Sunday, November 30, 2008

Pomegranates ~ That Other Winter Fruit


One fruit I have recently started to think a lot more about is the pomegranate. As far as winter fruits go, the pomegranate has my vote for being the most fun. It's delicious in a uniquely refreshing way, and pomegranate arils are more addictive than potato chips ~ not to mention better for you. Oranges are great, clementines and grapefruit too, but pomegranates bring something special to the table, whether they're eaten alone or used in a recipe.

The pomegranate, which derives its name from the Latin words for "seeded apple," is native to the region of Iran and the Himilayas in northern India. In 1769, Spaniards introduced the fruit to California natives.

Pomegranates start to crop up just as the displays of canned pumpkin and make-your-own fudge kits begin to garner end-cap attention at the grocery store. From October to January, pomegranates are available in U.S. stores. Making them the perfect fruit to highlight in holiday recipes.

This recipe is one I developed for the Blogger Recipe Contest sponsored by Pom. It uses both fresh pomegranate arils and fresh pomegranate juice, and the flavor is an amazing combination of sweet and tart ~ just like a pomegranate ~ tempered by the richness of judiciously applied butter.


You can serve this as a side dish or a light lunch, alongside a salad. This recipe is vegetarian, but please see my suggestions in the Recipe Notes section for modifying the recipe to feature meat or to be vegan.


Couscous-Stuffed Acorn Squash with Pomegranate-Honey Reduction


  • 2 medium acorn squash
  • 1/4 cup water
  • Olive oil
  • Kosher salt and pepper

For Pomegranate Reduction:


  • 1/2 cup freshly pressed pomegranate juice
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon butter


For Couscous:

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 clove garlic or 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder (more or less to taste)

  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup couscous
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup freshly pressed pomegranate juice
  • 1/3 cup fresh pomegranate arils

  • 1/3 cup toasted pecan halves, broken



  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Wash and dry acorn squash and carefully cut in half lengthwise. Use a soup spoon to scoop out the seeds and pulp, discard.


  2. Line a baking pan with aluminum foil for easy cleanup. Place acorn squash cut-side down in baking pan. Pour about 1/4 cup water into pan and cover with foil. Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes.


  3. Remove foil carefully ~ escaping steam will be extremely hot. Turn each squash half over and brush the interior with olive oil. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper and return to oven for an additional 30 minutes or until fork tender.

  4. Meanwhile, prepare Pomegranate-Honey Reduction sauce. Combine juice, honey, and lemon juice in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, and reduce heat. Let simmer actively for about 20 minutes until reduced to about half the original volume and the consistency is syrupy. Remove from heat and stir in butter. Set aside and keep warm.


  5. While acorn squash is baking and sauce is reducing, prepare couscous. Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic or shallot and saute for 1 minute. Add curry powder and salt and saute for another minute. Add couscous to pan and stir to coat with butter mixture. Let toast in pan, stirring, for 3 or 4 minutes, until fragrant. Pour water and pomegranate juice in all at once, stir, cover, and remove from heat. Let stand 5 minutes.

  6. Uncover couscous, fluff with fork, and stir in pomegranate arils and pecans.

  7. Remove acorn squash from oven and test for doneness. Please half a squash on each of four plates.

  8. Drizzle about a teaspoon of sauce into the cavity of each squash. Spoon in a generous portion of couscous to fill cavity and mound overtop. Drizzle with additional sauce and garnish with pomegranate arils and toasted pecans, if desired. Serve hot.


Makes 4 generous servings with couscous left over.


Printable view


Recipe Notes:

  • You can turn this into a vegan dish by substituting margarine for butter where the latter is called for.
  • If you'd like to serve this as a main dish with meat in it, consider slicing and panfrying some chicken sausage and adding it to the couscous mixture. Lamb or pork would also match well.

November 30: I'm Thankful For . . .

You.

I'm grateful for all the individuals who stop by to read my blog. Without you, I would certainly feel like a tree falling in an empty forest.

I appreciate the time you spend here, and I hope you come away from your visit with something worthwhile. Thank you!

What are you thankful for today?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

November 29: I'm Thankful For . . .

Nice people.

It doesn't take much to make my day. A couple of years ago, I was waiting in line at an MRI facility, waiting to pick up some films. When I finally got up to see the woman behind the desk, she looked at me, smiled, and said, "Wow, I like your sweater. That's a great color on you." I didn't ~ and still don't ~ know that woman, but to this day, I think of her every time I wear that sweater.

I'm grateful for people who drop compliments, give unexpected smiles, offer a hand, extend a courtesy. These people, to me, are like secret agents of goodwill, working undercover to make the world a bit less prickly. A little more welcoming.

It's not hard, really, to offer a complete stranger a compliment. It gets easier every time you do it. Even if it doesn't come naturally, it's something that can be worked on, like a hobby. I'm going to give it a try, because I really, really like it when other people do.

What are you thankful for today?

Friday, November 28, 2008

November 28: I'm Thankful for . . .

Books.

To me, having a good book to look forward to is like a promise. I don't have a lot of time to read these days, but I've always got a book nearby ~ on my night table, next to my exercise bike, in the kitchen to read while stirring sauce, in the car to read while I wait for my son to finish practice.

As a copyeditor, I have a vested interest in books on another level (professionally and financially), and I'm grateful that there are so many others out there who are thankful for them too.

What are you thankful for today?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

November 27: I'm Thankful to . . .

My children.

Back when I began my "take back November" month of thanks-giving posts, I wrote an all-purpose disclaimer that I was epically grateful for my husband, children, etc., etc., and would not therefore repeat any of these "big-ticket" thanks items. And I still mean that. Please note that I did not say "Thankful for," but "Thankful to." Today, I am filled with gratitute toward my kids, because they saved my bacon.

I woke up this morning with migraine. Those of you who know me personally know that I get migraines of a variety that are measured in days, not hours. I take a daily combo of meds to keep these monsters at bay, and by and large I consider them to be under control. But all this week, I could feel trouble brewing behind my left eye.

Today, Thanksgiving morning ~ with pies to bake, Brussels sprouts to make, and production of a birthday cake to oversee (not to mention the disaster zone I left my kitchen in when I finally trudged off to bed last night) ~ I woke up with my head feeling very, very bad. But I wasn't sure it was a migraine until I got up, tipped over, caught myself, and realized that the vision in my right eye was blurred. Migraine.

I tried to tough it out, I really did. I went to the kitchen to turn on the coffeemaker. I fed the cat. I'll spare you the details of the 10 minutes that followed, but trust me, it wasn't pretty. It ended with me knocking back some medicine with a black coffee chaser and stumbling back to bed with an ice pack clasped to my forehead. That's right, folks: with all that cooking left to do and a sink full of last night's cooking dishes, I went back to bed.

My husband asked if there was anything he could do. I requested that he kill me. He was sympathetic, he said, but declined. So, what did my kids do? Well, my 12-year-old daughter washed all those dishes, even the blender and all the mixing bowls. Then she made a birthday cake from scratch - without coming to ask me where a single ingredient or implement was. (She was prepared to make pie dough, too, bless her heart, but thank heavens I'd prepped that the previous night.)


My fourteen-year-old son came into my room and put on the Macy's Day Parade ~ with the sound turned all the way down ~ in case I felt up to watching, our family tradition. Later, when I finally managed to get out of bed and stand upright long enough to shower and dress, as I walked through the living room on my way to the kitchen, he said, "Oh Mom, you're looking . . . better."

The pies got baked, the Brussels sprouts got made (and photographed), I managed to make buttercream so my daughter could decorate the birthday cake (which she did entirely on her own), and eventually my migraine subsided to the intensity of a run-of-the-mill, non-vomitrocious, seeing-out-of-both-eyes headache. Ultimately, it was a fine day, and I enjoyed spending it with my family.

After dinner, back at home, my son came to me and said, "Mom, I'm thankful that you still managed to make such awesome pies even though you felt like a big pile of poop."

Way back on November 1, I was already thinking about what to write for this post, this all-important T-day "big thanks" issue of my thanks-giving series. All through the month so far, I've been turning over ideas, rejecting them because none seemed appropriately weighty. In a month of thanks-giving, you need a thanks with some gravitas to headline Thanksgiving Day. Turns out I needn't have worried. I should have figured I wouldn't have too much trouble finding something big to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving!

What are you thankful for today?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

November 26: I'm Thankful For . . .

Digital cameras.

I don't think this needs much elaboration. If you have one, you know why they're so wonderful. I love my digital camera for a lot of reasons, but especially because without it, I wouldn't have this blog, which I am really, really grateful for.

What are you thankful for today?

Brussels Sprouts Even Haters Will Eat


Without further delay, I'm posting the recipe for my Brussels sprouts dish, which I know some of you have been patiently waiting for (thank you). In the interest of speeding things up and getting this posted before Thanksgiving, which is when some of you wish to serve these, I'm posting the recipe before the pictures ~ stay tuned, the pictures will follow . . . later.


{Update: Pictures! I made these today for Thanksgiving dinner at my parents' house. They were pretty well received ~ the prevailing comments had a single theme: "I had no idea those were Brussels sprouts."}


These Brussels sprouts are good not just because they're Brussels sprouts (well, I think Brussels sprouts are just delightful), but because they're actually delicious! First off, they smell good when cooking, and that's saying something for a Brussels sprout. Second, these cook so quickly that they don't have time to develop the characteristic bitterness that can result from a protracted boil. Third, no stem end = less bitter, and you'll use the stem end here as your handle while slicing, then toss it (into the compost heap). And finally, they take no oven space, so you can whip these up at the last minute for your holiday table. To prep them in advance, slice them earlier in the day and keep them in a tightly sealed plastic container, or a resealable plastic bag, in the fridge.


Now, go make some Brussels sprouts haters turn over a new leaf!



Brussels Sprouts Chiffonade with Brown Butter and Toasted Pecans

~Inspired by a recipe for sliced Brussels sprouts I found on 24 Boxes, a great blog highlighting local, seasonal foods.
  • 1 to 2 pounds Brussels sprouts, wilted and blemished outer leaves removed
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Olive oil
  • Kosher salt or sea salt and coarse black pepper
  • 1/3 cup toasted pecan halves, broken

  1. Wash Brussels sprouts and spin or pat dry. Cut in half and place cut-side down on chopping board. Starting opposite the stem end, cut chiffonade-style into thin ribbons. Separate layers with your fingers and put in a bowl until you've finished cutting all the sprouts.





  2. When the sprouts are cut, heat a large saute pan or electric skillet to medium high and melt two tablespoons butter. Spread butter around the pan and allow to cook until it just starts to brown. (It should be golden, not brown-brown.)

  3. Spread shredded Brussels sprouts out over melted butter and let cook for a minute without stirring. When the edges begin to brown, turn with spatula. If the sprouts appear dry, drizzle with olive oil. Keep turning periodically, stirring so the Brussels sprouts don't burn, but don't stir-fry ~ they benefit from some extended contact with the pan.

  4. When sprouts appear limp and are tender, sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper to taste. Scatter toasted pecans over and stir in. Place sprouts in serving bowl and top with additional toasted pecans to garnish. Serve hot.


    Makes 4 to 8 servings.


    Printable view


    Recipe Notes:


    • You can add other flavoring agents if you wish (garlic, fresh lemon juice, a splash of your favorite vinegar) but please try it first just like it is. Part of the beauty of this recipe is its simplicity. You'll be surprised at how much flavor it has.
    • You can use both large and small Brussels sprouts in this recipe. Since you'll be shredding them, size doesn't matter.

    • You can scale this recipe to feed as many as you like. Just increase the amount of sprouts and pecans. You can use a bit more butter, but you won't need to use much more. The butter serves as a flavoring agent in this recipe; the oil serves as a cooking fat.

    • You can replace the oil with melted butter if you wish, but it's not necessary; you'll get plenty of flavor from the 2 tablespoons of browned butter.

    • If you're doubling the recipe or using a small pan, cook the sprouts in batches. Crowding the pan will cause the sprouts to steam rather than saute, and you won't get the flavorful caramelization you would otherwise.

    Tuesday, November 25, 2008

    November 25: I'm Thankful For . . .

    Libraries.

    I LOVE the library. I love being able to read a novel and return it ~ we ran out of shelf room years ago. Plus, it's my favorite way to test-drive a cookbook before I acquire it. My husband feeds his voracious music habit by ordering CDs through inter-library loan and listening to them before he decides to make an iTunes commitment. And my kids ~ who read through books like locusts eat through spring wheat ~ can indulge their passion for whatever happens to be the book of the moment. And it's all free. Free!

    Libraries rock, and I'm thankful that in this day and age, you really can still get something good for free!

    What are you thankful for today?

    Monday, November 24, 2008

    November 24: I'm Thankful For . . .

    Inventors.

    I'm thinking about those against-the-odds, goggle-wearing, risk-taking inventors who persevered in spite of the fact that everyone else in the world thought they were nuts. Without massive research dollars to buoy their interest, they had to rely on stubbornness, obsession, and the inextinquishable flame of certitude that they were right. There would be radio. Airplanes. The ghost phone. Okay, we'll give the Wizard of Menlo Park a pass on that last one because he was right about a few of his other hunches (Thomas Alva Edison held 1,093 patents).

    I am so thankful for inventors because so many of them made incredible personal sacrifices to make life better for every else, and I do mean incredible.

    • Marie Curie, who is the only person to receive Nobel prizes in two different fields of science ~ chemistry and physics ~ died of leukemia she contracted from her constant exposure to radiation.
    • Robert Bunson ~ of Bunson burner fame ~ was blinded in one eye by a chemical explosion.
    • Galileo ended up causing permanent damage to his retinas by staring at the sun ~ part of his research into the telescope.

    Scarily, amazingly enough, I could go on and on and on. Scientists who helped produce cures for yellow fever, syphilis, and malaria by infecting themselves. Who tied pieces of food ~ and other items ~ to strings, swallowed them, and pulled them back up to study digestion. Who flew rudimentary aircraft, and crashed. Who poisoned themselves with chemicals and radiation and X-rays to the effect that we now have stuff like anesthesia, radiological medicine, and therapeutic drugs.

    I'm grateful for the courage of people who are genius and intrepid!

    What are you thankful for today?

    Roasted Beet Salad with Blue Cheese and Pecans


    If you hate beets, it could be because you've never had them prepared in an agreeable-enough way. (Same goes for Brussels sprouts, but more on those later.) Or maybe you're put off by their appearance. Roasted beets, as opposed to boiled or pickled beets, are really something special. They possess a sweet, earthy taste that doesn't compare with that of any other vegetable, and they are loaded with nutrients. They are, however, ugly. But fortunately, their ugliness is only skin deep ~ they're positively jewel-like on the inside.





    Roasting beets couldn't be easier, and once you've roasted them, you can use them in any number of dishes. This salad, which balances the sweetness of the tender beets against the pungent saltiness of blue cheese and the crunch of toasted pecans comes together in a snap if you have a couple of roasted beets in your fridge. I roast three or four and then use them over the course of a few days.


    To Roast the Beets:
    • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Scrub beets and trim pointy root end. Brush beets with oil and place in a ceramic casserole dish or baking pan. Cover with foil and bake about 60 to 90 minutes, until a knife passes easily through the thickest beet at its center. You can bake large and small beets together, but test the small beets for doneness before the larger ones.

    • Let cool till you can handle, then peel. If you won't be using right away, let cool completely and wrap in foil with the peel intact. Refrigerate until you are ready to use, then peel. It's much easier to peel a beet after it's been roasted than beforehand.




    Roasted Beet Salad with Blue Cheese and Pecans

    This salad is scalable to serve as many or as few as you need. No set amounts are given because your personal taste will guide how much of each ingredient to use. Plan on two good-size beets for 4 people.




    • 2 medium beets, scrubbed and trimmed

    • Extra-virgin olive oil

    • Balsamic vinegar

    • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

    • Blue cheese crumbles

    • Chopped toasted pecans

    • Bibb lettuce leaves (optional)

    1. Roast the beets until tender; allow to cool enough to handle; then peel and cut into bite-size chunks. Place beets in medium mixing bowl.



    2. Drizzle beets with olive oil and sprinkle sparingly with balsamic vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss gently to coat.




    3. Sprinkle blue cheese crumbles and toasted pecans over beets; serve on lettuce leaves.




    Makes about 4 servings.

    Recipe Notes:

    • Feel free to substitute crumbled goat cheese for the blue cheese. If you do, you might want to add 1/2 teaspoon orange zest along with the salt and pepper. Beets and goat cheese match very nicely with orange.

    • Don't toss the salad once you add the cheese ~ if you do, you'll end up with bright pink cheese crumbles. On the other hand, if you plan on consuming the entire bowl of salad by yourself and like a really integrated salad, go right ahead. (I'm not ashamed to admit that I went down this particular path. Okay, a little ashamed.)

    Sunday, November 23, 2008

    November 23: I'm Thankful For . . .

    Potted herbs.

    There is something special about being able to snip some fresh parsley or thyme from a potted herb plant on your windowsill when just beyond the glass it's gray and freezing. Winter soups and stews are so much better for it. I'm especially glad that my rosemary plant is thriving and, so far, there's no powdery mildew in sight.

    What are you thankful for today?

    Saturday, November 22, 2008

    November 22: I'm Thankful For . . .

    Evergreens.

    Driving my son to wrestling practice early this morning, there were so few cars on the road, I had a chance to take a good look around while I drove. It was sunny and freezing and windy, and leaves were lining the road in deep drifts. For the first time, I really noticed how many of the trees were completely bare. Suddenly I was struck by how depressing our landscape would look if all our trees and shrubs were deciduous.

    I'm thankful for evergreen trees and bushes, which continue to add color to a season that would be very dreary without it.

    What are you thankful for today?

    Friday, November 21, 2008

    November 21: I'm Thankful For:

    Thanksgiving.

    I love this holiday. We get to focus on the festivities without feeling guilty about missing "the bigger picture." To me, the festivities are the big picture - the foods we eat, the company we keep, the preparations to honor both. We're thankful for this bounty on our table, these guests around it. And leftovers to look forward to don't hurt!

    And Thanksgiving does not have to mean excess. It doesn't have to mean driving yourself crazy making 10 side dishes and 6 kinds of pie. In fact, in a way, I think that kind of perverts the spirit of the holiday. I believe Thanksgiving should be a time of deliberate consciousness - of being aware of all our blessings, whatever they may be. And gnashing your teeth over preparations for a 12-course dinner that leaves you and your guests lying on the floor in a pie coma is not exactly conducive to that.

    Eat turkey or tofu, have sweet potatoes and stuffing, indulge in pie, watch the parade, go for a walk ~ and enjoy it all. But remember that the simpler you make it, the easier it will be to focus on exactly what you have to be grateful for.

    I'm writing this down so I can remind myself when it's time to start cooking.

    What are you thankful for today?

    Thursday, November 20, 2008

    Multigrain Pecan Pumpkin Pancakes


    These are lightly sweetened, mildly spiced, and full of the warm flavors of autumn. With the addition of pecans, whole wheat flour, wheat germ, and oats, they're substantial enough to stick with you through lunchtime, and they're superstars at breakfast-for-dinner night. The best part? Even whole-wheat haters tend to like these. The mellow sweetness of the pumpkin and spices is a terrific camouflage.



    The addition of vinegar may seem strange, but don't skip it ~ you won't taste it in the pancakes and it makes them unbelievably fluffy and light, especially for multigrain pancakes with pumpkin puree in them. If you don't have cider vinegar, you can use plain white vinegar.



    I like to serve these with warm cinnamon-spiked applesauce and maple syrup, but I have a hunch they'd also be good with warm apple butter or a good slathering of honey butter. I hope you enjoy these as much as we do!


    Multigrain Pecan Pumpkin Pancakes


    • 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
    • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
    • 1/4 cup quick-cooking oats (not instant)
    • 1/4 cup wheat germ
    • 1/4 cup brown sugar
    • 2 teaspoons baking powder
    • 1 teaspoon baking soda
    • 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 1 1/2 cups milk (skim okay)
    • 1 cup pumpkin puree
    • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
    • 2 eggs
    • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
    • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

    1. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together flours, oats, wheat germ, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, spice, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together milk, pumpkin puree, pecans, eggs, oil, and vinegar. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir just until all the dry ingredients are incorporated.

    2. Heat an electric skillet to 300 degrees F. Spray with nonstick cooking spray. Using a 1/4-cup-size ice cream scoop or a 1/4-cup measure, scoop batter onto electric skillet. If desired, smooth with the back of a spoon to flatten a bit.

    3. Turn when the bottoms are golden brown and cook the other side. Keep warm in a 170 degree F oven until all pancakes are cooked. Serve with applesauce and maple syrup if desired.

    Printable view

    November 20: I'm Thankful For . . .

    Scotch tape.

    Strapping tape, masking tape, duct tape, too. And safety pins. Paper clips, staples, binder clips, paper fasteners. And glue! I love the Double-Stick Adhesive made by Duck. Super Glue, Elmer's, craft glue. And, I'm going to make the acquaintance of Mighty Putty in the very near future.

    Things are always falling apart; I'm thankful for stuff that helps hold them together.

    What are you thankful for today?

    Wednesday, November 19, 2008

    Tuesday, November 18, 2008

    November 18: I'm Thankful For . . .

    Spoons.

    Where on earth would we be without them? Think about that for a second. Okay, let's expand that to all cutlery. And serving utensils too. (Ladles! Salad tongs! Paring knives!) And my beloved collection of all-purpose ice-cream scoops. I'm grateful that we don't have to eat with our hands! (Not to mention scoop ice cream or stir spaghetti sauce.)

    What are you thankful for today?

    TWD: Arborio Rice Pudding


    I went through my whole childhood hating rice pudding. Or thinking I hated it. I don't believe I ever actually tried rice pudding ~ I think I was just prejudiced against it based on a negative tapioca incident that took place in my grade-school cafeteria. Once I started making my own rice pudding, my eyes were opened to the sheer deliciousness of it, and now it's up there among my favorite desserts.

    My rice pudding recipe of choice is a couple-of-times-a-year dessert because I make it with (brace yourself) light cream instead of milk. Sometimes I make it with half-and-half or half light cream and half whole milk, but it is terribly, wonderfully indulgent.

    For this week's installment of TWD, however, I ran amok with Dorie's recipe. Not because I had a quibble with any part of it, but simply because it's been a while since I last went grocery shopping, and I'm down a few key items. Like whole milk, and arborio rice. Rather than run to the grocery store, I decided to improvise.

    I used skim milk, then stirred in a tablespoon of butter along with the vanilla to enrich it a bit. I added a tablespoon of brown sugar to give the rice pudding a hint of caramel flavor. I added 1/2 teaspoon of good-quality cinnamon. And I replaced the arborio with medium-grain white rice, which got a little softer than I typically like but did a fine-enough job as a last-minute stand-in.

    Ultimately, the rice pudding is pretty yummy. It is quite loose and not rich, but that's to be expected since I used skim milk. To bulk it up a bit, I could have stirred in a beaten egg or not rinsed the rice. That said, the rice pudding isn't really thin, either. It's just "light."

    The flavor is fantastic ~ the simple addition of a bit of brown sugar and cinnamon transports this! Other flavorings you could add are cardamom, apple pie spice, or orange zest.

    I'm going to surprise my kids by letting them have this for breakfast tomorrow. Really, it's not too much different nutritionally from any other non-whole-grain cereal (it has more protein that many), and it'll score some major points. We do breakfast for dinner all the time, but dessert for breakfast? Score.

    If you want to make this yourself, the recipe can be found on pages 412 and 413 of Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours. Merci, Isabelle, of Les gourmandises d'Isa, for choosing this recipe! Be sure to stop by the TWD blogroll to see what everyone else has cooked up!

    Monday, November 17, 2008

    A Baker Goes to Boot Camp: Part 1



    The Culinary Institute of America needs no introduction. Append the words "CIA trained" to anyone in the food universe, and there's an almost universal recognition of what dues were paid to earn that cred. The CIA has been a part of my personal world forever. I live less than an hour from its Hyde Park location, have eaten at a couple of its restaurants, have gazed wistfully at it a thousand times as I drove by, imagining what might have been had I chosen a different collegiate path. In my family of food people, the CIA is regarded with somewhat mythical status. It is the Harvard of culinary education, a monument to gastronomic artistry.



    So, when I recently was given the opportunity to attend a Food Enthusiast's Boot Camp at the CIA, I felt extraordinarily fortunate. Narrowing down the selection wasn't easy ~ but ultimately I chose the Hearth Breads Boot Camp. My yeast bread experience was a little spotty, and I felt that learning from a professional would help me to get a better feel for the techniques. Here was an opportunity to learn how to produce an authentic hearth bread. You know the kind ~ a crackly crust encasing a dense, chewy crumb, the sort of bread that is currently more expensive per pound than roast beef. And then I wanted to be able to come home and make breads like this again ~ and again and again ~ in my own kitchen.


    I wasn't sure what my expectations about the Hearth Breads Boot Camp should be. I already knew my biga from my poolish; could tell when a gluten membrane is properly developed; knew what a lame is and what to do with it. But there were lots of things I needed to know. How to wrangle a ciabatta dough. How to braid a challah. How ~ and what ~ to feed a sourdough starter. I was feeling a curious mix of competence and insecurity as the date approached. But mostly, I was gripped with an anticipatory curiosity that is a prerequisite of learning. In short, I was excited and a little nervous and really looking forward to class.


    On the big day, it was cold and drizzling when I arrived at the school, about 15 minutes early, at 7:30. I decided to take a few pictures and explore a little. I'd been on campus before, so I was familiar with the layout, and this time, I was able to take in the micro-details. Details like the gorgeous planters filled with fall flowers and pumpkins, each one arranged differently.

    There is a proliferation of pineapples at the CIA~ in the garden statuary, in the stained glass over the front door, in the pattern of the vestibule carpet. The pineapple being, of course, the symbol of hospitality.


    And once Boot Camp officially began at 7:50, it was easy to see why this particular emblem is so accurate a motif. I gathered with the other Boot Camp participants in the lovely Farquharson Hall for a seriously welcoming buffet breakfast, featuring everything from fresh fruit salad with creme fraiche to spectacular French toast. Fortified thusly, we were summoned by our individual instructors from the back of the hall. Walking briskly, we were shepherded through halls of wood and brick relieved by enormous windows into working kitchens, already alight with activity.


    Farquharson Hall

    Once in the kitchen, we took a spot at the U-shaped baker's bench, where we were issued an apron, a toque, and a side towel. As we geared up, our instructor, Chef Eric Kastel, certified master baker and Associate Professor in Baking and Pastry Arts at the CIA, ran down the finer points of hand washing, safety, and bench keeping. And then, the schedule. Boot Camp, as it turns out, is aptly named.

    Once properly attired and divested of our jewelry and germs, we dove right into our first preparation, an individual loaf of artisan sourdough that we would keep returning to every half hour, folding the dough to develop its gluten structure. Measured out for us were the ingredients, and it fell to us to mix them. Interestingly, all mixing (except for the extremely dense rye) was done by hand, literally ~ there was not a wooden spoon in sight. We mixed flours, salt, malt, water, and starter and watched it come together into a cohesive ball of dough ~ for a few in the class, their very first loaf of bread.

    From 9:00 am to 3:00 pm, we mixed, kneaded, folded, floured, oiled, rolled, and otherwise manipulated dough for 8 different breads: the sourdough, multigrain seeded rye, two types of baguette, ciabatta, challah, flatbreads, focaccia, and pizza.

    Making Pizza

    It's a demanding day, but it's rewarding rather than grueling. Chef Kastel was friendly, extremely approachable, and very accessible. He answered question after question with good humor and patience and offered help calmly and supportively. He did a spectacular job of explaining things clearly, as many times as necessary, and was generous with hands-on help and constructive feedback.

    Chef Kastel Forms a Ball of Rye Dough

    If you're not used to being on your feet for hours at a time, it's physically draining. And there was so much to do! The sourdough required our ministrations every half hour, the ciabatta needed folding, the focaccia needed dimpling and oiling. We stopped only briefly for a restorative midmorning snack of bread, cheese, and fruit, which energized us long enough to get everything into the proofer and ready for the oven before we headed over to St. Andrew's Cafe. There, we enjoyed a full hot buffet for lunch, which included our own pizzas. Afterward, we headed back to the kitchen for bench scrubbing, tasting, and packing up.


    When we walked out of the kitchen classroom at the end of the Hearth Breads session, each one of us carried paper bags full of the bread we'd baked, two plastic tubs containing sourdough starter, a guide book filled with detailed notes on all the techniques and recipes we'd covered, our aprons, and our toques. I, for one, was exhausted ~ boot camp kicked my butt. We'd baked an entire bakery's worth of bread. We'd learned about lean dough and enriched dough, about folding versus kneading, about oiling and flouring and dusting, about pre-ferments and sours. And we'd eaten pretty darn well.

    The Ovens


    Now we headed off, but not for home. Part two of the boot camp experience is the afternoon lecture, a elective course that runs from 3:15 to 4:30. Mine? "Food Affinities" with Chef David Kamen, in which I learned about the alchemy that takes place when certain foods come together. But that's a story for another day.

    Stay tuned for A Baker Goes to Boot Camp: Part 2, in which we meet the individual breads and I test-drive my newly acquired skills at home; and Part 3, in which we explore Food Affinities and learn to push the epicurean envelope from a rat with precocious tastebuds.


    ~Thank you to the CIA, Jay Blotcher, and Chefs Eric Kastel and David Kamen for making me feel so welcome. And thank you to Chef Eric's assistants, Lindsay, Lauren, and Lisa, for washing all those proofing bowls and working the peels ~ you make it look so easy.

    November 17: I'm Thankful For . . .

    People who are really good at their jobs.

    People who consistently do their best work, who take the extra step to make sure any given task is done well and thoroughly, who take obvious pride in their work, whatever it may be. Conscientiousness is a precious quality ~ I'm thankful for it!

    What are you thankful for today?

    Sunday, November 16, 2008

    November 16: I'm Thankful For . . .

    My washer and dryer.

    When I was a teenager, my family vacationed in a picturesque villa in a small town on the Spanish Riviera. Glamorous, right? Well. Lest you think this was as highbrow as it sounds, I would add that the town was so small and its cobbled streets so narrow that vehicular transports (even our miniature rental Peugeot) had to park on the winding road leading up to the village. From there, it was proceed on foot or donkey.

    Nestled above a grove of olive trees, with a view of the Mediterranean off in the distance, this villa was, looking back, pretty amazing, but to my teenage sensibilities, it was sorely and unforgivably lacking in the chiefest of amenities. Television? No. Telephone to call friends stateside? No. Microwave? No. (Forget about wireless Internet access - home computers were still a thing of the future, as were DVDs, CDs, cell phones, and iPods. It was the 80s!) As far as my parents were concerned, all of this was wonderful. And, I suspect, deliberate.

    But there was one thing that I'm fairly certain even my mother ~ Mrs. Stop-Complaining-About-the-Ice-Cold-Showers-and-Weird-Old-Guy-Who-Keeps-Riding-His-Donkey-Back-and-Forth-in-Front-of-the-Villa-This-Is-So-Charming-and-Rustic! ~ missed, was the inalienable right to do one's laundry by machine. Not only did the villa not have a set of laundry machines, but the entire village was lacking them. Instead, there was a communal clothes-washing depot, where ~ I kid you not ~ rainwater and stream overflow were captured in stone basins with carved washboard panels. To do laundry, one dumped in one's garments, lathered them up with a bar of laundry soap, and rubbed them vigorously against this rock panel. The water from the stream moved continuously through the basins, providing clean rinse water. Voila! Clean laundry!

    But . . . not so much. Because in the stream, it was tadpole season. Consequently, the wash basins were full of tiny squirming black tadpoles. Guess what happened when you made like Pioneer Patty and scrubbed your Duran Duran T-shirt against that stone washboard? Polka dots. Our clean laundry was now dotted with black smudges of embryonic wildlife. Rustic!

    So now, in spite of the fact that I complain about the 82 loads of laundry I do each week, I am grateful each time I open the lid of the washing machine, pour in the detergent, and follow it with the clothes. I close the lid, turn on the machine, and walk away. Back in the laundry room, a mechanical machine is cleaning the laundry for me, and I can say, with complete confidence, that not a single tadpole will be harmed in the washing of my daughter's Jonas Brothers T-shirt.

    Saturday, November 15, 2008

    November 15: I'm Thankful For . . .

    Melting Pot Food.

    Cannolis. Saag paneer. Pad Thai. Pizza. We can eat food from around the world without ever leaving our kitchen, sampling the dishes of a different ethnic group every night. When you can purchase what were only recently considered obscure imported ingredients - fresh pepinos, anyone? - at the local grocery store, that's something to be thankful for!

    What are you thankful for today?

    November 14: I'm Thankful For . . .

    Cell Phones.

    I know, they're a blessing and a curse, but I'm only counting my blessings here! What I appreciate most about cell phones is the knowledge that my kids can get in touch with me if they need me, wherever I am.

    By the same token, if I need them ~ or need to know where they are ~ I can get in touch with them.

    And if you've ever broken down without a cell phone in the car, as I have . . . on more than one occasion . . . you'll know exactly how I feel when I express my gratitude for that little phone in my purse.

    In the spirit of thanks-giving, we'll just ignore those people who talk boorishly on their phone at the table next to us while dining out . . . who do not turn off the ringer in the movies or at church . . . warranty phone spam. :)

    What are you thankful for today?

    Thursday, November 13, 2008

    November 13: I'm Thankful For . . .

    Vanilla Ice Cream!

    What are you thankful for today?

    Apple-Cranberry Pie with Oatmeal-Pecan Crumble

    This is the third incarnation of my Apple-Cranberry Pie, with the same apples, same basic crumble, but a different crust. The crust here, an all-butter version, is from Cindy Mushet's terrific Art & Soul of Baking.



    For the apples in this version of the pie-in-progress, I used a mixture of sweet and tart baking apples. There are so many varieties of apples to choose from, and everyone has their favorites. I like to mix and match apples according to sweetness and texture. I choose some that are tart, some that are sweet; some that hold their shape well after baking, some that break down to fill in the gaps. You can use whatever is available to you. Some of my favorites:



    • Cameo

    • Stayman-Winesap

    • Golden Delicious

    • Granny Smith

    • Cortland

    • Empire

    • McIntosh

    • Fuji

    With Thanksgiving nearly upon us, pie has been on my mind a lot. In my family, I'm the designated Thanksgiving pie baker, and for our dinners (we have 2), I bake at least 8. For years, I've used the same recipe, given to me over a decade ago by a college roommate. It's a good, serviceable recipe made with cold water and shortening. It holds together well and doesn't distingrate overnight in the fridge, even under juicy fruit pies. But in the flavor department, it's a bit bland.


    So lately, I've been experimenting with different types of crust ~ all vegetable shortening with added flavoring agents like sugar and spices, recipes that use part shortening and part butter, and crusts made with all butter and no shortening.


    All the crusts I attempted turned out well texture-wise. If you pay attention to a few basics of technique, you can achieve a really good texture using just shortening. However, it's not too tough to imagine that the all-butter crust won the day as far as flavor is concerned. Really, it's head and shoulders above the all-shortening version, and if you're willing to put in the little bit of extra effort required to work with an all-butter pastry, I think it's worth choosing over the butter plus shortening version.


    Butter has a lower melting temperature than shortening does, so if you're new to pie crust or your kitchen is really, really warm, you may want to work with a blend of shortening and butter. If you decide to make an all-butter crust, please don't ignore the recipe instructions that suggest freezing the butter and using very cold water to make the dough. Also, be sure to allow for plenty of chilling time between mixing the dough and rolling it out.


    Why chill the dough for 30 minutes? This has two effects. First, it firms up the butter in the dough, making the pastry easier to work with and less likely to fall apart in the oven. Second, it gives the butter a chance to permeate and lubricate the flour particles. Ever drop a potato chip or a cookie crumb on a piece of paper and come back to find it's made a grease spot the size of a quarter? A similar effect is taking place here. The butter is essentially moisturizing the flour and making the dough more supple. Don't skip this - it'll be worth it later in frustration saved when you reach the rolling-out stage.


    Apple-Cranberry Pie with Oatmeal-Pecan Crumble


    For the crust (adapted from The Art and Soul of Baking, pages 177~178)*:


    • 1 stick (4 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
    • 3 to 4 tablespoons cold water
    • 1¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
    • 1½ teaspoons sugar (omit for a savory crust)
    • ¼ teaspoon salt

    For the Filling:

    • 6 large baking apples (about 7 cups sliced)
    • 1/4 cup brown sugar (more to taste if your apples are really tart)
    • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    • 3 tablespoons flour
    • 1/3 cup dried sweetened cranberries

    For the Crumble:

    • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick, or 4 tablespoons) butter at room temperature
    • 1/2 cup oats (rolled or quick cooking; not instant)
    • 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
    • 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    • 1/2 cup broken pecan halves


    1. Freeze the butter pieces for at least 20 minutes. Refrigerate the water until ready to use.

    2. Mix the dough: Place the dry ingredients in the bowl of the food processor. Process briefly to blend. Add butter pieces and pulse in 1-second bursts until the butter and flour mixture looks like crushed crackers and peas.

    3. Place butter-flour mixture in large bowl. Sprinkle a tablespoon of cold water over the mixture and “fluff” it with a fork, then add additional 2 or 3 tablespoons, one at a time. Continue to fluff and stir 10 or 12 times. It will not be a cohesive dough at this point but a bowl of shaggy crumbs and clumps of dough. Test it for the correct moisture content. Take a handful of the mixture and squeeze firmly. If the clump falls apart and looks dry, push large, moist clumps to the side of the bowl and add more water, one teaspoon at a time, sprinkling it over the dryest part of the mixture; immediately stir or mix it in. Test again before adding any more water. Repeat, if needed. The dough is done when most of it holds together. If it feels very soft at this stage, refrigerate before continuing. If it feels cold and firm, continue to the next step.



    4. Turn the dough onto a work surface and knead gently 3 to 6 times. If it won’t come together and looks very dry, return it to the bowl and add another teaspoon or two of water (one at a time), mixing in as above, and try again. Flatten the dough into a 6- or 7-inch disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 30 minutes. This allows time for the dough to hydrate fully and for the butter to firm up again. At this point, the dough can be refrigerated for up to 2 days, or double-wrapped in plastic and frozen for up to 1 month in a freezer bag.


    5. If the dough has been refrigerated for more than 30 minutes, it may be very firm and will crack if you try to roll it. Let it sit on the counter for 10 to 15 minutes. Dust your work surface and the top of the dough generously with flour. Roll, turning the dough, until you’ve got a 14- to 15-inch circle about 1/8 inch thick.
    6. Place the dough carefully into the pan, lifting it slightly to ease it into the crevices of the pan. Do not stretch or pull the dough, which can cause breakage or shrinkage during baking.
    7. Trim the dough using a pair of kitchen scissors so it overhangs the edge of the pan by 1 inch. Fold the overhanging dough under itself around the pan edge, then crimp or form a decorative border. Chill for 30 minutes before baking.
    8. While crust is chilling, preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Place apple slices in a mixing bowl and sprinkle with sugar, cinnamon, and flour. Toss to coat apple slices evenly. Scatter cranberries over apples and toss again.
    9. In a separate mixing bowl, cut butter into oats, brown sugar, flour, and cinnamon until the mixture is well mixed and no dry flour remains. Mix in pecans.
    10. Arrange apple-cranberry mixture in prepared pie crust. Scatter crumb topping over the filling, making an effort to cover all the apples. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, then lower heat to 350 degrees and continue to bake.

    11. If the crumb/nut topping is browning too quickly, lay a piece of aluminum foil loosely over the surface of the pie. Bake at 350 for 30 to 40 minutes, until crust is golden brown and you can see fruit juices bubbling up around the edges. To test for doneness, insert a paring knife into the center of the pie. It should meet with only slight resistance as it passes through the fruit. Length of baking time will depend on how thick you cut your apples.
    12. Remove from oven and let stand for at least 20 minutes before cutting. Service with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream as desired.

    Recipe Notes:


    • Don't be intimidated by the idea of making a pie crust. Even if every crust you've made in the past has had the approximate character of linoleum, with a little attention to your technique, you can produce a flaky, delicious crust.
    • Regarding pie pans: My favorite pie pans are my 9" Pyrex dishes. I have all kinds of pans for pie, from the standard Baker's Secret variety to 50-year-old bakery tins with perforations punched through the bottom, and my favorites are still the Pyrex. First off, I can see how the crust is coming along. Sometimes the top crust browns quickly but the bottom crust is still pale and flabby. There's no hiding a pale, flabby bottom in a Pyrex pan! Just be sure to get the clear, colorless ones.
    • If you don't have a food processor, you can use a pastry blender. It takes a bit of elbow grease to work the frozen butter in, but it will come out just fine. If you don't have a pastry blender, I suggest you get one! But in the meantime, you can use two knives (in a crosswise scissoring motion) or a fork or even your fingertips. If you use the latter, you'll have to refrigerate the crumbs after this stage.
    • Don't work the butter all the way into the flour to form uniformly small crumbs. You want some larger pieces to remain, "crackers and peas" as Mushet says. This allows the larger pieces of butter to melt down while baking, creating pockets in the pastry that achieve the flaky outcome that is so desirable.
    • The recipe calls for very cold water. I use ice water. I put a few ice cubes in a measuring cup and top it off with water. Then I use a tablespoon to measure the water out of there.
    • You don't need to glaze your crust, especially with an all-butter crust. However, if you wish, you can brush your crust with a bit of milk, cream, or beaten egg and sprinkle with turbinado or other coarse sugar.


    *You can find Cindy Mushet's complete commentary on ~ as well as the full recipe for her Flaky Pie Dough ~ here. Above is my shortened version, adapted from her wonderful book, The Art and Soul of Baking.

    **If the oatmeal-pecan crumble and apple-cranberry filling sound familiar, it's because they are!Both made an earlier appearance as Brown Sugar Apple-Cranberry Crisp. The ingredients are modified a little to accommodate the pie pan vs. casserole dish swap, but overall, the recipes are quite similar. Craving apple pie and don't have time for a crust? Make the crisp!

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