Previous month:
December 2005
Next month:
February 2006

Mark Bittman's Pumpkin Panna Cotta


Hrmph. I have voiced my skepticism about Mark Bittman's recipes before. But with this recipe, I officially question whether I'll every try another one of his again. Maybe minimalism is not for me? Or at least not Bittman's version of it. Simple, easy cooking should not equal pallid pap. But perhaps I should be less judgmental when the pap I speak of is cooked cream. The dueling sides of my brain will battle it out while I proceed.

With leftover pureed pumpkin hanging about my fridge like a sullen teenager on a Friday night, I thought an easy way to get rid of it would be to turn it into silky little cups of pumpkin panna cotta, as published in a Minimalist column a few years ago. Bittman even goes so far as to propose that you could unmold this dish into a piecrust as a suitable replacement for pumpkin pie. Which leads me to ask: why, Mark, why would you abuse your impressionable readers with this suggestion?

The beauty of panna cotta lies in its ease of preparation and the pure, simple flavor of cream shining through the suspended form. With nothing but a scattering of macerated strawberries alongside it, panna cotta can be the easiest and most elegant of desserts. On the other hand, the glory of pumpkin pie is the multi-layered taste imparted by a good blend of warm flavors (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla, and brown sugar). It can be a delight to eat, and often you really do wonder if you can toss the crust and just scrape happily away at the filling.

The pumpkin and cinnamon in the panna cotta crossed out the milky, creamy goodness and left behind a one-note flavor combination that reminded me more of seasonal coffee blends at Starbucks than a reasonable substitution for pumpkin pie at the holiday table. I lost the very things I love about panna cotta and pumpkin pie in this combination. The bottom line is that I don't need my panna cotta gussied up and I don't need my pumpkin pie simplified. My dueling brain rests.

I sprinkled powdered gelatin over some milk and let it sit.
In the meantime, I blended together more milk, cream, the pumpkin, sugar and cinnamon. I heated the gelatin mixture until it dissolved, then slowly stirred in the pumpkin mixture until steam rose off of it.
I poured the mixture into cups and let them cool before putting them in the fridge to set up. Once it had cooled, the panna cotta separated into two layers.
I didn't eat the rest...

The Cheese Board's Corn Cherry Scones


I may have mentioned before that I am somewhat of a pedant in the kitchen. I like to have the exact ingredients called for, and I don't like cutting corners, especially when I'm testing recipes. But even the most organized and type-A cook can get thrown for a loop when time is of the essence and the buttermilk-man still hasn't made his rounds to the grocery stores in the neighborhood. And so it went this morning, when while toiling away at the elliptical machine, I thought of making fresh scones for breakfast.

I had only a bit of time before going to work, so I scurried to one store to look for dried cherries and buttermilk. No dice. I bought dried cranberries instead of dried cherries, but had no recourse when told that the buttermilk hadn't been delivered yet. I sped on to another store, barreling down the street while the winds pushed back against me. This next store, however, had also not gotten their buttermilk shipment. So I thought, er, creatively, and bought a quart of kefir instead. I zipped home, grumbling at the thought of all these substitutions to contend with, and hating the fact that I'd wasted precious time trying to find the right ingredients.

Back at the ranch, things only got worse when I realized I'd run out of all-purpose flour on New Year's Eve and hadn't replaced it yet. I had to turn to a bag of organic pastry flour (that had, incidentally, expired in December - oogh). With a frown firmly planted on my face, I quickly set about making what I was convinced would be Total Failure Scones. I followed a recipe that the LA Times had tracked down for an eager reader back two winters ago, and which comes from The Cheese Board, a collective bakery in Berkeley.

The stiff dough came together quickly while the oven preheated. The kefir mixed in nicely, and the creamy yet sour aroma mimicked buttermilk quite well. I gently formed balls of dough, placed them on a baking sheet (forming 11 scones instead of 14), and sprinkled the tops with 1 teaspoon of sugar instead of the 2 tablespoons called for. I slid the sheet into the oven, then turned the heat down and ran off to get ready for work. 20 minutes later, the scones were burnished and golden. While still hot, they were cakey and soft. But as I walked to work munching on one, it cooled to a delicate crumbly state - just as it should. The cornmeal gave it a pleasing crunch, and the cranberries (of which there were not enough!) peeked jewel-like through the yellow crumb.

I found the scones to be a bit sweet for my taste - I like a scone to tolerate a goodly amount of jam on top, and this one wouldn't have stood up to that treatment. But Ben will love them, I'm sure, and I'll freeze a few for toaster oven warm-up later this week. As for my pedantry, I did breathe a sigh of relief when I saw a photograph of the original scones online that looked exactly like my own. But it didn't exactly free the ties that bind me to be exacting in the kitchen. 

Celery Salad and a Getaway


The excesses from my cooking adventures threatened to overwhelm me last week. Not a minute too soon, I found a recipe in Everyday Food's December issue for a spartan salad that promised to cleanse the bacon grease and white flour build-up in my arteries. I sliced up a few stalks of celery and shredded the still-clinging leaves, then tossed in a dressing of (Meyer) lemon juice, olive oil, Dijon mustard and Maldon salt. The salad was snappy and astringent: the perfect thing to eat when you need something green in your system, but can't bring yourself to cook anything anymore.

Then I packed up my things, closed the door behind me, and went to Rhode Island with Ben for the weekend. We went indoor climbing, cringed and laughed at a zombie movie, and were fed splendidly by Alizah and Fran. Deliciously spiced pork with orange sauce, authentic fideua, puffy homemade pizzas, raisin-studded pane d'uva that rose and baked while we hollered Uno! at each other in the living room, and a fantastic, pureed mushroom sauce for pasta that could be eaten with a spoon whilst ignoring the pasta altogether.

The best part about the weekend was forgetting everything that awaited us back home: overheated apartments, work with no end in sight, the mind-numbing noise of city traffic. Thanks, Fran and Leez, for the good company and delicious food. It was the perfect medicine!

Michael Ruhlman's Savory Bacon


Well, I promised, didn't I? I herewith break the curse of the starch post epidemic I was suffering from to present you with a 3.3 pound piece of pork belly. Rubbed and cured and massaged and roasted, it's actually now a 3.3 pound piece of bacon. That sound you hear? My (almost) vegetarian father and kitchen-phobic mother falling over backwards as they stare in disbelief at the computer screen. That's right, I went to the butcher a week ago, I bought a piece of pork belly the size of my head, and now I proudly own more bacon than Ma and Pa Ingalls would know what to do with.

Last November, Michael Ruhlman wrote an article for the New York Times about the glories of curing your own meat, having just published a book on this same subject. Included with the article was a recipe for bacon and one for corned beef. Ruhlman writes that home-cured bacon is cheaper and tastier than the kind you buy in a store (and certainly the brine-pumped bacon slices shrink-wrapped in the refrigerated section of the store paled in comparison with the hunk of meat in my kitchen). I also figured the challenge of hunting down the ingredients, finding the patience for a week-long preparation, and overcoming any feelings I might have about seven-day old raw meat resting in such close proximity to my living quarters would add to the fun. So I took Ruhlman's bait.

First, let me tell you right away: if you live in New York, go straight to Florence Meat Market on Jones Street to buy your pork belly (if you've never eaten at Inside or been to Florence Meat Market, make sure you try their Newport steak sometime - it is possibly the most delicious meat I've ever eaten.) Their pork belly costs $2.99 a pound, which, compared to the prices here and here and here, is practically getting it for free. You have to call in advance to order it, but it takes no less than a day or two to arrive. When I got down to the butcher to pick up the belly and was confronted with the porcine terror that is a 5-pound piece of pork, I begged them to let me buy just a little bit less. They kindly agreed on 3.3 pounds, and wrapped it beautifully. Florence's is a fantastic place - I hope it stays in business for a long time.

Back home, I mixed up the cure and smeared it all over the belly. I put the belly in a Zip-loc bag, wrapped it up in butcher paper and put it in my fridge for a seven days of rest. But the next morning, confronted with the raw-meat-and-garlic stench smell in the early morning hours, I removed the package and marched it over to Ben's place. It was just too much to handle. Sweet Ben complied and let the belly rest at his place for the week. Every other day, the package was flipped. When the seven days were over, I rinsed the belly well. There is something profoundly ridiculous about standing at a sink and cleaning an enormous piece of meat that you have absolutely no idea how you're ever going to consume. But these were not the intrepid thoughts of a homespun bacon-curer, no! So I banished them from my mind and forged ahead.

The belly was placed on a rack on top of a baking sheet and slowly roasted at a low temperature until the interior temperature measured 150 degrees. It took my oven about 2 and a half hours. The bacon then rested until cool, at which point I sliced it up into different-sized portions. Ruhlman says you can refrigerate the bacon for two weeks or freeze it. I'm thinking of cooking up some for dinner tonight, so I can report on how it actually tastes. But then, I wonder: after Sunday breakfast, beef stew, Southern cornbread, and hostess gifts, I will still have more bacon than I'll know what to do with. Luisa's Homemade Bacon - just $2.99 a pound?

Steven Raichlen's Marinated Fish with Coconut-Ginger Rice


It's like I'm possessed. I set out last night to break my streak of starch-filled meals, but no matter how hard I tried, it all ended up being about the carbs. Let me explain. I had good intentions, I swear I did. I went to the store, I bought two gorgeous fillets of sea bass, and my very first jalapeno. It was shaping up to be a momentous occasion. At home, I made a marinade of lime juice, Meyer lemon (because I bought two at the new Balducci's - which, by the way, is lovely but totally unnavigable - and they were threatening to rot) and diced jalapeno. I lay those glistening pieces of fish in the marinade and turned. To. The. Rice.

I'll be honest. That photograph up there is pretty much a red herring. This post is all about the rice. I mean, the fish was good. Delicious, even. I'll make it again. But the rice? The rice is perfection. Now you see about being possessed. The recipe came from an old New York Times Magazine article and is from Steven Raichlen's book Miami Spice. For once this was a recipe I hadn't clipped myself - it was given to me by a friend. I put it aside politely, figuring the presence of cilantro (have I mentioned it tastes like rat poison to me?) would make this a no-go. But something kept me from throwing it out. Probably divine intervention.

While the fish marinated away, I melted some butter in a saucepan, added minced ginger and garlic and then a mixture of basmati and long-grain rice. When this had toasted nicely, I added coconut milk, water and salt. Top on, flame down. 20 minutes later, the ingredients had melded into a fragrant, fluffy pile of the most delicious rice I'd ever eaten. The fish broiled briefly in the oven (setting off the fire alarm, I might add. I'll get to the part about preventing that in a minute) and then got flopped down next to the rice. The delicate fish meat worked perfectly with the rice, and the tiny diced jalapeno gave the whole thing some heat. The best thing is, you could make this rice with Latin food, or Caribbean or Indian. It'd work perfectly with all of it.

Now I promise to break this carbohydrate streak presently, I really do. It might even happen tomorrow. In a big way. Aren't I a tease? I'll try to stay focused. Wish me luck.

Marinated Sea Bass with Coconut-Ginger Rice
Serves 4

The sea bass:
1/3 cup fresh lime juice (I mixed in Meyer Lemon juice, too)
1 large jalapeno, with seeds, minced
4 sea bass fillets (the original recipe calls for grouper or red snapper. My store didn't have either of these. The sea bass was fantastic, though.)
2 teaspoons chopped fresh cilantro (if cilantro doesn't taste like it's going to kill you)

The rice:
1 teaspoon unsalted butter (I'd make this 1 tablespoon - otherwise it's not enough and all will burn)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 1/2 cups long-grain white rice (I used a mixture of long-grain and basmati because I didn't have enough of either)
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1. To make the fish, combine the citrus juice and jalapeno in a shallow glass or ceramic dish. Add the fish and turn to coat in the marinade. Let stand for 20 minutes, turning once.

2. Meanwhile, to make the rice, heat the butter in a medium-sized heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and ginger (you could easily double the amounts of these for bolder flavor) and cook until fragrant but not brown, about 1 minute. Add the rice and stir for 1 minute.

3. Add the coconut milk, water and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and cook the rice until the liquid is absorbed and the grains are tender, 18 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 1 minute. Fluff with a fork.

4. Preheat the broiler. Remove fish from marinade and place on a baking sheet or broiler pan (oil this pan! Otherwise your fire alarm will go off). Broil until fish is just cooked through, about 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Place 1 fillet on each of 4 plates and sprinkle with cilantro (shudder). Spoon the rice beside the fish and serve immediately.

Amanda Hesser's Red-Wine Risotto


I walked home after work last night on a cloud of bliss. My blog was mentioned (blink and you'll miss it) on the The Leonard Lopate Show yesterday, as Ruth Reichl, Regina Schrambling, Josh Friedland and Jennifer Leuzzi discussed food blogs. I'm so proud. My little blog! The walk took 10 minutes, so I let myself bask in glory until I reached the front stoop. Then more important considerations took over: what on earth was I going to have for dinner?

Thumbing through my well-worn scrapbook of clippings, I came across a risotto recipe that Amanda Hesser published when she was still writing the Pairings column that Florence Fabricant writes now. Amanda suggested cooking the risotto with good, but inexpensive red-wine. She was first served this dish in Tuscany. (Skeptic that I am, I wondered if it was perhaps cooked up by an American. I stand corrected by the wonder that is Google. Though, to be authentic, the risotto - served throughout northern Italy - should be only made with Barolo or Barbera wine, which, of course, then negates the frugality of Amanda's dish. Is all this punctuation making you dizzy?) Amanda says the rice will be tinged pink - well, if deep purple is your version of pink, then yes.

It's an odd dish: you add the wine in two stages, letting it cook off before adding more so that the alcohol evaporates and you're left with flavor and color. Other than that, it's pretty straightforward: butter, onion, arborio rice, chicken stock. At the end, you stir in grated Parmigiano, and snipped chives, which looked awfully pretty contrasting with the aubergine background. But I could barely taste the herbs against all that wine. If I made this again, it would be with one glass of wine, not two. Just make up for the remaining liquid with broth. That might make the dish taste a little less, well, weird. I know, I'm just blowing myself away with eloquence today.

Amanda Hesser's Red-Wine Risotto
Serves 4

2 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium yellon onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, smashed with the side of a knife
1 cup arborio rice
2 cups red wine
kosher salt
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano
2 tablespoons thinly sliced chives
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1. In small saucepan, bring broth to a simmer. In medium saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon butter in oil over medium-low heat. When it foams, add onion and garlic; cook until softened. Pour in rice and stir to coat. Cook, stirring slowly, until rice is lightly toasted, about 3 minutes.

2. Pour in 1 cup wine, and reduce over medium-high heat until almost gone. Add second cup and reduce once more. When pan liquid is syrupy, begin ladling in hot broth, 1/2 cup at a time. Stir rice and adjust heat so that it is just bubbling on the edges. Continue stirring and adding broth as needed. Rice is done when it is tender but still firm to the bite in the center. If you run out of broth before rice is done, add hot water. Mixture should be creamy and loose, not soupy. Taste and adjust seasoning.

3. Stir in 1/2 cup cheese and remaining butter. Fold in chives and thyme. Serve risotto, passing the remaining cheese at the table.

Regina Schrambling's Slow-rising Pumpkin-Thyme Dinner Rolls


This photograph looks like I went a little nuts with the "warmify" button on Picasa's effects board. But that florid hue really is the color of the roll. I like to call it the FD&C Yellow No.6 effect. On Friday morning, while my failed rice pudding bubbled away in the oven, I beat together the dough for these rolls. My two cents on this recipe is that you should ignore the instructions to prepare the dough at night so it can be baked up in the morning. These are not breakfast rolls. Also, they lose flavor and texture rapidly, so you will want to make them as soon before dinner as possible.

I say, stir up the dough and let it rise once before going to work in the morning, then have it rest in the fridge all day before you bake the rolls in the evening. That way, no matter what is for dinner, your entire apartment building will be filled with the herby, spicy scent of these rolls and people walking through your front door will sink exhaustedly onto your couch, gaze at you with pleading eyes, and hold their hands out mutely for one of these little orange rolls to be placed therein. Grateful mumbles of pleasure through a mouthful of hot bread will ensue and you will know the true meaning of fulfillment.

The rolls were odd little things: savory but sweet, tender but almost dry. They're the kind of rolls you'd find in an assorted bread basket at a homey restaurant, but the slow rise and the well-balanced mixture of salt, peppery heat and mellow sweetness give them a gentle sophistication. To be honest, I prefer simpler, crustier breads, made of just water, yeast and flour. But the people around me who ate the rolls had no such complaints. And they certainly would liven up a Thanksgiving table.

With a wooden spoon beat together dissolved yeast, eggs, pumpkin, softened butter (this didn't really "beat" in well, so little lumps of butter remained throughout the dough, but it didn't seem to make a difference), spices and herbs, and flour. When you've got a soft but manageable dough, turn it into an oiled bowl and let it rise until doubled in bulk. Then punch it down and refrigerate the dough while you go to work. When you come home, punch down the dough again (this will be more difficult than in the morning, because the dough will be cold and firmer) and shape it into small roll-like shapes, which you put in a cake pan.
Cover and let these rise until doubled.
Put the pans in a preheated oven and bake until browned (they'll rise further in the oven and stick to each other, but will shrink away from the sides of the pan).
Let them cool for a bit, then gently tear the rolls apart at the seams. We ate these plain, though you could certainly split and butter them.