Strawberries in season: Greek yogurt and vanilla bean panna cotta with strawberry mousse

It’s strawberry season in California! Oh boy.

I recently subscribed to an organic produce delivery service, Farm Fresh to You.  Every other week I receive a box of organic fruits and vegetables from local farms and in my first box I received gorgeous organic strawberries, the first of the season.  (I also received kale, collard greens, red leaf lettuce, 2 fennel bulbs, baby carrots, orange cauliflower, oranges, apples, and lemons. It was a little overkill so I switched to a smaller delivery plan, but the fruits and vegetables were delicious and I used up nearly all of them, thanks to the help of these produce preservers).

Panna cotta strawberry mousse What to do with all those delicious strawberries?
Since Fin’s grampaw was coming into town to see his grandson, and since I have it on good authority that one of his favorite breakfast foods is a yogurt parfait, I decided to do a take on the yogurt parfait for a light after-dinner dessert: greek yogurt and vanilla bean panna cotta with fresh strawberry mousse.

The panna cotta is about as simple as it gets (if you can make Jell-O, you’re golden): gelatin, cream, vanilla bean, greek yogurt, sugar.  Simmer the cream, gelatin, vanilla, and sugar, stir in the greek yogurt, then pour into ramekins or small glasses, and let set in the fridge.  The mousse, not much more difficult: gelatin and crushed strawberries, stirred into fresh whipped cream and powdered sugar, set in the fridge.  Put the two together and you have tangy and creamy panna cotta with light as clouds strawberry mousse.  The tanginess from the Greek yogurt complements the sweet but slightly tart strawberries.  Easy peasy.

But don’t stop there.  I learned from my restaurant days that every creamy dessert needs a little crunch to balance out the textures in your mouth, so I topped my panna cotta mousse “parfaits” with crunchy crushed lady finger cookies and some chopped pistachios (for color and flavor contrast as well), and finally some diced strawberries.  Beautiful, yet simple.  A winning combination.

Panna cotta strawberry mousse

A light late-Spring dessert that’s sure to please any parfait lover, and a great way to showcase the gorgeous strawberries we’ve been enjoying here in California.  Enjoy!

Yogurt & Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Strawberry Mousse

Serves 6
Prep time 2 hours, 30 minutes
Cook time 15 minutes
Total time 2 hours, 45 minutes
Meal type Dessert

Ingredients

Panna cotta

  • 1 cup Heavy cream
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons Unflavored Gelatin (1 envelope)
  • 3 tablespoons Cold water
  • 1/3 cup Sugar or evaporated cane juice
  • 1 Vanilla bean (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)
  • 16 oz Greek yogurt (Plain, unflavored)

Mousse

  • 2 1/4 teaspoons Unflavored Gelatin (1 envelope)
  • 2 cups Stawberries (Cleaned and hulled)
  • 1 1/2 cup Heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup Powdered sugar
  • 3 tablespoons Cold water

Garnish

  • 2-3 Lady fingers (or use graham cracker or cookie of your choice)
  • 1-2 Diced strawberries
  • 1/8 cup Pistachios (chopped)

Note

Adapted from Joy of Desserts and Eggs on Sunday

Directions

1.
First make panna cotta. Place cold water in small bowl and sprinkle gelatin over top, let soften for 3 minutes.
2. In pot, bring cream and sugar over low-medium heat. Slice open vanilla bean and scrape seeds in cream mixture, then add scraped bean (you'll strain it out later). Bring to simmer, about 10 minutes, stirring constantly to avoid scalding.
3. Turn off heat and add gelatin mixture, stirring until gelatin is fully dissolved, about 3 minutes.
4.
In a larger bowl add yogurt and stir until creamy. Place mesh strainer over the yogurt bowl and pour cream and vanilla through strainer into yogurt bowl to catch the spent vanilla bean. Stir carefully with whisk until cream and vanilla is fully combined with yogurt.
5. Pour panna cotta into 6 ramekins or glasses, refrigerate until set, about 2 hours.
6. Next make the mousse. Place cold water in small bowl and sprinkle gelatin over top, let sit for 3 minutes. Then heat in microwave or in small pot, stirring often, until gelatin is fully dissolved.
7. Place strawberries in blender and pulse until well crushed. Add dissolved gelatin mixture and pulse again. Let cool in refrigerator.
8. In larger bowl, whip cream with electric mixer with whisk attachment until small peaks form. Add powdered sugar and continue to whisk until you reach stiff peaks (take whisk out with dollop of whipped cream and invert upside down. If the cone shape stands up, you're done, if it folds over, whip a little more. Don't overwhip or you'll get butter.
9. Carefully fold strawberry/gelatin mixture into whipped cream mixture and mix gently. Refrigerate for 2 hours until set.
10.
To serve, spoon a dollop of mousse on top of set panna cotta. Sprinkle diced strawberries, crushed lady fingers (or cookie or your choice), and finely chopped pistachios (option) over top for garnish. Serve cold.

Green and Proud: The Green Shake

This St. Patrick’s Day, why not go green on the inside and out?

Now that I’m pregnant, I need my greens.  I created this concoction so I can get all of my nutrients in one goopy fell swoop.  My green shake is tasty too (and that’s saying something when you see all the healthy stuff I throw in it…).

This miracle shake contains everything you (and your baby if you have a bun in the oven like me) needs:

  • Berries – for antioxidents to promote cell strength and repel those pesky free radicals
  • Yogurt – for probiotics to promote good digestion
  • Protein powder – for amino acids to build strong bones
  • Chia seeds – for a power packed dose of Omega 3s for energy and heart health, as well as fiber for digestive health
  • Cod liver oil – for Omega 3 (DHA and EPA) and Vitamin D to promote a healthy brain for you and your growing baby, and a healthy nervous and cardiovascular system, and for overall eye health
  • Green Powder – packed with vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and chlorophyll, it supports immune function, kidneys, liver, blood, bones, colon, and overall longevity
  • Banana – for potassium of course, plus Vitamin A and iron, and it gives the shake a nice creaminess

One of these every other day and you’ll be feeling green yourself.  Erin go bragh all you want, you’ve earned the right after drinking one of these.

Try my recipe below. [Note- though I haven’t tried it for this purpose, I’m guessing this will also make a great Guinness hangover cure].

Happy St. Paddy’s Day.

Green and More Green Shake

Serves 2-3
Prep time 6 minutes
Meal type Beverage, Breakfast

Ingredients

  • 1 cup Frozen fruit (Your choice, I like to use a mix of blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries)
  • 2 scoops Protein Powder (I use whey but feel free to go veggie with Soy)
  • 1 Banana
  • 1/4 cup Greek Yogurt
  • 2 teaspoons Green Powder (I use Vitamineral Green by Healthforce Nutritionals, available at Whole Foods)
  • 2 teaspoons Arctic Cod Liver Oil
  • 2 cups Leafy Greens (Your choice: spinach, collards, kale, beet greens, mustard greens)
  • 2 tablespoons Chia Seeds
  • Any other vegetables you wish (Carrots, beets, etc.)
  • Fruit juice or water

Note

Protein powder will begin to break down after a while.  Drink this shake within 24 hours.

Directions

1.
In a very powerful blender (Vitamix or Blendtec work best), first blend your berries and greens until incorporated. Add water or juice if you need to get the blender going but don't add too much.
2.
Then blend in yogurt, protein and green powders, chia seeds, cod liver oil.
3. Next add greens, then finally the banana. Add water or juice as needed until you have your desired consistency.
4.
Drink and feel instantly healthy, like you can conquer the world. Enjoy.

Deli Favorite: Black and White Cookies

This Jew loves dining at a great deli.  My absolute favorite is Brent’s in my hometown of the San Fernando Valley (you caught me, I’m a Valley Girl) but also high on my list are Langer’s, which hands down serves the best pastrami I’ve ever had, Canter’s, because who doesn’t love matzoh ball soup at 3 a.m., and another Valley classic, Art’s.  After my go-to meal of lox, smoked white fish and whipped cream cheese on a bagel, accompanied by a bowl of matzoh ball soup or a knish or some kugel, I always always always run by the deli counter on my way out and buy a Black and White Cookie for the road.

Aah the Black and White Cookie, the racially harmonious yin and yang of a cookie that’s not really a cookie at all but more of a “drop cake.”   A large round lemony cake with crispy sides topped with chocolate and vanilla fondant.  Likely originated in New York, nobody sums up the beauty of the black and white better than Jerry Seinfeld, of course.

Though always a favorite, I’ve never tackled them myself, until recently when I was asked to provide a dessert for H+M’s barbeque.   Not having that much in my house, I looked for a recipe that didn’t require a trip to the store and wouldn’t you know it, the black and white cookie came through.  The New York version can’t really be called a black and white unless it’s about 5″ in diameter, but I didn’t think the guests would want to dine on a cookie bigger than their hand after filling themselves with carne and pollo asada tacos, so I parted with tradition and made mine about half that size.

They’re quite easy to make, see recipe below, but frosting them takes a little time and patience.  If you crave this deli favorite like I do, or even better, if you’ve never had the pleasure, give these babies a try.  Maybe peace and harmony will follow if we heed Jerry’s advice and all “look to the cookie.”  At least it will in your kitchen.

Black and white cookie

Mini Black and White Cookies

Serves 18
Prep time 25 minutes
Cook time 20 minutes
Total time 45 minutes
Meal type Dessert

Ingredients

Cookies

  • 1 1/4 cup Flour (All-purpose)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Baking Soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon Salt
  • 1 Egg
  • 1/2 cup Granulated Sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon Vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon Lemon Flavoring (Lemon flavoring has oil in it and works better than lemon extract)
  • 1/3 cup Buttermilk (If you don't have it, use 1/3 cup whole milk plus 2 teaspoons lemon juice, stir and let curdle for 10 minutes before using)
  • 1/3 cup Unsalted Butter (softened to room temperature)

Icing

  • 2 cups Powdered sugar
  • 1 1/2 oz Bittersweet or unsweetended chocolate
  • 2 teaspoons Corn syrup
  • 1 teaspoon Unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 cup Boiling water

Note

Black and white cookies are a New York deli tradition.  In the delis you'll find gigantic 5" versions.  My versions here are about half that size.

Adapted from various recipes, including Smitten Kitchen and Epicurious.

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt.
2. In a cup, stir together buttermilk, lemon flavor, and vanilla.
3. In a larger bowl, beat together butter and sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes, then add egg, beating until combined well.
4. Mix in flour mixture and buttermilk mixture alternately in batches at low speed (scraping down side of bowl occasionally), beginning and ending with flour mixture. Mix until smooth but do now overmix.
5.
Using a #40 cookie scoop (1 1/2 tablespoon capacity) scoop batter about 2 inches apart onto cookie sheet lined with silpat, parchment paper, or sprayed with non-stick spray.
6. Bake in middle of oven until tops are puffed and pale golden, and cookies spring back when touched, about 12 minutes. Transfer with a metal spatula to a rack and let sit or chill (to cool quickly), about 5 minutes.
7.
First make white icing. Put powdered sugar in heatproof (glass) bowl. Add boiling water about 2 tablespoons at a time, stirring well in between. You shouldn't need to use more than 1/3 cup of boiling water. You want the icing to be nice and thick but spreadable, if it's too thin it won't adhere to the cookie in a thick layer. [Optional: I like to add a teaspoon of lemon flavor to give the icing extra kick.] Once the cookies are completely cooled, and working quickly, ice 1/2 of the cookies using an offset spatula. Support bottom of cookie carefully so it doesn't break in your hand. Stir icing if it thickens up on you. You should use up about half of your icing. The other half will be used for the chocolate icing.
8.
Next make the chocolate icing. Place remainder of icing over a pot of simmering water to create a double boiler. Add chopped up chocolate and corn syrup. Stir well until chocolate is fully melted, then add cocoa powder (the cocoa powder will make the chocolate icing darker). If the icing is too thick and clumpy, add a little boiling water (1 teaspoon at a time) and stir well until it's glossy but still thick. Work quickly and spread chocolate icing over the other half of the cookies. You can add boiling water to your icing (1 teaspoon at a time) if it thickens up on you to return it to the glossy consistency.
9.
Cookies are best eaten the day they are made. Or place in airtight container and eat within 1-2 days.

Roast Beast: An Evening at the Wildlife Waystation

Tonight I had the privilege of attending a celebratory dinner for Big N’s company at the Wildlife Waystation in the mountains of the Angeles National Forrest.  What a magical evening it was.

The Waystation takes in exotic animals of all kinds who no longer have homes.  Examples include a grizzly bear who retired from a long career in show business, to tigers whose owners thought it would be cool to have a tiger until it grew up and mauled them, to homeless chimpanzees who found their way to the Waystation after the laboratory that performed experiments on them for years closed down.  Started by Martine Collette in 1976, who still runs the joint and regales her guests with crazy stories while pouring exotic libations, the Waystation is currently home to over 400 animals and runs solely on private donations and volunteer labor.

Montana 2

We started the evening with a tour of the more people friendly animals (and wouldn’t you know it, I only had my crappy iphone with me, forgive the pics).  Meet Montana, the elderly white tiger with arthritis, and Sheba, a 23 year old beauty who came right up to me and met my stare with her kind blue eyes.  We met lions, a grizzly bear, a brown bear, several rowdy Chimpanzees with wicked senses of humor, and even a Liger!  We saw spider monkeys climbing their cages, capuchins chowing down on bananas, wolves playing together in their pack, heard a jet black panther purring (a deep guttural sound), and listened while the lions talked to each other at a volume that could be heard for miles (see video below).  What’s amazing about this place is the animals come right up to you, not more than three feet from you (the minimum safe distance the Waystation likes to enforce, except for the chimps, which require a 20 foot gap to ensure safety from their playful but incredibly accurate water spitting antics).

After our tour we entered a lovely tented area and dined together with the sounds of exotic birds chirping in the distance and buzzing our tent.  For dinner the Waystation served chicken, salmon, and roast beast (beer marinated tri tip), along with garden fresh vegetables, and moist chocolate cake for dessert, all made in Martine’s 1938 cottage on the 160 acre property.

Sheba 2

The Waystation is currently closed to the public (and only hosts special events), but hopes to reopen within the year once they can afford a few Code updates.  Our dinner helped raise needed funds that allow the Waystation to take in any exotic animal in need of love and care.  If you’re looking to spread the wealth, consider adding the Waystation to your list of worthy causes.  You can even sponsor your own animal.

Twice as Sweet: Reversible Baby Girl Dresses

Another project from:

For the last several months we’ve been on a girl kick in my circle of friends.  My friend H adopted her baby girl just a few months ago.  This week my dear friend from law school, M, gave birth to her second child, a healthy beautiful baby girl.  And even though it’s early, it seemed like my own little kidney bean was intent on showing us her goods at my last ultrasound.  Not much modesty there (that’s a view from the bottom of her tush looking up with her legs on the right, the little arrow points out the money shot).  We’ll need to teach her to be a little more ladylike when she gets bigger but for now we were grateful for the sneak peak: it’s a GIRL!

With all these baby girls popping up that gives me more excuses to sew baby girl clothes.  This week I tackled a project from my latest project book: Cute Clothes for Kids by Rob Merrett.  This book contains projects for boys and girls ages newborn to five years.  Of the 25 projects, some are a tad on the cheesy side, but they can be adapted easily to make them cuter. 

Though I’ve just tried one pattern so far, I found that the instructions for this dress were missing a step or two and could have been better explained.  For example, when I was sewing the dress, the instructions should have stated that I needed to turn the contrasting fabric inside out before piecing the two parts together.  The picture just didn’t convey the message and I found myself re-reading several times until I figured out what I was supposed to do, after 20 minutes of pinning and turning and head scratching.  In the end I figured it out without too many annoying turns with my seam ripper, but more detailed instructions would have been nice.

Despite this minor hiccup, this particular dress was very easy to sew: no zippers, no gathering, no buttons.  And, the best part is that it’s reversible! Two looks in one, gotta love that.  The dress pattern includes matching bloomers and when baby grows out of the dress it can be worn as a tunic top.  So this outfit should last a while.

I made one dress with bloomer set for M, and couldn’t resist making another to keep for my own kidney bean.  Since M recently commented that she loved a little jumper I sent her before she gave birth because it wasn’t “pink or frilly,” I thought that she’d appreciate the non-pink fabric: tiny red flowers on a cream background with contrasting sage bloomers. This fabric was a bit of a 70’s throwback.  For the set I’m keeping, I don’t mind a little pink, so I chose a 60’s-ish retro pink and green Amy Butler fabric (you know how I love the retro fabrics).  Which do you prefer?

I hope M likes her “non-pink and non-frilly” dress for her sweet pea.  Thankfully I have a few more months of nesting to fill my kidney bean’s closet with handmade creations.  Right now I’m trying to decide what direction to take for crib bedding.

Decisions decisions.

Duck converts: Cassoulet with sous vide duck confit

Cheval Blanc is one of our favorite Pasadena French restaurants (it’s named after the famous and pricey French wine).  Every time we order a bottle of wine just to be paid a visit by the sommelier, a delightful grand-fatherly gentlemen who walks with a limp and speaks with a thick French accent.  You can see his pleasure in introducing every bottle and he always makes a second visit to ensure you’re enjoying the wine with your meal.

During the Fall/Winter seasons the menu is alive with hearty provincial French dishes such as beef bourguignon, coq au vin, and my absolute favorite, cassoulet.  Cassoulet is a stew, typically served with duck, pork, and sausage, piled over white beans in a thick broth.  At Cheval Blanc the dish arrives in its own lidded pot, opened table side.  The steam fills your nose with the scent of rich spiced meat.  It’s wonderful.

When our friends H+M joined us for dinner last week I mentioned that I wanted to make duck and they remarked that they generally weren’t fans.  No, no I said. This would not do.  Duck is delicious and I was determined to serve them a dish they would enjoy, so I made cassoulet with duck confit.

In my version I made the duck confit (confit means the food has been cooked in its own fat) in my sous vide machine so I could cook it slowly and patiently with less duck fat than it would typically take to confit in the oven.  Duck confit is tender, juicy, and full of flavor.  When sitting atop a cassoulet alongside pork, sausage, and beans it’s absolutely divine.

I didn’t serve the cassoulet with a Cheval Blanc (which can cost as much as 12k a bottle for a vintage classic), but Big N selected  a fine pairing: 2004 Robert Sinskey Four Vineyards Pinot Noir in the Los Carneros area of Napa.  Carneros is on the colder side of Napa, away from the valley floor where they grow bold cabernets, and the wine produced there tastes of dark fruits, cherries, plum, with a bit of spice and a nice earthiness.  This one had some age on it, making it lighter and mellower so as not to overpower the delicate but rich duck.  It was a beautiful match.

And, after one bite of my cassoulet and one sip of this beautiful wine, H+M were duck converts.

Cassoulet: duck confit, pork, sausage, and white beans

This recipe takes some time and a bit of preparation, not to mention access to a good butcher or market that carries both duck and duck fat.  But it’s worth the effort.  Cassoulet is the perfect cold weather dish.  With three kinds of meat plus beans the dish is quite rich, so I suggest skipping a heavy lunch if you know cassoulet is on the menu at dinnertime.  Your guests will surely be duck converts too.

Duck Confit Sous Vide & Cassoulet

Serves 4
Prep time 30 hours
Cook time 3 hours
Total time 33 hours
Meal type Main Dish
Region French

Ingredients

Confit

  • 4 Duck legs with thighs attached
  • 1 cup Duck fat
  • 2 tablespoons Quatre Epices (French "4 spice" mix of black pepper (1 Tbs ground); ground clove (2 tsp); ground ginger (1 tsp); ground nutmeg (1 tsp))
  • 3 tablespoons Kosher salt
  • 2 Bay leaves
  • 4 cloves Garlic
  • 4 sprigs Thyme

Cassoulet

  • 3/4 lb Dried White Beans (Great Northern (my choice); Cannellini; or Navy)
  • 3/4 lb Boneless pork shoulder (Cut into 1 1/2" cubes)
  • 2 Onions (Medium dice)
  • 1-2 Carrots (Medium dice)
  • 2 cloves Garlic
  • 1/2 lb Garlic Pork Sausage (Split in half length wise, or remove casing and crumble up)
  • 1 Bouquet garni (Wrap a few parsley stems, 1 bay leaf, 3-4 cloves, 5-6 black peppercorns, and 2-3 sprigs thyme in cheesecloth and tie with kitchen twine.)

Crumb Topping

  • 2 cloves Garlic (Minced)
  • 1 cup Bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons Olive oil
  • Salt/pepper
  • 2 tablespoons Parsley (Flat leaf, chopped finely)

Directions

1. Pick through beans to remove any stones. Place in bowl, covered with water by a few inches, and let soak overnight.
2.
Prepare duck for confit: Mix Quatre Epices (4-spice blend) with kosher salt. Crumble bay leaves very finely in your hand and add to spice mixture. Wash and pat dry duck legs and generously rub both sides with spice mixture. Let sit, covered, overnight (or upt to 48 hours) in refrigerator. Then wipe off or gently wash off spice mixture and pat dry.
3.
Sous vide the duck: Heat water in sous vide machine to 185 degrees. Place 2 duck legs in a vacuum sealable bag and the other 2 in another bag. Split the chopped garlic, thyme and the duck fat between the bags. Add a pinch of kosher salt to each bag, then vacuum seal, removing as much air as possible. Add bags to water and sous vide for 5-6 hours (you can sous vide for up to 8 hours if you have the time). (The confit can be done a day or two ahead of time. Store bags unopened in the refrigerator).
4.
While the duck is going, place the cubed pork shoulder in a dutch oven. Cover with water by a few inches. Add the bouquet garni and simmer, uncovered, for 1 hour 15 minutes. Skim the skum regularly.
Cassoulet-3-of-8
5. Next add the rinsed and drained beans, onions, carrots, and garlic and simmer until beans are just tender, 45 minutes to 90 minutes depending on the size of your beans.
6.
When the confit is done, remove the duck from the bags (reserve your duck fat for use again, see note) and pat dry. In a heavy bottomed very hot pan, add a little of the reserved duck fat and sear duck until browned and crispy on both sides. Remove duck and set aside.
Cassoulet-5-of-8
7. In the same pan, add the sausage and cook until just browned.
8. Preheat oven to 375. When the pork and beans are done (the beans just turned soft), set a bowl under a collander and drain pork and bean mixture, saving all the liquid. Add salt and pepper to flavor the liquid and stir until salt is dissolved.
9.
Add the beans and pork to a large casserole dish or roasting pan. Place the duck legs on top, nestling the legs in the beans. Then sprinkle the sausage around the duck. Pour some of your reserved cooking liquid into your casserole dish so the liquid nearly covers the beans and comes just part of the way up the duck legs. Bake uncovered for 30 minutes.
Cassoulet-6-of-8
10. While the cassoulet is baking, prepare the crumb mixture. Cook garlic in oil in a skillet until fragrant, then add bread crumbs, salt, and pepper and cook until bread crumbs are golden. Transfer to a bowl and stir in chopped parsley.
11.
When the cassoulet is done, serve it by spooning some pork, sausage, and beans on the bottom, topped with a duck leg. Sprinkle crumb mixture over the beans.
Cassoulet-7-of-8
12.
Enjoy!
Cassoulet-8-of-81

New York style Brunch: fresh baked bagels

A good friend of mine is moving to New York City next week.  That got me thinking about what he’ll be giving up by leaving sunny SoCal and what he’ll be gaining by joining the ranks of the chic New Yorkers.  I’ve visited the Big Apple just twice, both times for a meager few days, and I was left with the distinct impression that NYC is fabulous, for sure, but big and scary.  If you’re not careful the City will swallow you up for breakfast and leave you bruised, broke, and begging for mercy.

I am jealous, however, that my friend will be able to enjoy New York bagels whenever he desires.  There really is nothing like them.  Puffy and moist on the outside, chewy and doughy on the inside, nothing beats a fresh baked New York bagel, especially if it’s from Ess-A-Bagel or Murray’s.

With New York on the brain and my recent success with gravlax, I decided to see if I could duplicate NYC bagel magic at home for a family brunch over the weekend.  I turned to legendary bread baker Peter Reinhart for his bagel recipe, available with great instructions at the Smitten Kitchen blog.

For Sunday brunch, I was expecting 10 guests.  I started my gravlax on Friday morning so it would be ready on Sunday morning.  I started my bagels on Saturday evening so I could leave them overnight in the fridge to finish off Sunday morning and have them piping hot and smelling wonderful when the guests arrived.  On Saturday, Big N asked me, “don’t you think it would be best to try out new recipes before it really counts? What if you mess up?”  To which I responded, “what’s the fun in that? I thrive on pressure, baby.”  Fake confidence aside, I was a bit worried since this would be my first attempt.  Nobody but Big N knew in advance that I would be attempting bagels, so I had it on the back burner that I could call my dad and ask him to make a Western Bagel run before coming to my house, just in case disaster struck.  In the end there was no need.  My bagels turned out (almost) perfect.

First I made the sponge dough and let the yeast rise for 2 hours while I watched it nearly double in size.  Then I added the rest of my bread flour and a bit more yeast and kneaded until I had a nice ball.  I weighed out 3 oz. balls of dough (I yielded 18 from the recipe I used, 3 oz makes a perfect medium bagel, not too big, not too mini) and let them rest.  Then I rolled them into a 8 inch long worm and wrapped them around into a bracelet, pinching the overlapped edges.  I let them rest again and then tested one bagel in a bowl of cool water for the “float test” (when you know your yeast is done rising).  Then I put my bagel rounds in the fridge overnight.  The next morning I boiled them in water with a little baking soda and malt syrup (malt syrup is the key ingredient to getting them to taste truly deli-style) on each side for about 90 seconds.  When I took them out of the water I quickly topped them.  Some bagels I topped with a white and black sesame mix.  Some with garlic granules, and most I kept plain.  I then baked them in a 500 degree oven for 5 minutes, then at 450 for the rest of the time until they looked done.  Last, I took about half of my plain bagels and brushed them with melted butter and dipped them in a cinnamon/sugar mix.  Voila.  A delicious assortment of homemade bagels.

Brunch spread How were they?  Really, really, really good.  I did achieve the chewy exterior but my bagels were ever-so-slightly undercooked (a little doughy) on the inside.  Nobody complained though.  They were light, tasty, and perfectly fresh and just about as good as I remember them in NYC (though homemade always ups the wow factor).

I made a dill and chive cream cheese to go with the gravlax, tomatoes, capers, and red onions I set out for toppings.  I tell you there really is nothing like biting into a freshly baked homemade bagel topped with herbed cream cheese, homemade lox, and a juicy tomato.  To round out my brunch spread, I served an egg scramble with spinach, onion, crimini mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, and parmesan cheese, plus oro blanco grapefruit and cara cara orange supremes, and finally smoothies made with blueberries, strawberries, bananas, and yogurt.

Now that’s what I call Sunday brunch.  Try to find that meal in NYC for less than $30 bucks a pop.

Brunch spread

 

Healthier Indian Food: Saag Paneer

I have a weak spot for Indian food and make Big N take me to one of our favorite local places (here and here) about once a week.  It’s the spices that I can’t get enough of.  That, and the fact that nearly every dish is served in a creamy fattening blow-me-away sauce.  I think Big N is on to my trick of ordering way more food than we can possibly eat in one sitting so I can have Indian for lunch (and breakfast, I’m that bad) the next day.

Frying salmon cakes Though I consider myself something of a “spice goddess” in my own kitchen (you should see my spice rack!), I’ll let Bal Arneson borrow the name for her delightful show on the Cooking Chanel. Making chutney   From her show I’ve been learning there are healthier ways to make Indian food at home and she’s inspired me to experiment with my own recipes.  The other night I made her recipe for salmon fish cakes with apple chutney. (But I didn’t have figs or almonds so I used pears and cashews in my chutney, still yummy).  Her recipe called for paneer cheese, and since I was going to go through the trouble of making paneer from scratch, I thought why not serve my salmon cakes with some delicious saag paneer (spicy spinach with Indian cheese)?

Saag paneer If you’ve ordered saag paneer from different Indian restaurants, you know that there is a sliding scale of goodness.  One dish I had tasted like it was made with canned spinach, yuck.  Another version came with paneer that was so dry my teeth squeaked as I chewed.  I prefer the creamier version of saag paneer with a slightly firm but not too dry paneer.  The trouble is most restaurant versions are made with tons of ghee and/or heavy cream.  I wanted to cut some calories from my homemade dish.  After several attempts, I believe I finally achieved a great home version of saag paneer that’s still creamy but not loaded with butter and cream (yogurt is the key).  See my recipe, below.

This dinner took some effort to put together and is definitely not one of your thirty-minute-meals, but it was well worth the extra kitchen duty.

Behold, my healthier Indian meal of salmon cakes with apple pear and cashew chutney and saag paneer, served over basmati rice.

Salmon cakes with saag paneer and rice

Big N loved it, and I think he was happy enough not to be dragged to another Indian restaurant where we always leave smelling like burnt curry and smoke.  Try my healthier version of saag paneer the next time you have a hankering for Indian. 

Saag Paneer: Spinach with Indian Cheese

Serves 2-3
Prep time 2 hours
Cook time 15 minutes
Total time 2 hours, 15 minutes
Meal type Side Dish
Region Indian

Ingredients

Paneer

  • 4 cups Whole milk
  • 1/4 cup Vinegar (Regular white/distilled)

Saag

  • 12 oz Baby spinach (2 small bags)
  • 1/2 medium Onion (finely diced)
  • 1 teaspoon Curry powder (or to taste)
  • 1/4 cup Yogurt (Plain or greek style)
  • 1 clove Garlic (finely chopped)

Saag (Optional)

  • 1/2 teaspoon Ginger (fresh grated)
  • 1 teaspoon Garam masala
  • Parsley or cilantro (chopped)

Note

If you don't have fresh spinach, you can substitute 1 16 oz package of frozen chopped spinach. Just let it defrost and squeeze out all of the water.

Also, feel free to experiment with your spices. You can use a combination of garam masala, curry powder, cumin powder, coriander, cayenne, and tumeric (go easy on the tumeric though).  Have fun with it.

Directions

1. First make the paneer: boil the milk over medium heat. This takes some time, keep stirring and do not let it burn the bottom of your pot. Make sure it is boiling, not just scalding.
2.
Add the vinegar and stir until the whey separates from the curds. It'll look like this:
3.
Put multiple layers of cheesecloth over a colander and pour the mixture. The whey will drain out, leaving you with the solids in your cheesecloth.
4.
When it's cool enough to handle, twist the ends of the cheesecloth and squeeze out every last drop you can.
5.
Put the cheesecloth filled with your cheese in a bowl or dish (or keep it in your colander with a bowl underneath to catch the liquid that will continue to drain out) and weigh it down (I used pie weights). Let the water drain for an hour or two, or overnight in your refrigerator for firmer paneer.
6.
When it's done, remove the paneer from the cheesecloth and cut it into cubes. The paneer will keep in a covered container for up to five days in the refrigerator.
7. While your paneer is in the fridge, prepare a pot of salted water and boil. Add the spinach all at once, stir. Blanch the spinach for just 1 minute. Pour spinach into a colander to drain and rinse quickly with cold water. When cooled, squeeze out all of the water you can from the spinach. You want it as dry as you can or your saag will be runny. When the water has been squeezed out, place spinach on your cutting board and finely chop it.
8. Heat a pan on the stove and add whatever spices you've decided to use into the dry pan. Toast your spices. You're done when the spices become fragrant (about 1 minute over medium heat). Remove spices from pan.
9.
Next heat about 2 teaspoons of olive, canola, or grapeseed oil in the pan. (You can use ghee or clarified butter too, but oil is healthier). Add the cubed paneer and season with salt. Lightly brown on all sides. Then remove paneer from pan.
10.
Add a little more oil and saute the onions, garlic, and ginger (if using) until onions are translucent. Don't burn the garlic. Add your spinach and the toasted spices and heat until everything is incorporated and hot.
11.
Remove from the heat and stir in yogurt (do this at the very end before serving or the yogurt might start to separate). The mixture will be creamy and thick. Fold in the paneer cubes and season with salt if needed. Serve immediately, garnishing with chopped parsley or cilantro if desired.

More unfriendly pregnancy foods: Gravlax

Now that I’m in full pregnancy swing, of course I’m craving all of the foods I’m not supposed to have: sushi, sausages, anything fried, and gooey unpasteurized cheeses.  I’m not sure if they’re cravings really, more like defiant stubbornness. Gravlax sliced

Recently I was inspired (read: the pictures made me salivate) by an article I read about Marcus Samuellson, chef/owner of the chic Manhattan Nordic restaurant, Aquavit.  His recipe for Gravlax (cured salmon) seemed simple enough and I had a beautiful piece of salmon and some fresh dill calling my name in the fridge.  Rather than go with Mr. Samuellson’s recipe, however, I pulled out my trusty behemoth of a cookbook, the CIA’s Professional Chef, which had a nifty Gravlax recipe that seemed more fun (see my adapted recipe below).  Mr. Samuellson’s recipe uses a simple dry cure, but the one in my CIA bible also used a wet component that included some brandy.  Can’t go wrong there.

We Jews love our smoked or cured salmon, which we lovingly call “lox” (after Gravlax presumably).  On a bagel with some schmear, on a chic blini, or by itself, lox is just plain good.  If you don’t have a smoking gun (and I don’t, yet), curing it is your next best bet.

Making the cure was easy.  The tricky part is leaving the darned thing alone in your refrigerator for 2 days while it cures, and then controlling yourself and not eating the entire slab of salmon in one sitting, which would probably give you a salt heart attack.

Once my salmon was cured, scraped, and thinly sliced, I placed it on top of mini Melba toast squares (thank you Trader Joe’s) with some creme fraiche and chives.  Simple appetizer, tasty snack, and sublimely irresistible to this pregnant lady.  Plus it’s the perfect Sunday brunch food.

Like I said before, don’t judge.  I’m a self-admitted foodaholic.  (Incidentally, the salmon I chose was fresh as could be and I’m ServSafe certified so I wasn’t worried about endangering my kidney bean with icky bacteria).  Well worth the little cheat.

Try it.  If you’re not pregnant you have nothing to feel guilty about.

Gravlax on toast

Gravlax: Cured Salmon

Serves 6
Prep time 20 minutes
Cook time 48 hours
Total time 48 hours, 20 minutes
Meal type Appetizer, Breakfast

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 lb Salmon (Fresh, high quality)
  • 3 oz Kosher salt
  • 1/3 oz Cracked white peppercorns
  • 1 1/2 oz Dill (Finely chopped)
  • 8 oz Brown sugar
  • 1 oz Lemon juice
  • 1/2 oz Olive oil
  • 1/2 oz Brandy

Note

Adapted from The Professional Chef, 8th Edition (the Culinary Institute of America's cookbook).  You can also find Marcus Samuelsson's simpler gravlax recipe here.

Because this salmon will be cured but not cooked, it's important to use fresh, high quality salmon from a reputable market.

Directions

1.
Combine the dry ingredients (sugar, salt, pepper, dill that's been finely chopped) and mix well. In a separate bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients (lemon juice, oil, brandy).
2.
Place salmon on a piece of cheesecloth and brush the wet mixture on both sides.
3.
Pack the dry cure evenly on both sides of the salmon and wrap it tighty in the cheesecloth.
4.
Place the wrapped salmon in a pan or dish, with another pan or dish on top and weigh it down. Put the assembly in the refrigerator and let it cure for 2-3 days (minimum 48 hours).
5.
After 2 days, it will look like this.
6.
Unwrap the salmon and scrape off the cure.
7.
Slice salmon as thinly as possible (with a long sharp knife) on the bias and serve.
8. The cured salmon will keep in the refrigerator, covered with plastic, for 6 days. You can also freeze it.

Round 2: Spicy Pickled Carrots and other cliches

It occurred to me that I’ve neglected to catch you up, dear readers, on my goings on.  I forgot to mention that a few months ago, as the last requirement to finish my culinary program, I began working at a wonderful upscale Pasadena restaurant that mixes seasonal fare with a bit of fusion.  I served as a prep cook and manned the garde manger station during dinner service (where I prepared cold foods, salads, appetizers, and desserts).  I also started working with the restaurant’s catering element for large off-site events.  I actually loved my job — the fast paced orders, serving the customers, hearing them praise my dishes, working with the chef de cuisine on tasting menus and collaborating on new dishes, and just being in a commercial kitchen with other cooks  — only the late nights and weekends were killing both me and Big N.  We quickly learned that restaurant life was mutually exclusive to my other jobs as part-time attorney and full-time mommy.  So when my externship was up, so were my days at the restaurant, though I do miss it.  In November I graduated culinary school, with honors I might add, and am now a classically trained cook.  Yippee!

And while I’m sharing, Fin is going to be a big brother.  Yup, we’re expecting, again.  Though my little kidney bean is due in August, it hasn’t yet sunk in that I’m going to have my hands very full very soon.  In the meantime, I’m working on my next big project but haven’t quite figured out which direction to go.  Do I become a private chef and cook in my clients’ homes for their fancy dinner parties?  Do I start a little baking business?  Do I get another job in a restaurant or bake shop that allows me to work in the daytime?  All questions for which I have zero answers, at the moment anyway.

Which brings me to pickles.  I lost 5 pounds working at the restaurant.  I called it the restaurant diet, which entailed 12 hour shifts standing on my feet, very hard sweaty manual labor in a steamy kitchen, absolutely no time to eat.  So now that I’m starting this pregnancy with a weight deficit, I have a little wiggle room to have some fun.  Bring on the ice cream, and the pickles, and all the other cliches because this time around I’m going hog wild (I’m even going full rebel mode and eating sushi, don’t judge).

I’ve always loved pickles.  You can pickle anything and I’ll eat it.  Pickled eggs? Reminds me of Beijing, sure.  Pickled purslane?  Looks like a weed but I’ll eat it and love it.  Pickled bacon?  I’ll try anything once.

Spicy pickled carrots

This week I had a hankering for those spicy pickled carrots you can find at good taquerias.  Kidney bean needs his/her veggies.  Plus I bought too many carrots and Fin has decided he’s not eating them anymore.  The carrots are easy to make and take about 25 minutes, plus refrigeration time because warm pickles aren’t my fave.  Simply boil your vinegar and water, add the spices, then the carrots, and simmer until the carrots reach your desired al dente-ness (I still like a little crunch to mine). 

Now that I have a nice big jar in my fridge, I’m eating them with everything.  Try my recipe, below.

Joke all your want, pickled anything + preggers = happy me.

Spicy Pickled Carrots

Prep time 10 minutes
Cook time 15 minutes
Total time 25 minutes
Meal type Condiment, Side Dish, Snack
Region Mexican

Ingredients

  • 1 lb Baby Carrots (Peeled, cut in half lengthwise)
  • 1 1/2 cup White Distilled Vinegar
  • 1 cup Water
  • 1 tablespoon Juniper Berries
  • 2 Bay Leaves
  • 2 teaspoons Mustard Seeds
  • 2 cloves Garlic
  • 2 teaspoons Black Peppercorns
  • 3/4 oz Chiles de Arbol (Dried, available at Mexican markets)
  • 1 tablespoon Kosher salt (or to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon Cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon Coriander seeds

Optional

  • 1/4 cup Vegetable oil

Note

Feel free to substitute regular carrots, sliced about 3/4" thick, for the baby carrots.  Also, this seems like a lot of chiles, but don't worry too much.  The carrots have a nice spiciness to them, but won't be so spicy that you can't eat a bunch.  Unless of course you have no tolerance for spiciness, in which case I think the title of this recipe will cause you to move on anyway.   If you don't want them to be too spicy, take the chiles out before you put them in your storage jar.

Inspired by recipe from Ninfa's in Houston, available here, but I adapted this recipe to my liking.

Directions

1.
Add water, vinegar, oil, and dried chiles to medium pot. Bring to boil. Reduce to medium and boil 5 minutes.
2.
Add all spices and boil on medium for another 5 minutes.
3. Add carrots and garlic cloves, making sure liquid covers all carrots, and simmer for 10 minutes, or until carrots reach desired tenderness. Check to make sure you added enough salt and adjust if necessary.
4. Cool and store in sealed container. Will keep in the refrigerator for one month.