Sunday, April 24, 2011

20 Before 20

I live by goals.

Make a list, write down the goals, accomplish the tasks, erase the goals (such a sense of accomplishment), repeat as necessary. Short-term or long-term—it doesn’t really matter. Especially when the sheer number of things I need to accomplish becomes overwhelming, my little system of short, doable tasks makes the big picture more easily visible.

Coming up on the beginning of Dead Week, I am simultaneously overwhelmed by the studying in my immediate future and the reward that awaits come 11 AM on May 3rd.

The thought of my ongoing to-do list becoming, miraculously, blank is somewhat exhilarating. No Physics homework to do, Calculus tests to study for, English papers to write, CS codes to construct. Whatever will I do with all my time over my long (and well-deserved, if I do say so myself) summer break?

Well, I do have a summer job, but I’m looking forward to the comparatively abundant free time I’ll enjoy on nights and weekends. Naturally, I’ve thought of all the things I can cook and bake. After a year of limited chances to cook and bake in my dorm, I’m eagerly anticipating my opportunities to do just that this summer and next year in the kitchen of the apartment I’ll share with my three other roommates. 

Partly for fun, and partly to expand my own culinary experience, I’ve constructed a grand “to-make” list. I call it 20 before 20 – 20 things to make in the kitchen before my 20th birthday this November. Some are things that I’ve never had but have always wanted to try and some are things that I love eating but have never attempted myself. All are things that I have never made before. As I take in the finished list (and it’s of course subject to change, as my interests and inspirations adapt from now until November 4th), I am utterly overwhelmed, but in the best possible way. I can’t wait to dive into these mini culinary projects, and I also can’t wait to share them with you.

Without further ado, the 20 Before 20 List:

1. A savory tart: I come across recipes for savory tarts all the time and am itching to try one. I have my eyes (er, stomach?) set on one with sweet caramelized onions.
2. Polenta in any form: The one time I attempted this was a lumpy disaster. I've since read everything I could about the types of cornmeal to use and cooking methods to employ.
3. Something grilled: Summer is the perfect season for grilling. I don't necessarily have to use an outdoor grill (we do own a grill pan), but I do want to employ this cooking method.
4. Spaghetti and meatballs: This is absolutely one of my favorite meals of all time. I don't eat a lot of meat, but this and meatloaf are two of my favorite comfort foods.
5. Macaroni and cheese: I find it so amusing that the most popular recipes on cooking sites are invariably some form of mac and cheese. I'm looking to take on a simple yet delicious recipe that uses tasty cheeses like Gruyere or Fontina (swoon).
6. Something with poached eggs: Since my first experience with poached eggs and that irresistible runny yolk, I've wanted to recreate the magic in the kitchen. As with polenta, I've searched for every tip and trick I could in order to make the perfect poached egg.
7. Chicken chili: I'm a total soup person. I've had my eye on this recipe from Martha Stewart since I first saw it back in October.
8. Risotto without Arborio rice: By this I mean with another grain like farro or barley. I love the nutty taste of these grains, and I have wanted to try the risotto method with them, too.
9. Something with wild mushrooms: Whenever I try wild mushrooms at a restaurant, I'm wowed by their - excuse the pretentious "foodie" term - umami flavor. They're expensive, but a little bit goes a long way and I could easily knock out two birds with one stone by using them in a savory tart, risotto, or poached egg dish.
10. Something with tofu: The only time I'd ever tried tofu before this year was some sort of barbecued offering from the Whole Foods salad bar, and I was, to put it plainly, quite disgusted. However, I tried it again this year and was taken by its versatile ability to soak up the flavors of whatever you pair it with. I really want to try this crispy tofu recipe from Daily Garnish.
11. Chicken or vegetable stock: If it's good enough for Ina, it's good enough for me.
12a. Savory yeasted bread: By this I mean a crusty, European hearth-style bread. Of all the things on this list, this might be the one I'm most excited and motivated to tackle.

12b. Sweet yeasted bread: Pumpkin brioche. Cranberry walnut bread. Cinnamon rolls. How could I not?
13. Macarons: I finally want to see what all the fuss is about. (I have tried macarons from Dean & Deluca in New York before, but I want to see what all the fuss about homemade macarons is about.) Plus, the notion that they're a challenge to make naturally makes me even more motivated to try them.
14. Homemade granola: I should be more specific - I want to make a healthy granola. I bookmark just about every granola recipe I come across, and I finally want to take the plunge. Bonus since it'll be so much less expensive than the Kashi granola bar habit I've acquired.
15. Homemade Do-Si-Dos: This is very specific, but I really want to make a homemade version of my favorite Girl Scout cookie. I have very little desire for any other Girl Scout cookie, but Do-Si-Dos are too good for me to pass up.
16. Something with frangipane: OMG, frangipane. I have a true love for this stuff. Try it and you'll understand.
17. Chocolate chip cookies: There's something so alluring about this most simplistic of treats. In particular, I'd like to try either the Cook's Illustrated or New York Times version of the "best" chocolate chip cookie.
18. Something with coconut: I actually really love coconut but hardly ever use it in sweet desserts. Perhaps I'll find a way to incorporate it into a granola.
19. Rice pudding: As with granola, every time I see a rice pudding I bookmark it. Ina Garten even has a rum raisin version, and we all know how I feel about rum raisins.
20. Successful pie crust: It will happen.

Tell me: What's something that's on your "to-make" list?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Homemade Ricotta with Herb Honey and Orange Toast

My favorite food city is, without question, New York. I love everything about the food atmosphere there. More so than any place I've ever traveled to, New Yorkers seem to really care about what they eat. Dining out is as much about the experience as it is about the food.

One dish in particular that stands out of the dozens I've tried in New York is whipped sheep's milk ricotta. At Locanda Verde, a restaurant in TriBeCa, it is served with truffle honey. And a hint of thyme. And burnt orange toast. Take it in.

Whipped sheep's milk ricotta, though? I know, that may sound a bit strange. And truffle honey and thyme and burnt orange toast? I know, it's a mouthful. But this appetizer (although, to be honest, I could eat it a whole bowl as a meal) is so insanely good. After my perfect cheesecake, this is the best thing I've ever  shared on this blog.
Despite the multiple components of the dish, it really is so simple. Cheese + bread = yum. For this reason, it's imperative that the star - the ricotta cheese - is of the best quality you can find. Using fresh ricotta is vital. Surprisingly, fresh ricotta can be somewhat difficult to track down, even in Los Angeles, where I made this with my sister. After coming up empty at Whole Foods, we headed to The Cheesestore of Silverlake. They, too, were out. We were pretty discouraged by this point (if a cheese shop didn't have it, then who else would?), but the woman working at the cheese shop started on about how easy it was to make ricotta cheese at home.

And she's right. I'd read about it countless times before. While it's not technically ricotta cheese because it doesn't use the leftover whey  from the cheese-making process like real ricotta does, it's undeniably delicious and miles ahead of anything store-bought in terms of texture and flavor. Creamy with a sweet, milky flavor, the ricotta is further enhanced with a drizzle of honey and a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

Taking inspiration from Locanda Verde, we then grilled up slices of a crusty hearth loaf and spritzed them with orange juice. Oh my. I was a bit nervous that our homemade ricotta simply wouldn't stand up to the lofty memories I had of Locanda Verde's rendition. Was I ever wrong. Even if I won't be making it back to New York soon to indulge in all its epicurean offerings, I'll rest assured that I can treat myself to this simplest of treats anytime.

Fresh Ricotta with Herb Honey and Orange Toast 
Inspired by Locanda Verde's Whipped Sheep's Milk Ricotta

If you used a lower-fat milk to make the homemade ricotta instead of whole milk, you can make the ricotta richer here by substituting half and half or heavy cream for the milk. Orange zest can be used in place of the lemon zest. To warm the honey, place it in a microwave-safe bowl and heat on medium power for 1 minute. Be careful that the honey doesn't overflow. Alternatively, heat it in a small saucepan over low heat.

Yield: 4-6 servings

About 1 cup fresh ricotta cheese, homemade (recipe below) or store-bought
3-4 tablespoons milk
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Herb Honey, warmed (recipe below)
Orange Toast (recipe below)

In a small bowl, combine ricotta and milk. The ricotta should be creamy but not too loose. Add more milk to reach the desired consistency. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Add the lemon zest and stir to combine. Drizzle the Herb Honey over the ricotta. Serve alongside warm slices of Orange Toast. 

Homemade Ricotta
Adapted from Serious Eats

Most versions of homemade ricotta utilize the stove to separate the curds in the milk from the whey. This version is far easier and far less fussy, using the microwave instead. It's important to use pasteurized milk instead of ultra-pasteurized milk. We used whole milk when we made this, but I have a feeling that using a lower-fat milk will work just as fine; the resulting ricotta won't taste exactly as rich, but you can certainly remedy this by using half and half or heavy cream instead of milk to mix with the ricotta in the first step of the recipe for Fresh Ricotta with Herb Honey and Orange Toast.

Yield: about 1 cup ricotta cheese

4 cups milk, preferably whole (see note)
1/2 teaspoon table salt
4 tablespoons lemon juice (about 1 lemon)

Begin by lining a colander with 4 layers of cheesecloth or 2 layers of paper towels and set over a large bowl. Combine 2 cups milk, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 2 tablespoons lemon juice in a microwave-safe glass 1-quart measuring cup. Microwave on high heat until lightly bubbling around the edges, anywhere from 2 to 4 minutes (ours took about 3 1/2 minutes). Remove from the microwave, and stir gently for 5 seconds. The milk should separate into solid white curds and translucent liquid whey. If not, microwave for 30 seconds longer, repeating as necessary until fully separated.

Using a slotted spoon or wire skimmer, transfer the curds to the prepared colander. Cover the exposed top with plastic wrap and allow to drain for about 5 minutes. Transfer the ricotta to a small bowl, wiping as much of the ricotta from the cheesecloth as possible. Repeat with the remaining 2 cups milk, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 2 tablespoons lemon juice.

Once you have made all the ricotta, either chill it in the refrigerator until you're ready to use it or use immediately. If you opt to chill the ricotta until you're ready to use it, allow it to come to room temperature before serving.

Herb Honey

Any combination of spices and fresh herbs would be wonderful here. Instead of (or in addition to) cloves, think about peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, or ginger. Similarly, other herbs like thyme, mint, and basil would also be delicious. Keep an eye on the honey as it heats (especially if you opt to use the microwave) to avoid any overflow.

Yield: About 1/4 cup honey

About 3 tablespoons honey
4-6 cloves
2-3 sprigs fresh rosemary

In a microwave-safe bowl, combine honey, cloves, and rosemary. Microwave until warm, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from the microwave and allow to sit until ready to use. Alternatively, combine the honey, cloves, and rosemary in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook until bubbling. Remove from heat and allow to sit until ready to use.

Orange Toast 

Any hearty country loaf, such as ciabatta, will work wonderfully here. Slice the bread about 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick. If you don't have a grill pan, toast the bread in the oven or in the skillet. Toast in the oven at 400 degrees F or in a skillet set over medium heat for about 5 minutes per side, or until golden brown.

Yield: 4 - 6 servings

8 slices (about half a loaf) of hearty, crusty bread (see note)
Extra virgin olive oil
Juice of half an orange

Heat a grill pan over medium heat. Place the slices of bread on the grill pan and brush with extra-virgin olive oil. Grill for about 5 minutes per side, or until golden brown. Flip the bread slices and grill for another 5 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove the toast slices from the grill pan and spritz with the orange juice (not too much, or the bread will become soggy). Use or serve immediately.