Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Artichokes Braised with Red Wine

Braised Artichokes. Two words that mean one thing: effort. This recipe is not difficult by any means, but if you do try it make sure that you are in the mood to have many tiny spines prick into your fingers over the course of an hour as you prep the artichokes, and that you're in the mood to get a wine and chicken-broth based facial for an hour as you braise them slowly in a cast iron pot. This is a hot and tedious recipe, but it's totally worth it.

Because the thing is, who doesn't like to eat artichokes? They're expensive and a pain in the you-know-what to prepare, but when you're done, the result is a tender, creamy, flavorful veggie based flesh that can be used to blend other flavors or can be simply enjoyed on its own, with as little adornment as a splash of lemon juice, or if you're feeling real frisky, a pat of melted butter. Artichokes are good. Real good. Sometimes I wonder what random cave-person or hunter-gatherer plucked, peeled, cored and cooked an artichoke on total whim before realizing that it was edible. Let's thank them for it!

This recipe packs a real punch in an I-hope-you-like-red-wine sort of way. With a solid 1/4 cup of red wine for each tiny little baby artichoke, make sure you pick something you'd drink on its own (especially because you're going to be left with exactly two cups of wine for drinking). The rest of the recipe is fairly simple. I chose flavors that would be relatively mild compared to the red wine. Having made this recipe a while back, I've thought about what would improve this: next time, I'll sprinkle chopped toasted walnuts and crumbled blue cheese on top, and maybe I'd stir in some chopped porcini mushrooms with the pancetta.

I needed something mild and creamy to serve this with, so as to balance strength of the artichoke and wine flavor. I made a lemon and saffron risotto with ricotta cheese. I didn't measure anything so I couldn't tell you the recipe, but I would suggest you try it on your own (just stir in ricotta instead of your favorite cheese, along with a splash of fresh squeezed lemon juice, lemon zest and saffron.) If you don't make a risotto to go alongside, make sure whatever you pair this dish with complements the braised artichokes. I'd avoid anything with a red sauce.

By the way, guess what the cool part about braising artichokes in red wine is? They start off looking like this:

And end up looking like this:

Apparently the edges absorb red wine but the centers don't!

Artichokes Braised with Red Wine
Serves: 2, maybe 4 if you have other sides

1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp red pepper flakes
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 oz Italian Pancetta (substitute bacon, or ommit)
8-10 Baby Artichokes
2 cups good, dry red wine
2 cups organic, free-range chicken broth
4 cloves garlic
Baby spinach and arugula for serving
  1. Fill a large bowl with cold water and squeeze the juice of two lemons into it. Drop the lemon halves into the bowl. Prep the artichokes: cut off top 1/3, pull off all green/heavy leaves and make sure no spines remain, then peel stem, slice in half, then in quarters, and use a small paring knife to remove any purple leaves*. Drop in lemon water and swirl to rinse off
  2. Heat a heavy bottom, preferably cast iron skillet or dutch oven on medium heat. Add olive oil, red pepper flakes, chopped pancetta and black pepper, cooking for 4-5 minutes. Add baby artichoke quarters and stir to coat
  3. Turn heat to medium-high. Partially (less than 50%) cover the pot. Over the course of 40-60 minutes, ladle in half a cup of braising liquid. Allow liquid to simmer and evaporate off until artichokes begin sticking. Add additional half cup liquid, scraping the bottom with a wooden spatula to deglaze. Cook until artichokes are soft and edible (more or less braising liquid may be necessary depending on the heat of your pan, and you could use water in a pinch)
  4. Add garlic and cook over low heat for an additional 3-4 minutes.
  5. Serve on top of baby spinach and arugula. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle on freshly ground black pepper.
*In theory, baby artichokes are entirely edible (choke and all), but I don't totally trust that. I always cut off just the tips of the purple leaves. You should be left with pale green leaves and soft artichoke flesh when your done. I love leaving the stems on to eat later - they're slightly tough, but still flavorful.

**You could also try a more traditional braising method by just dumping in all the braising liquid and cooking over low heat for a very long time. I figured that would make the artichokes mushy, instead of tender and caramelized (as they were in this recipe)

Monday, August 13, 2007

The New Haven Test Kitchen, or, Four-Cheese Lasagna Is Difficult to Photograph

I just couldn't get a good picture of a slice of the lasagna...

I don't believe that I've mentioned this before, but Greg and I have a little Test Kitchen going on these days. We are auditioning recipes for our wedding reception, an event that we will be catering ourselves. Since we were technically wed on May 21st in Italy (or more technically, by a justice of the peace on May 13th in New Haven), and since only about a third of the 150 people we invited are attending, we don't have to worry about anything except the food, and it is only a relatively small quantity of food that we need to prepare at that.

The New Haven Test Kitchen

In our spare evenings, after we shine our shoes and dust under the piano, we're trying to come up with a menu that can serve 50 (maybe 60?) people at 6:30pm on September 1st. Here's our plan so far:

To Start:
- Cheese platter
- 120 mini Costco crabcakes (they're really good!) with dipping sauce
- 120 Lox Bites (Lox and Dilled Cream Cheese on Crostini)

- 180 Veg meatballs simmering in homemade sauce
- 2 9" Spinach Tortes
- 120 Grilled Shrimp in Italian Marinade
- Big Salad, greens with feta, pears, and balsamic dressing
- Loafs of our amazing local bread (Ciabaso) with Olive Oil and Balsamic for dipping
- Bruschetta bar, with 2-4 cups each of various toppings: olive tapenade, traditional tomatoes, roasted garlic, pesto
- Fresh Fruit Platter: Cantaloupe, Pears, Grapes, Strawberries, and whatever else
- Lots of Greg's Pizza Bites (puff pastry stuffed with pizza toppings)
- My Father-In-Law's Bacala
- Caprese salad skewers

We tried some things with shrimp... (don't worry, they didn't go in the lasagna)

I joked about the "New Haven Test Kitchen", but it is partially true. I spent 8 hours on Saturday and 3 hours on Sunday gathering ingredients, new kitchen equipment (fluted removable bottom tart pans!), and nerve to tackle several previously unexplored recipes with Greg. Not only do we need to find recipes that taste good, they need to be straightforward to prepare (read: assembly line), not too expensive, and most importantly - transport-able, reheat-able, and easily serve-able at room temperature or on chafing trays with sternos. This veritable food convivium has been exhausting, to say the least, since it turns out that despite what I may have thought when I was 6, stuffing myself with puff pastry dough and cheese for hours on end is not What I Always Wanted.

Speaking of saturated fat, let's talk about the point of this whole article: the main dish of the reception. The Big One. Because it turns out that catering to a crowd of meat-eaters, when you yourself would prefer not to serve meat, is complicated. If I had my druthers, I'd like to not serve so much dairy either, but clearly my duties as a hostess outweigh my political views. Except for the 10% about meat. Thus, sans flesh-based animal protein, I will turn to another source: four 9x13 size pans of Cook's Illustrated Four-Cheese Lasagna, or what I like to call, Melted Heavenly Sin (until today I would have doubted that you could stack "heavenly" and "sin" together, but oh, yes, yes you can). This is a recipe from America's Test Kitchen, and I constructed it, almost to the letter, over the course of two hours this afternoon.

If you know anything about me as a blogger, a cook, or, heck, a person, it's that I do not follow written instructions well. I simply can't stand making something without changing it, even if I've never made it before. I know, sick, but I swear it's not cooking ego or anything like that - it's curiosity. If I trust the author of a basic recipe well enough to try the recipe, I believe it will taste good as is. I want to know what happens when I muddle with it. Thus, you will rarely find my basic pancakes without a new fruit or bran ratio in them, my cake recipe without a soy based substitution, or my heavy-cream-alfredo without some skim plus roux. I just have to fiddle. I have to tweak. And although it often leads me to rubbery pancakes, dry cake and curdled sauce... I do enjoy the process.

Except in this case. I took it upon myself as a challenge: make a recipe as it was intended, with no substitutions or alterations. Just do it! Do it so that I will know the perfect proportions, so that I only need try it once before the real deal, so that the alterations that I do eventually make are to things like prepping ingredients ahead, rather than major Taste Kidnappers. Do it because it will make my to-do list shorter and my taste buds, probably, happier.

And I did it. Sort of. Like I said, I don't follow directions well. I got 80% through assembling this lasagna, grumbling in my head the whole time about how the pasta:cheese ratio was totally off, when I realized where my missing cheese was: sitting in front of me, that big bowl of ricotta that I had entirely forgotten to layer.


More on that later. Meantime, I can promise you that while this is not a quick or simple recipe, this is an extraordinary lasagna. I can also promise you that I've never used the word extraordinary to describe food. Why today? Well, it's perfect in flavorful complexity. In short, it fills your mouth with some of the greatest cheese-based sensations you've ever met with, and your stomach with something that will keep you full for hours (a 2x2" square of this packs a whopping 420 calories). It's just cheesy and delicious.

What was that about forgetting the ricotta? Oh, yeah. So I ended up having to pull back pasta layers and stuff the ricotta into where it should have been in the first place (i.e., in every layer of all four layers), which disturbed the delicate structure of layers a bit, definitely ruined the photos I was hoping for, but didn't harm the taste at all. In the end, because of this mistake, I ultimately omitted a decent quantity of pasta sheets, and thus the cheese:pasta ratio is way off (so if it looks a bit soupy in my photos, that was my fault not the recipe's). But I know this will be fixed by performing the recipe exactly as intended, and that was the lesson I needed in the first place.

Told ya' it wasn't a good picture...

America's Test Kitchen Four-Cheese Lasagna

Serves: 8-10
From the July 2007 issue of Cook's Illustrated

It's important not to overbake the lasagna. Once the sauce starts bubbling around the edges, turn the oven to broil. If your lasagna pan is not broiler-safe, brown the lasagna at 500 degrees for about 10 minutes. Whole milk is best in the sauce, but skim and low-fat milk also work. Supermarket-brand cheeses work fine in this recipe. The Gorgonzola may be omitted, but the flavor of the lasagna won't be as complex. The test kitchen prefers the flavor and texture of Barilla no-boil noodles, but this recipe will work with most brands. One box of Barilla will yield enough noodles for this recipe; you may need two boxes of other brands.

6 oz Gruyere cheese, shredded
1 oz Parmesan, finely grated
1 1/2 c part-skim ricotta
1 large organic egg, lightly beaten
1/4 tsp black pepper
2 tbsp + 2 tsp minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium shallot, minced
1 medium garlic clove, minced
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups whole, organic milk
1 1/2 cups free-range, organic chicken broth
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 bay leaf
Pinch Cayenne
15 no-boil lasagna noodles
8 oz Fontina, shredded
3 oz Gorgonzola, crumbled

  1. Place Gruyère and 1/2 cup Parmesan in large heatproof bowl. Combine ricotta, egg, black pepper, and 2 tablespoons parsley in medium bowl. Set both bowls aside.
  2. Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat until foaming; add shallot and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until beginning to soften, about 2 minutes. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, until thoroughly combined, about 1 1/2 minutes; mixture should not brown. Gradually whisk in milk and broth; increase heat to medium-high and bring to full boil, whisking frequently. Add salt and bay leaf, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until sauce thickens and coats the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally with heatproof rubber spatula or wooden spoon and making sure to scrape bottom and corners of saucepan (you should have about 4 cups).
  3. Remove saucepan from heat and discard bay leaf. Gradually whisk 1/4 cup sauce into ricotta mixture. Pour remaining sauce over Gruyère mixture and stir until smooth; set aside while softening noodles.
  4. Adjust oven rack to upper middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Place noodles in 13 by 9-inch baking dish and cover with very hot tap water; soak 10 minutes, agitating noodles occasionally to prevent sticking. Remove noodles from water, place in single layer on kitchen towel, and pat dry. Wipe out baking dish and spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray.
  5. Distribute 1/2 cup sauce in bottom of baking dish. Place 3 noodles in single layer on top of sauce. Spread 1/2 cup ricotta mixture evenly over noodles and sprinkle evenly with 1/2 cup fontina. Drizzle 1/2 cup sauce evenly over cheese. Repeat layering of noodles, ricotta, fontina, and sauce 3 more times. Place final 3 noodles on top and cover completely with remaining sauce, spreading with rubber spatula and allowing to spill over noodles. Sprinkle evenly with remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan.
  6. Spray large sheet foil with nonstick cooking spray and cover lasagna; bake until edges are just bubbling, 25 to 30 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking time. Remove foil and turn oven to broil. Broil until surface is spotty brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Cool 15 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining 2 teaspoons parsley; cut into pieces and serve.
**(And don't even be tempted to remove the blue cheese or substitute anything, as I originally thought about doing - it is the balance of the different cheese flavors and textures that gives this lasagna its punch)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Heavy Cream, Butter, Syrup... and Gran Marnier.

There are all those healthy mornings: the granola mornings, the egg-white omelet mornings, the hold-the-sugar-add-the-soymilk and the cereal with yogurt and fresh fruit mornings. Healthy Stuff. And then there are mornings like this morning.

Can anybody say "heavy cream"? Greg may have been too hungover to enjoy this breakfast, but I definitely wasn't.

I'm not going to say too much about this French Toast, except that it was Full Fat Fantastic. I toasted several slices of whole grain sandwich bread until crispy, sliced some strawberries and preheated the oven, containing a well-buttered cast iron skillet, to 350.

I added eggs, cream, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and... Gran Marnier!

This was the best part. The Gran Marnier was a perfect splash of flavor, helped along with the other spices. I'd highly recommend this rather thrown together recipe. With heavy cream, it literally can't go wrong. Next time I'd think about adding sliced oranges, or layering the toast with bananas and cream cheese. Or maybe even topping the whole thing with some whipped cream (not doing this today took some severe self restraint, folks, saved only by the fact that I ended up adding a splash of heavy cream to my iced coffee, woops, I wasn't going to tell you that).

You could probably simplify things by making it all the night before and popping it in the oven straight from the fridge. Otherwise, enjoy.

Gran Marnier Baked French Toast
Serves: 2

2 tbsp butter
4 slices whole grain sandwich bread
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup organic milk or soy milk
2 large organic eggs
2 tsp vanilla
2 tbsp Gran Marnier Liqueur
Pinch of Salt
1 tbsp cinnamon

Strawberries for garnish

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Add butter to baking dish or cast iron skillet and place in oven as it preheats.
  2. Toast bread to a golden brown. Meanwhile, whisk together remaining ingredients.
  3. When bread is toasted, arrange slices in single layer in skillet. Pour egg mixture over and swirl to coat. Return skillet to oven and bake until set in the middle, about 15-20 minutes. Broil for an additional 5 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, slice strawberries for garnish*.
  5. Assemble and enjoy
*I sauteed the sliced strawberries with a pat of butter, just until warmed through. I told you this was a "heavy cream" sort of morning...

Monday, August 06, 2007

Golden Lentil and Bulgur Salad with Grilled Lemon Quarters (sans leftovers)

I'm going to begin this blog entry with a story about my dog, Tori. Four and a half years ago, I lived on my own in Arizona. I was working towards my bachelor's degree and wanted some canine companionship. I found my companion at the Arizona Animal Welfare League: short, black, furry and friendly, when she saw me walk by her outdoor enclosure, she rushed to fence and forced her nose through the chain links, curling her long pink tongue as far as it could reach around the cold metal. She tried, in every way her doggy language permitted her, to tell me that she would make a very good friend if I would just take her home and let her try. Her many remarkably and doggy-like qualities maker her my perfect companion: energetic, social, loving and cuddly, everyone who meets Tori agrees that she is sweet and good-natured.

But there is something else that everybody agrees on: if a goat ever challenged Tori to a tire-eating contest, the dog would win, hands down. Tori will eat anything that she can fit into her mouth, edible or not, with speed quicker than Greg can say "kitchen remodel". One day we walked in on her gnawing off chunks of freshly spackled drywall. She's gotten batches of cookies, bags of chocolate, pans of brownies, many types of clothes, socks, dish towels, sticks, dirt, small rocks, fruit, nuts, and whole lemons - and yes these words are all plural as in On More Than One Occasion. She has been known to eat an entire 7lb eggplant Parmesan casserole, a platter of deli meats, and, months later, a 9x9" pan of lasagna cooling in a still-rather-warm-oven. One time the soap in the dishwasher overflowed, and I came running when I saw her eagerly slurping up the suds. Tori's teeth rather regularly pierce the heavy duty metal of dog food cans destined for recycling. Pounds of cheese, cups of butter, loafs of bread - you name it, she ate it.

Which brings me to today's post, a topic that, even one day later, is still making me tear up slightly: Tori ate the leftovers from the best dish I've made all year. Now "best dish I've made all year" (indeed, the leftovers-of) sounds like a rather bold proclamation, and it is. Maybe it was because the dish was exactly what I was craving that evening, or that I was hungry and the dish was healthy, or that it was a brand new dish, something I expected to fail, and something I made without a recipe. Or, maybe it was because the dinner actually turned out really good. Whatever it was, Tori ate it all, in her sneaky, quiet-as-a-mouse manner, while I sat 10 feet away, distracted and oblivious to the delicious food rapidly reaching her insatiable stomach.

Fortunately we ate our first helpings far before her hungry teeth reached the platter, giving me an opportunity to rave about how simple and delicious this dinner truly was. I assembled vegetable kabobs the night before (yellow pepper, red pepper, parboiled carrots, baby bellas and sweet onion) and marinated them with herbs, olive oil, garlic and balsamic overnight. The next day, I assembled baked tofu with quarted lemon slices, started the bulgur salad and left Greg to deal with the grill.

Why was this dish so good? Two words: caramelized lemons. Wow. This idea is one taken directly from 101cookbooks (my second reference in two weeks, I know), and just like sauteed versus boiled gnocchi, I can promise you I will never, ever go back to raw lemon. The juicy, sweet, grilled-marked bites of lemon were A-w-e-s-o-m-e with a capital A. Really. Seriously. Try it. Just quarter lemons and throw them on the grill with everything else - in the words of Martha Stewart, it's a good thing. Grilling these lemon chunks gave them a sweet, warm, mellow flavor that would be perfect for squeezing over any vegetable, seafood, or grain based salad.

Which brings me to the actual recipe provided here. This Bulgur salad was healthy and delicious, speckled with bits of green parsley and yellow lentils. It was easy to prepare and tasted amazing, with a nice balance of bright and mellow, salty and sweet, and chewy and tender. The flavors and textures worked well together. My only comment will be about the balsamic. I don't claim to know what makes any particular balsamic vinegar a "good" vinegar, but I do know that my cheap balsamic happens to be sharp and tart and my smaller bottle of slightly-more-expensive stuff is mellow and sweet in flavor. This recipe requires something mellow and sweet to balance with the salty, nutty Bulgur. I served this Bulgur salad warm on a big platter, surrounded by Arugula (which was a perfect spicy complement to such a mellow salad) with chunks of tomatoes and oil cured olives, and topped by the skewered kabobs whose lemon quarters served to dress the whole dish together.

I really wish I had those leftovers!!

Golden Lentil and Bulgur Salad
Serves: 4

1/2 cup Bulgur Wheat, rinsed
2 tbsp olive oil
1 shallot, chopped
1/2 cup Yellow, or Golden, Lentils
2 cups water
1/4 cup loosely packed flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar (preferably sweet)
Salt and Pepper to taste
Suggested for serving: two cups baby arugula, olive oil for d, grilled quartered lemons and chopped cured olives

  1. Add olive oil to saucepan over medium heat. Add shallot and cook until softened, stirring frequently (about 3-4 minutes). Add Bulgur, a sprinkle of salt, and cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until lightly browned (about 5-6 minutes)
  2. Meanwhile, rinse lentils and add with 1 cup water to a small saucepan. Cover and cook until tender, about 5-10 minutes.
  3. When Bulgur is toasted, add 1 cup water and simmer until Bulgur is al dente (about 15 minutes, depending on the size of the Bulgur). Add 3 tbsp balsamic and continue cooking until Bulgur is tender and the balsamic is absorbed*. Stir in parsley, remaining 1 tbsp balsamic, and salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Stir yellow lentils and Bulgur together. Serve warm, drizzled with extra olive oil, next to fresh baby arugula, chopped olives and grilled lemon quarters.
*If the cooking times don't add up right, just add a little extra water and continue cooking until the Bulgur is done