Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Week 5: Spicy Rainbow Chard with Bacon and Polenta

This week’s recipe comes from the December 2012 issue of Sunset magazine. I have been a loyal reader of Sunset since I was in my teens. I know that might sound strange, but it is the truth. My mother was not a very good cook and had a small repertoire that primarily consisted of spaghetti, meatloaf, pork chops, baked chicken, and casseroles. So I took over much of the cooking when I was in high school. Given that we had only 3 ancient cookbooks, my only source of current recipes was the monthly issue of Sunset that my aunt would drop off. It was kind of like a family subscription: my aunt paid for it, then I read it, then my mom, and then we would pass it off to my nana. Invariably she would pass that off to a friend as well. I’ve had my own subscription for many years, and I always find at least one recipe in each issue that I want to make.

This recipe caught my eye because I grow chard and love bacon. But then, I would eat bacon with just about anything. That being said, I am a bacon snob and generally only eat my own cured and smoked bacon. Butcher Son and I began doing this in 2011 when we acquired a smoker that belonged to my godfather. It is not a difficult process and the final product has a real smoke flavor that resonates throughout the whole slab of bacon…not that fake smoke flavor that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. I also love having the ability to cut the bacon to my own specifications, depending upon the recipe: lardons, thin cut, thick cut, and even end cuts which I use to flavor soups.

Somehow, I find myself in the odd predicament of being completely out of my homemade bacon; a rare occurrence that has caused me no lack of angst. This catastrophe led me to purchase thick-cut bacon to prepare this recipe. I thought Smithfield seemed like a good choice. They have been around for 70 years and seem to know their pork products.  However, opening the package, I found the bacon to be anything but thick cut. It stretched out when I tried to separate the pieces, each piece flopped in my hand, and when cooking it shriveled into weird shapes and did not cook evenly. A travesty from a company that espouses handcrafted excellence. But enough of my bacon rant and on to the recipe…

As usual, I did not follow the recipe to the letter, altering it based on my own preferences and ingredients. The original recipe called just for chard, but I also had a good crop of kale that needed to be harvested, so I mixed the two. (You can use two bunches of chard if you prefer.) The recipe also called for discarding the bacon fat and cooking the greens in olive oil. I really felt that the bacon fat would enhance the flavor of the dish, albeit make it less healthy. But I was willing to make the tradeoff.

Timewise, this dish took about 30 minutes. I set the polenta up to cook, while I prepared the greens and started the bacon. It’s a simple two-pan dish, does not require any particular skill, and was a keeper in the eyes of Mr. B. The small amount of chile pepper adds a good kick to the chard, but it will be too much for younger children. In fact, my kids would not have been fans until their late teens.

One last note: The recipe says it serves 4, but in my estimation, it would serve 4 as a side dish. Mr. B and I each had a serving and there was maybe a third portion left, and we are not gluttons. So I suggest you either serve a nice roasted chicken or grilled steak alongside, or increase the ingredients by half.

Spicy Rainbow Chard with Bacon and Polenta
1 cup polenta
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 slices thick-cut bacon
2 large shallots, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large bunch rainbow chard
1 large bunch kale
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes
1/3 cup water
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Cook the polenta with salt as the package directs. Meanwhile, cut the ribs out of the chard and kale and slice into 1/4-inch pieces. Roughly chop the leaves. Chop up the garlic and shallot.

In a hot pan, fry your bacon until just crispy. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels.  Crumble once cool.

Reduce the heat of the pan and add your shallots, garlic, and chard ribs until softened. This will take 4-5 minutes. Stir in your chard and kale leaves, chile flakes and water. Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook until wilted.

Stir butter and cheese into the polenta and spoon into bowls. Toss the chard with the balsamic vinegar and spoon over polenta. Sprinkle bacon crumbles on top and hit it with a final shot of Parmesan cheese.

Yield: 4 small or side servings

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Week 4: The Happy Dance of Baklava

Baklava is a daunting item to make – all those buttery layers to compose, getting the syrup just right, and not drowning your baklava in said syrup so that you have to eat it like soup. I have seen enough batches gone awry that I have stayed away from it for more than 30 years. But, given that my local store had phyllo dough on sale last week, I decided it was time to face my fears and whip out a batch.

I tried to make this once, back before I was even married. In fact, I seem to remember that I made it at my godmother’s home in San Jose, so that puts the date around 1979. It did not turn out well (aforementioned soupy version). My sister-in-law attempted to make some years ago when we were visiting the family in Colorado. While it actually looked very tasty, you could not have cut that baklava with a chain saw. The syrup had hardened the baklava to the point that we could not get the pieces out of the pan. We tried every variation of knife, including an old electric knife, to no avail. It is one of her few failures, and between the two experiences, I consider this a risky dish.  But it couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

This time around I found baklava to be very simple to make; I was done preparing the pan in about 10 minutes, and that included grinding the nuts and melting the butter. Baking took another 40 minutes, during which time I made the syrup. No fancy ingredients, save the phyllo dough, which most people do not keep on hand. And the best part of it all was pouring the syrup over the baked baklava. Because you have a hot liquid and a hot pan, when the syrup meets the baklava they do a happy dance, bubbling and boiling. You can just envision that syrup making its way into every sheet of dough, coating every nut. I tried to capture it in a photo, but really, you need to witness this fascinating process.

So within an hour, you can have a gorgeous pan of sweet, sticky, nutty goodness. The trick is the right recipe.

I found quite a variety of recipes available on the web and in my cookbooks. The main variations were the nuts used, how fine to grind them, how to layer the baklava, and the syrup ingredients. I, personally, feel you can use most any kind of nut. Walnuts are the most traditional, but pecans, almonds, or a mixture of nuts are totally acceptable. I happen to have several pounds of beautiful shelled walnuts from my god-brother Scott, who grows them up north in Gerber, California, so that is what I used.

The size or grind of the nuts really depends upon your own preference. Some like them all ground fine, others chunky or chopped, and some like a mixture of both. I took the middle road this time, using my food processor to get the right consistency. The nuts were not too large, with some ground pretty fine, meaning they should stay intact within each piece of baklava once it is cut into pieces. (Larger pieces of nuts have a tendency to fall out as you eat.)

As for the layering, that is also a personal preference. You can use half your phyllo sheets then top with nuts, finishing with the remaining sheets. Or you can make multiple layers of nuts. I believe that multiple layers work well when the nuts are a slightly finer grind, so this is the route I took.

And finally, the syrup, which varied widely among recipes. Most used honey, but some only a sugar/water syrup. Some called for lemon, others called for vanilla. Some used butter, others not. It was a hard call to make, but I ended up choosing the recipe by Ree Drummond of Pioneer Woman. She has not failed me yet, although she had the less traditional syrup that included butter.

It is her base recipe below, which I have adjusted slightly and added comments to the steps to help you out. I hope you will give this Middle Eastern delicacy a try. It’s a great recipe for a potluck or big event, as baklava is very sweet and one is all you need. 

Recipe after the jump

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Week 3: White Chocolate Chip and Hazelnut Cookies

For Christmas I was fortunate enough to be given The Model Bakery Cookbook. (Thank you, Danielle.) This St. Helena Bakery, founded in 1984, has generously put pen to paper and published 75 of its cherished, time-honored recipes. The cover, featuring nothing more than fresh-baked, drool-worthy English muffins, made me want to run into the kitchen and start baking. Then I delved into the table of contents and it’s a veritable treasure trove of comfort food: muffins, pies, old-fashioned cookies. Plus it has some great recipes for breads. I can hardly believe that I waited this long to sample a recipe!

Because I had some toasted hazelnuts that needed to be used, I searched for a recipe that would incorporate them and came upon white chocolate chip and hazelnut cookies. I have found that a good number of people are not fans of the white chocolate chip. I can totally understand; they are not really chocolate, per se. But if this bakery deemed them good enough to include in a cookie, who am I to disagree? I should note that they recommend you use white chocolate chips (or chopped white chocolate) that has cocoa butter. No palm oil or other tropical fats should be in the ingredient list.

The cookies are easy to make, similar to your everyday Tollhouse chocolate chip. I took pictures as I went along, but the hazelnut/chip picture was terribly monochrome in color, as was the scoop of dough on the parchment paper. So you just have to be satisfied with an image of the end result—a deliciously large cookie that will delight friends and family.

The cookies are buttery, sweet and crunchy. I love the flavor of hazelnuts (and a big fan of Nutella) and they pair well with the white chocolate. And unlike the Lay’s tagline, you really can eat just one. They are just that big. And because I am watching my girlish waistline, I packaged up a tin for the teachers at Ponderosa Elementary School in South San Francisco, where the generous gift-giver, Danielle, works. Enjoy!

White Chocolate Chip & Hazelnut Cookies
2 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
11 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups white chocolate chips
2/3 cup toasted, skinned and chopped hazelnuts

Position racks in the top third and center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Line two half-sheet pans with parchment paper.

Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt together into a medium bowl. Beat the butter and sugars together in a large bowl with an electric mixer set on medium speed, occasionally scraping down the sides of the bowl, until light in color, about 3 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and then the water and vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low. Add the flour mixture in thirds, mixing just until combined. Stir in the white chocolate chips and hazelnuts.

Using a large ice cream scoop (1/4 cup capacity), drop scoops of the dough onto the lined pans, spacing them about 3 inches apart. You will only be able to fit three or four cookies per pan.

Bake, switching the pans from top to bottom and front to back halfway through baking, until the cookies are lightly golden and set around the edges, about 17 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the pans for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire cooling racks and let cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough on cooled pans.

Yield: 15 cookies

Monday, January 13, 2014

Bridal Shower Cupcakes

This is more a show-and-tell than a full post, but I was very pleased with how my recent foray into baking turned out. Butcher Son’s girlfriend was throwing a bridal shower for one of her oldest friends. I offered to help with some baking and was given free rein to come up with a cupcake for the occasion. Forgetting to ask what the color scheme was, I decided to go simple: white and gold.

I baked a basic white cupcake in pretty white fluted wrappers. Then I made a rich dark chocolate ganache, which I then cooled and whipped to fluffy goodness. I used this as a filling. Now I am sure there are 100 ways to fill cupcakes. I personally use two methods. One is the put the filling in a pastry bag and just inject it into the center of the cupcake with a medium-sized round tip. This causes the cupcake to grow or expand a bit, raising the top of the cupcake. Only a small annoyance and the quickest way to do it. The second method, which I used this time, involves cutting off a small top and scooping out a bit of the cake. I simply use the back end of a large frosting tip. I just screw it into the cake and pull it out, releasing the piece of cake. Then I use a baby spoon to scoop out a bit of the cake, fill it almost to the top and then replace the cake top, pushing down slightly. This is what the steps looks like:

Once this process is complete and the cake is frosted, you cannot even see the cutout. I then made a simple vanilla bean buttercream (see the flakes of vanilla bean?) and piped it on decoratively. I topped these off with edible gold flake hearts. So cute, and tasty too.

As a final touch, I made 24 bridal shower picks to stick into the cupcakes. This was a very simple process. I happened to have some round labels (Avery 22807) and just downloaded a template from the Avery site. There are 145 decorative templates for this particular label. Lots to choose from for any occasion. Then, using my round punch, I cut out 24 rounds from sturdy white paper and sandwiched a toothpick between one label and one paper round. Voila! I do not have a picture of the final product with the pick, as the lid of the bakery box would not fit on the cupcakes with the picks on. But this is what the picks looked like – 4 sayings, 6 of each. 

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Week 2: Lemony Lentil Soup

I think that dried beans are underrated and underutilized. This may be due to the length of time that they take to cook, which is certainly a hindrance to someone who wants a meal in an hour. But they are cheap, usually $.90 - $.1.50 for a pound, which will feed 6-8 people. Legumes absorb liquids and seasonings well, making them flavorful once cooked, and they help fight against heart disease and cancer, can lower cholesterol and be beneficial to those with diabetes. I wholeheartedly encourage you to explore beans of every variety. Maybe try some cranberry beans, some heritage Berlottis, or good old-fashioned white navy beans. There are hundreds of kinds, so you will never get bored!

This week’s dish uses lentils, which like their cousin the split pea, cook very quickly and make quite a tasty meal. Lentils can be cooked plainly with some diced garlic and onion and curry to make a simple daal (served with plain yogurt), or they can be dressed up with lots of veggies, herbs, maybe some ham, and served for supper. They can be cooked with a small amount of liquid (water or broth) to make a hearty stew-like dish, or you can add a large amount of liquid to make a soup. Either way, start to finish, you can be done in an hour or less. This particular recipe makes use of our Meyer lemon bounty, which is just now ready to pick.

Today's recipe took me about 30 minutes from the time I walked in the kitchen to the time it was served. It got positive reviews from the family, made enough for 6-8 people, and it did not take any great culinary skill. A bit of chop, a bit of dice, a stir here, and you are done. It can be served to carnivores and herbivores alike, including vegans.

Originally a lentil dish featured in Sunset magazine, I turned it into soup by adding additional broth. (Depending on how thick you like your soup you can adjust the amount of broth.)

Lemony Lentil Soup

2 tablespoons butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups yellow or brown lentils
7 cups vegetable broth
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
Grated or zested peel from 1 lemon (yellow part only)
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper
Lemon wedges
Shaved or grated parmesan

Melt butter in a 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add garlic and stir until just beginning to brown, about 1 minute.

Add lentils and stir to coat with butter, then add broth. Simmer on low, covered, until lentils are tender but not too mushy, 20 to 30 minutes. They will thicken as they cool.

Stir in ginger, lemon peel, juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve with parmesan and lemon wedges on the side.

Servings: 4

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Week 1: Creamy Cajun Zucchini & Potato Soup

During fall and winter I make a big pot of soup almost every Sunday. A warm hearty soup goes a long way on a cold winter’s night, especially when you find yourself short on time. Preparing it in advance means you always have at least one meal ready to roll after a hard day’s work. And since I already spend a lot of time in the kitchen on Sunday preparing the family meal, it’s not an inconvenience. And the bonus is that the when the kids come for Sunday dinner, they can take away their own Mason jar of soup to have during the week.

This week’s new recipe has an unknown origin, but various versions can be found on the web. I modified it a bit to suit my tastes and what I had on hand, adjusting several ingredients, including the herbs. I much prefer to use fresh herbs, and I think they lend a better flavor to dishes than dried. Because I have a year-round herb bed, this is an easy substitution, but I have listed the comparable dry ingredients to use as well.

This is a very easy recipe to prepare and can be completed in about 45-50 minutes from start to finish. It is a vegetarian dish but could be made for vegan diets as well, substituting almond or soy milk for the heavy cream. Because these two ingredients are thinner liquids, I would add an extra potato or two in the beginning to achieve the thicker consistency of this soup.

This is not really a spicy soup, and can be served to kids. Should you want to amp it up, you could add or serve the soup with some good old Cajun hot sauce.

Creamy Cajun Zucchini & Potato Soup

2 tablespoons salted butter
1 cup chopped yellow onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
6 Yukon gold potatoes, cubed
2 medium zucchini, sliced
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
2 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons fresh minced basil or 1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning salt (plain salt will also work)
1 cup heavy cream

Melt butter in a large stock pot. Add onions and garlic and sauté for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add potatoes and zucchini and cook for an additional 3 minutes. Add broth, herbs and spices and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook for 40 minutes or until vegetables are tender.  Puree soup with an immersion blender. Add cream and salt to taste and heat thoroughly. (Do not boil.)

Servings: 6

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

52 Weeks of New Recipes

I’ve been rather remiss in posting to this blog, as you may have noticed. I have also failed to address all the new recipes I have torn out of magazines, cookbooks, and from the web. So in an attempt to rectify both issues, I will be posting one new recipe per week; hopefully this will make a dent in the backlog of recipes I have been hoarding as well as provide new fodder for readers.

Let me be clear, however, that some recipes I try may be failures. They may not live up to my standards, but I will still write about them. As most of you know, I am my own worst critic and rarely write about mishaps and missteps, but in trying out new things, there are bound to be a few. If I am lucky, it will only be a handful and the rest will turn out to be delicious and worth replicating in your own home kitchen.

So follow along as I wend my way through the clippings and new ingredients. In the end, I know we will find more than a few gems to add to our repertoire.