Friday, December 23, 2011

A key to my father's heart - Italian Wedding soup

We all should be nicer to our parents.  In the hustle of everyday lives we often forget that we don’t have infinite amount of time to make up for lack of attention or patience towards them.  One day we will watch them become frail and helpless and then… just gone… 
I should be nicer to my father, and they key to this man’s heart is soup.  He has eaten a bowl of soup every day of his life, maybe with very few exceptions.  My father is a strange man when it comes to food, he does not see it as source of pleasure, just nourishment.  He eats at set times of the day, hell or high water, and he never snacks… ever…   He will have once piece of chocolate a day or one tablespoon of honey and exactly 3 fruits, no more, no less.  He does not have cravings…  He is also only 5 lbs heavier than when he was in college and he does not have high cholesterol, diabetes, heart problems that most develop in his age (Knock on wood!)… But he loves his soup, and it is the only thing he knows how to cook himself.  Three soups to be exact, that is all for his culinary skills… He has cooked the same three soups for 20 years, ever since my mother died and my grandmother wrote down three of her simples recipes down for him.  He has cooked these soups probably a thousand times, but he still uses the stained, yellowed papers and meticulously measures out each ingredient: “ 1 tbs of salt, ½ tbs of pepper…etc..” .  He will never weir off from the recipe, never substitute an ingredient and will never improvise…   He is sick of his three soups, but every time he calls me for help, the words “Salt and pepper to taste” bring him into a state of chaos…. He never tried to cook a single thing I suggested, no matter how easy I thought I made the recipe for him.  Of course I don’t have the time or the patience to write down a recipe on paper, never mind that I do it every week for this blog… I really should be nicer to my father.
I made a huge pot of this soup for him last weekend to take back home and enjoy all week.  He called me the next day, giddy with delight and told me that the soup is delicious; I could hear him smiling on the phone… I am sure he loved the soup, but I bet it is the extra attention that really made him smile.
This is my version of Italian Wedding soup; I realize that it may not be the most authentic old country recipe but it is guaranteed to melt anyone’s heart.  The soup is almost addictive so I recommend making an extra batch of meatballs and freeze them, so that you can whip this up anytime, especially if you want to do something nice for a parent.

Italian Wedding Soup.
For the soup.
1.5 lbs of chicken pieces (dark or white meat, I like to use dark meat, I find that it gives the soup more “chickenness”)
1 yellow onion whole
1 parsley root peeled
4 garlic cloves peeled and roughly chopped
1 large carrot chopped
3 celery ribs chopped
1 fresh bay leaf
1 samll spring rosemary
2 springs of thyme
14 cups of water (or enough to fill a large pot)
1 ½ cup of orzo or other small cut pasta
1 12 oz can of navy or cannellini beans rinsed
2 eggs
2 cups of chopped fresh spinach or kale (Kale is traditional in this recipe but I like spinach as well)
Salt and Pepper to taste

For the meatballs
1 lbs of ground chicken (or veal)
½ cup of breadcrumbs
½ tbs of poultry seasoning
½ tsp dried oregano
½ tbs fresh rosemary finely chopped
2 garlic cloves grated
¼ cup shredded parmesan cheese
1 egg
Fresh ground pepper

Start by making a really simple chicken soup.  In a large pot combine the chicken, onion, parsley root, carrots, celery, garlic.  Tie the rosemary and thyme with kitchen twine and add that in, as well as the bay leaf.  Cover with water and bring to a boil.  Once the water reaches a rolling boil, reduce the heat to low.  My mother always said that you should not let the chicken soup boil hard or cook it covered as it will not be ‘clear”.  Simmer the soup skimming off the foam, fat and shmutz that will rise up to the surface.  Don’t salt the soup at this point, just season it with pepper.  Cook for about 1 hr. 


While the soup cooks, prepare the meatballs.  Combine all of the ingredients and stir to combine.  Do not over-mix or the meatballs will be tough. 




I like to make the meatballs tiny, ½ to 1/3 of an inch in diameter.  Wet the palms of your hands before rolling, it will prevent the meat from sticking.  Place prepared meatballs on a cutting board and park them in the fridge until ready to use.  At this point you can make an extra batch and just freeze them on a cutting board.  Store in a freezer zip top bag for up to 1 month.  
After an hour of simmering, remove the onion, parsley root and herbs from the soup and discard.  Remove the chicken as well (you can use the boiled chicken for many purposes; I usually make chicken salad and serve the problem of school lunches for a few days).
Add the pasta.  Cook for 3 minutes than add all the meatballs at once.  Stir gently and let cook for 5- 6 min.  Add the beans (don’t forget to rinse them).


In a small ball whisk the 2 eggs and add a about a tablespoon of room temperature water.  With a spatula or a long spoon stir your soup vigorously to create a whirlpool.  Gently stream the egg mixture into the whirlpool continuing to stir.  This will prevent the eggs from scrambling, instead you soup will become silky and turn a beautiful milky yellow color.
Now you can taste and re-season your soup.  Add the salt and pepper to taste.  Most likely, you will find yourself adding very little salt at this point, because of all the salty parmesan from the meatballs.  This is why I don’t recommend salting this soup up until very end.
At this point you will need to add the chopped spinach or kale.  If using spinach, I like to turn off the heat, add the greens, give them a stir, cover the pot and just let the soup sit for 5 -10 min before serving.  If using kale, which is tougher than spinach, cook the greens in the soup for 2-3 min before turning off, covering and resting the soup.





Serve with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese or fresh ground pepper or both. 
Now go call your Mother or Father!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Tres Leche cake


I am not a huge fan of overly sweet deserts.  You know, the kind of deserts that make you feel like your insides will get stuck together, but this particular cake is an exception.  It compensates for overly gooey goodness by being moist and light as air.  “Tres leche” of course means “3 milks” and this particular desert is very popular in Latin America.  It is very important to get the cake texture just right, as this cake should never be soggy, but moist goodness.
The cake needs time to soak through, at least 24 hrs, so plan accordingly; it is not something you can whip up last minute.  In my opinion it is even better on the 2nd or 3rd day.  As a matter of fact when I tasted it on the 2nd day I realized that I may have just stumbled upon a long lost recipe for my mother’s famous rum cake.  I have searched for a just right batter for that cake for years, and this one may just be what I need.  I will play with it and see if I can bring back to life that beloved family confection.
This recipe is based on Alton Brown’s Tres leche cake; however I modified it somewhat and added a butterscotch sauce to go with it.  I suggest you make extra butterscotch sauce, as it was honestly, fingelicking good.
For the cake:
  • 6 3/4 ounces cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 4 ounces sugar
  • 5 whole eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the soaking liquid:
  • 1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
  • 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup half-and-half
For the butterscotch sauce:
·         1 ¼ cup granulated sugar
·         ¼ cup water
·         2 tbs salted butter
·         ¼ cup sour cream or crème Frasier


 Preheat the oven to 350F.  Butter and flour a 9” by 13” cake pan. Sift the cake flour, baking powder and salt together into a bowl, set aside




 In the standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment cream the butter until light and fluffy.  Add the sugar and continue beating until the mixture is pale yellow, fluffy and the sugar is fully incorporated.  You may need to scrape the sides of the bowl a few times to make sure the mixing is even.  Add eggs, one a time, until they are well incorporated.  Add the vanilla.  Decrease the mixer speed to low and add the flour mixture in thirds.  Mix until just combined.  Do not over-mix the batter.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth out with a spatula.  It will seem like very little batter, but don’t worry it will expand somewhat while baking.  Bake on the middle rack for 20-25 min or until the cake is golden yellow.

Cool the cake for 30 min on a cooling rack.  With a fork, poke the top of the cake all over.  Cool the cake completely.



Prepare the glaze by mixing the evaporated milk, condensed milk and half-n-half together.  Pour the mixture over the cooled cake.  It will seem like way too much liquid, but don’t worry, it will all be absorbed.
Cover the cake with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 24 hrs.


Before serving, prepare the butterscotch sauce.  In a heavy bottom pan, combine the sugar and water and stir with a wooden spoon to ensure even melting. 


When the mixture is completely liquid, stop stirring and continue cooking on the medium heat.  You can swirl the pan gently to ensure even browning.  When the caramel is evenly brown and begins to smell nutty, reduce the heat to low and whisk in the butter.


Once the butter is completely melted and incorporated, turn the heat off and whisk in the sour cream.  Continue whisking off the heat until the sauce is smooth and stops bubbling.  Let cool to room temperature before using.  The sauce can be stored in the fridge for up to a week, reheat gently in the double boiler if it becomes too thick.

To serve the Tres Leche cake, I like to layer 2 squares, with butterscotch sauce in between the layers and some on top.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Slow Roasted Venison Stew

I have struck gold, which in my little world means lots and lots of venison meat.  Right now, I have 2 freezers full of my favorite meat to eat and to cook.  A whole deer is a little much, but I couldn’t pass up the chance.  Besides, I now not only get to butcher the meat myself, but cook every part of the deer and I will need to get real creative so that it doesn’t all taste the same.  Oh, what a challenge.
First, let me say, that I have never butchered a large critter before.  I am fairly happy picking up a nicely wrapped supermarket steak, or coming up to the butcher counter and ordering up whatever my heart desires.  I always meant to take a butchering class, but never got around to actually doing it.  Yes, I have taught myself how to debone a chicken and have scars to prove that I was somewhat successful, but butchering a full venison shoulder, without wasting or ruining the precious meat, is another story.
I am very proud of myself now, after an hour and a half; I managed to extract every bit of flesh out of this thing.  Venison shoulder is not very meaty and whatever meat there is, is fairly tough, so I decided to make a slow braised stew.   I started by fully deboning the shoulder and taking out all tendons and silver skin.  I cut the upper part of the shoulder against the grain into 1 ½ ” cubes and the lower part ( which is very tough and full of tendons) got ground up and will become sausage one day.  I even saved the bones for stock.  When I was done, there was not a morsel of waste left, much to the dogs’ dismay. 
Although I am sure I will need to get much more creative in my preparation of venison ( I have some grand ideas already) as I go through my stash… I decided to stick to my most trusted stew recipe (which by the way works very well for beef or any other game meat, such as boar or bison).  This is a very winery dish, deeply satisfying and just homey…


The recipe is for approximately 2.5 lbs of meat but it easily scalable up or down.
For the marinade:
7-10 Juniper berries crushed in a mortar
1 tbs fresh rosemary minced
4 large cloves of garlic minced
1 tbs of good Dijon mustard (preferably French)
½ cup of red wine
2 tbs of olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

For the stew:
2.5 lbs of venison (beef or other dark game meat such as bison or boar) cubed
¼ lb of slab bacon cubed (optional)
1 large Spanish onion chopped
3 cloves of garlic minced
2 -3 celery ribs chopped
1 large carrot chopped
1 qt of button mushrooms chopped
4 cups of venison, beef or veal stock (homemade is best)
1 cup of red wine
1 tbs of soy sauce
1 spring of rosemary
3 large parsley springs
3 springs of fresh thyme
2 tbs of olive oil
1 tsp of sugar
1 tbs of butter
Salt and Pepper


This is what I started with



Combine all the ingredients for the marinade and mix well with cubed venison.  Cover and refrigerate for at least 2-3 hrs, better overnight. 



Venison is very lean, a little bacon makes everything better.

Preheat the oven to 325F.  Bring the meat to room temperature and blot each piece with paper towel to make sure the meat is very dry.  This will ensure nice browning.  Reserve the remaining marinade.
Tie the rosemary, parsley and thyme with a kitchen twine to make a bouquet de garni.
In the Dutch oven or other heavy bottomed deep pot, heat the olive oil and working in batches, brown each piece of venison on all sides.  Set the browned meat aside.  If using bacon, fry it in the same pot, keeping the temperature at medium, so that the bacon has a chance to render all fat before beginning to burn.  Set the cooked bacon aside.  Turn the heat to low and add the onions, carrots, celery and garlic to the bacon fat.  Cook until vegetables soften then add the mushrooms.  Cook for 5 min, than return the venison and bacon back, stir all to ensure even distribution in the pot and turn the heat to med-high.  Add the red wine and let it cook out for a minute or two, scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to release all that browned up goodness.  Add the remaining marinade,soy sauce, stock, sugar, salt and pepper.  Cover and bring to a boil.
Cook covered in the oven at 325F-350F for about 1.5 – 2 hrs or until the meat is very tender and the sauce is a bit reduced.
When the venison is cooked, take it out from the sauce with a slotted spoon and set aside.  Strain the sauce through a mesh and return back to the pot.  Adjust the seasoning and simmer the sauce on the stove top until reduced by ½ .  Stir in the butter and venison.



I served mine with roasted white and purple potatoes, but mush potatoes or creamy polenta would be a good choice as well.  Maybe even a nice thick slice of rustic charred bread would make a nice side dish.  A glass of full bodied red wine or beer and a little fire in the fireplace and you can feel like a hunter back from the day’s work.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Mixed Paella

Contrary to popular belief the word “paella” does not mean the modern seafood and rice dish associated with Spanish cuisine.  In the Valencia region, the word “paella” simply meant “pot” and later was used to refer to a large, round shallow pan used to cook rice.  The original Valencian paella contained only rice, meat, water snails and butter beans along with a few spices, such as rosemary and saffron.  The more modern invention of seafood paella came about in the mid-19th century along with the mixed-paella, which contained chicken or duck.  But no matter what protein you choose to use in your paella, it is delicious and simple to make.  You use only one pot, to cook and to serve in, which makes clean up a snap.  The best way to cook paella is on the grill, but if it is too cold outside or you simply don’t have one, it can be done on the stove top and in the oven.  A large shallow pan is essential to the good paella, but you don’t need a specialty one, any large, heavy bottomed skillet will do as long as it has the capacity for holding the rice in relatively thin layer.  It is a little more difficult to achieve the crusty edges and bottom of the rice, without the proper pan and grill, but not impossible, especially if you finish your paella in the oven.
I had to cook dinner this weekend from the contents of my freezer, to make space for a great amount of venison, which I am now the proud owner of.  All I had on hand was chicken thighs, chorizo sausage and shrimp, so paella seemed like a good choice for using all of the above in one shot.  I am going to call this a mixed-paella, but you can substitute the chicken and sausage with sea food or stick to the classic version and use water snails (good luck finding them).  I really do love the chicken in this recipe, as it comes out succulently moist and beautifully golden.
Mixed Paella.
4 chicken thighs – bone in
½ lbs of sausage meat (I like the spicy chorizo)
1 lb of shrimp
3 cups of medium grain rice
6 cups of chicken stock + ½ cup
A handful of butter green beans trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces
1 large red bell pepper
1 Jalapeno pepper minced very fine (optional)
1 ½ cups of slow roasted tomatoes (See Note at the end)
1 large yellow onion diced
5 cloves of garlic minced
1 spring of rosemary
2 tsp of saffron
1 tbs of smoked sweet paprika
2 tbs of poultry seasoning
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper to taste
Handful of minced parsley to garnish
Lemon wedges to serve with the paella.

Preheat the oven to 400F.  About an hour before cooking combine the rice, stock and saffron and let the rice soak.  Preheat the olive oil on high heat in the paella pan (or a large skillet).  Season the chicken with the poultry seasoning and about half of the smoked paprika and place skin down in the pan.  Allow the chicken to cook about 6-7 minutes or until the skin is crispy.  Turn the chicken over, reduce the heat to medium and add the sausage, breaking it up as it cooks

Cook the sausage and the chicken for a few minutes until the sausage is mostly cooked through and the chicken is well seared.  Reduce the heat to low and add the onions and the garlic.  Cook the onions and garlic until softened, about 2-3 minutes, then add the bell pepper and the Jalapeno (if using).





Cook another 5 minutes or until the peppers begin to soften, then add the tomatoes, minced rosemary, the rest of the smoked paprika, salt and pepper.  Allow the tomatoes to cook for a minute or two than add the ½ a cup of chicken stock to deglaze the pan.  With a wooden spoon, scrape the bottom of the pan to reduce all the seared pieces; cook until almost all liquid has evaporated (about 3 min).  Add the rice, stock and saffron mixture.  Spread the rice evenly in the pan so it is all in one thin layer and is fully covered by stock.  Cover the pan loosely with foil and transfer to the oven.  Cook the paella for 10 minutes than add the shrimp and the butter beans and try to bury them in rice the best you can.  If you are using other sea food such as muscles or clams, this would be the time to add them as well.  Re-cover the pan with foil and cook for another 10 minutes or until the sea food is done, the stock has evaporated and the rice has developed a crusty edge.  You may need to add a little more stock if you feel the rice is becoming too dry before it is done.  Avoid the urge to stir it, as it will become mushy and unevenly cooked.






Once the paella is done, garnish with fresh parsley and serve with lemon wedges.
Note:  Slow roasted tomatoes are my number one favorite staple.  I make these often and store them in the fridge and use them in various recipes.  You can use any tomatoes you like but will need to adjust the cooking time based on the size.  The recipe below is just meant to give the technique, you can play around with spices, roasting time and temperatures and with what you roast ( I recently slow roasted lemons this way -  Delicious!)
2 pints of grape or cherry tomatoes halved and seeded
5 unpeeled cloves of garlic, lightly smashed
3 rosemary springs
1 tbs of kosher salt
Fresh ground black pepper
1 ½ tsp of sugar
2 tbs of olive oil.
Preheat the oven to 250F.  Spread the tomatoes on the baking sheet covered with foil.  Sprinkle with salt, pepper and sugar, drizzle with olive oil and toss to cover well.  Toss the garlic and rosemary in.  Roast uncovered and undisturbed for 2.5 hrs.  The tomatoes can be kept covered in the fridge for up to 1 week.  You can use them in soups, pastas, sandwiches… possibilities are endless.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Macaroons for French Class


I warned him, I really did.  I mean, anyone would want to make a life a little easier for your own flesh and blood.  I am talking about my son of course… and his desire to choose French as his school language.  I warned him of the fact that his love of French food and culture will not make the language any easier.  Nothing that French do is ever easy… and I say this with most love and admiration for the people, the country and the culture.  Take French food for example, if you decide to learn the true and only real French way to cook, you will find yourself in the maze of 100 steps and 50 pages for a simplest recipe.  Don’t mind the fact that there always is a way to simplify down to as few as 5 minutes yielding the same result… but it is not the real French way…. Blood, sweat, tears and ( in my case) curses are absolutely necessary for the food to be called “French”.  Same with the culture and the people, who says the French are rude?  On the contrary, they will only be happy to give you very detailed directions, numbering at least in a dozens of turns, with landmarks to mention and little anecdotes in stow…. Did I mention that the destination was 100 feet away around one measly corner!!!  Like I said, nothing is easy about the French!  Same with the language, as beautiful as it is, it has one of the hardest grammars on earth.  So when my son announced that he choose French as his school language, I was mortified.  I secretly envied him, as I always wanted to learn it, but I couldn't help but warn him that it will not be an easy “A’.  And what do you know, I now find myself baking a bunch of macaroons for the French class, in hopes that my son’s teacher overlooks him academic misgivings, and sees the sheer enthusiasm that drives this child to learn her subject.  Apparently, he advertised my culinary talents to the whole school and now holds me personally responsible for making sure that all of his classmates are exposed to the same food experiences, he and his sister experience every day. 
So, here I am, on a Sunday night, baking a whole bunch of macaroons in hopes that some of his New Jersey friends actually taste something other than an Oreo.



Measure, measure, measure, the only real key to a successful macaroon is precision.



The lava consistency.



Drying time




Now that's real "feet"

Cassis (Black Currant) Macaroons.
For the cassis filling.
2 cups of fresh or frozen black currants
1 cup of sugar
2 tbs of water
Juice of ½ lemon
Combine the sugar, berries and water and bring to a boil.   Once the berries are very soft, process in the food processor or blender and strain out the seeds if desired ( I like to leave them in).  Return the processed berry pure back to the pot and simmer until reduced by half.  Let it cool, once it cools it the mixture should be that of a consistency of a jam.  Once cool, you can fill the macaroons.

Pistachio Macaroons.
140 g of ground pistachios
200 g of powdered sugar
100 g of Aged egg whites ( Age the whites for either 2 weeks in the fridge, 24 hrs on the counter or 15 seconds in the microwave)
1 tbs of sugar
Green and yellow food coloring
For the filling.
1 ½ cups of heavy cream
1 cup of sugar
1 ½ tsp of Frangelico
1 tsp of vanilla extract
1 tsp of almond extract

Process the pistachios with the powdered sugar in the food processor fitted with a steal blade.  Sift the nut and sugar mixture through the fine sieve.  Whip the egg whites until firm and gradually add the granulated sugar and the food coloring.  Stir one third of the egg whites into the almond sugar mixture.  Add the remaining egg whites in the “fold from the bottom” motion.  The mixture must be the consistency of lava, moving slowly to regain its shape.  Pipe 1 inch mounds onto parchment paper and the macaroons dry, at least 20 min, or until they form “skin”.  Sometimes it takes quite a while, but the “skin” ( harder surface of an unbaked macaroon) is very important. I found that if my piped macaroons do not manage it, they will not rise properly.
While the macaroons are drying, preheat the oven to 320F.   Bake the macaroons at the lower 3rd of the oven for 15-18 min until they develop “feet” and the tops and nice and crusty.
Cool on the cooling rack.  Peel gently from the parchment paper when they are still slightly warm
Prepare the filling by whipping the heavy cream in the standing mixer until thick constancy.  Gradually add the sugar, hazelnut liquor and the extracts.
Fill the macaroons and refrigerate if desired.

Of Course in my house, there is really nothing to refrigerate… ever….





I hope he gets extra credit, but if not… always my pleasure to feed and educate!!!