Lemon Blueberry Scones

Well, that whole “feeling promising” thing really panned out, didn’t it? I could give you a whole list of reasons I didn’t post last week, ranging from puppy to visiting relatives to bad weather, but the simplest and most truthful explanation is lack of inspiration. It happens every now and then: in spite of my dozens of cookbooks and long lists of dish ideas, sometimes I just don’t get excited about making anything. I used to fret about this, but anymore I try to give myself a break. Some weeks I don’t come up with anything I want to cook for dinner, much less anything worthy of posting here; some weeks I have four ideas for the next week ten minutes after I come home from the grocery store.

To get myself back on track I think I’m in need of a little structure. I did so well back in the days of Twelve Loaves because I had loose guidelines to follow and a set deadline (not to mention I was only working part time…). Yes, last year I had my Chopped Challenge project, but I ended up getting stymied on an entrée challenge N. set me because his inclusion of pretzel rolls put me in sandwich blinders. I just couldn’t see a creative approach, and that led to ignoring the prospect completely. That was, perhaps, too strict a guideline. A touch more flexibility is in order for this year.

One of my friends and former colleagues (hi H!) does a weekly baking project that she photographs and posts about on Facebook. This, with its similarity to Twelve Loaves and the reminder that baking was my first love in the kitchen, sparked a glimmer for me. I can’t always come up with a beautiful, delicious, post-able dish, but I can almost always think of something to bake. So we’ll try that for a bit and see if it feels, to quote myself again from a fresh few weeks ago, “promising.” That doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be baking something every week, but it’ll be a bit of a safety net for me to rely on. I’m sure my coworkers and our office staff won’t mind either, since they are usually the ones responsible for preventing N. and me from eating the whole batch.

I learned early in our relocation to southern California that winter is citrus season. That being the case, lemon feels right for January: it’s sour but bright, and its color promises spring to come. Zest and some of the sparkling-sharp juice fit well in so many applications. I love blueberries with lemon, and since they were unexpectedly on sale at my grocery store, that was enough of an inspiration for me. I decided on scones, those not-quite-a-biscuit pastries beloved of a British tea spread. This rendition replaces the usual cream with buttermilk to capitalize on the tang of the lemon zest – the sugar in the dough balances out their combined sourness, and if you still want more sweetness, I’d suggest a glaze of powdered sugar and a dribble of lemon juice to spread or drizzle over the top. You can also add some finely chopped crystallized or candied ginger, if you want sweetness with extra zing. I’ve included suggestions for both in the instructions below.

Holly, my new kitchen helper!

Key to scones is not overworking the sticky mixture. One, continuing to work it makes for tougher scones, as you’ll start to activate the gluten in the flour. Two, the more you mix, the stickier the dough becomes. You want it to just come together, and then make use of a well-floured surface to pat or roll out the dough before quickly slicing and relocating the unbaked scones to a cookie sheet. Don’t worry about perfect shapes; they will be delicious regardless.

N. and I shared one of these while they were still a touch warm, and then immediately shared another one. The outside was just crisp, the interior moist and barely flaky, and the blueberries and lemon play well together. N’s favorite thing about them, though, was the occasional crunch of salt – I used Morton kosher salt rather than everyday table salt, and though these are definitely not salty, once in a while your teeth hit a crystal that didn’t fully dissolve in the oven and it’s a lovely little punch that somehow enhances the flavors of the fruit.

Although scones are best on the first day, just like their biscuit brethren, I found these reheat remarkably well in the toaster oven, regaining a bit of crispness. Then, it’s a simple task to split them in half and spread with butter or clotted cream and some jam, or munch alongside a bit of yogurt and fresh fruit, or just pop straight into your mouth as is.

Lemon Blueberry Scones
Adapted from Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger
Makes 16 scones
35-45 minutes
½ cup granulated sugar
zest of two lemons
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¾ cup (12 tablespoons or 1½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 6-8 slices for easier integration
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup fresh blueberries, roughly chopped (this was about 6 ounces for me)
optional: ¼ cup finely chopped candied or crystallized ginger

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F and lightly grease or line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. In a large bowl, rub the lemon zest into the sugar between your thumb and fingers. Supposedly this releases essential oils from the zest, so its lemon flavor is enhanced. But more practically, it also makes the zest easier to integrate into the mixture (thus helping to prevent overmixing), so don’t skip this part!
  • Whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda with the sugar and zest in the large bowl. Dump in the chunks of butter and use a pastry blender or your fingertips to combine – you are looking for a texture between pea-sized chunks of butter and “coarse meal.”
  • Add in the chopped blueberries, the ginger if using, and the buttermilk, and bring together with a rubber spatula or a fork. The dough might at first feel too dry, but in a minute or two as the buttermilk hydrates the flour it will become sticky and “shaggy.” Knead it by hand two or three times right in the bowl to ensure any dry chunks at the bottom are mixed in.
  • Transfer the ball of dough to a well-floured board, and use a bench scraper or sharp knife to divide it in half. Roll or pat one half into a ¾ inch thick round. With a sharp knife, cut it into 8 wedges. Using a bench scraper or a thin spatula, quickly and confidently move these to one of your prepared cookie sheets, leaving space in between each scone and its neighbors. Repeat with the second half of dough.
  • Bake in your preheated 400F oven for 15-18 minutes, until the edges of the scones are beginning to brown and the exterior is set. The moment you remove them they will look underdone. Let them cool a minute or two on the cookie sheet before moving them to a wire rack to cool completely. As they cool, they will firm up.
  • Once scones are completely cool, either eat them immediately, or if you wish, whisk together about 2 cups of powdered sugar with a few dribbles of lemon juice to form a thick glaze. You can then spread or drizzle this over the tops of the scones, or dip each scone in for smoother coverage. Let them sit until the glaze hardens, and then get on with your snacking.

 

The Adele – limoncello spritzer

Hi friends. Remember me? I promise I haven’t forgotten about us. I’ve just been… busy.

A week or two ago N. and I were talking about explanations our students give for their absences, or for requesting extensions, or for missed work, and it led into a discussion of the difference between reasons and excuses (which dovetailed into me raging against one of the judges on the Food Network show Chopped for calling a contestant’s explanation that the plate she wanted to use had been taken by someone else an “excuse” he didn’t want to hear). We decided it was, in some senses, a matter of semantics, and that in many cases it was too bad that “excuse” has taken on such a negative connotation. In thinking about how I’ve effectively abandoned you here, I do have some reasons for my absence, but I’m now approaching the point where they are fast becoming excuses, in all the negative ways we usually think of the word. I moved. (True, but we unpacked the kitchen and the computer with my photo editing software almost two weeks ago.) It’s hot. (Yeah, but it wasn’t last weekend or the weekend before that.) I’m tired. (Not so tired that I can’t teach, and grade, and whip up dinner, but tired enough that staging ingredients and capturing the right angles feels like a pretty steep mountain to scale around 4:30 in the afternoon.)

In the end, it doesn’t matter, because what’s important is getting back to it and making an appearance, right? So here’s mine. In the steaming slick of the weekend, peeking around the ragged corners of my own laziness reluctance summer schedule, I figured I could manage a cocktail.

This drink is in honor of my now former neighbor, the “now former” part of which saddens me greatly. Before the move, we were in the habit of having monthly happy hours with one set of neighbors, taking turns hosting an evening of snacks and drinks and music and conversation. It was a lovely way to end the week, and a great excuse reason to resupply the cheese drawer. A former bartender, A. always impressed me with her imaginative cocktail ideas (and got me hooked on vodka tonics – how did it take me until my mid-thirties to discover this dangerously refreshing option every single bartender in the country knows how to make?). It was always a different drink, always something slightly unusual (amaretto and almond milk, anyone?), and she always had the ingredients for it chilled and waiting. For our final happy hour as neighbors, despite not having a great deal of time to plan (packing – you know how it goes), I wanted to have something special to offer her, and it turned out to be this, a drink she liked so much I decided to make it again, and again, and name it after her.

Apart from our neighbors, the other thing I’m going to miss about the house we no longer live in is the lemon tree in the backyard. It wasn’t a standard Eureka or Lisbon lemon (the varieties most common in the standard U.S. grocery store displays), but it wasn’t quite a Meyer lemon either – the skin and pith were sturdy and thick, and they grew to larger sizes than the grocery store offerings (and man were they full of seeds, a feature I’m currently taking advantage of by sprouting and growing a few of my own). The first winter we lived there, I used the tree’s bounty to make limoncello, a lovely bottle I forgot about in the back of a cupboard and allowed to steep much longer than suggested, producing something tooth-achingly sweet and far too strong to be sipped. Over the five years we lived in the house, I slowly worked on that one bottle, adding it to desserts and drinks when a boozy kick of lemon seemed right. As moving day approached, I had only a few shots left in the bottle. To enjoy the sunshine of those lemons as long as possible, the day before we left I stripped the tree of every ripe lemon I could reach (don’t worry, there were still plenty for the new tenants… assuming they have a ladder…). To my dismay, this recipe uses the very last of these.

This is no great revelation, I’m afraid (after I made you wait for it for a full page to finally find out what’s in it!), but it is a perfect, and perfectly easy, cocktail for the season. It uses the very last drops of my limoncello, the very last slices of the last lemon I brought from the old house, and a simple fizz of seltzer water to top it up. And as I sipped it this weekend in my hot, still backyard, still scattered with the detritus of the week’s airborne celebrations (fireworks leave a lot of garbage behind!), it remained a lovely way to close out the week: fresh, bright, not too sweet, just the right subtle tickle, as we plow full swing into summer.

The Adele
Makes one (but so easily multiplied)
These are my quantities of preference – you can, of course, adjust to your own tastes, making the drink stronger or weaker, more or less citrusy, as you prefer.
3-4 ice cubes
1 ounce limoncello
1-2 lemon slices or wedges
5-6 ounces seltzer water (don’t use club soda – it contains sodium)

 

  • Place the ice cubes in a red wine glass (with a big bowl and a tall stem)
  • Pour in the limoncello and add the lemon wedge or slice(s), squeezing to release juice if desired
  • Top up with seltzer water, stir gently, and enjoy.

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Lemon Vanilla Pound Cake with Apricots and Whipped Ricotta

2016 Food Blog June-1030This world in the last few weeks has been a place of heartbreak and confusion and frustration and terror. I was bewildered, and angry, and I grieved, and I wrote and deleted various posts on various platforms that felt too tidy, and too ineffectual.

2016 Food Blog June-0981But amidst the heartbreak, and the anger, and the mistakes, there were these moments of strength and of recovery and of determination: one of my students, wearing a t-shirt that said “Caution: educated student of color.” I wanted to hug him. I wanted to say “great shirt.” I wanted to tell him to keep wearing it so proudly and to use that power and that dangerous-in-a-good way truth about himself to help change happen. I just smiled as he sat down at his desk. A sold-out message on every single one of the shirts bearing an excerpt from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony award acceptance sonnet, which were being sold to raise funds for victims of the Orlando shooting. As a friend of a friend commented, agree with their objective or not, and whether their actions and their words were successful or not, the filibuster in the Senate and the sit-in in the House were pretty inspirational. Determination. Strength. Flashes of brightness and connection in an increasingly isolating world.

2016 Food Blog June-09832016 Food Blog June-09862016 Food Blog June-0991At first, because there was too much of the world in my brain with all of this going on, I couldn’t think of anything to make. As always, food seemed too trivial to worry about, and perhaps it is. But it is a comfort. Stumbling all unwilling into the kitchen was a chore, until I picked up a knife, and a whisk, and the familiar enfolded me. Perhaps because it was the first kind of cooking I learned to do, standing beside my mom, scooping or mixing or poking at cookies, baking seemed like the right way in. Then, inspired both by N’s recent snack preferences at a certain coffee corporation, and a gorgeous picture on King Arthur Flour’s instagram feed, I knew the answer was pound cake. In a way, it works with my tangled feelings: it’s a dense cake, weighty and substantial and thick, but shot through with lemon zest and topped with a drizzle that becomes crunchy and tart as it bakes it has those flashes of brightness I’m looking for and lifted by. KAF’s version incorporates some cream cheese along with all that butter, which I like for the barely discernible tang it promises.

2016 Food Blog June-1021You don’t need a lot to pair with pound cake; in fact, its very title suggests you need nothing, but I couldn’t resist a bit of excess. Bright, meaty, fuzz laden apricots, pitted and sliced into wedges, and a heaping dollop of barely sweetened whipped ricotta, lightened with cream, make the utilitarian slice a rich-but-not-too-heavy dessert.

2016 Food Blog June-10272016 Food Blog June-1029I wish you some comfort this week, and I hope you have something safe and solid in your life, and some flashes of brightness to turn your face toward.

2016 Food Blog June-1043Lemon vanilla pound cake with apricots and whipped ricotta
Adapted from King Arthur Flour
Makes 1 9×5 inch cake and approx. 1½ cups ricotta cream
2-2½ hours, including cooling time
For cake:
¾ cups unsalted butter, at room temperature (1½ sticks)
3 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1½ cups + 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 tablespoon lemon zest from 1-2 lemons
1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoons salt
5 large eggs, at room temperature
3 tablespoons milk
1¾ cups + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour (I know it’s a weird amount; remember “pound” cake is based on weight measurements)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
For toppings:
4-5 fresh apricots, rinsed
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese, cold
1 cup heavy cream, cold
2-3 tablespoons granulated sugar
additional lemon zest, optional

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F and lightly grease a 9×5 inch bread pan. KAF is very specific about the measurements of the pan; otherwise you might get batter overflow.
  • In a mixing bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), beat together the butter and cream cheese until well combined with no obvious lumps. Room temperature fats here will incorporate more quickly.
  • Rub together the lemon zest and 1½ cups of the sugar with your fingertips. This evenly distributes the zest and encourages it to release its oils, which are what give it that heady, perfumed flavor. Add the zest and sugar to the butter and cream cheese mixture and cream on medium-low or medium speed for about 1 minute, or until the mixture is pale and fluffy.
  • Add the baking powder, salt, and vanilla to the creamed butter and sugar and beat briefly to combine. Then, with the mixer running on low, begin to add the eggs one at time, mixing well between each addition. When the eggs are all integrated, add the milk and beat on high speed for 2-3 minutes until the mixture is light and fluffy. KAF notes the mixture may look curdled or grainy as you add the eggs; mine didn’t, though it did look a little grainy after I mixed the milk in. Either way, it’s nothing to worry about.
  • Now, sprinkle the flour gradually over the batter with the mixer running, and mix on low speed just until combined. Pour and scrape into the prepared pan, using a spatula to smooth the top.
  • Set the cake on a baking sheet for easy handling and in case of overflow, and stow in the preheated oven for 55 minutes.
  • While the cake bakes, combine the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and the 2 teaspoons lemon juice in a small bowl, stirring until it reluctantly comes together into a thick syrup. After the cake has cooked for 55 minutes, remove it from the oven on its pan and brush or drizzle the sugar and lemon juice mixture over the top (you may need to re-stir the lemon juice and sugar mixture just before using it). Return the cake to the oven for another 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean, or an instant-read thermometer inserted deep into the center reads 200-205F (as KAF notes, there may still be a touch of gooiness to the very top crown where the cake has split; don’t worry about this).
  • Cool the cake on a rack in its pan for at least five minutes, then turn out of the pan and rest on the rack until it is completely cooled.
  • About 20 minutes before you are ready to serve the cake, place a metal bowl and beaters or whisk attachment into the freezer. This helps the cream whip up faster. While they cool, pit the apricots and cut them into thick wedges. Once the bowl and beaters are cold, add the heavy cream and ricotta to the bowl and begin to mix on low speed. Sprinkle in the sugar and, as you see the mixture thicken, raise the speed to medium. Whip at medium speed until the ricotta cream has thickened to your desired consistency; probably 2-3 minutes if you started with cold equipment.
  • To serve, cut the cake into thick slices, and serve one slice topped with a few wedges of apricot, a dollop of whipped ricotta cream, and a few strands of lemon zest, if desired.

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Lemony Leek Meatballs

I’m sure you’ve been waiting with bated breath for this post. I’ve made you yearn for it for half the month already! But I didn’t want to announce my intent without something to show for it, and now I finally have a triumphant opening act. Can I get a drumroll? The project I’ve decided on for 2015 is…. meatballs.

Food Blog January 2015-0230Meatballs appear in almost every culture. Albondigas find their way into soup in Hispanic cooking. Chinese meatballs are often steamed or boiled. Keftedes are Greek, kofta or kufteh appear in Middle Eastern dishes. A Swedish version coats very small rounds with a sumptuous gravy and serves them with potatoes and lingonberry jam. The classic American meatball, which is in fact of Italian origin, nestles amidst a mound of well-sauced pasta.

But they aren’t just, as the name suggests, balls of meat. Many meatball recipes combine different types of ground meat to maximize flavor but also adjust fat content. Very lean ground meats, like veal, which some meatball preparations use for its flavor, are often combined with something like pork or fattier beef to ensure tenderness and structural integrity. Bread in some form, whether dry and powdered or fresh, springy crumbs, is a frequent ingredient in a meatball. Though this could be to stretch the meat content (think bread crumbs as “filler” in a crab cake), it also absorbs fat and creates a lighter final product – “light” meatballs are often texturally prized above the dense thickness of a meatloaf, for example.

Food Blog January 2015-0222Most meatball recipes also incorporate some sort of aromatics, and sometimes eggs, to the mixture. This isn’t a mere unflattened hamburger; it’s a creation unto itself, and it needs some backup singers to really make the performance impressive. Onions or garlic, sweated or sautéed before incorporating, are common additions. Herbs, parsley perhaps the most common, are also frequent meatball interlopers.

Food Blog January 2015-0220In deciding on meatballs as my project for the year, I am challenging myself with ratios and with flavor combinations. Ratio-wise, the quantities of meat to bread crumbs to eggs to seasoning must be considered; I want a meatball with good structural integrity – it can’t fall apart during cooking – but I also want something light and springy, not tough and dense. Thus quantities, but also mixing and cooking techniques, must be mastered. As for flavor combinations, this isn’t a dish where you can taste a little at a time. It’s not a slice of roast pork that you can eat with or without the vegetable side. Everything in that little sphere must mingle well. Every ingredient must belong, with nothing extra and nothing missing.

Food Blog January 2015-0221I must admit that I am not a huge fan of the most common meatball incarnation in this country. The planet-sized spheres that arrive, drowning in marinara, balanced uneasily atop a plate of spaghetti, have never thrilled me. But outside that standard, pasta-draped option, I love a good meatball. I hope you do too.

So here’s the challenge: once a month, I will present you a meatball recipe. I have some ideas already, but I’m starting myself out gently with a few recipe adaptations before I strike out into unpracticed territory. And if you have any meatball ideas you’d like to see actualized, let me know in the comments or send me an email! I’ll happily cook something up.

Food Blog January 2015-0225For the opening act, I looked no further than Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi in their stellar cookbook Jerusalem. I love this volume. When I bought it for myself last year, I gave up marking recipes I wanted to try with a post-it note because, let’s face it, that’s just not helpful when you are marking almost every page. But the Lemony Leek Meatballs, curiously filed in the vegetable section, stood out. First of all, as Ottolenghi and Tamimi note, they are packed with a staggering quantity of leeks which, despite the beef that makes up the “meat” component, really do emerge as stars in the dish. Secondly, the sauce, chicken broth spiked with a tremendous dose of lemon juice, sounded so bright and aggressive with flavor that I just wanted to drink a mugful.

Food Blog January 2015-0226I wasn’t disappointed. The meatballs sear up golden and aromatic, and as they simmer in the sauce they soak up its acidity and turn it into something outrageous – an intensely savory lemon caramel coating around fragrant pyramids (mine wouldn’t stay round). The leeks and beef are a stellar combination, and the addition of fresh bread crumbs as well as the gently pulverized leeks keep the meatballs light and fresh, probably why they are classified as an appetizer or starter in Jerusalem.

Food Blog January 2015-0228I’ve made a few changes from the original, a dicey business with beloved traditional recipes like many of these, but they are minor. Rather than steaming the leeks, I’ve sautéed them gently in a mixture of butter and olive oil for extra flavor. To keep with my project theme, I’ve maintained the ball shape, rather than flattening them into patties as Ottolenghi and Tamimi direct. Finally, as I’ve noted below, I increased the number of meatballs – rather than 8, as in the original recipe, I’ve done 12, and really you could easily make 16 from the same amount of mixture.

Food Blog January 2015-0236Forewarning: this is a lengthy process. Like, if you are really on top of your game and quick on the prep and ready to multitask, “lengthy” means about two hours. The leeks must be cooked down first, which takes a good 20 minutes, and then cooled. The meat mixture, once it’s formed into balls, must be chilled for a full half hour to ensure that they stay together in the pan. After searing, the meatballs simmer in the rich, tart broth for another half hour, and then must cool a bit, as they taste better just warm or at room temperature than scaldingly hot out of the pan. All this means you are looking at almost two hours of prep and cooking time – not onerous, particularly because half an hour of that is just cooling your heels while your meatballs do the same, but worth noting before you charge in hoping to have dinner on the table in the blink of an eye.

Serving suggestions: tuck them into warm pita or naan with the yogurt and perhaps a few slices of cucumber, or sit them on a bed of fragrant couscous shot through with toasted nuts and green onions, or maybe some finely chopped dried apricots. Add a sprinkle of good, tart feta to the top for some extra zing.

Lemony Leek Meatballs
adapted from Jerusalem
serves 2-3 as an entree, 4-6 as part of an appetizer plate
NOTE! Takes the better part of 2 hours
6 large trimmed leeks, root end and dark green portion removed
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
9 ounces ground beef (just over ½ a pound)
scant 1 cup bread crumbs (1-2 slices)
2 large eggs
1¼ cups chicken stock
⅓ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
⅓ cup greek yogurt
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
  • Slice the trimmed leeks in half lengthwise to form long half-cylinders. Rinse well, being sure the water gets in between the layers, where dirt can be hidden. Shake off and slice across into ¾ inch slices.
  • Heat 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the leeks and ½ teaspoon salt, and clamp on the lid. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes, until the leeks are completely tender but not browned.
  • Drain leeks in a colander, pushing them against the sides with the flat of a wooden spoon to press out some of the water. Leave to cool, then squeeze out any residual water with a clean kitchen towel.
  • Dump leeks into a food processor and pulse a few times until well chopped, but not mush. Place them in a large bowl with the ground beef, bread crumbs, eggs, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of black pepper, and use your fingertips to gently combine the ingredients into a homogenous mix. Try not to overwork. The final mixture will be quite soft.
  • Gently form the mix into 12-16 equal balls and refrigerate 30 minutes (this gives the bread crumbs some time to absorb some of the fat and liquid in the mixture, and helps these delicate, soft meatballs stay together).
  • Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat in the same large skillet (wipe it out first if there is leek detritus lingering). Gingerly add the meatballs, being sure they don’t touch, and sear until golden-brown on all sides (2-3 minutes for each side); you can do this in batches if necessary.
  • Now, pour on the chicken stock – it should come about halfway up the sides of the meatballs; maybe a bit higher. Add the lemon juice and remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then pop on the lid, turn the heat down to medium or medium-low, and simmer gently for 30 minutes.
  • After 30 minutes, remove the lid and cook for a few more minutes, if necessary, until almost all the liquid in the pan has evaporated. Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside to cool.
  • Serve the meatballs just warm or at room temperature, with a dollop of the yogurt and a sprinkle of parsley.

Project Sauce: Sole Meunière

We are now, with one exception that you’ll see in a week or two, deep into the butter portion of this sauce project. It makes sense. Most of the big deal “mother” sauces are French, and the French do have a soft spot for butter. And that makes sense too. I mean, all you have to do is melt a few tablespoons of butter and you’ve already got a sauce. Think of the way it softens with the maple syrup on your pancakes, becoming something so much richer and more complex than either would have been by themselves! So let’s talk about some buttery details for a minute, and then I’ll take you to our sauce this week: meunière, a classic butter and lemon sauce specifically intended to be served with a sautéed filet of sole.

Food Blog August 2014-0418As I continue to learn about sauces, I’m seeing emulsion after emulsion. A fat bound to a liquid, often with some thickening agent that gives body to the sauce and helps the normally separate ingredients get along. Think vinaigrette: the fat is the olive oil, the liquid is the vinegar. Dropped into a glass together, they form distinct layers. But beat them vigorously, often with a dollop of mustard to help them blend, and they become a thick, rich dressing. Kitchen magic.

Food Blog August 2014-0402What I’m finding quite interesting about butter is that whole butter, the sort we buy in paper-wrapped sticks, is in fact an emulsion in itself. The butterfat, which is what solidifies when milk is churned, is the fat portion. But there is also some water in butter, and there are milk proteins too, which stabilize the emulsion. So in that one stick you have a liquid component and a fat component, hanging together in stasis.

Food Blog August 2014-0409When you brown butter, that darling of savory and sweet concoctions alike, several things happen. First, as the butter melts and bubbles furiously, you are seeing the water content boil off. If you stop at this point, skimming off any solids on the surface and reserving just the molten gold of the butterfat, you have clarified butter. But if instead you keep cooking it, the milk proteins that once acted as emulsifiers start to toast, and become deeply bronzed, and you have brown butter. You can even see those proteins roasting and browning in the photo above.

Meunière sauce capitalizes on brown butter. And with the water content of the butter boiled off, it needs a liquid to play with again, so we add the tart brightness of lemon juice. And then, for an herbal note, a scattering of parsley. That’s it. It’s so simple it feels almost like cheating. And yet it’s a classic, likely because how could a splash of butter and lemon be anything but delicious?

Food Blog August 2014-0410Unlike most other sauces, aside perhaps from hollandaise, meunière is pretty dish specific. It doesn’t really stand alone; it’s a sauce but also indicates preparation: sole meunière, or sometimes trout meunière. And though I obeyed and ladled mine over two delicate white filets, I could just as easily see this sauce, essentially a hot vinaigrette, serving as a bright gravy for mashed potatoes or roasted chicken. I would ladle it over a great tray of steamed green beans, or even stir some pasta into it and add shaved parmesan to the top (sidenote: as a kid who didn’t like marinara sauce on pasta, I would have welcomed this alternative with wide-open taste buds).

Food Blog August 2014-0405But as I said, I went traditional here. Not as traditional as sautéing or deboning the fish tableside, as some classic preparations demand, but I resisted my usual urge to add twists or additional ingredients. I wanted to see what this was about.

Okay, so I added some lemon zest to the salt and pepper I used to season the fish before dredging it in flour. But really, such a tiny alteration hardly counts, right? And when you serve the filet tenderly over some rice pilaf and drag your green beans through the last remnants of the sauce, well, words fail (no, seriously. I’ve sat here for fifteen minutes trying to think of how to tell you it was good!). Bring on the butter. She is clearly justified as the diva of the sauce world.

Food Blog August 2014-0412

 

Sole Meunière
Adapted from Ina Garten and Anne Burrell
Serves 2
4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 filets of sole, 3-4 ounces each
Salt and pepper for sprinkling
Zest of 1 lemon
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons minced parsley

 

  • Preheat your oven to warm (200F or so) and place a sheet tray with a rack balanced over it inside. This will allow you to keep the fish warm and crisp while the sauce finishes.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
  • While the butter melts, unwrap your fish and season both sides with a sprinkle of salt, pepper, and lemon zest.
  • Dredge the filets lightly in flour and then lay them flat straight into the pan, being sure they are not touching. If they sit around in their floury state, they will not get crisp.
  • Sauté for 2 minutes over medium-high, until the fish begins to look opaque. It will be about ⅔ cooked at this point. Flip each filet carefully, again, being sure they are not touching, and cook another 1-2 minutes until the bottom is golden and comes away easily from the pan. Remove each filet to the rack in the preheated oven.
  • Wipe out the pan and heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, again over medium-high heat. When it is melted and bubbling furiously, add the lemon juice and stir to combine.
  • As the butter starts to brown, which should only take about a minute, season the sauce with salt, add the parsley, and remove from heat.
  • Transfer the fish to a plate or serving platter and spoon or carefully pour the sauce over the fish to serve.

Strawberry Lemonade Jam

If you’re like me, you’ve already been totally seduced by the complex sweet perfume of summer strawberries, lying there all innocent-like in their little baskets and boxes… maybe even twice. Okay three times. Seriously, that smell! I take home pints, pounds, flats. But here’s the embarrassing thing: once those little red gems have enticed me into slapping down dollars to take them home, I eat a few, nibbling around the hull, I cut up a handful and stir them through yogurt, I may even sprinkle on some sugar and dollop on some lightly sweetened whipped cream.

Food blog June 2014-3929But the remaining berries languish. They flirt with me, teasing me with that gorgeous aroma, but once they are safely home and in the fridge (fruit molds FAST in my Southern California kitchen), the affair is half over already. I – how could I ever? – forget about them. And when they are weak and softening and reluctant to be sliced without collapsing, I try frantically to think of ways to use them so I won’t waste their summery tartness.

Well then, let’s jam. Strawberry lemonade jam. It’s an easy prospect. It’s a perfect non-adventure for a lazy day when pajamas are the right wardrobe choice, that novel you’ve been longing to finish finds its way into your hand, and you aren’t ready for breakfast until almost afternoon. And if that breakfast is toast with still-warm jam, well, carry on.

Food Blog Photo Friday 2014-3357Strawberries, a few flurries of sugar, a generous squeeze of lemon (freshly squeezed, please), a pinch of salt for its indescribable magic (you won’t taste it, but it will heighten the flavors of the other ingredients), and if you’re feeling sassy, a drizzle of framboise or chambord for extra depth and tingle. I’m nearly always feeling sassy. Then a long, slow simmer, almost an hour, until the fruit breaks down and the bubbles get thick and sluggish. Strawberries don’t have huge quantities of pectin, so this isn’t a tremendously thick jam, but who needs that, in the summer?

Food blog June 2014-3934There’s little else to say, because really, a perfect summer beverage in jam form doesn’t need much advertisement, but I suppose we can linger over serving suggestions for a moment. A languid spoonful oozed over toast, or pancakes, or dribbled into the holes of a waffle, is perfectly acceptable. If the day has, as they say, “gotten away from you” in its summery glory, a soft ladle over vanilla ice cream could never be a bad thing. If you’re more of the cocktail type, a drizzle of jam topped with gin and soda would cool and sweeten a sweltering afternoon.

Food blog June 2014-3944I went as far as using this for the filling in a batch of cupcakes I took to a baby shower last month. A quick slather between layers of cake would do nicely as well. But really, since I’m a bit of a purist, I think my favorite application was slathered across the slightly over-toasted surface of an unapologetically thick slice of homemade sourdough bread.

Let’s do summer. Let’s jam.

Food blog June 2014-3943

Strawberry Lemonade Jam
Makes…. well, it was a summer afternoon… and I forgot to measure… but it certainly made enough to play with for several days.
1 ½ pounds strawberries, hulled and roughly chopped
⅔ cups granulated sugar
½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (I needed two lemons for this. You may need more or less depending on how juicy yours are)
pinch of salt
2 teaspoons fruity liqueur such as framboise or chambord, optional.
  • Dump all ingredients into a pot. Set your stove to medium heat and stir gently to combine and begin dissolving the sugar. Continue to stir occasionally as things heat up.
  • After ten minutes, the strawberries and sugar will be foaming up bright pink bubbles. Stir and reduce the heat to medium-low. We do want to evaporate some of the liquid the strawberries are exuding, but not burn the sugar.
  • Simmer for another 30-45 minutes for a loose but still spreadable jam. It will still look quite thin when you take it off the heat, but will thicken as it cools. If you are unsure about thickness, put a tablespoon or two on a plate and stick it in the freezer for five or ten minutes to see how thick the finished product will be.
  • Because strawberries don’t have a tremendous amount of pectin, this all-fruit concoction will never be as thick as a commercial jam. If that is what you are looking for, you will have to add thickener.
  • Serve warm or cool, in or on, or even under, your favorite bread product, or see serving suggestions above.