Saturday, March 14, 2009

Happy Pi Day!

Pie for Pi Day, the geekiest holiday I can think of.

Cheated on this one a bit by buying Pillsbury pie crusts (the kind you unroll and use however you want, not the pre-formed kind), but made the filling from scratch with a mix of fresh granny smith apples and red anjou pears, some of my homemade applesauce from last fall, brown sugar, cinnamon, and a bit of ginger and clove. Baked according to the instructions in my William-Sonoma Essentials of Baking book, it came out perfectly golden brown and bubbly (as you can see). Was reportedly delicious, though I didn't have any myself - my coworkers demolished it before I could get myself a slice.

I was going for simple on this one because I was trying to watch the Rangers win a road game at the same time, and I knew I'd just be bringing it into work the next day. However, J still wants pie, and frankly so do I, and so I'm thinking of challenging myself a bit later to make a lemon coconut meringue pie for our own Pi Day celebration. Guess we'll see how that goes - I'll update this post with Pi Day pie number two should it come out well.

EDIT 03/15/09

Ta da! My first ever lemon meringue pie, with coconut-scented meringue and shredded coconut toping both the curd and the meringue. It was perfect, lemony and not too sweet with just the right amount of aromatic coconut, and perfectly firm and sliceable thanks to a tip I picked up from this recipe on thicken the curd with cornstarch and flour to help it set up into a stable layer after baking and refrigeration. I never would have thought of that on my own, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense. This technique will save my future attempts at lemon squares, which I've always more-or-less failed at, and may make possible an original recipe which also failed the first time around... once I have a chance to try it, I will be sure to share, but for now its my secret. *wink*

Have you ever made pie for Pi Day?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hummus Pizza

Just a quickie here to tell you all about a revelation that J and I had recently: hummus? AWESOME on pizza.

This particular specimen was made with an appropriately Mediterranean spin, beginning with a generous layer of hummus (a very simple basic recipe flavored with lemon, olive and garlic) topped with chopped fresh broccoli, caramelized onions, pine nuts, and a modest finish of shredded sharp cheddar and grated parmigiano reggiano (the good stuff), all on homemade pizza dough.

This was utterly satisfying as a pizza dinner, despite being way light on the usual fatty toppings. The hummus itself was actually extremely low-fat, because I used some of the liquid from the can of chickpeas to thin it out rather than a whole crapload of olive oil, and made up for the lack of olive flavor by tossing a couple of chopped brined green olives into the food processor. It came out delicious and you'd never know there was virtually no fat added (just 1 tbsp of olive oil for a little richness on the tongue). We've made practically guilt-free pies before by using skim milk ricotta or part-skim mozzarella, but unsurprisingly those pies would never hold a candle to this one when it comes to flavor and all around tummy satisfaction. It was delicious.

Now, I'm wondering just how far we could take this variation to mimic a real NY Italian-America pizza. Chickpeas are pretty much a blank slate when it comes to flavor - I mean sure, they have a taste all their own but they mix well with almost anything. Could we season the hummus with Italian herbs and spices to make a better fake-out for ricotta on a white pie? Could we add fresh tomatoes and basil to the hummus to make sort of a thick marinara paste? I'm not sure, but I totally want to try. And I want to explore the Greek and Mediterranean angle as well - topped with black olives and crumbled feta and Greek-style braised or sauteed greens, man would this be tasty. Or perhaps chicken souvlaki and thin slices of haloumi, cooked under the broiler till golden brown and crispy, then topped with a light, crisp, fresh cucumber salad. Mmmm. Am I drooling? Sorry.

And who says this variation should be relegated to chickpeas? Why not white beans in one of those Italian-style applications, or black or pinto beans to make a Mexican pizza? (Because we all love those - go on, admit it.) It'd be easy to mimic refritos on a pizza this way, without the extra, well, frying. In lard. Which is delicious, but not something I can really allow onto our dinner plates very often.

And as an added bonus to those of you (read: all of us) who are trying to save money on everyday food, this was seriously cheap to make. Less than $1 for a can of chickpeas on sale, and pennies' worth of flavoring ingredients added to make the hummus; half an onion, a small head of broccoli, probably less than $2 worth of cheese; pizza dough is nothing bu flour, yeast, and water in its most basic form, all very inexpensive if you're like me and buy them in bulk; and the pine nuts, while very tasty here, are really an unnecessary indulgence and could be omitted in the interest of tightening the belt a bit more. All told, when you consider that most of what went into this pie were pantry items for us, this couldn't have cost more than $5 or so to make. Not bad, considering how filling and delicious it was.

At any rate, I'd encourage anyone who likes hummus to give this a shot - even if you're not aiming for low-cal or don't care about your fat intake, try it anyway. Its still an incredibly flavorful way to approach pizza in a new way.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

"Dim Sum", sort of

In planning this meal, we referred to it as a "dim sum", despite the fact that it didn't really include any standard dim sum fare, and one of the dishes was really more Thai/Vietnamese than Chinese. (As a matter of fact, I've never even HAD dim sum. I love the idea of it, but my food allergies make me wary of any situation where I can't feel sure of what's actually in what I'm eating, and from what I've seen that has a lot to do with the dim sum experience.) Whatever you call it though, it was one of the most satisfying meals we've made in recent memory, not just because it tasted good (because it most certainly did) but because we learned how to make two new dishes that we were curious about, and finally succeeded at a dish we've been struggling with for ages.

And yes, this was totally vegetarian. We've been experimenting more with meatless meals, in an attempt to save our grocery money for the really GOOD cuts of meat, and also to cut back on the amount we eat. Although we are really good about our vegetable intake and try to severely limit the fat, sugar, and carb content of our meals, we do tend to eat more meat than is really necessary or healthy. Cutting back a bit will hardly be a challenge when we can throw together delicious vegetarian meals like this!

The first component of our dim sum was baozi, or Chinese filled steamed buns. I have never actually had baozi before, but have always thought that they sounded and looked delicious, so we finally bit the bullet and made them ourselves. Typically baozi seem to be filled with either bbq meat, soup, or sweet things like bean paste, but J made the filling for ours with shelled edamame, shiitakes, green onions, and carrots all chopped up and stir-fried in sesame oil and thin teriyaki sauce until softened and a little caramelized. The dough that I used for the wrappers was actually a naan dough from my current cookbook love, the Best-Ever Curry Cookbook by Mridula Baljekar. A typical baozi dough is much simpler, but as I was already making a batch of the dough to actually make naan later in the week I thought it would make a reasonable substitution. I added a bit of sugar and sesame oil to the portion of dough I was using for the baozi to enhance the flavor of the filling.

I had some trouble actually filling the buns - the tops didn't want to stay closed at first - but after two pseudo-failures (one of which looked fine when it went into the steamer but sort of exploded while cooking) I managed to put together two well-sealed buns. They went into the steamer for around 12 minutes and came out soft and fluffy with a lovely glossy skin. I loved the texture of these, the way the dough yields between the teeth and reveals the savory-sweet filling. I desperately want to make them with that ubiquitous char siu bbq pork filling now, though.

The second component were some vegetarian summer rolls, which couldn't be easier to make once you've had some practice rolling. I filled them with shredded carrot, bell pepper, and cabbage, cooked rice noodles tossed with soy and sesame oil, and fresh basil leaves. To make the rolls, each rice paper wrapper got a quick dunk in some warm water to soften it, then got laid out on a flat board. I laid a basil leaf flat on the wrapper, then topped it with a small pile of noodles and a tumble of shredded veggies. The actual rolling was a bit tricky, but after the first one I think I got the hang of it - its just like wrapping a burrito, except with a very flexible, sticky, and fragile wrapper. The key is definitely to roll it as tight as you can without tearing, and as long as you use a gentle touch that's fairly simple to do.

These were so light and crisp and refreshing, the perfect counterpoint to the warm and hearty baozi, and totally delicious when dunked into a dipping sauce made from sweet chili sauce, ponzu, and rice wine vinegar. I think next time I'd use bean thread noodles rather than rice noodles, because the rice noodles were a bit too firm here, and I'd like to include shredded lettuce and bean sprouts next time, but even so these were a total winner. I think the basil is what sends this over the top - the heady aroma of fresh basil is just killer alongside fresh veggies and savory soy, adding a really complex note to an otherwise straightforward little roll. I can see myself making these a lot once the weather starts to get warmer - they're just to quick and easy, and the package of wrappers I bought has a TON. I may also experiment with meat or seafood fillings - I know that shrimp or even pork can be fairly traditional, but what about a miso-glazed seared salmon, or a ground chicken satay filling? I bet I could have an entire summer roll party!

But as good as these two dishes were, the real winner of the night was J's fried rice, because this time it really WAS fried rice. I am ashamed to admit that I didn't pay very close attention to how he made it, being preoccupied by my summer rolls, but this was exactly the kind of fried rice I've always hoped to be able to make at home and have always failed at before. Pre-cooked basmati rice (I know, you'd never expect it, but this worked incredibly well) stir fried with diced carrots and onions and a handful of frozen peas, simply seasoned with just a bit of soy and black pepper, and bulked up slightly with the addition of a scrambled egg, this was unspeakably perfect. The holy grail of fried rice. The kind of fried rice I could probably eat every day and never tire of. Which is bad because, lets face it, fried rice isn't healthy. It takes a fair amount of oil to keep it from sticking to the wok in a hopelessly coagulated mess, and instead get crisp and toasty and delicious. But once in awhile, man is it worth it.

And so, J is now Fried Rice Man, and we are one step closer to making our favorite Chinese takeout meals at home. I think our next challenges will be orange/sesame/General Tso's chicken (lets face it, they're all pretty similar) and boneless spare ribs, though they may have to wait until we feel deserving of a treat. Or, you know, tomorrow.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Barefoot Bloggers: Meringues Chantilly

I'm a couple of days late on February's second challenge for the Barefoot Bloggers, but to tell the truth I think I might have been even more late if this dessert hadn't turned out so spectacularly well - I just couldn't wait to tell you all about it!

Ina's Meringues Chantilly, chosen by BMK of Reservations Not Required, are composed of a simple vanilla meringue base topped with orange-scented whipped cream and stewed mixed berries. Certainly a lovely combination on their own. But in my part of the world, its still winter, and not only are berries not exactly at their best right now, but I'm in desperate need of food that evokes memories of warmer weather if I'm going to make it to spring without a serious case of cabin fever. So, I opted to take a more tropical approach to this dish, and man oh man did it work.

I followed Ina's directions for the meringues (which, from past experience and a lot of research, could use some clarification in parts - there's an awful lot of subtlety involved when making meringues, and her recipe as-written doesn't address a lot of the more common tips and tricks and pitfall advice that I've seen in more thorough recipes) though I only made a half batch. For flavoring, I replaced the vanilla extract with coconut and ground up a 1/4 cup of Just Tomatoes brand dried mangoes in my coffee grinder to mix with the sugar that would be added to the egg whites.

If you've never had Just Tomatoes dried fruit, I really recommend checking them out - these aren't soft, chewy dried fruit like you normally find in the grocery store. They're crisp and crunchy with no moisture left in them at all, with an intense fruit flavor that you just can't get otherwise. (If you've ever had Special K Red Berries, think about what the strawberries are like - that's basically what these are.) They can be eaten out of hand or added whole to other things (cereal, yogurt, oatmeal, or baked goods come to mind) but what I'm starting to experiment with is grinding them up to make intense fruit powders. Imagine mixing dried raspberry powder with ground coriander and ginger to make a spice rub for pork, or shaking up some strawberry powder with aged balsamic and olive oil for a super smooth and flavorful salad dressing, or stirring some peach powder into white chocolate ganache for truffles. The possibilities for applications are endless, especially considering the variety of fruits and even vegetables on offer from the company. Don't get scared off by the price - the potential for unique and creative recipes is endless.

The ground mangoes were absolutely perfect here - after the meringues had their long slow bake and even longer drying time in the oven, the mango flavor had intensified and bloomed, yielding a crispy airy bite with the unmistakable sweet-tart flavor of mango and a subtle aromatic whiff of coconut underneath. Some of my meringues came out a bit chewy in the middle, which I think was partially caused by a slightly truncated bake time (forgot to set my oven timer at first and had to guess to make up the time) and some difficulty whipping the egg whites to their proper soft peaks. I really think that Ina has you add the sugar too early, and that the use of regular granulated sugar was a mistake - it was too heavy and weighted down the meringue so that no matter how long I beat it, it never got quite stiff enough. That's why my meringues didn't come out with those nice ridges as well, despite being piped with a star tip - once they hit the heat, they couldn't hold their shape (though at least they didn't spread much).

No matter, the flavor was perfect and that's the post important thing, especially since they would just soften up later anyway under the fruit and cream toppings.

To go along with my tropical mango meringue shells, I decided to make a pair of fruit toppings: a very simple blackberry sauce made with a half-pint of blackberries (the only kind that looked good at the store), a bit of white sugar, some lemon juice and lime zest; and a fresh mango salsa dressed with lime juice, brown sugar, and some fresh basil and mint cut in a chiffonade. The whipped cream topping also got a hit of lime zest and a tiny splash of coconut extract to bring the whole thing full circle.

I assembled them as per Ina's instructions - a dollop of blackberry sauce on the plate, spread out a bit so it'd peak out beneath the meringue that was set on top of it. Top the meringue shell with a dollop of whipped cream, then a big spoonful of the mango salsa and another drizzle of the blackberry sauce. Finish with a small spoonful of whipped cream and some fresh mint, and dessert is served.

This, people, was the best dessert I have ever made in my life. I'm calling this restaurant-worthy.

The combination of flavors was exactly what I wanted, tropical and summery and reminiscent of a hot day in the Virgin Islands, with a nice balance of sweet and tart, verdant herbs and bright citrus, aromatic fruit and creamy dairy. The interplay of textures was exciting - slightly crisp meringue becoming chewy and toothsome under the fruit and cream, tender sweet morsels of mango, smooth cool whipped cream, slightly crunchy seeds in the blackberry sauce. Totally perfect. I do think it tended a bit too much to the sweet side of things, which I would remedy next time by cutting down on the sugar in the meringues, the blackberry sauce, and the cream. The mango in the salsa was also a bit underripe so it wasn't as soft and juicy and intense as it would be in the summer. But even with those small shortcomings, this was excellent. Mouthwatering. Craveable. Totally deserving of a spot at the end of a fancy dinner party, or as a regular offering on a restaurant menu. Honestly, it's THAT good.

And I get to have it again tonight.

I love my life.