Dessert Latkes

One of the great shames of holiday food, I feel, is how assertively we restrict it to holidays. Every Thanksgiving when I eat that first piece of turkey straight off the carving fork (there are privileges to being the cook), I think to myself, “why do I only make this once a year?” Of course, that’s after I’ve already had a glass of wine and a few snacks, so I’m repressing the amount of work I’ve just undergone to get that thing defrosted, prepped and suitably accompanied, and haven’t yet allowed myself to think about the labor to come of denuding its carcass, fabricating broth, and dreaming up leftovers.

But turkey is only one example. There are so many other foods that we reserve strictly for their special day. In my family, the challah my mom taught us to make gets trotted out on Christmas Day, and sometimes on Easter. It was a surprise to me to learn that my aunt N. makes it multiple times a year, whenever she and her husband want a slice. But this is a silly thing to be surprised about. Why shouldn’t we make whatever foods we crave, whenever we crave them? I don’t think gingerbread would cease to be special just because I make a batch in March and in October as well as the night before Christmas. Besides, holding onto these foods as once-a-year-sacred means we don’t get an opportunity to experiment with them, since whatever masses you’re feeling probably want THE dish, not a derivative thereof. And okay, I admit, the old standard is good in itself, but the opportunity to play is one of the great rewards of cooking: what if I added apples to the gingerbread this time around? How would the turkey be with dill and mustard powder rubbed into the butter?

One of the great injustices of this restriction of holiday foods is that people are not, I suspect, ingesting as many latkes as they rightfully should be. While it’s true that these carry a slightly more meaningful symbolic link to their holiday than gingerbread does, indulging their delectable crispiness without pondering on the miracle of the oil lasting a full eight nights feels to me like sensible celebration rather than sacrilege. And once you get into the habit of eating latkes throughout the year, rather than just during Hanukkah, you start to realize that potato and onion are nice and all, but there are other options out there that deserve attention in crispy fried form.

This time around, I wondered what would happen if you moved latkes from the dinner to the dessert course. Sweet potatoes seemed like a natural choice, and instead of onion, I went with apple – it adds a tart sweetness that mellows as it cooks, and it would contribute, I thought, similar water content as the onion in the original. A toss with flour and eggs, some cinnamon to lend extra autumnal feeling, the requisite bubbling fry, and then a stack dripping with maple syrup, or sweetened sour cream, or maybe a drizzle of honey for really tooth-aching indulgence.

When I dug in, I found the combination of frying and sweetness reminded me ever so slightly of funnel cake – the snowy sprinkle of powdered sugar on top would have fit right in. I do suggest using orange sweet potatoes (often marketed as yams) if you are serving these for dessert; they are a little less firm in texture when they cook, but they are definitely sweeter. On the other hand, if you are looking for an interesting, produce-led alternative to pancakes, use the slightly less-sweet yellow or white fleshed sweet potatoes, and these could slide right in as a breakfast – perhaps for the holidays, okay, but in the spirit of not restricting ourselves, perhaps for any cool morning the urge for something special arises.

* though these are designed to be sweet, they could easily edge back toward the savory camp with the addition of black pepper or sage, and a more traditional topper of plain sour cream. Or you could make them even more dessert-like by adding other wintery spices we associate with pies and cakes – maybe even pumpkin (pie) spice in all its polarizing glory, as a nod to the season.

 

Dessert Latkes
30-45 minutes
Makes 9-10 3-inch latkes
2 medium sweet potatoes – orange fleshed for a sweeter product, white fleshed for less sweetness
1 medium granny smith apple
2 eggs
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½-¾ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Vegetable oil to fry
Maple syrup, powdered sugar, honey, or sour cream mixed with some brown sugar, to serve

 

  • Peel the sweet potatoes. If using a box grater, shred them with the large holes. If using a food processor, cut them down into large chunks that will just fit in the feed tube. Quarter and core the apples. Use a box grater or food processor fitted with the shredding disc to shred the sweet potatoes and apples. Scrape the shreds straight onto a clean kitchen towel and wring it out vigorously into the sink. When you’ve exhausted your arm muscles, let the towel-wrapped shreds sit for two minutes, then squeeze again. You should be able to extract a little more.
  • In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, the flour, the baking powder, the salt, and the cinnamon. Dump in the drained sweet potato and apple shreds and mix well – I find a fork works reasonably for this, but nothing is as good as your fingers to ensure even integration.
  • Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat; you want enough to come about ½ inch up the sides (the quantity will vary depending on the size of your pan). Cast iron is my vessel of choice for latkes.
  • When the oil is shimmering, carefully place small heaps of the latke mixture straight into the skillet – I use my hands for this, but of course you’ll need to be very careful. Ensure the small heaps don’t touch one another. Use the flat side of a spatula to gently flatten each heap.
  • Cook over medium-high heat 4-5 minutes, until the bottoms are crisp and well browned. Flip and cook another 3-4 minutes, then remove from heat and repeat with remaining mixture.
  • While you are cooking the latkes, it’s useful to store each batch in a 300F oven on a wire rack placed over a cookie sheet. This keeps them warm and lets any excess oil drip off.
  • To serve, stack up a pile of latkes and drizzle, sprinkle, or pour on your desired topping. Eat hot.
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Carrot and Sweet Potato Salad with Lime Vinaigrette

2016-food-blog-september-0821I mention my sister pretty frequently in this little space. Although she lives across the country from me, across disciplines, across life experiences, across personalities, she is my kitchen sounding board. When I think of a recipe concept and I can’t decide whether it sounds amazing or insane, I text R. When I have a triumph or a disaster, I text R. When I find a recipe online that I know MUST be tried… you get the idea.

2016-food-blog-september-0798In three little weeks, R. is getting married. I feel incredibly privileged that she has asked me to stand beside her in her wedding party as the woman of honor. We’ve spent the past year or so discussing little details and working through planning frustrations and pinning, pinning, pinning to her wedding pinterest board. And yet, because so many miles separate us geographically, I can’t do the things that my role in the wedding party traditionally requires of me. I can’t plan a bridal shower or a bachelorette party, because I’m only hopping on a plane to get to the wedding a few days before it happens. I can’t coordinate all the bridesmaids, because, well, because R. is such a good planner that I haven’t had a chance. Sure, I can do her makeup and hold her bouquet and give a toast on the big day, but it doesn’t feel like enough for my own sister.

2016-food-blog-september-0808Since so much of my love is filtered through food, it was, of course, a menu that finally made me feel like I was contributing sufficiently. R. and her fiancé aren’t having a rehearsal dinner, mostly because they aren’t having a rehearsal – their venue is an hour away from their home, and it seemed like a lot of trouble to truck out there the morning before just to spent twenty minutes deciding who will stand where and in what order when we could just get there a little early the day of and do the same thing. But we will have a lot of family arriving to town the day before the wedding, so having a casual little dinner the night before did seem like a nice thing to do, and this “welcome dinner,” as we’re calling it, became my responsibility. I’ve plotted out a menu, created and sent invitations, and this weekend, did a run-through of one of the new dishes we’ll be making for the occasion.

2016-food-blog-september-0809The dinner is in a park at a picnic shelter, so we are leaning largely on casual fare, but because it’s such a special occasion, we wanted a cut above your standard hamburger patties and potato salad. Since it will be mid-October, and it has been R’s dream to have a fall wedding for a very long time, we are working with an autumnal theme – there will be spiked and non-spiked apple cider, a slaw of brussels sprouts with toasted walnuts and dried cranberries, a substantial pasta salad with robust dressing and bitter radicchio threaded through, and this: a salad as good warm as it is cold or room temperature, of tender carrot and sweet potato chunks wrapped in a lime vinaigrette busy with herbs. To keep it light as well as autumnal, at the last minute the vegetable chunks get tossed with a scattering of well-toasted pumpkin seeds and a few big handfuls of delicate baby arugula.

2016-food-blog-september-0815The seed for this salad idea came from a Bittman project recipe, and I’ve tweaked and fiddled with it a few times now, until this iteration seemed exactly right. Virginia in October, which is where and when we’re headed, is a funny transitional point on the space/time continuum. It can be downright chilly, but it can also spike back up into summer temperatures, or it can gift you with a sudden downpour. It’s hard to know which you’re going to get, and sometimes it might offer up some of each in the same day! This salad dances well with them all. The orange root vegetable base and the pumpkin seeds point straight at Halloween and Thanksgiving, but juxtaposing them with a bright lime vinaigrette and soft, summery herbs makes the finished dish feel light. I ended up adding a spoonful of whole grain mustard for another kind of tartness, and this along with the peppery arugula prevents the starchy vegetables from reading too sweet.

2016-food-blog-september-0818Though I like the salad just how it is here, it is admittedly ripe for adjustments of all kinds. Replacing the pumpkin seeds with roasted pistachios might take things in a springy direction, and you could certainly bulk it up a bit with crumbled feta or goat cheese or even golden raisins, though these might tip the sweetness scales a bit overly much. You could use orange or lemon juice instead of lime in the vinaigrette, you could replace the arugula with baby spinach or kale and serve it warm; you could of course change out the herb combination to your preference. Add some nicely grilled bratwurst, or stir in a few ladles of buttery couscous or farro or quinoa, and you have a complete meal.

2016-food-blog-september-0824As I kept thinking about this salad, I realized it was ideal in so many ways. Since it can be served warm or cold, it works with whatever version of fall your home might be throwing at you – whether it’s the decidedly fall evenings in the northeast, or the Santa Ana wind-riddled mid-90s madness in Southern California. This is a transitional salad for a transitional season. And forgive me as I wax poetic on you, but it is also a nice metaphor for the occasion: a salad that moves easily between meteorological seasons seems perfect for a couple about to transition between seasons of life.

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Carrot and Sweet Potato Salad with Lime Vinaigrette
Serves 6 as a side
45-60 minutes including cooling time
1 pound carrots (about 4 large)
2 pounds orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (about 4 medium)
2 tablespoons salt
¼ cup pumpkin seeds (2 ounces)
1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
1 tablespoon honey
6 tablespoons lime juice (2-3 limes)
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped chives
2 tablespoons chopped mint leaves
¼ teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
1-2 cups baby arugula

 

  • Fill a large pot about ¾ of the way full of water, add the 2 tablespoons salt, and bring to a boil.
  • While you wait for the water to heat, peel the carrots and sweet potatoes and cut them into 1-2 inch chunks, a bit bigger than bite-sized.
  • When the water reaches a rolling boil, add the carrot chunks and cook for 5 minutes with the lid off – the carrots will take a bit longer than the sweet potatoes.
  • After the first five minutes of cooking, add he sweet potato chunks and continue to cook until the vegetables are tender but not mushy or falling apart – about 8-10 minutes depending on the size of your chunks. Immediately drain and set aside to cool for 10-15 minutes, then transfer to a large bowl.
  • While the vegetables are cooking, toast the pumpkin seeds in a 350F oven until they are browned and popping – about 5-10 minutes. A toaster oven works really well for this if you don’t want to heat up your house too much. When they are ready, set them aside to cool.
  • In a 2-cup glass measuring cup, whisk together the honey, the mustard, and the lime juice. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking constantly, to form a nicely emulsified dressing. Stir in the herbs and add black pepper to taste.
  • After the cooked vegetable chunks have cooled for 10-15 minutes and been relocated to a large bowl, pour the dressing over them and toss gently to coat everything evenly.
  • If you want the dish to be warm, add the arugula and pumpkin seeds, toss gently to combine, and serve immediately. The greens will wilt considerably as they hit the warm vegetables.
  • If you prefer the dish at cold or at room temperature, wait to add the arugula and pumpkin seeds until just before serving.
  • This will keep in the refrigerator for a day or two, though any greens you’ve incorporated will look considerably less sprightly after the first day.

 

Sweet Potato and Brussels Warm Salad

Food Blog November 2014-0792The first time I made this dish, which could be called a roasted side dish or a warm salad, depending on how you’re feeling, I didn’t actually make it. Let me explain. Like everyone (she says, because it makes her feel better), I have a few unfortunate… let’s call them character flaws. I’m clumsy. I drop things. I spill. I trip. Last week right in the middle of a lecture about pronouns and antecedents I bumped into the chalkboard and, in my recovery, stumbled into a wheeled desk chair that promptly rolled several feet across the classroom. My students were gracious enough to laugh at me.

Food Blog November 2014-0782Where my clumsiness can be amusing or endearing or even charming in other areas of life (I disagree, but N. seems to find it so), it occasionally winds up being dangerous in the kitchen. I take precautions: my knives are sharp, I stabilize my cutting boards, and I try not to do too many things at once. But once in a while, a knife slips, my mind wanders, and I wind up bleeding.

Food Blog November 2014-0783Food Blog November 2014-0788This unappetizing truth is what almost did this salad in. The first time I made it, this autumnal tumble of sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, prosciutto, and walnuts, I had baked the prosciutto into saliva-inducing crisps, toasted the walnuts, and cooked off the sweet potatoes. All that remained, aside from a tart dressing I knew would involve whole grain mustard and cider vinegar, was to slice up a mess of brussels sprouts. To save on dishes, because N. hates washing the food processor, I was doing this delicate slicing by hand and, well, my hand slipped. In a matter of seconds, I was outside, sitting on the porch step with my hand in the air and my head between my knees thinking it was too early for the sky to be so dark, and N. was running for a bandage and asking questions about something called an emergency room.

Food Blog November 2014-0789When my head cleared a little, I decided the cut wasn’t bad enough to merit a hospital run, but it was bad enough that I wouldn’t be able to finish dinner. You’re up, N! We tagged out and N., usually a bit shy in the kitchen, did an admirable job slicing the rest of the sprouts, whisking up a sharp, perfectly acidic dressing, and tossing everything together. We ate, I recovered, and I suddenly had a fantastic war story to exchange with my sister when she suffered her own bit of kitchen clumsiness a few weeks later.

Food Blog November 2014-0794The dish stayed in the back of my mind. It was good when we ate it – nice for the day we’d had which, though warm, carried hints of cooler evenings to come – but I kept wanting more. The flavors should be deeper. The rawness of the brussels sprouts was okay, but with toasty edges they would be even better. My fix, as it usually is for things involving vegetables, was to roast everything. This created, I’ll admit, a bowl of cubes and shards that would never pass muster on a Pinterest board worth its salt. However,  it makes up for its homeliness by combining all the fall flavors and textures I was yearning for. It is sweet and earthy and vegetal, with the right amount of saltiness from the prosciutto. The walnuts have a slight, slight bitterness, which contrasts nicely against the sweet potato. And the dressing, tangy and light and packed with tiny mustard seeds that pop between your teeth, soaks down into the vegetables and lifts the whole thing back up into perfect, warm, satisfying fall salad territory.
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Roasted Sweet Potato and Brussels Sprouts “salad”
serves 2 as a main, 3-4 as a side
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (about 3 cups)
16 ounces brussels sprouts, stem ends and any wilted or yellowing leaves removed, halved or quartered. You want the sweet potatoes and the Brussels sprouts roughly equal in size.
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
5-6 slices prosciutto
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
2 teaspoons honey
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
Additional salt and pepper to taste, if desired

 

  • Preheat the oven to 450F and line a baking tray with aluminum foil. Pour 1 tablespoon of the olive oil directly onto the foil-lined tray and place the tray in the oven while it is preheating. While you wait for it to warm up, prep the vegetables.
  • Toss the sweet potato chunks and Brussels sprout pieces in a large bowl with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, the salt, and the pepper. Once the oven is preheated, transfer the vegetables to a single layer on the foil-lined tray that has been heating up inside. The additional of the oil already on the tray means the exteriors of the vegetables will start cooking immediately.
  • As soon as you place the tray of vegetables into the oven, turn the heat down to 425F. Roast the sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts for 20 minutes, then toss them to promote even browning and roast for an additional 20 minutes.
  • On another foil-lined baking sheet, spread out the prosciutto so the slices do not overlap. During the second 20 minute roasting of the vegetables, add the prosciutto tray to the oven and cook for about 10 minutes, until the slices are almost crisp and lightly bronzed.
  • Remove prosciutto slices to a paper towel to drain and cool, and add the chopped walnuts directly to the tray that previously held the prosciutto. Roast the walnuts for 5-6 minutes, until fragrant and slightly darker in color (keep an eye on them, though; they burn fast).
  • While the ingredients are roasting, make the dressing. In a large bowl (it can be the serving bowl, to save on dishes, if you like), whisk together the mustard, the honey, and the cider vinegar. While whisking, slowly pour in the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Taste and adjust seasonings if desired, but remember that the vegetables are already seasoned and the prosciutto is quite salty.
  • When the vegetables are roasted to your liking (I like them golden with slightly crusty edges, and yielding on the inside), remove from the oven and place them directly in the bowl with the dressing. Toss to combine. Crumble or chop up the prosciutto into bite-sized pieces, and add it and the walnuts to the bowl as well. Toss again to integrate, and serve warm or at room temperature.

Chipotle and Cinnamon Sweet Potato Soufflés

I realize it might be a bit late for me to convince you, at this point, to make significant changes to your Thanksgiving menu.  If you are anything like me, you’ve had the whole meal planned out for several weeks now, including possibly which serving dishes you’ll be using for which dish (speaking of which, have you seen this?).

But if you are undecided, or if you still aren’t sure what you are doing with sweet potatoes, may I make a humble suggestion?  Put down the marshmallows.  Okay, give them one final squeeze and then put them down.  You don’t need that stuff.  Instead, may I offer you the promise of spiced velvet? Puffy, smooth, decadent-but-light velvet, spicy and sweet, rising up from its dish like some gravity-defying magic trick.

Food Blog November 2013-2841Yes, I’m talking about soufflé

Food Blog November 2013-2843I know, I know. Just want you want to worry about on one of the biggest food days of the year is the notoriously fussy, egg white driven glorious strangeness that is soufflé. You don’t want to worry about whisking, or folding, or, heaven forbid, fallen puffs that are competing with the turkey for oven space anyway.

Food Blog November 2013-2818But as it turns out, at least in my experience, soufflé isn’t really that hard if you are a tiny bit patient and a tiny bit brave. And this one, with the beautiful pumpkin color of the sweet potatoes mellowed and enriched with heavy cream, brown sugar, and cinnamon, and lent a bit of extra pizzazz from a sparing dose of chipotle pepper and a fizz of lime juice, is a delightful choice. The base, lightened with three egg whites, climbs determinedly into large mushrooming domes, and the mixture conveniently uses three egg yolks as well, so you aren’t left with any extra yolks hanging around (though if you are, this is a great resource).

Food Blog November 2013-2819Food Blog November 2013-2821The thing about soufflés is, they depend on the expansion power of aerated egg whites. That’s what you are doing when you beat them to soft or even medium peaks: filling them with air. Bubbles form and stabilize, and so long as you aren’t too rough with them, they continue to expand in the oven, creating that otherwordly dome of perfect, velvety lightness. This is why soufflé recipes are so fussy about being sure you fold the whites into the flavor base: you don’t want to deflate them. This tutorial gives some helpful suggestions about this process, if you need a refresher or you’ve never been sure. And even that thing about not opening the oven door lest they collapse mid-bake is an exaggeration; though you don’t want to be swinging open and slamming shut the door every five minutes, I tentatively peeked inside once during my baking process, and no holiday-destroying collapse resulted.

Food Blog November 2013-2825When you dig tentatively into these delicate, reality-bending puffs, they sigh and fold inward just a touch, the dry, slightly meringue toasted tops crease slightly, and you are free to dig out piping hot, fluffy forkfuls and jam them into your mouth with no further ceremony. Or, if you feel fancy (or if you have more than one gravy boat and you’re dying to take multiples for a spin), make some cinnamon cream to drizzle over the top: whisk about ½ teaspoon of cinnamon into a ½ cup or so of heavy cream (estimate 2 tablespoons of cream per diner), and you’ve got a simple and luscious sauce to add to your fluffy masterpieces. This also cools the heat, if you have diners with delicate tongues or you’ve gone a little heavy on the chipotle.

Food Blog November 2013-2827Soufflés may sound scary, and you may think Thanksgiving is no time to experiment, but I’ve got faith. I think you can do it. And when your mother-in-law, or your best friend, or your fussy aunt looks impressed, you can lie and say it was really hard but you’re so glad it came together as beautifully as it did. I won’t tell a soul. You can save the marshmallows for some hot cocoa, where they belong.

Food Blog November 2013-2839* Alternatives: if you don’t like spicy, take out the chipotle and add a few generous grinds of black pepper instead.  If you want this for dessert, add an extra 2 tablespoons of sugar to the souffle base itself, and maybe a teaspoon of vanilla, and top the baked soufflés with a sweeter version of the cinnamon cream referenced above: 1/2 cup heavy cream (estimate about 2 tablespoons per person), 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 2 teaspoons sugar, lightly, lightly whipped until only just barely thickened. If you want to booze it up, add a tablespoon or two of rum or bourbon.

If soufflé is just not going to happen but you still want marshmallow-free sweet potatoes, may I humbly suggest this as another option?

Food Blog November 2013-2831

Cinnamon and Chipotle Sweet Potato Soufflé
Hugely adapted from Cooking Light
Makes 6 servings
2 tablespoons butter, for ramekins
2 tablespoons brown sugar, for ramekins
2 cups sweet potato cubes, from 1 large peeled, orange-fleshed sweet potato
½ cup heavy cream
¼ cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons lime juice
½ a chipotle pepper from a can of chipotles in adobo (or more, if you like it spicy)
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
3 egg yolks
3 egg whites
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

 

  • Preheat the oven to 375F.
  • Butter and sugar six single-serving ramekins (mine fit a little more than ½ a cup), then stow in the freezer. The sugar sanding creates texture to help the soufflé climb the walls of the container, and freezing it makes it take longer to dissolve in the heat of the oven, so you’re giving your puff a head start.
  • Drop your peeled sweet potato cubes in boiling salted water and cook until they are very tender but not yet falling apart. Drain and set aside to cool.
  • In a large bowl (or the same pot you used to cook the sweet potatoes), combine the heavy cream, ¼ cup brown sugar, lime juice, chipotle pepper, salt, and cinnamon. Add the sweet potato cubes and mash, whisk, or otherwise blend into a smooth, thick soup. I used my immersion blender, which worked very well. You could also use a regular blender or a food processor. The key here is that you want a scrupulously smooth mixture.
  • Separate the three eggs, dropping the whites into a clean, dry, medium mixing bowl and the yolks into the sweet potato mixture. Take care not to get even a trace of yolk into the whites, or they will not whip into peaks. Whisk or blend the yolks into the sweet potato mixture until no streaks of yellow remain.
  • Add the cream of tartar to the egg whites. Using a handheld electric mixture (or a whisk, if you need to work on your arms), beat the whites at first over medium, then high speed until medium peaks form. The whites will foam, and then become pure white, and finally begin to stiffen like a good whipped cream. To determine the stiffness of your peaks, turn off the beaters and lift them straight out of the whites. If you get little hills that collapse back into the mixture, you have soft peaks. If you get little tips that fold over just a bit when you pull the beaters away, you are looking at medium to stiff peaks, which is what we want.
  • Using a rubber spatula, deposit ⅓ of your whites into the sweet potato and egg yolk mixture and stir until no white streaks remain. No need to be careful with this part – full integration is just fine.
  • Now, slide the other 2/3 of the whites into the sweet potato mixture and fold in gently until just combined – some white streaks may remain and that’s fine. I like to fold by drawing my spatula around the edge of the bowl in a horseshoe shape, then pulling it back toward me in a straight line.
  • Retrieve your frozen ramekins and fill each with the soufflé mixture, being careful not to let it plop from too high (in case of deflation). When each cup is full, smooth off the top – this seems fussy, but it will aid in even rising.
  • Bake in a preheated 375F oven for 25-30 minutes, until the soufflés have puffed up at least an inch or two above the top rim of the ramekins. Nearly half an hour seems like a long time, and indeed, I was worried mine were overcooked because some of the edges took on a toasty golden color, but I found this contributed a delightful flavor, and was reminiscent of a perfect campfire marshmallow.
  • Serve immediately, plain or topped with cinnamon cream.

Happy New Year!

Food Blog 2011-2013-0362

Oh friends, it happened.  I made it.  Yesterday I made the last two Bittmans on my list and completed, albeit a year later than I’d originally intended, my project.  I have reflections to share, certainly, and I have changes and excitement and promises for the new year, but first, I think, let’s work with the program.  Two Bittmans.  Two reports:

“14. Steam or poach 2 cups of pumpkin cubes until tender. Meanwhile, sauté 1 cup sliced shiitake mushroom caps in vegetable oil with a few drops of sesame oil. Boil 4 cups water and whisk some of it with ⅓ to ½ cup of miso. Stir miso mixture, pumpkin and mushrooms into water and heat everything through, then serve, drizzled with more sesame oil.”

Because we were planning to reach midnight by eating as many snacks as possible eating our way to midnight snacking, I wanted a light dinner to precede the countdown.  This seemed to fit the bill.  And it had to, after all, since it was the only soup left and the calendar was screaming December 31st.

2 cups peeled, cubed butternut squash (I had some in the fridge, and suspected pumpkin would be hard to find)

1 1 oz. package dried shiitake mushrooms

1 TB vegetable oil

¼ tsp (or to taste) toasted sesame oil, plus some for drizzling

3 packets instant tofu miso soup mix (all I could find at my grocery store)

water

white wine

To reconstitute my shiitake mushrooms, I soaked them in a mixture of white wine and almost boiling water for 15-20 minutes, until they were plump and soft.

While the mushrooms soaked, I cubed up my butternut squash and submerged the pieces in a pan of salted water.  I brought this to a bare simmer and cooked it just until the squash pieces were tender – 10-15 minutes – then drained the pieces in a colander.  Don’t overcook them, because they will start to fall apart.  Set the squash pieces aside.

When the mushrooms were tender, I scooped them out of their bath and decided the remnants shouldn’t go to waste.  I poured the soaking broth into a little pot to bring to a boil, so I could use this already flavored liquid as the base for my soup.  While it heated, I stemmed and sliced the mushrooms.

Since the shiitakes were now basically cooked, I probably could have skipped Bittman’s sautéing step.  But honestly, I’m not one to pass up the opportunity to ingest sesame oil, so I dutifully dribbled vegetable oil with a few (or a few more than a few) drops of sesame oil in the (drained and dried) pan I’d used to simmer my squash and sautéed the mushroom slices over medium heat until they dried out a bit and started to take on some color.

While this colorization happened, slowly and so aromatically, I made the broth.  I poured all three miso soup seasoning packets – tofu and seaweed and all – into a small dish, then mixed in about ½ cup of my heated mushroom soaking liquid and whisked gently to dissolve the powdery soup mix.  This created a slightly thickened slurry, which I poured with the rest of the liquid and the butternut squash cubes into the mushroom pan.

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After a few moments of reheating, we dipped up bowlfuls and ate.

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N. wasn’t sure (he sometimes takes issue with the texture of reconstituted mushrooms), but I inhaled it with devotion.  I love the flavor of miso soup, and the mild sweetness of butternut squash against the salty umami and fleshy squish of the mushrooms was lovely.

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It was light but still satisfying, and the tofu and vegetables from the soup mix were so welcome that I’d advise you, if you are using straight miso rather than a pre-mixed, additive laden packet, to consider adding some tofu or seaweed or green onion just to contribute a little substance and contrast to the soup.

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Dinner done, we moved on to the second stage of the evening.

“89. Vegetable crackers: Slice beets, sweet potatoes, plantains or parsnips or all of the above into 1/8-inch disks (a mandoline is helpful) and toss lightly in olive oil. Spread the slices on baking sheets, sprinkle with salt, pepper and, if you like, other seasonings and bake at 400 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. When browned, flip the chips over and bake for another 10 minutes or so.”

This sounded tasty, and I’d always intended to make it for a party.  With a dear friend coming over to ring in the new year with us, and since hunks of cheese alone might be deemed a slightly imbalanced offering (though so, so delicious…), this seemed like a perfect opportunity.  Beets were out of the question (N.’s nemeses since childhood), and I couldn’t find plantains in my grocery store’s produce section, so we were left with the nutty herbiness of parsnips and the always dependable earthy sweetness of sweet potato.

3 medium parsnips, peeled

½ large sweet potato, peeled

generous dose of olive oil (maybe ¼ cup?), plus more to grease the cookie sheets

1 tsp each (or to taste) salt, pepper, and garam masala

To prepare for roasting, preheat the oven to 400F and line two cookie sheets with aluminum foil.  Drizzle with olive oil and spread to cover the surface of the foil evenly.

While the oven preheats, tackle the vegetables.  I don’t have a mandoline, but I do have a ruler, and I must confess I did bring it to the kitchen to give myself a better idea of what 1/8 inch looks like.  My slices were not quite even, but they did verge on passable.  I tossed them – big coins of harvest orange and speckled white – in a glass bowl with the olive oil and the spices until they were evenly coated.

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Spread the vegetable coins across the cookie sheets in a single layer, not overlapping, not in piles.  If they cook in a stack, they will soften but not brown or crisp.  Stow them in the oven for 12-15 minutes, or until they are just beginning to brown.

This next step is a true exercise in patience.  Unless you are far more talented with a spatula than I, you will have to flip each piece over individually.  You have to, because otherwise one side will burn and the other side will flutter limply into cooked-but-not-crisp status.  Trust me on this one.  When you have laboriously flipped each coin, shove the tray back into the oven for another 10-12 minutes.

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At this point, you’ll have to use your judgment.  My offerings were, after this additional time, cooked through but not remotely cracker-like in texture.  Another five minutes in the oven might have done the trick.  Putting them back in, failing to set a timer, and heading to the couch to eat dinner (I was trying to multitask) is not advisable.  I didn’t remember them until I smelled the slightly spicy aroma of parsnips, and by then it was too late – many of the little coins had gone from crackers to briquets.

I decided to pick out the worst offenders – Lucy reports that she didn’t mind a bit of charred flavor – and eat the salvageable ones anyway.

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To make them a bit more exciting (and disguise any lingering burned taste) I made a little dipping sauce.  You’ll need:

juice from 1 lime

2 TB honey

1 tsp garam masala

½ – 1 cup Greek yogurt

Whisk the first three ingredients together with a fork until they are smooth.  In increments, add Greek yogurt until your sauce reaches the desired thickness.  Mine was about the consistency of ranch dressing, but much more interesting in flavor.

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These crackers (with and without the sauce) were – if you were able to overlook the overcooking – a nice alternative to crudites or store-bought crackers.  They weren’t quite as crispy (except the ones that were too crispy), but they had a lovely deep flavor and none of the powdery, processed taste some crackers can have.  They are also a gluten-free offering and, minus the yogurt and honey sauce, vegan as well.

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I served them alongside a cheese platter,

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Joy the Baker’s chili spiced sharp cheddar cheese crackers,

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assorted sweets,

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and my appetizer version of Bittman’s “Marshmallow Topping for Adults” dish: thick discs of sweet potato roasted until tender, topped with a dollop of cream cheese and sprinkled with a pecan brown sugar blend before being broiled until the sugar bubbles and the cheese slackens toward melting.

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And champagne, of course.

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Happy New Year.  I hope you celebrate your achievements, meet your goals, and find happiness in your own self.  I’ll be checking in again later this week with some reflections and announcements.  Welcome to 2013.

Fading light. And bourbon.

My home office – the room where grading, blogging, photo editing, and general work happens – has the most wonderful light in our house.  A huge sliding glass door lets sunlight pour in during the morning hours, and in the afternoon I get brightness mediated by the roof of the house.  Even when it’s overcast, there is still so much natural light that it makes for wonderful food shots.

But winter is a problem.  I’m discovering that if I make a dish for dinner, I’m not going to be able to photograph it from my office because it’s too dark by 5pm.  And wedded to this blog and this project as I am, there’s no way we’re having dinner at 4:30 in the afternoon just so I can get the best light in the house.  So I’m trying out new angles, and new placement, and new adjustments.  I’m learning more about artificial light: which arrangements I find glaring and which I find acceptable.  Bear with me, and look forward to the return of Daylight Savings Time!

“17. Sauté chopped onion in butter, then chunks of sweet potato and stock or water to cover. Simmer until the sweet potatoes can be pierced with a knife, then add chopped kale and cook until wilted.”

This was easy, and quick, and tasty.  I made a few additions to Bittman’s recommendations and think the soup really benefited from them.  I used:

4 TB butter Food blog 2011-0133

½ a medium onion (mine was yellow)

1 big sweet potato, peeled and cut into small chunks (the smaller the chunks, the faster they will cook, so make your decision based on how much time you have and what size is most pleasing to you)

 

Salt, pepper, ground nutmeg to taste

4 cups broth – vegetable or chicken, depending on your preference

6 oz. kale

1 tsp red wine vinegar

Heat the butter in a pot over medium heat.  When it has melted, add the onion and cook gently, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and translucent but not bronzed.

Add the sweet potatoes and seasoning, stir to combine for a minute or two, then add the broth.  The quantity of liquid you need will depend entirely upon the size of your sweet potato.  You may need more or less than the 4 cups listed here.

Let the soup simmer until the sweet potatoes are tender but not falling apart.  Mine took about 15 minutes.

Add the kale and stir to combine.  You will be bewildered by how quickly it collapses on itself, wilting from smoky green to a brighter, more vibrant hue as it is immersed in the liquid.  Cook just until it reaches the texture you like against your tongue – I let it simmer for about 5 minutes, because I like my kale to still put up some resistance and retain its bright color.

I tasted and thought this needed something.  Extra salt to heighten the flavor of the kale, certainly, but there was a kind of dullness about the whole concoction.  Remembering my soup lessons from Alton Brown, I sprinkled in just a hint of red wine vinegar, and the difference was amazing.  The whole thing was brighter, somehow, even though you couldn’t taste anything harsh or stringent.

We consumed this happily with freshly toasted, garlic-rubbed slices of pugliese.  It was good, but could have been stuffed with even more flavor: I’d consider adding garlic, ginger, maybe even rice or ramen noodles.

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“4. Onion jam with bacon and bourbon: Thinly slice red onions and cook in olive oil with chopped bacon until soft. Add a little bourbon and brown sugar to taste and cook until the jam thickens.”

Bourbon is new for me.  N. has been enjoying the occasional scotch for a few years now, but we recently acquired a bottle of Knob Creek and I’ve been appreciating the floral notes of it – so much less musty and boggy than its British cousin.

4 slices thick-cut bacon, halved lengthwise into long strips, then sliced into small rectangles

½ large red onion, thinly sliced

¼ cup bourbon

2 TB brown sugar

Freshly ground black pepper

1 small sprig rosemary

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I used about a tablespoon of olive oil to start the pan, but I don’t think you really need it.  Just toss in the bacon slices over medium heat and let them work for about 5 minutes.  You will get a shimmer of fat across the bottom of the pan that is more than enough to start the onions sizzling in.

Add the onions and cook over medium or medium-low for at least ten minutes, until the onions soften and the bacon is mostly cooked.  Stir with some frequency to ensure even cooking.

Off the heat (especially if you are using a gas stove) add the bourbon and the brown sugar.  Stir to combine, then return to medium heat and simmer slowly for about 20 minutes, to let the flavors mingle and the bourbon soak into the onions and bacon.

After a few minutes of cooking, I added pepper and rosemary for additional flavor components, and I think they were a good choice.  The rosemary’s woodsy flavor was a nice contrast to the fatty bacon and sweet onions.  Everything cooked down into a sticky, caramelized jam that I draped across some baked rounds of polenta.

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This was delicious, but misplaced.  The meaty, smoky bacon was intensified by the bourbon, and the brown sugar and onions had a nice note of molasses.  It didn’t belong on polenta.  It belonged, I think, on a freshly toasted piece of crostini, possibly smeared with a thick slice of brie.  The funkiness of the cheese could stand up nicely to the sweet smoky strength of this jam.

We paired our misguided polenta with green beans, lightly blanched and then seared in a hot pan and deglazed with a bit of red wine.  These, too, were delicious, but not the ideal pairing for the sweet saltiness of my jam.  Apples, maybe, or red grapes would make better pairings.  Regardless, we ate with joy and returned to the pan once or twice for a final sweet chunk of sticky, gooey jammy bacon to sweeten our palates, even though dessert was still to come.

 

“91. Pears in Red Wine: Simmer 2 cups red wine with ½ cup sugar, 2 cloves, a cinnamon stick and a few slices of ginger in a pot for a few minutes, then gently poach peeled and cored pears (use a spoon to hollow them from bottom), until soft. Cool or chill, and serve with a bit of the poaching liquid.”

This is supposed to be one of the most sophisticated desserts you can offer: not overly sweet, laden with mulled flavor, perfect for a gourmet adult party in celebration of autumn.  Pears, with their temperamental habits and signature grainy texture, are perhaps the same kind of acquired taste as wine or coffee or any of those other “adult” tastes.  As dessert for our onion-jam-crusted dinner, I decided to attempt these.

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I used 2 pears, but followed the rest of Bittman’s quantities exactly.

Food blog 2011-0142Well, one exception to note: I thought about getting fancy and adding things like citrus peel or rosemary (apparently I’m hooked on the stuff these days).  But in the end, I just splashed in a bit of bourbon to link the flavor profile back to our dinner: red wine from the beans, bourbon from the jam, and this dessert would fit right in.

After the first simmer, in which I stirred gently to let the sugar dissolve and the spices mull gently into the wine, I prepared the pears.

The issue with pears is that inside their tender skins they are slippery little beasts.  You can’t grasp them too firmly or they sigh into bruises.  You can’t hold them too delicately or they slide out of your hands and threaten to slip from the edge of the kitchen counter.

I dove into my attempt to core the pears only after peeling them.  This, and the attempt to do so with a spoon, may have been a mistake.  The spoon tore through the tender flesh of the pear but was too wide to remove only the core.  Further, I wasn’t sure how much core I was supposed to be removing, so I ended up with two pale, naked, slightly mutilated pears, which I slid into their (hopefully) healing bath of alcohol.

I let them simmer, turning them occasionally to dye all sides a lovely burgundy, for about 15 minutes.  Then I turned off the heat and let them sit a further 20 minutes until we were ready for dessert.

Surrounded by a moat of spiced wine, these were achingly tender and nicely flavored.  I would choose pears that were less ripe if I attempted this dessert again, because a bit of additional texture might have done them good.  As it was, though, much of the graininess disappeared in the poaching, and the soft floral flavor was really nice against the wine and assertive spices.  A scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side would have made this a richer endeavor, but I think the creaminess would have matched well with the fruit and the wine.   Or maybe I just need the extra comfort as we roll into December…

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