Although I like to do my share of experimenting in the kitchen, you’ll never hear me claim to be on the cutting edge of cooking or food trends. Even still, I suffer a bit of pique when I finally get around to making something that many others have already blogged about, and it’s so good, and seems like the most obvious thing in the world that I wonder why the heck it took me so long to try it. I hesitated a bit to write about this salad since it’s kind of reaching a saturation point in the foodblogosphere. But then I figured if it’s new to me, it’s likely there are those among you who still haven’t had it, and it really is so worth trying, bandwagon be damned.
Although a current trend, shaved asparagus salad is far from cutting edge- I found a recipe for it in a Chez Panisse cookbook (I believe it was this one), so it dates at least from the ’90s if not before. But it certainly seems to be enjoying a bit of a moment right now. I think my initial pause, if you could call it that, was in the fact that I assumed (wrongly) that raw asparagus would have more of the slightly stinky, bitter edge than cooked asparagus does. I say this as an asparagus lover, mind you, and a fan of most all green vegetables. But I never felt a particular urge to try asparagus uncooked as a salad, any more so than I would, say, cauliflower or okra or green beans.
Until recently, that is, when we were on our third or fourth bunch of asparagus in just about as many days (I went a little nuts when the Michigan asparagus finally arrived, later than usual after the weeks of unseasonably chill weather). We’d had it roasted, steamed, stir fried and grilled, and it was time for something new. I got out my vegetable peeler and got to work.
When I had a bowl piled high with pale green tangles, I dressed it lightly with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. I crumbled ricotta salata on top, along with toasted, chopped pistachios whose hue echoed that of the asparagus ribbons. I am only slightly embarrassed to say that I hoovered the entire dish down in minutes, it was so good. The salad had a sweetness to it that I hadn’t expected, and none of the “raw-tasting” quality I’d subconsciously feared- at least not in a bad way. It tasted raw in the sense of fresh, light and healthy; just what you’d crave on a warm day. I made it again the next day and ate nothing besides that for my supper, polishing off the fat bunch of spears all by myself in what amounted to two oversize servings. Continue reading
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.
When my friend Youn from Toulouse called me on the eve of an out of town trip asking if he and a friend could come stay for a few days, I said yes even though it was inconvenient, because in my mind I want to be That Kind Of Person- the kind who has an open door policy for weary travelers, who can handle surprise visitors with aplomb, and (most importantly), someone who always has food and drink on hand to whip up an impromptu meal or refreshment for said visitors.
Mind you, this is what I strive for- the reality is somewhat different! Unlike Marvin, who grew up in a household where people were constantly dropping by, we rarely if ever had unannounced visitors. So although I wholeheartedly embrace the concept, I have to make a concerted effort to be prepared for this eventuality; it’s not something that comes naturally to me with my more Germanic upbringing.
As it happened, I had purposely NOT gone shopping that week in an effort to use things up before my trip, and the way things worked out, I had no opportunity to go to the store before picking up my guests. Luckily, Marvin came to the rescue in more ways than one- spending some time with them while I was at work, and taking them to the grocery store so that they could make dinner (Youn’s idea). We invited a couple more friends and Youn made traditional Breton buckwheat crêpes (although he has lived in Toulouse for over 20 years, Youn originally hails from Brittany). My apologies for the somewhat haphazard photos, we were enjoying ourselves and I didn’t feel like stopping to bust out a tripod! The two decent-looking pics are from breakfast the next day, when the light was much better.
Those of you who read this blog regularly may recall that, coincidentally, I just posted about buckwheat crêpes (galettes) a few weeks ago. Curiously, the recipe I was using called for apple cider vinegar in the batter, saying it was authentically Breton, but Youn had never heard of it. Just goes to show that “authentic” is a word that you should take with a grain of salt in the cooking world! He doesn’t even use a recipe, just does everything by feel, but he did give me some measurements so that I could share a recipe. Another interesting thing is that all the recipes I’ve seen call for half buckwheat and half white flour, but he uses all buckwheat which is a bit healthier. I actually preferred the texture and will be making them this way from now on. Last but not least, he uses beer in the crêpe batter instead of the usual milk, making the recipe friendly for the lactose-intolerant. For the vegetarians, there are infinite possibilities for veggie fillings (ratatouille comes to mind).
I like to use up leftovers for crêpe fillings, but obviously there were none, so we made the classic complète- ham, cheese and egg. The egg is fried right on top of the crêpe. Add a little grated cheese and some torn-up pieces of ham and you have a meal. Amanda, who up until this point had claimed a dislike of runny yolk, was converted by the oeuf miroir, so called because the yolk is shiny like a mirror. In addition to the buckwheat crêpes, Youn also made dessert crêpes with finely-diced apple in the batter, which we spread with confiture de cidre (cider jam) and sprinkled with powdered sugar (check out this post for a dessert crêpe recipe). We cooked up more crêpes the next morning for breakfast… miam miam! Next time I hope I’ll be able to spoil my guests instead of the other way around, but I was certainly grateful for the help and the opportunity to get crêpe lessons from a seasoned pro.
Crêpes Complètes à la Youn (Buckwheat Crêpes with Ham, Egg & Cheese)
1 lb buckwheat flour
1 cup beer (a lighter lager-style beer is best)
water- about 2 cups or as needed
1-2 Tbs neutral oil or melted butter
additional butter for spreading on crêpes (optional)
eggs- one for each crêpe you plan to make
thinly-sliced deli ham
Gruyère or Swiss-style cheese, grated
A couple notes: The directions for cooking up the crêpes may sound a bit fussy, but once you get the feel for it, crêpe-making is one of the easiest things in the world. You’ll learn by trial and error how to adjust things like the batter thickness and pan heat to get the results you want. Best of all, crêpe batter is a relatively inexpensive thing, so it’s not the end of the world to have a few failed attempts before hitting your stride. This recipe makes plenty of batter so you have room to screw up and still have enough for dinner! Also bear in mind that this “recipe” is very loose. Feel free to thin the batter with more beer instead of water, or only use 2 eggs, or whatever. Youn says that in Brittany the crêpe shops make their batter using only flour and water, so obviously it’s very flexible!
Place the flour in a bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour and place the eggs and oil or butter in it. Gently whisk the eggs with a fork. Slowly pour the beer and 1 cup water into the well a little at a time as you stir, incorporating the flour, until the batter is fully mixed and has no lumps. (Alternately, whiz everything together in the blender.) Add more water a little at a time as needed until batter is the consistency of heavy cream. Let batter rest at least an hour.
Get your eggs, ham and cheese at the ready. Warm your crêpe pan or griddle over medium-high heat until very hot. Smear a bit of butter onto a paper towel and rub it on the pan. Test the heat with a few drops of batter; they should set immediately. Give the batter a couple stirs in case it has started to separate. Wipe the pan clean with the paper towel wad, and then rub it again with butter. Ladle batter onto the center of the hot pan (quantity will depend on your pan’s size) and quickly rotate the pan so it is thinly and completely covered. If there is excess batter (i.e. batter that does not instantly set), pour it back into the bowl. Cook until golden brown on the bottom- a minute or so. You want it to color, but not cook so much that it becomes crispy (although Youn says a little crispiness is OK). At this point, flip it over.
As soon as you flip the crêpe, you can smear it with butter if desired, then crack an egg onto the center. With the back of a spoon or a spatula, gently spread the egg white around the crêpe so it can cook. When the egg white begins to turn opaque, add pieces of the torn-up ham and sprinkle with some shredded cheese. When the cheese has melted, fold in the sides of the crêpe towards the center so it forms a square, and serve. (With this kind of crêpe, there really isn’t a way to serve everyone at once, but from my experience making them to order creates a casual, convivial atmosphere that is fun in and of itself.)
Like many Americans, technically I’m what you might call a “mutt”- like a big pot of stew with lots of bits and bobs, my family tree is peppered with Scottish, English, Native American, French, German and probably a bunch of other genes I’m unaware of. But, coincidentally, I have Alsatian roots on both my mother’s and father’s side. My mom’s grandfather’s family, the Steffeses, and my dad’s father’s side, the Lothamers (originally Lotthammer) are both from Alsace and the Black Forest region (on the other side of the Rhine river, which divides Alsace from Germany). So, given the fact that I have been enamored with French language and culture from an early age, and that I have a French first name and German last name, I have adopted Alsace as my pays and taken to telling people with a wink that I’m alsacienne.
One of my uncles has done pretty extensive genealogical research on the Lotthammer family and has made contact with several families living in Alsace and Germany today that are related to us. When I was 16, he arranged a trip for me and my best friend to travel to Alsace and stay with some of the families he had made contact with through his research (yes, that’s me in the photo above on the right at age 16… the French got a kick out of my braces!). We were there for three weeks, and visited the region extensively- from the largest city, Strasbourg, to a tiny village called Guewenheim, and several towns in between (Colmar, Mulhouse, Thann, Belfort…). The experience was nothing short of transformative for a suburban teenager who until then had barely traveled in the U.S. let alone Europe.
That trip was a huge stepping stone on my path to adventurous eating and cooking. In Guewenheim, we stayed with a family whose refrigerator was unplugged and used as a pantry, because they ate fresh food every day and had no need to refrigerate anything! (Any leftover scraps were given to their lucky chien, Zora.) One of the funniest memories from that trip was going over to the home of an elderly woman in the village for a lesson in making kugelhopf, only to discover that the woman’s Alsatian dialect was totally incomprehensible to our limited third-year French ears. Let’s just say there was a lot of nodding and smiling going on that afternoon, and that I still don’t know how to make kugelhopf!
It took a while for my budding food curiosity to convert itself into a love for cooking, but some of the first recipes I ever made from a cookbook came from France: The Beautiful Cookbook. This was a gift from another uncle to our family, and since my parents weren’t the type to cook from a “fancy” French cookbook, the book defaulted into my possession. I still have a great nostalgia for the hours I spent as a teenager poring over the photos, reading about the different regions of France, and staring longingly at all the strange food depicted between its covers, trying to conjure what it would taste like. Luckily, not all the recipes were out of reach, and I taught myself to make tarte flambée (basically a “pizza” with crème fraîche, bacon and onions) so I could have a little taste of Alsace here in the States. With crème fraîche being readily available now, along with ready made pizza dough, this is now something that’s totally doable for a weeknight supper, and I’ve found myself making it fairly often of late. One of these days I’ll make a choucroute garnie, the most famous of Alsace’s regional dishes, but with spring around the corner, I don’t know how many more large heavy dinners will be in the works, so it may have to wait until next winter at this point. If I get really motivated maybe I’ll even make my own sauerkraut!
P.S. This is a GREAT recipe to adapt to the grill- see this post for instructions on grilling pizza.
Photo note: all of the non-food photos are scans of old photos from my trip. The top two are in Colmar; the third was taken atop Strasbourg’s cathedral, and the remainder I believe are from Guewenheim (possibly another nearby village).
Tarte Flambée (Alsatian Bacon & Onion Tart)
1 lb pizza dough, divided in half
1 small tub crème fraîche (you’ll probably use 1/2 to 2/3 cup total)
3 medium yellow onions
6 slices bacon
white or black pepper
optional: shredded Gruyere or Emmenthaler cheese
Notes: This will make two approximately 10″ tarts, depending on how thin you stretch your dough. Each tart serves two as a main course or more as an appetizer, so you can make the second tart right away or save the leftover dough and toppings for a quick and easy after-work meal. Cheese is not traditional per se, but I had some and wanted to use it up. If you do use cheese, do so sparingly, otherwise you’ll end up with a pretty greasy tart. The nutmeg may be non-traditional as well but I love nutmeg with cream, bacon and onions so I always include it. White pepper vs. black is more a visual thing, if you don’t want black specks on your white food, use the white pepper.
Place a pizza stone in the oven on the center rack and preheat to 475. OR, make this on the grill. Remove your dough from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temp while you prep the onions and bacon.
Heat a medium (10″ or 12″) cast iron or aluminum skillet over medium heat. Cut the bacon into 1/4-” strips (I like to use a kitchen scissors and just snip the bacon right over the pan) and fry to your preferred doneness. While the bacon is frying, cut your onions. I like to do thin rings but you can dice it if you prefer. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Pour off some of the bacon fat, leaving enough in the pan to fry the onions. Saute the onions over medium-high heat until soft and golden.
Put a generous amount of flour on a pizza peel or other flat surface such as a cookie sheet with no lip (in a pinch, I have used an upside-down cookie sheet; you just need to be able to slide it off onto the pizza stone). Take one of your dough balls and flour it until it is dry to the touch. Gently stretch the dough, using your fists, flouring as you go to keep it from sticking to your hands or the pizza peel. I like to get mine as thin as possible, but if you prefer a chewier crust you can adjust accordingly. Don’t forget that your dough will shrink back a bit, so make it slightly thinner than you think you’ll want it. When you’re done, place the dough on the peel and shake it, making sure the dough moves freely and is not sticking anywhere.
Working as quickly as possible, spread a thin layer of crème fraîche over the dough, about 1/4 cup or a little more if needed. Top the tart with half the onions, half the bacon, a few grinds of pepper and nutmeg, and cheese if using. Slide the tart onto the pizza peel and cook until the crust is golden, 5-10 minutes depending on how thick you stretched the dough. Brush the flour off the peel and use it to serve the tart.
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.