloring)
  • 2/3 cup buttermilk (or 2/3 cup milk + 2 tsp vinegar allowed to sit for at least 10 minutes to "sour")
  • 1 1/8 cups sugar
  • 1 cup oil - vegetable or canola oil will do (you just want something very neutral tasting)
  • 1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk (NOT extra large or you will end up with a tough cupcake)
  • 1 tsp white vinegar
  • 1 tsp baking soda

  1. Line 2 muffin tins with paper liners and set aside.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  3. Combine dry ingredients.  Mix and set aside.
  4. Combine the vanilla, food coloring (and water if using) and buttermilk. Mix and set aside.
  5. In the bowl of a standing mixer or with a hand mixer combine the oil and sugar and mix until blended.
  6. With the mixer running, add in the egg and the yolk, one at a time and be sure each is fully incorporated.
  7. In alternating batches add in the dry ingredients and the buttermilk mixture.  Note:  I recommend turning off the mixer and adding in the liquids by hand at first.  Then turn the mixer back on.  This will splatter otherwise and is a *mess* to clean up.  Be sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl in between additions to ensure every last bit is incorporated into the batter.
  8. Combine the baking soda and vinegar in a small container and as soon as it is fizzy add it to the batter by gently folding it in.
  9. Pour the batter into the prepared muffin tins (I like to use an ice cream scoop - it's neater and it helps to ensure even portion sizes) - do not fill the cups more than 3/4 of the way.
  10. Bake for about 20 minutes until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean or the top bounces back if you touch it lightly with your finger.
  11. Allow to cool for 5 mins in muffin tins and then remove to finish the cooling process.
  12. When cool, frost with the Vanilla Maple Cream Cheese Frosting (if you don't eat all of it first).

Maple Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 1 8-oz package cream cheese at room temperature (low-fat works fine but fat-free is a disaster and not worth it - I mean come on - you're making cupcakes.  Live a little and go for the good frosting.)
  • 1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 tsp good quality vanilla
  • 2 TBS good quality maple syrup (dark amber)
  • Generous pinch of salt
  • 2-3 cups powdered sugar (it really depends on how thick and sweet you want this to be)

  1. In the bowl of a standing mixer or with a hand mixer beat the cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy.  
  2. Add in the vanilla and maple syrup and the salt and mix to combine.
  3. Add in the powdered sugar a cup at a time and beat until smooth.  Add more sugar to reach your desired level of consistency.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Only 39 Days 'Til Spring (or Three Cheers for Brussels Sprouts!)

They say February is truly the longest month.  And if you live in the Northeast it feels like it has been February for at least 6 months.  If I have to wear my big black down coat paired with my oh-so-fashionable (read: ugly, practical and warm) hat one more day I think I'll cry.

And it isn't just the weather that gets me down.  I'm longing for more variety in what there is to eat.  We attempt to eat as seasonally and as locally as possible but in February, in New York, that doesn't leave many options.  Week after week I slog through the usual (meager) offerings at the Farmer's market and try to muster up some enthusiasm for sweet potatoes, potatoes, cabbage, onions, and all of their sturdy winter companions.  Thoughts of asparagus, tomatoes, baby lettuces, stone fruits, tender peas and all the trappings of spring and summer just make me resent winter all the more. 

But, wait.  What's that over there? In the corner?  Why, it's Brussels sprouts.  Hallelujah. 

No. I haven't gone crazy (yet).  I love Brussels sprouts.  My husband loves Brussels sprouts.  Better yet, my child loves Brussels sprouts.  Before you accuse me of being smug you should know that getting the two of them to even *try* this dish, let alone fight over the seconds, was an uphill battle.
My husband was traumatized by memories of the soggy, gray-ish over cooked sprouts of his youth.  The child took one look at me preparing them and declared them "yucky." But then I roasted them and they came out of the oven slightly crunchy, a little salty, barely sweet and in no way "yucky."

Now when she hears we're having Brussels sprouts with dinner my daughter is known to shout "three cheers for Brussels sprouts!"  Hopefully you'll make a convert out of somebody too.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts
Yields 4 servings as a side dish

Trust me on this one.  Brussels sprouts transform when they are roasted.  The outer leaves become crunchy, slightly salty bits reminiscent of well done french fries.  The main part of the flesh becomes sweeter by releasing the natural sugars contained inside and bears no resemblance to the bland, stinky sprouts we all remember from our collective youth.  Drizzled with some good olive oil, tossed with some coarse Kosher salt and a grind or 2 of fresh black pepper and I dare you not to eat the whole recipe's worth yourself.

  • 1 lb Brussels sprouts, trimmed with any damaged leaves removed (If they are small you can just wash them and trim the ends.  I like to cut them in half to have a nice flat surface which will caramelize when in contact with the hot pan.  I also like that cutting them makes a few of the outer leaves fall off - they become delicious, crispy bites.)
  • 1-2 TBS good quality olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Wash and dry the Brussels sprouts.  You want them to be dry because any moisture will inhibit caramelization.
  3. Either in a bowl, or directly on your baking sheet (why dirty something else you'll just have to wash) toss the Brussels sprouts with the olive oil, salt and pepper.
  4. Distribute them evenly on the pan being careful to leave some room between them so the air can circulate.  If you did cut them in half start cooking them with the flat side down.
  5. Roast for 35-40 minutes until crispy on the outside but soft on the inside.  About halfway through you might want to shake the pan or turn them over a few times to ensure even cooking.
  6. Adjust seasoning and add salt or pepper to your taste.
  7. Fight off guests and family members for the crunchy outer leaves that fell off during the cooking process.
  8. Best if served immediately but I also like them cold.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Happy New Year!

No, this isn't a late post.  Well technically it's super late since the last time I posted was {cough} September {cough}.  It's Lunar New Year and one of the (many) perks of marrying into a Chinese family is that I get to celebrate.  And celebrate with gusto I do.  

What's not to love about a holiday that gives you the chance to constantly chow down on an endless supply of Chinese food at various celebratory dinners? What other holiday actually suggests a fresh haircut and cleaning house (we outsource that one), offers suggestions as to what to eat (long-life noodles, whole fish, sticky cakes and candy anyone), sanctions the use of fire-crackers (supervised and only in states where it's legal of course [wink, wink]), and results in the acquisition of money contained in small red envelopes (well, if you're under the age of 12)?  And, more importantly, what other holiday lasts TWO WHOLE WEEKS?  Not even my people* (who love to celebrate with food) have holidays that last TWO WHOLE WEEKS.  There's Passover but that's only 8 days and you can't have cake.  What kind of a holiday is THAT?

My favorite Lunar New Year culinary tradition involves the eating of whole fish (something I admittedly never dared order in a Chinese restaurant before meeting my husband).  It is said (I'm paraphrasing here) that the fish symbolizes prosperity and that you shouldn't finish the entire fish.  By leaving some behind it is believed you will always have money in the bank or something "extra" lying around.   Money in the bank?  I’m in.

Steamed Whole Fish with Ginger, Scallions and Cilantro
Yields 6-8 servings, especially when paired with other dishes in a traditional Chinese meal.  

This recipe is adapted from something my mother-in-law has been cooking as long as my husband can remember.  I have also looked up recipes for it online and in various cookbooks.  While every person seems to put his or her own spin on it this is a solid recipe and my go to.  It seems complicated based on the ingredient list but it is a snap to make and is truly delicious.  It can be made with fillets of fish as well.

  • 2 lb whole fish (or fillets 1 or thicker – cod, halibut, etc.)
  • 8 stalks, scallions – ½ cut into 2" pieces, ½ thinly sliced and reserved for after the steaming process
  • 4 piece of ginger – ½ sliced into thin rounds, ½ finely julienned and reserve for after the steaming process
  • small bunch of cilantro** (often called Chinese parsley) – chopped with about ½ reserved
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • 2 TBS olive oil
  • 1 TBS sesame oil
  • 2 TBS soy sauce
  • Equipment: large pot/wok for steaming; bamboo steamer (or other steamer if you don't have bamboo)

    1. Clean the fish and pat dry. If using a whole fish check for any scales which may have been left on the fish.  You can do this by running your hand gently over the flesh of the fish.  Season liberally with salt and pepper both inside and out if using a whole fish.  If using fillets season on both sides. Take the stalks of scallion, the rounds of ginger and ½ of the cilantro and stuff inside the fish. If you are using fillets use ½ of the aromatics as a base for the fish and sprinkle the other ½ over the top.
    2. Add about 2 of water to your large pot.  Cover and bring to a boil.  You want to be sure to have enough water in the pan to steam the fish but you also want to make sure it doesn't touch the steamer once you place it over the pot. Place steamer over pot of boiling water and place fish inside.  Cover and steam.  Make sure to periodically check the water level so that there is enough to keep the fish steaming.  It generally takes about 10-12 minutes per inch to steam the fish when using fillets.  For a whole fish steam for 15 minutes and then add 2-3 minutes per inch of thickness. You want the fish to be opaque.  If it looks "clear" in any way it is not fully cooked.
    3. When fish is done steaming, carefully lift it out onto a serving platter.  Remove and discard all of the cooked cilantro/ginger/scallions and the fish juices.
    4. Scatter the reserved cilantro over the fish and drizzle on the soy sauce. 
    5. In a small sauce pan heat up the olive and sesame oil.  Once they are hot add in the reserved ginger and scallions and cook for about 10-20 seconds or until you can smell the ginger (to bring out the flavors). Pour this cooking oil with the ginger and scallions, over the fish.  Serve immediately with lots of steamed rice.

    *Jews (said in a loud stage whisper)

    ** Some people hate cilantro.  And some people lack an enzyme which results in cilantro leaving  a soapy taste in the mouth.  If you know someone who suffers from this great misfortune feel free to substitute parsley.   Force the haters to try it with the cilantro.  The hot oils transform it.