Friday, January 12, 2018

Fresh Homemade Ricotta

Last Year's Post: Slow Cooker Marinara
Two Years Ago:   Quinoa Stuffed Peppers

I recently gave myself a challenge to make spinach and ricotta cannelloni from scratch.  I didn't go full-on crazy since I bought fresh pasta sheets from the store, but I did decide to make my own ricotta and grate my own Parmigiano-Reggiano and cook the spinach from fresh.  Although the project took a few hours, it was fun and the results were spectacular.  I'll post that recipe soon.

In the meantime, the fresh ricotta was such a revelation that I wanted to post it right away.  I've never been a big ricotta fan because I've only used supermarket brands that are typically chalky and watery.  Fresh homemade ricotta, in contrast, is very creamy and rich and as moist (or dry) as you want to make it.  For example, if you want to use it as a spread on crostini, you might want to keep it more moist.  For my cannelloni, I wanted it a little on the dry side so the filling didn't leak as the pasta baked. 

It's incredibly easy to make - just heat some milk and cream with a little salt, add some lemon juice to curdle it, and strain it until it reaches your desired consistency, then refrigerate until ready to use.  (You can make it a few hours or days in advance of the actual recipe where you want to use it.)  Some recipes call for using vinegar to curdle the mixture, but the lemon juice really adds a nice subtle note - just be sure to use fresh lemon juice, not bottled.  One note of caution - I've read comments that ultra-pasteurized organic milk will not curdle although I haven't tried it, so you might want to use milk that's not ultra-pasteurized.

Fresh ricotta has many uses, from appetizers to ravioli to lasagna.  It's a way to up your game that will impress people no end, and no one needs to know how easy it is.  I'll never buy ricotta again.

Fresh Homemade Ricotta
Yield: 1 1/2 - 2 cups (approximately 11 ounces)

3 cups whole milk
1 cup of heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or white vinegar (lemon juice is preferred for flavor, but vinegar can be used as long as it is a neutral, white vinegar)
3 large squares cheesecloth

Prepare either a fine-holed colander or a fine-mesh strainer by lining it with the layers of cheesecloth and placing it in a larger bowl. Set aside.

In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the milk, cream, and salt over medium heat just until it reaches 190 degrees Fahrenheit, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking or burning.  Remove the pot from the heat and pour in the acid (lemon juice or vinegar).  Stir with a wooden spoon to incorporate the acid well. Curds will start to form immediately.  Let the mixture sit for about 5 minutes, undisturbed, and then pour it into the prepared cheesecloth-lined colander or strainer. 

Let it sit, undisturbed, for anywhere from half an hour (for a wetter, thinner consistency) to 2 hours (for thicker, creamier, dryer ricotta). It depends on your preference and how you intend to use it. Check the ricotta periodically to determine whether it has reached your desired consistency and to drain the bowl if the liquid is getting close to the bottom of the cheesecloth.  As soon as the bowl is cool enough you can transfer it to the refrigerator to finish straining there.

When the ricotta is to your liking, scrape it into an airtight covered container and refrigerate for up to several days.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Red Lentil and Chorizo Soup

Last Year's Post:  Endive, Apple and Avocado Salad
Two Years Ago:   Chicken and Wild Rice

OK, most of the country is freezing and it's the new year, which means healthy resolutions.  Time for soup.

This is a fresh take on lentil or split pea soup, where Mexican chorizo takes the place of the more traditional smoked sausage or ham.  The chorizo and ground cumin give the soup more of a southwestern profile instead of the German or Russian flavors often associated with a lentil soup.  Red lentils are somewhat more unusual and slightly harder to find than brown or green lentils, but taste basically the same.  I found them at my local Sprouts store in the bulk aisle; you'll generally find them in most natural food stores and of course at Whole Foods.  The reason why they're worth searching out for this soup is purely aesthetic - the yellow color of the cooked lentils contrasts nicely with the green spinach and reddish chorizo and takes it out of the whole "green/brown glop" category that characterizes so many lentil or split pea soups.

Every time I post a recipe with chorizo I feel the need to add the same caution:  Mexican chorizo and Spanish chorizo are two different things.  Mexican chorizo, which is what this recipe calls for, is a fresh (uncooked) sausage sold either in a tube or on a tray - think Italian sausage but without casings.  Spanish chorizo, on the other hand, is a cured dried sausage that looks like a pepperoni link.  If you can't find Mexican chorizo, you can use hot Italian sausage instead - just take it out of the casings.  Either way, the spicy sausage is the perfect addition for what would otherwise be a fairly bland soup so don't leave it out.  And because chorizo is pretty spicy, the sour cream adds nice cooling and creamy accent as well.

Now that it's winter, soup is the perfect comfort food and lentil soup is not only comforting, but good for you and delicious as well.  This soup is ready in about 30 minutes, making it a great weeknight meal.

Red Lentil and Chorizo Soup
Serves 4-6

5 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
1 lb dried red lentils
1 small yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces fresh Mexican chorizo (or hot Italian sausage without casings)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
5 ounces baby spinach, stems removed
1 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt

In a 5-quart soup pot, bring broth, water, lentils, onion, garlic, cumin, and cayenne pepper to a boil; reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add chorizo or sausage and cook, breaking up chunks into small crumbles with a wooden spoon, until fully cooked through. Remove and drain on paper towels.  

Stir the soup and add salt and pepper to taste, remembering that the chorizo will add both salt and spice. Add the spinach to soup and cook 3 to 4 minutes longer, until spinach is wilted.  Serve the soup topped with chorizo and a dollop of sour cream or yogurt.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Egyptian Barley Salad

Last Year's Post: Slow Cooker Teriyaki Chicken
Two Years Ago:   Hot and Sour Soup

This is a fun and pretty salad as a side dish or a vegetarian main entree, and you could always add some rotisserie chicken or turkey if you want to make it more substantial.   We've all heard that we need more whole grains in our diet, and barley is an excellent choice.  In addition to being chewy and delicious, barley contains eight amino acids which make it a complete protein. It's an excellent source of both soluble and insoluble fiber and recent research indicates it even helps regulate blood sugar.

The salad dressing contains pomegranate molasses in addition to cinnamon and cumin, giving it a somewhat exotic taste.  The raising and pomegranate seeds add sweetness, and the pistachios add crunch.  One note about the feta - I find supermarket brands to be quite sour and salty.  I didn't really like feta until I discovered a french feta in my local natural foods store that advertises a "tangy yet delicate" flavor that is much less sour and salty (and more creamy) than other brands I've tried.  I would encourage you to try to search out a french feta for those reasons.

Cook the barley in advance because it takes about 40 minutes to cook and then needs to cool completely.  After that, it's just a matter of whisking the salad dressing and chopping a few ingredients so the salad comes together really fast.  When pomegranates are in season, this is a great salad to try.  And I've even heard that Whole Foods carried frozen pomegranate seeds year-round.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Seared Tuna with Avocado, Pineapple and Pomegranate Salsa

Last Year's Post: Sauteed Brussels Sprouts with Poppy Seeds
Two Years Ago:  Italian Grilled Seafood Salad

I was reading a menu on a new restaurant's website and noticed an entree listed as "tuna with avocado, pineapple and pomegranate".  I thought it sounded pretty interesting and immediately had a mental image of seared sliced tuna with the avocado, pineapple and pomegranate in the form of a salsa.  I have no idea if that's how the restaurant makes it, but that's what I did, and was happy with the result.

The salsa is a fairly unusual combination of creamy avocado with the sweetness of the pineapple and pomegranate seeds.  The jalapeno and cilantro balance the sweetness and the whole thing contrasts well with the rich, meaty tuna.  It's a great and healthy entree when pomegranates are in season, although I read somewhere that you can buy frozen pomegranate seeds at Whole Foods year-round.

Everyone has their own opinion about how well tuna should be cooked.  I happened to be sitting next to an avid fisherman from Vermont at dinner one night when I ordered tuna.  He immediately said "please, please, order it rare or medium rare" so that's what I did, and I've never looked back.  Tuna can tend to dry out if it's cooked to medium or more (unless it's poached) but it's your tuna and your dinner so cook it however you want.  The instructions below will result in a warm deep pink center - just cook it longer or let it rest after cooking if you want it done more.  It's easy to see how much a tuna steak is cooked just by looking at the side of it - you can see the meat turn from red to beige as it cooks from the bottom up.

I served this entree with brown rice, but white rice or couscous or potatoes would work equally well.  Now I think I need to go to the restaurant to try their version.

 Seared Tuna with Avocado, Pineapple and Pomegranate Salsa
Serves 4

4 (5-6 ounce) tuna steaks
Salt and pepper
Seafood seasoning or blackening seasoning (optional)
2 teaspoons peanut oil (or other high-heat oil)
1/3 cup red onion, diced
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 small jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, diced
½ cup fresh pineapple, cut into small cubes
1 avocado, cut into small cubes
Juice of one lime
½ teaspoon salt
Seeds (arils) from one pomegranate

Preheat a griddle, grill or non-stick pan over high heat. 

While the griddle preheats, place the onion, cilantro, jalapeno, pineapple, avocado, lime, salt and pomegranate seeds in a bowl.  Toss to combine well.

Pat the tuna steaks dry, then season with salt and pepper and the seasoning blend of your choice (optional).  When the griddle, grill or pan is very hot, quickly add the peanut oil and then the tuna steaks.  Sear without moving the steaks until they release from the surface and are golden brown, 1-2 minutes.  Flip and sear the other side for an additional 1-2 minutes, then remove.  At this point, you can either slice the tuna steaks or let them rest.  The longer you let them rest, the more they will continue to cook on the inside.

 Slice the tuna into ½” slices and serve topped with the salsa.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Sheet Pan Pasta with Broccoli

Lat Year's Post: Spiced Pecans
Two Years Ago:  Sugar Snap Pea Salad

This is an innovative alternative to the traditional baked pasta with broccoli and cheese, that uses a sheet pan to roast the broccoli and then crisp up the pasta and topping while warming the ricotta.  The whole thing goes very fast since you boil the pasta while the broccoli roasts and broiling at the end takes only a few minutes, making it much faster than a baked pasta.  Another time-saver would be to buy pre-cut broccoli florets, at which point this whole meal could be made in about 40 minutes.

The recipe is slightly adapted from one by Melissa Clark of the New York Times. She emphasized that since this is such a simple recipe with few ingredients, the quality of each ingredient really matters.  In particular, she suggested going to a cheese shop to buy the best quality artisan ricotta you can find rather than the typical supermarket tub.  And this would also be a great recipe to use a really fun pasta shape - just be sure the pasta is approximately the same size as the broccoli for ease of eating.

As for my adaptations - I cut down on the amount of broccoli to 2 pounds (she called for 2.5 pounds) and you can see it's still plenty of broccoli - and 10 ounces of pasta rather than 12 ounces.  With the adaptations, this still makes 4 generous servings.  If you use her 2.5 pounds of broccoli and 12 ounces of pasta I would say it would serve 6 and hopefully you have a big sheet pan to boot.

Be sure to use your best quality olive oil to drizzle over the finished dish, squeeze on some lemon juice and shower with freshly ground black pepper.

Sheet Pan Broccoli Pasta
Serves 4

2 pounds broccoli, cut into bite-sized florets
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more as needed
¾ teaspoon kosher salt, more as needed
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
10 ounces medium-sized pasta such as rigatoni, or similar-sized other shapes
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup panko bread crumbs
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, more as needed
12 ounces best quality, whole milk ricotta
Fresh lemon juice, for serving

Heat oven to 425d.

On a rimmed baking sheet, toss together broccoli, oil, ¾ teaspoon salt and the red pepper flakes.  Roast until tender and browned at the edges, 18 to 25 minutes, tossing halfway through.  Remove from the oven and set the oven to broil.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to boil.  Cook pasta according the package directions; drain.

In a small bowl, stir together Parmesan, panko, lemon zest, a pinch of salt and the black pepper.

Toss cooked pasta with broccoli on baking sheet.  Season with salt and pepper, then dollop with ricotta.  Sprinkle with the Parmesan mix, drizzle generously with oil, and broil until topping is crisped and golden, 2-3 minutes.  Watch closely so the topping doesn’t burn.  Place portions in individual shallow bowls, then sprinkle with lemon juice, drizzle with a little additional olive oil, and shower with coarse black pepper before serving.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Way Too Easy - No Butter Scone

Last Year's Post:  Baked Egg Bowls
Two Years Ago:    Southwest Eggrolls (baked not fried)

If you like scones, this recipe is for you.  And if you've ever had a dried-out hockey puck of a scone in a bakery, give this one a chance.  Yes, you can buy a scone mix, but this recipe is easier than making cookies and you can customize it any way you want.  My favorite part is that you can mix up the dough the night before and then just bake the scones in the morning while you sip on coffee.  Warm scones for weekend breakfast!  Since I'm not particularly a morning person that really appealed to me.  (Thanks to my good friend Brad for the recipe!)

Scones seem to be sort of a cross between a biscuit and a muffin.  Some recipes lean more toward the more tender/crumbly biscuit end of the spectrum such as this cornmeal herb scone or this savory breakfast scone, but this recipe is soft and skews more toward the muffin side.  You can add your favorite spices, dried fruit, chocolate chips, flavored extracts and even grated lemon or orange zest to make it your own creation.

If you're having people for breakfast or brunch, this is an easy way to serve warm, fresh baked goods without fussing around with muffin papers or fancy pastries.

The Way Too Easy – No Butter Scone
Makes 8

2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon (or other spices)
1 ¼ cups raisins (or cranberries, chocolate chips, nuts, or a combination)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 ¼ cups cream, cold
1-2 teaspoons flavored extract (vanilla, orange, etc.), optional

Eggwash (one egg beaten with one tablespoon water) or melted butter
Coarse sugar (can substitute regular sugar, just not as pretty)

Preheat oven to 375d.

Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl, stirring in raisins or other add-ins last.  Add cream and stir until ingredients are just combined.  Form a ball of the dough and place on a floured surface.  Flatten and then fold a few times, then flatten into a circle about 1” thick if you’re going to cut wedges, or into a log about 12” long if you’re going to cut rounds.

Cut the circle into 8 wedges and place on a parchment lined cookie sheet.  If you formed a log, cut it into 8 equal pieces and put it on the parchment lined sheet.  Brush the tops with egg wash or butter, then sprinkle with sugar.  Bake about 15 minutes until golden.  Let cool on baking sheet about 10 minutes before serving warm.

Make Ahead:  Follow the recipe until you’ve formed the round or log.  Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour and up to overnight.  Remove and proceed with the rest of the recipe.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Fall Wild Rice Salad with Persimmon

Last Year's Post:  Wheatberry Salad
Two Years Ago:    Turkey Farro Salad with Candied Chickpeas

I found the inspiration for this recipe a year ago and sent it to my vegetarian friend Nikki, but never got around to trying it.  Then this year, I bought several persimmons as decorations for the Thanksgiving table and decided to find out more about them, since I've never actually tasted one.  (Why didn't we ever have persimmons when we were growing up?)  Several sources described their taste as a cross between apricot and honey, which I would agree with when I tried one. They're available October through February. There are also two kinds of persimmon - Fuyu and Hachiya.  Fuyu are more common and are perfectly edible and sweet even when hard.  The Hachiya are very astringent until they ripen to a squishy gel-like consistency, which didn't sound too attractive to me.  This is what Fuyu persimmons look like.

Anyway, after we tried the raw persimmon on Thanksgiving, I wanted to use them in a dish and remembered this recipe.  The original recipe included cooked beans (as well as wild rice), which I eliminated.  I used a new technique to char sliced Brussels sprouts rather than steaming individual leaves, and was please with the smoky yet firm results.  And I added some Gruyere cheese for protein and taste since I eliminated the beans.  Of course, you could substitute blue cheese or goat cheese (or any other cheese, for that matter) if you prefer.

There are a number of steps and ingredients, so my suggestion is to cook the wild rice, Brussels sprouts and squash in advance.  Then it's just a matter of making the vinaigrette and tossing everything together at the last minute.

The result is a truly beautiful and  spectacular fall or winter salad, full of complex flavors and textures.  It could accompany a roast pork, chicken or turkey, and would be the star centerpiece of a vegetarian feast.  It's perfect for a buffet table since it's served at room temperature. Accompanied by  crusty bread and a glass of wine, it was a very satisfying and sophisticated dinner.

Fall Wild Rice Salad with Persimmon
Serves 4 as an entree, 6-8 as a side dish 

1 cup uncooked wild rice
6-7 Brussels sprouts, thinly sliced
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper 2 cups cubed butternut squash (bite-sized cubes)
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 cup dried cranberries, rehydrated in hot water and drained
2 fresh small Fuyu persimmon, quartered and thinly sliced
1 cup baby arugula
1/3 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
½ cup Gruyere, cut into small cubes (or blue cheese or goat cheese crumbles)

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1-2 teaspoons grainy mustard
2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs such as lemon thyme, chervil, or marjoram
Salt and pepper

1 cup toasted walnuts or pecans, chopped
1/3 cup pomegranate seeds (optional)

Cook the wild rice according to package directions.  When done, drain and place in a large bowl.  Set aside.

Preheat the oven to broil.  In a medium bowl, toss the sliced Brussels sprouts with a tablespoon or so of olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in the center of the oven for 3 minutes.  Stir, then broil for an additional 2-3 minutes until lightly charred on the edges, watching closely so they don’t burn.  Remove and let cool.  Turn the oven down to 400d.

 In a medium bowl, toss the squash cubes with a tablespoon or so of olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Transfer to a baking sheet and roast until tender, turning halfway through, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove and let cool.

To make the vinaigrette, whisk the olive oil, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, mustard, and herbs together in a bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste.

In a bowl, combine all the salad ingredients except the walnuts and pomegranate seeds. Mix in the vinaigrette, then taste and adjust seasonings. Sprinkle the walnuts (and pomegranate seeds, if using) over the top of the salad and serve.