Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Gift Exchange: Lavender Honey Caramels

Keri turned 30! We celebrated by spending the weekend in a beautiful house with a lovely view in Tahoe. We also decided to do a White Elephant gift exchange . I suppose I could have wrapped up some of the old candles that I have in a box under the bed, but I really couldn't pass up an opportunity to make some homemade candy.

There are so many recipes that I want to try out of Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert. It is such a beautiful book. It celebrates and highlights the purity of ingredients. It's chapters focus on the flavors of Milk, Grains, Nuts and Seeds, Fruit, Chocolate, Honey and Sugar, Spices, Flowers and Herbs, Wine, Beer and Spirits. As the title suggests, the recipes are all a result of Medrich reexamining old standbys and reinventing them into something simple, pure and unmistakably original. When I first picked up this book to just have a browse, I could not put it down. I have so many cookbooks that I am generally hesitant to purchase more, but Pure Dessert had to come home with me. I will probably post about many of the recipes in the book, like the Heavenly Honey Ice Cream or the Sesame Brittle Ice Cream (ice cream is my absolute favorite dessert). But today is all about the Honey Caramels.

I originally wanted to make the Fleur De Sel Caramels, but that recipe calls for Golden Syrup, and I didn't have any. But I did have an old jar of Marshall's Farm Lavender Honey. This jar has to be at least 2 years old. I have a habit of buying special ingredients and saving them for ridiculous amounts of time. I really need to get over that, but I was happy to have such a lovely use for that honey.

These caramels were pretty fantastic. I made them on the softer side, and the addition of walnuts added some great texture. I don't think they would be the same without them.

Lavender Honey Caramels
Adapted from Pure Dessert

3/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup honey
2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups heavy cream
3 tablespoon unsalted butter cut into chunks, softened
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups walnuts lightly toasted and coarsely chopped (optional)

Line the bottom and sides of a 9x9 inch baking pan with aluminum foil and grease the foil well, especially the corners. If using the walnuts, spread them in the prepared pan. Set aside.

Combine the corn syrup, honey, sugar and salt in a heavy 3 quart saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the mixture simmers around the edges. Wash the sugar and syrup from the sides of the pan with a wet pastry brush. Cover and cook for 3 minutes. Uncover the pan and wash down the sides once more. Attach a candy thermometer to the saucepan, without letting it touch the bottom of the pan, and cook, uncovered, without stirring until the mixture reaches 305F.

Meanwhile, heat the cream in a small saucepan until tiny bubbles form around the edges of the pan. Turn off the heat and cover the pan to keep the cream hot.

When the sugar mixture is at 305F, turn off the heat and stir in the butter chunks. Gradually stir in the hot cream; it will bubble up and steam dramatically. Turn the burner back on and adjust it so that the mixture boils energetically but not violently. Stir until smooth. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, to about 245F. Then cook, stirring constantly, to 248F for soft chewy caramels or 250F for firmer chewy caramels.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Pour the caramel into the lined pan. Let set for 4 to 5 hours, or overnight, until firm.

Lift the pan liner from the pan and invert the sheet of caramel onto a sheet of parchment paper. Peel off the liner and turn the caramel right side up. Cut the caramels with an oiled knife into 1 inch spares, skinny bars or any desired shape. Wrap each caramel individually in wax paper, cellophane or parchment paper.

makes about 65 1 inch caramels.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Kale Chips: You Can't Eat Just One

I love kale. Actually, I love all leafy greens, so I don't need to dress them up into something else in order to enjoy them. Even Ella, the discriminating almost 3 year old, loves greens. She'll eat spinach over mashed potatoes any day which I think is odd, but whatever, I guess I should just be glad that she eats her greens.

So when I saw a new way to use kale, I decided to try it. It really couldn't be easier. You just toss some kale with a bit of olive oil and salt, and maybe a bit of cheese and roast in a low oven for 30-45 minutes. Voila, kale chips. And they are just about as addictive as potato chips.

I tried one batch with cavolo nero, aka dinosaur kale which is my absolute favorite. It was good, but somehow reminded me of nori, not necessarily a bad thing. And they display beautifully in a glass. I think these would be great to serve with cocktails or to put out for guests to nibble on while you finish preparing dinner. They're also really great after work while you're thinking about what to cook for dinner.

I tried another batch with some beautiful curly red kale. I actually think that I prefer these. The curly leaves provide for some interesting texture and crevices for cheese to stick in.

Kale Chips
(adapted from Dan Barber at Epicurious. com)

One bunch of kale
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan (optional)

Preheat oven to 300F

Remove the large ribs from the kale. In a large bowl, toss the kale with the olive oil and salt. Spread the kale out on a baking sheet in one layer. You may need to use 2 sheets. Roast in the oven for about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the cheese on if using. Continue to roast until crisp, another 20-30 minutes.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Potato and Ricotta Gnocchi

After spontaneously deciding to make fresh ricotta cheese, I needed to find something substantial to do with it. I thought about making ricotta gnocchi, but I really enjoy the process of working with potato gnocchi dough, and I thought that Ella would too. I think that a lot of people are intimidated by the prospect of making potato gnocchi. They have the reputation of turning into dense and chewy rubber balls instead of the light little pillows of goodness they should be. One of the tricks to making light gnocchi is keeping the dough dry enough so that only the minimum amount of flour is necessary. This is achieved by baking the potatoes, not boiling. Another trick is to use a potato ricer to mash the potatoes. This keeps gluten from forming in the potatoes and incidentally is the trick to making the best mashed potatoes as well.

So I decided to make a combination of potato and ricotta for the gnocchi which I served with a simple tomato sauce and some sauteed swiss chard. The tomato sauce is one that I was reminded of here. It comes from "The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" by Marcella Hazan. This was the first cookbook that I bought for myself after graduating from college in 1995. My parents took me and some of my friends to Chez Panisse for dinner after graduation, and my boyfriend bought me Chez Panisse Cooking.

I quickly realized that my kitchen skills were not quite good enough to follow the recipes in Chez Panisse Cooking. I have found that many of the recipes coming from Chez Panisse cookbooks assume that you already know how to execute most techniques and are proficient in the kitchen. I was not. For instance, I did not understand braising. The first osso bucco I made was horribly tough. I knew that it was cooked, but I did not understand that it needed to cook for hours in order for the toughness to melt away and transform the meat into something that you could eat with a spoon. I also needed to learn time management in the kitchen. I needed to understand the order in which things should be prepped and the timing of different dishes so that everything was done at the same time.

Someone recommended that I look to The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I did, and I credit this book for giving me a solid foundation and confidence in the kitchen. It taught me so much about technique, ingredients and kitchen tools. But I had moved on and forgotten about this beloved book. Until Molly reminded me.

And now the simple tomato sauce with butter and onion is one that I turn to often. It's one of the simplest dinners for me to make while also keeping a 2 year old entertained. It takes almost no effort at all, and the aroma of butter and onion simmering away is intoxicating.

Tomato Sauce With Butter and Onion
(Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking)

1 28 ounce can of San Marzano Tomatoes (These make a big difference so try to search them out)
5 tablespoons Butter
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
Salt to taste
Freshly grated Parmesan Cheese

Put the tomatoes, butter, onion and salt in a pan large enough to hold the pasta or gnocchi. I usually buy whole tomatoes that I carefully squish between my fingers while adding to the pan. Cook uncovered at a very low simmer for about 45 minutes. Stir from time to time. Taste and correct for salt. Discard the onion before tossing with the pasta or gnocchi.

Potato and Ricotta Gnocchi

2 pounds large russet potatoes
1 egg
1 to 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2/3 cup Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup ricotta cheese (drained)
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
about 1 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 400F and roast the potatoes until soft, about 1 hour. Peel the potatoes while still hot and pass through a ricer into a bowl. Add the egg, 1 cup of flour, Parmesan, ricotta cheese, nutmeg and salt and mix well. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 1 minute. Add just enough flour to keep it from being sticky. This part takes a bit of practice because it is all about feel. I used to be afraid to knead the dough too much, but then I would end up with the gnocchi falling apart in the water. So I think there is a bit of a fine line between not kneading enough and over kneading.

Cut the dough into 4 pieces and roll each piece into a 3/4 inch thick rope. Cut each rope into 1 inch long pieces. Roll the pieces off the back of a fork to create a dent in one side and ridges on the other. Drop the pieces onto a lightly floured baking sheet. These can be covered and stored in the refrigerator up to a day. They can also be placed into the freezer and once frozen, stored in Ziploc bags. If they are frozen they do not need to be thawed before boiling, just place straight into the boiling water.Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt liberally. Add the gnocchi and cook for about 2 minutes, or until they are all floating on the surface. You may need to do this in batches. I usually only add an amount that would cover the bottom of the pot. Use a strainer to transfer the gnocchi to the sauce and toss gently to coat. Transfer to a bowl and grate Parmesan over the top.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Homemade Ricotta and Ice Cream

I have a lot of work to do. I have had subscriptions to three different food magazines for several years now. I must have hundred's of back issues with recipes that I intend to get to at some point. My project over the next year (or two, wink), one of them anyway, is to scan the recipes that I want to keep so that I can organize files on the computer for easy access. I've also decided that I need to be more diligent about actually making the recipes that I bookmark. So when I saw the recipe for fresh ricotta in the January 2009 issue of Bon Appetit, I decided to make it immediately. I had all 3 of the ingredients on hand already. In fact, they are staples in my house and probably yours.

I have learned that this recipe does not result in a true ricotta but is actually considered a fresh cheese. Ricotta is Italian for " re-cooked" and is usually made from the whey that is discarded when making other cheeses. Whatever it is, it's delicious. It's creamy and smooth, and I don't think anyone could tell the difference between this and proper ricotta, and I'm not referring to that grainy stuff they sell in tubs at the supermarket. This recipe actually reminded me of another one that I read about recently here. The only difference between the two is the one in BA uses lemon juice to curd the milk and the other one uses buttermilk. Actually, I think I prefer the one with buttermilk. It had less of a tang which allowed for the pure sweet quality of the milk to come through. The one with lemon juice will do in a pinch, but if you have buttermilk, I'd use that.

Fresh Ricotta
adapted from Bon Appetit

2 quarts of whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or 2 cups buttermilk

Line a strainer with 4 layers of cheesecloth and place over a large bowl. Bring the milk (and buttermilk if using) and salt to a simmer over medium heat. You will need to stir often and scrape the bottom of the pot to prevent scorching. Stir in the lemon juice. Let simmer until curds form, 1-2 minutes. Scoop the curds into the lined strainer with a slotted spoon. Let the cheese drain about 15 minutes. Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate. The consistency improves once it is cooled. I'd say that the cheese should keep well refrigerated for about 5 days.

I made a double batch because I was going to make some ricotta gnocchi. Instead I made a combination of potato and ricotta (I'll post about that soon), so I ended up with quite a bit of ricotta left over, more than I would use up through casual eating through the week. What better way to preserve a food than to freeze it? And I would highly recommend freezing your left over ricotta in the form of ricotta ice cream with candied kumquats and chocolate flakes. In fact, this ice cream is a perfect excuse to make homemade ricotta, period. Ricotta, Candied Kumquat and Chocolate Ice cream

2 1/2 cups fresh ricotta
1 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of kosher salt
1 cup cream
1-2 tablespoons Marsala
3 tablespoons chopped candied kumquats
2 ounces of bittersweet chocolate

Place the ricotta, sugar, vanilla and salt in a food processor and blend until smooth. Add the Marsala and cream and blend. Taste for salt. Refrigerate until cold. Freeze according to your ice cream maker's instructions.

Chop the chocolate and melt in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Let the chocolate cool a bit. When the ice cream is firm add the kumquats and drizzle in the melted chocolate. This results in thin chocolate flakes which are so much more pleasant than chunks of chocolate.

If you need a recipe for the candied kumquats, you could try these. You could also use candied orange peel like these. I also think some chopped candied meyer lemon would be great here. Yet another reason to pillage my neighbors tree.

This ice cream was so satisfying. It was extraordinarily smooth with chewy bits of candied kumquat and flaky bits of chocolate. Louis found it down right addictive. Needless to say, it didn't last long in the freezer.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Celebration With Friends and Grapefruit Granita

Yesterday was Inauguration Day and was the first time I actually cared enough to watch the event. It was heartening to watch as the first person of color was voted into the highest office in our land. It is really a testament to how far we have come as a nation and where we want to go. I am extremely proud to be an American today.

What better way to mark the occasion than to spend the evening with people we care about, eating pizza and drinking beer? Louis has just about perfected his pizza making skills. A couple of years ago he became quite obsessed with pizza dough, making several variations and using different types of dough. He used recipes and techniques from Peter Reinhart's "American Pie". We have two favorite types. The Napoletana is made with all purpose flour and results in a thin, crisp crust. It almost feels like eating pastry. This style of pizza is perfect for a plain margarita. It is too thin to hold much in the way of toppings. This is probably the only instance that I would ever advise using regular mozzarella instead of fresh. The fresh mozzarella is too wet and makes for a soggy crust.

The other style of dough is called Neo-Napoletana, and is made with bread flour. It has more structure and despite being thin, it can take more toppings. We made several different pizzas. One was roasted peppers with calamari and aioli.

And another was broccoli rabe sauteed with garlic, olives and chili flakes with homemade ricotta.

As the title suggests, we ended the meal with a grapefruit granita served with chocolate shortbread with cocoa nibs and sea salt. It was lovely. Keri proclaimed it to be the best dessert that I've ever made! Vic couldn't quite agree. But I think we all agreed that it was a perfect way to end a meal of pizza and beer. It was refreshingly icy, slightly sweet, slightly bitter and it was all smoothed out by the cream. It will absolutely find it's way onto another menu.

Grapefruit Granita
4 cups freshly squeezed pink grapefruit juice with pulp
about 1 cup of simple syrup (more or less to taste)(see recipe below)
a pinch of kosher salt

Mix everything together and pour into a wide shallow baking dish (I used a 9x5 inch Pyrex dish). Place the dish in the freezer and check it every 30-60 minutes. Remove it from the freezer and use a fork to scrape the frozen edges. After 2-3 hours you should end up with a mixture that is quite fluffy. Keep the mixture in the dish and re-fluff with a fork before serving. Serve with some slightly sweetened softly whipped cream.

Simple Syrup

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar

Place water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil stirring until the sugar dissolves. Boil for about 1 minute. Remove from heat. This can be stored for a long time in the refrigerator.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Easiest Homemade Bread Ever

I have been reading about Jim Lahey's No Knead Bread for a couple of years now. I bookmarked the NY Times article about it and had been wanting to make it, at some point. I am a bit of a procrastinator and never quite got around to it. Actually, the real reason I never got to it is that it calls for instant yeast which I could never find at the grocery store. One day I was at Market Hall and happened to see some packets of instant yeast, so I snatched them up to have on hand for the one day that I would be inclined to try the recipe. Although, I have come to learn that Rapid Rise yeast is essentially the same as instant yeast, so maybe I am just a procrastinator, moving on.

So after all of the lovely eating that we were doing in the days leading up to Christmas, we were running low on some kitchen essentials, like bread. Louis went to the store the day after Christmas to replenish our stocks, but it seems that the bakeries decided to take a holiday as well. There was not one loaf of bread on the shelves! I suppose in a way this was quite fortuitous because we took this as the perfect opportunity to make the famed No Knead Bread. It may be easy, but it does take some time. You quickly mix all of the ingredients in a bowl and then let it rise in a warm spot for 12-18 hours. You end up with something that is definitely alive.

The bread is baked in a pot that has been preheated in a 450-500F oven. Baking the bread with a lid on the pot for the first 30 minutes has the same effect as injecting steam into the oven and results in a very crispy crust.
I have to say, this was by far the best homemade bread I've had. The interior is incredibly moist and chewy, and the crust is crispy, not hard like that on most other homemade breads I've had. And it was even better with some artisan salted butter that I got to go in my cute little butter pot.

This bread made for some pretty fantastic french toast as well...
Jim Lahey's No Knead Bread:

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting (we prefer bread flour)
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees (I think 500F is better). Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

Yield: One 1½-pound loaf.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Christmas Day Brunch: Smoked Salmon Tartine with Blender Hollandaise Sauce

Christmas morning was lovely. Ella is nearly 3 and was, for the first time, very excited about opening presents. It was so much fun watching her excitement. It reminded me of how I used to feel about Christmas, and I am happy that Christmas is enjoyable for me once again. This was also the first year in about 7 or 8 years that Louis and I put up a Christmas tree. I thought it would be fun for Ella and I to decorate sugar cookies to hang on the tree.

And well, it was fun and became Ella's own personal buffet. I guess that's one way not to have to put the decorations away when the tree comes down.

The morning was a flurry of opening presents and then of course playing with them. Before I knew it, I was becoming quite hungry. Louis took charge of putting a little brunch together, with a little suggestion from me. We had some smoked salmon in the fridge that was begging to be bathed in a silky, creamy, tangy sauce known as hollandaise. Louis grilled some Acme bread, sauteed some leeks, pounded some fresh herbs into a salsa verde, and whirled some egg yolks, lemon juice and butter into a beautiful hollandaise. Then he layered it all onto these lovely tartines.
Blender Hollandaise Sauce
(adapted from The Joy of Cooking)

3 large egg yolks
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, or to taste
a dash or 2 of Tabasco sauce
1/2 cup very warm to hot clarified butter (Louis didn't even bother to clarify the butter)
Salt to taste

Place the egg yolks, lemon juice and Tabasco in a blender and process on high speed for 1 minute. With the machine running, add the butter in a slow, steady stream. By the time all the butter is poured in, about 1 minute, the sauce should be thickened. If not, process on high speed for about 20 seconds more. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

makes about 1 cup.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Christmas Eve: An Excellent Day of Food and Wine

There was quite a lot happening in my kitchen on Christmas Eve. For me, holidays are really just an excuse to make something special. It's also a great excuse to have wine with lunch and dinner and the cooking that goes on in between. I knew that I was going to be doing quite a bit of cooking, but I didn't really want any of it to be too involved.

What could be easier than cracked Dungeness crab? I mean, you can buy it already cooked, cleaned and cracked which is exactly what I did. I made a quick sauce with butter, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic pounded into a paste with a bit of salt. The crab gets a bit of a baste before going into a hot (450F) oven for 15-20min., and a bit more sauce when it comes out. You will want to wait a few minutes for the crab to cool since you will be eating with your hands.

This time is the perfect opportunity to whip up a nice crunchy salad to go alongside the crab. I fortunately had some stuff already prepped, left over from catering the Holiday Party at my day job. I sliced some fennel and radishes with a mandoline, sliced some belgian endive and treviso, and tossed in some blanched green beans. The salad was tossed with a lemon truffle vinaigrette from the Balthazar Cookbook. After plating the salad, I garnished it with some breadcrumbs and avocado slices. This is a lovely salad. The creamy avocado is a great counterpoint to the crunchy vegetables and breadcrumbs. I really love the current trend of using breadcrumbs as a garnish instead of croutons. You can get crunchy bits in each bite instead of struggling to spear a crouton.

For the Lemon Truffle Vinaigrette
(adapted from The Balthazar Cookbook)

1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup lemon juice from about 2 lemons
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup white truffle oil

In a medium bowl combine the salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Whisk in the olive and truffle oils. Store covered in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Actually, I just put all of the ingredients in a jar, like a left over honey or jam jar, and shake until well emulsified.

I had been wanting an excuse to make the braised duck leg dish from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, and Christmas Eve dinner seemed to be the perfect excuse. The duck legs are braised with banyuls which is a fortified wine from the South of France made from Grenache grapes. The wine is mildly sweet with notes of dried fruit and mocha with a hint of peppery spice. This wine was great on its own and I just knew it would reduce into a fabulous savory sauce with just enough sweetness to complement the accompanying dish, turnip-parsnip gratin with prunes. And to make it really perfect, we opened a bottle of Pinotage that we brought back from South Africa last year. The meal was perfect and turned out just as I had tasted it in my mind.

Duck Braised in Banyuls
(adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques)
serves 6

6 large duck legs
1 tablespoon thyme leaves, plus 6 sprigs
Zest of 1 orange
2 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 cup diced onion
1/2 cup diced fennel
1/2 cup diced carrot
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 cups Banyuls
3-4 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup parsley

Trim the excess fat from the duck legs. Season with the thyme leaves, orange zest and pepper. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 325F. Take the duck out of the refrigerator 45 minutes before cooking. After 15 minutes, season the legs with salt.

Heat a large braising pan over high heat for 2 minutes. Swirl in the olive oil and wait 1 minute. Place the duck legs in the pan, skin side down, and cook 8-10 minutes, until the skin is deep golden brown and crispy. You may need to brown the duck in batches. Turn the legs over, reduce the heat to medium and cook 2 minutes on the other side.

Remove the duck to a plate. Discard all but a couple of tablespoons of fat from the pan. Add the onion, fennel, carrot, thyme sprigs, bay leaf, and a pinch of pepper. Cook about 10 minutes over medium heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon to scape up all the crusty bits.

When the vegetables are nicely browned and caramelized, add the balsamic vinegar and Banyuls. Turn the heat up to high, bring the liquid to a boil, and cook 6-8 minutes, until it has reduced by half. Add 3 cups stock and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low and simmer 5 minutes.
Add the duck back to the pan with the skin side up. The liquid should not quite cover the duck (add more stock if necessary). Cover the pan with a tight fitting lid and braise in the oven about 2 1/2 hours, until the duck is very tender but not quite falling off the bone. Remove pan from oven.

Turn the oven up to 400F.

Transfer the duck to a baking sheet and return to the oven to crisp the skin, 10-15 minutes.

Strain the broth into a saucepan, pressing down on the vegetables. Skim the top layer of fat from the sauce. If necessary, reduce the broth over medium high heat about 5 minutes to thicken slightly. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Serve with the turnip-parsnip gratin with prunes and spoon the sauce around. Scatter the parsley leaves over the top.

Turnip-Parsnip Gratin with Prunes
(adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques)
serves 6

1 1/2 pounds turnips, peeled
1 1/2 pounds parsnips, peeled
about 2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
1/3 pound pitted prunes, quartered
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Use a mandoline to slice the turnips and parsnips into 1/16 inch thick rounds and put them into two separate bowls.

Pour 1/2 cup cream onto the bottom of a 9x9 inch gratin dish. Place on layer of turnips on the bottom of the dish. Season with 1/4 tsp salt and a pinch of pepper. Scatter a third of the prunes on top. Arrange a layer of parsnips over the turnips and prunes. Press the parsnips down with your fingers, letting the cream soak up through the layers. This will ensure that the cream is evenly distributed and coats the vegetables well. Drizzle with 1/2 cup cream and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt, pinch of pepper and 1 teaspoon thyme.

Arrange another layer of turnips and drizzle another 1/4 cup cream over them. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt, pinch of pepper and 1 teaspoon thyme. Scatter a third of the prunes on top and continue with another layer of parsnips. Drizzle on 1/2 cup cream and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper. Press the vegetables down with your fingers, allowing the cream to come up through the layers and coat the vegetables evenly.

Finish the gratin with one more layer, this time of both parsnip and turnip slices, arranging this layer nicely, this will be the top of your gratin. Scatter the remaining prunes over the top. Drizzle with 1/4-1/2 cup cream and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt, freshly ground black pepper and the remaining teaspoon thyme. Press the grain down with your finger again. The cream should cover the vegetables but not be too soupy. Add more cream if the gratin seems dry.

Cover tightly with aluminum foil. Bake about 1 1/2 hours, until the vegetables are tender when pierced. Remove from the oven and carefully uncover. Turn the oven to 425F and return the gratin to the oven. Cook another 15-20 minutes, until the top is nice and golden brown.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Saffron-Vanilla Sauce: A Thank You Dinner

The winemaker dinner that I prepared on November 16, 2008 was a lot of work, and I definitely did not pull it off by myself. I have two friends who generously volunteered to help me out in the kitchen while Grace, the cafe owner, orchestrated the front of the house. I am lucky to have people in my life who share a similar philosophy of food. Who see food as a meaningful way to connect with others. I certainly show my love and gratitude toward others through the food that I prepare for them.

So I wanted to prepare a thank you dinner for Keri and Amy. I obviously consider people's tastes when I begin composing a menu. There were a couple of dishes that came to mind when I was thinking of a menu for Keri and Amy. I knew that Keri would appreciate fish since she is a former vegetarian. And although she wants to be open to a host of new foods, she can't quite stomach say, pork belly. And I knew that Amy would have quite an experimental palate, being the pastry chef extraordinaire of Nopa in San Francisco. I had been eyeing a couple of dishes from The French Laundry Cookbook for a while. One was Black Sea Bass with Sweet Parsnips, Arrowleaf Spinach and Saffron-Vanilla Sauce, and the other was Roquefort Trifle with French Butter Pear Relish. I knew that the fish dish would be quite rich with the saffron-vanilla sauce, so I decided that a crunchy refreshing salad would be a great way to start. So the menu ended up being:

Winter Chicories and Pink Lady Apple Salad with a Creamy White Cheddar Dressing, Bacon and Candied Pecans
(Adapted from the Boulevard Cookbook)

I love this salad. It is gets a sweet tartness from the apples, saltiness from the bacon with a sweet crunch from the pecans and is rounded out by the sharp creamy dressing.

Creamy Cheddar Dressing:

3/4 cup heavy cream

5 ounces Montgomery cheddar, or other high-quality cheddar, grated

1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 cup creme fraiche

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper


8 thin slices bacon

8 Belgian endives or a mix of chicories

1 Pink Pearl apple, or other heirloom variety

1 cup Candied Nuts, chopped (see recipe)

For the cheddar dressing: Heat the heavy cream in a small saucepan over low heat until bubbles appear around the edge. Whisk in the cheese and continue to whisk for about 2 minutes, or until melted, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl. Whisk in the mustards and creme fraiche until combined. You will have about 2 cups of dressing. Chill the dressing in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, or until thickened, or refrigerate for up to 3 days. Season to taste with salt and pepper just before serving.

To serve: Cook the bacon in a skillet until golden but not too crisp. Set aside on paper towels to drain. While the bacon is cooking, cut off about 1/2 inch from the bottoms of the endives and slice. Put the leaves into a bowl and toss with enough of the dressing to coat them lightly. Quarter the apple lengthwise and cut out the core with a paring knife. Thinly slice the apple and arrange on the bottom of each of 6 dinner plates. Mound the chicories on top of the apple slices. Sprinkle with the candied pecans and bacon.

Candied Nuts

1 cup nuts: walnuts, hazelnuts or pecans

2 tablespoons corn syrup

2 tablespoons sugar

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Fill a medium bowl with hot top water and add the nuts, swish them around, then drain and transfer to another bowl. Add the corn syrup, sugar, salt and pepper, and stir. Line a baking sheet with parchment or use a non-stick baking sheet, and spread out the nuts in one layer, being sure to include any of the sugary liquid left in the bowl on the parchment with the nuts. Heat the oven to 325° and bake the nuts for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring a few times, until golden brown and crispy. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly, then break the nuts apart (watch out, as they're hot -- use rubber gloves). Store in an air-tight container for up to 1 week. They can be chopped into bite-size pieces for specific recipes.

Yields 1 cup

Striped Bass with Sweet Parsnips, Arrowleaf Spinach and Saffron-Vanilla Sauce

(adapted from the French Laundry Cookbook)

This was AMAZING. The scent of the vanilla hits you as soon as the plate is set in front of you. I think your taste buds automatically expect something sweet when you smell vanilla, so the parsnip puree is perfect with this because it provides the sweetness that you expect, but it also has a very earthy quality which contributes to the savoriness of the dish. The fish is very mild flavored and is the perfect foil for the amazing sauce. I think this sauce would also be great with shellfish such as shrimp, scallops, crab or lobster. I am only going to provide the recipe for the sauce here because the other elements are so basic. The parsnip puree is made just as you would mashed potatoes (although the parsnips are simmered in cream). The spinach is sauteed with a piece of orange rind and the fish is pan fried to crisp the skin and finished in the oven.

For the Saffron-Vanilla Sauce:
1/2 vanilla bean, split
1 cup mussel stock (below)
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
1 1/2 teaspoons cream
10 tablespoons (5oz.) unsalted butter cut into 8 pieces

Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into a small saucepan and add the vanilla pod, mussel stock, and saffron threads. Bring the stock to a simmer and reduce to a glaze (1-2 tablespoons). Add the cream and simmer for a few more seconds. Over medium heat, whisk in the butter one piece at a time. Don't let the sauce get too hot or the mixture will break (the butter will separate). Strain the sauce into the bowl of an immersion blender and blend for several seconds to emulsify. Keep the sauce in a warm place. I kept mine in a double boiler with the water not quite simmering.

For the Mussel Stock:
18 mussels, scrubbed and debearded
2 large cloves garlic, peeled
1 large shallot, peeled
4 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
1 cup crisp, dry white wine

Place the mussels in a pot with the garlic, shallot, thyme, bay leaves, and wine. Cover the pot and bring to a boil. Remove the mussels as soon as they open. Reserve the mussels for another use. Strain the mussel stock into a saucepan.

Roquefort Trifle with Frog Hollow Warren Pear Relish

(adapted from The French Laundry Cookbook)
This was a great way to combine the cheese and dessert course. The bottom is a pear puree made with dried pears spiced with black peppercorns and allspice berries. The middle layer is a Roquefort mousse set with a bit of gelatin and whipped cream. The mousse is topped with a walnut daquoise which is essentially a nut meringue, but the texture was much more like shortbread than meringue. And it is topped with a pear relish made by simmering some Frog Hollow Warren Pears with sugar and red wine vinegar. This was really fantastic with the combination of flavors and textures, sweet, tart, crispy, creamy and pungent. I'm not going to provide the recipe here because, well, I'm tired of typing.