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.
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.
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.
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
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
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).
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.)
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.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
About an hour before cooking, marinate the pork chops in the olive oil, soy sauce and minced garlic.
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.
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.
Drain the pork chops from the marinate and dredge them in flour, salt and pepper. Shake off any excess flour.
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.
Lower the heat, add the marsala wine and the chicken stock, stirring to incorporate them.
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.
I know it’s nearly heresy to mess with family favorites at Thanksgiving. But if you crave something a little different from the traditional mashed potatoes or candied sweet potatoes, this recipe from “Gjelina:Cooking From Venice, California,” might hit just the right note. Even if you don’t make it for Thanksgiving, try it for an ordinary Thursday night (or any other night of the week).
It’s a snap to make, starting out with roasting some chunky slices of yams, tossed in olive oil, honey and espelette, or red pepper flakes.
When they emerge from the oven, drizzle with the yogurt and lime dressing, and top with fresh green scallions.
And if you’re looking for a way to brine and roast that Thanksgiving turkey, click here for instructions.
1 Tablespoon espelette pepper, or crushed red pepper flakes
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
½ cup Greek style yogurt
4 Tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 scallions, both white and green parts, trimmed and thinly sliced, for garnish
Heat oven to 425. Cut the yams lengthwise into 4 wedges per yam. Put them in a large bowl, and toss them with the honey, ½ tablespoon of the Espelette pepper or crushed red-pepper flakes and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Let it sit for 10 minutes or so, tossing once or twice to coat, as the oven heats.
Transfer the yams to a foil-lined, rimmed baking sheet, season with salt and pepper and then bake until they are deeply caramelized around the edges and soft when pierced with a fork at their thickest part, approximately 30 to 35 minutes.
As the yams roast, combine the yogurt, lime juice and remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a small bowl, and whisk to combine, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
When the yams are done, transfer them to a serving platter, drizzle the yogurt over them and garnish with the remaining Espelette pepper or red-pepper flakes, the scallions and some flaky sea salt if you have any.
Looking for an alternative to the pumpkin pie that’s ubiquitous on everyone’s Thanksgiving table? Or maybe you just want a delicious dessert to serve at your next Sunday supper. This moist cake has all the right autumn flavors going for it – from pumpkin to cinnamon, allspice, cardamom and a touch of black pepper too. Plus it’s topped with a luscious glaze made with browned butter that adds a nutty taste, in addition to the maple syrup and confectioner’s sugar.
The recipe comes from the New York Times, and it included toasted pepita seeds on top. I took it a step further and candied them. Just make sure you use either a Silpat mat or a piece of buttered aluminum foil. Otherwise you’ll have a hard time prying the candy from the pan.
Be careful not to touch it until it cools. Once the candy cools and hardens, you can break it up with your hands, then sprinkle it across the top of the cake. The candy is also delicious as a topping on ice cream too.
1 to 2 Tablespoons lightly toasted pepita seeds (optional)
or candied pepita seeds
Heat oven to 350 degrees and lightly butter and flour a 12 cup or larger bundt pan.
In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, allspice and black pepper until well combined.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine brown sugar, butter and olive oil. Beat on medium high until light and fluffy, about three minutes.
Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing for about 20 seconds between each egg.
Add the pumpkin puree and the sour cream, and mix until well combined, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl.
Remove the bowl from the mixer, and use a rubber spatula to fold in the dry ingredients until well combined.
Make sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl to ensure an evenly mixed batter.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top and firmly tap on the countertop a few times to release any large air bubbles.
Bake the cake until golden and puffed, and a tester in the center comes out clean, about 55 to 65 minutes.
Set the cake, still in the pan, on a rack to cool, about 20 minutes, then use the tip of a knife to loosen the edges and invert the cake onto the rack to cool completely before glasing.
TO MAKE THE GLAZE:
Once the cake is cool, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook the butter, occasionally scraping the bottom and sides of the pan with a rubber spatula, until it turns a deep golden brown and smells nutty. Don't walk away from the pan during this process. The butter can go from brown and nutty to acrid and burnt in mere moments.
Transfer butter and brown bits to a bowl to a heat safe bowl and let it cool slightly. Whisk in the confectioner's sugar, maple syrup and salt until smooth. The glaze should be thick but pourable. If it's too thin, add more confectioner's sugar. If it's too thick, add water. (I added some milk to thin it down a bit.)
Transfer the cake to a serving platter and pour the glaze over the top. Sprinkle with pepitas if desired.
TO MAKE CANDIED PEPITAS:
Place about ¼ cup sugar into a saucepan and heat at medium until the sugar melts and starts to turn a light golden color. Pour in some pepitas (1/4 cup or so) and stir for a few seconds to coat. Then pour the mixture onto a Silpat mat or a piece of aluminum foil that has been greased with butter. Careful not to burn your fingers. The melted sugar will be extremely hot. Let it cool, then break into bits.
Fall is finally here and so is soup weather. And when I think of fall soups, I invariably think of squash soup, since squash is so prolific at farmer’s markets and grocery stores right now – and it’s one of my favorite vegetables. I’ve posted my recipe for squash soup before – here – and this recipe has a complexity gained from the addition of a pear and an apple in the soup.
But the squash soup in this post goes a step further. It contains quinoa balls mixed with vegetables and cheese, a combination I was served on our recent memoir writing retreat in Italy – “Italy, In Other Words.” The chefs at “Cavatappi,” my favorite restaurant in Varenna, opened their doors one evening just for our group of twelve people, and served a delectable meal starting with squash soup and quinoa balls.
Back home, I did my best at recreating their recipe. The taste and texture are almost the same, although the chefs told me they started with three types of quinoa, and I used only two – a dark and a white variety.
The quinoa fluffs up to several times its dried state.
Meanwhile, dice the vegetables into small pieces.
Then sauté in a bit of olive oil until softened. Cut the cheese into small pieces the same size as the vegetables, then mix the vegetables and cheese together, along with some egg and cornstarch and seasonings. Roll into balls and refrigerate.
These also freeze very well.
Steam the balls for about five minutes, then gently lift them from the steamer and place a few into each bowl of soup.
They melt in your mouth and are an explosion of flavor too.
½ cup mozzarella cheese, finely diced (or fontina or taleggio)
2 T. cornstarch
Use your favorite recipe for making squash soup or follow the one I have in the archives here.
Cook the quinoa in boiling water, covered for about 7 minutes. Turn off heat and leave the pot covered for 10 minutes.
When the quinoa has cooled, put it into a bowl.
Sauté the zucchini and butternut squash in the butter for a few minutes until it starts to slightly soften.
Add the vegetables and all the rest of the ingredients to the quinoa and mix well with a spoon.
Using your hands, form the quinoa mixture into balls (the size of a meatball) and steam for three minutes on the range. If you don't have a steaming pot, sauté for a couple of minutes with a dab of butter, turning all the while so it cooks on all sides.
The cheese should start to melt.
Remove from the heat and place a few quinoa balls into the soup. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese.
What a wonderful surprise I got last week when a friend dropped off some wild mushrooms at my door! It brought back memories of childhood when my dad and brother would come back from foraging in the woods for morels or chanterelles. No one in my family does that any longer, and while I eat plenty of supermarket mushrooms, they’re quite bland compared to the woodsy flavor of a wild mushroom mix. My friend Polly bought these for me at a farmer’s market in Chestnut Hill, Pa., and they include half of a lobster mushroom (the red one), shitake mushrooms (the brown caps), oyster mushrooms (the kind of frilly ones) and enoki mushrooms (the white ones with teensy caps).The big question was what to make with these beauties? Risotto, mushroom stew, pasta with mushrooms? So many ideas swirling in my head, but in the end I decided to chop them up and make wild mushroom bruschetta. They would be a perfect accompaniment for the rest of the meal planned for dinner, but they would certainly make a fine appetizer on their own to have for company too.
After sautéeing the mushrooms in butter with some shallots, garlic and herbs, I combined the mixture with some grated fontina cheese and spread it over some toasted bread. Then I popped it under the broiler for a few minutes.
The result was a bruschetta with intensely flavored mushrooms smothered with melt-in-your mouth fontina cheese. Make them on smaller toasts for individual canapés to have with drinks. But make sure you use a good quality sturdy bread for these.
I’ve rolled pasta, baked bread, canned fruits, jarred jams and fermented vegetables. I’ve fried cannoli, stretched strudel and brined turkeys. I’ve cleaned squid, octopus and even fed snails for a day to cleanse them before cooking. I’ve pounded lemon grass and ground spices for curry in Thailand, made macarons in Paris and caught cephalopods off the coast of Sardinia. But one of the things I’ve wanted to try, but hadn’t until last week was cheesemaking.
All that changed at the Farm Cooking School in Titusville, New Jersey, where I learned how to make four different kinds of cheese – mozzarella, ricotta, crème fraîche, and goat’s milk cheese. The class of about eight people gathered to learn from Ian Knauer, founder of the school, which I’ve written about in the past here.
I’m not going to describe the process in detail, although there is a recipe at the end, using one of the cheeses we made. But for those of you who live within the tri-state area of New York-Pennsylvania-New Jersey, I hope you will seek out this cooking school and take the class — or any one of the myriad they offer — from butchering to bouillabaisse. Ian and business partner Shelly Wiseman, both veterans of Gourmet magazine, hold classes mornings and night, and even offer week-long culinary vacations in the beautiful countryside around the Delaware River Valley.
The cheesemaking process is similar for most cheeses – bring the milk up to a certain temperature, add rennet, let it stand until curds form, and strain through cheesecloth. For mozzarella, the curds are stretched and pulled in hot water until they meld together into a ball shape.
Crème fraîche is made with heavy cream to which a mesophilic starter culture is added. Alternately, simply add a tablespoon of purchased crème fraîche to a cup of heavy milk inside a sterilized glass jar, and heat it inside a pot filled with warm water. For goat’s cheese, you start with goat’s, not cow’s milk (naturally) raw or pasteurized — not always so easy to find.
But even if you don’t make your own cheese, you’ll want to try the recipe at the end of this post using good quality purchased cheese. Of course, nothing compares to freshly made, but still, the recipe can be adapted using store bought cheese.
None of the dishes we ate contained meat. (For strict vegetarians, you might think twice about eating cheese, since rennet, used in most cheeses, is an enzyme made using cow’s stomach.)
The lunch lineup included this delicious salad of kale, cooked beets and the goat cheese we made and crumbled on top.
We also roasted shishito peppers and served them with the mozzarella balls we pulled.
The lentils were cooked and mixed with the crème fraîche, then topped with sweet roasted carrots, dill and mint.Dessert was simple but wonderful – apples poached in white wine, sugar and cinnamon and served with fresh ricotta.
If getting to The Farm Cooking School is impossible, here’s the next best thing — a cookbook Ian and Shelley have written that is due to be released in a few weeks. You’ll find many of the recipes and techniques here that you’d learn at the school, and you can pre-order it on Amazon.com.
Lentils with Spice-Roasted Carrots and Crème Fraîche
If you’re like me, you’ve served your fair share of frittatas, bagels, muffins and similar foods when organizing a breakfast or brunch at your home. I was expecting a group of relatives yesterday morning, but decided I wanted something a little different. As soon as I saw Marie’s Instagram post last week, I knew I had found it. My friend Marie, of Proud Italian Cook, has one of the best food blogs going, and you can always count on her to provide delicious, easy recipes and mouth-watering photos too.
You can do some of the prep work ahead of time for this one — including roasting the acorn squash the night before. Just slice the squash, smear it with some olive oil, freshly ground black pepper and seasoned salts (that I make each year by drying my fresh herbs and mixing them with coarse salt). Roast in the oven, flipping once.
When your guests arrive, just spread a little butter or oil in a skillet (one that has a lid — I used my electric skillet that holds six of these squash rings). I placed a few spinach leaves inside the squash rings, then dropped an egg into it. I also scattered a few sage leaves in the pan, as added flavor.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper and place the lid on the top. Cook them at low heat until the whites set and the yolks are still runny.
I can’t really tell you how long it takes since it depends on how large your eggs are and how hot your skillet is. I know I had the heat on for about five minutes and it cooked the yolks a little more than I had wanted. I prefer them more runny than the photo shows. But that didn’t stop everyone from finishing every last morsel. Thanks Marie.