Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Heart & Soul of Jacques Pépin

I spent last weekend with an old friend. Hanging out on the couch with me, he reminisced about old friends, bringing back a rush of memories--of wonderful meals and new ways to think about food.

I wasn't actually with anyone. I was curled up with Jacques Pépin: Heart & Soul in the Kitchen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/$35). Like many of you, Pépin has been a part of my life for decades. I have several of his previous books, have watched his many PBS series over the years, and dined at L'Ecole, the restaurant of the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute) in lower Manhattan, where he has long been Dean of Special Programs. In a sense, he has long been the heart and soul of my culinary journey.

So, here we are with this big, beautifully illustrated (by Pépin, who is also an artist) and lusciously photographed book that he claims will be his last. As such, it is filled with the joy of 80 years of a life well lived--with his wife Gloria, his daughter Claudine and her husband, and granddaughter Shorey. Chapters bursting with recipes are interspersed with chatty little reminisces of his best friend Jean-Claude Szurdak, a renowned chef in his own right, his second home on the Mexican coast, travels with his mother, and, of course, meeting and working with his dear friends Julia Child, James Beard, Craig Claiborne, and Pierre Franey. He explains how he develops recipes, what he keeps as pantry staples (canned beans, flour tortillas, frozen baby peas and artichoke hearts, assorted olives, and pepperoncini are just some), and, of course, the joys of cooking with young Shorey.

Then there are the recipes. Now, remember, this book accompanies his new PBS series so if you tune in you'll get to watch Pépin in action--and see clips of times past. Last weekend's episode was a tribute to Julia Child so the recipes revolved around what he felt she would enjoy and there were clips of their times together on air that made me a little teary.

The book, though, can stand alone on its own merit. And you'll certainly find yourself dipping into it to create what are essentially very accessible dishes based on quality ingredients that Pépin smartly lets shine without a lot of fuss. The book is divided into the usual chapters: Hors d'Oeuvres; Soups and Salads; Eggs, Cheese, and Bread; Poultry and Meat, etc. He also includes a chapter on organ meats, hoping to win doubters over. And, at the end, he's created menus out of the dishes.

The dishes are often familiar--tabbouleh, omelets, broiled salmon with miso glaze, broiled maple sweet potatoes. Certainly there are a gazillion recipes for each of these that we could google, but what comfort in learning how Pépin creates them. And every once in awhile you'll get a nice surprise that inspires, like Pork Neck and Bean Stew, Stew of Radishes, or Escargot in Baked Potatoes. I'm looking forward to when the weather cools and I can dig into these recipes.

You'll also have no trouble finding ingredients. Pépin has been at this long enough to feel comfortable taking appropriate shortcuts--hence using canned beans, pre-made pizza dough, Asian sauces off the shelf, V8 juice, and Tabasco or Sriracha sauce. But these are offset by local, seasonal produce and the best meats and seafood available. A simple dish can only succeed if the ingredients are sublime.

I've picked a couple of recipes as teasers that would appeal particularly to SoCal readers. This Cannellini Bean Dip is no fuss and reminiscent of hummus--and enjoyable with good tortilla chips. In San Diego we're all about the peppers, so this Eggs in Pepper Boats immediately appealed to me. I even think Pépin would approve of a splash of Tabasco or Sriracha when served.

Cannellini Bean Dip
Serves 4

I like to offer guests a little treat when I’m serving drinks, and this dip is always welcome. My pantry is never without canned beans, from cannellini to black beans to large butter beans. The garnishes make the dish look more attractive—and more like a classic hummus made with chickpeas.

One 1-pound can cannellini beans, drained (about 1 ¾ cups)
1 large garlic clove, crushed
½ cup diced bread
¼ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon water
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon Tabasco sauce

1/3 cup reserved beans (from above)
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon poppy seeds
1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
3 or 4 tostadas or hard taco shells, broken into wedges, or toasts or rice crackers

For the dip: Reserve 1/3 cup of the beans for garnish. Put the remaining beans in a blender or food processor. Add all the remaining ingredients and process until very smooth, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula a few times if need be to help combine the ingredients.
Transfer the dip (you should have about 2 cups) to a shallow serving dish and create a well in the center.

For the garnishes: Put the reserved beans in the well in the dip and pour in the olive oil. Sprinkle with the paprika, poppy seeds, and parsley. Serve surrounded by the tostadas or tacos, toasts, or crackers.

Eggs in Pepper Boats
Serves 4

One day I decided to cook eggs in sweet peppers with a bit of cheese and cilantro. It made a great lunch dish. I used the long, pale green peppers sometimes called banana peppers. Poblano and cubanelle peppers also work, especially if you want to add a little heat.

2 cubanelle, poblano, or banana peppers (about
4 ounces each)
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 tablespoons water
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons grated cheddar cheese
4 extra-large eggs, preferably organic
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
About 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves

Split the peppers lengthwise in half and remove the seeds and the stems if you want. Arrange them cut side down in a large skillet and add the oil, water, and . teaspoon of the salt and cook, covered, over medium heat, turning occasionally, for about 4 minutes, or until the peppers are softened somewhat but still firm.
Remove the skillet from the heat and, if necessary, turn the peppers over so they are hollow side up. Place the cheese in the peppers. Break an egg into each one and sprinkle the eggs with the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt and the pepper.
Return the skillet to the stove, cover, and cook over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes, until the egg whites are set but the yolks are still runny. Transfer to plates, sprinkle with the cilantro, and serve immediately.

Note: Recipes and photos courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Flat-Out Fabulous Macaroni and Cheese

Given that I have diabetes, macaroni and cheese isn't on my list of dishes to make. I love it--who doesn't--but like pizza it's the poster dish for all I shouldn't eat. But in August my neighbors decided to have a potluck alley party and I was in need of a dish that adults and kids would love. What better than mac 'n cheese?

Because I'm not an old hand with a favorite dish, I consulted various people in my circle and was told that Chef Flor Franco had made a stunning one recently. She's a good friend so I texted her, asking what her key ingredients were. Her answer? Heavy whipping cream, sharp white cheddar and manchego cheese. Oh, and bacon.

I was with her up till the bacon. I love bacon but I felt it was just one ingredient too many for what I wanted to do, especially if kids were going to eat it. After all, they were likely fans of the blue box. I went shopping for ingredients and found that heavy whipping cream--at least at Trader Joe's was ridiculously expensive. Since most people use milk, I compromised with half and half.

Then there was the actual how-to. You'd be surprised at how many techniques there are for making mac 'n cheese. I know, your mom or grandma's is the best, but I have to say there are a lot of contenders out there. I was drawn to two approaches: Alton Brown and Martha Stewart. It was easy enough to sort out the basics and create my own version using the best of what I found. A little less cooking of the pasta here, the spice combo there, tempering eggs, panko topping. 

Well, it all came together in a bubbling, rich, creamy casserole with a crusty top and lots of flavor. And, friends, I had very little left over to take home. I'll remember it fondly when I munch on a green salad.

Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 12 to 16

1 pound elbow macaroni
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
6 cups half and half
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup yellow onion, finely diced
1 bay leaf
2 large eggs, beaten
12 ounces sharp white cheddar, shredded
12 ounces manchego cheese, shredded

3 tablespoons butter
1 cup panko bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish and set aside.

Fill a large pot with salted water and bring to a boil. Add pasta and cook 2 to 3 minutes less than the package directions. (The pasta will finish cooking while it bakes.) Transfer to a colander, rinse under cold water, and drain well. Set aside while making the sauce.

While the pasta is cooking, in another pot, melt the butter. When it bubbles, whisk in the flour and stir for 1 minute. Stir in half and half, salt, nutmeg, ground pepper, cayenne pepper, onion, and bay leaf. Temper in the eggs by stirring in a little of the milk mixture to the eggs and then adding that mixture to the sauce. Slowly stir in ¾ of the cheese. Whisk constantly until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick. Remove from heat and remove bay leaves.

Stir the macaroni into the sauce. Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish. Mix together the remaining cheeses and sprinkle evenly over the mixture. 

Melt the 3 tablespoons of butter for the topping in a sauté pan and add the panko crumbs. Stir until coated. Top the cheese-covered macaroni with the bread crumbs.

Bake for 45 minutes uncovered or until brown on top. Remove from oven and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Tillie's Blintz Casserole

By now, many of you are familiar with Tillie. I've recreated several of her recipes here over the years. And why not? Tillie Gould was my grandmother--my Nana. I was in my 30s when she died and for most of my life we lived in the same city. She was a wonderful cook and baker--and she spent a lot of time teaching me how to make her traditional Eastern European Jewish dishes. She wasn't the easiest person to get along with but she was special to me. I even got her to create a cookbook for me. This small denim looseleaf binder is filled with her handwritten recipes and I treasure it--even if, because she wrote it toward the end of her life, the recipes aren't exactly complete or accurate. They remind me of my childhood and how lucky I was to grow up in an era when family gatherings mattered and were centered around traditional foods.

Last week was Yom Kippur and my parents and I were invited to a break-the-fast dinner at family friends. I decided to share a dish I haven't had since I was much much younger--Tillie's Blintz Casserole, which is perfect for this type of evening that's focused around dairy and fish dishes. Nana used to bring this to our house for Shabbat dinner and we loved its creamy sweetness. It's a little reminiscent of a soufflé. You make the blintzes--here with ricotta cheese--and then pack them into a single layer in a casserole dish. Over the blintzes you pour a rich sauce made with eggs, sour cream, a little sugar and vanilla, and orange juice. Thanks to the eggs, the sauce puffs up and browns around the blintzes, which have also cooked and form layers of crepe and cheese.

Tillie taught me how to make blintzes when I was a teenager, and they were something I'd make for my college roommates. Later, when I lived on my own I'd make batches and freeze them. Then I got out of the habit. They sort of fell away from me. So revisiting this dish last week was like time travel.

Now I made them for a holiday, but this is a perfect brunch dish--and you can also fill the blintzes with applesauce or berries or preserves (think blueberry or sour cherry, say) instead of cheese. Also, here I used ricotta because it's easy to find. But hoop or farmer cheese are more traditional. Serve the casserole plain or with your favorite jams.

Tillie's Blintz Casserole
(printable recipe)
Serves 12

3 eggs, beaten slightly
1 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons canola oil

2 eggs
1 pound ricotta cheese
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon sugar or to taste

12 blintzes
6 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cup sour cream
4 tablespoons fresh orange juice
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted

To make the blintzes: Make the crepes by beating the 3 eggs slightly. Add the water and teaspoon of sugar and beat together. Slowly beat in the flour until smooth. A few lumps are okay.
Set out a plate covered with wax paper. Heat a skillet and brush it lightly with canola oil. Using a 2-ounce ladle, scoop in some batter and drop it into the skillet. Tilt the pan all around so the batter forms a circle around 7 inches in diameter. Don't worry about perfection. This is a homey dish.

Return the skillet to the heat and let the crepe cook until the edges curl up slightly and the surface is cooked entirely--you won't be flipping them to cook on the other side. Use a spatula to help you turn out the crepe onto the wax paper on the plate. Then brush the pan again and repeat until you use up all the batter. You should have a dozen crepes. You can make these a day ahead. Just cover the crepes and store in the refrigerator.

To make the filling, blend together the 2 eggs, ricotta, cinnamon, and sugar.

Make the blintzes by placing 2 tablespoons of the filling in the center of the crepe. Fold the bottom half over the filling. Then fold the sides in. Then fold the top down over the center.

At this point, you now have blintzes and could just fry them in butter and enjoy them with sour cream or jam or applesauce.

For the casserole, preheat the over to 350˚ F. Place each blintz seam side down in a buttered casserole dish.

Mix together the eggs, sour cream, orange juice, sugar, and vanilla.

Pour the melted butter over the blintzes, then pour the filling over the blintzes to cover.

Bake at 350˚ F for an hour.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Roasted Shrimp and Potato Salad

It's hot. And sticky. Again. Fall begins on Wednesday and yet in San Diego the weather forecasters tell us that we're experiencing a burst of Florida summer. Florida, please take back your tropical muggy days and nights. This isn't the weather we signed up for.

I'm so over green salads and smoothies. I want something more substantial--but I can't bear the idea of making a stew or baked chicken or something else that requires the oven on for a long time. So, here's a minimalist approach to a dish that won't get you all hot and bothered--a filling salad featuring roasted shrimp. Roasting shrimp is my favorite way to prepare it. It's quick and I love the sweetness, the juiciness, and the hint of crunch that it gives the seafood. And marinated in this garlicky smoky olive oil really turns the shrimp into a flavor bomb. I combine them here with boiled baby potatoes, along with green onions, kalamata olives, garbanzo beans, and my consistently wonderful go-to vinaigrette. Pile the mixture onto a bed of arugula or other greens--or just enjoy it on its own--and you have a meal that will get you through a steamy day.

Roasted Shrimp and Potato Salad
(printable recipe)
Serves 2

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined3/4 pound baby potatoes
3 green onions, sliced
1 dozen kalamata olives, pitted and sliced
1 cup garbanzo beans
Garlic Dijon vinaigrette (recipe below)

Garlic Dijon vinaigrette:
Makes 1 cup

1 clove garlic, minced
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1/4 tsp. sugar
 2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Whisk together all the ingredients but the olive oil to blend. Then slowly whisk in the olive oil. Let sit for at least an hour to let the flavors come together. Taste and adjust seasonings.

1. Prepare the vinaigrette, per the instructions above.
2. Whisk together the olive oil, garlic, and smoked paprika. Marinate the shrimp in the mixture in the refrigerator while preparing the potatoes.
3. Add potatoes to a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and reduce to a summer. Cook potatoes until a knife easily goes through them--about 15 minutes. Remove from heat, drain, and let cool.
4. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Remove shrimp from the marinade and place in a single layer of a baking sheet lined with silpat. Roast for six to seven minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool.

5. While shrimp is cooking, slice the potatoes.
6. In a large bowl, mix together the shrimp, potatoes, olives, scallions, and garbanzo beans. Add the vinaigrette and mix well. Let sit for about 10 minutes so the potatoes absorb the dressing. Serve on a bed of lettuce or on its own in a bowl.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Ginger Stone Fruit Crisp

Well, summer officially ends next week. We should be thinking about apples and pears and pomegranates--but before we do, let's say goodbye to stone fruit.

With the prices going down, I stocked up. Then the question was what to do with them. A number of friends suggested canning them. But I just don't see myself craving a white peach in January. My appetites tend to run with the seasons. So, what would it be? A pie? A galette? A buckle or cobbler or ice cream?

Well, my intent was a pie. Actually a pie crust on the bottom with my oatmeal crisp on top. I even had a wonderful pie dough at the ready. But we've had this sticky heat wave and, to be honest, baking was not on my agenda. I didn't tell this to the fruit, however, which were showing signs of age. The day of reckoning came today. One more and into the trash they'd have to go. Fortunately, the temps did lower a bit. But today? Well, it it's Rosh Hashanah. The quintessential apples and honey celebration. Plus, despite my feelings about working on the High Holidays, I had a full plate of projects on my desk. And dinner with my parents.

If I was going to bring dessert to them, it would have be something with stone fruit. And it would have to be something I could pull together quickly because I didn't finish up until about 2 p.m.

The dough went back into the freezer for another day. I quickly made my crisp recipe. Then I started slicing up the fruit. I had been dipping into this wonderful gem of a little cookbook, Rustic Fruit Desserts by Cory Schreiber and Julie Richardson, and picked up a new way to treat fruit in a pie. Instead of just tossing the fruit with sugar and flour, I followed their lead and made a mixture of cornstarch, salt, and sugar that I added to the raw fruit slices. Then I stirred in lemon juice. It had occurred to me yesterday that pairing the fruit with ginger would add a nice jolt of spice to the flavors so I added a tablespoon of ginger--the ginger I had grated and stored in the freezer just a few weeks ago.

Everything was ready quite quickly. The oven was already preheated to 350. I sprayed the pie plate with baking spray, emptied the gingery fruit into the pie plate and covered up the fruit with the crisp. In it went for 40 minutes. Out it came with the fruit juicy and bubbling beneath a crispy crust of oats, walnuts, and butter, scented with cinnamon and my favorite "secret" pie ingredient, fennel pollen. When I served it at dinner tonight, cutting into the crisp revealed the lightest aroma of ginger and the sweet fragrance of peaches and plums, beautifully paired. The flavor was sweet summer, just on its way out to make way for fall.

Okay, I'm finally ready for apples.

Ginger Stone Fruit Crisp
Serves 8 to 10
(printable recipe)


For crisp
2 cups quick cooking oats
1 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
1 ½ cups lightly packed brown sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon fennel pollen
1 cup unsalted butter, melted

For filling
3 pounds stone fruit (I used white and yellow peaches along with plums), pitted and sliced
1 tablespoon freshly grated (or grated and frozen/defrosted) ginger
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

To make the crisp mixture combine all the ingredients, adding the butter last, and mix well. Reserve.

To make the filling, slice the fruit over a bowl to collect the juices. Add the ginger. Combine the sugar, cornstarch and salt, and then stir into the sliced fruit. Add the lemon juice and mix well.

Spray a pie plate with baking spray. Pour the fruit mixture into the pie plate. Top with crisp mixture--about 1 to 1 1/2 cups, depending on how thick you like the crisp layer. You'll have plenty of crisp mixture left over so put it in a freezer bag and store in the freezer to pull out whenever you have a last-minute craving for a fruit crisp.

Bake for about 40 minutes or until the fruit is bubbly and the topping is browned. Perfect served with vanilla bean ice cream.

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