April 28, 2010

Try, Try, Again.

Creamy Lavender Flan...

I've never really been a big fan of flan. I enjoyed other types of custard, and cream-based desserts, but flan's typical eggy flavor and  jello-ish consistency are a little troubling to me. Also the name doesn't sound very appetizing. "Flan" sort of staggers off your tongue and lands with a splat! Of course you could call it Creme Caramel, which is essentially the same thing. But people tend to be more familiar with the term "flan" and I hate to cause confusion.   

One evening, The hubs and I went out on a dinner date with some friends to a new, up-scale Latin restaurant in town called Curras. We had a lovely dinner of braised lamb chops and perfectly stuffed poblano peppers, swimming in a pool of creamy mole'. The food, company, and conversation were delightful, leaving the promise of dessert as the only thing that could improve upon the evening. I think there were several desserts on the menu (not certain because we now always order the same thing), but the items our waiter unabashedly promoted were the Tres Leches Cake and the Flan. He was so convinced we would not be disappointed with the flan, that I felt it was time to give it a second chance. Second chances are a beautiful thing, you know.

We ordered one of each to share between the four of us. Trying to be open-minded, I resolved to hope that maybe my taste buds had developed even further, or maybe I'd suddenly enjoy eggy desserts. I waited in anticipation as the waiter set the small plates between us. At first bite, I knew...this was no ordinary flan. Light and creamy, mellow and smooth. Not heavy, jello-y or eggy at all! The caramel sauce was light as well, without the singed aftertaste that caramel can acquire when one is not careful. Incredible.

The Tres Leches cake was also quite remarkable, but not life-altering like the flan. I was instantly a flan-fanatic, a FLANATIC! In fact, I'm a little embarrassed to say, I have woken up in the middle of the night--on several occasions--craving that flan! What's that about? What could they possibly put in it, that would make you arise from deep slumber in search of flan??? I don't know, but I HAD to learn to make it!

So, as I like to research these sort of things, I set off to find the very best flan recipe. I collected several online recipes that were highly praised, and one out of my most reliable cookbook, Cook's Illustrated "The Best Recipe". I laid them out in front of me, reading glasses at the tip of my nose, and studied. Yes, I AM a proud kitchen-nerd, and unashamed to say I even used a highlighter during this process!

Test One. Half whole milk, half cream, whole eggs and extra yolks.
Result- Disaster! Eggy...totally eggy. Phlck!

Test Two. Condensed milk, evaporated milk, whole eggs only
Result- Disaster again...and light swearing! Some how even MORE eggy than the first run.

Test Three. Condensed milk, introduction of a little cream cheese, whole eggs, with extra yolks again.
Result- SLIGHT improvement. Not thrilled, but not swearing.

You get the idea...if you've GOT to figure something out, it takes this kind of perseverance! I discovered that extra yolks improve the texture and taste. The whites create it the egginess! Also the cream cheese gives the flavor a little punch. After multiple trails I have a flan recipe that is close to the one that first struck my heart and taste buds.

I'm not throwing you a quickie dessert for spontaneous dinner partings--flan takes time! But if you are serious about creamy desserts...custard, pudding, panna cotta, creme brulee, flan...this one is worth your effort!

If you wish to succeed in life, make perseverance your bosom friend, experience your wise counselor, caution your elder brother, and hope your guardian genius. -Joseph Addison


Creamy Lavender Flan

1 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
½ tsp. lemon juice

1 Tb. dried lavender, or several fresh sprigs
1- 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1- 12 oz. can evaporated milk
3 whole eggs, 3 yolks
4 oz. soft cream cheese
1 ½ tsp. vanilla
¼ tsp. salt

Preheat the oven to 360*. Set out 6-8 OVENPROOF custard cups, soup cups, or large ramekins that will hold at least 6 oz. each. Add the sugar, water and lemon juice to a sauce pan and place over medium-high heat. Allow it to come to a light boil and reduce the heat to simmer.

Place the evaporated milk in a small sauce pan over medium heat. Add the lavender to the milk and allow it to come to a simmer. Simmer the milk one minute, then turn the heat off and let the lavender steep in the milk until ready to use.

Meanwhile, watch the caramel! Once the color starts to change, it goes fast. Allow it to bubble until it is a light to medium brown. Quickly pour an equal amount of liquid caramel in each cup. Be very careful—hot sugar can cause serious burns! The caramel will harden up almost instantly.

Using an electric mixer with a whisk attachment, whisk the cream cheese until it’s light and fluffy. You may want to warm it in the microwave for just a few seconds to make sure it’s really soft. With the mixer still running, add one egg at a time, to allow the mixture to fluff up as much as possible. Now add the vanilla and salt. Then with the mixer continually running, slowly pour in the sweetened condensed milk and the evaporated milk with lavender. Whisk until smooth.

Set the custard cups in a larger baking pan, lined with a clean dish towel. Fill the pot used for the caramel with water. Bring to a boil.

Use a sieve to strain the lavender and any clumps out of the flan mixture. (You could leave the lavender in if you don’t mind the texture.) Then pour the mixture equally into each cup. Carefully fill the large pan with boiling water until it comes half way up the sides of the custard cups. Cover the whole pan, loosely with foil.

Bake for 40-70 minutes. The cook time depends heavily on the size and depth of your custard cups. Check at 40 minutes, then add 10 minute increments until done. The flan is done when a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Cool them to room temperature, then cover with plastic and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To serve- Run a paring knife around the edges of each flan cup. Cover with an inverted dessert plate and flip. Give it one good shake if necessary. The flan should come out with a light caramel sauce over the top! Serve alone or with berries. Serve 6-8.

Any kitchen-taught lessons in perseverance you want to share? Click "comments" below and tell me all about it!

April 25, 2010

Memories of India

Quick Shrimp Rogan Josht with Saffron Basmati Rice...

I can tell immediately that this post is going to turn into several posts over the next few months. I spent three summers in India, ages 14, 19 and 20. Although my time their was quite a while ago and the memories have blurred, there are plenty of moments still quite distinct in my mind. As I sit down to write them out, I'm flooded with a book's worth of thoughts to share. I'll try to pare back to one or two for this post.

My second trip we stayed in a rural village. This experience involved lots of snakes, hitchhiking to the next village on the back of a work truck (no taxis or rickshaws) to go to the market, and digging our own potty, then setting up grass mats around it for privacy. The villagers thought that was hilarious!

One evening we were walking back to our shelter when it started to rain. At first it was a light rain, then the monsoons moved in. We had a little over a mile to walk with no signs of the rain letting up, so we trudged forward. The uneven dirt road was turning to mud. We tried to stay on the higher areas, jumping from one bump to another when necessary. Ahead was a river, of sorts, flowing across the road, so I started looking for a series of bumps and high ground to cross over. We jumped across several mounds, when I looked down and saw something move. It appeared to be a lobster...in central India? I moved a little forward to get a better look and discovered the largest scorpion I have ever seen, or heard of for that matter. We were in a hurry to get home, but we all had to stop, and stare in wonder at this massive creature. The largest recorded scorpion is 9 inches long. I promise you, the one my friends and I saw that day, stranded on a dirt mound, was at least that big...emphasis on AT LEAST. Fierce and poised, ready to strike, I know he was as mortified as we were! Clearly, we chose another mound to cross the watery road and headed home with his image forever etched in our minds.

Village life meant cooking our own meals from our street-market findings. We experimented with different unknown grains, rice, veggies and legumes. We ate lots of fresh eggs. The village we lived in was primarily made up of a caste that was vegetarian, so meat was hard to come by. We made friends with the local school teacher, Shanti, and she offered to teach us how to prepare several dishes. Shanti and her sister road up on their moped. She had a look around the quarters--an old rundown building with no plumbing or electricity--then set off to find three rocks of equal size. She placed the three basketball-sized rocks in a triangle, then piled sticks in between and topped the rocks with a large kettle. I was utterly amazed! We had been cooking on a tiny camping stove for a month. Let me not forget to mention...Shanti brought meat! Lamb. Mutton actually, or old sheep as she called it.

That was the day I learned about curries. Really learned, not just ordered or tasted, but understood. Curries take time, patience, and focus. A myriad of fragrant spices, carefully layered at different times, slow-cooked for hours. We tended the curry and talked all throughout the afternoon. At 19, I had no idea "curry" wasn't it's own spice! Curry powder, as we know it, is simply a blend of popular Asian spices used in India. Shanti also informed me that India cuisine has a certain methodology, not so different from that of french cuisine. There are absolutes. Rules to be followed...rights and wrongs. Many dishes have been prepared the same way for hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years. To change them is a travesty!

Shanti taught us to make a Northern dish called Rogan Josht. A spicy, creamy, tomato based curry with bite-size morsels of tender lamb (mutton) and yogurt. I have worked hard to replicate her dish at home and have made it many times. But I've also done something else...here comes the sacrilege!

Lamb Rogan Josht is amazing, but it takes TIME and meticulous attention--something I don't always have when cooking dinner at the end of a long day--with kids whirling around the kitchen! I have, against better judgment, tinkered with my best Rogan Josht recipe to make a "quickie" version. This curry is for nights when you crave Indian food, but don't get home until 6 pm or later. You could actually walk in the house at 6, change into your comfy clothes, and have dinner ready shortly before 7 pm! Is it Shanti's Rogan Josht? No, But it's PRETTY DARN GOOD!

The first thing I had to do was change the protein. Lamb just takes so long to get that tender, fall-apart texture. So I use chicken breast, or in this case shrimp. The second thing I did is add the spices at once instead of layering them; I've had to alter the measurements a bit. Third, I simmer them in less water over a shorter amount of time. Let me repeat, this is NOT an authentic recipe, but I truly think you will be pleased with the results! My family loves it and the kids actually prefer the shrimp to lamb.

I'll never forget the day I learned about REAL Indian cooking. And I pray for forgiveness when I make my quickie recipe!


Quick Shrimp Rogan Josht with Saffron Basmati Rice

3 Tb. oil
1 large onion, diced
2 Tb. freshly minced ginger
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tb. Madras curry powder
1 tsp. tumeric
1 tsp. garam masala
2 bay leaves
¼ tsp. cayenne*
1-14 oz. can of crushed tomatoes or tomato puree
1 heaping cup of plain yogurt
1 ¾ cups of water
2 lbs. raw peeled shrimp

1 ½ cups dried Basmati rice
1 pinch saffron (optional)
Salt and pepper

*Some of these spices sound unfamiliar, but can be found in most large supermarkets!

Place a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions, saut√© for 3 minutes. Then add all the dried spices and stir into the onions. “Toasting” the spices opens up the flavors faster! Next add the ginger and garlic—saut√© another 1-2 minutes.

Add the tomato puree, 1 ½ tsp. salt, and water. Stir in the yogurt. Simmer for 20-25 minutes—while you are cooking the rice.

Set a smaller pot over high heat. Add 1-2 Tb. of oil and the dried rice. Sear the rice for 1-2 minutes, stirring to coat it in oil. Add the water (usually 3 cups, but check package) and cover to bring to a boil. Once boiling, stir, add a pinch of saffron and a large pinch of salt, then cover and lower heat to simmer. Simmer for about 15 minutes, then remove from heat but keep covered until ready to serve.

Once the rice is ready, remove the bay leaves. Use an immersion blender to puree the curry. This is an optional step I like to take to improve the texture!

Add the shrimp to the curry pot. Stir them in and allow them to cook for 3-5 minutes—until pink. Taste for salt. Serve the Rogan Josht over the saffron rice, with some naan on the side!

Serves 4-6.
*Madras curry powder has some heat to it! If you are sensitive to spicy foods, omit and extra cayenne.

April 22, 2010

Decadent Greens

Warm Goat Cheese and Granny Smith Salad...

Again with the salads? Yes, this time of year I'm cranking them out right and left. To shake things up, this particular salad offers a little decadence along with the greens!

In a perfect world my husband and kids would be jumping up and down for "salad night". Can you imagine what that would look like? "I want the last helping of salad." "No! You got the most salad last night, I get the extra salad tonight!" "Now kids, there's enough salad to go around." In reality, I have to TRICK them into eating their greens by topping them with rich, crunchy ingredients.

We've all had salads with cheese. What generally comes to mind are those enormous chain-restaurant salads topped with piles of neon-orange processed cheese shred. We're going in a different direction for this recipe...introducing GOAT CHEESE. Possibly, my all time favorite thing to eat! I try incorporating it in just about everything. In fact, I really can't think of anything that wouldn't taste better with a smear of soft, creamy goat cheese on top. Peanut butter and goat cheese sandwiches, pickled pig's feet and goat cheese, goat cheese stuffed Spam....YUM!

Lightly pan fried goat cheese served warm, over cool, crisp granny smith apples and fresh herbs. The crispy goat cheese fills the need for a slab of protein. Coming from a hardcore meat-eater, that's saying a lot! The dressing elevates the tart apple flavor with pureed granny smiths and effervescent champagne vinegar. Add some toasted walnuts, and you have near perfection.

The secret to frying cheese is to slice and freeze it first. That way, as the breading is crisping up in the hot oil, the cheese is thawing and warming. Not oozing out! Those of you who know my stance on frying--this IS a time when it's ABSOLUTELY worth it!

Cheese is milk's leap towards immortality. -Clifton Fadiman

Warm Goat Cheese and Granny Smith Salad

½ peeled, chopped granny smith apple
¼ cup champagne vinegar
1 tsp. fresh grated ginger
½ tsp. Dijon mustard
2 tsp. honey
¾ tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
½ cup oil (veggie is fine) + extra for frying

¼ cup buttermilk
1 egg
¼ cup flour
½ tsp. white pepper
¾ cup panko breadcrumbs
1- 10.5 oz. log of soft goat cheese

5 oz. Herb Salad mix
1 ½ granny smith apples, julienne
¾ cup toasted walnuts

Do ahead: Slice the goat cheese log into 10-12 ½ inch pieces. Wrap them in plastic wrap and place them in the freezer for at least 1 ½ hours.

In a blender, puree the first 7 ingredients, then slowly add ½ cup oil to the dressing until emulsified.

Prepare 3 pie pans: one holding buttermilk whisked with egg, a second with flour mixed with white pepper, and a third with panko.

Heat a smallish skillet over medium. Add enough oil to thoroughly coat the bottom of the skillet—about ¼ inch deep. While the oil is heating, prepare the salad plates by piling salad greens on 4-6 plates, topped with julienne apples and toasted walnuts. (Chilling the plates ahead of time is a nice touch!)

When the oil is hot, quickly dip the frozen cheese rounds into the egg mixture, then flour, egg mixture again, then panko—that’s right—4 dips in all!

Place them into the skillet around the outer edges first, and fill the center last. Pan-fry the cheese for 1 ½ to 2 minutes per side until it reaches a golden brown color. Flip with a small spatula.

When ready, remove the fried cheese and place it on a paper towel to absorb the extra oil. Repeat with extra cheese if needed.

Drizzle each plate with granny smith vinaigrette and place 2-3 fried cheese rounds on top of each salad. Serve while the cheese is warm! Serves 4-6.

April 19, 2010


Fresh Swai Ceviche with Blue Corn Chips...

Seafood is one of my favorite things to eat. It's a mini-thrill for me to find a new variety for kitchen experimentation! I often go to a certain "organic" market and browse the seafood counter, lured by their diverse selection. I slowly float down the case. Eyes wide. Breezing over the glistening assortment, searching for inspiration. Almost giddy with anticipation, I feel as if I'm on a culinary scavenger hunt. I LOVE IT!

One particular store has little signs labeling the fish as: Sustainable, At-Risk, Endangered. I might get stoned for writing this, but I have to admit...this irritates me a little. These signs cast a dark shadow of guilt over my otherwise delightful fish-selecting process! Please understand, I'm not saying we should haphazardly consume whatever we please without care of consequence. I want to help sustain fish populations for the "greater good" of our ocean's ecosystems. But why do these eco-friendly stores continue to offer them??? Why put lovely, delicious, ENDANGERED fish in front of me, only to give me dirty looks when I'm tempted to buy it? After all, it's ALREADY DEAD, I can't throw it back now! (This is the same store where the grocery clerk huffed and suspiciously glared at me the ONE time I forgot my reusable bags!) At the seafood counter, I'm like an eager little mouse sitting in front of a cheese-laden trap. Nose up, I cautiously sniff the insatiable aroma of bliss, mingled with danger. Paws slowly creep forward, as my mind fights to resist....SNAP! You might think I need a good hand-slap at this point, but I wish they would just stop catching endangered fish in the first place! 

In all seriousness, I do my best to look the other way when I see the bluefin tuna and red snapper. In the last year, many of our stores have started carrying Swai or Basa, an eco-friendly and wallet-friendly white fish. If you haven't tried it, I know what you're thinking. Cheap fish tastes like...cheap fish. Yet this economical swimmer is surprisingly good! It's an Asian variety of river catfish with a mild, slightly sweet essence. As a river fish, Swai doesn't seem to have the "bottom-dweller" flavor of many catfish varieties. The most sustainable choice is farm-raised in America, and generally costs around $3.99 a pound. I recently bought it on sale for $1.99 a pound!

Ceviche (se-vee-chae) is one of those dishes we curious eaters often adore, while others find it a little daunting. A raw seafood salsa. Or more accurately, citrus-seared fish combined with veggies and herbs to create a light, yet robust concoction. For those who are leery, the acid in the lime juice sort-of cooks the fish over time, so you can feel adventurous eating "raw fish"  without any of the worry! Ceviche is scrumptious served over greens for a warm-weather salad or with tortilla chips as a protein-packed snack.  

I like to make ceviche with rich seafood; scallops or seabass are personal favorites. But as we are all trying to be more responsible with our personal resources, as well as our global resources, Swai is a great alternative. It's delicate, almost creamy texture gives it the semblance of a more luxurious catch!

I served this to friends last night who couldn't get over the smooth flavor of this humble fish. Give it a try!


Fresh and Simple Swai Ceviche

3 Swai fillets, diced (about 1 lb.)
2 limes, juiced
1 tomato, diced
1 avocado, diced
1 shallot, diced (or ¼ cup red onion)
1 Tb. chopped cilantro
Olive oil
¼- ½ tsp chile-garlic paste
Salt and pepper

Place the diced fish into ¾ of the lime juice and refrigerate for at least 3 hours. Strain when ready to proceed.

Mix the veggies with the remaining lime juice.

Stir in the fish and cilantro. Drizzle with olive oil and add the chile-garlic sauce. Gently toss.

Salt and pepper to taste. Serve with tortilla chips or a salad.

Serves 4 for dinner or 8 for appetizers.

Fresh and Simple Swai Ceviche on Foodista

April 16, 2010

Salad...A Matter Of Faith

Grilled Fattoush...the Lebanese answer to the Italian panzanella.

Spring is definitely my FAVORITE season. Budding flowers, new limey-green grass shooting up everywhere, the return of migrating birds...all promises of better weather and flourishing life. I love to plant seeds in the spring. I'm no master gardener, mind you, but I can handle a deck-full of herb pots.

I believe a little faith is required for gardening. Faith after all, is just a deep hope in things unseen. You sprinkle the tiny kernels over the freshly stirred soil, water, and hope beyond all hopes that tomatoes, dill, and basil will emerge. Yes, there is evidence from previous years that this will be the outcome...but you still have no tangible proof in the moment of planting...you just believe.

Spring also brings about another area requiring faith. This time of year, I start to think about what we will do this summer. Picnics, trips to the lake or the coast...this calls for bathing suit shopping. HERE IT IS--the moment I decide we need to incorporate more "dinner salads" into our weekly menu! Salad--definitely a matter of faith. We HOPE. We BELIEVE, that if enough salad is substituted for starchy side dishes, bathing suit shopping--and the whole summer--will be a better experience. We act on our faith (or at least I do) and select large salads for our family's weekly menu. This takes a little adjustment at first, but with enough variation and a little flair, everyone comes around!

Besides faith, variety is the key to sticking with ANYTHING! Salads must be diverse and flavorful, if I don't want my family to slump into the kitchen, with begrudging sighs at meal time. I have spent a substantial amount of time finding and creating salads that I think will draw some interest. Fattoush is a Lebanese salad I stumbled across several years ago. A chunky, chop salad mixed with feta cheese and pieces of toasted pita, then tossed with a simple lemon vinaigrette! I've taken to grilling some of the veggies before tossing them in with the salad because it enhances their flavor and appearance. Peppers, for instance, are much sweeter and vibrant looking with a little char.

This is great on it's own, but as long as the grill's hot, I usually throw on some fish to go along with the fattoush!

Happy Cooking!

Grilled Fattoush

Olive oil
4 zucchini
2 peppers, red and/or yellow
3 pita breads
1 ½ cups cucumber, peeled and chopped into ¾ inch cubes
1 large tomato, chopped
¾ cup green onions, chopped
1 cup pitted or halved kalamata olives
½ cup fresh chopped mint
¼ cup chopped parsley
¾ cup crumbled feta cheese

¼ cup olive oil
1 juicy lemon, squeezed
1 tsp. cumin
Salt and Pepper

Preheat the grill to high. Half the zucchinis, length-wise and cut the peppers into large chunks and remove seeds.

Separate the layers of the pitas to make 6 pita circles.

Drizzle olive oil over the zucchini, peppers and pitas and salt and pepper them. Roll them around, to make sure they have a good coat of oil. Grill the veggies for about 2-3 minutes per side, until nice grill marks have formed and the veggies are slightly tender. Then grill the pitas, for 1 minute per side, until toasty.

In a large serving bowl, add all the other veggies and herbs.

Once the grilled veggies have cooled, chop them into ¾ inch cubes and add them to the serving bowl.

Break the pitas into bite-size pieces and add to the mix. Toss the salad and sprinkle the feta over the top.
Mix ¼ cup of olive oil and the juice of one lemon in a small bowl. Season with cumin, salt and pepper and whisk. Drizzle over the salad when ready to serve! Serves 4-6.

Grilled Fattoush on Foodista