Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Roasted Fennel Soup with Sea Scallops

Roasted Fennel Soup with Sea Scallops

Fennel is one under appreciated vegetable.  To be honest, I am not crazy about it raw but I love, love, love it roasted. It is a versatile vegetable playing an important role in Mediterranean cuisines, especially France and Italy. Its unique aromatic taste is reminiscent of licorice and anise, especially in the raw state.  Once cooked, it becomes very sweet. It is often called sweet anise in the marketplace.

Good quality fennel will have bulbs that are clean, firm and solid, without signs of splitting, bruising or spotting.  The bulbs should be whitish or pale green in color.  The stalks should be relatively straight and closely superimposed around the bulb and should not splay out to the sides too much. Both the stalks and the leaves should be green in color.
 Cut the green tops from 3-4 large fennel and reserve. If the bulb is discolored or tough, discard the outer layer.  Set the bulb on its flat bottom, topside up then split the white bulb in half and slice into ¼ inch thick slices. In a large soup pot, heat ¼ C olive oil; add 1 medium diced onion and the sliced fennel. Stir occasionally and roast until the fennel until it becomes brown on the edges.
Cutting the fennel
Sauteed fennel with tasty brown bits - keep them = great flavor
Sprinkle 2 Tb all-purpose flour and mix. Add 3 C chicken or vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Scrape up and include all the tasty brown bits on the bottom of the pot. They add tremendous flavor. Then add another 2 C chicken or vegetable stock and 1 C fresh orange juice. Boil the soup 10 minutes.  Add 1/3 C cream. Puree the soup in a blender, season with salt, cayenne pepper and add an optional splash of Pernod.

Now for the scallops! Rinse 12-18 large scallops in cold water. Scallops have an adductor muscle on the side. It’s a tough little tab of meat that you should pull off before cooking the scallop because it can be chewy. Dry and season with salt. Heat a nonstick sauté pan over a high heat, and add 2Tb olive oil. The oil needs to be very hot before adding the scallops.  Place the scallops flat-side down in the hot pan. Don’t overcrowd the pan, or you will lower the pan temperature, causing the scallops to be steamed rather than seared. A very important tip: once you have placed the scallops in the pan, do not touch them! If you give in to temptation to move the scallops around the pan, all you will be doing is preventing them from forming the nice brown crust that you want. Be patient! Flip the scallops after about 2 minutes.
The scallop muscle...and my husband's hand!
Because of variation in scallop thickness and pan temperature, it is not easy to pinpoint an exact cooking time. You want to see a nice, caramel colored crust on the underside. Flip over and cook for another minute but do not overcook.  Be careful here as overcooked scallops can be quite rubbery.  When removed from the pan, their centers should be slightly translucent because they will continue to cook after removal. They should still be quite springy if you press them with your thumb.  If they are very firm or stiff, they’re already overcooked.

To serve the soup, chop a few reserved fennel top fronds and add to soup.  Bring soup to a boil, and serve with 2-3 cooked scallops in the center (serves 6)

Give this soup a try – I guarantee you will not be disappointed! The best wine pairing would likely be a Sauvignon Blanc.  Other white wines would be a Viognier or a buttery Chardonnay.  Pinot Noir would be the best red wine.  Bon Appetit!


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Crostini with Mushrooms, Prosciutto & Blue Cheese

Crostini with Mushrooms, Prosciutto & Blue Cheese
This is one terrific appetizer. It can be made earlier in the day and assembled and roasted before serving. To prepare fresh mushrooms, first trim off the bottoms of the stems, and then wipe them off.  Do not rinse them or soak them because they will absorb water and turn mushy when you cook them. Crimini mushrooms are marketed under many names, including Baby Bella, Italian or Brown mushrooms. They are similar in size to white mushrooms but are a light cocoa color and have a firmer texture. They are much more flavorful than white mushrooms, having a richer, earthy taste. Portobello mushrooms are actually large crimini mushrooms. In its fresh form, the shitake mushroom has a rich, buttery, meaty flavor quite unlike the flavors of other mushroom varieties. The shitake's texture is also different from other mushrooms. A fresh shitake is approximately 75% water; considerably lower water content than that of of cousins. Less water accounts for shitakes firm-even chewy-texture and intense flavor. If you cannot locate fresh shitakes mushrooms for this recipe, use of crimini mushrooms would work as a substitute.
Crimini mushrooms
Shitaki mushrooms
Melt 3 Tb butter in a heavy large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add ½ lb fresh shitake mushrooms, stemmed and caps chopped and 4 oz chopped crimini mushrooms. Sauté until they are cooked through and brown, about 10 minutes. Just before it is finished, add 2 minced garlic cloves. Add ½ C cream and boil until the liquid is completely absorbed, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Add ½ C crumbled bleu cheese (about 2 oz) and stir until cheese melts. Mix in ½ C chopped thinly sliced prosciutto (about 2½ oz). Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Chopped mushroom
Sauteed mushrooms
Transfer the mushroom topping to a bowl.  It can be made 1 day ahead of time. Cover and refrigerate.

Preheat the oven to 375 degree F. Cut about 18 ½ inch thick diagonal slices from 1 sourdough baguette. Arrange the slices on a baking sheet. Bake until just golden, about 5 minutes.  Mound 1 generous tablespoon mushroom topping on each slice. Return to the oven; bake until topping is heating through, about 6 minutes.  Sprinkle with chopped parsley before serving.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Orzo with Grilled Zucchini & Sun-dried tomatoes

Please note:  I also posted the wonderful Grilled Lamb with Cilantro Mint sauce - which is amazing with the orzo...look just below.  Larue
Orzo with grilled zucchini and sun-dried tomatoes

I was recently looking for a side dish for lamb…. something relatively well contained on the plate so the sauce from the lamb dish could have free reign. It would also be a perfect accompaniment with chicken or fish as well as standalone for a great vegetarian meal. BTW – the lamb dish is also featured on my blog – Grilled Lamb Chops with Cilantro Mint Vinaigrette.

Heat a grill pan to the smoking point over medium high heat.  Or, heat a gas or charcoal grill to medium-high. Whisk 2 Tb of olive oil and 2 Tb balsamic vinegar together in a small bowl. Slice 2 zucchini lengthwise into ¼ inch slices.  With a damp paper towel, wipe clean 2 portobello mushrooms, remove gills and discard stems. Lightly brush zucchini and mushrooms with the olive oil/vinegar mixture.  Place all in the grill pan or on the grill grates and cook 3-4 minutes per side, until crisp-tender.  Place on a plate to cool.
Cleaning the portobello mushrooms

Grilled zuchs and mushrooms
Zucchini and portobello mushrooms
Mix together ½ C julienned sun-dried tomatoes, ½ C extra virgin olive oil, ¼ C balsamic vinegar and fresh juice from 1 lemon in a bowl and set aside.

As an option, toast about ½ C pine nuts – either in a dry pan on the stove or in 350 degree F oven – watch carefully as it burns quickly. I love the crunch the nuts give to the final product.
Toasted pine nuts
Bring 3 quarts of water to boil in a large pot. Add 2 tsp salt and 1 lb orzo – cook according to package direction until pasta is al dente, stirring once or twice. Drain the orzo, rinse and set aside to drain. Add 1 Tb olive oil to the colander and toss to keep the orzo from sticking while you prepare the rest.
Orzo...ready for the veggies
Place orzo in a large bowl.  Add 1 yellow bell pepper, which has been cored, seeded and diced, 1 bunch of washed, drained and stems removed arugula or watercress, and 8 large fresh basil leaves, which have been cut thinly (chiffonade).  Add 8 oz fresh mozzarella cheese cut into 1-inch cubes or small balls – you could also use sheep feta cheese in lieu of mozzarella. Coarsely chop the zucchini and mushrooms and place in bowl with the orzo. Add the sun-dried tomato mixture, season with salt and pepper, and toss lightly to mix. Add optional toasted pine nuts.  Garnish with basil leaves if desired. I recommend a drizzle of a fine extra virgin olive oil and serve immediately. If you refrigerate until later - add the olive oil just before serving.  It will be great the next day or to take on a picnic!

If you serve this solo – I would suggest any sparkling wine – champagne, prosecco, etc or any dry, un-oaked white wine.


Grilled Lamb Chops with Cilantro Mint Vinaigrette

“What do you mean, you don't eat no meat? That's okay. I make lamb!”
--My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

Almost everyone loves lamb. You can use a rack of lamb or individual chops in this recipe.  While lamb might not be one of the meats you think about grilling, no other meat benefits more from the fire. Young lamb used to be brought to market in April and May. But today, thanks to controlled breeding, young lamb can be had year round. If it is impossible to grill outside, roasting directions are also included.  So, read on, get to the store and try this amazing dish. This is great served with a variety of side dishes.  Recently I served it with Orzo with Grilled Zucchini and Sun-dried Tomatoes (also on the blog). Other options would be stir-fried vegetables or vegetable-fried rice.

To serve 4, you need about two racks of lamb (perhaps 2 pounds each), trimmed and cut into single or double chops (or leave whole in racks). Marinade the lamb at least 1 hour and preferably overnight. In a bowl, mix together 1 C soy sauce, 1 C mirin (sweet sake), 1 Tb Asian sesame oil, 2 C chopped scallions (white and green parts) and 1 Tb dried red chili flakes.  Pour marinade over the lamb chops and refrigerate covered, and submerged, for at least one hour and up to 8 hours.

Double lamb chops
Marinating chops
While the lamb is marinating, prepare the vinaigrette. In a blender, combine ½ C unseasoned rice wine vinegar, ¼ C coarsely chopped mint, cilantro and parsley, 1 Tb honey, and a dash of chili oil. Blend until smooth. Slowly add 1 C peanut oil.  Season with salt and pepper. I often add 1 egg yolk to the blender before adding peanut oil in order to emulsify and thicken the vinaigrette – however it is optional if uncomfortable with using a raw egg.
Making the vinaigrette
Remove rack or lamb chops from marinade, pat dry, and toss the marinade. For a lamb rack:  place lamb on a hot grill.  Grill medium rare, about 15-20 minutes to internal temperature of 135 degree F for medium-rare or 140 degree F for medium. If roasting the rack, put into a preheated 400 degree F oven for 20 – 35 minutes. For the chops, sauté each side about 2-3 min and then put into a 400 degree F oven for 10 minutes.

In any case – once either the rack or chops are cooked – remove to a cutting board, lightly cover with foil and let it rest for 10 minutes. This is critical step as discussed in the Perfect Steak recipe previously posted. The meat continues to cook during this period – and the internal temperature will rise about 5-10 degrees. The “rest” also allows time for the juices equilibrate makes for a juicy lamb chop.

To serve, make an island of sauce on each plate.  Place 2-4 chops on center.  Decorate with cilantro or mint sprigs on top and serve.

Lamb is always exciting for wine lovers because it invites big, strong flavors.  There are many wonderful California Zinfandels that are perfect partners for the powerful flavors in this dish. When we served it, it was sublime with both the Turley Zin and a Willam Selyem Zinfandel.

Enjoy! We did.  ☺


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Thai inspired Tomato Soup

Thai inspired Tomato Soup
This wonderful soup has bright fresh clean flavor –sweet, sour, and spicy with a subtle smokiness. Best of all – it takes less than 45 minutes to make, can be made a day ahead and frozen for future or subsequent use. How perfect is that! I pretty much love tomato soups any and all the time. This one is just so different from traditional tomato soups that you must add it to your repertoire.

Prepare 2 – 3 stalks of lemongrass by cutting off about an inch from the root end and cutting off the leaf end. If the stalk looks old – refresh it in clean water for 30 minutes. Remove the outer layers to get to the clean white stalk. It is now ready to be thinly sliced horizontally. Heat 2 Tb olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.  Add 6 thinly sliced scallions (green onions), the chopped stalks of lemongrass and 1 ½ seeded, minced Thai or Fresno Chili. Cook until softened, about 4 -5 minutes. The chilies can be found in many grocery stores or Asian markets. It can also be found in a jar but they tend to be hotter so I would use less.  If unable to locate, you could substitute with 2-3 jalapenos or Thai Kitchen red curry paste.
Fresh lemongrass

Cut lemongrass
Thai chili (with a lemon to show size)
Add 2 ½ lbs fresh vine-ripened beefsteak tomatoes, chopped (about 3 cups) or 28 oz can of good quality canned tomatoes. I use Italian tomatoes such as Cento Plum or San Marzano tomatoes, or Flora San Marzano. If Italian tomatoes are unavailable, use Muir Glen. High quality of your tomatoes is key. If it is not summer with fresh tomatoes at your Farmers Market – get canned. Cook until softened, about 5-6 minutes.
Puree the soup
 Stir in 2¼ C Chicken or Vegetable stock, ¾ C coconut milk, 3 Tb fresh orange juice, 1 Tb fish sauce (such as nam pla or nuoc nam). Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until flavors meld, about 15 minutes. Let cool slightly.

Working in batches, puree soup in a blender until smooth, about 2 minutes per batch. Just before serving stir in 2 Tb fresh lime juice from 1 – ½ fresh limes. Season to taste with kosher salt and more lime juice if desired.

Chill if desired or serve warm.  Garnish with about ¾ C pea tendrils or shoots, trimmed and snow peas (maybe 6-8) trimmed and sliced on the diagonal.   You could also garnish with ½ lb fresh lump crabmeat or cooked horizontally sliced scallops. You need to slice the scallops as they will be too heavy and not float.  This is a thin soup – so you need to carefully assess garnishes and their relative weight if you want it to float.
Mmmm....almost soup!
This soup would be a great way to kick off a meal or serve it simply with a grilled cheese sandwich. The best wine pairing would be Gewurztraminer, German Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc.  However, most Thai food is often best with beer – maybe an ale or a pilsner.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Braised Asparagus

Braised asparagus
If you want to bring out the best in asparagus, especially in off-season, try braising it. I have never been disappointed when braising any vegetable, and this is no exception. All of its mineral-rich, woodsy flavors come out. You could use either white or green asparagus in this recipe. Keep in mind that the white asparagus, lacking chlorophyll, has a milder more delicate flavor. It is grown covered in mounds of sandy soil so it never sees the light of day – hence remains white. For this recipe, I prefer a fatter asparagus stalk over the super-thin pencil ones.

Rinse 16-20 asparagus spears and trim the tough ends. Asparagus does not require peeling but if especially thick – please do so because the stems can be tough and stringy. Since I was making this a little early in asparagus season (spring), I did peel them to be sure all woodiness would be removed. In a skillet large enough to hold the asparagus in a single layer, combine 1 Tb extra-virgin olive oil, asparagus, 1 tsp coarse kosher salt, several sprigs of fresh rosemary and several bay leaves.  Sprinkle with 3-4 Tb of cold water. Cover the skillet. Cook over high heat just until you hear the oil and water mixture begin to sizzle. Reduce the heat to medium and braise the asparagus, shaking the pan or turning from time to time. Braise just until the vegetable begins to brown in spots, about 8-10 minutes (depending on the thickness of the asparagus).
Braising the veggie

Serve immediately and enjoy!  


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Blue Cheese and Walnut Crackers

Blue Cheese and Walnut Crackers
I previously posted a recipe for Parmesan Thyme crackers and want to share one for another favorite cracker.  These are incredibly easy to make – and seriously, who makes their own crackers? This recipe calls for Stilton Blue Cheese but actually any one of your favorite blue cheeses will work. Depending on the blue cheese used, it might be wise to reduce the addition of salt.  The saltiness varies depending on brand and kind of cheese used.

Stilton is a type of English cheese, known for its distinctive smell and taste. It is made from cow’s milk, is a protected name cheese and by law can only be made in three counties in England.  Piercing the crust of the cheese with stainless steel needles, allowing air into the core, creates blue Stilton’s distinctive blue veins. The manufacturing and ripening process takes approximately nine to twelve weeks.

In a bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream ¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature and 8 ounces Stilton cheese, crumbled (about 12 ounces with rind), at room temperature. With the mixer on low speed, add 1½ C all-purpose flour, 2 tsp kosher salt, 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper and mix until it is in large crumbles, about 1 minute.  Add 1 Tb of water and mix until combined.
Mixing cheese with paddle attachment
Dump the dough onto a floured board, press it into a ball and roll into a 12-inch long log. Mix 1 extra-large egg beaten with1 Tb water for egg wash. Brush the log completely with the egg wash. Spread ½ to ¾ C toasted roughly chopped walnuts in a square on a cutting board and roll the log back and forth in the walnuts, pressing lightly, and distributing them evenly on the outside of the log. Wrap in plastic and refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or for up to 4 days.  Alternatively, you could freeze at this point – and thaw and bake later for that emergency snack later.
Roll the dough into a log (see below)
Ready for the oven
Preheat oven to 350 degree F.Cut the log into 3/8ths-inch thick with a small, sharp knife and place the crackers on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Bake for 22-25 minutes until lightly browned.  Rotate the pan once during baking.  Cool and serve at room temperature. The smell of blue cheese baking permeates the house and smells amazing.  The flavors are unique and intense.

You will surprise others with the bold and savory flavors of these crackers.  You can add a dollop of raspberry or apricot jam or fig chutney to add a bit of sweetness to the savory cracker. Or, if by some miracle, there are a few left over after dinner – save them and crumble over a green salad.

I love this served as an appetizer with champagne.  But, it can also be served at the conclusion of a meal with a wonderful Port!  It should make about 30 crackers. Enjoy!
Adapted by Larue from a recipe by Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Euro Pane’s Lemon Squares

Lemon squares
 This a modified recipe from the Euro Pane Bakery in Pasadena addresses the two most common problems found in many lemon bar recipes: a topping that is not firm enough and a base that is too soggy. This base is buttery, crumbly yet firm – a true Scotch shortbread.  The custard is neither too sweet nor too tangy and very, very lemony.  Sublime! It will rest at room temperature for a while without oozing all over the plate. Lastly, it freezes beautifully which makes for the perfect stored bit of great lemony sweetness whenever you have a craving.

Crust: Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a bowl of a standing mixer, using the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl by hand, mix together 2 C all-purpose flour, 2/3 C powdered sugar and 2 sticks chilled cubed butter until they come together to form a dough.

Press the dough into butter greased 9” x 13” glass baking dish. Bake the crust until golden brown, about 20-25 minutes.  Remove and cool.  Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees F to bake the bars.
Dough pressed into baking dish
Filling: In a large bowl, whisk together 8 eggs, 3 C granulated sugar, 1¼ C freshly squeezed and strained lemon juice (from 13-14 lemons) and ½ C all-purpose flour.  I highly recommend using Meyer lemons!  They are worth the search.

Pour the filling into the cooled prepared crust.  Place the dish in the center of the oven and bake at 300 degree F until the custard is set, about 45 minutes – it will be lightly browned in the corners.  Cool and then dust with a light coating of powdered sugar just before serving. If you dust too early, the sugar will just dissolve in the topping.
Mmmmm...great lemony flavor on top
This recipe should serve 24 – while including both a significant amount of butter and sugar – once you look at serving sizes, it truly is not too caloric and the amazing flavor justifies the treat of an occasional bar. They are neither too tart nor too sweet, baked atop a crisp but tender shortbread crust, making for a wonderful snack that is hard to resist.

If looking for a dessert wine to pair with the lemon bars, I would suggest a late harvest muscato or Semillon……or espresso!


Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Best Sandwich….Ever....BLT Fried Egg and Cheese Sandwich

The best sandwich ever....SERIOUSLY!!
 There is a smile on everyone’s face when this is on the menu – lunch, dinner or even breakfast!  Serve it with a cup of soup or a green salad and you have a wonderful balanced meal.  It is also simple to do – especially if you bake (yes, I said bake!) the bacon in advance.  The only addition you might consider would be a slice or two of avocado!

Bake 4-5 thick slices of apple wood bacon on a rack placed over a sheet pan in 350-degree oven for 15 – 20 minutes.  Turn over once during the baking.  The time varies with thickness of the bacon – so as it nears the end, keep an eye and looks for crisp, flat cooked bacon.  It will additionally crisp as it cools. Set aside.
Baked bacon....makes everything taste better.
Heat oven to 400 degree F (I use a small toaster oven). Toast both sides of two thick slices of white rustic country bread. Cover one with 3-4 thin slices of Monterey Jack cheese and set in oven to melt, about 4 minutes. Spread about 1 Tb of whole mayonnaise (I prefer Hellman’s or Best Foods brand) onto one side of the other sliced toasted bread, and then top with bacon, 4 tomato slices and 2 leaves of a crunchy lettuce such as iceberg, romaine or butter.

In a small non-stick skillet, melt 1 Tb unsalted butter. Fry 1 large egg over low-medium heat, season with a little salt and pepper (truffle salt is awesome). Turn the egg carefully once, until crisp around the edge, about 4 minutes; the yolk should still be runny. Another way to achieve the same outcome is to place a lid on the skillet once the whites have begun to solidify thereby allowing the heat of the closed skillet to cook the top. I often do this and by using a small spoon scoop some of the melted butter in the skillet up and over the yolk before placing the lid so it will not only add flavor but also heat.

Once the egg is cooked to your liking, slide it gently onto the lettuce and close the sandwich. Place the sandwich on a serving plate. Slice in half gently with serrated knife deliberately cutting across the egg yolk so that it oozes throughout the sandwich – kind of a ready made sauce of creamy richness!
Almost ready to eat!
Eat immediately……and often.    Thank me later.