Wednesday, October 28, 2009

All the Difference in the World (Your Secret Ingredients)

So many of us these days (myself included) are stretching our food budgets to the limit, trying to save wherever we can. There are tons of websites and resources out there devoted to “feeding your family on a shoestring.” (One of the more valuable websites I've seen is Cook For Good, which helps people develop a healthy, budget-friendly and planet-friendly strategy for feeding a family for about $1.26 per meal. This site has gotten some buzz from Mark Bittman’s blog, if you’re interested in learning more.)

But cheap and healthy eating can become very monotonous. Lots of beans. Lots of homemade yogurt. Lots of homemade bread. Simple recipes are too often missing the special few ingredients that, while adding to the cost of the dish, punch up the flavor or add a richer mouthfeel that makes an otherwise lame-o dish truly satisfying.

A recent example: Last week I bought a very sub-par wedge of Parmesan (I use the name loosely) cheese. I didn’t want to cheap out completely and get the old Kraft-in-a-Can standby, but frankly, I might as well have. It was almost flavorless, with no discernable aroma, no nuttiness, no creaminess, no bite. Just rubbery and bland. In fact, it kind of ruined my homemade tomato sauce. Dammit!! Now I don’t even want to use the half a wedge that’s left, and I should have just spent the extra 3 bucks on a piece of real, well-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Are you feelin’ me out there?

So I want to know: What are the crucial ingredients that give a boost to your home-cooked, shoestring dishes? When is it a bad idea to substitute a more economical ingredient for the real deal called for in the original recipe? Winter is coming, and we all need some fresh ideas to keep us inspired and healthy.

Monday, October 19, 2009

At The Stroke of Midnight...Pumpkin Cornmeal Pancakes

I love pumpkin. Not just because it has the power to transform almost any banal baked good into an incarnation moist and flavorful, but because every time I eat anything infused with this intensely-flavored squash, I think of my friend and surrogate sister, Nicole.

Nicole and I have been eating and laughing together since we were thirteen, and it is ridiculous how many memories of her and I involve the following: pumpkin bread, pumpkin spice, and mellow crème candy pumpkins. We used to gift each other with a bag of candy pumpkins every year, eating them by the handful as we curled up on the couch watching trash TV in our crappy little college apartment.

Nicole also used to whip up batches of pumpkin pancakes on occasion, in our tiny kitchen with the sloping floor, on cold mornings when we’d have the thermostat cranked down to 58° to save money. This recipe is an homage to hers—moist, dense, and replete with assertive spices and cornmeal for a surprising crunch. Make some. They are enough to turn even the grumpiest eater in your home into a morning person.

Pumpkin Cornmeal Pancakes (serves 2 adults generously)

½ cup cornmeal
½ cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of ground cloves
½ cup pumpkin (pureed, from a can) (TIP: Portion out the rest of the can into half-cup servings and freeze for later use.)
1 teaspoon grated orange peel
¼ cup brown sugar
¾ cup milk
1 egg
1 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
Maple syrup

1. In a small pan warmed over medium heat, toast walnuts, stirring frequently, until they are browned on all sides and pleasantly fragrant. Remove from pan and set aside to cool.
2. In a large bowl, whisk to combine cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt, and spices.
3. In a medium bowl, whisk to combine pumpkin, milk, egg, brown sugar and orange peel.
4. Add wet ingredients to dry, stirring to combine (but don’t over mix).
5. Heat a large frying pan or griddle over medium heat. Grease pan with a bit of oil or butter (I use a tad of both…butter for flavor, oil because it doesn’t scorch in the pan), and cook pancakes in batches, flipping once when bubbles form and burst on the surface of the cakes.
6. Serve warm, topped with toasted walnuts and maple syrup.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Summer's Last Gasp

Knowing full-well that fall in Denver could easily mean a foot of snow covering my lawn, we had a guest over alfresco to celebrate the last few days of Colorado summer. I also wanted to share some of my favorite flavors from Chef Eve Aronoff, talented owner of Ann Arbor’s eve.

I wrote a story about Eve for Edible WOW magazine last year, and instantly became smitten with her surprising mix of global flavors and classical French technique, all lavished on the very best of what is seasonal and local. Eve is a lovely person as well; warm, humble, but absolutely driven and meticulous in her craft. She was also a contestant on this season of Bravo’s Top Chef, and though she was eliminated early in the season, the fact that she earned a spot on the show in the first place speaks greatly to her talent.

For this last meal of summer, I served some tasty country-style ribs, rubbed with Eve’s chili mélange (a spice mix) and then braised in a cast iron skillet on the grill (too hot to have the oven on inside). With no time for a grocery run that day, I improvised using only the ingredients in my fridge and pantry, so I rubbed the ribs with the spice mélange, let them sit for a couple of hours, and then used Dr. Pepper and a sliced onion as the braising liquid. That’s right—Dr. Pepper. Don’t knock it till you try it. These ribs turned out tender and spicy-sweet, with minimal effort and expense.

The ribs were served with a simple Caprese salad using tomatoes and basil from the garden. And for dessert, I made Eve’s luscious Pots-de-crème, which is about as velvety and melt-in-your-mouth as chocolate can get. Best of all, each person gets their own portion of Brown Sugar Cream to accompany the cup of chocolate. My husband endearingly describes this dish as “being threatened by chocolate,” which means it’s perfect. It was also gluten-free, as required for our guest that evening. (And hey, if you’re going gluten-free, Pots-de-crème is a hell of a way to go.)

(from Eve: contemporary cuisine- methode traditionelle by Eve Aronoff, 2006, Huron River Press)

(Serves 6)

(Note: the cookbook specifies the brands of chocolate used; I used the same types and percentages of chocolate, but not the same brands)

6 ounces Callebaut semi-sweet chocolate
4 ounces Cuizel 72% dark chocolate
2 ounces El Ray 41% milk chocolate
1 ¾ cup half and half
6 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon instant espresso (The restaurant uses Medaglia d’oro brand; I did too.)
Pinch of kosher salt
7 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla

Brown Sugar Cream (recipe follows)

1. Chop chocolate.
2. Bring half and half and sugar to just below a simmer in a medium, heavy
bottomed saucepan. Add chocolate, and whisk until smooth.
3. Add espresso and kosher salt.
4. Whisk yolks just to combine being careful not to over-mix.
5. Ladle chocolate mix into yolks, beating on low- just to incorporate and being careful not to over-mix.
6. Stir in vanilla.
7. Pour through strainer into pitcher, and divide equally into 6 small cups.
8. Chill until set, about 4 hours.
9. Garnish with a dollop of Brown Sugar Cream and an additional cupful of Brown Sugar Cream on the side so you can alternate bites.

Brown Sugar Cream
(makes 4 cups)

1 pint heavy whipping cream
¼ cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 tablespoons sour cream

1. Whip cream with whisk in mixing bowl or electric mixer until slightly thickened.
2. Add brown sugar, continue to whip. When still peaks form, add vanilla and sour cream.