Saturday, February 23, 2013

Yellow Foods for a Gray Day
What's cooking? Meyer Lemon Curd and Meyer Lemon Mousse

Yesterday was one of those dimly lit days in Austin, with a light drizzle from dawn to dusk. And my Valentine’s Day tulips struggled to last the full week. I’m not complaining – we can certainly use any amount of wet in our streams and lakes, and I’ve been thrilled to have the tulips for however long they make it. We don’t get much winter here in Texas, so I’m always grateful for the days that offer an excuse to watch old movies or straighten up my office or just read a book. My husband watched a marathon of games on the soccer channel. To each his own.

Maybe the best thing about such days is that I can head to the kitchen and – without an ounce of guilt – root around for something new to cook. I checked the fridge contents for inspiration and realized that my Meyer lemons were nearing the same state as the tulips – looking a little peaked, as my Louisiana grandmother would have said. Must be time to make lemon curd.

I have a tiny Meyer lemon tree that squeaked out 11 yellow orbs this year – not bad for a plant its size. But my wonderful neighbor, Lynne, has two trees not much bigger than mine, and hers produced a bumper crop. I have to find out her secret. To manage her bounty, she squeezes a bunch and freezes it into ice cubes, giving her a source of fresh juice that lasts at least through spring; still, she had oodles left over, so she gave me some. What a good neighbor – better than State Farm any day if you ask me.

So, for the trivia lovers among you, Meyer lemons have been in the U.S. since the early 1900s, but weren’t “discovered” as a food until Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and – who else – Martha Stewart came along. Meyers are sweeter than “true” lemons – which are really just called lemons without any adjective – and were developed in China as a hybrid between lemons and some type of orange. Meyers also have a smoother, thinner skin than regular lemons, and if left on the tree for more than the 3-4 months they need for ripening, will actually turn orange. Lynne let me cut off two that she hadn’t bothered to harvest – imagine! – so here’s a photo of what you get if you leave them on the tree an extra month.

I have such a hard time bringing myself to do anything with these lemons – they’re so beautiful, with a fragrance that speaks of freshness without the heavy citrus scent of regular lemons. Sitting in a bowl in my kitchen, they’re a bit of still life art. But lemon curd is equally wonderful and almost as versatile as the lemons themselves, and for only a tiny bit of work.

If you don’t know about lemon curd, you are in for a total treat. A smooth, gelatinous, pudding-y substance that’s essentially lemon-lovers’ answer to peanut butter. It’s a spread, a filling, a topping – featuring a bright yellow color and a bright, sweet lemon taste. It keeps for a year if you freeze it, and a month if not. It’s not on any diet I know of, but in small quantities, what the heck....

So, first the recipe, then a few ideas for using it. Watch for the Meyer Lemon Mousse at the end.

Meyer Lemon Curd
Adapted from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home

Yield: about 5 cups

1 cup Meyer lemon juice
6 large eggs
6 large egg yolks (save a few of the whites for the lemon curd mousse below)
1 cup sugar
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into small chunks

Kitchen Goddess note: If you can’t find Meyer lemons, use regular lemons and increase the sugar to 1¼ cups. Under no circumstances should you use bottled lemon juice.

In a double boiler, or a large mixing bowl set over a pan of simmering water, whisk the lemon juice, eggs, yolks, and sugar together constantly for 5-6 minutes. Just when you think your arms won’t move the whisk around the pan for even a few more seconds, the mixture will come together into a pudding-like consistency.

Remove the mixture from the heat and whisk in the butter one small chunk at a time, allowing each piece to be completely incorporated before adding the next. Kitchen Goddess note: The Kitchen Goddess cleverly used her metal KitchenAid mixing bowl for the double-boiler whisking, so she was able to move the bowl to her mixer for whisking in the butter. The Kitchen Goddess is both lazy and clever.

Using a fine-mesh sieve, strain the curd into a clean bowl to remove any bits of cooked egg. Some cooks – whose names I won't mention but you know who you are, Ina –  add lemon zest and don’t strain the curd. If you don’t strain the curd, you can end up with tiny pieces of cooked egg in it – yuck. Moreover, I prefer the smoothness that comes from straining, and it’s such a light, lemony taste that I didn’t feel the need for zest. Speed the straining along by stirring against the mesh with a spatula.

If you will be using the curd within the next day, cover it with plastic wrap laid on the surface of the curd to keep a skin from forming and refrigerate. If not, store it in jars in the fridge or freeze it in plastic containers. The curd will firm up considerably as it cools. Give it a good stir to loosen it up again before using.

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And now for a few ways to use this delightful substance:

■ Instead of butter on a scone or pound cake

■ As a filling between layers in a cake

■ In a baked tart shell with fruit scattered on top

■ Swirled with plain yogurt for breakfast or with softened vanilla ice cream for dessert

■ As the basis for a lemon meringue pie

■ As the basis for Meyer Lemon Mousse:

1. Whip ½ cup heavy cream, with ½ teaspoon vanilla, until stiff peaks form.

2. Gently fold ½ cup Meyer Lemon Curd into the whipped cream.

3. In a clean bowl, whip 2 large egg whites, with ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar, until soft peaks form. Add 4 tablespoons sugar and continue whipping until stiff, glossy peaks form.

4. Gently fold the whites into the whipped cream-curd mixture. Spoon into individual sherbet bowls and chill for 1-2 hours before serving.

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Finally, put some of the curd into a jar and take it to the generous friend who gave you the lemons. It'll brighten the day for both of you.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Valentine’s Day Truffle Reprise
What’s Cooking? Goat Cheese & Nutella Truffles

I dreamed last night that I sent one of these chocolate truffles to every member of Congress. And I’m pretty sure that if I really did that, the mood in Washington would get better overnight. They’re that good.

Those of you with good memories or who are long-time readers of this blog will note that I’ve published this recipe before – almost exactly a year ago, in fact. But I think a really great recipe deserves a periodic reminder. Moreover, I’ve improved my technique with these truffles, and have discovered a handy little tool that made them easier to manage.

On the broader subject of chocolates, let me reiterate: these are the most amazing truffles I’ve ever had, and I really like truffles. Now if you haven’t the time or energy for making the ones here, but you also are a chocolate truffle fan, you should hop on down to your local Vosges Haut-Chocolat shop, where the name is a bit pretentious but they have the most amazing and beautiful chocolate truffles I’ve ever inhaled. Really excellent milk chocolate or dark chocolate wrapped around a delightfully exotic range of fillings and flavors. Also available online or at many Whole Foods. And no, they haven’t paid me a dime for this plug.

The tool I mentioned above is part of the set pictured here, sold in most kitchen stores in their candy-making aisle. The one I found most helpful is the middle one, that looks like a tiny whisk. It’ll let you dip the goat cheese/Nutella centers into your melted chocolate with a great deal more ease than with a spoon or fork, although I believe even a fork is better than a spoon if you’re trying not to dribble chocolate all over the kitchen.

 So here’s the truffle recipe, with revised instructions – from making them several times –  that I hope are easy enough to get you all to make some. Then if we coordinate our efforts and send them to Congress...

Remember, the recipe comes to us all courtesy of Chef Leigh Friend, the amazingly talented Pastry Chef at Casellula Cheese & Wine Café, at 401 West 52nd Street, in NYC.

Kitchen Goddess note: Last year at this time, the bag of Ghirardelli bittersweet chips was 11.5 ounces, which shows you what kind of hidden inflation can take place in a year. The Kitchen Goddess used the entire bag, so if you are especially sloppy or heavy-handed with the chocolate coatings, you might want an extra bag or bar around. The bags are 60% cacao, but if you buy the bars, you have a choice between 60% and 70%. If anyone tries the 70% bars, let me know how you like it. And if you buy the 4-ounce bars, you’ll want to get 3 of them. I just think the chips are easier to deal with.

Goat Cheese and Nutella Truffles
Adapted from Leigh Friend, Pastry Chef at Casellula Cheese & Wine Café

Makes 32-34 truffles, each about 1½” in diameter.

4 ounces goat cheese (chèvre – any mild-flavored brand, as fresh as you can get)
4 ounces Nutella
5-6 ounces toasted, chopped hazelnuts (see note at #1 below)
10-ounce bag of Ghirardelli Bittersweet 60% Cacao Baking Chips
finishing salt (Maldon or other flaky sea salt)

1. A note on hazelnuts: If you can buy hazelnuts without skins, bravo. Move to Step 2. If, like me, you can only find whole hazelnuts with skins on, by far the best way to remove the skins is to boil them 3-4 minutes in a quart of water with 4 tablespoons of baking soda, then rinse them in a colander under cold water. Most of the skins will peel off on their own; the rest will come off easily with a little rubbing.

2. Chop the nuts and toast them 10-20 minutes in a 350º oven. The first time I made these, I chopped the nuts pretty finely; I now chop less finely and leave some good-sized chunks, as I think the look is more artistic. You should go with whatever look you like. Put the toasted nuts in a bowl and reserve.

3. Line a couple of small baking pans with baker’s parchment. I use 2 quarter-sheet pans, which are 8" x 12¼".

4. In a KitchenAid-style mixer with a paddle, combine the goat cheese and Nutella. Mix until smooth, making sure to scrape down the sides. If you are handy with a piping bag, transfer the mix to a piping bag and pipe out the truffles to balls about ¾ inch in diameter.

If you are NOT handy that way – and now we are talking about people like the Kitchen Goddess herself – chill the mix well (maybe stopping halfway and re-chilling, as the heat from your hands will start the melting process faster than you would guess), and use a teaspoon or melon baller to form the mix into balls about ¾ inch in diameter.

Put the balls on the parchment-lined trays. Cover with Saran Wrap and freeze 30-45 minutes.

5. Melt the chocolate. If you have bars of chocolate, chop them into uniform pieces about the size of a chocolate chip. To melt using a double-boiler, make sure the bottom of the pan with the chocolate doesn’t touch the water, and stir frequently with a spatula once it begins to melt. The easier way is to melt the chocolate in a microwave at 50%, in increments of 30-45 seconds. If you can’t do 50% power, use shorter increments. Stir well between each interval of heating. Be conservative with the power, as chocolate that has been overheated can turn grainy.

5. Working only one tray at a time, dip the truffles in the chocolate once to get a good thick shell on the outside. Refreeze each tray as you work on the other.

You may want to reheat the chocolate periodically, as it thickens in the dipping process, but do so carefully, and stir again after heating.

6. After coating all the truffles once, dip them a second time and, before the chocolate can harden, roll them in the chopped hazelnuts. Sprinkle sparingly with the salt. Chef Friend combines the toasted chopped nuts in a bowl mixed with a large pinch of the salt, but I prefer to sprinkle it on. Do whatever works for you.

If you are not serving the truffles the same day, I recommend freezing them. Frozen, they’ll keep well for at least a month.

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One of the great joys of arriving in Austin has been that I’ve discovered a community of blogging foodies. They are a most generous group who are always willing to trade recipes, restaurant recommendations, or simply good ideas. Click here for a compendium of Valentine-related recipes collected by one of these good souls.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Valentine Soup
What’s cooking? Mushroom Artichoke Soup

My mother wasn’t much of a cook. She got dinner for us most nights, and it always tasted good, but it wasn’t her thing. She was an artist, much more interested in oil paint than oil from olives. Of course, olive oil in those days was a truly exotic substance that you probably couldn’t even find in many U.S. grocery stores. As I recall, Mom might have had olive oil in the pantry, but I don’t think she used it often.

She grew up in a household that always had help, so no one ever took her aside and said, “Virginia Lee, let me teach you how to roast a chicken.” Like many of us (like me, in fact, as she never took me aside for any cooking lessons either), she learned by trial and error. Then the food industry noticed her plight, and – voilá – convenience foods appeared! TV dinners, Minute Rice, Cheez Whiz, and instant mashed potatoes. To hear her talk, these were gifts from God as much as from Procter & Gamble. Her best friend, Joan, came to visit us one summer at the beach and swore it was the only vacation she’d ever taken when she actually lost weight.

To Mom’s credit, her chicken soup remains a staple of my own kitchen, and she could stir up a mean mess of pinto beans or gumbo. And she yearned to be sophisticated, so my brother and I were introduced early to raw spinach salad, fresh mushrooms, chicken liver pâté, and fresh artichokes. I grew up loving those foods.

White Button Mushrooms
So when I came across a recipe for a mushroom artichoke soup, it struck all sorts of chords in my sensory memory. Never mind that what purported to be a recipe turned out to be missing any sort of flavoring or detailed instructions. Too late – I was already hooked.

I forged ahead, considering the flavors that would marry well with mushrooms and artichokes, and the cooking techniques I already use with both. Though it was more work than I expected, it’ll be easier and less time-consuming for you because you don’t have to think as much as I did.

The result was spectacular. Like a walk in the woods on a damp spring morning, with the sun peeking through the leaves. The rich meatiness of the different mushrooms brought out both sweet and savory tastes, in a broth mildly flavored with the creamy, buttery artichokes. The quartered hearts and sautéed mushrooms became a nice visual accent. A triumph!

A triumph, yes, but an expensive one, as the more exotic mushroom varieties can really run up your tab at the grocery store. Those are the really weird types, too, so be brave – you won’t notice the weirdness once they’re all chopped up together. The Kitchen Goddess recommends one quart of only white button and crimini mushrooms; the second quart can be a mix of whatever else is available at your grocer’s, and when your wallet starts whining, fill in the second quart with more criminis and buttons. Shiitakes tend to be reasonably priced as well. The folks at Whole Foods usually have a decent selection, and a broader variety in your mix of mushrooms will give a more complex flavor to the soup. The photos here cover the range I used.

Alba Mushrooms
This is a great soup for guests or your Valentine – very elegant. My guests raved, as did my Valentine. Serve it with a salad dressed with a light lemon or herbal vinaigrette, and a crusty loaf of French bread.

Mushroom Artichoke Soup

Serves 8.

2 artichokes [Kitchen Goddess shopping note: Look for artichokes with deep green color and a heavy feel. Squeeze the artichoke – the leaves should squeak when you do. Avoid ones whose leaves have split.]
6 cups good quality chicken or vegetable broth, divided
¼ cup dry white wine
1 large bay leaf
juice of ½ lemon
½ teaspoon garlic salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large shallots, minced
2 quarts (64 ounces) fresh mushrooms, in a variety (e.g., those shown here, plus oyster, morel, hen-of-the-woods – whatever looks good)
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
2 cans organic artichoke hearts, quartered
salt/pepper to taste

For the artichoke broth:
To prepare the artichokes, first remove the small leaves from the base. Cut off the stems and peel away the tough outer layers of the stems. Then, using scissors, trim the thorny leaf tips. Cut the artichokes into quarters, and with a knife or a spoon (a melon baller also works), remove the hairy “choke” at the center of the artichoke.

Black Trumpet Mushrooms
To a large (4-quart) saucepan, add 4 cups of the broth, the wine, bay leaf, lemon juice, and the garlic salt. Stir to combine. Add the artichokes and stems. (Be sure to use a stainless-steel, enameled, or other nonreactive pot when cooking artichokes to prevent discoloration or off flavors.) Bring to a boil, cover, and cook at a low boil for one hour.

For the mushrooms:
Shiitake Mushrooms
Best method for cleaning your mushrooms is to set a colander into a large bowl of water. Put the mushrooms into the colander and swish them around energetically to loosen the dirt, then lift the colander out of the water, leaving behind the debris. Quickly turn the mushrooms out onto tea towels and lightly rub or pat them clean/dry with paper towels or another tea towel. The mushrooms should spend the least possible time in the water.

Set aside about 8 ounces of the best looking button or crimini mushrooms for the garnish. For the rest, trim stem ends and coarsely chop the mushrooms, then – in batches – pulse them in a food processor until not quite finely chopped.

Crimini Mushrooms
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the butter and the oil. Sauté the shallots until softened, 3-4 minutes. Add the chopped mushrooms and sauté, stirring often, until the mushrooms are softened and the liquid is released, about 20 minutes. Set aside.

For the soup:
When the artichokes are tender, remove them from the broth and reserve the broth. Discard the bay leaf.

French Horn Mushroom
Here’s the laborious part. Remove the leaves from the hearts and, using a fork or spoon, scrape as much of the meat off the leaves as you have the temperament for. Add the meat back into the broth, along with the hearts and the stems. Using a potato masher or a ricer, mash the flesh, and strain the broth and flesh through a fine mesh sieve. Discard the solids. What you’ll have left is a rich, greenish broth with tiny bits of artichoke in it.

Combine the artichoke broth, the mushroom mix, and the remaining 2 cups of vegetable or chicken broth. Add the tarragon and the parsley. Gently stir in the canned, quartered hearts and bring to a simmer. Salt/pepper to taste.

While the soup is coming to a simmer, trim and quarter the mushrooms you set aside for garnish. In a small skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter to almost smoking, and sauté the mushrooms until the juices have cooked away and the mushrooms have browned. Stir them into the soup or sprinkle them on top of each serving.