Thursday, June 5, 2014

Spicy Cherry Vinegar

It's so ridiculously easy to make flavored vinegar that it makes me wonder why people pay big bucks to buy it. Anyway, got me some cherries the other day, since it's just the very beginning of cherry season, and decided to donate some of them to the cause by using them to make cherry vinegar.

The cherries colored the vinegar in only a couple of hours, but I left them there for a full day to let the cherry juices exchange with the vinegar. I took the cheap way out and used distilled white vinegar, but I imagine the vinegar would taste even better if you started with a good white wine vinegar. In fact this would be perfectly tasty made with red wine vinegar, but you won't get the dramatic effect of the vinegar changing color.

Spicy Cherry Vinegar

2 cups quartered sweet (Bing) cherries
2 tablespoons sugar
3 cups distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

In a large nonmetal container, combine all of the ingredients. Let stand 24 hours. Strain and put the vinegar in a clean bottle.

Makes 3 cups

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Mega-Recipe: Ricotta Torte

May is Bone Health Month. (Who decides these things, anyway?) So in honor of that, and in honor of mothers—who as a class definitely need strong bones—this week's recipe is for a calcium-rich cheese torte.

The torte is what I call a Mega-Recipe. What this means is that, in order to get a meaningful amount of a certain nutrient in a serving, I load the recipe up on ingredients high in that nutrient.

In the case of the torte, I went for the obvious sources of calcium: dairy products. But by choosing lower-fat versions of them I could get more calcium (too hard and boring to explain, but true). Then I also added nondairy sources of calcium, including almonds and broccoli. Broccoli has the distinction of being high in calcium and relatively low in vitamin K, which inhibits the body's ability to use the calcium in the vegetable.

Too much nutrition blah-blah, here's the recipe:

Ricotta Torte with Broccoli & Basil

My plan was to come up with a single serving that had significant calcium in it. I used skim milk to cook the rice and chose part-skim ricotta over full-fat. I used 1% cottage cheese, but since cottage cheese is not as good a source of calcium as other dairy products, I chose one of the brands that has added calcium. The other good sources in this torte are the broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes (?!), eggs, almonds, scallions and basil. When it all gets added up, a single serving has just about 500mg of calcium, which is 50% of the DV.

2 cups skim milk
3/4 cup brown-wild rice blend
1 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted and very finely chopped
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup sun-dried tomatoes, slivered (2.5 ounces)
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 scallions, chopped
2 cups (packed) finely chopped broccoli (6 ounces)
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 container (15 ounces) part-skim ricotta cheese (1-3/4 cups)
1 cup low-fat cottage cheese (with calcium)
3 large eggs
2 large egg whites
1 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves

1. In a medium saucepan (preferably nonstick), combine the milk, rice blend and 1 teaspoon of the oil. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat. Cover tightly, reduce to a simmer and cook until tender, 45 to 50 minutes. (Make sure it doesn't foam over.) Transfer to a large bowl and set aside to cool slightly.
2. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly oil a 9- to 10-inch springform pan. Sprinkle the almonds and Parmesan evenly over the bottom of the springform. In a small heatproof bowl, cover the sun-dried tomatoes with boiling water and let sit to soften while the rice cooks. Drain and coarsely chop.
3. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and scallions, and cook for 30 seconds, until the garlic is fragrant. Add the broccoli, water, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and the pepper. Cover and cook until crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Uncover and set aside.
4. In a food processor, combine the ricotta, cottage cheese, whole eggs, egg whites, basil and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Process until smooth. Add the sun-dried tomatoes and pulse just to combine. Stir into the cooled rice mixture.
5. Spoon one-third of the cheese-rice mixture into the springform. Top with the broccoli mixture and spoon the remaining cheese-rice mixture on top, making sure the broccoli is completely covered. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the top is lightly browned and a knife comes out clean. Cool completely to room temperature before serving.

Makes 6 servings

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Maple syrup: 3 facts

It's sugaring-off time.
The spiles are in the sugarbushes.
The sugar shacks are going full tilt.

Translation: In the spring, when their sap rises, sugar maple trees are tapped to gather the stored sugary liquid. Buckets of sap are taken to the sugar shack to be boiled down (in huge open kettles) to a syrup.


Three more facts:

1. A researcher at the University of Rhode Island has identified 20 potentially health-giving compounds in maple syrup, among them phenolics--a class of compounds known for their antioxidant powers (also found in berries, tea, and wine). The researcher is guessing that the tree may have produced the phenolics as a defense against having a metal tap driven through its bark. (Now don't go all anthropomorphic on me. I'm sure the tree is OK. Maybe the tree really likes it, like a dairy cow being milked.)

2. If you live in a cold climate (required for the trees to store up sugar in their roots over the winter) and happen to have Sugar, Black, Red, or Silver Maple trees, then you can make your own maple syrup. A website called Tap My Trees gives full instructions and sells the equipment you need. The starter kit ($140) includes three 16-quart buckets, lids, spiles (taps), and hooks. It also includes the 7/16" drill bit you need for the spiles and an instruction book on identifying trees and making maple syrup.

3. If you can't or don't want to make your own maple syrup, see if you can find maple syrup from Mount Cabot, a tiny producer in Lancaster, New Hampshire. The two guys (Biff and Carl) who own Mount Cabot make organic, "single-source, unblended" maple syrup. It is really delicious and has flavor nuances way beyond your everyday maple syrup. Read more about it here.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Signature Dish*: Mock Apple Pie

Read the drying apples entry from March 6, 2009, and you'll discover that crackers were used in earlier centuries to make "apple" pies when apples were either scarce, super expensive or nonexistent.

In fact, in 18th- and 19th-century cookbooks, crackers were used in lots of desserts. They were the basis for numerous baked puddings and were even used as a thickener instead of eggs in pumpkin pie.

Then along came the Ritz cracker in 1934. What set the Ritz cracker apart at the time was that it was round and buttery instead of square and austere. Three years after its introduction, it was the largest selling cracker in the world. (Wish we could still buy them at 1935 prices: 19 cents for a 1-pound box.)

Because using crackers in desserts was an American tradition of long standing, Nabisco began putting a recipe for a cracker pie on the Ritz cracker box, and this century's version of a mock apple pie was born.

Now, here's the thing. I tested the official mock apple pie recipe three times, and each time I got a filling that was gelatinous and solid and didn't look at all like apple slices. It finally dawned on me that perhaps I needed to increase the number of crackers in proportion to the sugar-lemon syrup that softens them. Perhaps the size of Ritz crackers had changed over the years and the original recipe had never been adjusted. I tested it with more crackers and finally got something that both tasted and looked like apple pie.

Several phone calls to Nabisco to ask them if their cracker size had changed since the 1930s were fruitless (get it?), because they insisted that the cracker size is the same and the recipe still works. I would say if you have any interest in the experiment, you can run down the original recipe from the Ritz cracker box. However, if you don't want to waste ingredients, I would try my version.

Mock Apple Pie
If you're concerned about the calorie count of a pie made with crackers, consider this: A serving of bread pudding (similar concept) has about 475 calories, and a slice of frosted cake (the same fundamental ingredients) can top 600 calories; a slice of this mock apple pie, however, has under 250.

3/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons butter, cut into bits
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Pastry for two 9-inch crusts, store-bought or homemade
45 Ritz Crackers (5 ounces), broken in half

1. In a small saucepan, combine the water, sugar and cream of tartar. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce to a high simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and butter, stirring until the butter is melted. Sprinkle in the cinnamon and stir well. Let cool to warm (about 30 minutes).
2. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425°F. Roll out the bottom crust and fit into a 9-inch pie plate.
3. Place the crackers in the crust and pour the warm lemon syrup over them (make sure they are all well doused because you want all the crackers to absorb the syrup). Roll out the top crust and place over the pie. Trim the edges and seal. Put three or four slits in the top of the crust to let steam escape.
4. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the crust is crisp and golden. Let cool completely on a wire rack before serving.
Makes 10 servings
*Signature Dish was the title of an ongoing feature I wrote for Hallmark magazine. Each issue I focused on a recipe that was the hallmark (no pun intended) of an era, a place, or a person.

Stabilizing a cutting board

There's nothing more annoying (or potentially dangerous) than a cutting board that slides all over the counter when you're wielding a sharp knife. Some cutting boards come with nonskid feet, but what if you have a perfectly fine collection of other random cutting boards--as I do--with no nonskid bottoms?

Well, if you do a Google search on the topic, you'll get tips on using a wet towel underneath the board. Or if you've ever been to a professional food shoot, you'll have seen food stylists use stacks of wet paper towels under their boards.

Both of these ideas work just fine, but not as well as my personal favorite: nonslip shelf and drawer liner. You can find rolls of this webby material in any hardware store. It costs from $3-6 for a roll 12 inches wide by 5 feet long. You can cut out pieces that match any one of your cutting boards, and it works like a charm.

If you can't find it locally, you can do a search on Contact brand drawer liners, or check out the Aubuchon hardware website.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Homemade soda

My sister Megan has a cool seltzer-making machine called a Penguin (you can read more about it on the Sodastream website). I admire it deeply, but with limited counter space I'm currently content to go to her house and drink her homemade sparkling water.

However, I did stumble across this cute little gadget called U-Fizz. It's really more a mini science experiment for kids than a serious way to make sparkling beverages, but it's only $9 (from Scientifics), so what the heck?

To make a sparkling drink with U-Fizz, you put the juice or water to be carbonated in one bottle and screw the cap on. Then in a second bottle, you combine vinegar and baking soda and screw that cap on. The chemical reaction of the baking soda and vinegar produce carbon dioxide, which escapes through a tube into the awaiting juice/water.

And if you go to the U-Fizz website, there's a recipe for carbonated Jell-O!!