Sunday, February 28, 2010

escarole salad with pickled red onions

City Bakery’s hot chocolate festival can only go so far to relieve the winter doldrums. February (officially the longest month ever, despite what experts say) has left me feeling defeated, and decidedly ready for spring…

Or perhaps not entirely decided. Because, while I’ve lost my tolerance for winter’s ubiquitous slush puddles and 5:30 p.m. sunsets, I’m still loving the food. Beets, salsify, brussels sprouts—my appetite for cold-weather ingredients is inexhaustible.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the winter salad. To some, salads may seem inimical to the season. But look past the waxy tomatoes and wilted iceberg lettuce, and I promise that winter is full of forage-centric potential.

Exhibit A:

Escarole Salad with Pickled Red Onions
Adapted from Anne Burrell

Escarole, endive, chicory—these winter greens tend to have a more robust flavor (and texture) than their temperate counterparts. Here the bitterness of the escarole is harnessed for good, playing perfectly off the brininess of the pecorino, and the sweet bite of the pickled onions. I’ve admired variations on this theme at several restaurants: Lupa, Otto, Frankies. But Burrell’s hazelnut-pecorino-parsley crumb sets this version apart. I love this salad on its own, or accompanying a simple pasta (for instance, the Fettuccine with Peas and Parmesan).

For the salad:
1/2 cup grated pecorino
1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts
2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley
1 head escarole, washed, spun dry, cut into bite size pieces
High-quality extra-virgin olive oil

For the pickled onions:
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup cold water
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 to 3 generous shots hot sauce (e.g. Tabasco)
1 red onion, peeled, halved and sliced into very thin half-moons

Make the pickled onions: In a small bowl, combine red wine vinegar with 1/2 cup of cold tap water. Stir in salt, the sugar and the hot sauce. Add the sliced onions and let sit for at least one hour.

Pulse the pecorino, hazelnuts and parsley in the food processor and pulse until they are coarsely chopped.

Toss together the escarole, hazelnut mixture and some of the pickled red onions and dress with some of the pickling liquid and olive oil. (If you have hazelnut oil on hand, you can drizzle some of that as well.) Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

tortellini alfredo

The child foodie is a relatively new invention. Twenty years ago, there were no culinary wunderkinds — no twelve-and-under restaurant critics or cooking show hosts.

When it came to food, I was a particularly undiscerning (and unadventurous) six-year-old. Many meals were spent sneaking food into my napkin, or inventing new reasons to “please be excused.”

This was the dish that changed all that. It is, for all its faults, the dish that taught me to love food.

By faults, I'm speaking not of flavor, but rather of the recipe’s patent inauthenticity. The origins of alfredo sauce may be lost to history, but I’m pretty sure they didn't involve canned parmesan cheese and frozen chicken tortellini. That said, while one could certainly substitute artisanal ingredients with excellent results, in this case I’d rather be loyal to my memory of the dish, and to my mother’s original recipe—processed cheese and all. It may not be gourmet, but it’s pretty damn great.

Tortellini Alfredo

Though this dish was once in my family's regular weeknight rotation, our collective nutritional know-better has relegated it to special occasions. On birthdays, it often appears in hors d'oeuvre form: toothpick-speared tortellini in a glorious pool of cream, butter and cheese. Please don’t omit the nutmeg—it’s an inspired touch.

1 cup heavy cream
1 stick unsalted butter
About 1 cup Parmesan cheese (the American canned version, if you want to keep it real), plus more for serving
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg, or to taste
1 pound frozen chicken or cheese tortellini

In a small saucepan, melt the butter and cream over medium heat. Gradually add the Parmesan cheese and stir until fully incorporated. [You may want to add more or less cheese, depending on desired thickness.] Season with pepper and nutmeg to taste. Keep warm, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the tortellini according to package instructions.

Drain the tortellini and return to pot. Pour over alfredo sauce and toss gently to combine. Serve in warmed bowls, with extra cheese and freshly ground black pepper.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

spice-rubbed pork tenderloin with baby carrots

You know how, on LOST, you get the sense (and by “get the sense” I mean that it is suggested with all the opacity of a kindergarten lesson) that the lives of the characters are somehow irrevocably intertwined? That, even in the face of extraordinary events that defy the space/time continuum—the disappearance of an Island, for instance, or the successful detonation of a hydrogen bomb—Jack, Locke, Hurley, et al. will be pulled, without their knowledge or understanding, toward some predetermined fate?

I’m beginning to think that the same is true for me and Molly Stevens. After all, doesn’t it seem like just last month that I was lauding her recipe for beef tenderloin? (It was just last month.) And, isn’t it strange that I would inadvertently set my heart on another Epicurious recipe for tenderloin (this time pork) also belonging to Molly Stevens??

Of course, it could just be that I am drawn to her particular culinary sensibilities. Or that years of practice have refined my Epicurious strooping. Still, it’s eerie, no?

Eerie, and also very fortunate. Because this tenderloin, just like the last, was extremely tasty, spiced with cumin and oregano and served alongside roasted baby carrots. The carrots make the dish, really—all the sweet caramelization you’d expect, plus a delicious porky glaze from the pan drippings.

Alas, I think it’s time I say goodbye to tenderloin (of all stripes) for a while—I would hate to neglect the more economical and eco-friendly parts of the animal. But I suspect that Ms. Stevens and I will cross paths again soon.

Spice-Rubbed Pork Tenderloin with Roasted Baby Carrots
Adapted from Bon Appétit

This recipes calls for true baby carrots (i.e. not the shaved-down nubbins you find in plastic bags)—but you can easily substitute regular carrots, cut into 3-inch lengths. Realistically, I would double the carrot recipe to serve six.

Serves 6

For the carrots:
2 pounds baby carrots, peeled, trimmed, leaving 1/2 inch of green tops attached
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon butter, diced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 small jalapeño (preferably red), seeded, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon ancho chile powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

For the pork:
2 1-to 1 1/4-pound pork tenderloins
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Arrange carrots on large tinfoil-lined baking sheet. Whisk 2 tablespoons water and all remaining ingredients in small bowl; pour over carrots and toss to coat. Cover tightly with heavy-duty foil. [Can be made 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature. Toss to coat before continuing.]

Roast carrot mixture covered until just tender, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, arrange pork tenderloins on another rimmed baking sheet. Stir oregano, cumin, chile powder, smoked paprika, and 1 teaspoon coarse salt in small bowl; rub mixture all over tenderloins. Heat oil in heavy large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add pork to skillet and cook until browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Return to rimmed baking sheet.

Remove foil from carrots. Nestle pork among carrots on baking sheet, arranging carrots in single layer around pork. Roast uncovered until instant-read thermometer inserted into center of pork registers 145 degrees, stirring carrots occasionally if beginning to caramelize, about 18 minutes. (The meat should be moist and slightly pink.) Let rest 5 to 10 minutes.

Transfer pork to work surface. Cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Arrange carrots on platter. Top with pork slices, drizzling any pan juices over.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

the best apple cake

I don’t know why apple cakes, in particular. Whereas the mere mention of a pumpkin pie or pear crumble never fails to excite my appetite, apple cakes have always been a source of general indifference. And yet, here we are. What seemed at first to be the logical denouement to our apple-picking expedition somehow snowballed into a search for the World’s Best Apple Cake.

So far, the count is at six cakes—hardly epic, but nonetheless exceptional for someone who rarely revisits the same dessert genre. While M. and I have agreed on a tentative titleholder, each of these cakes could suit a particular occasion or appetite. And they all subvert my image of the apple cake as a ho-hum, breakfast-only affair.

#1 Sticky Spiked Double-Apple Cake

The quantity of butter in this recipe may give it an unfair edge over the competition. But when you factor in demerits for the name (I’d like to propose a moratorium for all recipe titles featuring two or more adjectives), Regan Daley's Sticky Spiked Double-Apple Cake was the uncontested champion. There’s a lot to love about this cake—the dense, moist crumb, the pronounced spice profile (Daley shares my affection for nutmeg), the textural contrast of the various fresh and dried fruits. It’s proof that the apple cake can be as indulgent as any dessert. (A scoop of vanilla ice cream and a dousing of brown sugar brandy caramel certainly helped the cause.) We served leftovers for breakfast, which seemed almost indecent.

#2 Mom’s Apple Cake

No, not my mom’s apple cake (I don’t think my mom every made an apple cake)—her mom’s, and it’s a good’un, playing on the traditional marriage of apple and cinnamon. The cake is packed with fresh apples—our bundt pan was literally overflowing—and the translucent cooked fruit made for a nice stained-glass-window effect. We served it with roasted banana ice cream, which, in addition to being delicious, was a combination that called to mind the classic Raffi tune of my youth (ee-ples and bee-nee-nees?).

#3. Applesauce-Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake

Yes, I’ve already written about this cake, and technically it was made with sauced, rather than fresh apples. (Which makes it more like a spice cake, than anything else.) But I felt I should include it in the round-up all the same. Of all the apple cakes I’ve made, this was certainly the most haunting.

#4. Buttermilk Apple Cake

Inspired by my success with the Strawberry Buttermilk Cake (one of the sleeper hits of last summer), I decided to adapt the recipe to autumnal flavors. The results weren't quite as superlative, unfortunately—I missed the way the soft, porous strawberries permeated the cake. But it had the same tender, slightly tangy crumb and, on Day Two, had matured into an extremely tasty breakfast cake.

#5. Grandmothers of Sils’ Apple and Yogurt Cake

This was another Smitten Kitchen recommendation, adapted from The New Spanish Table, by Anya von Bremzen. Though delivered on its promise of extreme moistness, it's flavor was surprisingly subtle, with a quiet anise undertone I would play up more in the future. For fans of the French yogurt cake, this will appeal to you very much, but I doubt it will wow any dinner party guests. Tea party guests, on the other hand…

Other Apple Cakes of Note:

Balzano Apple Cake: I made this cake two years ago and was impressed as much by its flavor as by its physical composition. (It probably has the highest apple-to-batter ratio of the bunch.) The thinly sliced apples makes it more refined, than rustic.

Streusel Küchen: It’s hard to argue with a streusal topping, and this one is executed to perfection. When my friend made it for a brunch party, he doubled the amount of lemon zest (one of his general rules of thumb when baking), which brought out the citrus character.


***


Sticky Spiked Double-Apple Cake
Adapted from In the Sweet Kitchen, by Regan Daley

1 cup Muscat or sultana raisins
1/3 cup brandy
1 cup unsulphured dried apple slices (if only rings are available, cut them in half)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 cups tightly packed dark brown sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans, toasted
2 tart cooking apples, one peeled, one unpeeled, both cored and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Brown Sugar-Brandy Sauce (recipe below) warmed slightly, to serve.

In a small bowl, soak the raisins in the brandy for 45 minutes. Add the dried apple slices and macerate for a further 15 minutes. Do not drain.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 9 x 13 inch pan and line the bottom and up the two long sides with a sheet of parchment paper, letting the paper hang over the edges by an inch or so. Lightly butter the paper.

In a small bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves and set aside.

In a large bowl with a hand held electric mixer or whisk, or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, blend both sugars. Add the eggs and beat on medium speed until thickened and pale, about 2 minutes with a machine, 4 to 5 minutes by hand. Add the cooled melted butter and mix to blend.

Fold in the dry ingredients in two additions, mixing just enough to moisten most but not all of the flour. Add the dried fruit and brandy mixture, chopped pecans, and diced fresh apple, then fold them into the batter with long, deep strokes. Don’t fret about the ratio of fruit to batter.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and set in the center of the oven. Bake for 60 to 80 minutes, or until the center springs back when lightly touched, a tester inserted into the center comes out clean and the cake is beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan. Transfer to a wire rack and cool. This cake keeps beautifully, well wrapped, at room temperature for up to 5 days, although it is best within 2 or 3. Serve warm or at room temperature with warm Brown Sugar-Brandy Sauce.

Brown Sugar-Brandy Sauce
Makes about 2 1/4 cups

1/3 cup unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 1/2 tablespoons brandy

Combine the butter, sugars and cream in a small, heavy bottomed saucepan. Stir this mixture over low heat until the sugar dissolves, then increase the heat to medium and bring the sauce to a very gentle boil, stirring all the while. Cook 5 more minutes, then remove from the heat and stir in the brandy or other liqueur. Serve immediately, or cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate until needed, up to 3 days. To rewarm, either microwave the uncovered sauce on low power or transfer the cold caramel to a saucepan and stir over low heat until warm.


***

Mom’s Apple Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

6 cooking apples
1 tablespoon cinnamon
5 tablespoons sugar

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
4 eggs
1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and chopped (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a tube or bundt pan.

Peel, core and chop apples into chunks. Toss with cinnamon and sugar and set aside.

Stir together flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together oil, orange juice, sugar and vanilla. Mix wet ingredients into the dry ones, then add eggs, one at a time. Scrape down the bowl to ensure all ingredients are incorporated.

Pour half of batter into prepared pan. Spread half of apples over it. Pour the remaining batter over the apples and arrange the remaining apples on top. Bake for about 1 1/2 hours, or until a tester comes out clean.


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Apple Cinnamon Buttermilk Cake
Adapted from Gourmet

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons unsalted butter (1/2 stick), at room temperature

2/3 cup + 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
, divided use
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
, plus more for sprinkling
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 large egg

1/2 cup buttermilk

1 cup peeled and chopped baking apple

Preheat oven to 400 degrees with rack in middle. Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In a separate bowl, beat together butter, 2/3 cup sugar and spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger) with an electric mixer on high speed until pale and fluffy, about two minutes. Add vanilla and egg and beat well. With the mixer set to low speed, beat in 1/3 of the flour mixture. Add half the buttermilk and continue beating on low speed until incorporated. Scraping down sides of bowl as necessary, beat in another 1/3 of flour mixture then remaining buttermilk. Finally beat in the last 1/3 of the flour mixture until just combined.

Spoon batter into cake pan, smoothing the top. Scatter apple evenly over top and sprinkle with remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar and a small pinch of cinnamon.

Bake until cake is golden and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, 20 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack and cool to warm, 10 to 15 minutes more. Invert onto a plate.