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Monday, September 26, 2011

Quick and Easy for Weeknights!

Don’t you find weeknight cooking is a challenge?  After a long day of work, who (even those of us in the food world!) has the energy to tackle recipes that are time consuming or complicated? For meals that follow hectic days, I turn again and again to my old stand-bys. My “go to” choices often include a short-cut version of New Orleans red beans and rice (a nod to my Southern upbringing); Italian-style sautéed chicken breasts with capers, lemon, and white wine atop pasta; and grilled turkey burgers crowned with blue cheese and red onions garnished with a green salad.

Now I have a new dish to add to this fast and fresh repertoire.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Extra Spicy Black Bean and Corn Chili

You can’t believe the mercurial weather we had here in New England last week. I’d compare it to a seesaw. For the first few days everyone was savoring that last hint of summer when temperatures climbed into the mid-eighties. But, by week’s end the thermometer had dramatically dropped more than 20 degrees, and people were scrambling to find jackets and sweaters to stave off the chill. 

I confess, I adore this first brush of crisp, cool, cool autumn air because it signals that it’s time to change from light warm weatherdishes to much more robust fare. I didn’t waste any time in creating a fall chili, one that has plenty of heat and an enticing smoky scent from a generous addition of chipotle chili powder.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Pear Season Arrives!

Bartletts, Boscs, Anjous, Comices—all are among the glorious varieties of pears omnipresent in our fall markets. I've been thinking about pears this week because on Oct 4th I'll be showing students how to poach pears in red wine and spices. (To find out how you can join the cooking class, click here.) Bartletts, which change from green to a gorgeous yellow when ripe, are perfect for eating raw or canning. Long, slender, and russet hued, Boscs are the right choice for cooking since they hold their shape well. Anjous, available in either green or red shades, are tasty all-purpose pears. Comices, more rounded and typically green, often with a red blush, are considered the best pear for savoring uncooked.  (The Pear Bureau Northwest, a nonprofit marketing organization has a great website with photos and details about these and other varieties of pears.)

In the autumn I use pears in myriad ways. When perfectly ripened and juicy, they are without equal for a “guilt-free” treat or an irresistible addition to a salad composed of mixed greens, bits of blue cheese, and walnuts. Sometimes I cut pears into wedges, drizzle them with olive oil and a few drops of balsamic, then roast them to bring out their sweetness. Prepared this way they make an excellent garnish to pork or chicken. But, my favorite way to utilize pears is to poach them gently in wine scented with aromatic spices.

In the following recipe, adapted from one I sampled at the Paris Cordon Bleu, whole pears are cooked slowly until tender in a fragrant mixture of red wine, cassis (black currant liqueur) sugar, spices, vanilla, and fresh mint. For poaching, it’s best if the pears are just slightly under-ripe as they will become soft as they simmer in the flavorful liquids. These glistening, deep crimson pears, served warm with scoops of vanilla ice cream, and a sprig of mint, make a striking presentation. I like to use Boscs because of their sleek tapered silhouette, but, of course, you might like to try some of those other types.

These pears are going to be the grand finale at my class at Different Drummer's Kitchen in Northampton, Ma. (Of course there are a couple of tricks that I can't tell you here, but that I'll be showing my students!)


Fall Pears Poached in Red Wine, Cassis, and Spices

6 Bosc pears, just slightly under-ripe
One 750 ml bottle red wine
1 cup sugar   
Juice and grated zest of 1 large navel orange
Juice and grated zest of 1 large thick-skinned lemon
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise with seeds removed and saved for another use
2 star anise, crushed slightly
2 whole cloves, coarsely chopped
1 cinnamon stick, broken in half
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves lightly packed, roughly chopped plus 6 sprigs for garnish
1/4 cup cassis (black currant liqueur available where wine and spirits are sold)
1 pint best quality vanilla or ginger ice cream

Cut a slice from the bottom of each pear so that it will stand upright without wobbling. Then peel the pears with a vegetable peeler, leaving their stems on.

Place the wine, sugar, and orange and lemon zests and juices in a large saucepan set over medium high heat. Stir until sugar dissolves and bring to a gentle boil.  Add vanilla bean (but not the seeds), star anise, cloves, and cinnamon; cook a minute more Then stir in the mint and cassis.

Add the pears and bring mixture to a simmer. Cover, reduce heat, and cook at a gentle simmer until the pears are deep crimson and tender when pierced with a knife, 25 to 40 minutes or longer, depending on the ripeness of the pears. Turn pears several times as they poach. (Pears can be poached 2 days ahead; cool, cover, and refrigerate.  Reheat, uncovered, over medium heat to warm.)

Serve each pear on a dessert plate napped with a little of the sauce. Garnish with a scoop of ice cream and a mint sprig.  Serves 6.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Last Taste of Summer

Although most of us think Labor Day marks the close of summer, the season’s official end is still several weeks away. The markets and farmers’ stands are certainly still laden with late summer crops, tempting me to use that luscious produce imaginatively. As a result, I’ve been cooking like crazy, making soups, salads, and fruit crisps with my purchases.

One dish—a chilled yellow squash creation—has become a new favorite, and happens to be simplicity itself to prepare. Sautéed squash and onions are simmered in chicken stock, then pureed and enriched with creamy mascarpone. A hint of red pepper flakes adds a touch of heat, while a garnish of julienned basil provides a fragrant garnish.

I’ve served this soup several times to company in the past few days, and on each occasion guests have asked for seconds as well as the recipe. Offer it as a first course or as a lunch or light supper entree accompanied by a salad or sandwich.

This soup actually improves in flavor when made a day or two in advance. Oh, and if the weather turns crisp and cool, just serve this potage warm. It’s good that way too.

Chilled Yellow Squash Soup with Mascarpone

1 1/2 pounds yellow squash
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onions
4 cups reduced-sodium chicken stock
3/4 cup (6 ounces) mascarpone, divided
Kosher salt
Scant 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons julienned basil plus 6 sprigs for garnish

Trim and discard the ends of the squash. Halve squash lengthwise (quarter the squash lengthwise if they are large), and then cut each half, crosswise, into 1/4-inch slices.

Heat the oil until hot in a large, heavy pot (with a lid) set over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté, stirring, until softened, for about 2 minutes. Add the squash, and stir and cook 2 minutes more. Add the stock and 1/2  teaspoon salt;  bring mixture to a simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover the pot, and cook at a simmer until the vegetables are tender, for about 12 to 15 minutes. Cool, uncovered, for 10 minutes.

Puree the soup in a food processor, blender, or food mill, and return the soup to the pot. Or, use an immersion blender to puree the soup in the pot. Whisk the mascarpone in, a little at a time, until well blended.

Cool the soup to room temperature, then cover, and refrigerate for 3 hours or overnight. When chilled, season the soup with more salt and red pepper flakes if needed. Chilled soups often need extra seasoning to intensify their flavor. (The soup can be prepared 2 days ahead.)
Divide the soup evenly among 6 shallow bowls. Garnish the center of each serving with some julienned basil and a basil sprig. Serves 6.