Monday, December 1, 2008

my dirty little secret

Pretty much everything I cook or bake for guests is wonderful. I know that sounds arrogant, but it's true. And the thing is, my stuff isn't good because I'm amazing. Far from it. My food is good because I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses and I always play to my strengths. I also know the ingredients or else I don't work with them (experimenting in the kitchen is another story altogether). Most of the books in my kitchen are more about the science, history, and quality of food than they are compilations of recipes. I would never make something for a crowd unless I knew it was going to work out well. And it always does. I have sufficiently good skills, a solid understanding of kitchen chemistry, great familiarity with ingredients, and I also know whose recipes to trust and whose to test out first.

Many months ago I decided to have a fondue party for friends. I hadn't made fondue for ages, but I knew I could do it and the variables had never confounded me in the past. My boyfriend was incredulous that it would work out: apparently nobody in his circle of friends has successfully made fondue. He actively tried to talk me out of fondue and wanted greater assurances that I was an expert. I'm not. But I fearlessly bought a variety of wonderful, expensive French cheeses and just knew it would work out. And it did. The fondue was perfect. But I knew it would be.

But this post isn't about fondue, it's about Thanksgiving, where I was asked to make something that I knew wouldn't work out and it was beyond my control to do anything about. Let me preface here by saying that I love Thanksgiving and I have a stack of standby recipes that work. I do a great Thanksgiving feast. My turkeys are perfect (thank you, Alton Brown) and the sides are outstanding. And to end it all, I make an amazing pumpkin cheesecake. It is cheesecake perfection. Again, not because I'm amazing, it's just that I understand cheesecake. 

This Thanksgiving, however, I was not even remotely in charge of the menu. I was a guest. As a polite guest, I offered to make pumpkin cheesecake (see how I roll?). But I was informed that someone else had already taken cheesecake, yet would I be so kind as to come help cook on Wednesday? Of course I would. When I arrived, I was handed a recipe for a maple pumpkin pie and set to work. Everybody loves pumpkin pie. Everybody loves maple syrup. And everyone assumes I'm a good baker. But here's the dirty little secret: I cannot make pies. I make pumpkin cheesecake because it's easier than pie. And everybody assumes it's harder. For the life of me, I cannot bake pies. I don't even bother anymore. It's not the insides that perplex me, it's the crust. I buy crusts. I buy local, organic, butter crusts. But I buy them. And I do it without shame. I understand the chemistry of pie crusts; I have followed instructions to the T; I've tried manipulating every variable (shortening? lard? ice water? vinegar? egg? cream? I've tried it all); I've made pie crusts by hand; I've used a Cuisinart; and yet my crusts never work out.

So I was handed this recipe, in someone else's kitchen where I was a guest. And I panicked. I couldn't say no; I had to make the pie. And while I protested my abilities, everyone thought it was just false modesty. But there was nothing false about it. I saw that this recipe came from Martha Stewart and knew I was doomed. I have had more tragic experiences trying to make Martha's beautiful holiday creations than I care to recount. I don't even bother anymore. If the recipe came from Martha, I just don't do it. It's part of my plan to make sure everything I make is good. 

And even worse, I was given the recipe, but not the article that had the pictures and step-by-step instructions for making the pie (not that it would have helped, necessarily). Suffice it to say, the pie was terrible. The filling was good, but the crust was a chewy, dry, terrible mess. It looked beautiful (to the untrained eye), but it was awful. I could barely eat my own piece. And the thing is, I knew from the moment I started making the crust that it would be bad. I could see each step taking me further and further from the path of flaky goodness, I could see the gluten developing but I couldn't very well start over in someone's else's kitchen after I had already used 2-1/2 sticks of butter. Could I? I pushed through, made the pie and I served it with a slice of humble pie on the side.

As my family would say, Becahdawn ruined Thanksgiving. What kind of person ruins the pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving? This experience has only reinforced my commitment to buying pie crusts from Bi-Rite. That, and making cheesecakes whenever possible.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

stuffed pumpkins

It's fall. I'm full of Thanksgiving leftovers and I feel the need to write something about Yann's amazing stuffed pumpkin recipe. People keep asking me for the recipe and so here it is...

Two Octobers ago I spent Halloween with my dear friend Yann in a tiny village, Privas, in the south of France. In honor of the American holiday and his American guest, Yann threw a murder mystery dinner party. The menu for the evening centered around this incredible stuffed pumpkin. It was unbelievably good! I had Yann send me the recipe, but never really had a chance to make it.

Then this past October, my brother got married in LA and I decided to make stuffed pumpkins for a big dinner with the two families. I found 6 beautiful heirloom pumpkins here in the Bay Area and drove them down to LA with me. 

My mother and sisters and I spent an entire afternoon stuffing these beauties. And again, the results were a huge hit. One of the best parts was comparing the different textures, colors, and flavors from each pumpkin. They were all wonderful, with the same stuffing, but the results were quite different.

Finally, on November 4, Chris and I threw an election party and decided to serve up some stuffed pumpkin for our guests as we waited for the results to come in. Again, everybody loved it!

This recipe is simple, rich and hard to mess up. I think my sister made it for some friends recently and it was a big success. The recipe can be scaled up or down, depending on the pumpkins you have available. The important thing is to make sure your pumpkin fits in your oven. We had some difficulties first time around with Yann's tiny, european oven...

Bon appétit!

Yann's Stuffed Pumpkin

  • 35-40 cm (large) pumpkin, top cut off (reserve) and seeds removed
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 bunch parsley, chopped
  • ½ loaf white bread, diced
  • 3 bulbs garlic, chopped
  • 3-4 shallots, diced
  • ½ pound mushrooms, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 pounds bacon, diced 
  • 16 oz comté (or gruyère or similar cheese), grated
  • 2-6 tbsp pumpkin jam (optional)
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 4 cups crème fraîche
  • Salt and pepper
  • Freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 400°F

Sauté the parsley and bread in 4 tbsp butter in a large sauté pan until browned. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Transfer to a clean bowl and sauté the shallots and mushrooms in the remaining butter until soft. Salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a clean bowl and cook the bacon in the pan until browned.

In the pumpkin, layer in the following order: bread, bacon, mushrooms, cheese, pumpkin jam. Repeat the layers until the pumpkin is almost full. Add the wine and crème fraîche, stopping 2cm from the top. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Cut a small vent hole in the lid of the pumpkin and place it on top. Place the pumpkin on a baking sheet and bake for 2-3 hours or until the pumpkin is soft and the filling is bubbling through the lid. Remove carefully from the oven!

Stir the stuffing inside the pumpkin and serve each scoop of stuffing with a portion of flesh from the inside of the pumkin.


Monday, November 24, 2008

they really are that good

Not too long ago I decided to finally make "The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies." I don't claim any credit for how perfect these cookies are; the idea really came from this article in the NY Times back in July. The recipe is a little bit involved (takes a couple of days and is probably best if you use a scale instead of measuring cups), but it's definitely worth it. They really are that good and not for the chocolate-faint-of-heart. Soft, chewy, gooey, crispy around the edges...Mary Poppins perfect.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

winter greens

I'm obsessed with winter greens right now. It's nothing unusual for me to be inspired by local, fresh produce. And I know I'm spoiled living in Northern California; we don't really have any months without amazing produce coming from within a 100-mile radius. But I'm always surprised at the end of summer to remember how many wonderful fruits and vegetables arrive as the weather cools down. I get crazy excited to start using wild mushrooms, winter squashes, apples & pears, citrus, and pomegranates, but I always forget they're coming. Yet somehow this year may be the first I've really discovered the lettuces that show up in the markets as the fall weather rolls in.

A friend recently brought me two smoked duck breasts and told me to make salads with them. Not being someone who often cooks with duck, I hopped on to to find a salad recipe that used smoked duck breast. The recipe I found called for a mix of winter greens that were somewhat unfamiliar to me. I was surprised to find that not only were these greens available, they were beautiful and in-season. The market I visited had a number of beautiful chicories that I blindly grabbed and decided to figure out what to do with when I got home. After turning to the bible that is Chez Panisse Vegetables, I identified my purple chicories as Rossa di Treviso and Rossa di Verona. I also picked up some Belgian endive, frisée, and watercress.

The salad was amazing! (Smoked duck breast, walnuts, pomegranates, tangerines, red onions, and a citrus-balsamic dressing). But even more wonderful was the container of mixed greens that sat in my fridge (washed and spun) for a few days without wilting or losing any of the bright, fresh flavor they had on day one. I ate leftover salad for days and each time the bowl of greens brightened my day. I'm sold. This is my new salad mix for winter months. The colors are incredible, the texture crisp and fresh, and the flavor, well...

Let me say this about winter greens: they aren't mild, unassuming vehicles for your favorite salad dressing. They have a wild bitterness that brings them center stage in a salad. I think this comes from an adaptation to ward off predators when growing conditions get rough and competition gets fierce. Many of the things we love about foods come from the co-evolution of plants and animals (predators, pollinators, seed dispersers...) and bitter winter greens are no exception. Most of my summer salads are about showcasing the ingredients on top of the greens, but in this salad the greens were the key players. Every other ingredient played some important role in balancing the crazy bitterness of the lettuces. They work will with rich dressings, meats, nuts, cheeses, eggs, name it. Rich foods go well with winter greens. And who doesn't love rich foods when the weather turns cold?

Smoked Duck Breast with Winter Greens

  • 1/3 cup fresh tangerine juice or orange juice
  • 1/4 cup walnut oil or extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon raspberry vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 5 tangerines or 3 oranges
  • 3 heads of Belgian endive, trimmed, thinly sliced crosswise
  • 3 cups bite-size pieces frisée lettuce
  • 3 cups bite-size pieces radicchio
  • 1 bunch watercress, thick stems trimmed
  • 4 ounces smoked duck breast* or smoked turkey breast, cut into thin strips
  • 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced into rings
  • 2/3 cup walnut halves, toasted
  • 1/3 cup fresh pomegranate seeds

Whisk first 9 ingredients in small bowl until well blended. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Bring to room temperature and whisk before using.)

If using tangerines, remove peel; separate into segments. If using oranges, cut off peel and white pith; cut between membranes to release segments into bowl. Toss endive, frisée, radicchio, and watercress in large bowl with enough dressing to coat.

Divide salad among 8 plates. Top each with smoked duck, onion rings, and tangerine or orange segments. Sprinkle with walnuts and pomegranate seeds. Drizzle with some of remaining dressing.