"No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize." - Julia Child

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Nutella bread pudding

Nutella! What glorious stuff, this chocolate hazelnut spread. It's the perfect flavor combination. The sheer genius of the stuff is that it pairs well with just about anything. You can have it on fruit, you can have it on toast, you can have it on a pretzel. It goes with most any dessert. Really, it is so versatile. It's like the friendly and amenable popular kid of spreadable foodstuffs.

I still remember when I first discovered Nutella, back when I was 22 or 23 and living on my own for the first time. I shared an apartment with two school teachers in Doylestown, PA, and I often went with one or the other one to the local supermarket to get groceries. Our closest supermarket was a Redner's Warehouse, which sold most things on the cheap, and which often carried somewhat odd brands of things. Next to the cans of Dole vegetables you'd find bizarre brands you'd never seen anywhere else, like Golden Medal sliced carrots or something. Most of the merchandise and the floor had a thin film of dust. It was a pretty ghetto warehouse supermarket, but we were young and poor, so it was fine with us. It was here that I first discovered Nutella, on the shelf with not-quite-Jif brands of peanut butter and not-really-Smuckers jars of jam. I loved Ferrero Rocher hazelnut chocolates, and really anything that Ferrero makes (Kinder eggs have a special place in my heart), so I figured, why not?

Oh, chocolately glory on a spoon! From the first, I was hooked. It was miraculous. You could eat it on anything! You could even eat it off the spoon and not get bored. I remember a ridiculously caloric concoction I would make involving toast with a layer of cheesecake-flavored cream cheese and another layer of Nutella. It was one step away from self-induced diabetes, and it was heavenly.

I don't always keep a jar of Nutella in the house, mostly because I know it wouldn't last long and would go straight to my thighs (what doesn't though?), but it is an indulgence I like to have around now and again. I recently discovered the Tuscan Pane loaf at Trader Joe's, and it was simply divine spread with a layer of Nutella.

I had some friends visiting this weekend, as I mentioned in my last post, so I decided to feed them some individual Nutella bread puddings that I found on the absolutely fantastic website Baking Bites. If you're ever in the mood to bake something and don't know what to make, go to that site and you will most certainly be sated. Trust me. It was while browsing the site one day that I discovered the glory that is Nutella bread pudding, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

I'm not even really a huge fan of bread pudding. Sometimes it's too soggy and custardy for my taste. But these are really a delight. They bake up thick and dense and yet simultaneously fluffy. The custard is the perfect consistency, especially as I tend to be jumpy around gelatinous foods. I made mine with half a loaf of challah bread and I'll probably use the rest of the loaf tonight to make more. And I was fortunate enough to find six adorable ramekins of the proper size at Marshall's to put them in.

They were a big hit with the ladies and with Jeremy, who shares my wariness of traditional bread puddings. They are the perfect portion size and are fantastic with a little dollop of vanilla ice cream. They are also easy to stash in the fridge. I think they taste amazing warm, so definitely nuke them for about a minute each before eating your leftovers. The best part of these is that they are impressive and delicious, and yet so easy to make that you can whip them up while you're waiting to serve dinner. In fact, that's just what I did. They take about 7 minutes to assemble, and that's including the 5 minutes it takes to let the bread soak in the custard mixture. (To be honest, I had cubed my challah bread ahead of time and stashed it in a large baggie, and that's what I recommend you do too.) While we ate dinner, they baked in the oven. (I found that mine took about 25 minutes to set and get gloriously puffy.) While we had seconds and chatted, they sat out and cooled and the ice cream thawed out a bit. And when we ate them, they were deliciously warm, rich, and melty. The Nutella flavor is not overwhelming, so if you want more of it, I'd say go ahead and add some more dollops to the custard batter. But they are truly delicious and so simple that I cannot recommend them highly enough. Get yourself a loaf of bread and a jar of Nutella and get baking. (That is, if you don't first eat the whole loaf of bread slathered in Nutella.)

UPDATE: Here is a poor-quality cell phone picture of one of my bread puddings in one of my new ramekins.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Braise the Roof! Beer-braised pork butt

Last night I had a friend to visit from out of town. She used to live in Boston, so this was like a homecoming for her. Like a good Cubana, I decided to celebrate her visit in style and serve up a mouthwatering feast. Traditionally, Cubanos roast a pig in order to celebrate special occasions. Since I live in a shoebox in the middle of a city and don't have a purveyor of whole pigs on speed dial, I decided to use my beloved Dutch oven to braise up some pulled pork. If you can't have the whole pig, have a piece!

I found a great basic recipe on The Kitchn, which is for braising a bone-in pork shoulder. I've never looked for a pork shoulder before, and I was initially sadly disappointed, because neither the local Shaw's nor the butcher shop down the street had bone-in pork shoulder in the 4 to 5 pound range. The butcher shop had boneless pork butt but it was about 8 pounds. I was already trying to wrap my head around the size of a 5-pound piece of meat, so I had to decline. I ended up getting a 4.5 pound bone-in pork butt roast, figuring I'd just make due, but then I realized I did the right thing after all. The butt, I later discovered, is not the butt at all, but the upper part of the pork shoulder. What? The butt is not the butt? Whatever. I'll take it.

The website I linked to above was helpful in instructing me how to remove the excess layers of fat (of course, I left some bits of fat because braising just melts them away and turns everything into a pile of soft scrumptiousness), and it also provided a nice, basic but delicious recipe for braising the pork. I made it in my 5-quart Dutch oven, which fit the pork and veggies quite snuggly. The hardest part of this recipe is honestly the browning, because you have to use tongs and a giant fork to hoist a multi-pound, squiggly piece of meat and flip it around in a pot of hot oil. But it was worth it because this pork was astoundingly delicious.

I love braising! I love it. It is hands-off cooking. I spent four hours doing other things around the apartment, preparing other food, tidying up, showering, while my oven did all the work. The low and slow cooking procedure makes the meat soft as butter and also fills your house with a positively delectable aroma. And there is something immensely satisfying about pulling the pork off the bone. There are honestly very few of the "fatty" bits mentioned in the recipe above, because most of the fat melts and moistens the meat. I'll probably toss the fattier bits into a pan and saute them before adding them into a soup or something.

I made this for dinner and dressed it in the braising juice, served with potato-spinach casserole with individual Nutella bread puddings for dessert. (I'm saving those for another post!) Was it good? Well, considering that everyone got seconds, yes, it was a success. Tonight I'm going to toss some pork with barbecue sauce and serve them with slaw on rolls. NOMS. Yes, this will give you a lot of leftovers, but it is so versatile that it's hard to get sick of. I'll probably also make some carnitas tacos too. Yay, pork!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cheesy baked tortellini: feed a crowd!

Spring is springing, which means most of us Bostonians are crawling out of our winter-induced period of hibernation. The time is here to socialize with friends, frisk about in lighter jackets and less layers of clothing, and get down to some serious spring cleaning.

Even though I live in a tiny apartment with a weird layout that is unconducive to group socializing, I still love to have people over. Recently I tried out a slightly altered version of a tortellini bake I found online, and it was fantastic! It's incredibly easy to throw together, and it's tasty and filling. I altered a few of the measurements and switched out a couple of things. This recipe is great because you can cut it in half to make less, or leave it at the measurements below to feed a crowd.

Cheesy Baked Tortellini

  • 4 cups marinara or other pasta sauce
  • 8 oz mascarpone cheese
  • 1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley leaves
  • 1 tbsp Italian seasoning
  • 2 lbs cheese tortellini
  • 4 oz mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Parmesan cheese blend
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a 9 x 13 baking dish.

Whisk the sauce, mascarpone cheese, parsley, and Italian seasoning in a large bowl to blend. Cook the tortellini in a large pot of boiling salted water until just tender. Drain. Add the tortellini to the sauce and toss to coat.

Transfer the tortellini mixture to the prepared baking dish. Top the mixture with the mozzarella and Parmesan. Cover with foil and bake until the sauce bubbles and the cheeses on top melt, about 30 minutes.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Warm Belgian endive salad with pine nuts

The weather is getting GORGEOUS outside, and it's all I can do not to spend the day frolicking in the sunshiney goodness rather than sitting at my desk working, or blogging. Spring means all sorts of delicious and delightful things are going to start growing and tickling the senses and the palette.

Spring, to me, means lovely growing things and lighter meals, and since I was recently on an endive kick, I decided to find a salad recipe using endive. I found one online that's made with a simple dijon vinaigrette that is positively scrumptious. I've modified it slightly and am including it below.

The thing that is so good about this salad is that heating the endive in the pan mellows out the flavor and makes it a lovely warm temperature without sacrificing the thick, toothy crunch of an uncooked endive. I decided to put the endive on a bed of spring mix greens, so I doubled the amount of the dressing I made. I'll give you the measurements for making one batch, which is tossed with the endive while you're cooking it, and then make a second batch using the same measurements to drizzle over the greens at the end. I made this recently for Jeremy and myself and it filled two big plates, so it served as our main course, but you can, of course, use this as a salad portion and dole it out to more people. Also, Jeremy and I added a few slices of torn-up thin-sliced serrano ham that we had leftover and it was scrumptious.

Warm Belgian Endive and Pine Nut Salad

  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, or as needed
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 heads Belgian endive (we only had 3 and it was plenty, since they were each a decent size)
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, and lemon juice (I just eyeballed the measurements for the entire dressing and it was fine). Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking the whole time, until the consistency is creamy. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Remove outer leaves of the endive, if necessary, and cut off the bottom stalk. Cut each endive crosswise into rings and rinse in a colander. Shake it around to separate the rings and allow to drain. Maybe give them a quick pat with a paper towel. As I mentioned in my last entry about endive, you don't really have to do much washing because they are grown underground and have never been in dirt.)

In a large dry skillet over medium heat, toast the pine nuts, stirring constantly to avoid burning, until golden brown. Add the endive and warm slightly, then add the first batch of dressing and toss everything around in the pan to coat. Lower the heat, if necessary, to prevent the endive from wilting. You want to make sure that they are just heated through and the slightest bit tender while still retaining a nice crunch. Remove from heat.

Make a second batch of the dressing. Add a generous pile of spring mix or other mild salad greens to each dish and toss each with some of the dressing. Add the endive and nuts. Top with bits of shredded ham, freshly grated parmesan, and a sprinkle of fresh parsley. Enjoy the tangy goodness of the dressing and the crunchiness of the endive. Be amazed that such a simple combination of ingredients could be so scrumptious, and revel in the freshness that means spring is coming.

Also, get creative in terms of nuts. Try using almonds, walnuts, or hazelnuts if pine nuts don't appeal to you or are out of your price range.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Braise the Roof! Braised Belgian endive with ham

As the joyous recent owner of a beautiful Le Creuset dutch oven, among other fabulous kitchen gadgets, I have been looking for more ways to use these things to make new recipes. Since one of the things a dutch oven is best for is braising, I recently checked out a book from the library called All About Braising by Molly Stevens. It's a great cookbook that explains in clear detail what braising is and how different kitchen gadgets can be used to achieve different results. Braising is "Low and Slow" cooking: a process of cooking food, covered, in a small amount of fat and liquid at a sustained temperature for a longer amount of time. This makes for juicy, tender food. Think of your slow-cooker pot. This is basically really, really long braising. When braising meat and some vegetables, you will often first have to brown the meat or veggies in fat before adding to the liquid to braise. This almost creates a protective "armor" on the outside of the food, making a crisp outer crust that helps to seal in the tender deliciousness inside.

The book is divided into chapters by ingredients; there's one for vegetables and then the ones following are each devoted to a type of meat. She also offers lots of tips throughout and at the end for choosing and storing ingredients too. Overall it's a great book. I had to return it before I got to try out more recipes, but the one for braised Belgian endive with ham is pretty tasty and turned me on to a veggie I'd never tried before.

Endive is actually the root of chicory that is grown in darkness, hence its white color. They have a mild, somewhat bitter tang to them that isn't unpleasant. Jeremy and I paired this recipe with our belated Valentine's pork chops and they were the perfect complement. Molly Stevens explains that braising endive turns the bitterness into "something marvelously complex and luscious" and she's right. It becomes tender and soft and silky.

When selecting Belgian endive, look for firm, tightly packed bulbs that are as pale as possible. If the tips of the leaves are more than the palest green, don't select them. Endive can be pricey, so choose them carefully. For our recipe, I bought 6 endive and used 3. (I save the other 3 for a delicious salad I'll share later.) I found that the proportions for this recipe, which were for 6 endive, worked perfectly well for just 3 of them. But certainly if you have more mouths to feed and a bigger dish, make 6 or 9 of them.

Braised Belgian endive with ham

- 6 Belgian endive
- 3 tbsp unsalted butter
- 4 thin slices of prosciutto or serrano ham (we used serrano), or another comparable good-quality salty ham (don't use these to make the dish vegetarian), cut or torn into small strips or bits
- salt and pepper
- 1/2 cup of chicken stock
-1/4 to 1/3 cup of heavy cream

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a ceramic or glass gratin dish that will accommodate the amount of endive you are cooking snugly. (Molly suggests a 9x13 dish, but we made only 3 so our dish was smaller)

Remove the outer leaves of each endive and trim the stalky bottom off of each. Cut each in half lengthwise.

Melt 2 tbsp butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When the butter just stops foaming, add as many endive as will fit in a loose layer cut side down and brown them for about 4 minutes. Using tongs, carefully turn them over to brown for a minute or two on the other side. Transfer them to the gratin dish cut side up. Use the rest of the butter to brown the rest of the endive.

There should still be a film of butter on the inside of the skillet. Add the ham bits and turn to coat them with the butter. After just a minute or two in the skillet, remove them and add them to the gratin dish, tucking them in between the endive and laying some on top. Add a bit of salt and pepper to your gratin dish (easy on the salt, as the ham and the forthcoming stock are both salty).

Add the stock to the pan and bring to a boil over high heat. Stir up the browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan and pour the hot stock over the endive in the gratin dish.

Cover the dish tightly with foil and braise in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes until the endive are collapsed and tender when pierced with a knife. They will have a burnished hue.

Remove the foil and baste the endive in the pan juices. If the pan is dry, add 2 tbsp of water. Braise uncovered for another 8 to 10 minutes, until the pan juices turn caramel colored and have almost completely evaporated. Pour over the heavy cream (use the greater amount for a richer taste) and bake another 6 minutes or so, until the cream takes on a caramel color and has thickened to a sauce consistency. Allow to cool for a few minutes before serving with the sauce.

These were a delicious accompaniment to the sweetness of the pork chops: the mellow, slightly bitter tang and soft, melt-in-your-mouth texture accompanied by the creamy sauce and bits of ham. Heavenly!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

El Bulli going on un sabbatical

This is what happens when you get a sinus infection: You feel miserable all the time because you can't breathe and the stuff clogging up your nose is too terrifying to even dwell upon, and you finally go to the doctor because your cold is getting worse by the hour. You start taking antibiotics that are the size of horse tranquilizers, which almost immediately clear up the horrors in your sinuses but which wreak havoc on your stomach and kill your taste buds, so that the only things that appeal to you in terms of food are soup, pasta, crackers, and cereal. Also, you can't drink for 10 days. And during that time, you don't put anything on your food blog because cooking consists of preparing a bowl of cereal and pouring ginger ale into a glass.

And now, friends, now I am finally off the antibiotics and getting back into the swing of enjoying, among other things, breathing through my nose and eating from all four major food groups. So here I am! Do excuse my absence; it's inexcusable, on one level, but on another, I feel like I owed myself a break while I was sick.

I am finally going to share the recipe for braised endive and ham that Jeremy and I tried and enjoyed so much, and I'll also include a recipe for a really tasty endive salad, but I don't have them in front of me at the moment so they will come later this week. Right now I wanted to share the news that El Bulli, Ferran AdriĆ 's restaurant (possibly the most renonwned restaurant in the world right now), is closing, at least for two years for a "period of reflection."

Never mind that the restaurant is only currently open 6 months out of the year. Never mind that it is nearly impossible to get reservations to dine there because they only accept them during ONE DAY of the year. Now it will be even twice as impossible to get to eat there. I understand and appreciate that the restaurant is more than just an eatery, it's a place of food experimentation and learning, and this is why I want to go there so badly. Many great chefs have worked under AdriĆ 's tutelage and have gone on to do amazing and creative things with food. But it just saddens me to think that in my lifetime, my chances of actually getting to eat there are extremely slim (while I am extremely not), and are probably going to be even slimmer thanks to this temporary closing. Because honestly, who knows if two years might not just slip into three, and then four, and then more?

We'll see. A girl can dream. Is it so lofty a goal to want to eat at the best restaurant in the world? Is it bad that I feel slightly more entitled to eat there because I happen to be Spanish? Sigh.