Thursday, December 22, 2011

Evie's Snowball Cookies

No doubt over the last few weeks you've been binging on holiday cookies--or at least recipes for them. I studiously avoided adding to the glut. But here it is approaching New Year's Eve and all I can think about are the beautiful snowball cookies I grew up with.

You may have seen variations on these. I've seen them called alternately Mexican Wedding Cookies and Russian Tea Cookies. In our home, they were snowballs--and why not, what with the double dipping of these spheres into powder sugar.

These cookies are addictive, mostly because they're not overly sweet. Yes, they're coated in powder sugar, but in the cookie dough itself, there's a mere tablespoon of sugar. The rest is butter, flour, vanilla, a pinch of salt, and toasted nuts (preferably chopped pecans). It's that very classic combination of vanilla, butter, and nuts that is so compelling.

And, they have a classic aura of elegance. They can be dressed up on a pretty plate and be a perfect accompaniment to New Year's Eve champagne.

I've always referred to these as my Nana Tillie's cookies. She regularly packaged them in a shoebox and sent them to me in New York from L.A. with her unusual chocolate bit cookies (chocolate chip squares topped with meringue and walnuts) and rugelach. I lived for their delivery and I always became everybody's best friend at my job on the 33rd floor at The William Morris Agency when they arrived. I have Tillie's handwritten recipe for the snowballs and at the top of the page she attributes it to my cousins' grandmother Ida. But, my mother insists that she actually gave Nana the recipe. So, these are now Evie's Snowball Cookies. Whoever came up with them, all I can say is thank you. They remain my favorite.

Happy New Year!

Evie's Snowball Cookies
(printable recipe here)

1 cup butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon powder sugar
2 generous tablespoons vanilla
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup chopped, toasted nuts (I prefer pecans but also use walnuts)
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups powder sugar

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Cream butter. Add the rest of the ingredients up to the 2 cups of powder sugar. Mix well.
3. Form balls about the size of ping pong balls and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 30 minutes until just brown.
4. Add the 2 cups of powder sugar to a medium-size bowl. When the cookies come out of the oven, start dunking and rolling in the powder sugar. You'll do this twice. The first round, while they're still hot, is to get the sugar into the cookie. The second roll is for decoration.

Makes about 40 cookies.

Note: Cookies can be frozen before or after baking.

Caron, Nana Tillie, Evie

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Monday, December 19, 2011

The Return of an Old Friend: Essential Pepin

Those of us who came of culinary age watching Jacques Pépin's many cooking series on public television grew up believing that French cooking was actually something accessible. Over the years, Pépin has turned us on to the beauty of salads and maybe introduced us to the Niçoise. We learned the true way to make a creamy smooth omelet with fines herbes. He hooked us on ratatouille--before the animated rat--and to a beautifully roasted chicken. Pépin wooed us with his charming French accent and ready smile--and recipes that worked. Over the years he continued to charm us as he engaged on camera with the venerable Julia Child, often acceding to her preferences. And, his shows with daughter Claudine won us over again. Who can resist a sweet father-daughter repartee?

To think that 60 years have passed since Pépin first began a career as a cook and professional chef is astounding. But the freshness of what Pépin does in the kitchen continues. Yes, his newest book, Essential Pepin ($60/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), revisits favorite recipes. But, as he explains in the introduction, he doesn't just let the recipes molder in the past; he's updated them for the modern kitchen and sensibility. As a result, he writes, this book represents him more today than at any other time in his life.

Essential Pepin is filled with 700 recipes that span the food category continuum--soups, salads, eggs and cheese, pasta, and meat all the way through frozen desserts. There are also little sidebars with useful tidbits of information. You'll learn how to select and prepare chestnuts, the differences between European and American eels, ideas for using that leftover ratatouille, and how to salvage curdled Hollandaise.

There are pretty little illustrations, also by Pépin. What you won't find here is photographic food porn. Non-decorative visuals are reserved for the accompanying DVD, which showcases the chef as he demonstrates techniques such as how to shell peas and fava beans, how to cut potatoes, how to shuck oysters and clams and scale fish, how to clarify stock, and how to make and pipe meringue. In essence, it once again puts Pépin back in your home to give even the beginning cook the confidence to go forth in the kitchen.

Essential Pepin is perfect for two audiences: longtime fans of the "other" and literally French chef and beginning cooks who aspire to the authentic and sophisticated in the kitchen. I'm eager to try his Black Sea Bass Gravlax, Braised Pork with Chestnuts, Artichokes with Ravigote Sauce, and Homemade Orange Liqueur (orange rind and sugar in brandy). It's a book with recipes you can follow literally or use as a jumping off point for your own creations. In this way, too, Jacques Pépin is an inspiration.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Food Lovers' Guide to Health(ier) Holiday Dining

For many of us, the holiday season is like an overwhelming obstacle course. Every gathering has the potential to send us crashing and burning even as we do our best to stay away from high fat or otherwise problematic foods. The challenge may be weight control, diabetes, or heart issues. It may be celiac disease. Or it may be that we're vegetarian or vegan.

Of course, it is the holidays and even some of the most health-conscious people I know in the food world say it's a time for indulgence--balanced by exercise and eating smart when not at a holiday gathering. And, for most of the population they are probably right. But there are those of us who fear going off the wagon of a successful but challenging diet or have health issues that don't allow for a holiday vacation.

Few of us choose to be problem guests and my feeling is that, while it would be nice, hosts are under no obligation to cater to the dietary needs of all their guests, which can be varied. I don't expect it of people who invite me to their parties. Of course, if it's a potluck, it means I can bring something that ensures there's at least one dish I can enjoy whole heartedly.

But the problem remains. How do we keep a semblance of sanity around the food we eat over the holidays--whether we are the host or the guest?

I think there are four approaches to choose from (of course, a menu!):

1. Portion control. For the guest, this can be simply reining yourself in and taking limited small bites or tastes of what's offered, if you have the willpower. For the host, this can mean offering small bites of dishes. Say, tartlets instead of pies or mini cupcakes instead of cake.

2. Switching out ingredients. Instead of ham, how about lean but flavorful pork tenderloin? Everyone loves mashed potatoes but you don't have to use a lot of cream and butter. Chef Jeff Rossman of Terra suggests non-fat yogurt or milk. You could also up it to low fat. Or, instead of potatoes, consider celery root. Instead of serving white rice as a side dish, select some delicious whole grains like quinoa or wheat berries. Robin Asbell, author of Big Vegan, says that wild rice is a perfect native food, has some gourmet cache, and is healthy. Use these grains to create pilafs, stuffings, soups, and casseroles to create a substantial, nutty, and chewy dish.

Wheat Berry Salad
This also is a strategy for vegetarian or vegan guests. Chef Ron Oliver of The Marine Room will frequently substitute a meaty vegetable like a Portobello mushroom or eggplant to create a dish that calls for an animal protein like salmon.

For Hanukah, frying potato pancakes is a beloved tradition. But you can rotate out starchy potatoes and use vegetables like zucchini or add bits of apple to your potatoes. And instead of frying, spray the pancakes with oil and bake on a baking sheet. You still get that hint of crispiness but without all the grease.

Zucchini pancakes
3. Create new classics. This is particularly key for vegetarians and vegans. In addition to serving turkey, ham, brisket, or other animal proteins, consider creating alternate main courses using eggplant, squash, Portobello mushrooms, seitan (a flavored wheat meal derived from the protein portion of meat), tofu, or tempeh (cooked and slightly fermented soybeans formed into a patty).

4. Whatever you do, be sure to have some fresh or lightly cooked vegetables and fruit as part of the menu. As a host, go ahead and offer a fat- and carb-laden feast. But if you could have a beautiful salad mixed in with it or a platter of crudites served with hummus or a yogurt-based dip, that would make many guests a lot more relaxed. Yes, serve the pies and cookies--and also a fruit salad.

And, guests, if you really are concerned about the hazards ahead at a party, have a snack ahead of time so that if it turns out there isn't much on the menu that you can eat you won't starve or go off the deep end indulging. If you have allergies or specific ingredient issues, be sure to ask the host or caterer if those ingredients are in any of the dishes so you can avoid them.

I asked several chefs for their input, since they deal with fussy customers and clients all the time (yes, we are fussy; we want what we want). Here are some of their suggestions:

Robin Asbell: "For vegans, you can makes sides more substantial. Great vegan mains that everyone will want are things like sweet little dumpling squashes stuffed with grains, herbs, and nuts, or roasted veggies tucked into phyllo and baked.

Wilted Winter Greens Phyllo Rolls
"I'm fond of bringing big, pretty salads with a base of greens covered with things like pears, pecans, avocado, freshly cooked artichoke hearts, pomegranate seeds, and maybe a pile of marinated beans or a quinoa salad piled in the middle. Just pile up the plant foods and make a good vinaigrette and you won't be able to keep people away."

She also suggests lightening up side dishes with extra virgin olive oil instead of butter, where appropriate, and to lower the fat in dairy.

Trey Foshee: "Instead of adding bacon to your Brussels sprouts, put some small onions in aluminum foil with wood chips and put on the stove. When they start smoking, put in a 375-degree oven and roast for 45 minutes to an hour. You get the roasted onion and smoke flavor that's a good substitute for bacon.

"Salt roast sweet potatoes. Smash up star anise, black pepper, and ginger. Mix with kosher salt and enough egg white to make a paste. Put a layer of salt down, then the sweet sweet potatoes, then cover with the rest of the salt. Bake at 375-degrees for about an hour and 15 minutes. Crack and remove the potatoes and peel if you want. They'll be perfumed with the spices.

"Serve a shaved raw Brussels sprouts salad with walnuts, pecorino, lemon juice, and olive oil."

Jeff Rossman: "Make stocks and soups from scratch to avoid the sodium and preservatives. Chefs are always making stocks. Call me and I can sell you some for home use. Try and use whole grain flours, pastas, and breads. Make your own dressings and watch what you're putting into them. Use citrus zest and toasted nuts for added flavor. For healthier mashed potatoes, use Yukon gold or Red potatoes for a better flavor than russets, keep the skin on, and use flavoring additions like roasted garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, and fresh herbs. For vegans, try a dish like Toasted Quinoa-stuffed Acorn Squash with caramelized onion, kalamata olives, and golden raisins."

Jenn Felmley: "I like to play off of traditional meat dishes. One of the ways I differentiate side dishes from main dishes is to make side dishes entirely vegetable and the main containing some kind of starch or meat substitute. Some menu ideas would be Roasted Vegetable Terrine filled with Garlicky Goat Cheese, French Onion Soup with Cheesy Croutons, Pumpkin and Black-Eyed Pea Salad, Vegetarian Shepards Pie (using quinoa, seitan, or smoked tofu) Topped with Parsnip Mash, and Almond Pear Galette with Caramel Sauce."

Felmley also like to made stuffed roasted poblano peppers as a main dish--treated like enchiladas or stuffed with lentils, dried fruit, nuts, and squash.

Ron Oliver: "I want to try to reproduce the ceremonial--the carving of the ham or turkey or the presentation--when I substitute traditional dishes."

Here's a beloved Jewish holiday dish traditionally laden with fat and carbs--noodle kugle--that Oliver switched up to create a much healthier version using spaghetti squash and fromage blanc, a fresh cheese made with milk instead of cream, and cottage cheese.

Spaghetti Squash Kugel
by Ron Oliver

1 large spaghetti squash
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 ½ cups finely diced white onions
1 cup finely diced sun-dried apples
¼ cup sherry wine
4 large cage-free eggs, beaten
2 cups grated gruyere cheese
1 cup fromage blanc cheese (can substitute 1/2 sour cream and 1/2 nonfat yogurt)
½ cup cottage cheese
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, lightly chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Remove stem from spaghetti squash. Split in half lengthwise. Using a metal spoon, remove seeds.  Place one half cut side down on large plate. Add some water to the plate. Microwave on high for six minutes. Remove. Repeat with other half. Allow to cool, then extract the strands of flesh by scraping with tines of a dinner fork. Add to large mixing bowl. Set aside. 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.   

Add oil to ovenproof skillet over medium high heat. Add diced onions. Cook until golden brown, stirring often. Add apples and sherry wine. Continue cooking until wine is evaporated. Add to spaghetti squash.  

Combine remaining ingredients thoroughly with spaghetti squash. Transfer back to skillet or add to a casserole dish. Place in oven. Bake for 45 minutes or until set.   

Serve immediately or chill overnight and cut into slices. Reheat slices gently in oven or microwave.  Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.  

Serves 8

Photo by Ron Oliver

Happy--and Healthy--Holidays!

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Monday, December 5, 2011

Emerging Oenophiles Rec: The Food Lover's Guide to Wine

Of the many beloved food books sagging the shelves of book cases in my kitchen, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg's The Flavor Bible is among those I turn to regularly. So, when the couple asked me to take a look at their new book, The Food Lover's Guide to Wine ($35/Little, Brown), I immediately accepted their invitation. I've been waiting for a book that would help me understand wine better and, of course, how to select what will make me happy.

What I found is a thoroughly enjoyable primer for culinary enthusiasts who are trying to extend that pleasure to wine. Most of us who take great care about the ingredients we use in the kitchen or expect to be used when dining out have a certain knowledge base and language we access to make choices at the markets or on a menu. But, we need a similar knowledge base and language to make wine selections that make sense for us, for our wallet, and to beautifully accompany the food we so adore.

Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Page and Dornenburg draw from their own extensive knowledge (they are also the authors of What to Drink With What You Eat) as well as that of winemakers, retailers, and sommeliers, including San Diego's own Jesse Rodriguez of Addison at the Grand Del Mar, to guide readers through the basics with an eye toward enabling us to have more confidence in our choices. They give a brief history of wine making in the U.S. (Did you know that in 1619 the male heads of households were commanded by law to plant grapevines or that in 1839 the first vineyards were planted in Napa Valley? The grower was George Calvert Yount--as in Yountville.) From there, they take the reader on a journey into every aspect of grapes and wines that starts with the stories sommeliers tell of how they fell in love with wine and takes us into the intricacies of learning how to taste, how to read labels, how to discover our own palate, and how to pair wines with food.

Wine is a pleasure. Learning about it shouldn't be tedious. Ordering it shouldn't be intimidating. By bringing sommeliers into the picture and, in fact, focusing an entire chapter on their strategies and secrets for mastering wine, Page and Dornenburg create a lively conversation among the professionals that makes it clear that their role is to be an educated guide. Contrary to the fear most diners have that sommeliers are simply trying to sell up a bottle or two, sommeliers here make it clear that they are there to help diners suss out what they'll enjoy at a price point they'll be comfortable with. It's what gives them pleasure in their work. Collaborate with an experienced sommelier and who knows what pleasures you'll experience.

Similarly, learning little techniques that boost enjoyment of wine--storage tips, opening tips, advice about using good-quality glassware, inspired pairings with food, and how to taste--should be part of an enjoyable process. Each of these and more are addressed in the book, but importantly, not as finger-wagging directives but as suggestions that could change your opinion about a particular wine and even open you up to possibilities you hadn't considered.

I was particularly taken by the section on composing meals. The authors take readers through the creation of a menu, noting the first principle is to move from light to heavy--both in terms of food and wine. Success in this takes practice and they turn first to The French Laundry to offer guidance through each course and then sommeliers at places like The Little Nell, The Breakers, The Modern, and On the Square. In this chapter is also a very useful guide for matching wine to common dishes--say, an omelet with Champagne--and to common cuisines--Indian or Thai with Gewürztraminer. For one sommelier, Champagne is his go-to wine for Japanese food. Another loves Pinot Noir with Peking duck rolls and mu shu pork because the hoisin sauce's earthy-spicy-sweet personality mirrors that of the wine. That's the kind of insight that makes the book so useful.

The middle of the book is devoted to a comprehensive directory of wines that identify the grapes, country of origin, full flavor profiles, Tannin levels, and other key information--all geared toward novice wine enthusiasts. The authors also include numerous additional resources--websites and blogs, other books, a list of American Master Sommeliers, and wine magazines. The Food Lover's Guide to Wines is truly the perfect place for an aspiring wine lover to get started and gain confidence.

All photos by Tom Kirkman.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Erizo Cebicheria Redux

Last April, I wrote about a splendid day I enjoyed in Tijuana that included lunch at Erizo Cebicheria. It was one of those meals that made me shake my head in disbelief at the magic of the seafood I was enjoying. The meal had one of my lunch companions, Chef Trey Foshee of George's at the Cove, transfixed. We just couldn't get over the flavors, the creativity, and the presentation of each dish.

So, when owner Javier Plascencia told me that he had redone the restaurant since then, I had to return to see just how it could possibly have improved. A couple of weeks ago, my friend Dan Nattrass of Catalina Offshore Products suggested another day trip down to Tijuana, this time with Chad White, executive chef and partner at Sea Rocket Bistro. After checking out the fish markets and doing some major damage at Mercato Hidalgo, the public market, we headed over to Erizo Cebicheria. And, yes, change had happened.

First, the size of the place has about tripled. Plascencia also added a small fish market and expanded the kitchen. But what truly struck me was the new decor. It's got a rustic yet modern feel and there was a strange familiarity to the tables and the materials in general that I couldn't put my finger on until Plascencia told us that the design was inspired by the Popotla fishing village in Rosarito, just below the old Fox Studios. Popotla is a favorite place of mine. To say it's rustic would be elevating it, but that's part of its charm as a collection of about two dozen "restaurants." My favorite was Mariscos España. It's on the water and you can watch the fishing pongas pull in with their catch. Erizo Cebicheria now plays off of that casual, seaside feel with white-washed looking tables and patio chairs, but more importantly, clever dishes that highlight the freshness of the seafood.

While the decor has changed, the menu has remained much the same, although with an expanded kitchen the restaurant can now do more.

We started with Chiles Gueros con Camaron, yellow jalapeños stuffed with chopped shrimp and topped with a stunning relish of carrots, red onion, and cilantro.

Chef Chad White about to dig in to the Chiles Gueros con Camaron
From there, the dishes we ordered kept coming. At the fish markets, the three of us were enchanted by chocolate clams, a large bi-valve in a creamy brown shell. And there they were at Erizo's fish market. So we each ordered one and when they arrived, the presentation was so beautiful we could barely stand to dig in and disturb it.

The cooks chopped up the clam to make a light ceviche with tomatoes and cucumbers blended with ponzu sauce. It rested on a plate filled with sea salt and accented with a sprig of salty sea bean. The clam was tender and sweet and complemented by the sweet crunch of the cucumber and the citrusy saltiness of the ponzu.

Then there was a gorgeous Calla de Acha, large sea scallops presented with cucumber, red onion, chile sauce, and chicharron.

The dish is presented on a platter but the server portions out individual servings.

Each bit contains a large piece of scallop, slices of red onion and cucumber, heated by the chili sauce and finished off by the crunchy pork crackling. It's absurdly delicious.

One of Trey, Dan, and my favorite dishes from our first visit was Chicharron de Atun and Dan and I insisted that Chad had to try it. This is a riff on a Chinese favorite, Orange Chicken.

It looks at first like the sweet crispy fried protein you'd expect to eat with white rice. But instead, these are pieces of tuna coated in rice flour blended with cayenne and chile de arbol powder, fried and served with pico de gallo, guac, and corn tortillas.

We also enjoyed a beautiful Ceviche Verde con Camaron -- a shrimp ceviche with cilantro, serrano and habanero chilis, tomatillo, avocado, and red onion.

It sounds like it would be impossibly spicy, but, in fact, the heat is carefully controlled and serves to flavor not enflame.

I was taken with the idea of an oyster tempura taco, and out it came -- crispy and crunchy with a tender oyster in the middle. Add some spicy salsa with ginger, a little kimchi, a sprinkling of lettuce, and a dab of mayo-based sauce, and you've got a great taco treat.

We thought we were done, but we'd forgotten that we'd ordered octopus, another favorite dish from our first visit. Again, the octopus was mesquite grilled, stunning with a tomatillo and habanero salsa.

Prepared poorly, octopus can be your worst chewy nightmare. This pulpo clearly had been well braised before grilling. It was tender and smoky, a lovely conclusion to the meal.

Erizo Cebicheria is located at Ave Sonora No 3808-11 just off Blvd Agua Caliente.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Easy, Stunning Apple Pie a la Coulon

I've been making apple pies for decades, having learned from my Nana--who always baked the family Thanksgiving pies. But, her way (which originally used Spry shortening for the crust and then graduated to margarine) has long needed updating and I've been flailing around for a new mentor for a long time. There's no one way to make pies, no one set of perfect ingredients (although everyone boasts theirs is perfect), no one set-in-stone technique. And that diversity is the beauty of pie. But, as many a failed pie maker knows, it's also the source of a lot of frustration.

But, I may have finally found my mentor in Michele Coulon. Her way is the traditional French way. It's simple and straightforward, relies on just a few quality ingredients, and sticking to formula.

Michele invited me into her bakery kitchen last week to teach me how to make her apple pie--and she didn't just demonstrate. She made me put down my notebook and camera and get my hands dirty. It may be the best gift of the season. (And, if you want her pumpkin pie recipe and techniques, you can find them on her new blog.)

So, here are some basics I learned from her:
  • Use the best ingredients possible. Michele uses unsalted European-style butter. I'm going to use Straus Family Creamery's European-style organic butter. Another good choice is Plugra. For the cream, use heavy or whipping cream--not half and half. 
  • Measure correctly. Weigh apples after peeling and coring. Measure or weigh the ice water for the crust.
  • Taste your apples and adjust the amount of sugar based on how sweet or tart they are and the effect you want. Also, blend your apples based on flavor. Michele used Granny Smiths but also added some tiny apples from Crows Pass Farm for additional sweetness.
  • Keep the dough chilled. That would seem obvious, but one pastry chef I spoke with last week said she didn't worry about it. However, Michele insists that it affects how the crust turns out. Chill it.
  • Pie pans. This is tricky. Michele uses aluminum pie plates for customers but prefers dark metal pans when baking for family to help with browning. She's not fond of ceramic pie plates and is firmly anti-glass (sorry, Pyrex). For this year, I'm sticking with my Emile Henry ceramic pie plates but am researching some cast iron ones I found on Amazon. If anyone has experience with these, please leave a comment.
  • Finally, don't over sugar or spice the filling. Apple pies are supposed to play up the flavors of the apples. If you have truly delicious apples, let them shine.

As we got started, instead of using a food processor to pull the dough together, Michele had me use a bowl and very simple tools, including my hands. First, we sliced the butter onto a tray. She already had mixed together the flour and salt. I added the butter to the flour mixture and used two knives to cut the butter into the flour. Don't be shy about it as I was. Go at it with conviction and work the butter down to small pieces about the size of walnut pieces.

Then add your water. It won't look like it will be enough to come together using a mixing spoon, but it will. After a few minutes, once it becomes clear that stirring will no longer do the job, put down the spoon and plunge your hands in to scoop and press together the dough until it just comes together.

Now comes the part we all tend to dread--rolling out the dough. Michele thoroughly flours the board but leaves the rolling pin alone. Her method is to flatten and shape each crust into a disk, roll out from the middle and keep flipping and turning the dough to keep it from sticking. The goal is to form a circle just larger than the pie plate. Once she's ready to move the dough circle from board to pan, she folds it gently in half and then in half again, lifts and centers it on the pie plate, and unfolds it. Into the refrigerator it goes. The second (top) crust is also shaped into a disk and rolled out, then, placed on a small cookie sheet lined with paper and sliced into half-inch strips for the lattice. Then it, too, goes into the fridge for 20 minutes to chill and rest.

While the dough rested, we prepped the filling. Michele peeled the apples and then explained that she finds coring takes too much time, so she just cuts the apples in four pieces around the core (which she nibbles on later). Then she measures out what she needs, and slices the pieces thickly. Again, it's all about the apples here.

The apple slices go into a bowl and are tossed with a mixture of sugar, salt, cinnamon, and flour. Then add a few teaspoons of cream and mix. The cream, Michele, says, adds additional moisture to the filling.

By now, it should be time to bring out the bottom crust. Fill with the apple mixture and gently press the mass down to get it settled into the crust. Top with pieces of butter. The lattice is simple. Instead of weaving the strips, Michele just places half across in one direction and the rest across.

Trim excess and pinch the edges around the pie.

And, as you can see, she turns leftover dough into decorations, cutting out cute little leaves with cookie cutters. She then uses an egg wash (a whole egg and a half a cup of cream) to give the lattice its glow and hold the little leaves in place.

Put the pies on a tray and bake. The results? A crisp, flaky, rich crust enveloping tender, sweet, and bright slices of apple. The best ending I can think of to a holiday meal.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Michele Coulon's Apple Pie
(Printable Recipe)

Yield: 1 Pie

1 Southern Pie Pastry (see below)
1 pound, 5 ounces apples (weight after peeling and coring)
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 ounce butter
1 to 2 teaspoons cinnamon (optional)
2 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons plus 1/2 cup cream
1 egg

Pre-heat conventional oven to 450°.

Make pastry and set aside.

Peel and core apples, placing in a big bowl. Sift dry ingredients together and add to apples, mixing well. Add 3 tablespoons cream and mix with apples.

Roll out pastry and put in pie tin, having edges hanging over the sides loosely. Fill with apples. Dot apples with butter. Put lattice on top. Using a fork, pinch edges but do not go all the way through the dough with the fork. Mix together 1/2 cup cream and the egg. Brush egg wash onto lattice and any dough decorations.

Put on a tray and put in the oven for 10 minutes. Turn down the temperature to 350° and bake until apples are cooked--30 minutes at first, then probably another 15 minutes. Use the tip of a sharp knife to check. If the tip goes into apple slices easily, they're done cooking.

Southern Pastry from Michele Coulon
Yield: 2 pie crusts, top and bottom. Cut recipe in half for 1 pie.

4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound cold European-style butter, cut into 1-inch chunky pieces

Mix ingredients until coarse crumbs form. Then add 12 tablespoons or 160 grams of ice water. Mix until just blended.

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Cook This Now! Okay, I Will!

New York Times food columnist Melissa Clark launches Cook This Now ($29.99, Hyperion), her 32nd cookbook, with White Bean Stew with Rosemary, Garlic, and Farro. After all, it's January and what's better to take comfort in when the weather is chilly than a hearty savory stew. You see, Cook This Now begins with the new year and takes us through each month with recipes that focus on what's in season and what's fresh and local.

Now, yes, I have several books with seasonal themes, but what I always enjoy about Melissa's recipes is that they tend to be simple and straightforward, yet strikingly innovative. I love that I can flip through the book, identify a recipe that sounds inviting and know that I can probably make it spontaneously because I have many of the ingredients already -- or have easy access to them. And, I love the unusual flavor combinations that turn a simple dish into something memorable.

For instance, last week I bought a beautiful firm head of kale at the Mira Mesa farmers market, contemplating making crispy chips out of it. But while I was turning the pages of Cook This Now I found her recipe for Raw Kale Salad with Anchovy Date Dressing in her October chapter. My kale chips suddenly morphed into salad because of that odd yet compelling marriage of anchovies and dates. It was something I'd never considered and immediately found irresistible. And, with Melissa's blessing, I topped it with a poached egg and fried shallots.

It's simple and takes just minutes to make, yet the flavors are deeply complex--the sweet unctuous dates go up against the salty, oily anchovies and, with the help of olive oil, red wine vinegar, garlic, and zest of both lemon and orange, dissolve into a force that easily conquers bitter kale. The result is a delicious salad that sends tastes buds into overtime. And, with very little effort. Honestly, why would anyone buy bottled salad dressing when they could make this in no time at all...

The same can be said for another October dish I made, Cumin Seed Roasted Cauliflower with Salted Yogurt, Mint, and Pomegranate Seeds. This is a visually stunning dish, again made with little effort, but the seasonings -- the cumin roasting in olive oil with the florets, the sprinkling of perky mint from my garden and acidic pomegranate seeds -- turn it into a mouth party.

I also made one of her "bonus" recipes found in the back of the book, Roasted Eggplant with Basil Green Goddess Dressing. I'm a sucker for eggplant, but with Green Goddess Dressing? Made with basil?

I don't know how she came up with this combination of ingredients, but they work. Earthy eggplant loves sharp basil, but with creme fraiche and mayo the basil is mellowed a bit and creates a unique pairing that is perfect as a topping for any Middle Eastern flatbread.

Now, all I've talked about are vegetable dishes (and they seem to be the majority in the book), but there are a number of recipes made with proteins -- Vietnamese Grilled Steak, Shrimp Scampi with Pernod and Fennel Fronds, Spicy Three-Meat Chili (with a Honey Whole Wheat Corn Bread I'm itching to make), and her mom's Garlic and Thyme-Roasted Chicken Parts with Mustard Croutons. And, there are several desserts, including a wild-sounding riff on Mallomars (every New Yorker's favorite cookie) she calls Mallobars.

Melissa is a terrific storyteller, so her intros to each month and to her recipes are invariably charming and make you feel like you have an old friend with you in the kitchen. She also includes a handy section after most recipes that she calls  "What Else?" to offer tips for alternate ingredients or ways to change up the dish.

This is a book to dip into for new ideas to combine ingredients and to create satisfying meals in very little time throughout the year.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Finding Your "Inner Chef" at Hipcooks

I'm a cooking class slut. Okay, that's pretty dramatic. But, I just love them. You just never know what great little tip you'll walk out with, what techniques you'll end up adopting, what new ingredient will become your new passion.

So, I was eager to check out Hipcooks, a new cooking school that opened in North Park in September. It's one of a chain of five cooking schools first launched in L.A. in 2004. The manager of the San Diego location is Tristan Blash.

I know Tristan a little because we both have volunteered as cooking teachers at Olivewood Gardens. Tristan, a self-taught cook, learned a lot of her skills from the French chefs she worked with as an event planner for a French catering company in New York. She's volunteered her cooking skills as a teacher with the Oregon Food Bank as well as Olivewood Gardens. She's also got her masters degree in teaching and while teaching middle school in Portland, she took a part-time job at the Hipcooks Portland and went through months of training with the owner.

Long story short, she moved down to San Diego, continued with Hipcooks in L.A. and trained in their management program, then opened the San Diego school, located on 30th St. just north of University, a couple of months ago.

And it is certainly hip. And urban. Cool colors, sleek modern furnishings. The latest appliances. Yet, surprisingly, there are no built-in stovetops. Instead there are portable propane burners that are easy to move around a large semicircular teaching island that turns a demo into a hands-on class in moments.

You also won't find any measuring tools or recipes (although recipes are e-mailed later to participants) in class. "My hope is that my students become, or stay, relaxed in the kitchen," says Tristan. "That they learn to trust their instincts when it comes to cooking, maybe even finding their 'inner chef.' By 'banning' measuring implements and tasting and using our own senses to determine how much of this and that goes into a dish, a person learns to trust their own likes and dislikes and depends less on following the recipe line by line."

The idea, she says, is to, "play, create, you may mess up, so learn from that and start over. That you leave class believing that you know more about cooking and creating than you thought you did when you walked in and that the final product is up to you, not the chef that wrote the recipe."

The three-hour+ class I took was all about soup making, with seven soups -- watercress, carrot ginger, potato leek, butternut squash sage, Moroccan lentil with prunes and cinnamon, corn chowder with tarragon and sundried tomatoes, and creamy mushroom with thyme and sherry -- on the menu. Prepped veggies and herbs were strategically placed on the island, where there were also about 10 round solid wood cutting boards and Wusthof chefs knives marking each place. The class of about a dozen was launched with what was essentially a knife skills mini-class as Tristan first demonstrated how to hone a knife, then different ways to approach slicing, dicing, and chopping.

We got tips for cleaning leeks (peel away the green little by little to get the most out of the vegetable, chop, then wash to get out all the grit). And a fascinating, if noisy, tip for stripping the paper off garlic cloves: put them in a metal bowl, place another metal bowl the same size over the rim to make what looks like a ball (the two rims should meet) and then shake. The motion will release the peel off the garlic cloves. It'll also freak out dogs, cats, and small children -- but all for the common good, right?

The soup-making tasks continued along those lines as students learned how to build a soup so that on their own they could riff on creating other soups based on available ingredients and tastes. We were divided into teams to work on each soup, four in the first half of the class, then partaking of the finished soups, followed by making the next three.

As mentioned, there was no measuring. So with Tristan guiding the way and explaining why we were doing what we were doing, it was a handful of this, a pile of that, some spoonfuls of stock, dashes of wine, herbs to taste. Cook it down. Then ladle it into the Vitamix. Get a little whirring action going and then start tasting and adjusting the seasonings and consistency.

The results were pretty darned good. We first sampled the watercress soup, after drizzling it with creme fraiche. It was herbaceous, but finished with a lovely lemony flavor.

Then there was a very pretty table set family style so we could dine in plain view of people walking on 30th St.

We filled it up after serving ourselves with the carrot ginger (a bright stunner); the hearty potato leek with layers of flavor thanks to white wine, thyme, and lemon; and a thick and woodsy butternut squash soup punctuated with white beans. Then on to the next batch. From what I could tell, my fellow students were having a lot of fun and learning a lot.

Carrot and Ginger Soup
From Hipcooks
(Printable recipe)

Carrot & Ginger Soup
1 ½ lbs carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
3 celery sticks, roughly chopped
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped
4 inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped (or grated!)
4 cups veggie stock or water (in this case you can use water since this soup is so rich in veggies)

Heat some olive oil (or 2 T. butter!) in a nice soup pot and add the onions, carrots, celery and ginger. Have your heat on low, cover the pot and cook until all the veggies are soft and buttery until softened (about 20 minutes). Pour in the veggie stock or water (add 3 tablespoons of honey here for carrot, ginger and honey soup) (or 1 sliced ripe pear for carrot, ginger and pear soup!) and cook for another 10 minutes or so, until the stock is hot. I am guessing the amount of stock to cover the veggies plus an inch or so, to make blending easy. So you can always add more or less stock as necessary. Blend safely in batches. Season if necessary, and taste for ginger-content. You can always add more. If you add too much, a swirl of cream in the soup will tone it down, as will the honey. A handful of chopped cilantro (coriander) would be a gorgeous garnish for this superlative soup.

Hipcooks San Diego is located at 4048 30th St. Classes are $55 each and range from beginnerish (the soup one would qualify) to classes geared to more advanced cooks. A schedule of classes is on the web site. You can also arrange three-hour private classes for groups. Additionally, they've got some terrific kitchen tools, gadgets, and condiments for sale. (I fell in love with the Chef'n Flex Trio Spatula Set.)

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Pie Making with Rachel Caygill of Bankers Hill

We're heading into holiday pie-making season so when pastry chef Rachel Caygill invited me to her house, where she was hosting a group called the San Diego Food Bloggers for a pie-making class, I had to go. See, Rachel is the superb pastry chef at Bankers Hill Bar and Restaurant, where her husband Scott is the chef de cuisine. I love to go there with my friend Tina Luu, also an extraordinary pastry chef and someone who never orders one dessert off the menu but all of them. So, I've tasted many of Rachel's creations, including her pies. And I wanted to learn her secrets.

Now, this is really going to be more of a pictorial post because so much of pie making is technique and watching Rachel take us through creating the crust for an apple pie was fascinating. But, it's not easy. It involves a lot of physical effort. Rachel throws her whole body into the rolling process. But the results -- a rich crispy and flaky crust encasing a bright apple filling layered in spices -- is so worth the effort. I've also got a number of tips from her that I'm including with the photos. Her apple pie recipe will follow below.

So the first thing you'll notice is that instead of mixing the flour and butter in a food processor to break up the butter, Rachel is rolling slices of it into the flour. Gluten doesn't form until you add water so no worries about over working it. The flour is a half-and-half combo of all purpose and cake flours. After a lot of trial and error over the years, she's settled on a 3-2-1 ratio of flour, fat, and liquid, with a teaspoon of salt per pound of flour. 

Still a little chunky. Then she cuts in lard. Her ratio is 3-to-1 butter/lard.

Rachel then makes a hole in the middle of the flour/fat for a well she fills with water (similar to making pasta).

This gets tricky because the water wants to escape. But use a scraper to pull the flour into the water (and to retrieve the errant water) to form a loose dough.
Rachel pats the dough into a square and then starts rolling to incorporate the ingredients.

Keep the dough moving to prevent sticking and put your whole body into it. It'll grow long. Use the scraper pick up the ends and fold it back into a square and roll it again. You'll do this two to three times.

She's not seeking perfection here, just for the ingredients to begin to come together. For now, the aim is to shape what looks like a loaf.

And, here's the beginning of the loaf.
This goes into the refrigerator to chill and rest for 20 minutes. Or, you can freeze it for later (defrost overnight in the fridge).

The now rested and chilled dough is ready to be rolled out. Rachel cut off a chunk to make the first crust. You can see layers of unincorporated fat. This will help make for a crispy crust. Rachel helps ease the rolling process by pushing the dough out with the heels of her hand. Again, full body work.

Rachel admits she can't roll the dough into a circle -- and doesn't even try. But she says to roll from the middle, keep the dough moving, and flip it over to keep it from sticking.

Rachel rolls the dough onto the rolling pin and eases it over the pie plate. (She uses oversized pie plates that she finds at places like Target.) It's best to have lots of overlap for trimming and rolling the edges.

In goes the filling.

Next comes the top crust and the beginning of crimping the edges. Rachel trims the overhang with scissors. See how the edges of the crust layers align and she folds them together, under, and then down into the side of the pie plate.
Like that. With well-floured hands, she pushes the dough between two fingers for this crimping effect.
Rachel brushes the top with an eggwash, followed by a generous sprinkling of granulated superfine sugar she stores in an airtight container thick with fragrant vanilla beans. Make slits in the top crust to create vents (and separate the vent sides a little to let the air escape so the liquid from cooking apples evaporates. Then bake low and slow -- say, 375˚ for half an hour, then lower the temp to 325˚ for another hour (but this depends on your oven; you may need to start at 400˚). Her reasoning is that it helps the juices evaporate and prevents the top crust from burning. So you get a golden, crispy crust on top, avoid a soggy bottom crust, and create a firm filling.
Cool under pressure with a gorgeous apple pie.
Remember low and slow keeps the filling intact, as you can see here.
A slice of heaven... 
Apple Pie
by Rachel Caygill*
(Printable recipe here)

Rachel Caygill loves cardamom and includes the floral spice in her apple pie filling, blended with cinnamon, ginger, clove, allspice and nutmeg mixed with sweet and tart apples -- in this case Granny Smiths and Fujis. And the crust? Well, the top crackled between my teeth and I loved the thick crisp sides that had been crimped to perfection. This is the pie you want to serve at your Thanksgiving dinner.

*The ingredients and amounts are Rachel's. The instructions are mine based on her directions during the class.

Pie Crust Ingredients
(for two crusts)

15 ounces flour (half all purpose, half cake)
10 ounces fat (7.5 ounces butter, 2.5 ounces lard)
5 ounces water
1 teaspoon salt

1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons milk
1/4 cup superfine sugar

Combine the flour and salt. Spread the flour mixture on the counter or a cold marble tile and cut the butter into it. Then roll the butter into the flour. Use a scraper to chop up some of the flour and roll a little more to incorporate. Then cut the lard into the mixture.

Make a well in the flour/fat mixture and add the water into the middle. Scrape the flour/fat into the water to create loose dough. When the dough is formed, roll it out into an rectangle, then fold into thirds and roll again. Repeat once more if necessary and shape into a loaf. Refrigerate for 20 minutes and make pie filling.

Preheat the oven to 375˚. Cut the dough roughly in half -- one part should be a little larger for the bottom crust. Roll out that piece large enough to fill the pie plate with a couple of inches overhang. Gently place the dough into the pie plate, then add filling. Roll out the top crust large enough to hang over the the filling and bottom crust overhang. Trim the edges of the crust to even out. Then holding the edges of both crusts, fold under together and tuck into the pie plate. Crimp the edges between two fingers.

Make the eggwash by mixing together the yolk and milk. Brush onto the top crust. Sprinkle the sugar on top. Then slice vents into the top crust and spread the edges slightly. Bake at 375˚ for half an hour, then lower the temperature to 325˚ and bake for another hour until the crust is brown and thick juices run out.

Apple Filling Ingredients

2 pounds apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced (use a combination of sweet and tart varieties)
6 ounces sour cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
3 tablespoons cornstarch
8 ounces dark brown sugar
4 ounces granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped -- or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
zest from half an orange
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon clove
1/8 teaspoon allspice

Combine all ingredients in large bowl, then add on top of bottom crust.

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