Monday, February 28, 2011

Kale Pizza with Blue Cheese and Walnuts

During a college car trip back in the 90s, a friend put on a cassette from the band Mazzy Star. It was a nice album, every song awash with a thrummy base of swirling guitars, and sleepy, slurry vocals layered on top. After a few songs that riffed on this theme, my friend Noah turned to me. "You know," he observed, "they have a really good sound. But the problem with having a particular sound is that all your songs, they kinda sound the same." I think his assessment is pretty spot-on for that particular flavor of early-90s alternative rock. And it's also pretty much how I feel about kale.

To back up, I am a big fan of kale. Huge. I think it's lovely, and I think everyone should eat a lot of it (as I try to advertise). It's got a really good sound, so to speak, all full of nutrient-rich dark-green leafy goodness. But the thing is, I'm not always up for that big pile of brassica. And for a while, that's all I thought kale could be. But recently, I've learned how to make kale sing a different song.

The secret turns out to be balance: pairing kale with ingredients that don't overpower it, but join forces to steer it in an interesting new direction. In this case, kale is sauteed up with some olive oil and garlic, and then laid down on top of an uncooked pizza crust (I find that a whole wheat dough is particularly good at standing up to the strong flavor of kale). It's then topped with walnuts to give a nutty depth, funky blue cheese to spark it up, and a handful of thinly-sliced onions that will soften invitingly. All of these strong and pungent flavors hold their own, and combine with kale to make a beautifully balanced pie. While I easily get overwhelmed by pots of plain kale, I could eat this pizza every week -- it's a song I never get tired of hearing.

Kale Pizza with Blue Cheese and Walnuts

yields 2 pizzas

2 balls pizza dough (~10 ounces each, preferably whole wheat)
2 Tbsp olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large bunch kale, or two smaller bunches (I like Red Russian), washed and dried and roughly chopped
wedge of lemon
flour or semolina for dusting
~1/3 cup roughly chopped walnut halves (do not toast, as they'll brown in the oven)
~1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/2 red or yellow onion, sliced into thin half-moons

Preheat your oven, with a pizza stone if you have, to 500 degrees for an hour. If your pizza dough has been refrigerated, let it sit, covered, at room temperature for about the same amount of time.

While the oven is preheating and the dough is warming, prepare the kale. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over a medium heat. Add the garlic and saute until starting to brown. Add the kale along with a pinch of salt, and saute until softened, covering the pot between stirring to help the kale wilt. When it's almost done, squeeze the wedge of lemon over the top and stir to combine. Turn off the heat and set aside.

Place one ball of the pizza dough on a lightly-floured counter top, and press outward into a thick disk (leaving a 1" unpressed area along the edge as the crust). Pick up the disk and let it drape over the backs of your hands, letting gravity help you stretch it into a 12-14" circle. If the dough resists, let it relax for a few minutes, then try again. Place the stretched dough on a peel (or overturned cookie sheet or cutting board) that's lightly dusted with semolina or other type of flour.

Take half the sauteed kale, and sprinkle evenly over the dough. Scatter half the walnuts, half the blue cheese, and half the onions on top. Drizzle lightly with olive oil, and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Slide the pizza onto the preheated stone in your oven, reduce the heat to 450, and bake ~7-10 minutes, until the crust browns. Remove the pizza from the oven, let cool for a moment, and slice and serve.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Creamy (or not) Carrot Fennel Soup

At various times in my office-bound life, I have been part of lunch collectives. I got the idea several years ago, when I was working at NYU and watched some of the grad students in a neighboring lab try to save their meager grad student wages by having lunch together every week. Each day, one student took a turn bringing in food for the group, and then the five of them would cycle through again the next week. Cooking for five twenty-something mouths is definitely a big undertaking. But when you average it over the week, you ultimately end up cooking less, saving money, and eating better.

In years since, I've brought this practice to bear in a couple of my workplaces. Usually it's been limited to once or twice a week, to accommodate varying schedules and available leftovers. But it's still a win-win proposition: after establishing the initial ground rules (various food allergies, restrictions, and common definitions of healthy food (we end up being fond of both fruits, vegetables and butterfat)), you sit down with your coworkers to enjoy a delicious glimpse into someone else's kitchen. Even if the meal is nothing more than a homemade soup and salad, it's still miles better than the greasy takeout options in walking distance. But for me, really, it comes down to something else: an excuse to indulge in some dairy.

Living with a someone who's lactose intolerant, I'm probably much healthier than I would be if left to my own devices. But I'm also left with a powerful craving for cream. Last week I made this soup for lunch club, which fulfills both dietary preferences at once: on its own, it is vegetal and lovely, with sweetly soft-cooked fennel and carrots touched with a bit of fresh orange juice. But for others (like myself and my lunch club), stirring in just the tiniest bit of sour cream gives it a lovely, complex, barely-there tang, giving its lightness a bit of balancing heft. I felt compelled to round out my lunch club contribution with a batch of broccoli-cheese knishes and some cookies (we're still in the impress-the-co-workers first round), but it would be lovely on its own, with just a bit of crusty bread and a salad if you want.

And I must belatedly amend last week's post: I talked about a dramatic chocolate dessert, and lamented that, barring this confection, my life tends to be free of sitcom-worthy drama. But while away at the beach this weekend, I was reminded of a jaunt to a friend's parent's beachfront cottage last year, wherein one of the guests used hand dishwashing soap instead of the meant-for-machines version in the dishwasher. Acres of suds spilled across the floor. To be fair, the machine didn't walk itself across the kitchen, nor did this occur as we were frantically trying to clean up after throwing an ill-fated party while our parents were out of town. But still: drama!

Creamy (or not) Carrot Fennel Soup

tweaked from Amanda Hesser in The New York Times
yields 2 quarts

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 medium fennel bulbs, washed and thinly-sliced
3 lbs carrots, peeled and sliced into fat coins
2 cloves garlic, thickly sliced
~ 6 cups water or stock (or half of each) - honestly I forgot to measure this ingredient, and details on freestyling are below
1 tsp salt
1/3 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
dash maple syrup
1/4 cup sour cream
salt and white pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large soup pot over a medium flame. Add the fennel, carrots and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until they soften and just start to color (~10-20 minutes, depending on how large your pot is). Add the water/stock until it just covers the vegetables. Bring to a boil, and then lower the heat until it's just high enough to maintain a simmer. Simmer uncovered until the carrots are meltingly tender, ~45 minutes. Longer doesn't hurt.

Let the soup cool slightly, and puree in batches (I prefer it just shy of smooth). Place it back in the pot, and add additional broth/water as needed to get a nice consistency. Add the orange juice, maple syrup, sour cream, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Chocolate Mousse-Filled Meringues in Creme Anglaise

Oftentimes I'm shocked at the caliber of drama in my friends' lives. Not the usual human drama of love and life and work and such -- I'm talking about events which seem scripted by Hollywood screenwriters, and don't normally befall mere mortals. To whit: a friend who works in resource conservation recently spent the day sorting through waste to assess a transfer station, only to be joined by some guy whose wife threw out his secret garbage bag containing $10,000 in cash. This actually happened. In real life. I know other (unnamed) friends who have staged false conflicts to get on daytime court shows (evidently you get put up at nice hotels and receive a program-paid settlement), and yet another whose vibrator was discovered during an elegant dinner party. I can't even imagine material this good. In comparison, my life is pretty yawn-worthy.

But every now and then, I try to engineer a moment worthy of the big screen (or, at the very least, the small screen). This elaborate dessert is my best attempt for a touch of glamor, crafted out of only a rudimentary baking knowledge and a good amount of eggs and dairy. Twice in the past few years I composed this ridiculous confection, broke into the houses of recently-engaged dear friends, and left it in their refrigerator (I should note that, in one of these cases, I did actually have a key). This dessert is undeniably involved, and best reserved for such situations. But when they do arise, it's great to have in your arsenal.

This recipe starts with a stellar chocolate mousse, which in and of itself is a glorious thing. But the mousse is hidden inside a cloak of soft meringue, and then the whole affair is plated on a puddle of creme anglaise, a delicious vanilla custard sauce. And, if you're feeling so inclined (and really, if you've come this far, you might as well), the sauce is studded with adorable hearts drawn out of a berry puree (or, say, the runny part of some poorly-set blueberry jam). It's undeniably involved, and takes a good chunk of time. But some situations call for high drama. Given my general impatience and poor aesthetics, the end result might be more of a quirky indie heartwarmer than a polished Hollywood oscar-winner. But I won't complain -- it's delicious, dramatic, and perfect for any Valentine.

Chocolate Mousse-Filled Meringues in Creme Anglaise

mousse adapted from Judy Rosenberg's Rosie's All-Butter, Fresh Cream, Sugar-Packed No-Holds-Barred Baking Book, creme anglaise adapted from Bon Appetit, and meringue tweaked, heavily from the Pavlova recipe from the amazing Eggbeater

yields 8 cups, plus some extra chocolate mousse
for what-have-you

1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp cornstarch
3 egg whites (reserve the yolks for the creme anglaise)
pinch salt
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp white vinegar

Creme Anglaise:
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup cream
1 chunk of vanilla bean, split (or a dash of vanilla extract instead)
3 egg yolks (left over from meringue)
3 Tbsp sugar

Chocolate Mousse:
4 1/2 oz semi-sweet chocolate
1 1/2 oz unsweetened chocolate
2 eggs, separated
1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 egg
1 Tbsp coffee

a bit of runny jam, or berries blitzed with sugar and lemon

Start with the meringues: preheat the oven to 250, and grease 8 muffin cups or similarly-sized ramekins. Whisk together the sugar and cornstarch, and set aside.

Place the egg whites and salt in the bowl of a mixer, and begin to beat, starting on low and gradually increasing the speed to high over the course of a few minutes, and beat until soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar-cornstarch mixture, and then the vanilla and vinegar. Continue to beat until the meringue is glossy and forms stiff peaks, an additional 4-5 minutes.

Apportion the meringue into the muffin cups/ramekins, filling them to the top (they'll puff up a bit as they bake, but then shrink back down). Place them into a casserole dish and fill the casserole dish with water until it comes halfway up the muffin cups. Bake for an hour, until the meringues are just beginning to color. Turn the oven off, and allow the cups to cool in the oven for another hour.

While the meringue is cooking/cooling, make the creme anglaise: Place the milk and cream in a saucepan, and scrape the vanilla beans out of the pod (and then toss the bean in as well). Bring to a simmer, and then remove from heat. While the dairy is heating, whisk together the yolks and sugar in a large bowl. Pour the hot milk and cream into the yolks, whisking all the while. Pour back into the saucepan, and heat over a low flame until the custard thickens enough that you can draw tracks in the back of a wooden spoon (~5 minutes). Remove from heat, and pour through a strainer into another bowl. Cool in the refrigerator (you can make this ahead if you like).

Make the chocolate mousse: Place chocolates over a double boiler, and let sit over simmering water, stirring occasionally, until melted. Set aside to cool very slightly.

While the chocolate is melting, place the egg whites in the bowl of a mixer, and beat until frothy. Sprinkle in the sugar, and continue beating until soft peaks form. Transfer to another bowl, and set aside.

Pour the cream into the mixing bowl, and beat on high speed until soft peaks form. Set aside.

Take the remaining egg yolks, and place them in a large mixing bowl along with the whole egg and the coffee. Pour in the melted chocolate, beating vigorously so that the eggs don't curdle. Take about half the beaten egg whites, and whisk together to combine well and loosen the mixture. Then fold in the remaining whites, trying not to deflate. Fold in the cream.

To assemble the whole shebang: Take the meringue cups, and scoop out the innards using a spoon, mini ice cream scoop, or melon baller. Try to clear out ample space to fill with mousse without breaking through the meringue. Pack each meringue cup with mousse, then set them to chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour or so.

After the mousse-filled meringue cups have chilled, slide a thin knife around the edge of each one to loosen, and turn them out onto a plate. Pour the chilled creme anglaise in a puddle around it. Place drops of your berry puree/runny jam on the plate, and draw a knife through to pull them out into heart shapes. Served to your loved ones.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Chinese-style Steamed Fish with Sizzled Ginger and Scallions

Having a food blog can give a false impression of one's culinary prowess. Sure, I can freestyle a healthy kale & quiona pilaf, bake up a rustic-yet-elegant rosemary honey apple galette, and decorate deliciously naughty baby shower cookies. But behind the scenes are my secret failures. For one, there's my inability to produce a decent pot of rice. Rice, people. I don't know if it's my proportions, my pot, or my inability to let it cook without peeking (or some combination of the three), but it's never that absolutely perfect rice of my dreams. And another: no matter my best intentions, I seem constitutionally incapable of preparing fish without overcooking it. Until now.

The secret to my newfound success? Steaming. I've pan-fried, baked and roasted before, but never steamed. Which is a shame, because this method is great: the gentle heat lets the fish cook slowly and evenly, and the steam keeps it nice and moist. The subtle flavor of the fish comes through clearly, and even repeat offenders like me end up with a perfectly-cooked dish.

This particular recipe comes from my friend Sally Li, who prepared it for a recent dinner in celebration of the Chinese New Year. Fish is an auspicious new year's menu item, its characters sounding like the word for abundant wealth. And who doesn't want that? Any fish dish will suffice, but Li chose a traditional preparation where steaks or fillets are gently steamed, along with a few coins of ginger to remove any "fishy" smell. The simple steamed fish is then topped with fresh ginger and scallions, and a bit of sugar, soy sauce and wine, which all come together into a beautifully cohesive dish when topped with a dramatic drizzle of hot oil. You can find the recipe here, and read more about Sally's New Year celebration at The Oregonian. Next up: perfect rice.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Wheatberry Salad with Roasted Squash, Raddichio and Walnuts

Wintertime salads can take a little creativity. Especially when you're committed to coming up with a recipe without leaving the house.

A few days back a friend invited us to a lovely midweek dinner party, and oh-so-subtly mentioned that contributions of salad would be appreciated. I was caught between work and work-related errands, with barely enough time to cook, and definitely no time to shop. Iron Pantry Chef challenge accepted! And the results were wonderful.

To be fair, I must give due props to the amazing Casa Moro cookbook, which features a lovely warm butternut squash and chickpea salad, which is something of a spiritual godfather of this recipe. But I didn't have chickpeas, or the cilantro and red onion which perk up that version. Instead, I dug deeper into the winter larder. I came up with an acorn squash, likely leftover from Thanksgiving, and a jar of wheatberries (or perhaps the were speltberries?) I inherited when a friend went gluten-free. The refrigerator yielded the remains of some colorful radicchio (it is truly shocking how long that stuff keeps), and I grabbed a handful of walnuts to add a nutty depth and tie it all together. I dressed everything with lashings of tahini sauce, although you could easily go the green-salad route and pair it with a nutty vinaigrette and a few crumbles of goat cheese. The composed result is much more beautiful than a mid-winter pantry meal has any right to be, and manages to be both toothsome and light at the same time. It's a welcome potluck contribution, and also makes a fine meal on its own, with perhaps just some crusty bread to accompany.

And, for those who do get out of the house (for grocery shopping and other less wholesome pursuits), here's a recent article I wrote about global hangover recipes. An eagle-eyed editor sadly removed the part where I described it as a "culinary walk of shame" (I can't imagine why, right?), but left intact recipes for soothing congee, sloppy shakshouka, bracing green smoothies, and rich pasta carbonara and French onion soup. Any one of them makes for a great start to your day (whether or not you're hung over).

Wheatberry Salad with Roasted Squash, Raddichio and Walnuts

1 smallish winter squash, peeled and cubed
olive oil and salt as needed
1 cup wheatberries (or spelt berries)1/4 cup walnuts, toasted (if they're not toasted, you can toss them in the oven along with the squash, if you watch them carefully)
1 small head radicchio, thinly sliced
1/4 cup tahini
2 cloves garlic, pressed
juice of 1 small lemon
pinch each salt and sugar
water as needed

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Peel the squash, and cut into 1" cubes. Toss with a bit of olive oil and salt, and set in the oven to roast, turning occasionally, until they are soft (and just beginning to caramelize around the edges, if you like), ~30+ minutes. Remove, and let cool slightly.

While the squash is roasting, cook the wheatberries. Place in a pot with a few inches of water to cover, add a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat until it's just high enough to maintain a simmer, and cook until the berries are soft, ~45+ minutes. They won't be totally soft, but should clearly be fully hydrated, with no chalky white parts inside. Drain, and allow to cool slightly.

To make the dressing, mix together the tahini, garlic, lemon juice, and salt and sugar. Add water as needed to thin to a nice pourable consistency (add it gradually, as I can tell you it's easy to accidentally overdo it).

To assemble the salad, layer the wheatberries on the bottom of a serving platter (or, if you're taking it to a potluck, a container with a lid). Layer the squash on next, then top with the walnuts and radicchio. Serve warm, with lots of tahini dressing.