Wednesday, November 30, 2011

And, so it begins!!

It is time to put away the array of gourds spayed out on the dining table; turkeys made from popsicle sticks and pilgrim high hats, and swap them out for clementines studded with cloves, cutout reindeer and cotton ball beards. Yikes, it is not even December 1st, though we have been pushed to start promoting the season earlier and earlier. It is like the campaign season – it goes on way too long. For me, mid-December is the time I start feeling the holiday spirit and until then I try to keep my head down and avoid the frantic need to bargain shop for no reason, save the thrill of the deal.

To occupy my attention for the next few weeks I will be baking, and storing away cookies and cakes that will honor holiday get-togethers and fill gift boxes when a tip envelope needs to be sealed with a sweet. I guess, the truth of the matter is I am a last minute shopper for gifts, that person wandering the streets trying to figure what to buy. Perhaps that is why I am spending my time baking – it is far less panic-attack inducing for me. I understand what can be done in advance and how to pleasure people with just a bite – though ask my partner, and he’ll tell you I bite too hard!

Persimmon Cake – yields 9-inch cake
4-ounces unsalted butter
1-cup dark brown sugar or jaggery
1/8-teaspoon pineapple extract
1/8-teaspoon orange blossom water
2-cups flour
2-teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
¼-cup cream
1/2-cup pureed persimmon (from one Fuyu variety – unpeeled)
½-cup pureed apple (from one small – unpeeled)
½-cup chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350-degrees.

Butter and flour a 9-inch cake pan.

In a standing mixer, or with a handheld mixer, blend the butter and sugar together until very light and fluffy. Then add the eggs one at a time, so that each one is completely mixed in before adding the next one. Then mix in the pineapple and orange blossom flavoring.

In a bowl stir together the flour, baking powder and salt. Add half the flour in to the butter mixture, and stir to combine. Then add the cream and fruit puree, mixing to thoroughly incorporate. Mix in the remaining flour then stir in the walnuts. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan.

Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove from the oven to a cooling rack. After it cools invert on to the cool rack to cook completely. Serve with whipped cream or a scoop of ice cream. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A side

And so, we are all planning for Thursday’s feed by either stuffing a bag that will fit in the overhead compartment, in order to avoid an inane fee, or perhaps it is that hostess gift you must secure. For me, it is preparing my segment of the meal. I am traveling, though luckily by car, happily I can pack as many bags as I will need. I am responsible for the sides and desserts. Now, I have about a 5-hour road trip ahead of me so I need to plan and make sure that everything I put into that igloo will survive. The beet and fennel salad will journey with no issue though I am crossing my fingers that the chocolate pie does not soften up too much while enroute before I can get it back under refrigeration. I will do my roasted Brussels sprouts the day of for they only take 15 minutes. The sweet potatoes, I am sure, will endure the three state trek.

I grew up, like many, always having that sweet potato mash placed on the holiday table golden and gooey on top. I was never a fan of marshmallows; be impaled on a twig to be charred or scattered as a cover for sweet potatoes. Ironically, I was a fluff kind-of-kid in lieu of peanut butter with my jelly. I cannot image what that little kid found so endearing about that sugary froth for the idea of trying it today sends me into diabetic shock. I have not thrown out the complete idea of a sweetened potato dish it just needed a change in direction. So, worked into my mash is a generous crumble of a spicy pecan caramel that when warmed up creates a swirl throughout the sweet potato. It is sweet, it is a bit chewy but is not singularly clawing, which is a tad more interesting for this Thanksgiving table. 

Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Caramelized Pecans – yields 6 to 8

1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground clove
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup pecans
3-pounds sweet potatoes – peeled and diced
3/4-cup coconut milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Lightly oil a baking tray and hold to the side.  In a 1 quart sauce pan dissolve the sugar in the water taking care not to allow any sugar to stick to the walls of the pan. This could cause the re-crystallization of the sugar. Over a medium heat cook the sugar until to starts to brown lightly. Remove from the heat and carefully stir in the spices and pecans to thoroughly coat. Pour the nuts out onto the oiled baking tray, and allow them to completely cool. Then break into pieces.

Cook the sweet potatoes in boiling water until fork tender, and then drain. By hand mash the potatoes along with the coconut milk, salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the pecans mixture, and place the sweet potatoes into a 4-quart casserole dish. Place the casserole dish into a 325-degree, and cook for about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Splash of Tang

I am most proud of the vinegars I made this year – they are the most flavorful with the best acidity I have ever produced. It has been about ten years since my first attempt at making my own vinegars. It started after my trip to Sicily and a visit to a Regaleali Winery. In the windowsill sat a large glass jug filled with herb stems and remnants of leftover wine. I was amazed that it could be that easy. The truth is, yes it is that easy, however, I have experienced that it is always possible to make mistakes. My attempt to produce coconut vinegar proved to be a good medium for mold rather than the bacteria I needed. Undaunted, I successfully managed to used Champagne with strawberries and roses as well as cherry pits to make sweet, fruity vinegars. This year I went a tad more traditional with Mexican marigold in red wine and two whites: lemon grass and lemon verbena and a Thai basil and pineapple sage


I started with the red wine as my first batch of the season, which I fed a bottle (1-quart) of unfiltered, raw apple cider vinegar for 2 bottles (750 ml) of wine. I did this to guarantee I would have the acetobacter present. This is an aerobic bacteria found on plants, fruits and even in soil, and consumes the alcohol and through its metabolic process generates acid – hence vinegar, sour wine. Because it is an air loving bacteria I cover a jar with a linen cloth to allow the passage of air and stow it away in an out out-of-the-away spot for 1 to 3 months. If all goes well you will have a tart liquid covered by what will resemble a thick, unctuous cap, and while its appearance may be off putting, it is actually the colony of the bacteria we are looking for.  The usage of the raw unfiltered vinegar in my first batch hedges my bets, and I don’t have to hope that the acetobacter is present on the herb stems I stuffed into the jar. My subsequent vinegars this year have all been acted upon by that original “mother” and I have continued to more her forward into new bottles – letting her feed. Right now, she is feasting on Champagne and pomegranate seeds.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Starchy Joy

Tumbling down from the Andes Mountains a potent, starchy tuber conquered the world’s kitchen. Potatoes seemed to be universally embraced and has taken on a myriad of incarnations: the ubiquitous North American Idaho, the elegant French fingering and plump German butterball can all be found in farmer’s markets now that the weather has turned. Of course, all who know me know that I hunt for the papa amarilla this time of year. It is an Andean variety that is creamy, rich and I swear it tastes like chicken! Unfortunately, now that I have gotten everyone excited good luck finding it for it is rare here in the northern hemisphere. With a few thousand varieties of this humble tuber grown throughout the world you are encourage to try more than a russet.

I use the rule of thumb that if this skin is rough to the touch it is probably a starchier potato more apt to be fried, mashed or made into a galette, while I tend to use the waxy, or smooth skinned varieties for soups, roasts and saut├ęs. I rarely peel the potato only if the earthy flavor of the jacket will run interference with my desired outcome – a large quantity of its nutritional value lies on this outer surface. The only steadfast rule when working with potatoes is never put them in your food processor, well unless you are looking to make potato glue. If you need to use a “machine” the paddle attachment of a standing mixture will quickly give you a mash or, a stick blender can be inserted in a simmering broth to thicken it. Then sometimes, simply baked finished with a smear of butter and sprinkle of coarse sea salt is all that is needed. 

Onion and Chirizo Soup – yields 8
1pound chirzo sausage - diced
1-tablespoon olive oil
2 pounds onion (approximately 3 medium sized) – sliced very thin
3 pounds Yukon potato – peeled and diced in 1/2-inch pieces
6 garlic cloves – minced
2-teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
4 quarts of chicken stock
1-tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4-cup Sherry vinegar

Heat a 8-quart pot heat over a medium flame, and add the chirzo. Cook until the chrizo browns and releases its fat. Remove the chirzo, and drain off the excess oil. Add the oil, and onion cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add back in the chirzo, along with the potatoes, garlic, thyme and stock. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the flame to a simmer. Cook the soup for 1 hour or more, then add the vinegar and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve.