Never thought of cooking Chinese food at home? You're not alone, but Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop may change that tune. Cooking columnist Sybil Pratt writes, "Chinese cooking can be elegant, complex and daunting. . . . Over the centuries, Chinese home cooks have learned to cook and eat in a frugal, healthy way, making vegetables and grains sing with flavor while using meat, poultry and fish sparingly."
It's our Top Pick in Cookbooks for February, and it's an excellent excuse to try your hand at a brand new cuisine—or to perfect a favorite!
The dish is traditionally made with ground beef, although many cooks now use pork. This vegetarian version is equally sumptuous. Vegetarians find it addictive: one friend of mine has been cooking it every week since I first taught her the recipe some 10 years ago. In Sichuan, they use garlic leaves (suan miao) rather than baby leeks, but as they are hard to find, tender young leeks make a good substitute, as do spring onion greens. You can also use the green sprouts that emerge from onions or garlic bulbs if you forget about them for a while (as I often do). This dish is best made with the tenderest tofu that will hold its shape when cut into cubes.
Heat a wok over a high flame. Pour in the cooking oil and swirl it around. Reduce the heat to medium, add the chilli bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is a rich red color and smells delicious. Next add the black beans and ground chillies (if using) and stir-fry for a few seconds more until you can smell them too. Then do the same with the ginger and garlic. Take care not to overheat the seasonings; you want a thick, fragrant sauce and the secret of this is to let them sizzle gently, allowing the oil to coax out their flavors and aromas.
Remove the tofu from the hot water with a perforated spoon, shaking off excess water, and lay it gently in the wok. Push the tofu tenderly with the back of your ladle or wok scoop to mix it into the sauce without breaking up the cubes. Add the stock or water, the white pepper and salt to taste and mix gently, again using the back of your scoop so you don’t damage the tofu.
Bring to a boil, then simmer for a few minutes to allow the tofu to absorb the flavors of the seasonings. Add the leek slices (if using) and nudge them into the sauce. When they are just tender, add a little of the flour-and-water mixture and stir gently as the liquid thickens. Repeat once or twice more, until the sauce clings to the seasonings and tofu (don’t add more than you need). If you are using spring onions rather than leeks, add them now and nudge them gently into the sauce.
Pour the tofu into a deep bowl. Sprinkle with the ground roasted Sichuan pepper and serve.
This month's cooking column has us dreaming about warmer weather. Frontera: Margaritas, Guacamoles, and Snacks by Rick Bayless serves up "a super selection of south-of-the-border delights" to help turn any blustery day into a mini vacation.
Ideas for serving: Because this is such a substantial guacamole (a fact I emphasize by having you dice part of the avocado), I like to serve it less as a dip for chips and more as an accompaniment to smoky grilled shrimp, chicken, fish or pork. (You’ve already got the grill hot, so you might as well use it as much as possible.)
Chop the onion into 1?4-inch pieces. Cut the kernels from the corn (you need about 3?4 cup). Rub the blackened skin off the poblano, pull out and discard the stem and seed pod, tear the chile open and briefly rinse to remove stray seeds and bits of blackened skin. Cut into 1?4-inch pieces.
Cut the avocados in half, running a knife around the pit from top to bottom and back up again. Twist the halves in opposite directions to release the pit from one side of each avocado. Remove the pit, then scoop the flesh from 1 avocado into a large bowl. Scoop the flesh from the other 2 avocados onto a cut- ting board and cut into 1?2-inch pieces. With an old-fashioned potato masher, a large fork or the back of a large spoon, thoroughly mash the avocado that’s in the bowl.
Scoop the diced avocado into the bowl, along with the grilled onion, corn, poblano and 2 tablespoons of the fresh cheese. Sprinkle with the lime juice and epazote, then gently stir the mixture to distribute everything evenly. Taste and season with salt, usually about 1 teaspoon. Cover with plastic wrap pressed directly on the surface of the guacamole and refrigerate.
When you’re ready to serve, scoop the guacamole into a serving bowl and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
A lot of our Top Picks in Cookbooks come from professionally trained chefs, but few come from foodies as obsessed with perfection as The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman. Writes Cooking columnist Sybril Pratt, "If Deb is an unknown quantity, her chatty, reassuring style, her practical take on what to serve when and her irrepressible enthusiasm will win you over."
What finally led me here was, innocently enough, a basket of boring-looking lemon-poppy seed muffins at a bakery one morning; they got me wondering when poppy seeds would come untethered from lemon’s grasp. Poppy seeds are delightful on their own—faintly nutty bordering on fruity—but they also play well with fruit that is richer in flavor and texture than lemon. Inspired, I went home and, a short while later, finally pulled a muffin out of the oven I’d change nothing about. Poppy seeds, plums, browned butter, brown sugar, and sour cream form a muffin that’s rich with flavor, dense with fruit, and yet restrained enough to still feel like breakfast food. Seven rounds and six months in, I bet somewhere my editor is breathing a sigh of relief.
Whisk the egg with both sugars in the bottom of a large bowl. Stir in the melted butter, then the sour cream. In a separate bowl, mix together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and poppy seeds, and then stir them into the sour-cream mixture until it is just combined and still a bit lumpy. Fold in the plums.
Divide batter among prepared muffin cups. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until the tops are golden and a tester inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean. Rest muffins in the pan on a cooling rack for 2 minutes, then remove them from the tin to cool them completely.
Generally, I think muffins are best on the first day, but these surprise me by being twice as moist, with even more developed flavors, on day two. They’re just a little less crisp on top after being in an airtight container overnight.
You don’t create seven muffin recipes in a year without learning a few things. I found that you could dial back the sugar in most recipes quite a bit and not miss much (though, if you find that you do, a dusting of powdered sugar or a powdered-sugar–lemon-juice glaze works well here); that a little whole-wheat flour went a long way to keep muffins squarely in the breakfast department; that you can almost always replace sour cream with buttermilk or yogurt, but I like sour cream best. Thick batters—batters almost like cookie dough—keep fruit from sinking, and the best muffins have more fruit inside than seems, well, seemly. And, finally, in almost any muffin recipe, olive oil can replace butter, but people like you more when you use butter—and if you brown that butter first, you might have trouble getting them to leave.
Deb Perelman's The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook doesn't claim easy, speedy recipes. It does, however, promise to-die-for dishes from an "obsessive" cook who "will fine-tune, twiddle and tweak until it’s just right, then share her culinary insights and inspirations with you."
It's our Top Pick in Cookbooks for January, and it's worth the effort for enthusiastic foodies.
I’m pretty sure if you asked my friends what the very best thing I’ve ever served them was, they’d still go on about chicken pot pies I made from an Ina Garten recipe all those years ago. People, it turns out, go berserk for comfort food— especially comfort food with a flaky pastry lid—doubly so on a rainy night. I liked them too, but the chicken—which often ends up getting cooked twice—has always been my least favorite part. What I do like is the buttery velouté that forms the sauce, and it was from there that I decided to make a pot pie I’d choose over chicken, peas, and carrots any night of the week.
You really have to try this for a dinner party, especially if your guests were expecting something fancy. The crust and stews can be made up to 24 hours in advance, and need only to be baked to come to the table; this means that you could spend that time getting cute, or at least making pudding for dessert. And if people are expecting the same old same old beneath the lid, this will be a good surprise—the lid is so flaky, it’s closer to a croissant than a pie crust, and the pancetta, beans, and greens make a perfect stew, one you’d enjoy even without a bronzed crust. But, you know, it helps.
yield: serves 4
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat in a large, wide saucepan, and then add the pancetta. Brown the pancetta, turning it frequently, so that it colors and crisps on all sides; this takes about 10 minutes. Remove it with a slotted spoon, and drain it on paper towels before transferring to a medium bowl. Leave the heat on and the renderings in the pan. Add an additional tablespoon of olive oil if needed and heat it until it is shimmering. Add onions, carrot, celery, red pepper flakes, and a few pinches of salt, and cook over medium heat until the vegetables are softened and begin to take on color, about 7 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook for 1 minute more. Add the greens and cook until wilted, about 2 to 3 minutes. Season with the additional salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Transfer all of the cooked vegetables to the bowl with the pancetta, and set aside.
Wipe out the large saucepan; don’t worry if any bits remain stuck to the bottom. Then melt the butter in the saucepan over medium- low heat. Add the flour, and stir with a whisk until combined. Continue cooking for 2 minutes, stirring the whole time, until it begins to take on a little color. Whisk in the broth, one ladleful at a time, mixing completely between additions. Once you’ve added one- third of the broth, you can begin to add the rest more quickly, two to three ladlefuls at a time; at this point you can scrape up any bits that were stuck to the bottom—they’ll add great flavor.
Once all of the broth is added, stirring the whole time, bring the mixture to a boil and reduce it to a simmer. Cook the sauce until it is thickened and gravylike, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir the white beans and reserved vegetables into the sauce.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
Assemble and cook pot pies
Divide the filling between four ovenproof 2-cup bowls. (You’ll have about 1½ cups filling in each.) Set the bowls on a baking pan. Divide the dough into four pieces, and roll it out into rounds that will cover your bowls with an overhang, or about 1 inch wider in diameter than your bowls. Whisk the egg wash and brush it lightly around the top rim of your bowls (to keep the lid glued on; nobody likes losing their lid!) and drape the pastry over each, pressing gently to adhere it. Brush the lids with egg wash, then cut decorative vents in each to help steam escape. Bake until crust is lightly bronzed and filling is bubbling, about 30 to 35 minutes.
The dough, wrapped twice in plastic wrap and slipped into a freezer bag, will keep for up to 2 days in the fridge, and for a couple months in the freezer. The filling can be made up to a day in advance and stored in a covered container in the fridge.
For a vegetarian version, skip the pancetta and cook your vegetables in 2 tablespoons olive oil instead of 1.
Weather is weird here in Nashville, and winter can fluctuate from a balmy 75 degrees to the upper 30s in a matter of days. No matter the temperature, though, once it hits January, I start craving a cozy soup to spill all over my books.
This one comes from Barefoot Contessa Foolproof by Ina Garten:
Add the tomatoes, 6 cups of the chicken stock, the bay leaf, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1 ½ teaspoons pepper to the pot. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.
Discard the bay leaf. Add the beans and cooked pasta and heat through. The soup should be quite thick but if it’s too thick, add more chicken stock. Just before serving, reheat the soup, add the spinach, and toss with 2 big spoons (like tossing a salad). Cook just until the leaves are wilted. Stir in the white wine and pesto. Depending on the saltiness of the chicken stock, add another teaspoon or two of salt to taste.
Serve large shallow bowls of soup with a bruschetta on top. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, drizzle with olive oil, and serve hot.
NOTE: To cook the pasta, put 1 cup of pasta into a large pot of boiling salted water. Cook according to the directions on the package, drain, and set aside. You can make this soup ahead and reheat it before serving. It will need to be reseasoned.
Slice the baguette at a 45-degree angle in 1-inch-thick slices. Brush both sides of the bread with olive oil and bake for 6 minutes, until lightly toasted. Take the slices out of the oven and rub the surface of each one with the cut clove of garlic.
During the majority of the year, breakfast is a bowl of oatmeal and a mug of coffee on the way out the door. But on those lovely days off from work—especially if you're playing host or hostess—it's time to bring out the breakfast recipes.
Try this divine grits recipe from Rebecca Lang's Southern Living Around the Southern Table:
2. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, whisking very often, until grits are creamy and tender, about 1 hour and 10 minutes. (If grits become dry and begin to stick before they are creamy, add more water, 2 Tbsp. at a time, and continue to cook until grits are tender.)
3. Preheat oven to 400°. Lightly grease a 1 1?2-qt. soufflé dish. Sprinkle sides and bottom with 1 Tbsp. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
4. Remove grits from heat, and transfer to a large bowl. Stir in egg yolks, 2 cups Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and next 4 ingredients.
6. Bake at 400° for 50 to 55 minutes or until puffed and lightly browned. Serve immediately.
Makes: 6 servings
Hands-on Time: 15 min.
Total Time: 2 hr., 25 min.
Our Top Pick in Cookbooks for December is Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa Foolproof, with nearly 100 recipes that are "pure Ina: inspiring, totally trustworthy, confidence-building, packed with full-page photos and generously seasoned with tips for getting everything planned, prepped and plated."
Barefoot Contessa Foolproof is also one of our Top 10 Cookbooks of 2012! Who else is making these brownies tonight?
Melt the butter, 8 ounces of the chocolate chips, and the unsweetened chocolate together in a medium bowl set over simmering water. Allow to cool for 15 minutes. In a large bowl, stir (do not beat) together the eggs, coffee, vanilla, and sugar. Stir the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture and allow to cool to room temperature (see note).
In a medium bowl, sift together ½ cup of the flour, the baking powder, and salt and add to the chocolate mixture. Toss the remaining 6 ounces of chocolate chips and the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour in a medium bowl and add them to the chocolate mixture. Spread evenly in the prepared pan.
Bake for 35 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Don’t overbake!
As soon as the brownies are out of the oven, place the jar of caramel sauce without the lid in a microwave and heat just until it’s pourable. Stir until smooth. Drizzle the caramel evenly over the hot brownies and sprinkle with the sea salt. Cool completely and cut into 12 bars.
Note: It is very important to allow the batter to cool before adding the chocolate chips, or the chips will melt and ruin the brownies.
My favorite time of the year to bake is during the holidays, and cooking columnist Sybil Pratt calls Bouchon Bakery "an absolute must" and "a knockout." It comes from Thomas Keller, the extraordinary American chef, and Sebastien Rouxel, executive pastry chef for the Thomas Keller restaurant group.
Bouchon Bakery is also one of our Top 10 cookbooks of 2012! Here's a sample of what makes it so amazing:
You’ll need a 3¼-inch round cutter and a pastry bag with an Ateco #867 French star tip. For this recipe, we use Virginia jumbo peanut halves and Skippy natural peanut butter. Cookies baked in a convection oven will have a more even color and will not spread as much as those baked in a standard oven.
To toast the peanuts: Preheat the oven to 325°F (standard).Spread the peanuts on a small tray and toast in the oven, stirring often, for 16 to 18 minutes, until a light golden brown. Let cool, then coarsely chop.
For the cookies: Place the flour in a medium bowl, sift in the baking soda and baking powder, and whisk together.
Place the butter and peanut butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Turn to medium-low speed and cream the butter, warming the bowl if needed (see Pommade, page 190), until it has the consistency of mayonnaise and holds a peak when the paddle is lifted. Add the sugar and mix for about 2 minutes, until fluffy. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add the eggs and vanilla paste and mix on low speed for 15 to 30 seconds, until just combined. Scrape down the bowl again. The mixture may look broken, but that is fine (overwhipping the eggs could cause the cookies to expand too much during baking and then deflate).
Add the combined dry ingredients in 2 additions, mixing on low speed for 15 to 30 seconds after each, or until just combined. Scrape the bottom of the bowl to incorporate any dry ingredients that have settled there. Add the oats and pulse on low about 10 times to combine. Add the chopped peanuts and pulse to combine.
Mound the dough on a large piece of plastic wrap and, using a pastry scraper, push it together into a 5-by-7-inch block. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or until firm. (The dough can be refrigerated for up to 2 days or frozen for up to 1 month.)
Unwrap the dough, place it between two pieces of parchment paper or plastic wrap, and roll it out to a ¼-inch-thick sheet. If the dough has softened, slide it (in the parchment) onto the back of a sheet pan and refrigerate until firm enough to cut.
Using the round cutter, cut 8 cookies from the dough. (If the dough softens, return it to the refrigerator until the cookies are firm enough to transfer to a sheet pan.) Arrange the rounds on a lined sheet pan.
Push the trimmings together and refrigerate until the dough is firm enough to roll, then roll out and cut into 4 more rounds. Add them to the sheet pan. Wrap the sheet in plastic wrap and freeze the dough for at least 2 hours, or until firm. (For longer storage, remove the frozen rounds from the sheet pan and freeze in a covered container or a plastic bag for up to 1 month.)
Position the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F (convection or standard). Line two sheet pans with Silpats or parchment paper.
Arrange the frozen cookies on the sheet pans, leaving about 2 inches between them. Bake the cookies until golden brown, 12 to 14 minutes in a convection oven, 16 to 18 minutes in a standard oven, reversing the positions of the pans halfway through baking. Set the pans on a cooling rack and cool for 5 to 10 minutes, then transfer the cookies to the rack to cool completely.
To assemble the cookies: Combine the buttercream, peanut butter, and salt in the bowl of the mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, and mix for 2 minutes on medium-low speed, until combined and smooth. Transfer the mixture to the pastry bag.
Turn half of the cookies over. Beginning in the center, pipe a spiral of peanut butter filling (55 grams) on each one, to within ¼ inch of the edges. Top each with a second cookie and press gently to sandwich the cookies.
The cookies are best the day they are baked, but they can be stored in a covered container, at room temperature if unfilled, refrigerated if filled, for up to 3 days.
Note on rolling out the dough: At the bakery, we use a commercial sheeter to roll out the dough quickly and evenly. At home, the dough must be refrigerated as necessary during the rolling and cutting process.
Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.
Place the 150 grams/1 cup sugar in a small saucepan, add the water, and stir to moisten the sugar. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, and simmer until the syrup reaches 230°/100°C.
Letting the syrup continue to cook, turn the mixer to medium speed, gradually pour in the remaining 33 grams/2 tablespoons plus 2¼ teaspoons sugar into the whites, and whip until the whites are beginning to form very loose peaks. If the whites are ready before the syrup reaches 248°F/120°C, turn the mixer to the lowest setting just to keep them moving.
When the syrup reaches 248°F/120°C, remove the pan from the heat. Turn the mixer to medium-low speed and slowly add the syrup to the whites, pouring it between the side of the bowl and the whisk. Increase the speed to medium-high and whisk for 15 minutes, or until the bottom of the bowl is at room temperature and the whites hold stiff peaks. (If the mixture is warm, it will melt the butter.)
Reduce the speed to medium and add the butter, a few pieces at a time. If at any point the mixture looks broken, increase the speed and beat to re-emulsify it, then reduce the speed and continue adding the butter. Check the consistency: if the buttercream is too loose to hold its shape, it should be refrigerated for up to a few hours to harden, then beaten again to return it to the proper consistency.
The buttercream can be stored in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 1 month; defrost frozen buttercream in the refrigerator overnight before using. Thirty minutes before using the buttercream, place it in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and allow to soften. Then mix on low speed to return the buttercream to the proper consistency for piping or spreading.
La cocina Latina is more than just excellent Mexican food. As Maricel E. Presilla shows in Gran Cocina Latina, it's a wonderfully complex amalgam of Portugese and Spanish-speaking countries' cooking customs, from Argentina and Cuba to Mexico and many islands in the Caribbean. Read more in our November cooking column!
When I think Latin American desserts, I think flan, and this one looks amazing.
This is a seductive flan with the texture of a creamy cheesecake and the aroma of fresh oranges and orange blossoms. I once made it for a friend who liked it so much I decided to serve it at my restaurants. The key flavoring is Venezuelan Santa Teresa Rhum Orange, an artful orange rum liqueur that gives the dessert flavor and depth. You can use other orange liqueurs, such as Cointreau or Grand Marnier, but try adding a tablespoon or two of a good aged rum as well. It does wonders for the flavor.
Place the whole milk and evaporated milk in a medium saucepan. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise, scrape the black seeds into the milk, and add the bean; or add the vanilla extract. Add the cinnamon, star anise, and orange peel and bring the milk barely to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower the heat and simmer gently for 2 to 3 minutes, then remove from the heat and let cool. Strain and discard the solids.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the cream cheese, egg yolks, and eggs in a large mixing bowl and beat with a wooden spoon while adding the condensed milk until smooth and well integrated. Add the cooled steeped milk, ¼ cup liqueur, and the orange blossom water and stir gently until all the ingredients are well incorporated. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into the caramelized mold. Place the baking pan on the middle oven rack. Set the mold in the baking pan and pour in enough hot water to come halfway up the sides. Bake until just until set, 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature.
While the flan is cooling, place the orange juice, the remaining 1 cup sugar, and the slivered orange peel in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, until the mixture is reduced almost by half. Stir in the remaining ¼ cup liqueur and continue simmering for 10 to 15 minutes, until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature on a wire rack. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Chill the flan in the refrigerator, in the pan, for at least 3 hours before serving. Unmold onto a decorative platter and garnish with orange slices. Pour the sauce into a decorative bowl and bring to the table with the flan.
Happy Thanksgiving, readers! Our Cookbook of the Month, naturally, is Sam Sifton's "charming, absolutely essential manual," Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well.
If, by chance, your preparations aren't going very well—or if you simply need a great last-minute recipe for cranberry sauce—here's a little help from Sam Sifton.
Science! Sometimes it’s helpful. So is spice. Some like a clove or two added to their cranberry sauce. (I am not one of them.) Others, a whisper of ginger and a small handful of nuts, for texture. Of this, I approve.
2. Cook until sugar is entirely melted and cranberries begin to burst in the heat, 4 to 6 minutes. Stir again, add zest, and cook for 2 or 3 minutes longer, turn off heat, cover pan, and allow to cool.
3. Put cranberry mixture in a serving bowl, cover, and place in refrigerator until cold, at least 2 hours, or until you need it.