Monthly Archives: February 2010

Biscuit Binge

Yes, those are actually icicles stuck on my window

Sorry to my Queen’s English-speaking friends, but, no, this does not mean that I have spent the last few days making batches of cookies, as we call them, having adopted the Dutch word for the sweet round treat. Instead, I’m talking about the three, yes three, sets that I made of yummy, soft pillowy-inside, crisp-outside round dollops of heaven that are made to be spread with butter and jam or dunked in gravy. I found a recipe at Thibeault’s Table that just looked too good not to try.  I mean, when you have this outside of your window when you get up for work on Friday, there hardly seems to be a better use of a winter day.

Biscuits made with whole milk and butter
For the record, I actually had to show up at work on Friday when this snowy mess was all taking place. This just made me more determined to continue on the comfort-food cooking quest that has taken over my inspiration for the blog for the past few months. I really think that we need to look into getting a new groundhog for next year, as this is getting a bit ridiculous. We might even have another storm next week. Is spring really around the corner?

Biscuits made with buttermilk and butter
The Kitchn should also take credit for this burst of baking fury. They’ve been posting about biscuits recently. Although I’ve put together lots of bready-type things, cakes, pies, and cookies, I’ve never really tackled the perfect biscuit recipe. I’m not really sure why, as I love them, and we didn’t get to have them when I was growing up. They reminded my mother of a period in her life when they didn’t have much to eat and she had to have them for lots of her meals.  I think that biscuits are also one of those things that seem difficult to make but aren’t really hard to do. They sort of have a mythical aura and drive fear into the hearts of many an experienced baker that they might end up tough, flat and rock-hard.

Biscuits made with buttermilk and butter with cheddar cheese and chives 
One trick to avoid that dire fate is to mix the liquid into the dry ingredients very gently and quickly so as not to handle it too much. In fact, if you listen carefully, you can even hear the baking powder react to the buttermilk. Then, slide the tray into the pre-heated oven, per the directions, and wait a few short minutes, just enough time to make the coffee and scramble the eggs, until the warm hug of a freshly-spliced-open biscuit reaches your plate.
Slathered with locally-made berry jam
So, with a little bit more effort than it takes to thwack a cardboard tube on the kitchen counter, you can make these yourself and have the awesome experience of pulling apart the steamy hot insides just begging to be smothered in whatever toppings you see fit. I tried several versions of this recipe, and can say that basically they are all good. I think I prefer the buttermilk and butter option for plain biscuits, which made them tall and fluffy.

 Oh, what the heck, it is the weekend, after all. I’ll have one of the other batch, too!
Kitchen Witch Tip:

As you can see from the photos below, I also experimented with the way I incorporated the butter into the dry mixture. I found the method using the box grater to be too messy and fiddly for my tastes, preferring the tried-and-true cube-butter option that I’ve used since I first learned how to cook. In either case the trick is to have very cold (or frozen in the grating method) butter.
Using the box grater method grating frozen butter into small pieces for mixing into the flour
Using the cube method cutting the cold butter into small pieces for mixing into the flour

Buon appetito!

Southwestern Chicken-Tortilla Soup

Serious Eats asked this week what we’re all cooking to keep us warm and cozy during this long winter spell. Soup is my number one go-to to during the colder months. What I like to do is to make a few batches of it when the inspiration hits and then to freeze it to have on hand. This was particularly helpful when I was sick a few months back and couldn’t bring myself to cook for each meal.

So far, I’ve eaten my way through almost two batches of my favorite winter stand-by Winter Squash Soup with Gruyère Croutons, many bowls of Peter Gordon’s Spicy Red Lentil, Coriander & Coconut Soup with Chicken Dumplings, and several hearty helpings of Tuscan Bean Stew. These dishes have definitely kept me going in sickness and in health this season. At the same time, I’m also always on the look out for new recipes to try to add to my collection.

Back when I was right out of college and working many long hours at a non-profit firm, I would sometimes stop by a local restaurant on my way home. I would order Southwestern Chicken-Tortilla Soup, which would take me away from the mundane life of a low-level administrator working in highly bureaucratic Washington, D.C. and into a warm, sunny world miles away. Over the years, I’ve pulled various versions of this recipe for my files, but I was never quite sure that I’d found the right one based upon my now-vague memories of it.

Last weekend, I decided to take the plunge and cobble together what I think is a reasonable interpretation of what used to be my favorite weeknight fallback meal. While I think a little bit more fussing and fiddling might be necessary with some of the seasoning, I feel that it came out pretty close to how I remember it tasting. Like the other soups I’ve prepared this winter, the key is that this one can be frozen and reheated for later on, when you need to get rid of the bone-chilling cold and sniffling nose and to dream of warmer climes.

Southwestern Chicken-Tortilla Soup
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Serves: 4-6 hearty portions

Ingredients:
1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast cutlets
2 Tbsp, vegetable oil
1 small onion, diced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 medium jalapeno, seeded and minced
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1 14.5 oz. can low-salt chicken broth
1 28 oz. can whole plum tomatoes
juice of 1 lime
Salt and pepper to taste

Garnish:
1 Corn tortilla per person
1 Tbsp, vegetable oil
2 avocados, peeled, pitted, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
Sour cream
Mexican cheese mix
Finely chopped fresh cilantro
Lime wedges

Assembly:
Poach chicken breast by pouring water into a sauté pan and allowing it to come to a simmer. Put the meat into the pan and allow to cook in the heated water for about 4 minutes per side, or until cooked through (this might take a bit longer for thicker pieces). When finished, remove the chicken from the pan, place on a cutting board, and set aside. Reserve the cooking liquid.

Heat two tablespoons of the vegetable oil in a large pot or Dutch oven. Add the onion and allow to cook for 3 minutes over medium heat. Add in the garlic and jalapeno and cook for an additional 3 minutes. Stir in the cumin, oregano, and coriander and cook the mixture for 2 minutes to allow the flavor of the spices to come forward.

Pour the chicken stock and the tomatoes, along with their juices, into the pan. Fill the can that held the chicken broth with water and swish it around. Pour the contents of that can into the can that held the tomatoes and swish it around to get out the last bits of flavor. Pour that can into the pan holding the rest of the ingredients. Stir everything together and bring to the boil.

Turn the heat down and allow the mixture to simmer for 30 minutes until it becomes a bit thicker and all the flavors have a chance to meld. Add the reserved cooking liquid from the poached chicken to the soup. Stir every few minutes to break up the tomatoes into smaller chunks. While the soup is bubbling away, shred the chicken into 1-inch pieces.

The tortilla garnish can also be prepared while the soup is cooking. Heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Brush both sides of the corn tortillas with vegetable oil and place in one layer on a baking sheet. Place in the oven and bake for 10-15 minutes until the sides curl up and they look as though they have crisped up. Set aside.

Once the soup is finished, turn off the stove, and blend with an immersion blender (you can use a conventional one as well, but a hand held model is much easier) until all the tomatoes and vegetables are incorporated. You can leave it slightly chunky or make it completely smooth depending upon your taste. Add in the lime juice and shredded chicken and stir to incorporate. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

To serve, ladle soup into shallow bowls. Put a dollop of sour cream in the center of every bowl. Scatter around the chopped avocado. Sprinkle each serving with shredded cheese and chopped cilantro. Take one tortilla per bowl and break it into small pieces allowing them to fall over the soup and rest of the garnishes. Add a lime wedge to each serving. These crunchy bits will provide a toasted corn backnote to the slightly spicy dish.

Buon appetito!

Crêpes for Pancake Day

It’s been a crazy-busy weekend in the foodie department with Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year’s coming so close together. Not to make it more complicated, but I’d like to add another culinary celebration to the mix: Pancake Day. Today is Shrove Tuesday or, more familiarly Pancake Day, in many parts of the world that observe the season of Lent.
Originally intended as a way to cook up all the rich fatty things that were forbidden during the annual pre-Easter season of penance, making crêpes (or pancakes in the UK), was a way to use up these items in preparation for fasting from them. I really think that we in the U.S. need to adopt this holiday as well. When I lived in Europe, it also provided a great excuse to get together a group of friends for an enjoyable and delicious meal. [I did see that iHOP is having a day with this same name, but as it is a week out from today, that sort of defeats the point of the observance.]
I had tried to make Julia Child’s recipe for these a while back, with mixed results, as I posted previously. For Christmas this year, my sister gave me another book of hers, by which she swears: The Way to Cook. I’ve been reading this, but haven’t yet prepared anything from it. The two recipes one for sweet and one for regularcrêpes seemed like a good way to dive right in.

Unlike my earlier attempt, this time things seemed to work out a bit better. I don’t know if it was that I had more confidence in the method, or if the batter came together better or if maybe my technique is actually improving. The sweet batch seemed a bit thicker than the savory one, which was easier to work with. Maybe it was because the pan I was using to cook them it is seasoned a bit more, having been used a few times.

I think these came out looking pretty close to how professionally made ones appear. It is possible to buy them ready-made from a store, but I had a supreme sense of accomplishment in being able to create these for myself. My mother used to make them from scratch and rarely had a flop. She always said that the first one never really turns out well and then would go on to churn out one perfect example after another. I’m not quite there yet.
Another one of her tips was to make them in advance of needing to use them and to stack them on a plate, separated by waxed paper. Then, they can be covered in plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator or sealed up with plastic wrap and then covered by aluminum foil and put in the freezer. They need to be brought up to room temperature and gently re-heated on each side before being filled and eaten.
Just to make sure that the end result would taste as good as it looked, I decided to have a “test sample” right as I pulled them out of the pan. The more traditional British way (and also the way that I ate them once late at night in France) is to sprinkle them with sugar and to drizzle lemon juice on them. Roll them up, and start munching away on a sweet-tart treat. They tasted pretty good to me.
For the official Pancake Day feast, I went a bit more traditional with the flavorings. One of my favorite combinations involves eggs and cheese (I used Comté.). For the third filling, I usually go with either mushrooms or ham.This time, I chose the latter as it was what I had in the fridge.

Of course, as it is the day before the fasting starts for Lent, having dessert didn’t seem too terribly indulgent. Fortunately, I just happened to have a jar of Nutella in my cabinet, for emergencies, you understand. I sliced up some pears, very thinly, slathered some hazelnut-chocolate spread on a warm crêpe, and enjoyed some gooey, sweet wonderfulness. I think that this tradition should definitely be a keeper.
Buon appetito!

Peanut-Butter Crisscrosses

A week ago, we had some folks in town from an overseas office, and there was a large brainstorming meeting. Normally, when we have a visit from one of our team members from abroad, we have a group pizza lunch followed by bakery-bought cupcakes. This time around, the guys wanted something else, so I decided to make Peanut-Butter Crisscrosses.
I haven’t tried this recipe in a very long time. When it says that it makes almost five dozen cookies, it wasn’t kidding, so I’m glad that I decided to bring them into the office for the rest of the staff to eat as well. In baking these again, I also discovered some interesting things about the science of cookie-making.

From the point of putting them into the 350 degree oven, to ten minutes later when they came out, they didn’t seem to get a lot larger or darken very much, which was not as how I’d remembered them. In doing some research on line*, I found out that the fact that I’d had to use a cup of cake flour, which is lower in gluten, might have had an impact on how they came out in the end, as I should have added more flour to make up for the difference. I also think that the fact that I did use butter (instead of the shortening on the card) and organic peanut butter (we always used a regular national brand), might have had an impact on the final result. I’d also had to add an extra quarter of a cup of regular white sugar to make up for the fact that I didn’t have enough light brown sugar available, which added to the crispiness.

The end result turned out golden-colored and more crispy than chewy. They were light as well, too, with more of a peanut-butter essence flavor than an intense peanut taste. Having not tried these in a long while, I could only draw upon a distance memory of how they should feel in the mouth and on the palate. Everyone in my office seemed to like them just fine.
Buon appetito!
Kitchen Witch Tip:
*There’s lots of articles and research on the Internet about baking and the impact of using different types of ingredients. For these cookies, I consulted a few, including these two: one on flour and one on various cookie-baking techniques.

Sausage & Cheese Lasagna

It would be an understatement to say that it has been cold in the Northeast for the past few weeks. Frigid, bone-chilling, bloody freezing cold. The temperature has been so low on some days that I don’t think that it could have snowed if it wanted to, although the major snowstorm missed us completely yesterday.
In that spirit, I decided to make lasagna. I never really think about doing this just for myself, but I really should. Left over lasagna is wonderful to have on hand. It is perfect for reheating for a quick weekday supper. It is also possible to make it in advance and to freeze it to cook mid-week. Add a side salad and some garlic bread (or deli-purchased garlic knots for the lazier set) accompanied by a glass of red wine, and you could almost be at dinner at your favorite red-checked tablecloth restaurant, Chianti bottle candleholder optional.
I must have also been inspired by what happened a month or so back. When I was in Virginia over the holidays, I asked my dad what he wanted me to make for dinner. I even offered to make him some dishes he could freeze to reheat whenever he got tired of eating his usual fare. What did he want? My mom’s lasagna. So, I pulled out the recipe card from the file and started to get to work.

I did feel a bit pressured to get this right on the first try. My mom’s lasagna was much in demand when we were growing up, and she took a particular pride in this recipe. She had even purchased extra sausage and had frozen it to have on hand, which my father and I found when we were poking around in the freezer. Some pretty high stakes were riding on my producing something that would remind everyone of family dinners gone by, but in a good way.

 
From the card above, you can see that it doesn’t seem to be that complicated to make. It’s just a series of several steps that all get thrown together at the end in one baked dish. I hadn’t realized until I looked closely at the card, but it seems like my mother may have snuck in the spinach which she always used in this recipe. I opted not to mix that into the ricotta as she seems to indicate, but, rather, I alternated between globs of cheese and dots of green when I built the layers.
 

The end result was rich, gooey, hearty, and soul-satisfying. It was a hit with my father and my siblings who were around that night. All the same, I sort of wondered if this was the be-all, end-all of family-style lasagna dishes. Food and Wine magazine had published a Free-Form Sausage and Three-Cheese Lasagna recipe in the January 2010 edition. I was drawn into it by the photo of the finished dish. Would this be the rival recipe to take on my mother’s favorite?
I tried to see what I could pick up at the Greenmarket yesterday to put this together. The folks at Violet Hill Farm had some Italian sweet sausage. Tonjes Farm Dairy had fresh mozzarella. Everything else I would need to pick up elsewhere. Then, I could see if this would match up to the kind of lasagna that haunts one’s dreams.
My finished product looked different from that in the magazine, as I’d added some tomato sauce to the top layer to keep it moist. I also had enough extra cheese that I put some of the Fontina and the mozzarella on top. I think mine looks a bit more rustic and what one thinks of as a homemade dish.
When served up with the fresh basil on top of the finished product, the lasagna is respectably gooey with a snap from the herbs. I didn’t find it as hearty as the one that I’d made at my folks’ place. The flavor overall seemed a bit drab. It didn’t taste bad at all, just not as strong of a dish as the one with which I’d grown up. This is not something that would make the members of a large family run to the table so as not to be stuck with the last, smallest piece.
I could definitely see adding some extra hot Italian sausage to give it some more personality. Another touch I might add, which is a step that is in the first recipe, is to cook the sausage in the sauce for a while and then add the two together to build the layers, as I thought the meat got kind of dry in the baking process. The cheeses were fine but having two soft melty cheeses didn’t create enough of a flavor contrast for me.
As for not having any spinach, well, I didn’t miss that a bit. There’s always salad to add the green stuff to the meal. Overall, I think that Mom’s recipe still wins; however, it was nice to try another option just to see if something else could stack up to it.
Buon appetito!

A Taste of Vienna in NYC

Have you ever had one of those weekends where everything just seems to build upon one theme? I’m talking about watching Merchant-Ivory-type costume dramas and then developing a craving for tea. Taking in a movie like Big Night and deciding to make a large batch of spaghetti and meatballs or maybe just watching one of the food and travel programs and thinking that you really do need to plan a trip to wherever they just were just to grab an authentic Chicago deep-dish pizza or *real* barbecue from North Carolina.
Last weekend, I’d signed up to go with a group to the Neue Gallerie in New York. This is a museum, down Fifth Avenue from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that is dedicated to German and Austrian art and design. It’s one of the kind of museums that I really enjoy visiting in New York, as it is used to be a private residence, the exhibits are thorough but not too overwhelming, and the crowds tend to be small. You can also see some of the original architectural details from when it was a home.
Currently, they have on display works “From Klimt to Klee.” This includes the magnificent portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer enrobed in gold leaf, which the museum purchased several years ago, and which was one of the reasons for our visit. The other great thing about this venue is that there are two cafes in which to grab a bite after you’ve wandered through their collection. They both serve German and Austrian foods and sweets, including Sacher Torte, which I didn’t eat on this visit as the lines were too long to get a table.
Was it coincidental that on the same day I had signed up for this trip, the episode of “Tyler’s Ultimate” had him making Pork Schnitzel? And Spaetzle? The Central European heritage part of my heart just skipped a beat. We sometimes get one or the other of these things served in our company cafeteria but not both on the same day, so it is rare that I get to eat these dishes together.
This also brought a little culinary tear to my eye as it reminded me of the restaurant Danube which closed last year. As you can see from the photos via the link, the decor was a little like dining in a Klimt painting. I loved it. I would get their Wiener Schnitzel which came with sweet-tart lingonberry jam and vinegary potato salad served on the side. One day, I will replicate the real thing and try to relive those meals I had when my parents would come to visit me. It was always one of the places on our short list of restaurants to visit again.

This time, however, I decided to follow Tyler Florence’s exact recipe for a pork schnitzel. The authentic dish is made with veal instead. I took a pork loin cutlet and pounded the heck out of it with my wooden mallet. What I really needed, I discovered, is the metal version of this tool that Tyler had used in his show. It has the heft that you need to get the meat nice and thin, which is the main point.
The picture above shows a before-and-after of what your meat should look like. It is incredible how much the fillet can grow after you manage to pound it out to about 1/2-1/4 inch thickness. The cooking time is also dropped dramatically, as it takes mere minutes to fry up these cutlets once they are breaded.

To accompany the schnitzel, I also decided to try my hand at spaetzle, which I also like to eat but have never actually made. This was a different experience. On the television show, Tyler says to force the batter through a colander to get the proper consistency. He made it look so easy. I’m not sure if his was different from mine, but I could not get it to work.
In the end, I scooped up the batter on the back of a ladle and let it plop in the water, glob by glob. From the plate above, you can see that the bits are a bit larger than the usual, but they seemed to taste all right. I might have to spend some time working on my technique with this.

To go along with the rest of the dishes, I tackled something else I’ve never done before. The above might seem a bit daunting, but it is really a great tasting vegetable that I think is overlooked here in the U.S. Celery root, or celeriac, is in season right now. It does look like something horrible and ancient, but underneath the tough exterior is a white, crunchy delight that you could describe as tasting like “celery lite.”
I don’t really like celery, but I like celery root, so when I found a recipe in the February Bon Appetit magazine, for Celery Root and Apple Salad with Hazelnut Vinaigrette, I decided that it was about time I should try my hand at peeling and cutting up this vegetable by myself. Usually, I just search for it on menus and eat it when I see it available in soups and salads. It definitely took some time and patience to do this.
Judging by the plate below, I think that it was all worth it, although it took a while for everything to come together. I omitted the mustard from the spaetzle and added some extra garlic and thyme to the cream sauce while it was cooking to give it a more woodsy, earthy feel. As there was mustard in the dressing for the salad, I thought that that was enough of that flavor to have on one plate.
I can definitely see making this again. The salad was a cool, crunchy counterpoint to the soft richness of the spaetzle and the crunchy hot schnitzel. This is a perfect blend of winter tastes and flavors. Even if I couldn’t physically make it to Vienna to eat this way, I can at least have the tastes of Central Europe for dinner in New York.
Buon appetito!