Saturday, September 27, 2014

Perfect Apple Crisp

Last Year's Post: Pad Thai
Two Years Ago:  Spicy Homemade Peanut Butter

As I write, the kitchen is filled with the heady aromas of apples and cinnamon - one of the most heavenly smells there are, right up there with fresh bread - the type of smell that reminds you of childhood, of Sunday dinners at Grandma's house, of holidays with a big family gathering.  Why don't we make those kinds of foods more often?  The ones that not only taste delicious, but are so evocative that just one whiff instantly reminds you of other times, places, and beloved people.

I knew I wanted to make a classic apple recipe this fall, and apple crisp seemed the most appropriate.  Easier to make than an apple pie, I actually prefer it to pie because of the crisp, crunchy topping that contrasts so well with the tender apples.  I went on a search to determine what makes the best apple crisp, and found to no one's great surprise that it's all about the apples.  There's a general consensus out there in expert apple-crisp land that you should use firm apples so they don't fall apart and become apple sauce while cooking, and further more you should use a combination of sweet and tart apples for the best flavor.

Rome Beauty, Honey Crisp and Crispin are all easy to find and are good firm sweet apples.  The ever-popular Granny Smith or Jonathan are good firm tart apples.  I used a combination of Honey Crisp and Granny Smith for my apple crisp.

After baking, the apple slices were tender but held together without breaking at all.

There are two other important components to this recipe - cinnamon and nuts.  Use the best quality cinnamon you can find; throw it away and buy a fresh bottle if it's been open on your shelf longer than 6 months.  I always buy my spices at Penzeys for the best selection, freshest spices, and lowest prices.  Don't ever skimp on your spices.

The second point is to put nuts in the crumb topping - this recipe calls for sliced almonds but I think a combination of almonds and pecans would be just as good.  They add a depth of flavor and additional crunch to the topping that puts it over the top.

It's a fun recipe to make with someone else because two pairs of hands make light work of peeling, coring and slicing the apples.  After that, you simply mix the topping and bake.  Apple crisp is wonderful when slightly warm, but if you want to make it in advance you can always warm up the individual serving in the microwave before serving (all the better to melt the ice cream!).

The apple crisp was sweet without being too sweet, and had a light cinnamon note that let the apples be the star (along with that great crunchy topping).  It was truly the perfect recipe in terms of balance and taste.  You can serve it plain, with cream or ice cream, or my latest inspiration - served cold for breakfast with a little Greek yogurt on top. When was the last time you had homemade apple crisp?

printable recipe
Perfect Apple Crisp
Serves 6-8

Note:  Use a combination of sweet and tart apples that stay firm when baked.  Rome Beauty, Honey Crisp, or Crispin are good sweet choices; Granny Smith or Jonathan are good tart choices.

Apple Filling:
6 apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced (see note above)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon table salt

Crumb Topping:
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup old-fashioned rolled oats (not quick-cooking)
½ cup sliced almonds (or combination of almonds and chopped pecans)
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup butter, melted

Heavy cream or vanilla ice cream for serving, optional

Preheat oven to 375d.  Spray a 9x9-inch or comparable baking dish with non-stick cooking spray.

In a large bowl or plastic zip-top bag, combine granulated sugar, cornstarch, ¼ teaspoon cinnamon, and ¼ teaspoon salt.  Add apples and lemon juice and toss to coat.  Pile into prepared dish and even out the top with a spoon.

In a large bowl combine all topping ingredients and mix with a fork or your hands until the mixture is fully combined.  Sprinkle mixture evenly over the apples.

Place the baking dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until the apples are tender and the topping is golden brown, 45-55 minutes.  Let rest 10 minutes before serving.

Serve warm or at room temperature, topped with cream or ice cream if desired.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Squash Ravioli with Sage Brown Butter Sauce

Last Year's Post: Lavash Chips, Za'atar, Hummus and Green Harissa
Two Years Ago:  Smoked Salmon with Farfalle and Edamame

So you would love to serve an earthy, fall-themed meal but you have absolutely no time in your schedule because of everything else going on in your life, right?  Well, believe me when I tell you that this pasta is ready to go - start to finish - in about twenty minutes.  All you have to do is boil some water for the ravioli, and melt some butter.  Add a green salad and some nice crisp bread sticks on the side and you're done.

Squash, sage, butter and walnuts go together like magic.  If you really really wanted to, you could add some crispy bacon or prosciutto, but you won't miss the meat because there are so many delicious flavors going on here.

Refrigerated or frozen squash ravioli or tortellini are readily available in most grocery stores - I found these triangular-shaped ravioli at Trader Joe's, for instance.  You could, of course, make your own using wonton wrappers or even your own homemade pasta dough, but that seemed like a bit much.  Simple, fast and delicious meals are not only welcome but a down-right necessity on many nights.  You could even pick up all the ingredients on your way home.

printable recipe
Squash Ravioli with Sage Brown Butter Sauce
Serves 4

1 pound fresh or frozen squash ravioli or tortellini
1 stick butter (1/2 cup)
2 tablespoons torn fresh sage leaves
1/3 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely shopped
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
¼ cup grated Parmesan
¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

Prepare the ravioli according to directions. 

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat.   Add the sage and walnuts and let cook until the butter starts to brown, about 3 minutes.  Turn the heat off and season with salt and pepper.

When the pasta has finished cooking, drain and place in shallow individual bowls.  Top with brown butter sauce, Parmesan and parsley.  

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Roast Pork, Fennel and Green Bean Salad

Last Year's Post: Smoked Turkey, Kale and Blue Cheese Sandwiches
Two Years Ago:   Pork with Fennel and Caper Sauce

As far as pork goes, the tenderloin tends to be my cut of choice because it doesn't dry out and become tough and chewy like larger pork roasts or pork chops often do.  Being a big fan of all things Costco, I particularly like their pork tenderloins because they're excellent quality, don't have any injected chemicals or liquids, and of course they're less expensive than anywhere else on the planet.  As a result, I tend to have several pork tenderloins in the freezer at any given time and am always on the lookout for new and interesting ways to use them.

Besides being delicious and healthy, this pork tenderloin salad has several other advantages: you can serve it cold or at room temperature (or theoretically hot, although that wasn't the original intent), you can prepare and serve it all in one day, or break the prep up into three days as I did.  If you're a planner/organizer, the three day approach works well because it's just a little bit of time each day and the pork is absolutely the best.  And this salad is all about the pork - the intensely aromatic garlic and herb seasoning gives the roast outstanding flavor, while roasting and refrigerating it afterwards ensure moist, perfect slices.  Although it makes a great entree salad, I could definitely see using it for a really outstanding sandwich. It's that good.

As I said, you can prepare the pork over three days by applying the rub on day one, roasting on day two, and slicing/eating on day three.  Or, you could condense it into one day by applying the rub in the morning and roasting at mid-day to refrigerate for a few hours before slicing.  It'll turn out great either way.

After the pork is ready, all you have to do is prep the beans and fennel, make a quick lemon salad dressing, and serve everything topped with walnuts and goat cheese.  (If you don't like goat cheese, feel free to substitute feta or blue cheese, or leave it out entirely.) For those who aren't all that familiar with how to trim, core and slice fennel, it's actually very easy.  Cut the skinny tops off the bulb, then cut the bulb in half.  Cut out the triangular hard core with a small knife, then place each half on its side and thinly slice it crosswise.

The beans and fennel add crunch and fresh vegetable-y flavor to the salad that contrasts nicely with the soft pork, creamy cheese and rich nuts.  And did I mention healthy?  A winner all around.

printable recipe
Cold Pork Roast, Fennel and Green Bean Salad
Serves 4

Note:  The pork should be seasoned at least a few hours in advance of cooking, or up to one day ahead.  After roasting, the pork should cool to room temperature before serving; it may be wrapped and refrigerated for up to 24 hours.

For the pork roast:
1 (approx 1.25 lb) boneless pork tenderloin
Kosher salt
3 large garlic cloves, minced
1.5 tablespoons roughly chopped fennel fronds, plus more for optional garnish
1 teaspoon fennel seed, crushed
½ teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon roughly chopped rosemary
1 tablespoon roughly chopped sage
1 tablespoon roughly chopped marjoram
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil

For the salad:
1 small garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
8 ounces green beans, trimmed
2 small or 1 large head of fennel, trimmed, cored and thinly sliced
½ cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
½ cup crumbled goat cheese

Season the pork generously on all sides with salt.  In a small bowl, combine all the seasonings (garlic through olive oil) for the roast.  Pat and rub the mixture on all sides of the tenderloin, then wrap in plastic film and refrigerate for several hours, or preferably overnight. 

Preheat the oven to 400d.  Remove the pork from the refrigerator while the oven preheats.  Place a rack in a roasting pan.  Unwrap the pork, place on the rack, and roast for about 25 minutes until it registers 140d.  Let cool to room temperature before serving.  If desired, after cooling wrap and refrigerate the pork for up to 24 hours, then return to room temperature.

For the salad dressing, put garlic and lemon juice in a small bowl.  Add salt and pepper to taste and whisk in olive oil.

Blanch beans in boiling salted water for 2 minutes, then drain and place in an ice bath.  Drain again and pat dry.  Put beans and fennel in a bowl, season lightly with salt and toss with some of the dressing.  Let stand for a few minutes to slightly soften the fennel.

To serve, cut pork into ¼” slices.  Arrange pork, fennel and green beans on each plate; top with walnuts and goat cheese.  Pass remaining salad dressing at the table. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Pesto for the Freezer

 Last Year's Post: Watermelon Gazpacho
Two Years Ago:    Apple, Bacon and Fontina Stuffed Acorn Squash

Pesto is one of the best ways to preserve a little sliver of summer to be brought out in the middle of winter - bright and aromatic basil with garlic, pine nuts, cheeses, olive oil and butter, it's one of my favorite ways to eat pasta.  Even if you don't have an herb garden, it's worth going to the farmers market to pick up a big bunch of basil at the end of summer so you can freeze several small jars.  Pesto is very versatile and can be used in sandwiches, on roast chicken or fish, and of course tossed with pasta.  Today we tossed it with spaghetti and served it with grilled shrimp, which was perfectly complemented by the bright garlicky pesto flavors.

I found this recipe many years ago in the "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" by Marcella Hazan.  Although there are lots of pesto recipes out there, I particularly like this one for freezing because it tells you to leave out the cheeses and butter until after you thaw the pesto.  Adding them at that point makes the pesto taste much fresher.  Also, she tells you to beat the cheeses and butter in by hand rather than in the blender, which gives the pesto a more interesting texture.  Two really good tips.  I'm actually surprised that I haven't shared this recipe before - it's one of two essentials I make every fall to freeze, along with this roasted tomato salsa that I think is the best salsa ever.

The recipe is very easy to prepare so you can make multiple batches if you have a lot of basil (highly recommended).  I would freeze the pesto in small jars because a little goes a long way - the 1/3 cup or so in one of my jars will make plenty of pesto (when the cheeses and butter are added) to top four pieces of chicken or fish, or to toss with enough pasta to feed 2-3 people.

The beautiful green color, fragrance and fresh taste will be a huge reward for you in the middle of winter for just a little effort at this time of the year.

printable recipe
Pesto for Freezing
Makes approximately 2/3 – 3/4 cup of pesto, enough for 6 servings of pasta.  The recipe may be doubled or tripled.

2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves, rinsed and patted dry (or use a salad spinner)
½ cup good olive oil
2 tablespoons pine nuts (plus more, toasted, for garnish, optional)
2 -3 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese*
2 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese*
3 tablespoons butter, softened to room temperature*
16 - 20 ounces of pasta, cooked and drained*
Coarse salt and pepper*

Put the basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic cloves, and salt in a blender and mix at high speed, stopping to scrape down the sides as needed with a rubber spatula, until evenly blended.

To Serve Immediately:
 Pour the pesto into a bowl and beat in the two cheeses by hand (this results in a more interesting texture and better flavor than if added to the blender).  When evenly incorporated, beat in the softened butter.  Before adding the pasta, add a tablespoon of pasta water if the pesto seems thick.

Add the hot pasta to the pesto and toss to coat evenly.  Serve at once, garnished with additional toasted pine nuts (optional) and a sprinkling of coarse salt and coarse pepper.

To Freeze for Later:
Pour the pesto (without cheeses and butter) from the blender into small jars, cover tightly, and freeze.  Before using, thaw overnight in the refrigerator.  When completely thawed, beat in the cheeses and butter as described above.  Adding the cheeses and butter at this time rather than before freezing gives the sauce a much fresher flavor.  Frozen pesto will keep for up to 6 months.
* Not needed until later if you’re planning on freezing all the pesto.