Saturday, September 26, 2009

Puff and Magic Mushrooms

Sounds a little psychedelic, doesn't it? The September 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, vols-au-vent based on the puff pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan.

Puff pastry is nothing more than layers and layers of butter between flour. If done properly, when it bakes, it puffs up and becomes a flaky, buttery treat. Vols-au-vent are layered pastries. The bottom layer is just a round cut from the pastry after it has been rolled quite thin. Then another doughnut-shaped round is cut to stack on top. When baked, these pieces adhere to form a little dish to hold whatever treats are added.

I decided to fill mine with sauteed mushrooms. My photography leaves something to be desired, but the vol-au-vent did puff up beautifully and made a great container for my mushrooms, garnished with a freshly harvested tomato and a little parsley, both grown in Bob's organic garden. These little puffs were small, only a couple inches in diameter, so they were perfect appetizers for dinner the night I made them. Or...they would have been perfect appetizers had there been any left by the time Bob got home. Really, they were only a couple bites a piece and they were so appealing and after all that rolling and folding and rolling some more... well, I deserved a little treat - or two - or however many there were.

The good thing is that I froze two thirds of the pastry for future use. These are so versatile - savory things like salads and roast veggies work just as well as sweet fillings such as custards or fruits. And what about seafood? So many possibilities! That's probably why I haven't yet done anything yet. Too hard to make a decision. But one night Bob will come home to a buttery, flaky treat filled with succulent bites of something. Worth waiting for, I think.

Thank the Computer Gods for Google!

I'm doing a lot of cooking this weekend - more to follow - but my brain was not in gear when I made my shopping lists. Since I was missing what appeared to be significant, exotic ingredients but didn't feel like changing from my tattered sweats to go searching for them, I started googling to see if I could find substitutes. What a miracle Google is! I found suggestions for substitutes for everything from shrimp paste to lemongrass to tamarind paste - and I have all the substitute ingredients, so I'm good to go.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Soup of My Dreams

I love French onion soup. The rich broth, the crouton soaking up the rich broth, the gooey melted cheese - wonderful!

It is not, however, easy to find a really good onion soup. Even in Paris, where you would expect every bistro to have a tasty version of this iconic dish, the quality ranges from tasteless to acceptable. The best I ever had was a restaurant in Seattle. It's all a little fuzzy now, because this was in the '70's, but I remember this small restaurant downtown which had a soup that was the right blend of hearty broth, silky onions and lots of cheese.

I have tried several recipes for the soup, some of which have disappointed me in one way or another, but I keep looking. This week, I tried the recipe from Thomas Keller's "Bouchon." A bit intimidating, it calls for homemade beef stock made from roasted beef bones, onions cooked slowly for 5 hours until deeply caramelized and then the stock and onions combined for another hour to reduce and deepen the soup. I admit that the idea of making my own beef stock put me off a bit, so I found an organic beef broth that had nothing unpronounceable in it and used that instead. I did caramelize the onions for hours, stirring every 15 minutes until they reached this point:

They were practically melted after 6 hours of cooking. I used a diffuser, which allowed me to keep a pretty constant low simmer without having to readjust the temperature on the cooktop. I started with 8 pounds of onions, which took me about 45 minutes, including tear breaks, to slice (I wish my knife skills were better!). They filled to overflowing a 5-6 quart pan, so there were a lot of onions to cook down. I used a mix of yellow and sweet onions, which seemed to work pretty well.

When the onions were done, I added the beef broth and some seasonings and simmered that for another couple hours. The recipe said one hour to reduce by 1/3, but it took longer than that, maybe because I kept the temperature pretty low. The result? Not bad at all. The onions were silk, the broth was deeply flavorful. With a toasted crouton and some Emmenthaler cheese melted over the top, I had something was pretty darn close to my memory and quite a bit better than most of the onion soups I've had in recent years. Time and patience paid off. Next time, maybe I'll do the stock as well!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pie Pops

One of the websites I visit regularly is Serious Eats, which has interesting articles and pictures from the world of food. It also has a variety of forums for discussing cooking, restaurants, food trivia, and other food-related topics. I once posted a query on cooking a whole pig after Nick's attempt at this project, which had assorted problems. I got great responses, including one from the North Carolina Pork Association, with detailed instructions on how to go about this and even a recipe for sauce.

Several weeks ago, Serious Eats posted pictures of pie pops. These are two-bite pies, on lollipop sticks, filled with whatever pie filling you choose. I tracked back to the website of Luxirare, the person who made these little treats, and found a fascinating tale. This woman is based in Zimbabwe, according to her post. She focuses on food and clothing and is really a designer of both. The little pie pops didn't really have a recipe, but she had such amazing response to the posting she pulled together a list of hints and suggestions for making them which, along with her detailed photographs, resulted in a pretty good approach.

I made strawberry, blackberry and apple fillings for my pops (color-coded with different sugars). At her recommendation, I used pie crusts from the refrigerator section of my local Safeway, rolled quite a bit thinner. I pre-cooked the fillings, adding little more than sugar and other seasonings, along with a little cornstarch for the berries. The pops are not easy to make because finding the right ratio of filling to dough is a bit of a challenge. You want enough filling to give some fruity flavor but not so much your top dough piece is torn or overstretched. I spent an afternoon pulling these together and while they are not as incredibly beautiful as Luxirare's, some of them were pretty good.

Ultimately, these were made in honor of Ron for his birthday. Below is a not-very-good picture of Ron with his blackberry pie pop, complete with candle, which is barely discernible.

Much better than cake!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Birthday Bastilla

Over 30 years ago, I had friends living in the Bay Area. On one of my visits, we went to Mamounia, a Moroccan restaurant, for dinner. I still remember that meal: Green Hungarian wine, couscous in a tangine, mint tea, and, best of all, bastilla. One especially fun thing was our tour of the kitchen after dinner. When the waiter brought the couscous, he lifted the lid of the tangine dramatically and I said, "Voila!" He immediately assumed I knew French and was quite excited. Since voila is about the sum of all my French, I hated to disappoint, but the connection had been made and he ushered us into the kitchen later in the evening. There, the chef was creating the bastilla, making the phyllo, as I recall, by cooking a very thin batter on a pan and pulling it off with his bare fingers.

Needless to say, when I decided to attempt bastilla myself, I passed on the homemade pastry and used frozen phyllo instead. Bastilla is a pie-like dish made with chicken, eggs, almonds, onions, parsley and cinnamon, sugar and other spices. The pie is topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon, giving it a sweet crust. At Mamounia, we ate it with our hands, but tonight we used more traditional implements.

The occasion was our dear friend Ron's birthday. Ron, his wife Sarah and Emma, their daughter and our goddaughter, were good enough to let us host the birthday dinner, giving me the perfect reason to make something different. Plus, they are really good about being guinea pigs!

The menu:

Pre-dinner noshes of hummus, pita, and halloumi, a sheep and goat milk cheese from Cyprus, made to be grilled before eating. Halloumi is quite salty, so the pita is a good counterpoint.

Tomato, avocado and mango salad with spicy seasoning, courtesy of Sarah. Are those colors glorious or what! Just makes you want to start eating RIGHT NOW.

Bastilla, based on a recipe from Sunset magazine, circa 1984. I've had this recipe carefully saved for 25 years and this is the first time I've tried it. Well, the only excuse is that it needed to be made for just the right occasion and this is the first time Ron has celebrated his 59th birthday.

Pie pops were the "birthday cake" for Ron. This little dessert deserves a little more discussion, so watch for another post, probably tomorrow, about their origin.

Happy Birthday, Ron!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Fluffy and Puffy

I'm on a roll! Tonight is Sunday, the eve of Labor Day and a windier, rainy-er day there couldn't be. We had our "fun" outing - a trip to Costco - and came home so Bob could continue building tables for the greenhouse. He has done a beautiful job and we will be blessed with wonderful plants thriving throughout the winter, along with seedlings and other little treats.

For such a wet and windy day, a comfort food dinner was perfect. I braved the rain and harvested some tomatoes for our salad and I made this ham and cheese souffle. I used the same recipe I have used for decades, from James Beard's American Cookery. This souffle recipe has NEVER failed me - it always looks glorious when it comes out of the oven and tastes even better. I add a bit more cheese and ham than the recipe calls for, but I want to make this a hearty, stand-alone meal for us, not a "ladies-who-lunch" mini-meal.

Souffles may sound scary but I have never had a flat one. Just be careful with the eggs whites, folding them gently, and you will have a puffy treat to warm you on a chilly, rainy day.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Tartly Tomato

This is one of my favorite appetizers - a tomato tart. I wish I could say I used tomatoes from our garden but, while we have had a pretty successful year, there have never been enough of the little fellas to do a tart this size.

The base of the tart is several layers of phyllo, brushed with butter and sprinkled with parmesan. The top layer has very thinly sliced onions, mozzarella and then the paper-thin slices of tomatoes. A little salt, a little pepper and some fresh thyme and you are good to go! It bakes until the phyllo is crispy and emerges in all its succulent beauty.

I made this one for a potluck picnic and discovered it is much better just out of the oven, while it is still crisp. When it is packed up to travel, the crust becomes a little too moist. That didn't stop people from eating it - I made two and there were no leftovers!