Sunday, February 26, 2012

Quesadillas (Salvadoran Savory-Sweet Cakelets)

I'm often a creature of habit. To an embarrassing degree. In theory I am in favor of change -- but when it affects the constants of my own life, I tend to reconsider. I get huge comfort from the familiar, sometimes even clinging to it when it's a bad idea (when I should, you know, select something more growth-inducing instead). But I try to shake out of my routine. And there's nothing like a good trip to do it.

At home, I often have trouble breaking out of my usual work-write-cook-sleep-insomnia regimen. But last weekend I traveled to the Bay Area to celebrate my birthday with dear friends, and remembered how much fun change can be (and how I can minimize my aaah-things-are-different anxiety with trusted companions and stiff cocktails). I traded in the wintery slog of Portland for breezy sunshine. I picked meyer lemons off the tree, lingered at a museum, hiked windy bluffs, had a frighteningly thorough scrub at a Korean spa, and ate out more in 5 days than I normally do in several months. It was great fun, all of it. And amidst the adventure, I did get in a bit of cooking. Including these quesadillas.

As befitting the new-experiences-of-vacation mindset, these are like nothing I've ever had before. They're undeniably rich, thanks to the butter and sour cream, but are also light, with a moist, short texture. They take savory cheese (we used a dry old wedge of romano), and put it in a lightly sweet context. And they are, hands down, my favorite snack to enjoy with a cup of coffee. Change, you are delicious.

Quesadillas (Salvadoran Savory-Sweet Cakelets)

via The Food52 Cookbook
yields 18 muffins

I'm normally a fan of hulkingly large muffin-topped muffins, but these are so rich that just a small one suffices (that said, I have eaten two in a sitting).

1 cup rice flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 pinch salt
1 cup butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup grated hard cheese, such as parmesan or romano
a few spoonfuls sesame seeds (these are optional, but add a nice nubbly counterpoint to the rich muffins)

Preheat the oven to 350, and grease 18 muffin cups.

Whisk together the rice flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, cream together the flour and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one by one, mixing until incorporated and scraping down the sides as needed. Add the sour cream and cheese, mix, and then add the rice flour mixture (since this is gluten-free, you don't have to worry about making the muffins tough). Pour mixture evenly into muffin cups, then top with the sesame seeds.

Bake until set and just beginning to color, ~15-20 minutes. Let cool, and then enjoy with a cup of tea or coffee.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Vegan Chocolate Peanut Butter Cream Pie

If you spend time in certain circles (those of the vegan persuasion), at some point someone will try to get you to eat a foul-sounding "pie" made of melted chocolate chips and tofu. This friend will assure you that it is phenomenal, that it tastes just like a chocolate silk pie, and has none of that nasty soy aftertaste. This person will be wrong on all counts.

But there is a way to make a delicious vegan chocolate pie that tastes good. And I don't mean "good by vegan standards" -- I mean "good." Like this pie. Seriously, look at it. Don't you want a bite?

This pie follows the basic chocolate cream pie template, using the solid-at-room-temperature cocoa butter of chocolate to stabilize an airy whipped topping (I used a commercial vegan cream replacement that whips up like cream, but only because my dining companion balked at the delicious saturated fat of coconut cream -- you can substitute that instead for a slightly denser but perhaps more delicious result). I added a layer of smooth peanut butter-coconut cream filling as well (because isn't every chocolate dessert better with peanut butter?), and poured it into an almond meal crust (though you can easily use your favorite cookie crumb crust instead). And to gild the lily I topped everything with the salty-sweet snap of candied peanuts.

And if this isn't enough sweetness for you, you can check out my story on the almond-and-cream deliciousness of Swedish Shrove Tuesday semlor over at NPR. It's a lovely practice, but truth be told I think this vegan pie might be even more delicious. I know, who am I these days?

Vegan Chocolate Peanut Butter Cream Pie

serves ~8-10, depending on level of enthusiasm
Crust and chocolate filling inspired by BitterSweet, peanut butter filling freestyled, candied peanuts adapted from David Lebovitz

Candied Peanuts:
this yields slightly more than you'll need, but it's hard to stop eating them so that's probably for the best
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 cup dry-roasted peanuts
 hefty pinch coarse salt

1 1/2 cups almond meal
3 Tbsp cocoa powder
2 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp melted margarine

Peanut Butter Layer:
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
1/3 cup coconut cream (the thick solid layer on top of a can of coconut milk)
2 Tbsp maple syrup or corn syrup, or sugar to taste
splash vanilla
hefty pinch salt

Chocolate Layer:
12 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped to bits (or chocolate chips)
10 ounce package whippable vegan cream (I used this)
2 Tbsp corn syrup (optional, but gives it a nice gloss)

To make the candied peanuts: Have a cookie sheet at the ready. Mix the sugar and water in a medium skillet over a medium-high flame, until the sugar melts and dissolves. Add the peanuts and salt, and cook, stirring regularly, until the sugar mixture begins to darken (often the mixture turns sandy before it re-melts and darkens, which is totally normal but this last time I added a bit more water and it didn't - I gave the recipe here as I made it, but don't worry if the sandy stage happens to you -- it will remelt). Turn the peanuts constantly with a heat-proof spatula as this happens, until the sugar is darkly-colored but not burnt (caution: this is a narrow window). Turn the peanuts out onto the cookie sheet, breaking them up into clumps if you can (if they're too hot or the sugar is trailing into whisps as you try, just wait until they've cooled and hardened and you can do it then). Set aside.

To make the crust: Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Mix together the almond meal, cocoa powder, and sugar. Add the melted margarine, stirring to combine, and press the mixture into a 9" tart pan. The mixture will make a very thin layer -- this makes it a bit difficult to evenly distribute, but makes for a lovely end result. Bake ~10 minutes, until it colors very slightly. Set aside to cool.

To make the peanut butter filling: Whip together all of the filling ingredients until smooth. Taste and adjust as needed. Pour into your baked and cooled pie shell.

To make the chocolate filling and finish the pie: In a microwave or over a double-boiler, melt the chocolate (don't over-cook!), and allow to cool just slightly. Stir in the corn syrup.

Whip the 'cream' for 2-3 minutes, until light and fluffy and tripled in volume. Take a dollop of the whipped cream and stir it into the chocolate mixture to lighten, then gently fold the lightened chocolate into the cream. Gently spread the chocolate on top of the peanut butter filling. Chill the pie for several hours to set, then sprinkle with the candied peanuts and serve.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Pajeon (Korean Pancakes)

Sometimes you make something for dinner, and wonder why you are not making it almost every week. Like Korean pancakes.

What's not to love? They're easy, easy, easy. They involve one bowl and one pan (well, unless you want to make things quicker and get a few pans going), they have both vegetable and protein, and they're fairly cheap. And delicious. I'd tell you more, but I already did over at The Oregonian. Hello, weeknight inspiration! And if you want to follow your pajeon with a dessert pancake, you can also find the recipe for this swedish saffranspannkaka.

Also if you want a bit more cabbage than the paejon provides, check out my cabbagetastic spread from last week -- also at The Oregonian.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Sephardic Fish with Olives

My genetic roots may be in Eastern Europe, but my culinary heart belongs to North Africa -- I have yet to find a saffron-lemon-parsley dish that I don't like. These bright flavors are welcome any time, but especially during the rainy slog of winter. And so I present to you this Sephardic fish with olives.

I recently spent a lovely afternoon with a couple of Sephardic women from the Isle of Rhodes, learning about their traditional cuisine (and snacking on sweet biscochos de huevo and savory boyikos -- more on that sometime soon, I hope). I went home with a full stomach, and a craving for lemony tomato sauce, for saffron and garlic and olive oil. I pulled out a Sephardic Israeli cookbook I hadn't used in a while, and remembered a dish it had once inspired. And it was perfect.

This olivey fish is bright and sunny, with a short list of ingredients creating a surprisingly complex sauce. And, best of all, these exotic flavors come together in a one-pot easy recipe -- just add some couscous, rice or crusty bread to sop up the sauce (I also cooked up my favorite Moroccan carrot and chard salad, but that's entirely optional). You start with olive oil and garlic (of course), warmed up with a pinch of saffron and turmeric. This comes together into a sauce with a bit of tomato puree and water, then gets a briny hit of green olives. The fish simmers in this lovely mixture, absorbing the flavors of the sauce. Then the whole dish is finished with a bit of chopped cilantro and fresh lemon juice. The result is deep and savory, but also light and bright. I had to stop myself from licking the bowl.

Sephardic Fish with Olives

inspired by a chicken dish in Sheilah Kaufman's Sephardic Israeli Cuisine 
serves 3-4

2 Tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup tomato puree
1/2 tsp turmeric
big pinch saffron
1/2 cup water
handful green olives (olives with pits tend to soften into the sauce better, but feel free to go with pitted if you don't want the hassle)
1 lb white fish fillets or steaks (I used swai)
1/2 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
juice of 1/2 lemon
few dashes hot sauce
salt to taste

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over a medium heat, then add the garlic and sautee for a few minutes, until it just begins to brown. Add the tomato puree (careful of spatters!), turmeric, saffron, stir for a minute, and then add the water and olives. Bring the mixture up to a simmer, and simmer for a couple of minutes, until it comes together and thickens slightly. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then add the fish fillets/steaks, nestling them in the sauce. Cover, and simmer gently until the fish is almost done (the exact time will vary, depending upon the type and size of the fish). When it's a few minutes shy of done, add the cilantro, lemon juice, and hot sauce, stirring gently to combine. Taste and season as needed. Re-cover and cook until done. Serve with crusty bread or couscous.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Kumquat-Pink Peppercorn Spritzer

I've been having a lot of wintertime meals lately. Mushroom barley soup, root vegetable pancakes, piles of whole wheat pasta. Warm and hearty, and perfect for this dank and rainy season. But at the same time: a whole lot of brown.

And so, when I saw this bright bevy on TheKitchn, I was instantly smitten. Orange! And pink! All piquant flavors and bubbly brightness, perfect for cutting through the wintertime mud.

The simple pink peppercorn-infused syrup comes together in just a couple of minutes, and a handful of kumquats can be sliced up while it cools. Add seltzer, and that's it. Easy! I had a few spoonfuls of pink peppercorns left over from a recent Turkish dinner party, and picked up a handful of in-season kumquats from the store (if you haven't tried these tiny wintertime fruits, with their confusing sweet-peel/sour-fruit dynamic, I highly recommend you check them out).

I brought this drink to a neighborhood happy hour party, and it was a huge hit (both as a punchy mocktail on its own and combined with a hit of gin). It's sweet but not too sweet, and with a bright sour hit from the kumquats and an addictive spicy note from the pink peppercorns. It's the perfect tonic for the wintertime browns.

And, if you'd like another bit of wintertime color, I recently produced a radio story on a local fishing-shanty-inspired art festival in Minnesota. On a frozen lake. It took me several hours to regain feeling in my toes, but it was worth it. You can check it out over at NPR.

Kumquat-Pink Peppercorn Spritzer

adapted from The Kitchn
serves ~10

3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup water
scant Tbsp pink peppercorns, crushed (you can just do this with your fingers)
~24 kumquats
2 liters seltzers

Place the sugar, water, and peppercorns in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil for one minute, then turn off the heat and let cool (you can move to the fridge when it's cool enough). This step can be done in advance.

While the syrup is cooling, thinly slice the kumquats, flicking/squeezing out the seeds (they're fairly edible, so no worries if you don't get them all, but in general people don't like seeds in their beverages). Place the sliced kumquats in a large pitcher (or divide between three quart jars). Pour a little of the cooled syrup over them, and muddle with a muddler (or the handle of a wooden spoon) to smush the kumquat slices and release their oils and juices.