Friday, December 17, 2010

Roasted Parsnips

This is more a reminder than a recipe.

It's time for parsnips! They're at their peak in the late fall and winter. So seize the moment!

You can make a rich parsnip soup, enhanced with a little cream or a lovely purée with potatoes that will marry perfectly with duck or lamb. Parsnips will beautifully round out a homey pan of roasted turnips, rutabagas, celery root, and fennel. You can fry them up into little chips, and I've even heard of grilling the nutty-flavored roots.

But I'd like to suggest the most basic of ideas for parsnips. Roast them all by their little lonesomes. Pick medium parsnips, so that you don't peel away half of them because they are so small, and so you don't have to carve out too much of their woody core because they are so big.

Peel your parsnips and cut them lengthwise in quarters. If they are on the large side, trim out their cores. Toss the parsnips with enough olive oil to lubricate them and give them a healthy grinding of pepper and a generous sprinkle of kosher salt. Throw them into a roasting pan and then into a preheated 4oo degree oven until the are golden brown and soft, approximately 40 minutes.

This is simplicity itself. They are sweet and tender and slightly carmelized on the edges. Parsnips cooked this way are a stunning complement to roast beef or with any other roast meat for that matter.

This pale cousin of the carrot seems to have lost popularity over the years, but we should really bring it back to the table. They are a cinch to prepare and will easily please any crowd, including those finicky toddlers.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


You may remember that about six months ago, my friend, Joseph, and I put together a batch of duck confit, with the hopes of preparing a cassoulet that could compete with the best Toulouse had to offer.

Well, we did just that a few weeks ago.

Joseph and I were going back and forth regarding what recipe to use, because this is in no way a prepare-off-the-top-of-your-head kind of dish.

Not at all. It requires research.

I'd made cassoulet twice before, using a solid recipe from Gourmet. The Canal House Cooking recipes intrigued us, but in the end we wanted to try something a little more traditional.

When Joseph forwarded a recipe from Food & Wine that indicated the cooking was to be accomplished over four days, I thought that he was more than a little bit crazy. As if anyone, has time to prepare a four day recipe, let alone the mother of a toddler.

Yes, I was skeptical.

After a number of attempts at reading through the lengthy recipe, I realized that it was an adaptation of a Paula Wolfert recipe from The Cooking of Southwest France (fantastic cookbook -- just ask Jonathan Gold). Of course, a Paula Wolfert recipe would take four days -- she is the grand dame of slow cooking.

I decided to climb on board.

Big props to Joseph for his enthusiasm and willingness to take on a seemingly ridiculous project. Never in a million years would I have chosen to do this on my own. But in the afterglow of this project, I am so glad that we did.

Having chosen the recipe, the flurry of shopping began.

Where do you find pig skin?

What about Tarbais beans? Scratch those -- too hard to find -- we'll settle for cannellini.

Fe and I headed out to the Farmer's Market at Third and Fairfax, and hit up Monsieur Marcel, Huntington Meats, and Marconda Meats.

I hardly ever make it to Monsieur Marcel, but I dig it there. They had the Piment D'Espelette that I had been searching for. And even at $27 for a tiny jar, I figured it was my lucky day. They also had all the pancetta, prosciutto, Toulouse sausages, and cannellini beans that my heart could desire, so we were very well on our way.

Huntington had the ham hocks, and pork shoulder, and Marconda had the salt pork. The Grove graciously provided all the twinkling lights and water fountains that Fe could hope for, so it really turned out to be a perfect outing.

The other shocking aspect of this cassoulet recipe -- besides the time factor -- is the sheer amount of meat required. Not only would we be using our duck confit, we would be adding pork skin, pork shoulder, salt pork, prosciutto, pancetta, Toulouse sausages, two ham hocks, and duck fat.

Honestly, I felt mildly horrified by it all. Although strangely, when we were enjoying the final results, I quipped that the dish actually seemed innocent. The meat had all fallen apart. The fat had melted. You could barely tell how much artery-clogging-delight you were consuming.

So I began on a Tuesday night. The beans needed soaking, and the pork shoulder needed to be cubed. The shoulder, skin, and hocks were placed in a bowl and seasoned lightly with salt and pepper, and then tucked away into the refrigerator to spend the night.

That was simple enough. Except for the fact that I screwed it up. Fresh ham hocks. I glossed over that little word, fresh. What we had ready to go on Wednesday were smoked ham hocks.

Not really the same thing.

I had a minor panic attack. If it were just me -- no big deal. But I was letting Joseph down. I'm not used to cooking with other people. It adds a whole new level of responsibility!

Racked with guilt, I made some phone calls. My former beau and knower of all things food talked me off the ledge. He convinced me that there were certainly folks living in the French countryside whose secret ingredient to exquisite cassoulet were ham hocks that were specifically and particularly smoked.

Phew. I believed him. And yes, it was definitely okay.

The next night, Wednesday, was a big night of cooking, involving simmering salt pork and pig skin, tying up skin bundles, melting duck fat, browning all manner of pork, and lots more simmering of the resulting pork ragout. An hour and a half's worth.

By the time the first simmer was completed, the clock was slipping past 9 p.m. Rita had seen to our hunger by bringing over food from the outstanding Pollo a la Brasa (lips burning from green sauce). Yet there was still an additional two hours of simmering to go, once the beans were added.

Staying up late was the only option. The beans finished cooking and cooling and much past my bedtime, I was asleep.

This recipe requires commitment. Joseph was back at my house by 8:40 the next morning.

The recipe instructs you to remove as much solidified fat from the surface of the pot. We didn't find an obvious layer of fat to chip away at. I think it may have seeped into the cannellini beans.

The slabs of prosciutto and pancetta that were browned the previous day and simmered in the ragout are to be plucked out and cut into bite-size pieces. The meat should be removed from the hocks. So much of the meat had already shredded itself during the simmering that this process was rather quick and easy -- not to mention that Joseph was the one doing it.

Strangely our bouquet garni had vanished entirely. The celery ribs were nowhere to be found! Mysterious. There had been a whole head of garlic that simmered away in our ragout, and those cloves were to be squeezed out to purée with the salt pork and raw garlic. Impossible. The garlic had completely worked its way out of its wrapping all on its own.

I did purée the raw garlic with the salt pork. We added that to the ragout and simmered for 15 minutes longer.

We had to taste. The excitement began to build. The dish was already pretty damn amazing and we had four major steps in the recipe to complete, including adding the duck confit and Toulouse sausages. It felt like we might have a real winner on our hands.

That was Thursday morning. Amusingly, we had finally finished the do ahead part -- only took three days! -- of the cassoulet recipe. We were free until Saturday afternoon!

Saturday night was designated as the cassoulet orgy, so Joseph and I got busy again on Saturday afternoon. The duck confit had to be retrieved from its hiding space, buried deep within a jar of duck fat and far back in the depths of my refrigerator. It had been quietly resting there for about six months.

The confit was heated through, removed from the bones, and then shredded. Those funny looking pork bundles were untied, and placed on the bottom of an old french earthenware casserole that I dusted off for the occasion.

No, we didn't spring for the $100 cassole. Maybe next fall.

The confit and the bean ragout were layered and the remaining broth was added to the cooking liquid.

Wait a minute. Here we had questions that were not obviously answered by the recipe.

Just how liquidy should the ragout have been? Ours was not liquidy at all. We added a bit of additional stock to make up for this, but then were left second guessing ourselves in the final stages of the recipe. Was the cassoulet too wet and did we need to cook it longer to reduce some of the liquid?

My only real complaint about the recipe is that it is almost punishingly long and detailed, but does not provide enough detail as to what your results should be throughout the journey. For such a commitment to the recipe on our part, I wanted the recipe to hold our hand a little bit more along the way.

But back to the process. At this point, because there was not quite enough animal fat in the cassoulet you add about two more tablespoons of melted duck fat. You know, just to be safe.

The cassoulet is then baked for an hour and a half. During that time the Toulouse sausages need to be browned in a little bit more oil, and cut into pieces, ready to be mixed in.

After the initial hour and a half of baking, the sausages are added and -- wait for it -- two more tablespoons of melted duck fat are stirred into the pot. The top is dusted with bread crumbs and the whole shebang is baked at a reduced temperature for just one more hour. After that the precious mix only needs to recover quietly on a cloth-lined rack for twenty minutes, before you can finally sup.

Writing this, I am struck by how insane the whole process was; how any realistic person would never even consider a recipe such as this. And quite honestly, I believe myself to be heavily based in reality.

But to be frank, this was so much fun. Even though I had trouble even reading through the entire recipe in one sitting, it was a project well worth tackling. Definitely something to do with a pal. And certainly a meal to be shared with deserving friends and family, perhaps even during these chilly winter holidays.

The results were dynamite.

The beans were luscious from absorbing so much pork and duck fat. The consistency seemed right -- not too soupy and not too stiff -- after we added a little extra stock and let it cook for a little extra time. I'm glad we added additional breadcrumbs on top as well. A crisp crust is essential to a great cassoulet. Next time, I would probably try to find a way to work the duck skin into the crumb topping to give it even more crunchy texture and contrast with the soft beans and meat.

On a cool fall evening the cassoulet went superbly with a bracing salad of romaine, rocket and pears, and several bottles of tannic red wine. We were sated, but not crippled by the meal, which to me equals success.

And on a final note, I cannot recommend highly enough making your own duck confit. It was fabulous. We ate the rest of it four nights later. Crisped up in a sauté pan and served with an acidic salad and potatoes roasted in duck fat, we were transported to the French countryside. Stellar.

Here is the link to the Paula Wolfert cassoulet recipe as adapted by Food and Wine.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving Cheese Puffs

A belated Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

I meant to shoot up a storm and take pictures of every aspect of our Thanksgiving dinner, but things never go the way you plan when you're cooking like a mad woman and entertaining. Even though the truth of the matter is that my mom did most of the heavy lifting.


That woman is a rock star when it comes to the barbecue and when it comes to turkey. A gorgeous, crispy-brown, barbecued turkey was the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving meal. I'm not going to tell you how to do it, but I have to recommend preparing your bird this way at least once. It tastes smoky and fantastic.

We supped on carrot and cilantro soup, stuffing with dried apricots, giblet gravy, candied sweet potatoes with raisins, sautéed spinach with pine nuts, garlic and currants (one of my contributions) and cranberry sauce.

Of course we had sliced canned cranberry jelly on the table as well, because there are always at least two people in every family who do not want to give it up for anything.

Pumpkin pie -- yes sir! With whipped cream or crème fraîche.

But what I really want to tell you how to make is cheese puffs.

I was the most proud of the ultra-cinchy to make French Cheese Puffs from Canal House Cooking Volume 2. This is one of those recipes that makes you look like a sophisticated pro in the kitchen.

The puffs themselves are the height of sophistication -- airy and light, yet rich and buttery. These cheesy beauties are an elegant start to a fête -- definitely spectacular with a bottle of something bubbly. I see these as a natural for an intimate New Year's Eve dinner party with a bottle of Veuve Cliquot.

I used the exceptional Irish Kerrygold butter and a cave-aged raw milk gruyère. Delicious ingredients always help. You'll need to do a little heating, a fair amount of stirring -- at times vigorously -- and some spooning. Twenty minutes in the oven and that is all.

I actually completely forgot about the penultimate step in this recipe -- brush the dough with milk. I suppose my cheese puffs would have been shinier, but you couldn't tell that anything was missing at all.

Be sure to time things right, so that you are serving these warm, just moments out of the oven. These were a big hit with everyone from my husband and mother-in-law to nearly two-year old Fe.

If for some strange reason you have leftovers, store them in the fridge and heat them up for breakfast the next day. They won't be as amazing, but the warm cheesiness will start your day just right.

Canal House Cooking French Cheese Puffs

8 tablespoons butter
1 1/4 cups milk
2 pinches salt
1 cup flour
4 large eggs
1 cup grated Comté or Gruyère cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Heat the butter and 1 cup of the milk over medium heat in a heavy saucepan until the milk is hot and the butter melted. Add the salt and a couple of grindings of pepper.

Lower the heat to low, and dump in all the flour at once. Stir vigorously, until a dough forms a thick mass and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.

Remove the pan from the heat and beat in the eggs one at a time, until each egg is completely incorporated into the dough before adding the next. The dough will be smooth and shiny. Stir in the cheese.

Spoon walnut-size spoonfuls of dough onto parchment-lined sheet pans. They should be about an inch apart. Brush the tops of the puffs with the remaining milk to make them nice and shiny.
Bake until puffed up and golden, about 20 minutes. Serve warm.

Makes about 3 dozen.

Crème Fraîche -- Fun With Buttermilk Part II

If you make your own ricotta -- which you really should do -- you will doubtless have a lot of buttermilk hanging around your refrigerator. Might as well put it to good use.

Just two tablespoons of the misunderstood stuff, plus one cup of heavy cream, and you are well on your way to a dense bowl of crème fraîche that you have concocted, yourself. There is no reason to spend five or six bucks at Whole Foods, when a dish of it could be thickening on your counter, right now. It is amazingly simple to do, and you get the satisfaction of creating something wonderful.

We drizzled the tangy cream over our carrot soup for Thanksgiving dinner. It is equally delicious spooned on pumpkin pie for a less sweet twist on the classic whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. I like it as a base for a dressing for butter lettuce with some snipped chives. Smoked salmon, boiled new potatoes, caviar, and cucumbers are all enhanced with a dollop of crème fraîche.

Crème Fraîche

1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons buttermilk

Heat the cup of heavy cream up to body temperature in a heavy saucepan. Add 2 tablespoons of buttermilk and stir. Pour the mixture into a glass bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Leave on your counter for 24 hours, until thick. The crème fraîche will keep for a few weeks in the refrigerator. You may repeat this process, substituting your homemade crème fraîche for the buttermilk the next time around.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Shaved Fennel, Radish and Parmigiano Reggiano

I love this salad. It's crunchy and refreshing -- a little bit garlicky and a little bit salty.

I've been making it ever since Kelly and Mark of Kelly's French Pastry in Santa Cruz taught me about it in 1994.

This fennel salad is very simple to make and is almost always what I'm looking for when I want something acidic and bright to even out a meal. This might be the relief you need amidst all the upcoming stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, and creamed spinach.

Just suggesting.

You'll need fennel, radish, parmigiano reggiano, lemon, olive oil, garlic, and salt and pepper. That's it. The dressing is my go to for many of the salads that I throw together at home. I'll add a little mustard, or anchovy or champagne vinegar depending on the salad and my mood.

If you have a mandoline or a Benriner, great. If not, a sharp knife will do. The radishes and fennel ideally should be very thinly sliced. On lazy days at my house, the slices get a bit thicker. Definitely not the end of the world!

The measurements in the recipe are rough guidelines. Even with the dressing -- just taste, taste, taste. You'll know if it is citrusy enough for you.

Shaved Fennel, Radish & Parmigiano Reggiano
1 large bulb fennel
6 radishes - french butter, red, or easter egg
A hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano for shaving
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper

Carefully using a mandoline or Benriner, thinly slice the fennel and radishes into a medium-sized bowl. Using a regular peeler (not the y-shaped variety), shave curls (maybe twenty or so) of the Parmigiano Reggiano into the bowl.

Smash the garlic cloves and place them into a small bowl, discarding the skin. Add the lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Let sit for about ten minutes. Whisk in the olive oil, and taste for seasoning and acidity. Does it taste good to you?

Toss enough of the dressing with the salad to lightly coat. Taste, and season with additional salt and pepper. Serve. Save any remaining dressing for arugula tomorrow.

Serves 2-4

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ceviche de Pescado -- Mario's Peruvian & Seafood

I had to wait for an hour and a half at the Hollywood DMV today, just so I could renew my driver's license. I'm glad I planned ahead appropriately, so that there was a little light at the end of that nightmarish tunnel -- Mario's Peruvian Seafood is just a few blocks away, on the corner of Melrose and Vine.

It has been several years, since I've been to Mario's. Suffice it to say, I've been a bit consumed with parenthood, and Mario's had sadly slipped my mind.

What a pleasure it was to get reacquainted! Mario's is still a rather dumpy little hole in a strip-mall wall, but when you're busy eating and sweating over some of the most esculent Peruvian food in the city, the ambiance doesn't really seem to matter.

Many dishes on the menu can cause a person to develop intense longings, especially the lomo saltado, but the dish that I have harbored the deepest cravings for is the ceviche de pescado. The other ceviches are quite good, but somehow I am always the happiest with the soft sweet fish.

The heat from the aji amarillo (Peruvian yellow chile) in the addictive green sauce and the ceviche is marvelous. It has a different effect on me than other chiles. My lips burn and my eyelids sweat, yes, but I also get funny shivers up and down my body from the heat.

I love that feeling!

The ceviche comes with chopped celery, which adds a complementary crunch to the soft citrus-cooked fish flesh, chopped cilantro and a giant pile of sliced, raw, red onions. I stayed far far away from the onions. They kill me.

On the plate you'll find a hunk of boiled potato and a homely portion of corn on the cob that despite being either from a can or boiled to within an inch of its life, is still sweet and somewhat compelling. The potato and corn are both good tools for soaking up the copious amounts of yellow liquid on the plate, and nice instruments for delivering that addictive green sauce, that I mentioned before, to your mouth.

I'm a fan of all of the parts of the dish. I even appreciate the few crunchy wedges of iceberg. They have a mild cooling effect. And you need all the cooling you can get. The ceviche marinade is extremely citrusy, very spicy, and just the right amount of salty (yes, that was me in the corner spooning up the liquid like soup).

I experienced the the warm glow from the ajis amarillos the whole drive home to Echo Park.

I love that feeling!

Mario's Peruvian Seafood
5786 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038

Monday, November 15, 2010

Richard Olney's Pork Chops and Apples in Mustard Sauce

I was reading in the L.A. Weekly about Jonathan Gold's ten most battered cookbooks. And although he shares his top ten with us in a rather self-satisfied way, there is no denying he has quite a few gems in his top ten. In all honesty the few that I don't already own, I'm tempted to add to my collection, post haste.

Seeing Richard Olney's Simple French Cooking on the list filled me with pleasure. Simple French Cooking is one of the best French cookbooks around. I've had my copy for about fifteen years, and while it is unlikely that mine is as battered as Gold's, it is dog-eared and worn-out from frequent perusal and use. There was a point in my life when I'd carry it with me everywhere, simply to assure good reading at all times.

Olney brings to your kitchen the rustic cuisine of France. From hot onion omelets with vinegar to gratin of endives and bacon, to the more extreme, lambs' frivolities (that's testicles, folks) and calves' brains (Joseph, you should probably pick up a copy!), this essential French cook book truly teaches you French cooking.

One of the easier recipes that I have been preparing for years is Pork Chops and Apples in Mustard Sauce. It is a more sophisticated take on the classic American pork chop with a spoonful of applesauce. Beautifully browned pork chops are tucked into a bed of thinly sliced apples, and drizzled with white wine deglazed pan drippings. These are then cloaked in a thick mustard and heavy cream mixture.

Yes, the use of heavy cream is a bit decadent, but this recipe is the perfect reason to make an exception and allow a bit of extra fat into your life. The apples, mustard and cream form a luscious bed for the meaty chops.

One big recommendation -- use bone-in chops. Foolishly, I did not do so this last time. Big mistake! Meat -- especially pork -- is almost always more moist and more delicious when cooked on the bone. My boneless chops were just a hair overdone, and that is hugely disappointing when the preparation is so terrific.

I typically serve this over some sort of tiny pasta. I like the way the sauce coats the slippery noodles. This time around I served the chops with more vegetables and some roast potatoes -- also very good, but the amount of sauce produced sort of begs for a bed of something.

Pork Chops and Apples in Mustard Sauce

2 pounds apples, quartered, cored, peeled, sliced thinly
1 tablespoon butter
4 pork loin chops about 3/4 inch thick, pared of excess fat
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 cup heavy cream
About 1/3 cup Dijon mustard (to taste)

Spread the apples in a lightly buttered gratin dish (large enough to hold the chops placed side by side without forcing) and bake in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the salted chops in a bit of butter over medium heat until nicely colored on each side, 7 or 8 minutes per side. Arrange the chops on the apples' surface, deglaze the pan with the white wine, reducing it by half, and dribble it over the surface.

Mix the cream and the mustard, adding the latter progressively and tasting. Salt lightly, pepper to taste, and pour the mixture over the chops and apples, shaking the dish gently to be certain the cream penetrates the bed of apples. Bake 15 minutes longer at the same temperature.

Serves 4