Thursday, March 27, 2014

Introducing Cream of Chestnut...

There are two types of eaters: People who love sweetened red-bean paste and those who loathe it.  Growing up in an Asian culture that stuck in sweetened red bean paste in everything—mochi, sweet pudding porridge, ice cream, walnut shaped cookie, fish-shaped griddle cakes (you get the idea)—I assumed that everyone thought it was a delicacy!  Actually, it turns out there is a whole segment of the world population which deeply resents its resemblance to chocolate, which can fool them into thinking it’s edible and delicious.  Those people view it with suspicion and distaste.

Well, cream of chestnut (sweetened chestnut purée) sort of occupies the same territory.  In France, one might pay an astronomical sum to get a well-made marron glacé (candied chestnut).  Many in the U.S., however, wonder what all the fuss is about in the Christmas carol that talks about “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”  They’ve tried it (once) and cannot understand the appeal.  Asians follow the French in their adoration of chestnuts.  We steam them, boil them, and (yes, indeed) roast them.  We love chestnuts!

Thus, when we were in Paris last June, I squealed with delight when I saw in our local grocery a Bon Maman jar of “Confiture de Chataigne à la vanille.”  I felt I’d won the lottery.  And at less than 2 Euro for the jar, I could not resist.  I got it, put it between several layers of socks and inside a Ziploc bag, and it came back with us.  It’s a good thing too.  Once we were done with it, I tried getting another jar.  The price on Amazon for the same product?  $15.49.  Hurry, there are only 5 left!

I ended up ordering another brand for about $12, just to try something slightly different—also well reviewed.  I enjoyed both Bon Maman and Clément Faugier versions, but I decided that I didn’t love them enough to continue to pay so much for them.  Luckily for me, it turns out that my local grocery store (an ethnic produce market that specializes in Middle Eastern spices and fresh fish!) carries several brands of chestnut cream (though neither of the two famous brands I’ve already tried).  There are definite perks of living in the big city!

If you can get your hands on some, try it.  I brought a small jar of it to friends’ house for brunch and got heaps of praise and thanks for introducing them to something so tasty.  (But Franny also said that she thought she’d died and gone to heaven when she first tasted sweetened red bean paste.  I would say that your response to one might be reflective of your response to the other…)

What can you do with Cream of Chestnut?

·      Topping on ice cream or—more often for us—yogurt.
·      Spread on toast, or a slightly sweet roll, for breakfast.
·      Mix in cakes—yes, Chestnut Cakes.
·      As filling in dessert crepes, topped with whipped cream and a drizzle of caramel.

Speaking of which, I might decide to write a post on Marron Crepes soon!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Spring Break Brings Out Fancier Dinners!

Over the course of this not terribly “springy” Spring Break for me, Will has come to the conclusion that perhaps being an “Independent Scholar” might be something I should pursue.  

Really, it’s not that I wasn’t working as hard this week as during my regular teaching week.  It’s just that I was able to be flexible about when I graded and edited—evenings and weekend hours—rather than teaching during prime cooking hours!  After over two months of arranging for the simplest and fastest preparations for dinners to accommodate both of us not being home until 7:45pm, this week of having a semi-elegant dinner each night was a slice of civilization that we’re loath to forego.

Lest you think we indulge in luxury, I should note that in pure monetary terms, our dinners this week were not more expensive than what most people consume each weeknight.  In fact, it’s much cheaper than most dinners.  It’s not clear what is more responsible—frugality or just lack of energy—but we have never been in the habit of dining out mid-week, even at fairly low-budget places.  We faithfully pack our weekday lunches from leftovers, and we eat in for our weeknight dinners.  (In fact, it’s startling how much one can “save” by not going out to a mediocre restaurant.)

No, the big difference is having a little time right before dinner to get a bit more creative, to think about what we want to consume rather than just boiling some water for frozen ravioli.

Monday, we had Asparagus Risotto with Truffle Oil.  A friend of mine had a dish like this at a restaurant in Evanston and then I came home and promptly recreated it. 

Follow directions for cooking risotto (here’s a link to a post on mushroom risotto if you want a primer), using white wine.  Then, 5 minutes before the risotto is ready, dump in half a bunch of asparagus (yes, tough ends removed and the rest cut into 1-inch pieces) and stir until cooked but still crisp.  Add in your butter, grated Parmesan, and the last few tablespoons of broth to reach a creamy consistency.  Ladle a scoop into a pasta bowl and then drizzle truffle oil along the sides of the bowl and top with some more grated Parmesan.  Serve with a quick insalata caprese.

Tuesday, we had Pan-Seared Scallops with Sautéed Mushroom and Buttered Breadcrumbs.  I remember reading a recipe on this years ago, but this dish is essentially mine now.

Lightly brown some panko in butter so that you have crispy buttered breadcrumbs, then remove from heat.  Sauté mushroom slices with shallots in olive oil and melted butter, add some wine, and then fresh thyme leaves, salt, and pepper.  Keep this warm while you sear scallops in a combination of melted butter and olive oil until brown on the outside and still tender on the inside.  (Don’t overcook the scallops!)  Place everything on a plate and then drizzle the hot butter mixture over the top and sprinkle parsley for some color.

Wednesday we had Potato Pancakes with Dill Smoked Salmon and Herbed Cream Sauce.  Since we had some potato pancakes in the freezer, I came up with this idea.  I’m definitely making this again!

Pretty much, this dish requires practically no preparation—other than having the right products around.  It’s almost all assembly.  Pan-heat pre-made (your own or purchased) potato pancakes in some canola oil and arrange on plates.  Slice a generous chunk of your favorite smoked salmon on top.  (I used hot-smoked dill salmon here.)  Stir together sour cream or crème fraiche with some mixed dried herbs (like an Italian mix or my personal favorite, Persaillotte—French mixture of dried parsley, shallots, and garlic) and put a small spoonful on top.  Accompanied here with a side salad of organic pea shoots, Roma tomato, and Persian cucumber (pictured at top of post), this was just an elegant little mid-week dinner that people would pay much (much!) more for at a restaurant.  Fortunately, our Costco purchases of high-end products (that we then individually pack and freeze) make this a a very inexpensive--but gourmet--dinner.

Now if only the whole independent scholar thing were possible…

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Asian Duck and Citrus Salad

Ever since we learned how to grill and panfry duck breasts, a whole new avenue has been opened up to us in terms of cooking.  For a special main course salad, a little bit of that duck breast goes a long way. 

We take out a frozen duck breast earlier in the day and place it on our granite kitchen counter top.  For some chemical reason I’m not equipped to explain, that granite seems to defrost frozen chunks of meat faster than most other surfaces.  In any case—or alchemy—in a couple of hours the solid one pound ice block becomes ready to cook.  Yes, I suggest checking on it periodically and chucking it into the refrigerator as soon as it’s defrosted.

Once that step is done, the rest of it takes no time--and just a bit of chopping.  Here are the simple steps from Bon Appetit (January 2014).

1.  Cook the duck!
Here’s a link to an earlier post that explained how to grill or panfry.  Once it’s cooked to your liking, let it sit a bit before slicing thinly and mixing with the following. 

2.  Dressing.
Incredibly easy yet so complex a flavor emerges when you mix fish sauce with a bit of sugar, minced garlic and grated ginger, olive oil, and lemon juice.  If you want it spicy, you might want to add some sliced Thai or jalapeno chile (without seeds) or even just sprinkle crushed red pepper.

3.  Herbs.
You think you’re chopping up too much in herbs, but really it’s ok.  I’m not quite sure I used 2 cups cilantro and 1 cup mint, but I did use 2 thinly sliced scallions and still used a prodigious amount of cilantro and mint.

4.  Citrus.
The original recipe calls for segments from 2 grapefruits, and that’s what I used.  I could even see using 1 grapefruit and 1 orange (and skipping the sugar in the dressing). 

Either way, it’s nice to have some tartness going with the fatty duck and the fresh herbs and the Asian fish sauce dressing.

Mix it all up and you have a special at-home main course duck salad.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Double Chocolate Belgian Waffles for Brunch

No, that is not a super-burnt waffle!  It is a delicious, dense, not-too-sweet double chocolate waffle courtesy of February 2014 issue of Bon Appetit.  (And, in case you're wondering, those are not yellow grape tomatoes!  They are kumquats I got from our organic produce box last Friday.)

Last Sunday morning I was at a loss, pondering what I wanted for breakfast and weighing whether I should go to Alexander’s Breakfast and Lunch and risk the staff there wondering whether I ever cook my own food (since I had been there just the day before for a brunch with some girlfriends).  Luckily, Will had it all worked out and started taking items out of the pantry and turning the oven on.  Since he was heating the oven only to 250, I knew that he wasn’t actually baking something but rather preparing the oven to receive foods to stay warm while he cooked up the rest of the batch of . . . pancakes (I thought not) or, more likely, waffles . . . !

Then when he asked whether the Ghirardelli cocoa we had was unsweetened, I recalled him making some noise earlier in the week about testing out the “Dark Chocolate Waffles” recipe from Bon Appetit.  (Click here for recipe.)  It turned out that he actually didn’t need to worry about the Ghirardelli since we had enough of the Droste Cocoa for the waffles.  I was thankful for that since Will is a bit more particular than I am about the chemistry of baking—it’s the Thomas Keller in him, I think—and I was worried that my special weekend breakfast would be derailed by him wondering whether it was ok to supplement Dutch-processed cocoa with a miniscule portion of non-Dutch processed cocoa.  Thank goodness that discussion didn’t have to happen!

But then he surprised me.  The recipe called for 2 cups buttermilk which we knew we didn’t have enough of (and the cup we did have had been sitting in the fridge for longer than I care to admit publicly).  He said he could make the rest of the buttermilk—you know, adding vinegar to milk, etc.?  I suggested that it’s not clear to me that we absolutely NEED the “slight tang” that the buttermilk would add to the waffles.  Really, how tang-y do I need chocolate products?  Well, my formerly recipe-sticking husband then made the executive decision to use one cup buttermilk and substitute regular milk for the remainder.  I think he was a bit burned by my barely-suppressed glee when the most expensive and time-consuming madeleines recipe ever (!) from Bouchon Bakery Cookbook turned out to be a royal pain—and not that special to boot.  (Read post here.)

Well, these chocolate waffles were pretty special.  And since we just had some more for breakfast this morning—frozen and then reheated—I can even guarantee that they stay special through unceremonious storage.   Will was very excited about how well they turned out, and he deserves almost all the credit since I did very little.  I started contributing to the cooking process by trying to get 6 oz. of our 72% Belgian Dark Chocolate to be “finely chopped.”  Well, that process took the entire time that Will got the rest of the recipe ready.   

Will didn’t want the chocolate to get melted in a food processor.  I was more worried that because of the thickness and the hardness of the block chocolate from Trader Joe’s, the food processor blades might get warped!  Anyway, the “finely chopped” chocolate does add the occasional extra bits of oozing melted chocolate and bits of extra dark color and interest, so we decided that was worth the labor.  (See the picture below for the bits of chocolate in the batter and the picture at the top of the post for the melted dark chocolate specks.)

Sure, we’ll make these again!