Thursday, July 28, 2011

For Thursday

I came across this lovely piece a few days ago. It’s part of the Weekend Meditation series written by Dana Velden over at The Kitchn. Dana has a way with prose that is really inspirational. Just the thing to get through the rest of the week.

“On Counting What Is Precious” by Dana Velden

In famine, the number of dried beans in the cupboard; in abundance, piles of chicken bones and empty wine bottles. In sorrow, so many tears that they over-salt the soup; in happiness, the number of place settings at a wedding feast. In middle age, candles on the cake; in youth, the frosting roses. In celebration, bubbles in a champagne glass; in mourning, the number of bites taken from a sandwich, delivered to your door draped in a napkin (none).

In planting, the number of seeds and rows; in harvest, the bushels of fruits and vegetables. In sickness, the spoonfuls of weak broth that are managed to be swallowed; in health, the number of courses at the fancy bistro plus a little nightcap at the tavern down the street. In winter, three puffs of breath blown on the surface of hot chocolate; in the summer, five ice cubes in the tall glass of lemonade. In trust, everything; in suspicion, nothing.

In babyhood, the number of tiny spoons of stewed carrots that actually make it into the mouth; in old age, the number of tiny spoons of stewed carrots that actually make it into the mouth mixed with the memories of parties and holidays and feasts beyond compare. In life, the uncountable stream of nourishment that sustains, enlivens, entertains, celebrates; in death, well, we can't know that yet. 

In good times, we grow distracted and we forget to count; in bad times, we can only remember and wish we had.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Mango and Peach Salsa

When I was growing up, our family never had Spaghetti Night, Lasagna Night, Chicken Pot Pie Night, or any other dedicated dinner. Mostly, it was Leftovers Night, not that I’m complaining or anything. However, in the past few years, we have adopted Fish Taco Night.

It comes around frequently during the summer, when fresh produce and warm weather makes the meal all the more enjoyable. In addition to the requisite fish (almost always grilled), we also make a smorgasbord of tasty toppings to accompany the tacos, from raw garnishes like shredded cabbage and diced tomatoes and cucumbers, to more involved but no less satisfying offerings of rice and black beans with corn, carrot salad with a tangy yogurt dressing, creamy guacamole, and delicious and spicy cheese dip (made with beer, it’s outrageously good!).

On our last fish taco night, I was inspired to create a mango salsa. We’ve previously purchased a peach and mango salsa from Costco, but it’s hard to consume a mass quantities of that salsa and the homemade version is so easy and the peaches so good this time of year that it was a no-brainer to make this one myself.

In the past when I’ve made mango salsas, they always turned out more like relish than a cohesive salsa. No disrespect to relish, but I prefer the texture of this salsa, which gets it base from pureed peaches and mangoes, which create a syrupy, almost creamy backdrop to the diced fruit. Hints of lime and hot sauce, which can be adjusted according to your preference, complete the combination of sweet, tangy, and spicy.

This upcoming school year, my roommates and I have decided to initiate Friday Night Dinners (I think the Gilmore Girls reference was lost on everyone but me). Each Friday we’ll celebrate the upcoming weekend by all making a meal together. While I’m sure the requisite pizza and spaghetti will be in our futures, I also have no doubt that they’ll be a few Fish Taco Nights, as well.
Tell me: What would be on your Friday Night Dinner menu?

Mango and Peach Salsa

Use very ripe fruit in this salsa, which will allow you to make the puree by hand and also imbue natural sweetness to the salsa. Adjust the amount of hot sauce to your taste; I use a few dashes, but you may find that more or less is better suited to your taste buds. If you have some, a sprinkling of chopped fresh mint pairs wonderfully here. Finally, don’t forget a pinch of salt, which brings out the flavor of every component of this dish. I can’t emphasize enough how essential salt is to virtually everything I make in the kitchen.

Yield: about 1 cup salsa

1 medium mango
1 medium peach
Juice of 1 lime
Hot sauce, to taste (I use 3 or 4 dashes)
Pinch of salt

Peel the mango with a knife of sharp vegetable peeler. Slice the flesh off the mango, contouring the blade of the knife around the oblong pit. Take about 1/3 of the mango flesh, chop it into rough pieces, and place into a bowl. Using the back of spoon or a potato masher, mash the flesh until it is broken down and almost completely smooth and pureed. Dice the remaining mango into ½-inch pieces and set aside.

Halve the peach. Take one half and, holding it cut-side down, squeeze out the flesh into the bowl with the pureed mango (this is why soft, ripe fruit is essential). Mash the peach and mango together until you have a mostly smooth puree. Dice the other peach half into ½-inch pieces and add to the mango/peach puree along with the diced mango. Add lime, hot sauce, and salt and stir to combine.

Serve immediately with tortilla chips or crudites or cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. The salsa keeps, stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator, for up to a week.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Fig and Balsamic Onion Compote

When my mom came home with a flat of fresh figs last week, I was overjoyed. Fresh figs? In Georgia? A whole flat of them, too? Figs have, for some time, entranced me. They’re not readily available down South, and I read all about them in cookbooks, on blogs, and in magazines. Still, no amount of ogling over their beauty and dreaming of what I could do with them could have ever prepared me for, you know, what to actually do with them when faced with the proposition of thirty or so quickly ripening figs.
We enjoyed the first few plain, biting into them like apples and savoring the sweet succulence. They were delicious atop homemade pizza with some creamy cheese to balance the sweetness. Still, I remained indecisive about how to use the rest of them. I knew for sure I wanted to utilize them in a dessert, but it’s been so hot (and humid!) here, that the idea of turning on the oven for an extended period of time hasn't been exactly enticing.

At the moment, I’m still pondering a sweet application that can really let these fresh figs shine, but for now I’m perfectly happy enjoying this sweet and savory fig and onion compote. Perfect atop toasted bread, it marries the caramel sweetness of slowly melted onions with the floral sweetness of figs. I cooked a portion of the figs with the onions and a splash of balsamic vinegar for acidity until everything had melded and cooked down a good bit. Then, for some contrast—both in texture and in flavor—I added some more chopped fresh figs, waited just a moment until they were warmed through, and took everything off the heat to preserve the freshness of the figs. I love the duality of this topping, which would be equally delicious on a cheese plate or as a complement to roasted chicken. The balsamic vinegar provides more tang than sweetness and balances the onions and figs wonderfully. The cooked down figs are sweeter than the raw ones, which have a more intense flavor.
I chose to leave the compote a little bit chunkier so that it would be easier to spread on bread, but to make it into more of a sauce, you could add the deglazing liquid (which also makes a divine bread dipper!). Either way, I was quite pleased with this on-the-fly concoction. And in the meantime, I’ll be sure to report on where those final fleeting figs end up.

Fig and Balsamic Onion Compote

I used a Vidalia onion because they're locally available and in season right now, but because the onion gets caramelized anyway, a plain white or Spanish onion will do fine, too. It's completely optional to deglaze the pan once you've made the compote, but I strongly urge you to do so. You don't want to waste any of the deliciousness that will be leftover in the pan. In addition to topping some nice crusty bread with this, this compote would be marvelous mixed with Greek yogurt or stirred into rice or quinoa.

Yield: about 1 cup compote (and 1/4 cup deglazed sauce)

For the compote:
1 medium onion, medium-diced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
10 fresh figs, chopped into ½-inch pieces, divided

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 sprig fresh thyme (about 2 teaspoons)

For deglazing sauce (optional):
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Sugar, to taste

Heat a medium nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Add the onions. After about a minute, the onions will start to brown ever so slightly and release a little moisture. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Stir with a wooden spoon and allow to cook for 2 to 3 more minutes. Once a thin layer of browned bits (called fond) has formed on the bottom of the pan, add a splash of water. Scrape the bottom of the pan to release the browned bits. The onions will subsequently take on a caramel color.

Continue this process, cooking for a few minutes, allowing the fond to form, and then deglazing the pan with water, for about 10 more minutes, or until the onions have substantially softened and are a deep brown color.

After the onions have softened and caramelized for about 15 minutes, reduce the heat to medium-low, add half of the figs, and cook for about 2 minutes, or until more fond has formed on the bottom of the pan. Deglaze the pan with the balsamic vinegar and stir to incorporate the vinegar. Add the thyme.

Cook the onions and figs together for 10 to 15 more minutes, stirring occasionally and smashing the figs with the back of the wooden spoon. Once the figs have taken on a jam-like consistency, add the rest of the figs. Stir to incorporate and allow the rest of the figs to warm through, which should take about a minute. Transfer to a separate container.

Serve the compote warm or at room temperature. The compote will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to 1 week (if it lasts that long).

If you opt to make the deglazing sauce (and I suggest you do because you don’t want to waste anything leftover in that pan), return the pan to medium heat. Add about ¼ cup water and scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to release the browned bits. Add the balsamic vinegar and mustard and stir until smooth. Allow the  mixture to reduce and simmer away until it thickens slightly, about 5 minutes. Season with sugar to taste (about 1 teaspoon should do), adding additional water (to smooth out the flavors) or balsamic vinegar (to amp up the acidity) as necessary. Serve warm or at room temperature, separately or added back to the compote to make a delicious sauce. The deglazed sauce will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to 1 week.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Perfect Biscotti

I’ve described my (seemingly lifelong) search for The Perfect Cheesecake at great length. Little did I know that I have also been searching for The Perfect Biscotti.

For a long time, I didn’t like biscotti. (The same goes for yogurt, coffee, and pizza—don’t ask.) It was something about the texture (also a paramount issue when it comes to cheesecake). I didn’t like how unbelievably crunchy and hard they were. I know it seems strange to complain about a quality that a specific food is known for. Sticking with the cheesecake comparison, it’s like complaining that a slice is too creamy (impossible, if you ask me).
Nevertheless, I only really started to appreciate biscotti a few years ago when I discovered that they are the perfect accompaniment to various hot beverages (especially a cup of good, strong coffee). When dunked for just a few seconds, they soften ever so slightly and their crunchiness actually becomes one of their strongest assets.
Like my hunt for the perfect plain cheesecake, I’ve never found a plain biscotti recipe that merited the description of “perfect.” Most biscotti contain a mixture of add-ins, from dried fruit and nuts to chocolate. Not that there’s anything wrong with these embellishements, but sometimes I want a biscotti cookie base that is flavorful enough without the extras. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered my ideal biscotti when I was least expecting it—it’s actually from a healthy cooking source.
Although I strive to eat healthfully for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, when dessert comes around, I believe that it’s important to indulge in the good stuff (in moderation). And it definitely still has to taste good.
Whole wheat flour gives these biscotti a deliciously nutty, almost buttery flavor and a coarser texture that enhances their crunch. I don’t use whole wheat flour much in my baking, but I really think whole wheat is the key to how delicious these cookies are. I added blood orange zest to them because I was serving them with blood orange sorbet (from Ciao Bella – OMG, delicious); the zest added a subtle citrus flavor that complemented the earthier butter, sugar, flour flavor combination at play.
Now that I finally have my Perfect Biscotti in the books, I think it’s time to embark upon my next Perfect Recipe quest. Thoughts? I’m leaning toward chocolate chip cookies. This could be dangerous….

The Perfect Biscotti
Adapted from The America's Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook

Below is the full recipe, which should make about 30 cookies. I halved the recipe easily because I didn't want to make too many cookies, so I only formed one log of dough. The dough is pretty sticky, so when forming the logs I find it easiest to wet my hands a little as opposed to flouring them, which I think is messier. Although I love the pure flavor of these cookies, I think they would take well to additions like nuts, dried fruits, and spices. Add 3/4 cup of toasted chopped nuts (such as pecans, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts) or dried fruits (such as cherries, cranberries, or raisins), or even 1/2 teaspoon spices (such as cinnamon or nutmeg).

Yield: about 30 cookies

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon blood orange zest (about 2 oranges)

Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flours, baking powder, and salt together. In a large bowl, beat the sugar and butter together using an electric mixer on medium speed until creamy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until combined, scraping down the bowl and beaters as necessary. Beat in the vanilla and zest. Reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly add in the flour mixture until combined, about 30 seconds.

Using your hands, divide the dough in half. Transfer each half to the parchment-lined baking sheet and form into two logs, each about 13 by 2 inches. Make sure that the two logs are spaced about 3 inches apart. The dough is pretty sticky, so I usually wet my hands slightly to keep it from sticking everywhere.

Bake the biscotti until golden, about 35 minutes, rotating the sheet pan halfway through the baking. Let the loaves cool on the baking sheet for 10 minutes, and lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees F. Using a serrated knife, cut the logs on a diagonal into 1/2-inch thick slices. Lay the slices, cut-side down, on the baking sheet and continue baking for 15 minutes, flipping the biscotti onto their other side halfway through baking. The biscotti should be crisp and golden brown.

Allow the biscotti to cool for about an hour before transferring to an airtight container. The biscotti will keep, stored in an airtight container at room temperature, for 2 to 3 weeks.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Fresh Plum Vinaigrette

The first time I walked into Whole Foods this summer and spotted an overflowing crate full of local Georgia peaches, rosy-colored with blushes of orange, and ripe and ready for eating, I was eager to get a bagful, go home, and just dig in. Living in Georgia my entire life, I’ve come to appreciate the splendor of a ripe summer peach, eaten plainly, my hands sticky from the juice.
The truth is, my favorite way to eat most stone fruits—from peaches to plums to cherries—is plain. I often find that they don’t need much embellishment to taste really fantastic. After all, the last thing I want to do is obscure the fresh summer flavor that I’ve waited nine long months to experience again.
Nevertheless, there are times when a few extra ingredients can really transform a star ingredient like peaches or plums. Take this salad dressing. I’ve talked before about my affinity for salads that have fruits in them and this time I took the concept one step further and decided to make a salad dressing with plums blended right into it.
It’s simple, really. Take a few ripe (almost too ripe) plums, puree them in a food processor or blender, add some Dijon mustard for tanginess, rich vinegar for sweetness (I used a black fig-infused vinegar that is similar to balsamic), and extra virgin olive oil to smooth out the flavors. What results is a complex vinaigrette that’s at once sweet, tangy, and rich. The plums add some body to the dressing, helping to keep it emulsified long after it’s blended. Paired with tender greens and freshly-cut stone fruits, this dressing truly epitomizes what summer is all about: fresh, crisp flavors and wholesome ingredients. I’m not sure that anything could ever rival my love for that idyllic peach, plum, or berry, but this comes pretty close.  And that says quite a lot.

Fresh Plum Vinaigrette

There’s not much oil in the dressing because the plums add a lot of body and sweetness that counters the acidity and tang of both the mustard and vinegar. Taste the dressing after you’ve blended it and adjust with more oil if you like a less acidic vinaigrette. If you don’t have a food processor, use a blender to make the dressing.

Yield: about 3/4 cup vinaigrette

2 extra-ripe, medium plums
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar (I used a black fig-infused one)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Cut the plums in half and remove the pits.  Over the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, squeeze each plum, cut side down, to separate the flesh from the skin. With ripe plums, the flesh should separate pretty easily. Keep squeezing until all the flesh and juice is in the  bowl of the food processor. Repeat with the rest of the plum halves.

Pulse the plum flesh and juice until fully blended. It should be a smooth puree. Add the mustard, olive oil, and vinegar. Process until  blended. Season to taste with salt and pepper (and, if necessary, more oil or vinegar).

Serve with tender salad greens, such as spinach, arugula, or a mesclun mix, along with other fresh stone fruits like peaches, plums, and cherries. I even added some fresh yellow peppers for a sweet crunch. The dressing will keep in the refrigerator (emulsified!), covered, for up to a week.