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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