Fudgesicle ice pops are an integral part of summer, don’t you think? They aren’t quite chocolate ice-cream, with a more dense fudgey, almost chalky texture (if you can imagine chalk tasting delicious), always eaten as a race against the hot sun melting it down your arms and onto the pavement. I developed this recipe for my version of fudgesicle made with organic raw agave*** instead of sugar, cocoa powder, plain yogurt, and banana. I then add coconut butter to give it a real richness. The result has only a faint coconut flavor but a very decadent texture and mouthfeel. I think this recipe is a touch too sweet, but my husband and daughter disagree so I left it as is because I’m not one for sweet things at all. If you want, you can back out the agave a bit but remember when tasting the mix it is going to taste less sweet once it is frozen.

Cocoa Agave Ice Pops

2 cups Organic Whole Milk Yogurt

1 banana

1/2 tsp Vanilla Extract

4 tablespoons Raw Coconut Butter

1/2 cup Cocoa Powder

6 T Raw Blue Agave***

Put all ingredients in the blender and blend until smooth. Pour into icepop molds and freeze until solid.

***

***A note on Agave:
After this post was published I read some research about Agave Nectar that I had to share. It’s not new research, but it’s new to me. I try and keep things as minimally processed as possible in our diets without going to extremes. I chose to use Agave because of its low glycemic index, trace minerals it contains and what I thought was a less processed more natural product. However, research I read says that although the glycemic index is low making it better for diabetes patients because it doesn’t spike their blood sugar, the process in making it is just as complex as making other processed sweeteners. Furthermore, because of this process it contains high amounts of fructose, which isn’t good for the body. So for now, while I research it some more, I am going to stick to things like honey and maple syrup, which are minimally refined and I will rewrite this recipe with the new ingredients.

 

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So I’m late on this post. Ramp season is just about over. I have been working like a madwoman and haven’t had time to post, but  it’s absolutely necessary to get an entry in on them, so better late than never. I promise I’ll be on time next year. What are ramps, you ask? In the restaurant world, ramps are the first sign of spring, after a long winter of butternut squash and apples but much more delicious than fiddlehead ferns (which are also an early spring thing but to me taste like dirt.) They are a type of wild onion, closer to a leek, with a delicious leafy stem and tender bulb and they grow wild in New York, but often come from places like West Virginia and Oregon first. In the northeast you can by them at greenmarkets, as I have never seen them in an actual store, but you better get there early before the restaurants snap them up. They are delicious and sweet yet spicy and grassy.  You can use them much like an onion or scallion, or just simply char them and serve them in a heaping pile of steaming deliciousness aside grilled fish or meats.  Trim off the root end, then use a paper towel to peel off the thin top layer, stem down to the root to get rid of the sand. If they are particularly sandy you can wash them, but be sure to dry them well or the tender leaves will rot and you don’t want that.

They are versatile and yummy and not at all difficult to work with. Anywhere you would put an onion, you can put a ramp, but since the flavor is more delicate you want to highlight it instead of mask it so keep the other ingredients simple.

Scrambled eggs with ramps is a great first dish, simple to execute but the outcome is totally sophisticated. Separate the white part from the green and slice the white finely. Then rough chop the green. Gently sauté the whites in butter or olive oil, until translucent and buttery. Sprinkle a little salt and then add your scrambled eggs. Toss in the greens and cook gently until the eggs are soft and creamy. Serve on toasted baguette, ciabatta or crusty whole grain bread.

Ramps lend themselves particularly well to other spring vegetables, because things that grow around the same time and area generally taste good together. If you want to expand on the egg idea, you can make a dinner fritatta with potatoes, asparagus, ramps and mushrooms. I like oyster or hen of the woods (maiatake) but any mushroom will do.

Spring Vegetable Fritatta

1. Parboil some spring potatoes until tender when pierced with a fork. Remove from water and turn out onto a plate lined with a paper towel to dry.

2. In a large sauté pan, (preferably NOT non-stick*), heat some oil until just smoking and add your mushrooms, not too many so you don’t crowd the pan. Don’t touch the mushrooms. Don’t stir the mushrooms. Let them pick up some color before you move them. Moving them constantly won’t get that delicious caramelization that you want which will intensify the flavor. When you see some browning happening, then you stir them. You do, however want to monitor your heat. The pan needs to be smoking before you add the shrooms, which will then lower the temperature of the pan. But then the temp will rise again, and if you see lots of white smoke, or if your pan is looking too brown on the bottom, lower the heat. Conversely, if your temp is too low and your pan is not hot enough the mushrooms will steam as they release water instead of browning. Look at it and judge. Add a little salt halfway through cooking to draw out the moisture. Once you see color developing you can stir the mushrooms. If you need more oil because mushrooms inherently soak up oil, add a little drizzle around the edges of the pan. Cook until the mushrooms pick up color, throw in some asparagus sliced thin, sauté briefly to take the rawness out of the asparagus but leave still crunchy and then remove mixture to a bowl and reserve.

3. Cut up the potatoes to the desired size and cook in a sauté pan, along with the white part of the ramps in oil or butter until crunchy (just like home fries).

4. Scramble your eggs, add in the reserved veggies and season withe a little Salt and pepper. Add this mixture to the hot sauté pan with the potatoes. Cook until set and lightly brown on the bottom, adjusting the heat so it is hot enough but doesn’t burn.

5. At this point you have 2 options. You can turn it out onto a plate and then flip it over. Or you can stick the whole pan into a preheated 350 oven. The stove top yields a flatter fritatta with a creamier center. The oven yields a little puffier with a more cooked interior.

6. Cook until done. Turn out onto a plate and shave parmigiano over the top.

* Non-stick pans are not made for high heat. To get a good sear on something never use nonstick, as heating the pan too high will cause the coating to degrade and release chemicals into your food. Besides, you won’t get the beautiful browning you are looking for anyway. Non-stick pans are fine for scrambled eggs and omelettes, but not much else.

YUM!!!!

At any given time I have Kale in my fridge. I gobble it up in salads, crunch on it in chips, put it in soups, or eat it on it’s own braised in tomato sauce. What I have discovered about toddlers is that they will eat anything if it’s cooked in tomato sauce and then chopped so fine they can’t tell it’s there. You can then put it on pasta, shells would be my choice so that the little cups that the pasta form can scoop up all the saucy goodness and provide a vehicle for the green.

This time, I served it with some fennel sausages and cubed up yams tossed with salt, pepper and olive oil- both roasted in the oven. The sweetness of the yam really complimented the kale and tomato and the sausage added a savory meaty element.

You can store Kale for a surprisingly long time in the fridge if you put it in an airtight bag with a damp paper towel inside. Just leaving the leaves in the crisper bin will render them flaccid and putting just the stems in water (flower vase style) never works. The leaves themselves need the moisture too so a large tupperware works too but takes up a lot of room in the fridge.

Braising implies cooking something tough slowly in liquid. When it comes to meat, you would do it with more exercised cuts like shoulders and legs, in which you would sear first and then finish in the liquid. Braising works great with a hearty green like Tuscan Kale because it breaks down the fibers and intensifies the sweetness.

*As far as which tomato product to use- (I can go on forever about this) I’ve been trying to stay away from canned tomatoes Cirio Passata Rusticabecause of the BPA in the cans. Of course sometimes you can’t avoid it. Try different brands to see which ones you like. Whole tomatoes in their juice are usually the best option because you aren’t getting an amalgamation of substandard pieces. That being said, I’ve been using a brand lately called Cirio Passata Rustica which comes in a glass jar. They taste really good to me. Passata Rustica means a coarse pass through a food mill on the tomatoes, so you are getting just the chunky pulp without the fiber or skins and sometimes seeds. Pomi tomatoes in the box are generally good. You generally want to stay away from any kind of tomato puree because it’s actually just reconstituted tomato paste. . What I look for is taste- nice and sweet, without too much salt, which many brands tend to have. Aside from the can issue, La Valle D.O.P. tomatoes are very good- they are of a certain Italian classification that needs to meet specific standards to pass.  After all that, there is even variation among a brand itself. You could be happy using one brand for a while and then all of a sudden it stops tasting good for a while. That’s what happens- it is, after all, a plant, a crop, and sometimes the crop isn’t as good. Sometimes you need to change for a while, or forever.

Kale Braised in Tomato

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 white or red onion sliced thin

6 small cloves of garlic or 3-4 large, peeled and smashed

2 bay leaves, fresh or dried (but fresh is so so much better!)

1 1/2 bunch Kale (because I ate the other half bunch raw-couldn’t help myself)

about 24 oz of tomato product*(see note)- more or less this amount is okay

salt and pepper

  1. In a medium sized saucepan or a high, straight sided saute pan with a lid, place the cold oil, bay leaf, garlic  and onion and begin to heat slowly. The idea is for this to cook slowly so that the onions gently release their juices and become sweet. We are not looking to completely caramelize them (so you don’t want much color) just to make them translucent, soft and buttery.

 2. When the onions are there, add the kale and mix briefly to coat. Cook about 2 minutes to wilt, then add tomato. Stir and cover.

3. Bring to boil then reduce to a simmer. Simmer until kale is tender, about 40 minutes.

4. Season to taste with salt and pepper. You can adjust the consistency of the sauce by leaving the lid off and simmering if it is too soupy.

5. After it’s finished I’ll cool it down a bit and then chop fine on a cutting board, small batches at a time.

Falafel aren’t the sort of thing you would think to make at home. First of all they are fried, and fried can be very controverisial. There are the people who love fried, wanna marry it, have it’s babies and dip them in batter and fry them. Then there are the people who eschew it either for health reasons or simply because they don’t want to stink up their houses in the process.I’m not going to go all Paula Deen on you and try and convince you that you should eat fried foods every day, but a little fried never hurt no one, especially if you don’t eat processed fried foods and the fried food in question happens to be chock full of dietary fiber, folate, magnesium and vitamin C. Chickpeas are very nutritious. And cheap. You can balance out the fried with a myriad of salads and pickles to be served in the pita along with them.

As far as the frying thing goes, I like to make flat patties instead of spheres, so you don’t actually have to deep fry, therefore using less oil. It would be like making chicken cutlets. I can’t really help the smell in the house thing but to me I happen to think it smells good! It’s not like it’s a scallop or something (which might be the worst after cooking smell EVER!)

So just to be clear, falafel are Middle Eastern patties or balls of chickpeas and herbs, fried  and served with salads and sauces, sometimes in a pita. And my answer to the inevitable question of whether you can use canned chickpeas or not is an emphatic NO! First of all, you will never be able to get the texture you want out of canned chickpeas. They are wetter, almost mushy and already cooked. Secondly, the flavor of dry chickpeas is so much better than canned.  Thirdly, you really aren’t saving yourself anything by using canned. Canned are more expensive and it’s not like you have to cook the dry ones first, you just soak them the day before and then grind them up. Easy.

My favorite recipe is Mark Bittman’s, published in the New York Times in 2008. I use that as a guideline, with a few touches of my own. I don’t like ones that have breadcrumb or flour in them. It definitely makes the batter easier to handle but I find that it makes the falafel too dense. If you make patties instead of balls, it will be easier to handle anyway.

Falafel

Adapted from Mark Bittman for the New York Times, 2008

serves 2 adults, 1 toddler and leftovers

1 and 3/4 C dried chickpeas, soaked overnight

2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed

1 small onion, quartered

1 teaspoon coriander, ground

1 tablespoon cumin, ground

cayenne to taste

1 cup chopped parsley or cilantro leaves or 1/2 cup each

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Neutral oil, for frying*

1. Cover chickpeas in a non-reactive bowl or container with 4X the amount of water to beans. Refrigerate overnight uncovered. This will hydrate the chickpeas and get them ready for cooking. This is pretty standard procedure for any dry bean. Chickpeas will double or triple in volume as they take in the water. You don’t cover them because they can ferment.

2. The next day drain beans well discarding liquid. Some people like to save the liquid and use it, but although there is a slight loss of nutrients there are also compounds in the liquid that cause flatulence and by discarding it you reduce the likelihood of it.

3. Place beans in a food processor and add all the remaining ingredients except spices and oil and Falafel "batter" after grindingpulse. You want to chop all of the ingredients finely but not make a puree. You may have to do it in batches, and you will probably have to scrape down the edges of the bowl a few times in between pulsing. If you absolutely must, add a few drops of water to get it going, but the more water you add, the harder the mixture is going to be to work with, and then you might have to add a bit of flour to get it to bind up again.

4. Once mixture has come together, transfer to a bowl and add your spices, season with a bit of salt and cayenne to taste. You can taste the batter raw, it’s not going to hurt you, it’s just going to be mealy, but you can get an idea. I also always like to fry one off as a test to really see how it’s going to taste, so you don’t end up cooking an entire batch of underseasoned falafel.

5. Heat about an inch of oil in a saute pan with sides. You want the oil to be shimmering. Test the oil by adding a pattie. It should start sizzling immediately. If your oil is too cool, your patties will soak up too much oil and fall apart. Conversely, if too hot, you will get brown too quickly before the inside is cooked and could even burn. You want the oil about 350 degrees if you have a thermometer.

6. Shape patties by using a tablespoon, scooping some batter up and using the palm of your other hand to smooth the edge. The batter is wet, so you can’t pick it up and roll it like a meatball. In falafel houses they will often use an icecream scooper and drop the scoops into the deep fryer. So scoop instead with your tablespoon, round it with the palm of your other hand, and then gently hold the spoon horizontally over the pan of oil and shimmy it in. If your oil is nice and hot it will start to cook it immediately setting the shape. Continue doing this so that your pan is full, but not crowded. It is important you don’t crowd the pan, or your oil will cool down, the steam emitting will get caught between instead of evaporating and the falafel will become soggy and fall apart. It’s not that hard, I’m just giving you all the information you need.

7. Flip them over when they are golden brown and cook the other side.frying falafel

8. Drain on paper towels when evenly browned and sprinkle with salt while still hot.

* For frying, you not only want a neutral oil, but you want one with a high smoke point. Olive oil does not have a high smoke point and is not suitable for frying. Canola oil, grapeseed oil and corn oil are all better choices, but you need to be careful of where you buy them from. If you would like more information on this subject you can read it here.

I serve them with whole wheat pita and salads. On the simple end you can just cube up tomatoes and cucumbers, shave some red onion and sprinkle with salt and pepper, maybe some lemon juice. Shaved savoy cabbage tossed with a little red wine vinegar is really good too. If you’re feeling adventurous you can pickle some beets, turnips or carrots, with cumin and serve those. As for the sauces they are super easy.

For the tahini sauce, you buy sesame paste (tahini) and mix it with about equal parts water. The tahini behaves weird when you add water to it. It starts out looking smooth and pourable, then you add water and it seizes up and becomes all pasty. Keep stirring it vigorously and adding water, a little at a time until it becomes a smooth loose sauce. Season with salt to taste, fresh squeezed lemon juice and I also like to grate some garlic in there with a fine grater or microplane.

I also love to make a tzakiki or raita type yoghurt sauce. If you buy full fat greek yoghurt, (like Fage total) it is the absolute perfect consistency and doesn’t need to be drained. I love the stuff but it’s not what I use on a regular basis for my normal yoghurt eating needs because in around 2008 it’s popularity forced production out of Greece and into upstate NY. I did some research trying to find out if they are using grass-fed milk, including writing to the company and they never got back to me, which basically tells me they don’t. It’s highly unlikely that a large processing facility owned by Dannon in New York is using grass-fed milk, especially if it’s not labeled as so. It does say that they don’t use the rGBH hormone, which is a good start I guess.  rGBH is a hormone that cows are given to keep them lactating year round, because just as humans, even if the demand is there, our supply will dwindle and even dry up over time, especially if it’s not a baby suckling and instead a machine. rGBH has been thought to pass into our bodies through milk and be the cause of early puberty in girls that has become a staggering epidemic in this country. The FDA issued a statement saying that they have found no difference between cows given the hormone and not, which means absolutely nothing. They need to protect their interests, being big dairy industry and Monsanto (who if I’m not mistaken are the manufacturers of the hormone) and they haven’t done any solid reseasrch on the subject, they just haven’t received any proof saying otherwise. But I digress. For this application, I have yet to find a grass-fed organic yoghurt that is thick and luscious so when I make falafel I still use the Greek stuff and for my daily needs I go with something else.

Back to the sauce: finely dice up some red onion and toss it with fresh lemon to marinate for a bit. Mix into the yoghurt. You want it to be chunky but still have room for the herbs- I like to use mint, and a lot of it. Shred the mint finely with a sharp knife and mix in. Add a pinch of ground cumin  and if you like it spicy, a bit of cayenne. Season with salt and pepper to taste. If you need a bit more lemon add it. This dip has so many uses. My husband hates yoghurt but loves this dip and can find so many creative things to rip apart and dredge in it.

Like I mentioned before, you can serve the falafel in pita with a simple cubed up salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and red onion. Or you can go a bit more fancy and pickle some turnips, beets or carrots.

Falafel hold leftover fantastically. They stay crispy and heat up well. We always have leftovers with this recipe and love eating them the next day.

I love meatloaf.

Let me rephrase that. I love GOOD meatloaf. Growing up my mother would make a giant meatball, with lots of Pecorino Romano and breadcrumbs, covered in tomato sauce sometimes, surrounded by peas other times. If there were any leftovers to be had it made a fantastic sandwich, on crusty sesame sprinkled semolina bread smothered in melted mozzarella.

Nowadays my meatloaf has evolved, as it’s a great place to hide veggies from a finicky toddler. The addition of ground flaxseed gives it a nuttiness and adds nutritious omega 3’s, a compound found in oily fish, like sardines, that we don’t get enough of in our diet. Omega 3’s also contain DHA, which expecting moms know from taking prenatal vitamins, is essential for a child’s brain development.  Flaxseed also contains fiber, and other compounds that have been thought to fight cancer.

Using grass-fed beef as opposed to conventional beef also makes it much healthier for you. Cows are ruminants, which are animals that have a second-stomach like organ that enables them to digest grass, something humans can’t do. Conventionally raised beef isn’t fed grass, in fact, they are raised nowhere near grass, and eat corn and other manufactured meal (which we won’t speak of) instead. This results in a fattier, unhealthy cow. Because the animals aren’t eating all that chlorophyll goodness that they are supposed to, the meat is higher in cholesterol and not nearly as nutrient dense. If you would like to read more about it I recommend Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Anyhow, good meat isn’t cheap, but ground beef is on the lower end of the spectrum so it’s a regular part of our meal rotation. We make many different kinds of meatloaf depending on the season and our moods. This recipe is made with just carrots, onion, and celery, which is classic mirepoix. In the summer I will sometimes make it with diced bell peppers and zucchini or even jalapeño to give it spice. I had Gruyère in the fridge, as I often do, so that is what I used. It’s not necessary though. Grated Parmigiano Reggiano is a fine substitute.  Worcestershire sauce and tomato paste give it the acidity and sweetness that people usually use ketchup for. I use a homemade Worcestershire-like sauce that my friend Jori Jayne Emde makes called #4 sauce that doesn’t have any weird ingredients in it. You can read more about it here. Balsamic Vinegar does the same sort of job if you need to substitute.

We usually make a pound of meat at a time for the three of us but it is gone in a night and we are being deprived of those coveted leftovers we spoke of earlier. I’ve upped it to two so we’ll see how that goes. We’ve made it work to feed four with an abundance of delicious sides.

Meatloaf with Veggies, Flaxseed and Gruyère

serves 3-4

3 medium carrots

1 medium onion

2 celery stalks

2 cloves garlic

1 lb. grass-fed beef, ground

2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, chopped

1/2 cup ground flaxseed (you buy them already ground)

1 cup Gruyère, diced

1/4 c breadcrumb

 2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce

salt and pepper to taste

2 eggs

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

2. Rough chop carrots, onions and celery and pulse separately in food processor until fine but not pureed. I like to do them all separately because you have more control that way. However my machine is very small. If yours is very large you can add them all together and just pulse in spurts until chopped but not pureed. Garlic can be smashed with the side of the knife, skin removed and chopped with the onion.

3. Add vegetable mixture to bowl. Add all remaining ingredients and mix. Season with Salt and Pepper.  I like to mix with a gloved hand so that you are sure everything is really incorporated. Also, you want to make sure you have mixed it until it all starts to bind together. Mixture will become assimilated and sticky to the touch.

4. In a small sauté pan cook off a tablespoon of the mix in a drop of oil to check for seasoning. This is an important step. Any time I make any kind of ground meat recipe (meatloaf, meatballs, sausage etc.) I always cook some off because if you don’t have the mixture perfectly seasoned and you cook the whole thing, you are screwed.

5. Season with salt and pepper and taste again. Do this until it’s where you want it.

6. Press mixture into a loaf pan or a corningware. Most people make meatloaf on a flat cookie sheet. When you do that the fat and juices tend to run out of the meatloaf leaving it dry, and your pan burnt. If you put it in some sort of mold, you contain all of the liquid. The juices reduce and leave the flavor concentrated in the meat and the whole thing sort of cooks in the fat leaving it moist and delicious.

7. Bake at 450 for about 35 minutes. I make it in a loaf pan. But different factors affect the cooking time like the pan you use, (if you use a wider, flatter pan it could take a shorter time or pan material) or the calibration of the oven. Meatloaf should be cooked through, without pink inside. You want to cook it to about 155 degrees on an instant read thermometer. Then take it out and let it rest for about 10 minutes where it will continue to rise in temperature (called carry-over cooking) and the juices will redistribute as it cools. If you don’t have a thermometer insert a paring knife into the center and hold it there for a few seconds. Then touch the knife to your bottom lip. If the knife feels hot to you, it’s cooked. Body temp is 98.5 degrees. If the knife only feels warm, it’s probably about 120 and needs to cook more.

It’s winter, even though it doesn’t feel like it here in New York.  In the restaurant industry that means the inevitable million different iterations of butternut squash because that’s what is in season. I’m not quite sick of it yet so last night we did butternut squash risotto because, well, that was what we had in the house. My daughter will always eat rice, and because of the creamy nature of risotto, it has less of a tendency to end up flung around the house then say, rice pilaf. Or quinoa. Which I love but holy crap what a mess.

Another plus is that you don’t have to peel the butternut squash, or try to whittle a large lightbulb shaped mass into neat little cubes. You just half the squash lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and roast it, flesh side down on a cookie sheet. What you end up with is a luscious almost purée that has enough richness on its own you don’t have to add much butter and parmigiano to finish the risotto.

Risotto is made with Italian fino or superfino rice which has the characteristic of absorbing liquid and releasing starch, thus plumping the rice and forming a creamy sauce around, all while keeping the integrity of the rice intact. Don’t try to make it with another type of rice, you will be disappointed. However, you can apply the technique to other grains such as farro, wheatberries, or fregola and end up with a similar result. In the grocery store you’ll probably see the three most common types of rice for risotto, Arborio, Carnaroli and Vialone Nano. I suggest Carnaroli because it is the most forgiving, meaning that when the rice is ready it has less of a tendency to overcook, a common malady of the other types of rice.

What I also tell my students is that making risotto is a technique more than a recipe. The amount of stock to add is never cut and dry- it varies according to the rice (different batches will absorb liquid differently), the pot you are using (a higher sided pot will allow slower evaporation of liquid than a low sided one) and how high your heat is, among other things. Learn to look at and taste your rice- that is how even the professionals know that it is done. It should have bite but not stick in your teeth or be crunchy. It should always be creamy.

Leftover risotto can be spread out on a cookie sheet covered with parchment and cooled. You then make balls out of them, coat them with a breading of a sort and fry them. They are called arancini or suppli, depending on where you are (or risotto croquettes:) ) If you make them flat like little hamburgers you can use less oil and shallow fry them.

I usually figure about 4 oz of dry rice per person for a mid size portion. But if there is only a little more left in the box after that I always cook it.

Stock is a very important part of the risotto making process. Chicken stock is often used in most recipes, even vegetable ones,  because it is fairly neutral in flavor but adds a nice foundation to the rice. You don’t want the stock to be really aggressive and overpowering. If you don’t make your own, the boxed stocks or broths are better than the can. Some brands I have used are Pacific Organic and Brad’s and they are fine. Vegetable stock can work well too if you make your own. The store-bought brands tend to taste too tomato-ey or just plain gross so taste it before you use it so you don’t ruin the rice. You don’t want something too salty either, in fact, no salt in the broth works just fine, you just have to season in the pot each time you add liquid. If the stock is too seasoned add water to it. Remember, you don’t need a super intense stock. If all else fails and you have only water, you could get away with it, certainly if you are adding butternut squash to it which will impart tons of flavor. When I made this it was actually a rare occasion I had no stock in my freezer or cabinet so I make a quick one of carrot, celery and onion trimmings, bay leaves, garlic, thyme and the rind of a parmigiano. It tasted delicious.

I happened to have saffron in my freezer so I added a pinch to the rice in the first round of stock I added. The squash already adds a beautiful pumpkin color that the saffron helps to intensify. It also adds a background of flavor but is totally optional. If I didn’t have it I would still make this dish. And it would still rock.

Butternut Squash Risotto

Feeds 2 hungry adults and 1 toddler

the bottom (round part) of a butternut squash)

 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 of a medium white onion, finely minced

2 cloves garlic, smashed

1 3/4 C Carnaroli rice

1 Bay Leaf

3/4 C white wine

salt

about 2 qts stock (you can definitely do I box stock and the rest water)

2 oz. unsalted butter

1/4 C  parmigiano grated, or more to taste

honey to taste

1. Cut off the round bulb part of the butternut squash and reserve the top part for later use. Cut the round part in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. You may reserve the seeds if you like, wash them, toss them with salt and toast them for a snack.

2. Drizzle oil on a cookie sheet and place squash halves, cut side down and roast at 300 degrees until a knife inserted meets no resistance, 35 min to an hour, depending on the size of the squash. When it is cool enough to handle, scoop flesh out into a bowl and reserve. You can do this step ahead of time and store in the refrigerator.

3.Bring your stock to a boil then reduce to a gentle, lazy simmer. The stock needs to be hot when you add it to the rice or you will slow down the cooking process too much.

4. Place onion, garlic and oil into a shallow saucepan. Ideally, you want something that is taller than a sauté pan, shorter than a regular saucepan, and has rounded sides so the rice doesn’t get stuck in the corners and is made of non reactive metal. No aluminum or non stick coatings. Cook over medium heat until onions are translucent but have no color. If the onions are cut too big they will not cook in the time the rice does and you will be crunching on onions, so it is important to cut them small.

5. When onions are ready, add dry rice to the pan and stir, with a wooden spoon and toast until rice is fragrant, about 1-2 minutes. You don’t want the rice to color, just to smell delicious and nutty.

6.  Add wine and stir to incorporate. Wine will cook off fairly quickly. When the rice is almost dry, add enough stock to cover the rice completely, stirring. A Chef that I worked for said the rice needs enough stock so that it looks like the individual kernels are dancing in it. You don’t need to stir it every single second, just consistently enough so that the rice isn’t sticking on the bottom. You also need to make sure that no rice kernels have crept up the side of the pot out of the liquid. They won’t cook at the same rate as the others.

7. Cook rice, stirring until almost dry. When you drag your wooden spoon across the bottom of the pot the rice should separate leaving a trail where you can just about see the metal of the pot. When you have reached that, add more stock. If your stock is not seasoned, add a little salt each time you add stock. The idea is to season the rice little by little along the way, building layers of flavor. If you forget to season  until the end, your risotto will taste like only the outside of the rice is seasoned. Conversely, if you over season along the way, it will be too salty to eat.

8. Keep cooking rice in this method, adding stock to cover, cooking off until evaporated, until rice is almost done. It usually takes about 20 minutes but can be as little as 12. Read the box for a guideline and be sure to TASTE!!! When rice is almost done add the pureed butternut squash and stir. Continue cooking in the usual manner until rice is tender but still with bite.

9. Pull risotto off the heat, add your butter and cheese and beat with a spoon to emulsify, or mix in the fat so that it incorporates into the sauce and becomes even more creamy. It is important to do this off the heat or your fat will separate out of the butter and cheese and become oily. If you wish to put more butter and cheese than do it up. Drizzle with honey and mix in and season with salt also to taste. You will probably need to add a little more stock, to loosen up the consistency. If you shake the pan back and forth it should rise and be wavy, “all’onda” the Italians like to call it. It should not run all over the place but also shouldn’t sit like a big ball when put on the plate.

10. Serve right away!

We love eating pancakes on the weekends and I happen to have the best pancake recipe ever.  I don’t even remember where it came from but they always come out perfectly tender and cakey with a little bit of sweetness.  My husband didn’t want me to share it because he wants to serve them in our restaurant someday but I was able to sway him with a little convincing.

If you would like to amp up the nutrition factor you can cut the white flour with buckwheat flour. If I do it, I usually use 1/3 – 1/2 buckwheat flour and the rest All Purpose Flour. Buckwheat has little to no gluten. Gluten is the protein found in wheat flour that gives it it’s structure and strength. In something like a pasta or a bread, you want structure and strength, since chewiness and bite are attributes you aspire for. In pancakes you want them to be delicate, so you don’t want much gluten. With 100% buckwheat you end up with a batter with no structure and pancakes that are dense and need help from things like beaten egg whites to add lightness and stability. I prefer the flavor, texture and ease with less of a ratio of buckwheat flour but you may not. Experiment and see what works for you.

This recipe calls for sour cream, which gives it richness and a little bit of tang. I am obsessed with Wallaby Organic sour cream lately because it’s thickness and flavor is heads and tails above the others I have tasted. It’s so good you could put it on berries,  drizzle with a real Aceto Balsamico (Balsamic Vinegar from Modena) and dust with confectioners sugar to be eaten for dessert. Because the sour cream is so thick, I often need to add a splash more of milk to get the pancake batter to the right pouring consistency.

We eat the pancakes with butter and real maple syrup. Did you know that there isn’t even any maple in products like Log Cabin and Aunt Jemima Syrup? They are primarily flavored with things like Fenugreek, a spice with a maple-like aroma, and then high fructose corn syrup,  a cheap way to make it sweet. Besides being minimally processed and all natural, the real stuff just tastes so much better.

Sifting the dry ingredients  not only ensures that there are no foreign objects in the mix (something you have to worry about more in a commercial kitchen) but also aerates the flour to prevent the pancakes from being dense. You can sift by putting dry ingredients through a fine strainer and tapping the side with your hand, or stirring the flour with a wooden spoon to help it through.

Here is the recipe.

Best Pancakes Ever

Serves 4 (about 12 pancakes)

1 1/2 cups AP Flour

3 Tbsp sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

1/2 cup sour cream

3/4 cup milk

2 eggs

2 tsp vanilla extract

1. Sift together dry ingredients except for salt because kosher salt won’t go through the sifter, the kernels are too large. Add salt after sifting.

2. In a separate bowl whisk together remaining wet ingredients. Add wet to dry mixing only until combined.

3. Rest 30 minutes to relax the gluten. If you need to skip this step they will still come out fine.

4. Mix batter just to recombine. You may have to adjust consistency depending on the kind of sour cream you use. Batter should be thick, but able to pour off the spoon, not glop off. If needed to thin add milk, a few drops at a time. Heat griddle and place a pat of butter on. Swirl around to coat griddle with a thin layer.

5. Test one pancake by gently dropping a small ladle full onto the griddle. Cook until lightly browned on one side and then flip with spatula. Cook other side. If you are happy with the consistency, cook the rest.

Before I go food shopping I like to make a nice hearty “clean out the fridge” soup. I do it to use up the odds and ends of vegetables, cut or whole, that I have laying around. When my daughter was an infant and had just begun to experiment with solids I would always have some kind of chunky vegetable soup on hand. The idea was for all of the components to be cut bite size, about 1/4-1/2″, and cooked soft, so she could easily pick up the pieces with her fingers but there is no danger of choking. Now that she is a toddler, and can be quite finicky at times. Soup is still the easiest way for me to get her to eat her vegetables. I make it with as little liquid as possible, just enough to cook it.

Minestrone is a hearty vegetable soup usually containing beans and sometimes pasta. This version was made with bacon (I like the uncured, nitrate free variety), dry cannelini beans and vegetables. However, you can make it with chicken, beef, or no meat at all. If you are not using meat make sure you have tomato in it, whether it’s tomato paste, jarred tomatoes (not tomato sauce) or diced fresh ones. The tomato adds acidity and richness which sort of makes up for the lack of meat.

Ideally, dry beans should be soaked the day before you are going to use them to rehydrate them before cooking. The main reasons for this are so that the beans cook evenly and don’t break apart and lose their shape, and because the soaking liquid removes some of the flatulence causing compounds from the beans. If you are making a soup it really doesn’t matter if the beans break apart a bit. The way that you “speed soak” dry beans is to put beans in a pot with 4 times the amount of water. Bring them to a boil. Reduce it to a simmer and simmer for 10 minutes and then shut them off and let sit for an hour. Discard the liquid, and cook them as you would if they were soaked. The beans I used take a really long time to cook. I know this because I have cooked them before. It’s not uncommon for the same type of bean but different batches or different producers to cook at different rates. So many factors influence this from how they were dried to how old they are. Don’t be freaked out if your beans are taking forever one day and last week they cooked up quick. That’s how it goes.

After my speed soak I cooked the beans right in the soup. If you get the beans going first before you start any cooking or cutting, your timing will work out perfectly when adding them to the soup.

If you are wondering if you can use canned beans, the answer is yes, but dry beans are so so so (did I say so?) much better than canned, once you start working with them, you’ll never go back. There will definitely be a future post on cooking amazingly delicious dry beans. My husband says I cook the best beans he’s ever had. I guess that’s a compliment.

  • Sweating the vegetables brings out the flavor and forms the base of your soup. Sweating is gently cooking in a little oil so that the liquid is released from the vegetable, therefore concentrating it and elevating the flavor.
  • As a general rule- carrots, onions, leeks, celery and garlic go in the post first to sweat.
  • Next goes starchy veg like potatoes, butternut squash and turnips.
  • green veg go last, especially leafy vegetables so that they keep their color. Brussels sprouts, cabbage, string beans go later on as well because they are less dense and take less time to cook.

The great thing about making soup is that you have a lot of freedom and you don’t have to follow a strict recipe. I am providing one to give you an example, and a delicious one at that. Just remember that anything with a strong flavor like the cabbage family or turnips are going to make your soup taste off. I’m not a fan of beets in a soup, unless it is borscht.

To clean leeks, you basically cut off the top 2/3 of the leek where it goes from white/pale green to dark green. The tops are very fibrous but still have flavor. They are good to reserve for stocks. The bottom is tender and is what you will dice for soups, etc. Slice them in half lengthwise through the root and then cut off the root. You are left with a rectangular leek with lots of layers. The layers however get smaller as you get to the where the middle of the leek would be so you need to take apart these layers to dice them evenly. Cut 2-3 layers together at a time. Another important fact is that leeks grow partially submerged in the dirt and if you don’t clean them well you will be eating that dirt. The proper technique is to cut your leeks and then agitate them in a bowl of water. Let sit so that the dirt falls to the bottom of the bowl. You then lift the leeks out, leaving the soil on the bottom. Never pour through a strainer because you’ll just pour the dirt back on the leeks. Do this about 3 times to ensure no dirt remains. About 7 years ago when I was a line cook it was 5 o’clock and I was checking all my mise en place and I came across melted leeks that were cooked by the day cook and they were sandy. I alerted the chef who then called down to the sous-chef who washed more leeks himself and brought them up to me to cook. It was dangerously close to service starting and I was sweating. I cooked the leeks as fast as I could praying that an order wouldn’t come in that I needed them for. I tasted them for seasoning and realized there was sand in them again. Of course I told the chef, because we couldn’t serve sandy leeks, and his loud deep voice boomed across the kitchen, “HANG YOUR HEAD IN SHAME, ALEXIS.” And I did. And I don’t want you to.

Clean out the Fridge Minestrone Soup

1 T oil, vegetable or olive

8 oz. bacon, diced

3 leeks, white part only, diced

6 small carrots, diced

4 stalks celery, diced

4 cloves garlic, smashed

1/2 bulb fennel, diced

1/4 red onion, diced

1 bay leaf

2 sprigs oregano

2T tomato paste

1 cup cannelini beans, soaked or speed soaked

1/2 tomato, diced

1 head spinach, removed from stem and chopped

Salt and Pepper

mmmmmm bacon

  1. Warm oil in the bottom of a large pot and add bacon. It shouldn’t be sizzling. We want to gently cook the bacon to get it going and begin picking up a bit of color.
  2. Add the leek, carrot, onion, celery, garlic, fennel and bay leaf. Cook gently over medium heat until veg become translucent and aromatic.
  3. Add tomato paste. Cook out so that paste caramelizes a bit.
  4. Add enough water to cover vegetables.
  5. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and add beans, tomato and oregano.
  6. Simmer until beans and vegetables are tender, anywhere from 30-50 minutes. Don’t worry if vegetables are soft but beans aren’t cooked. Keep cooking until beans are tender. About halfway through cooking taste for seasoning and add salt.
  7. When beans are tender add spinach and cook an additional 5-10 minutes, until spinach is cooked. You can leave the spinach just wilted, but I know my kid won’t eat it that way.
  8. Season with salt and pepper.
  9. Eat with a crusty loaf of whole grain bread to sop up all of the delicious juice.

It’s always a struggle to get my daughter to eat enough greens. She’s only 2 with one set of molars. That’s not enough to break down any kind of leafy green, cooked or raw. Whenever I eat a salad, she’ll poke her head in the bowl and look at me with those big doe eyes and say “for Zoe,” pointing to herself. I oblige, handing her a small dressed leaf. She pops it in her mouth and I see movement, a positive sign. Just when I think she’s actually eating it, out pops the leaf perfectly in tact, licked clean of all the anchovy dressing. She hands it to me. “More,” she’ll ask. And this is how it goes until a greater portion of my salad is shiny and naked. Boooooo. Cooked greens are a hard sell too unless they are chopped super fine and drowned in tomato sauce. Toddlers will eat anything drowned in tomato sauce. That is also the subject of a future post.

Kale Chips are great because they are crunchy, savory and super light. They practically disintegrate on your tongue. The downside is that this crunchy lightness can also leave a trail throughout your house when held by a wiggly energetic toddler.

The kind of kale that I use is Tuscan Black Kale (Cavolo Nero), or Lacinata, two very similar strains. You can find it in the more specialized supermarkets like Whole Foods or Fairway, and many local greenmarkets have it as well. It’s one of my favorite greens because it is delicious, super good for you and extremely versatile. You can do things like eat it raw in a salad with some kind of hearty dressing, or cook it by braising it in tomato sauce.

When you buy kale and store it in your refrigerator be sure to put it in either a container with a lid or a ziploc bag with air and a damp paper towel inside.  The idea is to keep some of that moisture in. If you just put the bunch of greens in the crisper bin after a few days they will wilt and it’s very difficult if not impossible to bring them back. If you store kale properly it can last a week in your fridge.

Kale Chips

1. Preheat your oven to 300.

2. Stem the kale. Most of the time the stem is pretty thick, woody and not very to pleasant to eat at the bottom. As it progresses to the top it becomes a thin vein which is not necessary to remove. Take out the thick part only: with the thickest part of the stem pointing up, fold the leaf in half along the stem and slide your hand down the stem removing the leaf. You can also cut along either side with a knife.

2. Place in bowl larger than the amount of kale you have. Lightly sprinkle with salt, pepper if desired, and a drizzle of olive oil. Use your hands to toss and be sure you have coated every leaf but not drowned them. Go easy on the salt. If you taste it and it tastes underseasoned that’s ok. You are going to in essence dehydrate the kale, so the flavor will only concentrate as the water is evaporated out of the leaf.

3. Lay out in a single layer on a cookie sheet.

4. Bake for about 15 minutes. Start checking it at 10, because every oven runs different, and you want to catch them right at the point where they are crispy but not brown. If they get brown they taste burnt, even if they aren’t.

They’ll stay good for a couple of days, but I guarantee they won’t last as long. I always do a head at a time because the heads are really small in the supermarket and I eat them unabashedly like cookie monster shoving cookies down his throat, crumbs flying all over the layout. I think actually, I’m equally as bad as Zoe when it comes to leaving a trail around the house.

Aside from munching you can use them as a garnish for other dishes, like minestrone soup, where they will start out crunchy and then collapse into softness when introduced to the liquid.  Instead of frizzled shallots or onion rings garnishing a steak  just cut the kale into strips before you cook it and use that instead.

Happy birthday Zoe!

My daughter’s 2nd Birthday passed recently and I wanted to make her a cake that not only tasted good but was beautiful as well. First of all I am not a pastry Chef. Savory cooks and pastry cooks are animals that exist in the same jungle but eat different things and follow a different set of instincts to survive. I have made my share of polenta cakes, molten chocolate cakes and panna cottas, but the art of rolled fondant, sugar paste flowers and the like eludes me. It was for 20 people so I figured I’d keep it simple and make a 2 layer 9 X 12 yellow sheet cake with cream cheese frosting.

I’m not a fan of food coloring. I won’t get on my soapbox  but it has been linked to hyperactivity and autoimmune problems in children. If you would like to read some more about it here are some links. As you’ll read, the FDA denies the claims but it’s not uncommon for them to do that to protect their interests. More studies definitely need to be done about this.  Regardless, my view is why put anything in our food that doesn’t need to be there?

http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140673607613063/abstract

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-01-01/health/ct-met-food-dyes-20110101_1_food-dyes-food-colors-food-ingredients

http://www.npr.org/2011/03/30/134962888/fda-probes-link-between-food-dyes-kids-behavior

Anyway, I colored the frosting with beet cooking liquid and turmeric. The colors were beautiful and didn’t affect the flavor at all!

For this cake I did a X4 batch of frosting. I colored 1 batch pink, 1 yellow and 2 I left white. I had some frosting left over so I froze it for cupcakes in the future.

Here is the recipe for the frosting, which was deee-licious. I like a more tangy, less buttery and sweet frosting. I wasn’t entirely sold on the cake itself, so I’m going to hold off on that recipe until I find the perfect one.. If anyone has a good yellow buttery cake recipe, please by all means share!

Cream Cheese Frosting

Makes enough for 1 single layer 9″ round cake.

16 oz. cream cheese, (brick-not whipped) at room temp

4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temp

2 1/2 cups confectioners sugar, sifted

1 tsp vanilla extract

pinch of salt

1. In a mixer, beat cream cheese and butter with paddle at medium speed until smooth, about 1 minute.

2. Add sugar, vanilla and salt. Beat on lowest speed until sugar is incorporated.

3. Raise speed to medium and beat until fluffy.

At this stage you can add the coloring agents. If using turmeric, just add a 1/8 tsp at a time until desired color is reached.

For pink the process is a little more involved, but you can roast the beets a day ahead, reserve the liquid and then eat the beets whenever. Make sure you use red beets, not golden or candy striped.

Beet “Juice

1. With a peeler (and wearing gloves, because beet juice will stain your fingers), peel beets. I wouldn’t normally peel beets before roasting them, as it is very easy to rub off the skin with a towel after they are cooked, but we want the liquid not to taste “dirty” because we are going to use it. The skin can impart a dirty, woodsy taste.

2. Place beets in a corningware or other baking dish with high sides. You want the beets to fit comfortably in there, without too much space all around them. Even a shallow pot with a lid that is ovenproof would work. If the beets are monstrous, or of all different sizes, cut them in half or even in quarters. The idea is to have them all be of similar size and small enough that they don’t take forever to roast.

3. Add about 1/4″ water to the bottom of the dish.

4. Cover it with either a lid or aluminum foil.

5. Roast at about 400 until beets are tender when a small knife is inserted into them. The time really depends on the size of the beets- for really small ones, start checking at 20 minutes. Large softball sized beets could take an hour (which is why you would cut them down). Notice we aren’t seasoning the beets with salt. If you were cooking them just to eat, you would salt them. But the liquid will then be salted and we don’t want that in our frosting. You can easily salt the beets themselves after they are cooked.

6. Remove the beets from the beautiful ruby liquid and lightly salt them. I also like to sprinkle them with a bit of nice vinegar (red wine, champagne or moscato- not balsamic) while they are still warm. Then you can store them and eat them another time.

7. Cool down liquid and store until ready to use. You only need a few drops to color a batch of frosting. Add a couple of drops and beat until completely incorporated.

Here is what the finished product looked like.

Birthday Cake!

Zoe's Birthday cake

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