Chopped Challenge #3: Bourbon chocolate ice cream “sliders” with spiked, salted praline

Course: dessert

Ingredients: Hawaiian rolls, chocolate syrup, bourbon, sea salt.

For my first foray into dessert, N. gave me a list of ingredients that, at least in two cases, were deviously chosen with ulterior motives. As he’s currently training for a marathon (twenty-six miles and change! My brain can’t even fathom how long that is!), he is consistently hungry, and always looking for protein-laden snacks. He goes through chicken thighs, hard-boiled eggs, and toasted tempeh at alarming rates. Recently, he decided chocolate milk would be a fantastic mid-afternoon pick-me-up indulgence, and thus the chocolate syrup was assigned. As for the Hawaiian sweet rolls, he let me know in no uncertain terms that the leftovers would be “great for pulled pork!” so, of course, that was also added to our menu for the week…

I have to admit that this quartet stumped me for a while, though perhaps not in the way you might expect. In fact, as soon as N. handed me the post-it note on which he’d written his choices, I had an answer in mind: this screamed bread pudding. The rolls could be toasted, and would be perfect for absorbing a bourbon-spiked custard mixture. The chocolate would make it extra indulgent, and the sea salt could get sprinkled on top, as with my favorite cookies, for a briny unexpected crunch.

But I couldn’t make bread pudding. I couldn’t. As easy as it would be, and as well as the ingredients lent themselves to it, doing so would make me a hypocrite. As N. (or anyone who has had the misfortune to watch the show with me) can attest, bread pudding is one of the dessert choices contestants make that instantly evokes bellows of protest from me. “DON’T MAKE BREAD PUDDING!” I yell. “YOU DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME!” And they usually don’t! Their custards don’t set, their bread isn’t properly soaked, and they usually wind up with runny undercooked messes. I say other things about their choices too, which are even less nice. But we don’t have to talk about that here.

So even though I am not restricting myself to a time frame, I just don’t think I can get away with making bread pudding – not with as rude as I’ve been to the television about it. Neither can I make French toast, nor panna cotta, nor crepes (though this last one is less about not having enough time, and more about me explaining, tiredly, over and over, as if they can hear me, that “of COURSE your first couple are going to be disasters; that’s what crepes DO! Try again!). I had to go with something I don’t, from the safety and anonymity of my living room, routinely take contestants to task for, as natural as the choice might be.

I’m not sure what made me come around to ice cream, but from that point I realized the small size of the Hawaiian rolls might make the dessert a play on sliders. The scoop of ice cream, spiked with bourbon and browned with chocolate, would stand in for the burger patty. There would need to be something bright and acidic to break up the richness, so smashed raspberries might make a fun alternative for a slice or tomato or a slick of ketchup.

As for the sea salt, the only thing I could think of was salted caramel, and this dessert didn’t really need another creamy, drippy, sweet component. I was stumped until I remembered an episode of The Great British Baking Show in which the contestants made hazelnut dacquoise, an elevated meringue cake sweetened by praline, essentially toasted hazelnuts encased in hard caramel that had been reduced to a powder. That would be the perfect place to put the salt and another glug or two of the bourbon, and the powder could be rolled around the edges of the ice cream, like a more sophisticated sprinkle lining to an ice cream sandwich.

So here’s how it went: the ice cream was without question the best component. I’m using here a version of a recipe I’ve played with before – a no-churn, egg-free miracle from Nigella Lawson that, sure, takes about six hours to freeze up and requires one specialty ingredient, but hey, with chocolate and bourbon in there, and since I’ve always been able to find that specialty item at Whole Foods, was no big deal, really. I’d just make the ice cream the day before.

The praline was delicious and surprisingly successful. As I was making the caramel, using bourbon rater than water to help the sugar dissolve, things start to crystallize a bit, but rather than dumping the mess out and starting again, I added about a tablespoon of water, stirred it up, and magically the crystals dissolved and a gorgeous caramel the color of maple syrup bubbled its way into being. With no added dairy, it solidified into a sheet of colored glass around the hazelnuts, and the powder turned out to be equally delightful paired with the ice cream as it was an indulgent sweetener for oatmeal a morning or two later.

As for the Hawaiian rolls, while they made a reasonable vehicle for getting the other ingredients to our anxious mouths, I couldn’t help but feel as though they weren’t really needed. This could just as easily have been an ice cream sundae: smooth, luscious scoops dollops with smashed raspberries, generously sprinkled with praline, then topped with freshly whipped cream. And the rolls… well, since they had to be included, perhaps I could have toasted them, ground them up, and mixed them into the praline.

A project for another month, perhaps. Regardless, my judge says I am “on to the next round,” and now that I’ve done one of each course, April’s challenge is unknown. N. might give me an entrée, or an appetizer, or he might drop another dessert in my lap, considering he’s got twenty-six miles to run and a continually growling void in place of a stomach. We’ll just have to wait and see…

 

Bourbon chocolate ice cream “sliders” with spiked, salted praline
Ice cream adapted from Nigella Lawson
At least 6½ hours, counting time for ice cream to chill and harden
Makes generous 1 pint ice cream and approx. 1 cup praline
For bourbon chocolate ice cream:
⅔ cups sweetened condensed milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream
6 ounces double cream (I found mine at Whole Foods)
2 tablespoons bourbon
¼ cup chocolate syrup
For spiked, salted praline:
¾ cup whole hazelnuts
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons bourbon
1-2 tablespoons water, if needed
¾ teaspoon sea salt
For serving:
Split Hawaiian sweet rolls, one per person
1 pint raspberries (or fewer, depending on how many are enjoying), smashed with a fork (add a sprinkle of sugar if you want, but the rest of the dessert is pretty sweet)
Additional chocolate syrup, if desired, to decorate the plate

 

  • To make the ice cream, add sweetened condensed milk, whipping cream, double cream, 2 tablespoons bourbon, and ¼ cup chocolate syrup to the bowl of a stand mixer. You could do this in a regular mixing bowl with a hand-held mixer too.
  • Using the whisk attachment (or regular beaters), whip on medium speed until soft peaks form. For me, this took only 3-4 minutes. It may take more or less time for you depending on the speed of your mixer.
  • Using a rubber spatula, scrape the fluffy clouds into a freezer friendly container – I used a clean empty Greek yogurt tub – and freeze for at least 6 hours to let the mixture harden up.
  • While the ice cream chills, make the praline. Roast the ¾ cup of hazelnuts 10-12 minutes in a 350F oven, until they are slightly darker in color and have begun to release their oils. If you wish, dump them into a clean kitchen towel and rub vigorously to help remove their skins.
  • When the hazelnuts are roasted (and skinned, if desired), stir together the granulated sugar and the bourbon in a small pan or skillet. Cook over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is the color of dark maple syrup and almost smoking. If the mixture seems to seize up and crystalize while the sugar is dissolving, stir 1-2 tablespoons water. I found this eliminated the crystals handily.
  • Remove from heat, stir in the sea salt and the hazelnuts, then spread onto a piece of parchment paper and let cool for at least 1 hour.
  • Break up the solidified mixture into smaller pieces and whiz them into a powder in a food processor. Don’t go too far, though; since the nuts contain fat, if you continue processing eventually the powder will turn into a paste.
  • When the ice cream is set and the praline is ready, assemble your “sliders”: place a scoop of ice cream on the bottom of one of the split Hawaiian rolls. Sprinkle it generously with praline on all sides. Spread a dollop of smashed raspberries on the top half of your split Hawaiian roll, then smash together over the ice cream. If you wish, decorate the plate with additional chocolate syrup and maybe some whole raspberries, and eat immediately.

Lamb and Ricotta Baked Rigatoni

I didn’t have much experience with baked pastas growing up. Mom made tetrazzini occasionally to use up Thanksgiving turkey, and had a macaroni and cheese favorite, but lasagna was too much trouble, with noodles that had to be boiled ahead of time, and layered, and stacked, and then sold to her two lasagna-disinclined children (R. was picky and suspicious of casserole-type meals, and I was solidly against tomato sauce). I never even heard of baked ziti or stuffed shells until I was an adult.

How I’ve missed out! The beauty of baked pasta, if you remain uninitiated, is the contrast of textures – creamy and tender below, but bronzed and crisp on top, not to mention the opportunity to consume wicked quantities of bread crumbs and/or cheese. The edges of the pasta pieces that protrude above whatever final layer you’ve assigned the dish – cheese or crumb or sauce – toast and sizzle and become pleasingly dark and crunchy; they are the part everyone you feed will fight over.

No real story exists for how this pasta dish came to be, aside from as a way of using up a container of ricotta cheese and a few handfuls of mushrooms languishing in the back of the fridge. It came together as a “what if” sort of creature, with aggressively seasoned ground lamb and a tomato sauce bolstered by red wine and some parmesan rinds I found in my freezer, and it was so satisfying I dubbed it “blog-worthy” by my third bite.

Digging in, you get the richness of sauce soaked into the thick tubes of pasta, and the chew of the lamb, and the interspersed delight of great pockets of ricotta, since we aren’t mixing it in, but adding it in a series of large dollops, a years-old idea from Smitten Kitchen that simmered back to the surface as I faced a too-full skillet and wondered how to get everything combined and into the casserole dish I’d prepared.

This does take a little extra time and effort: the mushrooms roast separately, the sauce is better the longer it cooks, and then of course you have to boil and then bake the pasta. But listen, you probably have an afternoon coming up that could stand to have a cooking project added to it, and besides, each of these component parts needs minimal babysitting once you’ve gotten it started. It is, I would posit, a very good dinner party dish in that you can do the whole thing relatively in advance, shoving it in to bake just as your guests arrive so you are free to greet them, and, if you’re like me, fitting in time to tidy up a little during the preliminary steps: sweep up the dining area while the mushrooms roast. Do a round of dishes and set the table while the sauce simmers. Then gloat as your home fills with the aroma of melting cheese and simmering wine and earthy herbs and you have nothing else to do besides sip a little wine and relax while you nibble whatever your guests brought, because of course you’ve assigned them appetizers, right?

Baked Lamb and Ricotta Rigatoni
Serves 6-8
Approximately 90 minutes (or more, if you want your sauce to simmer longer)
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided (3 for each)
2 cups chopped onion, from 1 large or 2 small onions
5-6 cloves garlic, finely minced
¾–1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
pinch red pepper flakes
1½ cups red wine
28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
2 bay leaves
parmesan rinds, if you have any
1 pound crimini mushrooms, stalks removed, caps quartered
12 ounces rigatoni
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
16 ounces whole milk ricotta cheese
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
Additional dill, or fresh parsley or oregano, if desired

 

  • Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat while you chop the onions and garlic. Sweat the onions and garlic in the oil until softened and fragrant but not browned, 8-10 minutes.
  • Add the lamb, basil, oregano, red pepper flakes, allspice, salt, and black pepper to the skillet, and work with a wooden spatula to break up the lamb and distribute the spices and vegetables. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the crumbled pieces of lamb are no longer pink in the center.
  • Next, add the red wine and simmer for about 10 minutes, to reduce slightly, cook out some of the alcohol, and mellow the flavor, then add the whole peeled tomatoes, the 2 bay leaves, and the parmesan rinds, if you have any available. Simmer, using your wooden spatula to break up the tomatoes as they cook, for at least 30 minutes (though you can cook it longer if you want).
  • While the sauce is simmering, you can attend to the mushrooms: preheat the oven to 400F and toss the quartered mushroom caps with the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Roast 20-25 minutes, stirring once at around the halfway mark. When finished, remove from the oven and turn the oven temperature down to 375F.
  • As the sauce simmers, boil salted water and cook the rigatoni about a minute less than the package directions indicate; it will soak up sauce and continue to cook as we bake it.
  • When the mushrooms and pasta are done and the sauce has simmered at least half an hour, remove the bay leaves and parmesan rinds, then stir the dill, the mushrooms, and the pasta into the sauce.
  • In a large baking dish (something in the 9×13” range fits everything in), add the pasta and sauce mixture in small batches, interspersed with large spoonfuls of the ricotta cheese. The idea is to have pockets of the cheese throughout. Once the pasta, sauce, and ricotta are loaded into the dish, top with an even layer of the grated parmesan cheese, then bake at 375F for about 30 minutes. The sauce will bubble and the parmesan cheese will melt and brown over the top. The whole thing will be molten hot; you might want to wait 5-10 minutes before serving to let it barely cool.
  • If desired, serve with a few tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs scattered over the top.

 

Chopped Challenge #1: Sausage stuffed mushrooms with goat cheese and roasted red pepper sauce

Course: appetizer

Ingredients: bulk sausage, bell pepper, sriracha, panko bread crumbs

Here it is! The first “basket”! N. decided that for the first challenge of the year, it would make sense to offer the first course of the meal, so to speak. He says he will change up and randomize courses later on, but I know for sure that January = appetizer, February = entrée, and March = dessert. That doesn’t tell me much, but it does offer a solid start.

As seems so often to be the case with real Chopped baskets, three of the four ingredients seemed to go together well however I shuffled them. Sausage, bell pepper, panko: reasonable! Sausage, bell pepper, sriracha: okay. Even bell pepper, sriracha, and panko seemed to fit. But all four? I couldn’t wrap my brain around how it was going to work and still keep this an appetizer.

Ultimately I landed on a blast from the past, if you will. I’ve been digging mushrooms lately, and realized at least three of the four: the sausage, the bell peppers, and the panko, could get crammed inside (or at least on top of) a mushroom and baked into a tasty, bite-sized little throwback classic. The sriracha would have to become part of a sauce – I didn’t fancy a spicy kick inside my mushrooms (besides, one of the biggest complaints from the judges on the actual show is the relative dryness of a dish – they are always after a sauce or dressing component).

To wrestle the heat into the dish, but also to ensure more exposure for the bell peppers, which were really just going to get minced and cooked down with the sausage and some onions, I decided roasted red pepper would be a nice flavor base for the sauce. It would need something to enrich it, though, and goat cheese would provide a tang and a welcome thickness. There. I had my dish.

Though this definitely took me more than the twenty minutes allotted on the show (could I have done it in time if pressed? Maybe… with a much bigger mess…), it came together well. It’s hard to fault pork sausage cooked with aromatic vegetables, especially when it gets mounded with panko soaked in what seems like an excessive amount of oil and baked until feverishly crispy. At first taste we weren’t sure the sauce matched the mushrooms – the roasted red pepper has such a strong vegetal clarity that, blended down and even spiked with hot sauce, it can stand up to and overpower its supporting players. Yet we kept going back to it, sliding the mushroom caps through and dotting on another spoonful, and when we each tried a mushroom bare, it was good, but we wanted that kick from the bright, orange-red smear left on the plate. Ultimately I think the sauce was on the right track, but needed a little something to combat the overly heavy vegetal quality, so the recipe below cuts the pepper-forward flavor with the addition of broth. I suspect this will help it meld with the mushrooms better.

We tried out two serving options, just to see which we preferred: a puddle of sauce topped with a few stuffed caps, and a row of caps drizzled with sauce. Though we decided the puddle of sauce on the bottom would be better for hors d’oeuvres that were going to sit around for any length of time, as the sauce-on-top styling could damage the pristine and glorious crispness of the panko topping, we preferred the sauce-on-top delivery method as both prettier and easier to eat. In either case, a final dusting of parsley made for a prettier presentation and a welcome little herbal freshness to the bite.

* Photo note: this week, as I wait for my new machine, I’m using the editing features on Preview on my laptop. I’m… underwhelmed. Le sigh.

Sausage stuffed mushrooms with goat cheese and roasted red pepper sauce
Makes 12 mushroom caps + extra sauce
40-45 minutes
For mushrooms:
12 large crimini mushrooms, stems removed
½ cup finely minced onion
½ cup finely minced red bell pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 sprig thyme, optional
8 ounces bulk pork sausage
¼ – ⅓ cup panko bread crumbs
salt and pepper to taste
For sauce:
6 ounces roasted red pepper (you can do it yourself, of course, but the jars are so quick and easy)
3-4 ounces goat cheese
3-4 ounces vegetable or chicken broth
2 teaspoons sriracha, or to taste
To serve:
chopped parsley

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F and place a wire cooling rack in a baking tray or cookie sheet – we are making a slightly elevated platform for the mushrooms to prevent waterlogging.
  • Using a small spoon, carefully scrape the gills and some of the innards from each of your mushroom caps. We need lots of room for filling. Finely chop the “guts” you’ve removed.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the mushroom pieces (not the caps), the onion, the red bell pepper, and the thyme sprig, if using. Season with black pepper if you like that sort of thing, and cook, stirring once or twice, until the onions are tender, around 5-7 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, place the hollowed out mushroom caps stem side down on the cooling rack and place into the oven. This gets them started cooking and allows some of the water they will expel to drain right into the cookie sheet. Cook them until the sausage is done.
  • When the vegetables in your skillet are looking tender, add the sausage and use a wooden, flat-sided spoon or spatula to break it up. Continue to cook over medium heat, breaking up the sausage and stirring often, until the meat is just cooked through. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired. Remove from heat and let cool a few minutes for easier handling. (Reminder: at this point you should also remove your mushroom caps from the oven!)
  • While the sausage cools, toss the panko and the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small bowl until the crumbs are thoroughly moistened. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  • When you are ready to fill, flip the mushroom caps over so the hollow side faces up. If you want, you can move each and lightly spray the rack with non-stick cooking spray; they do start to cling a little bit while baking.
  • Fill the mushroom caps with heaping spoonfuls of the filling, lightly but firmly packing it in. It will be a little crumbly, so be determined but not rough, as that can break the delicate mushroom caps. Top each filled cap with a mound of panko, then carefully place back into the oven to bake at 400F for 15 minutes.
  • While the mushrooms cook, make the sauce. Using a standard or an immersion or stick blender, whiz together the roasted red pepper, the goat cheese, and the broth until very smooth. Pour into a pan (I used the same skillet I’d cooked my vegetables and sausage in, just wiped clean with a paper towel), add the sriracha (start with just 2 teaspoons; you can always add more) and bring to a simmer. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Simmer about 5 minutes, then remove from heat.
  • To serve, either spread a puddle of sauce on the platter and place the mushrooms on top of it, or arrange the mushrooms on a platter and then drizzle sauce over each. Both are pretty. Either way, sprinkle some chopped parsley over the top to add freshness, and serve warm.

Roasted Apple and Onion Biscuits

I think it’s like this every year. I’m sure I’ve said that before. The first week of the semester goes by and I think “well, that was fun,” and then I think “oh, I have to do that fifteen times more in a row!” The second week goes by, and I’m exhausted, but grateful for the bonus day Labor Day provided.

Then week 3 hits. The add period is over, so my classes stabilize and become the “real” group that will soldier through the semester with me. The serious assignments begin. The bedtime and alarm start to feel like normal and not like torture.

But the work. At this point, yes, classes have stabilized, but in almost all cases they are still at their enrollment caps, which means the first paper I collect comes in a dose of sixty. And even when you parse that out in stacks of ten, boy does it feel like a lot. By the time the weekend following week 3 hits, I need comfort food.

Fortunately, our weather has cooled into something that feels surprisingly like fall. Mid September is usually stifling, but we are descending into temperatures in which it’s not suicidal to have the oven on for a half hour or so. When I saw that windfall on our weather forecast, I thought of biscuits.

I realize, of course, that there is no shortage of biscuit recipes here, and if I’m quite honest with you, almost every one has the same base. The magic, though, is in what extra flavoring agents you add. This time around, the fall combination of apples and onions hit me hard. I’ve done this before, in a meatball that was really just an excuse to eat more breakfast sausage, but in biscuits I wanted less tartness, less crisp-tender bite, and just melting sweetness with a touch of roasted flavor. Green apple and red onion get roasted in chunks for a half hour before they are tossed with the dry ingredients, then blended in with butter and buttermilk or soured cream. Roll, fold, and punch out rounds from the wet dough, and you are only fifteen minutes from hot, flaky biscuits.

As we chatted during our weekly viewing of Project Runway, my friend T. and I speculated additions to these biscuits. You could add plenty of black pepper, or amp up the savory with herbs: sage is quintessentially autumnal, and thyme also goes well with apple and onion. Where our minds went immediately, though, was blue cheese. Think about it: crumbles in the mix leaking out during baking to form little lacy puddles around the edges of the finished biscuit. Or, if you don’t want more busyness in the biscuit itself, T. suggested blue cheese butter to spread in the center.

These are not doctored, though, any further than the original pairing, and honestly, they don’t need to be. Even the tartest apple, as were the two tiny granny smiths I cubed up, mellows as it cooks, playing with and enhancing the sweetness of the onion. You could have them as we did: the “bread” of a breakfast-y sandwich (I mixed bulk sausage with maple syrup, red pepper flakes, and a squeeze of Dijon before frying in patties to put in the center), but I bet, especially if we are thinking seasonally, that they would be perfect cut a little smaller and swaddled in a basket to be served alongside a Thanksgiving turkey.

Roasted Apple and Onion Biscuits
About 60 minutes, including cooling time
Makes 14-15 2½ inch biscuits
2 small or 1 large tart green apple (I like granny smith), skin on, cut into small cubes
½ large red onion, skin, root, and stem ends removed, cut into large chunks
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour + more for sprinkling on your board
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons baking powder
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into chunks
6 ounces buttermilk, or whole milk or cream soured with about a tablespoon of vinegar

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F. On a baking tray lined with aluminum foil, toss the apple and onion chunks with the olive oil, the ¼ teaspoon salt, and the pepper. Roast for 15 minutes, toss gently with a spatula, then roast another 15 minutes, until just a few edges are taking on a toasty brown color. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
  • While the apples and onions cool, combine the flour, sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, and baking powder in a medium bowl. I like to use a whisk for this to keep it all light and well mixed.
  • Add in the cooled apple and onion pieces and toss to ensure they are well coated with flour – this will help them stay evenly distributed in the biscuits rather than sinking to the bottom. Dump in the cubes of cold butter and use a pastry blender or your fingers to work the fat into the flour mixture. You are looking for butter bits the size of small peas.
  • Pour in the buttermilk or soured cream and use a fork or your fingers to mix it through the flour and butter mixture and bring the whole thing together into a shaggy, soft ball of dough (if it seems too dry and is not coming together, just set it aside for a minute or three – this will give the flour time to absorb the wet ingredients a bit more).
  • Turn the dough out onto a well floured board, sprinkle some more flour on top, and knead with your hands two or three times just to catch any loose bits. With a rolling pin or your hands, press or roll the dough into a rough rectangular shape about ½ an inch thick. Fold the dough into thirds, then roll out again. Repeat, again folding the dough into thirds and then rolling it out; this creates more flaky layers. If the dough sticks to your board, use the flat blade of a butter knife or a pastry scraper to help you lift it free. This is a fairly wet dough, so you’ll need to be stern with it, and you may need to sprinkle on more flour as you go.
  • After you’ve rolled and folded, rolled and folded (so you’ll have done a total of six folds), roll out once more, this time to a thickness of 1 inch, and use a 2½-inch round cutter (or the floured lip of a glass) to punch out biscuits. Push the cutter straight down through the dough; don’t twist until you are all the way through to the board, or you’ll crush the flaky layers! Repeat until you can’t punch out any more rounds. Re-roll the dough scraps (no need to fold again unless you want to) and repeat – with a 2½-inch cutter, you should be able to make14-15 biscuits around an inch in thickness.
  • Replace the aluminum foil sheet on your baking tray with parchment paper, and arrange the biscuits on it, evenly spaced. I like to do about 8 at a time, but they don’t spread much, so you can crowd them a little. Bake 15 minutes (still at 400F), until they are puffed and the tops are golden and slightly dry. These won’t climb sky high because the apples and onions are wet and add extra weight, but they will still rise a bit.
  • Let cool for a minute or two, then serve warm (see suggestions above for accompaniments).

Midori Fridge Pickles

As both this site and my instagram feed will prove, I’m a big fan of refrigerator pickles. Really, I’m a fan of pickles in general, and have been since childhood, up to and including my Nana’s pickled beets, which marked not only my willingness to eat almost anything, but also one of the first instances in which I became aware that my parents were not above lying to me. One of the few foods I would NOT eat, at the time of my affection for the aforementioned pickled beets, was onion, in any form. Nana’s beets, though, included onions – thinly sliced, limp circles dyed brilliant purple. My parents, in their wisdom, played on my extreme gullibility and, when asked what those other things in the jar were, those clearly not beet things, told me they were “string beets.” I was then quite content to eat them.*

ANYWAY, canny parental treachery aside: fridge pickles! Vinegar, salt, sugar, dried or fresh herbs and spices, brought to a boil, poured over a thinly sliced vegetable of your choice that has been packed into a sealable container. Refrigerate for a few days, and presto! You have a perfect sandwich topper, a bright sourness to add to salads, or something homemade to serve alongside a cheese platter and impress whoever is happy hour-ing with you. I change up the kind of vinegar I use, and I like to play with what flavoring additives I use – I’ve tried everything from cardamom to fennel, but I find I like black mustard seeds the best (though I recently finished off some carrots pickled with dill, coriander, and celery seeds that were fantastic). They add a little bit of floral spiciness to the brew, but at the same time they also get pickled by the hot vinegar and become surprising little flavor bombs I eat right along with whatever vegetable they are accenting.

This particular batch arose, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit, thanks to an overcrowded liquor cabinet (I mean, it’s not a very big cabinet, but still). Between a few essentials, N’s growing collection of scotch, and some red wines of mysterious origin, the bright green elixir in the mottled glass bottle that featured in my go-to college drink just sort of got pushed out. I realized I hadn’t used it in years. Aside from a syrupy cocktail, which I wasn’t really excited about, what could I do with it?

I’m not quite sure how I made the connection, but it made me think of Bobby Flay’s pickled red onions. Lately I’ve gotten hooked on his Food Network show “Beat Bobby Flay,” which requires contestants to face off against him with their own best dish, which they’ve perfected and he only learns about in the moment. He usually wins anyway. A favorite tactic of his, no matter what the dish, is to pickle red onions with a combination of red wine vinegar and grenadine. This makes a lot of sense – the syrup contributes sweetness to the pickling solution and gives the onions a brilliant color. Plus, then he doesn’t have to wait for the sugar in his pickling solution to dissolve. Maybe, I reasoned, a combination of Midori and rice vinegar would do the same!

I settled on cucumbers thanks to the cucumber-melon combination so popular in hand soaps and lotions, but added a few slivers of red onion as well for interest. Rice vinegar, with its tang, seemed like a good pairing for the melon liqueur, and I settled on coriander as well as my favorite mustard seeds for additional flavorings. I’d hoped the green of the liqueur would transfer to my vegetables, resulting in neon green dyed cucumbers, but no such luck. The red color from the onions was leached away, but the cucumbers’ color remained about the same. Despite that minor disappointment, the pickles have a subtle but very pleasing melon sweetness a few days in – there’s a complexity here you wouldn’t have if you had just used sugar and vinegar in the mixture. The cucumbers stay crunchy, too, which is perfect. Though above I’ve listed some more sophisticated ways you can eat these, my preference is honestly just a straight-from-the-jar snack, usually while poised just inside the refrigerator door while I look around for what dinner will be. We also had them on salmon sandwiches, a crunch and sweetness to contrast the heat of wasabi mayo spread liberally over a toasted bun.

* not to be outdone, my dad’s oldest sister, whose kids also liked pickled beets but not onions, told their oldest that those purple strings were “munions” and were also believed.

 

Midori Fridge Pickles
Makes ½ cup pickling liquid for about ½ a large cucumber
About 15 minutes, plus at least 2 days resting time
¼ cup rice vinegar
¼ cup Midori or other melon liqueur
1½ teaspoons salt
enough thin slices of cucumber to tightly pack a 6 ounce jar – for me, this was about ½ of a large cucumber
a few thin slices of red onion, if desired
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1 teaspoon whole black or yellow mustard seeds

 

  • In a small pot, bring the vinegar, Midori, and salt to a rolling boil. While you wait, pack the cucumbers, onions, and whole spices into a small jar with a lid that closes tightly.
  • When the liquid reaches a boil, stir briefly to dissolve the salt, then pour carefully over the vegetables to fill the jar. Put the lid on tightly, shake the jar to distribute (careful; if the lid isn’t on tightly, hot vinegar can seep out!), and store in the fridge for at least 2 days, shaking occasionally to distribute liquid and spices.
  • After at least 2 days, or when the cucumbers have soured to your liking, consume as desired!

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Panzanella Toasts

The word “panzanella,” to an American, probably conjures thoughts of two ingredients: bread and tomatoes. Sometimes onion, cucumber, or various herbs join the party; I’ve even added a mix of lettuces and some white beans to make it a more substantial dinner. But the “pan” part of the panzanella is the most important: at its heart, this is a bread salad. As every blogger will tell you (which I learned this morning when I did this very thing,) if you look up panzanella and its history you will learn that this is a charming, rustic way of ensuring day-old bread doesn’t go to waste. You’ll also learn, interestingly, that tomatoes are not part of the original dish. Panzanella is an old salad, eaten and beloved before tomatoes made their way across the Atlantic. The original vegetable paired with the rehydrated bread in this salad was the humble onion. It is esteemed enough and beloved enough that it has found its way into Early Modern poetry; Emiko Davies provides a particularly nice overview of the salad and its literary as well as dietary record.

So, I’m all for food history – I think it’s important to know where dishes come from and who moved them along from what they were to what they are, and I agree that it’s especially crucial to not hide the cultural complications involved in a dish – barbecue removed from its African American roots, for example – but… onions and bread, with some vinegar and perhaps additional greens… just needs some help. Tomatoes are such a convenient addition because they contribute a punch of acid that the vinegar picks up and heightens. They also add juice to the mix, so that the bread gets flavored as it softens thanks to the reintroduction of liquid. Besides, it’s summer, and to me, few things are as summery as a tomato (maybe a crisp, effervescent rosé with a squeeze of lime, but then, no one’s saying you can’t have one or two of those alongside this salad).

There are two general ways of dealing with the bread in a panzanella. One is toasting it, to emulate the dry staleness that is traditional but also to prevent it from disintegrating when dressed. The other is to give it a short bath. This works best with dry, day-or-two-old Italian bread – your standard baguette will break down immediately. I had such a baguette, so I was going to be broiling, not bathing. Panzanella is typically served as a salad, but given that I was already going down the toasting route, I thought about changing the format entirely: rather than a big bowl, why not a layer of crisp toast, topped with chopped vegetables and herbs, so the juice of the tomatoes and vinegar and cucumber soaked down into the bread? The interior of each slice would soften but the bronzed top would retain a bit of crunch to stand out against the rawness of the vegetables. And since we were already far from tradition, why not some meaty chunks of kalamata, a few capers, mixed herbs, and a sprinkle of feta to top the whole thing off?

The final combination of ingredients whizzes like pinballs around your mouth: tomatoes with their sweet tang. Briny salt from olives and capers and cheese. Watery crunch of cucumbers. The bitter, grassy edge of chopped parsley. Sour vinegar, and the unobtrusive richness of olive oil holding everything together. The toast gets rubbed with garlic while it is still hot – because why not? – and the dish becomes something you could offer up at a party as essentially the messiest crostini ever, or pile into a wide, shallow bowl as the main event of a light dinner when it’s too hot to think.

One planning ahead note to consider: this dish is best when it has had time to sit for at least two hours, as the juices of the vegetables, helped along by the salt you’ll add when you mix them together, start to pool and collect, giving you an intensely flavorful dressing to soak into your toast slices. Your best option, then, is to mix it up and toast the bread slices in the morning when it’s cool, then stow the vegetable mixture in the refrigerator for the day. Or, if you are a plan-ahead-er, make the salad the night before, and toast your bread on the day you’ll be serving. When you’re only about half an hour from dinnertime, pull the vegetables back out and let them sit on the counter, just to wake the flavors up a bit – cold tomatoes, unless they are blended into gazpacho or juiced and shaved into a savory granita, are nobody’s darlings.

Panzanella Toasts
Serves 2 as a light dinner; 6-10 as an appetizer
20-30 minutes active time, at least 2 hours resting time
1 pound cherry tomatoes – I like a variety of colors for a prettier presentation – halved or quartered, if large
1 cup chopped cucumber
½ cup finely sliced green onions (2-3)
½ cup chopped kalamata olives
2 tablespoons capers
½ cup basil leaves, rolled and sliced into ribbons (chiffonade, if you’re fancy)
2 tablespoons other mixed soft herbs of your choice, such as parsley, dill, chives, etc.
2 tablespoons cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar
¼ cup olive oil + 1-2 tablespoons or olive oil spray
salt and pepper to taste
About ½ of a baguette, cut into half inch slices
1 garlic clove, halved
½ cup crumbled feta cheese

 

  • Combine all vegetables and herbs in a large bowl, toss lightly to combine. Add the vinegar, then the olive oil, and toss again. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour and a half, though longer is better to collect more juices.
  • About half an hour before you are ready to serve, take the vegetable mixture out of the refrigerator and let it sit on the counter, just to take the chill off.
  • To make the toasts: heat the broiler on high (you can also use a toaster oven for this) and arrange the slices of baguette on a tray in a single layer. Spray or drizzle them with the remaining 1-2 tablespoons olive oil (you’ll likely use less than this if you are spraying), then sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Broil until evenly golden and crunchy, then remove from heat.
  • As soon as the toast is cool enough to handle, rub each piece with the cut garlic clove, then set aside until ready to serve.
  • To plate, arrange half of the toast slices on a platter or on your plate – a shallow bowl is also nice for this. Scoop big spoonfuls of the vegetable mixture onto the bread slices, including any juice that has collected. Scatter the crumbled feta over the top, and dig in.