Monday, May 31, 2010

Saffron Risotto with Spring Vegetable Ragout

It is no secret that my hometown ('Hell-A' or 'Smell-A' as we call it around here) is not my favorite city in the world. Fortunately, the person I like to visit with the most often (my mom) makes the trek northward to see myself and my siblings every few months, so there is seldom a pressing reason to have to subject ourselves to the hideous smog, traffic, and shallowness of that vast, gray wasteland. There are a few things that I enjoy doing down south, so on our occasional jaunts I try to show Jay the positive aspects: hikes in Topanga State Park, walks on the Malibu beaches, bumming around Santa Monica, Shakespeare plays at the Theatricum Botanicum, and a recent favorite, having Sunday supper at Lucques.

If I could airlift one restaurant from LA and plunk it down in SF, it would be Lucques. The vibe is decidedly un-LA, with rustic brick walls, a warm cozy feel, unpretentious staff and clientele(!) and the only locale we found down there that purveys locally crafted micro-brews. In fact, Lucques' down to earth food and convivial atmosphere remind me of a laid-back Chez Panisse, Delfina or Zuni, without the self-conscious priggishness of many Bay Area eateries.

The first evening we dined there was preceded by a stressful situation during which, after being stuck in the infamous traffic for nearly and hour, I desperately needed to use a toilette. Being over an hour early for our reservation, we set out to find a bar or cafe near the Melrose vicinity. After what felt like a desperate eternity of walking around (being gawked and pointed at from many Hummers and SUVs), we finally found one: an LA-sized Starbucks that would certainly have a restroom. Legally, they had to. Or so I thought. I gratefully ordered a drink, then asked to use the facilities, only to be told that it was for employees only. I threw a small tantrum during which I self-righteously declared that I would never, EVER, return to LA (Jay practically did somersaults of joy). Then I left my americano with an irate Jay grumbling about the lack of electrical outlets for his laptop, and went around the corner to a dodgy looking middle-eastern restaurant where I purchased a bottle of water in exchange for the great honor of using the ladies'.

We arrived at Lucques and smacked ourselves on the forehead when we saw the gorgeous bar that we could have been sitting at, sipping Craftsman brews, all along. Luckily, the evening took a turn for the much better with the calming atmosphere of revelry and delicious food and drink.

The aura of Lucques on a Sunday night, which I've now gotten to experience twice (the previous tantrum faded to a distant memory after the incredible meal), is one of casual luxury, rustic sophistication, and convivial Angelenos who can't seem to believe their luck. And why would they? Each meal begins with a dish of roasted and salted almonds, lucques olives, sweet butter and the best house-made crusty bread I've ever had (yes, even better than Acme and Tartine. Put together. Seriously.) A reasonably priced, well-paced, three-course meal follow, the dishes comprised of classic but original combinations, impeccable farm-fresh produce, and sustainably raised fish and meats, which you can wash down with a glass of wine or locally-brewed beer. All in all, it's a pretty sweet deal, if you can stomach the surroundings.

Fortunately, you can enjoy a Lucques meal without having to experience the stifling air, crazy drivers and fake breastedness of its location. Suzanne Goin has transcribed dozens of meals into a gorgeous cookbook which captures the spirit of the restaurant in every eye-popping photograph and drool-inducing menu.

One of the things I have come to enjoy about this book is that you can take a single component from a dish and use it in a different way. This saffron risotto comes from a meal of veal osso buco served with peas and pea tendrils. A box full of spring vegetables inspired me to serve a ragout atop the risotto instead of the meat (uh, not that the veal was ever really an option), and I now make this dish every spring when the variety of vegetables hits its stride.

Though requiring a few different components (stock, rice, vegetables) the dish is simple to put together, pretty to look at, and captures that feeling of laid-back elegance that Lucques effortlessly transmits. The saffron adds just the right touch of mysterious flavor and dazzling color without tasting medicinal or overpowering. The trimmings from the vegetables go into the stock for the risotto, milking every last bit of flavor from the precious veggies. A dusting of parmesan gives the dish an extra burst of umami.

Another bonus to making any risotto are the crispy, pan-fried cakes you get to make with it the next day. Risotto doesn't reheat that well, as the leftover rice absorbs all the extra liquid and loses the firm texture of the individual grains of rice. But pat it into cakes, dredge it in flour, egg, breadcrumbs and pan-fry and you have leftovers that I wouldn't hesitate serving to even Suzanne Goin herself.

She'd have to come here, though.

Saffron Risotto with Spring Vegetable Ragout

Makes 4 - 5 main course servings

Nothing is fast and hard about this recipe; use whatever veggies you want in the ragout. Nice additions could be fennel, baby artichokes, tiny carrots, turnips or gold beets, spinach or arugula leaves, mushrooms (especially fresh morels), and additional fresh herbs such as chives, basil, mint, chervil or tarragon. You could also put a slab of grilled or broiled fish atop the stack and drizzle with extra lemon juice, olive oil and a sprinkling of herbs. Either way, have a bottle of crisp white wine handy, such as a citrusy Sauvignon Blanc; you'll need 1/4 cup each for the risotto and the ragout; the rest you will need for drinking. While I am bossing you around, I'd recommend starting your meal with a perky salad, having some crusty bread handy for mopping up ragout juices, and finishing the meal with something bright, like lemon balm ice cream or lemon-almond cake with fresh berries.

The risotto is best eaten when just finished, otherwise the rice continues to absorb the liquid and becomes overly soft. To get the timing right, make the stock and prepare the ragout ingredients first. Begin the risotto next, and when it is halfway done, prepare the ragout. Have your peas and favas shucked and your favas blanched and slipped before beginning the risotto and things should be ready to go at the same time. If you find your risotto is cooking too quickly, just turn it off before it is done, then resume cooking it when you are almost ready to plate.

The stock:
2 large carrots, in 1/2" pieces
2 celery stalks, in 1/2" pieces
10 peppercorns
2 bay leaves
several sprigs thyme and/or parsley
2 quarts water
well-washed trimmings from the veggies (see instructions)

The ragout:
2 or 3 large spring onions or leeks, sliced and washed
2 or 3 stalks green garlic, sliced
2 tablespoons butter
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
salt to taste
1/4 cup white wine
additional stock
1 large bunch (1 pound) asparagus, ends snapped, bodies sliced on the diagonal into 1" pieces, tips left whole
1 pound english peas, shelled
1 pound fava beans, shelled, blanched and peeled if necessary
several tablespoons fresh herbs (see headnote)
juice of 1/2 a lemon, or to taste

The risotto:
Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 medium yellow onion, diced (about 1 cup)
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan, plus extra
stock, above

For the stock:

Combine the stock ingredients in a large stock pot or dutch oven and place over high heat. As you prepare the veggies for the ragout, add the cleaned trimmings from the spring onions or leeks, green garlic, asparagus, the pea pods, and any other vegetables you decide to use. Bring the stock to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and let it simmer for 20 minutes or so. Strain into a large bowl or measuring cup.

For the risotto:

Next, begin the risotto. If the stock has cooled, heat it to a simmer in a large saucepan. Place a large skillet over medium-hight heat. Add the saffron threads and heat, shaking the pan, for a minute or two until the threads are dry, brittle and fragrant. Swirl in 2 tablespoons of the butter, then add the onions, thyme leaves and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the rice and 1 teaspoon of salt, and cook, stirring constantly, until each grain of rice is translucent with an opaque pearl in the center, about 2 minutes. Add the wine, give it a stir, and let the wine evaporate. Now begin to add the stock in 1 cup increments. After each addition, give the mixture a stir, and cook at a bare simmer until most of the liquid had been absorbed. You don't need to stir it continuously, but do stir it enough to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pan, making sure to reach into the corners (I find the flat wooden paddle in the pictures above to be the perfect tool). Continue in this way until the rice is tender to your liking, 20-30 minutes more. (If you run out of stock, it's ok; just use a bit of water.) The grains of rice should be distinct with a thick and creamy 'sauce' coating each grain. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the parmesan and taste for salt.

For the ragout:

When the risotto is about halfway done, begin the ragout. Melt the butter and olive oil together in another large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions, green garlic and 1/4 teaspoon salt and saute until meltingly tender, 10 minutes or so. Add the wine, and cook until evaporated. Add the asparagus and enough stock to moisten, a ladleful or two, and simmer until bright green and crisp-tender. Add the peas and blanched favas and cook for another 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, and stir in the herbs and lemon juice. Taste for salt and acidity, and add a grind or two of pepper if you like.

To serve, mound the risotto on large plates and make a shallow well in the center. Spoon the ragout into the well. Top with freshly grated parmesan and a shower of fresh herbs.

To make risotto cakes with leftover risotto:

Place 1/4 cup flour on a shallow plate. In a shallow bowl, beat an egg (or an egg white) until homogeneous. Fill another shallow bowl with a cup or two of fresh bread crumbs. Scoop up 1/4 cup cooled risotto (a spring loaded ice cream scoop works well for this) and pat into a patty with moistened hands. Dredge the patties first in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs. Heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a wide skillet (preferably well-seasoned cast iron) and when it shimmers, carefully place the patties in the hot oil. Fry until browned and crispy, about 5 minutes per side. Serve with leftover ragout, a dusting of parmesan and a green salad if you like.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Rhubarb Streusel Coffeecake

Synchronicity is a funny thing. Like the time I got into a friend's car to find him playing Bebel Gilberto's Aquas do Março, an obscure song I'd been, unbeknownst to him, obsessing over for the past month.

Or the summer I ran into my high school art history teacher in a tiny church in a little-known French town which we had studied in his class.

Or a few weeks ago when my friend Jessa messaged me that she was bringing rhubarb coffeecake to a potluck when I'd spent the day looking for just the right recipe. Well Jessa's coffeecake was nothing short of spectacular; my only complaint was that there wasn't ten times more! The piece I devoured at said potluck, huddled outside in the cold so as to hoard it all to myself only made me hunger for more.

So I set out to make one that I wouldn't have to share (without having to huddle outside, but rather lounge in my cozy apartment on the couch/bath/kitchen counter). I sat down with a stack of coffeecake recipes that I'd made over the years, muddled them together, and ended up with something which I was torn between wanting to hoard and conversely wished to run up to strangers shouting, 'I made this!' and shove a piece in their mouth. (I did a bit of both.)

Like most things food-related, I have some preconceived notions about coffeecake. My ideal one combines a buttery yellow cake with chunks of meltingly tender fruit and plenty of salty, crisp streusel in every bite.

The fruit should melt into the cake, which should bubble up through the streusel. The cake should be rich, but not so buttery as to be heavy or leave a greasy mouthfeel. It should be moist, but not so wet that it takes hours to bake (I've been there.)

It should be delicate enough to crumble under the pressure of a fork, yet sturdy enough to travel well. It should be tall enough to cut into generous cubes. It should not be so sweet as to dissuade you from making it breakfast, but decadent enough that you wouldn't feel cheated having it for dessert, preferably with a warm beverage either way.

This coffeecake is all those things and more; I even witnessed if not a converting of than at least a tolerating by former rhubarb haters and some of the pickiest eaters I know. (After taking several bites: 'Why did you tell me there were vegetables in here? Now you've ruined it.' Takes another bite. Takes another. Finishes piece. Accepts offer of another.)

This recipe is mainly adapted from Martha's Sour Cherry coffeecake. I doubled the streusel, and used yogurt and a bit of half and half (which I almost always have in the house) in place of the sour cream (which I rarely have around) which gave it a pleasantly light texture. I baked it in a 9" square pan rather than a tube pan, omitted the glaze, and used chunks of rosy red rhubarb tossed with sugar in place of the cherries.

It is quite a straightforward recipe, with easy-to-remember quantities. I'm looking forward to trying it with other fruits throughout the seasons, such as berries, peaches, sour cherries, ripe pears (with cardamom), plums, or apricots. You could add sliced almonds or chopped, toasted pecans to the topping if you're a nut lover.

Rhubarb recipes:
Brown Butter Rhubarb Squares
Apple Rhubarb Crisp
Rhubarb Chèvre Galettes

Rhubarb Streusel Coffeecake

Makes one 9 x 9" coffeecake, sixteen 2" square pieces

If you forget to soften your butter ahead of time, no worries: cut it into small pieces and let it sit out while you get your other ingredients in place. If your butter is still chilly, you can make the streusel in a stand mixer with the paddle for ease, and warm the butter for the cake by placing the bowl over your oven while it preheats. For the dairy portion of the cake, I used a combination of yogurt and half and half, which I usually have around. I love the light texture I ended up with, but suspect the cake would work with buttermilk, milk, sour cream or any combination thereof.

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) butter, softened but cool

1 stick butter, softened, plus a bit more for the pan
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup yogurt
1/4 cup half and half
4 large stalks rhubarb, in 1/2" slices
1 tablespoon sugar

For the streusel:
Combine the flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt in a medium bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the butter, and work with your fingers or paddle on low until the mixture begins to clump together. Set aside at room temperature.

For the cake:
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350º. Grease a 9 x 9 x 2" square pan generously with butter.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle (or a bowl with a wooden spoon if you are badass) cream the butter and sugar together on medium until light and fluffy, 3 - 4 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until combined after each, then stir in the vanilla.

While the wets are doing their thing, sift the dries into a medium bowl. Toss the rhubarb with the tablespoon of sugar and set aside. Stir together the yogurt and half and half.

With the mixer on low, alternate adding the dries and the dairy in three parts, beginning and ending with the dries and mixing until just combined after each addition. Give the batter a fold with a rubber spatula to make sure it is homogenous.

Spread a little more than half the batter in the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle the rhubarb evenly over the top. Cover with the rest of the batter, and sprinkle with the streusel, squeezing into almond sized clumps if necessary.

Bake the coffeecake for 50-60 minutes until it is golden brown, beginning to pull away from the sides, springs back to the touch, and passes the toothpick test. Let cool for about 1 hour. Cut into 16 squares.

The coffeecake is best the day it's baked when the streusel is crisp, but will keep for several days at room temperature, or in the fridge for up to a week (but I would warm it up in a toaster oven before eating).

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Rosemary Pine Nut Biscotti

It may come as no surprise to you that I had rather odd eating habits as a child. Along with consuming entire jars of cornichons in one sitting, and mashing milk-soaked graham crackers to a pulp, I also dipped unlikely foods into unsuitable drinks. Quesadillas in lemonade was a favorite. My mother was appalled but I always felt right at home with my grandpa, whom my grandma called a 'dunker.' (I'm sure there's a lewd joke in there somewhere.) At our weekly tea parties in the days before biscotti became popular here, I could dunk my unsuitably fragile cookies with abandon, and always ended up with an inch or so of dissolving cookie crumbs in the bottom of my cup.

It makes sense that I would, as a young baker, become enamored with biscotti, the ultimate 'dunker.'

Before I go any further, I feel it necessary to point out that what we call biscotti Italians actually call cantucci, or 'little nooks,' perhaps referring to their uneven texture. Biscotti in Italy refers to any cookie (like British 'biscuits') which, in the middle ages where the word originated, were often baked twice so as to make them store longer, even for 'centuries' according to Pliny the Elder.

In any case, I've had this tiny jewel of a book since I was 14 or so. I have no idea where it came from, but I do know that it precipitated a severe cantucci phase which lasted many years. I baked biscotti in my mom's kitchen, in my college dorm, at band camp over the summer. I brought them to friends, job interviews, and my art history professor, blushing the day I discovered that he had written in my official class evaluation, '...her homemade biscotti are unparallel.'

Of the many varieties I tried, from anise to lemon to chocolate hazelnut, my favorite began by caramelizing slivered almonds in a skillet with butter and sugar. The caramel provided an extra layer of flavor, the almonds leant a pleasing crunch, and the cookie part was just the right balance of sweetness and austerity, richness and sturdiness. Unlike traditional biscotti, these contain a generous amount of butter, resulting in a biscuit sturdy enough for dipping, should you be so inclined, but rich enough to eat on its own and not desperately go in search of a beverage. (Which mightn't be such a bad thing, depending on the beverage, of course. Hopefully, not lemonade.)

Some time ago, I worked with a gal named Kelly at Petite Patisserie. Kelly also worked at a prestigious East Bay ice creamery, so our bakery shift often began with me grilling her for the latest flavors on offer. One day she described a rosemary pine nut praline ice cream, a combination that stuck in my mind; she later mentioned having baked rosemary caramel pine nut tartlets, which also sounded divine.

So when a large bunch of rosemary arrived in our box last week, I decided to try out that combination, which seemed so Italian that I decided to bake them into my old love, biscotti.

My base recipe for biscotti is based on Lou Seibert's original that I like so much, but rather than creaming together the butter and sugar, I whip the sugar and whole eggs together to make a foam, then add in the melted butter. This creates a slightly sturdier cookie which crumbles less when sliced, but still has all the buttery goodness and delicate texture of the original.

As Pliny noted, biscotti are good keepers as well as dunkers, and will stay crisp for at least two weeks (I can't vouch for how many centuries) when stored in an airtight container. They make a classy gift, and are a lovely not-too-sweet snack any time of day.

Feel free to substitute slivered almonds or chopped hazelnuts for the pine nuts, which can be pricey.

Caramelized Pine Nut and Rosemary Biscotti

Makes 3 - 4 dozen 3-4" cookies

3/4 cup pine nuts
2 tablespoons plus 1 stick unsalted butter
3 tablespoons plus 3/4 cup sugar
3 - 4 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary needles (from 2 or 3 sprigs)
2 eggs
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder

In a medium skillet set over medium heat, melt together the 2 tablespoons butter and 3 tablespoons sugar, stirring occasionally, until the sugar just begins to caramelize, 3 - 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the pine nuts and stir constantly until the nuts are toasted and coated in caramel goo, about 2 minutes (watch closely, as pine nuts are delicate and burn easily). Turn out onto a plate or sheet of parchment, spread into a single layer, and set aside to cool. Break up into clumps of 1 - 3 nuts.

In the same skillet, melt the stick of butter with the minced rosemary and set aside to steep and cool slightly. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip the eggs with 3/4 cup of sugar on medium-high until thickly foamy and lightened in color, about 5 minutes. Sift together the flour, salt and baking powder into a medium bowl. With the mixer on low, add the infused butter, stirring until combined, then the flour mixture, and finally the caramelized pine nuts. Remove the bowl and give the dough a final fold with a rubber spatula, making sure it is homogenous. Chill the dough until firm enough to handle, about 1 hour.

Position two racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 350º. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Divide the dough in half. Shape each piece into a log 14" long, 1" high and 2" wide. Place longways on the baking sheet spaced at least 3 - 4" apart. (you can use one sheet for both, but you will need both sheets for the cut cookies.)

Bake the logs until golden, firm, and cooked through, about 25 minutes, rotating once or twice. Let the logs cool on the sheets for at least 15 minutes. (At this point, you can wrap and freeze the logs to be baked later if you like.) Use a wide metal spatula to remove a log to a cutting board. With a large serrated knife, cut the log on a shallow diagonal into 1/2 - 3/4" slices. (I like to saw once toward myself, then press straight down to minimize crumbling, but do whatever works for you.) Place the cookies on the lined sheets and repeat with the other log.

Bake the cookies a second time until dried and golden, about 15 minutes, flipping the cookies over halfway through if they are browning more on the underside. Let cool.

These biscotti keep well, in an airtight container, for at least 2 weeks. The rosemary flavor will become more pronounced as they sit. Serve with an espresso, or perhaps a bowl of olive oil ice cream for an unusual dessert.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Creamy Sesame Soba Noodles

Today's recipe, a chilled noodle salad tossed with vegetables, crispy tofu, and a creamy sesame dressing, is a wedding of two culinary obsessions: peanut sauce and soba noodles.

I fell in love with peanut sauce my freshman year at UCSC when the boys in the dorm nextdoor, a super-senior named Mike and his New Orleans sidekick, Jimmy, took us girls to Charlie Hong Kong, an awesome order-at-the-counter spot boasting ginormous bowls of cheap, healthy, Asian-inspired munchies perfect for starving students. An order of Spicy Dan's Peanut Delight is enough for two meals, and you can add your choice of toppings ranging from tofu to steak.

When I moved to SF, I missed Spicy Dan's like nobody's business. I even considered getting a job at CHK for a day in order to pilfer the recipe. Instead, I tried several recipes in my own kitchen until I hit on something just right. I happened upon this recipe in an unlikely place: Once Upon a Tart, a gem of a book written by two friendly-sounding fellows who run a New York cafe. Here I give a simplified version made with a bowl and whisk rather than a food processor, and almond butter, Bragg's and lime juice instead of peanut butter, tamari and vinegar. Make a double or triple batch and keep it in your fridge to be spooned over brown rice and steamed veggies, such as bok choy, greens, broccoli, and/or carrots, for your own peanut delight.

As for the second obsession, I have always loved the nutty-cinnamony flavor of buckwheat in crepes and cereal, and even a toasted buckwheat tea, which I once tried at Medicine. (There was nothing medicinal-tasting about it, though buckwheat is high in the amino acid l-lysine, which miraculously ousts canker sores.) (Hm, I wonder how toasted buckwheat ice cream would be?)

I first became addicted to chilled soba noodles after trying Medicine's refreshing yet filling hijiki-soba salad. I then began making Heidi Swanson's Otsu from Super Natural Cooking. But it wasn't until I paired the cold noodles with this creamy dressing that I found true happiness. It's especially perfect on a hot day, when you're craving something substantial yet cool and refreshing, healthy but indulgent.

If you are gluten intolerant, you are in luck. Despite buckwheat's (mis)name, it is actually the gluten-free seed of an herb plant native to Russia. Soba noodles made with 100% buckwheat flour are still delicious, though a bit more delicate and strong-tasting than the buckwheat/wheat ones pictured here.

I like to make a large batch of this salad for several reasons:

1) It keeps well in the fridge, and tastes even better the second and third day after it has been made.
2) It makes an excellent, instant one-dish lunch or dinner.
3) There never seems to be enough of it, I never tire of it, and I like to share it.
4) It's crowd pleaser-ish, great to take to potluck, or on a road trip.

You can of course vary the veg with the seasons. Other nice additions are:
cucumber slices
zucchini, sauteed
bell peppers, julienned
shiitake mushrooms, sauteed with a bit of mirin and tamari
peas: snow, snap or pod
edamame or fava beans
hijiki or other sea veg
slivered asparagus
daikon radish, shaved
bean sprouts
toasted peanuts, almonds or cashews

Creamy Sesame Soba Noodles

4 servings

Noodles and veg:

8 ounces soba noodles, cooked, rinsed in cold water, and well-drained
2 medium carrots, peeled then shaved into long strands with a vegetable peeler
1/2 small cabbage, shredded finely (about 3 cups)
2 tablespoons sesame seeds (any color or a combination)
1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
6-8 ounces extra firm tofu, in 1" chunks
6 scallions, slivered on the diagonal
1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Combine the noodles, carrots and cabbage in a very large bowl. In a medium skillet, toast the sesame seeds over medium heat, shaking occasionally, until toasty, 2 minutes. Remove to a small bowl. In the same skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the tofu in a single layer, and fry on one side until golden, about 5 minutes. Turn and fry on the second side. Remove from the skillet and add to the bowl of noodles. Add more oil to the skillet if necessary, and add the scallions. Saute one minute, just to take away the bite, and add to the noodles. Toss in the dressing, below, then the cilantro and sesame seeds. Serve right away, or chill for an hour to bring out the flavors.

The salad will keep in the fridge for up to 3 days.

Creamy sesame-almond dressing:

If you don't have tahini in the house, you can use an extra tablespoon of nut butter instead; I won't tell.

2 tablespoons smooth almond (or peanut) butter
1 tablespoon tahini
2 tablespoons Bragg's amino acids (or tamari/soy sauce)
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1/2" knob of fresh ginger, finely grated (about 1 teaspoon)
2 teaspoons agave or honey
juice of 1 or 2 limes (2 - 3 tablespoons)

Whisk everything together. The dressing will keep for up to a week in the fridge.

(Gluten-Free, Vegan) Hippie Crispie Treats

The other night after rehearsal my dancemate and friend, T, requested that I post a simple recipe, something for people lacking things like stand mixers and food processors. Something that could be made in a kitchen the size of (hand-gesture implying) 1-square-foot.

Though T is on the small side, I hope for her sake that her kitchen is slightly larger than 1 square foot. But I ignored that, and instead told her that I had just the recipe.

These are stupid simple to make. They take about 10 minutes to assemble, and an hour or so to set. You don't need any fancy equipment, not even an oven. You could make these in a college dorm room, camping, or with kids. Heck, you could even be a hippie and still make these (dorm room/camping/kids optional).

You do need something which produces heat, like a burner, hotplate, propane stove, or microwave, as well as a saucepan, loaf pan and a rubber spatula. A piece of parchment paper is handy, but you could use wax paper, foil, or a greased pan instead. But that's pretty much it.

Yes, but what are these magical mystery treats, you ask?

Well, several months ago I developed an odd craving for rice crispy (I refuse to spell that with a 'k') treats but couldn't bear to buy cheap marshmallows (scary), didn't want to shell out the cashola for upscale mallows (like the veg ones at Rainbow) and was too lazy and scared of breaking my kitchenaid (which happened the last time) to make my own. I like the flavor of Heidi Swanson's version, which uses peanut butter, maple syrup and agar agar, but wanted a bit more chew and goo. I also wanted them to be chocolaty, but knew it would be a balancing act to get the chocolate to set the bars just enough. I imagined using an unrefined liquid sweetener in place of the mallows, nut butter for gooey richness, and chocolate to temper the sweetness.

My first attempt tasted good, but wasn't nearly gooey enough. I lost heart and moved onto other culinary obsessions. Several months later I stumbled across the love of my life (David Lebovitz)'s recipe for Triple Chocolate Scotcheroos, which are essentially rice crispy treats made (marshmallow free!) with butterscotch chips, nutella, sugar and rice syrup. I took a cue from David and boiled the sweeteners (I used maple instead of the sugar, which worked great) and used a combination of almond butter, coconut oil and chocolate instead of the nutella. The result was chewy, gooey, chocolaty crispy treats made with ingredients you can find at your local health-food co-op, a minimal amount of refined sugar, and no trans fats or gelatin. They also happen to be gluten-free and vegan, and are quite sturdy enough to pack into a lunchbox or take on a hike, picnic, or peace rally.

Feel free to go crazy with different nut butters, nuts and even chocolates. I've a mind to try some with hazelnut butter and topped with toasted hazels, and another batch with peanut butter, dark milk chocolate and salted peanuts. Pistachios would make a striking topping, perhaps with a bit of cardamom in the bars, or coconut butter. Finely ground espresso powder and chocolate covered beans on the top would be a treat for coffee lovers, as would cacao nibs for chocophiles.

See? They're kinda healthy. Like something a hippie might eat. A hippie with serious munchies.

Or a svelte dancer with a sweet-tooth cooking out of a 1-square-foot kitchen.

I gave some of these to my yoga teacher and told her they were 'like healthy rice crispies treats.' The following week after class she demanded to know what was healthy about them, since they certainly didn't taste at all healthy, which I took as quite the compliment.

(Gluten-)Free at last:
Flourless Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookies
Gluten-Free Whiskey Brownies
Gluten-Free Congo Bars

Hippie Crispy Treats

Makes eight 2" squares in an 8x4" or 9x5" loaf pan

(Recipe updated 10/30/12)

If you are very sensitive to gluten, make sure to get crisp rice cereal that is certified gluten-free; some cereals contain barley malt. I've gotten the best results using Barbara's Bakery Crisp Brown Rice, which is fruit juice sweetened and seems to hold up the best and stay the crispiest. 

Feel free to double the recipe and form the squares in an 8 or 9" square pan, which is advisable since these disappear quickly. Double the chocolate and coconut oil in the topping if you are an ardent chocophile, and/or top the treats with cacao nibs in addition to the almonds. See the post above for some possible variations. These treats are crispest the day they are made, but will keep refrigerated or at room temperature for up to a few days. All ounce measurements are by weight.

The bars:
1/4 cup (3 ounces) maple syrup
1/4 cup (2 3/4 ounces) brown rice syrup

1/4 cup (2 ounces) almond butter
1/4 cup (1 1/4 ounces) chocolate wafers, or coarsely chopped chocolate (preferably 70% cacao mass)
1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) coconut oil
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt

2 cups crisp rice cereal (not 'puffed' rice)

The chocolaty topping:
1 tablespoon (1/2 ounce) coconut oil
1/4 cup (1 1/4 ounces) chocolate

2 tablespoons chopped, toasted almonds
1/8 teaspoon flaky sea salt

Line an 8x4 or 9x5" loaf pan with a sling of parchment paper.

In a large saucepan, bring the maple and rice syrup to a rolling boil for 1 minute, stirring frequently with a heatproof spatula or wooden spoon (be careful not to let it boil over). Remove from the heat and stir in the nut butter, 1/4 cup chocolate, 1 tablespoon coconut oil and 1/8 teaspoon fine salt until smooth and the chocolate is melted. Fold in the rice cereal and pack the mixture firmly and evenly into the lined pan (damp fingers can help here).

In a small saucepan (or the same big one, if you've scraped it clean), melt the remaining 1/4 cup of chocolate and 1 tablespoon coconut oil together over very low heat, stirring constantly just until melted (be careful not to scorch the chocolate). Pour the chocolate mixture over the rice mixture, spreading to smooth. Sprinkle the nuts and flaky salt over the top.

Let the bars set at cool room temperature (about 1 hour) or in the fridge (about 1/2 hour) until firm. Lift the sling out of the pan, trim away the edges if you like, and cut into 8 squares.

These treats are best the day they are made. They will keep at room temperature for several days, though the cereal will soften slightly.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Dreamy Vanilla Ice Cream

Whoever coined the term 'plain vanilla' has obviously never tasted something made with genuine vanilla beans. If they had, they would know vanilla to be one of the wildest, most exotic, sensual flavors in the world. I mean, it's the fruit of a tropical orchid, and tastes rich, sweet, fruity and floral all at once. Just because it goes with almost anything you could imagine, from old fashioned fruit desserts to savory entrees, that doesn't make it plain. Chocolate goes with everything, too, and no one pigeon holes that.

Here's an excerpt from the Boston Vanilla Bean Company:
Vanilla is considered to be the most labor intensive of all agricultural products. The entire process of vanilla cultivation, pollination and harvesting is done by hand.
The cured beans vary in flavor and fragrance depending on where they are grown in the world, the soil, climate and environmental differences as well as the differences in curing processes. Vanilla, like gourmet coffee, is a product of its environment in that its ultimate flavor is affected by the other plants and minerals in the surrounding area.

When you want something sweet to melt over a warm fruit dessert (such as the Maple Sugar, Bourbon, and Brown-Butter Peach Crisp, shown above), look no further than this ice cream. It has a fantastically creamy texture, with the heady, complex (food geek alert!) flavor profile of vanilla bean and just the right amount of sugar to keep it pliable but not be overly sweet.

I usually use the ratio of 1 cup whole milk to 1 1/2 cups heavy cream, but this time I used 1 1/2 cups half and half and 1 cup heavy cream, really just because we like half and half in our breakfast tea better than the milk which would have been leftover. This combination resulted in the smoothest, creamiest, tastiest ice cream I've ever had, and will thus be my go-to formula from now on.

Ice cream is dead simple to make, but you do need a few essential tools:
-a wire whisk, for tempering the hot dairy into the egg yolks
-a heat-proof rubber spatula, for stirring the custard
-an instant read thermometer is nice to have, especially if the thought of undercooked eggs gives you the heebie jeebies, but not necessary. Use for gauging the temperature of the custard, which should be between 170º and 175ºF in order to kill any harmful bacteria lurking in the eggs but not curdle the mixture.
-an ice cream maker (natch!) I use the Kitchen Aid stand mixer ice cream maker attachment, which consists of a metal bowl filled with freezy stuff which I keep in my freezer, and a special 'dasher' which churns the ice cream. They cost about $75 new. I like that there is already a motor in the mixer, so it is more efficient than buying a separate motor in an electric ice cream maker. If you don't have a stand mixer, I would recommend this manual ice cream maker from Donvier. This is the model I used for years and years.

Custard-based ice creams do take a bit of planning, as the base needs to chill for at least 4 hours, and preferably overnight, before churning. Putting the base in the freezer for 30 minutes before processing means less time in the ice cream maker having air whipped into it, resulting in a denser, creamier ice cream.

Many recipes will put the fear in you, advising that you cook the custard in a bain marie to prevent it from curdling. This is hogwash. At a certain restaurant which shall remain nameless, all we had was an electric hot-plate style burner. We would crank it up to high and cook the custard quickly. To be safe, keep your flame medium-low, and stir constantly as the custard cooks. If your eggs do begin to form lumps and bumps, remove it from the heat immediately and pour it through a fine mesh sieve and into your cold cream. This should take care of any problems.

Happy ice cream making!

Dreamy Vanilla Ice Cream

Makes about 1 quart

Save the egg whites for making brown-butter financier cakes. They will keep in the fridge for up to a week, or in the freezer for several months.

1 1/2 cups half and half
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped
1 cup cold heavy cream
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
pinch salt

In a medium saucepan, heat the half and half with the vanilla bean and scrapings until steaming and small bubbles appear around the sides of the pan. Cover and steep for 30-60 minutes.

Pour the heavy cream into a quart-sized container, such as a mason jar, and set aside. If you have an instant-read thermometer, have it handy.

Place the egg yolks in a medium bowl set on a damp towel to stabilize it. Add the sugar and salt, whisking to combine. Reheat the half and half to a bare scald. Whisking constantly with one hand, pour the hot dairy very slowly into the yolks. (This is called tempering, and prevents the yolks from scrambling.) Pour the mixture back into the pot and set over a medium-low flame. Cook, stirring constantly with a heat-proof rubber spatula, scraping the sides and bottom of the pot, until the custard just begins to 'stick' (or form a thickened film) on the bottom of the pot (you may have to tilt the pan to see it), or registers 170º on an instant-read thermometer, 5-10 minutes.

Immediately pour the custard into the container of cold cream, stir to combine, and chill in the fridge for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.

Place the ice cream base in the freezer for 30 minutes to get it really cold. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve, then process in an ice cream maker. 'Cure' in the freezer for at least 2 hours for a firmer consistency.

Homemade ice cream is best eaten within the first few days of being made, but will keep for a month or two in the freezer.

Variation: Vanilla Bergamot Ice Cream

This version tastes like a grown-up creamsicle, with hints of earl grey-y muskiness.

Add the finely grated zest of 1 bergamot orange (2 teaspoons lightly packed zest) to steep with the vanilla for 20-30 minutes. After you've tempered in the egg yolks and cooked as directed, strain the mixture right into the cold cream. Proceed with the recipe from there.