Monday, November 29, 2010

Classic French Baguette Épi

Thanksgiving 2010 was a success, particularly if measured in terms of overeating and unbuttoned pants. As you know, my contribution this year was a fancy artisan épi (a baguette formed to resemble a stalk of wheat), thanks to Peter Reinhart's newest cookbook Artisan Breads Every Day. So much energy is put into the turkey, stuffing and pies that the simplest form of comfort food, good bread and butter, often gets overlooked. Talley changed everything a couple of years ago by making Jim Lahey's celebrated No-Knead Bread so I took it upon myself to continue the baking tradition.

If you're already thinking that a baguette seems too complicated, let me assure you that there are no fancy gadgets or special equipment involved. If you have a mixing bowl, two hands and a regular old baking sheet, you're set.

The dough itself is very straightforward: flour, salt, yeast and water. But the trick is to begin at least one day in advance so that the flavors can develop during a slow overnight fermentation in the refrigerator.

While I was incredibly pleased with the results, I did learn a couple of things the hard way.

1. When creating the necessary oven steam, do not pour cold water into a searing hot Pyrex dish. It will explode.

2. To cut the
épi shape, make each cut in the same fashion down the length of the loaf. The only thing that changes are the alternating directions of the "rolls" (the aesthetics of one of my loaves was sacrificed in order to learn this lesson - but it was still delicious).

This classic recipe (which starts on page 49) produces one of the finest baguettes available, and with minimal effort, which means that you don't need the excuse of a holiday to enjoy it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Roasted Butternut Squash with Citrus Compound Butter and Rosemary-Scented Sugared Pecans

A friend recently asked if I had any special Thanksgiving recipes to share but to be honest, I’ve never had to host the big dinner at my house. Most years my contribution involves appetizers, homemade bread or pies. And then the other day one of my coworkers shared her very popular, very simple annual dish. It involves roasting butternut squash, drizzling it with melted lemon butter and sprinkling it with chopped rosemary and walnuts. I decided, two days before take-off, to give it a go.

There are many possible variations to this recipe. Since we’re in the midst of the holiday season I thought an herbed citrus compound butter would be beautiful. And while walnuts are lovely, why not add a bit of sweetness with rosemary-scented sugared pecans? The results were dazzling.

There’s no need to be intimidated by the term compound butter; it’s just a fancy way of referring to butter that’s been flavored. If you don’t want to bother, simply melt the butter, mix in the zests, rosemary and salt, and drizzle it over the roasted squash. And if you'd rather skip the rosemary sugared pecans, plain roasted pecans chopped with a bit of fresh rosemary will also make a nice topping (you may want to sprinkle a bit of brown sugar over the squash wedges to give them that sweet-savory component). 

This Thanksgiving we’re heading to Tristan’s aunt and uncle’s house and I’m responsible for the bread (I’m thinking a wheat-sheaf Pain de Champagne) so stay tuned!

Rosemary Sugared Pecans 
1 cup pecans
2 tablespoons butter
2 slightly rounded tablespoons packed light brown sugar
Pinch of cayenne
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
Coarse salt  

Roasted Butternut Squash 
1 medium butternut squash (or squash of choice, delicata is shown here)
Olive oil
Kosher salt 

Rosemary Citrus Compound Butter
The below amounts make more than you'll need for 1 roasted butternut squash.
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1 teaspoon orange zest
Pinch of salt

For the pecans: preheat the oven to 350˚F. Spread pecan halves in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Transfer to the oven and roast for 8-10 minutes or until they are golden and fragrant. Remove and set aside.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or if you don’t have any parchment, a lightly buttered sheet will do). Set aside.

In a large skillet heat the butter, sugar, cayenne and rosemary over medium-high. Once the butter has melted, add the nuts and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Transfer the nuts to the prepared baking sheet and sprinkle with a good pinch of coarse salt. Cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.

For the squash: preheat oven to 400˚F.

If you’d like to serve the squash skinless, use a vegetable peeler to remove the skin. Carefully cut the squash lengthwise in half; scoop out the seeds and fibers with a spoon. Cut each half in half again and rub the cut side of each quarter lightly with olive oil. Place wedges cut side up in a baking dish and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Transfer to the oven and roast until the edges have browned and the flesh is tender, 40-60 minutes.

For the compound butter: mix all the ingredients together in a small bowl. The butter can be used immediately or rolled on parchment paper into a log shape, wrapped in plastic and frozen.

To assemble: Place squash wedges on a serving platter lined with rosemary sprigs. Top each with a dollop of compound butter and a sprinkling of crunchy pecans. Garnish with a bit of orange zest, if desired.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Overnight Steel Cut Oatmeal

I recently bit the bullet and had all four wisdom teeth removed, something I should’ve done as a teenager. It was horrible. Actually, beyond horrible. I was part of the 30% who had problems with blood clots forming (mine formed, just very slowly) and was therefore in excruciating pain for one week straight. Thank god I’ll never have to do that again.

As you can imagine, the first five days necessitated a lackluster diet of yogurt, applesauce, pudding and juice, and let me tell you, I’ll never underestimate texture again. So the moment I felt well enough to chew, I made a big batch of steel cut oatmeal. 

Why steel cut as opposed to rolled oats, you ask? Because their taste (nutty) and texture (chewy) are superior. Sure, they take a bit longer to cook but the proof is in the porridge. 

The best way to prepare steel cut oats is by soaking them overnight. Not only does this cut the cooking time down to 10 minutes, it vastly improves the nutritional profile. Here’s the thing: whole grains contain phytates, which are indigestible organic acids. Left untreated, they bind to nearby minerals (calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and zinc) and block their absorption. Simple soaking actually neutralizes phytates so that they can’t make off with the good stuff. Therefore, grains that have been soaked, fermented or sprouted are much more nutritious than their untreated versions. 

I find it fascinating that most cultures, especially preindustrial cultures, fermented or sprouted their grains before turning them into porridge, breads or cakes. In India they ferment lentils and rice for at least two days in order to make idli and dosas. Ground corn is soaked by African natives before being added to stews while in Mexico, corn cakes called pozol are wrapped in banana leaves to ferment for days. That amazing Ethiopian bread, injera, with its slightly sour taste is made by fermenting a grain called teff. Throughout Europe grains were soaked overnight in soured milk or water before being turned into porridge. Even our American pioneers understood the benefits of treating grains; they were famous for their sourdough breads, pancakes and biscuits. Unfortunately, much of this ancient wisdom has been lost in the buzz of modern life, and quite recently at that. The instructions on the Quaker oatmeal box used to call for an overnight soaking!

With a little forethought you can easily reap the benefits of soaked grains. In the case of steel cut oatmeal, simply boil the oats in water for 1 minute and then let them sit overnight. Another ten minutes in the morning is all it takes to sit down to a piping hot bowl of goodness.

I'd say those 11 minutes are worth it.

Overnight Steel Cut Oatmeal
Soured, fermented oats had a place in the traditional Welsh diet. This treatment is much simpler but provides similar benefits. This oatmeal topped with a little butter and cream tastes exceptional.

3 large or 4 moderate servings

4 cups water
1 cup steel-cut oats
Pinch of salt, optional
Toppings of choice: butter, maple syrup, milk, cream, brown sugar, fruit, nuts, etc.

Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the oats and boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat, cover and let stand overnight at room temperature.

In the morning, heat the oats along with a pinch of salt (if using) over high heat, uncovered, until boiling. Reduce to low and simmer, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes or until the oatmeal is tender but still has a bit of chew. Divide among bowls and top as desired.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Truffled Popcorn with Rosemary and Parmesan

I come from a popcorn family. I’m not talking about people who enjoy a nice bowl, I’m talking popcorn enthusiasts.

My parents raised us without a television so our evening entertainment consisted of public radio (The Great Gildersleeve, Fibber McGee and Molly) and books. Lots of books. Every night we huddled on the sofa with a stack for mom to read, which nine times out of ten included The Popcorn Book by Tomie de Paola.

The story is about two brothers who look up the history of popcorn while making some for a snack. They find out that it originated with the Native Americans, who cooked it in clay pots or by holding corn cobs directly over the fire (they even made popcorn soup). They believed that a little demon lived inside each kernel and as things heated up he became so angry that he popped! In the meantime, the boys put way too many kernels in the pot and flood the kitchen with popped corn, which, I always thought as a kid, would be a wonderful mistake.

By the end of the book, we’d have one thing on our minds, and that’s when my mom would ask, “Who wants popcorn?” It’s no mystery why this was in our “favorites” rotation.

Nowadays I’m still a popcorn fanatic. Movies and sporting events aren’t worth watching without it. As for toppings, butter and salt will always be a classic but I also enjoy a good sprinkling of nutritional yeast or mixed herbs. My newest obsession, however, is truffle oil.

During our Balkan adventure two summers ago, Tristan and I bought a bottle of local truffle oil at the farmers’ market in Rovinj, Croatia, and ever since we’ve been indulging in truffled popcorn. Melted butter, truffle oil, a little kosher salt – it doesn’t get much better than that.

And then the other day I picked up Donatella Arpaia’s new cookbook, Donatella Cooks, where she suggests a combination of fresh rosemary, truffle oil and pecorino cheese. I love this woman! So I whipped up a batch and brought it to the Seattle Sounders soccer game. Let’s just say that I don’t think I can go back to the stadium kettle corn again.

I barely needed an excuse to make popcorn as it was. Now I’m struggling to find an excuse not to.

~ Dedicated to my mother

Truffled Popcorn with Rosemary and Parmesan
Great for movie night or game day. I’m simply listing the ingredients here; exact amounts depend on how much popcorn you’d like to make. Keep in mind that the melted butter and truffle oil ratio should be 1 to 1. Adapted from Donatella Cooks.

High heat vegetable oil
Popcorn kernels
Melted butter
Truffle oil (white or black)
Fresh ground pepper
Fresh rosemary, finely chopped
Grated Parmesan cheese

Pour a thin film of oil over the bottom of a heavy bottomed pan. Add the popcorn kernels in one layer, cover tightly and set over medium-high heat. When the popping begins, take the pan by the handles and shake often to keep things moving and to prevent burning. When the popping slows, turn off the heat. Once popping is completed, carefully remove the lid and transfer the popped corn to a large bowl.

I like to do this part in stages. Drizzle some of the melted butter and truffle oil mixture (remember, they are in a 1:1 ratio) over the popcorn, then sprinkle lightly with salt, pepper, rosemary and Parmesan. Toss a bit and repeat as many times as needed; be sure to taste as you go!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Cappuccinos without the Machine

Living in America’s coffee Mecca presents temptation at every corner. On my walk to work alone I pass three flagship roasters, each trying to lure me in with the rich aromas of their proprietary blends. While I’m a big fan of delicious things, I resist the urge to give in to a four-dollar-a-day habit and instead, leave my coffee splurges for the weekend.

Tristan and I talk frequently about buying an espresso machine but until a Lavazza appears on my counter top, I found a simple way to create luxurious cappuccinos without one. And if you have a French press and either an immersion blender or an old-fashioned whisk, you can too.

Simply brew your favorite coffee in a French press while slowly heating a bit of milk in a saucepan. When the milk is hot but not boiling (little bubbles should appear around the edges), blend with an immersion blender until a thick layer of foam appears on top. No immersion blender? Grab a whisk and whisk the milk in a back-and-forth motion for a similar effect (the foam won’t be quite as thick and dense but delightful nonetheless). Fill your favorite mug one third full with freshly brewed coffee, another third with hot milk and then top it off with a thick layer of creamy foam. And since we eat with our eyes first, a fresh grating of nutmeg or cinnamon tops it off beautifully.

This is the type of drink that requires savoring. It’s simple enough to make everyday and luxurious enough to make every day feel special.