Sunday, January 30, 2011

Using My Noodle

As you’ve probably heard about (or have been digging yourself out of), here on the East Coast we’ve been getting slammed with a record breaking number of consecutive snowstorms. This month, it’s been snowing in blizzard-like proportions just about once a week. It seems like we’ll be living in a colorless snow globe for quite a bit.

Snow can be beautiful. Even despite the impending hassle; it’s hard not to be taken by the marshmallow world of fresh and untouched snowfall. For a short while, it’s an excuse to just stay inside and be cozy. Then, there’s the reality: stuck cars, dirty slush, and who can forget the absurd apocalyptic panic mode people go into when they hear that accumulations are on the way again?

The weather man could be calling for two inches or two feet; either way, you can bet droves of people will be on their way to the store to shop for their lives. Apparently, no one has enough food in their house to make it through one possible day of being snowed in. Without a bag of white bread and a carton of milk, one just might starve to death.

As the food manager for a local culinary school, grocery shopping is pretty much my job. Whether it is going to snow the next day or not, I still have to go to the store to buy food for classes. Crazed mobs of snow shoppers taking up all the parking spaces and forming lines out the door are simply in my way.

Lately, I’ve been finding myself caught in the snow shopper madness a lot and it’s been pretty interesting to see what people stock up on when they think the sky is falling. Of course, milk, bread and eggs make the top of the list (maybe there is a big blizzard brunch that no one is telling me about where everyone makes French toast and scrambled eggs?). Of course, canned goods are also a big one, and another item that I’ve really started to notice lately—peanut butter.

It makes sense. Peanut butter is a pantry staple. Although I wasn’t snowed in (yet), it came in handy for me the other night. Luckily, I happened to have a bunch of other great flavors on hand to make a delicious spicy peanut and coconut noodle bowl: cilantro, peanuts, one trusty lime, sambal oelek chili paste, and a can of coconut milk—very Thai-ish. It’s really easy to make, and is a perfect way to use up some of that peanut butter when you’re stuck inside!

Spicy Peanut and Coconut Noodle Bowl

Yield: 4-6 servings

- 1/2 pound round udon noodles or spaghetti
- 1, 13.5 oz can coconut milk
- 1 lime, juiced + lime slices for garnish
- ½ cup peanut butter
- 1 teaspoon sambal oelek chili paste
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, grated
- ½ cup fresh cilantro, lightly chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced
- ½ cup roasted peanuts, lightly chopped
- Toasted coconut to garnish

• In a medium bowl, whisk together coconut milk, lime juice, peanut butter, sambal, soy sauce, and grated ginger until fairly smooth.
• In a medium sauce pot with salted water, cook noodles until done and strain.
• In a wok, heat vegetable oil and add minced garlic; cook until fragrant. Pour in sauce and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Reduce to a simmer and cook for about 3 minutes until thickened; add cilantro at last minute and salt and pepper to taste.
• Mix the noodles into the sauce. Put into bowls and garnish with peanuts, toasted coconut, and lime wedges.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Let Them Eat Polenta Cake

Simply boiled cornmeal, polenta, a traditional Italian porridge, is considered as a peasant food. Filling, readily available and inexpensive, back in the day it was the poor man’s dinner. Then again, some of our most favorite Italian foods (pizza, pasta) originated as such.

As the frugal-minded know, just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it can’t be good. Depending on how you accessorize, you can easily work a dress from Target like it was from Neiman’s. Same deal with polenta; while it’s just fine in its simplest form, how you prepare this “peasant food” and what you serve it with can make all the difference.

These days, polenta is on a whole new level. It has moved on up and is comfortably residing in its deluxe apartment in the sky. Served creamy and spooned high on plates topped with hearty ragu, or set and cut into shapes--perhaps even fried, polenta has become a popular item on restaurant menus, served in an endless number of rustic but rich ways.

Polenta Cake with Sun Dried Tomato Sauce, Caponata, and Parmigiano Tuile

As with polenta’s history, this polenta dish is a classic case of using what you got and making it taste good. Sun dried tomatoes from the Sunday before = sun dried tomato sauce. A block of Parmigiano in the refrigerator cheese drawer = Parmigiano tuiles or cheese wafers. I admit, I had to go buy some of the caponata ingredients, and for the polenta, I used instant.

Instant polenta is amazingly, well, instant. Simply whisk into boiling water or stock and it bubbles up and expands into a delicious mass of cornmeal mush. To make polenta cakes, pour out soft cornmeal onto a sheet tray, spread out, cool in the fridge until set, and cut out shapes. If you don’t have a cookie cutter, you can cut triangles or squares with a knife.

The polenta cakes work really nicely with the caponata and sun dried tomato sauce. Of course, you can just pile all these components together and it will still taste just as good, but depending on the occasion, a circle cookie cutter is all you need to create the pretty layers you see in the photo.

And how cool are the Parmigiano tuiles? They add a nice extra touch to this great appetizer and aren’t as hard as they might seem (please see recipe for instructions).

Polenta Cakes with Caponata, Sun Dried Tomato Sauce, and Parmigiano Tuile:

Yield- 12-15 cakes

- 1 ½ cups quick cooking polenta
- 4 ½ cups water
- Salt
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Pepper to taste
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 celery stalk, chopped
- 1 eggplant, small dice (2 cups)
- 1 red bell pepper, small dice
- 1 medium onion, small dice
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 tablespoons raisins (black or white)
- 5 large green olives, roughly chopped
- 2 tablespoons marinated sun dried tomato, roughly chopped
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ cup red wine vinegar
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons sun dried tomato sauce (recipe follows)
- 4 oz water
- Salt and pepper to taste
Sun Dried Tomato Sauce:
- 4 oz marinated sun dried tomato
- 1 cup chicken stock, hot
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- Liberal sprinkling of garlic powder
- Salt and pepper to taste
Parmigiano Tuile:
- 2 cups Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, finely grated

• Preheat oven to 220 degrees F.
• Polenta: Bring water to a boil and season with salt. Gradually pour in polenta, while stirring constantly. Reduce to a simmer while continuing to stir; cook for 3 minutes or more for thicker consistency. Add seasoning and mix in 2 tablespoons of butter to finish. Pour polenta into a greased half sheet pan and spread out evenly. Cover with plastic and refrigerate. When cold, cut into circles or other desired shapes (triangles, squares…).
• Sun dried tomato sauce: in a blender or food processor, process tomatoes. Add hot chicken stock in two parts, and blend until smooth. Return sauce to a medium pot and put over medium heat. Add balsamic, sugar, salt, pepper, and garlic powder.
• Caponata: heat olive oil in a heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add celery and sauté until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Add the eggplant and sauté until it begins to soften, about 2 minutes. Season with salt. Add the red pepper and cook until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Add onion and garlic; sauté until translucent. Add sundried tomatoes, olives, raisins, oregano, sugar, vinegar, water, and sun dried tomato sauce. Simmer over medium-low heat until the flavors blend and the mixture thickens, about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
• Parmigiano tuile: on a sheet tray, place grated cheese inside of a round cookie cutter to give it its shape. Cook in preheated 220 degree oven until melted, about 5 minutes—keep a close eye on them. Once out of the oven, allow the tuiles to completely cool and set before carefully removing from tray.
• To assemble: spoon sun dried tomato sauce on a plate and top with polenta cake. Spoon caponata on top of polenta cake and finish with a Parmigiano tuile.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Today on the menu, we have a couple of delicious stuffed foods: baked clams & mushrooms filled with traditional duxelles.

Wheather you’ve got your seafood legs or are still a little wobbly on the fish eating deck, baked clams is the kind of fish dish that works for most. In my take on the popular appetizer/side dish, panko bread crumb absorbs a flavorful broth of white wine, lemon and clam juice, along with a finely diced mix of sweated shallots, fennel, and red pepper.

These baked clams are a staple on my Christmas Eve dinner table. If you love clams, keep them chunky; and if you like the flavor but the consistency grosses you out, chop ‘em up small! My advice: make it easy on yourself, and get the fishmonger to open up the clams and give you the shells.

Duxelles is basic, go-to, traditional, stuffed food 101. A mixture of finely chopped mushrooms and shallots sautéed in butter—it’s as simple as that. Duxelles can be used to stuff vegetables such as tomatoes and artichokes, and also with meat, fish, and poultry. For my mushrooms, I bought large stuffer caps, and topped them off with grated parmigiano reggiano.

The duxelles recipe provided is from the Culinary Institute of America’s, the Professional Chef. The Pro Chef is pretty much the bible at CIA. Everything you need to know about the art and science of cooking is in there, and if you’re really serious about culinary arts you should own it. I referenced it all through culinary school, and I continue to do so. With a broken binding and dog eared creases on like every other page, it definitely shows.

Baked Clams:

Yield: About 20 Littleneck Clams
- 10 littleneck clams, opened
- 4 tablespoons butter, divided into 2 tablespoons each
- 1 small-medium bulb fennel, small dice
- 2 shallots, minced
- 1 red pepper, brunoise/very fine dice
- 1 cup white wine
- Juice from 1 lemon
- 8 oz plain panko bread crumb
- Salt and pepper to taste

• Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
• Remove clams from the shells and save extra juice. Clean shells and line up on a sheet tray. Chop clams as large or as fine as you like; reserve.
• Melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat in a large, deep skillet; add shallots, fennel, and red pepper and cook until soft.
• Add white wine and lemon juice; bring to a simmer and let cook for about 2 minutes. A handful at a time, mix in panko until all of the liquid is absorbed. Add as much panko as needed. Mix in clams and clam juice, and finish with remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.
• Stuff clam shells with the mixture and bake until slightly dried and browned, about 30 minutes.

Classic Duxelles Stuffing/ Stuffed Mushrooms:
Translated from the Professional Chef, the Culinary Institute of America

Yield: 2 pounds
- 6 ounces minced shallot
- 2 ounces clarified or whole butter
- 2 pounds white mushrooms, cut into small dice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoons pepper
- 8 fluid ounces heavy cream
- 8 ounces fresh or dried bread crumbs such as panko
- Large stuffer mushrooms

• Sweat shallots in butter for 5-6 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté them until dry to create a duxelles. Season with salt and pepper.
• Add the heavy cream and summer until thickened. Add the bread crumbs and combine well. Can be used to stuff mushrooms, tomato, and artichokes. Chill well before using to stuff meat, fish, or poultry.
• For stuffed mushrooms: clean mushrooms and remove the stems. Line the empty caps on a sheet tray and fill the mushrooms with duxelles. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until the mushrooms are soft. If topping with grated cheese such as gruyere or parmesan, reserve until the end; sprinkle on top of mushrooms, and bake or broil until melted.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Better Late Than Never: Christmas Croquembouche

What is croquembouche?

Besides being an incredible word (pronounced, “croak-ohm-boosh”) that I could never get enough of saying, croquembouche is a mountainous French dessert. Bound together with sticky caramel, rows of creampuffs are stacked to form a delicious pastry pyramid that is usually decorated with chocolate or webs of spun sugar.

Such a showpiece of a dessert is reserved for occasions that call for celebration. Traditionally, Croquembouche is served at French weddings either on its own, or on top of a regular tiered cake. They can be as tall as the ceiling or as small as an individual portion. Croquembouche is especially great for Christmas time because it looks like a tree.

I don’t remember what it was that sparked it, but it was all the way back in the summer when I decided that I wanted to make a Christmas Croquembouche. I wrote the word down on a piece of paper and it stayed on my desk until December. I had envisioned walking into my aunt and uncle’s house with a Croquembouche tall enough to cover my face.

In real life, it wasn’t nearly as big, but it was just as pretty and I couldn’t have been more proud to have accomplished my little goal.

I follwed this recipe by Food Network as a guide for the pate a choux, aka cream puff pastries. I have to say, I thought it was a really well-explained recipe for pate a choux, which can be a little tricky sometimes. It was practically seamless. I used my CIA Baking and Pastry cookbook for the pastry cream that I filled them with, and added Nutella to give the cream a little chocolate-hazelnut flavor.

As for the caramel “glue,” I really don’t know what the hell it is about anything caramel, but it wasn’t the most pleasant experience for me. A simple formula of 2 ½ cups of sugar to 2/3 cups of water boiled until golden, and I could barely get it right. It took two batches and a nice burn ring on our wooden kitchen table until I got something decent. One of these days I’ll get it right.

Croquembouche literally translates to “crunch in the mouth,” and between the pate a choux and caramel candy spun around it, that is exactly what it does. I also decorated mine with red and green M & M’s to make it a little more Christmassy. Everyone really liked it, and my pretty pastry pyramid looked so nice on the table!

P.S. After Victoria showed them on her blog, Mission: Food, I had to visit the holiday window display at Barney’s this year. The theme was, “Have a Foodie Holiday” and they featured celebrity chefs! The windows were divided by women, innovators, and my favorite--a food fight among the men. Here are a few photos. And yeah, I don’t know why the women are all wearing snuggies.