Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Food (Section) Fight!: Week 8

Food (Section) Fight! is my weekly look at The Washington Post's Food section and The New York Times' Dining section with my verdict on which section had the better content for the week.

I was pretty sure as early as last night that The Washington Post was easily going to win Week 8 of Food (Section) Fight! I got wind that The Food Section was planning a feature spread on...macaroni & cheese! It doesn't get much better than that. The Food Section editor confirmed for me that indeed they were publishing a story, a way cool graphic and seven recipes all built around one of my all-time favorite foods (I recently wrote about it myself). It seemed the win was in the bag.

The New York Times
But I should not have counted out The New York Times so easily, as they put up a noble fight with this week's content. Jeff Gordinier wrote a fantastic story lamenting the disappearance from fine dining menus of traditional dishes done well in favor of new-fangled creations. His story is built around Tournedos Rossini, a French dish consisting of filet mignon on toasted bread topped with foie gras, truffles and a rich Madeira demi-glace, which he remembers fondly from his childhood (that's some sophisticated palate for a child). 

Other worthwhile stories include political reporter Jeremy Peters' story about his experience with martinis on the campaign trail, particularly the surprisingly places where he got good ones. I'm not a big martini fan, but his story has convinced me I need to give the drink another shot. The story about J.B. Prince, a family-run restaurant supply store, is interesting as is the story about the city's restaurant health inspection grading system, although the impression I'm left with it is mostly that the system is flawed (nonetheless, I'm tempted to look up some of my favorite places to see how they score).
The dessert recipes on page 2 all sound fabulous, especially the Butterscotch Custard with Clove and Black Pepper and the Baked Tapioca Pudding with Cinnamon Sugar Brûlée. I'm going to have to make one of these soon. And the other one soon thereafter. Yummy.

The Washington Post
Back to WaPost and Jane Touzalin's inspired mac & cheese story. The graphic on the back page (by illustrator Laura Stanton) is really fun, basically showing how versatile macaroni & cheese can be, allowing you to customize not only its cheeses (the consensus from today's chat is that fontina makes the creamiest cheese sauce), but mix it up with different vegetables, herbs, aromatics and meats. I'm looking forward to concocting something with pancetta, caramelized onion, blue cheese and rosemary, maybe with a pine nut/parmesan topping.

Beyond that, WaPost holds off NYT's challenge, with quite a few other decent stories. I can't say I'm taken with Tim Carman's West African cuisine story (although he gets credit for thinking way outside the box on that one), but I like Bonnie Benwick's story about a college sophomore who's started a successful cooking publication geared toward college-age readers. Bonnie's Dinner in Minutes recipe is really good, so good in fact, that I adapted it for the sautéed chicken breast I made for dinner tonight. It's really just a basic take on flour-dredged sautéed chicken with simple pan sauce, but it's never a bad thing to remind people how easy and versatile a dinner that is. Finally, spirits columnist Jason Wilson offers up some interesting ideas for using port in cocktails, including the Philadelphia Scotchman, another drink I will be trying soon.

The Verdict
The Washington Post really grabbed me with their mac & cheese feature, and as much as the Times tried to sway me with their wonderful Tournedos de Rossini story, I'm still giving this to the Post.

The New York Times: 4
The Washington Post: 4

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Olive Oil Ice Cream (with Dark Chocolate Sauce)

Here's a good olive oil week follow-up. Everyone knows olive oil is common in appetizers, salads and entrees. But have you tried it in dessert?

That golden-green fruit nectar is creeping onto pastry menus. As I mentioned, I tried olive oil cake in Napa, which I've also tried making (wasn't one my bests, but interesting). This last weekend, I decided I wanted to take it to a truly sacred dessert place: ice cream.

Ice cream has certainly been the subject of a lot of experiments of late and, since acquiring an ice cream maker 2 years ago, I've had a lot of fun making homemade flavors like bacon-maple, bourbon-pecan and salted caramel. Yummy!

This dish was inspired, in part, by Phoebe Damrosch's description in Service Included of a dessert served at Thomas Keller's New York restaurant Per Se: thyme ice cream, covered with a salted dark chocolate wafer onto which warm olive oil is poured.

I chickened out at using thyme, but instead decided to make salted olive oil ice cream with a deeply dark chocolate sauce.

I turned to Jeni Britton Bauer's trusted Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home Cookbook, which includes recipes for olive oil ice cream with sea-salted pepitas and extra-bitter hot fudge sauce. I used her fudge sauce recipe outright, but made some modifications to the ice cream.

Her ice cream technique is a little different. Most homemade ice creams call for egg yolks, making them technically frozen custards, which require the mixture to be cooked to a precise temperature. Too high and the eggs could curdle, too low and they aren't cooked, a potential health risk.

Jeni's ice cream doesn't have eggs; instead, it's thickened with cream cheese and cornstarch, which might sound odd, but so far hasn't resulted in any noticeably unusual flavors...other than her ice creams are unusually good. It also means less precision is required, although you have to be careful the cream and milk mixture doesn't boil over.

It's best to set everything out before beginning one of her recipes, since once you get started, timing is important. I put the milk and cornstarch slurry in a 1-cup liquid measuring cup and the salt and cream cheese in a large (8-cup) liquid measuring cup, since its spout makes it easy to pour the hot, complete mixture into a large ziplock bag.

For my modifications, I omitted the pepitas, since I didn't want them competing with the olive oil and chocolate, doubled the salt, in a nod to the Per Se dish, and I doubled the amount of olive oil her recipe called for, again to put more emphasis on the olive oil flavor. I used Columela extra-virgin olive oil, a well-rounded, full-flavored oil from Spain.

Salty Olive Oil Ice Cream
Adapted from Olive Oil Ice Cream with Sea-Salted Pepitas from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home by Jeni Britton Bauer

2 cups whole milk
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp cornstarch
3 tbsp cream cheese, softened
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp light corn syrup
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1. Mix 2 tbsp of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl or measuring cup to make a slurry. Combine cream cheese and salt in a large bowl (preferably one with a pour spout). Fill another large bowl with ice and water.

2. Combine the remaining milk, cream, sugar and corn syrup in a 4-quart saucepan. Bring to boil over medium-high heat and boil for 4 minutes (watch carefully to avoid mixture boiling over; if it threatens to, just remove the pan from the heat for a few seconds and stir). Remove from the heat and slowly whisk in the cornstarch slurry.

3. Boil the mixture again over medium-high heat and cook, stirring, for about a minute until slightly thickened. Remove from the heat. Gradually whisk the hot mixture into the cream cheese until smooth. Add the olive oil and whisk until well blended. Set a 1-gallon ziplock bag into the ice water bath and pour the hot mixture into the bag. Let stand until cold, about 30 minutes. Transfer to the refrigerator until ready to use.

4. Process the cooled mixture in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions. Freeze in freezer until firm.

Extra-Bitter Hot Fudge Sauce
From Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home by Jeni Britton Bauer

1 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
5 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1. Combine the water, sugar and corn syrup in a medium-size saucepan and bring to boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat and whisk in the cocoa powder until well combined. Add vanilla and whisk until smooth.

2. Add the chopped chocolate and let stand for about 3 minutes. Stir with a spoon or spatula until the chocolate is melted and the sauce has a smooth consistency. Serve warm or refrigerate (it can be rewarmed in the microwave; according to Jeni, it will last in the fridge for 2 months).

Monday, February 27, 2012

Black Bean-Butternut Squash Soup

Cleaning out the freezer recently I came across this package of cubed butternut squash. I vaguely remember buying it in the fall for something I ended up not making so I tossed it in the fridge of in hopes of bringing it back for some future purpose. I didn't intend for it to remain there for 3-4 months. Would it still be good?

I figured that if its flavor was at all impaired, that serving it as the main flavor might be a bad idea, but what if it was one of several key flavors? I decided the Black Bean + Butternut Soup recipe from Sprouted Kitchen could be the perfect test.

This is the first recipe I've tried from Sprouted Kitchen, a cooking blog with particularly beautiful food photography. This soup actually doesn't look like much when it's done, but Sprouted Kitchen managed to make it look quite beautiful anyway.

Black beans and butternut squash may not sound like a natural combination, but in this soup, they work together perfectly. Black bean is one of my favorite soups and I love butternut squash, so I was intrigued by the combination, which also calls for cabbage.

The suggested toppings for this soup are all delicious, particularly the avocado, although I also love the oven-crisped tortilla strips.

The recipe calls for pureeing the soup with an immersion blender just a bit to thicken it. I did it perhaps a little longer than the recipe called for but still had nice chunks of squash.

Black Bean & Butternut Squash Soup
Adapted from Black Bean + Butternut Soup, Sprouted Kitchen
(original recipe here)

3 corn tortillas
Olive oil spray
Seasoned salt

1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 sweet onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1/4 head of cabbage, chopped (about 2 cups)
1 20 oz. package of butternut squash (about 3 cups), cut into 3/4-inch cubes
4 cups low sodium vegetable broth
1 tbsp. cumin
1 tsp. cocoa powder
Pinch of chipotle powder
2 cans of black beans, drained and rinsed
Seasoned salt to taste
Avocado, for garnish
Cilantro, for garnish

1. Make tortillas crisps. Preheat oven to 375 F. Stack tortillas and slice into 1/2-inch wide strips. Spread strips on a baking sheet, spray with olive oil and season with seasoned salt. Bake for about 10-15 minutes until lightly browned, stirring about halfway through.

2. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a 6 qt. dutch oven. Saute onion until soft and just starting to brown, about 8 minutes. Add garlic, cabbage, squash and broth. Reduce heat to low/medium-low to simmer, cover pot and cook for about 20 minutes.

3. Add cumin, cocoa powder and seasoned salt. Continue simmering another 10 minutes. Pulse with immersion blender a few times to thicken soup as desired. Serve topped with avocado, cilantro and tortilla crisps.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Korean Tacos

Latin-Asian fusion has been a popular culinary trend in recent years from fine dining to street food. In the latter category, a popular dish is the Korean taco, combing Mexican taco elements with Korean-influenced fillings.

The most famous proprietor of this dish is Kogi Korean BBQ, a Los Angeles-area food truck fleet. However, others have brought the successful concept to other cities, including TaKorean in Washington, D.C., one of my favorite downtown food trucks. They serve Korean tacos with beef bulgogi, tangy chicken or caramelized tofu, topped with either napa-romaine or kimchi-style slaw, lime crema, cilantro, sesame seeds and sriracha, a Thai-style hot sauce.

Pictured below is TaKorean's tangy chicken tacos with napa-romaine slaw and the works, which I enjoyed for lunch on a recent Thursday. Could I successfully recreate this dish at home?

I combed the web to research various recipes for Korean tacos and specifically bulgogi-style chicken dishes. Since I don't have a barbecue, I needed a bulgogi I could make in a saute pan, a technique I've had success with before when making beef bulgogi. I sliced the chicken very thin to maximize exposure to the sauce and allow it to cook fast.

For the marinade, which would double as the sauce, I wanted bold flavors and not too much liquid, since I didn't want to end up boiling the chicken in it and I wanted it to reduce to a glazing by the time the chicken was done cooking. So I turned to ingredients with lots of flavor: tamari (concentrated soy sauce), mirin (sweet Japanese rice wine), garlic, dark sesame oil and brown sugar. I was concerned about making this too sweet, so I used less sugar than many of the recipes I saw. I let this marinate in the fridge for about an hour and a half.

For the slaw, I wanted something fresh and simple. Although many recipes called for napa cabbage, the heads of napa cabbage at the store were huge, and I didn't feel like also making coleslaw another night, so I used about a third of a head of regular cabbage (and even then had a lot left over) and the green part of a few scallions tossed in a simple lime, vinegar and oil dressing.

Lime crema sounds so fancy, but it's really just sour cream mixed with lime juice. I added some zest too.

Choosing good tortillas is important. Corn tortillas are the traditional choice for tacos and it pays to be choosy. Fresh corn tortillas, found in the refrigerated case, have a better corn flavor than the preservative-laden variety on the store shelf. A good tip I once read was to look at the ingredients list and choose the tortillas with the shortest list. The ones I got are from Whole Foods. They were pretty hearty too and held up to the fillings without falling apart with a single tortillas (tacos are often served with two corn tortillas to prevent them from falling apart).

While a multi-step project like this requires a little planning, this dish is certainly doable for a week night. I prepped the marinade and the slaw first, left the kitchen for my early evening workout, and then came back to cook the chicken, make the lime crema and assemble the tacos. I served them with a simple side dish of black beans with garlic, cumin and lime. The results were very tasty (see top photo), dare I say better even than what I get at Takorean. Feel free to mix it up as you please.

Korean Chicken Tacos
Inspired by TaKorean Tangy Chicken Tacos

Makes 6 tacos (with some slaw leftover)

Chicken and marinade:
1 lb. boneless skinless chicken breast cutlets
2 tbsp. tamari
1 tbsp. light brown sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. dark sesame oil
2 tsp. mirin

1 tbsp. rice vinegar
Juice from 1/2 of a lime (about a tablespoon)
2 tbsp. canola oil
1 tsp. dark sesame oil
4 cups shredded cabbage
3 scallions (green part), sliced

Lime crema:
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tsp. lime zest
1/2 tbsp. lime juice

1 tbsp. canola oil
6 or 12 corn tortillas, warmed (6 if serving with single tortillas, 12 if serving doubled)*
Chopped fresh cilantro
Sriracha (optional)
Toasted sesame seeds

1. Prepare the marinade: Slice the chicken breasts in half and then very thin (about 1/4 inch). Combine in a bowl with tamari, brown sugar, garlic, sesame oil and mirin. Put in fridge to marinate for about 1 to 2 hours.

2. Make the slaw: Mix together the vinegar, lime juice, canola oil and sesame oil and combine in a large bowl with the shredded cabbage and sliced scallions. Set aside until ready to use.

3. Make the lime crema: Mix together the sour cream, lime zest and lime juice in a small bowl.

4. Cook the chicken: Heat 1 tbsp. canola oil in a large nonstick oval skillet pan over medium-high heat. When very hot, add the chicken and the marinade and saute until cooked through and sauce has reduced to a glaze on the meat.

5. Assemble tacos: Place one or two stacked corn tortillas on a plate. Top with 1/6 of the chicken (about 3 tbsp.), a couple tbsp. of slaw, a drizzle of lime crema, a drizzle of sriracha (it's hot), and a sprinkling of cilantro and sesame seeds. Repeat to make other tacos. Serve with a side of black beans and the rest of the slaw.

(*To warm corn tortillas, place stacked on a plate between two wet paper towels and microwave on high about 20-30 seconds.)

Black Beans with Garlic, Cumin and Lime
By A. Huddleston

Makes 2 side servings

1 tbsp. olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 16 oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
2 tsp. ground cumin
Juice of 1/2 of a lime
(chopped cilantro or queso fresco, optional)

Heat olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and saute until softened but not brown. Add other ingredients, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until warmed through and fragrant. Top with chopped cilantro or queso fresco if desired.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Equipment: Measuring Cups

If you cook with recipes, you're not going to get very far without a good set of measuring cups. A basic set will have 1-cup, 1/2-cup, 1/3-cup and 1/4-cup, although it's also useful to 2/3- and 3/4-cups.

I really love my set, which are made by Pyrex, but unfortunately no longer in production.

They are clear, made of lexan plastic, so they won't shatter if dropped and you can see through them, which is useful for making sure brown sugar is fully packed, for example. They are flat on top, which is essential for leveling ingredients. An added bonus of these is that they have a line halfway up each cup which allows you further measurement options, useful especially when dividing large recipes.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Crème Brûlée Cocktail

Crème brûlée is one my favorite desserts, a decadent vanilla-flavored egg custard topped with a burnt sugar. What's not to like in that?

I used to make it quite a bit, but haven't done so lately. I got a hankering for it and thought, why not invent a cocktail version? After all, desserts are an excellent source of inspiration for cocktails.

Of course, I'm not the first person to reimagine Crème brûlée as an alcoholic beverage, although examples I find on the 'net all seem to fall short. Some call for rimming the glass with sugar and then torching it which sounds 1) very dangerous and 2) not likely to actually deliver much burnt sugar flavor into the drink. Some call for Frangelico, a hazelnut liqueur, but I have to wonder whatever for? Crème brûlée doesn't contain hazelnut, so why should its liquid kin? Nor Cointreau for that matter, another liqueur I see in several recipes. Looks like I have to go to the drawing board for this one.

I decided that my drink had to incorporate burnt sugar and not as a garnish but as an integrated component. So I decided to make burnt sugar syrup. Simple syrup is...appropriately...simple enough: just boil equal parts sugar and water. Burnt sugar is a bit more complicated. I heated sugar in a small frying pan over medium heat left undisturbed until it started to melt, at which point it's also hot enough to start caramelizing. I began stirring as it melted until it was uniformly amber in color.

Meanwhile, I boiled about a cup of water in a small sauce pan to which I added 1/2 of a vanilla bean pod split down the side with the vanilla beans scraped out into the water. I poured the burnt melted sugar into the vanilla water and then boiled it a bit longer. Adding hot sugar to liquid is a bit tricky. With cold liquid, it's going to sputter a lot, and even with boiling water it sputtered a little bit. Then the sugar tends to form a big caramel mass, so you have to cook it a little longer to let it dissolve in the water. But eventually it does and you can set it aside to steep the vanilla flavor while it cools before removing the pod. The result is a burnt sugar syrup speckled with vanilla beans. Two key crème brûlée flavors accounted for.

As for the "crème" part, it's a no-brainer to use cream. Since I'm not one for raw eggs in cocktails, I'm not going to try to incorporate that aspect into the drink. Custard is mostly heavy cream anyway. Lastly, for the spirit, I chose a vanilla vodka, Stoli Vanil, which enhances the vanilla flavor even more without introducing a spirit whose taste you wouldn't find in crème brûlée.

Crème Brûlée Cocktail
By A. Huddleston

1 oz. vanilla-burnt sugar syrup (see recipe below)
1 oz. heavy cream
1 oz. vanilla vodka (such as Stoli Vanil)

Stir ingredients together in a glass and pour into a chilled martini glass.

Vanilla-Burnt Sugar Syrup

1 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean pod

1. Heat the sugar in a small (8-inch) frying pan over medium heat. Leave sugar undisturbed until it begins to melt and then stir sugar as in melts and caramelizes until all the sugar has melted and it is a dark amber color.

2. Meanwhile, add water to a saucepan. Cut the vanilla pod in half lengthwise and use a knife tip to scrape the vanilla beans into the water. Add the pod halves to the water and bring to a boil.

3. Pour the burnt sugar syrup into the boiling water (be careful of sputtering, you may want to stand back a bit). Continue boiling and stir to dissolve any hardened clumps of syrup. Set aside to cool. Strain when cooled and store in a container in the refrigerator.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Food (Section) Fight!: Week 7

Food (Section) Fight! is my weekly look at The Washington Post's Food section and The New York Times' Dining section with my verdict on which section had the better content for the week.

Neither section really bowled me over this week, although both had interesting stories.

The Washington Post

An ancient picture of a British chef greets me on the cover of the Food Section. It's Robert May, a 17th century British chef who published the cookbook "The Accomplished Cook or The Art & Mystery of Cookery" in 1685. The article is about the British culinary tradition, which, although unfairly derided for its Victorian blandness, has a rich history of good food that (not unlike America's) went downhill in the early 20th century due to industrialization and war shortages. Clarissa Dickson Wright's article makes a good case for better appreciation of British cuisine, which I personally have never turned my nose up at (Yorkshire pudding? Bread & butter pudding? Sticky toffee pudding? Yum!). She mentions that British cooking is in a period of real renaissance, with influences from American modernism. I wish she'd included more specific examples, as that sounds interesting.

The other story I really liked was Jim Shahin's look at smoked beer. Wow, what a cool idea. I don't think I've had a smoked beer, although many porters do tend to veer toward smoky flavor. They included a recipe for Smoked Beer and Cheddar Soup, which sounds good. I think smoked beer would also make really awesome chili. At Rodman's this afternoon I picked up Epic Brewing's Smoked & Oaked Belgian-Style Ale.

The page 2 recipes both look interesting: Bonnie Benwick's Pear-Radicchio Risotto With Red Grapes and Stephanie Witt Sedgwick's Curry-Rubbed Chicken Scaloppine With Gingered Zucchini. I'm particularly interested in Bonnie's recipe, which she describes as having savory flavor despite the fruit.

The New York Times

The NYT also highlights a foreign culture's cuisine, focusing on Tibetan beef dumplings, Tsak Sha Momas, that sound really quite tasty. Julia Moskin's article talks about how the dish is actually a no-no, since Tibetans are supposed to be vegetarian (they are Buddhist), but they eat meat anyway out of necessity, since their harsh climate requires it.

I really enjoyed Pete Well's restaurant review which, playing against type, doesn't review a stuffy midtown place or so-on-the-edge-it's-about-to-fall-off Soho pop-up, but instead turns his lens toward...Shake Shack! He likes the hot dogs and really likes the shakes, but finds the burgers to be inconsistent and the fries to be a real disappointment. I haven't yet visited the D.C. outpost, but plan to do so soon.

Nice to see a story from former restaurant critic Frank Bruni, who profiles former pastry chef turned chef Alex Stupak, who just opened a Mexican restaurant in the East Village, Empellón Cocina, the sister restaurant to his West Village location, Empellón Taqueria. Stupak used to be pastry chef at Alinea, the Chicago restaurant at the forefront of modernist cuisine, but decided to take control of all aspects of the kitchen. Lastly, Melissa Clark's recipe for Sautéed Chicken With Meyer Lemon and Rosemary sounds really delicious. The accompanying article describes a quick method for making preserved lemons that I'd like to try.


It's a tough call. I enjoyed the Post's British cuisine article and can't wait to try some smoky beer. But the Tibetan dumplings, Bruni's Stupak profile, Shake Shack review and Clark's recipe pushes The Times just ahead this week.


The New York Times: 4
The Washington Post: 3

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Salad with Parsnips, Fennel, Cranberries and Pecans

One of the great things about salad is that you can put just about anything in it (within reason). That makes it a useful vessel for using up ingredients that might otherwise go bad and have to be tossed.

With this salad, my goal was to maximize using up some odds and ends from other dishes: the parsnips from the Caramelized Parsnip Cake, the radicchio from the Chicory Salad, the pecorino romano from the Orecchiette with Roasted Brussels Sprouts and the fennel from...well, I don't know why I had fennel in the 'fridge, but I wanted to use it too.

I'd never had parsnips raw before, but I figured I could use them like carrots. I peeled them and then shredded the outer layer, being careful not to use the tough, bitter core. I used two, because that's all I had left, but I think the salad could have used more.

Using up ingredients in a salad shouldn't just be a potluck of flavors though. You have to be strategic about what you're pairing. The radicchio is a bitter flavor, the fennel a little too. The raw parsnips are a strong flavor that's a little bitter, a little sweet. To sweeten the mix, I used dried cranberries and also put some agave syrup in the dressing. Finally, I added some crunch with toasted pecans.

This would make a nice side salad accompaniment to pasta or, with some protein (chicken, bacon or beans) a good main course dinner.

Salad with Parsnips, Fennel, Radicchio, Cranberries and Pecans
By A. Huddleston

1/3 cup pecan halves, toasted
3 or 4 small parsnips, peeled, cored and shredded
1/4 fennel bulb, finely sliced
3/4 cup torn radicchio leaves
2 or 3 cups Bibb lettuce (about half a head)
1/3 cup dried cranberries
Shredded pecorino romano, to taste
(optional, add 3/4 lb. sautéed chicken breast, cooked bacon or chickpeas)

3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp agave syrup (could substitute honey)
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste

1. Combine salad ingredients in a large bowl. Whisk together dressing ingredients and toss with salad. Serve in bowls with chicken, bacon or beans, if desired.

Monday, February 20, 2012

UC Davis Olive Center

Depending on who you listen to, olive oil is either a healthful, handmade-in-Tuscany, cold first pressed product with ancient history or an adulterated oil blend from questionable origins whose distribution is influenced by an international ring of fraudsters.

As I explored last week, olive oil, particularly extra-virgin olive oil, is an amazing food product, but unfortunately has been subject to suspect market practices, creating consumer confusion and, in some cases, representing fraud. Although there are international and domestic standards to guide olive oil production, there is not enough enforcement to prevent low quality or adulterated product from reaching store shelves.

Furthermore, as the demand for olive oil increases, the pressure to satisfy that demand by cutting corners on quality could increase. This makes it difficult for the consumer who wants quality olive oil to know what to do.

But if knowledge is power, then the University of California - Davis Olive Center may prove to be a useful tool for empowering olive oil consumers and producers alike.

Launched in 2008, the center, part of the university's agricultural school (specifically the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science), claims to be North America's only education and research center focused on the cultivation of olives.

Their research page has a number of interesting reports, particularly the July 2010 report on the results of testing European and American olive oils. They subjected 14 imported oils (3 samples each) and 5 domestic oils (2 samples each) to a battery of 10 chemical and sensory tests.

The study's results showed that most of the samples of imported oil failed some of the tests, while 9 of the 10 California oil samples passed all of the tests, including oils from two of the producers in my taste test (California Olive Ranch and McEvoy Ranch).

It wasn't all bad news for the big-name imports. Two of the best performers were store brands: Costco's Kirkland Organic and Walmart's Great Value 100% performed well, with two of their three samples passing all of the tests and the other samples failing only one each (one Walmart sample did not pass the test for elevated levels of pyropheophytins, which can indicate oxidation or adulteration, and one Costco sample failed the sensory test, e.g. taste, odor and "mouthfeel"). Filippo Berio came close, with two samples failing only the sensory test.

On the other end, Mazola's three samples failed three or four tests each. And a couple had mixed results: Both Colavita and Safeway Select had one sample that passed all the tests but another that failed five.

I found this study to be very illuminating, although I reserve a certain level of skepticism because the study was funded by California olive oil producers Corto Olive and California Olive Ranch (the ones who fared well in the tests). However, these results are corroborated by America's Test Kitchen's olive oil taste tests, which showed that California olive oils hold promise for competing with established import brands.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Orecchiette with Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Here's a good use for some of that tasty extra-virgin olive oil. Homemade pasta is just so good and it's been awhile since I've made it. I'd never tried orecchiette and I decided to pair that with roasted Brussels sprouts, a new favorite in our house. Their relatively similar sizes complement each other nicely, with the orecchiette often cupping caramelized pieces of sprout.

Another goal was to make a really good vegetarian entree. I'm not vegetarian, but I have plenty of friends who are, so I want to feature vegetarian dishes from time to time. It was tough with this one though. Lots of similar recipes call for bacon or pancetta. Even a vegetarian I asked for advice about possible additional flavors suggested pancetta. I stuck to my plan though and rounded out the flavors with some toasted pine nuts, thyme and pecorino romano, a good sheep cheese alternative to my usual parmigiano-reggiano.

Making pasta from scratch is not hard and the results are so brilliant. For this, I consulted Mario Batali's Food Network recipe. Instead of blending two flours, I used Hodgson Mill pasta flour, a blend of semolina flour and durum wheat flour. In the past when making pasta, I used recipes that called for eggs, but I tried it out without this time and it worked fine. When mixing the flour with the water, I started with just over a half a cup of warm water and then added additional water 1 tbsp at a time until the dough came together.

The next step involved some muscle: kneading. I kneaded the dough for 8 minutes. It made me respect those old Italian ladies you know do this every day. The dough is ready when it's smoothed out a bit elastic. Let it rest for awhile before shaping it.
The dough should be shaped into ropes about 3/4 of an inch thick (the Batali recipe says 3 to 4 inches which is surely a misprint, that would make HUGE orecchiette). Work it with your hands to thin it out and then roll it on the pastry mat to even it out.

Forming the orecchiette takes a little practice. Notice how the ones on the left are a bit oblong. I figured out that since the cutting squishes the dough down, you need to reshape it a bit before smashing your thumb into it to make the little hat shape. It worked best for me to press my thumb in and then turn the dough inside-out while squeezing the edges to make sure they aren't too thick. I'd love to be able to do it like this.

Prep the sprouts for roasting by cutting off the tough root end, removing any dark outer leaves and slicing them in half.
Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil (to make clean up easy), toss the cut sprouts with olive oil, salt and pepper and stick in the oven when it's hot. I roasted these for 35 minutes, stirring them after 20. They were already fairly browned at 20 minutes, but I wanted them to be really dark and sweet. The extra time paid off.

For the sauce, I was concerned about under saucing the pasta after the orzo I made was too dry. But I didn't want to overwhelm the sprouts either. I decided against garlic for that reason, but I substituted a healthy amount of shallots--about 1/2 cup minced--to provide some subtle onion flavor. I used extra-virgin olive oil for the base. The white wine (I used chardonnary) and thyme added some more flavor while the cream thickened it a bit. I shredded the pecorino with a microplane, so you might not want to use a full cup if you use a coarser shred.

Orecchiette with Roasted Brussels Sprouts
By A. Huddleston

1 lb. Brussels sprouts
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 shallots, finely diced
1 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tsp dried thyme
1 cup shredded pecorino romano, plus extra
Homemade orecchiette (from recipe below)
chopped fresh parsley

1. Adjust oven rack to upper third and preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil sprayed with olive oil. Cut off root ends of sprouts and remove dark green outer leaves. Slice sprouts in half. Add to large bowl and toss with 2 tbsp olive oil, sea salt and fresh-ground black pepper. Spread evenly on baking sheet and roast until sprouts are browned, about 35 minutes total, stirring a bit after the first 20 minutes. Set aside.

2. Toast pine nuts in a small saute pan over medium-low heat until fragrant and lightly browned (be careful not to burn). Set aside.

3. Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add diced shallots and saute until soft but not yet brown. Add white wine, cream and thyme to pan. Once hot, add cheese and reduce heat once melted. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low until pasta is done.

4. Heat a large pot filled 2/3 full with water and generously salted over medium-high heat until boiling. Cook pasta in two batches until al dente (pasta will float to the surface and plump a bit when done). Remove pasta with slotted spoon. Reserve 1/2 cup cooked pasta water.

5. Add pasta water, Brussels sprouts and pine nuts to shallot sauce and increase hit a bit to rewarm. Toss with cooked pasta. Serve in bowls topped with some more shredded pecorino romano and chopped parsley.

Homemade Orecchiette
Adapted from Orecchiette Made with Semolina by Mario Batali for Food Network

2 cups pasta flour (blend of durum and semolina flours, or substitute 1 cup semolina flour and 1 cup unbleached all-purpose four)
1/2 cup plus extra warm water

1. Add flour to large bowl and make a well in the center. Add water slowly, stirring to incorporate. Work dough with hands until it comes together. Add water, 1 tbsp at a time if the dough won't come together, but be careful not to use too much water.

2. Put dough ball on floured surfaced and knead for 8 minutes until smooth and elastic. Cover with loose cloth and set aside about minutes or until ready to use (it can be refrigerated overnight at this point).

3. Using your hands, divide the dough in half and roll into two long ropes 3/4 inch thick. Cut ropes into 1/4 to 1/2 inch pieces. Press your thumb into the center and then invert the dough to form a cap while squeezing the edges to make sure they aren't too thick.

4. Place pasta caps on a floured baking sheet and cover with a cloth until ready to use.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Olive Oil Tasting

Reading about extra-virgin olive oil lately has given me a greater appreciation for its flavor. I hadn't really thought about the fact that different oils are made with different types of olives and that different blends could yield dramatically different flavors.

Good extra-virgin olive oil presents a balance of three flavors: fruity, bitter and peppery, with the last being expressed mostly at the finish. Yet the specific character of the oil's flavor can vary depending on the year and the type of olive (or olives) it contains. In that, it's not dissimilar from wine. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that olives grow well in many of the same areas where grapes do.

Serious tasters sample olive oil in tulip glasses tinted blue to remove any prejudice from oil's color. Very fresh olive oil will be green, but just because it's turned its usual golden color doesn't mean it's spoiled. Of course, I just used a teaspoon, so I saw what color they were, which was mostly golden with a slight green hue except for the grocery store brand, which was browner.

The Contenders

I decided I needed to conduct my own tasting. On hand were two olive oils:

California Olive Ranch (everyday oil). This is what I've been using as my everyday go-to oil. I started buying it after reading the UC Davis study comparing California oils to European imports. California Olive Ranch produces high quality extra-virgin olive oil at a fraction of the price you'd pay for other brands, due to their high-density planting technique and mechanical harvesting. In fact, my local grocery store recently started selling their 750 ml bottle for $9, which makes them competitive with the major Italian brands. In addition to this product, which I assume is a blend, the company sells higher-priced specialty olive oils, including single-varietal offerings of Arbequina (which I use for salads at work) and Arbosana. In a recent test of California oils, America's Test Kitchen rated their Arbequina just below their favorite oil, Columela from Spain.

Lava Vine. Lava Vine is a small winery near Calistoga in Napa Valley. Some other time I'll tell you about the wonderful time I had tasting wines there. One of the coolest things about having this oil on hand is that Lava Vine is a small operation, so my tasting there was done by the guy who makes it. He poured it over a piece of dark chocolate with a sprinkle of salt. So good.

To round out a good test, I decided to add three more oils:

McEvoy Ranch. The idea that California could one day produce enough olive oil to replace many imports in grocery stores is very appealing. Much has been written about the benefits of buying food produced closer to home--it's cheaper, better for the environment and fresher, so it tastes better too. There's no reason not to extend this thinking to olive oil. I came across McEvoy Ranch by luck. One morning after I'd reviewed the UC Davis oil study (which features McEvoy Ranch), I just happened to go into Cowgirl Creamery, which sells McEvoy Ranch oil from a large vat to protect its freshness. Score! Their oil is a blend of six Italian olive varietals: Frantoio, Leccino, Pendolino, Maurino, Leccio del Corno and Coratina.

Columela. This Spanish oil remains America's Test Kitchen's favorite. It is a blend of Hojiblanca, Picual, Arbequina and Ocal olives. It is distributed by Anfora Quality Products and I found it in my local grocery store.

Grocery Store Brand. To have a "control" so to speak against all these supposedly high-class oils, I decided to ground the study by getting what for most consumers would be the most basic extra-virgin oil available: the store brand. Having read Extra Virginity, right away I'm suspicious. Since I know my grocery store doesn't make olive oil, they've certainly had to purchase this from a supplier of some sort. It claims to be a product of Italy, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey and Argentina, although I wonder if that means it could be from any of them, rather than a blend of all of them. Also, unlike all the other choices, it comes in a clear bottle, and since light damages olive oil, this is also suspect.

The Results

Although I wanted to pick a favorite, I find I cannot, because four of them are really good and all a bit different.

Least favorite - Grocery store brand. This one's easy: the grocery store brand. It really is inferior. Compared to the others, it has noticeably less flavor with just slight bitter and peppery flavors. I can't say it's at all fruity.

Boldest - McEvoy Ranch. This oil really packs a punch, with assertive flavors, dominated by bitterness and a big peppery finish. This is an olive oil lover's olive oil.

Most unique - Lava Vine. This has a nice fruity slightly bitter flavor that's markedly different from the Columela, which is also pretty fruity. This is the only one that made my cough (not a bad thing--a good peppery finish should produce a little cough).

Most well-rounded - Columela. This one has a very fruity flavor and is pretty smooth with the least bitterness. Little bit peppery on the finish.

Best value - California Olive Ranch. This one is nicely balanced between being fruity and peppery with a slight bitterness. It holds its own against these other brands and at a fraction of their cost, makes it an excellent buy.