January 24, 2011

Apple Pancakes with Apple Cider Syrup

We love pancakes, but we're not crazy about maple syrup.

The artificial stuff is so sweet, and although we're not going to launch into a lecture on the evils of corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup (the two first ingredients in Aunt Jemima's syrup), we will just say that we have a hard time bringing ourselves to pour it all over our pancakes. But to be completely honest we don't love the real stuff either. Pancakes definitely need something on top of them, and we wanted something that would add a little more flavor and complexity, rather than just sweetness, and that would go well with whatever is inside the pancakes, too. On this particular occasion, that was apples.

At the Philo Apple Farm, just down the road from one of our favorite campsites at Hendy Woods State Park up in the Anderson Valley, we have seen apple cider syrup for sale (in season, they have tons of delicious apples, as well as incredible fresh apple juice that everyone should taste at least once in their lives). This sounded like a good idea, and although we didn't buy any last time we were up there, we figured we could make some. We perused some recipes online to get the general idea: apple cider with a little sugar and spices, lemon juice for tartness, and a bit of butter, thickened with cornstarch. Easy enough.

The pancakes themselves are our own creation, with yogurt, apple cider, grated apples, cinnamon, and nutmeg in the batter. The syrup is great because you can adjust the amount of sugar to suit your taste, and add spices and flavors to your liking. Cooking (and of course, eating) them is a great way to get a late start on a weekend morning.

Apple Pancakes (makes 6 5-inch pancakes - serves 2)

- 2/3 cup flour
- 2 tbsp white sugar
- 3/4 tsp baking powder
- 1/4 tsp baking soda
- pinch of salt
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 1/3 cup yogurt
- 1/3 cup apple cider
- 1 egg
- 2 tsp melted butter (plus more butter for cooking)
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 apple (ideally a tart, firm baking apple - we used a pink lady)

Peel the apple and grate it using the largest holes on a box grater. Place the grated apple in a strainer and press down on it with a paper towel to remove some of the moisture.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the yogurt and apple cider until well blended. Add the egg, butter, and vanilla and combine.

Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix until just combined (all pancake recipes we've ever seen have dire warnings not to overmix, so we feel obliged to mention it to, although we have never actually seen the negative consequences). Fold the grated apple into the batter.

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees and melt some butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When the skillet is hot, form pancakes using about 1/4 cup of batter. When you see bubbles forming on the top side and the bottom side is golden brown, flip the pancake and brown the other side. Remove the pancakes to an oven proof plate and put them in the oven to keep them warm while you cook the rest of the batter.

Apple Cider Syrup (makes 2-3 servings)

- 1/2 cup apple cider
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1 and 1/2 tsp cornstarch
- 1 tbsp turbinado or dark brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- pinch of salt
- 1 tbsp butter

Combine the apple cider, lemon juice, cornstarch, sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Whisk together and bring the mixture to a boil. When it has boiled and thickened, stir in the butter (this whole process is very quick - it should take no more than 5 minutes).

January 19, 2011

Kabocha Squash Quesadillas with Nogada Sauce

Have we told you about Tacubaya yet? Tacubaya makes us happy, because it's less than a mile from our house and they feed us great California-y Mexican food. We happily eat up beef enchiladas and chicken tacos, but one of the best parts of Tacubaya is that they are really good at using tasty seasonal produce to make outstanding vegetable-based Mexican dishes. They frequently give us inspiration for dishes to make at home. Recently we were blown away by some kabocha squash quesadillas with nogada sauce. They were such a perfect blend of sweet and savory, with hints of cinnamon and "sweet" spices, a little kick of chili pepper and a (mysterious) rich, creamy sauce. They were topped with pomegranate, which gave a little burst of tartness. We immediately realized that we had been missing out on two things: kabocha squash, and nogada sauce.

So, first we have to tell you some of the things we learned. First, we've been very into pomegranates lately (for breakfast with yogurt and granola and clementines!). This is what we learned about pomegranates. You should always wear an apron when removing the seeds, because juice will splatter on your white dry clean only sweater. Also, the little seed-inside-fruit things that you eat are called arils. Arils are "fruit-like structures" but they are not actually a fruit themselves (because they're not ovaries), but are found inside fruits. There's a fun scrabble word for you (it wouldn't get you that many points, but people would be impressed).

Second, about nogada sauce. It's traditionally served as part of the dish chiles en nogada, poblano chiles stuffed with pork picadillo and dried fruit. The dish is served in August and September, specifically around the Mexican Independence Day (September 16). The white sauce, red pomegranates, and green cilantro make for a pretty and patriotic dish. The sauce is made by blending some kind of soft fresh cheese with milk, walnuts, and spices (there are tons of variations).

OK, final lesson and then we're onto the recipe. We'll keep this one short. Kabocha squash. It's Japanese. It's sweet (even sweeter than butternut squash). It's good. You should eat it.

Kabocha Squash Quesadillas (makes 8 small quesadillas - 4 servings)

- 1 kabocha squash
- 1/2 of a medium onion, chopped finely
- 1 clove of garlic, chopped finely
- Oil for cooking
- 1 tsp chili powder
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- Pinch of cayenne pepper
- 1/4 tsp onion powder
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 8 5-inch corn tortillas
- 1/2 cup grated pepper jack (or other mild cheese)
- Nogada sauce (see below)
- 1/2 cup pomegranate arils
- 2 tbsp chopped cilantro

First, peel, seed, and chop the squash (actually our online sources told us that the skin is quite soft and edible, but we took it off - so it's up to you). We found that the best way to get into squash is to cut it in quarters, then scrape out the seeds and guts with either a sharp knife or a vegetable peeler. Cut the squash into approximately 1/2 inch cubes.

Heat some cooking oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, then add the onions and garlic. Let them cook for a couple of minutes until they're soft, then add the squash (choose a skillet big enough that all the pieces of squash fit comfortably). Stir in the chili powder, cinnamon, cayenne, salt, pepper, and onion powder, and cook the squash until the pieces are tender (but not mushy) - 15 - 20 minutes. If the squash starts to look dry, add a splash of stock (or water, or wine) to the pan.

Make the nogada sauce (you can do this ahead of time or, if you have two people cooking, at the same time - see recipe below).

Remove the squash from the skillet and heat some more oil over medium heat in another skillet (or the same one - just use a paper towel to wipe it out a little bit. We've found that we can make the best quesadillas in our stainless steel skillet). If you're making all eight quesadillas, you will probably have to make them in two batches (you can keep the others warm in the oven). Place the tortillas in the skillet and sprinkle the cheese onto them. When the cheese has begun to melt, distribute the squash and fold the tortillas over the squash. Let the quesadillas cook until the bottom turns golden brown, then flip them over to brown the other side (about 3 minutes per side).

Serve the quesadillas topped with nogada sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate and cilantro.

Nogada Sauce (makes about 1/2 cup, enough for 8 quesadillas)

- 2 tbsp chopped walnuts
- 3 tbsp goat cheese (we used chèvre; you could substitute another soft, fresh cheese)
- 3 tbsp sour cream
- 3 tbsp milk
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- Pinch of salt

Roast the walnuts by putting them in a 350 degree oven for ten minutes. Combine all ingredients in a blender, and blend until smooth. We didn't want to serve a cold sauce on our hot quesadillas, so we warmed it up in a saucepan before serving.

January 15, 2011

Oven Roasted Chard

Chard has always been my favorite side green (Amanda's favorite is kale), and we've always just sauteed it with some garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. This cooking method has also always produced tasty results in less than ten minutes, but over Christmas we learned that we've been utilizing only about 50% of the chard's mass and flavor.

Normally we compost the the thick, white center stalk of the chard leaves and just cook with the leafy green parts, but Amanda's father, Bob, showed us a way to use the entire leaf, thick white center part and all. The process involves roasting the chard in the oven for a much longer period of time than you would on the stovetop. The result is a dish that's not only 100% larger, but also juicier and far more flavorful.

This chard recipe is still quite simple, and it only takes about half an hour. It also involves a bit of extra creami- and savoriness with the addition of cream (or milk) and parmesan. Chard is a side that will go great with most dishes, and on the night that we made it for this post, we served it with flank steak and roasted creamer potatoes. And while we used green swiss chard, you can use the same recipe for red and rainbow chard as well.

Over Roasted Chard (makes about 3 side portions)

- One bunch of chard (green, red, or rainbow)
- 1/4 cup of grated parmesan cheese
- 1 tbsp of cream or milk
- Olive oil, salt, and pepper

Rinse the chard, then cut off the leafy green parts. Separate the stalks from the leafy parts. Roughly chop up the leafy parts, set them aside, and then cut the stalks into about one inch long pieces. If it's a large stalk, cut down the middle first and then cut into one inch pieces.

Preheat oven to 350. Put the cut up stalks into a large baking dish, drizzle with oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and mix to coat evenly. Put the dish in the oven for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, lightly coat the leafy parts of chard with olive oil, salt, and pepper. After the stalks have been cooking for 15 minutes, add the leafy parts to the baking dish.

3 minutes after adding the leaves, stir the chard around, making sure to spread around the small pool of liquid that has formed at the bottom of the dish so all of the leafy parts stay moist. Add in the the milk or cream and mix. Keep mixing every 3 minutes. 12 minutes after adding the leafy parts, add the parmesan and mix. After 30 minutes total (3 minutes after you add the parmesan), or when the chard looks sufficiently cooked, remove the dish from the oven and serve immediately.

January 11, 2011

Gumbo Ya-Ya

My dear friend Morgan is from New Orleans, and one of the books that she and her husband Scott (also from New Orleans, although they managed to find each other in New York) gave us as a wedding present was Commander's Kitchen, a book of recipes from Commander's Palace Restaurant in New Orleans. We decided to spend this cold and lazy Sunday cooking up a big pot of gumbo.

This was our first dive into Cajun and Creole cuisine, so we had to do a little bit of research on the history and methods of the dish we were making. Gumbo is original to New Orleans and southern Louisiana, and has culinary influences from all over the place, but largely from France and Africa (the word gumbo comes from a Bantu word for okra). Jamie Shannon and Ti Adelaide Martin (of Commander's Kitchen) tell us that gumbo was probably inspired by bouillabaisse, a French fish stew from Marseille. The key difference, though, is that while bouillabaisse is served in a thin broth, gumbo has a thick gravy that blurs the line between soup and stew. Different chefs and styles of gumbo call for different thickener, but it seems that most of them use a roux (a blend of flour and butter or oil cooked together). Okra contains a natural thickener inside the pods (when I first tried to describe it to Michael I called it slimy, but Commander's Kitchen uses the more appealing descriptor of gummy), but our recipe uses filé powder, which is a powder made from dried sassafras leaves that was apparently introduced to Cajun chefs by the Choctaw Indians. We worried that it might be difficult to find, but it was right there in the spice aisle at our local grocery store.

We wouldn't dare mess with the Commander's Kitchen recipe...well, too much, anyway. We did reduce the recipe to about six servings worth, since we don't even have a pot large enough to fit the original recipe. We changed some proportions a little bit and - oh, we added tomatoes (I hope we don't get in trouble with Morgan)! We served it over boiled rice, as recommended, and that was good - you cook the rice at a vigorous boil (rather than a simmer) with more water than needed, drain it, then finish it off in the oven to finish drying it. The grains stay separated a little bit more and have a stronger rice flavor.

Gumbo YaYa (makes about 6 servings)

- 1 large bone-in chicken breast
- Salt and pepper
- 1/3 cup all purpose flour, plus a little extra for dusting
- 1/3 cup vegetable oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 3 stalks celery, diced
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- 1 green bell pepper, diced
- 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 14 oz can of diced tomatoes
- 4 cups of water
- 3/4 pound Andouille sausage (or other smoked sausage), cut in half and sliced
- 1 and 1/2 tsp filé powder
- Hot sauce to taste
- Green onions, for garnish
- Rice, for serving (the recipe calls for boiled rice)

Pat the chicken dry and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and flour. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium high heat, and when it is hot sear the chicken to golden brown (about 3 minutes on each side). Remove the chicken from the pot and set aside.

Next, make the roux. Keeping the heat medium high, gradually stir in the flour and keep stirring until it turns the color of chocolate milk (about 3 - 5 minutes); be careful not to let it burn (if you do you can just start over). 

Add the onions, celery, and bell peppers, stirring well so that the vegetables are coated in the roux. Cook for a minute, then add the garlic, cayenne, oregano, thyme, and bay leaves. Slowly pour in the water, stirring the so that the roux does not clump. Add the tomatoes (with their juices), chicken, and sausage, and bring the mixture to a boil.

When the soup has reached a boil turn the heat down a little bit to maintain a constant low simmer. Periodically skim the fat off the top of the soup (hold a flat spoon just under the surface of the liquid and let the fat flow in, then discard). Cook for 2 - 2 and 1/2 hours. The Remove the chicken and pull the meat and skin off the bones (it should come off very easily at this point). Discard the skin and bones and add the chicken back into the pot.

Bring the gumbo back to a boil and stir in the filé powder. Season with salt and pepper, and add hot sauce if desired. Serve over rice and garnish with green onions. 

January 6, 2011

"Farmer's Pie" with Lentils, Mushrooms, and Caramelized Onions

We have to start this post off with a confession: neither of us has actually ever eaten shepherd's pie, which is the inspiration for this dish. The original version is made with ground or chopped lamb or beef mixed with vegetables and topped with mashed potatoes. Apparently the original dish, which originated in England and Ireland, was called cottage pie, and if you want to know more about the etymology, history, and variations, Wikipedia will tell you probably more than you need to know. We have nothing against the original idea; in fact, it sounds good, but it wasn't what we were in the mood for. We wanted to create something different.

So, you will probably not be surprised to hear that over the holidays we ate a lot. We took quite a tour of the east coast, visiting our families in North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Connecticut, and New York (yes, there was a blizzard, but we were pretty lucky compared to many trying to travel and only got delayed three hours on a train ride from D.C. to New York). You will also probably not be surprised to hear that our families are into food. In fact, you might call this whole trip a food tour of the east coast, starting with my dad's delicious chicken dijonnaise in North Carolina, moving up to the fantastic rib roast my brother made for Christmas dinner and and outstanding meal at Marcel's in D.C., followed by Michael's moms feast of potstickers (she made them! By hand!), roast chicken, and cannoli cake for Shabbos/New Year's Eve dinner, and culminating in a final day of eating nothing but New York bagels. We were spoiled. We were full. And we are certainly not complaining, but we were feeling filled up on rich proteins and ready to eat some vegetables.

You may have noticed that we love mushrooms; it's one of the most common tags for recipes here. And we love lentils too. And who doesn't love mashed potatoes? We wanted to create a hearty, filling dish that wasn't too rich or heavy, and we are very happy with the results. Earthy mushrooms and lentils with thyme, a bit of savoriness from the parmesan cheese, and the sweetness of caramelized onions are all made even better by a creamy, crisp topping of browned mashed potatoes. We decided to call it farmer's pie because no sheep were involved, but we wouldn't object if you added some sausage! Or you could go the other way completely and make these vegan by skipping the butter and cheese.

Farmer's Pie (serves 2)

- 1 small shallot, chopped
- 1 small carrot, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
- 1/3 cup lentils
- 2/3 cup vegetable stock
- Olive oil (for cooking)
- 1 small onion, cut in half and sliced
- Dash of red wine vinegar
- About 1/4 cup white wine
- 1/3 pound wild mushrooms, chopped (we used hedgehog and oyster)
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 medium potatoes (yukon gold or white)
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1/4 cup milk or more if needed
- 1/2 cup parmesan cheese
- Salt and pepper, to taste

Heat some oil over medium heat in a medium saucepan and when the oil is hot, add the shallot, carrot, garlic, and rosemary, and cook until they are softened (about 5 minutes). Add the lentils and stock and stir. Bring the mixture to a boil, then cover and turn down to a low simmer. Cook until the lentils are tender (About 40 minutes).

While the lentils are cooking, peel the potatoes and chop them into large pieces. Heat a pot of water to a boil and put the potatoes in, and cook until they are tender when pierced with a fork (about 20 minutes. You can move on to the next steps but keep an eye on the potatoes and remove them to a bowl when they are ready; they can sit if they're ready before you are).

As the potatoes and lentils cook, you can deal with the mushrooms and onions (we just did one after the other using the same skillet, since there's plenty of time while the slow cooking legumes are boiling). For the mushrooms, heat a little bit of oil over medium high heat, and then add the mushrooms and the sprigs of thyme. Season with some salt and pepper, and saute until the moisture has evaporated from the mushrooms and they begin to brown (about 10 minutes). Remove the mushrooms to a plate, discarding the sprigs of thyme.

Heat a little bit more oil over medium heat and add the onions. Season with salt and pepper, and stir occasionally. As they cook, they will get soft and liquid will evaporate; eventually the onions will start to turn a golden brown color. When the pan gets dry and the onions begin to stick, use a splash of the white wine to deglaze the pan, scraping off the caramelized flavorful bits. Keep cooking and deglazing until the onions have turned a golden brown. Add the vinegar on the final deglazing.

Meanwhile, your potatoes should be ready. Put them in a large bowl and add 1 tbsp of the butter, the milk, and some salt and pepper. Use a potato masher, a ricer, or a hand mixer to smash them to your desired smoothness, then stir in 1/4 cup of the parmesan.

Now you're ready to put it all together. Combine the lentils, onions, and mushrooms, and stir in the remaining 1 tbsp of butter and 1/4 cup parmesan. Pour the mixture into a baking dish (we used 2 five inch round dishes for individual portions) and spread the mashed potatoes evenly over the top. 

Turn the broiler on to high and put the dish under the broiler until the potatoes begin to turn crispy and brown (this took about 8 minutes for us, but our broiler isn't very good).