Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mexican Wedding Cookies

While I realize that Valentine's Day has just passed, I want to talk about Christmas. I love Christmas. I love Christmas because all I ever do during Christmas is bake and cook and entertain and procrastinate on my Christmas shopping which always takes place the day before Christmas for various reasons - none of which I claim as my fault. But this past Christmas was different. There was no tree. There were no cookies. There was no cooking. There was work, projects, reports, exams, and a couple of hours of sleep where it could be found. I enviously listened to Bing Crosby, as he told me that he was dreaming of a White Christmas. I caught glimpses of the stream of FB messages from friends about spending time with family and friends, secretly feeling oh so jealous that I didn't even have time to put a tree up. I ignored phone calls, text messages, emails just to "Seabiscuit" my way to the finish line. And it finally came - after Christmas day was done. After all of the shopping was done, after all presents were unwrapped, and after everyone's Christmas cookies were baked and already half gone. I woke up that morning thinking to myself "I can't wait 'til next Christmas" - it won't know what hit it when it gets there. As payback for being robbed of such a holiday, efforts will begin when the first radio station starts to play Christmas music - which I believe is now year-round thanks to Sirius / XM. So let the planning begin. Cookie recipes, jams, pickled vegetables from the upcoming summer garden, duck, goose, side dishes turned upside down, cured salmon, hors d'oeuvres, porchetta, panettone, trifle, and perhaps even egg nog (which I have never had but will attempt to make, from a friend's description it sounds like a respectable beverage).

So even though I didn't make any cookies before Christmas, I did have a small cookie exchange with a friend after Christmas. As we baked one set of cookies (Triple Ginger) and drank sangria, we snacked on the another - these Mexican Wedding Cakes. And as we snacked, drank, waited for the ginger cookies to bake, and chatted - it hit me. This out of the entire season felt like Christmas. Whatever it was that resulted in this revelation - alcohol, powdered sugar, or watching copious amounts of room temperature butter swirl around in the kitchen aid, it didn't matter. I still think about that evening. And although the recipe for these Mexican Wedding Cookies is not my own, but adapted from Epicurious, it was less about the recipe and more about the experience. And I know that this year's Christmas will definitely be a year-long experience.

Mexican Wedding Cakes
adapted from Bon Appetit May 2003

1 cup butter, room temp
2 cups flour
2 cups powdered sugar
2 tsp vanilla (pref. Mexican)
1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped fine
1/2 tsp salt

Cream the butter in a large bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy, add 1/2 cup powdered sugar beat until well incorporated, about 2 minutes.  Beat in flour, salt, and walnuts until mixed in.  Refrigerate for 30 minutes. 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, roll dough by about 2 teaspoonfuls between palms into balls.  Arrange on a baking sheet about 1inch apart.  Bake until golden on the bottom and pale on top, about 12 minutes.  Depending on the size that you roll - check about 8 minutes into baking.  You don't want to over-bake these cookies. 

Cool the cookies for a couple of minutes. 

Roll the still warm cookies in the powdered sugar trying to avoid popping every single one in your mouth. 

The cookies must be tossed in the sugar while still very warm so that the sugar can adhere to the cookie, and even melt slightly.  Let cool on a wire rack.  Pack as gifts or enjoy with family and friends.  Merry Christmas, indeed.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Pork Sugo with Potato Gnocchi

For several days, all that was heard on the news was that Snowmageddon was coming and that 20+ states were going to get covered in at least a foot of snow.  People shopped like they were going to be confined to their house for weeks, schools were cancelled preemptively, and companies sent out newsletters outlining their current policies for weather inclement conditions and working remotely.  While the public was buying canned goods, pasta, etc off the shelves of local superstores, I decided that I needed to take my mom out to dinner to a very nice place and that I needed to make some slow food the next day. 
After consulting several Italian resources and combining them into one pot - pork sugo was the perfect meal for a cold, snowed-in day.  Slow-cooked for hours, tender, falling-apart, light but flavorful sauce that could do justice to home-made potato gnocchi. 

Pork Sugo
3 lbs pork shoulder
4 oz pancetta
2 large onions, diced
2 large carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups white wine
salt / pepper / 1 bay leaf / 3 sprigs of thyme / olive oil
1 1/2 large cans (28oz) of whole tomatoes in juice (low or no sodium)

In a large pot saute pancetta over medium low heat.  Add onions, bay leaf and saute for about 15 minutes over medium low heat - without adding color to the onions and just letting them sweat.  Season with about 1 tsp salt, few turns of fresh ground pepper, and thyme.  Add the carrots, onions, and garlic, saute for 15 minutes more without browning.  Re-season with about 1 tsp salt more.  Add white wine and reduce for about 10 minutes.  Add the pork.  Saute until lightly browned - about 10 minutes.  Reseason the mixture with salt and pepper.  Add milk and simmer, stirring occasionally for about 2 hours.  Add tomatoes, cook for at least 2 hours more over low heat - covered.  Stir occasionally.  Do not raise the heat higher than medium - the sugo should barely simmer.  Press against the pork pieces with a spatula in the pot, they should be falling apart tender.  

If not, continue to simmer until they do.  Taste for seasoning, adding more salt or pepper if needed.  Serve over pasta or toss with home made gnocchi, adding fresh Parmigiano on top.

If you have a favorite gnocchi recipe, feel free to use it here.  If you don't try this one by Michael Chiarello, it's one of my favorites.  It's easy to follow and quick to make. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Warm Carrot and Wild Duck Salad

1 duck breast, brined
1 large carrot, peeled
1 medium onion, sliced
4 crimini or wild mushrooms, sliced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup dry vermouth
2 tbsp vinegar - herb or champagne
1 tsp fresh thyme, shopped
salt / pepper / olive oil
small handfull of chopped parsley
small handful of chopped toasted walnuts
walnut oil
port harissa reduction

Sear duck breast over medium high heat in a bit of olive oil, about 8 minutes total for rare.  Let rest.

In a medium pan heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and saute garlic and onion over medium heat until softened, about 4 minutes.  Add mushrooms and thyme.  Season with salt and pepper.  Cook until lightly browned.  Deglaze the pan with vermouth.  Add vinegar, let evaporate.  Meanwhile peel the carrot with vegetable peeler into strips. 

When vinegar has evaporated, add the carrots and saute until carrots are slightly softened, about 5 minutes.  Add parsley, toss to mix. 
Slice the duck thinly on a bias.  Plate the duck and the warm carrot salad, drizzling with walnut oil and warm port harissa reduction, sprinkle with walnuts.

Port harissa reduction
1/2 cup port
1/2 tsp harissa or sriracha
1 tbsp light brown sugar
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
pinch salt / pepper

Combine all ingredients in a sauce pan over medium heat.  Reduce by half.  Strain.  Keep warm.  Serve with the carrot and duck salad.  If extra is left over, it's great over goat cheese. 

Brine for Chicken and Duck

Brine adds a lot of flavor to any meat and helps the meat to stay moist and tender while cooking.  It is also a chance to add extra flavor without adding a marinade or heavy seasoning at the last minute. 

1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 tbsp whole peppercorns
3 tbsp sea salt
6 cups water

Combine all ingredients in a sauce pan, bring to a simmer until sugar and salt have dissolved, let cool.  Add chicken / duck pieces.  Let brine in the refrigerator for 24 hours and up to a couple of days.  When  ready to cook, dry the meat between paper towels before following a regular recipe, removing the salt if it's called for by the recipe.  To prepare simply, if using a breast of duck sear over medium high heat for a total of 5 minutes per side for rare.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Pear Pancakes with Sauteed Pears and Orange Caramel

1 1/4 cup flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup brown sugar - packed
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp melted butter, plus extra for pan
1 pear

In a bowl mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  In a separate bowl combine sugar, egg, buttermilk, sour cream, vanilla, butter, and 1 grated pear.

Add dry ingredients to the wet, mix until dough barely comes together, do not overmix.  Preheat a pan over medium heat add a tablespoon of butter.  Cook pancakes in batches, keeping the already made pancakes warm.  Make the pear and orange caramel while making pancakes.

Pears in Orange Caramel
1 cup orange juice
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp butter
pinch of salt
pinch of cinnamon

Core and slice the second pear. 
Saute in a pan with butter, brown sugar, salt, orange juice, and cinnamon over medium-low heat until pears have softened and the sauce resembles the consistency of thin caramel.  Serve with the pancakes.

Spiced Whipped Cream
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tsp sugar
pinch of cinnamon
Whip the cream with sugar and cinnamon.  Serve with the pancakes.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Curried Carrot and Apple Soup

5 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves
1 bay leaf
1/2 coconut milk
1/2 tsp red curry
1 apple, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
olive oil / salt / pepper / coriander powder / garam masal / cumin
3 slices of bacon - chopped, browned
toasted walnuts
cream / creme fraiche

Place carrots, garlic, bay leaf, at least 1 tsp salt, and enough water in a sauce pot.  Cook over medium heat until carrots are very tender - about half an hour depending on thickness.  Strain, remove bay leaf and garlic.  Puree in a food processor until very smooth.  Reserve. 
Saute onion over medium heat until very tender, add apple, 1 tsp of red curry paste (or to taste), about 1 tsp coriander powder, about 1 tsp garam masala, 1/2 tsp cumin, salt and pepper to taste, and saute for about 10 minutes.  Add 1 cup of chicken stock and simmer for 15 minutes or until the apples are very tender.  Puree in a food processor until very smooth.  Place back in the pot and add the carrot puree.  Heat gently over medium heat.  Stir in 1/2 can of coconut milk. 
Add up to 1/2 cup of chicken stock for desired soup consistency, the soup should be a puree and not very thin.  Taste for seasoning.  Depending on the sweetness of the carrots, you may or may not need to add some honey or brown sugar, do not add regular sugar as it will only add sweetness but not a depth of flavor.  Taste and re-season with salt and pepper.  Because I used golden delicious apples in the recipe and didn't have very sweet carrots I found myself adding about 2 tablespoons of honey, but it's a matter of taste.  It was sweet and savory, spicy and earthy, with a mellow carrot apple flavor.  If you wish, at this point, you can pass the soup through a sieve or a chinois for a finer texture, but I left it as is. 

Serve warm, topped with toasted walnuts, bacon, and a swirl of cream or creme fraiche.