Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Roasted Marshmallow Meringue Frosting and How I Acquired a Plumber's Torch

Having a child is the greatest gift anyone could dream of receiving. Every time I look at my li'l blue-eyed beauty's face, I realize how lucky I am to have her in my life. Her adorable giggles, sharp wit and generous heart make me beam with pride. Some say I spoil her too much. The world will not be so kind and she will be expected to follow rules every step of the way. Even at home, there are many rules: Remember your pleases and thank-yous. Finish your dinner if you want ice cream. Stay seated at the dinner table until you've finished eating.  Home should also be a place where she can be free, let her imagination run wild without fear of judgement. So, I spoil her, but she really does not ask for much: Play dates with her cousins, trips to the zoo, horseback riding lessons, ice cream and roasted marshmallows.
For her birthday this year, Daisy would have been happy just to have one of those ready-made ice cream cakes from the store, but I really wanted to make something special for her. So her favourite lemon sponge layer cake with champagne cream filling got a supermodel makeover, dressed in a brown sugar marshmallow meringue frosting torched to caramelly perfection.  

Yup, I said torched. Everybody has a teeny pyromaniac tendency, even you. Mine showed up years ago when Dad took me fishing for the first time. We stayed in an RV parked on the bank of a small lake and dined on Cup O'Noodles, dreaming of the trout we were going to catch. During the day, everyone went fishing, while I wasted several boxes of matches, trying to build a campfire (over damp pebbles). Maybe that's why my parents signed me up for scouts as soon as we got home.

These days, campfires and s'mores still rank high on my list, but I spend more time trying to figure out things like crème brûlée.  So, my hubby upgraded me from one of those little cook's torches to a professional one, you know the one that plumbers use to fuse copper pipes and stuff?  It does a great job toasting marshmallow frosting. Everyone should get one. But, before you jet off to the home improvement store, there are a few things you should know: 

*The small cook's torches burn butane which can leave a bad after-taste. My plumber's torch came with MAP/MAPP gas which is food safe, but might melt the stove. So better switch to propane. 

*Have a fire extinguisher handy and the kiddies at a safe distance. 

*If you have long hair, tie it up before you start.

* Light the torch away from yourself and the cake. Then adjust the flame - it should be short and burn blue.

Making marshmallow meringue frosting is really not difficult. It just takes a bit of time. The best part is "pulling" the frosting into curly waves all over the cake, which is great fun for the kids. Then roasting it with a torch makes a beautiful finish and fills the air with a sweet, toasty vanilla scent. The cake looks so elegant, like a sophisticated socialite dressed in a shimmering goddess gown.

Someone asked me if my recipe is for Italian Meringue. Honestly, I have no idea if it is French, Swiss or Italian. What I can tell you is that it looks, smells and tastes beautiful. The recipe has a short list of ingredients, only 4 - egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar and vanilla. Be sure your mixing bowl is very clean and dry - it should have no oily residue. This is a cooked meringue. It does require a bit more patience than the conventional approach, but is safe for everyone to eat and well worth the effort.

Roasted Meringue Frosting
Makes ~2 cups, enough for a 4-layer cake


4 free-range egg whites
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1 vanilla bean or 2 tsp extract


Fill a heavy pot 1/3 full of water and place over medium heat.
Separate eggs and reserve yolks for another recipe.

Collect whites in a clean, heatproof mixing bowl.
Add brown sugar and mix to combine.
Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the mixing bowl and place the bowl over pot of hot water.

Stir constantly until the thermometer registers 160*F, about 10 minutes.
Remove from heat, add cream of tartar and beat on high until stiff peaks form, another 7 minutes or so.

Now, the fun part:  Frost the cake, making swirly patterns.

Pull: Using the flat side of a spatula or knife, touch the frosting and lift 90 degrees away from the cake, to form little curly peaks.

Torch: Roast the waves of frosting with your new torch and serve.

You may also like....

Stovetop S'Mores: Gooey, Salty, Melty Mess

Campfire Steak Rub

Campfire Cake

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Luscious Greek Phyllo Custard Pie (Galaktoboureko)

Easter is around the corner and if you watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you learned some important things about Greeks:
#1 Lamb is vegetarian.
#2 The origin of the word kimono is Greek.
#3 Easter is a REALLY big deal.
At a recent meeting of the hens, the topic of conversation somehow steered toward sweets (probably my fault). One of the girls said something to the other in Greek, then turned to me, nodding knowlingly as if I had a clue - I'm Armenian and don't speak a lick of Greek over here. Then, she said one very long word. The fact that I could neither spell nor pronounce it did not stop me, of course. There I was, typing away frantically on my phone, desperately seeking a recipe for whatever this dessert was that she absolutely loves, but can not have because it is just too difficult to make. Too difficult? We shall see about that.

As my friends moved on to some other topic of conversation about the neighbour's husband's brother's cat (by now, I was really not paying attention), I was singing Galaktoboureko in my mind and scouring the internet for the stuff. It sure looked good, but the recipe had to be authentic, so it had to come from a Greek. After doing some research, I found a clip showing how to make this Galaktoboureko. Maybe it was the hostess's funky hairdo and cute dress or her confidence and smile that had me convinced she has the best recipe in town

Now, to be clear, for Greeks to deem anything too difficult means that it is truly a pain in the derrière for even the French to fathom. Everyone knows French recipes are often either elegantly simple or painstakingly difficult. My experience with Greek cuisine is quite limited, but from what I have attempted, I would say that Greek recipes rank up there with the Arabic and French for mouthwatering, but complicated.
Case in point: Pastitsio, the Greek interpretation of lasagne crowned with Béchamel sauce. Their sweets, on the other hand, are typically not as involved. Only a handful of ingredients, tossed together, drenched in luscious syrup.

Greek kitchens are buzzing with activity this time of year. There is so much to do. Big, elaborate recipes from ancient times are revived. This not to say that we Armenians do anything simple, either. We insist on baking a special Easter cake called Paska. This seemingly plain cake with a hint of orange favour is actually a fuss to make. Look the wrong way and it instantly deflates. This year, I decided to start my own Easter tradition with my grandmother's Nazook (buttery streusel-stuffed cookies) and Greek Galaktoboureko. After learning to spell it, pronounce it and make it, I risked death at the hands of the Greek gods with a few changes to the original recipe. This luscious phyllo custard pie got a crunchy foundation of cinnamon, brown sugar and crushed pecans and a crown of orange marmalade. Hopefully, the Greek pantheon will forgive me.

Greek Phyllo Custard Pie (Galaktoboureko)
Serves 10
Adapted from Greek TV


1 cup fine semolina or farina
5 cups whole milk
4 yolks + 2 whole Grade A free-range eggs
¾ cup sugar
1 vanilla bean or 2 tsp extract
1 orange zest
2 sticks butter
1 package (12 sheets) phyllo pastry

2 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 lemon
3 Tb honey

1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar 
1/4 cup walnuts or pecans
1 tsp cinnamon
pinch salt

4-5 Tb orange marmalade


Rough-chop the nuts.
Mix with sugars, cinnamon, salt. 
Set aside.

Pour milk and a slice of orange peel into a heavy-bottomed pot and place onto medium heat.
Meanwhile, whisk eggs and sugar together and set aside.

Use a wooden spoon to stir the warm milk gently and slowly incorporate the semolina. 
Stir continuously until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon.

Remove the pot from the stove and temper the egg mixture with the warm milk, a bit at a time.
Add vanilla and a knob of butter and stir. Put the lid on and set aside.

Butter a glass baking dish and line with a sheet of phyllo pastry. 
Brush the top with melted butter and lay another sheet of dough on top.
Sprinkle some streusel evenly over the pastry.
Continue with this layering for 10 sheets.
Gently position the edges of the pastry sheets over the edges of the baking dish.over the sides of the dish.
Pour the custard cream and spread evenly.
Fold the hanging phyllo sheets to cover the custard, buttering each time.
Lay 3 phyllo sheets on the top, folding them in half and tucking in the sides. 
Butter every layer.

Preheat oven to 350*F.

Use a sharp knife to cut slits in the top phyllo layer, vertically and horizontally to form 3 columns, 5 rows. 
Pour the remaining butter into the cuts and the edges.
Sprinkle a bit of water over the top - this helps keep the thin pastry sheet from flying off.
Bake for1 hour, til golden brown.

Combine water, sugar, cinnamon stick and lemon in a heavy-bottomed pot set over medium heat.
Stir until it reaches a boil.
Simmer 5 minutes.  
Remove from the heat and discard the cinnamon and lemon.
Add honey and stir to combine. 
Set aside to cool.

Remove pie from oven and set to cool 10 minutes.
Pour the syrup evenly over the pie.
Allow the pie to cool 4-5 hours before cutting and serving.

Baklava Fans, hold on to your hats, because galaktoboureko is going to rock your world. The first time I made it was for Mom's birthday and found a mob outside my window, demanding some. Despite the lengthy instructions and seemingly difficult technique, it was actually fun to make, especially with the help of my li'l blue-eyed beauty. Neither the pecan streusel nor marmalade are authentic to the original recipe, but provide a nice crunch in texture and more punch of the orange flavour to this very unusual dessert. This Easter, go Greek!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

DIY Haji Firooz Egg for Persian New Year (Nowruz)

Friday is the first day of Spring and the Persian New Year. Although Armenian, my family is from Iran and we revel in celebrations from our Zoroastrian roots. A special tablescape called haft sin (meaning seven S's) is set up before the eve of the first day of Spring. Seven items whose names begin with the letter S in Farsi are featured, each one representing the seven ancient Zoroastrian figures who protect the waters, fire, earth, heavens, plants, animals and humans. 

Commonly seen items include:
-Apple represents health and beauty
-Garlic stands for medicine
-Green sprouts grown from lentils or wheat symbolize rebirth
-Coins symbolize prosperity
-Hyacinth represents Spring and Heaven
-Sumac (a tart spice) translates to the sunrise
-Vinegar stands for patience
-Wild olive fruit (oleaster) symbolizes love

A holy book is usually on the table, lit by candles and the reflection of a mirror. I always have my grandmother's leatherbound bible set as a reminder of her sweet personality. Often a goldfish flutters in a glass bowl, bringing life to this festive table. An orange set in a bowl of water is fabled to rotate right at the turn of the new year, imitating the start of the earth's new cycle. Traditional sweets, pastries and painted eggs attest to the hospitality of the Persian people. My table has one additional character, an adorable Haji Firuz egg that is an easy and fun way to teach kids about traditions from the Old World. Haji Firooz is a mythical jovial figure, dressed in his trademark red costume and soot-covered face. He oversees major celebrations such as the Persian New Year and weddings, often handing gifts to children while dancing and tapping his tamborine. Making the Haji Firuz egg is a fun, easy craft that anyone, even the little ones can tackle. Your local craft store has everything you need. Make a few extra and give them as gifts to your fellow Iranians.

DIY Haji Firooz Egg
cardboard or wood egg(s)
nontoxic acrylic paint: red, black, white
cardstock paper
a CD or any round object with a 4-inch diameter
stapler or tape

First, paint the eggs black. This is the most messy step. Let them dry and apply a second coat, if necessary.

Next, trace a circle about 4 inches in diameter on the paper and cut out. Roll the circle into a pointy cone and staple or tape it in place.  Cut a ribbon about 2 inches long and wrap it into a circle, securing with a staple or tape. This will be the shirt collar that will act as a stand for the egg.

Apply red paint over the hat and stand, then set aside to dry. Once the eggs are dry, apply two white spots for the eyes and smaller black dots as pupils. Draw a smile using red paint.  Set the hat over  the egg head and set the egg over the collar-stand. 

Now that my decorations are in place, I can focus on the food, my favourite part of any holiday. Thanks to Persian Basket,  I have everything I need on hand and do not have to stress about getting to the stores for those last-minute items. Thursday night is the eve of the New Year. So, we will have the TV set to the Persian channel so we can enjoy traditional music. Mom's Herb Beef Stew (Ghormeh Sabzi) is sure to make everyone happy at dinner, after which we will enjoy freshly brewed tea and yummy treats. We hope you will join us in keeping old traditions alive and celebrating a fresh start with Spring.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Mom's Persian Herb Stew (Ghormeh Sabzi) for Persian New Year #Norouz2015

Spring is coming and, with it, a fresh start. Long before Christianity, Armenians and Persians were Zoroastrian, upholding the importance of water and fire. This ancient religion marks the new year on the first day of Spring with a celebration called Nowruz/Norouz, meaning New Day in Farsi.  Even now, Christians, Muslims and Jews alike still observe Zoroastrian celebrations of Spring. A beautiful table is set with sweets and symbols representing elements of a happy life. Music and dancing see the festivities through the night. But, the most anticipated event is Mom's Ghormeh Sabzi, a mouth-watering stew made with fresh herbs, black limes, beans and beef, well-worth the time and effort.  

Some say the secret to delicious Persian food is in the slowly caramelized onions while others argue it is all in the hands of a patient cook. Mom says using the freshest ingredients is key and she would know, because, as we Armenians say her hand is delicious. My versions of her dishes are nowhere nearly as tasty. Mom says I have the talent, but lack the patience.  And, as always, she is right. Cooking should be done with attention to every detail and as much as I enjoy the process, I often give in to tempting shortcuts, except when I am making Mom's dishes.

Now is the best time to stop by the Middle Eastern markets, because many of them carry fresh blooming branches from fruit trees and lovely flowers. Bakeries are busy making old fashioned cookies, pastries and candies. Unlike my East Coast cousins, we have hundreds of grocers in Los Angeles. As much as I enjoy running up and down the aisles with my shopping cart, this year I am going to avoid the crazy crowds and for the very first time, do most of my shopping online, because I finally can. Founded in 2013 and based in metro Atlanta, Persian Basket is the most comprehensive online storefront for Middle Eastern ingredients. This is great news especially for my friends and family who live on the East Coast. The shop's bestseller is their very own Pure Grade 1 Iranian Saffron, which is regarded to be the the best in the world. They take great pride and care in shipping grocery products, including preserves and jams, rose water and orange blossom water, carefully wrapped in bubblewrap blankets and shipped with care. Finding good quality raw pistachios, pine nuts and Persian saffron is no longer a worry for me. Now, everything you need to get ready for Norouz is at your fingertips (except for Mr. Goldfish, of course).

Over the years I have figured a couple of things out: #1 Do not go grocery-shopping when you are hungry. 
#2 Do not try to cook dinner when you are hungry. I still do #1. Luckily, Shawn has taken to juicing the surplus produce I drag home. To battle #2, I keep a teeny treat bowl by the stove and munch on dried cherries and pistachios or 5 candy-coated mini chocolate eggs, no more, no less.

Another habit I have adopted is starting any savory dish by mincing the garlic. I take 2-3 cloves of garlic and give them a good bashing with the flat of my cooking knife. Then I mince and smoosh the garlic against the cutting board. Finally, I collect the minced garlic in a little bowl where it must rest at least 10 minute. This is sufficient time for the precious allicin compound to develop. As Dad explains,  allicin is crucial to the heart-healthy, anti-cancer, antibacterial qualities of garlic that would otherwise be destroyed by the heat of the cooking process. So, while my garlic rests in that little bowl, I move on to the rest of the ingredients.

Cleaning and trimming the fresh herbs is the most time-consuming step to preparing Ghormeh Sabzi. Most Middle-Eastern markets offer the herbs in a dried mix or frozen, but they are often the best combination of herbs, nor cleaned very well. No one will deny the taste and nutritional value of fresh herbs. Mom's choice is always parsley, scallion and fenugreek. Called shambalileh in Farsi, fenugreek is prized in the West for its health benefits for nursing mothers. In the East, it is known for its distinct herby flavour, crucial to the bouquet of this stew.  Reserve a bit of extra time to make this dish. You will soon lose yourself in the process and enjoy every minute of it. Lucky for me, Little Miss Daisy is still more than happy to hop onto my lap and help me with the herbs. I savor this time with her so much that I am actually sad when we run out of greens.

Mom's Persian Herb Stew (Ghormeh Sabzi)
Serves 8
Note: The meat can easily be omitted for a vegetarian version without compromise protein or flavour.
I suggest you wash and trim the herbs the night before so you have less to do the next day. Pulsing the herbs in a food processor also saves time.

2 lbs meat
5 cloves garlic
2 medium onions
1/2 cup olive oil
2 bunches fresh parsley
2 bunches fresh Persian chive (or green scallion tops)
1 bunch fresh fenugreek
6 black limes (limoo omani)
1 tsp turmeric
1 Tb Arabic 7-spice (advieh)
2 14oz cans beans (red kidney, cannellini or black-eyed peas)
salt + pepper to taste
2 lemons, juiced
1 cup water
2 Tb butter

Fill a big bowl or a clean kitchen sink with cold water. Immerse herbs into the water several times so that the dirt settles to the bottom. Rinse and drain the excess water from the herbs in batches using a colander. Set them onto clean tea towels to dry a bit.

Snap the tough lower stems and yellowy leaves off of the herbs. Working in batches, pulse a couple handfuls of herbs in a food processor.

Trim and cube meat. Collect in a big pot and fill with just enough water to cover the meat.
Put the lid on and cook over medium heat for 15-20 minutes, occasionally skimming the
froth that forms over the top of the water.

Remove the meat and strain the broth.
The broth is lovely for cooking the rice or as a base for a soup.

Peel, crush and mince the garlic. Set aside and allow it to rest at least 10 minutes. (Now you know why.)

Set a heavy-bottomed pot onto medium heat and drizzle a bit of olive oil.
Peel and chop onions, add to the pot and fry until golden brown, ~10 minutes.
This step takes patience and is key to the success of the dish.

Add the rest of the olive oil and the herbs to the pan.
Add the garlic.
Sautee the herbs, stirring often to prevent burning, another 10 minutes.

Drain and rinse the kidney beans. Add to the pot.
Add turmeric, 7-spice, salt and pepper.
Crush the black limes and toss into the pot.
Add lemon juice, water and a bit of butter.
Stire everything gently and put the lid on.
Lower the heat and allow the stew to simmer, ~20 minutes.
When the oil settles around the edges of the pot, the stew is ready.

Serve with fluffy saffron-infused basmati rice and a fresh salad.

Remember to order all those hard-to-find specialty ingredients from Persian Basket.
See what my Persian foodie friends are cooking up for the Norouz celebrations of Spring 2015!

Please note that I was not compensated for this post. Persian Basket sent me a gift basket of Middle Eastern products. All content and opinions are my own.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Sayat Explores Food: Cardamom Quince Confit + Rosemary Clotted Cream

Posh restaurants have long-winded names for their dishes. The expectation is that their patrons are serious foodies who want the nitty-gritty on the food they are about to enjoy. The detailed descriptions just elevate their anticipation and pump up the excitement as they wait to taste what the chef has meticulously prepared.
Chefs are getting very innovative, even a bit sciency. You can now see things like Mini Chocolate Mousse with Caramel Web and Almond Soil popping up on menus at hip eateries. I once ordered dessert specifically because I wanted to find out what almond soil was. A more impressive sweet found its way to my kitchen via the well-traveled Armenian chef from Sayat Explores Food.  Simply stated, the name of his site declares his true passion. He introduces long-forgotten Middle Eastern classics such as quick purslane stew and wildly innovative new ones such as grilled cheese with gruyere, smoked salmon, preserved lemon, chives, Osetra caviar and a jaw-dropping steamed napa cabbage in a saffron, almonds and chamomile broth, garnished with pistachios and flowers. Are you drooling yet?  An engineer-turned-chef from the esteemed Culinary Institute of America, Sayat talks about his adventure in chasing his dream...

Coco: What did you study @ Dartmouth? 
Sayat: After going to an Austrian school and subsequently to an American school in Istanbul, I came to Dartmouth to study molecular evolution on a full scholarship. When I was waltzing at the Austrian school, I will never forget my choreographer telling me at the end of the season ''you should probably stick with water polo.'' I have a tendency to enjoy everything that I do but I am also quick at recognizing --especially after my waltz teacher felt compelled to tell me before I sensed it myself-- when I feel uninspired and unmotivated. In such a state of mind, I switched to Economics and focused on Development Economics (i.e. child labor). I also majored in German and minored in Environmental Science with great passion for agriculture and plant physiology. 

Coco: How did you end up in the kitchen?
Sayat: Right after Dartmouth, I picked up a logistics job, which I loved. For a less known $30BB revenue / year New Hampshire company, I did everything from demand planning and analytics to transportation planning, from writing software to industrial engineering. I gained a lot of hard skills at this company where I stayed for four years. I loved it but I realized my hobby -- cooking -- was taking over my life. I spoke with a graduate of the Culinary, Quiqui Mussara in Harrisburg, PA, she owned the best restaurant in the area. I loved her food. I told her, I don't even know how to hold a knife but I'd love to learn in your kitchen, I think you're the best. She was hesitant about the proposal but ended up taking it to heart. I try to remember every moment in that kitchen, first time walking into it, picking herbs, sharpening my knives, etc. It was a very intense experience. Then it slowly took over my life and I decided to quit my day job after a couple months of 110 hour weeks. 

Coco: Do you teach at the CIA?
Sayat: I do not teach at the CIA though make an attempt at engaging my peers on an educational level, in that I pass on to them whatever I've recently picked up or am excited about, which I believe is very conducive to creating a culture of learning and building a strong and motivated community.  

Coco: What's the biggest reward of being a chef?
Sayat: I think being a cook or chef requires abandon. It is this detachment that focuses you in the moment. It's meditative. A moment as such can be something as simple as a fleeting smell, an intense flavor explosion, a vision coming to fruition, or getting an approving nod from a chef or a peer. 

Coco: Do you apply any of your engineering skills in the kitchen?
Sayat: The process-oriented thinking really helps with multi-tasking, and putting together an assembly line but it's not rocket science, if you care you can do it easily. It's been hard for me to stand back and not take a stronger leadership role as I'm prioritizing hard cooking skills (i.e. techniques, being a line cook, expediting) over management skills, which I have already dabbled in extensively. 

Coco: What dish do you ask Mom to make for you for your birthday?
Sayat: I love yogurt. And this is definitely one of my favorite things to eat.  
We simply call it ''gul boregi'' -- it's a borek rolled into a mollusk-like flower basically.

Coco: What defines your cooking style?
Sayat: Eastern Mediterranean flavors -- I'm dreaming of a convergence of Armenian, Greek, North African, Turkish, Persian and Jewish cooking in Istanbul.  

Coco: What would you not eat?
Sayat: I love food. There is nothing that I will not eat. When I eat I engage with all my senses. I think I want to eat food cooked by good people. That's what it's all about. There is always something missing when I cannot engage the dish fully because I don't feel very strongly about the people. 

Coco: Are you a sweet-tooth or more into savory flavours? 
Sayat: I can live without desserts but I choose not to.  

Coco: What is the most difficult dish you have made and was it worth the effort?
Sayat: Biryanis that I cooked in a Mumbai kitchen were probably the most fascinating and most complex things that I've ever learned to make. The flavors are so deep, so comforting, so nourishing that it is well worth the effort. We ground our own spices, made all the different gravies (cooking bases in Indian cooking), stewed the meats, toasted the rice, prepared the garnishes only to bring in all the components within a matter of two minutes for pick up. It really exemplifies what I love about Indian cooking or cuisines that use complex, multifaceted preparations to put together a dish that is greater than the sum of its parts. Having said that, watermelon and good feta cheese often hits every flavor note that my palate craves.

Sayat reminded me how much I love quince. Native to the Caucasus and Iran, it is the knobby cousin to the apple that has made its way into the Mediterranean. Quince has a grainy texture much like a pear, but a fragrant perfume and flavour all its own. It is often picked before it ripens and holds up beautifully in jams or as a sautéed side dish. Its white flesh magically turns a red peachy colour as it slowly cooks. All too often overlooked, quince deserves more  respect on the plate and there is a beautiful cookbook dedicated entirely to this lovely winter fruit. My grandmother Nina used to love making quince preserve and I loved eating it, especially with freshly brewed black tea. Sayat has a more sophisticated idea with his Cardamom Quince Confit with Rosemary Clotted Cream. Confit is French for chutney, fruit stewed in simple syrup and warm spices.  Authentic clotted cream is an overnight process. Here's a good explanation. We're only going to add a sprig of rosemary in there.  But, because I cannot wait to taste this sweet concoction, you and I are going cheat and use a faster method.

Cardamom Quince Confit with Rosemary Clotted Cream
Note: The recipe is mostly in Sayat's own words so you get a sense of his casual confident approach to food.


Cardamom Quince Confit
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
4 quinces
1 whole clove
1 whole cardamom pod
1 whole star anise

Quick Clotted Cream
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup sour cream
1 Tb confectioner's sugar
1 sprig rosemary

4 sprigs rosemary + blossoms, if available
freshly grated lemon zest


Cardamom Quince Confit
So, we're going to peel, halve and core the quince. Keep the seeds and the peels -- lots of pectin there, we want as much of it as possible.  Soak the fruit with the seeds and peel overnight in simple syrup with one clove, a cardamom, and one star anise. If you don't have these spices, no big deal. Use a cinnamon stick.

The next day, simmer the fruit in the same liquid until cooked through. 
For a more ''sticky'' texture, you can go double simple syrup. 
Cook it in a pot with a lid, with the fruit half-way submerged in the liquid. 

As it evaporates feel free to add more water, take out the warming spices if the flavor gets too strong. 

Turn the fruits as necessary for even cooking. I like doing halves because the core provides a nestling point for the clotted cream. 

Quick Clotted Cream
Whip the heavy cream until stiff peaks form.
Mix the sour cream with sugar and gently fold into the whipped cream.
Immerse 1 sprig of rosemary into the cream, cover with plastic and chill at least 2 hours.

Drizzle a teaspoon of the quince syrup over a pretty plate.
Place a quince half, cut side up off-center.
Scoop a tablespoon of the chilled cream into the center.
Grate lemon zest over the top.
Place a rosemary sprig along the side and
sprinkle a few flowers over the plate.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mushroom Pasta in Truffle Cream Sauce (Vegetarian)

For our anniversary this year, Shawn and I went to a Japanese kaiseki restaurant. Kai·se·ki  (kīsekē) is a type of  Japanese cuisine comprised of a series of small, elaborate dishes. As excited as I was to find out what this was all about, there was still a tiny image floating in my mind of my raiding the fridge as soon as we got home. That actually never happened. While the portions were dainty, our waitress got quite a workout between the kitchen and our table. Of all the artfully prepared dishes, the one that made the biggest impression on us both was a nod to Italy, an earthy pasta dish with black truffle shavings. While I would not even think about trying to recreate it at home, I just could not stop thinking about this spaghetti. So began the search for truffles which are akin to mushrooms, but grow underground, among the roots of certain trees. Traditionally, dogs and pigs are used to sniff out these hidden gems, but dogs are preferred to pigs who often eat the prize. Difficult to grow and find, truffles are a luxury ingredient easily dismissed if you intend to send your child to college. And, that, we do. But, I just could not get that dish out of my mind. So I set out to create my own version, working portobellos into the mix. The result of my little experiment was an elegantly simple comforting dish using few ingredients, but bursting with flavour. This one promises to make you look like a rockstar in the kitchen. A handful of simple ingredients take turns stealing the spotlight and get along beautifully together. Sauteed mushrooms, garlic, parmesan cheese and a simple cream sauce made with truffle butter (available at Whole Foods and other specialty gourmet shops). Hold on to your hat, Cowboy, because you are about to get a real shock. This is one of those recipes that magically whirls a few unassuming staples into something stellar. Meatless Monday just got a haute makeover.

Mushroom Pasta in Truffle Cream Sauce
Notes: For a lighter sauce, use milk instead of heavy cream. Also, I prefer black truffles, but the butter is available infused with white truffles. Try both to see which one you like better. For the pasta, I often reach for angelhair, but you can use any kind you like. Just adjust the cooking time according to the instructions on the package.

Serves 4

1 lb spaghetti or capellini
1 lb crimini or portobello mushrooms
2 Tb olive oil
2 Tb flour
3 oz black truffle butter
2 cups milk or heavy cream
1 clove garlic
salt + pepper
2 tsp fresh parsley

Drizzle a bit of olive oil into a pan set on low heat.
Wash and slice mushrooms.
Add to pan and sautée slowly, stirring occasionally.

Peel, crush and mince garlic. Set aside for at least 10 minutes.

In a small saucepan, toast flour, stir to avoid burning, ~2 minutes.
Add butter and stir until creamy. This is the roux.
Slowly stream the milk/cream into the center and stir to incorporate.
Add garlic and cook until thick enough to coat the back of the wooden spoon.
Remove from heat.

Fill a pot with water and add a tablespoon of salt.
Cover and set onto medium heat.
When the water reaches a rolling boil, add the pasta.
Cook ~5 minutes, al dente.
Drain and return to the pot.

Pour sauce over the pasta and gently stir to coat.
Divide among 4 bowls, top with mushrooms.
Garnish with fresh chopped parsley and serve with rustic bread.

Comforting and creamy, this earthy pasta dish comes together quickly. So it makes the perfect venue for a weeknight meal, especially Friday night when there is little energy for an elaborate menu, but lots of reason to celebrate the end of the week. Mushroom Pasta in Truffle Cream Sauce guarantees to earn smiles even from those carnivores in your life. It is easy to adjust to feed a few or a crowd and because it is vegetarian, Daphne, my piggy, will be most pleased.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Interview with Hank Shaw: Homemade Smoked Salmon

There is a new movement in the culinary world with young chefs putting the spotlight onto wild game and organ meats in creative, sexy dishes. What was once poo-poo'd as disgusting and tossed into cheap dog food is now highly regarded as haute cuisine. Hank Shaw is no stranger to cooking beak to feet,  not wasting anything. That is the difference between hunting for food and hunting for sport. But, hunting is only a small part of Hank's natural way of life. He also plants, forages and fishes for the ingredients he uses in the dishes he creates and his readers anxiously await.   
I sometimes find myself loitering around his blog Honest Food. His writing style is captivating, combining efficient use of language from his days in journalism and a frank, relaxed demeanor that transforms words on a page into coffee and conversation with an old friend. And I'm not the only one who thinks so. Among many other achievements, Hank's work earned him the reputable James Beard Foundation Best Food Blog Award in 2010. He routinely reads all comments posted onto his site and replies to his readers' questions. Even if your kitchen is more for decoration than cooking, Hank's writing promises to entertain and inspire. But, I'm warning you - this man is dangerous. He's got city-folk like me thinking about making acorn flour, something you can't just order online. (I checked already.)  A man who wears so many hats has much to tell. It was easy to cook up questions for him and I am thrilled he answered.

Coco: Have you always been a foodie?
Hank: I have always been interested in good food. When I was a kid, my brothers and sisters had already left the house so it was just my mom, my stepdad and myself. We ended up going to a lot of nice restaurants when I was young, and I learned to appreciate fine food at a young age. Later, in graduate school, I worked as a cook in a few restaurants in Wisconsin and I have been a student of food and cooking ever since.

Coco: You weren't raised a hunter. What prompted your career change?
Hank: I picked up hunting to complete a circle. I'd been a forager and angler since I was a boy, but that was as far as it went. I picked up hunting when I was 32 in Minnesota. My best friend there was the outdoor writer for the St Paul Pioneer Press, the same newspaper I was working for at the time, and he introduced me to it. For me, hunting completed a set of skills. I could get food from the water and from plants and mushrooms, but not animals. Hunting changed that. 

Coco: Do you find taxidermy creepy?
Hank: No. Taxidermy is a physical reminder of a hunter's great adventures. Every time he or she looks at a mount, it sparks a flood of memories. Maybe that was the deer you got with your grandfather, right before he died. Maybe it was the time your sister fell in the river and almost died. Or that great fish you caught on your honeymoon. Mounts are talismans of past hunts. 

Coco: Is it fair to say your intention is to teach people to fend for themselves?
Hank: Not really. I am no survivalist, although I have skills in that area. My intention is to help people reconnect with Nature in the way we have done since before we were even fully human. It's not to live totally off the land, although that's a laudable goal, it's to take some piece of what I do -- fishing, foraging, hunting -- and make it an intimate part of who you are, how you define yourself. It could be foraging for blueberries, fishing for salmon, hunting deer, whatever. 

Coco: To what extent do you make ingredients from scratch? Walnut oil, vinegars, beer, wine, etc?
Hank: I make my own vinegar and wine from scratch. I have made sea salt. I know how to do a lot of those things, but as far as routine, it's basically acorn flour, various fruit and beer vinegars, wines and dried herbs. I also render out all the fat from the wild ducks we hunt and use that as a cooking fat all year. 

Coco: I know you avoid anything  in a wrapper/package/box, but do you ever cheat and gobble up a candy bar? 
Hank: No. I don't like candy. 

Coco: Making your own butter is a hot trend now. Is this something you'd do?
Hank: Not really. I have duck fat. 

Coco: While on the road, you eat out like the rest of us. What is your guilty indulgence?
Hank: I like In-and-Out Burger. Chipotle is my favorite fast food. 

Coco: Someone once challenged me to make chocolate from scratch. Would you do it?
Hank: No. I don't like chocolate. 

Coco: Describe the perfect vacation.
Hank: Hard to say. But it would include foraging, fishing, hunting and really great restaurant food. I've always wanted to go to Scotland, where my ancestors are from. 

Coco: What do squirrels taste like? I've always wanted to know, but can't bring myself to eating one....
Hank: Sure. They are a little like rabbit, but denser, a little darker and sweeter. It's a very, very good meat. Closest thing would be the "oyster" on the leg of an older chicken. 

We are big smoked salmon fans. Smoke my hiking boots and I am liable to take a big bite out of them, too. Weekend breakfasts of fresh lacy crepes, cream cheese, capers, dill, lemon and smoked fish are popular at the homestead. Shawn smokes the salmon for us the night before using shavings from his carpentry projects and his propane grill. He piles the sawdust into a disposable aluminum roasting pan, which sits over the low flames. A metal baking rack placed over the wood chips holds the fish which then cooks slowly, absorbing the smoldering smoke. The next morning, I make French crêpes, all the while, Daisy waits patiently, fighting the urge to drool. This is something you are going to want to try. Hank walks you through all the details to get you ready.

Homemade Smoked Salmon
Note: Hank's original recipe calls for 5 pounds of fish, which would be perfect for a smoked fish cocktail party. (GREAT IDEA.)  Here, I approximated the measurements for 1 pound of fish which is plenty for a small family.

1 lb wild-caught salmon
3/4 cup water
5 Tb salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 Tb maple syrup
4 cups wood chips (apple, cherry, maple, hickory - not mesquite)
6 cups water
disposable aluminum roasting pan
metal baking rack

Make brine bath with water, salt, brown sugar and maple syrup.
Soak salmon in the brine overnight, no more than 48 hours, otherwise the fish will be too salty.

Remove the fish from the bath and pat dry with a paper towel. 
Chill it uncovered in the refrigerator to allow the excess moisture to evaporate, overnight.

Collect the wood chips (or sawdust, if you have some) into the roasting pan.
Light the wood and wait for the flames to die down.

Set the fish onto a metal baking rack, skin-side down.
Position the rack over the center of the grill, cover and wait 3-4 hours.

Make crepes from scratch. Serve along with cream cheese, capers, dill and lemon,  if you can resist picking at it by hand.

Every morning, Milou darts out to do his business and he usually takes his time coming back inside, mostly because he gets distracted. Little lizards play hide-and-seek with him in the piles of dried leaves under the old sycamore tree and someone walking along the back alley warrants some vicious barking. This morning, I fumbled out the back patio with my coffee and found Milou sitting quietly under the fruit trees, looking up at the sky. There, hanging head-down from the neighbour's palm tree was a little wide-eyed brown squirrel, tail fluffing over his head, taunting our pup with chirpy obscenities. Milou just sat there, nearly motionless except for the occasion ear twitch, probably thinking, "Wait til I catch you in my yard, Squirrel." He is a hunter, after all. This little banter reminded me of Hank. He's an inspiring man. His acorn shortbread cookies keep winking at me and now I am convinced even I can make acorn flour from scratch. The unfortunate truth is that I have the attention span of a gnat. The process here starts with gathering acorns, shelling them, leaching the tannins out in a solution, drying the nuts, grinding them into a flour and finally baking the cookies. While I may have some of the terminology to impress you, I have neither the stamina nor the skill to make it happen. But, I am excited about doing something different. That counts for a lot.  Hank Shaw is fascinating and before you know it, you will find it difficult to tear yourself away from his blog. Who knows what he will have you doing next?