Sunday, May 24, 2009

Savory Custards with Asparagus

A dear friend of ours needs to eat very soft foods at the moment. Most of her diet has been liquefied for a few days now. I was trying to come up something savory that isn't soup and suddenly it occurred to me that custard would be a good possibility. I was prepared to make up my own recipe, but Deborah Madison and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone came to my aid yet again. I took her savory custard recipe, made it slightly larger (added 4 eggs instead of 3 because we had medium ones), and incorporated both garlic and asparagus.

Instead of leaving bits of garlic in the custard, I infused the garlic in the milk and eggs for an hour or so in the fridge and then strained the mixture. Madison wants you to strain it anyway, so I figured this would work well. My tasters tell me that the garlic came through nicely. (Indeed, I made a dish that I would never consider eating myself, as I dislike both cheese and asparagus. I do this with Elspeth all the time and am thrilled that so far her palate is more like her father's.)

Asparagus does seem awfully stringy for someone who needs liquid or super-soft food, I know. However, I put it through a food mill. Of course, that meant that the 6-8 lovely thin stalks ended up being only a few tablespoons worth. Thus, the custards were more asparagus-scented than anything. Even if you are unrestricted in your ability to eat textures, you may still wish to put the asparagus through a mill in order to keep the custardy goodness intact. If that is the case, you'll also want to double the amount of asparagus.

Our weekly trip to the farmers' market scored us the eggs and the organic asparagus, but we got the cheese from our co-op because I didn't want to risk a less-than-luscious texture for our friend by buying some locally-produced Fontina equivalent (and, as I don't eat cheese, I would have no idea what would make a good substitute).

Eaters looking for a bit more texture could try not only using minced or diced up bits of asparagus instead of milled, but also a bread crumb topping. I would recommend in that case omitting the garlic from the custards and instead using this garlic bread crumb recipe. I'll bet that cheese lovers could improve on the bread crumbs further by adding a little bit of Parmesan.

This would make a nice light supper accompanied by a salad. I'm delighted to report that our friend was able to eat and enjoy the custard, testament both to her recovery and to the softness of the meal.

Note that I made a second variation of this dish a few weeks later. Instead of scenting it with asparagus, I used caramelized onions (about 1/2 a very large onion), cooked spinach (1/2 c. total after cooking and milling) and lots of grated nutmeg. Very Frenchy, as a friend said. I love the combination of onions and nutmeg and it's so great with spinach, too.

INGREDIENTS
3-4 eggs (use more eggs if using medium eggs)
1 2/3 c. milk (I use whole these days and suspect it will work best, but feel free to experiment)
3/4 tsp salt
Pepper to taste
1 clove garlic put through a garlic press or finely minced (optional)
1/2 c. grated Fontina cheese
1/3 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 c. cooked asparagus diced or put through a food mill (you'll want 1/2 cup volume regardless, so if you are going to put it through a food mill, you'll need quite a lot of asparagus to start out with)

DIRECTIONS
  1. Mix together the eggs, milk, salt, pepper and garlic in a bowl and set aside to infuse. If you're going to leave it for over 20 minutes, place in the refrigerator.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly butter six 1-cup ramekins or custard cups
  3. Prepare to make a water bath by bringing a few cups of water to a boil and then taking it off the heat and setting it aside
  4. Prepare your asparagus and grate your cheeses (this lets the egg/milk/garlic mixture infuse as long as possible)
  5. Once all of your ingredients are prepared, strain the milk/egg mixture into a medium-sized bowl
  6. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well
  7. Pour the custard mixture into the six ramekins, distributing evenly. Sprinkle on the bread crumbs, if using
  8. Place ramekins in a 9 x 13 dish (mine is Pyrex), then place this on the oven shelf and pour the hot water into the dish (but not, of course, into the ramekins). You want the water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Close up the oven
  9. Bake until the tops are starting to turn golden and the custards are set, about 20 minutes. Note that you still want a jiggly spot about the size of a dime in the center of each one
  10. Remove custards from the oven and water bath and let cool 5 minutes before serving
  11. Madison states that custards can be reheated by brushing the tops with milk or cream, covering with foil, and baking at 375 degrees for 15-25 minutes. This sounds a bit dubious to me since you're cooking it at higher heat for longer than you did originally, but this is what she says about reheating custards and timbales generally (not this recipe specifically)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Lentil Soup with Walnuts and Cream

Now this is what I call a great meal for a weeknight! I love the other Deborah Madison lentil soup recipe I published, and it is hardly difficult, but the one I'm publishing now is even easier. This one comes from her Vegetable Soups cookbook, another gem. The only thing you have to chop is an onion and yet the soup is full of flavor. The first time I made it, I thought the flavor came from the rich, smoked turkey stock we used. This time, though, I only had 4 cups of homemade chicken stock and used water for the remaining 2 cups. The soup was still surprisingly robust. I think this is due to two things: the butter used to saute the onion, and the bay leaf that you saute along with that onion in the butter. I hadn't used this technique before, but I think that the flavor of the bay is released by the this treatment. I also found that the soup improved in flavor the next day.

In my usual fashion, I changed the recipe by adding some ground greens (Russian kale, in this case). They didn't detract at all from the subtle yet hearty flavor of the soup, and may well have added to it.

Madison is a strong advocate of soaking lentils. This is something I almost never do, but I do for this soup (mainly because she reminds one to do so right in the recipe). She believes that the lentils are more flavorful after soaking, so perhaps in the end this is the real reason the soup taste so good despite its simplicity. Any amount of soaking time will be good, she says, but 2 hours is optimal (she didn't say anything about a longer soak--I would think if you wanted a really long soak, say from morning until dinner time or overnight, you should keep them in the fridge).

I really like the pounded walnut topping that Madison suggests with this soup, though if I'm feeling lazy I won't bother with it. (In fact, it's this topping that makes me wanted to try a walnut version of my Everyday Pasta for Spring and Summer). I found this time that I wanted more walnut flavor in the soup, so next time, I might be tempted to put ground, toasted walnuts and garlic directly into it. I'll post about it if I try this variation.

This is another one that got the Elspeth seal of approval, though she tends to get full after a small portion.

INGREDIENTS
2 c. lentils, picked over and rinsed (I use Puy lentils)
1 onion, finely diced
2-4 TBSP unsalted butter
1 bay leaf
1 tsp salt
6 c. chicken, turkey or vegetable stock or water (if you haven't soaked your lentils, expect to use up to 2 cups additional water)
1 bunch greens, washed and ground up in a food processor (or very finely chopped)

WALNUT SAUCE INGREDIENTS
1 garlic clove, finely diced or put through a press
1/3 c. toasted walnuts
1/3 c. crème fraîche or cream (I actually used strained yogurt)
Dash of salt (Madison doesn't call for this, but I think it could use it)
Parsley for garnish (I put the parsley straight into the garlic, walnuts and yogurt)

DIRECTIONS
  1. After picking through the lentils and discarding any stones or debris, soak them for one to two hours, then rinse and proceed with the recipe
  2. Melt the butter in a large sauce pan or soup pot (I used our 5 quart and there was plenty of room)
  3. Add the onion and bay leaf and saute over medium high heat for 5 or so minutes, until the onion is soft but not browned
  4. Add the lentils, salt and stock and bring to a boil
  5. Simmer, covered, until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes
  6. Add the ground greens and let cook a further 10 minutes or so. Taste and adjust the seasoning (I added a splash of champagne vinegar at this point)
  7. Turn off the heat and let sit while you make the walnut sauce
WALNUT SAUCE DIRECTIONS
I used the food processor for the sauce because I'm lazy, but I think a mortar and pestle might have worked better, so I'll give directions for that. It's what Madison suggests, anyway.
  1. Place the garlic clove and a pinch of salt in the mortar, mix together with the pestle
  2. Add the walnuts and parsley and begin to work them into a paste
  3. Add the cream, crème fraîche, or strained yogurt a tablespoon at a time to help break down the walnuts. If you have any extra dairy, just add it to the soup
SERVE THE SOUP
When you serve the soup, add a generous dollop of the walnut sauce to each bowl and swirl to blend

Friday, May 8, 2009

Streusel Coffee Cake

I love, love, love this coffee cake. Unlike so many I've had, it's not dry at all. That's probably because it uses oil rather than butter. I thank my sister-in-law for introducing me to it, though sometimes I wish I didn't have this recipe because it is far too easy to polish off absurdly large portions of this cake at a sitting. The recipe is from the Café Beaujolais in California and I have made very few changes to it. Sure, at one time I had a lower fat version or maybe even a lower carb version, but it was way too much hassle. Now I just use whole wheat pastry flour instead of all purpose and use a combination of pecans and almonds for the topping instead of walnuts. One of the things I love about it is how the streusel topping is scooped from the main mixture. There is also a nice ratio of topping to cake. This cake got the Elspeth yummy award, I'm sure you're shocked to learn.

INGREDIENTS
2 1/4 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1 c. packed brown sugar (I usually use a combination of dark and light)
3/4 c. evaporated cane juice sugar
3/4 c. vegetable oil (the original recipe specifies corn oil)
1 c. almonds and pecans, lightly toasted and chopped
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 egg, beaten
1 c. buttermilk

DIRECTIONS
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9 x 12 inch baking pan (I use Pam on a Pyrex)
  2. Combine flour, 1 tsp of the cinnamon, all of the ginger, sugars and oil in a large bowl. I usually end up digging in with my clean hands to mix it
  3. Remove 3/4 c. of this mixture to a small bowl. Add the remaining cinnamon and nuts to it and stir--this is now your topping. Set aside
  4. In the large bowl, add the remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Small lumps in the batter are okay
  5. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan
  6. Sprinkle evenly with the topping
  7. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean
  8. Serve warm or at room temperature. Try to prevent yourself from eating half the cake in one go

Scones

I make no claims for the authenticity of these scones. They do not date from my long sojourn in the UK; no wizened auld grannie gave me her cherished family recipe. In fact, I started making these scones in high school, when I simply dreamed of all things British and never believed I would ever cross that pond. I think that the recipe comes from some sort of Betty Crocker or Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. These scones taste like none I've ever had in the States or in Britain, but I do like them quite a lot.

This last time I made them, I used the food processor. Because I had doubled the batch the processor was quite full and I had to run the motor much more than I would have thought (pulsing just wasn't cutting through the butter). The end result was pretty close to what I've made by hand, so I would probably use the shortcut again. If I don't double the recipe, I only get about 9 scones--I must like them thicker than the original recipe calls for, as I'm sure it is a recipe for a dozen. The following is the doubled recipe.

INGREDIENTS
3 1/2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1 TBSP baking powder
6 TBSP sugar (3/8 c.)
2/3 tsp salt (or 3/4 tsp if you can't be bothered looking for a third teaspoon measure)
2/3 c. unsalted butter, cut into 1 inch chunks (11-ish TBSP)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 to 3/4 c. heavy cream or whole milk

DIRECTIONS
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F and prepare a baking tray (I put Silpat on mine)
  2. Combine dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse until combined
  3. Add the butter and coat with flour
  4. Pulse in the food processor until the mixture resembles small peas
  5. Keeping the motor running, add the beaten eggs through the feeding tube
  6. Start by adding 1/2 c. of milk while the motor is running
  7. Stop processor and remove lid to check on texture of dough--it should form a ball in your hand but not be sticky to the touch. Add more milk as needed
  8. Remove dough from food processor and knead lightly to make a ball of dough
  9. Let dough rest for ten minutes
  10. Roll out dough to 1/2 inch thickness and cut into circles. According to some cooking show I saw in Britain, it's good to avoid twisting the cutter because twisting the dough might impeded the rising process. (Alternatively, you can roll the dough into a circle and cut into triangles, though you should separate the triangles to bake individually or else the middle won't cook well)
  11. Put scones on prepared tray; brush with egg wash if you choose (I rarely bother)
  12. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown
  13. Remove from oven and serve while warm

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Everyday Pasta for Spring and Summer

I spent many years being squeamish about all dairy products save for milk and ice cream. Yogurt, sour cream, cream cheese-- all made me shudder. I can barely write the words cottage cheese without cringing. Some of my disgust was cured by living in France. Yogurt there wasn't nasty and they had a substance called crème fraîche whose subtle tanginess soothed rather than nauseated. (Cottage cheese, however, will always be dead to me.) It was in France that I came up with this dish.

I sometimes like to call it a cousin of carbonara, but purists might rightly howl at such a designation. I only do so because I started out making a more traditional carbonara using egg. I then decided to smooth out the egg with a bit of crème fraîche and eventually just jettisoned the egg altogether.

When spring finally arrives and there are pea shoots and other young greens in the farmers' market, this dish returns and makes itself a frequent dinner at our house throughout the summer. It can be made with almost anything green--the aforementioned pea shoots, sorrel, peas, greens and even broccoli, which is what I used this past week.

I find myself frustrated that crème fraîche is so expensive in the States, so in the past I've tried to make my own version by culturing cream with a couple of tablespoons of buttermilk. For some reason, though, I have very mixed success. These days, more often than not, the cream never thickens and it is the thickness I want--to melt lusciously over the pasta. So this week when my culturing failed, I tried a different technique altogether. I mixed strained whole milk yogurt with the cream that hadn't thickened. I was amazed at how good a substitute this was for crème fraîche and will certainly make this my go-to method.
As the years have passed, I have ditched the cream and I just use strained yogurt.

This dish is super easy to make and can be whipped up in the time it takes to boil the pasta water and cook the pasta. If you are using broccoli for the dish, I recommend pre-steaming it in the microwave (or you could try setting a steamer over your pasta cooking water). As for greens or peashoots, I just grind them finely in the food processor and add them to the skillet after the bacon and garlic have browned.

We weren't sure how Elspeth was going to take to this dish. She's ambivalent about cheese and even butter but does like yogurt. All signs were good and I think she may even have called it 'yummy'. Of course, it contains three of her favorite ingredients: bacon, garlic and pasta. Now we've added Gwendolyn to the mix and she loves this dish just much as her big sister. In fact, we don't eat it only when pea shoots are in season--we've switched to kale most of the time. Every Saturday night is kale pasta night and the family never seems to tire of it.

I added the 'vegetarian' label because you could easily omit the bacon. In fact, I am planning on trying a version in which I use toasted, chopped walnuts instead of bacon. Deborah Madison combines cream, walnuts and garlic in a lentil soup topping and I think it would be great both with pasta and with broccoli.

INGREDIENTS
Enough dried whole wheat penne for your family's dinner (8 oz for us)1 big bunch greens or pea shoots OR 1-2 c. peas OR 1 bunch broccoli chopped and pre-steamed
1/3 to 1/2 c. strained yogurt
1 TBSP olive oil
3 slices thick, good quality bacon cut crosswise into little pieces (we use pepper bacon, which is perfect in this application)
2-3 cloves garlic, minced finely or put through a garlic press

DIRECTIONS
  1. Put your pasta water on to heat and cook your pasta according to directions/your taste when it boils. Use the heating time to put together everything else
  2. Prepare your greens--wash, chop or do whatever you need to make bite-sized pieces. If you're using anything but broccoli, plan on using the pasta-cooking water to cook the green stuff
  3. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add the bacon
  4. Cook, stirring often, until the bacon has rendered fat and is starting to turn golden
  5. Add the garlic and continue cooking for few minutes. Try not to let the garlic get too brown
  6. Add the finely chopped/ground greens to the skillet, still over medium heat, and put a lid on it for a few minutes to steam the greens
  7. Remove the lid and continue cooking over low heat
  8. When the pasta is almost ready, stir the yogurt into the skillet and turn off the heat
  9. Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet and stir well--it'll be quite thick
  10. Taste and adjust seasoning then serve and watch your kids' mouths turn green around the edges

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Romesco Sauce

I took this sauce/spread as an appetizer to our preschool social and I was really happy with how it turned out. I made up my own recipe using ideas from Penelope Casas' The Food and Wine of Spain and Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Casas' recipe was my baseline, but I used some additions from Madison and a tweak or two of my own. My version is more rustic than Madison or Casas would have you create because I didn't peel the almonds or tomato--seemed like too much effort for something that would be pureed. I used my handy new mini-chopper, as it didn't seem like a big enough recipe to warrant the full food processor. I'm sure readers will be unsurprised to learn that I used smoked paprika; it added just the right depth. Madison's recipe includes a roasted red pepper, which I think would be a nice, though not necessary, addition.

We read a book at our house called Yummy Yucky by Leslie Patricelli. Elspeth has so far only picked up on the yummy part and it is really gratifying to have her taste something and deem it yummy, as she did for this sauce. I served it with homemade bread and Spanish green olives.

INGREDIENTS
1-2 New Mexico dried chiles
1/2 c. red wine or sherry vinegar
1 c. water
2 slices sliced bread (I used the Grand Central como that we have on hand for eggy bread)
1/2 c. olive oil
1 tomato, diced
1/4 c. almonds, lightly toasted
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes or to taste
2 cloves garlic, minced finely or put through a garlic press
1 tsp sweet paprika or a combination of sweet and smoked sweet paprikas
Salt to taste

DIRECTIONS
  1. Clean the New Mexico chiles of any dirt or dust and put in a small saucepan with the vinegar and water over medium heat
  2. Bring mixture to a boil and then simmer for 5 minutes
  3. Drain the chiles and save the vinegar/water mixture for flavoring and thinning the Romesco
  4. In a small to medium frying pan, heat 1/4 c. of the olive oil and fry the bread until it is golden on both sides. Remove from the pan and set aside
  5. Use the oil that is left in the frying pan to saute the tomato for a few minutes, until soft
  6. Process the toasted almonds in the mini-chopper or food processor for a few seconds to start breaking them up
  7. Add the bread and pulse again until they're both coarsely chopped
  8. Add the soaked chiles, sauteed tomato, red pepper flakes, garlic, paprika and salt as well as the remaining 1/4 c. olive oil
  9. Puree the mixture until it is well integrated but not perfectly smooth. Taste and add some of the vinegar water as needed. Adjust flavorings as desired
  10. Keep at room temperature until you wish to serve. Works well as a sauce for fish, though we like to eat it as a spread