December 24, 2011

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We're at home for the holiday, relaxing and recharging before a busy 2012. There are holiday feasts to prepare, mulled wine to drink, books to read, a ski trip to plan, and gifts to wrap before Christmas tomorrow. For Mark, relaxing also involves turning out batches of treats to foist on people (and eat himself, of course).

We are so grateful for all the last year has brought us -- love and support from our families and friends, exciting opportunities, fun times with our favorite people, and good health for our loved ones. Thanks also for reading; your comments and enthusiasm make this thing fun. Happy holidays and good tidings to you all! 

December 15, 2011

when in doubt, brownies

All I can say about my life right now is Christmas playlists, family time, mulled wine, and our fireplace. The end.  

OK, not really the end. I just don't have much to say tonight, except for this: brownies.

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Recently, Mark informed me that he had volunteered us to bring dessert to a dinner party. Being low on time and having no prior knowledge about the host's preferences, the only thing to do was brownies. Brownies may not be exciting or pretty, but the great thing about brownies is that you only need one bowl. One bowl. One bowl. One bowl! ONE BOWL. And since I use a scale, only ONE SPOON. One spoon!

Ahem, sorry. I just find that so great, which tells you a lot about the kinds of desserts we normally turn out in this house, I guess. The other thing I like about brownies is that they're Old Reliable. This is a big deal, for someone who still messes up chocolate chip cookies sometimes. Finally, unlike pie or cake, it looks nicer to cut them before you bring them to your friend's house, which means the baker gets a pre-dinner treat if he/she is so inclined (yes). 

As a member of the chewy brownie tribe, I usually turn to Alice Medrich's cocoa brownie recipe. They are chewy, yes, but they also have great chocolate flavor, despite being made from plain old Ghirardelli cocoa powder. Cakey-brownie people, look elsewhere. Fudgy brownie people, maybe we could talk about underbaking, but I haven't explored that venue thoroughly. And chewy brownie people? You guys pull up a chair. Or rather, pull out a bowl.

Cocoa brownies
adapted from Alice Medrich

Alice Medrich instructs to complete the second step in a double boiler on the stove, but a microwave does the job in a fraction of the time. Since I used a fruitier/milder cocoa powder, I decided to add espresso powder, but if you have good cocoa powder, you probably won't need it. Finally, I find that the longer you bake the brownies, the chewier they'll be (up to a certain point, anyway). If you like fudgy interiors, you might try underbaking a bit, but I really recommend baking them all the way. 

141 grams (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter
280 grams (1 1/4 cups) granulated sugar
82 grams unsweetened natural or Dutch-process cocoa powder (3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons)
optional: 1/8 teaspoon espresso powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, cold
66 grams all purpose flour (1/2 cup)

1. Preheat the oven to 325F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8x8 square baking pan with parchment paper, leaving an overhang (you'll be using the parchment paper to lift the brownies out of the pan later).

2. In a large, microwave-proof bowl, melt the butter by zapping in the microwave for 30 second intervals until completely melted, about 1 1/2 minutes total. Add cocoa powder and stir to combine, then add the sugar, espresso powder if using, and salt. The sugar won't dissolve completely, so the mixture should look gritty and sludgy at this point.

3. Stir in the vanilla. Next, add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks shiny and well-blended, add the flour. Stir well to incorporate all the flour. When you can't see any more flour, beat the batter vigorously for 40 strokes. Spread evenly in the lined pan.

4. Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter. Medrich suggests 20-25 minutes but mine took 35 minutes, so you'll want to check occasionally. See discussion above about chewiness.

5. Let cool completely on a rack. If you rush the cooling part, it will be impossible to cut them in straight lines, so be patient.  When cooled, transfer the brownies to a cutting board and cut into squares.

December 7, 2011

red beans and ricely yours

I wish I had more recipes like red beans and rice in my repertoire. Big flavor, minimal work, and the leftovers only improve in the fridge. You begin by sweating chopped onion, celery, and bell pepper in a heavy pot. Once the vegetables are lightly browned, I add a few seasonings followed by the beans and some water. For me, the next 3 hours might involve making some necklaces, calling my family, tending to the beans, reading, drinking mulled wine, and tending to the beans again. Basically, this is ideal lazy Sunday dinner material. 30 minutes before we are ready to eat, I start a pot of rice and make a salad. And there, that's dinner.

One last thing: as a nod to health, I usually make my red beans without meat. The traditional version with andouille and/or ham hocks tastes great, but I like the meatless version just as much. (Well, nearly meatless; I do cook the trinity in duck fat.) A tip from my friend Jyoti that I've adapted is to scatter grated cheddar and chopped scallions on top. It's not traditional but adds nice flavor and richness to the meatless version.

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Red beans and rice
adapted from various sources

I've had good luck using both fancy beans (e.g. those from Rancho Gordo, like Rio Zape) and run-of-the-mill, red beans from the grocery store. Though I prefer the flavor/texture of Rancho Gordo, I wouldn't hesitate to use grocery store beans for this. Either way, I never soak my beans overnight; just allow yourself enough time to cook the beans thoroughly.

1 1/2 tablespoons rendered duck fat, lard, schmaltz, bacon fat or oil
1 pound dried red beans (I much prefer small red beans, but kidney will work)
1 large (or 2 small) chopped onion, divided 
1 chopped bell pepper, divided
4 stalks chopped celery, divided
1-2 tablespoons chopped garlic
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus 1-3 teaspoons to taste
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, plus more to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 dried or 3 fresh bay leaves
1 tablespoon tomato paste 
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon Louisiana hot sauce, plus more to taste
chopped parsley
chopped green onions
grated cheese (such as cheddar)

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

Over medium high heat, melt the fat in an oven-safe pot with lid, such as a French oven. Add half of the onion/celery/bell pepper, reserving the rest for later. Cook until vegetables develop some color, 5-6 minutes. Add garlic and the seasonings -- salt, paprika, black and cayenne peppers, oregano, bay leaves -- and stir again. Add 6 cups of water -- the water should cover the beans by at least 1 inch) and bring the pot to a boil.

When the mixture is boiling, cover the pot and set it in the oven. Cook 1 hour and then check the water level.  The beans should be just below the water line; if not, add more boiling water. Cover and return to oven. Cook another hour and then taste a bean for tenderness. If the bean still has a bite to it, continue cooking until beans are tender. This should take about 2 total hours, but if your beans are ancient, you may need to cook longer, adding boiling water if necessary.

When the beans are tender, stir in the remaining onions/celery/bell pepper, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, and hot sauce. Return to a boil on the stove, and turn heat down to a slow simmer. Cook, partially covered, another 30-60 minutes. For even creamier beans, you can also mash some of the beans using a wooden spoon. Taste; you'll probably need to add more salt. Start with 1/2 teaspoon and add more if necessary. You can also season with additional Worcestershire and/or hot sauce, 1/2 teaspoon at a time.

Serve over hot rice, garnished with parsley, grated cheese, and green onions. Pass extra hot sauce at the table.

More traditional, meat-laden rice beans and rice: If you'd like, begin by browning 1/2 cup chopped andouille sausage. Once browned, proceed by sweating half of the vegetables. You will want to cut back on the salt, cayenne and hot sauce, depending on how seasoned your sausage is. Proceed as normal, otherwise. And for a richer, more savory version, you could also simmer smoked meat, such as a small ham hock, with the beans. Add an additional 1-2 cups of water to the beans, along with the ham hock, and wait to add salt until the end.

December 6, 2011

on birthdays, the tell, and party cocktails

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Last month I let two important events pass by unmentioned: Jyoti's birthday and, a few weeks later, Mark's birthday. I planned blowout dinner parties on both occasions, no small amount of work but that's because I have pretty high standards for birthday parties. The thing I'm going for is the tell, that look of happiness  where your loved one is like, WHAT I never expected this to be so awesome! It is tricky, but it can be done. Good company is key. Good food is less critical than the company, but by no means unimportant. But the main thing that you have to be wary about is that some people's expectations can be unreasonably high about their birthdays. This is why it can be a good idea to keep the details hazy. Under-promise, over-deliver, some might say. 

We let Jyoti think we were taking her out for dinner or whatever, no big deal. Then we surprised her with a long table decorated with flowers and a special birthday menu. That girl was so happy! And she was even happier to be eating gussied up queso dip (thanks to Homesick Texan, we were able to bypass the traditional processed cheese) and Paloma cocktails with a bunch of her favorite people. For Mark's party, the centerpiece was fried chicken and champagne cocktails. My dearest husband loves fried chicken, but the aftermath is so disgusting -- oh hi, oil on every surface of the kitchen! -- that I like to save it for special occasions. This was one, obviously. It was a very good night.

Every party needs a special cocktail and these were excellent. I'd like to remember them, so here we go.

Champagne cocktail

A classic. Fun to drink, easy enough to delegate to a guest to make while you do your cooking, and tasty. We used sparkling rosé from Washington state, which was good enough to drink on its own but even better in this reincarnation. I love fried chicken with champagne cocktails so, so much, if only for the juxtaposition between drinking from crystal champagne flutes and eating fried chicken with your hands.

Champagne
Simple syrup (or a sugar cube)
Angostura bitters
Lemon peel, for garnish

Add a teaspoon (or two) of simple syrup to the bottom of a champagne flute, plus 1-2 drops of Angostura bitters. Fill to the top with champagne and garnish with a long piece of lemon peel.

Paloma Cocktail

Palomas are for people who like the idea of taming the bite of a Margarita with grapefruit juice and sparkling water. Stick to a 100% agave tequila here, but this isn't the place for a premium brand since the flavor will be diluted.

2 ounces silver tequila
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup
2 ounces grapefruit juice (freshly squeezed is ideal, but I used good quality Simply Grapefruit juice for convenience)
Chilled sparkling water, for topping
Lime wedges

Stir together tequila, lime juice, simple syrup, grapefruit juice with ice in a cocktail shaker. Pour into a Collins glass. Top with sparkling water, as much or as little as you like. Garnish with a lime wedge.

Note: You can squeeze the lime juice in advance, but not more than 6-8 hours in advance or it will become bitter. I made a pitcher 1 hour in advance by combining everything but the sparkling water and lime wedges in a pitcher, and chilling until the party.

Pre-dinner party scenes