Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Days of Au Gratin Potatoes

Now that I’ve eaten my way through the past month and I’ve over dosed on sugars, fats, and rich foods, my sensibilities seem to be returning. Suddenly I’m craving uncomplicated and simple dishes – comforting things that don’t require a lot of effort or thought on my part.

Recently a nice roasted chicken and Potatoes au Gratin filled the bill perfectly. My latest manner of cooking chicken is to rub it with olive oil, season it well with salt and pepper, and stuff the cavity with a little rosemary and a few wedges of lemon. I start the chicken off in a hot oven to brown it, then pour a little chicken stock over it, lower the heat, and bake it a total of about 75 minutes, basting every 10 minutes or so until it's juicy and nicely browned.

My post holiday lethargy caused me to compromise just a tad - and in the name of simplicity (and laziness) I just kept the temperature at a steady 375 degrees and baked everything until done – about the same amount of time (a little over 75 minutes). It worked nicely and the aromas coming from the kitchen were enough to tempt my extremely jaded palate.

I tend to forget about Potatoes au Gratin and whenever I make them, I always ask why have I waited so long? I prefer a potato such as a Yukon Gold because their waxiness hold ups well during the baking process and their flavor is superb. In desperate moments, regular Idaho bakers have saved the day.

Au Gratin Potatoes
6 potatoes, peel, thinly sliced
2 small onions, peel, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, peel, thin slivers
salt and pepper
12 ounces evaporated milk, skimmed
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter an au gratin dish and set aside.

In a buttered baking dish layer potatoes, onions and garlic, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Dot with butter, cover with evaporated milk or half and half and bake for 60-75 minutes or until browned and crisp on top. After about 45 minutes sprinkle with grated cheese. Slice and serve.

Note: water or chicken stock can be substituted for the evaporated milk. Serves 4 to 6 ~

Thursday, December 17, 2009

No Problem

Q:  How much land does it take for the world's population to live sustainably for one year? 
A:  1.2 Earths

I've been reading Sustaining Life, the seminal work edited by Harvard physicians Eric Chivian and Aaron Bernstein, and endorsed by United Nations' Kofi Annan.   It underscores the importance of biodiversity and elucidates the human havok, especially the disasterous potential of argibusiness, currently underway in all corners of the world. 

To produce all the necessary resources and to absorb all waste per person/per year: 
N. America                       + 22.0  acres per person
W. Europe                           12.4            "
Asia Pacific and Africa           2.5            "

In other words, the average American uses and wastes 4.5 times more than the acceptable limits to maintain the Earth's sustainability.

It's embarassing, isn't it?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Possiblity of Popovers

It was only a matter of time. 
Now, I’m asking, “Why did I wait so long?”
We are talking about popovers. I think my resistance to the possibility of popovers had a lot to do with their quirky and mysterious do's and don'ts that in my mind translated into too much work and too much risk for too little reward. Cooking them in a greasy hot pan only to watch them rapidly deflate seemed neither productive nor exciting.

On the other hand, I am deeply intrigued by anything that's mostly egg, milk, flour, and a little butter. There’s something utterly basic and perfectly satisfying about this combination that places me immediately in my comfort zone.

When Cook’s Country aired a recent PBS program on No Fail Make Ahead Popovers, they had my attention and yet I didn’t want to wait around for my next roast beef to make it happen, so I set the recipe aside.

It took a big pot of Black-Eyed Pea Soup on the heels of the popover program that would create the right conditions for the possibility of popovers to finally register. I had planned to bake a pan of cornbread but was short on cornmeal; in a fit of inspiration I pulled out the popover recipe and gave it another look.

Very much along the lines of crepes the batter is whisked together, and then it rests a bit before baking. Of course by now, the prerequisite popover pans that I held onto for years are long gone, but I’m assured that my muffin pan will work just fine. The batter is poured into the greased and floured tins, baked in a hot oven until the popover structure is set, then the heat is reduced and they bake in a slow oven until firm, crispy and brown. They are then poked with a skewer, returned to the oven to remove any persisting moisture, poked again, and allowed to cool slightly. Beyond an investment of about 2½ hours I had nothing to loose.

Actually, the 2½ hours passes quickly--because the popovers become their own entertainment. One of the rules in popover baking is not to open the oven or they may collapse; another rule. This is one of those times when an oven window and light are just about essential. In very short order the popovers begin to brown lightly and the edges set inward. As if watching flowers unfurl and blossom, they begin to balloon out and expand upward. Mesmerized, all eyes are glued to the oven door. It’s an amazing sight from which I could hardly pry myself away.

As the popovers rise and begin to set, an egg-y pancake-like aroma ebbs over the kitchen. I’m imagining how great these would be for breakfast: make the batter ahead… in the morning slide them into a hot oven… get my day organized… and return for the popover climax. The smell alone would surely draw the most unconscious out of bed.

Every word of Cook’s recipe turns out to be true. They do not collapse, and they heat up beautifully. Beyond that, the interiors have a warm eye-rolling custardy texture and outside they are lovely, crisp and tender. I pulled out the black cherry preserves--but apple butter, marmalade, strawberry or any other favorite jam would be worthy of these delights. Suddenly, the possibilities appear endless.  Bet you can’t eat just one.

Perfect Popovers
Courtesy of Cookscountry.com

3 eggs, room temperature
2 cups milk, warmed
3 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled a bit
2 cups bread flour, or all purpose
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar

In large mixing bowl, combine flour, salt and sugar.

In separate bowl, whisk eggs until foamy; whisk in butter, then the milk.

Whisk 3/4 of milk mixture into the dry ingredients until smooth and no lumps remain; then whisk in remaining liquid. Transfer the batter to a large measuring cup for easy pouring and let stand 1 hour. Can be refrigerated and brought to room temperature.

Adjust rack to lower 1/3 of oven; preheat to 450 degrees. Grease 6 popover tins or 10 muffin cups with vegetable shortening, dust with flour. Whisk batter lightly to recombine then pour into tins, filling almost to rims.

- Bake until they begin to brown, about 20 minutes; this is important because they can fall if not firm at this point.

- Without opening oven door, lower heat to 300 degrees and bake additional 35-40 minutes, until golden brown all over. Remove from oven and poke small hole in top of each with a skewer.

- Bake about 10 minutes longer, until deep golden brown. Remove to wire rack and poke again; cool 2 minutes and turn out. Serves 6-10, depending on size.

Note: once completely cooled, they can be stored at room temperature in zip lock bag for 2 days. To serve, reheat for 5-8 minutes in 400 degree oven. (I've microwaved individual servings about 1 min., they puffed up nd were excellent.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pumpkin Plethora

I am one of those who believes that there is no such thing as too much pumpkin and so it was pretty much a no-brainer as to what I would include in a recent dinner party dessert.

As an aside, I am extremely saddened to acknowledge that Gourmet magazine published its final issue in November. For years I collected editions and would regularly pull them out and thumb through them for inspiration. The writing was first rate, especially in the early days, the photography, legendary and thoughtfully stylish.

In a tribute to the end of an era, I was compelled to create Pumpkin Parfaits, Gourmet's Dessert of the Month featured on-line in October. The parfait is a pumpkin mousse--which couldn’t be easier (if you have a can of pumpkin puree on hand) layered with homemade gingersnaps (if time allows) and dreamy whipped cream. 

When the dessert has firmed up, the moisture from the whipped cream and mousse will have nicely softened the snaps and provide an additional dimension of texture.  It has all the earmarks for a perfect party dessert:
  •  no stress preparation
  • made and assembled a day ahead
  • visually stunning individual servings
My gingersnaps are the crunchy old-fashioned variety designed for dipping in coffee, tea, or milk--with just enough ginger and spice for that edgy bite. The recipe, a Joy of Cooking standby, is easy to make and does not require special handling. It makes enough cookies for snacking, or the extra dough can be chilled or frozen and freshly baked later.

Pumpkin Parfaits
Inspired by Gourmet magazine’s on-line tempting recipe

1 envelope unflavored gelatin (2 1/4 tsp)
1/4 cup cold water
1 can pure pumpkin (15-oz)
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
pinch salt
2 1/2 cups chilled heavy cream
1/3 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
20 gingersnap cookies, broken up (recipe follows)
For garnish: ¼ cup candied or spiced nuts, lightly chopped
6 parfait glasses

Sprinkle gelatin over water in a small saucepan and let soften 1 minute. Bring to a bare simmer, stirring until gelatin has dissolved. In a medium bowl combine pumpkin, brown sugar, spices, salt and gelatin mixture.

Beat whipped cup cream until it begins to thicken, sprinkle in sugar and continue whisking until soft peaks form, and add vanilla. Fold about 2 cups of whipped cream into pumpkin mixture.

Spoon about 1/4 cup pumpkin mixture into the bottom of each glass, then sprinkle with some of cookies and top with about 2 Tbsp whipped cream. Repeat layers once, ending with cream.

Chill until set, at least 2 hours. Before serving, sprinkle a few chopped nuts on top of each. Serves 6~~

These cookies improve with age; inspired by a Joy of Cooking recipe

3/4 cup butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar (can be part brown sugar)
2 eggs, well beaten
1/2 cup molasses
2 teaspoons vinegar
3 3/4 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3 teaspoons ginger
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 cup demerra sugar for dipping

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and 1 or 2 cookie sheets. Sift dry ingredients: the flour, soda, ginger, cinnamon and cloves.

In mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Mix in eggs, molasses, and vinegar. Stir in dry ingredients to blend.

Form dough into 1" balls. Roll in sugar. Bake approximately 14 minutes, until surface crinkles. Let stand briefly and move to rack to cool.. Store airtight.  Makes approximately 48 -3” cookies~~


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