Thursday, November 26, 2009

Don't change the menu

I heard from two different sources this week, "It doesn't matter what you make for Thanksgiving dinner, as long as it's the same menu." This is true with my family. We like things to be the same every year. We have the traditional turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and mashed potatoes, the standard green beans, sweet potato casserole, butter rolls, and pumpkin pie. Every year. We love it. And I've heard of other families holding steady with their favorite menus of ham and scalloped potatoes or enchiladas and Spanish rice. We like our traditions.

My Aunt Peggy makes the cardamom butter rolls for each holiday dinner. Last year, she went to her in law's Thanksgiving dinner and we were left without the rolls. I actually stopped in the buffet line and stared at the basket of store-bought rolls, confused. I looked at my cousin behind me with a look that asked, "What is this?" Something was missing. But this year, the homemade rolls were back in the lineup. And I proceeded smoothly through the buffet without pause. I felt very thankful.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Then and there

My friend Drew calls crab "butter of the sea." We have stood at the sink, cracking the shell, prying apart the legs, and eating it right then and there. Last month, one of my neighborhood groceries kept updating their seafood sign with the estimated start date of crab season. And since the end of October, seafood stands and customers have been celebrating. For my sister's birthday, my family covered the table in paper and split three large crabs between us. A side salad, roasted squash, and some white wine completed the meal. It sounds like such a light meal, but after dipping the crab into melted butter, we soon felt like fat cats.

Another decadent seasonal favorite is the chanterelle mushroom. Chanterelles already have a nutty and buttery flavor. Sautéed in butter, they become very rich and tender. They taste delicious on crostini and make an easy topping for grilled meat.

Even though I'll be partaking in a large serving later this week at Thanksgiving, I was in the mood for mashed potatoes. I had a lot of sweet potatoes on hand, so I mixed roasted sweet potatoes and fingerling potatoes with sautéed yellow onions and garlic. Then I stirred in diced Marco Polo cheese, which is made in Seattle by Beecher's Cheese. Marco Polo has blended green and black peppercorns. It adds a great spice to the potatoes. (And would make a delicious grilled cheese sandwich!) The potatoes were a creamy and comforting side to the steak with chanterelles.

Rustic Mashed Potatoes

2 cups chopped sweet potatoes
1 cup chopped fingerling potatoes
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
1 large clove garlic, diced
1/4 cup Marco Polo cheese, diced (or sub preferred cheese)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400°F. Mix potatoes and 3 tbsp olive oil in baking pan. Sprinkle with salt. Cover with foil and roast in oven for 20 mins or until tender.
In the meantime, sautée the onions in olive oil until translucent. Add garlic and continue stirring until aromatic and lightly browned. Remove from heat and add to potatoes. Using a fork or potato masher, mash the potatoes. Stir in diced cheese and season with additional salt and pepper to taste.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The standard

I just finished reading Nigel Slater's memoir, Toast. His stories, tied so closely to food, are vivid and relatable. Doesn't every child crave sweets? Did you ever dread what was in your school lunch? What does food mean to you? To me, food can be comfort and it can be basic fuel, but it is always important. Food is often the reason we gather together. It has few negative memories for me. (I generally get over the bad experiences; I have gotten food poisoning twice from a local restaurant, but I've gone back because the food is amazing.) Even my flopped recipes are repeated with good humor. The first pancake always burns...

Ever since I can remember, my family has made spaghetti with brown butter and mizithra. Mizithra is a salty semi-soft Greek sheep's cheese. It reminds me of ricotta salata - and both are delicious with pasta. This is your typical get-the-kids-to-eat meal. Butter, cheese, and pasta. This may have factored into my family's decision to start having periodic dinners at the Spaghetti Factory. If a relative comes to town and we all want to spend time together, we go and get a huge table for 20+, make a lot of noise, and eat a lot of pasta. At least half the table will order mizithra. However, it tastes so much better at home. You'll have to wait an hour to get a table at the restaurant, but your homemade spaghetti dinner will be done in ten minutes.

I made a foolish mistake when making the spaghetti. I turned on the wrong burner to boil my pasta water and instead burned the bottom of my favorite enamel saucepan, which happens to be the perfect brown butter pan. Sigh. You need a pan where you can see the bottom; a non-stick black saucepan will not work, but stainless steel or enamel pans perform well. I like to cut the butter up into pieces to even out the melting. Cook the butter on Medium to Medium/High. Stir the butter to avoid burning. When the butter turns a tan color, remove it from the heat. It will continue to cook - and continue browning. The butter should smell nutty. The French call brown butter "buerre noisette," or literally "hazelnut butter." Brown butter is great with pasta, but also wonderful as a sauce on chicken, fish, or vegetables - and a traditional addition to baked goods.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Seasons for comfort

A few weeks ago, the trees were ablaze with color. My little balcony garden had cheerful company. Walking down the hall, the doorway looked full of bright leaves. My eyes would take a minute to adjust; it's as if those colors don't exist at any other time of year.

I recently made an acquaintance from South Africa. She is here in Oregon for a few weeks, wine tasting and visiting the sights. This week, she took a drive around the countryside and into the gorge. She had never seen trees with so many colors. Next week, she will experience her first American Thanksgiving. So far, she loves the fall season.

The markets are full of local apples and pears. I went a little crazy at the beginning of harvest. I bought more pears than I could keep track of. I usually eat "an apple a day" and get through a bag pretty quickly. But with the pears, I kept finding a few pears here, a few pears there - in the fridge, on the counter, in the fruit bowl. I decided to make a pear tart. While I love a flaky butter tart crust, I wanted to use the rest of my Amaretti cookies. So, what resulted was a pear almond ricotta cheesecake with an Amaretti crust.

Pear Almond Ricotta Cheesecake

Crust: 2/3 cup ground Amaretti cookes, 1/3 cup ground blanched almonds, 4 tbsp melted butter

Filling: 2-3 pears, 3 eggs, 1/2 tsp almond extract, 1/2 tsp rose water, 1/4 cup ground blanched almonds, 1 brimming cup ricotta

Peel, core, and slice 2-3 pears. Heat four cups water, 1 cup sugar, and any preferred flavoring such as vanilla or cinnamon. Substitute honey for the sugar, if you prefer. Add the pear slices carefully and poach for ~15 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. If you want to reduce the liquid to make a syrup, feel free to continue heating the water and check back when it has reduced by half.

In a small bowl, combine the ground almonds, ground cookies, and melted butter. Press the crust into the bottom of a springform pan. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat eggs, then add other filling ingredients and mix together until combined. Pour over the crust into the springform pan over the pressed crust. Bake for 20 minutes or until the center moves only slightly when you move the pan.

This filling would work just as well in a tart crust.

*Thank you to Elizabeth Archers for the photo of my green Zebra tomatoes.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Following the leader

If all my friends jumped off a bridge, I would take photos. I would stand at the railing and watch their fall, with fear and curiosity. I would gauge their arc, the fall time, and wait hopefully for them to reach the shore. Later, I would hand out towels and congratulate them in their exhilaration. If my friends jumped off a bridge, I would not follow.

If all my friends made granola… well, that’s a different story. I read Molly W’s post about Nigella Lawson’s granola recipe. I related. I silently congratulated her on finding her favorite recipe. But, I stuck with my granola routine. Then David Lebovitz wrote about Nigella’s granola. And I was torn. Do I follow the crowd? What does it hurt? It’s only a batch of granola. Everyone’s doing it.

For years, I have been using my old roommate’s granola recipe. She varies her ingredients, but always includes oats, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, coconut oil, and a little honey. The coconut oil makes it smell wonderful, adds this sweet, nutty, fatty flavor. And I follow this tradition, adding spices, nuts, maple syrup and honey at my whim. If you like granola and have never made it, I encourage you to try and recreate your favorite blend. And if you still like the store-bought better, stick with it. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

I did have fun trying Nigella’s recipe, but to be honest, I wasn’t wildly impressed by the end result. I wanted to be. It just didn’t taste that much better than any other granola. I like that she uses applesauce in her recipe. Puréed fruit is a clever way to incorporate the needed wet ingredients. I might have to branch out on the fruit though. Perhaps some apricot or pear would broaden the flavors. It is crunchy enough that you can let it sit in milk for a couple minutes, which does make it taste better. This recipe makes a good breakfast cereal, but the best? Decide for yourself.

On a side note: Just because Nigella’s granola didn’t change my life, does not mean she isn't delightfully inspired. I can’t wait to try her Doughnut French Toast.