Monday, November 29, 2010

Roasted Onions & Cornbread and Sage Stuffing

I know it might seem to you a little bit late to be posting stuffing recipes, but while this is something that we served at the D. house for Thanksgiving, this recipe actually works all year round, and it is so delicious, it really shouldn't just be saved for one day in the year. And if you do happen to try it, be prepared to replace your old Thanksgiving stuffing recipe with this one. I wouldn't be surprised if this beats the socks off some more traditional recipes.

The recipe actually just started as a regular cornbread stuffing. We bought store-bought cornbread (for simplicity's sake) and crumbled it and mixed with some various fun ingredients and then baked it all in a glass casserole/pie pan. It was delicious. It quickly became a Thanksgiving staple (like the Rosemary Cornish Hen). Then this year, I saw a recipe for roasted onions with stuffing inside and I thought it was a really clever idea. But I couldn't bear to part with our family's stuffing recipe. So with a little bit of tweaking, we now have this, a recipe for roasted Vidalia onions, filled with cornbread and sage stuffing.

If you want to skip the roasting and stuffing of the onions for the sake of time, feel free. I'll also warn you that hallowing out those onions was a huge tear-jerker. I'm not normally an onion crier--in fact, I've never teared up before from cutting onions--but while I was scooping out the inner layers of those onions, I could not stop crying. Those were some very real tears. But it was worth it.

This stuffing is sweet and savory, and the caramelized onions go so well with the sweetness of the corn and the earthiness of the sage. I also love the moist texture of this stuffing. Having the stuffing inside of the roasted Vidalia onions just put the icing on the cake, so to speak. It was perfect, and well worth the tears.

Roasted Onions
These instructions work for any number of onions. Just change your pan size based on your amount of onions. I used sweet Vidalia onions. Yellow onions work just as well. I wouldn't use white onions, however, as they don't have the same flavor.

To make the onions shells, cut and discards the tops and bottoms of the onions (about ¼ inch). Using a small ice cream scoop, scoop out the inner layers of the onions. Leave the outer 2 layers intact. The scooped-out onion can be sautéed and reserved for cooking. Don’t worry if you make a hole at the bottom of your onion shells.

To roast the onions, preheat the oven to 400°F. Arrange the onion shells open side up in a 9x13 baking pan. Add enough water to go up the onions one-quarter of the way. Add 1 tsp kosher/sea salt. Cover the pan with foil and bake until onions are tender, 20 to 30 minutes.

Cornbread and Sage Stuffing
Crumble an 8x8 pan of cornbread (we use store bought for simplicity) into a medium bowl.
Add about ¼ cup chopped sage, a dash of salt, and some ground black pepper.
In a separate bowl, beat 1 egg with ¼ cup heavy cream and ¾ cup chicken stock.
Pour over the cornbread mixture and stir to combine.
Meanwhile, sauté 1 cup chopped onions (this is where you can use the excess onions from above) in 2 tbsp butter. Add the onions to the cornbread mixture.

If using the roasted onions, place the roasted onions in a large enough pan to contain them, and then stuff the onions with the cornbread mixture. Bake for 35-40 minutes at 400°F (until golden on top and a toothpick inserted comes out clean).

The cornbread “stuffing” (really, it has more the texture of bread pudding) can be baked in a casserole dish at 400°F for 45 minutes.

Serves 4, with plenty of leftovers, or 8, as a side. The stuffing recipe can be used to stuff AT LEAST 8 large onions.
We just stuffed 4 onions and baked the rest of the stuffing in a 6 inch round casserole dish.

With buttermilk biscuit and cranberry relish

On the table, stuffed onions on the far side,
(pesto potato salad in the middle),
and cornbread stuffing baked in a small casserole dish in the front.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving for Four

Another delicious Thanksgiving at the D. house. A meal full of love and care, served to the best company in the world: my family.

My mom, my sister, and I started preparing at around noon, as usual. There were potatoes to be scrubbed, asparagus to be washed, green beans to be blanched, onions to be roasted, cornbread to be crumbled and turned into stuffing, biscuits to be formed, Cornish hens to be dressed, pie to be made, and so very much more.

This year we managed to plan things well enough that we finished early, and dinner was served at around 5:30pm or so (normally we plan for 6pm or 6:30).
My dad opened up a bottle of white wine, and we all sat down to feast together. The wine we had was a Chester Gap Cellars Petit Manseng 2009, a bold sweet white wine. It was aromatic and had a bright acidity that balanced the sweetness of the wine. (Chester Gap is a small vineyard in Front Royal, Virginia.)

For the meal, we had chestnut soup with whipped cream (lightly sweetened and salted) to start. Buttermilk biscuits with rosemary and thyme accompanied.
Then we dug into some delicious cranberry relish and some roasted onions stuffed with cornbread "stuffing" flavored with caramelized onions and sage. We enjoyed some pesto potatoes with asparagus and green beans. And of course, there was the star of the night: the rosemary Cornish game hens I told you about, with my mother's delicious sticky rice stuffing.

After some clean up, we settled down on the couch for our traditional post-feast movie. At around 8:30, having digested some of our dinner, we paused the movie and came back to the dining room table for the finale: dessert: This year, we finished our Thanksgiving meal with a beautiful Cranberry Pecan Tart. It was quickly devoured, as you can see below. I barely had time to snap some decent pictures.

Recipes (and more pictures) coming soon!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Planning Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving is an American thing. And yes, it is a somewhat twisted idea to celebrate the genocide of the Native Americans year after year (illegal immigration conversation, anyone?) with a meal that is supposed to represent one story tale day in history when colonists supposedly put down their weapons and smallpox-infested blankets for a little while to eat in peace with the people whose land they had stolen, but now this day has come to mean something else. It is a break from work, a break from school, and a holiday to spend with loved ones and family, giving thanks for what we have.

I do like Thanksgiving. We have no big traditions in my house, and Thanksgiving is just a small affair normally--just close family, never more than 10 people, sometimes only four--but it is something we look forward to. It is another family meal where we can sit down together, talk, laugh, and remember how lucky we are to have what we have.

Sometimes, the years when it is just the four of us--parents and children, no one else--are my favorite. My mom, my sister, and I will gather together in the kitchen around noon and start the preparations for the meal. We always break up our tasks so that someone is working on this side dish while someone else is working on something else, and we laugh and talk while my dad sits close by in the family room, working and occasionally helping us out when we call for him. The one thing we always know we're having? Rosemary chicken.

My mom will buy two small Cornish hens and marinate them in nuoc mam, pepper, garlic powder, and chopped rosemary. Then she'll make this stuffing from sticky rice (com nep), with corn, shitake mushrooms, and Chinese sausage (lap xuong). It is delicious. The blending of American and Oriental cooking works for us, and we have repeated it year after year.

There are always sides that my sister and I make, which have included a raw cranberry and orange relish that was featured during last year's meal, a sage and cornbread baked stuffing that we've repeated several times, a butternut squash and apple soup, a curried pumpkin soup, and the vegetable tart I just posted about.

Most years, Thanksgiving also includes pecan pie. Sometimes we try to change it up, but more often than not, we end up coming back to it. It's hard to resist the urge to be creative and maybe jazz up an old favorite, but the original is a good classic, and it needs no edits.

I can't wait to see what the final menu will be for this year, after tasks have been divided and grocery shopping has been done. I will be coming back to you with a full report. For now though, I am on my way home, back to the comfort of the familiar streets where I grew up.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Versatile Vegetable Tart (aka dressed up Tarte à L'Oignon)

I often read blogs that post Thanksgiving recipes before Thanksgiving and I sometimes wonder how they do that. I haven't cooked yet for Thanksgiving, how could I have a recipe with photos to share with you? But I suppose it would be somewhat useless for you, as the reader, to hear about my Thanksgiving recipes after the fact. So here is a recipe for you to consider which I made last year: a beautifully versatile vegetable tart.

I do love quiches and savory tarts and the like, but I often find that their recipes include a rather ridiculous amount of heavy cream or large amounts of cheese. I don't particularly like rich foods--I tend to find that the fatty taste gets tiring after a couple bites and you never feel good afterwards, which ruins the experience of eating--and I have a slight cheese aversion, so when I found this recipe, I was quite pleased.

This vegetable tart recipe, besides being fairly healthy and cheese-free, is also incredibly versatile. It is originally a tarte à l'oignon, but it can be made with zucchini, bell peppers, ham, or anything else you find appropriate (probably not tomatoes or pumpkin though, since their textures aren't quite right).

I actually made this with a friend last year for a potluck with his friends. Being a somewhat stereotypical male, he was not the kitchen/cooking type, so I picked this to make together since it was easy and unintimidating. Granted, I still ended up doing the majority of the work, but I think it's a good recipe if you're looking for something easy to make with a partner who is unexperienced in the cooking or baking arena.

Versatile Vegetable Tart
Adapted from André Soltner, The New York Times (October 20, 2003)

Pre-baked tart shell/pie crust
1-2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 small zuchinni, sliced (can substitute with other savory items*)
1 large egg
½ cup heavy cream
dash of salt
dash of freshly ground pepper
pinch of ground nutmeg

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat, and sauté the onions and garlic with salt and pepper, stirring regularly, until they are lightly golden, caramelized, and tender (10-15 minutes). Pour off into a separate bowl. Sauté the zuchinni in the same skillet until just tender, add more oil if needed. Remove the skillet from the heat.

In a small bowl, beat the egg and cream together. Add a dash of salt and pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. Add this to the onions and garlic mixture, stirring to combine.

Fill the tart shell with the onion, garlic, and egg mixture. Top with a few slices of zucchini, arranged in some decorative pattern.

Bake tart for 25 minutes, or until the filling is golden brown and set. Serve hot, warm, or even cold.

*Other ideas: bell peppers, ham, cooked bacon, shredded chicken, shredded turkey (a great use of Thanksgiving leftovers!)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Pea Risotto

It is getting cold outside.

This isn't just the gentle cold of October that brings out the fall jackets. This is late November's cold. It is a more biting cold, a cold that calls for scarfs, but promises no snow. It is a cold that requires turning up the thermostat and bringing out the thicker blankets at night. This cold calls for risotto.

Risotto is one of those greats foods that I think is incredibly versatile, delicious, and fairly easy to make, yet not that many people do make it. I'm not quite sure why. I suppose it was just never popularized in regular households, which is shame, really, because it is such a perfect cold-weather food. It is also surprisingly healthy (I only say surprisingly because risottos can taste so rich and creamy), which is plus, since many hearty wintery meals can be heavy and full of cream or butter. Now, I don't have a problem at all with cream or butter, but sometimes I want a nice filling meal that doesn't weigh me down and make me feel like I need to take a nap afterwards. Thus, risotto. Unassuming, easily personalized, and not at all fussy. Risotto requires no intensive work or special ingredients.

So what are you waiting for? The cold, the wind, the rain, it all doesn't seem so bad when you've got a bowl on the table, ready to warm you up.

Quick Risotto
1 tbsp butter
2/3 cup long grain rice
3-4 cups chicken broth
2/3 peas (optional)
dash of milk (optional)
dash of oregano (optional)
salt & pepper

First off, I will admit that I used Uncle Ben's white rice (specifically, the "boil-in-a-bag" kind) because I had nothing better on hand. I don't think this significantly hurt my final product, because the risotto was still delicious, although if you have something else ready on hand, go for it!

I also used homemade chicken stock. I was never a homemade chicken stock kind of girl because it seemed like such a huge hassle, but now that I don't live with my family anymore, I find that making chicken stock is an excellent use of chicken "leftovers." Basically, whenever I eat rotisserie chicken, I avoid all the white meat (I'm not a white meat girl) and once I've eaten all the tasty bits, I collect all the bones and throw them into a pot with the leftover white meat, oregano, rosemary, onion, garlic, carrots, and water and let it boil and then simmer and reduce down into a delicious stock. Once the flavor is sufficiently concentrated, I remove all the bones/meat/veggies and salt to my taste. Sometimes it tastes so good, I'll admit to steal more than a couple spoonfuls before storing in fridge for cooking purposes. I told this to a vegetarian friend who was horrified by the idea of me drinking "chicken juice," but trust me, until you've made your own chicken stock, you really have no idea how wonderful it can be.

Okay, sorry for that tangent. Would you like to know how to make some risotto? Yes? Then we shall get started.

Melt the butter down in a 3-4 quart pot. Add the rice and sauté together until the rice is fairly translucent and has absorbed much of the butter. (If you feel like getting fancy, this is where you can also sauté some onions and garlic.)

Add about a cup of chicken stock, stir, keep on medium-low heat. This risotto is only about as needy as a five-year old child, meaning you don't have to be by its side all the time, but I wouldn't walk away for more than 3 minutes or so without checking back.

Once the rice appears to have absorbed the broth, add another cup of broth. Stir, allow to absorb as before. Then add another cup of chicken stock. Stir, allow to absorb. Add another cup of chicken stock and, if you feel like it, this is the step where you should add your defrosted frozen peas. Allow the broth to be absorbed. If you like a creamier taste, this is when you can add a splash or two of milk (the % fat shouldn't matter too much, I generally use skim milk). Once the milk has been absorbed, take the risotto off the heat, season to taste and sprinkle with a dash of oregano.

The whole cooking process should take about 25-30 minutes and should yield over 2 cups cooked risotto (rice alone, not including peas), which, for me, was enough for two meals and a snack.

When I'm feeling particularly miserable after a cold day, I serve this with a little pat of salted butter and a soft cooked egg. It is delicious, heart-warming, and the perfect thing to eat in bed while watching Lucky Number Slevin, if you were the type to do that sort of thing.

Also, I should note that this risotto heats up in the microwave just fine, although you might want to add a splash of milk or chicken stock to it before heating. I heat one bowl for 1 minute, stir, and then 30 more seconds before serving.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mini Cheesecakes

I was intimidated by the idea of making my own cheesecake for a long time. First of all, many cheesecake recipes involve making a huge 9-inch cheesecake and baking it in a waterbath and then turning off the oven and leaving the cheesecake in the half-open oven for a designated period of time and it all seemed like so much work for something which I would either have to eat all by myself, or which I would have to make to share with company, without knowing how the results would turn out.

But then I found this recipe for mini cheesecakes a few years ago which is not only simple, but also requires no water bath. It is also delicious and relatively quick.

This recipe makes about 12 mini cheesecakes, which can be baked directly in muffin tins. I especially like this recipe because it gives you a nice thick crust (which I like). If you're not a huge fan of the crust, then simply make thinner crusts and pour in more filling! If you have extra graham cracker crumb, you can easily bake this for about 5-10 minutes (depending on how much you have), and it makes an excellent topping for ice cream, yogurt, or baked fruit.

For the crust:
1 ¾ cups graham cracker crumbs
3 tbsps sugar
Pinch of salt
4 tablespoons melted butter

For the cheesecake:
½ lb (one 8-ounce box) cream cheese, at room temp
1/3 cup sugar
pinch salt
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg
1/3 cup heavy cream

Stir the crumbs, sugar and salt together in a medium bowl. Pour over the melted butter and stir until all of the dry ingredients are uniformly moist.
Butter your cupcake tins.
Divide the crust ingredients among the cupcake tins. Use your fingers to pat an even layer of crumbs along the bottom of the pan and up the sides a bit (to create a nice crust).
Put the pan in the freezer while you preheat the oven.
Preheat oven to 350°F and bake for 5 minutes.
Set the crust aside to cool on a rack while you make the cheesecake.
Reduce the oven temperature to 300°F.

Beat the cream cheese at medium speed until it is soft, about 4 minutes.
Add the sugar and salt and continue to beat another 4 minutes or so, until the cream cheese is light.
Beat in the vanilla. Beat in the egg. Remember: you want a well-aerated batter.
Reduce the mixer speed to low and stir in the heavy cream. Once incorporated, beat till completely smooth.

Pour an even amount of batter over each cheesecake crust.
Bake the cheesecakes at 300 degrees for about 15 minutes on the middle rack (time can be anywhere from 15-20 minutes), until they seemed fairly set, although still a bit jiggly in the center. Then, turn off the oven, leaving the cheesecakes in the oven. Leave for 10-15 minutes.
Remove from oven and cool.
To remove the cheesecakes from the cupcake tins, I find it easiest to just throw the entire pan (after it has cooled a bit) into the freezer and removing the frozen cheesecakes. They hold their form better that way. Refrigerator-chilled cheesecakes tend to cling to the pan and break apart.


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Homesickness & Vietnamese Food

The idea of home is simultaneously a complicated and a very simple thing for me.

While I was born in the United States and I've grown up all my life knowing the same suburban area and the same house, I never really felt American per se. I was taking trips to France before I even knew how to spell my own name and when I was growing up, I honestly thought pâté was the French version of peanut butter. Because my grandparents lived in the Paris, I spent many summers in France, and I often felt that I was culturally more French than American. But I had been raised in a Vietnamese household, and when I was thirteen, I went to my parents' homeland for the first time, and I quickly fell in love. There was a raw beauty in the humid, hot country which called to me and which brought me back again and again.
These mixing cultural dynamics made it so that it has been very hard for me to claim a home anywhere. I am by nationality American, but ethnically Vietnamese, and my heart is split between France and Vietnam. So a home in any particular country, really, is a complicated idea. I could never choose.

But home home, the place I can always come back to, the place I grew up in, that has always been the same. I have always known the same house, the same walls, the same rooms, the same beautiful kitchen and backyard and neighborhood. And the food. I have always had Vietnamese food. It has been a part of my life, a part of how I was raised. And when I am homesick, even though I don't always have a clear idea of where exactly I am homesick for, I always know what it is that I ache for.

I am homesick for Vietnamese food not just because of how it tastes, but because of how it makes me feel. There is something in my mind which always connects Vietnamese food with love and care. Perhaps because I have seen, while growing up, how much work must be put into many dishes. Traditional Vietnamese dishes can be very involved and they can require many different ingredients or many steps in the process of cooking. And for all my love of food, I have never truly made Vietnamese food on my own.
Of course, when I am home, I often make banh bao with my mom and I will help out in the kitchen, and sure, I can make the simple rice gruel we call chao like my mom and I can marinate meat in nước mắm and I can stir fry just like my dad, but I could never put together a truly traditional meal without help.
So now, as it is getting cold and I am starting to feel homesick for something that is missing in my life, I can't help but think of Vietnamese food. I think of my mom's mi vit tiem and my dad's plantain, eggplant, and tiá tô stew. I think of things that we go out to eat, Vietnamese food that we order casually, as though it were nothing special to find such things in the states, and fully expecting to be satisfied.

Here, where I am now in this not-very-diverse part of New Jersey, it has proven impossible to find Vietnamese food, authentic or not. I mourn the loss of what I had before, when I was living in the D.C. metropolitan area. Oh dear Vietnamese restaurants, when I return this winter, I will not take you for granted.

Nem nướng cuốn. This can be described as a spring roll, with grilled pork and fresh herbs wrapped in thin rice paper. Delicious and yet also very healthy. My sister and I love it when we come home and my mom sets up some kind of gỏi cuốn for us to make.

Bánh bèo chén. This is the central Vietnamese version of the dish (the South Vietnamese version is not normally served in these little bowls, and it is served with mungbean paste on top). It is hard to describe, the little bowls hold a glutenous kind of semi-pancake, which is topped with dried onions and ground shrimp paste. It is eaten with nước mắm, or fish sauce.

Bánh khoái. As my mom says, this is the Central Vietnamese version of our South Vietnamese bánh xèo. I love the crunchiness of the "pancake," as Americans often translate it. This is really nothing like a pancake though. It is thin and crispy on the edges, although the middle is somewhat thicker and wetter and more "cake-y." The inside of this one, as you can see, has mushrooms and bean sprouts. Often there is pork or shrimp. We eat this with lettuce and other fresh herbs, as you can see from plate piled high with leafy greens.

Bún hến with bánh đa mè đen (black sesame rice cracker). This is a noodle dish with little clams, bean sprouts, herbs, and a chili paste, and can be enjoyed with broth on the side and, again, nước mắm.

Funny enough, all these things which I had just described for you are Central Vietnamese dishes, but my parents are not from Central Vietnam. My dad is actually from the North, and my mom is from the South. The cuisines of north, central, and south Vietnam all differ, and yet the best images I could find to share with you were from Central Vietnam. In the future, I will have to honor my parents by sharing foods from north and south Vietnam. I am homesick for it all.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Almond Croissants

I’ve always had a weakness for almond croissants. We used to have a bakery near my house called La Vie de France which made the most wonderful almond croissants, but then one day they closed, and I mourned the loss of my croissants for months. They were so good!

There are other places that do sell almonds croissants, but for some reason they always lacked the amount of almond flavor and almond filling that I was looking for. They were, quite frankly, disappointing. And then one day it occurred to me that rather than continuously buying these disappointments and hoping that they would not fail me, I could, instead, try my hand at making them.

Since then, I haven’t bought an almond croissant. This is one of those cases where the homemade product is significantly better than the store bought product. It is also a breeze to make. Just buy some croissants from your grocery store/bakery (or you can make them yourself, but that will be another post, another day) and then with about 10 minutes of prep and 15 minutes of bake time, you will have some of the most delicious croissants ever.

The filling can also be made ahead 1-2 days of time and refrigerated, and any extra filling can be baked as little cookies (a take on florentines, if you will) at 350°F for 10-15 minutes, until golden brown.

Croissants aux amandes
150g sugar
150g almonds
100g (1 stick) salted butter, cut into pieces
1 egg
Splash of milk
½ tsp almond extract
8-12 croissants
*optional: a dash of vanilla powder or a few drops of vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Combine the almonds and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until of a desired consistency. (I like my fine, but if you like bigger pieces of almonds, don’t grind for as long)

Add the butter, pulse to mix. (If using unsalted butter, add in a generous pinch of salt)

Add the egg, milk, and almond extract , pulse to mix.

Cut the croissants in half (like you would a sandwich bread), then spread 1-2 tbsp of the filling inside. How much filling you put it is up to your personal preference and the number of croissants you have.

Optional: Spread 1-2tsp of filling on top of your croissant. This creates a nice crispy topping, but isn’t all that attractive, so it’s all about personal preference

Bake for 15 minutes on middle rack. Allow to cool (seriously), then enjoy!