Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Kid Food!


My Aunt Jenny and Uncle Von are in town this week with their three awesome kids, Nate, Alaina and Torrie.  It’s spring break from school, so they’re here on vacation – seeing the Chicago sights and getting in a little bit of Ben and Kate time too.  I have to say, we’d take these guys any day, because they’ve brought along some seriously sensational weather!  But even without their gifts of sun and seventy degree breezes, we’d be thrilled to have Aunt Jen and her crew over just about any time at all, because all five of them are sensationally fun.  And also, I always love a good excuse to make kid food!

Chicken Fingers with a Whole Slew of Dipping Sauces
Macaroni & Cheese
Peas & Carrots
‘Hostess’ Cupcakes

Now, I’m pretty well versed in the field of kid cuisine.  My initial education came first hand.  Growing up, I was downright picky.  My sister Molly readily ate every kind of vegetable under the sun.  And what’s more, she loved them.  But in my mind, this was rare talent, one I could hardly fathom possessing myself.  I loved things like pizza, mac & cheese and ham sandwiches, chicken fingers, grilled cheese and PB&J’s.  Little else fit within my comfort zone.  Somewhere along the way I became more courageous, and today, aside from green peppers, I’ll definitely try and probably like just about anything out there.  But I still recall my safe zone foods with a nostalgic fondness.  And to be honest, they’re most of the time still my favorites.

I learned a valuable kid food lesson while cooking in restaurants:  The simpler the better.  When kids want pasta, they mean noodles and butter.  Not noodles and butter and salt and pepper – They’ll see the pepper specks, and the dish will get sent back to the kitchen.  And don’t even think about adding a pretty green sprinkle of parsley.  Your parsley garnished noodles will share the same sad fate as the pepper-flecked ones.  So, when I cook for my kid friends, I follow two rules of thumb:  One, stick within my childhood safe zone, which luckily seems to be pretty universal.  And two, nothing fancy-schmancy.  It always makes for full and happy children.  And full and happy grown-ups too.


Chicken fingers will always be a great bet for kids.  The ones I made for my cousins this week were not your average nugget.  Thick and juicy slices of chicken breast, rolled in a crispy crust of herbed breadcrumbs and parmesan, pan-fried to golden brown.  Finger lickin’ perfection.  But really, no one actually cares about the fingers themselves – all kids are really in it for is the dipping sauces!  So I provided a whole slew of dunkables too – homemade ranch dressing and honey mustard sauce, buffalo sauce, honey, ketchup and Sriracha.  My cousin Nate, gotta’ love him, went with one of each.  A man after my own heart!


The only food more loved by kids than chicken fingers, has got to be mac & cheese.  I could go on for days about how much I love the stuff.   But there’s no need really –  I’m sure all of you feel the exact same way.  Really though, nothing beats cheesy, oozy mac & cheese! 

My ‘perfect’ mac & cheese recipe is something I’ve been working on since high school.  It’s evolved slowly through the years, with numerous changes in both ingredients and method.  I’ve experimented with countless cheeses, tried a myriad of toppings, and have by now lost track of the total number of attempted tinkerings.  What we have below is a mac & cheese recipe which Ben and I both agree, is so completely delicious, it needs no further tinkering.  It’s simply reached the zenith of its evolution.  Please, try it and enjoy!


Vegetables, the necessary evil.  I tried my best to make them as enticing as possible, and I’m pretty sure I succeeded.  With sweet young carrots and even sweeter snow peas, I was off to a good start.  The carrots I cooked slowly, in a light glaze of butter and honey – a little touch of sugar to help charm the kids.  But the snow peas needed little to heighten their inherent candy-like qualities.  Folded together, the tender carrots and snappy peas made a very kid-friendly vegetable option, as tempting a dish as vegetables could ever hope to be.  My  cool little cousins undoubtedly agreed – all three of them ate their plates clean.

And for dessert, chocolate cupcakes.  But not just any chocolate cupcakes.  Hostess-style chocolate cupcakes!  With the white, creamy filling, the smooth chocolate icing and the squiggle on top.  I’ve always had a weakness for Hostess, from HoHos to Twinkies, Snowballs to DingDongs. Don’t even get me started on the Fruit Pies.  I’m not proud of it, really.  But at the same time, I’m not ashamed of it either. 

So, what’s even better than Hostess cupcakes?  Homemade Hostess cupcakes!  With the quick help of a pastry bag, the creamy filling and squiggle topping are as easy to do as anything.  The hardest part I think is the plain old chocolate cupcake itself. 


As you may recall, I had a bit of a chocolate cake failure a few weeks ago.  But the good thing about a failure (especially a blogged failure) is that it gives you a push to find something better.  So, I’ve spent the last few weeks experimenting with chocolate cake, and sampling every last one of these experiments.  (Luckily for me and my favorite pair of jeans, I have Ben, and our neighbors too, to help me with the sampling part.) 

After my first few attempts fell short of chocolate cake perfection, I did what I should have done in the first place – I called Ralph and Bill.  I knew that Bill, pastry chef extraordinaire, was bound to have a fabulous chocolate cake recipe.  And I was right.  Ralph dictated it over the phone for me, from the pages of Chocolate Obsession, their favorite chocolate cookbook.  I remember this book from the last time I visited, and loved it even then.  After trying out this recipe, I wonder why it’s taken me so long to buy a copy of my own.  These cupcakes were incredible.  The best I’d tried yet.  With just a touch more cocoa powder and a pinch more salt, a change I experimented with in my final attempt, I do think they may in fact be perfect. 


As for the perfect frosting to go with these perfect cupcakes -  I had this up my sleeve all along.  Chocolate ganache with a spike of espresso.   There’s something about coffee that just works magic on chocolate, bringing out even more chocolate flavor than was in it before.  Adding just a bit of espresso powder, so little you’d hardly even taste it, works huge wonders, elevating a simple chocolate frosting to new heights of chocolaty deliciousness. 


I’ll leave you with one important rule about these cupcakes.  To be served in true Hostess fashion, they must be eaten in pairs of two!  Eating just one would be hard to do, and wouldn’t embrace the Hostess spirit at all.  So please, double up!

Chicken Fingers
Serves  4  
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, as needed
1 1/2 cups flour
3 large eggs
2 Tbl water
1 1/2 cups seasoned bread crumbs
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese 
vegetable or canola oil, as needed 

Slice the chicken, length-wise but at a slight angle, into 4-5 strips of roughly 1 inch wide. 
Assemble a breading assembly line: In one medium-sized container, place the flour. Add the eggs and water to a second container and whisk to combine. In a third container, add the bread crumbs & grated Parmesan and mix to combine.

Pat dry the chicken strips with paper towels. Season all sides liberally with salt and pepper. Working one at a time, place the chicken strip into the first container and coat thoroughly with flour. Shake off excess flour. Move the strip to the second container and coat thoroughly with egg mixture. Shake off excess egg. Place the strip in the third container and coat thoroughly with breadcrumb-Parmesan mixture. Shake off excess crumbs. Place the breaded chicken strip on a wire cooling rack placed over a sheet pan. Follow same procedure for the rest of the sliced chicken strips. All of this can be done earlier in the day, and the breaded chicken kept in the refrigerator until ready for cooking. (The breading actually sticks better, if it’s given a bit of time to rest. 

Pour vegetable oil into a large straight-sided pan, enough so that the oil reaches about a half-inch height.  Heat over medium heat for about 3-5 minutes. Test the temperature of the cooking oil mixture by dropping in a single bread crumb. If it sizzles violently and burns right away, it’s too hot. If it doesn’t sizzle at all, it’s not hot enough. You want a medium sizzle. When your cooking oil is just about right, slowly lower chicken strips, working a few at a time, into the hot oil. Cook the first side until golden and crisp, about two minutes. Flip using a metal spatula, and cook until the opposite side is golden and crispy as well, and the chicken is cooked through, about two-three minutes more. Remove to a sheet pan covered with a couple layers of paper towel, and continue with the rest of the chicken strips. Serve hot with dipping sauces, including ranch dressing, honey mustard, hot sauce, ketchup or Sriracha.

Homemade Ranch Dressing 
Makes about 2 cups    

dip 5 
1 large egg yolk
1 cup vegetable or canola oil
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup dill, finely chopped
2 Tbl parsley, finely chopped
2 Tbl celery leaves, finely chopped
1 Tbl Dijon mustard
juice from 1/2 lemon
1 tsp onion powder
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolk until it is slightly foamy.  Slowly add the vegetable oil, just a few drops at at time, constantly beating with the whisk, until all the oil is incorporated and the mixture is thick and smooth, the consistency of mayonnaise.  Add the buttermilk, dill, parsley, celery leaves, mustard, lemon juice and onion powder.  Stir to combine.  Taste and season as needed with salt and pepper.  Store, refrigerated in an air-tight container, up to two days.

Honey Mustard Dipping Sauce 
Makes 1 cup

dip 1 
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper

Combine all the ingredients in a small mixing bowl and stir to combine with a rubber spatula.  That’s it :).  Store, refrigerated in an air-tight container, up to two weeks.

My Favorite Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 6  

6 Tbl butter, divided, plus more for buttering the casserole dish
1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs (from about 4-5 slices white bread, crusts removed)
1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese, divided
1 # coarsely grated cheddar cheese, divided
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt, divided, plus more for salting the pasta water
1/2 tsp black pepper, divided
1/2 # macaroni
3 Tbl flour
2 1/2 cups whole milk, warm
pinch cayenne

Preheat the oven to 400°F with the rack in the middle.  Generously butter a 9x13-inch casserole dish. 

Make the bread crumb crust: Add the bread crumbs to a medium mixing bowl.  Melt 2 Tbl butter and pour over the bread crumbs.  Stir with a rubber spatula to combine.  Add 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese, 1/2 cup grated cheddar, 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper.  Stir to combine.  Set aside. 

Next, cook the pasta: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  (Add enough salt so that the water tastes like the ocean.)  Add the macaroni and stir.  Boil until just tender but still firm, stirring occasionally to keep the noodles from sticking to the bottom of the pot.  Drain in a colander and rinse under cool running water. Drain well and set aside. 

Now, make the cheese sauce:  Over medium-low heat, melt the remaining 4 Tbl butter in a large sauce pot or Dutch oven.  Add the flour and cook about three minutes, stirring with a whisk.  Add about a third of the warm milk and whisk until smooth.  Add half of the remaining milk and whisk until smooth.  Add the rest of the milk and whisk until smooth.  (Slowly adding the milk like this, and whisking in between additions, will insure a smooth sauce.  So will using warm milk instead of cold.)  Over high heat, bring the mixture to a boil, whisking constantly.  Reduce the heat to medium or medium-low, to bring the sauce down to a simmer.  Simmer for about 3-4 minutes, whisking frequently.  Add the remaining 1/2 cup parmesan, about 2/3 of the remaining grated cheddar, 1 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper.  Whisk until the cheese is melted.  Add the cooked macaroni and stir to combine with a spatula.

Assemble the mac ‘n cheese: Pour half of the macaroni mixture into the prepared casserole.  Sprinkle evenly with half of the remaining cheddar.  Pour in the rest of the macaroni mixture, smoothing it with a rubber spatula, then top evenly with the rest of the cheddar.  Sprinkle the prepared breadcrumbs evenly over the top.  Bake, uncovered, until the bread crumbs are golden brown, about 30 minutes. Rest at room temperature, about five minutes, before serving.
Peas and Carrots
Serves  4  

about 1/2 # snow peas, trimmed *
about 1/2 # small carrots, peeled and sliced down the center
2 Tbl butter
1 Tbl honey
1/2 cup chicken stock or water (or more, if needed)
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to a vigorous boil.  (Add enough salt so that the water tastes like the ocean.)  Add the trimmed snow peas and boil until tender, about 2-3 minutes. Drain in a colander, then plunge the peas into ice water.  Allow the peas to cool in the ice water, about 1 minute, then thoroughly drain.  Set aside. 

Over medium-low heat, melt the butter in a large sauté pan, then add the carrots.  Cover the pan and cook the carrots for about 3-4 minutes.  Add the sugar and chicken stock or water.  Season with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan and cook until nearly tender, about 5 minutes.  Remove the lid and simmer, stirring occasionally with a rubber spatula, until the cooking liquid reduces to a glaze and the carrots are perfectly tender, about 5 minutes more.  Add the cooked snow peas and stir to combine.  Cook about 1 minute more, to warm the peas through.  Serve hot.

* Slice off the stem end, then using your knife as a grip, pull off the tough fiber running along the top edge of the pea.
‘Hostess’ Cupcakes
Cake recipe adapted from Chocolate Obsession by Michael Recchiuiti & Fran Gage
White Frosting recipe adapted from
Makes 12 cupcakes

For the cake:
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup sugar
1 extra-large egg *
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 Tbl instant espresso powder, dissolved in 1/2 cup boiling water

Preheat the oven to 325°F with the rack in the middle.  Fill a cupcake pan with twelve liners.  Combine the flour, cocoa powder, salt, baking powder, baking soda and sugar in a large mixing bowl.  Whisk by hand to thoroughly combine. 

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the egg, milk, oil, vanilla extract and espresso/water mixture.  Whisk by hand to combine.  Pour this mixture over the flour mixture and stir until smooth.  Pour this batter into a large measuring cup or a small pitcher, or anything with a spout.  Pour the batter evenly into the cupcake liners, filling each about 2/3 full. 

Bake until puffed and springy, about 15-20 minutes.  Remove the pan from the oven, then using a butter knife to lift the cupcakes, remove the cupcakes from the pan and cool on the wire rack to room temperature. 

* I most always find myself with only large eggs on hand, which can make for a sticky situation here.  Rather than using one large egg, which would be too little, or using two large eggs, which would be too much, I try to use one and a half eggs.  It sounds a bit sketchy, I know, and there’s no exact science to cutting an egg in half, but just try your best.  It’s not the end of the world if you just want to use two large eggs in place of the one extra-large egg.  But I always like the challenge of splitting the egg :).

For the white frosting:
2 Tbl butter, room temperature
2 Tbl shortening, room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar
1 Tbl water
1/4 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbl light corn syrup

Wait until the cupcakes are room temperature before starting the frosting.  Add the room temperature butter and shortening to the bowl of a stand mixer.  (I can’t tell you how important it is that these are room temperature!)  Mix on high until well blended and creamy, about two minutes.  Add the powdered sugar, water, vanilla, salt and corn syrup.  Beat on low speed to combine, then beat on high for five minutes until very fluffy. 

Scoop the frosting into a pastry bag fitted with a medium-sized pointy tip.  Stick the tip into the top center of each cupcake and squeeze to fill the cupcakes with about a tablespoon or so of frosting.  It’s hard to tell for sure how much frosting gets in there, but I usually squeeze it until the top of the cupcake just begins to crack.  Reserve the rest of the icing in the pastry bag, for the squiggle on top.

For the chocolate frosting:
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp instant espresso powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
8 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips

Combine the cream, espresso powder and salt in a small sauce pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.  Place the chocolate chips in a medium mixing bowl.  When the cream boils, remove it from the heat and pour it into the mixing bowl over the chocolate.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow it set for about 3-5 minutes, until the chocolate melts.  Mix with a rubber spatula, stirring until smooth.  (At this point, the mixture looks a little too thin for frosting, but once you frost the cupcakes, it will stiffen up almost immediately.)

Liberally frost the cupcakes with the chocolate frosting.  Change the tip on the pastry bag to a smaller circular hole tip, then pipe the white frosting in a squiggle pattern across the center top of the cupcake.  Keep at room temperature, in an air-tight container until ready to serve.  These are best served the day they are made.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rhubarb Chutney


It’s spring.  All of a sudden.  Spring.  Purple crocuses poke out of their winter hiding spots, the tips of tree branches blush the rosy red of new growth, and through my open window floats a fresh, warm air carrying a murmur of chirping birds and a smell of pure heaven.  Ah, that smell.  I don’t even know what it is, exactly. Is it the freshly thawed earth?  Or the new, green life springing out of it?  One thing I do know is that it’s magical.  It’s as if with one breath, all the springs of my past come whooshing back to me, and I’m instantly filled with a singular sense of joy and contentment, the same sense of wonder I’ve felt every spring of my life. 

And so on the wave of this new spring air, we gladly drift away from winter’s hearty provisions, and find ourselves immersed in the glories of spring’s bounty- strawberries and asparagus, artichokes and lamb, fava beans and fiddlehead ferns, peas and rhubarb.  It is rhubarb that I’ve found myself especially immersed in today.

IMG_0006   IMG_0023

Rhubarb is one of my favorite spring ingredients. The color alone is sensational.  The raw stems are painted with streaks of crisp red and wisps of pale green.  As the rhubarb cooks, this red transforms into a glowing pink that’s nearly luminescent, a hue that’s somehow soft yet bright at the same time, and somehow rosier than even roses.  And the flavor is something to go on and on about too!  The perfect illustration of tartness, rhubarb is beautifully sour.  And it’s a soft sourness, not harsh and puckery like the sourness of lemons, but rounded out by floral tones and hints of raw spices.  It’s a bright, candid taste but with a shadow of complexity – mimicking its color, bright yet soft at the same time. 


Wild rhubarb used to grow along the edges of the woods behind our house.  We nicknamed it elephant ears, because its large, floppy green leaves looked like just that.  These huge acoustic leaves are actually poisonous.  The part of the rhubarb plant we eat is the stem, and this qualifies rhubarb as a vegetable, alongside other stems like celery and asparagus.  Just as tomatoes are fruits that are treated more like vegetables, rhubarb is a veggie that often gets treated a lot like a fruit.  And not a regular fruit, but a specifically dessert kind of fruit.  Rhubarb pies and tarts and crisps and crumbles.  It’s often combined with other fruits, like strawberries and such, which makes for fantastic combinations of sweet and sour.  But rhubarb has so much potential outside of the dessert world.  We need to start thinking outside of the pie!  So today I took a savory route, making rhubarb chutney.  Sour and sweet, and a little bit spicy, this sauce can be applied in a myriad of non-dessert applications.  But more on that later…


Chutney is a word for a sweet and spicy Indian condiment, usually made of fruits, sugar, spices and vinegar.   Adding a punch of bright flavor to traditional dishes, it’s regularly served alongside Indian curries.  The chutney I made today has a sour background of vinegar and rhubarb, layered with sweet red onion, golden raisins and just a bit of sugar.  A swirl of spices – ginger, chile, cinnamon and orange zest – wrap everything together into a beautiful sauce exploding with flavor. 


I made ten jars of this tasty stuff, and my head’s so full of fun uses for it, I’m hoping there’ll be some left to give away!  It’s an automatic excuse for a curry dinner – I’m thinking perhaps yellow-curry shrimp, with wilted spinach, chewy black rice and basil raita.  But it would be wonderful too, topping a grilled chicken sandwich with crusty bread, arugula and extra-sharp cheddar.  Or just with cheddar itself, as a cheese course or hors d’oeuvre.  Or served alongside sea scallops or sliced duck breast, or…  The season for rhubarb is just too short, with so many tempting ideas!  I wish every year that spring would last and last, but it always ends up turning into summer all to quickly.  I hope I can hold onto at least a couple of these jars, and keep a little bit of spring with me throughout the rest of the year. 


Rhubarb Chutney 
Makes about 2 1/2 cups   

about 2 # rhubarb
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 cinnamon stick
1 Tbl minced fresh ginger
3-inch strip of orange zest, thinly sliced *
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup diced red onion

Wash the rhubarb under cool running water.  Using a knife, trim off any leaves or blemishes on the stem.  Slice length-wise down the middle of the stem, cutting the stem into two long and equal pieces.  Slice these halved stems width-wise into half-inch slices.  (This should yield about 4-5 cups sliced rhubarb.)  Set aside.

Combine the sugar, vinegar, cinnamon, ginger, orange zest and pepper flakes in a medium sauce pot.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer 5 minutes.  Add the prepped rhubarb, the golden raisins and the diced red onion.  Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to keep at a bare simmer until the rhubarb is just tender, about 5 minutes.  Cool, and store refrigerated in an air-tight container, up to one week.  Or follow a basic canning procedure to keep them at room temperature. 

* Slice a strip of zest, about 1-inch wide by 3-inches long,  from the orange with a vegetable peeler, then using a knife, cut the strip width-wise into very thin slices. 


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Winter’s Final Evening


This week’s dinner party took place last Saturday, on the last evening of winter.  It was certainly wintery outside, with sleety snow and big Chicago winds.  And we had a wintery dinner inside too, making the most of the last of the season’s bounty.  Our dinner guests were Ben’s boss Chris and his wife Melece.  Yep, we performed that age old ritual of having the boss for dinner.  Under normal circumstances, this sort of to-do has all the makings for being a bit stressful.  But this was the eleventh dinner party we’ve thrown in as many weeks - We were all around cool as can be.  Still though, I was aiming this week for a particularly extraordinary menu, one that was perhaps a bit more exceptional than the norm, one sure to delight and impress.  And I do believe I achieved it. 

Cremini Mushroom Caps Stuffed with Sausage, Herbs and Parmesan

Root Vegetable Ribbon Salad with Fines Herb Vinaigrette

                 Pan-Seared Salmon with Sautéed Mustard Greens, Roasted Purple Potatoes       and Brown Butter sauce with Capers and Currants

Hazelnut-Maple Tart with Whipped Cream

We started out with an hors d’oeuvre that is nothing short of spectacular – stuffed mushrooms.  My Uncle David (an awesome cook, and my earliest inspiration) first made these for a family party about ten or so years ago.  They immediately achieved family favorite status.  Literally.  If you took a poll of everyone in our family, I am certain these would come in first place among favorite family dishes.  I think Uncle Dave first got the recipe from some magazine or other, but as far as any of us are concerned, they’re an original family heirloom.  They’re so incredibly delicious, and such a staple at family events, we can’t help but fancy them as our very own, passed down from great, great ancestors. 

As an aside, I’ll admit upfront that these are not gourmet by any stretch.  With ingredients like cream cheese and breakfast sausage and garlic salt, they seem downright unsophisticated.  But it’s nothing I’m ashamed of.  I’d gladly sacrifice every last ounce of my epicurean pride for these amazing mushrooms.  And also, they are not very pretty.  They’re absolutely homely actually – little, brown, ugly lumps that are anything but photogenic.  (Hence the the blatant lack of pictures.)  But my goodness, one bite and you’ll swear they’re the most beautiful things in the world.  And anyways, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case, a taste is worth a trillion.


Our salad took a place at the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, thanks in no small part to its complete span of the color spectrum.  With its pastel hues and bright flavors, this collection of thinly shaven raw root vegetables was a spring-like spin on a cold weather staple, a perfectly suited dish for the night day of winter.  I gathered a pretty assortment of root vegetables from the fruit market – turnips, carrots, rutabagas, parsnips, celery root, radishes and golden beets.  Sliced paper-thin then simply dressed in a creamy vinaigrette of buttermilk and fresh herbs, these pretty ribbons of root vegetables are a perfect basis for a fresh and delicious salad.  Crisp yet delicate, they act like leaves themselves, and easily stand in place for typical salad greens. 


Looking through the lists of Scrumptious Company menus I’ve served so far, I realized it was high time we did something with salmon.  Rich and fatty, with a succulent flavor unique to all other fish, and a lovely pinkish-orange flesh of such a gorgeous tone, it’s an official color itself.  What could be better than salmon, really?  I just love the stuff.


Alongside pan-seared fillets of this beautiful fish, I served braised mustard greens and oven-roasted Peruvian purple potatoes.  The potatoes were wonderfully aromatic, with tender insides of bright purple, and crispy skins of a deeper purple tinged with golden brown.  Roasted with pink slivers of shallots, minced garlic and a generous dose of fresh thyme, and dressed with a swirl of extra-virgin olive oil, they were a vibrant accompaniment, in both color and taste, to the robust flavors and texture of the salmon. 


Mustard greens are, in one word, bitter.  But as with such favorites as dark chocolate and coffee and beer, the bitterness of mustard greens is nothing to be afraid of.  In fact, it’s an all around noble attribute.  Bitterness, an oft overlooked taste, is indeed worthy of its own celebration from time to time.  And tonight, mustard greens were the belle of the ball.  Cloaked in sauce of butter and garlic, and spiked with a bright dash of sherry vinegar, these tenderly braised greens were creamy and smooth, a delicious reminder of how sweet a bit of bitterness can be. 


And to bring everything together, a brown butter sauce with bicolor speckles of capers and currants that echoed the earthy greens and purples of the rustic sides.  Fragrant and savory, this rich and vibrant sauce rounded out the bitter greens, earthy potatoes and buttery salmon.  Its combination of flavors – salty pickled capers, fruity currants, mellow garlic and vivid lemon – made it a fitting complement and wonderful addition to the entire dish. 


To make this week’s dessert, we again happily dug into our generous supply of surprise hazelnuts. This time round, they took their place, and were an all-around smashing success, in a hazelnut-maple pie.  Along the same lines as pecan pie, this handsome dessert could be considered by some (including my handsome husband), even better than the pecan version.  With a golden, flaky crust, and a sticky filling of gooey maple custard studded with toasted hazelnuts, this pie was a real treat.  And with a steaming cup of our favorite coffee, it was a perfect ending to not only the wonderful night, but also the winter.


Cremini Mushroom Caps Stuffed with Sausage, Herbs & Parmesan
Adapted from my uncle David Schoen’s recipe
Serves 6

1 # breakfast sausage (something along the lines of this)
2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 cup grated fresh parmesan (about 4 ounces)
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp garlic salt
8 oz cream cheese
1 large egg yolk
30 Cremini mushrooms 

Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat for about two minutes.  Add the sausage to the pan, then sprinkle the oregano and crushed red pepper over the sausage.  Sauté, stirring frequently and breaking the sausage into small pieces with a potato masher or the back of a fork, until the sausage is cooked through.  Remove from the heat and reserve.

In a medium bowl, mix half the grated parmesan with the Worcestershire sauce, garlic salt, cream cheese and egg yolk.  Stir with a rubber spatula to thoroughly combine.  Add the cooked sausage and stir to combine. Reserve.

Wipe the mushrooms clean with a damp paper towel.  Remove the stems from the mushrooms.  (No need to cut - Just pluck them out.)  Make a very thin slice across the top of each mushroom cap, to form a steady base.  Stuff each cap with a scant tablespoon of sausage filling, using more or less filling for larger or smaller caps, as necessary. Place the remaining grated parmesan in a small bowl and dip each stuffed mushroom into the parmesan, stuffing-side down.  The grated cheese will stick to the top.

Arrange the stuffed mushroom caps on top of a baking sheet lined with a single layer of paper towels. (The paper towel will absorb the water that will be released from the mushrooms, and make for a much neater end-product.)  At this point, the mushrooms can be covered with plastic and refrigerated overnight, or baked right away.

Bake, uncovered, in a 35o°F oven until the stuffed mushrooms are hot and the tops are golden brown, about 25-30 minutes.  


Root Vegetable Ribbon Salad with Fines Herbs Vinaigrette
Serves 4-6

For the dressing:
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 Tbl mayonnaise
2 Tbl sour cream
1/4 cup sliced chives
1/4 cup chopped tarragon
2 Tbl chopped parsley
1/4 tsp dry mustard
1 Tbl cider vinegar
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp kosher salt

For the root vegetables

2 medium carrots
2 medium parsnips
4-6 radishes
2 medium golden beets
1 small turnip
1 small celery root
1 small rutabaga
kosher salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the dressing:  Combine all the ingredients in a medium-sized mixing bowl, and stir to combine.  Refrigerate in an air-tight container until needed, up to a day.

For the root vegetables: Wash all of the root vegetables in cool running water.  Peel the carrots, parsnips, celery root and rutabaga, but leave the skins on the radishes, beets and turnip.  Using a mandolin, slice the root vegetables into paper-thin circular slices.  Add the slices to a large mixing bowl and cover with cold water.  Refrigerate covered, until ready to serve. 

To assemble:  Dry the sliced root vegetables very thoroughly in a salad spinner.  (Give this step about twice as much time as you think it needs – it’s important that they are very dry, so the dressing will stick.)  When no more water is released from the salad spinner, pat the sliced vegetables with paper towels, to pick up any lingering water.  Place the sliced vegetables into a large, dry mixing bowl and top with the dressing.  Season with salt and pepper. Stir with a rubber spatula, evenly coating each slice with the dressing.  Arrange a small cluster of dressed root vegetable slices in the center of each salad plate.  Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and a small grind of pepper.   


Pan-Seared Salmon
Serves  4
4 6-oz portions skinless salmon
vegetable oil, as needed
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 375°F.  Heat a large non-stick sauté pan over high heat for two minutes.  Add enough vegetable oil to thinly cover the bottom of the pan, about 1 Tbl, and heat 1 minute more.  Pat the salmon fillets dry with paper towels and season both sides with salt and pepper.  Lower each portion of salmon (skin-side up, pretty side down) into the pan, leaving space between each fillet.  Turn the heat down to medium-high, and allow the salmon to cook about three minutes, without touching it.  Give the pan a little shake.  If all the fillets move loosely on the pan without sticking, flip the fillets over, using a metal spatula.  (If the fillets are still sticking to the pan a bit, allow them to cook about a minute more, then try again.  Don’t try to rush it here – if you try to flip them before they’re ready, you’ll mess up the beautiful sear.)  Once the fillets are flipped, place the pan into the oven and bake until cooked through, about five minutes more.  This will give you something near medium doneness.  Increase or decrease the time in the oven, as needed, for desired level of doneness.  Serve hot.


Roasted Purple Potatoes with Shallots, Garlic and Thyme
Serves 4

In this recipe, the potatoes and shallots are roasted separately ahead of time, then combined and roasted again when ready to serve.  These may seem like a lot of extra steps, but they ensure proper cooking of both the potatoes and shallots, and also allow for easy last minute work.  The extra steps make it easier in the long run. 

1 # small purple potatoes *
extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
2 large shallots, peeled and thinly sliced 
1 medium garlic clove, minced
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed

Preheat the oven to 450°F.  Wash the potatoes in cool running water.  Slice into quarters.  Toss with about a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, just enough to coat.   Place on the lower-middle rack of the oven, and roast until tender and slightly browned, about 25-30 minutes, turning with a spatula after about 15 minutes. 

In a small mixing bowl, toss sliced shallots with about 2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil, just enough to coat.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss to combine.  Spread over a sheet tray lined with parchment paper.  Place on the upper-middle rack of the oven, just above the potatoes and roast until slightly caramelized, about 15-20 minutes, turning with a spatula after about 10 minutes. Cool to room temperature and reserve until needed, up to 2-3 hours. 

When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 375°F.  Heat a medium non-stick sauté pan over high heat for two minutes.  Add a scant tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, and heat 1 minute more.  Add the potatoes, garlic and thyme, season with salt and pepper, and toss to combine.  Turn the heat to medium and sauté about 1 minute.  Move the pan to the oven, and roast about 7 minutes, until the potatoes are heated through and the garlic is golden brown.  Serve immediately. 

* This recipe works great for any sort of small potato.  Try it too with red (Red Bliss) or yellow (Yukon gold) or white-skinned potatoes.  Just stick with ones that are small and round, with smooth, waxy skins - the ones normally referred to as boiling potatoes.  Large, dusty-skinned potatoes like russets and Idaho’s have their time and place too (mashed potatoes!), but it’s not here. 


Braised Mustard Greens
Serves 4

2 bunches mustard greens, stems and lower ribs discarded, leaves coarsely chopped
2 Tbl butter
1 large clove garlic, minced
about 1/2 cup water
1 Tbl + 1 tsp sherry vinegar
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Wash the greens: Place the prepped greens in a large mixing bowl and cover with cool water.  Lift the leaves out of the water with your hands and place in a colander, leaving any dirt at the bottom of the bowl.  (Don’t pour the greens and water into a colander, or you’ll just be pouring the dirt right back on top of the greens.)  Repeat this step as many times as necessary, covering the greens with fresh cool water and lifting the greens out of the bowl, until no dirt is seen in the bottom of the bowl.  Drain the greens and spin dry. 

In a large sauté pan over medium heat, melt the butter.  Add the minced garlic and sauté, stirring constantly until the garlic just barely starts to turn towards golden.  Add the prepped greens and stir to combine – your aim here is to stop the garlic from over-cooking, so combine it well with the greens, to limit its contact with the hot pan.  Add 1/4 cup water and cover the sauté pan with a lid.  Cook about 1 minute, then stir the greens, folding them over so the wilted greens are on top and the raw greens on the bottom.  Cover and cook for another minute or two.  Add another 1/4 water and continue to cook and stir in this way until all of the leaves are tender to the bite, about 5-10 minutes.  (Taste one and see if it’s tender.)  Add more water if you need.  When the greens are tender, remove the lid and cook until any leftover water has evaporated.  Sprinkle with the vinegar and season with salt and pepper.  Stir to combine.  Taste and season with salt and pepper, and more vinegar if needed.  Serve hot.


Brown Butter Sauce with Capers and Currants 
Serves 4

1/4 cup dried Zante currants
6 Tbl butter
1 large shallot, peeled and finely diced
1 large garlic clove, finely minced
2 Tbl capers, drained
zest and juice of 1 lemon
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place the dried currants in a small mixing bowl and cover with boiling water.  Allow to set about 15 minutes, then drain.

Place a medium sauté pan over medium heat and add the butter.  Stirring or swirling occasionally, cook until the butter begins to turn golden brown and give off a rich and nutty aroma, about 3-4 minutes.  Add the diced shallots, a small pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper, and sauté until tender and translucent, about 3-4 minutes.   Add the minced garlic and sauté 1 minute, then the capers and lemon zest, and sauté 1 minute more.  Add the lemon juice and stir to combine.  Remove from the heat.  Taste, and season as needed with salt and pepper.  Either serve hot now, spooned over a portion of meat or fish, or cool to room temperature, refrigerate until needed (up to two days), and reheat over medium heat.


Maple-Hazelnut Pie
Adapted from Bon Appétit, October 2008 on
Pie crust adapted from the Martha Stewart Baking Handbook by Martha Stewart
Serves 8

A word about maple syrup: Real maple syrup, that is.  Not the maple-flavored corn syrup that comes in squeezable plastic bottles.  Please try never to use that stuff.  Like most of us, I grew up on it.  And up until only a few years ago, I still preferred it to real maple syrup for topping my pancakes.  Truth be told, it’s thicker and somehow more maple-flavored than the pure stuff, not to mention a lot less expensive.  For the longest time, I liked the idea of real maple syrup, and would use it begrudgingly.  But I always knew my heart was with the fake kind. 

But then I discovered Grade B maple syrup.  I’d always bought Grade A, assuming naturally that A was better than B.  Less refined than Grade A, Grade B is thicker and darker and absolutely more full of maple flavor.  It has all the pure goodness of real maple syrup, and all the rich flavor and gooey viscosity of the fake syrups.  It’s in a class all by itself, and is the only maple syrup I use now, with not a hint of begrudging, for both baking and for drizzling over pancakes and waffles.  I can’t recommend enough that you give it a try!


For the pie dough:
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces, plus more for coating the pie plate
1/4 cup ice water, plus more if needed
1 large egg white, for egg wash

Combine the flour and salt in a bowl and stir to combine.  Add the butter.  Rub the butter and flour mixture together rapidly between your finger tips until the fat is broken into tiny pieces and the mixture resembles dry oatmeal.  Tablespoon by tablespoon, drizzle the water over the flour mixture, mixing with your hand (use your actual hand, not a spoon) between additions, until the dough begins to hold together, without being wet or sticky.  You can test the dough by squeezing together a small amount – if it is still too crumbly and does not hold together, add a bit more water.   Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface.  Knead once or twice to bring the dough all together.  Shape into a flattened disk.  Wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least two hours or overnight.

Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie plate.   On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the chilled dough to about 1/4-inch thickness, forming a 10-inch diameter round.  Lift the dough with the rolling pin and drape it over the prepared pie plate.  Press along the sides to fit the dough into the pie plate.  Use kitchen shears to trim the dough along the outer edges of the plate, leaving a slight overhang. Using your fingers, crimp all along the edge of the dough to create a fluted border.  Chill in the refrigerator about 20-30 minutes. Whisk together the egg white and 1 tsp water in a small bowl.  Brush the dough with the egg wash, to coat thinly.  (You won’t need to use all of the egg wash.) 

Preheat the oven to 375°F.  Line the chilled pie shell with parchment paper, leaving a 1-inch overhang over the edges.  Fill with dried beans or pie weights and bake until the edges begin to turn lightly golden, about 20 minutes.  Remove the parchment paper and pie weights.  Cool the pie shell on a wire rack while you prepare the filling. 

To assemble:
3/4 cup Grade B pure maple syrup
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp salt
2 Tbl bourbon
1/2 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 1/2 cup hazelnuts
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

Turn the oven down to 35o°F.  Combine the maple syrup, brown sugar, corn syrup and salt in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves.  Continue boiling 1-2 minutes, reducing the heat as necessary, so the mixture doesn’t boil over.  Remove the pan from the heat, add the bourbon and the butter and whisk until the butter has melted.  Allow to cool, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes.   

Spread the raw hazelnuts on a parchment-lined sheet tray and roast until lightly toasted and aromatic, about fifteen minutes or so, rotating the pan about half-way through.  Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature.  Removing the skins can be a real hassle, so just try your best – I like a bit of skin left on anyways.  Here’s a handy trick: Take a handful of cool, toasted hazelnuts and, holding them over the colander bowl of a salad spinner, rub them between your hands to remove as much of the skin as possible.  Place in the colander, then repeat with the rest of the nuts, Give the salad spinner a few spins and the papery skins will separate out from the nuts.  Discard the skins. Now, slice each hazelnut in half.  Scatter the halved hazelnuts over the base of the pre-baked pie crust. 

Whisk the eggs and vanilla together in a medium bowl.  Pour the cooled maple-sugar mixture into the egg mixture, and stir to combine with a rubber spatula.  Pour the mixture over the hazelnuts in the crust.  Bake pie until the filling is set and slightly puffed, about 50 minutes to 1 hour.  If the edges of the crust start to darken too much, before the filling is set, line the crust with a border of tin foil.  When the center of the pie is just slightly giggly, remove from the oven and cool completely on a rack.  Can be made 1 day ahead and kept covered with plastic wrap in the refrigerator.  Serve slices cool or at room temperature, topped with whipped cream.

For the whipped cream:
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 Tbl sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Whip the cream to soft peaks (When you stick a spoon into the cream and lift it out, a point will form then droop down after a second or two).  Add sugar and vanilla and whip to firm peaks (The point formed in the whipped cream will stand straight up and not fall over).


Thursday, March 18, 2010

An Irishy Dinner Party


For this week’s dinner party, I served up an Irishy menu in honor of St. Patrick.  (Not quite Irish, but Irishy, because it wasn’t exactly traditional.)  We celebrated the unofficial Saturday start of the holiday with my little sister Mary and her husband Dan, who were staying with us for the weekend.  In the morning, we watched the Chicago River dying from up in Ben’s office, where we had a perfect bird’s eye view.  Then we spent the rest of the drizzly day back in the apartment, watching old movies and cooking dinner.   

          Lacinato Kale Salad with Toasted Hazelnuts, Golden Raisins, Parmesan,              Vidalia Onions & Mustard-Malt Vinaigrette

Shepherd’s Pie

Chocolate Cake with Guinness Ice Cream

Shepherd’s pie was an easy choice for our St. Patrick’s feast.  But for a first course, I had to get a little creative. I knew I wanted something green, and that led me to kale.  A cousin to cabbage, kale seemed a perfect St. Paddy’s Day option for that reason too.  Kale is a tough and hardy green, and while normally cooked long and slow to eek out every last bit of tenderness, I decided to take a fresh and raw approach this time.  I chose a beautiful variety of kale called Lacinato, whose leaves are long and broad, bumpy and dusky green.  I sliced thinly across the leaves, creating long, skinny ribbons that were crunchy but tender, bright in green flavor and a little bit bitter, a perfect base to a fresh winter salad.   


Topping the salad was all sorts of sweet and salty, crunchy and chewy goodness: golden raisins, sliced Vidalia onion, thin shards of parmesan cheese and gorgeous toasted hazelnuts.  The hazelnuts were a surprise gift (is anything better than an out-of-the-blue gift?) from my friend Brandon, who lives in Portland, Oregon (which right now tops the list of places I want to visit, both because of its incredible produce, namely its hazelnuts, and its incredible people, namely Brandon).  She picked and shelled and roasted them herself.  And gosh, they are really delicious. Stay tuned for next week’s post. I’m planning a maple-hazelnut tart for dessert.


Back to the salad as a whole.  A whole that was much more than the sum of its tasty parts.  I wish like snow to Eskimos, there were a couple dozen English words for delicious.  Because I don’t know how else to say it.  This salad was absolutely delicious.  I like how Mary put it.  She said that if she’d eaten it in a restaurant, she’d tell people to go there just for the salad.  I think that says it all.  

IMG_0177 IMG_0138

Shepherd’s pie was a must.  One of our all-time favorites, I’ve been waiting for the perfect opportunity to share it with you.  This traditional dish is classically made with ground lamb. But when I made it for the first time years ago, I neither knew this fact, nor paid much attention to the recipe.  I accidently bought cubed lamb for stewing.  And as Mark Twain said, “Accident is the name of the greatest of all inventors.”  I’ve been making it this way ever since.


Cubes of lamb shoulder are slowly simmered until meltingly tender, in a dark broth flavored with browned onions, fresh thyme and cinnamon.  Sautéed mushrooms and half moons of carrots are folded inside, then the stew is topped with a crust of cheddar-loaded mashed potatoes.  The cheese isn’t exactly traditional either, but who cares?  On top of the potatoes – more cheese, which melts and turns golden brown in the oven, and a sprinkling of bright and pungent green onions.  It’s simple, rustic food.  But at the same time, it somehow seems the height of gourmet fare. 



We made dessert Irish by topping chocolate cake with Guinness-flavored ice cream.  The ice cream was wonderful, with boozy hues of spiced molasses, smooth hints of bitter chocolate, and pleasant echoes of the quintessential Irish brew.  The chocolate cake, on the other hand, just missed the mark.  This was the first time I’ve tried this particular recipe.  On paper it sounded fantastic, but in reality, it was just okay.  (It definitely looked good though, so I couldn’t resist including a picture.)  Since you can find a recipe for okay chocolate cake just about anywhere, I don’t really see a reason to post this one.  Sorry to disappoint, but why mislead you with anything but the best? 


Have no fear though, my friends.  I’ll keep on my quest towards perfecting chocolate cake.  And when I get it just right, you’ll be the first ones to know.  

Lacinato Kale Salad with Hazelnuts, Golden Raisins, Parmesan,
Vidalia Onions and Mustard-Malt Vinaigrette

Serves 4

For the vinaigrette:
1/2 small garlic clove, minced
1 Tbl Dijon mustard
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
3 Tbl malt vinegar
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the rest of the salad:
2 bunches Lacinato kale
1 small Vidalia onion
1 cup hazelnuts
2/3 cup golden raisins
2-3 oz block of parmesan cheese
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

First make the vinaigrette: Combine the minced garlic, mustard, thyme, malt vinegar, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper in a medium mixing bowl.  Whisk together, and slowly pour in the olive oil, then the vegetable oil, both in a thin stream and whisking as you pour.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  This can be made ahead and refrigerated for about 4-5 days in an airtight container until needed.

Next, prepare the rest of the salad:
Working with 3-4 leaves at a time, and cutting straight across the width of the leaves, slice the kale into thin ribbons of about 1/8 inch thick.  Slice from the tips of the leaves to within about an inch from the base of the leaves, discarding the tough, wide stem area at the bottom. Wash the ribbons of kale in cool water, then spin dry.  


Slice the top and bottom ends off the onion, then slice the onion in half from top to bottom.  Remove the skin and thinly slice the onion. You’ll probably only need between 1/4 and 1/2 the onion, depending on its size and on how much you like onions. 

Spread the raw hazelnuts on a parchment-lined sheet tray and roast in a 350°F oven until toasted and aromatic, about fifteen minutes or so, rotating the pan about half-way through.  Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature.  Removing the skins can be a real hassle, so just try your best – I like a bit of skin left on anyways.  Here’s a handy trick through.  Take a handful of cool, toasted hazelnuts and, holding them over the colander bowl of a salad spinner, rub them between your hands to remove as much of the skin as possible.  Place in the colander, then repeat with the rest of the nuts, Give the salad spinner a few spins and the papery skins will separate out from the nuts.  Discard the skins.

Slice about half of the raisins in half, and leave the rest whole.  Slice the parmesan cheese into thin ribbons using a vegetable peeler.  

Assemble the salad: In a large mixing bowl, combine the sliced kale with most of the prepared onions, hazelnuts, raisins and parmesan.  (I say most of the onions, hazelnuts, etc. because you’ll want to keep a little bit left over to top the salads. It’s always nice to have some of the pretty stuff right on top.) Drizzle the vinaigrette on top. Season with a good pinch of salt and a few good grinds of pepper. Toss to coat thoroughly, and place onto salad plates. Top with the rest of the onions, hazelnuts, raisins and parmesan. Serve immediately.


Shepherd’s Pie
Serves 6

Lamb is traditional here, but to save a few bucks, use beef chuck.  It’s what I do most of the time, and I think may even like it better that way. 

For the filling:
olive oil, as needed
1 # 12 oz beef chuck or lamb shoulder, sliced into 1-inch cubes
2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
1 Tbl chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp tomato paste
1 Tbl flour
1 cup red wine
2 cups beef stock
3 medium carrots, peeled, sliced down the middle, then sliced into 1/4-inch half-moons
1/2 # cremini mushrooms, wiped clean
2 Tbl chopped fresh parsley leaves
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the topping:
2 # Yukon gold potatoes
6 Tbl butter, room temperature
3/4 cup cream, warm
12 oz grated cheddar cheese, divided
1/2 bunch green onions, cleaned and thinly sliced
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

First prepare the filling: Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat for two minutes.  While the pan is heating, use a paper towel to pat dry the cubed meat.  Season the meat with salt and pepper.  Add olive oil to thinly cover the bottom of the pan and continue to heat 1 minute.  Working in 2 batches, place half of the lamb or beef cubes into the pan, one by one, leaving space between them.  Brown for two minutes, then flip over and brown for two more minutes.  Remove the cubes of meat to a side dish, then repeat with the remaining meat.  Reserve the meat. 

Add the chopped onions to the pan, and a little more olive oil if needed.  Season with salt and pepper, then sauté, scraping up the browned bits at the bottom of the pan, until the onions are tender lightly browned, about 5 minutes.  Add the thyme and cinnamon, stir to combine, and sauté about 2 minutes more.  Add the tomato paste, stir to combine, and sauté about 2 minutes.  Add the flour, and again stir to combine and continue cooking about 2 minutes longer.  Add the red wine, stir to combine, and cook until nearly evaporated.  Add the beef stock and return the browned meat cubes to the pan with their cooking juices.  Season with a bit of salt and pepper.  Bring to a simmer, then turn the heat down to very low and cover.  Stirring occasionally, keep at a bare simmer, with just a few little bubbles escaping every second, until the meat is incredible tender.  When tender, remove the lid and simmer to reduce the sauce a bit – You want it slightly thickened, but keep enough to generously coat the meat and vegetables (you’ll add the carrots and mushrooms to this in a bit.)  Taste, and season as needed with salt and pepper.


While the stew is simmering, prepare the carrots and mushrooms: Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, then add the sliced carrots.  Boil until just tender, probably less than five minutes.  Drain in a colander and reserve. 

Wipe the mushrooms clean with a damp paper towel.  Trim the bottom ends off the stems, then quarter the mushrooms.  Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat for two minutes.  Add olive oil to thinly cover the bottom of the pan and continue to heat 1 minute.  Working in 2 batches, add half of the mushrooms to the pan, season with a pinch of salt.  Sauté, stirring or tossing the pan occasionally,  until the juices are released and evaporated, and the mushrooms shrink in size and are thoroughly browned.  Remove to a side dish, then repeat with the remaining mushrooms.  Reserve. 

When the meat is tender, the sauce is reduced to slightly thick and the carrots and mushrooms are cooked, add the carrots, mushrooms and chopped parsley to the pot of stew.  Stir to combine, turn off the heat, and reserve covered while preparing the topping.

To prepare the topping: Peel the potatoes and slice into equal-sized chunks.  Bring a pot of generously salted water to a boil and add the potatoes.  Simmer until the potatoes are tender, then drain in a colander.  Puree the potatoes using a potato ricer, or just mash them if you don’t have a ricer.  In a large mixing bowl, combine the pureed potatoes with the butter, cream and 8 oz (8 oz sounds healthier than 1/2 pound) of the grated cheddar.  Fold gently to combine.  Taste, and season with salt and pepper. 

To assemble: Preheat the oven to 400°F.  Now either add all of the stew filling to a 9x13-inch casserole dish, spreading it evenly across the bottom, or divide it equally between 6 large soufflé cups.   Top with the pureed potatoes and spread evenly with a spatula.  Top with the rest of the grated cheese and the sliced green onions.  Bake until the top is golden brown, about 25-30 minutes.

The entire casserole can actually be assembled the day ahead, covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated overnight.  In this case, bake it at 350°F, about 45 minutes-1 hour, until it is hot throughout and the top is golden brown.  


Guinness Ice Cream 
Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin
Serves 6

1/2 vanilla bean
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup Guinness stout
2 Tbl + 2 tsp molasses
4 large egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Slice the vanilla bean in half lengthwise.  Scrape the seeds with a knife and add with the vanilla pod, milk and cream to a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat, cover, and set at room temperature for half an hour, so that the flavors can infuse.

While the cream is setting, combine the beer and molasses in a small saucepan.  Whisk to combine and bring to a boil, then turn off the heat.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and vanilla extract.  Whisk about a quarter of the cream mixture into the yolks, then slowly add the rest of the cream, whisking to combine.  Add the Guinness mixture and stir to combine. 

Pour the mixture back into the medium saucepot, and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of the spatula.  The temperature of the custard should not exceed 180°F.

Strain the custard into a 2 quart container and cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally, then cover and refrigerate until very cold, about four hours to overnight.

Process in an ice cream maker, according to the manufacturer’s instructions. After processing, transfer to an airtight container and freeze until ready to serve.