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Avocado and Sardine Toasts and a giveaway

OK, now for those of you who say you don’t like canned sardines, don’t tune me out yet. Because maybe you’ve never eaten canned sardines as good as these. They’re called pilchards in England (just another name for a large sardine) and come from the Cornwall region.  These, from The Pilchard Works, are caught off the shores of Cornwall and are hand-packed and canned in the traditional way in partnership with the oldest sardine cannery in Brittany, France. The lids of the tins are works of art, with reproductions of paintings by Newlyn School painters, Walter Langley and Frank Bramley.

I brought some home with me from my trip to Cornwall last fall, and was surprised at how much better they were than the ones I buy in the supermarkets here. So much so, that I asked my ex-pat daughter to bring some tins for me on her recent business trip from London to New York.

I am a big fan of fresh sardines and anchovies but it’s not easy to find them fresh here in the states. Canned sardines were always in our pantry when I was growing up and my 96 year-old father, who is still in good health, eats them in sandwiches regularly.

Not only do they taste delicious, they’re one of the healthiest foods you can eat. They’re packed with nutrients that are good for you, including vitamin D, B12 and protein. They also contain one of the highest concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids, and they help lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

I’m hoping that those of you who have turned up your nose at eating sardines in the past will give these a try. All you have to do to receive a tin of these from me, is to leave a comment stating why you like sardines and how you eat them. If you don’t like them (maybe especially if you don’t like them),  I’ll send you a tin too, because I’d really love to convert you to becoming a sardine aficionado.  Just leave a way for me to contact you.

This recipe from Paula Wolfert, really is a delicious blending of flavors that I would never have thought to put together, but I will be making again and again. Even my husband, who rarely eats either avocado or canned sardines, raved about the combination. I hope you’ll try it too.

Avocado and Sardine Toasts
 
Author:
 
From the Book "Unforgettable" by Emily Kaiser Thelin
Ingredients
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 T. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 scant tablespoon sherry vinegar
  • sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
  • pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 2 (4½ ounce) cans whole sardines (I used one can)
  • 1 large firm, ripe Hass avocado
  • 4 to 6 thin slices country-style bread (I used 3 slices)
  • 4 green onions (I used one), white and green parts, cut into very thin slices
  • fresh chives, snipped
Instructions
  1. In a shallow bowl, whisk together the olive oil, parsley and vinegar.
  2. Season with salt and black pepper and red pepper flakes, if using.
  3. Divide the sardines into fillets and discard any bones.
  4. Add the sardines to the vinaigrette and marinate at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours.
  5. Cut the avocado in half and peel away the skin.
  6. Put it on a cutting board and cut the avocado into thin slices.
  7. Toast or grill the bread.
  8. Lightly brush the top side of each toast with the vinaigrette.
  9. Divide the avocado slices among the toasts, top with a portion of the sardines, and scatter green onions and chives on top.
  10. Serve at once.
 

Chocolate Salami

Looking for an easy treat for Valentine’s Day? You’ve got plenty of time to make this chocolate “salami” that requires no cooking, and comes together lickety-split, using ingredients you may already have in the house. I used amaretti cookies to simulate the bits of fat running through a real salami, but you could use graham crackers, digestive biscuits or even chocolate chip cookies.

Crumple them up and mix them in a bowl with nuts and dried fruit of your choice. I used pistachios, hazelnuts and dried cherries and it was a winning combination. But if you like almonds or walnuts instead, or dried cranberries or dried apricots, those would be delicious too.

Melt some chocolate. You could use milk chocolate, but I prefer dark chocolate and used Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate. If you want to spring for a more expensive chocolate, go for it, but Hershey’s Special Dark won a blind taste test on America’s Test Kitchen years ago and I’ve been using it since then for nearly all my recipes requiring dark chocolate. It costs a lot less than the specialty brands, so that’s a nice plus too. Mix the melted chocolate with all the above ingredients and add some liqueur. It’s not strictly necessary, but it does add another layer of flavor.

Some recipes for chocolate salami ask you to add raw eggs, but I thought I’d try it without, since so many people have health concerns about using raw eggs in recipes. The risk is miniscule, but still, why take any risk, I thought.

Next, dish out the chocolate into a log shape. It will be too soft to shape at this point, so put it in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes, or until it firms.

Once firm, roll it into a log shape to make it more “solid.”

Then roll into confectioner’s sugar to simulate the white “bloom” that appears on aged salami.

If you have some butcher’s string, tie it across the chocolate salami to mimic a real salami.

Slice it and watch the surprise when people realize it’s not really cured meat, but a delightful chocolate treat. Happy Valentine’s Day.

 

Chocolate Salami
 
 
Ingredients
  • 12 oz. chocolate, melted (I used Hershey's Special Dark)
  • 1 stick (8 ounces) butter
  • ½ cup crumpled amaretti cookies (or graham crackers or "digestive" biscuits)
  • ½ cup pistachios
  • ½ cup hazelnuts, roughly chopped (or other nuts you prefer
  • ¼ cup dried cherries
  • 1 T. Cherry Marnier (or any liqueur you like)
  • powdered sugar for exterior
  • twine (optional)
Instructions
  1. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler.
  2. When it is nearly melted, add the butter in pieces and melt it.
  3. Chop the amaretti cookies and nuts (I left the pistachios whole) and put in a bowl with the cherries.
  4. Pour the melted chocolate over the nuts and cookies and add the liqueur.
  5. Place the bowl in the refrigerator for about 15-20 minutes until it firms up, but keep checking because you don't want it so firm that it's too hard to roll.
  6. Dish out the chocolate onto a piece of plastic or waxed paper.
  7. Roll into a log and place it back in the refrigerator until very firm, maybe an hour or so.
  8. When it's firm, sprinkle powdered sugar all over.
  9. Tie up with butcher's string if desired, and slice to serve.
 

Blue by Eric Ripert

Dear Mr. Ripert – How in the world do you do it? Your three-star Michelin restaurant in New York City – Le Bernardin – captivated me years ago from the first sip of champagne. But I didn’t expect to be equally enchanted thousands of miles away in the Cayman Islands on my visit to Blue, your restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

 However, I had a suspicion that something great was afoot when we stopped for drinks at the bar one night. The piña loca tipped me off. I mean, I knew we were in for a treat just from watching your bartender shake the drinks at the bar and deliver them in those beautiful glasses. It didn’t hurt that the charred pineapple juice and agave were mixed with cachaça.  (In case you’re taking notes, Mr. Ripert, a caipirinha – also made with that Brazilian spirit – is my favorite cocktail, although a Hendricks gin and tonic is a close second. But I digress, sorry). Anyway, we may have been tipped off by the drinks, but when we tasted the complimentary salmon rillette, it just heightened our eagerness to come back the following night for a full meal. I loved how your chef combines smoked salmon with poached fresh salmon and shallots in white wine and other ingredients. Those little toasts were the perfect transport for this delicious snack and a great way to get our evening started. I hope you don’t mind my sharing that recipe at the end of this letter.

So there we were, the next night at 6:30. Unfashionably early, I agree, but hey, we couldn’t wait much longer to savor the full menu. I loved the understated, yet elegant decor, and the wall art, designed by British artist Grahame Menage to represent the outlines of the Cayman Islands and other Caribbean nations. Oh, and please thank your lovely manager Christina who seated us at a quiet table with ample light — all the better for taking photos. Is she just naturally engaging and helpful, or do you instruct all your staff to be so kind? Because without being intrusive, everyone couldn’t have been nicer.

I was so eager to get started, I got fidgety waiting for the first course, although my husband Ron told me to cool my jets and be patient. He was so right. Patience was rewarded not long afterwards, when the chef,  Thomas Seifried, sent out this amuse bouche, including a taste of that now-familiar salmon rillette — it’s that dab in the middle cushioned by small round crackers, but you already knew that. Well, thanks for reminding me how much I loved it the night before. The little sample of raw snapper with a petite potato chip on top and surrounded by avocado cream and citrus vinaigrette was a lovely tease for the palate too, but can I just wax rhapsodic about that soup in the little cup on the left? Just know that I would happily drown in that luscious concoction – made with sunchokes, brown butter and croutons. We were both wishing for a lifetime supply of that soup (Sunchokes aren’t really a staple in our pantry, but if you sent me that recipe, I would search them out).

But we knew there was plenty more to come, beginning with the “almost raw” section of the menu. My husband chose the conch dish, tender slivers of the locally caught seafood, sprinkled with bits of puffed quinoa, basil aioli and espelette pepper.  The ponzu sauce added just the right acidity, with its flavors of rice vinegar, soy sauce and yuzu (I admit I had to look up ponzu sauce, but I first learned about yuzu – an Asian citrus  – at Le Bernardin years ago).

I opted for the snapper trio – served with slices of king crab and dollops of wasabi and avocado cream, and bathed in a seafood emulsion. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help myself. I had to do what we Italians call “la scarpetta,” swooshing my bread through the sauce to savor every last drop. At least I didn’t lick the plate — well, not yet at least.

Speaking of bread, I didn’t want to make a pig of myself and choose all four offerings, so I stuck to the sourdough.  I’m coming back for the others on my next visit though.

Next came the “barely touched” portion of the menu, and I’m sure you don’t know this, but when it comes to octopus on a menu, I’m a real sucker  – no pun intended (well, maybe yes it was). I have to say that I’ve eaten lots of grilled octopus in my life, but never served with a creamy chorizo emulsion. Who thinks up these unusual flavor combinations? The smoky flavor of the sauce was the perfect partner for the “meaty” chunks of octopus.  If only I had the recipe, I might rethink my Christmas eve octopus salad in favor of this.

Let me also take this opportunity, Mr. Ripert, to give a shout-out to ViJay, our server for the night, who also recommended excellent wines to pair with each course. I am usually cautious in choosing red wines to drink with fish, but ViJay suggested the perfect accompaniment each time, whether red or white. Just one example of the night’s sampling included a smooth, vibrant Portuguese red wine from the Douro Valley that cut through the richness of the octopus and the sauce.

And like me with octopus, when my husband sees pasta on a menu, he’s gonna go for it. I think he went a little weak in the knees when this appeared at the table – a tangle of fettuccine enrobed in a truffle sauce containing king crab and lobster, topped with a healthy portion of sliced truffles. Can you say ecstasy? He would have, if he could have stopped long enough to speak. Me? I was speechless too, once he let me have a taste.

Just when you think you’ve had enough truffles, (Forget I said that. You can never have enough truffles, can you?) your chef sends this voluptuous dish compliments of the kitchen – Danish langoustine atop Iberico ham, crème fraîche, a balsamic-mushroom vinaigrette and more shaved truffles. If I’d known this was coming, I might not have ordered the lobster from the next portion of the menu – the “lightly cooked” section.

Just kidding. I wouldn’t have wanted to forgo this delectable dish of butter poached lobster served with edamame beans in a fragrant lobster-ginger consomme. And how clever to include that wonton stuffed with a mousse of halibut, lobster claw and shrimp.  It was a real treat for all the senses. By the way, I forgot to mention that I love the Limoges Bernardaud porcelain plates you use in your restaurants. The white on white recessed dots are subtle yet distinctive, without stealing the show from the food.

This dish my husband chose for the main course, Mr. Ripert, might just be the “sleeper” on the menu. It doesn’t have the sexy visual appeal of some the other dishes (don’t be offended – it is mostly brown after all, except for the bits of friseé) but wow, what a fabulous flavor – not just from the delicate fish, but from that nutty brown butter sauce infused with tamarind.  Look away while I do that scarpetta thing again.

Big decisions were ahead for dessert. Even though only four offerings are listed, aside from ice cream and sorbet, it was difficult to choose. My husband selected the “Mont Blanc”  – a heavenly whipped chestnut cream spiral with rum-candied chestnuts, studded with gold leaf, and served with a quenelle of ice cream. OK, I’ll stop drooling now.

I was having a tough time. Should I order the coconut dessert, served with passion fruit and pineapple? Or should I order the babà, the Neapolitan treat I love? I decided on the coconut, and it arrived looking like a modern sculpture. Don’t get me wrong, I ate almost the whole thing, but it was encased in white chocolate, and I should have mentioned, I’m a dark chocolate lover. When Christina stopped by to ask about our desserts, she admitted that the babà was her favorite. Darn, I said. I knew I should have ordered that!Well, that’s all she needed to hear. She hurried off to the kitchen, and returned with a gift for me — my own babà, studded with caramelized pears, Cayman honey and almond crumbs, all served with a silky sauce and yogurt ice cream. Funny how I felt stuffed after all the courses and the first dessert, but the babà went down like manna from heaven. Quick, is anybody watching while I lick the plate?

Just when we thought we couldn’t eat another thing, out comes this tray of scrumptious mignardises – petite financiers, geleés, macarons and chocolates.

Thanks for such a great dinner. Sorry it took us so long to get here (considering you opened the restaurant in 2005). What a nice touch giving us that box of macarons to take home with us too.

Oh Eric, (can I call you that now that I’ve spent three hours in your restaurant?) like I said earlier, I really never expected such a Lucullan feast down here in the Cayman Islands, but Blue is every bit as wonderful as Le Bernardin, and you’ve even got that spectacular seven-mile beach outside your door. No wonder it received the five diamond award from AAA.

And as much as we love the Big Apple, the Cayman islands has won our hearts too, especially since our extraordinary meal at Blue. Hope to see you next year. And next time, I promise to keep my fingers off the plate.

Sincerely yours, Linda and Ron

Salmon Rillette
 
Author:
Serves: serves 6
 
Ingredients
  • 2 cups white wine
  • 1 tablespoon minced shallots
  • 1 pound fresh salmon fillet, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 3 ounces smoked salmon, diced
  • 2 tablespoons thinly sliced chives
  • ½ cup crème fraîche
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • fine sea salt and freshly ground white pepper
Instructions
  1. In a shallow pan, bring the white wine and shallots to a boil.
  2. When the shallots are cooked, add the salmon and gently poach the salmon until it is just barely opaque.
  3. Remove the salmon from the wine and immediately drain on a towel-lined sheet pan.
  4. Strain the wine, reserving the shallots.
  5. Place the salmon and shallots in the refrigerator to cool.
  6. Combine the poached salmon and shallots in a mixing bowl with the smoked salmon, chives and some of the mayonnaise and lemon juice—use the mayonnaise and lemon juice sparingly to begin, and adjust to taste.
  7. Mix the rillette—do not over-mix or mix too hard.
  8. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  9. Serve cold with toasted baguette slices.

Orange Yogurt Loaf Cake

This recipe, from Jamie Schler’s wonderful new cookbook “Orange Appeal,” is originally made with blood oranges, but I used Cara Cara oranges instead. They’re really my favorite variety of orange, and ok, I admit it, I inadvertently bought two large bags of them, thinking one was a bag of grapefruits. So aside from eating fresh oranges a few times a day, I’ve been experimenting with lots of orange recipes.

Truth be told, the first time I made this recipe, it was a flop. Not that it wasn’t edible. It was. But it had a peculiar shape, due to pilot error. I used a loaf pan that was too small and caused the following chain of events: batter spilling over the sides of the pan, leaving a hollow down the center of the cake; crispy, burned bits on the bottom of the oven; smoke billowing into the kitchen and a loud alarm sounding throughout the house.

Still, that didn’t deter me from trying again. I could tell it was going to be a good cake. And remember I had all those oranges to use up. So this time I followed Jamie’s advice and used the proper size loaf pan – 9″ x 5″ by 2 1/2″. I also followed the recipe exactly, since the first time I added the oil to all the liquid ingredients rather than at the very end. Alright, I did forget to pour the syrup over the cake, but it was wonderful all the same, especially with the glaze over the top.

See for yourself, or rather try it for yourself. But make sure to read the directions thoroughly and follow the recipe and above all, use the right size loaf pan. Otherwise, get your oven cleaner ready.

Blood Orange Yogurt Loaf Cake
 
Author:
 
Ingredients
  • 1½ cups (7 ounces/195 g) all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (250 ml) unsweetened plain whole-milk or Greek yogurt
  • 1 cup (200 g) granulated white sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3 blood oranges, zested (I used the zest of 2 large Cara Cara oranges)
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup (125 ml) vegetable oil
  • Blood Orange Syrup:
  • ⅓ cup blood orange juice (or any orange juice)
  • 1 tablespoon granulated white sugar
  • Glaze:
  • 2 tablespoons blood orange juice
  • 1 cup (135 g) confectioners' sugar
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C). Butter a standard 9 x 5 x 2½ inch or 8 cup loaf pan, line the bottom with parchment paper, and flour the pan.
  2. Sift or whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt, and set aside.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the yogurt, sugar, eggs, zest, and vanilla until blended and smooth.
  4. Slowly whisk the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients just until combined and smooth.
  5. Fold the oil into the batter, a little at a time, until well-blended and no oil has collected around the edges of the batter.
  6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45-50 minutes, or until the center of the cake is moist, but set and a tested inserted into the cake comes out clean.
  7. Prepare the orange syrup by placing the orange juice and sugar in a small saucepan over low heat.
  8. Cook until warm and the sugar has completely dissolved and the liquid is clear. Set aside to cool slightly.
  9. When the cake is done, remove from the oven onto a cooling rack that has been placed on top of a large foil-lined baking sheet and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
  10. Carefully loosen the cake from the pan by running a knife around the edges.
  11. Turn the cake out of the pan, discard the parchment paper, and then place the cake upright on the cooling rack.
  12. While the cake is still warm, pour and brush the warm syrup all over the top, allowing it to soak the loaf and run down the sides. Allow to cool completely.
  13. Prepare the glaze by stirring the orange juice into the sugar until the sugar has dissolved and the glaze is smooth. The glaze should be thin enough to spoon or drizzle over the cake but just stiff enough that some of the glaze will cling to the sides.
 

Lemon Pasta with Roasted Broccoli

I’ll bet a lot of you are like me and decide what’s for dinner by looking in your fridge or pantry to see what’s on hand. In this case, it was a small head of broccoli and a bag of pasta that got my creative juices flowing. But it wasn’t just any pasta – it was this lemon pasta I bought at Claudio’s in Philadelphia a few months ago. I’ve used it before and it’s really as yellow as this photo and perfect for this dish. It’s available by mail order here.

And what better occasion to pick a lemon from my small lemon tree than for this recipe? This plant, which enjoys warm sunshine and moist sea air during the summer, comes indoors for the winter. I’ve had the plant for a few years and while it bore fruit last year too, I waited too long to pick it because I hated to lose the decorative look of the yellow fruit hanging from the branches. By the time I got around to plucking the lemons last year, they had dried out, a mistake I wasn’t going to make this year.

The sauce comes together quickly while the pasta is cooking, so get the broccoli into the oven and start making the sauce, sautéeing the leek and garlic, then adding wine, lemon rind and lemon juice. Add the pasta to the pan just before it gets to the al dente stage, pouring in a little of the pasta water to help it finish cooking.

When it’s al dente, add a small amount of cream and stir to meld all the flavors together. Don’t worry if the sauce is a little loose. Once you add the parmesan cheese, it will thicken a bit.

When the pasta is cooked, add the roasted broccoli, parmesan cheese and mix well. Serve in a warm bowl so the pasta doesn’t cool down too quickly.

 

Lemon Pasta with Roasted Broccoli
 
 
Ingredients
  • ½ pound pasta
  • a small head of broccoli florets, bottoms peeled
  • olive oil, salt and pepper to season the broccoli
  • 1 leek, sliced (or one large shallot)
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 1 T. butter
  • rind of half a lemon, minced
  • ½ cup white wine (or Prosecco)
  • juice of half a lemon
  • ¼ cup heavy cream
  • pasta water
  • ¼ cup parmesan cheese (or more to taste)
Instructions
  1. Roast the broccoli in a 425 degree oven, smeared with olive oil, salt and pepper, for about 15 minutes.
  2. Start the pasta to boil while you make the sauce.
  3. Saute the leek and garlic in the olive oil and butter until softened.
  4. Add the white wine and cook at high heat until reduced.
  5. Lower heat and add the juice of half a lemon (or less if using a "lemon" pasta as I did.)
  6. Cook the pasta until it has about one minute to go, leaving it "al dente" or even a little harder.
  7. Add the cooked pasta to the pot and finish cooking in the liquid, adding pasta water to continue the cooking.
  8. When the pasta is fully cooked, but still al dente, add the heavy cream, and stir in the roasted broccoli florets and parmesan cheese.
 

Upside Down Pear Walnut Cake

I know, I promised to eat fewer sweets at the start of the new year, but this has three pears sliced on top, so doesn’t that count as health food? (Don’t answer that.)

Seriously, I had to make this cake, if only because I wanted to use some of those delicious boxed pears sent to us for Christmas by our friends Jan and Dave. We still had five uneaten pears left in the box, despite having had a houseful of family and visitors over the holidays. Yes, of course we could have just eaten them raw, but when you have a husband whose idea of the perfect wedding vow includes a commitment to provide cake each night, well, you try to obey (No, neither the cake nor the obey part was part of the vows). Truth be told, I was longing to make this dessert since I saw it being whipped up on the TV program, “America’s Test Kitchen” recently. And with ample pears in the house, it was good timing.

I’ve made a lot of upside down cakes in my life, from my childhood favorite, pineapple upside down cake, to peach, to cranberry, to plum, to fig, to blood orange. 

All of them are made with a basic white or yellow cake, but this one is very different. It does use a little white flour, but it’s got one dominating ingredient that gives the cake a distinct look and flavor.

Can you guess?

Maybe now you can, after seeing this cut slice. It’s toasted walnuts, giving the cake a delicious walnut-y flavor. It’s also very moist with a delicate crumb. And it’s easy to make too – using a food processor instead of a mixer.

The only thing missing is perhaps a little whipped cream or creme fraiche.

If you want to be really wicked, maybe a scoop of ice cream. Oh what the heck, go for it. Bathing suit season doesn’t start for a while.

Upside Down Pear Walnut Cake
 
 
Ingredients
  • From Cooks Illustrated:
  • For the Topping:
  • 4 T. unsalted butter, melted
  • ½ cup (3.5 ounces) packed dark brown sugar (I used light brown sugar)
  • 2 t. cornstarch
  • ⅛ t. salt
  • 3 Bosc pears - 8 ounces each - (I used Bartlett and it worked out fine)
  • For The Cake:
  • 1 cup walnuts, toasted
  • ½ cup (2.5 ounces) all-purpose flour
  • ½ t. salt
  • ¼ t. baking powder
  • ⅛ t. baking soda
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
  • 4 T. unsalted butter, melted
  • ¼ vegetable oil
Instructions
  1. FOR THE TOPPING:
  2. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees.
  3. Grease 9-inch round cake pan and line bottom with parchment paper. (I strongly suggest using a cake pan that is 2" high, or use a springform pan. The batter is almost too much for a regular 9" cake pan.)
  4. Pour melted butter over bottom of pan and swirl to evenly coat.
  5. Combine sugar, cornstarch, and salt in small bowl and sprinkle evenly over melted butter.
  6. Peel, halve, and core pears.
  7. Set aside 1 pear half and reserve for other use.
  8. Cut remaining 5 pear halves into 4 wedges each.
  9. Arrange pears in circular pattern around cake pan with tapered ends pointing inward.
  10. Arrange two smallest pear wedges in center.
  11. For The Cake:
  12. Pulse walnuts, flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in food processor until walnuts are finely ground, 8 to 10 pulses.
  13. Transfer walnut mixture to bowl.
  14. Process eggs and sugar in now-empty processor until very pale yellow, about 2 minutes.
  15. With processor running, add melted butter and oil in steady stream until incorporated.
  16. Add walnut mixture and pulse to combine, 4 to 5 pulses.
  17. Pour batter evenly over pears (some pear may show through; cake will bake up over fruit).
  18. Bake until center of cake is set and bounces back when gently pressed and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 1 hour 10 minutes to 1¼ hours, rotating pan after 40 minutes.
  19. Let cake cool in pan on wire rack for 15 minutes.
  20. Carefully run paring knife or offset spatula around sides of pan.
  21. Invert cake onto wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet; discard parchment.
  22. Let cake cool for about 2 hours.
  23. Transfer to serving platter, cut into wedges, and serve.
 

Swordfish Steak with Salsa Verde

Sorry readers, if I’ve been a little derelict in keeping up with this blog in the last month. But between a nasty bout with bronchitis and the last minute onslaught of Christmas preparations, updating the blog has taken a back seat. But I’m back and hoping to catch up with all of you.

I hope you all had wonderful holidays surrounded by family and friends, with good food in abundance. If you’re like most people, you ate way too many cookies, cheeses, meats and other fattening foods. Are you  starting to make resolutions to eat a little lighter in the new year ahead?

The excessive holiday eating leaves me craving healthier foods, although I don’t get serious until after New Year’s eve and New Year’s day — one final hurrah before the Christmas indulgence is truly over.

But as soon as the holidays are past, I plan to eat less pasta, pizza and pastries and consume more fish, vegetables and fruit. This swordfish dish is a good way to start. It’s easy to make and delicious too. Just remember not to overcook the swordfish, which can taste dry if left too long in the broiler or on the grill. I use the same technique in cooking a swordfish steak as I do in cooking a beefsteak — that is, the finger test. Press the center of the fish after a few minutes in the broiler. It should have some “give” to it. If you cook it too long, it will feel hard and won’t “spring” back when you touch it.

Buon Anno tutti!

Swordfish Steak with Salsa Verde
 
 
Ingredients
  • For Two People:
  • One swordfish steak, about one pound or slightly less
  • for the marinade:
  • 2 T. soy sauce
  • 1 T. olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • For The Salsa Verde:
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ½ cup minced parsley
  • 3 T. capers, roughly chopped
  • 3 T. red onion, finely minced
  • ½ of a dill pickle, finely minced (about 2 T.)
  • rind of half a lemon, finely minced
  • optional: lemon balm, finely minced (if you can find it)
  • salt, pepper to taste
Instructions
  1. Marinate the swordfish for about a half hour in the soy sauce, olive oil and garlic. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Grill on an outdoor grill, or broil in an oven, being careful not to overcook, or it will be dry.
  3. Using the broiler, it should take no more than three to five minutes on each side.
  4. For the salsa verde, mix all of the ingredients together and serve in a bowl with the grilled swordfish.

Octopus And Potato Salad

Thank you dear readers, for not clicking off this post when you saw the word “octopus.” Now I know many of you have eaten octopus, but wouldn’t think of cooking it any sooner than you’d think of jumping into the Atlantic Ocean in January.

But wait! It’s easier to cook than you think and tastes infinitely better than anything you could buy already prepared. With Christmas eve coming up, I thought I’d revisit this recipe that I posted when I first started blogging in 2008. The hardest part is getting over the squeamish feeling you might have about handling this unwieldy cephalopod.

But if you think this is unwieldy, try hoisting a live, squiggly octopus into a boat, as I once did off the coast of Sardinia – an activity I hope to duplicate again next summer.

I can buy octopus fresh at my fish store in the Christmas season, but it also comes frozen at the grocery store. The frozen ones (from Mediterranean countries) are quite good, and the freezing process actually helps to tenderize them. Buy the biggest one you can because it shrinks a lot, and the bigger the octopus, the larger and more “meaty” your slices will be. This one weighed about three pounds.

Maybe you’re still reading this, but I bet you’re still not on board with me, are you? I know, it is slippery and ungainly. But hey, you can check it off your bucket list! What? “Cooking an octopus”  isn’t on your bucket list? Come on, where are your priorities?

Alright then, for those of you intrepid folks still with me, you probably know there are many thoughts on the best way to cook an octopus to make it tender, some of them involve thrashing the octopus on rocks, and some involve cooking with a cork or dipping it into boiling water three times before immersing it completely.

I don’t do any of those and I am here to tell you that I’ve been cooking octopus for years and my technique ALWAYS produces a tender result. You start out by placing the whole octopus into a sturdy pot where you’ve placed a bit of olive oil on the bottom. It cooks, in its own juices, over low heat on the range, covered, for about 20 minutes. After that time, it will have shrunk a lot and turned a purple-y color. Transfer it to a glass or pyrex or ceramic baking dish, cover and bake in a 300 degree oven for one hour.

It will shrink a little bit more after baking for an hour. Let it cool in its own juices.

Now this next part is messy, I’m the first to admit. But big whoop – you have a sink with running water, right? So you just wash your hands afterwards.

OK, let’s get down to business. After the octopus has cooled enough to handle, cut off the head from the rest of the body. See that grey-ish opaque thing-y at the juncture where the legs meet the head? That little “beak”  feels like hard plastic, so remove it with a paring knife. Throw it out, along with the head (although some people do eat the head).

Now take a sharp knife and separate the legs (tentacles) from each other.

Many people (and restaurants) serve the octopus with the suckers still attached, but in larger octopi especially, I think the suckers and surrounding skin taste gelatinous, and I prefer to remove them. Besides, removing the suckers leaves you with white flesh, which is more appealing to me visually in this salad. But if you like the suckers, by all means, leave them on.

One of the best octopus dishes I’ve ever eaten – at Porta in Asbury Park, N.J., is served with its suckers on. It’s dripping in butter, which may have something to do with why it’s so good – along with the capers and fennel and parley salad it’s served with.

If you want to remove the suckers however, a quick way is to hold each tentacle under cold running water, and use your fingers to “scrape” along the length of the leg. Pat dry.

Slice the octopus and place in a bowl.

Add the potatoes and the rest of the ingredients and mix well.

Caveat emptor, octopus is not inexpensive. Octopus for a salad of this size (serving four as a salad, or eight as an appetizer) will cost from $35 to $50 at the fish store. But for a once a year special event, like Christmas eve, it’s worth it. Serve it as an appetizer with crusty slices of bread, or as a side salad.

Now have I convinced you to cook octopus? Spero di si. Buon Natale tutti.

Octopus And Potato Salad
 
 
Ingredients
  • 1 large octopus - 3 to 4 pounds
  • olive oil to coat the bottom of a pan
  • 6-8 small fingerling potatoes (or other waxy potatoes - enough to amount to about 1 cup or however many potatoes you want)
  • ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • juice of one lemon
  • ¼ cup white balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ cup finely minced red onion
  • ¼ cup finely minced celery
  • a touch of red pepper flakes, optional
  • 2 T. minced parsley
  • salt, pepper to taste
Instructions
  1. Place olive oil on the bottom of a sturdy pan and put over low heat, lowering the octopus into the pan. Cover with a lid and cook over low heat for 20 minutes.
  2. In the meantime, cook the potatoes in water until just tender, then remove from water and let cool.
  3. Remove from heat and put the octopus in a glass or ceramic dish. Cover and cook in a 300 degree oven for one hour.
  4. Remove from oven and let it cool.
  5. Cut the head from the octopus and remove the beak.
  6. Remove the suckers and outer purply skin by rinsing under cold water.
  7. Slice the octopus and the potatoes, then mix with all the other ingredients. Adjust seasonings to taste.
 

Fig, Orange and Mascarpone Cheesecake

Looking for a delicious showstopper dessert to serve this holiday season? The new cookbook “Sweet” by Yotam Ottolenghi  & Helen Goh is filled with possibilities, including this rich cheesecake I made for a party recently. The recipe includes dried puréed figs spread over a graham cracker and walnut base, but doesn’t require the fresh figs shown in the photo. But since my supermarket had some real beauties on the shelf last week, I couldn’t resist adding them as decoration, smeared with a little quince jelly to add some shine.

As if a graham cracker, walnut and butter base isn’t wonderful enough, the recipe calls for you to cook some dried figs in orange juice with spices and smear that over the graham cracker base. You can use American measurements, but whenever possible, I like to use metric measurements, (included in the recipe) which are so much more accurate.

After slicing the figs, they may weigh a teensy bit less (especially if you’re a taste-tester, as I am.)

After they’re cooked, I blitzed them in a food processor to obtain a purée,  something the book’s recipe doesn’t ask you to do.

But the technique avoids having lumps in the purée and provides a smooth spread to smear over the graham cracker crust.The recipe also doesn’t call for baking the cake in a hot water bath. In fact, at the beginning of the cheesecake chapter, the authors say they’re not huge fans of the technique. I am, however, and looking at the photo of this cheesecake is proof that the technique works. See the cheesecake pictured in the book below, included next to the recipe? You’ll see very raised and very rounded outer edges, as well as a very browned (too browned in my opinion) top and side crust.

However, after covering the bottom and outside edges of the pan with aluminum foil, and baking it in a bain marie, the cheesecake I baked came out of the oven with a perfectly even height from the center to the edge. You have to be really careful when putting the pan in the oven and removing it, though, since spilling hot water on yourself can be very hazardous. But it will be worth it once you bite into this beauty.

Fig, Orange and Mascarpone Cheesecake
 
Author:
Recipe type: dessert
 
Ingredients
  • =Base
  • 3½ oz/100 gr. graham crackers (about 6½ sheets), roughly broken
  • ¾ cup/80 g. walnut halves, finely chopped
  • 4 Tbsp/60 gr. unsalted butter, melted, plus extra for greasing
  • 9 oz/260 gr. soft dried figs, tough stems removed, sliced into ¼ inch/0.5 cm strips
  • 1 cup plus 1 Tbsp/250 ml orange juice
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • ⅛ tsp. ground cloves
  • =Filling
  • 1 lb. 2 oz/500 gr. cream cheese at room temperature (I used 1 lb. only)
  • 1 lb. 2 oz./500 gr. mascarpone (I used 1 lb. only)
  • 1¼ cups/250 gr. granulated sugar
  • finely grated zest of 1 large orange (1 tbsp)
  • 4 large eggs, whites and yolks separated
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
Instructions
  1. To make the base, grease the base and sides of a 9-inch/23 cm round springform pan and line with parchment paper, making sure that the paper rises at least 2 inches/5 cm above the rim; the cake rises a lot in the oven. (I lined only the bottom and buttered the sides and it was fine).
  2. Place the graham crackers in a food processor and process to form fine crumbs; the consistency should be that of dried breadcrumbs. Place in a medium bowl and add the walnuts and melted butter.Use your hands or a large spoon to combine; the mixture should be the consistency of wet sand. Spoon the crumbs into the pan, using your hands to press them into the base, then place in the fridge for 20 minutes to firm up. (At this stage, I baked the base in a 400 degree oven for 8 minutes. Next time, I would bake it for 10-12 minutes, since the base still softened after the cheesecake was baked.)
  3. Place the figs, orange juice, cinnamon stick and ground cloves in a medium saucepan over a medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook for 15-20 minutes until most of the liquid has evaporated but the mixture is still moist. (At this point, I blended it until smooth in a food processor - removing the cinnamon stick.) Set aside to cool, remove the cinnamon stick, then spread over the base. Return to the fridge.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  5. To make the filling, place the cream cheese in the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment in place. Beat on medium speed for 1 minute, until smooth, before adding the mascarpone, sugar, orange zest, egg yolks and vanilla extract. Continue to beat until all of the ingredients are incorporated and the mixture looks smooth and creamy, scraping down the paddle and sides of the bowl from time to time, if you need to.
  6. Place the egg whites in a separate clean bowl and whisk (either by hand or with an electric mixer) until firm peaks form. Fold a third into the cream cheese mixture, followed by the remaining two-thirds.
  7. Pour the filling over the chilled fig and graham cracker base. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 75-80 minutes, until the cheesecake is a light golden brown at the edges and the center is only just firm. (Before putting in the oven, I wrapped the bottom of the springform pan with aluminum foil, then placed the pan in a bain-marie, or hot water bath. It helps the cheesecake to bake more evenly and avoids formation of raised edges. I baked it for 75 minutes and it was still slightly wobbly in the middle. Don't worry, it firms as it cools.)
  8. Turn off the oven but leave the cheesecake inside for an hour or so, with the door propped open with a wooden spoon. Allow it to come to room temperature before covering in plastic wrap and keeping in the fridge for 4 hours.
  9. When ready to serve, release the springform pan, remove the parchment paper (that is nearly impossible to do without flipping it over, so I left it on) and transfer to a cake platter. (I decorated the top with sliced figs that were brushed with quince jelly.)
  10. The cheesecake is best served chilled, straight from the fridge, and cut with a warm knife (dip the blade in hot water and wipe dry before using.)

Pork Chops and Mushrooms in Marsala Wine Sauce

If you’re like me, dinner is often a consequence of what’s in the refrigerator, and on this particular night, I found a bunch of baby portobello mushrooms that needed to be used before they spoiled. I could have served them as a separate vegetable, but they seemed like a natural pairing with the pork chops I had just bought. A little marsala wine, plus a small bit of cream that was left over, would elevate those pork chops from ordinary to sublime.

It’s easy to overcook pork chops because they’re so lean. If you can find some with a little marbling, great, but that isn’t so easy. Marinating or brining helps, but knowing when to pull them off the grill or the stove is the most important step in avoiding a tough piece of meat.

I don’t use a meat thermometer for pork chops or steaks, but instead have learned to test meat with the finger test. It’s got to have a little softness in it when you touch it, like the fleshy part of your hand. If you let it cook until it feels hard, then it’s overcooked. It takes getting used to, but once you’ve mastered it, you’ll never overcook meat again. Click here to get a more detailed guide on using the finger test for doneness of meats.

Pork Chops and Mushrooms in Marsala Wine Sauce
 
 
Ingredients
  • 2 thick pork chops (about ¾" thick)
  • To marinate the pork chops:
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 1 T. soy sauce
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • 2 T. butter
  • 8 ounces baby portobello (or button) mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • flour
  • salt
  • pepper
  • ¼ marsala wine
  • ¼ cup chicken stock (or water)
  • ¼ cup heavy cream
  • parsley, minced
Instructions
  1. About an hour before cooking, marinate the pork chops in the olive oil, soy sauce and minced garlic.
  2. Melt the butter in a pan and sauté the mushrooms on high heat. You want to get a nice sear on the mushrooms and let the water in them evaporate.
  3. When the mushrooms have turned a nice golden brown color, remove them from the pan and set aside with any remaining liquid from the mushrooms.
  4. Drain the pork chops from the marinate and dredge them in flour, salt and pepper. Shake off any excess flour.
  5. Place the oil in the same pan as you cooked the mushrooms and turn the heat to medium high. Add the pork chops and quickly sear on each side. This should take only a couple of minutes on each side.
  6. Lower the heat, add the marsala wine and the chicken stock, stirring to incorporate them.
  7. Flip the pork chops once to give both sides exposure to the liquid, then add the cream and swirl in, flipping again. Add the mushrooms back to the pan and cook until everything is heated through and just until the pork chops are done. Do not overcook. The meat should still have some "give" in it when you press it with a fork or with your fingers. If it's overcooked, it will feel hard.
  8. Sprinkle with minced parsley.