Friday, February 3, 2012

MacKenzie's Lemon-Ginger Birthday Cake and my flavor obsession..

I tend to obsess over flavors. I will fixate on a flavor or a vegetable or fruit and then my mind starts spinning. I will  try out lots of combinations and recipes on my quest to quench the fires of my fixation until I find another.

Such was the case one Fall. I had been obsessing on ginger and trying ginger in varieties of combinations when my friend Mackenzie (Mac) called. She wanted to have her birthday party at the bistro and wanted to know if I would make her a cake. "Of course," I said . "What kind?" We talked about some and then she said..."I have sort of been thinking about lemon or maybe ginger....."  AHA! my brain said. "I've got it! Mac, the perfect thing. I will see you at the party." I was off. I found a recipe for a buttermilk cake that was the perfect base for my idea of a fluffy sort of spice cake and thus was born Lemon-Ginger Cake, otherwise known as MacKenzie's birthday cake.
Rosie and Paloma Chester. The girls set up this shot themselves and the photographer was our amazing Katie Rivers.

Mac and her husband Randy are superb musicians and even better parents. Their little troupe includes first born, Rosie, my favorite, red-headed beauty, Paloma and the newest addition, Mr. Kells. Mac's blog is a great read about her life called The Seven Year Itch, Love is the best glue, and you can read it here. For their music, listen here, and  Randy is hard at work on their first album and I am pushing for a children's album.

But I digress, as usual. So on to the recipe!

First the ingredients:
 2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 1/2 sticks butter
zest of a lemon (more about this further down)
1 tsp vanilla
1 TBS ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
3 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Mix the 7 ingredients together and add the baking powder and soda to the buttermilk. I don't want to go all Alton Brown and explain the chemistry of buttermilk and the leavening ingredients so just trust me on the buttermilk addition or google Alton and read about it. He is brilliant at explaining food chemistry. Alternate adding the flour and the buttermilk mixture to the mixer and blend it all until you have a fairly soupy batter. Pour into 2 very well greased cake pans.Cook at 350 for 45 minutes. Let the cake layers cool.

While the cakes cool, I will explain a little about lemon zest. Most people use lemon juice for lemon flavor but the truth is that most of the flavor is in the skin of the lemon. There are several ways to get at the flavor in the lemon peel. My preferred method is to use a microplane. A microplane is the grater that looks likethe photo at right.This is the easiest method of getting the peel and not the pith which is most important part of using the peel. The pith is the white part under the beautiful yellow skin. You can also use a knife, which is trickier, but I had to do it for the recipe since I can't find my microplane. You need a really sharp knife. My Mom gave me this ceramic knife for my birthday one year and I have not put it down since. It helps me get the peel and very little of the pith. I can then take the knife and sort of shave off the remaining white and then finely chop up the fragrant, colorful peel.

So since the layers are cool, let's ice it. I love cream cheese icing, particularly for spicy cakes like this one or carrot cake types. For the lemon-ginger, I made a lemon cream cheese icing that is just so simple and so delicious. Take a package of cream cheese, a pound of powdered sugar and a soft stick of butter. Blend the butter and cream cheese in a mixer until well blended. Zest a lemon and also squeeze the juice out of the lemon as well. Add to the mixer. You are then going to put about 2/3 of the powered sugar in the mixer and blend well. I like the less sweet icing but some like the sweeter version. The good news is that YOU control the sweetness and can make it as you like. Simply taste and add the sugar, blending and tasting until it reaches the flavor you like.Spread over the cake layers.
I usually make a double batch of the icing so that I don't have to make anymore and I usually end up with a lot leftover ............nothing like a little spoon of the icing every now and then when you need a little sweetness.......Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Chicken and Egg, Part Two: Easy Hollandaise (really)

How can anyone look at these chick pictures and not want to rush right out and start their own flock? Not me, obviously.....Before anyone asks, the chicks are in the box while I was cleaning out the brooder. The brooder is a pen for chicks to allow them to grow up safely and warmly until they are large enough to be introduced to the rest of the flock. The phrase "pecking order" is no small matter in a hen house and you want your little babies to thrive.

The second picture is from when I took the babies out for a little fun on a beautiful, sunny spring day. They piled up together and took a little nap before they got around to exploring. You can just see their feathers starting to come in on their little wings and replace the baby down. Too cute.

I started to call this recipe Hollandaise for Dummies after the popular book series, but it did not sit easily. So maybe it should be No Fail Hollandaise? You decide, but I do promise that absolutely anyone can make this sauce successfully. Hollandaise is traditionally used for eggs Benedict and can elevate a simple asparagus dish to a 5 star dish. Try it and see how you best like it. (As a disclaimer lest anyone think I am promoting buttery, rich sauces like another Southern Chef...this is a sauce to use occasionally.

To begin, you will need a few simple ingredients: 1 stick of butter, 3 eggs - the fresher and more natural the better - the color will be richer for free-range eggs (see part one for explanation) 1 lemon and either hot sauce or cayenne pepper. I generally use Tabasco but had to use cayenne this time.

adding all to butter
Take a smallish, microwave-safe bowl and place the stick of butter in it and then place the bowl in the microwave. Heat for 15-20 seconds until the butter is sorta melted. (Don't be intimidated by the technical gourmet language...) Crack the eggs and separate the yolks and place in the butter. Use the egg whites Mom freezes them for angel food cake. I usually feed the dog or just toss...Take the lemon and roll it on the table while pressing down with your hand. This releases the juice from the membrane and makes it easier to squeeze. Slice in half and squeeze over the yolks and butter. Add a little of the hot sauce or cayenne . Go easy and if you would like more later, you can add it but you can't take it back...Mix it all up with a fork.

Now comes the hard part. Ha! Set the microwave for 45 seconds or so. Place the bowl back in the microwave  and push start. After 12 seconds...don't leave during this part...take out and beat with the fork. Repeat this until you have a thick sauce. You will start to see it thickening around the edge of the bowl. Take a close gander at the photos to see the stages.
finished sauce
edges starting to thicken

At the bistro, we make our own version of eggs Benedict. The traditional version layers Canadian bacon over a toasted English then a soft boiled egg topped with the hollandaise. In our version we take a base layer of grits and layer with ham (city ham, not country) place a egg over easy over the ham and top with the sauce. In the late fall and winter, I will put some garden-fresh spinach, or left-over cooked broccoli in the layers. In the spring, asparagus and in the summer......a slice of fresh tomato, simply sublime. For vegetarians, I will quickly saute some bell pepper, onion, mushroom and zucchini and use in place of the meat. I have also used leftover prime rib and when a customer comes back with a duck from hunt, I will layer with livers of duck breast. Play around and let me know what your favorite is. Until then, enjoy!

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Egg and the Chicken, a story in two parts

First a confession, I am insanely addicted to chickens. I got some chickens to raise a number of years ago and I was hooked. The first show I went to, yes, chicken show, was a revelation. The variety and colors of the chickens just took my breath away. I wanted them all.

Secondly, I had no idea how therapeutic raising chicken would be. (I could have saved thousands in therapy bills.) They have such personality and watching them race around playing catch the blueberry, or who can eat the most worms is just flat fun. I don't care who you are. Finding out each breeds particular characteristics, what color eggs each breed produces....I could go on all week...Sadly, I am not allowed chickens where I am residing but rest assured.....there will be chickens again one day.

I did also learn quite a bit about eggs along the way. So, I guess in my case, the chicken was first...then the egg. My first egg was one of the top highlights of my year. It was a wonder. Then, having a whole range of, I started to see what Martha Stewart was talking about with the graceful, soft blues and greens. I loved serving eggs to kids at the bistro,  putting a clean, half-shell of the green egg on the plate and telling them that they were really eating "green eggs" and ham.

So here it the question everyone wants to know...."Is there really a difference between free-range, all natural and grocery store (factory) eggs? The answer is yes. To illustrate, here is a photo that I took of one organic, free-range local egg, one grocery, factory-farmed egg and one of those Born-free eggs from the grocery as well. Can you tell the difference? The bottom left is the local organic, the top one is the born-free from the grocery and the bottom right is the factory farmed grocery egg. The yolk color is the most striking difference. The rich color comes from a rich varied diet that a free range chicken gets. The pale more buttery  color of the factory farmed egg is from the diet of single source feed.

The second thing to notice is the egg white. See how contained and firm the local egg is? That indicates how fresh the egg is, the more runny the white, the older the egg. Which also leads me to our recipe today and the reason I don't use fresh eggs for deviled eggs. Shocked? Don't be....I just hate peeling eggs. The third difference between the eggs is that the older eggs have a thinner membrane between the shell and the egg white. In the picture to the left, you see the membrane I am talking about. It causes me no end of grief when peeling hard-boiled eggs, and I do love hard boiled eggs. So when I have to make a lot of hard-boiled eggs, I do use the old grocery eggs which are guaranteed to be "old." Think about it, it have to travel from the farm to a egg distributor, to a grocery distributor and then to your shelf. It takes weeks...

To make a perfect hard-boiled egg, place the eggs in a saucepan and  cover them with water. Bring them to a boil and then cut off the heat and place a cover on the pot. In a pinch, I just use a plate for a cover....wait 10 minutes and pour out the water and replace with cold water. The eggs will be perfect with none of that grey-green cast that over-cooked eggs get. I could go on about deviled egg recipes but there are thousands so I am just going to let you choose one. I will give you this recipe to use with the eggs that is wonderful and a crowd pleaser. It is from a great cookbook that my Mother edited with the Junior League of Albany, GA called "Quail Country." If you can get your hands on a copy, treasure it.

You will need:
8 hard-boiled eggs
1/4c of melted butter
1/2 tsp of Worcestershire sauce
1/4 tsp mustard (I like Dijon)
1 tsp chives and 1 tsp chopped parsley
1/3 cup ham or chicken and/or asparagus
3 tbs of butter
3tbs of flour
1 cup chicken broth
3/4 c of milk
1 cup of cheddar cheese

Cut the hard-boiled eggs and scoop the yolks out into a small bowl. Take the next 4 ingredients and mash them all up together and then fill up the egg whites with the mixture just like a deviled egg. Take a greased casserole dish and layer the egg halves in the bottom. Layer the ham, chicken and/or asparagus over the eggs. In a separate sauce pan, melt the 3 tbs of butter and whisk in the flour, add a little of the mild until the flour mixture starts to "clump" together. Add the rest of the milk slowly and keep stirring until you have a smooth white sauce, add the broth and the cheese and stir until it is all melted into a cheese sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste and pour over the eggs. Bake together for 20 minutes at 350. Yummy!

Part two of the egg and the chicken will feature a "no-fail" less than two minute hollandaise sauce...stay tuned!.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Talking 'bout my bobotie........

No, not that bootie. This bobotie is the national dish of South Africa. It was developed by Indonesian slaves that were brought into Africa by Dutch traders. Traditionally, it is made with ground lamb and/or beef but one day when I was obsessing over butternut squash, I realized that this recipe would work with squash and so a vegetarian bobotie was born. I am also including the meat version so you omnivores can choose which you would like or make both! I should warn you though, this recipe will make the house smell so delicious that you may find the neighbors at the door with forks in hand! Rent "Out of Africa" and picture yourself in Meryl Streep's house at the first dinner with Robert Redford and his friend.

First, ingredients:

4 small butternut squash
1 1/2 onions
2 tbs minced garlic
1 tbs curry powder
2 1/4 cup milk
zest of one lemon
5 eggs
1 apple such as a Granny Smith
1/4 cup raisins either regular or golden
1/2 cup sliced, toasted almonds
6 bay leaves

Slice the squash in half and place on a cookie sheet and cook at 350 - 375 until fork tender, about 35-50 minutes.  I always cook it with the seeds left in, but you can take them out first if you like. Take a spoon and scoop out the seeds and fiberous strings like you are scooping out a pumpkin for carving. Then take a knife and peel away the peel. Chop the apple, and onion and place in a skillet with a little butter. Add the bay leaves, raisins, almonds, and garlic and saute until tender. I put the bay leaves in here so that the flavor can infuse the filling. Once the mixture is tender, remove the bay leaves and add 1/4 cup of the milk, the curry and the lemon zest. Add the squash, one egg and smush it all together really well. (Try not to be intimidated by my fancy, gourmet chef technical terms......)

Place in a casserole dish, either round or rectangular, that has been sprayed with cooking spray. Take the remaining 2 cups of milk and 4 eggs and beat them together really well then pour over the mixture. This will form a custard layer on top. Bake at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes until the custard layer is set. Serve as either a side dish or an entree. Savor the aroma and the flavor!

For the meaty version, use two pounds of either ground lamb, ground beef or a combination of the two instead of the squash. Saute as above and add 2 slices of bread that is torn into small pieces. Layer in the casserole and put the milk-egg mix on top. Cook covered at 325 for 1 1/4 hour and then remove the covering and finish at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. Yummy!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Confessions of a tomato Nazi and a recipe to get you to tomato season!

You will see many more posts on tomatoes as they are simply an obsession of mine. I did discover one summer that you can actually eat too many tomatoes. (I hear that gasp) As I tend to obsess over flavors, I also tend to eat one thing for days at a time.....not an entire summer as I did one year. Let's just say that too much of a good thing.....can produce side effects of not so good things. But I digress.....

I am, however, a Nazi in the kitchen on tomatoes. Ask for one on your sandwich in January and you will be told..."No" they are out of season. There is no reason whatsoever to eat a bad tomato or a grocery tomato.....Secondly, Lord help you, if I find you have put the tomato in the staff will happily, if a bit snarkily, give you the "care of the tomato lecture" to which they were subjected.

The lecture follows: Once you have the wonder of wonders, a true, vine-ripened tomato in your possession, you need to properly care for it if you haven't already eaten it. NEVER, NEVER, put a tomato in the refrigerator. "Why," you ask? Well, tomatoes are fragile jewels that are primarily fluid-filled cells. Once chilled, the delicate cell membranes will break down and render the tomato mealy or mushy. Further, the cold reduces the flavor enzyme into little more than an memory of tomato. So just don't do it. Lecture over, now onto the good stuff....

Since tomatoes are out of season, do not think that I just wait, wait, wait for the tomatoes of summer. No, I think there are some perfectly good canned versions that will do in a pinch. (Stop gasping....canned are better than the faux, "fresh" tomato of the January produce shelf) My favorite winter comfort food is my Mom's tomato pudding. It really needs a new name as this one doesn't really describe the savory casserole brimming with warm, tasty bits of tomato. It is great with chicken, ham or just on its own. Mom serves it every Christmas Eve with chicken tetrazzini and it is perfect!

This is also one of those forgiving recipes that begs you to play around with it and it blesses you with new nuances of deliciousness anyway. So, first the ingredients:

1-15oz can of tomato sauce
1-15oz can of diced tomato
1/2 cup of water
12 tbs of brown sugar
6 tablespoons of vinegar (I use balsamic, but apple cider would do)
2 cups of bread crumbs (I sometimes use croutons)
1 stick butter

You may add herbs such as chives or basil, some garlic or whatnot, but I like the herbed variety of the canned tomato, so I usually just add a bit of salt.

Put the water, sugar, vinegar and butter in a microwave-proof bowl and heat until the butter is melted. Stir it up and add the tomatoes. Stir a bit more. Put the croutons in a buttered dish. I use a round casserole dish. pour the tomato mixture over it and cook for 30 minutes at 375.

Enjoy! I ate  two helpings for dinner..........

Monday, January 2, 2012

Colleen's Good Luck Soup

Every New Year's day, we would eat our "Good Luck" lunch at my Grandmother's house. As every Southerner, particularly those from the more rural areas of the south, knows there are some very firm rules about a New Year's repast. There must be greens for "folding money," black-eyed peas for coins, and hog jowls for general good luck. Failure to include these items on your New Year's plate would only tempt fate in the new year. 

This year, New Year's came in like a blustery old Lion and a good bone-warming soup is in order. Luckily, my friend Colleen created a "Good Luck" soup that combines all the essential elements for good luck in a hearty, warm and ridiculously tasty treat. Let me start this recipe by telling you right off that I am not fond of greens, collard, turnip or mustard. My Mom would eat as much as she could out of the pot on my Gingo's (Grandmother) stovetop. Not my fav. I also am fond of defining hog jowls a bit liberally depending on my menu. Hog jowls are, as the name implies, the jowl of a hog. They are good to use with beans or greens much like fatback or streak of lean, but in general are not much in the way of eating. I like to interpret hog jowls as bacon, (I mean, do we ever need any more excuses to eat bacon?), or pork loin for more elegant occasions. 

Having admitted all this, I am here to tell you that this soup has made a believer out of me in the wonders of collards. This soup is sublime. 

To begin, you will need a shopping list: 

1 bunch of fresh collards
2 onions, I prefer Vidalia or Texas sweet
1 red bell pepper
1/4 cup of fresh horseradish
1 big bag of frozen black-eyed peas
either, 1/2 gallon of beef broth or 1/2 gallon of water and 6 tbs of "Better than Bouillon" beef flavor.
Olive oil

"Better than Bouillon" is sold in most grocery stores and is usually right by the broth. It is a broth that is condensed and sold in small jars. It comes in chicken, beef or vegetable and I prefer it over broth since I can control the flavor intensity and, in particular, the vegetable has a great consistent flavor. Often I find vegetable broths are too beety, or carroty or just not what I want the flavor to be and the "Better than" seems to be just right every time.

Chop the onions and pepper finely and the collard leaf into 1/2 inch sections so that it is easier to eat with a spoon. Saute the onions and bell pepper in enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. When they are limp, add the horseradish and the collards. Cook, while stirring occasionally. for about 2 minutes. If you have just used a saute pan, transfer to a soup pot large enough for all the ingredients. Add the peas, and broth or instead of the broth, 6 tbs of the "Better than Bouillon" and 1/2 gallon of water. Let come to a boil and then lower to a simmer for 20-30 minutes. 

Serve with crumbled bacon on top (thought I forgot the "hog jowl" didn't you?) and some crusty bread. Left overs can be frozen. 

Enjoy! and may 2012 bring you luck, prosperity, love and laughter!