The Cook's Tour: January 2009

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Snowy-Day Cake







Edna Lewis, the wonderful Southern cook (also known as the Grande Dame of Southern Cooking) created a recipe called "Busy-Day Cake." I've had this recipe in my file for awhile now, squirreled way for the right time to try it. I believe Miss Lewis (as she is called by all who revere her years of incredible cooking experience) developed this cake as something you could put together on a "busy day."  

Well, I certainly didn't have a busy day today - I had a "snowy day," and hence the title of this post. We had a snowstorm (again) in New Jersey today - this is getting really tiresome. But it did present me with an official snow day off from work and the opportunity to bake something (and for that I am thankful). 

Back to Edna Lewis. She was born in Freetown, Virginia in 1916; in a town founded by three freed slaves (one of whom was her grandfather). She was taught to cook over a wood-fired stove by the women in her life. When she was 16, she moved to Washington, DC, and eventually to New York City. In 1948, she opened her own restaurant in New York (think how rare this was: a woman - an African-American woman - owning a restaurant in NYC in 1948) called Cafe Nicholson. Her cooking was legendary and her restaurant hosted famous celebrities of the day like Truman Capote, Marlene Dietrich, and Gloria Vanderbilt. After she sold Cafe Nicholson, she worked as the chef for many years at Gage and Tollner in Brooklyn. In the late sixties, she started to write down many of her recipes which resulted in the Edna Lewis Cookbook and later The Taste of Country Cooking (which is where Busy-Day Cake comes from). In addition to cooking and writing, she founded the Society for the Revival and Preservation of Southern Food. Edna Lewis died in 2006. If you'd like to read more about the fascinating life of Edna Lewis, the New York Times wrote a wonderful piece on her when she died.

Sorry for the digression, but I thought you would want to know this cake's heritage. The cake has very simple ingredients - eggs, butter, sugar, flour, vanilla, freshly grated nutmeg, some milk, and baking powder - nothing fancy here. But I noticed when I was in the final mixing, that the batter was almost sponge-like and it had a marvelous scent from the fresh nutmeg. As a baker, you really notice when a batter or a dough is different. This batter looked so smooth and inviting that I just knew the cake was going to be good. It bakes in a springform pan for about 30-35 minutes. The recipe says to serve it warm and who am I not follow the instructions of a legend? So I cut a sliver and savored it. It is moist, with a nice crumb, and a delicious, almost silk-like texture. You can just transport yourself to the South with this recipe. And on a snowy, cold day in New Jersey I can't think of a better place to be, even it is just in my mind.

Edna Lewis' Busy-Day Cake

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1-1/3 C granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 t vanilla extract
2 C unbleached all-purpose flour
2-1/2 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
1 good pinch freshly grated nutmeg, or more
1/2 C whole milk, room temperature

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease 1 9" springform pan with butter or cooking spray (I used butter).

In the bowl of a stand mixer, blend the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. One by one, add the eggs, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla extract, and beat to blend.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg.

Add about 1/4 o the flour mixture to the butter mixture, and beat on low speed to incorporate. Add 1/3 of the milk and beat again. Add the remaining flour mixture in three more doses, alternating each time with a big of milk, and beating to just combine. Do not overmix. Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the sides of the bowl and stir to incorporate any flour not yet absorbed.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, spreading it evenly across the top. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. This cake has a tendency to brown quickly on top, so after about 20 minutes, you might want to peek into the oven and tent the cake with aluminum foil if necessary.

Serve warm. It is delicious plain but you could serve it with a little creme fraiche or some warm, crushed berries.




Monday, January 26, 2009

Granola Bars for Adults


Breaking news...finally, someone has developed granola bars for adults. Through the generosity of the folks at FoodBuzz, I received some samples of Quaker Oats new granola bars - OMG - let me tell you, these are wonderful. They are called True Delights (and what a perfect name that is); there are three flavors - Toasted Coconut Banana Macadamia Nut, Honey Roasted Cashew Mixed Berry, and Dark Chocolate Raspberry Almond. Do those sound heavenly, or what?  I restrained myself and only sampled the Toasted Coconut flavor tonight. It was fabulous. I just had to write immediately so you could get in on this, too.

Do yourself a favor - follow the link above to the True Delights site and sign up for a free sample. You'll be glad you did.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sunday Night Supper

Whew!  That was quick - another weekend over.  I don't know about you, but on Sunday nights with the work week looming ahead of me, I want dinner to be easy and comforting - something that doesn't take alot of time, is simple to prepare, and tastes fabulous.  Well, step right up, my friends, I've got a terrific little meal for you. 

The centerpiece of this dinner comes from Mark Bittman (the New York Times' "The Minimalist").  It's called 15-Minute Fried Herbed Chicken. Now, you know traditional fried chicken is quite the production and not something I want to be doing on a Sunday night (or maybe not ever).  So Bittman's 15 minute version sounded very inviting. And, I loved the fact that he recommends using boneless, skinless thighs (one of my favorite parts). You can use breasts, but this will be juicier and tastier with thighs. This so simple - you throw almost everything into the food processor, whip it up with a little olive oil to make a paste, rub the puree onto the chicken, dredge in flour, and voila, you're ready to fry. The thighs cook for about 8-10 minutes in 1/4" of olive oil. The only change I would make to Bittman's recipe would be to salt and pepper the chicken before slathering on the paste. This chicken is tender on the inside and deliciously crispy on the outside (hmmm...just like fried chicken...imagine that). 

While I was frying the chicken, I thought, "what would be a nice accompaniment to the chicken?" To go along with my simple, homey meal, the obvious answer was sauteed spinach and some buttered orzo. The only thing missing was a salad but I just couldn't get to that - oh well. I think a nice Pinot Noir would go great with this if you are so inclined. Another nice thing about this chicken is that you can serve it hot right out of the pan or at room temp so it would be a good make-ahead dish.  Oooh, I also just thought that the leftovers would make a fabulous lunch the next day - maybe on a nice semolina roll with some arugula and a little fresh mozzarella?

I realize this post is probably coming too late for your Sunday Night Supper (unless you are on the West Coast), but there's always next week. In fact, this recipe is so quick and easy, you could even make it during the week - how about that?  Thanks, Bittman.

15-Minute Fried Herb Chicken

1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1-2 TB mixed fresh herbs, like tarragon and sage
2 TB tahini or peanut butter (I used tahini)
1/4 C olive oil (more for frying)
Flour for dredging
6 bonless, skinless chicken thighs or 4 half-breasts
Chopped fresh parsley leaves for garnish
Lemon wedges for serving

1. In a blender or the container of a food processor, combine the onion, herbs, and tahini. As you puree the mixture, slowly add just enough olive oil through the feed tube to make a thick, smooth paste; do not let it get too thin.

2. Put flour in a shallow bowl. Place chicken in another bowl. Rub pureed mixture over chicken, then dredge each piece in flour. Gently shake off any excess flour, coat again with paste and dredge once more in flour.

3. Heat 1/4 inch olive oil in a skillet; when it is hot, fry chicken for about 4 minutes each side, until well browned and cooked through; it will take longer if you use chicken with the bone in. Garnish with parsley and serve hot or warm, with lemon wedges. Serves 4.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Two for One






Greetings, Culinary Friends.

I must apologize for being "off-line" for the past couple of weeks. Between a head cold, some kind of stomach bug, and the usual daily chores that creep in, I was derelict in my blogging duties.  But I am back now.  And I feel so bad about being AWOL, that I am submitting today for your approval a restaurant review and a cookie recipe. Sort of like two weeks in one.

First, the cookies.  I am not a Martha Stewart watcher, but a couple of weeks ago I saw a promo for an upcoming show where she was raving about these cookies.  Being a cookie lover, my ears perked up. She was making "Cowboy Cookies;" she wasn't sure of the origin of these cookies but they have so many luscious ingredients in them that I was intrigued.  I had planned to make these last weekend and bring them to you, but what with the above-mentioned maladies, I didn't get to it. This recipe has some of my favorite things in it: oats, chocolate, pecans, and coconut - what could be bad? They go together very quickly and there is really not alot of fuss. They come out on the other end light and crispy. For my taste, I would add a little more coconut and maybe some additional brown sugar - they could use a touch more sweetness. Other than that, these are very nice and they would make a great addition to a packed lunch or for a hike. Here is the recipe. The restaurant review follows below.

Cowboy Cookies

Makes about 3 dozen

2 C all-purpose flour
1 t baking soda
1 t salt
1/2 t baking powder
1 C (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 C granulated sugar
3/4 C light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 t vanilla extract
1-1/2 C old-fashioned oats
6 oz semisweet chocolate, cut into 1/4-inch chunks (1 C)
3 oz (3/4 C) pecan halves
1/2 C shredded unsweetened coconut

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment or nonstick baking mats; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, and baking powder.

Beat butter and sugars with a mixer on medium-high until pale and creamy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to medium. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla.

Reduce speed to low, and slowly add flour mixture, beating until just incorporated. Beat in oats, chocolate, pecans, and coconut until combined. (Dough can be refrigerated for up to 3 days).

Using a 1-1/2 inch ice cream scoop or a small spoon, drop dough onto baking sheets, spacing about 3 inches apart.

Bake until edges of cookies begin to brown, 11-13 minutes. Transfer baking sheet to wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes. Transfer cookies to racks. Let cool. (Cookies can be stored up to 3 days).


The Highlands area is what alot of us (New Jerseyans) might consider the beginning of the shore. Heading down the Parkway, it's not too far off of exit 117, right before Sandy Hook.  I love the Jersey shore, but in the summer (when it's at its most appealing) you can't get near it. So we're forced to go in the dead of winter. But going to places like Bay Avenue Trattoria make it much more pleasant.

A little store-front in a little waterfront town, this is a little gem. The owners used to run Joe & Maggie's in Long Branch.  I was never able to get to that restaurant but now that I've found this place, I will be back. Staffed by very efficient, friendly waitresses, our server read off about 6-7 terrific-sounding specials, in addition to the ample menu. I began with Crispy Artichokes a la Romano (see photo above) - crispy, light, fried hearts, on a bed of arugula, parmesan, and served with a lemon aioli. My friend thoroughly enjoyed a special appetizer (photo above) of beets and white asparagus, on a bed of greens with pistachio-crusted goat cheese. This goat cheese was one of the best I've ever tasted.

They offered several specials that sounded good until I read Pork Shank Osso Bucco on the menu. The only other place I've ever seen this is at Melissa Kelly's famed Primo in Rockland, Maine (one of my all-time favorite restaurants). Bay Avenue's dish is served with fennel sausage, white beans, and broccoli rabe. It was delicious and I've got half of it in the refrigerator here at home for a much-anticipated leftover. Another delicious entree was Hoisan and Ginger Glazed Duck Breast served with Crisp Duck Leg, Sweet Potato Puree, and Citrus Mango Relish. Seared Day Boat Sea Scallops with Forest Mushrooms, Crisp Bacon, Leeks and Brown Butter Sauce were exactly what you would want in a shore dinner - plump, tender, sweet scallops.

Only one dessert was sampled but it was terrific: Polenta Citrus Pound Cake with a Lemon Glaze served with a Blackberry Coulis and Lemon Sorbetto - delicious (no photo - it went too quick!). It reminded me of a recipe sitting here on my desk that I've been thinking about making: Cranberry Orange Cornmeal Cake.

If you are in the area, put this restaurant on your list. You'll need a reservation -- we could only get a table at 5:30 - on a 20 degree night in mid-January. The economy may be lagging, but at least there are some bright spots.

Bay Avenue Trattoria on Urbanspoon

One more thing.  Not to get all political on you, but I have been captivated by the inaugural festivities happening this weekend. Right before sitting down to write this post, I watched the "We Are One" inaugural celebration from the Lincoln Memorial in DC. Not that I would expect anything less, but this had to be one of the most stirring, inspiring, and well-produced events I have ever seen (and I was very happy to see New Jersey well represented). From Bruce Springsteen's solemn "The Rising" that opened the concert, to the duet by Betty LeVettye and Jon Bon Jovi of "Change is Gonna Come," to dramatic readings by some of our great American actors, to the final, unbelievable, rendition of "America the Beautiful" sung with incredible grace by Beyonce, and then backed up by the entire star-studded cast, this was an amazing two hours.  Oh, and let me not forget the song tribute (In the Name of Love) to Martin Luther King, Jr by none other than U2, who said they were incredibly honored as "4 boys from Dublin" to be part of this. If you get the chance, catch a repeat on HBO. If you are a music lover, you won't be disappointed. As an American, you'll be proud. 

Bringing this all back around to food (because it is all about the food), there is a great article in today's Washington Post on some of the Obamas' favorite Chicago restaurants and where the Obamas might want to eat in DC once they settle in. Two of their favorite Chicago spots -  Spiaggia and Topolobampo - a Rick Bayless restaurant - are definitely on my short list for when I get to Chicago. I think it's pretty safe to say that Barack and Michelle like good food and they like to dine out, and that's gotta be music to the ears of DC restauranteurs. 

Have a good week.

 


Sunday, January 4, 2009

Gourmet Magazine, January 2009




I don't have a recipe for you today or even a restaurant review.  What I do have is nothing short of gushing for the January issue of Gourmet. When this came in the mail last week, it got lumped into the pile of non-essential mail to be looked at a later date. Sometimes I do this because I honestly only have time to pick out the bills or other critical items; but sometimes I do this because I want to save my favorite food or travel magazines for when I've got the luxury of maybe 30 minutes to sit and transport myself to another place. Little did I know that I would be going to Italy so soon.

Last night after seeing "The Reader" with my friend, Christine, I came home and got ready for bed. Not exactly tired enough for sleep, I rummaged through the pile of mail on the dining room table, and saw this cover of spaghetti and meatballs.  I was thinking to myself, "spaghetti and meatballs on the cover of Gourmet?" There's gotta be something to this.  And oh how right I was.

Not sure how many of you are of Italian heritage, but this issue is like a virtual window into the kitchen of my childhood. As I propped myself up in bed and opened the magazine, I started to get the feeling that this issue was more than just some Italian recipes compiled together. Just look at the great photo on the ToC page - oranges in red wine. This is so straight out of the 1950s/60s - I can just see my grandfather, Mike, sitting in our backyard, cigarette in hand, peeling the oranges or peaches and dropping them into glasses of red wine. Then holding court with the rest of the family on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Read Faith Willinger's article on Palermo on pg 34 - you will want to go there. Now. I have always wanted to travel to Sicily, but this article seals it. Sicily is definitely the "hot" area of Italy right now - the January issue of Conde Nast Traveler hails it as "sensational." 

I have so many dog-eared pages in this issue I'm not sure what to cook first. From the Orecchiette with Pulled Pork Sugo to the Lemon Pepper Acini Di Pepe, to Chicken Liver Crostini, and finally Broccoli Rabe with Sweet Italian Sausage. It's an embarrassment of riches. Now please understand, my family was certainly not making these kinds of dishes when I was growing up. They were making Fried Artichoke Hearts, and Brasciole with Pork Neck Bones for the Sunday Gravy, fabulous Chicken Cacciatore, and wonderful desserts - courtesy of my mother, grandmother, and aunts - all first or second generation Italian-Americans. Sometimes when I think of them, it's like viewing my early life through a Francis Ford Coppola movie - all sepia tones - the women cooking up a storm, the men playing cards, and the children running around.

I suspect many of you are Gourmet subscribers, but if not, I urge you to buy this issue. Yes, it's a fabulous issue of wonderful recipes and stories. But when you read "A Family Affair" on pg 58 or "My Inner Italy" on pg 32, you'll see why this issue tugs at my heart strings. And it's more than just the food. It immediately brings me back to a way of life in an era that is gone forever.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Pork Fat Rules!




Happy New Year!  I hope you had a delicious New Year's Eve and Day.

Astute readers will recall that my traditional New Year's Day menu calls for Hoppin' John (the recipe was posted in my December 26 blog). And true to my word, I did whip up a batch today.  I was going to make this yesterday (New Year's Eve) just in case I wasn't "up to the challenge" today, but our New Year's Eve plans got re-routed due to the weather and I didn't get to it yesterday.  So after a lazy start this morning I set about to get this on the stove. 

Non-meat eating readers should skip the next paragraph and jump to the salad...although the title of this post was probably a pretty good indication of what was to come.

Yesterday during the snow storm, we ran around gathering up the remaining ingredients - some of which you see pictured above. There are a couple of wonderful butchers in the area (Haledon Pork Store and Stefan and Son Butcher in Clifton) and that's where we headed to get the andouille and smoked ham.  In addition, we bought a small piece of smoked, cooked bacon on the bone to saute the onions and celery in. These meats were incredible and really gave the Hoppin' John a wonderful, smoky flavor.  The house smelled di-vine!  There really is nothing like the aroma of sizzling pork fat cooking on the stove.

All we needed to go along with the Hoppin' John was a nice green salad.  I had some lovely Bosc pears that were just perfect for a pear, pecan salad-type thing. I found a great recipe (see below) on the web. I didn't have the goat or blue cheese called for and I wasn't running out for it in 17 degree weather. It also called for endive - wasn't going out for that either. The salad was great without either of these items.

We served a hearty Zinfandel with dinner (7 Deadly Zins), some delicious Polish rye bread from Stefan and Sons, and for dessert an Almond Banana Bread (thanks to Joy the Baker (www.joythebaker.com). When I was rooting around yesterday for a recipe, I really wasn't thinking of needing a dessert for New Year's Day. I just wanted to use up the four very ripe bananas on my counter (rather than freezing them, which is what I usually do with our over-ripe bananas). Love this recipe - a) no mixer required, b) it uses melted butter so you don't need to wait for the butter to come to room temp, c) it calls for bourbon. Need I say more?  Recipe below.

May 2009 bring you health, happiness, and fabulous food!

Pear, Endive, and Caramelized Pecan Salad

2 endives
a nice handful of green salad medley, such as mesclun or mache (I used Bibb)
2 red Anjou pears
3.5 oz fresh goat cheese or blue cheese
1/3 C pecan halves
2 TB butter
dash of cinnamon
1 TB honey

Vinaigrette

1.5 TB balsamic vinegar
3 TB walnut oil
salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 385F.  Take a non-stick frying pan and melt 1 TB butter. Coat the nuts in it and add 1 TB honey. Continue to coat for 1-2 minutes. Place pecans on a baking sheet and cook for about 10 minutes in oven, checking to be sure they don't turn too dark. Place on a cooling rack.

Wash, peel, core the pears. Cut in quarters and then cut once more in half. Coat them gently in cinnamon. Heat 1 TB butter in non-stick frying pan and cook the pears over high heat for 1-2 minutes each side. Remove and keep on the side.

Wash the endive and salad greens. Dice the cheese. Remove the cone base of the endive and their yellow leafy parts. Cut them in long sticks. Place the endive sticks and salad in a bowl and season with the vinaigrette. Toss well. 

Take individual plates and assemble your salad. Lay the salad greens on the plate, then add a few slices of pear, the pecans, and cheese. Serve immediately.

Almond Banana Bread

3-4 ripe bananas, smashed
1/3 C melted butter (or in a 1/3 measuring cup measure out half almond oil and half melted butter)
3/4 C brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 t vanilla
1 TB bourbon
1 t baking soda
pinch of salt
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
pinch of ground cloves
1-1/2 C flour
3/4 C coarsely chopped almonds

No mixer required. Preheat oven to 350F. With a wooden spoon, mix butter (and almond oil if using it) into the smashed bananas in a large mixing bowl. Mix in the sugar, egg, vanilla, and bourbon, then the spices. Sprinkle the baking soda and salt over the mixture and mix in. Add the flour, mix. Add the almonds and stir until just incorporated. Pour mixture into a buttered 4x8 inch loaf pan. Bake for 1 hour. Cool on a rack. Remove from pan and slice to serve.



Echo