One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.

-Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, "Pavarotti, My Own Story"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Few things in life are more irresistible than warm bread fresh out of the oven. Unfortunately, due to the time required by yeasted doughs to rise, this is not a pleasure that can be experienced whenever the impulse strikes. Given this state of affairs (and my penchant for all things corn) I turned to cornbread. It doesn't require any yeast, rising or kneading and can be in your stomach within 30 minutes from the time it occurs to you to make some.

Unlike traditional cornbreads, this recipe uses two types of ground corn: Masa harina and yellow corn meal. "Maseca" is a common masa harina (corn flour) brand available in supermarkets. The masa is first roasted which gives it an incredible aroma - the smell of the batter as you mix it up will drive you insane. The bread bakes up nice and moist and is delicious eaten warm with this truffled herb butter. Try not to finish it all at once. 

Adapted from here. The bread can be baked in a cast-iron skillet or a baking dish. If using the skillet, preheat it in the oven while you mix up the batter. I halved the sugar as I thought the original recipe made a bread that was too sweet. It also calls for buttermilk which I rarely keep on hand. A good substitute for the amount required here is 2 tbsp vinegar mixed into 1 2/3 cup milk and rested for 10 minutes until the milk is slightly curdled.

1 cup masa
1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 2/3 cup milk
2 tbsp vinegar (not balsamic)
2 eggs
1 1/3 cup yellow corn meal
1/3 cup flour
3 tbsp sugar
4 tsp baking powder
1 1/4 tsp salt

1. Preheat oven to 400F. Mix the vinegar and milk and let stand for a few minutes until the milk curdles a bit. In the meantime, spread the masa on a baking sheet and bake until slightly browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and let cool. If using a cast-iron skillet, put it in the oven to heat up. 

2. Mix the dry ingredients into the masa. In a seperate bowl, whisk together the oil, the milk & vinegar mixture and the eggs, then stir the wet ingredients into the dry ones until a batter forms. 

3. Brush the skillet or a glass baking dish with 2 tsp oil. Pour in the batter. Bake for 15 minutes, or until the top is golden and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minutes. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Maple Apple Pie

A famous scientist once said that if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. I don't know if I can claim credit for your existence, dear reader, but I can definitely make an apple pie from scratch. It's easy! For the longest time, I used store-bought crusts when making pie, because every pie crust recipe which I read came with a million scary admonishments: The butter had to be cold cold cold, it had to be incorporated into the flour just so, and if God forbid you overworked your dough, some unspecified but obviously grave catastrophe would befall your dessert. Moreover, I did not enjoy cleaning flour and pastry bits from my counter after rolling out the crust. Then, one day, I stumbled upon this recipe from the blog Homesick Texan and almost had a heart attack after seeing that the crust was made with not butter, but oil, with no care for temperature or any of that overworking business. It calls for the dough to be rolled out between two sheets of wax paper, which not only reduces clean-up but also makes the transfer of the dough from the counter to the pie plate much easier. 

My only modification to the recipe was to replace the oil with melted butter, because I felt the oil version was a bit bland. In order to amp up the flavor, I brown the butter, but this is optional. My sweetener of choice in this pie is maple syrup. It has a distinctive taste which complements apples well and is more nuanced than plain sugar. 

Maple Apple Pie
When measuring flour, lightly spoon it into the measuring cup. If you pack it in tightly, you will end up with a lot more than is called for. Brown butter is butter which has been cooked until its milk solids have taken on a golden brown color and a delicious nutty aroma. To get an idea of the color, you can look at this image. The brown butter is optional. You could proceed with plain melted butter. If you don't have a rolling pin, you can use an empty wine bottle like I do. The key to rolling out the crust evenly is to press it into a round disc with your hands, then start in the center with the pin and roll out in one direction, lift the pin and place it back in the center, roll out in the opposite direction, lift again, place in center and roll out in a direction perpendicular to the first, and so on. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Crust ingredients:
1 cup (125 g) flour
1/2 tsp salt
4 tbsp (60 g) butter
2 tbsp (30 ml) milk

Filling ingredients:
4-5 apples (Golden Delicious and Macintosh are good choices, as is Granny Smith)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
3 tbsp flour
3 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
6 tbsp maple syrup
2 tbsp butter, cut into small pieces

1. (Optional step) Put 4 tbsp butter in a small, light-colored pan and cook on medium heat. Keep dragging a spoon through the foam at the top so that you can see the bottom. After 5-6 minutes you will see little brown flecks. As soon as these have reached a rich brown color, pour the butter into a bowl to stop it from cooking further. 

2. Mix the liquid crust ingredients in one bowl and the dry ones in another bowl. Add the liquids to the dry ingredients and stir to incorporate. 

3. Lay a large piece of wax paper on your counter. Dump the dough on this, shape the dough into a ball with your hands, then flatten. Lay another piece of wax paper over the top and roll dough out evenly into a circle.

4. Peel off the top paper. Slide your hands under the bottom piece of paper, lift the crust and flip it over into a 9-inch pie plate, then peel off the paper. Press the crust into the plate. Cut off any overhang with a sharp knife.

5. Peel and core the apples. Cut them into quarters, then cut each quarter lengthwise into 3-4 wedges. Immediately toss the apples with the lemon juice to prevent browning. 

6. Mix the flour, sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl, then mix this well into the apples. 

7. Preheat oven to 375F. Put one layer of apples in concentric circles (or other decorative pattern) in the crust. Drizzle on the maple syrup. Arrange a second layer of apples on top of the first and dot this top layer with the butter. 

8. Bake for 50-60 minutes, until apples are tender and the crust is golden. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Instant "Pickles": Lemon-Mustard Marinated Vegetables

Vegetables. They are the unloved children of the food world. Few of us would gravitate towards brussels sprouts or okra if given a choice. Nevertheless, their myriad health benefits are well-known and we can all stand to get a bit more of them into our diet. For me, the trouble with vegetables is twofold. First of all, I don't always have the energy, after I get home from work, to wash, peel and chop. Second, I don't like vegetables cooked to the point of mushiness. This recipe, from a great food blog called Just Hungry, takes care of both problems. It is make-ahead, lasts four to five days in the fridge, makes an excellent side dish for everything from fried fish to the most luxurious gratin, and keeps the vegetables wonderfully crisp. 

These aren't true pickles but rather vegetables marinated overnight in a flavorful mix of lemon juice, honey, mustard and spices. The honey won't make the marinade sweet, its purpose is to cut the bite of the lemon juice. You can use pretty much any combination of vegetables that you like. As mentioned in the original recipe, cook tougher vegetables like carrots, cauliflower and broccoli in boiling water before marinating them. I boil them for no more than 30 seconds in order to preserve their crispness.

I used purple cauliflower, which is the culprit behind the fabulous lurid purple color in the photo!

Lemon-Mustard Marinated Vegetables
This recipe is very open to adaptation. You can vary not only the vegetables but also the spices: A pinch of cayenne, some garlic, a little ginger or a couple of cloves might add interesting dimensions. If you don't have a mortar and pestle, the spices can be crushed with the bottom of a heavy pan. You can substitute the whole spices with a pinch of ground, but I quite like the heady crunch of a bit of allspice or pepper against the vegetables. 

1 small head cauliflower, chopped into small florets
1 bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/4 inch wide strips
2 small carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch wide strips
1/2 cup (120 ml) fresh-squeezed lemon juice, from about 3 lemons
2 tbsp honey
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp whole-grain mustard
1/4 tsp whole allspice, coarsely cracked in a mortar and pestle
1/4 tsp black peppercorns, coarsely cracked in a mortar and pestle
1/4 tsp salt

1. Mix the lemon juice, mustards, allspice and peppercorns in a tupperware big enough to contain all the vegetables.

2. Put the honey and salt in a small bowl and microwave for 20 seconds to melt the honey. Mix this into the lemon juice. 

3. Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. Add the cauliflower and carrot and boil 30 seconds, then drain. Immediately add to the tupperware with the lemon juice, add the pepper, then mix well. 

4. Let cool, uncovered and stirring occasionally, then cover tightly with the lid and refrigerate overnight. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Easy, Make-Ahead Thanksgiving

If there's one American holiday which I've adopted with enthusiasm, it's Thanksgiving. It's free of gift-giving obligations, it has no religious aspect and therefore includes everyone, and best of all, it's a celebration of the most important things in life: Friends, family, and gluttonous eating. I can definitely get behind that!

A quick Googling for Thanksgiving recipes can easily overwhelm. The turkey alone presents a multitude of options, each of them with its own set of challenges: It could be brined (who wants to lug around a sloshing bag of salted water filled with a 20 lb. bird?), roasted (this takes at least three hours!), smoked (call the fire department), stuffed (or not), or deep-fried (you must be insane). The myriad components have to be timed down to the minute and most of them prepare right before serving. To an amateur, lazy cook like me, those are pretty discouraging challenges. When I have guests, I like to prepare the lion's share of the food in advance so that I am not slaving away in the kitchen while everyone's yukking it up over wine.

This year, through a little trial and error, I put together a Thanksgiving menu that is very easy. 80% of the work is done the day before. It takes roughly three hours, less if you have any helpers. The menu is somewhat minimalist since it includes only one appetizer, one vegetable side dish and one dessert, but everything is made from scratch and you can always ask the other guests to contribute additional dishes! Without further ado, the menu:

Main course:

Happy Thanksgiving!

Easy, Make-Ahead Thanksgiving: Green Beans with Toasted Almonds

Blanched green beans make a speedy make-ahead side for Thanksgiving, especially if you can get a helper to top and tail the beans for you! The vinegar cuts nicely through the richness of the rest of the meal. 

Click here for the Thanksgiving intro post and the rest of the recipes.

Green Beans with Toasted Almonds
Don't boil the beans for too long or they'll turn grey and mushy. Plunging them immediately into ice water keeps them crisp and bright green. You can use hazelnuts or pecans and add dried cranberries, cherries, orange zest or lemon zest to the vinaigrette. The beans can be blanched and chilled, the nuts toasted and the vinaigrette prepared the day before but don't toss everything together until just before serving.

1.5 lb. green beans, top-and-tailed and snapped in half
A handful of slivered almonds
2 tbsp olive oil
1.5 tbsp red or white wine vinegar
1 tbsp maple syrup (optional)

1. Bring a pot of salted water to boil. While it's coming to boil, put cold water and a bunch of ice cubes into a large bowl. 

2. Throw the beans into the boiling water and cook 6-7 minutes. They should still be bright green. Immediately drain the beans and put them into the ice water to stop them cooking. Let stand for a few minutes until beans are completely cool, then drain.

3. In a small pan over medium-low heat, toast the almonds, stirring frequently, until slightly browned, 4-5 minutes.

4. Shake the oil, vinegar and syrup together in a small jar, then toss all the ingredients together. 

Easy, Make-Ahead Thanksgiving: Creamy Mashed Potatoes

Does anybody not like mashed potatoes? They are the universal comfort food. I normally make them with milk but for Thanksgiving, it's nice to make them good and creamy with some butter and sour cream. Don't worry, the sour cream doesn't make the potatoes taste sour.

Creamy Mashed Potatoes
Adapted from here. You can add various spices such as cayenne or smoked paprika, stir in some chopped chives or fried, crumbled sage leaves, or replace a part of the sour cream with goat cheese or ricotta. I like to keep it simple to complement the other flavors at the meal. Leaving the peel on a few of the potatoes adds a nice color. If making ahead, just cover the finished dish tightly with foil and refrigerate overnight. On the day, take it out of the fridge when the turkey goes in the oven so that it has time to come to room temperature, then throw it in the oven, still covered with the foil, along with the stuffing (don't forget to lower the temperature to 375F) when the turkey comes out. Serves 8-9.

3.5 lb red potatoes, most of them peeled, all of them quartered
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp sour cream
3 cloves garlic, peeled (optional)

1. Bring a big pot of heavily salted water to boil over high heat and throw in the quartered potatoes and the garlic. Let boil until a fork slides as easily out of a potato as it slid in.

2. Lower the heat to low. Drain the potatoes and put them back in the pot. With a potato masher, mash them until no big lumps remain, but do not mash further. Add the butter and cream and mash for a few more seconds until everything is blended. Taste, add salt if needed. Add more butter or cream if the potatoes are not creamy enough to your taste.

3. Put into a baking dish. If making ahead, reheat, covered, in a 375F oven for 30 min.

Easy, Make-Ahead Thanksgiving: 70 Minute Roast Turkey with Stuffing, Gravy and Cranberry Sauce

Click here for the Thanksgiving intro post and the rest of the recipes.

It seems incredible, but this turkey cooks in only 70 minutes in a hot oven, thanks to the butterflying technique I learned from my old friend Jacques. The bird looks very funny splayed out on the tray. When I served it, accusations of looking sexual were lobbed against the poor thing by some dirty-minded guests, but I defended my masterpiece!

Gravy and stuffing are traditionally made at the last minute. Here, a rich turkey stock is made using the bag of organs that comes inside the turkey and the backbone and wing tips obtained from the butterflying. This stock, when thickened with some cooked flour, turns into a very nice gravy. For a gluten-free gravy, melt a couple of tablespoons of butter, add 3 cups of turkey stock, bring to boil, then stir in 1 tbsp of cornstarch dissolved in 1 tbsp water. Cook until it is sufficiently thickened. The turkey stock also acts as the liquid in the stuffing.

In terms of timing: Butterfly the turkey the night before. Salt and powder it and put it back in the fridge. Use the backbone and wings to make the stock. (While the stock is cooking, you can make the mashed potatoes, the green beans, the prep for the stuffing and the cranberry sauce.) After the stock is ready, make the gravy as the last step.  On the actual day, when the turkey is cooked, there will be a lot of juices left in the roasting pan. Drizzle a few tablespoons of these into both the gravy and the stuffing to enrich them further. Keep in mind that the turkey must rest for 30 minutes after cooking.

Turkey Stock
Use all the organs except the liver, which is the flatter, redder one. Start with cold water, don't let the stock boil too hard, and use a pot that's taller than it is wide. After eating the turkey, you can repeat this recipe with the remaining carcass to make a second stock (no need for the initial browning step for this one) which can be used to make turkey soup or in any recipe that calls for chicken broth. The stock will keep in the fridge for 4-5 days and can also be frozen.

Turkey neck, heart and gizzards
Turkey backbone and wing tips
Splash of dry white wine (optional)
1 stalk celery, broken in two (optional)
1 carrot, washed but unpeeled (optional)
1 onion, washed but unpeeled, halved
2 garlic cloves, smashed but unpeeled
1 bay leaf
1 clove
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
1-2 sprigs fresh rosemary
A few peppercorns, coarsely cracked
A few whole allspice berries, coarsely cracked (optional)

1. Heat a tbsp of oil or butter in a stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the turkey parts and cook 6-7 minutes until very well browned on one side, then brown the other side as well.

2. Lower-heat to medium-low. Add a large splash of white wine and scrape off any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. Let the wine cook off for a minute, then add the rest of the ingredients and 8 cups of cold water. Bring to a slow simmer and cook for 1.5 - 2 hours. Lower heat if it starts to boil vigorously at any point.

3. Strain the stock into another pot or a big bowl. Let cool for 15 minutes then skim off and discard the thin layer of fat that will have accumulated at the top.

70 Minute Butterflied Roast Turkey
Make sure your turkey isn't any bigger than 12 lb or it won't cook in time. Salting and putting baking powder on the skin and letting it chill overnight makes for moist meat and a very crisp-skinned turkey, but you can skip this step if you don't have time. The turkey might look a little blotchy and red after the overnight salting. That's OK. Serves 8-9 people.

1 turkey, around 11-12 lb.
1 tsp baking powder

1. Put the turkey breast-side down on a cutting board. Using kitchen shears, cut down first one side of the backbone and then the other. Chop off the wing tips. Reserve wing tips and backbone for stock. Open turkey like a book. Flip turkey over and press down as hard as you can on the breastbone to flatten the bird. Put it cut side down on a rack set in a roasting pan and sprinkle the baking powder and 1 tbsp salt over the skin. Refrigerate overnight, or at least 6 hours, uncovered.

2. Take turkey out of the fridge about an hour before cooking and let it come to room temperature. Preheat oven to 450F.

3. Roast turkey for 70 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the juice runs clear when turkey is pierced with a knife. Let rest for 30 minutes before carving.

This is a basic stuffing recipe. It's delicious as is but you can jazz it up with other ingredients like nuts, dried fruit, chestnuts or sauteed mushrooms. If you don't have stale bread, spread the cubed fresh bread on a baking sheet and toast in a 400F oven for 10 minutes, until a bit dried out. To save time on the day itself, the recipe can be prepared through step 3 and chilled overnight. On the day, take the stuffing out of the fridge when the turkey goes in the oven so that it has time to come to room temperature, then throw it in the oven (don't forget to lower the temperature to 375F) when the turkey comes out.

1 loaf day-old French bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 onion, diced
1 stalk celery, halved lengthwise then diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme, minced
1-2 sprigs fresh rosemary, minced
About 10 fresh sage leaves, minced
1 egg yolk
1-2 cups turkey or low-sodium chicken stock, depending on how moist and pasty you like your stuffing

1. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil or butter over medium-low heat in a skillet. Add onions and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 7 minutes or until onions are wilted and translucent. Add garlic and herbs and cook 1 more minute. Toss the bread with this mixture.

2. Beat the egg in a bowl, then beat in the stock.

3. Toss the bread with the stock mixture. Taste, salt if needed. Add more stock if stuffing seems dry. Cover with foil.

4. Bake at 375 for 20-25 minutes. Take off the foil and bake another 5 minutes.

The gravy is simply thickened turkey stock. You can add finely chopped sauteed mushrooms or a tablespoon of chopped parsley for color. Make the gravy the day ahead and simply reheat on the day on the stovetop. If it seems too thick while reheating, add a few tablespoons of the pan drippings from the roasting pan or more turkey stock.

1 tbsp butter
1/2 tbsp oil
2 tbsp flour
2-3 cups turkey stock

1. Heat the stock for a few minutes in the microwave. Meanwhile, in a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the oil and flour and cook, stirring, until flour is slightly browned. This mixture shouldn't look pasty, almost crumbly. If it looks too wet, add a bit more flour. 

2. Add the heated stock and bring to a boil, whisking to dissolve the flour lumps. Boil for a few minutes until the sauce has thickened to the consistency you like. Taste, add salt if needed. 

3. Reheat over medium-low heat right before serving.

Quick'n'Easy Jellied Cranberry Sauce
The pectin in the apple makes this sauce gel nicely.This recipe makes a sauce that is slightly sweet. Decrease the sugar by a couple of tablespoons if you like it more sour.

1 bag (12 oz) fresh cranberries
1 apple, peeled, cored and grated
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup water

1. Put everything in a pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and cook 15-18 minutes, until the cranberries have mostly broken down.

2. Scrape the sauce into a serving dish. Let cool, cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours.

Easy, Make-Ahead Thanksgiving: Biscuits with Truffled Herb Butter

Click here for the Thanksgiving intro post and the rest of the recipes.

These delicious biscuits (a buttery, flaky version of homemade bread rolls) have the advantage of being baked at the same temperature as the turkey, and in only 15 minutes. You can dice and refrigerate the butter for the biscuits and mix up the dry ingredients up to a day in advance. On Thanksgiving Day, start making the biscuits about 45 minutes before the turkey is due to come out of the oven. Served with the herb butter, they make a great appetizer and will keep the guests fed while the turkey is resting and the sides are being heated. You can add whatever herbs you like to the butter. I used sage, rosemary and thyme. Don't forget to bring the butter to room temperature before serving. 

I used this recipe. My dough was very sticky and impossible to knead, so I just pinched off lumps of it which I dropped on a baking sheet. Next time, I might decrease the liquid by a couple of tablespoons and try the kneading. Although the biscuits didn't rise as high as promised in the original recipe, they were absolutely delicious. If you don't have buttermilk, simply add 3/4 tbsp vinegar to 3/4 cup whole or 2% milk and let stand for 10-15 minutes. This recipe makes 10-12 biscuits. 

Truffled Herb Butter
The truffle oil is optional but nice if you have it. Don't use more than the indicated amount as it can easily overpower the rest of the ingredients.

1 stick butter, softened at room temperature for 5-10 minutes
2-3 tsp chopped mixed herbs
1/4 tsp truffle oil (optional)

1. Mash all the ingredients together. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Spiced Butternut Squash, Lentil and Feta Salad

I ask a lot of a meatless salad that wants to be served as a main course. It has to be filling, interesting, low-fat (gotta watch the waistline!) and delicious. I know, I am demanding! This recipe delivers on all counts. The protein-packed lentils and the vitamins A and C in the squash make this salad very nutritious and the hot and sour spices play off beautifully against the sweetness of the squash. 

Peeling butternut squash can be a bit of a pain so I bought it pre-cut from the supermarket. If you start with a whole squash, choose the smallest one you can find. It shouldn't weigh more than 1.5 - 2 lb. Cut it in half from top to bottom, scoop out and discard the seeds, place each half on a cutting board cut-side down and slice it into one inch-thick slices. You can then peel and chop each slice.

Spiced Butternut Squash, Lentil and Feta Salad
Adapted from here. The original recipe used smoked Spanish paprika and goat cheese instead of sumac and feta. That is also a good variation but I liked my Middle East-inspired version more. Dressing the cooked components while they are still hot will help the flavor penetrate. You can cook the lentils and squash 1-2 days ahead of time and mix them with the vinegar and oil. If making ahead, add the mint, cheese and sumac just before serving and toss with a small splash of vinegar to liven it up. Serves 4. 

1 lb (500g) peeled butternut squash, diced into 1-inch pieces
3/4 cup (100g) green lentils, preferably French lentils
3-4 oz. (60-80g) feta cheese, crumbled
4 tbsp chopped fresh mint
4 handfuls arugula or baby greens
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp sumac
Pinch of ground cayenne, to taste
3 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp Sherry vinegar or wine vinegar

1. Preheat oven to 425F (220C). Bring 3 cups of water to boil in a pot. 

2. Toss the butternut squash with 1 tbsp olive oil, the cumin, and a little salt. Spread on a baking sheet in a single layer and put in the oven. Throw the lentils into the water. 

3. After 15 minutes, the lentils should be tender but not mushy. The squash should be tender and browning slightly on the bottom. Taste both components and if they are not done, cook for 5 more minutes. 

4. Drain the cooked lentils and toss with the squash, arugula, mint and cheese. 

5. Whisk together 2 tbsp olive oil, the vinegar, the cayenne and the sumac in a small bowl and mix this with the salad.