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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Banana Cake with Nuts and Chocolate

This recipe answers the question: what do I do with all those over-ripe bananas?

Our teenaged son has a very healthy diet. He eats whole wheat pasta, nuts, grains, lean cuts of meat, fresh fruit, and a lot of bananas. There always seem to be a few that get over-ripe before he's ready to eat them.

He also likes egg white scrambles, so there are usually extra egg yolks for me to use. I hate wasting food, so the bananas and egg yolks become Banana Cake.

Banana Cake with Nuts and Chocolate Chips

Time: 90 minutes

Serves: 10-12

Indgredients

2 ½ cups flour
1 ½ tablespoon baking soda
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 ¼ cup white sugar
2 eggs + 2 yolks
5 ripe, mashed bananas
¼ teaspoon vanilla
2/3 cup cream or ½ and ½
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of cayenne
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup chopped roasted almonds or walnuts
½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Method

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Melt a tablespoon of butter and brush the inside of (2) 9”x4” baking pans. Put them in the freezer for at least 30 minutes.

In a mixer combine the sugar and eggs and wisk until creamy. Add the softened butter and mix well. Then the mashed bananas, baking soda, vanilla, sea salt, cayenne, and cream. Slowly add the flour and stir until well-combined. Blend in the chopped nuts and chocolate chips.

Pour the batter into the baking pans, stopping 1 ½” from the top, so the cake has room to rise while it’s cooking. Bake for 60-70 minutes.

Remove from the oven and leave in the pan for 10 minutes, because the cakes could fall apart if you take them out of the pan when they’re still very hot.

Carefully turn them out of the pans and let cool on a wire rack, about 30 minutes. Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bread and Butter Pickles

Kosher pickles are great to eat with sandwiches. Bread and Butter Pickles are great to eat on sandwiches.

Bread and Butter Pickles

Time: 60 minutes

Serves: 10

Ingredients

3 lbs small cukes, washed, ends trimmed
3 cups white sugar
3 cups yellow (Iranian) vinegar
½ cup Kosher salt
4 cups ice cubes
½ cup thinly sliced yellow onion
3 tablespoons mustard seed
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
¼ cup dill leaves

Method

Using a serrated knife, cut the cukes into ¼” pieces, put them in a colander over a bowl, add the salt, toss well, top with the ice cubes and allow to drain overnight. Rinse the cukes to get rid of the salt and toss together with the sliced onions.

Prepare 4 pint canning jars by boiling them in water for 30 minutes. Let them cool on a wire rack.

Put the sugar, vinegar, mustard seeds, and peppercorns into a sauce pan and heat until the sugar dissolves. Fill the canning jars with the cukes and sliced onions up to 1” from the top of the jar, add the dill, then fill with the vinegar-sugar liquid and seal with canning lids.

Put the jars into a pot with boiling water. Make sure the jars are completely covered by water. Cook for 10 minutes. Remove and cool on a wire rack.

Besides cukes, the recipe works exactly the same for lots of other vegetables: string beans (trimmed and cut to a length so they fit in the jar); carrot rounds (peeled) with onions; or corn off the cob with a sprinkling of diced red pepper.

Put up in their canning jars, the pickles make beautiful presents.

Serves 20. Preparation Time: 15 minutes. Cooking Time: 10 minutes.

Kosher Pickles

A lot of people I know have at least one relative who used to make pickles. For me, my grandmother didn't make pickles but her father did and she would take me down to Rivington Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to show me where the pickle makers had their open air stores. Her dad had a store when she was a child. He had pickle barrels out front. When she took me downtown there were still pickle makers on the Lower East Side. I loved the smell of the brine in the wooden barrels.

Kosher Pickles

I like the smaller cukes. Cut off the remains of the stems and flowers. Don’t use any cukes that are soft or discolored. Clean and dry the cukes. Put them aside while you make the brine. I use Iranian yellow vinegar, a little hard to find, but it has less of a bite.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Time: 20 minutes to prepare; 2-5 days to brine

Ingredients
5 lbs, small cukes
8 cups of water
1/4 cup Kosher salt1 cup yellow vinegar
4 cloves garlic, peeled, thinly sliced
5 bay leaves
10 whole black peppercorns
10 whole mustard seeds1/4 teaspoon of pepper flakes
3 sprigs of fresh dill


Method
In a pot, add together the water, vinegar, and salt. Bring the water to a simmer. Stir, to help the salt dissolve. The brine has to be hot enough to dissolve the salt, but don't let it boil. Stick a finger into the brine. Taste and adjust the flavor. Add more salt and vinegar as you like. If the brine is too salty or too vinegary, then add more water. Get the brine to taste the way you like it, because the way the brine tastes is the way the pickles will taste.


Put the spices into the bottom of a gallon glass jar. Put the cukes into the jar. Pour in the hot brine, being careful to cover the cukes. Save about a cup of brine.


Tasting the brine will give you an idea about the flavor of the pickles, but you won’t really know what the pickles taste like until you make your first batch. The next time you make your pickles you can adjust the flavor by putting in more of less of the flavorings: the salt, vinegar, garlic, and spices.


Now that you’ve put the cucumbers into the brine, you have to wait. How long you wait depends on how you like your pickle. If you like pickles that taste like cucumbers, you can eat them after as little as 2 days. If you want more “pickle” flavor, wait 3-5 days.


While the pickles are curing, keep them on the kitchen counter out of the sun, in the jar, uncovered. If you cover them, they'll go bad. Also, the cukes have to be kept submerged in the brine. If they’re exposed to the air, they will go bad.


The trick is to put a plastic cup in the top of the jar. If you fill the cup with the extra brine, then it’s weight will keep the pickles submerged. Make sure that the size of the cup is smaller than the opening of the jar, so the pickles can “breathe”.


Put brine in the cup, so as the water evaporates, you can add brine from the cup to keep the pickles covered.


Once the pickles are how you like them, put a top on the jar. At this point you'll probably want to transfer the pickles into smaller jars; make sure the pickles are covered and that each jar has an equal amount of the pickling spices.

Refrigerate the jars. The pickles will keep for several weeks, but since there aren't any preservatives, they won’t last as long as store-bought pickles.


Preparation Time: 20 minutes. Cooking Time: 3 minutes. Waiting Time: 2-5 days.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Mushroom Soup

My mother had a couple of specialties when we were growing up: a braised brisket of beef topped with a package of Lipton's onion soup, sour cream dip made with canned clams, and tuna casserole sauced with Campbell's cream of mushroom soup.

I still remember those dishes fondly.

What I learned from my mom was to have fun cooking, to care about flavors, and to find the most efficient way possible to make a dish. Use the fewest ingredients, don't be overly complicated, and clean up as you cook. That was her mantra.

Today I made a simple soup for lunch: mushroom soup with a handful of garlic. With a small salad and some grilled lavash, we were very happy.

Garlic-Mushroom Soup

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 60 minutes

Ingredients

4 cloves garlic, peeled, finely chopped
3 sprigs parsley, washed, finely chopped, stems and leaves
5 shallots, peeled, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 pound mushrooms, shitaki or chanterelles, washed, thinly sliced, stems included
1 tablespoon butter
4 cups water or chicken stock
1/4 cup cream or half and half (optional)
1 tablespoon cooked rice per serving or cooked pasta (optional)
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Method

Over a medium flame, sauté the garlic, shallots, and parsley with the olive oil until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and butter. Stir well and continue to cook for 15 minutes until lightly browned, then add the stock or water to deglaze the pan.

Simmer for 30 minutes on a low flame. Taste and adjust the flavors, adding sea salt and black pepper as needed. In the last 5 minutes, add the cream, being careful to avoid a boil.

When serving, put a tablespoon of cooked rice or cooked pasta (optional) on the bottom of the bowl, then add the soup and mushrooms.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Reduced Balsamic Vinegar

Because I like to use vinegars with less of an edge, I used to buy saba and aged balsamic vinegar. Problem is, they're expensive. $25.00 - $75.00/pint.

There's no substitute for saba or aged balsamic vinegar, but I discovered a way to use ordinary balsamic vinegar and increase its flavor.

Buy the cheapest balsamic you can find. At a restaurant supply store like Smart and Final, you can buy a gallon of balsamic vinegar for under $20.00.

Pour the vinegar into a large pot and put on the lowest flame possible. To avoid a "cooked" flavor, all you want to do is accelerate evaporation.

A gallon of vinegar will take 10-15 hours to reduce the balsamic to 20% of the original volume. Taste the vinegar. You're done when it has a slightly sweet flavor.

Wet a piece of cheese cloth and put it inside a funnel. To get rid of any solids that might have built up, pour the reduced balsamic through the cheese cloth. Pour the "syrup" into squeeze bottles, the kind you get from a restaurant supply store for catsup.

Use the syrup on salads, drizzled with olive oil, or to finish homemade pizza, or on vanilla ice cream and strawberries.

For an individual serving, take 1/4 cup of vinegar and reduce over a slow flame. That will take 10-15 minutes and make about a tablespoon. Let cool and add to a salad that serves 4.

Duck Legs & Thighs with Winter Vegetables

The first time I cooked duck, I was completely freaked out. "Duck!" seemed way too exotic, too odd, too French for me to deal with. Duck had too much tradition behind it. Chicken was my safe-zone fowl.

Anyway, I took the plunge and cooked a whole duck. It turned out...ok. There's all that fat to deal with and the fact that the whole bird is dark meat. After dozens of outings, I figured out how to cook duck, and, I have to say, duck is great. Taste-wise it's midway between chicken and beef, but better than either.

To the point: cooking a whole duck is an obligation. Cooking duck legs and thighs is a lot more normal. Think "chicken" and it won't seem so special, but the end result will be.

The duck we get comes from Vietnamese markets where the cost per pound averages $2.25. It's easy enough to buy a half dozen legs and thighs (they come together) and freeze them. The easy way to do that is to wash and pat dry each leg/thigh, lay it on a piece of plastic wrap, drizzle with olive oil on both sides and season with sea salt and black pepper. Place the individually wrapped duck leg/thighs into a ziploc bag, squeeze the air out, seal the bag, and the duck will stay fresh-tasting for months.

Duck Legs & Thighs with Winter Vegetables

One of those great comfort food recipes that works in cold or hot weather. The duck makes a "soup," so you can fill out the serving with a nice pasta like Zitti or Penne.

Yield: 4

Time: 90 minutes

Ingredients

4 duck leg/thighs
2 carrots, peeled, cut into thick rounds, then quartered
2 yams or sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into thick rounds, then quartered
10 Brussels sprouts, trim the bottoms, quarter
10 shitaki mushrooms, washed, cleaned, sliced
1/2 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
4 cloves garlic, peeled, finely chopped
10 shallots, peeled, halved
Olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Method

When you're ready to cook the duck, separate the thighs from the legs at the joint.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large Dutch oven or fry pan. Season the duck pieces with sea salt and black pepper, then sauté the duck until browned on all sides. Remove from the pan and drain on a plate with paper towels.

Pour off the duck fat into a container and save (freeze it if you aren't going to use it right away). Duck fat sells for $20/pint; don't waste it. Duck fat is magic.

Sauté the shitaki mushrooms until lightly browned on each side. Remove to a plate. Now saute the garlic, carrots, sweet potatoes, shallots, garlic, and parsley until lightly browned. Remove to a plate.

Put the duck back into the pan and cover with water. Put a lid on the pan and braise over a medium flame for 45 to 60 minutes, until the meat is tender and separates from the bone with a little pressure. Add back the mushrooms and vegetables and cook another 15 minutes, uncovered.

Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Serve as is or add a cup of cooked pasta for each plate.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Easy-to-Make Lavash "Pizza"

When we were packing for the trip, my job was to go through the refrigerator and bring everything with us that would go bad if we left it home: arugula, apples, parsley, lemons, bacon, eggs, sausages, hot dogs, hamburger meat...all that went into the car.

Way in the back of the refrigerator I found a Ziploc bag of lavash I'd bought from an Armenian market, The Golden Farm, in Glendale three weeks ago. The good news about lavash is you can eat it freshly baked and weeks later, at least if you grill it.

Fresh lavash comes in a plastic bag, with 2-4 sheets inside. The sheets of lavash are huge: 4 feet by 3 feet. Grilled the way I'm talking about, 1 sheet will feed 4 people. Usually a package costs between $1.00-$2.30 in Middle Eastern Markets.

At those prices, lavash is a bargain.

Grilled lavash for appetizers:

Drizzle 2 tablespoons of olive oil onto a flat plate. Season with some sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. To prep the lavash for grilling, cut the sheet into 2" squares and dredge each piece through the seasoned olive oil on both sides. Stack them on top of each other.

Put the heat on "low", then use tongs to place the seasoned pieces of lavash on the grill. They'll cook quickly, maybe 20 seconds on each side. Cover them with a kitchen towel to keep them warm.

Toppings:

Even though I'm calling this "pizza," I haven't tried tomato paste on lavash. I think it wouldn't be good because the wet sauce would take away the crispiness, which is what's great about grilled lavash.

I've stayed with meats, cheeses, and sauteed vegetables.

Cheese:

Any cheese you can grate will work. I've been using cheddar.

Take 1 cup of freshly grated cheddar (white Australian or Irish cheddar is good). After the lavash has been grilled on both sides, sprinkle a little of the grated cheese on each square and bake in a 350 degree oven for 5 minutes. Finish with a light drizzle of olive oil and serve warm.

Meat:

Thinly sliced, grilled Italian sausage is good, with a sprinkling of finely chopped Italian parsley and/or green onions (the green and white part mixed together).

Freshly sliced prosciutto goes well on top of the grilled lavash.

Sautéed vegetables:

We used a sautéed, finely chopped mustard green with garlic and shallots. Delicious. Sautéed spinach, broccoli leaves, beet greens--any of those would be great too.

In fact, if you put all of these together on the lavash it would be delicious. The only thing to keep in mind--the grilled lavash are fragile, so don't overload it with too many toppings.

Try sautéed tomato slices.

Drizzle olive oil into a hot pan, season with chopped garlic, then gently sauté thin slices of ripe tomatoes. Using two flat, dinner knives, flip the tomato slice over after 1 minute, letting the other side cook for another minute.

What you put on the grilled lavash pieces is infinitely variable. It's worth trying just about everything and anything.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Shucking Oysters

Shucking oysters is easy but as everyone who's ever done it knows, it's a hassle, that's why there are oyster bars. Buying your own oysters is a lot cheaper, so it's worth doing when you have time to spend in the kitchen.

Everyone has their own way of opening an oyster. I learned mine many years ago when I was writing an article about Vietnamese fishermen on the Texas Gulf Coast. This was back in the late '70's when some Vietnamese had been given government grants to relocate along the Texas and Louisiana coasts. There was friction with the locals who didn't like the increased competition and the cultural differences. It's actually a fascinating story about "unintended consequences" after the Vietnam War....I'll save that for another time. The point is, I met a young fisherman, Bobby, who took me with him on his boat to go oystering. Part of my job was shucking the mountain of oysters we dredged up. He gave me the oyster knife I still use today. The knife's an old, misshapen thing. The blade's always coming out of the wooden handle. Every so often I'll buy a new knife, but the one Bobby gave me works the best because the blade is thin and sharp.

Using the point of the knife, place it under the "parrot's beak," the pointy part of the shell on the narrow end. Being careful not to break off the "beak," push the knife between the shells and pry them apart about a 1/4", then slide the knife around the side of the oyster so you can cut the muscle that holds onto the shell.

With the top shell removed, use the knife to cut off the muscle to release the oyster.

This is your first look at the oyster itself. Now you'll see whether or not your effort was worthwhile. The oyster's good if it's plump and creamy looking. If it's scrawny and gray, chuck it and move on.

Save the liquid inside the shell, the "nectar." If you're worried about sand and bits of shell, gently wash the oyster with water, then put the oyster back in its shell.

Oyster Stew

Good oysters are a rare treat.

Eaten raw with a classic tomato-based cocktail sauce they're delicious. Especially with an ice-cold shot of tequila.

On a cold day, though, oyster stew is the way to go. Satisfying and comforting, the best stews, like the ones served at the Grand Central Station Oyster Bar, are prepared as simply as possible.

My recipe is a variation on that theme.

Oyster Stew

Yield: Serves 4

Time: 60 minutes

Ingredients

6 oysters, raw, shucked, the nectar strained and reserved
1 medium sized, Yukon potato, peeled, finely diced (1/2 cup)
1 small yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped (1 tablespoon)
1 garlic clove, peeled, finely chopped
2 sprigs, parsley, finely chopped, stems and leaves (1 tablespoon)
1 small carrot, finely chopped (1 teaspoon)
2 fresh shiitaki mushrooms, washed, julienned
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Hot sauce
1 cup homemade chicken stock
1 cup water
1/2 cup cream or half and half

Method

In a medium sized saucepan, sauté the potatoes, garlic, and onions with a tablespoon of olive oil for 10 minutes, stirring frequently so they don't brown. Season with a pinch of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, then add the butter and continue sautéing for another 5 minutes. Season to taste with a dash of hot sauce.

Add the chicken stock and water. Simmer, covered, on a low flame for 15 minutes. Remove the lid, stir, and taste, adjust the flavors.

Shuck the oysters. Reserve and strain the nectar, getting rid of any sand and shell pieces. If the oysters are very large, use kitchen shears or scissors and cut them into bite-sized pieces.

Keeping the stew on a low flame, add the oysters and nectar. Cook gently for 5 minutes. Stir in the cream and continue cooking on a low flame for another 5 minutes.

Serve with fresh crusty French bread or topped with homemade croutons.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Today in Carlsbad

A week's vacation in Carlsbad near Del Mar, along the coast of California, about 90 minutes south of Los Angeles.

My wife Michelle, our teenaged son, Michael, and his two football buddies, Chris and Spencer, we're spending the week in a 2-bedroom time share. Doing nothing more stressful than taking walks along the beach, watching dvds, reading, watching tv, and cooking. Michael and his friends will go surfing, see movies, and work out in the exercise room. Usually our other son, Frank, would come along, but he's backpacking with friends on a five week trip in Southeast Asia, taking a 10 day bus trip up the Vietnamese coast, staying in Tokyo for a couple of days, looking around Cambodia, and ending up in Thailand.

Michelle will spend most of her time reading novels. I'll do some work by email, but mostly I'll be cooking.

Driving south from LA on the 405, we stopped at several places along Bolsa Avenue in Little Saigon, the largest Vietnamese community in the United States, and shopped at two of the local supermarkets: ABC Supermarket and T&K Food Mart, picking up shiitaki mushrooms, shallots, flank steak, raw shrimp, oysters, duck legs, chicken breasts, chicken wings, a live Canadian dungeness crab, persimmons, and pomegranates.

At Lee's Sandwiches, one of a chain of Vietnamese-French sandwich and pastry shops, we picked up baguettes ($1.00/each), large butter croissants ($1.25/each), flaky, delicious large pork pate chaud ($1.25/each), danish pastries with custard and almonds ($1.25/each), and my absolute favorite bao/pork and egg steamed buns ($1.25/each).

Fresh out of the oven, the two foot long baguettes are hot and crusty. Eating a baguette on the way to the car is one of life's great pleasures; and it only cost one dollar.

I love shopping as much as cooking, but only if the ingredients are fresh and affordable. Little Saigon is my favorite place, because the food is great and the prices incredibly cheap. Oysters for sixty-nine cents each. Duck for $2.49/lb. Shiitaki mushrooms, $2.79/lb. Chicken breasts, $1.79/lb. Shallots, $.79/lb. The crab, $5.49/lb. You get the idea....

For lunch today we ate on the balcony overlooking the golf course with 2 large water traps. Enjoying a sunny afternoon in the middle of December reminds us why we love living in Southern California, even if the traffic in LA is grid-locked, the city too noisy and expensive, and the air quality usually "unhealthy". The weather is the best.

For lunch we had appetizers--dry cured black olives stuffed with feta and sauteed baguette rounds, 2 topped with homemade tapenade, 2 with slices of Australian cheddar cheese, 2 with sauteed sausage rounds w/ shallots and chopped mustard greens--and an arugula salad with carrots, home made croutons, pitted oil-cured black olives, French feta, fresh crab meat, and chopped Italian parsley with olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar. The dessert was a plate with a pomegranate and slices of persimmon.

We watched Monday Night Football (Chicago vs. the Vikings; the Bears lost), while I cooked a dinner of chicken wings with Italian sausage rounds, chopped arugula stems, potatoes, carrots, pearl onions, garlic, and shiitaki mushrooms.

Life's good when you can take some time off. Stop the grind for a few days and sleep when you need to, cook what you want, watch a game on tv, and spend time with people you love.

Tomorrow I'll write the recipes...