Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Squash Soup

I totally feel like a cheater today because I'm posting someone else's recipe in its original form. I usually mix it up a bit, improve on it, and do some alterations before I get a recipe exactly where I want it and pass it on to you, but I'm willing to sink so low because I love this soup. Granted, it's a soup, so if you're male, there's still a good chance you won't like it, and if you're female, there's a terrific chance you will. Why is that?

Anyhow, Jamie Oliver has a new show on the Food Network, and I'm thrilled to watch it. Unfortunately, the recipes are only available inside the U.S. and they don't post all the recipes from the show...I'm sure it's all Jamie's doing, and it's all very understandable. However, the show is fantastic because he grows nearly everything he uses except meats and grains in his backyard (and perhaps some of the meats...definitely the eggs). Everything is fresh, local, and organic. So splendid! I just love's my own personal dream, really. But I digress.

This squash soup is so's warm and hearty, especially hearty for a puréed soup, and has just a touch of heat from the chile. While my carrot soup is lovely and delicate (and can be used for a simpler squash soup substituting squash for carrots), this soup tastes more reminiscent of a winter stew. I didn't make the parmesan croutons to go with it this time, but you may as well go for it. I'm sure they're delicious. Also, I learned a very valuable lesson from this episode: if you chop up butternut squash, simmer it for soup, and purée it, you don't need to peel the skin off of it first. It gets nice and soft and leaves no trace behind once it's puréed. Seriously. In fact, before I tossed everything in the blender, I checked the skin for tenderness, and it was more delicate than the carrots that had been cooking for 25 minutes.

One word of warning: make sure you remove the sage leaves after frying them in the oil (to season the oil). While they enhance the soup with flavor, they don't purée into a smooth consistency, and you'll have to strain them out later if you forget. My only alterations to the recipe were substituting serrano chiles and doubling the amount of celery and carrots. Also, I only made a half recipe and it made more than enough...probably 6 or 8 cups.

Last of all, enjoy. Squash is one of the best parts of the winter foods, and this soup shouldn't be missed.

Butternut Squash Soup
by Jamie Oliver

This fantastic soup is best made with varieties of squash that have dense, orange flesh, such as butternut or acorn squash. It's important to use good chicken stock and season the soup well to bring out the nutty, sweet flavor of the squash. Once you've mastered this recipe, you can take the soup in different ways by adding pearl barley, dried pasta, or some chopped bacon. Even the smallest amount of dried porcini. P.S. I made this in my pressure cooker the other day, with really great results - it's so quick!

Olive oil
16 fresh sage leaves
2 red onions, peeled and chopped
2 sticks celery, trimmed and chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves picked
1/2 fresh red chile, to taste, seeded and finely chopped (I substituted serranos)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 1/4 pounds butternut squash, onion squash, or musque de Provence, halved, deseeded and cut into chunks
2 quarts good-quality Chicken or vegetable stock
Extra-virgin olive oil

For the croutons:
Extra-virgin olive oil
16 slices ciabatta bread
1 chunk Parmesan, for grating

Put a very large saucepan on a medium heat and pour in a couple of glugs of olive oil.

Add the sage leaves and fry for around 30 seconds or until dark green and crisp. Quickly remove them with a slotted spoon to a bowl lined with paper towels - you'll use these for sprinkling over at the end. In the pan you'll be left with a beautifully flavored oil, so put it back on the heat and throw in your onion, celery, carrot, garlic, rosemary leaves, chile and a good pinch of salt and pepper. Cook gently for about 10 minutes until the vegetables are sweet and soft. Add the squash and the stock to the pan, bring to the boil and simmer for around 30 minutes.

While the soup is cooking, make your croutons. Drizzle a little olive oil over the ciabatta slices, and press some grated Parmesan onto each side. Place in a non-stick pan without any oil and fry until golden on both sides.

When the squash is soft and cooked through, whiz the soup with an immersion blender or pour it into a standard blender and pulse until you have a smooth puree* (but you can leave it slightly chunky if you like). Most importantly, remember to taste and season it until it's perfect. Divide the soup between your bowls, placing 2 croutons on top of each. Sprinkle with a few of your crispy sage leaves and drizzle with a swirl of good-quality extra-virgin olive oil.

*When blending hot liquids: Remove liquid from the heat and allow to cool for at least 5 minutes. Transfer liquid to a blender or food processor and fill it no more than halfway. If using a blender, release one corner of the lid. This prevents the vacuum effect that creates heat explosions. Place a towel over the top of the machine, pulse a few times then process on high speed until smooth.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Chocolate Chunk Cookies

So, for years, we've been making this recipe called "Kitchen Sink Cookies", which is also known as "Chocolate Chip Pecan Oatmeal Cookies". Don't get me wrong...they are so good. If you haven't made them yet, you should. However, I've always had a secret wish to make perfect chocolate chip cookies.

I searched, sampled, and worked on so many recipes to get the perfect cookies, but it never quite happened. Then one day I realized why: everyone has their own idea of perfect. Too bad they didn't know mine, since it is the ultimate perfect, and if everyone had been working toward that all along we would have all been a lot happier.

At long last, though, I found it. Actually, my sister kinda did. And my brother. Well, my sister told me my brother Seth really liked this recipe in The Best Recipe, so I thought I'd give it a go. Guess what? Nearly perfect!

That was close enough for me, so I made the slight modifications necessary and have it here, ready for you.

Do you know what is so extraordinarily wonderful about the perfect chocolate chip cookie?* It's even better the next day. Most cookies aren't like that, but when you pop a moist, chewy, chocolatey cookie in your mouth the following afternoon, not having been in front of the smell of them for an hour or two, you find that little blissful part of heaven that occasionally imparts itself to your dreary life. Or not so dreary, really. Especially if you just had a really good cookie.

*I know, I said "chocolate chip cookie" instead of "chocolate chunk cookie". It does kind of roll off the tongue. And chips are fine, too. I just prefer chunks.

Chocolate Chunk Cookies
slightly modified from The Best Recipe by the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine

2 c. + 2 T. all-purpose flour
scant 1/2 t. baking soda (not as little as 1/4 t., but not quite a full 1/2 t.)
1/4 t. salt
12 T. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted then cooled for just a minute
1 c. dark brown sugar, packed
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
2 t. vanilla extract
1 1/4 c. bittersweet chocolate chunks, preferably hand cut into 1/2" x 1/2" size, or about the same amount in dark chocolate chips (Ghirardelli 60% cacao or Guittard semisweet are good choices)

Preheat the oven to 325°. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat baking mat.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt.

In a medium bowl, mix the butter and sugars until thoroughly combined. Stir in the egg, egg yolk, and vanilla until consistent throughout. Stir in the flour combo until just barely combined, then stir in the chocolate.

Use a medium scoop or large spoon to place large balls of dough (1 1/2 T.) onto the baking mat. After portioning each ball of cookie dough, split the top a bit by pulling the mass apart and pushing the sides toward the bottom. It's not an exact science, just keep them from going on the cookie sheet in a nicely balled form, or they'll look funny when they come out of the oven.

Bake at 325° for 16-18 minutes, until slightly golden around edges. Remove from oven and let cool on pan for 5 minutes (or you'll have a mess), then remove to a clean, dry countertop. You can sample them in about 5 more minutes. Let them cool completely on the countertop before storing in an airtight container or freezing. And make sure you try one tomorrow afternoon!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Vanilla Lime Crème Brûlée

Sheesh. Over two weeks since my last post. You'd think I had made a secret New Year's resolution to discourage all my readers! Actually, you might be surprised to learn that my life outside my blog is sometimes a bit crazy, and for no particular reason whatsoever. Except that I have those three cute kids, and one of them is a boy and 3 years old, and one of them is 10 months old. The truth is, the 10-month old, who is perfectly healthy, has been keeping me from sleep quite a bit this whole month, and I've taken my lack of energy out on this blog, since I like to prioritize my family above writing. But I've still been cooking, which means I've always got more to say.

In December I tried another variation of crème brûlée, despite my assertions that the original version is better than any alterations (at least raspberry). I guess I'm stubborn. Or this just sounded like a really good idea. And it actually was. I really enjoyed it. The lime gave it a really bright, clean flavor which did take away from the delicate custard taste but really was a nice burst of something wonderful when I took a bite of it. And the vanilla balanced out the bright flavor just enough to enhance the texture of the custard.

I did try a couple of versions of this recipe, one with the zest baked right into the custard, and one with zest in the sugar that is burnt on top. Both are terrible ideas: the zest on top burns when caramelizing the sugar and the zest in the custard sinks to the bottom and is inedible.

Let me reiterate that if you've never made
crème brûlée, you ought to try it. It's amazingly easy if you have a recipe in front of you. And if you don't want to complicate your first go at it with a variation, leave out the lime and just make the original. The only sticky points are these: incorporate the eggs carefully into the hot cream (which you don't need to worry about with the original recipe), and don't overcook. If you follow the directions, these shouldn't be an issue. And when burning the sugar on top, don't get the whole custard hot - just the top, or you'll cook the delicate inside.

When zesting, the ideal tool is a microplane, which you can pick up at most kitchen stores for $10 - $15. It will only take the very outer zest, which is where the oils are, and leave behind the lighter, whiter rind underneath, which is bitter and will leave you with less-than-stellar results. Most graters will not be so accommodating. If you don't currently own a microplane, break the bank and order one today. I use mine constantly for zest, nutmeg, and ginger (especially zest, since I incorporate a lot of lime and lemon into my cooking).

Well done
crème brûlée should be perfectly smooth and creamy on the inside, not at all runny, and not stiff or curdled. And it should send you straight to heaven when you eat it.

Vanilla Lime Crème Brûlée

2 c. cream
zest of 1 lime, only the very outer part
4 egg yolks
3 T sugar + 2 T or so more for tops
1/2 a vanilla bean, or 1/2 t. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350
°. If your water bath will be in a stoneware or glass pan, preheat that in the oven as well. Heat about 6 cups of water for the water bath and set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine the cream and lime zest. Split the half vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds, and add the seeds and pod to the cream. (If you don't have a vanilla bean, add the vanilla in the next step.) Set the saucepan over low heat and let steep, without boiling, for about 30 minutes.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, 3 T. sugar, and vanilla extract, if not using a bean. Strain the zest and bean pod out of the cream and whisk into the egg yolks, pouring slowly and whisking quickly to make sure you carefully temper the yolks rather than scorch bits of them. (If you think this may have not gone so well, you can strain out any coddled yolks by straining the entire mixture before moving on.) Place four 4-oz. ramekins in your water bath dish, then fill them to the top with the custard. Gently pour the hot water into the water bath

Bake until the centers are just barely set, like gelatin. I usually bump the edge of the water bath dish enough to see the custards jiggle. If you test them early on, you'll see that they move like liquid and notice the difference when they are done. If you use a preheated stoneware dish, hot water, and your cream is quite warm, this will probably take about 18 minutes, or closer to 25 if your custard is cold going in. If you're using any regular 9" x 13" pan for the water bath, it may take 40-50 minutes. Remove to a rack and cool for 30-60 minutes, then chill in the refrigerator until cold, at least 3 hours.

Sprinkle about 1/2 T. sugar on each of the baked custards, coating the tops evenly. Using a torch, burn the sugar until slightly brown. This is best done by holding the torch 4 to 6 inches from the tops (assuming it's a kitchen-size torch, farther away for an industrial torch) and evenly warming the entire top, rather than trying to completely melt the sugar in one area at a time. Also, if you don't heat the sugar immediately after sprinkling it on, the custard will start to absorb it and you'll need to add more. If you don't have a torch, you can
brûlée the tops under a very hot broiler, placing the custards no farther than 4" from the heating element and burning the sugar as quickly as possible. Watch them closely and be careful not to get them too hot, or you will end up overcooking the custard and destroying the smooth texture. Chill at least 10 minutes more to let the caramelized sugar harden, or up to a day, before serving.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Bacon Mustard Vinaigrette

I mentioned that in December I catered a meal for a friend of mine, and I so wanted to pass along my recipe for Bacon Mustard Vinaigrette that the chicken was topped with, since it's delicious, especially in large quantities, but I completely forgot about it until tonight. While we just cooked the chicken breasts huddled together in pans on the stovetop for the party, I recommend this sauce for a roasted chicken, either a pan roasted breast with skin and bone or as a dressing for an entire roast chicken. No matter how you choose to serve it, though, I hope you're as happy with it as I am.

By the way, when I next make it, I'll post a picture of the finished product for you.

Yes, it's very high in fat. While it's good in mass quantities, it's also good as a little drizzle.

Bacon Mustard Vinaigrette

1/4 lb. bacon
3/4 T. Dijon mustard
3/4 T. stone ground mustard
2 T. honey
1 1/2 T. maple syrup
3/4 c. olive oil
1/3 c. white wine vinegar
1/2 T. shallots
1/2 T. garlic
Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Dice the bacon and fry it up in a pan until just getting crispy. Remove the bacon to paper towel, reserve the bacon fat.

To your blender, add the bacon fat, 2 mustards, honey, maple syrup, vinegar, shallots, garlic, a generous pinch of salt, and a few turns of pepper. Blend until thoroughly combined, then - with blender running - slowly add the olive oil. Taste. If it's a bit too tart, add 1-2 T. more olive oil and a touch more honey and syrup. Season with additional salt and pepper as desired and pour into a dish. Stir in the bacon.

Serve over chicken. Dee-lish!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Roasted Garlic Soup

You may think from the title of this post that this is some ordinary soup you might like when it's snowy or rainy outside. You're right. This soup is so good when it's cold outside, and it's my favorite soup of all time. It's also absolutely delicious and appropriate in late spring or summer, with its bright flavors matched with the warmth of a rich broth and sweet, slow-roasted garlic. In fact, this soup is fantastic everyday, though I recommend only having it about twice a week, so you can try other things in between.

The other very nice thing about this soup is that it's a cinch to prepare and crowd-pleasing, since you add almost all the ingredients at the table and can cater to individual tastes (very handy with children, you know).

Did I mention this is my very favorite soup? It leaves you feeling satisfied but not heavy, since the protein from the chicken and creaminess from the avocado and feta cheese fill you up, but the tomatoes, cilantro, and lime lift the palate with some of the best south-of-the-border flavor combinations. The dish is similar to one found in Mexican Kitchen by Rick Bayless, the great source for Mexican cuisine, but I've altered it fairly significantly to my tastes. I like the clear broth while Chef Bayless instructs you to stir an egg in at the end to make it nice and creamy. I also like the taste of a fresh cheese, while he recommends dry Jack or Parmesan. And he puts the roasted garlic olive oil to use by making croutons, which is a lovely addition but not necessary if you're going for a quick meal.

There's not much more to say, since it's a very simple dish, so I'll get right to the recipe, but you should try this soon.

Roasted Garlic Soup
my adaptation from Mexican Kitchen by Rick Bayless

1 roasted chicken - rotisserie from the store is a fabulous choice here
1 head garlic
3/4 c. olive oil
4 to 6 Roma tomatoes
1 to 2 avocadoes, ripe but still a bit firm
1 lime, wedged or cut in half
6 to 8 sprigs cilantro, chopped
1/2 c. feta cheese (or queso fresco)
Kosher salt

Remove the chicken from the bones and refrigerate. Set the remaining chicken pieces - bones, skin, etc. - in a pot and just cover with water. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 1 to 4 hours, whatever you have time for.

Remove the skin or paper from all of the garlic cloves and slice them into 1/8" pieces. Bring the olive oil with the garlic to a slight simmer in a small saucepan over very low heat. Simmer for 15 minutes, being sure to maintain the slight simmer without the oil coming to a full boil or cooling off too much. This is the most difficult part of the process, but it shouldn't be too bad. After 15 minutes, check to see if the garlic is nice and soft. If not, cook for about another 5 minutes, but don't brown the garlic as this will form a crust on the outside that you do not want for this dish.

Strain the olive oil from the garlic, return the garlic to the saucepan and add 4 to 6 cups of the chicken stock you've just made. Taste ('s very hot) for salt. Keep this over low heat just long enough to prepare the other ingredients.

Warm about 2 cups of the chicken in a serving dish. Chop the tomatoes and avocados and set them in small dishes, as well as the lime, cheese, and cilantro.

To serve, have each individual fill theirPublish Post bowl with a bit of all of the items, including a squeeze of lime, and top with a couple ladles full of soup. Serves 4.


Tuesday, January 01, 2008


As I've mentioned previously, my husband is Armenian, and I have been fortunate enough to learn many of his family's Armenian recipes. Among my favorites is kebab, which you probably think is pronounced "ku-BOB" and is some form of beef on a stick. Hmm. I've got better things for you than that.

Kebab (pronounced "KAY-bob"), how I've come to know it, is leg of lamb that is carefully cut and marinated, then placed on skewers and grilled. My mother-in-law often cooks it in the oven, as well, especially in winter, but I've only done that once before, and quite a while ago, so I can't give you specific instructions on that. I'll have to call her first.

If you haven't had lamb before, let me tell you a bit what it's like. It's full-flavored like most red meat, fragrant, and has a slightly tangier taste than beef. That's probably the best I can do to describe it, but it's not only a very delicious meat, it is especially good when grilled, as the stronger flavors from grilling pair well with the stronger flavors of a red meat. I've tried making roast leg of lamb before and have been both successful and regretful as it is quite lean and can easily end up tough. This is probably why restaurants usually recommend serving it medium rare.

If you have had lamb before, you either love it or don't really care for it. If you're not sure or it's been a while, I highly recommend trying this method. The process used here makes the lamb very tender and balances some of its stronger flavors with other equally strong but familiar ingredients. I think the first time I had lamb, I wasn't so crazy about it. It tasted terribly new, but by the next time I tried it, it didn't have that foreign flavor about it and I completely fell for it. If you've had mutton and don't care for it at all, keep in mind that mutton has a much stronger flavor than lamb and is also a much tougher meat, being from an older sheep.

As far as I know, lamb sold in the U.S. mainly comes from three places (though there are many other small producers): New Zealand, Australia, and Colorado. I'm pretty sure the New Zealanders and the Australians fight over who produces the best lamb, but I'm also pretty sure that until lately, most lamb connoisseurs considered New Zealand to be the finest producer. I don't hear that kind of talk anymore, so I don't know if the Australians have produced a better lamb or if domestic lamb has hushed the argument.

While I really enjoy serving lamb, legs of lamb are always larger than we can eat in one or two sittings (especially since it is quite rich), usually being about 4 lbs. or so of fairly lean meat, so I generally only fix this when entertaining guests, and then only if I feel confident they'll eat lamb.

As a side note, we also use this same recipe for chicken breasts if we are going for something healthier or a smaller dinner, and we'll often make both lamb and chicken kebab if we're serving a crowd. The chicken kebab is fantastic served with buffalo sauce (one part butter to two parts Frank's Red Hot cayenne pepper sauce, heated together).


1 leg of lamb
2 or 3 large white onions, chopped
6 to 8 cloves garlic (or more), chopped
olive oil (preferably extra virgin)
Kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
skewers (metal are best, otherwise soak your wooden skewers for 30 minutes before using them)
charcoal grill

First, prepare the meat. Cut into cubes about 1 1/4" across, carefully cutting away any connective tissue and fat (you won't need the fat for the meat to be tender). You should create three piles while cutting the lamb: one for kebab, one for gristle you'll throw away, and one for larger pieces of fat and scraps of meat. This will take a good amount of time, so make sure you set aside an hour or so for this.

In a bowl, place the cubed meat with the onions, garlic, about 1/3 c. of olive oil, plenty of salt, and a generous amount of pepper. With very clean hands, mix all the ingredients together, being sure to spread the onions, garlic, and olive throughout and kneading as necessary to coat the meat completely. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least four hours, but probably not more than six. I'm sure it seems crazy, but this will tenderize the meat, as all of the acid in the onions go right to work. Note: if you're making chicken kebab, you'll only want to marinate for 30 to 60 minutes.)

As for the two remaining piles: throw away the gristle. Grind up the extra pieces of meat with some of the fat. (This can be done in a meat grinder or by whizzing it in your food processor.) Mix the ground meat with some diced bell peppers, diced onion, and diced flat-leaf parsley (known as keema). Season with salt and pepper and fry in patties.

Prepare your grill. While the charcoal is getting hot, skewer the marinated meat, leaving the onions and garlic aside.

Then, in a skillet, sauté the onions and garlic with a bit more salt over medium heat for 20-30 minutes, until caramelized. Serve alongside the kebab.

Once the grill is ready, set the skewers over the heat and grill, turning a couple of times to brown each side. Check a couple of pieces and cook to desired doneness, medium in my case.

Let the meat rest for just a couple of minutes, then remove from the skewers and serve. It should be tender, flavorful, caramelized and smoky from the grill, and addicting.

(Another note: I have to admit it's killing me to write this. I've been meaning to get to this post for a while, which means it's been a while since we made this, and just the thought of it is making me want to rush out and make it, even though we just had a delicious carne asada New Year's dinner.)

Bon appetit and Happy New Year!