Monday, January 26, 2009

Buckwheat Cookies with Cocoa Nibs

Do you have an ingredient that lures you to a recipe like a siren? For some people it's chocolate, for others it's garlic. You are probably thinking, it's fish for me. That would be a very reasonable guess, but these kinds of obsessions are not reasonable. I can calmly read fish recipes without losing my head. I can't resist fish at the fish market, but the recipes are not a huge turn on for me. My secret obsession is buckwheat flour. Whenever I see a recipe that involves buckwheat flour -- no matter how wacky the recipe might sound -- I must try it, or face being haunted by it for weeks until that terrible buckwheat craving goes away.

When I saw Alice Medrich's recipe for Nibby Buckwheat Butter Cookies on, I was hoping I'd resist the buckwheat siren's song. First of all, I don't do cookies. I don't even bake them for Christmas. When I have to give people food gifts, I give pies and tarts. Second of all, I have not jumped on the cocoa nib bandwagon like everyone else. I know, I know -- it's cocolate and it's good for you. How can one resist? Well, I find them terribly bitter, and I don't like how they stick in my teeth. Of course, you can put them into something very sweet, like ice-cream, but that defeats that "good for you" part, in which case, I'd rather have Valrhona dark chocolate. But in spite of all these drawbacks, the recipe had buckwheat flour and I only managed to hold out for one week before trying it.

This was a phenomenal cookie. Of course, I don't know if you want an opinion of a person who needed buckwheat to attract her to chocolate and who doesn't normally like cookies. It tasted like a perfect shortbread -- crisp, crumbly, with an intoxifying flavor of butter. But the buckwheat added a whole new dimention to it; it made the flavor deeper and more earthy. I was seriously contemplating replacing the cocoa nibs with walnuts or pecans, but I am glad I didn't. When baked, cocoa nibs no longer stuck in my teeth, and added a pleasant gentle crunch. As for the bitterness, it actually provided good balance to the cookie's sweetness.

Alice Medrich's recipe was perfect. I loved that she gave the weigh measurement for flour. I strongly, strongly encourage you to use the weigh measurement, and not the cup one. If you don't have a kitchen scale, you can get one on amazon for $25. Here is why I am obsessing over how to measure flour. The recipe can easily be halved if you don't want the temptation of having all those cookies in the house. They do last for about a month in an airtight containter, but our half batch was gone in 2 days.

I won't post the recipe here since it's already published on Culinate and a ton of other blogs. I am tempted to buy Medrich's Pure Dessert book where this recipe is from, but I am worried that it might convert me into a dessert person.

So, do you have an ingredient that lures you into trying almost any recipe? What's the best or most surprising thing you've made with it?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Citrus Risotto (from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook)

This Christmas, I did something I haven't done in over a year -- I bought a cookbook.

I am a big cookbook skeptic. I am an even bigger restaurant cookbook skeptic. Not that regular cookbooks aren't full of untested, poorly written recipes, but the cookbooks written by restaurant chefs seem to be the worst offenders. Let's start with the fact that such books' primary objective is to promote the restaurant, make you drool over photos, and tell you stories about the chef's adventures in Provence, Japan, or some other exotic place that inspire you to try the restaurant. Making sure that your dish comes out perfectly is on the bottom of the writers' and publishers' priority queue. When I first heard about the Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers, I was as skeptical as usual. But 3 years ago, I tried the roast chicken recipe from the Zuni Cafe book republished on-line, and then the porchetta recipe, and finally... finally... I bought the book for myself this Christmas.

What made me decide that this book had potential was the kind of details provided in its recipes. It was the stuff I imagined Judy Rodgers telling her line cooks. Most of her recipes have 5-10 ingredients and 2 pages of procedural instruction. But as tedious as it is to follow such long instructions, the lessons learned from them are invaluable. Judy Rodgers wants your dish to succeed, and she puts such effort into walking you through the recipes that I suddenly had an urge go to San Francisco right away and give her a big hug.

I spent the last month devouring the book. I have now made an apple tart, chicken stock, pasta with broccoli and cauliflower, polenta, and my favorite dish of all -- the citrus risotto. The risotto was so good, I made it twice in one week. The picture doesn't do it justice. No story I could write about it could do it justice. Like many other of Rodgers' recipes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Much greater.

I have to confess that I have made some minor tweaks to the recipe.
  • used shallots instead of onions
  • added more mascarpone than the recipe called for (almost doubling the amount suggested)
  • used my oven risotto method instead of the classic stirring on the stove stop
But I don't think I changed the fundamental structure of the recipe or what makes it so delightful.

Before I started writing this post, I was curious about what's already written about this recipe, so I googled "zuni cafe citrus risotto," and got over 2,000 results. Surprisingly, not everyone thought it was great. Of course, tastes are different, but I couldn't help but wonder what could go wrong for people who didn't fall madly in love with this dish. I can't imagine I'll convince anyone to give this risotto another try if their first try failed, but if you haven't made it yet and want to try it, here are some tips that worked for me.
  • Make sure to use enough salt. The recipe doesn't give salt measurement. It's too hard to do these days with many different salt types out there. Unfortunately, "season to taste" is easier said than done for many cooks. The oven method makes seasoning much easier. The cooking liquid does not evaporate after it's added to the rice, allowing you to season the liquid to taste in the very beginning. But I found that even if I use perfectly seasoned stock and end up with perfectly seasoned risotto, I have to add more salt once the grapefruit and mascarpone go in. Whether it needs more salt is not intuitively obvious. Once the grapefruit is in, the risotto tilts towards the fruity side and adding salt seems strange. But if you keep salting and tasting, you'll find that the flavor will become rounder, more complex, and focused.
  • Avoid store bought stock. This recipe is too delicate for that, and Judy Rodgers warn you. But I realize that sometimes you just don't have time for chicken stock (good one takes 5-6 hours start to finish). I found that using a shrimp stock was a great alternative. It's easy to make, and cooks in 40 minutes. I have made this risotto twice -- once with shrimp stock and once with chicken stock -- both were delicious.
  • Don't be conservative with mascarpone. Remember -- this is a restaurant recipe, and restaurant chefs never hesitate to add just one more dollop of fat. Taste your risotto carefully. If it needs a little something, try more mascarpone. Just remember that every time you add it, you have to add a little more salt.
  • Quality of the grapefruit. Make sure your grapefruit is tasty enough to eat by itself. If it's too sour, it won't do risotto much good.
My adaptation of Judy Rodgers' Citrus Risotto (from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook)

Serves 4 to 6

1 to 2 medium grapefruits, to yield 3/4 cup sections, plus juice
1 lime, to yield a scant 1/4 cup sections
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup finely diced shallots (or yellow onions)
1 cup Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano rice (do not substitute other rice!)
2 cups home-made chicken stock or shrimp stock
1/3-1/2 cup mascarpone
  1. Section the grapefruits using this procedure and squeeze the remaining juice from the "carcasses" into the bowl. Section the lime using the same prodedure, but don't squeeze the juice. Cut all the grapefruit and lime sections in half crosswise.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400F. Bring the stock to a simmer.
  3. Place a heavy 4-quart oven-proof pot that has an oven-proof cover on the stove top over medium-low heat. Add the butter, shallots, and a generous pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until shallots are translucent and tender, but no color develops, 8-10 minutes. If they are browning before they have a chance to soften, turn down the heat. While shallots are cooking, season the stock with salt to taste.
  4. Add rice, raise the heat to medium, and cook stirring constantly with a flat wooden spoon (or some other spatula) until the rice grains are coated with fat and are translucent around the edges, about 2 minutes.
  5. Add the hot stock to rice and stir well. Bring to a simmer, give it one more stir to make sure none of the rice grains are stuck together, cover the pot, and place in the middle of the oven for 17 minutes.
  6. Remove risotto from the oven, add the grapefruit and lime sections and grapefruit juice. Bring to a simmer on the stove top over medium heat while stirring constantly. Taste the risotto for texture. If the grains are still too tough to your liking, cover the risotto and return to the oven for another 2 minutes. If you think you are really close, continue cooking on the stove top while stirring. If all the liquid is absorbed, but risotto is still too tough, add another 1/4 cup of stock or water. As soon as the risotto reaches your desired doneness (I like mine to lose all chalky crunch, but not get mushy), take it off the heat.
  7. Add mascarpone and a generous pinch of salt and stir vigorously, breaking up the citrus sections. Taste. If it tastes more fruity than savory, keep adding salt a little at a time and tasting after each addition, until the risotto has a good balance of sweetness, acidity, and saltiness. Serve immediately in warm bowls.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Maine Shrimp Stock and Salad

What made me decide to drop everything and write this post is that it's a food writing emergency. I know this sounds funny. It makes me think of a person with a whisk and a laptop returning a call from his pager: "Hello, this is the food writer on call. How can I help you?" But emergencies happen even in the field of food writing. The Maine Shrimp (sometimes referred to as Nordic Shrimp) are only in season for about a month, that's why I can't procrastinate with this post. If you live in the North East of the US or on the east coast of Canada, you will probably see them in your fish market and Whole Foods this time of year. Spotting them is easy. They are tiny (about an inch), pink, very inexpensive, and normally sold with the shell. They might not have the succulent texture of larger shrimp, but their intensely sweet flavor will knock your socks off. In my opinion, they make the best shrimp stock, so make sure to keep the shells -- it's the best part!

My favorite way to serve them is chilled in a salad. I've had them this way at Le Convivial restaurant in Montreal and loved them. To make use of every bit of sweetness in these shrimp, I first peel them and make a quick stock out of the shells. Then I poach the shrimp in this stock for 30-60 seconds. They are so tiny, they cook almost instantly. I drain and chill them and then combine with a vinaigrette and whatever accompaniments I have on hand. The most perfect combination involves shallots, mango, and sweet peppers. But this time, I didn't have either mango or peppers on hand, so I threw in some preserved lemon and cilantro instead. Feel free to improvise with fruits, vegetables, and herbs to make a harmonious shrimp salad. Just remember that these shrimp are tiny, so your shallots and herbs need to be minced extremely finely and your fruits and vegetables should be cut into brunoise (tiny dice of about 3mm or slightly less than 1/8 of an inch on each side). If you combine these shrimp with large chunks of vegetables, they'll be completely lost.

Can you imagine how intensely flavorful this stock was after getting every bit of deliciousness out of the shells and then having shrimp poached in it on top of that? It had risotto written all over it. Since I had a ton of sectioned grapefruit in the fridge from the Knife Skills class, I decided to give Zuni Cafe's Citrus Risotto a shot. The recipe called for chicken stock, but citrus and shrimp seemed like a natural combination, so I used my shrimp stock.

It was stunning! I thought it might be good, but it surpassed all my expectations. I served the shrimp salad and the risotto as 2 separate courses with a good bottle of German Riesling to complement the sweetness and tartness of the meal. Jason and I agreed that it was the best meal we've had in a long time (and we normally eat pretty well around here).

How to peel Maine shrimp
Peel these tiny shrimp as you would any other shrimp. Slip your fingers under the feet at the thick part of the shrimp and remove the shell. Then gently pinch the tail and slip whatever remains of the shell off. The shrimp should be completely naked. Don't leave the tails on.

If you find any gray stuff under the shell around the feet, that's the row. Clean it off the shrimp with your fingers, but don't discard it. Put it together with the shells for the stock.

Beware that even though Maine Shrimp are tiny and totally innocent looking, their shells are prickly near the tails. Eventually, you'll figure out just where that spot is and won't prick yourself any more.

Shrimp Stock

The long list of ingredients for this stock is almost all optional. If you had nothing but shrimp shells and water, you could still make it. But if you could throw in a few aromatic vegetables and herbs, the stock will be even better.

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 small carrot, peeled and diced
1/2 celery stock, diced
Shells from 1 Lb of Maine shrimp
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup diced tomatoes from a can, drained
6 cups cold water
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 bay leaf
Salt to taste
  1. Set a 4 quart pot on the stove over medium heat. When the pot is hot, add oil, onion, carrot, and celery. Cook stirring occasionally until the vegetables are just starting to get tender, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add the shrimp shells and cook stirring constantly, until shells start to smell very shrimpy, 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add the garlic and tomatoes and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  4. Add the water and bring to a boil over high heat. Skim any scum that rises to the top.
  5. Reduce the heat so that the liquid simmers gently. Add thyme and bay leaf. Simmer for 40 minutes.
  6. Take off heat, let cool for 1 minute, and strain through a sieve into a bowl, pressing hard on solids. Discard solids.
If you don't need stock immediately, cool completely and keep in the fridge for 3 days or freeze. If freezing, try to use within a month for best flavor.

Tiny Shrimp Salad

The sour cream in the dressing is the trick I learned from the chef at Le Convivial. It's barely detectable, but gives the dressing a nice richness. If you don't have it, just skip it.

1 Lb of Maine shrimp, peeled
2 Tbsp finely minced shallot
1 Tbsp finely minced herbs (one or more of cilantro, tarragon, chives, dill, or parsley)
2 Tbsp diced red, yellow, or orange pepper (the dice should be tiny -- 1/8 inch or smaller)
2 Tbsp diced mango (the dice should be tiny -- 1/8 inch or smaller)
Salt and pepper to taste

For the dressing:
2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbsp olive oil (the best you have on hand)
2 tsp sour cream (optional)
  1. Bring the shrimp stock that you just made to a simmer. If you decided not to make stock, bring 6 cups water to a simmer.
  2. Add the shrimp and cook at a bare simmer for 60 seconds. Remove shrimp immediately with a slotted spoon and place on a plate. Set in the fridge to cool, while preparing the rest of the ingredients.
  3. To make the dressing, place the lemon juice in a small bowl. Whisk in mustard using a fork or a small whisk. Slowly drizzle in the oil, whisking constantly. Whisk in the sour cream. Season generously with salt and pepper.
  4. When shrimp are cooled to room temperature or colder. Mix them with the shallots, herbs, peppers, mango, and the dressing. Taste and add more salt, pepper, and lemon juice as needed. Can be made a few hours in advance and stored in the fridge in an airtight container.
Citrus Risotto recipe coming soon...

Friday, January 9, 2009

Bean Walnut Spread with Pomegranates

I can't believe it's 10 days into the new year and I still haven't written anything on my blog. It's not for lack of cooking. But a few things have been keeping me away from blogging. Some good and some not so good.

The good: Jason gave me a piano for Christmas. It's the first time I've had my own piano since I left Russia in 1991! I am now addicted to this thing like kids are addicted to computer games. Since I've been spending all my free time playing, I haven't gotten a chance to write.

The not so good: I've been swamped with registering people for cooking classes and dealing with cancellations, waiting lists, class swaps, and other parts of running my own business that sometimes give me a headache.

But things are finally settling more or less into a routine. I am teaching again, and that's the best part of my job. I taught a Knife Skills class a few nights ago to a wonderful group of people. Even though I made them cry (imagine 8 people slicing and dicing onions at once in a small kitchen), and didn't feed them till the end of class, they seemed to have really enjoyed themselves. To put everyone in a better mood, I usually make some snacks for the beginning of class. My students are hungry and tired after work, and it's always easier to spend 2 hours chopping vegetables if your stomach is not growling. One of this Knife Skills class snacks was a bean and walnut spread. I got this idea from a dish I had at Oleana restaurant years ago. I never got the recipe for it, but a little improvisation yielded excellent results.

It's also a good way to use up those pomegranate molasses that you bought or made after my not so recent post. What? You haven't tried it yet? This is your chance.

Please note that the measurements are approximate. I just dumped things into my food processor without measuring (as usual), and only realized that this would make a good post after the spread was made.

Bean Walnut Spread with Pomegranates

For the spread
2 cups cooked black beans, drained (it's ok to use canned)
2/3 cup walnut halves (no need to toast them)
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbsp pomegranate molasses
1/4 cup olive oil
3 Tbsp cream cheese, cut into 3 pieces (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

For garnish
pomegranate molasses
pomegranate seeds
  1. Put all the spread ingredients into a food processor and puree until almost smooth. This spread will still be slightly grainy due to walnuts.
  2. Taste and adjust the seasoning and texture as needed. If the spread is too thick, add more oil. If it doesn't have a bright tang to it, add more pomegranate molasses. If it's too earthy, add more cream cheese. If too bland, add more salt.
  3. Spread on bread, drizzle with more pomegranate molasses and top with pomegranate seeds.