Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Puffed up with pride

A bad pun, I know! But that’s exactly how I felt when I pulled my first ever soufflé out of the oven, all golden, puffy and altogether irresistible.

Let me explain. I have long wanted to try my hand at soufflés, but have always been daunted by their notoriously difficult reputation. I mean, what if it sank to the bottom of the dish? Surely my heart would sink with it too. And what if it were totally inedible to boot? That would be a colossal waste of good ingredients. No cookbook I have seen to date has a recipe for a single serving of soufflé, which is a shame, because a) that would be the perfect size for a culinary experiment, since the quantities involved are small and b) if it’s just you, you don’t have to worry about having people ready and waiting at the table, holding their breath for the soufflé to come out of the oven, only to have it fall flat! And what’s more, none of the recipes I’ve seen so far have been amenable to scaling down either, since wrestling with fractions of eggs is not my forte.

I picked up Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food at the library the other day. This is a wonderful book for cooks of all skill levels, whether you are a beginner learning the basics or a more seasoned cook looking to expand your repertoire. The first part of the book has “lessons” covering everything from shopping and preparation to techniques and concepts. The second part is a selection of additional recipes for everything from salads and vegetables to desserts. The recipes are written in an organic narrative style instead of the usual format of ingredients followed by method. The ingredients are highlighted in bold, so you don’t miss anything important, and the step-by-step instructions ensure you’re doing things in the most sensible order. Overall, there’s a ton of stuff in there, simple recipes written simply, with enough variations to keep you busy for a long time. But I digress. While leafing through it, I came across a recipe for a Goat Cheese Soufflé, and surprisingly enough this one called for 4 eggs for 4 servings. Immediately, I knew I had to try it, scaled down to a single serving. As luck would have it, I even had a bit of goat cheese the exact size, so I took that as a sign and set to work.

The actual steps involved in making a soufflé are not too complicated. Making a béchamel is pretty basic, and whipping the egg whites is a snap when you have an electric whisk (otherwise it’s a lot of elbow grease!) The tricky part is whipping them to the correct stage, and then folding them in without deflating all that precious air that’s trapped inside. The air bubbles will begin to expand in the heat of the oven, lifting the soufflé to lofty heights. At the same time, the heat also coagulates the protein of the egg white, so that the soufflé has a structure to hold the air in. Even though I have a decent idea of the chemistry of the process, I don’t have a lot of experience working with egg whites, so I said a silent prayer before the final step of folding the egg whites into the cheese sauce. I vaguely remembered having seen a chef on TV use a paper collar around his ramekin to support the delicate mixture as it rises, so I tied a piece of parchment around mine for good measure and watched as the oven did its bit.

The soufflé began rising almost as soon as I put it into the oven. 15 minutes later, it was still proudly puffed up and beginning to develop a golden top, so I ventured to remove the paper collar to let the sides brown a little. In true fashion, its top deflated ever so slightly when I took it out of the oven, but it stayed mostly intact. I dipped a spoon in and took a taste. Success tastes like...a savory, cheesy cloud!

Goat cheese soufflé (Serves 1)
Adapted from Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food
1 tbsp olive oil (Butter is the traditional fat of choice)
¾ tbsp white whole wheat flour
¼ cup milk (I used 2%)
1 egg, separated
1 oz soft goat cheese (a quarter of the small log usually seen in stores)
Salt, pepper and other seasonings to taste (such as herbs and spices of choice)
A drizzle of truffle oil (optional)
Preheat the oven to 375F (190C). Oil the inside of a 1-cup ramekin. You can also sprinkle the insides with grated parmesan or breadcrumbs. Place the ramekin on a baking sheet.
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan and whisk in the flour. Cook for a minute and then pour in the milk, whisking continuously. Cook till the sauce has thickened enough to coat the back of the spoon. Season with salt generously as the egg whites will have none, then add other seasonings to taste. I used freshly cracked black pepper and some red pepper flakes. Stir in the cheese and the egg yolk.
In a clean bowl, whip the egg white to moist firm peaks. Fold in a third of the whites into the cheese sauce, and then gently fold in the rest of the egg white, taking care not to deflate the batter. Pour into the prepared ramekin. Run a thumb around the inside edge of the ramekin, and then tie a paper collar around it to help the soufflé rise.
Bake in the oven until puffed and golden-brown, about 20 minutes. Towards the end of the cooking time, remove the paper collar to let the sides brown a bit. Eat immediately, with some truffle oil drizzled over the top if you like. A salad of mixed greens with a lemony vinaigrette is wonderful on the side.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Thanksgiving dinner (Better late than never!)

We had our first snowstorm even before I got around to posting about my Thanksgiving dinner! Not fair, I say :(

Since Thanksgiving and fall flavors are a thing of the past, and it's on to winter and Christmas now, I'm just going to post the pictures of my meal.

Our first course was acorn squash "boats" filled with lentils and topped with goat cheese, served with a fennel and baby spinach salad with parmesan shavings. The main course was a mixed mushroom lasagne with a side of lemon-pine nut broccoli saute. For dessert, we had David Lebovitz's pear frangipane tart (warm!) with vanilla ice-cream. All of the above were enjoyed with a 2007 Nederburg (Edelrood), a fruity Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend. Delicious!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Romantic celebration brunch (just add champagne)

Giridhar and I celebrated our third wedding anniversary last week. We dined at Oyamel, a trendy restaurant that serves what might possibly be the most sophisticated Mexican food I've ever had. Delectable small plates such as black-bean-stuffed plaintain fritters, wild mushroom quesadillas, brussels sprouts in a pumpkin-seed sauce and melt-in-the-mouth corn tamal, just to name a few. We had a wonderful time, but, as always, we felt we could do with another celebration! I was keen to make it a champagne brunch over the weekend, but Giridhar seemed to prefer the idea of a Saturday morning lie-in and (rather cunningly, I thought) pointed out that the food at all of these brunch places was beginning to taste the same to him. Not wanting to be cheated of my brunch-with-bubbly, I went out and bought a bottle of Prosecco and set out to create a fall-themed menu that would be easy to put together without featuring any of the standard brunch items.

For our first course, I decided on a butternut squash soup - simple and comforting. I got the soup base ready while cooking dinner the previous evening; that meant our first course would come together with minimal fuss and I wouldn't have to sacrifice my lie-in! Roasting the vegetables in the oven intensifies their flavor and cuts prep time, since there is no peeling and dicing involved. All I then had to do was heat it up, season it and fry up the purple potato croutons - a last-minute inspiration for a garnish.

Our main course was a mixed mushroom risotto with a side of crusty pan-fried brussels sprouts. I used dried porcini mushrooms in addition to fresh shiitake and cremini mushrooms for an extra flavor boost. It's true that making risotto requires the cook to not stray too far from the stove top; that said, though, I find I can do plenty of other stuff, such as trimming sprouts and grating cheese, while giving it an occasional stir. I kept it warm on the lowest setting while we ate our soup; returning to finish it off with the grated cheese and a drizzle of truffle oil in between courses.

Before embarking on the main course, I had already got dessert going in the oven. I chose a tarte tatin for two, made using Clotilde's time-saving method. She recommends cutting the apples into eighths instead of quarters so that they cook completely under the pastry crust, eliminating the need to simmer them in the caramel on the stove top first. I cheated on the crust, though, using some of the puff pastry I'd saved up in the freezer from my first Daring Bakers' Challenge instead of making one from scratch just for this. It would be even easier with store-bought puff pastry, though it would have to be all-butter (In the US, Dufour is the only such brand I know of)

This was a really fun and easy meal to cook (and eat!), yet one stylish enough for a celebration. The warm tones of the spices complemented the roasted butternut squash in the soup beautifully, and the purple potato croutons added a pleasant visual and textural contrast. The crunchy, fresh-tasting brussels sprouts were a good foil for the earthy creaminess of the risotto. The tarte was the perfect fall dessert, all buttery and caramelly goodness that looks like it took far more effort than it actually did! Washed down with several glasses of bubbly, this made for a relaxed and leisurely midday meal. I'm already looking forward to my next project - creating a festive, seasonal and vegetarian meal for Thanksgiving!
Curried butternut squash soup (Serves 2, with some leftovers)
1/2 of a medium-size butternut squash
1 large onion
1 fat clove garlic
4 cups vegetable stock or water
1 tsp each ground ginger, cumin and coriander
Salt and pepper to taste
To serve (optional): Sour cream, purple potato croutons
Cut the butternut squash at the neck, and then cut each piece lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds. Peel and cut the onion into quarters, leaving the root intact. Place the squash, onion and garlic on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, season and roast in a 400F(200C) oven for 40 minutes. When cool, squeeze out the garlic from the skin, scoop out the flesh of half of the squash (reserve the rest for another use), and cut out the root of the onion. Place all of these in a blender with the stock and blend to a smooth puree. To serve, heat until very warm but not boiling. Dilute with more stock till desired consistency is reached. Stir in the spice powders and season to taste. Serve in bowls garnished with a swirl of sour cream and purple potato croutons.
To make the purple potato croutons (this works with other potatoes too), cut the potatoes into a fine dice and blot off any moisture with a paper towel. Heat a small quantity of olive oil in a skillet, toss in the potatoes and fry them, shaking the skillet occasionally, till the potatoes are golden brown. Drain on a paper towel and sprinkle with salt.
Mushroom risotto (serves 2-3)
3/4 cup arborio rice
5-6 pieces dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in boiling water to rehydrate
1 cup sliced shiitake mushrooms
1 cup sliced cremini mushrooms
1 medium onion, chopped fine
1 clove garlic, minced
3 cups hot vegetable stock (plus more if needed)
1/4 cup dry white wine (I used sherry instead)
Two small knobs of butter
Extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 tbsp truffle oil (optional)
In a skillet on medium heat, place one knob of butter and drizzle in a little olive oil. Add half of the onion and the garlic and saute till softened but not colored. Drain the dried mushrooms, reserving their liquid, and chop them fine. Add the fresh and dried mushrooms to the skillet, turn up the heat to medium-high and saute them until cooked. Remove fto a bowl and drizzle in the truffle oil if using.
In the same skillet, add the other knob of butter, a little more olive oil, and the rest of the onion. Saute till softened but not colored, then add the rice and stir around till the grains are evenly coated. Deglaze the pan with the wine or sherry and cook till it evaporates. Next, add the mushroom soaking liquid, strained to remove any dirt. This is full of concentrated mushroom flavor. Now add the vegetable stock, ladle by ladle, and stir till absorbed before adding some more. The rice is done when it is cooked through, but is still firm to the bite - it should not fall apart or be mushy. Stir in the mushroom mixture and the grated cheese, season to taste and serve immediately with an extra dusting of cheese and a drizzle of truffle oil over the top.
Brussels sprouts with almonds (Serves 2 as a side)
18 small brussels sprouts
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp slivered almonds
2 tsp lemon zest
2 tbsp grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Sea salt to taste
Wash and trim the brussels sprouts and discard any tough outer leaves. Cut in half lengthwise. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet and place the sprouts in, cut side down. Sprinkle with a little salt, cover and cook for about three minutes, then turn the heat up and let the sprouts get browned and crusty, another 2-3 minutes. Toss in the lemon zest, slivered almonds and grated cheese and shake the skillet around so that everything mixes well. Serve immediately.
Tarte Tatin (from Chocolate and Zucchini)
I reduced the ingredients to fit a small cast-iron skillet, base diameter 4 1/2". I used 2 Gala apples, eyeballed the caramel quantity, and used a round of all-butter puff pastry large enough to cover the apples on top. I pricked the pastry round all over with a fork and baked the tarte at 350F(180C) for around 35 minutes. Next time I might try it with Golden Delicious apples instead.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ottolenghi's lentil soup

The next time I am in London (though I have no idea when that will be!) there is one visit I am determined to make: at least one of the Ottolenghi locations. I've heard great things about this super-stylish chain of delis; in their own words, they are the haute couture of food-to-go! Maybe one of these days they will consider making a foray across the pond to cities in the US.

Till then, though, I shall content myself with cooking up recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi's series in The Guardian, The New Vegetarian. When I first came across it I was struck by how aptly it is named - his recipes are very innovative, yet familiar. Mostly Mediterranean in character but with all kinds of other influences thrown in every now and then. I've tried a few, some with my own modifications, and all with excellent results. Just reading his recipes, with their bold flavor combinations, is hugely exciting. The only reason I haven't made all of them is that they tend to have long ingredient lists and appear somewhat time-intensive, too. I would love to eat like that every day but it's just not practical on a regular basis.

The fall weather on the East Coast has been so gloomy so far that I have been craving soup, so when I caught sight of Ottolenghi's Thai Lentil Soup, I knew I had to make it. This one uses mostly inexpensive pantry ingredients and, like most blended soups, is a snap to make too. My taste buds were tingling in anticipation as I chopped up the onion, stirred in some of my home-made red curry paste and waited while the lentils simmered away.

Well, suffice it to say that I was not disappointed! This is a perfect soup for cooler days. The velvety smooth lentils are a wonderful background for the bright flavors of the curry paste, lime and cilantro; the coconut milk adds a subtle silky nuttiness; and the sweet crunch of the snow peas and the fried shallots round everything out marvelously. I polished off two bowls double quick, barely stopping to take a picture! I love the flavors in Asian soups but don't find them hearty enough for cold weather; this one has the best of both worlds. I am already planning to try variations with butternut squash or carrots.

Yotam Ottolenghi's Thai Red Lentil Soup (Serves 4)

I did not have any lemongrass or kaffir lime leaves, so I added a bit of ginger and hot green pepper in their place. If you have the inclination, it is well worth the little bit of effort to make your own curry pastes, it's very economical, and once you're done you can freeze them in 2-tbsp portions to use as needed. For me, the added attraction is that I know they won't contain things like fish sauce and shrimp paste! And if you can't find deep-fried shallots, it is easy to make your own - just fry sliced shallots till crisp and browned in a little bit of oil over medium-high heat, and drain on a paper towel until cool. They can be stored in an air-tight container at room temperature for a few days, though to be honest I don't know how long since I get through them pretty quick whenever I've made any!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Daring Bakers' Challenge #2: Not-quite-macarons

I got back a couple of weeks ago from an amazing trip to Tanzania and Rwanda (more on that later). Once the jet lag wore off, one of the first thing I did was to excitedly log on to the Daring Bakers' website to find out what this month's challenge was.The 2009 October Daring Bakers' challenge was brought to us by Ami S. She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming's The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.

I was delighted to find that the challenge was macarons. It is almost as though the challenge hosts read my mind, choosing exactly those things that I have always wanted to do but was too afraid to try! I had a bag of almond flour that I'd bought expressly for this purpose, which had been slowly getting used up in other recipes. And since I had made molten chocolate cakes with creme anglaise for a dinner party last week, I even had the aged egg whites ready to go.

Well, I followed the instructions correctly, or so I thought. I have very little experience with meringue, so maybe the texture of the beaten egg whites wasn't right. Sadly, my macarons didn't have any "feet", the distinctive spread around the bottom. They flattened quite a bit and ended up more like flourless almond cookies than macarons. I went ahead and filled them with a chocolate-creme fraiche filling anyway, and they taste good...but I'm still disappointed! Oh well, there is always the next challenge to look forward to!

Monday, October 19, 2009

An Indian-themed cheesecake for Diwali

Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, has always been my favorite of them all. Even as a young child, I loved to hang out in the kitchen, watching my mother as she skilfully kneaded dough, ground nuts and spices, and stirred the boiling vats of syrup that would eventually become mountains of delicious sweets and savories to eat and share. My sister and I would be up at the crack of dawn to have the ritual oil bath and don our new clothes. Then, our guests would arrive to enjoy a huge, traditional South Indian spread for breakfast; and before we fell into a food-induced coma, we'd head out to visit friends and family with trays of goodies for them. In the evenings the neighborhood would come alive with the glow of the rows and rows of oil lamps that we'd set out; and the sky would light up with dazzling fireworks.

Here in the US, Diwali is a far more tame affair, since it is celebrated only by a small minority. Since this year's festival occurred over a weekend, I was keen to continue the festival tradition by inviting some friends over for a vegetarian Indian meal. Since Indian sweets can be a bit too sweet for most non-Indian palates, I knew I'd have to pick a dessert from another part of the globe. I finally settled on cheesecake, whose rich creaminess provides a good foil for spicy food. A good basic cheesecake recipe is very useful to have in your recipe file - you can mix in any number of added flavorings to suit your need! And the good part is that it needs to chill overnight before serving, so you have to make it ahead of time and thereby avoid any last-minute rush. In honor of Diwali I decided to flavor it with some of our favorite ingredients for festive sweets: saffron, cardamom and pistachio.

I mixed in some pistachio paste into one half of the cheesecake batter, poured it over the crust and let it bake until just set. The other half of the batter had saffron and cardamom and went over the first layer. The layers ended up mixing in the center, where it was probably not as fully set as the periphery when I poured the second batter on top; still, the bi-color effect came through and I was quite pleased with the results!

Saffron-pistachio (Kesar-pista) cheesecake (Makes 8-10 servings)
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup skin-on almonds, ground
3/4 stick (6 tbsp) butter, melted
2 tbsp sugar
Pinch salt
3 8-oz packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup sour cream
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Optional flavorings (use different ones if you wish):
1/4 cup pistachio paste
Generous pinch saffron threads, dissolved in 1 tbsp warm milk
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
Preheat the oven to 350F(180C). Wrap an 8" springform pan in a double thickness of aluminium foil. Have a large baking dish ready that is big enough to hold the springform pan with room all around to pour hot water - this will be the bain-marie or water bath to bake the cheesecake in.
Mix the ingredients of the crust in a food processor. Press the mixture firmly into the base of the prepared pan. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until browned. Remove to cool and turn the oven temperature down to 300F(150C).
Mix the filling ingredients in a stand mixer, food processor, or by hand with an electric mixer. Scrape down the sides from time to time to ensure everything is well mixed. Divide the mixture into two equal parts. Mix the pistachio paste into one half, pour into the pan, and place the pan into the water bath with enough hot water to come halfway up the sides. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until just set.
Meanwhile, mix the saffron liquid and cardamom into the other portion of the filling. Spoon the second batter gently (gently, unlike what I did!) over the part-baked cheesecake, return the pan to the water bath in the oven, and bake for another 45-50 minutes. The cake should still be jiggly in the center.
Turn off the oven and let the cake stand in the cooling oven for an hour. Remove the cheesecake from the water bath after an hour has passed, and let cool completely. Refrigerate overnight before serving. Cut into portions with a knife that has been dipped in hot water, and rinse the knife in hot water in between cuts.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Maya's Adventures in Pastry-Land

By the time you are reading this, I will be away visiting the land where humankind was born: Africa! I'm happy to say that I managed to complete my first ever Daring Bakers' Challenge in spite of the craziness building up to the 3-week trip.
The September 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan.

I was really excited to do this challenge since I have always wanted to try my hand at puff pastry, which is considered the most difficult of pastry doughs to produce. I watched the recommended video - Michel Richard made it look pretty easy, easy enough to forget that he had probably been doing it for some 30 years previously! So out came the rolling pin, and I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.

I'm always intrigued by recipes that showcase both the science and art of cooking. Puff pastry is definitely a great example. It essentially consists of many thin layers of dough sandwiched together with thin layers of fat, made by rolling a block of butter inside a case of dough, and then folding, turning and re-rolling several times. When placed in a hot oven, the water in the butter gets converted to steam, which pushes the layers higher and higher. At the same time, the heat is cooking the flour, setting the gluten around all those air pockets, and eventually creating a puff that holds its shape. How's that for some cool food chemistry at work!

Back to my effort - I though the first two turns were pretty hard, I had to concentrate on rolling evenly to get the butter out to all the corners. Definitely time to put the upper-body strength to use! It got a bit easier to work with on subsequent turns but I did have the occasional tear or butter leak, so I was pretty much on tenterhooks till I had the vols-au-vent baked. After anxiously peeking into the oven several times hoping it was going okay, I was rewarded with this sight: well risen puff pastry shells, waiting to come out of the oven and be filled!

Though I had several excellent ideas for the vol-au-vent fillings, both sweet and savoury, I had no time to execute them all, so I decided to keep it simple. I filled the shells with lemon-scented crème fraîche and fresh raspberries, and added a swirl of raspberry coulis to liven things up.

Overall, I was really thrilled to have pulled off the puff pastry challenge! And yippee - I still have some dough waiting in the freezer for when a vol-au-vent craving strikes again :)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Go green!

Continuing with my end-of-summer series, I made pesto this week. Now that the weather is turning cooler, it will soon be curtains for the large pots of basil that I tended through the summer...though maybe a small one will live through the winter on the windowsill!

I tend to think of pesto as less of a recipe than a technique. The idea lends itself so well to multiple adaptations - think arugula-hazelnut, or red pepper-walnut, or can swap in pecorino or piave cheese as well. This time, though, I decided to stick to the classic trio of ingredients: basil, pine nuts and parmigiano-reggiano cheese. Add garlic and olive oil, and you're well on your way to making something tasty and versatile that needs only 5 ingredients!

I'd like to say I made this the traditional way, hand-chopping it with a mezzaluna, but alas...I don't own one. It's on my list of hmm-looks-great-but-do-I-really-need-this kitchen gadgets! I did, however, chop up all of the ingredients by hand first, using a knife, before tossing them all into the food processor to finish off the whole thing with a few pulses. This helps preserve the identity of the individual ingredients without blending them all into a featureless mush. And it doesn't take too long either.

Pesto can be used in so many ways - dip hunks of crusty bread in it, or serve over pasta, or mix with some goat cheese for a sandwich spread. Here, I've used it as a dressing for a salad featuring some of my favorite health foods: quinoa, broccoli and green beans. Quinoa is one of the superfoods that everyone is talking about these days. It is one of the few vegetable sources of protein that has all the amino acids, with the goodness of whole grains too. Legend has it that the Spanish invaders in Latin America tried to destroy quinoa fields to rob the Inca warriors of this source of their strength!

The quinoa had bright flavor from the pesto and was accentuated by the crunch of the broccoli, green beans and slivered almonds. A pinch of chili flakes added some heat, and the whole was finished off with some salty, tangy feta. Healthy and delicious!

Basil pesto (makes about 1 cup)
1 large bunch basil, leaves only
1 large handful pine nuts
3-4 cloves of garlic
Small hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed (about 3-4 tablespoons)
Chop the first three ingredients using a sharp knife, then toss into a food processor. Add half the cheese, then process in a few short pulses. Add the rest of the cheese and pulse a few more times. Scrape into a bowl, stir in the oil and check for seasoning. Drizzle some more oil over the top, cover and refrigerate up to a week.

Green quinoa (Serves 2)
3/4 cup quinoa
1 small head broccoli, cut into florets
1 large handful green beans, trimmed and cut into 1" lengths
1 1/2 tbsp pesto
Pinch chilli flakes
2 tbsp slivered almonds
2 tbsp crumbled feta cheese
Rinse the quinoa thoroughly in a fine-mesh sieve and place in a pan with 1 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil and then turn the heat down, cover and simmer till the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Fork the pesto and the chili flakes through the cooked quinoa and leave to cool a bit.
While the quinoa is cooking, blanch the broccoli florets and green beans in boiling salted water for 30 seconds. Drain and refresh with cold water. Shake dry and then add to the quinoa. Toss the salad together and divide on to plates. Serve topped with the feta and slivered almonds.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

One peach, two ways

The peach season is sadly drawing to a close - where did summer go? So I thought I ought to write about my experiment with two peach desserts before we move into fall. The good news, though, is that these would be pretty good with apples or pears too! Now that's a reason, if any, to look forward to the season ahead.
Peaches are my favorite summer fruit. Well no, mangoes are, but sadly, if you grew up eating mangoes in India, the ones you get here in the US pale in comparison. So you might say peaches are my mangoes now! They present a similar sensory experience, plump and perfumed, with the same sensuous mouth feel, and they come with hot weather! I had some beautiful peaches from a trip to the farmers' market - big and juicy, their fuzzy blushing cheeks just begging to be bitten into. After devouring several, I set one aside for this dessert experiment.
Have you ever been out to dinner with people who don't even glance at the dessert menu? Happily, I don't count myself in their ranks. Even on the days I feel I've eaten enough, I always accept the proffered menu in the hope that some of the offerings will change my mind! That said, I do believe in cooking and eating healthy, so that you don't have to feel guilty about those occasional indulgences (a buttery croissant, a macaron or two, panna cotta...). The two fruit desserts I've featured here are, I'm happy to say, just right for those days when you need your sweet fix without feeling like you need an extra 15 minutes on the elliptical the next day. They are quick and easy to put together as well.
The first half of the peach was diced, sweetened with a whisper of honey, and baked under a crisp topping. Unlike many others, this is not loaded with butter, but is packed with heart-healthy ingredients like oats and walnuts. I swapped in orange juice for some of the butter, to keep it crumbly enough. The topping comes together super-quick in a food processor - I've included a picture of the cute mini-processor I used, so handy when you have a small quantity.

For the other half of the peach, I did a cheat's version of pesche ripiene, the Italian dessert of baked peaches stuffed with crushed amaretti cookies. Well, I didn't have any amaretti, but I did have ground almonds and amaretto liqueur, so that was what went into the center of the peach half, topped by the thinnest sliver of butter to keep things moist and flavorsome. Into the oven they both went, and emerged looking like this:

Okay, I must confess, I caved in to my baser instincts and added a scoop of ice cream - but there was that empty spot on the plate, just begging to be filled! All in all, this was a great dessert plate for two to share, you get some variety without the portion being too large or the desserts being sinful. A glass of Muscat (or Prosecco, for a lazy Sunday brunch!) would be good with this, I might venture to add.

Honeyed Peach Crisp (Serves 1 or 2, but can be scaled up)
1/2 of a large peach, diced
1 tsp honey
1 tsp cornflour
1 1/2 tbsp whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/2 tbsp rolled oats
1 1/2 tbsp brown sugar
1 1/2 tbsp coarsely broken walnuts
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp orange juice
Pinch salt
Preheat oven to 375F(190C).
Toss the peaches with the honey and cornflour and place in a ramekin. Meanwhile, whizz all the other ingredients together in a food processor till crumbly. Crumble the topping on to the peaches, packing it down firmly. Run the tines of a fork on the top lightly a few times, then bake in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes.

Stuffed peaches, my way (Serves 1 or 2, but can be scaled up)
1/2 of a large peach, stone removed (You can blanch the peach before using if you like)
3 tbsp ground almonds
1 tbsp brown sugar
Pinch salt
1 tbsp amaretto
2 tbsp dark rum
Thin sliver of butter
Mix the almonds, sugar, salt and amaretto with a fork till crumbly. Pack this filling into the center of the peach half. Place in a ramekin, pour the rum over, place the sliver of butter on top, and bake alongside the peach crisp for roughly the same length of time.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


I love mezze platters. They are wonderful to share with a crowd, sipping wine, nibbling on salty olives or feta, enjoying the crisp cool salads and crunchy falafel, and feeling the whoosh of steam when you tear off a bit of warm puffy pita bread to dunk in those delicious dips.
My favorite of the dips is muhammara, a roasted red-pepper and walnut dip that sadly doesn't feature as often on mezze platters as its more familiar cousins like hummus and baba ghannouj. While I love them all, they don't come close to this one for complexity of taste and texture. Silky roasted red peppers are wonderful when combined with earthy, nutty toasted walnuts - red pepper pesto or romesco sauce, anyone?
The balance of flavors is rounded out by some fairly common ingredients - vibrant garlic, smoky cumin and a little heat from crushed red pepper flakes. Some versions have breadcrumbs in there as well, but I didn't use any and I liked it that way! You can make it thicker or thinner depending on your taste. What lifts this dip from the mundane to the simply sublime, though, is a splash of pomegranate molasses that adds a subtle tart-sweet background to everything. It is available at most Middle Eastern grocers and is an inexpensive purchase - a little goes a long way. I acquired a bottle on a recent visit to Sahadi's in Brooklyn, and I now add it to vegetable stews and salad dressings.
Muhammara is good as a dip, or you can use it in any number of other ways. It all comes together in the food processor in a flash. It makes an excellent sandwich spread too. Slather generously on some nice crusty bread, top with greens of your choice, some crunchy vegetables and feta or goat cheese for an exotically delicious tartine. The picture below is of my lunch: Multi-grain bread spread with muhammara, piled with arugula and topped with a slice of pan-fried eggplant. I placed a slice of fresh goat cheese on the eggplant for the last minute of cooking so it would get all nice and oozy with the heat. A tall frosty glass of fresh watermelon juice completed a delicious repast.

Recipe: Muhammara (makes about 1 cup)
Two large red peppers, roasted and peeled (I roasted my own but you can use bottled ones)
1/3 cup walnuts, toasted lightly and chopped fine
1 fat garlic clove, minced and mashed to a paste with 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or to taste
2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses (available at Middle Eastern grocers)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Put all the ingredients into the bowl of a food processor and process till a puree forms. Transfer to a bowl, taste and season if necessary. It's really that easy! Store tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Tastes good, good for you!

I have been wanting to make my own granola for a while now, and I'm pleased to say I finally did! Since moving to the US, I've adopted the convenient practice of eating cereal for breakfast, hoping that the extra milk will make my bones stronger when I'm old and grey ;) Although I must confess to fantasizing about fluffy idlis and crisp dosas every now and then - sadly, these items are now relegated to the "on weekends only" category!
Breakfast cereals may look healthy, but they can actually be l-o-a-d-e-d with sugar. It is also an exhausting task to read through their lengthy lists of ingredients! Making granola at home is almost ridiculously easy. It's also very economical, and makes a good amount, so you'll have some to give your friends as well. I used rolled oats, wheatgerm, flax seeds, and almonds, all toasted together with pure honey and a drizzle of vegetable oil, and then mixed in dried cranberries and chopped apricots. This yielded a mix with a satisfying crunch, not too sweet - just the right way to start your day! 

You can ring the changes endlessly, using different combinations of fruit, nuts and seeds to suit your taste. Coconut, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, walnuts, pecans, dried blueberries, dates, raisins...your imagination is the limit!

Honey-toasted fruit and nut granola (makes 10 cups, or about 20 servings)
6 cups rolled oats
1 cup wheatgerm
1/2 cup flax seeds
1 cup raw almonds, roughly chopped (you can also use ready-slivered ones)
3/4 cup dried cranberries
3/4 cup dried apricots, chopped
3/4 cup honey
4 tbsp vegetable oil
1 1/2 tsp sea salt
Preheat the oven to 300F(150C).
In a large bowl, stir together the dry ingredients excepting the fruit till well mixed. Heat the oil and honey together over low heat till the honey loosens up completely. Pour the warm honey mixture over the dry ingredients and stir till evenly moistened. Spread the mixture over two rimmed baking sheets and bake in the oven, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes. Stir in the fruit for the last 5 minutes of baking, just to dry up any excess moisture in them.
Cool completely and store in an airtight container.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Simple yet stylish brunch for two

The incredible edible egg. That's the slogan of the American Egg Board, and I love it! (Though I am less fond of their efforts, or lack thereof, to end battery farming of hens) Eggs are among my favorite things to cook for brunch on weekends. They're inexpensive, versatile, and best of all, quick to cook. Perfect for those mornings after a night on the town! Omelets, pancakes, frittatas, scrambled can ring the changes endlessly and come out looking like a pro!
One of my favorite ways to cook eggs is to make a tortilla - also known as a Spanish omelet. This is for those days when you have a wee bit more time to lavish on your eggs, but it is a great dish to whip up if guests stop by unexpectedly, since you're quite likely to have potatoes and onions at hand.
Tortilla is good on its own, or with a nice green salad. Cut into small cubes and serve with drinks as part of a tapas platter, or sandwich with some crusty bread and head to the beach for a picnic! For today, though, I settled on a bright, lively salsa to accompany it - what better way to make use of those home-grown tomatoes and serrano peppers? I added some black beans as well, for a color and texture contrast.

The tortilla is proof that you don't need expensive ingredients to produce a truly delicious dish - just a little bit of love and care. Make sure to cook it on a low heat, running a butter knife around the edge every now and then. Flipping it may seem tricky, but all you need is a heatproof oven glove and a flat plate larger than your pan for it to work properly. The result? Thick, satisfying wedges of omelet, each bite laden with mellow sautéed onions and buttery-soft potatoes. You can make it thicker or thinner, well-cooked or a bit runny, depending on what your taste is.

And for dessert, I made one peach, two ways - an experiment at using a single peach to make two simple, light and healthy desserts, perfect for my husband and me to share! (Okay - I confess the ice cream was an added indulgence) I was pretty pleased with the results, so I will share that in a separate post.

Tortilla de patatas (Serves 2-3, depending on how hungry you are)
5 large free-range eggs
3 medium potatoes
1 medium onion
Extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt and freshly cracked pepper
Peel the potatoes and cut them in half lengthwise, then slice them thinly. Do the same with the onions.
In an 8" pan, heat a generous slug of olive oil, then add the potatoes and some salt. Fry briefly, then turn the heat down, cover an cook till the potatoes are almost done. Add the onions at this point, and fry till softened but not colored. The traditional method involves deep-frying the potatoes, then draining the oil away, but for health reasons I prefer to use this one. I think it tastes pretty good as it is.
While the potatoes and onions are getting done, crack the eggs into a bowl, season to taste, and beat with a fork until combined. Once the potatoes and onions are done, let them cool briefly, then add them into the bowl along with the eggs and stir till well mixed. Pour the mixture back into the pan, turn the heat to low, and cook for about 20 minutes, running a butter knife around the edge every now and then. When the surface looks like it is almost fully set, turn the tortilla out on to a flat plate larger than the pan, and slide it back in to cook the other side, about 10 minutes. Cut into portions of the desired size and serve.
Tomato and black bean salsa (Serves 2-3 as an appetizer with chips, or as a condiment)
1 tomato, diced
1/2 cup cooked black beans (canned is fine)
1 serrano pepper, chopped fine (You can use any hot pepper of choice, seeds in or removed, depending on how much heat you can handle)
2 tbsp finely chopped cilantro
1/2 tsp each ground cumin, coriander and cayenne pepper
Juice of half a lime
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and season to taste. Allow to sit for 10 minutes before eating, for the flavors to meld.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lemon-almond loaf cake, for a New York weekend

New York is a city any foodie would love. Spend an afternoon wandering through any of the neighborhoods, and stop to eat whatever strikes your fancy - ever so often, it turns out to be something you've never had before, or the best-ever of some food you always liked. Or poke through the many ethnic grocery stores, their shelves piled high with exotic herbs, spices and relishes! I had a wonderful time this weekend sampling Brooklyn's best and then some: capuccino at Cafe Pedlar, fresh hot sandwiches at Ted & Honey, lovely Italian small plates and wines at Frankie's Spuntino, myriad veggie dumplings at Dim Sum Go Go, sweet treats at Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory and Sweet Melissa.

Needless to say, I did not do much cooking over the weekend. I did, however, make this lemon-almond loaf cake, which made for a great snack in between all of the other eating (!). I am so glad I went for that run across the Brooklyn Bridge and back!

Lemon and almond is another of my favorite flavor pairings. Fresh, lively and perfumed, the lemon brings out the nutty sweetness of almonds beautifully. Here, I use them together in a tangy loaf cake that's perfect for the summer - not too sweet, not too sour, equally at home in a picnic basket or dressed up with a pile of juicy berries and whipped cream for dessert!

The luscious lemoniness (yes, I may have just made that word up) of this cake comes from finely grated zest, as well as a lemon syrup that's poured over when it comes out of the oven. I am planning to try an orange version too, with a splash of orange blossom water in the syrup for a flavor boost.

Lemon-Almond Loaf Cake (makes 1 medium or 2 small cakes)
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1/2 cup + 1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup ground blanched almonds (I used ready-ground but you can grind your own as well)
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
Pinch salt
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
6 tbsp milk
Juice of 2 lemons
A few drops almond extract (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350F (180C). Lightly grease a 4 1/2"X8 1/2" loaf pan. I used 2 disposable aluminium foil pans, each of 1 3/4 cup capacity.
Sift the flour with the baking powder, then stir in the salt and ground almonds. Cream the butter and 1/2 cup sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until just mixed, followed by the zest and almond extract. Lightly fold in the flour mixture and the milk, beginning and ending with the flour. Pour into the prepared pan(s).
Bake in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. While the cake is baking, make the syrup. Combine the lemon juice and the remaining sugar in a non-reactive saucepan. (You can use more than 1/2 cup sugar, depending on how sweet you want your cake to be. Taste the syrup once the sugar is dissolved, and if it seems too tart for you, add more sugar to taste.) Bring to boil over high heat, then turn the heat down and simmer for 2-3 minutes. The syrup should be light and quite runny. You can stir in some limoncello, light rum, or even an orange liqueur like Cointreau, into the syrup at this point if you like.
When the cake comes out of the oven, poke plenty of holes all over it with a toothpick. Slowly pour the warm syrup over, trying to make sure most of it goes in the holes and not running down the sides. Let the cake cool completely in the pan before cutting, as it may be soggy until the syrup is fully absorbed.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

From farm to table

As I mentioned before, I love farmers' markets. When I first moved to  New York from India, I excitedly planned a visit to the famed Union Square Greenmarket in my first week - only to be crushed to find nothing but a few apples, pears and cut flowers on sale. The month was April, and it dawned on me that the growing season was yet to get underway! Once it did, I delighted in the new tastes it threw up - delicately garlicky ramps, weirdly beautiful romanesco, or fiery manzano peppers, anyone?
The picture above is of some of my wares from this weekend's trip to the farmers' market - so naturally, I had to plan my lunch around the contents of this basket. Eggplant is one of my favorite vegetables so it was no surprise that I gravitated towards it. Roasted, grilled, stuffed, braised... I can think of so many ways to enjoy it. For today, though, I settled on pan-fried eggplant with a lentil salad.

I used French green lentils, which hold their shape very well even when fully cooked - but brown ones would be fine too, or chickpeas (which are always great with eggplant). I cooked them with some of the green onions and cherry tomatoes, but you could leave those out, or use whatever vegetable you had on hand - onions, shallots, carrots, leeks, celery would all work well. While the lentils were cooking, I made the dressing, and sliced and salted the eggplant. There seems to be a permanent controversy about whether or not to salt eggplant before cooking, but I always do so. I find it absorbs less oil when cooking, which is always a good thing!
Just for a bit of fun, I built a stack with the eggplant and the lentils, on a bed of greens. I used three slices out of a medium-size eggplant, alternating them with the lentils and a bit of Greek-style yogurt. It made for a tasty, filling and healthy lunch, with all kinds of interesting layers! Fresh, peppery arugula; fried eggplant, crisp on the outside and silken inside; soft, earthy lentils with the crunch of walnuts; and cool mint and yogurt.

And finally, here are some of the fruits of my labor - my first tomato of the season, grown painstakingly from seed. I've been watching eagerly as it went from bud to flower to fruit, slowly fattening itself up on the vine, shiny and green at first, then blushing delicately, before turning into this ripe and juicy summer treat. The serrano pepper plants valiantly fought back a slug attack to produce these - and my curries have had more zing ever since!

Eggplant and lentil stack (Serves 1, but can be scaled up easily)
3 1/2" thick slices from a medium-sized eggplant, salted
2 handfuls french green lentils, rinsed (or other lentils of choice)
1 green onion, halved lengthwise and sliced
7-8 cherry tomatoes, halved
2 tbs walnuts, chopped and toasted
1 cup water or vegetable stock
Extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
Greek-style yogurt and arugula leaves, to serve
Dressing: 1 1/2 tbs extra-virgin olive oil, 1 tsp walnut oil, 2 tsp fresh lemon juice, 3-4 mint leaves, chopped fine, 1 tiny clove garlic, mashed to a paste with some salt
Drizzle a pan with olive oil, toss in the green onions, cherry tomatoes and lentils. Saute for a minute, then add the stock or water and bring to a boil. Simmer until the lentils are soft and the liquid is absorbed.
While the lentils are cooking, whisk together the ingredients for the dressing in a bowl. Season to taste, add the warm lentils and the walnuts and toss well. Leave for a few minutes to absorb the dressing, while you pan-fry the eggplant slices in a little olive oil, about 2 minutes on each side.
To serve, pile some arugula (or any other salad green of choice) on a plate. Place a slice of eggplant in the center, top with some of the lentils and a dollop of yogurt. Build a stack with the rest of the eggplant and lentils, scattering the remaining lentils around the plate. Top with a dollop of yogurt and a sprig of mint, and some of the sliced green onion tops, if using.