Saturday, September 29, 2007

Chiles en Nogada - a celebration of the season

In celebration of Mexico's Independence Day (September 16) and the period when both summer and autumn foods are at the Bay Area farmers markets, I have a post at The Ethicurean about chiles en nogada, a roasted poblano chili stuffed with vegetables, cheese and dried fruit; a creamy walnut sauce; and pomegranate seeds.

These ingredients are found together at the farmers market only during the transition between summer and autumn, and so the window for making it with local ingredients is rather narrow. It's a fleeting opportunity to experience some expansive flavors and textures.

Random link from the archive: Drink Locally - West Coast Sake
Technorati tags: Mexico : vegetarian : Food

Saturday, September 22, 2007

A weekend of cooking from the internet

I certainly didn't plan for everything I cook last weekend to be from the internet, but that's what happened. Here's what I made:

Scarlet runner beans from Rancho Gordo - Scarlet runner beans are one of the larger varieties from Rancho Gordo, and thus need plenty of soaking. Soaking that I neglected to do. I gave them two hours; evidently it was not enough.

The sun was out in the morning, so I decided to use my solar oven for the beans. I sauteed some chopped onion, added minced garlic after the onion was soft, then poured in the water and beans. I used a sprig of rosemary, a bay leaf, and a branch of thyme for flavor.

Although a previous attempt at cooking beans in the solar oven was spectacular---each of the Rio Zape variety beans seemed to be perfectly cooked and none of them fell apart. But with the runners, it did not work as I hoped. After several hours in the solar oven, the beans were still hard and chalky. Evidently, they were too large or had not been soaked long enough to cook using the mild heat available in the solar oven (the temperature was just below the boiling point). I gave them a few more hours on the stove, but they were never quite right. The flavor and aroma---it's clear why rosemary is classified as an "aromatic"---was excellent.

Photo of honey-pecan semifreddoHoney-pecan semifreddo from Tom Philpott at Gristmill - According to the Food Lover's Companion, Semifreddo is Italian for "half cold" and can apply to a range of chilled or frozen dessert.

In Tom's recipe, semifreddo is basically a mixture of egg yolks and honey that have been beaten into a foam, whipped egg whites, and lightly-whipped cream. I added ground locally-grown pecans to the base for added flavor. After the everything is mixed together, the semifreddo went into the freezer for a few hours to chill.

The texture of the fully-chilled result was rich and creamy with very little ice crystallization, almost like real ice cream made in an expensive machine. The flavor was sublime: a pure and direct essence of honey, delivered to the taste buds by the rich cream and egg base. I'll probably make this one again with alternative seasonal flavors (e.g., orange zest and pistachios in the winter).

Photo of homemade granola barsHomemade granola bars from Heidi Swanson's Supernatural Cooking, via Becks and Posh (where you can find an adaptation of the original recipe) - Wholesome and addictive, almost like a rice crispy treat, but with whole grain, fiber, and plenty of nutritional value.

They were so good that I made two pans in the span of four days and right now am thinking about when I can make another pan. I ate pieces for breakfast, as a morning snack, as an afternoon snack, and at other times.

The brown rice syrup and sugar mixture binds everything together into a sweet chewy mass. The basic flavor is oats and rice, with the "the good stuff"---toasted almonds, bits of dried apricot, raisins, toasted walnuts---popping up now and then.

The second time I made the bars I took a few extra steps by toasting the rolled oats in the oven for a few minutes and replacing some of the brown rice cereal with popped amaranth seeds. Popped amaranth is a pleasant flavor and leads to better success than did my previous cookie experiment with amaranth seeds. Unfortunately, I cooked the rice syrup for a little bit too long, thus causing the bars to be too hard.

Thousand layer lasagna from 101 Cookbooks - Not exactly one-thousand layers---more like ten---with fresh mozzarella, a simple tomato sauce, and fresh basil. I was not happy with the result because I overcooked the very thin sheets of pasta and my tomato sauce was somewhat bland (a lasagna is a place where canned tomatoes are often superior to fresh, as they have more assertive flavor).

Also, something "lasagna-esque" was missing for me: the ricotta custard. That creamy, airy, herb-filled, and garlicky custard is one of my favorite parts of lasagna. It has even made appearances in another pasta dish that I love.

(Sorry, no photo because they all were lousy. For some beautiful photos of the lasagna, visit Heidi's page.)

Salad of Roasted Cauliflower from me - a great way to eat cauliflower. Rich roasted flavors, a sharp dressing, and the mellow cauliflower background.

Random link from the archive: Tokyo, City of Culinary Marvels and Mysteries

Technorati tags: Baking : vegetarian : Food

Sunday, September 16, 2007

More about almonds

The photo above shows the four post-harvest states of an almond. From left to right, the almond with intact hull; the hull peeled back to reveal the shell; after hulling; and finally hulled and shelled nut.

Almonds are related to apricots---the botanical name for the almond is Prunus amygdalus; apricot is Prunus armeniaca. If you have ever cracked open an apricot pit to find a little almond-shaped object, you know about the similarity (indeed, the "apricot nut" has an almond-like flavor). We like the outer part of the apricot, but the inner kernel of the almond (note that green almonds, which can be eaten whole will occasionally appear in markets or restaurants in the spring).

Most almonds are harvested using specialized shaking machines that grasp the trunk of the tree, shake it, thus causing almonds to fall to the ground. An exceptionally flawed video at You Tube somewhat shows a machine in action.

The almonds sit on the ground for a little while and then are picked up by another specialized machine (something like a street sweeper). They are then transported to a processing facility---a facility which is typically not owned by the farmer---where they are cleaned and allowed to dry. After a time, the hull and shell are removed. These two items have value: the hull (or almond "fruit") is sold to dairy farms as cattle feed while the shell is burned to make electricity or steam (a type of "bioenergy"). The hulled, shelled nuts are then returned to the farmer or sent to a processing facility to be roasted, ground, or packed for sale.

Random link from the archive: Yuzu Marmalade Tea

Technorati tags: Farms : Food

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Caramel-coated Pecans with Cacao Nibs

I can be a bit of a mad scientist in the kitchen sometimes, trying variations of basic recipes. My latest experimentations focus on molten sugar, usually in combination with the excellent pecans from the Berkeley Farmers Market. I've tried various proportions of sugar, water, nuts and salt to coat pecans with the right amount of caramel and salt. However, my record keeping practices are usually poor (I need to clip a voice recorder to my apron) and so I never remember what works and what doesn't.

Recently I added a three new items to the mix: 1) cacao nibs, 2) a notebook, and 3) a pencil. Cacao nibs are the edible interior of cacao seeds, the main ingredient in high quality chocolate (see Guittard's chocolate glossary for an 'official' definition). They can be rather bitter and tannic on their own, but with the right companions, they can be delicious, offering fruity notes and a purity of flavor.

Two of the Bay Area chocolate makers, Guittard (Burlingame, on the Peninsula) and Scharffenberger (Berkeley) sell them to the public. I buy Guittard brand at Spun Sugar on University (at California) in Berkeley (about $5/lb.), a great shop with a "wall of chocolate" and everything you could need for candy making or cake decorating. Scharffenberger nibs can be purchased at their factory store and the Ferry Plaza outlet, and perhaps at select retailers.

Important note: When making this recipe (or any molten sugar recipe), take safety precautions. Molten sugar is very hot and sticky. It can cause serious burns. Use a long spoon, consider wearing an oven mitt when stirring after the nuts go into the caramel, consider wearing long sleeves, have a bowl of ice water nearby, and let the nuts fully cool before digging in (the interior of the mass of nuts stays hot for a long time).

Caramel-coated Nuts with Cacao Nibs

1 c. lightly toasted pecans or other nut (or a mixture)
1/4 c. white sugar
1/2 T. water
1 t. coarse salt
1/4 c. cacao nibs

Place a Silpat, sheet of parchment paper, or piece of aluminum foil on a cookie sheet or a heat-resistant surface (like a wooden board).

Combine the nibs, nuts, and salt in a thin, tall container, one that will allow you to easily direct its contents into your caramel-making pan (i.e. not a plate).

Combine the sugar and water in a heavy pot, preferably with a light-colored interior so you can see the progress of the caramelization. Stir to combine the water and sugar.

Turn the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a boil. The sugar and water will form a solution, then it will bubble as the water evaporates and the temperature approaches the caramelization point. I usually stir a few times or gently shake the pan to promote uniformity. After a little while the mixture will begin to change color (probably around the edges of the pan). When this happens, begin watching it carefully, as the point of "doneness" is very close.

When the color is to your liking, turn off the heat, then quickly pour in the nuts, nibs and salt. Stir a few times to coat everything with caramel, then carefully scrape the mixture onto the Silpat, parchment paper, or aluminum foil. Allow to cool before sampling! (And allow the pan to cool for a little while before adding water.)

Variations: A bit of spice might be a pleasant addition, perhaps some mild chili powder (like ancho), cinnamon, cardamom, or garam masala.

Random link from the archive: Yuzu Marmalade Tea

Technorati tags: chocolate : vegetarian : Food

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Is it apple cider or apple juice? Ned Flanders gives us a tip

Photo of the hammer mill portion of a modern apple cider pressThe second half of the CUESA farm tour last month was Hidden Star Orchards (also known as Smit Ranch and Smith Ranch), a farm known best for apples, cherries, and grapes.

Near the end of the tour, they handed out bottles of apple juice or cider---I couldn't tell because the label had detached from my bottle (it had been immersed in ice water). Then I remembered some advice from Ned Flanders: "If it's clear and yella, you've got juice there, fella; if it’s tangy and brown, you’re in cider town!"

I took a look at the bottle. Brown. I took a taste. Tangy. I was in cidertown!

Watch Ned Flanders explain it himself (including the important late season and Canadian exceptions):

I'll have much more about the tour in a little while over at Ethicurean.

(The photo at the top is the hammer mill portion of the cider-making machine, the part that mashes the whole apples into bits.)

Random link from the archive: Autumn Colors in the Santa Monica Mountains

Technorati tags: Farms : Food

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Pecan and peach cake for the Slideluck Potshow in San Francisco

When planning a dessert for potlucks recently---Berkeley's Grub and the San Francisco edition of the Slideluck Potshow (an evening of good food and the work of emerging artists. Also described by Shuna)--I decided to make something that would highlight the amazing peaches available in the farmers market. A tour through my baking cookbooks brought me to Nick Malgieri's How to Bake, a book with which I have had uneven success. But the cake recipe I found--"Moist, buttery nut cake"--wasn't the average cake, and would allow me to use locally-grown pecans as one of the main flavoring elements (from Arthur Davis of Santa Rosa).

The cake is layered with lightly-sweetened whipped cream into which I folded small pieces of ripe peach (the Cassie variety from Woodleaf Farm). The peaches in the rich whipped cream base explode with bright flavors and acidity that contrasts with the other components.

This cake is going into my personal "Dessert Hall of Fame." The cake is delightfully moist, and the ground nuts create a pleasant fragility. It should be adaptable to other seasons, using fillings like cooked apple and caramel sauce embedded in whipped cream in Autumn; chocolate ganache and orange marmalade in the winter; fruit preserves anytime; and so on.

Moist, Buttery Nut Cake
Adapted from How to Bake, by Nick Malgieri

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar, firmly packed
3 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup ground nuts (I used a food processor to grind them)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk or buttermilk

Equipment: Two 9-inch diameter by 1 1/2-inch deep layer pans, or a 14 inch by 9 inch jelly roll pan. Parchment paper.

Butter the pan(s) and then line the bottom of the pan(s) with parchment paper.

Place an oven rack in the middle of the oven and remove any racks above it. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the flour, ground nuts, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl.

In another bowl, beat the butter and brown sugar together for about 5 minutes until it is light and fluffy. Scrape down the bowl.

Beat the eggs into the butter/sugar mixture, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Scrape the bowl and beater.

Add one quarter of the dry mixture to the egg-butter-sugar mixture, mix until combined. Then add one third of the milk, mix until combined. Scrape down the bowl. Continue alternating dry and wet, mixing and scraping after each addition.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan(s) and smooth the top with an icing spatula. If using a jelly roll pan, bake for 20 to 25 minutes. If using the round pans, bake for 25 to 30 minutes. (or until a cake tester comes out clean.)

Cool the cake in the pan(s) on a cooling rack for five minutes, then remove the cake(s) by turning over the pan(s). Remove the parchment paper and let the cake(s) cool completely before decorating.

Storing the cake(s): wash the pan(s) and use them to store the cake(s). Wrap tightly and refrigerate for up to one week, or freeze for up to two months.

Random link from the archive: Apricot-Pecan Bars

Technorati tags: Baking : Food