Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Seahorse Cookies

Seahorse cookies are legend in our family. My grandma used to make hundreds of cookies every December and bring them out one tin at a time, one tin after another, to be happily seized upon by all of the aunts and uncles and cousins. Grandma made lots of types of cookies, but the seahorses were everyone's favorite. These tender almond-flavored sugar cookies are iced with vanilla buttercream and studded with cinnamon red hots and colored sprinkles. They're pretty unusual as Christmas cookies go, which makes for a unique and special family tradition. I  think of Grandma every year when I bake these cookies and I think of her again every time I pull a cookie from the tin. 

My grandma shaped every cookie by hand, first rolling the dough into little snakes and then forming wreaths, candy canes, and--for reasons that escape me--seahorses. Merry Christmas, have a seahorse! In honor of Grandma, we follow a very strict protocol when we make these cookies. Wreaths must be green with three red hots, candy canes must be white with three red hots, and seahorses must be pink with one red hot for an eye. We love these cookies for the memories, but they also happen to be pretty delicious. 

Seahorse Cookies
Recipe from Virginia McGovern. Makes 8 dozen cookies.

1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter

1 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon almond extract
4 cups flour

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 teaspoon salt
1 lb powdered sugar
1/4 - 1/2 cup milk or cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Use a mixer to cream together the butter, sugar, and salt (or use salted butter and omit the salt). Mix in the eggs one at a time, then the almond extract, then the flour. If the dough seems dry, sprinkle it with a few drops of water until it just sticks together and doesn't crack when press your hand into it.

I usually divide the dough into three big balls, then divide each piece into 32 smaller balls by halving the dough four times (the balls should be slightly less than 1" each). The dough should then be chilled in the refrigerator until it a is bit firmer and easier to work with.

Shape the cookies by rolling the balls into little snakes, then forming them into wreath, candy cane, and "S" shapes. Press down lightly until the cookies are a little less than a quarter inch thick.  Bake at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes. The cookies should not brown at all and will seem a bit soft when they come out of the oven, but they should taste dry (not doughy) if you bite into one, sort of like very tender shortbread. Cool the cookies in the pan until they firm up a bit, and then move them to a cooling rack until they are completely cool.

Make the icing by combining all the ingredients in the mixer. Add just enough milk or cream to get a spreadable consistency. Dye the frosting with food coloring, then spread it on the cookies and immediately decorate them with red hots and sprinkles. Allow the cookies to sit out for a bit, until the icing hardens slightly. Then transfer them to an airtight container (a Christmas tin?) and share generously--this recipe makes 96 cookies! 

Grandma's handwritten recipe

Monday, June 11, 2012

Black Bean Salad

A friend of mine brought this bean salad to a Kentucky Derby party a few weeks ago. It was a bright, warm, blue-sky day, the guests wore sundresses and seersucker, and there was a very nice potluck spread. I wasn't particularly excited about the bean salad when I spooned it onto my plate, but I took one bite and fell in love. 

I made the recipe myself for the first time this weekend, and it easily earns a top spot on my list of quick, easy, worthwhile dishes. It's basically beans, corn, bell peppers and onions in a cumin and cilantro vinaigrette. The acid and sugar are nicely balanced (you won't notice the sugar and you won't feel like you got knocked over the head with a bottle of vinegar), and the other flavors are savory and refreshing. It's really very tasty. Also reasonably healthy. And vegetarian. One recipe makes a little over 10 cups, so it feeds a lot of people. Keep it in mind for potlucks or cut it in half for a smaller group.

Black Bean Salad
Adapted from a recipe shared by Logan Casey. Makes 10-12 generous servings. 

    • 4 cups cooked black beans, rinsed
    • 2 cups cooked kidney beans, rinsed
    • 2 cups of raw corn, sliced from 2-3 cobs
    • 2 sweet bell peppers (red, yellow or orange), chopped the same size as the beans
    • 1 red onion, chopped the same size as the beans
    • 1/2 cup olive oil
    • 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
    • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
    • 2 tablespoons sugar
    • 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
    • 1/2 tablespoon ground cumin
    • 1/2 tablespoon ground black pepper
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground dried mild chile (or chili powder if that's easier to find)
    • 1 clove crushed garlic
    • dash of hot pepper sauce, or to taste
    • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro (plus a little extra for garnish)
Put all of the salad ingredients in a large bowl. Whisk the dressing ingredients in a smaller bowl until the sugar is mostly dissolved, then pour the dressing over the salad. Mix everything up and marinate for at least a couple of hours and no more than a day or two. Garnish with additional freshly chopped cilantro.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Pork Carnitas

Carnitas is one of those special dishes in which a tough, humble cut of meat is transformed, through hours of slow heat, into something really wonderful. Each bite of  pork is full of flavor, incredibly tender, and pleasantly crisp around the edges. It makes a tasty filling for tacos or enchiladas or whatever else you can think of. 

I researched lots of recipes before working out an approach that I think is particularly easy and delicious. It takes a long time--you'll need to be home for a good half day-- but  it involves very little work. Big chunks of pork braise uncovered in the oven for several hours, then the meat is shredded and returned to the oven to essentially "fry" in a bit of the rendered fat. The end result is juicy and flavorful with crispy edges. 

I'll share a few quick lessons learned through trial and error:
  • No need to trim the fat from the meat. It's easier to cook the meat as it is and then discard any big pieces of fat at the end. The big chunks of cooked pork need to be pulled apart into bite-sized pieces, and the globs of fat are pretty easy to spot and remove while you're at it. Plus it's good to have the extra fat in the pan while the pork is braising (see next point).
  • Traditional carnitas recipes call for obtaining lard and cooking the pork in that, but I find that the meat itself renders enough fat during its long stay in the oven to more than get the job done. 
  • Some recipes call for browning the meat on all sides before putting it in the oven. However, the part of the meat that is above the surface of the braising liquid at any given time gets nice and brown from the dry heat of the oven. So even without browning the meat ahead of time, you wind up with a flavorful, nicely browned exterior.
  • Avoid shredding the meat while it's still hot. It's important to give the pork a quick rest to let the juices redistribute through the meat. I was in a hurry and shredded the meat right away once, and the pain of burnt fingers wasn't nearly as upsetting as the disappointment of dried-out carnitas.
Serves 6-10 hungry people.
  • 3-5 pounds pork shoulder, with or without the bone (Choose what sounds good for the number of people you're feeding and adjust the seasoning amounts accordingly. No matter how much I make, I never seem to be lucky enough to have leftovers, so you might want to overestimate a little on portion sizes). 
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground dried mild chiles (or chili powder if that's easier to find)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 3-5 cloves garlic, sliced or roughly chopped
  • 1-2 bay leaves
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the meat into 3-5 squarish bricks and put it in a 9x13" glass pan (or any oven-proof dish) with some space around each piece to allow the meat to brown on the top and sides. Between the pieces of meat, sprinkle the kosher salt, chile powder, cumin, garlic, and bay leaves. Add enough water to come  about a third of the way up the meat and swish things around to evenly distribute the seasoning in the liquid (everything should be in the water, not on the meat). 

Put the pan in the hot oven, uncovered. After one hour, take the pan out and use tongs to turn each piece of meat. Return the pan to the oven and continue to turn the meat once every 30 minutes. The pork should develop a nice dark crust as it cooks. If it doesn't, the meat might be too crowded or you might want to turn up the temperature in the oven a bit. Cook for a total of about 3.5 hours, or until the meat falls apart when you poke it with a fork. There should be very little liquid (and plenty of fat) in the pan at the end. Don't let the liquid evaporate completely;if it does, add a little extra water to the pan.

Remove the pork from the oven and let it rest in the pan for about 15 minutes, then use your hands to pull it apart into bite-size pieces. Discard any large sections of solid fat. Pour off most of the rendered fat from the pan (keep a tablespoon or two in there), then return the meat to the pan and stir. Put the pan back in the oven for another 30 minutes to allow the carnitas to get crispy at the edges.

Serve the finished carnitas in whatever format you like (tacos, burritos, enchiladas, nachos, etc.). Black beans and any good green sauce makes great accompaniments (I like this sauce for tacos or this for enchiladas).

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Deep, Dark French Onion Soup

This soup will make you cry. Tears of joy? Perhaps. But long before there can be any joyful crying, there will have to be some plain old onion-fumes-in-the-eyes crying. Without a doubt, peeling and slicing six onions will send tears streaming down your cheeks. But, have courage! Brave the fumes! A bowl of this hearty, full-flavored soup is worth every last tear.

The great thing about this recipe is that all of its deep, rich flavor comes straight from the onions. This is not soggy, pale onions floating in beef broth. It is onion soup. Before the broth is added, the onions are caramelized and deglazed, caramelized and deglazed, over and over, to create a soup thick with intense onion flavor. And, in case the prospect of hours of careful onion watching doesn't appeal to you, this recipe calls upon your (unwatched) oven to do most of the work. The soup can be made with a traditional beef base, but it's also good with vegetable stock or even water. Most of the flavor comes from the onions, so the vegetarian version has plenty of flavor. 

The recipe begins with a mountain of sliced onions. The onions spend a few hours in the oven, then they go to the stove top, where they become sticky and sweet and beautifully caramelized. The pot is deglazed multiple times to produce lots of browned onion flavor. Then the onions are simmered with some stock, a splash of sherry, a few sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf. Finally, the soup is poured into crocks and topped with Gruyère croutons. 

French Onion Soup
Adapted from Cooks Illustrated, January 2008. Makes 2 quarts, or six big bowls.
  • 6 large yellow onions (about 4 pounds--do not use sweet onions because they will get too sweet and gummy).
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • kosher salt
  • 1 cup water for deglazing
  • 1/2 cup dry sherry
  • 4 cups chicken broth, 2 cups beef broth, and 2 cups water 
    • or 6 cups vegetable broth and 2 cups water
  • 6 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ground black pepper
  • 1 baguette
  • 8 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. (The onions are going to be in the oven for several hours, so if you want to cook something else at the same time, like a chicken or a pot roast, you can turn the temperature down to 350 degrees with no problem).

Slice the onions. Cut each onion in half, pole to pole. Then cut off the roots and tips, peel away the skin, and cut the onions into quarter-inch slices. It's best to slice them with the grain (pole to pole) instead of against the grain (like onion rings) because this helps them to hold a nice texture--soft strips instead of gooey mush.

Put the onions in a a dutch oven with three tablespoons of butter and a teaspoon of kosher salt. Put the lid on and bake for one hour. Then, take the onions out, give them a stir, and put them back in the oven for another hour and thirty minutes, this time with the lid slightly ajar. Stir once after about an hour. The onions will be reduced in size and pale brown in color.

Move the dutch oven to a burner on the stove top. Cook the onions over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. The liquid should evaporate after about 15 minutes. When that happens, turn the heat down to medium and continue to cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan until the onions are brown and a dark crust forms on the bottom of the pan. (Keep scraping and scraping the bottom of the pan until the crust on the bottom is so dark and dry that it's difficult to scrape it up and you're worried that it might start to burn). Stir in one one fourth cup of water to deglaze the pan, scraping the bottom and sides until all of the brown bits are mixed in with the onions.

Repeat the browning and deglazing process three more times, always letting a dark crust form on the bottom of the pan before adding water. Stay close to the stove or set a timer for one or two minutes at a time so that your onions don't accidentally burn. 

Finally, brown the onions one final time and then deglaze with one half cup of dry sherry. (The sherry adds acidity to balance out the sweetness of the onions and another nice layer of flavor. If you decide to skip it, deglaze with water and consider adding a dash of mild vinegar). Cook for several minutes, then stir in the chicken and beef broths,  two cups of water, and a teaspoon of kosher salt. (You can use all beef broth, but the combination of beef and chicken rounds out the flavor nicely. If you're making a vegetarian version, substitute vegetable broth for the chicken and beef broths).  Add the thyme and bay leaf. (Six sprigs of thyme sounded like a lot to me the first time I made this recipe, but it's just the right amount and it's a key flavor in the soup. Be sure to use fresh thyme. You can tie the sprigs together with a piece of kitchen twine or put the thyme and bay leaf into a large tea ball). Turn the heat up to high until the soup begins to bubble gently. Immediately reduce the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove and discard the thyme and bay leaf. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.

All that remains to be done is to garnish the soup. Cut a baguette into one-half-inch slices. Toast the bread under the broiler very briefly. Then, you have two options. Option one: ladle the soup into broiler-proof crocks. Place the baguette slices on top of each bowl of soup in a single layer. Sprinkle grated cheese over the top and broil for 3-5 minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbly. Option two: figure out how many baguette slices are needed to cover each soup bowl. Arrange the slices on a cookie sheet in close groups, one cluster for each bowl of soup. Sprinkle cheese over the top of each group of bread slices and broil until the cheese is melted and bubbly. Take the cookie sheet out of the oven and let it cool for a few minutes, then use a spatula to transfer each group of cheesy baguette slices (together as one) to the bowls of soup. I like the second option because it's a little bit easier and can accomodate any kind of soup bowl, but putting the little crocks under the broiler can be fun too.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thank You, Glorious Hot Oven!

Toward the end of September, a gas leak was discovered at our apartment complex. The city turned off the gas while they inspected the problem, and we were left without heat or hot water. After one long week of taking very quick, very cold showers and boiling big pots of water on the stove for baths (the only time I've ever appreciated having an electric range), we finally got our hot water back. But, two and a half months after the big shut-off, the gas line to our furnace is still out of commission. On this wintry day in December, we are relying on one small space heater to keep our entire house warm (we have blown some fuses, yes we have!). And when I say the space heater is keeping the house warm, I use the word "warm" very loosely. It's pretty chilly.

So I'd like to issue a big, hearty thank you to my oven  for churning out lots of wonderful supplementary heat (along with some pretty decent food) over the past few months. Any meal that emerges from a hot oven is a treat at this time of year, but I've devoted myself to the oven with a special intensity lately. Dishes that require long hours of slow roasting or braising create the opportunity for lots of luscious, wonderful heat to leak out of the oven and into the house. These dishes also tend to be meltingly tender with lots of deep caramelized flavor. Both outcomes are most welcome. I've dusted off old some old recipes from winters past and also discovered some good new recipes in my quest to make the oven serve double duty both as both a food-cooker and a house-heater. Some recent oven-as-furnace favorites include pot roast with root vegetables (3.5 hours oven time), a french onion soup that uses oven-braised caramelized onions (2.5 hours oven time), carnitas with corn tortillas and green sauce (4 hours oven time), and roast chicken with roasted smashed red potatoes (1.5 hours oven time). Recipes to follow. Stay tuned. Thanks again, oven!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Whole Wheat Banana Bread

This banana bread recipe uses whole-wheat flour, which gives the bread a hearty, nutty flavor and makes it seem just a little bit healthy (try not to pay attention to the butter or sugar in the recipe, or the "healthy" illusion will be ruined!). Note that this banana bread is easy to overbake. Pull it out of the oven the very minute it's done for a moist, dense, loaf. And, for the best banana flavor, use very ripe bananas.

Whole Wheat Banana Bread
Adapted from New York Cookbook, edited by Molly O'Neill, recipe contributed by Bette Duke. Makes one loaf.
  • 1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened 
  • 1 1/3 cups dark brown sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose white flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2  bananas, mashed (about 1 cup)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9x5" loaf pan. Cream the butter and brown sugar in a large mixing bowl. Add the eggs, sour cream, and vanilla and mix until very well-blended. In a separate bowl, stir together the flours, salt, and baking soda. Add half the flour mixture to the batter, then the mashed bananas, then the other half of the flour mixture, stirring well to incorporate each addition. Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake 45 minutes to an hour. Begin checking the bread with a cake tester or knife as soon as you think it might be done. The moment you find that the tester comes out clean, remove the bread from the oven and let it cool on a wire rack. If in doubt, it's better to underbake than to overbake. Sometimes the center doesn't rise quite as much as you think it should, but you'll enjoy this bread much more if it's a little bit doughy than a little bit dry.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Warm Spinach and Artichoke Dip

The summer before my senior year in high school, I worked as a file clerk in the accounting department at my dad's company. The job was terribly boring, but the experience provided me with a really nice recipe for spinach and artichoke dip. Our payroll clerk brought a big bowl of this spinach and artichoke dip to every office party and it's delicious. This particular recipe is different than most because it doesn't have any mayonnaise or sour cream in it. Instead of being slightly tangy, the flavor is soft and mild. The dip is cheesy and creamy and very good.

The recipe is simple. You stir together cooked spinach, chopped artichoke hearts, cream cheese, and Parmesan cheese and heat it gently until everything melts together. The cream cheese makes the dip soft and smooth, and the Parmesan gives it a nice sharp, salty flavor. Tortilla chips, wheat crackers, or thin baguette slices all make nice accompaniments. 

Spinach and Artichoke Dip
Adapted from a recipe shared by Robin Roitz. Makes about 2 cups.
    • 1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed (fresh spinach is good here, but frozen works just as well)
    • 1 14-ounce can artichoke hearts in water (again, fresh artichokes are a fine choice, but canned artichoke hearts are tasty and  easy)
    • 1 8-ounce package cream cheese
    • 1 cup (3-4 ounces) grated or shredded Parmesan cheese
Begin by steaming the spinach over low heat in a covered saucepan with a little bit of water until the spinach is soft, about 5 minutes. Drain the water from the pan and press a spoon against the spinach to squeeze out any additional water. Give the artichoke hearts a rough chop and add them to the saucepan with the spinach. Mix in the cream cheese and Parmesan cheese and stir over low heat until all of the cheese is melted and fully incorporated. You can stop there and get right to the eating, or you can spoon the dip into a crock or a small, shallow casserole dish and bake it in a hot oven until it's bubbling. The dip is best served warm, but you can also serve it at room temperature if you thin it with a little bit of milk or water. A clove or two of minced garlic is a nice addition if you want a little kick.