Thursday, October 25, 2012

Yoko, Bento, and Not Boring Lunches!

I recently read a children's book called Yoko, by Rosemary Wells. In the story, Yoko takes all her favorite things for lunch, like sushi, to school and all the kids make fun of her, until, of course, they taste it! It's one of my kids favorite books! However, I was horrified when my kids told me their lunches are boring! Boring? After feeling a little hurt, I decided not only to give them more exciting lunches, but to start the art of making Japanese box lunches, known as bento. I have to say that at first I thought it would be difficult and another dreaded chore, but I actually find it fun and my kids love to help! So, in honor of Yoko, let me show you how to make my version of a California roll. Once you have all the ingredients and cook the rice, it is so simple, and far cheaper than any store-bought. Boring lunches? Not any more!

California Roll: Sushi 101

Makes 1 roll

For the sushi rice (makes enough for 3 rolls)
1 cup white sushi (short-grain) rice
1 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup rice vinegar
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt

For the sushi
Bamboo sushi mat (available at most grocers)
Rice vinegar
1 sheet, Toasted Nori Seaweed (comes in a pakage of 10, 8"x7" sheets)
1/2 carrot, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks
1/4 English cucumber, cut into thin matchsticks
1/4 ripe avocado, cut into strips
Cooked crab meat, or imitation crab sticks (cut in half)

To serve
Soy sauce (save those little packets from take-out), pickled ginger slices, wasabi (optional), and toasted sesame seeds (optional) 

For the sushi rice
Place 1 cup of uncooked rice in a sieve and rinse until the water runs clear. Transfer the rice to a saucepan and add the 1 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil, give the rice a quick stir, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook, undisturbed, until all the water has been absorbed, about 20 minutes. Set the rice aside to cool.

Meanwhile, combine the vinegar, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan over low heat and cook, stirring, until the sugar and salt dissolve, about 2 minutes. Let cool. Transfer the cooked rice to a wide, shallow, glass dish and spread it out evenly with a spatula. Slowly pour in the vinegar mixture while slicing the spatula through the rice. Do not stir. Cover until ready to use. If refrigerated, add a sprinkle of water and microwave until slightly softened.

For the sushi
Make sure to have all your ingredients ready. Including a cup of water with a splash of vinegar, to put your rice paddle or spatula into. This helps you spread out the rice without it sticking. In addition, some recommend placing a piece of saran wrap over the mat, but I think it's easier without it. It's up to you.

Place the sheet of nori, shiny side down, on the bamboo mat, making sure the edge of the 7"-side lines up with the edge of the mat. Using a rice paddle or spatula, spread the nori with the rice, a little at a time, until almost fully covered. Leave the top 1" of nori uncovered. Don't worry about the edges, they will be trimmed off anyway.

Place some of the carrot, cucumber, avocado, and crab down the middle of the rice. Don't over-stuff or the sushi won't roll up neatly.

Using the mat, roll and enclose the filling with the first roll and press gently on the mat to secure the roll.

Next, raise the end of the mat slightly to prevent the mat from being rolled into the sushi, and continue rolling until all the nori is rolled up. Gently squeeze to secure the roll. If the very end of the nori does not seal completely, dampen slightly with a little water to adhere.

Allow the roll to rest a few minutes to "set" before cutting.

Trim off the messy ends and cut into 8 even pieces. Sprinkle each piece with a pinch of the sesame seeds. If you're not going to serve it immediately, roll the sushi log in saran wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve. Simply remove the plastic, cut, and serve. It sure makes a nice bento box!

Lucky Kids!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Almost a Gastrique

A gastrique is a French syrupy sweet and sour sauce made with caramilized sugar and deglazed with vinegar. Other elements can be added, such as stock, fruit, and wine to produce a plethora of varieties. One of my favorite recipes, from Mark Bittman of The New York Times, is for a mysterious, dark and delicious "Pinot Noir Syrup." Although vinegar is not used to deglaze in this recipe, it does start with caramelizing sugar. Caramelizing sugar can seem scary, but as long as you watch it very closely and are prepared to turn down the heat if it begins to brown too quickly or begins to smoke, it really is a skill worth tackling. If on your first attempt, the sugar burns, throw it out and try again. It's just sugar. In this recipe, it is served with simple roast salmon steaks, but it would be equally delicious on any roasted meat, especially pork. The syrup can be made ahead and any leftover can be refrigerated for another tasty meal!

Roast Salmon Steaks with Pinot Noir Syrup

Serves 4

1/2 cup sugar
2 cups Pinot Noir
1 fresh rosemary sprig, plus 1 teaspoon finely chopped
4 salmon steaks (about 1/2 pound each)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon butter

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Put the sugar in a heavy saucepan, preferably nonstick with rounded sides (I don't have one), and turn the heat to medium.

Cook, without stirring (just shake the pan occasionally to redistribute the sugar) until the sugar liquefies and begins to turn brown, about 10 minutes.

Turn off the heat and carefully add the wine. Turn the heat to high and cook, stirring, until the caramel dissolves again. Then add the rosemary sprig and reduce over high heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is syrupy and reduced to just over 1/2 cup, 10-15 minutes.

Heat a nonstick ovenproof skillet over high heat until it begins to smoke. Season the salmon on both sides with salt and pepper, then put it in the pan; immediately put the pan in the oven. Cook for 3 minutes, then turn the salmon and cook for another 3 minutes. Check to see that the salmon is medium-rare or thereabouts (it should be) and remove it and keep it warm, or cook for another minute or two if you like.

When the sauce is reduced, stir in the balsamic vinegar and butter and turn the heat to medium-low.

Cook until the butter melts, add some salt and pepper, and remove the rosemary sprig. Taste and adjust seasoning, then serve over the fish, garnished with the chopped rosemary.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bitchin' in my Kitchen

Over the weekend, I was able to get my hands on Nadia G's Bitchin' Kitchen Cookin' For Trouble, and let's just say it had me bitchin' in all the wrong ways! I like Nadia and find her outrageous cooking show, "Bitchin' Kitchen," quite entertaining! I even record it! As I sometimes do, I let my kids pick a recipe for me to make them. After all, they put up with a lot of fussy food, and sometimes I just want to make them happy. So, what did they pick? "Meatloaf w/ Awesomesauce." Now, I do make meatloaf from time-to-time, and never realized how fabulous my recipe was until I made Nadia's. For starters, there were absolutely no herbs or seasoning, besides salt and pepper, in her recipe. In addition, I found an ERROR! After watching her show, in which she made this very recipe, it was brought to my attention that her recipe from her cookbook says to add 1 entire cup of water to the "awesomesauce." Guess the result: watered down sauce and mushy meatloaf. Ick! I find it extremely irritating when any cookbook author is not meticulous about the final product. After all, people spend their hard-earned cash on not only the cookbook, but the ingredients as well. So, while I will still enjoy Nadia for her humor, I will not waste my time and money on any of her recipes again, except for her "Thai-Italian Spring Rolls with Peanut Dipping Sauce." They're really yummy!

After taking a deep breath, I have provided my recipe for "Bitchin' Meatloaf with Awesomesauce." I like to enclose three eggs inside, I think it's a Sicilian thing, but it is optional. Either way, this meatloaf is by far the best meatloaf you've ever tasted!!!

Bitchin' Meatloaf with Awesomesauce

Serves 6


2 lbs ground beef chuck
3 slices of bread, soaked in milk just to cover, squeezed dry, and torn into little bits
2 eggs (for the beef mixture)
1 yellow onion, finely minced
1 tablespoon mixed dried herbs such as sage, oregano, and thyme, or 3 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs of choice
4 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 teaspoons Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 peeled hard-cooked eggs, optional (See Techniques for how to make perfect boiled eggs!)
1/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup brown sugar
4 teaspoons plain white or apple cider vinegar


Preheat the over to 350 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and lightly grease the foil.

In a bowl, combine the meat, bread, eggs, onion, herbs, parsley, salt and pepper. Mix well with your hands. (Gross, but it's the only way!) Form the meat mixture, on the baking sheet, into an oval loaf. If you like, place the eggs in a row down the center of the loaf as you form it. (I like to form 1/2 the beef mixture, then place the eggs, then cover with the remaining beef mixture.)

Mix together the ketchup, brown sugar, and vinegar. Coat the entire meatloaf with the sauce.

Bake until cooked through, about 1 1/4 hours. Let stand for 15 minutes, then slice and serve. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Desserted Island!

After making Oeufs a la Neige (French Snow Eggs), I wanted to make the classic French dessert "Ile Flottante" (Floating Island) and really make it worth the effort. This means going to the master, specifically Thomas Keller, and The French Laundry Cookbook. According to Keller, "this is a classical French preparation, further enhanced and refined." I have to agree! This recipe is a little technical, but the results create a dessert that is unbelievably decadent and absolutely beautiful! I followed this recipe exactly, and all-in-all, it took me about 4 hours to complete. Don't let that scare you! You can make a few components ahead: the filled meringues - up to 1 day in advance, the creme anglaise - up to 2 days in advance, the chocolate tuiles - in advance and stored in an airtight container, and the mint oil - up to 2 days in advance (to retain optimal color). With a little careful planning, this dessert would be a snap to plate and serve to any of your lucky guests. But what is it? Well, it's a chocolate mousse filled meringue, floating in a sea of custardy creme anglaise, topped with a chocolate tuile and "chocolate salad" dressed with fleur de sel (French sea salt), and carefully enhanced by strategically placed dots of beautiful green mint oil! It's so amazing and definitely worth the effort!!!

Ile Flottante (Floating Island)

Serves 6

For the Meringues
5 large egg whites
1 cup sugar

For the Chocolate Mousse
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup meringue (reserved from above)

For the Creme Anglaise
1/2 vanilla bean, split
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
5 large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar

For the Chocolate Tuiles
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup powdered sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
5 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 large egg white

For the Mint Oil
4 packed cups of mint leaves
About 3/4 cup canola oil

To Serve
Block of bittersweet chocolate for chocolate shavings
Mint oil, in a squeeze bottle
Fleur de sel (French sea salt)

For the Mint Oil
    Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Prepare a large bowl of ice water, set aside. Place the mint in the boiling water for 15 seconds. Remove the mint with a slotted spoon or strainer and plunge the blanched mint into the ice water bath to chill.
    Drain the cold mint and squeeze as dry as possible. Use scissors to cut them into small pieces, and place half of the mint into a blender with enough of the oil to just cover the mint. Turn the blender to medium speed and allow the mint to blend for a minute to begin the process. Keep blending for about 2 minutes. Don't let the blender get too hot, or their will be some loss of color. Add the remaining mint to the machine and blend until smooth. Remove the puree to a container and refrigerate for at least a day to intensify the color. (I only allowed an hour to chill...)
    Place a piece of cheesecloth over a container, fill with the puree, and secure with a rubber band or string. String the cheesecloth from a height above the container (I hung it from a kitchen cabinet knob), and allow the oil to drip through the cheesecloth for about an hour. Do not squeeze the cheesecloth or it will cloud the oil. Store the oil in the refrigerator, preferably in a food-safe squeeze bottle, until ready to use, for up to 2 days.

For the Meringues
    Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Spray six 4-ounce souffle molds or ramekins (about 3" wide) with nonstick spray.
    Combine the egg whites and sugar in a metal mixer bowl. Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and whisk gently until the whites are warm and the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove the bowl from the heat and place it on the mixer stand. Use the whisk attachment to beat the whites until soft peaks form. Reserve 1/2 cup of the meringue for the mousse.
    Fill a pastry bag fitted with a large plain tip with the remaining meringue. Pipe the meringue into the centers of the 6 molds, allowing the filling to move outward from the center as you pipe to fill them. Smooth the tops of the meringues and place the molds in a deep baking pan. Pour in enough hot water to come halfway up the sides of the cups. Cover the baking dish with foil and bake for 20 minutes, or until the meringues are set but still moist. Remove the molds from the baking dish and refrigerate for 1 hour, or until firm.

For the Chocolate Mousse
    Place the chocolate in a medium bowl. Bring 1/2 cup of the cream to a simmer and pour over the chocolate. Let sit for a minute, then stir until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth. Let cool to room temperature.
    Beat the remaining 1/4 cup cream to soft peaks. Fold the reserved meringue, and the whipped cream, into the chocolate mixture.

To fill the Meringues
    Leaving the baked meringues in the cups, gently scoop out the center of each to make a rounded cavity, leaving about 1/2-3/4" wall of meringue. (I used a paring knife to cut the top and a small spoon to scoop out the center.) Using a spoon or pastry bag, fill the cavities with the mousse; you will have extra mousse. (My kids ate it immediately!) Return the meringues to the refrigerator to chill for at least 1 hour to set, or up to a day.

For the Creme Anglaise
    Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into a saucepan, add the pod, milk, and cream, and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat and let cool to room temperature to infuse the flavors.
    Add half the sugar to the milk mixture and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
    Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks and the remaining sugar in a bowl to blend. Gradually whisk in 1/3 of the hot milk mixture to temper the yolks and then return the mixture to the saucepan. Stir the custard with a wooden spoon over LOW heat until it thickens slightly and coats the back of a wooden spoon. Immediately pour into a bowl set in an ice-water bath and stir it occasionally until cool. Strain the sauce and refrigerate until ready to serve, or up to 2 days.

For the Chocolate Tuiles
    In a bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Sift the flour and cocoa together. Beat half the cocoa mixture into the butter mixture, add the egg white, and then add the remaining cocoa mixture.
    Cut out a hollow round stencil with a 2 1/4" diameter. The top of a plastic container works well for this. (I'm sure my husband will wonder what happened to the coffee lid???....)

    Place a Silpat mat on the counter. Place the stencil in one corner of the Silpat and holding it flat against the Silpat, scoop some of the batter onto the back of an offset spatula (or spoon) and spread it in an even layer over the stencil. Run the spatula over the top to remove any excess batter. Repeat to fill the Silpat. You will need only 6 tuiles for this recipe; extra batter can be frozen.

    Place the Silpat on a baking sheet and bake for 8 minutes, or until the tuiles are set. Let the tuiles cool to room temperature, then carefully remove using a small narrow spatula. Store the cookies in an airtight container until ready to assemble the dessert.

For the Chocolate "Salad"
    You will need about a tablespoon of shavings for each dessert. If you have a large block of chocolate, pull the blade of a chef's knife (at about a 45 degree angle) over the top of the block toward you to create chocolate shavings. If you have a smaller piece, use a vegetable peeler to peel off shavings. If the shavings are too brittle, let the chocolate warm up very slightly in a warm spot. (I just placed my hand over the chocolate until slightly softened.) Keep the shavings in a cool place.

To Serve
    Invert the meringues onto a paper towel and unmold them. (The towel will absorb any excess liquid.) Dip a 2 1/4" cutter in hot water, center it over a meringue, and cut down from the top to even the sides. Repeat with the remaining meringues. (I didn't have a 2 1/4" cutter, so I skipped this step and think they still look very nice.)
    Spoon some creme anglaise onto each plate. Place a meringue in the center of the sauce and lay a chocolate tuile over the top. Squeeze dot of the mint oil over the custard. (I think it's easiest to keep the squeeze bottle still and rotate the plate.) Stack some of the chocolate shavings on each tuile, drizzle with a tiny bit of mint oil, and sprinkle with fleur de sel. You're done!!! Enjoy!!!!

Friday, October 5, 2012

French Snow Eggs

Concluding my exploration of The Bonne Femme Cookbook, by Wini Moranville, I decided to make the classic French dessert: "Floating Islands" or "Iles Flottantes." I've seen recipes for this in numerous cookbooks, which I investigated; and, it was brought to my attention that this recipe is not for Floating Islands, rather "French Snow Eggs" ("Oeufs a la Neige"). While both dishes are similar, meringue served on a sea of creme anglaise, Floating Islands consists of single round flat baked meringues, where Snow Eggs consists of several smaller meringues that are poached. I was intimidated by the thought of poaching meringue, but it was really very easy. In this recipe, I made Wini's "Creme Anglaise" (to serve as the sea), her "Chocolate Sauce Tout de Suite" (to dollop in the center of the sea) and her "Caramel Sauce a la Tricheuse" (cheater's caramel sauce, to drizzle over the "eggs"). The sauces were easy to make and my kids have enjoyed the leftovers over ice cream!

Overall, I wasn't blown away by the cloud-like meringues, which were bland, textureless, and basically just a conduit to eat three different sauces. I think I might prefer them baked, as in floating islands...guess what I'm doing tomorrow! I've included all four recipes below, and I think it's fun to make everything at least once. However, it's safe to say that my "Snow Egg" days are over. Thanks Wini, it's been fun!

French Snow Eggs (Oeufs a la Neige)

Serves 4

6 large very fresh egg whites
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 recipe Creme Anglaise (see below)
1/2 cup Caramel Sauce a la Tricheuse (see below)
1/2 cup Chocolate Sauce Tour de Suite (see below)

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the egg whites and salt on high speed until soft peaks form. Slowly add the sugar while continuing to beat to stiff peaks. Fill a large skillet halfway with water; heat to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Using two spoons, scoop up a mound of meringue, using the two spoons to make a small oval shape. (Doesn't have to be perfect.) Gently scoot the meringue into the simmering water. Let them cook for 1 minute, then using a slotted spoon, turn them and cook until delicately firm but not sticky, about 1 more minute.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meringues to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Continue until you have 12 meringues (or "eggs). To serve: Divide the chilled creme anglaise evenly in each of 4 serving bowls. Dollop a tablespoon of chocolate sauce in the center of each bowl. Arrange 3 meringues in each bowl, and thinly drizzle with the caramel sauce. Serve.

Creme Anglaise

Makes 1 cup

1 cup half-and-half
1/2 vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 large egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
Pinch of salt

Place the half-and-half in a medium-size saucepan. If using the vanilla bean, half, split it lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the saucepan, then drop in the pod. Heat over medium heat just until steaming. Remove from the heat and let steep for 15 minutes.

In a medium-size bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar, and salt until thick and lemon colored. Slowly whisk the warm half-and-half into the egg mixture. Return the custard to the saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a wooden spoon. Remove from the heat and add the vanilla extract (if you didn't use a bean). Strain the sauce into a bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Caramel Sauce a la Tricheuse

Makes 1 1/2 cups

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

In a heavy 2-quart saucepan, combine the butter, brown sugar, cream, and corn syrup. Bring to a boil, stirring to combine the ingredients as they heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook at an active simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract. Let cool to a warm temperature to serve. Cover and refrigerate any leftovers for up to 2 weeks; re-heat gently to a pourable consistency to serve.

Chocolate Sauce Tout de Suite

Makes 1 1/4 cups

2/3 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1 tablespoon butter

Sift the cocoa into a heatproof mixing bowl. In a heavy saucepan, stir together the cream and brown sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the corn syrup and bring to a full boil. Slowly pour the cream mixture into the mixing bowl with the cocoa, whisking as you pour. Then, whisk in the butter until the butter is melted and the sauce is perfectly smooth. Serve warm. Cover and refrigerate any leftover sauce for up to 1 week; reheat in the microwave to use.