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December 2006

Russ Parsons' Bean and Winter Squash Gratin

Plate_6

Tap tap tap. Anybody here? No? Brining turkeys and peeling chestnuts and pureeing pumpkins? Very good. So, while most of you are working on your own family's meal and while Ben's family is downstairs starting the day's work (I'm coming!), I'll just quickly tell those of you who couldn't give a hoot about Thanksgiving about the delicious bean casserole I made last weekend that is still sitting in my fridge and speaking of which, if you're not doing anything for Thanksgiving, would you mind coming over and liberating me of some of the four pounds of leftovers I couldn't eat, before it goes bad?

Thanks.

Both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have writers who cover the greenmarket beat, but I think the LA Times might be winning: how about this article to whet your appetite? I want to make every single thing (except the walnut-cilantro pesto - shudder) Russ writes about. Last weekend, I started with the bean gratin.

I had almost all the ingredients for his bean-butternut gratin in my kitchen, so after a jaunt to the Greenmarket (though it was less of a cheery jaunt and more of a chilly hustle because apparently it's winter now, thanks a lot, Chris Cimino*), I was ready to get cooking. The first step has you boil beans (I used a mix of dried flageolets and dried Great Northern beans) with aromatics and diced bacon. Of course, boiling bacon now always makes me think of Julie and Julia, so I had to suppress a giggle at the memory of Julie's righteous indignation, but that mirth soon turned into something akin to disgust, because have you ever boiled bacon? It is not a pretty smell. In fact, I'd say it's downright barnyardy.

But who am I to question Russ Parsons? No one, that's who.

The beans and bacon boiled away while I did my best to distract myself from the sensation that a pig farm might have cropped up somewhere in the near vicinity of my kitchen (and lest you think I'm exaggerating, I'd like to point out here that I have actually been to a pig farm, in Minnesota no less, and because I became so enamored of a baby piglet that I clutched it to my breast for the duration of our pig-farm excursion, the stench stayed with me for days, so I know what I'm talking about).

Meanwhile, I peeled and cubed a three-pound butternut squash and steamed it. After I complained a few weeks ago about the texture of sauteed squash, I was apprehensive about the textural component in this recipe, but steaming the squash transforms the little cubes into sweet, smooth, melt-in-your-mouth squares, so I needn't have worried.

The rest of the prep was pretty straightforward. I dumped a can of diced tomatoes, sans juice, into the drained, soft beans, crushed the mixture a bit with a wooden spoon, then layered the squash and the beans into a casserole dish before topping them with a "blizzard of garlicky breadcrumbs" (yum). I baked the dish until the apartment filled with the rich scent of meaty beans and the breadcrumbs had crisped to an appetizing golden-brown

A plateful of this for dinner hit the spot on that cold, blustery night. The beans were tender and melting, the squash was sweet as could be and the tomatoes and bacon added a layer of savory flavor and brightness. The crunchy, garlicky breadcrumbs were evenly distributed with each bite, and I couldn't help but take seconds. And eat more for lunch the next day. And make Ben eat some. And then have more for dinner. After all of this? There was still more than half of the gratin left.

So take my advice on two counts here: first, only make this if you really have a big party to feed. Second, if you like barnyardy pork flavors, then ignore this second point. But if they kind of gross you out, then don't boil the bacon with the beans, just dice and render it until crisp and add the bits to the gratin before it goes in the oven. There you have it.

And now I have to go. Three pies, a turkey, five side dishes and I don't even know what else are needing to be made and the clock is ticking. Happy Thanksgiving!

*Just kidding, Chris. I think you're the bee's knees. Really. So cute! And so accurate. Mostly.

Bean and Winter Squash Gratin
Serves 8

4 slices thick-sliced bacon (about 1/3 pound)
1 cup minced onion
2 cloves garlic, crushed, divided
1 pound pinto or other dried beans
5 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 (28-ounce) can tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 tablespoon chopped sage
3 pounds butternut or other winter squash
1/2 stale baguette (to make 2 cups bread crumbs)
1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons olive oil, divided

1. Chop the bacon into rough squares. Combine with the onion, 1 crushed garlic clove, the beans, water and salt in a heavy pan. Bring to a simmer, then cook, tightly covered, over low heat until the beans are tender, 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Check occasionally; if the beans begin to go dry, add a little more water.

2. When the beans are quite tender, remove from the heat, add the tomatoes and sage and stir very roughly to crush some of the beans (their starch will thicken the liquid).

3. While the beans are cooking, peel the squash, cut it in half and scoop out the seeds. Cut the flesh into one-half-inch dice. Steam the squash over rapidly boiling water until tender, about 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from the steamer and cool slightly before stirring (so cubes retain their shape).

4. Remove the crust from the baguette and coarsely chop the bread. Place it in a blender or food processor with the remaining garlic clove and grind to coarse crumbs.

5. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Generously brush a 3- to 3 1/2 -quart gratin dish with 2 teaspoons olive oil. Spoon the squash cubes into the dish, being careful not to crush them. Using a slotted spoon, ladle the cooked beans over the top. Add just enough of the bean liquid to cover the bottom of the dish. Stir lightly to combine.

6. Spoon the garlicky bread crumbs over the top, covering the dish in a thick mound. Drizzle with olive oil. Bake until the bread crumbs are deep brown (you will notice the fragrance turning from overtly garlicky to something more complex and beany), about 40 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and let stand 5 minutes before serving.


Andrea Nguyen's Tom Kho

Shrimp

Indulge me a little, will you? I'm feeling spent. I've been blogging for 22 straight days and I kind of want to poke myself in the eye or cut off a few fingertips or something. I'm not sure that I have anything left to say. I might be all written out! I used to find it amusing that the two most important men in my life both objected to the gun seal taunting me in the upper left-hand corner. It was ironic! Aggressive, but ironic! Now I feel a whimper coming on whenever I see it. Aut blog aut mori! Well, mori is looking kind of nice today...

I know I took this upon myself, but self-pity can feel so gooood. And because my brain seems to have melted overnight, I'm keeping the rest of this short and sweet. Okay? Here goes.

A few weeks ago, I made Vietnamese shrimp for dinner. It wasn't very good. I made a deep, dark caramel sauce, then threw most of it away. The rest went into a pan with shrimp and fish sauce, and was brought to a boil before I added a sliced onion. Although the pan was almost completely dry, the shrimp and the onion dumped a lot of liquid so the dish ended up syrupy. We ate our shrimp with plain white rice and lots of lime juice squeezed over it all. After the long cooking time, the shrimp were kind of rubbery. They tasted peppery and a little bitter and like not much else. I wish I'd chosen a different recipe to try. I won't be making this again.

And with that, I'm off for Thanksgiving. Of course, it doesn't mean I'll be very far from all of you because, gulp, I'll be back here tomorrow. Hopefully writing in something other than monosyllables. In case you come to your senses and stop checking to see what new depths I've sunk to over the long weekend, have a restful holiday. And for those of you who continue to read, your silent (and not so) cheerleading is keeping me going. So, thank you!

Tom Kho (Shrimp and Onion Simmered in Caramel Sauce)
Serves 4

1 cup sugar
2 pounds medium or large shrimp, peeled and deveined
Salt
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 scallions, thinly sliced
Cooked rice, for serving
1 lime, cut into wedges, for serving

1. Make caramel sauce. Choose a small, heavy saucepan and fill sink with enough cold water to come halfway up the sides of pan. Dry pan. Combine 1/4 cup water and the sugar in pan and heat to bubbling over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally with a metal spoon. After 2 minutes, stop stirring and let cook undisturbed. Bubbles will form over surface and mixture will become clear.

2. After about 15 minutes, mixture will begin to turn golden and then quickly darken; watch closely. When reddish on top and inky dark brown (like black coffee) underneath, quickly stop cooking by placing saucepan in cold water. Return saucepan to medium heat and stir until smooth. Pour into heatproof container such as a glass jar and let cool at least 10 minutes before using.

3. Place shrimp in colander and toss with 1 tablespoon salt. Rinse immediately with lots of cold water and drain well.

4. In medium pot, combine shrimp, 1/8 teaspoon salt, fish sauce and 3 tablespoons caramel sauce (remainder can be tightly covered and refrigerated indefinitely) and bring to a simmer over high heat. Add onion and pepper, stir, and boil uncovered 10 to 14 minutes more, until sauce is thick. Shrimp and onions will give off lots of liquid; cook at a strong boil to concentrate flavors (add a little water if sauce seems to thicken too quickly).

5. Turn off heat, stir in oil, and taste for salt and pepper. Transfer to serving bowl, scatter with scallions, and serve over plain rice, with lime wedges.


Little Giant

Pickle_1

Do you know what that is? That, dear readers, is a pickle plate. A plateful of freshly pickled vegetables (beans! carrots! jicama! watermelon peel! red beets! yellow beets! and two kinds of onions!) that a group of us ordered last night to share at what may very well be my new favorite restaurant in New York: Little Giant. Something about that pickle plate sums up the loveliness of this place: simple but interesting, delicious but unpretentious, well-presented but unfussy.

A small, warm little storefront on the Lower East Side with just a smattering of tables, the restaurant is cozy and warm (though the staff seemed uniformly glum), not too loud (I've grown sensitive in my old age), and not uncomfortably full. Along with our plate of tangy pickles (with varying degrees of spice and sourness) to start, we nibbled on rosemary and orange-scented olives (picholine, I think?) and had sweet little quartinos of wine.

Our meal was delicious: the plates of arctic char with brussels sprouts and parsnip puree that some girls ordered were licked clean, and the short ribs with bourbon-molasses glaze, wild mushrooms, polenta and arugula were so big and flavorful that I actually took home leftovers for lunch today. A Kansas City native at the table said the short ribs weren't as moist as they could have been, but being an ignoramus of such details, I thought they were tasty as could be.

I loved that we could get a reservation without a hassle, that the room was well-lit and didn't smell unpleasantly of stale food, that the food was well-made with thought and care, that we didn't have to pay through the nose, that they brought us the bill with tiny rolls of Smarties, and that the attention to detail didn't overshadow the delicious food.

Oh, you'll probably want to know about dessert. We shared chocolate bread pudding with wee little cherries and a dollop of plain whipped cream, but I didn't need more than a spoonful or two, as the icing on the cake, to be convinced: I love this place and I can't wait to go back again. Especially since it'll mean more pickles. And what could be better than that?


Regina Schrambling's Almond-Cranberry Cookies

Cookie_2

Well, actually, these aren't meant to be made with almonds. They're supposed to be pistachio-cranberry cookies (with vanilla extract instead of almond extract, and salted, chopped pistachios instead of toasted almonds). But yesterday was the kind of dark, cold day that simply begged for a lit oven and a tray or two of baking cookies to perfume the house, and since I had everything I needed except the pistachios and the vanilla extract, I thought it'd be okay to fudge with the recipe a bit.

And it was! The cookies are soft, tender little things that are filled with nuts and fruit which give the cookies some heft and an agreeable bite. The kosher salt, as always, brings out a tasty sparkle in the dense fug of brown sugar and butter. You can chew on a few of these while hugging your mug of hot tea close to your body under a blanket on the couch and not feel so bad about the Sunday blues after all.

Otherwise, you can wait until the cookies cool, stack them neatly in a pretty little bag with a tie, and give them to your boyfriend who has had quite a long, tiring weekend, or bring them along to wherever you're having Thanksgiving to be nibbled while the menu is being planned, or, of course, just hoard them happily for your afternoon tea. They're simple, wholesome cookies that bring comfort and warmth to these gray autumn days.

Almond-Cranberry Cookies
Makes about 3 dozen cookies

1 3/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/4 cups packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup blanched almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup dried cranberries

1. Stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt and set aside.

2. Cream the butter and brown sugar together with a wooden spoon until smooth. Blend in the egg and vanilla. Gradually blend in the dry ingredients until well mixed. Stir in the nuts and cranberries.

3. Drop the dough by tablespoons onto ungreased baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches between each. Bake the cookies in a 375-degree oven until light golden brown (centers should be soft), about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand 2 minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.


King Arthur Flour's Fudge Pudding Cake

Cream_4

This is possibly the easiest chocolate dessert you'll ever make. That doesn't mean that it's the best dessert or the chocolatiest, because it's not. But it does win the crown of easiest, and when your dinner preparation takes twice as long as you thought it would and you realize that baking dessert was the simplest part of your night and you get to impress such charming guests as these with your baking skills, then ease is what you're going for.

The recipe comes from The King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking book, where those selfless elves at King Arthur Flour aim to make whole-wheat baking a lot more accessible (and tasty) than it's been in the past. It's an admirable attempt, for sure, but I think what I'm realizing is that I like whole grains in my breakfast foods, but not necessarily in my after-dinner desserts.

You're supposed to want to be wholesome in the morning, after rising and shining. But after dinner, at night, richness and flavor and mouthfeel take precedence over good nutrition. No?

The pudding cake is one of those miracles of science wherein liquid and solid batters essentially swap places in the oven, creating a cakey top and a pudding-y bottom when you spoon out the cake. We served ours with heavy cream, for pouring, and creme fraiche, for dolloping, and because I tried this cake both ways (I can be such a glutton), I can tell you that the tang of the creme fraiche coaxes out all kind of chocolate-y flavors from the cake and elevates this ho-hum dessert into something a little more special (the heavy cream just sort of moistens it all without adding any real character).

But you can't really escape the fact that you're eating a whole-wheat dessert - the flour is too assertive. After our bison steak dinner the other night, the pudding cake was a nice enough end, but the leftovers sat untouched in the fridge for three days before I took pity on them and threw them out. I think that's the real judgement here.

Fudge Pudding Cake
Yields 12 to 16 servings

1¼ cups whole wheat flour
¾ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 large egg
¾ cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
½ teaspoon instant espresso powder
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
¾ cup, packed, light or dark brown sugar
1½ cups hot brewed coffee or hot water
Vanilla or coffee ice cream for serving 

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, granulated sugar, ½ cup cocoa, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, beat egg into milk and add vanilla, espresso powder and melted butter. Add to dry ingredients. Mix to blend. Spread in a 9-inch square baking pan or a glass or ceramic baking dish.

2. Whisk remaining cocoa with brown sugar and spread over batter. Slowly pour hot coffee or water on top. Do not mix.

3. Place pan in oven and bake 35 to 40 minutes, until batter appears set and sauce is bubbling. Remove to a rack and let rest 15 minutes. To serve, scoop portions into goblets or onto plates and top each with ice cream.


Regina Schrambling's Lentil and Duck Salad with Hazelnut Dressing

Salad_3

I don't know if you noticed, but there hasn't been much balance in terms of cooking from both coasts here lately. Although it wasn't done on purpose, it's been all NY Times all the time, and my LA Times recipes have begun to nurse a distinct grudge against me in their little corner. No more! I promise. It's back to fair and balanced.

One of my favorite things about the LA Times food section is their round-up of the year's Top Ten recipes in December each year. You can rest assured that the list is foolproof (remember this cake? and these eggs? Both on the 2005 list) and it's fun to read about what the editors loved the most. It humanizes the section, and the writers, which is something I find often lacking in the pages of the NY Times.

Regina Schrambling wrote an article about different lentil varieties last year and included this dish that features classic French combinations of frisee, duck confit, little green lentils and a mustard vinaigrette. It's an elegant main-course salad that's also quite satisfying and hearty. I love salads that have warm and cool components, varying textures and a whole layer of flavors, and this salad has all of those things.

There's a lightly dressed tangle of barely bitter frisee topped with a warm mound of delicate, herbed lentils and shredded duck confit (broiled for a bit so that you have tender meat and crispy skin and a few unctuous bits of duck fat mixed in there) that's been dressed with the same mustard vinaigrette. The whole thing is topped off with a shower of browned, chopped hazelnuts that provide crunch and a warm, toasty flavor (underlined if you're using hazelnut oil in the dressing).

Despite all the separate components, everything comes together so quickly and easily that you have no excuse for not making this (well, duck confit can be rather expensive, so that's a hinderance, but I suppose you could always go all Paula Wolfert and make your own to cut costs). And despite the hearty pieces of duck, this is actually a relatively light meal. And pretty. And so French. What's not to love?

Lentil and Duck Salad with Hazelnut Dressing
Serves 4

1 cup French green lentils
1 leek, white part only, cleaned well and diced
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon salt, plus additional to taste
1 carrot, peeled
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
1/4 cup hazelnut oil (I used olive oil)
2 confit duck legs
1/4 cup chopped chives
1 tablespoon chopped tarragon
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 small head frisée, washed, dried well and torn into 1-inch pieces
1/4 cup toasted, skinned and coarsely chopped hazelnuts

1. Pick over the lentils to remove any stones. Rinse well in a fine sieve under cold running water. Place in a medium saucepan. Add the leek, garlic, bay leaves and 1 teaspoon salt.

2. Cut the carrot in half crosswise, then lengthwise and add to the pot. Add cold water to cover by 2 inches.

3. Bring to a boil, stirring often. Reduce the heat to very low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are just tender but still firm, 17 to 20 minutes. Do not overcook. Remove from heat and drain well.

4. While the lentils cook, heat the oven to 500 degrees. Whisk together the mustard and vinegar in a small bowl. Whisk in the oil to emulsify.

5. Discard the bay leaves, garlic and carrot from the lentils. Combine the lentils and all but 1 tablespoon of the vinaigrette in a shallow bowl, mixing well. Set aside in a warm spot.

6. Lay the duck legs on a foil-lined broiler pan. Broil them 6 inches from the heat source, turning once, until the skin is well crisped and the meat is warmed through, about 10 to 15 minutes. Using a fork and knife, shred or chop the meat and skin into rough pieces, trimming excess fat.

7. Add the meat to the lentils and mix well. Add the chives and tarragon and salt and pepper to taste.

8. To serve, toss the frisée with the remaining 1 tablespoon vinaigrette and distribute it among 4 salad plates. Top with the lentil mixture. Sprinkle with hazelnuts.


The Pink of Perfection

Pop

M. Kennedy, the ringleader of this NaBloPoMo business, has directed us post-addled writers to relax at the halfway mark. "Post something from Youtube!" she says blithely. Well, dear readers, I have something much better than that.

Mosey on over to Sarah and Sebastian's fantastically clever site, The Pink of Perfection, for video footage of my tussle with Florence Fabricant's Bison Steaks with Smoky Wild Rice.

Though the sound of my voice makes me want to crawl under a chair and never come out again, Sarah and Sebastian did an amazing job. And they're awfully sweet, too.