Monday, February 22nd, 2010
My experience with brussels sprouts is a bit like my experience with people – first impressions are not always the last impressions. It happens more often than I’d like to admit that just as I feel I’ve gotten someone all figured out, I am suddenly and swiftly smacked smartly across the cheek by an enlightening discovery, thereby unveiling my certain capacity for fallible judgment. While such a discovery may be disheartening, at its best, it illuminates unseen beauty and merit, and in an instant, what had been previously rejected becomes tangible, relatable, and intensely desirable. Brussels sprouts and I have just this kind of personal history.
My childhood first impressions of these adorable rolly polly wild cabbages need little embellishment, as they are shared by many a child far and wide yet today. Mushy. Slimy. Stinky. Growing up, my mother did not make brussels sprouts (that I remember), but somehow I had enough knowledge of and endearment to their notorious reputation to fondly refer to them as “brussels brains.”
However, during college, shortly after my mother married my stepfather and long after my judgement of the petite little cerebrals at hand was firmly set in place, my stepfather prepared for me some fresh brussels sprouts. Really? Are you sure these are brussels sprouts? I thought brussels sprouts were BAD. How can this be? Brussels brains cannot actually be GOOD.
The thing is, I had never had fresh brussels sprouts, cooked right. If you’ve never had brussels sprouts, please try them this way. First. And do not overcook them. The reason brussels sprouts have gotten such a bad rap is two fold. One is the fact that eighty plus percent of brussels sprouts sold in the U.S. are frozen. I have no problem with many frozen vegetables, however, brussels sprouts are one where it is difficult to recover the pleasingly firm texture and delicate nutty flavor once frozen and defrosted. Secondly, brussels sprouts contain sinigrin, an amazing health agent, however, when overcooked, disintegrates into a mustard oil that smells (and tastes?!) like sulphur.
Oven roasting is a beautiful way to prepare brussels sprouts, creating a slightly crisp outer leaf while retaining a firm texture throughout, thereby banishing for good all slimy “brussels brains” childhood impressions. I like to cut my sprouts in half so I can get more seasoning over more surface area, and in this preparation, the the olive oil gives strong compliments to the nutty sprout flavor alongside generous sprinklings of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. But what takes this simple recipe over the top, is just as simple itself. Drizzle each portion with fresh squeezes of lemon juice and you have a side dish or light lunch that sings fresh, tangy, salty, earthy, nutty, and not easily forgotten.
Roasted brussels sprouts with olive oil and fresh lemon
3/4 lb. (12 ounces) brussels sprouts*
1 tablespoon olive oil*
1/4 teaspoon of fine sea salt
several cracks of freshly ground black pepper
1/4 – 1/3 fresh lemon cut into slices or juiced (to taste)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove outer leaves and bases and cut each sprout in half. Swirl sprouts in a tepid water bath to wash and remove any embedded dirt. Remove and pat to dry. Put sprouts in a medium bowl and toss to coat with olive oil, sea salt, and pepper to taste. Line a baking dish with aluminum foil and spread sprouts out evenly in dish. Bake for 13-16 minutes, depending on the size of the sprouts. Sneak a sprout out to test for doneness – I prefer most veggies rather firm, so you may wish a longer cooking time, just remember, sprouts are ruined by overcooking, so keep watch! During the last minute or two of baking, if you desire some browned and crispy edges, you may wish to turn the broiler on. Place sprouts either in a serving bowl and drizzle with lemon juice, or serve in individual dishes with a nice lemon wedge alongside (this is how I do it, thus it is difficult for me to say exactly how much lemon, but I know I use at least 1/4 of a medium lemon for this amount of sprouts). This makes about three side dish servings, one large, or two smaller light meal portions – may be scaled as desired.
* Smaller, younger sprouts tend to be more tender and have a more delicate flavor.
* You can taste the flavor of the olive oil so pick your favorite – a light, buttery and not overbearing variety would be perfect.
Monday, February 15th, 2010
I had not intended on making 240 truffles last week – If these were gourmet mall chocolates selling for two fifty apiece, we are talking about six hundred dollars worth of truffles! Fortunately, even these of the ritzy homemade variety, were only pennies on the retail dollar.
S., my ever persuasive friend, who talked me into participating in Smithfield’s Valentine’s Day Chocolate Lover’s event where individuals and businesses prepare chocolate specialties for sampling to raise money for the American Cancer Society. As it turns out, I actually placed in the amateur category with the lavender truffles (I feel like I’m in grade school all over again receiving BIG shiny gold stars)!
I had never considered making homemade truffles before this past holiday season when I read about this incredible intensely chocolate, truffle recipe. Normally, I would leave this type of confection making to the professionals, but I had just ordered a large quantity of Valrhona chocolate and cocoa, and I couldn’t resist the idea of what special, petite, and spectacular gifts these would make for friends and family.
This time around, I decided to play with the recipe a bit. After all, I was making four batches. FOUR. Yes, four batches of 60 truffles each. If that doesn’t inspire me to experiment, I’m not sure what would!
After reading about one of rachel eats favorite cardamom scented chocolates, I decided to lace a bit of this lovely aromatic spice, often used in Indian and Thai cuisine, into one batch. In a second batch, knowing that lavender and chocolate make an intoxicating combination, I settled on infusing it with beautiful, floral crushed lavender buds. The last two batches I completed as traditional triple dark chocolate, adding pinches of sea salt, and a bit of extra chocolate to the ganache and coating to suit my taste, and to make it easier to form the truffles.
Have you ever had cardamom and chocolate together? Lavender and chocolate? If not, it is recommended that you try them. If so, then you know what I am talking about. Some things are simply meant to go together – like spaghetti and meatballs, like pancakes and maple syrup, like dark chocolate and me, like cardamom and chocolate, and lavender and chocolate.
Since truffles are no more than ganache (chocolate and cream and perhaps some flavoring) dipped in chocolate, and in this case, dunked a third time in cocoa, it is essential that your ingredients be of the creme de la creme variety. After all, even using the finest chocolate, cocoa, spices, and cream available on the market, you will still be able to make home made truffles at a tiny fraction of the professional retail price. And I will not gloss over the process, it’s not that’s it’s difficult, but it does require some patience, and it makes a beautiful mess, so, if you are to go to such efforts, it is worth purchasing, even ordering, very special chocolate. My recommendations are below with links for where I have ordered successfully online. However, do not be afraid to try the recipe with a dark Ghirardelli or Green & Black chocolate available in many grocery stores. With all the adaptations, I am quite certain Robert Linxe would no longer claim this as a version of his recipe, however, these are some spectacular truffles and I appreciate both Deb and Linxe’s inspiration – not to mention the fact that the original recipe is fantastic.
14 ounces of the best bittersweet chocolate you can afford and access, shaved, in small pieces, or finely chopped (55-60% cocoa content, I used Valrhona “Les Perles” 55%, ordered from here as well as some 60% Ghirardelli when I ran out of Valrhona)
2/3 cup organic heavy cream (I believe organic tastes better, and makes a better truffle, I used Horizon)
Cocoa powder for dusting (Valrhona is recommended and this is what I thought I had pulled out of my pantry, but as it turns out, I used Pernigotti, also very nice, ordered from here)
couple of pinches of fine sea salt (I used fleur de sel)
generous 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom (for cardamom truffles only)
2 teaspoons of whole lavender buds, crushed fine using a mini chopper (for lavender truffles only)
Measure out 9 ounces of the chocolate and place in a medium heat resistant bowl. Add a pinch of sea salt, and if you are going to flavor the truffles, add either the lavender or cardamom in with the bowl of chocolate. Bring the cream to a boil in a small, heavy saucepan (apparently Linxe boils his cream three times, believing this increases the shelf life of the ganache – your choice on this step) and then pour hot cream over the 9 ounces of chocolate and flavorings. Stir gently and patiently until cream and chocolate come together into a silky soft ganache. Allow the ganache to either sit at room temperature to thicken (at least an hour) or place in the fridge for about 30 minutes (my impatient method).
Now you have two choices. I’ve tried both, both were messy, but I am a bit messy, so this should not be a good measure for your experience. You may either place ganache several spoonfuls at a time into a pastry bag fitted with a 3/8 inch tip and pipe out pretty mounded, rosette shaped truffles (method I used over Christmas), or you may use a mellon baller, or other spoon to scoop out rounded mounds and then roll them between your hands to smooth out (method I used this time). Both work. Pick your desired method and use all of the ganache to create about 3/4-1 inch mounds/balls.
When ganache balls are fully set, add just a pinch of sea salt to the last 5 ounces of chocolate and slowly melt over a double boiler or in the microwave in 30 second increments, checking and stirring each time. At this point, you have a choice to use latex gloves, smearing a bit of melted chocolate on your gloved hand, and then gently rolling each truffle one at a time in a smear of chocolate, and directly placing in a bowl of cocoa for coating. You may do this. It works. I did it at Christmas. This is the key to having a thin crispy shell. This time around, however, I made sure my melted chocolate was not too hot, and I dunked about three truffles at a time in the bowl of chocolate, using my hands to be sure they were evenly coated, shaking off excess chocolate, and then placing on parchment (or wax) paper to harden before coating in cocoa. This method produces a thicker chocolate coating with a bit of puddled chocolate around each truffle. I found that the cocoa coating is quite dense when the truffle is dunked directly following the wet chocolate dipping, so this time I allowed the outer chocolate to almost harden before dunking in a bowl of cocoa powder and using a fork (or cocoa dusted fingers!) to roll them around and fish them out.
You are done! Place completely cool truffles in an air tight container in the fridge to set up for several hours, and store in the fridge until ready to eat. I prefer the truffles at room temperature, but they may be eaten cold. If you make these and experiment with different flavors, please let me know!
Monday, February 8th, 2010
There are a few things in life I hold sacred. This pancake recipe is one of them. During my graduate counseling practicum, completed at an inpatient hospital psychiatric unit, one of the long serving psychiatric nurses was retiring, and the behavioral medicine crew threw her a casual goodbye party held in the ubiquitous, stark white, staff/snack/coffee/break/lunch/locked off from all the patients – room.
Ironically, it was the retiring nurse who brought the food for everyone. Apparently, she had gained quite a reputation for a certain oaty, nutty, whole grain buttermilk pancake recipe, and it was tradition for her to tote in gigantic bowls of raw pancake batter and cook up some homey, bathed in sunlight, pancakes, right in the middle of that cramped, cold, and barren psych unit break room.
But I was suspicious. I can try to deny it, but in fact, I’m a bit of a pancake snob. Great pancakes need distinct flavors and texture, they must be moist – yet light, and most importantly (of course), they cannot remind me in any way of the texture or imagined taste of cardboard.
Boy, were my suspicions unfounded! These pancakes were amazing, incredible! I had to have the recipe. You can imagine my disappointment and frustration when, upon asking for said recipe, I was told, “Oh, it’s a whole grain pancake recipe off the internet – I don’t know which one.” No! I needed to be able to recreate it to perfection, and I am not one for ambiguity.
However, with a bit of poking around, I found a promising start. But there were some issues – the leavening proportions were all wrong (I want to taste pancake, not baking soda), I didn’t like the nut combination, there was an unduly amount of oil and sugar, and I preferred white whole wheat flour to standard whole wheat. But I persevered, because I knew getting this recipe right would be worth it. And it was. These pancakes have layered flavor from the whole wheat, oats and buttermilk, and a wonderfully satisfying nutty texture. Plus, they are full of dietary fiber and protein. I hope they become a household tradition for you and your family, as they are for mine, and that perhaps you will wake a few minutes early this Sunday and make something that will warm both the hearts and the bellies of those you love most, on Valentine’s Day.
Whole grain oat nut pancakes
3/4 cup rolled oats, ground (oat flour is not a good substitute – I’ve tried)
3/4 cup white whole wheat or standard whole wheat flour
1 1/2 teaspoon aluminum free baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
scant 1/2 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
2 Tablespoons natural cane sugar
3 Tablespoons finely chopped or ground pecans (1 oz.)
3 Tablespoons finely chopped or ground almonds (1 oz.)
1 1/2 cups buttermilk (plus or minus 1-2 tablesoons. depending on preferred thickness)
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
salted butter for cooking
Grind oats and nuts (or you may use pre-ground nuts) to a powdery consistency in a mini chopper, leaving a few small bits for texture. In a medium bowl, mix dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl, whisk egg until pale yellow, then add oil and whisk to combine. Add buttermilk to the egg and oil and blend. Pour wet ingredients into bowl with dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Allow batter to sit for 10-15 minutes to give the leavening time to react and thicken the batter. Preheat a large skillet or griddle over medium high heat, grease with salted butter, and turn heat down to medium. Ladle 1/4 – 1/3 cup batter onto pan for each pancake. Pancake batter should sizzle a bit when poured into the pan, but not smoke. Turn heat down to medium low and allow to cook until edges just start to dry and bubbles appear throughout the pancake, then flip and cook until set in the middle. If pancakes are over-browning, and not cooking through, turn the heat down on the pan and increase the cooking time. Cooking time on the second side will be less than on the first. Repeat with more butter and batches, until batter is finished. This makes about 9-10 four inch pancakes. Serve with maple syrup, butter, and fruit, if desired.
Variations: try it with a mashed banana, 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 cup brown sugar subbed for natural sugar, or unsalted butter rather than vegetable oil.
Monday, February 1st, 2010
I made these meatballs just for you. Really, I did. They are one of my go to comfort foods in the dead of winter, which we’ve been experiencing around here in Virginia this week, and I really wanted to share them with you. I discovered this recipe rather haphazardly in a Williams-Sonoma magazine a few years ago, and I dare say these are the best meatballs I’ve eaten, whether by my own hand, or at a restaurant. Now I can’t speak for the future, since I believe it is a terrible shame to ever close one’s mind to change and improvement – or in this case – new and future recipes, but what I can tell you is: these meatballs are GOOD.
They may not be neat. Or pretty. They are not fancy, or uber-organic lowfat - though you could make them quite organic, if you chose. But they are good.
I make them for company. I make them for B. I make them for me. I just make them. Sometimes I get a meatball craving and nothing else will satisfy – not bolognese, not lasagna, not marina – just meatballs. And spaghetti.
I like to make my own bread crumbs – so simple really, but not strictly necessary. If you decide to give it a whirl, all you have to do is grab some bread on hand, any bread, and give it a buzz in a food processor or mini chopper. But I started making these with regular plain store bought bread crumbs long before I picked up many of my current fancy tips and habits, and I have nothing but feelings of warm nostalgia towards those lovelies.
I haven’t told you much about my little boy, J. He is wonderful – a love story that caught me off guard and delights me each day. He loves to watch mommy cook, and chop. He wishes he could hold the knife. We got him a play kitchen for Christmas, complete with adorable petite wooden pots and pans, but he still prefers our huge and heavy stainless steel. clang. Clang. CLANG. love.
I did not eat meatballs as a child. My beloved mother, ever conscience of her family’s fat intake, was not likely to whip up weekday meals with any kind of ground beef pork mixture involved. And it was the 90s, when lowfat was the current low carb. But I am a bit less particular, as is she, these days. Now it’s about balance and moderation.
Did I mention that these are stuffed? Guess not. That’s because I only recently started doing this, even though the recipe has always called for it. I always thought, oh fuss – extra work. But once I tried it, it really is hardly any extra work at all, and it makes for quite an impressive meatball – if you decide to have company over, or just want to wow your sweetheart.
There is something so soothing about a good spaghetti and meatballs. I hope you try these, and that they warm you and those you love from the inside out.
Favorite meatballs with spaghetti
adapted from Williams-Sonoma
serves 10-12, may be reduced in increments of 1/3
1/3 cup milk
1 cup fresh bread crumbs (I have used both fresh and plain store bought bread crumbs successfully)
1 lb each ground pork, veal and beef (this is often labeled as “meatloaf mixture” at the store – I often use 2/3 beef, 1/3 pork)
1/3 cup minced fresh parsley, plus more for garnish
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 3/4 tsp. kosher or sea salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1/3 lb. mozzarella, provolone, or fontina cheese cut into 1/2″ cubes (optional)
About 6 cups tomato sauce (I promise a post on a home made sauce recipe in the future, till then, I have tried and recommend this one, or use 2-3 jars of your favorite store brand)
2 lb spaghetti, cooked al dente and drained
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for serving
In a large bowl, combine milk and bread crumbs. Add meats, 1/3 cup parsley, eggs, garlic, salt and pepper. Mix briefly with hands. Form into 2″ balls. If using cheese, seal a cube into center of each ball. In a large skillet (biggest you have) set on medium high heat, heat 1/2″ (I use about 1/4″) oil until shimmering and almost smoking. Brown meatballs 1 minute per side (I end up doing about three turns) taking care not to crowd the meatballs in the pan. If you are making the full recipe, you will need either two pans or to do this in two rotations. Transfer to paper towel-lined tray.
Discard oil in pan. Pour tomato sauce into pan; bring to simmer over medium-high heat. Add meatballs, reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until cooked through, 25-30 minutes (recipe says 30, but often mine are done after 20 minutes and they are best not overcooked, so slip a knife into one early and check for doneness). Uncover; cook 10 minutes more (again, I sometimes cut this back to about 5 minutes once meatballs are cooked through). Serve over pasta with cheese and extra chopped parsley.
Note: Since this makes such a large amount, I often reduce the recipe by 2/3 which ends up yielding about 8 meatballs. Other times I reduce it by 1/3 or make the full amount and freeze a portion of the meatballs after they are fried in the oil, but before simmering in the sauce. They cook and reheat beautifully right out of the freezer when placed in sauce and finished according to the recipe (increase cooking time and check for doneness).