Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Future Called & I Let It Go To Voicemail

I have an uncanny knack for regularly arriving at the future
slightly ahead of the rest and waiting for them to catch up. At the risk of sounding (even more) arrogant, I’ve always fancied myself a bit of a Jetson living in a world of Flintstones when it comes to anything even remotely pop culture related. Case in point: I actually cancelled my subscription to US Weekly because I noticed the latest issue at the grocery store checkout several days before it arrived in my mail box! Dear US Weekly: Celebrity news has a shelf life! You know when you hear a song on mainstream radio and you announce that you really like it and someone rains on your parade by piping up, “Oh that tired old song?! I had the dance mix import from the UK nine months ago!” Subtext: You’re sooo 2000-LATE! I’m totally that guy! Obnoxious? Maybe. Okay, definitely, but I’ve always loved being “in the know” at least 15 minutes before everyone else catches on. Call it a personality quirk or a design flaw, but I can’t help it! It’s no wonder one of my favorite moments in last year’s Sex and the City movie had the girls sitting around a table sipping cosmos in a chic Manhattan restaurant and Carrie asking, “Why did we stop drinking these again?” Without missing a beat Samantha replied, “Because everyone else started.” Enough said.

And that brings me to the last few months of my life - the part where I was apparently living in the dark, or even worse, the past! Yikes! Seems I may be losing my touch. I got a call from my manager one day last spring asking me to meet with a cutting edge production company in L.A. ( about being a host of a new cooking web series called Good Bite ( “Web series?!” I asked, already conjuring up inventive excuses to get out of the meeting. “Web series,“ she reiterated, in a tone that I knew better than to argue with. Perhaps this is a good time to mention that my nickname for my manager is “Momager;” you know, like Dina Lohan or Terri Shields. Anyway, I did what I was told, met with the production company and loved what I heard! On my way home from the meeting, stuck in traffic on L.A’s 405 freeway I called my manager to say, “Get me this job! I have to be a part of this.”

Working hard behind the scenes on Good Bite

What I had been blissfully unaware of is just how big internet programming is becoming. It really is the future and apparently I missed the memo (insert Flintstone joke here). More and more people are going to their computer screens for entertainment, news and information. We no longer have to worry if we missed the latest episode of CSI, or much more critical for me, The Real Housewives of New Jersey (can you imagine?!) Entire episodes of television series are available online or on iTunes, many the very next day! Even Food Network has jumped on the bandwagon by launching their own site dedicated exclusively to webisode programming ( I hate being the last to know.

Perhaps one of the coolest things DECA is doing with the creation of Good Bite is bringing together America’s top food bloggers for lively online video discussions about all things food and cooking, along with demo videos from myself and the other Good Bite hosts. And what an honor it is to be working along side such an esteemed group. Each 2-minute episode of the show makes delicious food easy, provides accessible recipes and solutions for home cooks and an opportunity for you to become part of the discussion. The Good Bite website is focused on finding the very best in food and bringing it to you in a fresh and inventive way.

Working hard behind the scenes on Good Bite

All I can say is it’s a good thing I didn’t let the phone go to voicemail the day my Momager called about that fateful meeting. Turns out she had some news for me... about the future.

Killer Burgers with Roasted Tomatoes,
Caramelized Balsamic Onions
& Smoky Chipotle Ketchup

Serves 6

2 1/4 pounds ground brisket
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons steak sauce (recommended: A1 Brand)
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper
3 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter

1 pound red onions, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch rings
2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
Kosher salt, to taste
2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar

1 cup ketchup
1 to 2 teaspoons canned chipotle peppers*, seeded and diced, or to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons adobo sauce from can, or to taste
2 teaspoons aged balsamic vinegar
Kosher salt & freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

6 Roma tomatoes
Olive oil for drizzling
Kosher salt & freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

6 Brioche Rolls or good hamburger buns, split, cut side toasted or grilled
6 thick slices sharp cheddar cheese
2 cups baby arugula leaves
1 ripe avocado, peeled and sliced

To caramelize the onions, heat oil over low heat in a large skillet. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, for 20 minutes or until soft and deep golden brown. Don’t rush this part. It really does take about 20 minutes to develop the sugars and caramelize the onions. Trust me, your patience will be rewarded. They key to success is low and slow. Season with salt and pepper and add the balsamic vinegar during the last couple of minutes to deglaze the pan. Can be made 3 days ahead. Cover; chill.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Slice the tomatoes in half lengthwise and remove the seeds. Spread tomato halves on a sheet pan and drizzle with olive oil. Season generously with salt and pepper and toss together to ensure everything is coated evenly. Roast for 45 minutes, cut side up, without turning, until the tomatoes are concentrated and caramelized. Can be made 3 days ahead. Cover; chill.

To make the ketchup, Stir together the ketchup, chipotle peppers and adobo sauce in a small bowl. Whisk in the vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Can be made 3 days ahead. Cover; chill.

To make the burgers, whisk together the egg yolks, steak sauce and salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add the ground brisket and put a touch of olive oil on clean hands to keep meat from sticking and to prevent over mixing. Carefully work the meat with your fingertips until just combined. It’s important not to overwork the meat, doing so results in a tough burger. To form patties, shape a loose ball in your hand and press half a tablespoon of the cold butter into the center of the meat. Lightly form each hamburger with the balls of your hands making sure the butter is entirely encased, but don’t pack the meat. The more you pack, the denser the burger will be and it will leave more potential for shrinkage. The burgers should be half an inch thick. Season both sides of the burgers with salt and pepper.

Heat an outdoor grill or indoor grill pan to medium-high.

Grill the burgers for 5 to 7 minutes on each side to desired doneness. Remove to a plate, add cheese and cover with aluminum foil. Allow the burgers to rest for 5 minutes and serve immediately on buns with desired fixin’s.

Print Recipe

Monday, June 22, 2009

Peach Crisp & Therapy

I blame it all on my Mother.
She was the queen of the perfect pie crust, hands down. People would rave when they tasted it, they’d marvel at the flaky texture and the perfect golden color. They’d inevitably ask for the recipe. She’d share it with them gladly. There wasn’t much to it, after all, just flour, salt, fat and ice water. “The same things I use!” they’d say. Ah yes, but the “secret,” she’d tell them with a Bree Van de Kamp-esque smile, lies in the technique. Ice-cold ingredients and never, ever roll out the crust more than once or it will be tough. Couple that with the fact that I never did get the Easy Bake Oven I so desperately wanted as a kid and you can see how my Mother single-handedly scared me off of making pie pastry for life! Or at least until my twenties, when after years of therapy for my culinary self-esteem I gathered the courage to attempt it again without fear of failure or judgment.

I'm kidding. Kinda.

While I’m happy to report that I’m no longer intimidated by pie pastry, I’m also not afraid to admit that I tend to favor quick and easy in the kitchen (something pie pastry doesn’t have going for it). I suppose this is my not-so-subtle way of admitting that I’m sorely lacking in the pastry-patience department, especially on hot summer days when I’d rather be anywhere but kitchen-bound, saddled with a rolling pin. That’s doesn’t mean however, that I’m not always up for a good homemade dessert, especially one that takes advantage of the beautiful stone fruits of the season. Enter: Peach Crisp!

Crisps, crumbles and cobblers, in the summer in particular, are wonderful things and require no further embellishment other than perhaps, a scoop of good vanilla ice cream. They are the essence of all that is desirable of the season and they satisfy my constant, if nagging need - yes need - for something homey and sweet. To further bolster my case, crisps are a mere fraction the effort of pie and you get all of the pay off without all the work of pie pastry - or the therapy bill it can bring.

Whew! Dessert handled. Culinary self-esteem intact.

Summer Peach Crisp
with Pecans & Toffee Bits

This recipe is from my good friend Susan Cox of Dana Point, California. Or as she’s affectionately known, my Real OC Housewife! Thanks, Susan!

Serves 6

6 cups peaches, peeled and sliced (about 2.5 lbs)
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

¾ cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
¾ cup English toffee bits (like Skor or Heath)
½ cup pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place six 1¼ cup ramekins on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper; set aside.

Meanwhile, immerse the peaches in boiling water for 30 seconds, then place them in a bowl of ice water. Peel the peaches and slice them into thick wedges and place them into a large bowl. Add the sugar, brown sugar, flour and lime juice and blend well. Divide filling evenly among ramekins.

To make the topping, whisk flour, brown sugar and salt in bowl to blend. Using fingertips rub in butter until mixture hold together in clumps. Stir in toffee and pecans; sprinkle over filling.

Bake Crisps until filling bubbles and topping is golden brown, about 40 minutes. Cool 10 minutes. Serve warm with ice cream if desired.

Print Recipe

Monday, June 15, 2009

To Brine or Not to Brine: That is the Question

This is my rebel yell
in recipe form in support of the pork chop. For some reason it just doesn’t get the respect it deserves. And it’s no wonder, when you see the pitiful displays of wafer-thin chops laid out in grocery store meat cases across the country. It doesn’t do much to inspire gastronomic creativity or debunk the myth that pork chops are dry, chewy and generally flavorless. I can’t pretend I haven’t been the recipient of a few tough, overcooked pork chops that could have passed as shoe leather in my day, no matter how much shaking and baking was involved! However, in my never ending pursuit of culinary enlightenment I’ve figured out a few things along the way that make all the difference.

1. Forget those wafer-thin pork chops in your grocer’s meat counter. Pork is bred so lean these days that it’s nearly impossible to cook something that thin without drying it out. Instead, become fast friends with the guy behind the meat counter. Ask him to cut you some nice, thick (I’m talking 2-inch thick) center-cut chops. This is the first step to changing your relationship with pork chops. I know it can be a bit intimidating talking to the gruff-looking guy behind the counter wielding the meat cleaver and sporting the bloody apron, but he doesn’t bite and special requests are actually a part of his job.

2. Brining is key. Admittedly, this requires a bit of foresight in your menu planning since the chops need to hang out in the brine for a minimum of 8 hours, but 24 is preferred to get the maximum flavor and benefit. If you’re not familiar with brining it’s an uber simple process of creating a salty solution infused with aromatics that not only give the meat big flavor from the inside out, but keep it incredibly tender and juicy. Trust me: once you’ve used this method you’ll never go back. (See recipe below).

3. What ever you do, DO NOT overcook your meat! You can brine your pork chops for a week, but if you overcook them, it's not going to matter. A perfectly cooked pork chop is actually (lean forward people) still slightly pink in the center. It should be cooked to 145° to ensure tender juiciness. I know that some of you are still adhering to your Grandma's rule that pork has to be well done otherwise, "You could end up with trichinosis!" Hmmm, perhaps now we know where pork chops that bear more of a resemblance to footwear than food came from. I know it's hard to question Grandma's wisdom, but not unlike the moment you came to grips with the truth about Santa Claus, you'll come to accept this one too. Sorry, Grandma.

If I’ve done my job effectively, hopefully I’ve convinced you to get out there and try pork chops again for the very first time. Especially when they're Brown Sugar-Brined Pork Chops with Caramelized Onion and Peach Marmalade. And for the record, the brining question? Strictly rhetorical.

Grilled Brown Sugar-Brined Pork Chops
with Caramelized Onion Peach Marmalade

Serves 4

7 cups warm water
¼ cup kosher salt
½ cup packed light brown sugar
1 sprig fresh rosemary
3 teaspoons black peppercorns
4 boneless, center-cut pork chops (each about 2 inches thick)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cups sliced sweet onions (Vidalia or Maui)
2 cups chopped peeled peaches, fresh or frozen
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

In a large bowl combine the salt, brown sugar, rosemary sprig and peppercorns. Add the warm water and stir until salt and sugar are dissolved. Allow water to cool slightly and place pork in brine and set a plate on top to keep meat completely submerged. Cover with plastic wrap and chill at least 8 hours or overnight.

To peel the peaches, bring a pot of water to the boil. Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with ice water to have at the ready. Plunk the peaches into the boiling water and let them go for roughly 45 seconds to a minute. Remove the peaches and immediately plunge into the ice bath. When they're cool enough to handle gently peel away the skins.

To make the marmalade, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and cook over low heat, stirring often, until transparent and starting to caramelize, 15 to 20 minutes. Add peaches, granulated sugar and vinegar. Cook, stirring often, until the peaches start to break down and the marmalade is caramelized and sticky, about 15 minutes. Stir in the rosemary and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Preheat an outdoor grill or indoor grill pan to medium-high heat.

Remove pork from brine and pat dry with paper towels. Brush pork lightly with olive oil and season generously on all sides with pepper. Extra salt isn’t necessary because of the brining process.

Grill pork chops, covered, turning once, until meat is done, but just slightly pink in the middle (145° on an instant read thermometer). Transfer pork to a platter, tent with foil, and let rest 5 to 10 minutes. Serve with marmalade.

Print Recipe

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Ice Cream-Making Monkey on My Back

I may very well be headed for an intervention.
I’m afraid I’ve got a monkey on my back and below is the recipe that started it all. A few days ago I posted a recipe for Cheesecake Ice Cream with Blueberry Sauce and found myself pontificating about the exact moment in time my obsession crystallized. I was given a copy of Padma Lakshmi’s latest cookbook, Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet, a beautiful tome full of exotic recipes made simple for the everyday foodie. I was drawn in by her engaging narrative, innovative twists on cooking and of course, the beautiful food photography. When I stumbled upon her recipe for Rose Petal Pistachio Ice Cream, I read the recipe with great interest and could just imagine a dense custard-based ice cream delicately perfumed with the essence of rose. I knew I was in trouble. Deep trouble. I had always resisted the notion of making my own ice cream with the same vigilance I resist making my own mayonnaise. Not that I have anything against a good homemade mayo, I just don’t have the time for such things. Oh, who am I kidding? It’s the patience that I lack. There, I said it.

Back to ice cream…

From that moment forward I went on a whirlwind ice cream making binge. I dabbled in the standards of course and got those out of the way first. I experimented with cooked custard bases and not, and have come to the solid conclusion that a cooked custard wins every time, because without it you simply cannot get that dense creaminess that is key in great ice cream. When the inevitable next step in my obsession occurred and mere chocolate, vanilla and strawberry were no longer enough, I decided to up the ante and started searching for more daring, edgy flavors. I was like a junkie chasing the proverbial ice cream-making dragon! I was elated when a search on the internet turned up a recipe for David Lebovitz’s Candied Bacon Ice Cream. Yes, you read that correctly! As a kid who was raised with a can of bacon grease in the fridge that my Mom used to fry up everything (and I do mean everything!) this recipe spoke to me. I am a firm believer in the gospel of bacon and all things salty and sweet; this ice cream simply put, is the Alpha and the Omega! However, I’m still deciding if David Lebovitz is the Devil himself for creating it.

With the arrival of the hot summer months comes the beckoning call of my Cuisinart ice cream maker in the form of its comforting, motorized whir that brings with it the promise of meltingly sweet frozen decadence in short order. I’ve tried stashing it away, out of sight, but to no avail. I know it’s there and that knowledge eventually erodes away at my resolve, swimsuit season or not! It seems that I may be saddled with this ice cream-making monkey for a while. Any suggestions as to what I should name him?

Rose Petal & Pistachio Ice Cream

From Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet
by Padma Lakshmi

Makes about 1 quart

2 cups heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
4 large egg yolks
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons rose water*
5 tablespoons rose petal jam*
¼ cup crushed, raw, unsalted pistachios
2 tablespoons dried rose petals, without stems or leaves, just petals

Heat the cream and milk over medium heat for 5 to 8 minutes, until the mixture is just below the boil. In a small bowl beat together the egg yolks, sugar and vanilla until the mixture is smooth. Add about ¼ cup of the hot cream mixture to the yolks stirring vigorously so the eggs won’t scramble. Add warmed yolk mixture back to the heated cream, whisking constantly over low heat until the mixture thickens slightly, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the rose water and rose jam. Cool the mixture completely in ice water bath (my prefered method) or in the refrigerator.

Pour the cooled custard into your ice cream maker and follow the manufacturer’s directions. When finished churning , remove the ice cream and fold in the pistachios and rose petals if using, mixing well to distribute evenly. Freeze ice cream until ready to serve.

*Rose water and Turkish rose jam are available in Middle Eastern markets and online.

Print Recipe

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

In Search of the Perfect Bite

Some people live vicariously through others, I eat vicariously through others. Allow me to explain. I am often the very willing recipient of recipe ideas and flavor combinations from just about everywhere, via the traveling adventures of my friends, sometimes even friends of friends when they find out what I do for a living. Everyone, it seems, wants to give me their latest gustatory update, be it from last weekend’s block party, or some far off vacation destination. And I eagerly want to listen and sometimes even take notes. It's not uncommon for people to show me pictures of food, taken on their cell phones with as much pride as if they were showing me their first born. I’ve even gotten calls from friends at parties describing the menu to me as they walk the buffet line. Yes, really.

Through these tidbits I've virtually tasted the food at Hollywood parties, celebrity events, birthdays, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, family reunions and countries I've never visited by taking what people tell me about their food experiences and using it as a blueprint in the kitchen for inspired creations of my own. Sometimes they actually bring me full-fledged recipes, but more often than not they’re breathless descriptions and flavor ideas that I can begin experimenting and tinkering with in the kitchen.

The following recipe idea came from just such an encounter after a friend returned from a trip to Argentina. He was telling me about the restaurants and the late night dining, and of course the beautiful steaks for which their country is known. But it was the amuse-bouche that was served at one particular restaurant that really piqued my interest. It was, for lack of a better description, a watermelon canapé. Knowing that I’m always in search of what I refer to as “the perfect bite” he described to me the simplest, most brilliant combination of sweet, juicy watermelon, soft, slightly salty mozzarella, and a thin sliver of perfectly ripe tomato stacked architecturally, the whole thing drizzled with just a touch of fresh basil oil and the slightest splash of aged balsamic vinegar. It made perfect culinary sense. All of the freshness of summer in one perfect bite.

I immediately set about experimenting with this idea and I must tell you, it is everything that I’d hoped it would be. Not to mention slightly unexpected, which is always a bonus in my book. I love making this for summertime entertaining because you can easily assemble a whole tray of them as part of a buffet, or serve one per person at the start of an elegant meal. It's pure art on a plate. Every time I serve these there's at least one person who eyes it suspiciously at first, but immediately upon tasting it becomes smitten. And I smile, knowing they’ve just experienced “the perfect bite.”

Watermelon Canapés

Serves 4 as a starter

¼ of a small seedless watermelon
1 ball of fresh mozzarella (packed in water)
2 Roma tomatoes
Aged balsamic vinegar, for drizzling

1 bunch fresh basil
3/4 to 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt & freshly cracked pepper, to taste

Bring a large pot of water to the boil and season generously with salt. Blanch the basil for 30 seconds, until bright and vibrant green. Plunge immediately into an ice bath to stop the cooking. Ring the water gently from the basil and place in a blender. With the blender running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil, completely pulverizing the basil to make a thin oil; season with salt and pepper.

To assemble the canapés, slice the watermelon into ¼-inch slices and then into 1-inch squares and place a few on a plate. Slice the mozzarella into ¼-inch slices and cut out with a small round cookie cutter slightly smaller than the watermelon squares. Slice the tomatoes in half lengthwise and squeeze gently upside down to release the seeds. Slice lengthwise into thin slivers. Place a round of mozzarella on each piece of watermelon, top with a sliver of tomato and drizzle with basil oil and balsamic vinegar.

Print Recipe

Monday, June 8, 2009

Ice Cream Makes Me Want To Scream!

I never quite understood the appeal of making homemade ice cream. Why would you when there are so many great varieties available at the market? But my Mom did when she was a young girl and she’d tell fond stories of her and her four sisters lugging out the rock salt, taking turns cranking the ice cream machine until their arms felt like they would fall off and - wait for it - how it was an all day endeavor! Poor things. Can you imagine? I would just sit there staring blankly, feeling sorry for her while I devoured my bowl of Chocolate Malted Crunch from Thrifty’s. The prospect of making ice cream didn’t appeal to me at all and I secretly wondered why she’d never thought of calling the authorities because surely this had been a form of child abuse! I had no idea my Grandma had been such a proponent of childhood slavery. “Oh, It was fun!” my Mom would say, but my eight-year-old self wasn’t buying it, nor did I believe that it tasted “even better” as she claimed because they’d spent the whole day making it together and anticipating it for that night’s dessert. Snide even at age 8, I’d roll my eyes and say something like, “God Mom, the olden days must have been hard. Were you raised on the prairie? Did you have to milk cows too?” Ah yes, the snarkiness of youth, all the while thinking I knew all the things I was still too naïve to know I didn’t know.

As I got older and (I thought) my tastes more discerning, I eventually turned my back on the pedestrian likes of the Thrifty’s brand ice cream of my youth when I discovered Haagen-Daz and Ben & Jerry's. I was now, or so I thought, a bona fide gourmet ice cream snob. Even still, the mere thought of making homemade ice cream with all its work seemed much too involved and absurd to me. What was next? Water from scratch? I mean, you can just buy that in a bottle too!

Fast forward many years later: one day a friend presented me with a cookbook full of esoteric and worldly recipes. As I came upon an entire chapter devoted to ice cream I patronizingly skimmed passed with no intention of stopping until one recipe in particular caught my eye. Rose Petal Pistachio Ice Cream! I was immediately intrigued. I’d never heard of such a thing, but as I read about the dense custard base gently perfumed with rosewater and rose petal jam and studded throughout with emerald-like chunks of green pistachios, I knew I could not rest until I’d tried the glorious ice cream described and photographed so beautifully in this book.

An hour later, sitting in traffic, I had a beautiful stainless steel Cuisinart ice cream maker strapped in the passenger’s seat of my car as I drove to the Middle Eastern market for exotic ingredients. That happened to be a Friday afternoon and by Monday I had made 7 different varieties of ice cream! So much in fact, that I had to call friends over for a tasting party. To say I was hooked would be an understatement. To say I was obsessed would probably lie closer to the truth. I couldn’t believe how easy and fun it was to make your own ice cream, not to mention delicious! Gone, of course, were the needs for rock salt and all that churning by hand of my Mom’s childhood. I still shudder at the thought! All I had to do was whip up a custard base, flavor it with whatever struck my fancy and pour it into the machine. Thirty minutes later I had the richest, dreamiest, densest, most luxurious frozen velvet I had ever had the pleasure of eating. It made me want to scream! (In a really good way!) I devoured it greedily and kicked myself for not jumping on the homemade ice cream train years earlier. I realized in that moment that I’d never really had truly great ice cream. It makes me wonder what other things I don’t know that I’m still too naïve to know I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll look into that water from scratch thing after all.

Cheesecake Ice Cream with Blueberry Syrup

This recipe comes originally from Nigella Lawson. I’ve tinkered with it a bit by adding lemon zest to both the ice cream and the sauce as I think it gives an extra brightness and edge to both.

Makes about 1 quart

3/4 cup whole milk
3/4 cup sugar
4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 large egg, room temperature
1½ cups heavy cream, lightly whipped
Juice of half a lemon
½ teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest

2 cups fresh or thawed frozen blueberries
1½ cups sugar
2/3 cup water
½ teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Heat the milk in a pan, and while it’s getting warm, beat together the sugar, cream cheese, vanilla and egg in the bowl of a freestanding mixer with a paddle attachment until smooth. When the milk comes to just below the boil, whisk the cream cheese mixture while slowly drizzling the milk in a thin and continuous stream so the egg is gradually warmed up. Return everything to the saucepan and cook while stirring with a wooden spoon. Make sure that you are constantly scraping the spoon across the bottom of the pan so the custard does not scorch. The custard is done when it has thickened slightly and can evenly coat the back of the spoon and when you run your finger along the back of the spoon and it holds the “line.” Do not let the mixture come to a boil, or it may curdle.

Strain the custard into a metal bowl through a fine sieve to remove any bits of egg. Nestle the bowl of custard into a large bowl of ice water to cool more quickly. I do this because I’m incredibly impatient, but you could just put the whole thing in the fridge to cool. Add the lemon zest and juice and whisk in the slightly beaten cream, stirring occasionally until mixture is cold, about 20 minutes.

Transfer the custard to an ice cream machine and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions. Put the finished ice cream in a storage container and freeze until firm.

To make the blueberry syrup, combine all the ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until thickened to desired consistency. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature before serving. (If thinner syrup is desired, strain through a fine mesh strainer while still hot.

Print Recipe

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Truth About Risotto

Maybe it's Gordon Ramsay's fault. All his yelling and screaming on Hell’s Kitchen seems to have scared people off of risotto. It’s no wonder, as week after week we watched whichever bitchling had been dealt the unfortunate assignment of appetizers for that evening’s dinner service get their ass handed to them on a platter, Ramsay-style. It was with great pomp and circumstance that Gordon clutched his chef coat, pacing and agitated before tasting their pathetic attempt at risotto, grimacing dramatically, critiquing the lack of salt, groaning that it was either under cooked, or over cooked (it was hardly ever just right) before finally spitting it in the “bin” and declaring it, “Inedible!” and shouting, "Bollocks!" Meanwhile, the traumatized kitchen bitch dutifully endured the tongue lashing, doing their best to fend off a quivering lip before slinking away in embarrassment, shame and most likely cooking oblivion, all over a plate of rice! I’m not gonna lie, I was a little scared too and I was watching from the safety of my living room couch! Fortunately, I know the truth about risotto.

Bollocks indeed! The jig is up, Gordon! I’m here to “dispense with the rubbish” and let everyone know that risotto is one of the great culinary cons – it is not something to be intimidated by. Its origins are meager at best, yet restaurants have no problem charging $18 or more a plate for what amounts to a few cents worth of ingredients and a dish that essentially began its life as peasant food. And here’s the real rub: many a chef and cooking show have led us to believe that there is a built-in degree of difficulty if we were to actually attempt it in our own kitchens. That notion should be tossed in the “bin.” I’ve often thought that what puts people off about making risotto, Gordon's wrath aside, is the time commitment and the thought of constant stirring. Or perhaps, the fear of not cooking it properly. It is a tad bit laborious I’ll give you that, but it’s by no means difficult, so don’t confuse the two. The truth is, a child could do it given that there’s nothing more to do than sauté a few aromatics, tip the rice into the pan and cook it until it takes on a bit of nuttiness and gets slicked with whatever fat you’re using. If you’ve made a box of Rice-A-Roni (forgive the example), you’ve done this step! You’re well on your way to conquering risotto, so breathe.

To further put you at ease, continue my efforts of persuasion and perhaps attempt to erase the sound of Gordon Ramsay yelling, “Donkey!” in my own head, I’ll remind us all that not only is the time it takes to make risotto time well spent, but that there’s something almost meditative and Zen-like in the simple task and mindless repetition of stirring a pan of ingredients for 25 minutes or so. Proper risotto demands patience and attention. That’s the only way to achieve that melting creaminess and luxurious texture. Interesting advice coming from me, as I am quite possibly the most impatient person on the planet where everything else is concerned. That said, even I become transfixed in an almost Pavlovian fashion at the promise of a bowl full of soft, warm and meltingly creamy, saffron-infused rice as a great reward for such little effort. And perhaps best of all, I (and you) can enjoy that great reward in peace, without the looming threat of having our asses handed to us on a platter, Ramsay-style.

Saffron Risotto with Grilled Shrimp

Serves 4

5 cups good quality chicken stock
2 tablespoons Extra-Virgin olive oil
¼ cup unsalted butter
1 large shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1½ cups Arborio rice
2 pinches saffron threads
2/3 cups dry white wine
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground white pepper

1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails on
2 tablespoons Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Preheat outdoor grill or indoor grill pan to high.

Toss the shrimp with the oil and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper, set aside. The shrimp only take a couple of minutes per side so I get them ready to go and grill them during the last few minutes of cooking the risotto.

Heat chicken stock over medium-high heat until just simmering. In a large sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic and sweat until translucent, stirring constantly, about 3 minutes. Add the rice and saffron, turning to coat in the oil and sauté until the edges of the rice begin to look slightly translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the wine and cook until most of the liquid is absorbed and the pan is almost dry. Add one ladle-full of hot stock, stirring constantly until liquid is almost absorbed. Continue adding stock, one ladle at a time, stirring each addition until the liquid is almost absorbed, about 25 to 30 minutes total. The best test for doneness is to taste it and make sure it’s lost its too chewy center, it should be perfectly al dente.

When the risotto is nearly done, toss the shrimp on the grill and sear until pink, opaque and curled in on themselves, about 2 minutes per side. Spritz the shrimp with more lemon juice when it comes off the grill. When the risotto is done, stir in the remaining butter and the cheese and season with salt and pepper, it should have a nice thick, but not too thick consistency. To serve, ladle risotto into warmed wide bottom bowls and shake slightly from side to side. The risotto should spread evenly on its own. Top with the shrimp, scatter with the parsley and dig in.

Print Recipe

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Holy Crab Cakes! Hold the “Krab,” Please!

Whoever it was who said “there is no bad pizza,” clearly never had a bad crab cake. While I (mostly) agree with the pizza sentiment, crab cakes are a whole other ballgame. When they’re bad, they can be really bad. The truth is, while most everybody loves a good crab cake, fewer people it seems know how to set about making them. And of course, by making them, I mean making them well. Simply put, there are a few things in life that I am a flagrant and unapologetic snob about, and a good crab cake is one of them! I believe it’s all about the freshest, simplest ingredients, not the least of which is beautiful, fresh jumbo lump crab meat, without a bunch of extra stuff to muck it up. And by “stuff” I mean fillers. The whole point of a crab cake is CRAB! Let it shine! It may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at just how many people overlook that little detail.

Which brings us to the subject of “Krab,” with a K. What is that stuff anyway?! It’s like the Spam of the seafood counter! All the ground up and pressed together “parts” of I’m not sure what, with its sprayed-on psychedelic red color. It scarcely qualifies as an ingredient in cat food, let alone a crab cake! It’s just not right and frankly, I’ve never quite understood the point of substituting the star ingredient of a dish with its sad, inferior imitation. Don’t even get me started on Tofurky! But back to crab cakes. When you’ve had them the way they were meant to be had, prepared the way they’re famous for in Maryland, the taste experience borders on the transcendent!

I had just such a crab cake moment of nirvana the first time I visited my friend Jimmy Yeager’s restaurant in Aspen, CO., the aptly named Jimmy’s. Jimmy definitely understood the art of the crab cake. As it turns out the only things more famous than Jimmy’s legendary tequila selection, which is said to be one of the largest in the country, are his crab cakes. They’ve entered into a sort of local mythology and rightfully so, because let me tell you, they ROCK! They were sweet and succulent with just the right amount of lemoniness, and they were seasoned perfectly with very little filler! I was so taken with them that I was immediately inspired to step up my own crab cake making game. Jimmy kindly shares his recipe with anyone who asks. In fact, it’s posted on his site.

The recipe below is the version I make at home. Perhaps one day Jimmy and I will have a friendly crab cake throw down. Jimmy, if you’re reading this, the gauntlet has been thrown!

Just finished the crab cakes at Jimmy's. I was honored to sign the "Jimmy" wall

Crab cake nirvana!

Real Maryland Crab Cakes with Herb Remoulade

I serve these dressed simply, spritzed with lemon and just a touch of herb remoulade sauce on the side.

Makes 4 cakes

½ cup good mayonnaise
½ cup sour cream
1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh dill, finely chopped
Juice of ½ lemon
Kosher salt & freshly cracked pepper, to taste

1 pound fresh lump crabmeat, picked through for shell fragments
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 ½ tablespoons good mayonnaise
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 ½ teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
Several dashes of hot sauce, or to taste
5 Saltine crackers, finely crushed, or a ¼ cup of plain bread crumbs
2 scallions, chopped
1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
Lemon wedges, for garnish

To make the sauce, combine the mayonnaise, sour cream, parsley, dill and lemon juice in a small bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

To make the crab cakes, place the crabmeat in a large bowl and pick through, making sure there are no shells. In another small bowl, whisk together the egg, mayonnaise, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce. Add wet ingredients to the crabmeat, along with the cracker crumbs, scallions, parsley and pepper, to taste. You’ll notice I don’t suggest the addition of salt to the mixture. That’s because the crackers themselves are salted and I find additional salt unnecessary. Gently combine being careful not to overwork. The mixture will be wet. With your hands, form the meat into 4 cakes of equal size.

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and gently slide the crab cakes into the pan. Pan fry until the cakes are golden brown and cooked through, about 5 minutes per side. Serve warm with herb remoulade sauce and lemon wedges.

Print Recipe

The Ultimate Fried Chicken -- No Kidding!

Culinarily speaking there are few things in life that can't be improved with the help of a bit of deep-fat frying.
Perhaps even shoe leather could be made edible, but I'm quite content leaving that thought in the realm of “theory vs. practice.”

In any case, I digress. I'm here today to talk about fried chicken. It's a dish that is so common, so ubiquitous that it's available on every street corner and at every grocery store deli counter. There are so many bad versions of it that it's easy to forget the sheer genius of a plump piece of chicken rolled in perfectly seasoned flour, dipped in egg wash and deep fried to a glorious, golden brown, all crispy on the outside with a crust that gives way to succulent, juicy meat inside.

Admittedly, even I hadn't given much thought to fried chicken lately, even though it was a staple in my home growing up. That is to say, until I stumbled upon this recipe for Tyler Florence's Ultimate Fried Chicken. It was the picture that first grabbed my attention. I'm a card-carrying sucker for good food porn and was drawn in by the gorgeous pile of freshly-fried chicken with the beautiful bunch of deep fried herbs and garlic cloves perched on top, and scattered about with lemon wedges. Lemon and chicken, absolutely! Lemon and fried chicken? Nice! Intrigued, I dove into the recipe and soon found out that the aromatics were heated slowly, along with the oil, gently perfuming it with their essential oils and removed just before frying the chicken itself. The result: a piece of chicken that is delicately flavored with the herb and garlic essence and the crispiest, most flavorful skin you’ve ever tasted. Made better only by the suggestion of a scattering of sea salt and a spritz of fresh lemon to give it some edge. GENIUS!

Fried herbs. Fried Chicken!

The Ulitmate Fried Chicken

Serves 4

1 (3½ pound) chicken, cut into 10 pieces
Juice of 2 lemons

1 gallon peanut or vegetable oil, for deep-frying
¼ bunch of fresh thyme
3 big sprigs fresh rosemary
¼ bunch of fresh sage
2 fresh bay leaves
½ head of garlic, smashed, husks still attached

2 cups all-purpose flour
Sea salt & freshly cracked black pepper
4 large eggs
Extra-virgin olive oil
Lemon wedges, for serving

Rinse the chicken pieces and pat dry. Put them in a large bowl and squeeze the lemon juice over them, turning the chicken so that the lemon gets all through. Let it marinate while you heat the oil.

Pour the oil into a large pasta pot. Add the herbs and the garlic and heat over medium-high heat until the oil registers 375 degrees on a deep-fry thermometer.

Meanwhile, put the flour in a large, shallow dish and season generously with salt and pepper. Be sure to taste the flour mixture, you should be able to taste the salt and pepper. Crack the eggs into a large, shallow dish; add a drizzle of olive oil and a couple tablespoons of water and whisk together.

When the oil reaches 375 degrees skim off the herbs and garlic and reserve. Dredge the chicken pieces in the seasoned flour and shake off the excess, then dunk them in the egg wash. Carefully drop the chicken into the hot oil and cook for about 20 minutes, turning it with tongs every now and then to keep the color even until it’s cooked through. Keep an eye on the thermometer and adjust the heat to keep the temperature as even as possible.

When the chicken is done, sprinkle it with salt and a dusting of black pepper. Scatter the reserved herbs and garlic over the top. Serve hot, with big lemon wedges spritzed over .

Print Recipe