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).
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Vegetable pickles, three kinds

Food Blog April 2015-0565Not long ago, I finished Cooked, Michael Pollan’s latest, in which he seeks to elucidate the magic of our kitchens. He looks at the transformative power of each of the four elements when applied to ingredients, and works to understand the connections we draw from and through what we eat as it ceases to be raw materials and becomes food. I couldn’t put it down. I tore through it like a fluffy bedtime novel, as my friend S. probably knew I would when she sent me a copy.

Food Blog April 2015-0548In a number of ways, Pollan’s investigation reminded me of my own scholarly work a few years ago when I was a graduate student. Though I was focused on medieval literature, I was intensely interested in what we could learn about human – and not-so-human – beings by examining the literary depictions of how and what they ate. Dietary habits, I thought, along with sexual practices, might be what determines humanness within this field of literature. Too much, too little, or too weird, and your food habits moved you outside what we think of as human, and into something else.

Food Blog April 2015-0546Unsurprisingly, as anyone who has researched food and its cultural impacts deeply knows, this led me to anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and The Raw and the Cooked, the first volume of his elaborate, complex exploration of human myth and culture. Without getting too academic, I’ll just say that Levi-Strauss thinks a great deal of the development of culture happens as – and as a result of – foodstuffs transforming from raw to cooked. His analogy equates the wild to the raw, and the civilized to the cooked.

Food Blog April 2015-0549Pollan pulls on and plays with this idea, considering that if indeed cooked food represents culture or civilization, then there must be something about the cooking process itself that is civilizing and bridging. The four elements he examines are aligned with four types of cooking methods: fire explores the tradition of barbecue; water looks at stews and braising; air relates his adventures in the magic/science of bread baking; and earth digs into fermentation, the weird, marginally repulsive transformation of fresh food into pickles, or beer, or cheese – food that is prized and yet impacted by earth and death and rot.

Food Blog April 2015-0552This, too, reminded me of my own work (and don’t worry, we’re getting to the recipe part here soon), particularly an article I ran across as I was working on the Chaucer chapter of my dissertation. Subtitled “The Raw, the Cooked, and the Rotten,” the article took on Levi-Strauss’s nature/culture formulation and added a step to accommodate one of the characters in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. If raw food is wild and cooked food is civilized, what happens when that cooked food goes bad? This seemed to equate to my idea of people who had exceeded the limits of humanness through their eating habits, turning food into waste.

Food Blog April 2015-0557But I was looking at food habits from a perspective of too little as well as too much. What about superhuman beings who survived without eating, or whose bodies remained impenetrable, and un-penetrated, by the eventual corruption of food? I hypothesized making this triangle a square: adding preservation as a fourth corner. Suspended in limbo by sealing oneself against the external corruption consumption and digestion can bring, you remain preserved. This is not humanly possible, but it is not considered with disgust in medieval literature. Rather, such individuals hang closer to the divine than to the monstrous or subhuman.

Food Blog April 2015-0551Though this is not quite the four-some Pollan presents, I think fermentation and preservation have some similarities. In being preserved by their “cooking” process, fermented foods and preserved foods are mysterious blends of human and natural magic. Jams and jellies, preserved by being cooked with sugar, are the sweet side of this equation. Pollan opts to explore sauerkraut and cheese and beer. Today, I’m taking on pickles: simple raw, sliced vegetables transformed, “cooked,” and held in briny limbo by vinegar, sometimes sugar, and salt.

Food Blog April 2015-0559When N. and I got serious, we started using pickles as a metaphor for our relationship. In most refrigerators, there is a jar of pickles shoved way in the back, often on the top shelf, getting in the way of the orange juice and the milk and the mayonnaise. When you finally pull that jar out and peer inside, it’s almost never full. There are one or two pickles in there, floating around in the dill-and-peppercorn-laced brine, warty and sour and beautiful. The ubiquity of that pickle jar became our metaphor. As long as there were pickles in our fridge, we would be okay.

Food Blog April 2015-0560As with most Americans, I would wager, the pickles I was accustomed to when I was younger were always cucumber based, and usually dill (though I am a fiend for bread and butter pickles). I had no real sense that other sorts of vegetables could be pickled (aside from beets, thanks to my Nana) until I started frequenting the McMenamins pubs, an Oregon and Southern Washington chain of sorts featuring decent beer, good burgers, and remarkably slow service. Our little graduate crew went often – there were three different locations in the city of Eugene alone. Their hummus platter, ever present on the appetizer menu, came with a variety of vegetables along with triangles of pita, and often the spears of green bean and carrot, and the occasional nub of cauliflower, were pickled. Of course I had little thought of doing this myself until, chasing after an elusive potato salad that included pickled green beans, I started noticing how expensive these various vegetable pickles were in the grocery store. Recreating that potato salad required pickled green beans, dammit, and as a poor graduate student I was both unable and morally opposed to spending $7.99 on a slender little jar.

Food Blog April 2015-0561Fortunately, vegetable pickles are easy and fall within even a humanities graduate student’s budget. Vinegar, sugar, and a healthy shower of salt, heated to a simmer to dissolve the crystals. Jam as many vegetables as you can into a jar, shove in some flavoring agents: bay leaf, mustard seeds, dill, fennel, and pour on the vinegar. Cap, relocate to the fridge, and remember them a few days later when they’ve had a chance to sour up.

Food Blog April 2015-0562Vegetable pickles seem entirely suitable for the season. Fresh, young vegetables are great for pickling, especially while they are still small in size, so the vinegar can penetrate faster. Slender carrots, or plump radishes, or the tiny lanterns of young peppers, are a sign of spring that is often gone too fast. Pickles, though, hold that spring forever, jarred and capped and safe on the top shelf lurking behind the orange juice. Though they are not unaltered – the raw crispness is indeed transformed – in that way too they are like a spring gone by, or perhaps the memories of that spring that remain. It’s not that perfect, warm day anymore, but you remember its brightness – you need only uncap the jar and fish out a crisp briny souvenir.

Food blog April 2015-0616I’ve done three types of pickle here: onion, carrot, and radish. Each is seasoned with a different combination of spices, and because I like to be fancy, I’ve used a different variety of vinegar. The radishes, I must admit, are my favorite. To play on their peppery flavor, I’ve added mustard seeds and a dried chili, but teased them as well with a heaping helping of sugar for the sweet-hot kick.

Food blog April 2015-0634While these are lovely in salads, as part of a cheese or hummus plate, or just bright and sour on a fork, they are dynamite on a sandwich. And as the above photo suggests, it is on a sandwich that they found their sprightly home for us. Specifically, on a banh mi sandwich, that fresh, crisp Vietnamese invention. Even more specifically, on the idea that spawned my whole 2015 project: a banh mi-tball. There are essentially three components to this sandwich. These pickles are the first. Next week we’ll look at the bread (the true banh mi), and in the third and final installment, pork meatballs awash in aromatics, simmered in a miso-spiked broth I wanted to drink all on its own.

But for the moment, let’s just revel in the transformative magic of pickles. You’ll need the week for them to get good and sour before you can properly enjoy the sandwich anyway.
Food blog April 2015-0619

Refrigerator Vegetable Pickles
My jars held 6 ounces (¾ cup), so these measurements are keyed to that.
Carrots:
carrot ribbons from 1 carrot to fill jar (use a vegetable peeler to create long strips)
⅔ cup white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons celery seed
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
Sweet/hot Radishes:
thinly sliced radishes to fill jar
1 small dried chili pepper
scant ⅔ cup rice wine vinegar (unseasoned)
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons sugar (¼ cup)
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
Onions:
thinly sliced red onion to fill jar
1 bay leaf
⅔ cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon fennel seed
  • For each: fill a heat-safe, lidded jar with vegetable slices (add chili or bay leaf, in the radish or onion case, respectively).
  • In a small pot, combine vinegar, salt, sugar, and other spices. Heat over medium-high, stirring occasionally, until liquid reaches a rolling boil and salt and sugar have completely dissolved.
  • Carefully, pour vinegar mixture over vegetables in jar until full. Gently push vegetables into liquid if needed – they will want to float.
  • Close jars tightly and refrigerate until vegetables are pickled to your liking – at least 2-3 days.

Relishing

I can’t remember the last time Labor Day was a holiday for me.  I mean, I haven’t worked on Labor Day in a long time – perhaps ever.  But I spent the past eleven years or so attending universities organized around the quarter system: school starts in late September and ends in mid June.  That means when this magical Monday hit and working stiffs got to switch off their alarms, I was still on summer vacation.

Boo hoo, you say, poor thing!  You had to suffer through a non-holiday because you were on holiday!  But I’d remind you that for a graduate student, even allotted holidays don’t read as such.  A Monday is another toil-on-the-dissertation day.

And yet, today, with one week of class behind me at my new job, I did not have to make the pilgrimage to Burbank.  I did not have to spend the weekend lesson planning.  Ahead of me spans a week with one (one!) day of class.  It’s enough to make a girl sob with joy!

And then there are onions.  Which are enough to make a girl sob as well, though the accompanying emotion differs a little.

These are two Bittman “recipes.”  I realized recently that, as usual, my Bittman project has fallen by the wayside.  A brief count reveals that, of the list of 82 with which I began (the whole collection has 101 items, but I knew there were some N. and I would just never eat), 34 still remain unmade.  Most are soups.  That sounds like decent progress, until I remind you that I began this project 2 years ago.  But this year, beginning for me – as for every eternal academic – at the end of summer, is a year of renewed possibility.  It’s a year of everything refreshed: new home, new jobs, new opportunities.  It’s a year to relish.

3. Red Onion with Red Wine and Rosemary: Thinly slice red onions and cook them in olive oil until very soft.  Add chopped rosemary and red wine, and cook until the jam thickens.

I used:

1 big red onion, halved, peeled, and cut into thin half-moons

1 TB olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

2 TB rosemary, finely chopped

1-2 cups red wine

1 TB brown sugar

Onions take a long time to cook down the way I suspected they needed to for this recipe.  High heat makes for crumpled, browned, crispy-edged rings.  Delicious in their own right, but not for jam.  I baby-sat the onions over medium-low heat for at least half an hour.  Their pearly-white interiors turned fragile gold as if stained by the olive oil, and their textures changed, gaining an unctuous flexibility.

I added the salt and pepper, the rosemary, the red wine and the brown sugar and stirred together carefully to dissolve the sugar.  This simmered for another half hour until the wine, sugar, and onions came together into a sticky heady mahogany swamp in the pan.  As the wine reduced, I lowered the temperature to prevent any burning.

The finished jam slumped wonderfully over baked squares of polenta, providing contrast in all the best ways: the colors were sharp, the textures played together, the flavors were rich and lovely.  The onion jam was sweet with the tang of wine and the pine-forest warmth of rosemary.  The polenta was comforting and even flavored, and it needed the sharp sweetness the jam provided.  Steamed asparagus finished out the meal.

It sounds crazy, but the next morning I had the urge to drape some of this sticky, savory jam over a piece of whole-grain toast smeared with cream cheese.  It would also, I suspect, serve well spread over a turkey burger.

1. Onion-Pumpkinseed Relish: Roast thick slices of red onion with olive oil until softened and nicely browned.  Chop, then toss with minced chives, toasted pumpkinseeds and a little more olive oil.

A number of circumstances divide these two onion concoctions.  One was made in Oregon, one was made in California.  One was made in the cold drear of an oppressively long winter, one was made on a day of endless sun as August closed.  One was slowly reduced over an electric stove, one was browned in a gas oven, and though both were shot with digital cameras, you’re seeing one through the lens of an everything-automatic Canon PowerShot, and the other through a Nikon DSLR.  Changes to relish.

½ a huge red onion

3 TB olive oil

3-4 TB pumpkinseeds, toasted in a dry pan until they are flushed with brown and starting to pop

2 TB fresh chives

In a 400F oven, I roasted the olive oil coated onion slices until they collapsed, taking on a lovely burnished crispness.  This took probably 10-20 minutes.  Check often after 10 minutes, depending upon how hot your oven runs.  Liberate the toasty onion slices and let them cool.

When onions are cool, chop them finely and toss them with the other ingredients.  I had plenty of olive oil in my baking pan to coat all the ingredients so the relish glistened, but if you need it, feel free to add another glug or two.

I served lovely little spoons of this mixture over black bean cakes.  We traded tastes, taking in the relish in one bite and an avocado tomato salad in the next.  It was a nice pairing: the relish was moist and crunchy and savory, with the right kind of nutty richness to complement the dense potential blandness of the beans.

But I don’t think this relish ends as a condiment for beans.  It would be a spectacular topping for lamb.  Spiced with a little chili powder, it would fit perfectly atop pumpkin enchiladas.  It might even be a good garnish for butternut squash soup: a small heap of confetti in a velvet orange sea, interrupting the endless smoothness with a well-oiled crunch.

Will I finish this Bittman project by the end of the calendar year?  I don’t know.  But I’m enjoying it again, whereas during the last few months of dissertating I was finding it burdensome.  The thrill of guessing quantities, rather than being annoyed by lack of specificity, is returning.  The intuition about temperature and time is audible again.  And now, on this holiday that has never felt like a holiday before, I’m relishing it all.