Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Modern Comfort Food

(Is it obvious yet that my actual camera finally gave up the ghost, so
I've been using my phone's camera for the past couple of weeks? Apologies!)

There’s nothing like a relaxing weekend with a close friend- unwinding, telling stories, window shopping and the occasional glass(es) of wine in the afternoon. The only thing that makes this better for me is when the close friend that is visiting happens to be my mother! We attended the Newport boat show (the initial excuse for the trip), walked around down town, drove out through Ocean Point to watch the surf, had a long brunch at Café Zelda and took time to breathe and enjoy hanging out as the dynamic mother-daughter duo we are. The weather was most certainly in our favor, and we did our best to appreciate as much of it as possible, including enjoying a waterside late lunch out on the patio of The Pier.

After tooling around downtown and the boat show on Saturday, I was chomping at the bit to cook dinner, as my mother is one of the biggest supporters of my culinary obsession, and one of the most honest taste-testers I know. I had an idea for a scallop dish that had been rolling around in my head for a week or two, and since Ky isn’t a huge scallop fan, Saturday presented itself as the ideal time to make the dish. I also invited my good friend Jill (who was my supervisor at IYRS during my volunteering) over, as she and my mother get along very well, and I was deep in debt to her for all of the kindness and comestibles she had recently extended my way.

After working over the concept of the dish a few days before, we trudged up to the treehouse with gorgeous scallops and bottles of wine in hand, I put out of a couple of pre-dinner treats, and set to work on the dish. The cooler temperatures and drop in humidity had me shooting for something warm and comforting, without being overly heavy. The scallops were fresh and beautiful, as has been the case with every fish purchase I've made at the oft-mentioned Anthony's Seafood, so I wanted to be sure to highlight as much of their naturally sweet and subtle flavors- anything too heavy, and their delicacy would be completely lost. Leeks and shitake mushrooms seemed like a natural compliment- both have the same understated flavors that would work harmoniously with the scallops. I have been looking for an excuse to work with cranberry beans again, and after volleying some concepts around in my head, I figured they would make a great base for the dish, and bring a little more depth without being overpowering. As our kitchen is small, and I didn’t want to spend the rest of the night washing dishes, I used one cast iron pan to do all of my searing & sautéing, and in the end this allowed for a great layering of flavors with minimal pan usage. I’ve also added a couple of technique notes at the bottom of the recipe from things I had picked up back in my days in real working kitchens, and they are tips that can help make a big difference in the ease and consistency of the dish.

The end result of all this planning was a comforting dish that had very light flavors, but was still very satisfying. The next time (and there certainly will be one) I make the dish, I plan on cutting down on the roux a bit, as the sauce was just a touch more heavy than I was aiming for, but the flavors were right on par with what I was aiming for. I served a simple green salad upgraded by fresh tomatoes and arugula from Jill’s garden as a side, and of course a little Prosecco- it was a Ladies’ Night, afterall! Good food, delicious wine, great friends and non-stop conversation, the makings for a truly great fall night in!

Scallop Casserole with Leeks, Shitake Mushrooms & Cranberry Beans
(this recipe will easily feed 4, and could be stretched to 5-6 servings)

- 1 ½ Lbs. fresh sea scallops
- 6 Slices Pancetta
- 2 Medium leeks, sliced thin & cleaned (see note)
- 6-8oz. Shitake mushrooms, stemmed & sliced
- 2 Garlic cloves, minced
- ¾ Stick good quality salted butter (Kerrygold Irish or some other European style works best)
- ½ Cup(ish) all purpose flour
- 24 oz. Roman beans, canned or fresh (if using fresh, cook off first)
- ½- ¾ Cup dry white wine (I used Sauvignon Blanc)
- Zest & juice of one good size lemon
- 8oz. Half & Half, cream or milk
- ¾ Cup Panko breadcrumbs
- Good handful of flat leaf Italian parsley, chopped
- Extra virgin olive oil
- ½ Tblspn. seafood seasoning (Old Bay is my go to)
-Sea salt & fresh cracked pepper

Remove scallops from packaging & place in one layer on a kitchen or paper towel lined plate, removing any “foot” muscles (tough white muscle the runs along the side of scallop) and discarding. Top with a second layer of towel and press down lightly to remove any excess moisture, which will cause splattering during searing. Heat a large cast iron skillet over medium high with a little olive oil. Fry pancetta slices until very crisp, being careful not to burn, and transfer to paper or kitchen towels to drain. Melt ½ stick of butter in a small sauce pan & combine with flour to create a roux, and cook for additional 5-10 minutes to cook out flour taste (roux should be a light golden brown), turn off heat & set aside. Add a little more olive oil to cast iron pan (there should be a thin layer coating the bottom), and bring up to medium-high temp. Remove top layer of towel from scallops & season exposed tops well with salt & pepper. Place scallops seasoning side down into hot pan and sear off, about 2-3 minutes. Season exposed side of scallops, and flip to sear other side, turning scallops in same pattern as they were introduced to heat (see note). Sear for another 2-3 minute and transfer to a warm plate & set aside.

Add a little more olive oil to pan and a little butter, bring to medium heat and add in leeks, stirring well to distribute. Cook over medium heat for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add in sliced mushrooms & continue cooking another 5 minutes, or until leeks are well softened and mushrooms take on a deeper color. Add in minced garlic and cook an additional 2 minutes until garlic becomes aromatic. Season to taste with salt & pepper and seafood seasoning. Pour in lemon juice, ½ of the lemon zest and ½ cup of wine and heat until just below a simmer and slightly reduced, about 8-10 minutes. Begin introducing roux into mixture and continuing to stir well to avoid clump formation (see note). Continue to add roux until mixture becomes thick and gravy like- you may not use all of your roux, just use your best judgement. Using small amounts, begin incorporating half & half into the sauce, until correct consistency is reached- similar to that of alfredo sauce. Once consistency is reached, turn off heat. In a small bowl, combine breadcrumbs with remainder of lemon zest, and half of chopped parsley.

To assemble: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In the bottom of a deep casserole dish (tall enough for ¼” lip above scallops & beans), layer cranberry beans in an even layer across entire bottom. Top with ½ of Leek-Mushroom sauce & place seared scallops on top in one layer. Cover scallops with second half of sauce and pancetta slices (either in whole slices or crumbled). Spread seasoned breadcrumbs evenly over top & bake off in oven for 20-25 minutes, until top is golden brown & sauce is bubbly. Serve immediately topped with chopped parsley & lemon slices. The casserole can also be made in individual ramekins or chafing dishes.


A note on leeks: Leeks are one of my favorite flavors to cook with- the problem being how to clean the little buggers without diluting the flavor! There are many philosophies on how to clean leeks, and mine has evolved from my brief kitchen training a few years back, and doesn’t call for any special equipment. Fill a deep bowl with very cold water. Slice off the last ¼ to ½” inch by the root & discard. Cut leek in half and slice thinly, about the width of a rubber band (there will be dirt in the layers- don’t panic!), and cut up until the leaves begin to turn dark green- these tops can be saved & used later for soup stock. Transfer sliced leeks to cold water and let sit for a minute or two. Lightly break apart slices with your fingers to help loosen any grit from in between the layers. Let the leeks sit, undisturbed, for another minute or two in water. Using a slotted spoon or your hands, gently remove leeks from water and place in a colander or strainer- be sure not disturb the water too much, as the sediment should have settled to the bottom of the bowl. Briefly rinse leeks with a sprayer and very cold water to remove any leftover grit. Shake to dry, and you’re ready to use!

A note on scallop searing: One of the best techniques for searing off scallops quickly & evenly came from my good friend and kitchen instructor, Ralph Smith. Once the pan has come up to temp, I place the scallops in concentric clockwise circles (evenly spaced) around the pan and then leave them untouched until I’m ready to turn and sear the other side. I use the circular pattern when turning them, so that every scallop gets the same time to sear, and you avoid overcooking- the pattern makes it easier to remember where you started in the pan as well. In some circumstances, it is a good idea to move the food around when searing, but with scallops it is imperative to let them sit once they are introduced to the heat- this is crucial for allowing the natural sugars to caramelize and achieving that lovely brown color. Scallops should only be moved once, while flipping sides, in order to sear properly.

A note on roux: While working as the lunch chef at The Chowder House, I learned an easy, foolproof way of introducing roux to liquid to avoid clumping, and have been using it ever since. For making roux, I use a bulbous metal whisk to combine & cook the flour-butter mixture so that the consistency remains smooth. After the roux has been well mixed, I cook it off for a couple of additional minutes so that any of the raw flour flavor is eliminated. When adding into liquid, I use the whisk to scoop the roux into the liquid, stirring with the whisk as soon as the roux is introduced to break up any clumps. Repeat this process with a small amount of roux until the desired consistency is released, and use the whisk yet again when adding in cream or milk to keep the sauce smooth.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A True Lunch Break

Almost every day, I bring my lunch to work from home. Usually it consists of leftovers from a previous meal, and a lot of times it takes shape in the form of a salad. I do my best to keep my lunches relatively light and satisfying, since there is nothing worse than sitting at your desk feeling the creeping onset of a food coma- especially when your desk lacks any sort of privacy from the rest of the office! It also may sound a little silly, but I enjoy taking a few minutes to “time out” from my daily tasks and actually enjoy my lunch whenever possible- I bring cutlery from home, stash a cloth napkin in my work bag, and make an attempt to actually have a lunch break as opposed to wolfing down some non-descript take out item while scanning over spec sheets (not that this doesn’t happen on occasion!).

During my massive re-nesting/cooking marathon of the past weekend, I was attempting to figure out a way to combine items I had on hand that I could stretch out over a couple of lunches that was a little outside of my usual routine. I get daily email newsletters from one of my favorite publications, Real Simple, and I remembered seeing a tomato & garbanzo salad that had looked appealing, and decided to play off of the concept. I had made a HUGE batch of Slow Roasted Tomatoes & Garlic on Sunday (I really should not be allowed to go to the Farmer’s Market without adult supervision!) and I had done a long drag through the market’s olive bar- one of my favorite destinations- and had picked up some olives and balsamic marinated mushrooms. I swapped out the garbanzos for Cannellini beans, which I had on hand, and the end result was a perfect salad for lunch- packed with protein, tasty veggies and loads of flavor. I was able to get three full lunches out of the mixture, and will definitely be making it again. By using the slow roasted tomatoes, the salad can be made year round, since the roasting will get rid of any mealy texture or less flavorful tomatoes in the off-season. When fresh tomatoes are in season, adding ½ a rough chopped fresh tomato brings and interesting and appealing play on flavors in the two tomato style. The salad would also make for a great hors d’ oeuvres applying the same concept- allow guests to build their own bruschetta with toasted bread, ricotta, baby arugula (baby spinach works well also) and the bean salad- wildly easy, and a perfect flavor combination.

The longer the salad sits, the better, so I would recommend starting this the night before, and dividing it up in the morning, so the beans have a chance to meld with the other flavors, and the arugula will remain crisp until lunch time. If you’re looking for a single container lunch, omit the side of ricotta cheese and toss in some cubed feta with the salad. This salad is a great way to implement simple ingredients into a very satisfying meal using minimal prep time and effort.

Bellissimo White Bean Salad
(Recipe makes enough for 3 lunches, 2 dinners or as an hors d’oeuvres for a crowd)

- 1 Can Cannellini beans, rinsed & drained
- 6 Slices Slow Roasted Tomatoes, rough chopped
- 3 Cloves Roasted Garlic, chopped (garlic will break down when combined into salad)
- ½ Ripe Roma tomato, diced
- 6 Olives, pitted & quartered (I used kalamata and Moroccan green)
- 6 Marinated mushrooms, quartered
-2 Tbspn fresh Italian parsley, chopped
- Fresh baby Arugula
- Cracked black pepper & sea salt
- Basil leaves (3-4 per serving)
- Part skim Ricotta cheese (1/4 cup per serving)
- 1Tspn. fresh grated lemon zest (per serving)
- Sliced rustic bread (2 slices per serving)

In a good sized container, combine beans, tomatoes, garlic, parsley, olives and mushrooms. Add a little of the oil from the roasted tomatoes and season with salt & pepper to taste. Mix ingredients well, cover and refrigerate overnight if possible before dividing.

Chiffonade basil leaves by stacking leaves into a neat pile, roll lengthwise and slice into thin rounds. Separate the ribbons with fingers & combine with ricotta & lemon zest in a small sealable container.

When dividing for lunches, place approx ¾ cup of bean salad into a sealable container and top with a hearty handful of baby Arugula (placing on top will prevent rapid wilting) and seal. Pack ricotta mixture & bread separately, and when ready assemble into lunch portion bruschetta and take a few minutes to relax and enjoy.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tastes of Fall

"These apples are delicious- as a matter of fact they are, she said
Can all this fruit be free..?"

While we were up in Maine for Labor Day weekend, Kyle and I stopped by his folk’s farm just up the road from my family’s house. It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of land complete with a fish pond, raspberry patch, herb & vegetable gardens and a great orchard. A few weeks before, the peaches had been in season and I was thrilled to tote home a large bag of the fresh beauties. This time around, the apples and pears were coming in, and Kyle’s stepfather and I took a couple of bags out to harvest. Kyle’s mother had been busy at work canning and preserving the summer’s harvest and sent us home with a couple of jars of her homemade peach chutneys and jams, which I’m really looking forward to getting into!

Returning to Newport, we hauled our bags of apples and pears up to the apartment, and I began concocting ways to use, store & preserve out bounty. Given our limited space in the treehouse, and my inability to execute proper canning procedure, I wanted to come up with ways to get the most flavor out of these little beauties that would keep once frozen. Applesauce was my first instinct, as it is easy to make, easy to freeze (I used gallon Ziplock freezer bags- almost all the air can be removed, and they can be frozen flat for minimal space usage), and is a great way to prolong the comforting fall flavors of apples for an extended amount of time.

Since I had already committed myself to A LOT of peeling, coring and chopping (I set up a station in the living room so I could watch the Patriots season opener last Sunday!), my second option was for apple turnovers. Don had also picked me half a dozen pears, and I wanted to mix the pears and apples together with some dried cranberries- another favorite fall flavor. Building on that, I decided to let the creativity flow a bit more by adding a thin layer of brie before sealing the edges of the tart, as there are very few situations where I feel that cheese does not make something better. I am not a huge sweet tooth, and had some extra fresh Thyme lying around, so I sprinkled a few leaves into the last few turnovers, and the outcome was right in my wheelhouse- all of the sweetness you would expect from the fruit, the tartness of the cranberries, a spice hit from the rum, the creamy subtlety of the brie and a little earthiness from the Thyme. For me- a perfect balance of savory and sweet.

I prefer my turnovers to have more of a pie-like dough, not overly flaky with a bit of heft to hold up to the filling. I had watched the gang over on America’s Test Kitchen prepare their Foolproof Pie Dough, and with the security of knowing my baker extraordinaire was safely out of the house I set to work. As they note, adding the vodka gives you the moisture you need to make the dough pliable when rolling out, but bakes out once in the oven, so the dough comes out light and flaky- brilliant! For both the filling and the dough, I like to make both components the day before, so that the fruit has plenty of time to soak up the flavor from the rum, and the dough has a chance to rest and come together. Although there are a fair amount of steps to this process, it really does come together quickly, especially if you start the dough and filling the night before.

With only a handful of leftover apples in my fruit bowl, I am looking forward to enjoying the flavors of the harvest for months to come, and sharing these treats with friends coming through the door looking to warm up after a walk through the crisp fall air.

Spiked Pear, Apple and Cranberry Turnovers with Brie
(This recipe will make enough for 8-10 turnovers, and can be easily doubled or tripled)

Turnover Filling

-4 Fresh apples, of variety, peeled, cored & diced
-3-4 Fresh pears, peeled, cored & diced
- ½ Cup dried cranberries
- ½ Tblspn Cinnamon, ground
- ½ Tblspn Nutmeg, ground
-Juice & zest of ½ a lemon
- ½ to ¾ Cup Organic sugar (adjust according to your preferred level of sweetness)
- ½ Cup dark spiced rum

Combine all fruit, spices, lemon, sugar and rum in a shallow glass or plastic container and stir well to coat. Taste and adjust spices/sweetness to desired level. Cover dish & place in the refrigerator overnight to allow fruit to soak up the liquid, stirring mixture once or twice throughout.

Foolproof Pie Dough- From America’s Test Kitchen (doubled)

- 2 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour (6 1/4 ounces)
- 1 teaspoon table salt
- 2 tablespoon sugar
- 12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (3/4 stick), cut into 1/4-inch slices
- 1/2 cup chilled solid vegetable shortening , cut into 2 pieces
- 4 tablespoons vodka , cold
- 4 tablespoons cold water

Process 1¼ cups flour, salt, and sugar together in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogenous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 10 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds with some very small pieces of butter remaining, but there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape down sides and bottom of bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining 1 cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.

Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Flatten dough into two 4-inch disks. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

Remove dough disk from refrigerator and roll out on generously floured (up to ¼ cup) work surface to 12-inch square (or a close assimilation), about 1/8 inch thick. Trim edges to clean up shape and cut dough into four even squares and stack on a small plate in between small sheets of wax or parchment paper. Repeat with second half of dough.

To Assemble

-Turnover filling
-Foolproof Dough, cut into squares
-8-10 small slices double cream brie (with our without rinds
-Fresh Thyme leaves (optional), stemmed
-1 egg, lightly beaten
-Cinnamon & sugar to dust
-Baking sheet topped with parchment paper.

Before starting, be sure to give the filling one last good stir to ensure evenly coated fruit. Working one square at a time, place a small amount of filling on the lower (triangular) half of the dough. Top fruit mixture with a sprinkle of Thyme leaves (if using) and cover with slice of brie. Dip your finger into the filling liquid and run along the edge of the turnover to help seal. Fold over the top half of the dough to form a triangle and crimp (using fingers or fork tines) to seal. Place finished turnover on baking sheet and repeat with remaining mixture and dough squares. If baking off immediately, preheat oven to 400 degrees, brush turnover tops with egg wash and dust with cinnamon sugar. Bake in oven for 20-25 minutes until golden brown and flaky.

For Freezing: Follow through assembly process and place turnovers in a single layer on parchment lined baking sheet. Do not brush with egg wash. Place entire baking sheet directly into freezer and allow turnovers to freeze for four hours, or overnight. Once frozen, pack tightly into labeled freezer bags, and seal out as much air as possible. Turnovers will keep in this method for a few months, and can be baked directly from frozen state, with an added 5-10 minutes of cooking time, depending on your oven. If you choose to thaw before baking off, be sure to remove turnovers from bags and place on a parchment lined baking sheet to come up to temp- otherwise you’ll end up with a gooey mess in the bag! For both methods, follow the same egg wash & dusting step as above, as well as oven temp.