Sunday, November 22, 2009

Maple-Roasted Butternut Squash

Ok Ina, what is the deal with all this butternut squash? Oh, it's one of your favorite vegetables? Well some of us think it tastes like baby food.

Ok, maybe a tad harsh.

But after the last butternut squash debacle, it's certainly how I felt. When I first read this recipe, it's only saving grace were the whole garlic cloves that roast alongside the butternut squash that I would be able to smear all over crusty french bread and ingest at an alarming rate. So I dove into this recipe with my sights set pretty low.

I bought a pretty small butternut squash, since I assumed only Dan would be eating it. Since I used a vegetable peeler to peel it last time, I decided to try a different technique this time. I cut the squash, separating the top from the round bottom part. Then, using a kitchen knife, I peeled each piece individually:

This method was definitely faster than the vegetable peeler and is the one I recommend using

After peeling, I seeded the squash into the sink. Although Dan likes butternut squash and pumpkin seeds (which squash seeds very closely resemble) the smell of the butternut squash innards seriously offended his senses, causing him to whimper every time he got too close to the sink. Since I didn't want this to impede his ability to do the dishes, with a role of my eyes, I pushed the squash seeds down the garbage disposal and out of smelling range.

I diced the squash and put it on a baking sheet with about a handful of unpeeled garlic cloves and tossed everything with olive oil, maple syrup, salt and pepper:

A sticky job, but somebody had to do it

It's important to leave the garlic unpeeled so they don't burn in the oven, and since I was most looking forward to this part of the dish, I made sure they were well coated in olive oil as well. I put the garlic and squash into a preheated oven and set the timer for 20 minutes.

Luckily, this recipe calls for thinly sliced pancetta which is easy to find already packaged in the grocery store. Now, I know what you're thinking: But Morgan, I thought you said in the Wild Mushroom Risotto blog that you had never seen a recipe that called for thinly sliced pancetta. Well, Ina has proven me wrong. Fortunately though, this meant that neither Dan nor I had to go toe to toe with anyone in the deli department to get the usual thick slice.

While the squash and garlic roasted, I chopped the pancetta and put it together with the fresh sage from Dan's herb garden:

After 20 minutes, I removed the squash from the oven and added the pancetta and sage evenly over the pan:

mmm bacon and garlic

I put the pan back in the oven and continued to bake it until the squash and garlic were tender. Once fully cooked, I removed the pan from the oven and plated:

please note the generous portion of bread for all that yummy garlic

I was actually pleasantly surprised with how this whole dish turned out. The squash was not as tender as the last time I cooked it, making the texture much more enjoyable, and the salty bite from the pancetta balanced the sweetness of the squash perfectly. The sugar in the squash combined with the maple syrup causes it to caramelize slightly, which was yummy, but made some pieces of squash a little sticky. Since the squash is diced into little cubes, the side of each piece that spent the most amount of time in contact with the sheet pan became too brown, causing the sugar to burn slightly and become hard and sticky. As per the directions, I only turned the squash once during the baking process, before adding the pancetta and sage, but an additional toss is definitely necessary during the second round in the oven in order to avoid this problem.

The garlic was just a tad overdone which made it a bit of a challenge to remove from the peel, but once it was on the bread, it was sweet, garlicky, and delicious. I found the easiest way to get at the garlic was to use my fingers and push it out of the peel, which got a little messy, but meant I got to lick my garlic-flavored fingers afterward. Ladylike, I know. My ratio was about 1 garlic clove per piece of bread, but I was holding back. Interestingly, the sage didn't really add much to the dish. The leaves remained whole but got crispy, and I don't think they're really intended to be eaten so they didn't impart much flavor to the squash. They did gave the dish some nice color though, and a little bit of visual texture. I would definitely make this dish again, but probably with some minor adjustments.  With this dish, my respect for butternut squash has been restored, so thanks Ina.

Already thoughout this process I've tried so many things that before, I wouldn't have even considered: cremini and morel mushrooms, scallops, dates, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash, and I've really enjoyed (almost) all of them. It's kind of amazing how much my tastes can expand as long as I'm just willing to try a few new things. Of course, I'm never going to like everything I make (sometimes due to operator error), but I'm happy to keep trying! 

Make this when: hosting a very casual Fall dinner party since spreading the roasted garlic on the bread can get a bit messy and all your guests will end up with garlic breath. 

Next Course: Parmesan-roasted broccoli

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Baked Sweet Potato "Fries"

Sweet Potatoes! Yet another thing that I'm not usually a fan of. I know what you're thinking, does this girl eat anything? And the answer is, yes. Just not sweet potatoes. Or squash. Or nuts. Or eggs.

Many of the recipes in this book I've been halving, since it's just Dan and me and we usually can't eat six servings of something, no matter how good it is. This was one recipe though, that I didn't halve, because buying just one sweet potato seemed silly. Of course, that was before Dan found "Man Potato."

Allow me to demonstrate:

"Man Potato" is the one on the left. The scissors are there to give you some perspective.

Since this potato was freakishly large, I didn't use it in this recipe, but that definitely would have sufficed to feed both Dan and me, probably for the rest of the week. Instead, I used the two medium-sized potatoes to the right.  Here are all of my ingredients:

Sweet potatoes, light brown sugar, olive oil, salt and pepper. Pretty simple.

I preheated the oven and delegated the first task, peeling the potatoes, to Dan so my hands wouldn't turn orange:

Naked potatoes! 

While Dan halved the potatoes (so I wouldn't cut my fingers off) and began slicing them into wedges, I combined the brown sugar, salt, and pepper:

  Such a delicate task

The recipe says to slice each potato in half, and then cut each half into 3 spears, but  these seemed big, especially compared to the picture in Back to Basics, so we used our best judgment and cut some of the larger pieces into smaller ones:

Yes, they were initially even bigger than these

I placed the potato wedges on a sheet pan and tossed them with olive oil:

I sprinkled the brown sugar, salt, and pepper mixture evenly over the potatoes, ensuring each potato had some sugar on it, and that they were spread in a single layer:

 These baked in the oven for about 15 minutes. At that point, I turned them with a spatula, and put them back in the oven for another 5-10 minutes. Once out of the oven, I sprinkled them with more salt and plated:

Sorry this plate is a little messy. I'm not sure why I didn't take the time to clean it before taking the picture. I blame it on hunger.

Ina says these should be crispy, like fries, but ours were pretty soft. I would guess that they weren't sliced thinly enough because the longer you cook sweet potatoes, the softer they get. I added quite a bit of salt to mine, because I like the contrast of the sweet and savory, and as I've said before, I generally like my potatoes salty. These were much better than I expected, and even Dan, who is a big fan of just plain baked sweet potatoes said these were some of the best he has had. Generally when I think of sweet potatoes, I picture them as sickeningly sweet and with a consistency closer to baby food than mashed potatoes (appetizing, I know). These were soft, but not mushy, and if I could get them crispy, I think they would be really amazing.

Make this when: you're asked to bring the sweet potato dish to Thanksgiving this year. They'll be expecting the traditional sweet potato-mini marshmallow disaster, and you'll deliver this fabulous updated version instead. 

Next Course: Maple-Roasted Butternut Squash

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Creamy Cheddar Grits

In order to get into the true spirit of this dish, imagine, if you would, that I'm writing in a southern accent. That's right, break out that old Southern twang and read as if you're sitting with Paula Deen, sipping sweet tea on a porch somewhere in Savanna; or, if you're feeling really adventurous, go ahead and read aloud. Yes ma'am, I said aloud. And no need to feel silly; everyone else will be doing it too. Ready? OK.

First, I had to find the right kind of grits. The recipe calls for fine quick-cooking, but not instant, grits. Since Dan's a grits connoisseur I trusted him to steer me to the right aisle. We went into the natural/organic food section, and Dan picked a bag of Bob's Red Mill Organic Grits. "You can see our Quality!" boasted the package. It looked like sand to me.

Not wanting to believe that we had to buy this ridiculous specialty bag of grits, I went back to the cereal aisle to see if I could find the right kind of grits but at a better price.

We bought Bob's.

Once home, I gathered the grits together with all of my other ingredients:

grits, half-and-half, butter, cheddar cheese, scallions, salt, and pepper 

I put a pot of water on the stove and brought it to a boil. I added the salt and then slowly added the grits:

I attempted to add them in a constant, slow, steady stream, while stirring constantly, but it was a bit of a struggle. Since the container I was using didn't have a pour spout, the grits didn't want to stream out in a constant motion. Instead, some would come out, then stop, then some more, then stop. I added them all though, relatively successfully, and lowered the heat to a simmer. This simmered for about 5 minutes, while I stirred occasionally. After the 5 minutes, the grits looked something like this:

I added the half-and-half and butter:

I brought this mixture to a simmer again, stirring occasionally. Once it was back up to a simmer, I lowered the heat somewhat, covered the pot and set the timer for 45 minutes. Throughout the 45 minutes, I continued to stir occasionally. Here's what the grits looked like after about 20 minutes:

Looking a bit less like soup

In the meantime, Dan grated the cheddar cheese:

I followed Ina's advice and bought really good Cabot cheddar from Vermont. Cheese is one thing I don't mess around with.

and I chopped the scallions:

After about 45 minutes, the grits had thickened and were smooth and creamy:

Off the heat, I added the cheddar cheese and scallions and stirred to combine:

Here's the final plating:

And here's Dan's plate about 10 minutes later:

In her description Ina likens these to mashed potatoes, which I was very skeptical about. Mashed potatoes are one of my favorite things and I didn't think grits could hold a candle to them. But once I tried them, I saw the similarity. They were creamy and filling, but unlike mashed potatoes which I can eat for days, these grits were a little too rich for me.

I don't usually eat grits, and I was concerned they would be coarse or grainy, but they weren't at all. Unlike me, Dan is a big fan of grits and, as evidenced by his plate above, he really liked these. The recipe instructs to serve these hot, and that is definitely necessary. As they cooled, they became less creamy and firmed up, almost to the point that if I had wanted to, I could have made the grits into patties and fried them (yum).  

Make this when: your boyfriend's grandmother is visiting from South Carolina and you want to show her that even women who live above the Mason-Dixon Line can cook a bowl of grits. 

Next Course: Baked Sweet Potato "Fries"

Monday, November 16, 2009

Baked Potatoes with Yogurt & Sour Cream

Now that I've begun to settle into my new job, I'm working on managing my free time, trying to work out a schedule that includes getting all the ingredients I need from different stores, and still having time to cook, even on weekdays. It's been a little tough this first week, so I picked some simple vegetable dishes that I could handle making after work and that wouldn't require any special ingredients that would merit a trip to anywhere other than the regular grocery store.  Because these dishes are pretty low maintenance, these upcoming posts might be a little shorter than normal, so I'll try to update more frequently to make up for it.

I started with something exceedingly simple: baked potatoes. I preheated the oven and washed the potatoes, placing them directly on the baking rack inside the oven:

Hot potatoes! 

In the meantime I got the rest of my ingredients together:

scallions, Greek yogurt, sour cream, salt, and pepper 

I combined the yogurt and sour cream together in a small bowl and added the chopped green ends of the green onions:

The recipe actually calls for chives, but I was using green onions in a different recipe later in the week, and didn't want to buy two different products that were basically the same thing.  

I stirred this whole mixture together and added salt and pepper:

 Thrilling, I know 

I placed this bowl in the fridge to keep cold while the potatoes finished baking. Now, I don't know what it is about potatoes these days, but these things took forever to cook. The recipe says to bake them at 350 for 45-60 minutes. I checked them after about 45 minutes, and they were nowhere near done. At 60 minutes? Still not cooked. Of course, the chicken we had made to eat with the potatoes was fully cooked by now and getting cold, so we started on that and left the potatoes in the oven.

Finally, after about an hour and 15 minutes, the potatoes were finally done (although Dan claims his was still a little undercooked).  We took the potatoes out of the oven, cut them down the middle, and squeezed both ends:

The squeeze wasn't quite as effective as I'd liked

I sprinkled the inside of the potato with salt and pepper:

See the tiny black specs? That's pepper

I took the sour cream-yogurt mixture from the fridge and added a dollop to the hot potato and here's the final presentation:

I probably could have added a little extra green onion to the top as a garnish, but I think I was so tired of waiting for the potatoes to cook that I forgot

I don't usually like sour cream on my baked potatoes (I'm more of a butter-girl) but this was really delicious. The cold chive dressing with the hot potato created a great balance. It was thicker than regular sour cream and the yogurt added some tang to the mix. The onion was really key, adding a little extra depth of flavor. Potatoes are also the one thing I like super salty, but I didn't feel the need to add any excess salt to this one. Even though I halved the recipe since it was just Dan and me, we still had a little extra dressing at first. It didn't last long. About half-way through our potatoes Dan and I both went back to finish off the rest of the dressing because it was that good. It really took a regular baked potato and escalated it to something special. 

Make this when:  you've had a hard day at work and are craving something carbo-loaded, creamy, satisfying, and just a little extra special. You get the max amount of satisfaction with a minimum amount of work. 

Next Course: Creamy Cheddar Grits

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bay Scallop Gratins

For this dish, I got to visit two of my favorite stores: Whole Foods and Williams Sonoma. My first trip was to Williams Sonoma to buy the gratin dishes required for the recipe. I actually hesitated before entering since it's much too tempting to venture into this store when I know my budget doesn't allow me to buy every single thing I see. But I took a chance and went in to at least check if they had the right dishes. Of course, Williams Sonoma carried the exact same kind Ina uses (finally, cookware I could find!), AND they were on sale! Well, it was obviously meant to be. So, I bought 4.

My next stop was Whole Foods for bay scallops, which I saw there during my first visit. Bay scallops are smaller, sweeter, and more tender than sea scallops and are generally only available on the East Coast in the Fall. With that description, I thought I might have to look in a specialty seafood store to find them, but lo and behold, Whole Foods delivered once again.

Once I was all equipped to cook I assembled my ingredients:

room temperature butter, garlic, shallot, prosciutto, parsley, lemon, ouzo, salt, pepper, olive oil, panko bread crumbs, dry white wine, and the "newspaper"- wrapped scallops 

I preheated the oven to 425 and got to chopping. I minced the garlic, shallot, prosciutto, and parsley. Like Ina's extreme distaste for cilantro (which I share) I feel similarly about parsley. Most people think this is sort of odd since parsley is a somewhat mild herb and is used most often as a garnish. But I find it so offensive that like Carrie Bradshaw, I don't even want a sprinkling of it on my plate. Needless to say, I was not thrilled to see it was an ingredient in this dish. But I digress...

I put the butter in a large bowl and added the garlic, shallot, prosciutto, parsley, lemon juice, ouzo, salt, and pepper. (The original recipe actually calls for Pernod which is a french anise-flavored liquor. I did find this at the liquor store, but chose to use ouzo instead since you (read: Dan) can actually drink it, and Pernod isn't as pleasant to drink on its own.) With an electric mixer on low, I mixed all of these ingredients together, which only took a few moments. 

With the mixer still on low, I added the olive oil slowly, as if making mayonnaise or salad dressing. I would have liked to take a picture of this step in progress, but that would have required a third arm, which I've yet to grow. But here is how the mixture looked after this step:

I was concerned this wouldn't emulsify completely because I thought the butter was a little too soft when I started, but it actually worked exactly as it was supposed to. Wooo! I then folded in the panko bread crumbs using a rubber spatula:

I know, this picture's not the best, but don't worry, 
you're not really missing anything 

I placed the gratin dishes on a sheet pan and added a tablespoon of white wine to the bottom of each one:

The dark pieces in the middle dish are just parsley left over 
from the tablespoon I was re-using 

The next step in the recipe was to remove the small muscle that is sometimes attached to scallops. So I put the scallops in a strainer:

and rinsed them. I inspected each to try to find the small muscle, but found very few, and was starting to just pull them apart accidentally since they are so small and tender. I'm not sure if this instruction in the recipe is just if using regular sea scallops cut in quarters, which Ina says can be substituted in place of the bay scallops, but even if I just missed the muscles, it didn't seem to make much of a difference in the end result. I patted the scallops dry and distributed them among the gratin dishes: 

I then spooned the garlic butter mixture evenly over all of the scallops:

I put these in the oven to bake and prepped the garnish. I had reserved a lemon half for the juice, chopped a little more parsley and sliced some French bread to use to soak up all the yummy butter:

Once the scallops had baked for about 12 minutes, the maximum cook time, I put them under the broiler so the top could get brown and crusty. The broiler on our gas stove is under the oven, so that the flame that heats the oven is what toasts in the broiler. Because of this, I was nervous the tops of the scallops would brown too quickly or burn. Hence, I assumed a steady watch for the duration of the broiling time:

Remember, the broiler is under the oven. 
Not exactly easily observable. 

I finished each dish with the chopped parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice, and here's the final plating:


Now let me preface my review by reminding you all that I don't particularly like seafood, and I've never actually eaten scallops, so I was definitely hesitant to try this. But, I considered with the amount of butter and garlic I used, there might be enough flavor to cancel out any fishiness. It was a bit salty, probably because of the prosciutto, and the anise flavor from the ouzo was pretty strong, but not unpleasant. I actually managed to eat about half of my scallops, and then continued to eat French bread to soak up all the excess butter. Scallops are a shellfish, which are notoriously fishy, but these actually weren't too bad. The other flavors were strong and balanced well together. Since I've never eaten sea scallops, I can't really comment on if the bay scallops were more tender or sweeter, but Dan (who cleaned his plate, as per usual) didn't seem to think there was much of a difference. 

Make this when: hosting a medium-sized dinner party with friends. The recipe is easily doubled, the prep work isn't too labor intensive, and all of the portions cook simultaneously. There is no additional plating since the dish cooks in its own plate and the presentation is quite impressive. Granted, there is a fair amount of garlic in this dish, so eat it with people you like. 

Next Course: Baked Potatoes with Yogurt & Sour Cream

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Apple Dried Cherry Turnovers

Before I delve whole-heartedly into this flaky and buttery post, let me just reiterate how much I love baking. Yes, it can be frustrating from time to time when things don't work out, but I think I enjoy it so much because the end result is just so damn satisfying. I mean, fruit, pastry, sugar, Ina would say, what could be better than that?

As I said in the last post, I'm getting in the habit of getting all my ingredients together before I start any cooking, so here they are:

cinnamon, nutmeg, eggs, dried cherries, apples, 
orange zest and juice, sugar, flour, puff pastry

Unlike the French Apple Tart, in which puff pastry serves as a backup, this recipe calls for it exclusively. Personally, I think puff pastry is delicious on its own; layers of flaky pastry filled with butter...mmmm, but with some added ingredients it can really be amazing. Plus, it's already made for you so it's one less step. Since puff pastry is frozen, the night before I made this recipe, I put it in the refrigerator to defrost slowly, and left it there until I was ready to use it.

I preheated the oven to 400 degrees and juiced and zested the orange:

I again chose to use Granny Smith apples for this recipe, since they're my favorite tart apple to use when baking. Ina suggests alternatively using Macoun or Winesaps, so maybe I would try those in the future. I peeled the apples and diced them, and then added them quickly to the orange juice so they wouldn't brown:

I then added the dried cherries, sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt:

Those little black things that look like raisins are the dried cherries, 
which in reality, are more of a deep red

Flour is used in many fruit desserts as a thickening agent, instead of cornstarch. It reacts with the natural juices in the fruit and thickens during the cooking process. I like this since I think adding cornstarch is sort of cheating.

Now it was time for the puff pastry. I floured the counter (after disinfecting it thoroughly) and removed one sheet of puff pastry from the fridge. Here is what it looked like right out of the package:

I rolled out this sheet until it was approximately a 12x12 square:

Please note the tape measure

and then cut this large square into 4 smaller (6x6 inch) squares. I put the squares on a parchment-lined baking sheet and put them into the fridge while I repeated the entire process for the second sheet of puff pastry. (To see what that looked like, scroll up a little and re-visit the pictures above.)

Once all the puff pastry had been cut into 8 individual squares, I started adding a little filling to each one. I "brushed" the edges of each square with egg wash and added about 1/4-1/3 cup of filling to the center, trying to include a good ratio of apple to cherry. I use the term "brushed" loosely since I didn't have a pastry brush and was really just using a spoon. Here's a filled square:

I folded the pastry diagonally over the apple mixture and sealed the edges by pressing them together with the tines of a fork. It was a bit of a challenge to stretch the pastry over the filling and then get all the edges to line up evenly, but I managed pretty well, stuffing any rogue apples back into the pastry. Once I had 4 completed, I put them all on a parchment-lined baking sheet:

'brushed" the tops with egg wash (quite a challenge using just a spoon), sprinkled them with sugar, and cut two small slits in the top of each:

and finally, I put them into the oven. While these began to bake, I finished the final four. (Again, for pictures of this process, scroll up...and then down again). I had a bit of filling left over, probably enough to have filled at least 2 more turnovers. I didn't really have a good measuring cup to use in order to make sure each turnover had the same, correct amount of filling, so I just estimated instead. It's likely that I wasn't filling them completely, but I really didn't see how I could fit any more apple inside, while still able to close and seal the turnover completely.

Once the second batch was ready, I put them into the oven as well and waited. After about 20 minutes, the first batch was puffed, golden brown, and ready to come out of the oven:

YUUUMMM. If only you could smell these

And a few minutes later, the second batch was done too:

Now, let me just say, these were so good, Dan and I ate half of them the day I baked them. We initially ate them while still warm from the oven, which was definitely the way to go. Once they had cooled though, I actually found that popping one in the toaster oven to bake for just a couple of minutes warmed it up to the perfect temperature. The pastry was so buttery and dense, but also flaky and sweet, and the cherry-apple mixture was just tart enough to give a nice contrast to the sweet pastry. These were great as a dessert, but I also found myself wanting to eat them for breakfast since they weren't overly sweet or filling, and were kind of similar to an apple danish. Plus, they were just really, really good.

I'm not sure if the cherries really added anything substantial, but they also didn't detract from the apples. Next time, I would probably consider them optional. I also would have liked a little more filling in each, or would have preferred that the filling was more evenly distributed within the turnovers. But considering that I had a hard time closing them as it was, I don't know how I would have fit any more of the filling inside each turnover. Perhaps I just have to trust the elasticity of the dough next time, and yes, there will be a next time. 

Make this when: ever you feel like it. Ok, maybe not whenever, but these are very versatile. You could make them for a nice brunch, or for dessert after a casual dinner of comfort food at home, eaten in your pajamas. They would also be good to make when you're expecting house guests since they make the whole house smell like apple pie and could be a good afternoon snack.

Next Course: Bay Scallop Gratins
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