23 May 2010

Beef Ragu

I am rarely interested in large hunks of meat and I'm usually happy with a glass or two of wine, all of which makes me a pretty cheap date should you want to take me out to dinner. However, every once in a while I spy a meat recipe that strikes my fancy, say pulled pork or lamb flatbreads. This ragu recipe caught my eye because it not only looked succulent and juicy and perfect for a rainy day, but because it's very little effort.

Most ragu recipes call for a combination of ground pork and veal, but this one calls for chunks of stew beef. Technically a ragu is simply a meat sauce cooked with tomatoes and vegetables, and can be made with anything from sausage to lamb shanks to oxtails. I'd argue that in this case the long braise of the meat in the oven makes this especially good. And yes, this does take about 4 hours in the oven, so set it aside for a lazy Sunday or a day when you're home early from work.

But besides that long stint in the oven, there's very little else you have to besides chop up some carrots and brown the meat. Also, the recipe makes a lot, so you can eat it all week or, if you have recipe ADD like me, you can freeze half the batch for later. The rich flavor works perfectly when paired with the neutrality of pasta and tamed with a sprinkling of cheese.

Beef Ragu
This is just as tasty with lamb. Also, if you (tragically) happen to be low on wine, try combining 2/3 a cup Marsala with 1 1/3 cup low-sodium beef stock.

2 pounds stew beef, cut in chunks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 onion
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons fresh sage
8 cloves garlic
3-4 large carrots, peeled
Olive oil
2 cups red wine
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes

1. Pat the beef chunks dry with a paper towel, liberally coat with salt and pepper and set aside. Peel and coarsely chop the onions, and chop the garlic. Chop the carrot into thin rounds.

2. Place an oven-proof Dutch oven or heavy stockpot over medium-high heat, and add olive oil to cover the bottom thinly. When oil is hot, add the lamb and brown deeply. Do this in batches if necessary. Don't worry about drying out the meat — you want it browned darkly for good flavor (~10 minutes).

3. When the meat is thoroughly browned, add the onions, rosemary, sage, garlic, and carrots. Reduce heat to medium-low and sauté until vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes. Add wine and continue to simmer until liquid has reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices to the pot.

4. Bring to a simmer, then cover and place in a 275-degree oven for 3 to 4 hours. The longer it cooks the more tender it will be. Check the pan every hour and a bit of water if it starts to look dry. When ready to serve, go through with two forks and shred any remaining chunks of meat. Taste and season if necessary with additional salt and pepper. Serve over pasta with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

19 May 2010

Blood Orange Creamsicle Pie

Moving in together is a funny thing. No matter how much time you've spent together before, there's always an adjustment to be made. You'll argue over whose bed stays or goes, discover his secret stash of books on game theory (I'm not kidding people). You learn things like never, never disturb Paul while he's napping. Trust me, a man awoken from a nap prematurely is not a good thing for anyone involved. I want to hide under the covers just thinking about it. But at the end of it all, if you're lucky, you'll discover that you get to come home to that person everyday, and that in itself is pretty awesome.

With Paul, I discovered that all of a sudden there is this person here who wants to cook with me, and whom I can cook for. Cooking for two is way more fun than cooking for one, and Paul is always asking questions like, "why is this considered a ragu," and "what's the difference between fennel and anise." I like this because it challenges some of my assumptions about cooking.

We were discussing key lime pie, and how you could make it with any citrus, say lemon or blood orange or yuzu. I like doing this a lot, taking a base recipe and changing the flavoring ingredients. So I decided to try the blood orange version, only using a classic French technique, and made a lose custard that could be turned into a frozen pie. And it's delicious, it cool and creamy and a little bit tangy. It's almost as good as a nap, just don't disturb me while I'm eating it.

Blood Orange Creamsicle Pie

1 graham cracker crust, baked
1 cup sugar
finely grated zest of 2 blood oranges
4 large eggs
3/4 cup freshly squeezed blood orange juice
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into tablespoon-sized pieces

1. Put the sugar and zest in a large metal bowl that can be fitted into the pan of simmering water. Off heat, work the sugar and zest together between your fingers until the sugar is moist, grainy and very aromatic. Whisk in the eggs followed by the juice.
2. Set a pan of water to boil. Fit the bowl into the pan (make certain the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl) and cook, stirring with the whisk as soon as the mixture feels tepid to the touch. (if you're using a thermometer 180°F). As you whisk the cream over heat—and you must whisk constantly to keep the eggs from scrambling—you’ll see that the cream will start out light and foamy, then the bubbles will get bigger, and then it will start to thicken and the whisk will leave tracks. Heads up at this point—the tracks mean the cream is almost ready. Don’t stop whisking and don’t stop checking the temperature. And have patience—depending on how much heat you’re giving the cream, getting to temp can take as long as 10 minutes.
3. As soon as you reach 180°F, pull the cream from the heat and transfer it into the container of a blender (or food processor); discard the zest. Let the cream rest at room temperature, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes.
4. Turn the blender to high and, with the machine going, add about 5 pieces of butter at a time. Scrape down the sides of the container as needed while you’re incorporating the butter. Once the butter is in, keep the machine going—to get the perfect light, airy texture you must continue to beat the cream for another 3 minutes. If your machine protests and gets a bit too hot, work in 1-minute intervals, giving the machine a little rest between beats.
5. Transfer the orange cream to the refrigerator and let cool completely. It should set up considerably in the fridge. Pour until the crust and place in the freezer for several hours, until frozen.
6. To serve, remove the pie from the freezer about 15 minutes before you want to serve it (depending on the outdoor temperature, more or less time may be needed). Serve in wedges, store in the freezer.

12 May 2010

Artichokes with Saffron, Orange, Olives, and Almonds

Orange salads are something unique to Moroccan cuisine, and though it may sound odd to Western ears, the sweet juicy, slightly chewy segments of orange make for a great basis for a salad. They are commonly paired with a sprinkling of hot pepper and salty chopped olives, but you'll also find orange, radish, and cinnamon salad, or oranges with dates and slivered almonds, the varieties go on and on. (For recipes, check out Paula Wolfert's "Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco.")

This recipe for baby artichokes braised with saffron, oranges, olives, and almonds is one I cobbled together from many sources. It would be at home almost anywhere in the Mediterranean, from Sicily to Cyprus, where all these ingredients are native. I have to say, I hate prepping artichokes, so it has to be a pretty good recipe for me to even go to the trouble. But the nice thing about baby artichokes (besides the fact that they're so cute. Really, just look at those little things). The best part is that baby artichokes really cook all the way through, so you have less concern about tough chewy leaves or spiky centers.

Other than the time it takes to prep the artichokes and the oranges, the recipe is a snap. You do a quick braise of the artichokes with a bit or orange juice, water, and saffron, and when they are tender you sprinkle over them orange segments, olives, almonds, and mint. It's beautiful to serve and full of contrasting sweet/salty/soft/crunchy notes.

Artichokes with Saffron, Orange, Olives, and Almonds

1 lb baby artichokes
a splash of lemon or vinegar
1 large orange or 2 small (I used Mineola)
a pinch of saffron
2 tablespoons chopped black olives
2 tablespoons slivered almonds
a few leaves of mint, slivered

1. Prepare a large bowl of water with a splash of lemon or vinegar. Prep the artichokes (see tutorial here). First slice off about an inch of the top. Then, remove the tough outer leaves. Finally, trim the bottoms and slice the hearts in half. Place prepped artichokes in acidulated water to prevent discoloring.
2. Section the orange by removing the outer pith and then slicing between the membranes to remove the sections (see tutorial here). Squeeze the remaining membrane part over a bowl to extract the juice and set aside the sections.
3. Add the saffron and about 1/2 cup of warm water to the bowl with the orange juice.
4. Heat some olive oil in a pan, drain the artichokes, and saute them briefly over medium heat. After a minute or so, add in the saffron water. Make sure the liquid cover the artichokes halfway up their sides. Cover the pan and let simmer for 15 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a knife.
5. Uncover the pan and let simmer until the sauce reduces to just a glaze. Remove from heat.
6. Meanwhile toast the almonds.
7. Sprinkle orange segments, chopped olives, almonds, and mint over artichokes. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

08 May 2010

Watercress Soup

My mother always waxed rhapsodic about watercress, she'd tell tales of how she and my grandmother would gather watercress in the creeks around their home, of the peppery flavor added to tea sandwiches and salads. Now, my grandmother was a tenacious woman, not afraid to get her hands dirty, but somehow I have a hard time picturing my grandmother's Chanel lapel pins tromping around in a stream.

Nonetheless, I always pick up some watercress when it's in season as if compelled by my mother's tales, but I have often found the leaves were thick and tough, or far too peppery to eat as part of a salad. But this year I spied in my grocery a delicate plant of tiny green leaves, with its root ball preserved in a small container of water. Watercress is a fascinating organism- it thrives on the edge of streams, where it has to have constantly flowing water to protect it from parasite and snails. Watercress can quickly become wilted and bitter once removed from fresh water, which explains those many unappetizing specimens I'd had in the past.

After a few pleasing crunchy salads, I turned the rest of the watercress into a pleasingly simple soup, one thickened with potato and a splash of cream, and bright green like a Shrek cartoon. It's simple in the way many good things are, you could serve it cold like a vichysoisse, or I like it warm with a nice hunk of toast.

Watercress Soup

olive oil, salt
1 large bunch watercress, leaves only, discard the stems
1 medium sweet yellow onion, peeled and diced
1 medium russet potato, peeled and roughly chopped
water or vegetable stock, about 4 cups
splash of heavy cream, optional

1. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium high-heat. Cook the onions, stirring until browned and caramelized, at least 15 minutes.
2. Pour in the water or stock, add the potatoes, season with salt, and bring to a boil. Let simmer until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork. If the water level gets low, add some more. When the potatoes are tender, toss in the watercress leaves and stir until wilted and bright green, a few minutes.
3. Remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Place in a blender (or using an immersion blender), blend until very smooth. Add the cream if desired, and taste for seasoning. Reheat before serving.