Monday, November 23, 2015

The Big Holiday Pie Roundup: You Can Do It!

With Thanksgiving coming up later this week, I thought it would be helpful to do a roundup of all my pie-baking posts. Pies--or more specifically, pie crusts--seem to give people the most angst of all Thanksgiving dishes.

I've been baking pies since I was a teenager, more or less successfully. But over the years I've gained confidence, especially since 2011, when I went on a tear talking with San Diego pastry chefs about their pie-baking techniques. I learn, I try, I repeat. I learn more, try something new, and either go with it or revert back to the other technique. Regardless of what I do, I feel like I understand the science of it more and so can correct mistakes or make my own choices.

Over the years, I've met with Michele Coulon (Michele Coulon Dessertier), Rachel Caygill, Tina Luu, Kathleen Shen (Bake Sale Bakery), and Nick Brune (Local Habit). Finally, if the whole crust thing is still too intimidating--or you're just not into crusts, you can try my apple pie crisp.

First up is Michele Coulon. I loved the pie-baking experience with her. She basically just put me to work and had me make the pie as she instructed me. Michele is all about the butter--unsalted European butter. She has some very fundamental opinions about baking apple pies--everything from what type of pie plate to use and avoid to whether or not to add spices. So take a read. You'll find a great mentor here, like I did.

Then, there's Rachel Caygill, formerly the pastry chef at Bankers Hill. What a terrific teacher. We miss her terribly in San Diego, but while she was here she gave a group of bloggers a pie-baking class and invited me. I learned about making crusts in a very traditional way with a combination of butter (for flavor) and lard (for flakiness). You'll want to try this option, so read about it here.

Tina Luu recently left her long-time position as instructor at the Art Institute. Before she left, she invited me (or I invited myself--I can't remember) to her pie and tart class. What a revelation. Here's where I began to learn the science of pie doughs, like the differences between pie and tart doughs, how to create a flaky crust, and what options there are to do it. We also learned a lot about fillings and layering flavors. Dig deep here.

Kathleen Shen invited me to her pie-baking class at Bake Sale Bakery earlier this year. I came to the class thinking that I already had the skills, but Shen is a terrific teacher and the hands-on class she runs is irresistible. She gives you the confidence to go out and bake pies for every occasion. I learned so much here, mostly about technique. Like not fully incorporating butter and shortening into the flour when mixing because,"You want those pieces of fat because they create pockets of steam and thus flakiness," she explained. "And you want to minimize how much you work the dough to avoid developing gluten. Then the dough gets tough. Instead, it should just hold together." Here's another piece to read if you can't take the class. (Take the class!)

Now Nick Brune didn't teach me how to bake a pie crust, but he did share his secrets for baking a traditional Southern Buttermilk Pie. It's easy to make and will thrill your holiday guests as a change up from traditional custard pies. Add this to your repertoire.

Alright, maybe neither all these chefs nor I haven't convinced you. Or, maybe, like my dad, you don't love pie crusts--you just love the filling. For you I offer the apple crisp. This recipe makes baking a dessert easy and still feel traditional.

Caron's Crisp Mix
(printable recipe)

What I love about this recipe is that I can make the mixture in advance and store it in the freezer. Then I can create an individual serving for myself or a large dessert for company, using whatever fruit is in season. In cool seasons, I peel, core, and slice a Granny Smith apple. Then I toss the slices in a small amount of flour and sugar, and place the slices in a large ramekin or individual pie dish that I lightly coated with baking spray or vegetable oil. I’ll pull out the crisp mixture from the freezer and spoon out just enough to top the fruit, then bake. In less than an hour I have a pretty healthy, fiber-rich dessert.

Makes 8 to 10 servings, depending on how much you use per serving

Mix together:

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

Store in the freezer until you’re ready to bake.

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare fruit. Toss with a little flour and sugar. Arrange in a baking dish lightly coated in baking spray or vegetable oil. Top with enough crisp mixture to cover the fruit. Store remaining crisp mixture in the freezer.

Bake for about 40 minutes or until fruit is bubbly and the topping is browned.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Coop's West Texas Fried Chicken

Back in August, Local Habit hosted the inaugural Fried Chicken Challenge--the brainchild of Edwin Real of Eating and Drinking in San Diego. I was one of the lucky invitees and decided at the time to feature the winner in this space.

Six chefs competed and you'd be surprised at how much variety there can be in fried chicken--mostly involving the spices, but also the textures. So, it must have been tough for the judges and the crowd to make a decision based on juiciness, crunchiness, and overall taste. But the decision was made and the kudos went to Bradrick Cooper, owner of Coop's West Texas Barbecue in Lemon Grove.

It took awhile for Cooper to set aside time with me to show me how he makes his chicken. He's a busy guy. Not only is he operating the 28-seat barbecue eatery, but he's constructing a new spot across the parking lot that he's calling Da Chicken Coop, which will, of course, be all about fried chicken, as well as fried fish, French fries, and, well, pulled pork. He expects Da Chicken Coop to open in January. But that's not all. Cooper also tossed out that he's working on a food truck concept.

Coop's West Texas Barbecue doesn't usually have fried chicken on the menu, but oh, the barbecue! The day I visited, the special was a pork rib tip platter, served with two sides and homemade cornbread. I got to munch on some of the rib tips and fell in love with the tender, juicy meat just perfectly seasoned. Also on the menu are pork and beef ribs, beef brisket, Southwestern jerk chicken, and hot links. They're accompanied by collard greens, red beans and rice, and mac n' cheese. There's also an intriguing Spuds n' Que. This is a large baked potato filled with either pulled pork, jerk chicken, or brisket, and topped with butter and sour cream. Oy! Ready for dessert? Try their homemade sweet potato or buttermilk pie.

Cooper comes by his fried chicken-making chops honestly. He grew up in a household with not much money. "Fried chicken was a staple because it was so cheap," he said. Growing up, Cooper went back and forth between Midland, Texas, where his grandma and extended family lived, and San Diego, where his mom and aunt settled. When he was a young kid in San Diego his mom and aunt worked in a soul food restaurant in Sherman Heights. He and his sister Lori would go there after school to wait for their mom's shift to end. Guess who got put to work at the restaurant? Because his mother worked two jobs, she taught him to cook so he could make dinner for himself and Lori. In Midland, his grandma, with whom he lived when he was 12 and when he went to high school, taught him all sorts of traditional dishes. It's where he learned to make collard greens, cornbread, and pinto beans. "And I had this thing," he added. "I liked cooking for my family every Sunday for dinner."

He returned to San Diego after high school in 1986, but then returned to Midland when his grandmother became ill. At that point, his repertoire had expanded to fried chicken and oxtails for the big family Sunday dinner. "It brought me a lot of joy," he said.

Eventually, Cooper became a nurse, married, and had a couple of daughters. One of them, Tara, is now one of the restaurant's managers. Coop's West Texas Barbecue isn't his first foray into the restaurant business. Back in 1996, he and Lori tried their hand at opening a soul food restaurant on El Cajon Blvd. at Idaho, even making up plates of food to sell to the hairdressers and barbers on the block. But it didn't work. After his first wife passed away, he returned to Texas and learned how to make barbecue. The desire to run a restaurant didn't fade and five years ago, he found this location, with its big brick oven just waiting for him to fire it up with wood and charcoal. This time, he found success, with customers now coming from around San Diego as well as Orange County and LA to get some authentic barbecue.

So, what did I learn about making fried chicken? First, while you don't have to use buttermilk for the crust, it gives the chicken a marvelous tang and thickens the crust. Second, Cooper advises bringing the oil up to temperature, but then frying up one piece ahead of the rest to test the texture. And third, develop a spice blend that you like. Cooper uses a rub that he's created but nicely declined to share--after all some things have to be proprietary--but basically we're dealing with black pepper, granulated garlic, and seasoning salt.

Coop's Winning Fried Chicken
from Bradrick Cooper of Coop's West Texas Barbecue
(printable recipe)
Makes 8 pieces

For marinade:
2 cups buttermilk
2 eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 tablespoon seasoning salt

8 pieces of chicken, skin on (Cooper prefers to use thighs and drumsticks)

Garlic salt
4 to 5 cups all-purpose flour
1 to 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 tablespoons granulated garlic
1 to 2 tablespoons seasoning salt
2 tablespoons paprika
Vegetable oil

Mix together the first four ingredients in a bowl and transfer to a large freezer bag. Add the chicken pieces and make sure they're all encompassed by the buttermilk marinade. Marinate the chicken for an hour or up to overnight.

Fill a large pot with vegetable oil and heat to 325 to 350 degrees F. While it's heating, blend the flour with black pepper, granulated garlic, seasoning salt, and paprika for color.

Shake off excess marinade from the chicken and lightly sprinkle the pieces with garlic salt before dredging in the flour mixture. 

When the oil is at the right temperature, carefully add the chicken pieces. The chicken will take about 15 minutes to cook and should reach an interior temperature of 165 degrees.

Have a sheet pan lined with paper towels ready and place the fried chicken on the towels to drain excess oil. Serve with collard greens, red beans and rice, and cornbread.

Coop's West Texas Barbecue is located at 2625 Lemon Grove Ave. in Lemon Grove.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Candy's Squash, Beef, and Pumpkin Pie Spice Stew

One of the best clients I have is also one of my very dear friends, whom I met while we were members of the San Diego chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier. Candy Wallace is the founder and executive director of the American Personal and Private Chef Association. She hired me about three years ago to write their blog, à la minute, and run their social media accounts. It's been the greatest of pleasures--especially since the gig also requires that we meet regularly to discuss strategy. And when we meet at her home, Candy makes lunch.

Last week, we got together and Candy presented me with this absolutely killer Squash, Beef, Pumpkin Pie Spice Stew. If I could, I would have dived straight into the bubbling pot on her stove and eaten my way out. The stew is thick and has the most marvelous texture, thanks to the combination of cubed beef tips, ground beef, butternut squash, and masa. The flavor is beautifully complex--a blend of herbs and vegetables,wine, and spices like cinnamon and pumpkin pie spice. In fact, it's great to know that just because you buy the spice to make pie, you can use it in a whole host of other dishes--like this stew.

Now, while the stew itself is straightforward enough to make, the key to the great flavors is, of course, making it a day ahead of when you want to serve it. That way the flavors fully develop.

Since San Diego's finally cooling down (of course, having just written this, we'll have a heat wave again), we're finding that a good hearty stew is now a welcome dish. This one will make you sigh with pleasure.

Squash, Beef, and Pumpkin Pie Spice Stew
from Candy Wallace
6-8 Servings

Measure, combine, and divide into 2 prep cups and set aside:
1 Tbsp ground cumin
1Tbsp chili powder
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

For Stewpot:
Olive oil to brown
1 to 1 ½ lbs cubed beef tips
1 cup chopped onion
1 Chopped/seeded red bell pepper
2 Tbsp minced garlic
3 Tbsp tomato paste
3  Tbsp El Pato Salsa de Chile Fresco (small yellow can)
1 ½ lb ground beef
Tbsp masa
1 ½ cups beef stock
1 ½ cups red table wine
1 peeled, seeded, cubed butternut squash
2-3 Tbsp light brown sugar
2 large cinnamon sticks
Salt & pepper to taste

Sear beef cubes in hot oil in stewpot over high heat and broadcast contents of 1 prep cup of spice mixture over top. Stir occasionally for approximately 5 minutes till beef is browned on all sides.  Remove cubes and set aside. You will not be able to drain fat from pot once it combines with spice mixture which becomes paste like consistency.

Reduce heat, add next 5 ingredients, stirring until softened, fragrant, and red in color, approx.. 8-10 minutes. Add ground beef and broadcast contents of prep cup spice mix prep cup #2 over top. Stir occasionally until browned.

Stir in the remainder of ingredients and bring to a boil, reducing heat to low simmer till thickened by cornmeal and tenderizing squash and beef tips. This will take approximately 45 minutes.

Remove cinnamon sticks.

Cooling and refrigerating the stew overnight makes it possible to skim the fat from the top of the dish and allow flavors to develop before heating, adjusting for necessary salt and pepper and serving.

Serve with hot cornbread muffins and crisp green salad.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Stuffed Winter Squash with Italian Sausage, Mushrooms, and Farro

Going to Costco is supposed to be an exercise in happy excess, eating a meal via mega samples and buying too much stuff in quantities too large to store. Shopping at Costco is one of my parents' favorite errands, but last Saturday it turned into a nightmare for my mom. She was in a darkened aisle, didn't see an exposed bolt in the floor, and took a bad tumble after tripping on it. Fortunately, she didn't break any bones, but she is bruised and is suffering the equivalent of whiplash.

I learned about this Saturday afternoon so Sunday morning I went over to make them lunch and dinner. Earlier in the week I had brought her a small kabocha squash after she told me she hadn't had one before. While she was curious, she still hadn't used it. I love winter squashes and have written about them a lot over the years. There are so many unique varieties that are so beautiful and versatile.

Kabocha squash
The dense flesh transforms into perfect creamy soups for chilly days--and you can even make the soup in the squash itself.

Roast them and you get some magnificent sweet flavors that stand on their own, can be part of a stew, or can be turned into filling for ravioli.

The baseball-sized ones are a perfect chalice for stuffing. They're a one-dish meal. And, hey, I love chomping on roasted seeds.

Making stuffed winter squash for them seemed ideal so I stopped by the market to pick up a second kabocha. Since the remaining ones were too large, I got a nice looking acorn squash instead, along with sweet Italian chicken sausage, and an apple. I brought along a package of farro and figured I'd scavenge any other ingredients from her always well-stocked refrigerator. Indeed, I found a box of crimini mushrooms, onions, garlic, and a package of Trader Joe's Quattro Formaggio Shredded Cheese Blend, which is made up of asiago, fontina, parmesan, and mild provolone. Perfect.

Making stuffed squash is pretty easy and, of course, you can riff on any ingredients that sound great to you. I chose farro as my grain but rice, quinoa, barley... any of them will be wonderful. You don't have to include meat, but I thought my folks would enjoy some flavorful sausage and since my mom no longer eats red meat, the sweet Italian chicken sausage was an ideal choice that my dad would also like. To me, sausages, mushrooms, onion, and garlic are a perfect combo. You could also include sautéed spinach, pine nuts, raisins...the list is endless. You can add herbs or spices, but I think the Italian sausage has enough in them already and didn't want to mask those flavors.

The first thing you do is par-bake the squash after cleaning it. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, pull out the seeds and then scrape the hole with a spoon to remove all the remaining fibrous material. Then put the squash halves cut side down on a baking sheet and add water to surround the halves up to about a quarter inch. Cover them with foil and bake in a 375-degree oven for about 45 minutes or until they are easily pierced by a fork.

While the squash is cooking you'll make the filling. Put up your grains to cook. Chop your vegetables and fruit--I like adding apple or persimmon or citrus or pomegranate seeds to a savory filling. Then start sautéing.

I'll give you a marvelous tip on sautéing mushroom slices that I learned from Alice Waters on a show she did with Julia Child. Leave them alone. That's it. Add them to a hot pan with olive oil, spread them single layer, and just let them be until they brown. Then flip them over and leave them alone again. By not constantly stirring them you end up with beautifully caramelized mushrooms that taste phenomenal.

So, sauté the mushrooms and put them in a bowl. Sauté the onions and garlic, then add the diced apple and let them just brown. Add the sausage after removing the casing and poke it into small chunks as the meat cooks. When the sausage is browned, you'll add back the mushrooms so the flavors can meld. Put the mixture back in the bowl, add your cooked grains and the cheese and mix well. The cheese will melt a bit to bind the ingredients. By then the squash should be cooked and out of the oven. Now some people scoop out the flesh, chop it up, and add it to the filling. Go ahead. I chose to keep it intact. Either way, rub a little olive oil on the inner surface of the squash and then fill the squash "bowl" with your very fragrant filling. Top with some more cheese and put them back in the oven (yes, keep the water in the pan) uncovered. You'll cook the squash for another 15 minutes. Then serve or cover and refrigerate, then reheat before serving.

I had just a bit of stuffing left over which my parents demolished while the squash were cooking. So I think it was a success.

And, yes, Mom's feeling better. Thanks for asking!

Stuffed Winter Squash with Italian Sausage, Mushrooms, and Farro
(printable recipe)
Serves 4


2 round(ish) winter squash, about the size of a baseball
3 to 4 cups of cooked grains
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1/2 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large sweet Italian or spicy Italian sausage (about 8 ounces), casing removed
1 firm apple (I like Granny Smiths for this), peeled and diced
Olive oil for sautéing and to rub the cooked squash
1 cup shredded cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Slice the squashed in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. You can reserve them to clean and toast as a snack. Using a spoon, scrape the remaining fiber off the surface of the squash flesh. Place all four halved cut side down on a baking sheet. Add enough water to rise about a quarter inch along the sides. Cover with foil and bake for about 45 minutes, until a fork easily pierces the skin. Remove the squash from the oven and turn them cut side up. Reserve.

While the squash is baking, make the grains and the stuffing. To make the stuffing, add oil to a pan and turn on the heat to medium. Add just enough mushrooms to cover the bottom of the pan in one layer--you may have to sauté them in a couple of batches. Let the mushrooms cook on one side without disturbing them. As they shrink, they'll brown. Then flip them over and let them cook on the other side until done. Add them to a large mixing bowl. Add more oil to the pan and sauté the onions and garlic until they turn golden. Add the diced apple and let them also cook to a golden color. Then add the sausage.

Crumble it as it cooks and let it cook until the pink of the raw meat turns to brown. Add back the mushrooms and stir together briefly. Put the mixture into the mixing bowl and season with salt and pepper.

Add the grains and two-thirds of a cup of the grated cheese to the stuffing mixture and stir together to thoroughly combine the ingredients. By now the squash should be out of the oven and ready to be stuffed. Rub a little oil on the cooked flesh. Then scoop the mixture into the hollow of each squash half. It's okay if it overflows a little. Top each half with the remaining cheese.

Return the squash to the oven and bake for about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve immediately--or you can let it cool and refrigerate covered. Before you're ready to serve it let it come to room temperature and then put back in a warm oven to reheat.

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