I’m absolutely not fronting when I say that, in all that pertains to food and drink, I have the most amazing bunch of friends EVER. In a mere 6 months, we’ve gone from small, loosely organized gatherings, to cider and Bordeaux tastings, to full-on day-long bacon-and-bloody mary smorgasbords that get mentioned in the New York Times. Holla!
The inspiration for Bacon & Bloodies came when I received a package from the generous folks at Nueske’s which included, among other goodies, 3 different types of their bacon! I suggested to the gang that this might be a good excuse to throw a bacon-tasting, and because bacon is sort of a breakfasty morning item, why not throw some bloody marys in the mix? My friend and business partner Molly gamely agreed to host at her lovely Lafayette Park condo.
We sampled several varieties of bacon, including the aforementioned Nueske’s (regular, “uncured”*, and pepper bacon), Niman Ranch (2 kinds, I believe), Benton’s, Link 40, J&M (a local bacon), our friend Kim’s homemade bacon, and probably a couple more that I’m forgetting. Each had their own qualities to recommend them- some smokier, some meatier, some nutty and mild. We didn’t do anything as scientific as to take notes; the bacon was just passed around like hors d’oeuvres as it came off the grill (courtesy of Jarred the grill-meister, who had a couple cast-iron skillets going for a few solid hours).
*Megan, the lovely PR person from Nueske’s, explained to me that although the USDA requires them to label the naturally cured bacon as “uncured”, it actually is a cured product.
Because the party started at 1pm, it ended up being more of a grazing/potluck type thing rather than a brunch. I had little trouble deciding what to bring, based on a Twitter conversation with Todd in which he made fun of Molly and I for our nostalgic enjoyment of Win Schulers’ Bar-Scheeze. I remember loving the stuff as a kid, bright orange and fake as it was; while it certainly pales in comparison to real cheese, it tasted absolutely complex when Velveeta was your benchmark. I decided, naturally, to make a homemade cheese ball in homage to the Scheezeballs of my youth. The funniest thing was that although I used top notch, all natural ingredients, people at the party admitted that they had initially avoided it thinking it was fake cheese! Hehe, more for me.
How to sum up a gorgeous October day in a few words? I’ll let the photos do most of the talking, but some of the highlights were the homemade pickles several people brought for bloody mary garnish, Todd’s pan-fried Cajun chicken livers, a wonderful Georgian cheese tart made by our friend Megan, and the steaks Molly and Jarred busted out around hour 6 of the party, with a phenomenal chimichurri sauce Molly made (she lived in Argentina and I will definitely be getting that recipe to share with you all!). I also made a cinnamon-honey ice cream which I hope to post about soon. Meanwhile, scroll past the remaining photos for a cheese ball that will please even the scheeze-haters.
Win Schuler’s-inspired Scheeze Ball
1 lb good-quality sharp cheddar, shredded
8 oz. cream cheese at room temperature
2 Tbs prepared horseradish, or more to taste
few dashes hot sauce such as Cholula or Tabasco
few dashes Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup chopped pecans (other nuts may be substituted as desired), or a bit more if needed
5 strips bacon, cooked until crispy and crumbled (optional)
milk, as needed
Notes: This recipe is very loosely based on a Paula Deen recipe, but I modified it to taste more like Win Schuler’s. Paula calls for 1/2 cup milk; I didn’t find it necessary to achieve the texture I wanted, but if you feel the mixture is too firm, you can add milk a tablespoon or two at a time as you mix the cheeses. If not using the bacon, you may need more nuts to completely cover the cheese ball. The recipe yields a fairly large cheese ball, but can be halved if necessary.
Directions: Place all ingredients except the nuts and bacon into the bowl of a stand mixer and mix until completely smooth. Place the mixture onto a large piece of plastic wrap and form it into a ball. Refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.
About 15-20 minutes before you want to finish the cheese ball, prepare the coating: in a dry skillet, warm the nuts and bacon (if using) over low heat to gently toast the nuts and re-crisp the bacon. Transfer to a paper towel and let cool. Put the nuts and bacon in a bowl or pie plate and roll the cheese ball in the mixture, pressing it into the cheese until the ball is fully coated. If not serving immediately, wrap again in a clean piece of plastic wrap and chill up to 24 hours.
My start-to-finish process for making a recipe often goes a little something like this…
Day 1 (Friday): Think about what recipes to make over the weekend. Decide to attempt chlodnik, a chilled Polish soup with buttermilk and beets. Look at recipes online. Make a shopping list.
Day 2 (Saturday): Oversleep, miss the farmers’ market. Instead of cooking, go out to eat later with friends who are in town playing a show.
Day 3 (Sunday): Go to the grocery store in the late afternoon; pick up beets, buttermilk, cucumber, dill, scallions, radishes. Get home from the store late and too hungry to “cook”. Make a veggie “taco salad” with romaine, tomatoes, avocado and cut up pieces of a Dr. Praeger’s Tex-Mex veggie burger and call it a night.
Day 4 (Monday): Work late, get home starving, make frozen potstickers and salad for dinner. Finish too late to really have time or motivation to be in the kitchen. Try to make some headway on your book club book.
Day 5 (Tuesday): Plan on at least prepping some ingredients tonight, but get an invitation to go to a friend‘s for dinner, and accept. At this point, decide that maybe instead of making the soup for weekday lunches/dinners, you’ll just bring it to a potluck picnic on Saturday.
Day 6 (Wednesday): Go to the gym after work because it’s been, like, over a month. Have another salad for dinner. Actually get around to doing some prep work- peel and cut up the beets and cook them; set aside in the fridge.
Day 7 (Thursday): Fully intend to do the remaining prep after work, but instead get caught up cleaning kitchen for three hours because of discovery of an invasion of tiny bugs that have entered your home via a bag of cat food.
Day 8 (the following Friday- yes, a full week after the plan has been put in motion): Get down to business. Cut up cucumbers, radish, scallions, dill; combine with beets and buttermilk, a little sugar & salt, and some sauerkraut for good measure. Taste. Beam with pleasure that it tastes as good as how you remember it when you used to work at that deli that makes it. Refrigerate overnight to blend the flavors.
Day 9 (Saturday): Serve chlodnik with marble rye on the side to friends in an idyllic setting. Bask in the compliments (hey, it’s no small feat to impress these hardcore gourmands, let alone expose them to something they’ve never tried before!). Decide that this is going to be your go-to chilled summer soup for the next little while.
NB: I am not making any claims of “authenticity” for this version of chlodnik, other than to say it closely resembles the one I used to eat at Russell St. Deli when I worked there. In looking at recipes online, it seems there is a great deal of variation. One of the things I ran across a few times was that this recipe is supposed to be made with baby beets, about the size of radishes, and that you’re supposed to use the whole plant, stems, greens and all. I couldn’t find any baby beets (see above re: sleeping in & missing the farmers’ market!) but I’d like to try it that way in the future just for comparison’s sake. Other variations include the addition of grated raw turnip, chopped pickles, and quartered hard-boiled eggs. My only departure from the Russell St. version was the sauerkraut, but I didn’t add so much as to overwhelm the other flavors.
Chlodnik (Chilled Buttermilk-Beet Soup)
6 cups buttermilk (if you’re in MI, the Calder brand is good)
1 lb beets + 1 cup beet cooking liquid (see recipe)
1 cup seeded & diced cucumber (½ a large English cucumber will yield this)
1 cup very thinly sliced radishes (3-5 radishes depending on size)
2-3 scallions, thinly sliced
2 Tbs finely chopped fresh dill
1½ tsp sugar
1½ tsp salt
½ cup sauerkraut + ¼ cup sauerkraut juice
optional: ½ cup sour cream
optional: hard-boiled egg quarters for garnish
Many of the recipes I found called for some sour cream, which made for a thicker soup than what I had remembered. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if you have a good quality thick buttermilk, you may not need it. If you’re using sauerkraut, use a salt-fermented sauerkraut (the Bubbies brand is awesome) rather than one in vinegar.
This recipe makes a fairly large amount of soup (about 10 cups). If you want to make a smaller batch, just use 1 quart buttermilk (4 cups), and reduce the quantities of the remaining ingredients by about 1/3. As with many soups, precision is not of the essence.
Peel the beets with a vegetable peeler and cut into matchsticks. Raw beets don’t stain much, so you don’t really need to worry about wearing gloves for this. Place the beets in a small saucepan and add water just to cover. Cover and cook at a very low simmer until tender (do not allow to boil or they will lose their bright color). Drain, reserving 1 cup cooking liquid.
If using the sour cream, place it in a large bowl. Whisk in buttermilk a little at a time until the mixture is liquid and no lumps remain. Add all remaining ingredients and stir well. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Refrigerate until well-chilled.
Ladle into bowls and garnish with a little sprig of dill and a couple hard-boiled egg quarters, if desired. Pumpernickel or rye bread is good on the side.
What to do when faced with two ice cream recipes that sound equally fabulous, and a bout of indecision? Combine them, of course!
I was recently invited to a weeknight dinner party and volunteered to bring ice cream, as I could make it ahead and just grab it after work on my way to the party. I love an excuse to make ice cream, because the flavor possibilities are pretty endless (if you don’t believe me, check out this article in the NY Times… scoop of Government Cheese, anyone?). I found out another guest was bringing a blackberry pie, so that helped narrow it down. I thought of a buttermilk ice cream I’d made last summer from Smitten Kitchen, but I also had in mind a sweet corn ice cream I’d had years ago at Tapawingo* in Ellsworth, MI. The restaurant served the ice cream with a berry cobbler and the combination was perfect. I was torn- which one to make?
I decided to throw caution to the wind and combine the two flavors (yes, I am being facetious, as I realize this won’t win any awards for all-time most daring ice cream flavor). Both recipes were originally from Claudia Fleming (author of well-loved dessert book The Last Course) and had similar proportions, so it was pretty easy to adapt the two by simply substituting buttermilk for the regular milk called for in the sweet corn recipe. I added half a vanilla bean for good measure, and crossed my fingers. The results were pretty spectacular if I do say so myself. The slightly tart buttermilk was a welcome counterpoint to the corn’s milky sweetness. In fact, I liked the pairing so much that I was thinking of trying to adapt this flavor combination into some sort of chilled summer soup- like a Midwestern chlodnik of sorts.
If you’re not serving this ice cream with a berry cobbler or pie, I highly recommend drizzling it with a berry coulis- the flavors are highly complimentary, and while the ice cream is great on its own, the berries take it to another level. If you don’t want to go to the trouble of making a coulis (although it’s quite easy), you could of course just scatter some berries alongside.
A couple of ice cream-making notes: Fleming’s recipes call for 9 yolks and 12 yolks, but I cut it down to 8 and it was just fine. You could even go with 6 if you wanted. The buttermilk is richer than the milk it replaces, so your result will still be plenty indulgent. As for making the custard base- there seems to be this great fear, perpetuated by many a cookbook, that custard-making is fraught with danger; that it might betray you at any moment, turning hopelessly into scrambled eggs. For years, I cooked my custards at much-too-low temperatures, sweating over them for eons, waiting in vain for them to magically thicken. Don’t be afraid to heat the mixture until you can see steam coming off it; otherwise you’ll be at it forEVER. As long as you keep up the stirring and don’t let it boil, you’ll be OK. Also, because of the high liquid ratio this particular custard doesn’t get very thick, so don’t worry if it seems wimpy; when it freezes it’ll be just fine.
*In searching for the restaurant’s website for this post, I was saddened to learn that Tapawingo closed its doors last year. Arguably the best restaurant in Michigan, they garnered all kinds of awards, stars and accolades. Like many Michigan businesses, they were forced to close because of the downturn in the economy. They will be sorely missed. In addition to breathtaking meals with a focus on local MI products long before it was trendy, the grounds and gardens of the restaurant were gorgeous. I can only hope someone decides to take up the reins and re-open something in that location, although they’d have big shoes to fill food-wise.
Buttermilk-Sweet Corn Ice Cream (adapted from two recipes by Claudia Fleming)
Note: As Ms. Fleming wisely points out, this recipe will only be as good as the sweet corn you use to make it. For optimal results, use local corn that has been picked no more than 2 days prior.
Directions: Remove the husks and cornsilk from the corn and break each cob into thirds. Cut the kernels from the cobs with a sharp knife, reserving the cobs. Put the kernels in a blender with the cream and buttermilk and pulse into a rough purée.
Pour the cream mixture into a heavy-bottomed saucepan, adding the corncob pieces, vanilla bean, salt, and ½ cup of the sugar. Bring to a boil, then cover and remove from heat. Let steep for one hour.
Remove the corncobs and discard. Fish out the vanilla bean and set aside. Strain the mixture through a medium or fine mesh strainer, pressing down firmly to expel as much of the liquid as possible; discard the solids*. Return to the saucepan and place over medium heat. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean, adding them to the cream mixture (if using vanilla extract, add it now).
In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the remaining ¼ cup sugar. Whisk in a little of the hot cream to temper the yolks, then add them to the saucepan. Cook the mixture, stirring constantly, until it coats the back of a spoon. Pass through a fine mesh strainer and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled (at least 4 hours). Freeze in your ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. Makes about 1 quart.
*I couldn’t help but think that rather than tossing it, this deliciously sweetened corn pap would be great in some sort of muffin or quick bread, but alas, I didn’t have a chance to experiment. And speaking of not wasting, you can rinse off the vanilla bean, let it dry, and blitz it with sugar to make vanilla sugar.
Mixed Berry Coulis
1 1/2 cups raspberries, washed
1 1/2 cups blueberries, washed
1/4 cup sugar
squeeze of lemon or dash of balsamic vinegar, optional
Notes: You can, of course, substitute other types of berries; you may just need to slightly tweak the sugar quantity. This recipe does not produce an overly sweet sauce; if you want a sweeter result you can up the sugar to 1/3 cup.
Place the blueberries and sugar in a pan over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. (The residual water from washing the berries should be sufficient, but if not, you can add a small amount of water.) Cook, stirring occasionally, until the berries begin to break down; you can encourage this process by mashing them with a fork.
When the blueberries have turned sauce-like, add the raspberries and cook for a couple minutes longer (these will break down very quickly). Taste the sauce and adjust if needed by adding a bit more sugar or a squeeze of lemon or small dash of balsamic. Strain the sauce through a chinoise or fine mesh strainer, pressing down on the solids (you may need to do this in 2 batches). You should end up with about 2 cups sauce and 1/2 cup solids to be discarded. Use as a sauce for ice cream, panna cotta or other desserts.
I’m getting to this point in my cooking career where I’ve begun to actually create my own recipes based on techniques I’ve learned from cookbooks. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great feeling to make a recipe from a cookbook and have it turn out just right (especially if it’s something you’ve never attempted), but it’s a different level of satisfaction to conceive a recipe and have it turn out perfectly the first time. This is so exciting to me- kind of like when I first started writing songs after just playing other people’s for years. I’ve never had much problem making up recipes for simple things like soup, pasta, salad or salad dressing. But this past year I’ve been branching out and creating slightly more advanced recipes based on ideas I have for flavor combinations. One of the first times I did this was for these scrambled eggs with scallops & bacon (which, incidentally, would be a fabulous Valentine’s breakfast!). I did refer to another recipe, kind of like a musician refers to certain chord progressions to write a pop song, but the cool thing for me was that I thought up the idea independently and that it worked! Since then, I’ve written other recipes, each time getting a little more confident and feeling less like I need to consult a cookbook. Some are very simple, like this saffron-citrus risotto or this Chinese-style kale (probably my most popular recipe), while others, like this venison & porcini ragu, are a little more involved.
Last weekend I got together with some girlfriends for Soup Swap Mach II (you can go here to check out last year’s Soup Swap) and after flipping through tons of cookbooks for soup recipes, decided to just make one up. The flavors for this soup were inspired by an onion tart I made last year from the Chocolate & Zucchini cookbook which contained onions, cheese, and the somewhat unexpected element (for French cuisine, anyway) of cumin. I really loved these flavors together and thought they’d be wonderful in a soup. The depth and intensity of this soup was unlike any cheese soup I’ve ever had- I caramelized the onions for almost an hour until they reached a deep amber color, toasted the cumin seeds, and used a pound of cheese. Decadent, perhaps a bit, but this soup reaches a level of savory that makes it all worthwhile. Don’t be put off by its somewhat drab appearance- what it lacks in looks, it more than makes up for in taste. Serve it with a salad, some fruit (apples or pears would be good) and crusty bread or croutons.
Cheese Soup with Caramelized Onions & Cumin
6 cups diced yellow onions
3 Tbs butter
1 cup dry white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc
4-5 Tbs flour
2 cups chicken stock (substitute a mild vegetable stock for a vegetarian version)
2 cups lowfat milk
1 lb shredded cheese such as Cheddar or Emmenthaler (see notes)
1 rounded tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
kosher or sea salt
optional for serving: chopped parsley and croutons
Notes: If you’d like detailed instructions on caramelizing onions, I used the techniques described in this post, using wine to deglaze the pan instead of water. For the cheese, you can use whatever you like- Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Emmenthaler or another hard cheese like Comte… Just make sure whatever you choose is not going to have a funky flavor once melted, as some Swiss-style cheeses are prone to do. I used a mixture of 3/4 Wisconsin white Cheddar and 1/4 Emmenthaler (because I had some in the fridge to use up) but I think you could play with the proportions or try other cheeses. I wouldn’t use anything too strong or too mild unless you plan to mix two cheeses. The Emmenthaler on its own would be lovely, but it’s a bit spendy; the Cheddar is much more affordable.
Directions: Melt 2 Tbs of the butter over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed skillet or Dutch oven. Whatever you choose, make sure it has a light-colored bottom so you can monitor the browning process. Most importantly, do NOT use a non-stick pan! When the butter has melted and the pan is hot, add the onions. Sprinkle them generously with salt- this will help to draw out the water, which is the first step to getting them browned. Stir often with a wooden spoon or spatula. Be patient- the caramelization process will take quite a long time (45 minutes to an hour), but it’s not difficult and the flavor is so worth it! Some cooks like to read while they stir… The hotter you keep the heat, the faster things will go, but the more you’ll have to be vigilant with your stirring. Towards the end, you may have to reduce the heat a little to keep things from scorching. After the water has started to cook out, the onions will become a pale brown and an amber-colored residue will gradually begin to build up on the bottom of the pan. When you can no longer scrape the browned part up with your spoon alone, start using the wine to deglaze the pan. To start off, you’ll want to deglaze every 45-60 seconds or so; as the onions cook, the intervals will become shorter. Every time a “crust” accumulates, add a SMALL splash of the wine (no more than a tablespoon; less if possible) and stir and scrape the pan to incorporate the browned bits into the onions. The sugars from the wine will assist the browning process and give you a gorgeous deep amber color.
When you’ve used up all the wine and the onions have become quite dark (see photos), reduce the heat to medium and add the remaining 1 Tbs butter to the pot. When the butter has melted, sprinkle the flour over the onions 1 Tbs at a time, stirring to incorporate and making sure there are no lumps. Cook the floured onions for 2-3 minutes so that the flour loses its “raw” taste.
Increase the heat back to medium high, add the chicken stock, and bring to a low simmer; the soup will thicken slightly. Add the milk; when the soup comes back up to temperature, add the cheese. If you like, you can reserve a little of the cheese for garnish. Stir gently until the cheese has melted. Cover the soup and reduce the heat to low.
Toast the cumin seeds in a small dry skillet over medium-low heat until they are fragrant, being very careful not to burn them. (If they seem at all burned, toss them out and start over; burnt cumin is very bitter and will ruin your soup!) When they have cooled, crush them a bit in a mortar & pestle to release their flavor. Add the cumin to the soup along with the white pepper. Taste for salt, but it likely won’t need any.
If you want to leave your soup as-is, you’re done. If you want a smooth soup, transfer to a blender in 2 batches and puree until very smooth. Alternately (and I think I’d do this next time), puree half the soup and stir it back in- this will give you some body, but you’ll retain the texture of some of the onions.
Ladle into bowls and top with croutons, a little chopped parsley, and a pinch of grated cheese if desired.
I actually made my Daring Bakers challenge early this month, woot! Marvin informed me that we were going to a dinner party a couple weeks ago and volunteered me to bring a dessert, so I figured it was as good an excuse as any to roll up my sleeves and get frying.
I was a little skeptical about frying anything in my tiny kitchen without the aid of a deep fryer, but it turned out pretty much ok. I used my Le Creuset Dutch oven, which was deep enough to avoid any splattering. The only collateral damage was a lingering fast-food grease smell that permeated the house for several days after! I used pasta tubes for the cannoli forms, which was a little challenging but not impossible.
The cannoli were not difficult to make, but they were time-consuming. Thankfully I had a pasta rolling machine, which greatly helped in rolling the dough to the proper thickness- I can’t imagine if I’d had to roll it out by hand, yikes. The dough actually behaved very similarly to pasta dough and the machine worked very well at getting it to a workable consistency. I hit a little bit of a speed bump when I went to make the dough- it was Sunday morning, I didn’t have any wine in the house, and you can’t buy alcohol until noon. I didn’t have time to wait, so I poked around the pantry until I came across some Chinese cooking wine. I sniffed it… it smelled close enough to Marsala, so into the dough it went.
For filling my cannoli, I bought ricotta but also bought some whipping cream which I whipped and folded into the ricotta. It wasn’t traditional, of course, but it gave a wonderful light texture to the filling. I divided my filling into two bowls and flavored one batch with about ¼ cup pumpkin butter from Trader Joe’s. The other half of the filling was inspired by Turkish flavors; I used sugar, cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, and a little orange flower water. The pumpkin-filled cannoli got pecans on the ends, and the ”Turkish delight” cannoli got pistachios and apricots.
I doubt that cannoli would be something I’d attempt again at home, not just because of the frying but because they ended up being a little on the expensive side after you factor in the whole bottle of oil I had to use, and the manicotti shells I bought to use as molds. But it was a fun experience, and after the last challenge, it was nice to make something I had success with on the first try! (For recipe, please visit our hostess Lisa Michele’s blog at the link below.)
The November 2009 Daring Bakers Challenge was chosen and hosted by Lisa Michele of Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives. She chose the Italian Pastry, Cannolo (Cannoli is plural), using the cookbooks Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and The Sopranos Family Cookbook by Allen Rucker; recipes by Michelle Scicolone, as ingredient/direction guides. She added her own modifications/changes, so the recipe is not 100% verbatim from either book.