Thursday, May 28, 2009

Crispy, Delicate Apple Strudel



The May Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Caf├ęs of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers.

When I first read the challenge, I couldn't actually remember what a strudel was. Apparently, it consists of a gently spiced apple and raisin filling, rolled in a crispy, flaky dough. As I read further, I thought, "this really IS daring." Instructions like "gently stretch and pull the dough", it "will become too large to hold", and "stretch and pull the dough until it's about 2 feet wide and 3 feet long, it will be tissue thin by this time" were beginning to worry me. Anyone that remembers my many unsuccessful attempts at pie crust probably knows why - a Daring Baker I may be, but a gentle, delicate baker, I am not.

Well, I guess this must have been beginner's luck ... I found the instructions and tips provided by the hosts to be spot on. I had no trouble stretching the dough, and the final product was so thin you could see through it.

This dough seems completely foolproof. It was malleable, elastic and smooth. I can't remember exactly how I did it, and hey, anyone up for some fun should try it out for themselves anyway. All I can say was that it was incredible to work with. I stretched it over my arms, over a counter, moved it around on the sheet I used to cover the counter, lifted, pulled, dangled, swung, and coaxed this dough. It was tactile, experimental but ultimately easy and successful. Like play-dough for food snobs!

And the result was delicious. I simply can't believe such a flaky, buttery dough can be made by hand. Oh yea, the apples inside were pretty good too. For the full recipe, check out either Linda or Courtney's blog above.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Who the heck is Sandra Lee?

So I know it's been a while since I've posted. I've been having writer's block and ok, I guess I have no other excuse. I'm on a short trip to New York with my family for the holiday weekend. JetBlue actually isn't too bad: free DirectTV, most of which I watched without headphones. One Hit Wonders of the 80's on VH1 Classic, that takes me back. Ok, I'll confess that for most of that one, my husband loaned me his headphones. But before that I watched a show, soundless, on the Food Network, that I've never had the privilege of seeing before. I hope that it was the lack of sound, but I fear not. This may be the most revolting show I've ever seen:

Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee

At first I didn't notice the "Semi" in front of the name, but as I watched her roll up slices of bologne and shove them into a pile of pre-washed, pre-cut iceburg lettuce, it began to dawn on me. The premise of the show seems to be to buy some packaged stuff at the supermarket, slightly rearrange it on a pretty mint colored platter (hopefully it matches your sweater as hers did) and serve it to your helpless guests. I looked for a link online to this innovative presentation of antipasti. Although, I couldn't find a link to the video, I did find the recipe, and on the way I found another masterpiece...

A summary... Buy chocolate frosting in a can, mix in some powdered sugar, dump spoonfuls of it on a plate, stick it in the fridge and serve this as, you guessed it, chocolate truffles. I'll bet you've never had truffles quite like these.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Fresh Ricotta Gnocchi with Arugula, Pine Nuts and Basil


Am I both a daring baker and a daring cook? A few week's ago, I participated in my first Daring Bakers challenge by making Almond Biscotti and Hazelnut Cheesecake. This month was the inaugural challenge for the new group Daring Cooks. Hosted by Lis and Ivonne, the challenge was to make Ricotta Gnocchi as described in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.

A quick digression - some of you may be wondering why I do posts on baking and cooking challenges and what these are. They are typically kicked off with a challenge set by a host. The participants then virtually cook (or bake) together by trying the challenge in their own kitchens, spread all over the world, and then blogging about it, although you don't have to be a blogger to take part. At the end of the challenge period, the host will usually post a round up of pictures and links to all of the completed dishes. So why have I been doing these? To meet people by joining in the world community of home cooks, to learn by trying dishes I wouldn't usually make, and to spread the word about my blog, which I hope provides interesting information to people wishing to cook and eat simply, nutritiously and sustainably (just in case you forgot)!

Ok, so back to it. What the heck is ricotta gnocchi? I was sceptical when I initially read the recipe as it sounded like nothing more than shaped and boiled ricotta cheese. Bland tasting at best, completely disastrous at worst. I've had a cheese gnocchi disaster before. We ended up eating a pile of cheese for dinner. Or at least, two bites of one.

Even worse, I was having friends over for dinner on the only night I could make it. I decided to go for it anyway and serve it as a starter - who really cares about starters anyway?

Well, I was pleasantly surprised by both the process and the outcome.

First, I made my own ricotta the night before, which was fun and interesting. In a nutshell, (ok, actually in a pan, not a nutshell) you bring a mixture of whole milk, cream and salt to a simmer. Then add in lemon juice. Briefly stir, let simmer a minute, stir again, let sit a minute, stir again, and then strain through cheesecloth for an hour at room temperature. The result was beautiful. This cheese looked delicate, soft and fresh: much different than the mushy, wet look of store bought ricotta.

Having been forewarned that the ricotta for the gnocchi must be completely drained for about a day, I was careful to give the cheese plenty of room to drain. Rather than using a colander, I spread the cheese in a thin layer over cheesecloth (an old t-shirt actually), put this over a flat splatter guard, and set this over a plate. I folded the t-shirt up over the cheese to protect it from completely drying out. I let the cheese drain over the plate in the fridge overnight. the next day I had my results - the ricotta was dry, but not dried out, and very easy to shape.

To dress and serve it, I thought the cheese flavor and texture would be nicely offset by fresh, crisp flavors. In keeping with my spring mood, I decided to use lemon zest as the primary flavor in the gnocchi and then complimented this with flavors traditionally used with lemon zest: arugula, pine nuts and basil. Kind of a deconstructed pesto.

The result was fabulous. The gnocchi was completely different than anything I've had before. It was like an ultralight, fluffy, fragrant omelet or souffle, with just a hint of lemon. Serving it on a bed of greens provided a textural contrast that prevented the flavor from becoming repetitive. The nuts, basil and a drizzle of olive oil rounded out the flavors.

This is a dish I will make again, especially for a dinner party. With a bit of planning, the whole dish can be prepared ahead of time up to the last cooking step, which only takes a few minutes. It is a substantial and delicious starter, with a uniqueness that makes for interesting conversation.

Fresh Ricotta Gnocchi with Arugula, Pine Nuts and Basil

Makes 40 gnocchi, serves 4-6 entrees or 8 generous starter portions

Fresh Ricotta

  • 2 qt. (1/2 gallon, 1.9 l) whole milk
  • 1 c. (237 ml) whole cream
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt
  • 3 Tbs. fresh squeezed lemon juice

Gnocchi
  • 1 lb (2 cups, 454 grams) ricotta
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 Tbs (1/2 oz) butter
  • 1/2 tsp fine lemon zest
  • 1/2 oz (1/4 c lightly packed) grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • all-purpose flour for shaping
Final Touches
  • arugula, 1 handful per person (approx. 1/4 lb)
  • 1/2 tsp fine lemon zest
  • 1/4 c pine nuts
  • 2 Tbs basil, finely sliced
  • lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste
  1. The night before, if making fresh ricotta follow instructions on Eggs on Sunday blog. Whether store-bought or fresh, drain the ricotta as described above.
  2. Prep your equipment. Spread a plate with half an inch of all-purpose flour. Put a small pan of salted water on to boil to test the first gnocchi. Sprinkle a baking sheet lightly with flour.
  3. Push the ricotta through a splatter guard or large mesh colander with a wooden spoon (or use a food mill if you have one) to break up any large curds and to lighten the texture of the ricotta.
  4. Using a spatula, thoroughly mix in the eggs, followed by the lemon zest, salt and Parmesan cheese. The mixture should be light, fluffy and completely uniform.
  5. Use two tablespoons (the eating kind, not the measuring kind) to shape the gnocchi. Scoop about a tablespoon of the mixture into one spoon, then remove the excess by scraping the spoon face-down against the edge of the bowl. Using the other spoon, push the dough from the spoon onto the bed of flour. Sprinkle the gnocchi lightly with flour. To perform the final shaping, pick it up with lightly dusted fingers then roll it a little in your palm very gently to close up cracks and smooth edges. This video shows how the originals do it at Zuni Cafe.
  6. To test the first piece, drop it in gently boiling water. From the time it bobs to the surface, cook it for about 4 minutes. It will dramatically puff when it is close to done. Using a slotted spoon, gently lift the gnocchi out of the pan. It's done when it holds it's shape. I was worried about overcooking the gnocchi, thinking that like ravioli it would fall apart if cooked for more than a minute or two. This worked in quite the opposite way, the longer it cooked, the more the egg set the shape. I've read that if the gnocchi still won't hold it's shape, at this point you can add a teaspoon of egg white to the mixture to firm it up.
  7. Once you've verified that the mixture is correct, shape the rest of the gnocchi. You can add more than one piece to the flour at a time, but be sure not to allow them to touch. After shaping each piece, place on the floured baking sheet.
  8. Put the baking sheet in the fridge to rest for at least an hour. I rested mine for about 5 hours with no problem. I covered them in plastic wrap for most of this so that they wouldn't get dried and rubbery, removing the covering an hour before cooking so that any condensation could evaporate. Allow the gnocchi to come back to room temperature before cooking.
  9. Before cooking, prep the rest of the dish. Wash and dry the arugula thoroughly, then dress it in a 1:3 mixture of lemon juice and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Pile the arugula on individual serving plates. Lightly toast the pine nuts in a small pan on medium low heat for 5 minutes, tossing occasionally to prevent burning.
  10. Just before serving, cook the gnocchi as described in step 6 in a large pot of boiling, salted water. Cook in batches with only enough gnocchi to cover the surface of the water in a single layer.
  11. Drain three or four gnocchi at a time with a slotted spoon, let dry a moment in the spoon and then place gently on the arugula, serving about 5 per person.
  12. Sprinkle with the lemon zest, pine nuts and basil. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Serve and sit down to enjoy!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Updating Risotto with Whole Grains and Spring Veggies


In my last post, I decided that I was definitely going to branch out from my usual Italian and Irish fare into more diverse, particularly vegetarian, cuisines. Tonight I got the vegetarian part right, not so much the branching out part.

After going to the Farmer's Market last weekend, my fridge is filled with spring onions, garlic, leafy greens and beautiful purple and green asparagus. Whenever asparagus comes in season, I'm inspired to make risotto, that oozing, creamy, silky rice dish that lends itself so well to delicate spring vegetables.

One thing I don't like about risotto, and the main reason I get sick of it as soon as asparagus goes out of season, is that it consists mainly of starchy white rice which leaves me with a heavy, sluggish feeling.

So today, I thought I'd go crazy and try a healthier version using brown rice and pack it with spring veggies. I found myself remembering my brown rice pudding experiment and thinking that this will be a waste of perfectly good vegetables, but I was not to be deterred. We could always order pizza.

The challenge, of course, would be the texture. Risotto is made with very specific types of rice (I usually use arborio) which have a short, plump shape and high starch content. The starch is what creates the oozing texture. The rice is briefly sauteed in a base of fragrant vegetables and olive oil, then cooked slowly by stirring in spoonful after spoonful of stock or water. You're never simmering the rice, but rather stirring the liquid into it, over and over and over. This repeated motion is what draws the starch out of the rice. By the time the rice is cooked through, half of it has dissolved and mixed with the stock to create a thick, flavorful sauce.

The problem with brown rice is twofold. First, the cooking time: risotto takes about 40 minutes, which is about 4 times as long as the same rice would take to cook simmering on the stove. Given that brown rice takes about 45 minutes to cook (at Boulder altitude), this projects to a cooking time of 3 hours, stirring all the while. Hmmm. No wonder I've never seen a recipe for brown rice risotto.

The second problem is the rice bran. I assume that this coating, which gets polished off to create white rice, will probably be a nice layer of protection for the very starches which I want to release.

I decided to ignore the second problem, figuring that if I can at least get the rice to cook, then I'd be left with a soupy stew, which might not taste like risotto, but would be edible.

Back to the first problem. I didn't want to parboil the rice, as I was worried that it would get fluffy before it's time, and therefore I'd miss my starch release window. But I couldn't possibly stir it for three hours. Instead I did a combination stir/simmer method. After sauteing the rice and deglazing the pan, I went about making the risotto as usual, adding a spoonful of stock, stirring it in, adding, stirring, and so on. I did this for about 20 minutes. Next I added a few extra spoonfuls of liquid, stuck the lid on and let it simmer for about 10 minutes. Then I removed the lid and went back to the risotto stirring method for a few minutes. I repeated this process for about an hour.

The resulting texture was not quite as silky as white rice risotto, but it was definitely pleasant and unmistakably risotto. In fact, there was one improvement. Risotto is supposed to be cooked just until the rice has a bit of bite left in it, rather than until mushy. The chewiness of the brown rice enhanced the characteristic contrast between the soft texture of the sauce and the al dente bite of the rice.

One final tip - because this risotto takes much longer to cook than white rice risotto, don't add all of the veggies to the pot at the beginning, or it will end up bland and colorless. Reserve half to add at, or close to, the end. And go crazy with the veggies. I've put the ones that I used here for reference, but this is very specific to produce available in May in Colorado!

Here is my heavily modified recipe, adapted from The Naked Chef, by (my hero, sigh) Jamie Oliver.

Springtime Brown Rice Risotto with Asparagus Serves 4

  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 5 Egyptian bunching onions (or spring onions)
  • 4 stalks celery, finely chopped
  • 1 stalk Elephant garlic (or 2 cloves garlic, minced)
  • 1/2 lb. asparagus
  • 1 1/2 c. short grain brown rice
  • 1/2 c. dry white vermouth
  • 1 quart low (or no) sodium stock (chicken or vegetable) plus extra water
  • 4 Tbs. butter, cut into large chunks
  • 1 large handful grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 small handful mint, roughly chopped
  • sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

Cut the elephant garlic into thirds crosswise. Save the end third for making stock another time. Finely slice the remaining green and white parts separately. Repeat with the spring onions.

Remove the tough ends from the asparagus by holding both ends and bending until the stalk snaps. Cut the tips from the asparagus. Finely slice the stalks. Blanch the tips for about 30 seconds in rapidly boiling water, then plunge them into ice water to keep them from cooking further. Remove and drain.

Ok, prep time is over...now to cook the risotto!

Heat the olive oil to medium/medium low in a large pan. Add the red onion, white part of the spring onions, the celery, and a large pinch of salt. Sweat them without coloring for about 5 minutes until soft. Add the white part of the garlic and cook for another two minutes.

Turn the heat up a bit, then add the rice. Stir it continuously, so as not to color. After a few minutes, it will look translucent. In a dramatic splash, add the vermouth (see my previous post on how much fun this is), stirring to dissolve all of the delicious vegetable residue from the bottom of the pan.

Once the vermouth is cooked into the rice, add the first spoonful of stock, the sliced asparagus stalks and a pinch of salt. Continue to cook for about an hour using the stir/simmer technique described above. Also, check for seasoning periodically, adding salt and pepper to taste.

When the rice is soft with a slight bite remaining, remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the butter, cheese, green ends of the onions and garlic, the asparagus tips and the mint. Be conservative with the mint - you want just a hint. Leave covered to rest for about five minutes.

Finally, check the texture, adding a little more liquid if necessary, and seasoning. Serve garnished with grated Parmesan and a little more mint. Goes well with a crisp green salad.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Eating Well (and Vegetarian?) in India (Part II)


As promised in my last post, I'd like to do a roundup of my favorite dishes from my recent trip to Pune, in Maharashtra, India.

First and foremost, the sheer selection of vegetarian dishes was incredible. As I've said before, I've struggled with the question of whether to go veg for quite a while, and I pretty much don't eat meat in public anymore unless I know exactly how it was raised. But it is not very easy to eat well and avoid meat here. In recent years, I had thought that eating vegetarian had become easy, especially in Boulder, until I started actually trying to do it. Unless you have an infinite tolerance for cheese quesadillas and iceberg lettuce salads, there isn't much to offer in restaurants. And eating in my house isn't any better. I run out of ideas after about 2 meat free meals per week.

In Pune, it seemed to me that you could eat vegetarian every day for a year and try a different vegetable based dish every day. You definitely don't feel like you're missing out.

A few of my favorites (please forgive my lack of proper names) -

Dal - a soup of yellow lentils that seems to be eaten with most meals. It is significantly better than dal that you get in restaurants here. I am on record as hating lentil soup, and I really liked this.

Okra - a dish of sliced okra, rubbed in some spice and either sauteed or deep fried (I couldn't tell) was juicy, crispy, spicy, sweet and pungent all at once.

Paneer - I tried lots of different curries with paneer (a dry, pressed cottage cheese that has a similar texture to firm tofu). My absolute favorite was one made with coconut milk, spices and almonds. I've never had almonds in a curry before, and now I'm wondering why.

A few observations about grains... given my love of whole wheat bread, I was pleasantly surprised to find that whole wheat flat breads (called roti, I think) were served with all the meals I had. My hotel served breakfast of a flat whole wheat bread, almost like a thicker tortilla, stuffed with a filling which changed each day, from spinach to potato to cauliflower. Tasty, healthy and filling ... this is how I like to start my day.

Not so with the rice though. I didn't come across any brown rice, although white rice was served with every meal.

Finally, after my (attempt at humorous) rant last time about there being no desserts in India, I'll take that back and say that I did have some great desserts, although I was sorely missing a good flaky pastry.

Those doughy balls swimming in sugar syrup that you get in every Indian lunch buffet here? I definitely did not expect to ever like these. They actually have a name (Galub Jamun) and they are actually really, really good. Kind of like a denser, more fragrant version of tiramisu without the marscapone or alcohol.

And my favorite dessert was homemade - a cross between rice pudding, with some spices and grated carrot mixed in. It was delicate and refreshing.

I came away feeling inspired to stray from my typical European cooking style (Italian in summer, Irish in winter!) to experiment with more vegetable-centric cuisines. Any cookbook recommendations out there??

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Eating Well in India



I'm back - just returned from a work trip to Pune, India. I'm still completely exhausted with jet lag but wanted to update before my memory fades. I had absolutely no idea what to expect from this trip. I've heard from my co-workers and other friends who've been there about the infamous heat, traffic, water induced sickness, and culture shock upon seeing some of the poorer areas, so I was prepared to be overwhelmed.

I will admit that I was too busy to get out and see much, so I won't pretend to be an expert on life in Pune. But what I did see I found completely alive and invigorating, especially in comparison to my scenic, but almost sleepy, home in Boulder.

Like many cities, Pune seems like a big jumbled up mess of contrasts. The outskirts are comprised of a giant, very modern, hi-tech park which houses a large percentage of India's IT sector, military bases, mixed in with small, rural villages that have been absorbed into the growing city. I saw a few different areas in the center of the city - one part still had that village feeling but there were high-rise apartment buildings right smack in the middle of it, and pigs, yes pigs, walking down the street. Another downtown sector located near a number of universities seemed cosmopolitan and modern, more similar to a South American city than to it's own outskirts.

Wait, wait, wait ... is this a travel blog or a food blog? That's right, it's food. So what about the food? In my next post, I'll talk about my favorite specific dishes ... before that I'd like to discuss a few interesting things I noticed about eating customs.

This may be a reflection of the fact that I mostly ate out, but I noticed that meals consist of small portions of three or four different dishes rather than one large entree. For instance, at one meal, about eight of us ordered four different dishes. The waiter served each of us a bit of each, occasionally refilling empty portions. I found this nice for two reasons. First, it was more social for everybody to taste and discuss the food together. Second, it was a nice way of eating just the right amount. In American restaurants, I usually find the portions to be just a little too big, so I overeat because I do not like to leave uneaten food on my plate.

I will mention one definite downside - people don't seem to eat much dessert, and what they do eat seems almost healthy, like rice pudding. No chocolate, no cake, no pastries. Geez, the only reason I eat out is so that I can get through dinner to try some new exotic dessert that I don't know how to make at home. In fact, people there tend to avoid many vices common to the American diet, specifically meat, alcohol, and obviously dessert. Perhaps I can understand the avoidance of meat, I struggle with this question myself. Avoiding alcohol I understand less. But dessert? This is a serious cultural shortcoming... life without the occasional well-made pain au chocolate is like life without, umm, life. Although I have noticed that people tend to be a little thinner there. Hmmm....

Finally, my traveling companion and I were treated with incredible generosity, especially with respect to meals. We were invited out for wonderful dinners, including one where we sampled local wine from India's budding wine industry, invited to one family's home for a delicious homemade dinner, and one gentleman even changed important family plans to include us and everyone from the office in these plans. Again, perhaps this was just my specific experience and not an actual cultural difference, but I do have a feeling that Americans are not quite as sociable as some other nationalities. If I compare how we were hosted by our co-workers in India to how we host them when they come to visit, we homebody Americans may suffer in the comparison.

Ok, so you might be getting the feeling that I liked it there. I did. Despite the traffic, which is quite entertaining to the visitor, probably not so entertaining to the daily commuter. It wasn't that hot while I was there. I managed to avoid the water (lips pressed tightly shut in the shower), so I didn't get sick. And I didn't venture far, so wouldn't say I saw a wide cross section of people. Given all of these caveats, I definitely enjoyed the trip.

Check in a few days to see some pictures and descriptions of interesting dishes I tried...

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Check Back Soon

I'm going on hiatus for a week. I'll try to post while I'm away, but if not, please check back in a week for a first-hand report on food in INDIA!!!!