Thursday, December 27, 2007

Prime rib roast and saffron pudding

For Christmas this year my mother said she wanted to make "something classic American." On Christmas Eve, we usually try to approximate the traditional Sicilian seven fish dinner. It's not just a clever name: it means you literally eat seven different fishes during the Christmas Eve meal, although sometimes people interpret it as to make seven different seafood dishes. We didn't really manage to do it, I think we only got up to 4 or 5 different fish; pasta with clams, a pasta with sardines, maybe some salmon somewhere, shrimp in the appetizer...don't really remember. My mom said it was OK that many of our fish were actually crustaceans but I think it means that we're all probably going to hell. Oh, in case you are wondering, the reason you eat seven fishes is because it represents the seven sacraments of the Church, or maybe to represent the seven sins or possibly the seven days it took Mary and Joe to get to Bethlehem...yeah, nobody really knows. But for Christmas Day dinner, my mom abandoned the mysticism and we did the real American thing with meat and potatoes. We went a little nutty at dessert though, with a saffron milk pudding with a citrus-pomegranate sauce. Can't abandon your roots.

My mother procured an 8 pound prime rib roast. It was pretty fatty on the outside but you don't want to trim it because it needs the fat to baste itself as it renders out in the oven. We put it on a v-shaped roasting rack that went inside a large roasting pan, let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes, and stuck it in the oven at 400 degrees. Notice that we did not salt the meat at all. We poured about 1/2 cup of red wine over the top after about 45 minutes of cook time. NOTE: The better the wine the better the roast! Don't listen to my mother who believes in using wine for cooking that you wouldn't dream of drinking! If the alcohol burns away, all that is left is the flavor, right? So...why use the bad stuff? It doesn't really matter in a situation where you are just pouring a little bit over a roast but then you might as well just use whatever you are drinking while cooking (you are drinking while cooking, right?). Anyway. Don't be cheap. I turned the roast around in the oven every 30 minutes or so to keep it evenly cooking. After 1 1/2 hours at 400 degrees, we turned the temperature down to 350 and let it roast for another 1 hour and 45 minutes. Pull it out and let it rest for about 20-30 minutes, then carved it up. I took the roasting pan that had collected the drippings and red wine for basting, and stuck it over two burners on the stovetop. Added 1/3 cup of red wine, 3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Brought it up to a boil, stirring rapidly, and let it reduce somewhat--about 3-5 minutes. This makes a easy, delicious sauce for the roast and whatever else.

While the roast was going, I sliced in half 1 1/2 pounds of brussels sprouts and tossed them on a baking sheet with 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon sesame oil, salt, pepper, 2 teaspoons sugar and a teeny pinch of red pepper flakes. Put them cut side down on the baking sheet and put them in the oven at the same temperature as the roast. They went along merrily for about 20 minutes, then after the roast got taken out, I stirred the sprouts around, turned the temperature up to 425, and let them roast quickly for another 8-10 minutes. They are done when they are browned in spots on top and caramelized on the cut edges. We had roasted a ton of chestnuts and I made Francesca help me peel them. I then chopped about 1 cup worth of the chestnuts up into chunks and tossed them together with the roasted brussels spouts and about 2 teaspoons of white balsamic vinegar and a smidge more olive oil before serving. It was really delicious. We also made mashed potatoes. The only difference between these and my usual yukon gold mashed potatoes is that I mixed in about 2 tablespoons of horseradish condiment, which really makes it go well with a rich prime roast. My mother also made a salad with mixed greens, green apple slices, and olives.

The dessert was really interesting--we wanted to make something exciting but light so we settled on a beautiful citrus-saffron pudding. We doubled the recipe and took a few other liberties, but here is the basic idea. It will make just about enough for 10 people, but not in a big American dessert kind of way. Soak 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads in 3 tablespoons boiling water. Combine 3 cups milk, 2 cups heavy cream and 1/2 cup sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stir it until the sugar is all dissolved. Remove it from heat and stir in the saffron threads and water that it was soaking in. Stir 2 packets of unflavored gelatin into the hot milk mixture (we had some trouble with this, we originally used only 1 1/2 packets and it wasn't enough. Learn from our mistakes) and let it cool down to room temperature, then pour it into whatever serving dish you plan to use and refrigerate it for between 6-8 hours. I'm not sure how long it really needs to take--the original recipe calls for you to put the pudding into individual serving dishes or molds but we used a big communal dish so it took a bit longer to gel up than it would have in individual dishes. It would be so cute in little personal cups though so you should do that if you aren't as lazy as I am. While it is chilling, make the sauce. Combine the juice from 2 sweet oranges with 1/4 cup pomegranate juice, the juice from 2 lemons and 1/2 cup Vincotto (a dark, supersweet Italian vinegar) in a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Stir in at least 2 teaspoons honey, let it boil hard for about 1 minute, then take it off the heat. I then stirred in 2 tablespoons sweet marsala; the recipe actually called for Grand Marnier but my mother refused to buy a big bottle of it for such a small amount. For some reason I couldn't find a smaller container at the liqour store and so cheapness reigned once more. I encourage you to use it though, it would certainly be a better choice--if you use it, double the amount to 4 tablespoons instead of 2. Let it cool to room temperature, then store it in the fridge until it's time to eat dessert. Seve the pudding with a spoonful of the sauce over the top. Here are some notes on the pudding--the recipe actually called for blood oranges (my mother calls them "bloody oranges" which is HILARIOUS and sort of gross if you think about it), so if you want to, use 4 of those instead of the regular oranges and omit the pomegranate juice. Also, we decided that an aromatic note of cardamom would be excellent in this--add in 1/2 teaspoon with the hot milk mixture if you think you'd like to try it that way. There's a lot of potential for experimentation with this recipe. Also, if you don't want to call it pudding, you can say you are making a "fior di latte," as that is the Italian name for this kind of dessert. Impress your friends!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Gingersnaps and shortbread

I'm at my parent's house for the holidays and there is an unbelievable quantity of snow. Not to mention how damn cold it is. So my mother and I stayed indoors yesterday and made a couple really good cookies. My mom has a stand mixer so these were an easier time to make than they would have been just by hand.

First we tried to make some gingersnaps because Mom found a recipe on the flipside of a lid that was on a container of crystallized ginger. We made a few modifications. First beat together 3/4 cup of softened butter with 1 cup sugar and 1/4 cup molasses. Dump in 1 egg and beat it into the mixture. Mix 2 teaspoons baking soda really well with 2 cups flour, about 1/2 teaspoon salt, at least 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon and about 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves.

Here is a little one-act play that I like to call Mom's Old Cloves:

Mom, brandishing a dusty aquamarine canister: "I have ground cloves!"
Me: "How old are those?"
Mom: "They were a wedding shower present!"
Me, to the dog: "Wedding shower present? Her wedding shower?"

My mother has been married for 33 years. Moving on.

Dump the dry flour mixture into the wet mixture and beat in along with 1/2 cup of crystallized ginger that you have cut up into teeny chunks. Mix it all up really well. If it's too goopy for you to mess with you can refrigerate it for half an hour to make it easier to handle. We just went ahead and rolled it into 1" balls and put them on baking sheets. Don't squish them down. My mom kept doing that and I had to slap her hands to make her quit. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 10 minutes. Let them cool on racks. They'll be more crispy if you chill the dough before baking but we liked them soft.

We also made a shortbread recipe that mom found in the local paper, which I am including here because I have never made shortbread before. Mix in a large bowl 2 1/4 cup flour with 3/4 cup slivered almonds, 3 tablespoons poppyseeds, and 1/2 teaspoon salt (Mom: "I have never heard of poppyseeds and almonds together!"). In another bowl, hopefully the workbowl of your supersweet KitchenAid mixer but it's OK if it's not, add together 2 sticks of softened butter, 1 cup sugar, and 3 tablespoons honey. Beat together until fluffy, then add 2 egg yolks and the zest from 2 oranges (my mom's zester SUCKS, it is not up to Microplane standards AT ALL. That is what she is getting for her birthday, now that I know the sad state of affairs). Beat in until smooth. Slowly add in your flour/poppyseed/almond mixture until it has all been fully incorporated. Here's the fun part. Split your dough in two and plop each half onto a sheet of wax paper. Roll it and shape it to form a 12" rectangular log. Wrap it up in the wax paper and stick it in the fridge for 2 hours or more (my mother found this directive ridiculous and so we just stuck it in the freezer for 15-20 minutes. I'm pretty sure that worked just fine too, so do whichever works better for your schedule). Haul it out of fridge or freezer and slice the logs into thin, 1/8" slices. Bake them on parchment paper-lined cookie sheets in a pre-heated 350 degree oven until the edges are golden brown (about 12-15 minutes). You don't want them to brown all over, just the edges. The bottoms will be lightly golden as well. Cool on racks. The recipe also indicated a simple glaze (whisk 1 cup powdered sugar with vanilla and 1 tablespoon milk) for the edges and to decorate with festive suagr sprinkles, but I think these are actually better without any embellishment. Maybe if you added citrus to the glaze to make it a little piquant and referential, and definitely skip the sprinkles. Our container of red and green jimmies was seriously from the year I was born.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Spinach rice

This is like risotto for losers. It's pretty easy and is great if you feel lazy because it doesn't really use a traditional risotto technique or anything. I made this last night with roasted chicken and also this red cabbage-bacon-cranberry-pine nut thing that I made last year. It's in the 2006 posts, if you are interested. But I don't think I've ever written about spinach rice before, even though it is one of my standards, so here you go:

Take a big bunch of spinach (I use the flat-leaf kind rather than crinkly) and cut off the stems. Slice into strips or chop it up. Wash the spinach really really well--it is often muddy or gritty. You can dump it into a sink full of water, swish it around, and then dry it off well. I usually put it through the salad spinner, which I consider to be one of the rare kitchen gadgets that is actually worth owning. Anyway, chop and clean your spinach and set aside. Sauté 1 small minced onion in at least 1 tablespoon butter--since I was roasting a chicken, I actually ended up using the chicken fat from the bottom of the pan rather than just butter. You could use olive oil instead but some kind of fat is necessary. When the onion is soft and golden, add in 1 ½ cup short grain rice. I usually rinse the rice first but if you would like the consistency to be more starchy and risotto-like, don't rinse it at all. Sauté the rice with the onion for about 2 minutes, until the grains are sort of clear looking but not browned. Slowly add in 3 cups of chicken stock (or you could use a good vegetable stock), stirring it in well until it is up to a light boil. Turn it down to a simmer, cover and let the rice absorb all the cooking liquid--about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large pan, sauté 3 cloves minced garlic in olive oil (or butter or chicken fat) until golden then add a pinch red pepper flakes. Add in your cleaned, chopped spinach and toss with the garlic and pepper flakes over medium-high heat until it is all wilty. It will go from being a huge pile of raw spinach to, like, maybe a cup of cooked down greens. A fascinating thing to watch. After it is cooked down, let it sit a minute and then pour off any of the liquid that has accumulated, unless you like green spinach water. When the rice is all cooked, stir it around then add in the cooked spinach and mix it thoroughly so the spinach is all distributed and the rice is kind of green. Remove from heat and add the juice of one lemon and as much lemon zest as you feel like peeling off. You can never have too much.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Spiced nuts with brown sugar bacon

A long time ago in our big dirty house in Milwaukee I cooked up a batch of bacon in brown sugar with pecans. It was really good and completely addictive. It also made the house smell like burned, sugary pork product for about a week. This last week I saw a recipe in the New York Times for roasted nuts topped with sugared bacon--it kind of reminded me of the pig candy episode from many years earlier so I decided to make something like it for Melanie's holiday potluck party last night. It turns out that there is a way to make sugared bacon in your oven without making your house smell porky. Who knew?

I got a bag of cashews and a bag of almonds from the market, both were roasted, unsalted nuts. I think each bag probably had about 1 ½ cups of nuts in it. I added in the rest of a bag of pecans that I had to make about 3 ½ - 4 cups of nuts total. This is a successful mix--cashews, pecans and almonds--but you could do all cashews or something if you prefer. Separated the whites out from 2 eggs and beat them lightly in a big bowl (I saved the yolks to make zabaglione the next morning). Dumped all the nuts into the beaten egg whites and tossed until they were coated. Added 1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt, 5 tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon allspice, 1 teaspoon cayenne and 2 teaspoons garam masala. Stirred everything up really well so all the spices were evenly mixed throughout the nuts. Spread the spiced nuts out on a baking sheet and popped into the oven to roast at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. Keep a really good eye on them--get in there with a spoon and move them around often. They will be soft while they are in the oven but will crisp up after you get them out of the heat. If you're vegetarian, you can skip this next part and you'll just have some delicious holiday spiced nuts to eat, but the bacon is what really elevates this, so here's what you do next: Take a package of bacon (usually 1 pound) and lay the strips flat on a sheet of parchment paper over a baking sheet. If you don't use parchment paper then you will have a bacony mess everywhere, so be sure to do that. Also be sure to use the kind of baking/cookie sheet that has a raised edge--I think they're properly called jelly roll pans--because then the bacon grease will be contained. Needless to say, the first time I made this years ago I did not use parchment paper nor a jelly roll the oven got all spattered and it's amazing we didn't have a grease fire or something. Also, that's clearly what accounted for the semi-permanent sugar/piggy smell in our house thereafter. Anyway. Lay out your bacon on your parchment papered jelly roll baking sheet and proceed to sprinkle brown sugar all over the slices, at least 1/2 cup of sugar. Rub it all over the bacon strips so both sides are covered then stick it in the oven with the nuts at 350 degrees. The bacon will also probably take about 20 - 25 minutes, again keep a good eye on it and turn the pan around if one side appears to be browning faster than the other. There is nothing sadder than burnt bacon, after all. Take it out when the bacon is golden and crispy looking. Take the strips of bacon off the parchment paper and let them cool on a wire rack--they'll become delightfully crispy. Now break (or cut) the strips of sugared bacon up into teensy pieces and toss them in a serving bowl together with your spiced, roasted nuts. Byron and I were eating these alongside our tumblers of bourbon and it is a seriously good cocktail snack--salty, sweet and spicy all at the same time.