Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Shaved Brussels Sprouts with Kumquats and Scallop

Every now and then you make a dish so show-stoppingly delicious, so interesting and elegant and just plain perfect that your friends will ask why it is that you don't just open a restaurant. This salad is such a dish.

To be fair, I actually did steal the inspiration for this salad from a lovely local restaurant, where my friend and I were lucky enough to enjoy it just about a year ago. And, like the best of these no-home-chef-could-have-thought-of-that dishes, it's actually surprisingly simple. Brussels sprouts are shaved into thin slivers, dressed with a basic vinaigrette, then tossed with skin-and-all slices of of the season's tiniest, punchiest citrus (my local natural market happened to have both kumquats and mandarinquats for a fun bit of variety, but just one type would be fine). And then the whole affair is topped with a perfectly seared scallop (and yes, these tend to be expensive, but you only need one or two per person to create the magic).

The end result is ridiculous, just miles from your standard dinner salad. Crunchy sprouts, juicy sour citrus, and the sweet, briny scallop. It's perfect as a jaw-dropping first course for a dinner party, or a date night in (hello, Valentine's Day!). We served ours with a crusty baguette, a rich and creamy soup, and a cold bottle of Trader Joe's cheapest white wine. We joked about the restaurant I could open (named, for reasons too ridiculous to discuss, Cloen), and the price this meal could command ($50 per was suggested). But really, who wants to worry about restaurant rents and staffing and overhead (and other things we know next to nothing about) when we can just light some candles, call our next door neighbors to come over, and enjoy a dish like this on a Monday night?

Shaved Brussels Sprouts with Kumquats and Scallops

inspired by a dish at Evoe
serves 4

8 good-sized scallops (if they're ridiculously large, you can just use 4)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons mellow vinegar, such as sherry, or fresh lemon juice
small dollop of honey or pinch sugar
salt and pepper
~1 1/2 cups Brussels sprouts, washed and peeled of any bad outer leaves
~8 kumquats, or 4 kumquats and 2-4 mandarinquats
high-heat oil, such as grapeseed, for frying the scallops

Place the scallops on a paper towel-lined plate, and refrigerate, uncovered, for 30 minutes to dry out and enable a good sear (in the name of posterity, I would like to state that I got a crazy good sear on mine, but we ate too late for pictures so I shot this with leftovers — do not judge me by my morning-after softened scallop).

To make the dressing, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, and hone/sugar in a small dish, and season to taste with salt and pepper (the citrus will contribute acidity, so your dressing can be a bit on the oily side). Set aside.

With a mandoline or knife (if you, like me, don't have a mandoline), slice the Brussels sprouts as thinly as possible. Place in a bowl, and toss with the dressing, to separate the shreds and coat with dressing. Divide among your serving dishes. Slice your kumquats (and/or mandarinquats) relatively thinly as well, flicking out any seeds, and divide among the plates.

Take the scallops out of the refrigerator, and season with a sprinkling of salt. Heat a large pan (not non-stick) over a medium high heat. Add a slick of oil, and when it just begins to smoke, add the scallops. Cook until they develop a nice crust and release from the pan, then turn and sear on the second side. Top each salad with two scallops (or one, if they're large and you're using half the amount), and serve.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Sunday Roast (Salmon)

I am a firm believer that, with the right attitude, just about anything can be a celebration. Especially dinner. I have long been a fan of baking whole salmon, both for the ridiculously good deal that can often be had on a whole fish, as well as all those leftovers it yields for your soup or kedgeree (or, more often than not, tacos). But there's also the grandeur of it, the occasion of pulling a spectacular groaning tray out of the oven. And, while you're heating it up anyway, why not roast some vegetables? And make a puckery-bright salsa verde to slather over everything? You can find the recipes for all of this deliciousness (and a pudding to boot) over at NPR's Kitchen Window.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Gluten-Free Sesame Crackers

Years ago, my friend Emily was freaking out over an international trip she and her husband were planning, and the stress it would put on their tight finances. She mentioned these gnawing fears to an older neighbor, who gave her these words of wisdom: money is for travel and education. And she's so right.

As much as I am reduced to obsessive researching and wavering over any purchase totaling more than about $25 (beyond food), I know that those are the two categories where you must unequivocally open your purse strings. It's what the purse is for. There's no way around it — travel and education pretty much always come with a hefty price tag. But paying the price tag opens up the world to you, and makes your life so much richer for it.

A few months ago, my dear friend (and former housemate) was faced with a likely downsize at work. So he decided to opt for the most awesome of responses: he's packing up his belongings, renting out his house, and spending a full year traveling the world with his love. Morocco, Ghana, Italy, Croatia, Russia, China, India, Vietnam, New Zealand. And more. They got it right, and I'm so happy for them. And just a tiny bit fiercely jealous.

But the downside to this great idea is that some people I like a lot are going to be pretty far away. So when my friend mentioned a brief window in his packing/working/appointment-making/task-checking life yesterday, I jumped at the chance to come over. But I couldn't come empty handed. Since he offered to provide the fire and cocktail, I figured I could bring the cheese and crackers.

But how could I bring store-bought crackers for such an occasion? And especially, how could I bring store-bought crackers when my friend is gluten-free? GF crackers are often off-the-charts expensive, and/or of an entirely different species. They'll be rice-based, or just a small paving of seeds — good in their own right, but not the traditional cocktail hour cheese accompaniment. Also, who can bear spending $6 for a box of what is, essentially, flour and water? Well, also butter.

I was first converted to the cracker-making gospel by my friend Ivy, who kindly gave me some feedback on going gluten-free (namely too much cornstarch renders a cracker "thirsty," and butter gives a nicer flaky texture than olive oil). I also threw in some sesame seeds, because I love them, baked them up, and grabbed an assortment of cheeses and a nice crisp apple. And we sat down in front of the wood stove while my dog chewed some kindling, and ate our cheese and flaky, savory, delicious crackers, and drank a toast to the world. I hear it's lovely.

Gluten-Free Sesame Crackers

yield will vary depending upon cracker size, but should be ~3 dozen

4 1/2 ounces (a heaping cup) brown rice flour
2 ounces (~1/2 cup) sorghum flour
2 ounces (~1/3 cup) cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon coarse salt (plus additional for sprinkling)
1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into pats (you can substitute shortening for a vegan version)
3 tablespoons sesame seeds (or a bit more, if you like it extra seedy)
~1/2 cup cold water

Preheat your oven to 400° Fahrenheit. Take out two cookie sheets, a rolling pin, and a few sheets of parchment paper.

In a food processor or large bowl, mix together the rice flour, sorghum flour, cornstarch, baking powder, salt, and xanthan gum. Add the butter, and pulse (if using a food processor) or cut with a pastry cutter or two knives until it's reduced to little oatmeal-sized bits (don't over-process, as you want your crackers to be flaky). Turn the mixture into a large bowl, and mix in the sesame seeds. Add the water, starting with a scant half cup at first and adding more as necessary, until the mixture comes together in a nice ball of dough.

Divide the dough in half. Leave half in the bowl (covered, so it doesn't dry out), and place the other dough ball between two sheets of parchment paper. Roll out with a rolling pin until it's quite thin, ~1/16th-inch. Cut into cracker shapes of your choosing (you can use a pizza wheel to cut squares or rectangles, or make things more difficult for yourself and cut out rounds and re-roll the scraps). Place the crackers on a parchment-lined sheet (you don't need too much space between), dock them a few times with a fork so that they don't puff up, and sprinkle with bit of additional salt. Bake until browned, ~15 minutes. Let cool slightly, then serve with cheese to celebrate world travel.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Butterscotch Budino with Caramel Sauce

Butterscotch, I owe you an apology. I thought you were a one-dimensional flavor. I mistook those hard yellow candies and waxy little chips for you. But now I know the true butterscotch. It has dark-cooked sugar and butter and vanilla and salt, and is sweet and bitter and burnt and round and buttery and creamy and delicious. And when you top it with a sludgy-thick caramel sauce, unsweetened whipped cream and a sprinkling of coarse salt, it's amazing.

I am in love with this little Italian pudding. It's comforting and elegant, with a perfect texture and spot-on combination of flavors. It's the sort of dessert that reminds you that pastry chefs are professionals. And artists.

Yes, it's a bit of work (which might be a good thing, as otherwise I'd be on my third round in as many days). Sugar (brown, then white) must twice be cooked to caramelization, with multiple pots and whisks and strainers and containers involved. This is definitely a Special Occasion Dessert. And it totally makes the occasion. This is one of the best things I've eaten in a good long while. Oh, butterscotch. At last.

Butterscotch Budino with Caramel Sauce

Adapted from Dahlia Narvaez of Pizzeria Mozza, via the New York Times
yields 10 small servings (recipe is easily halved)

The pudding needs to chill for a few hours, so start this recipe in advance (or the night before). On the bright side, prepping all the elements in advance means that after dinner you can whip out a crazy fancy dessert like it ain't no thing.

3 cups heavy cream (I ended up using slightly less cream and more milk, due to availability, and it was also fine)
1 1/2 cups milk
1 large egg
3 large egg yolks
5 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/8 cups dark brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 1/2 tablespoons dark rum (or brandy or whiskey)

Caramel Sauce:
1/2 cup heavy cream
Scrapings from 1-inch piece of vanilla bean, or 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons fleur de sel or other flaky salt, for topping

Whipped Cream:
1 cup whipping cream (she recommends a mix of creme fraiche or sour cream, but I like straight up cream)

To make the budino: Measure out your milk and cream into a bowl/pitcher/measuring cup, and set aside. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolks, and cornstarch, and set aside. Have ten little pudding dishes and a strainer at the ready.

Place the brown sugar, coarse salt, and 1/2 cup water in a pot. Heat over medium-high, tipping the pot to swirl occasionally, until the mixture foams and thickens and caramelizes to a dark, nutty brown, ~10 minutes (since it's brown sugar, it's harder to tell the color change than with ordinary sugar, but you want it to darken significantly).

When the mixture darkens, you need to stop it before it burns, so immediately dump in the cream and milk. Stand back — it'll sputter and seize! Cook the mixture until the hardened sugar melts, and can be smoothly whisked together with the milk, and the entire pot is steaming on the edge of a simmer.

Gradually pour the hot caramel and milk mixture into your egg mixture. Pour in slowly, whisking, until it is incorporated into a smooth mixture (you'll need to go bit by bit at first, then you can add larger amounts). Pour back into your pot, then return to a medium heat and whisk constantly until the mixture becomes very thick, ~2 minutes. Add the butter and rum, let sit for a few moments to heat and soften, then whisk to combine. Pour the mixture through the strainer into your pudding cups, and refrigerate to chill and set, ~3 hours or longer.

To make the caramel sauce: Place the cream and vanilla seeds in a medium saucepan (you can toss in the pod to infuse as well), and heat to simmer. Add the butter, then remove from heat and set aside.

In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the corn syrup, sugar, and enough water (3-4 tablespoons) to make a wet, slightly sandy mixture. Cook over medium-high heat, swirling the pan occasionally so that it mixes evenly, until the mixture is a deep amber, ~10 minutes (I tend to aim for just this side of burnt, but since you're adding a warm rather than cold mixture to this one, it won't cool off quite as immediately so be vigilant). When it's gotten to the desired darkness, remove from heat and carefully whisk in the cream mixture. Set aside to cool. If making in advance, you can just refrigerate, then rewarm before serving.

To make the whipped cream: Whip the cream to soft peaks (under-mixing is better than over-mixing!). That's it. No sugar, no vanilla. Just whipped dairy.

To assemble: If your caramel sauce has been made in advance, heat gently in a saucepan or microwave until it's warm and pourable. Pour a tablespoon or so of warm caramel over each budino, then sprinkle with a pinch of flaky salt. Add a dollop of your whipped cream, and serve.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Noodle Soup with Salmon and Udon

It seems that the New Year often starts with a cold. We've been traveling and celebrating, and somewhere between the late nights and airplane germs, it catches up. I wisely decided to get my illness out of the way earlier in December, but many of those around me are snuffling through this first week of January. Which means soup.

I've already simmered and delivered a big pot of matzo ball soup this week, so I decided to try something a little different. We had a package of deliciously thick and chewy udon noodles in the fridge, after I stopped by an Asian market on the way home from the DMV (In related news, who steals people's registration stickers off their license plates?). There was some leftover baked salmon from a delicious Sunday Roast (more on that soon), and a few lonely scallions in the planter box outside. I briefly flirted with cooking up a proper Japanese dashi broth (there may be some kelp and bonito flakes knocking around the cupboard somewhere), but decided instead to go with a simple sunny vegetable broth, bolstered with a bit of garlic and ginger for some seasoning and magical healing properties. Add in a handful of fresh spinach, and it's perfect.

Although I am still a fan of the long-simmered soup, this clean, simple, and near-instant option is nice to have in the arsenal. I aim to share some with a recovering friend, and slurp up the rest to fend off whatever else is going around (as well as fortify me against tomorrow's terrifying forecast of "ice pellets"). Here's hoping 2013 is a healthy and delicious one for all of us.

Noodle Soup with Salmon and Udon

serves 4

This is a fairly basic brothy template, easily adapted to whatever you may have on hand. I almost feel silly writing it up.

6 cups vegetable broth
1 inch ginger, scrubbed or peeled and cut into coins
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1/2 pound udon noodles (these can be found in the refrigerated section of Asian markets)
several handfuls fresh spinach, washed and trimmed of tough stems
1 cup cooked and flaked salmon
1 scallion, thinly sliced
1 handful cilantro leaves
sesame oil and/or hot sauce, to garnish

Place the broth, ginger, and garlic in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer ~20 minutes, to cook the garlic and infuse the broth with the ginger.

While the broth simmers, heat a large pot of water, and cook the udon noodles according to package directions (or, if your package has no directions, until done). Dump into a colander, and rinse to keep them from clumping.

Ladle out a tangle of noodles into each bowl, and top with a handful of spinach and salmon. Pour some of the hot broth and garlic (but not the inedible ginger) over the top, heating and wilting everything deliciously. Garnish with scallion and cilantro, and top with a few drops sesame oil and/or hot sauce, if desired. Slurp.