Month: February 2015

Compound Butter: Solidifying Flavors

I was alerted to the death of Michele Ferrero, the renowned maker of Nutella, by a flurry of texts from A. and N. – huge Nutella fans. I read in her obituary that Nutella  was discovered accidentally. With cocoa being in short supply during the war, hazelnuts were added to cocoa powder to get the same creamy consistency associated with chocolate. The concept of stretching food is all too familiar to a home cook, and I was reminded of this when I made compound butter.

Compound butter is easily created by whipping unsalted butter with herbs or interesting combinations such as lemon zest and herbs or hazelnuts and cocoa. There are two advantages in creating compound butter;  the flavor and aroma of herbs are preserved, and their essence can be summoned up instantly. For example, in the middle of another cold spell, adding compound butter made with fresh cilantro and lemon zest  gave tilapia the fragrance and taste associated with summer and warmth.

The process of making compound butter is simple. All you need is butter at room temperature, parchment paper or saran wrap (which I prefer), and your imagination. Start with readily-available ingredients like herbs, but before long, you will be trying different blends and pairings. An added bonus is that there are no right or wrong measurements – just trust your taste.

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Lemon Zests and Cilantro Compound Butter

Lemon –1, zest

Unsalted Butter (room temperature) – 4 tbsp

Cilantro – 1/3 bunch, washed and leaves chopped

Salt – ¼ tsp

Saran wrap

  • Whip the butter and all the ingredients in a bowl, until well incorporated.
  • Pile the mixture onto the saran wrap. Form the mixture into a log shape. Roll the saran wrap tightly around the log of compound butter. Freeze or chill until needed.
  • When ready to use, cut a disc or two and add them directly into the skillet to flavor fish or vegetables.

 

 

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Note: The hazelnut and cocoa compound butter that I made worked well as a sweet spread, while the balsamic vinegar and cracked pepper butter was simply tossed with cooked kale and mushrooms.

To Flambé: A Spectacle At Your Table

When my mother made flambéed Baked Alaska, a dessert consisting of sponge cake, ice cream and folded-over meringue, the special occasion became pure theater. She would turn down the lights and step into a darkened room with a dancing, ghostly-blue flaming dish to a dramatic hush of anticipation. The spectacle of flambéing (cooking off the alcohol) that doused the meringue still excites A., N. and me.

Theatrics aside, flambéing adds yet another layer of flavor to a dish. When high-proof liquor such as rum or brandy is set alight, the highly volatile alcohol vapor burns off quickly in bursts of flames. This process leaves no residual alcohol in the dessert, but just hints of its smoky flavor and aroma.

Flambéing bananas was my choice of dessert for this Valentine’s Day. The dessert is both elegant and quick to make. The caramelized just-ripe banana becomes meltingly soft in texture. Just as the singed meringue crests were the only indication that alcohol was once present in Baked Alaska, the dark rum vapors flash in orange and blue hues as they sear through the buttery banana mixture.

Alcohol (80 proof) is highly flammable, and great care has to be taken when lighting the vapors. Some basic precautions include using a skillet with a long handle or lighting the alcohol with a long matchstick while keeping the pan well away from your body. Other common flambéed meals include Crepe Suzette (pancakes) and Steak Diane (thin slivers of steak meat); both are presented table-side in restaurants.  Flambéing your dessert or main course can be mastered with a little care and practice.

Flambéed Banana

Banana – 1, large

Butter – 2 tbsp

Brown sugar – 2 tbsp

Lime/lemon – ½

Rum – 2 oz

  • Juice the lemon.
  • Peel and slit the banana lengthwise.
  • Heat a skillet and add the bananas (do not add butter at this stage). Cook them on each side for about a minute, until they caramelize and brown. Remove from heat and keep aside. Add the lemon juice on both sides to prevent discoloration.
  • Heat the skillet, and add the butter and sugar. Mix well. Keep aside until ready to serve.
  • When ready to serve, keep everything close at hand. Begin by reheating the butter-sugar mixture. Warm the rum (15-20 seconds in a microwave or stove).
  • Pour the rum over the heated sliced bananas and sugar mixture. There are two ways to burn off the vapors, but remember to be vigilant with both. The first method is to tilt the contents in the pan away from you (towards the fire), and watch as the vapors alight. The second method is to bring a lit match or candle close to the skillet and watch carefully as the vapors start to burn.
  • The dessert can be plated once the alcohol has burned off.

 

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Reinventing Chili Leftovers – The Dolma Way

Whether it is food remaining from a tailgate party or from the holidays, I enjoy having leftovers. However after a day or two in the refrigerator, those meals start to look uninspiring. Recently I borrowed a technique that is used in many cuisines to freshen my chili leftovers.

I stuffed the remaining chili into bell peppers and wrapped some with cabbage leaves, which introduced both color and variety into the next few meals. Dolma is a term commonly used for stuffing and wrapping a vegetable. The vegetables used for stuffing meat, dried fruits and nuts, grains, and lentils are usually bell peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. Common wrappers are cabbage or grape or vine leaves. Whether a dolma is filled with vegetables and called a leaf dolma or one that is predominantly meat and called a meat dolma, the dish combines many spice flavors and textures.

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As my two-day old, lackluster chili looked attractive again in these vegetable vehicles, I was motivated to try out a version of more traditional eggplant dolma.

Eggplant Dolma

Eggplant – 1 large

Ground meat – 1 lb

Shallots – 2, chopped finely

Garlic – 3, minced

Bell Pepper – 1, chopped

Tomato paste – 3 tbsp

Olive Oil – 3-4 tbsp

Cumin – 1 tsp

Paprika – 2 tsp

Salt – 1 tsp

Pepper – 1 tsp

Parsley – ½ bunch, washed

 

  • Set the oven at 375°F
  • Using a sharp knife, remove the stalk and cut the eggplant in half. Chop one half of the eggplant into cubes.
  • Score the other half of the eggplant in the middle. Cut away on both sides so that you have a hollowed out boat-shaped center. Scoop out as much of the flesh as you can from the center with the knife or spoon. Chop the scooped out pieces and add them to the cubed eggplant.
  • Heat a pan with oil, and brown the boat-shaped half on either side. Remove
  • Add the shallots and sauté for a minute.
  • Add the garlic and spices and sauté for a minute.
  • Add the meat and eggplant cubes. Mix and remove from heat.
  • Stuff the meat mixture into the hollowed out eggplant.
  • Place the eggplant onto a foil-lined pan.
  • Mix the tomato paste with water so it forms a watery paste.
  • Add the extra meat mixture and the chopped peppers to the tomato mixture.
  • Spread them around the eggplant.
  • Bake for 45-50 minutes until the eggplant is cooked through.
  • Garnish with parsley.

 

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In A Soup and In A Pickle – Pearl Onions

When the weather report called for blizzard conditions and snow began to amass on patio tables like coconut icing, I decided that it was a good time to make soup. I’ve learned from past snow shoveling seasons to always keep good stock ready at hand and/ ready to thaw. In previous years as A. and N. would layer up in preparation to begin shoveling, I would start cooking a soup before joining them outside.

A soup recipe for a snowstorm should be as easy as combining and simmering roughly chopped vegetables and herbs with stock. The reward upon returning from shoveling is twofold, a cleared path and the warmth of rejuvenating aromatic soup. Before I head out to shovel, I combine chicken stock and red pearl onions to make onion soup.

Pearl (cocktail) onions are walnut-sized purple or white onions that are innately sweet. Pearl onions cook quickly and retain their shape, making them a good substitute for regular onions in soup. One of my pet peeves with onion soup is that if the onion slices aren’t cooked down and caramelized, they retain a slimy texture – one that you can taste in every bite. Caramelizing onions take time and constant attention. The miniature pearl onions sweat (lose moisture) and brown rapidly. A resultant soup has both a pleasing textural crunch as well as the desired caramelized flavor.

Due to the petite size of pearl onions, you need a large quantity for making the onion soup. Peeling 25 onions comes with the perennial problem – tears. I was happy to come across a clever trick to cope with this arduous task. Place the pearl onions in a bowl and heat them in the microwave for 20-25 seconds. Remove them immediately (or sooner if they start to pop), as you don’t want the onions to cook. Cut off the ends of the onions and pull away the outer skin, which should come off very easily. The pearl onions are now ready to be substituted in the classic French Onion soup, which combines onions and garlic in wine and stock. A deliciously simple soup with lots of flavor!

 

Pearl Onion Soup

Pearl onions – 25, peeled

Butter – 2 tbsp

Olive oil – 3 tbsp

Garlic cloves – 4, peeled and sliced

Stock – 4 cups

White wine – 5 tbsp

Salt and pepper – to taste

Bread/cheese

 

  • Heat the butter and olive oil in a pot.
  • Add the whole peeled onions. Lower the heat, and sauté the onions for about 10 minutes. The onions will sweat and brown.
  • Add the garlic. Sauté for a minute
  • Add the stock and wine. Lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes, until the onions are soft but yet hold their shape.
  • Just before serving, pour the soup into four ramekins. Place a slice of bread with grated cheese (I used goat cheese) on top of the soup. Broil for less than a minute, just until the cheese has melted.

 

 

Pearl onions are sharply vinegary in taste, and served in North Indian restaurants as cocktail onions and (when spiced) in South Indian homes as ulli thiyal, a relish. Alternatively called button onions and Silverskin onions, they are usually pickled and used throughout Europe with spring peas, as part of a smorgasbord of pickled herrings and beets, or as a garnish in the gin and vermouth cocktail, Gibson.

Pickled Pearl Onions

Pearl onions –10-12, peeled

Distilled (or any pale-colored) vinegar – ¼ cup

Sugar – 8 tbsp

Water – 2/3 cup

  • Peel the onions as above.
  • Fill a mason jar with the distilled vinegar, sugar and water. Mix until sugar has dissolved.
  • Add the pearl onions.
  • Cover and keep for 12 hours or overnight. The pickled onions keep fresh for 3-4 days.

 

Gibson Cocktail

Pickled onions are used as garnish in a Gibson cocktail. One or three pickled onions (always in odd numbers) replace olives in a Gibson cocktail, which is a Gin Martini served shaken or stirred. The onions add a vinegary twist instead of briny hint to the traditional mix of gin (6 parts) and vermouth (1 part).