Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Fennel steak with Fennel Orange Salad

I serve fennel all the time, but I've never eaten it at anyone else's house. Americans have embraced so many foods over the past twenty years - kiwis, mangos, arugula, capers - but we're still feh on fennel.

What's wrong with you people? The seeds, fronds, and bulb are all delicious; it's easy to prepare and keeps for weeks; fennel's even healthy.

Why all the love for, say, cilantro/coriander, while fennel/anise is an afterthought? As with so many things, I have a theory.

Remember in the 90s when cilantro started to become a part of mainstream American cooking? More than one person told me, "I have that gene that makes cilantro taste like soap." Umm, okay...

Nobody says that anymore. Chipotle runs out of that cilantro-lime rice every single night. Cilantro's in everything now, and we don't even notice it. Why?

Because it's $1 a bunch! You throw it in your cart, chop it up, and forget about it. It's healthy, flavorful, and cheap.

How much is fennel? Let's say, $1.50 a pound. But your typical fennel bulb is three pounds, and you're going to throw a third of that away once you pare off the stalks and fronds. Which is just bad marketing! Nobody would buy an ear of corn by weight, so why would we pay extra for something that's headed straight for the trash? If fennel were sold by the piece, rather than buy the pound, I bet it would sell a lot faster. At least Trader Joe's seems to have figured that out.

Or possibly people are turned off because anise sounds like anus. That's another theory.

Anyway, I love fennel. Seeds, fronds, bulbs - all of it. I don't know where I got this bag of green fennel seeds for $2.19, but they are fantastic. Fennel seeds have that licorice-y flavor of Italian sausage. Sometimes they are dry and fibrous, but these were tender enough to eat unground, so I used some as garnish. I would not recommend running them through your regular coffee grinder, though. Use one of the eleventy Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons you got in the mail this month to buy a cheap grinder just for spices.

And this fennel is gorgeous.

So, I'm doing my part here to popularize this neglected plant.

Fennel Steak
2 lbs sirloin or flank steak
1 teaspoons whole fennel seeds
1/4 teaspoon whole peppercorn
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Grind fennel and peppercorns and set aside 1/2 teaspoon of the ground spices for dressing. Heat the broiler, blot the meat, and place it in a foil-lined pan. Sprinkle half the salt on the meat, then half the spice mix. In an electric oven, broil about five inches from the element, flipping and seasoning with the remaining salt and spices halfway through. For rare steak, broil for about six minutes per side. For well-done . . . longer.

Rest the meat for ten minutes, before slicing thinly across the grain. Serves 4-5. Garnish with fennel seeds, if you can find the sweet, green ones.

Fennel Salad
2 heads fennel, sliced very thin
3 navel oranges, supremed, juice reserved
1 shallot, sliced thin
2 tablespoons orange juice from navel oranges
1 1/2 teaspoon dijon mustard
1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon reserved fennel-pepper mix

Arrange fennel, oranges, and shallots on the serving dish. Whisk together dressing and pour it over gently.  You can slice the salad several hours in advance and refrigerate it, since the fennel won't go brown. But don't dress the salad more than half an hour before dinner.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Baltimore Buttercream

In the beginning there was American Buttercream, and it was actually pretty good.

The first time your mother let you use the electric mixer, you dumped in two sticks of butter, a 1-lb. box of powdered sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla and a tablespoon of milk. Were you ever happier than when you took a butter knife and glopped that stuff on cupcakes? Not often.

So what changed? It seems like all the grownups huddled together and decided that American Buttercream is too sweet. Unsophisticated. Only for children.


We are instructed to decamp for western Europe and buy an entire pound of high-fat butter. Using heat and electricity, we will force this mountain of fat into five egg whites and one cup of granulated sugar. Only then will we be worthy of the metric system.

There's Swiss Meringue Buttercream where you beat the egg whites and sugar over a double boiler before adding in the butter. Or Italian Meringue Buttercream, with hot sugar syrup poured into beaten egg whites. (But her stripper name is Mousseline.) You can get crazy with German Buttercream, which uses the whole egg. Or French Buttercream, with just yolks. Mon Dieu! For all I know, there are Serbian and Croatian Buttercreams, too. (Never serve them together.)

Shenanigans! I call shenanigans!

You know who thinks these frostings are awesome? Professional cake decorators. The people who gave us fondant.

Eurotrash frosting doesn't taste better - it's like eating a stick of butter! It does smooth out perfectly when you slide a warm spatula over it, giving you sharp corners and a glossy finish.

Sure, I'll put up with a lot for a pretty cake. But you have to refrigerate the stuff, since it's all butter and egg. Plus, you can't serve it cold, because it'll have the texture of cold butter (of course). And don't let it sit out too long, or the water will start to sweat out. So, if you want to eat a slice of cake, you need to plan ahead by at least 90 minutes. And don't dilly dally!

Did I mention that you have to let the frosting come to room temperature and re-beat the stuff if you make it in advance?

Also, holy crap that's a lot of butter to stick in your face at once!

How is this better than American Buttercream? I'm not seeing it.

I do see that the traditional American Buttercream might be a little too sweet and thick for an adult palate. So, here's my version, which lightens up with egg whites and sugar syrup. I'm calling it Baltimore Buttercream, after my no-BS hometown.

Enjoy, Hon.

Baltimore Buttercream
2 egg whites* (60g)
1/2 cup granulated sugar (100g)
1/3 cup corn syrup** (100g)
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature (165g)
2 cups (give or take) powdered sugar (260g)
pinch of table salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

*If you are worried about salmonella, used powdered egg whites, reconstituted with water.

**Don't get snotty with me about the corn syrup. It's NOT the High Fructose Corn Syrup we're all supposed to blame for our giant rear ends. It just obviates the need to stand there with a candy thermometer waiting for the boiling sugar to reach the hard ball stage so it doesn't re-crystallize. Perspective, people!

Using the mixer's whisk attachment, beat the egg whites and salt on medium speed until frothy. Add two tablespoons of sugar and kick the mixer up to high, beating until soft peaks form.

Meanwhile, stir the remaining sugar and corn syrup in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil for a full minute, then remove from the stove. In several additions, pour the hot sugar syrup into the meringue, beating after every addition. (I don't know why the hot corn syrup smells like rubber. Frankly, I don't want to know.)

When all the syrup is in, turn the mixer to medium-high and beat for several minutes until the bowl cools to room temperature. One tablespoon at a time, add the soft butter to the meringue, beating well after each addition. Once you've added the butter, take a little taste. If this suits your palette, then you should stick with the fancier buttercreams. If it makes you a little sick, you're not alone.

Beat in the vanilla, then the powdered sugar. The texture should be loose, but stiff enough to form soft peaks. If it's too loose, add a little more sugar. Too thick, add a teaspoon of milk.

This makes more than enough frosting for a two- or three-layer cake, or 24 cupcakes.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Chicken with Artichoke Hearts and Olives

There are days when you don't feel like making dinner. And then there are days when you ... Just. Cannot. Do. It.

But still, the people need to eat! My own people are most particular about requiring dinner every single night. I'll admit to leaning heavily on Trader Joe during the trying season of Little League Baseball. But, seriously, there has to be a limit.

So, for those nights where you're bumping up against that limit, chicken thighs are always a safe bet.

Yes, I know boneless, skinless chicken breasts are healthier. But there is a very narrow window between salmonella-undercooked and stringy-chalk-overdone breasts. Thighs taste better and can hang out in the oven an extra fifteen minutes if you wind up down the rabbit hole.

You know ... the weeknight rabbit hole.
You: Sweetheart, darling, I note that you haven't brought your lunchbox home for three days. Where might it be? 
Child: Yeah, it's in my locker. 
You: But Honeybunny, I asked you to look for it two days ago, and you said it wasn't in your locker. 
Child: Oh, then it's in the Lost and Found. 
You: Love of my life, I requested that you look in the Lost and Found yesterday. Did you? 
Child: Well, I did. But we had rehearsal for the spring concert, so I didn't get a chance to look at lunchtime. 
You: It's okay, dear, but Mummy really needs to know, did you, or didn't you check in the Lost and Found? 
Child: Uh huh.
Anyway, after the inevitable descent into profanity and tears, you'll probably fail to take your chicken breasts out at the right time. Save yourself the worry, and make chicken thighs instead.

Chicken with Artichoke Hearts and Olives
3lbs dark meat chicken, preferably thighs
2-12oz jars marinated artichoke hearts, drained
3/4 cup pitted olives
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon capers (optional)
2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)

Crank the oven to 400 and line a rimmed baking sheet with foil (or scrub it later, ya goody-two-shoes). Put the chicken pieces skin side down and arrange the other ingredients around them, sprinkling the salt onto the meat. Roast for twenty minutes, flip the thighs and give the veggies a stir. Return the pan to the oven for another fifteen minutes or so to crisp the chicken skin.

If you feel like baked potatoes, microwave your spuds for five minutes, then throw them in the oven while the chicken cooks. Decide the artichoke hearts count as a green vegetable, award yourself full marks for a home-cooked meal, feel superior to the parents who ordered pizza tonight. (Forgive yourself for ordering pizza tomorrow.)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

May trip to the Russian Market

I do mock. But only with love!

I go to the Russian produce market every week. And every time I'm there, I take a chance on some weird thing I've never tried before. That's how I know I don't like sweet, pickled mushrooms. You learn something new every day. (Seriously, ick!)

So, yeah, I do make fun of the crazy translations.  But I do it with love. And dollars!

Racist Mayo
First, lemme get this one out of the way. Perhaps there is an old, Slavic folktale of the beloved, African Cossack, riding through the countryside spreading cheer. But I doubt it. More likely, this is just hella racist. Which is odd, since it's the very whitest people who are known for their love of jarred mayo. I should probably have complained to the manager, even though he doesn't speak English. At least I didn't buy it.

Try and Be Convinced!
I went to the Russian store specifically for cheap dill and bulgar. But my whatthehellisthis? purchase was a jar of "hot", Ukrainian tomato sauce called Adjika. Not exactly spicy, but kind of in the neighborhood of mild salsa. We polished off half the jar already, so I'd definitely buy it again.

Plus, the label on the jar gave me a serious case of the giggles. (Must be read in voice of Boris Badenov.)
More than three centuries the Ukrainian city Nezhin was famous for its pickles. Try and be convinced - our production will be pleasant to the most exacting gourmets.
Adjika Hot. Ingredients: tomatoes or tomato paste, drinking water, sweet pepper, garlic, white sugar, sunflower oil, salt, red milled pepper.

Potted Pig (Probably)
Being a civilian, I had to say no to both these varieties of canned pork.

My mother points out that "Pork stewed meat with gelatin" is somewhat ambiguous. It might be stewed pork jello, or might be muskrat stewed in the broth from last week's congealed pork stew. But the "Seargant's Pork Pate" is undoubtedly pure.

Fool Me Twice
Pistachio-studded Turkish Cotton Candy sounds fabulous, right?

And it's so pretty. Only when I unloaded the bag did my husband remind me that I bought a package six months ago. Which we pitched, because it tasted like insulation. Doh!

At least I'm only out $3.29.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Chocolate Cherry Crunch Pie

This recipe was universally loved by my team of testers (aka, my extended family). Even I loved it, and I am generally not much for pies. They're a lot of work for something that doesn't move my soul the way cakes do.

But I had this recipe from Bon Appetit kicking around for ages, and it did look pretty fabulous. Plus, I bought a jar of morello cherries from Trader Joe's, stuck it in the back of the cabinet, and forgot about it. Three times. Like you do...

In the event, however, I managed to ignore just about everything from the Bon Appetit recipe. One day I'll make it as written, minus the orange juice and zest, substituting pecans for almonds, and ... Okay, who am I kidding? The only recipe I've ever followed is my own. So, here it is.

Chocolate Crust
1 cup all-purpose flour (140g)
2/3 cup powdered sugar (80g)
3 tablespoons dutch processed cocoa powder (20g)
pinch of table salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (90g)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 egg yolks

Crunch Topping
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons dutch processed cocoa powder
1/2 cup light brown sugar
pinch of table salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Cherry Filling
3-700g jars of sour cherries in syrup, drained
(or, 3 12oz bags of frozen sour cherries, plus an extra 1/4 cup sugar)
1/2 cup sugar (110g)
1/4 cup bourbon (45g)
3 tablespoons cornstarch (25g)

For the crust:
In food processor, process flour, sugar, cocoa, salt and butter for 20 seconds. Add vanilla and yolks, and turn the machine back on. (Stop thinking about all those recipes that urged you to handle pie crust gently. They are not the boss of you.) Leave the machine running for at least a minute, listening for the sound to change from whining to thumping. (Yes, I'm serious!) When it starts to come together in clumps, gather the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 20 minutes. Roll out onto a piece of wax paper and fit to a 9" pie plate. Prick the bottom of the pie several time with a fork, and place in the freezer for an hour. Spray a piece of tinfoil with oil and fit it snugly into the pie crust. Make sure to push it into the corners and up the sides to prevent shrinking. Bake for 20 minutes at 350, while you get on with the topping and filling. Remove the foil before putting in the cherry filling. (Duh.)

For the topping:
(I wear a glove for this part, because I am a whiny baby.) Knead and squeeze the mixture together so that the heat of your hand helps it meld into clumps, working in the dry ingredients from the bottom of the bowl. Refrigerate for 15 minutes to firm up, then break up into 1/2" clumps on top of filled piecrust.

Filling and baking:
Combine all the filling ingredients in a large bowl, mixing gently so as not to mush the cherries, then pour them into the prepared crust. Crumble the cold topping over the cherries, covering the whole pie with half-inch chunks, dumping the remaining crumbs into any gaps. Place on a cookie sheet in case of drips and bake for 70 to 90 minutes, until the filling starts to set. Cool for at least an hour and serve at room temperature, garnished with whipped cream. Serves 10-12.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Moroccan Carrot Salad

When did Americans cross over from thinking cumin smells like sweaty foreigners to smoky meat? I distinctly remember thinking cumin reeked when I was a teenager. Now I buy bags of seeds at the Indian market and grind them myself.

Pop Quiz: A jar of ground cumin is $5. But a $5 bag of seeds produces about 10 jars worth. If a cheap spice grinder is $15, how many jars until you break even?

Bonus Question: What if you actually remember to bring your Bed Bath & Beyond Coupon in from the car and use it?

Pencils down!

The answer is, I amortized that thing ages ago, because I put cumin in everything. Like these Moroccan Carrots.

The recipe is based on one from Balaboosta by Einat Admony. This book is just perfect if you want to make Middle Eastern food in an American kitchen. Often, books put out by restaurant chefs scare off home cooks because the recipes require thirty weird ingredients and four hours of prep work. The problem is even worse with an unfamiliar cuisine; how do you even know whether you've gotten it right? Admony's recipes are straightforward, and her descriptions make you feel like a welcome guest in her home. (Contrast that with Yotam Ottolenghi's lamentation on the impossibility of reproducing his country's food with the inferior produce available in the West. Whatever, dude!)

Morroccan Carrot Salad
2 1/2 lbs carrots, peeled
2 teaspoons table salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt, maybe more
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon hot paprika 
1/2 teaspoon sugar
pinch cayenne
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onions

Add the table salt to a large pot of water and bring it to a full boil. While you're waiting, slice the carrots into 1/4" coins and prepare a bowl of ice water. Cook the carrots in boiling water for about eight minutes, until they are just tender. Using a slotted spoon, first move the carrots into the ice bath to stop them cooking any further. Then transfer them to a paper towel to dry so the water doesn't splatter everywhere when they hit the oil.

Empty out the pot, return it to the stove, and turn on the burner to evaporate off any residual water. When the pan is hot and dry, add half the olive oil, then sautee the tomato paste in it for two minutes to caramelize some of the sugars. Add the carrots to the pot and stir them gently a couple of times per minute until they get hot through, roughly 8 minutes. Make a space in the bottom of the pan, then add the minced garlic and sautee it for half a minute before incorporating it into the hot carrots.

Turn off the heat, and whisk everything but the onions into the rest of the olive oil. Pour the seasoned oil over the hot carrots, and stir gently, so as not to mush them. If you taste it now, the salad will have a sour, slightly metallic taste. Don't worry about it - taste again in an hour when the carrots are cool, and punch it up then with a touch more vinegar and salt then if you find it bland. When you plate the dish, stir half the onions into the carrots, and sprinkle the other half on top as a garnish. Best at room temperature, serves 8.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cupcakes

Chocolate and Peanut Butter. It's kind of a thing these days. Have you heard?

These cupcakes are kind of a thing, too. They're right in that sweet spot between a mini Reese's Cup and a slice of gloppy peanut butter "mousse" pie from a chain restaurant. You'll be satisfied, but not nauseated. (Also, what if someone you knew walked in when you were finishing your PB Pie at Chili's? You'd have to move away and change your name.)

To me, these cupcakes are funfood - ideal for a bakesale, but not something to spend a lot of time or money on. In that vein, I use the classic Hershey's chocolate cake recipe printed on the back of their cocoa canister. It's fast, uncomplicated, and always works. Use whatever recipe you love (or a mix, I won't judge).

The only fiddly step is that you need to freeze or chill the cupcakes after frosting them with peanut butter. Dipping a warm cupcake in warm glaze will make a gloppy mess, ruining your day and making your bakesale significantly less profitable. I am compulsive skipper of steps, but not this one.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cupcakes
24 chocolate cupcakes, preferably refrigerated
Peanut Butter Frosting
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (165g)
9 tablespoons creamy peanut butter (115g)
2 1/4 cups powdered sugar (240g)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract (15g)
3 tablespoons milk (30g)
Chocolate Glaze
(adapted from Alton Brown, via Foodnetwork)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (110g)
1/4 cup milk (55g)
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon corn syrup (20g)
2/3 cup chopped bittersweet chocolate (4oz, 115g)
2 cups powdered sugar (225g)

Using the paddle attachment, beat together softened butter and creamy peanut butter. Add vanilla, then sugar 3/4 cup at a time. Thin out with milk to achieve a smooth, spreadable consistency. Frost cupcakes to a smooth dome, and chill for at least half an hour.

Melt butter in a shallow saucepan, then stir in the milk, salt and corn syrup. Take care not to let the milk solids scorch on the sides of the pan. Add in the vanilla and chocolate, then remove from the heat and whisk until the chocolate is melted. Whisk in the powdered sugar, half a cup at a time. At first, the chocolate will be a lumpy, runny mess. Don't freak out - just keep whisking vigorously until it smooths out.

Take a cooled cupcake, dunk it in the chocolate, and turn your wrist to catch the drips. You'll get the hang of it - just try not to touch the frosted cupcake to the bottom of the hot pan. If your chocolate glaze starts to seize up, heat it briefly on the burner to correct the consistency.

Chill the cupcakes in the fridge for an hour to set the glaze. If you feel like it, garnish with peanuts. Or, don't. You're the boss!