Tag Archives: easy recipe

venison root vegetable stew (the venison diaries, part V)

I started writing this post and realized- for once, I don’t have a lot to say. But that’s OK; the following is all you need to know: A small venison roast, some local root vegetables from the farmers’ market, some homemade stock, and a weekend day with enough time for a long braise can yield the following:

I don’t often get roasts from my dad, usually his venison is in burger form, so this was a first. I just treated it like I would any other tough cut of meat, braising it for a while in the stock at a low temp and then adding the vegetables later so they didn’t cook to mush. The result wasn’t earth-shattering. but it was homey, comforting and hearty, which was just what I was going for.

Venison Stew with Root Vegetables
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1 small venison roast (about 1.5 to 2 lbs)
a few Tbs bacon fat
2 cups stock, preferably homemade: beef, lamb or chicken will work (mine was actually turkey, leftover from Thanksgiving)
aromatics: a couple of bay leaves, some peppercorns, juniper berries, or a couple sprigs of rosemary or thyme would all work
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 large or 2 small parsnips, peeled & cut into chunks
5-6 small shallots, peeled & trimmed
4 small potatoes, scrubbed and cut in halves or quarters
1 celery stalk, trimmed & cut into ½-inch pieces
salt to taste

Preheat oven to 225°. Warm the stock on the stove in a heavy lidded pot large enough to accommodate the meat. Rinse the venison and pat dry; lightly salt the meat and rub all over with the bacon fat. Add venison to pot, cover, and braise in the oven for 2 hours. You can turn the meat halfway through, but it’s not strictly necessary. Meanwhile, prep the vegetables. After the initial 2 hours, lightly salt the vegetables, add to the pot, cover, and cook for another hour or until vegetables are tender.

If the meat comes easily off the bone, feel free to serve your roast as-is; if meat is a little tough, you can either braise a bit longer, or do what I did: Remove meat from pot until it cools enough to handle, remove from the bone and cut into bite-sized pieces; return to pot to warm through. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper if needed. If desired, serve with chopped parsley as a garnish.

meyer lemon pound cake with lemon cream

My in-laws are serious eaters. At all the gatherings I’ve attended, the quantities of food would make the Two Fat Ladies blush, and we always come home with several containers of leftovers. This Christmas was no exception! My mother in law hosted Christmas Eve, as is getting to be the tradition. She veered away from the usual Puerto Rican fare this year (roast pork, arroz con gandules) and went Mexican, making posole, ceviche and nopales (cactus) salad. One of his cousins brought an interesting new (to me) PR dish of chicken gizzards cooked with green bananas and a few green olives (something like this except it was served warm instead of like a salad). The dish is an unglamorous greyish color, but the flavor was great and the gizzards were much more tender than when I’ve made them. It re-inspired me to try making gizzards again after an unsuccessful attempt last summer.

With all this great food in such abundance, it’s always hard to know what to bring. My MIL never wants to assign me a dish; she always demurs, saying that there will be enough food, or to just bring “whatever I want”.  I know this is because she doesn’t want to impose, but I have somewhat mixed feelings about it… she knows I like to cook; I’m part of the family now; shouldn’t that warrant a side dish assignment? To be fair, for all I know she does the same with all the other relatives and they just bring whatever they feel like. But a small part of me would be flattered to be entrusted with something specific.

In the end, I just decided to make a dessert… you can never have too many, especially with his family’s sweet tooth! I didn’t feel like leaving the house for groceries, so I “shopped my pantry” and made a Meyer lemon pound cake with a lemon cream (lemon curd + whipped cream) to go on top. Although I’m not the biggest dessert/ cake person, I do love citrus (see these posts) and almost always have lemons in the house! I wasn’t sure if its simplicity would be appreciated, but to my delight it was almost gone by the end of the night, when richer and sweeter offerings remained.

This recipe is from The Gourmet Cookbook, one I turn to often when I’m looking for a recipe that’s traditional yet updated. The method is simple, and you can certainly serve the cake as-is with the lemon glaze rather than making the lemon cream (although you need to zest all those lemons anyway, so you may as well use them). I did an easy curd where you mix everything and cook it together rather than tempering the eggs; it seemed to work about the same. You’ll want to strain it for textural reasons, but that’s about the fussiest part of the recipe. And I know a heavy cake recipe is probably the last thing you’re looking for right now, but you never know when you might decide to have people over for tea, or when you might need an easy recipe for your next get-together with your in-laws.

(Meyer) lemon pound cake (adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook by Ruth Reichl)
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I made this cake with fragrant Meyer lemons, but regular lemons will do just fine. However, you will likely need more lemons for the curd if you don’t use Meyers, which tend to be much juicier.

for the cake:
2 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
zest of 5 lemons (about ¼ cup)
2 sticks (½ lb) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
6 large eggs
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
¼ cup whole milk

for the glaze:
1 cup plus 1 Tbs powdered sugar
2 Tbs fresh lemon juice

Lightly grease and flour a 2-quart kugelhopf pan or bundt pan (a neutral-flavored cooking spray works well to get in the nooks & crannies). Knock out excess flour. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 325°.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients and zest. Cream the butter and sugar in a stand mixer or with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition; then add vanilla. Reduce mix speed to low and beat in ⅓ of the flour, the milk, another ⅓ of the flour, the lemon juice, and the remaining flour, beating until just combined and scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. Pour the batter into the prepared pan (place on a baking sheet for easier transport in and out of the oven) and bake until top is browned and a skewer or knife inserted into the center comes out clean (original recipe specified 45-55 minutes but mine took about an hour and 10 minutes). Meanwhile, make glaze by combining powdered sugar and lemon juice until sugar is fully dissolved.

Cool cake in the pan for 15 minutes (see photo- a wine bottle works well for this). Invert on a rack and allow to cool completely before glazing. Put cake on a serving plate and pour glaze over top, allowing it to drip down the sides. If storing for later use, allow glaze to set before covering. This cake keeps well for several days if wrapped and refrigerated; allow to come to room temperature before serving.

Lemon Curd/ Lemon Cream (adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan)
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Note: in Dorie’s book, she uses the term “lemon cream” to refer to a variation on lemon curd containing a higher ratio of butter.

1 ¼ cups sugar
1 egg
6 egg yolks
6 Tbs butter, cut into 6 pieces
freshly squeezed juice of 4 lemons (use 5 or even 6 if lemons are dry)
optional: 1 pint heavy whipping cream

Whisk together all ingredients in a medium heavy saucepan. Place over medium low heat and cook, stirring vigorously and constantly, until butter melts and mixture starts to thicken (original recipe says 4-6 minutes but I’ve never had mine cook that fast). The curd is done when you can make a track with your finger on a spoon or spatula and the curd doesn’t run into the track. It will look thin, but thicken as it cools. If desired, for a smoother texture, strain curd while still warm through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl. Press plastic wrap over the top so a skin doesn’t form, and cool in the refrigerator.

To make lemon cream, whip cream with beaters or a stand mixer until it has body, but before it becomes firm. When curd has fully cooled, stir in whipped cream to taste- less for a more pronounced lemon flavor and more for a milder, creamier flavor.

pumpkin chili with venison (the venison diaries, part IV)

Two winters ago, I wrote a series of blog posts all featuring ground venison, since I’d been given 6 pounds of it from my dad. According to my first post in the series, my plan was to write a different recipe for each of the 6 packages, but somehow I fell off after three. I can’t recall what I did with the other 3 pounds,  but I’m guessing it’s pretty likely there was at least one batch of chili in there.

Chili is probably the most common dish made with ground venison- I suspect some people turn to it because the powerful seasonings can mask the venison’s taste, but that hasn’t been a problem for us since my dad’s deer always taste great with no “off” or gamey flavors. We just make it because it’s easy and we tend to have most of the ingredients on hand. However, I never really considered my usual chili (which consists primarily of chopping onions and garlic and opening a bunch of cans) to be worthy of writing down a recipe.

Folks, this batch is a different story. I did rely on a couple canned ingredients, and this is still squarely in the camp of weeknight fare (even with the experimentation factor and my own slow-pokiness, it only took me an hour and a half from start to finish) but the flavors are richer, deeper and, dare I say, more sophisticated than your run-of-the-mill chili. Marvin may have to make good on his mention of taking up hunting himself in order to keep us stocked with sufficient quantities of venison, because rather than quell my cravings, this just made me hungry for more.

When my venison supply was replenished a couple weeks ago, I knew that this was the first dish I wanted to try. My dad’s wife Amy had told me about a pumpkin chili she had recently made for a cook-off (it took second place out of 20- not too shabby!) and I was intrigued. Amy hadn’t used a recipe, but she told me what ingredients she used and I tweaked it to my tastes. For example, her version used chili powder, pumpkin pie spice and a little brown sugar, and included lots of beans, corn and tomatoes. I omitted the sugar, added toasted and soaked guajillo chiles instead of chili powder, and used cumin, allspice and cinnamon for a vaguely Middle Eastern feel. In fact, I can easily see substituting lamb for the venison in this recipe (or grass-fed beef if you’re not a fan of lamb). I also left out the corn and cut back on the beans and tomatoes, wanting the pumpkin, chiles and meat to be the primary flavors.

For garnish, I stole Amy’s idea of reserving a little pumpkin to mix with sour cream, and added cilantro and scallions to brighten things up. Chopped jalapenos would be nice too if you wanted a little more kick. One authoritarian note, though- although I am generally very flexible with my recipes, I have to strongly advise against any temptations to use shredded cheese as a garnish- the flavors wouldn’t work with the cinnamon and allspice. I guarantee you won’t miss it, though.

Pumpkin Chili with Venison
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Prep time: 30 minutes active, 30 minutes inactive

Serves: 8

5-7 dried guajillo chiles (see note)
2 cups boiling water
2 Tbs olive oil or neutral vegetable oil
1 large or 2 small white onions, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb ground venison, lamb, grass-fed beef, or a combination
1 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp cumin
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1 large (29-oz) can 100% pumpkin puree (check to make sure it has no sugar or other spices added)
1 small (14-oz) can whole peeled tomatoes with their juice
1 roasted red bell pepper, peeled, seeded and cut into bite-sized pieces
1 small (15-oz) can black beans, rinsed and drained

optional but recommended garnishes:
sour cream
chopped scallions
chopped cilantro

Note: 5 guajillo chiles will yield a chili that is “warm” but not spicy-hot; feel free to add more, but I wouldn’t go too hot because you’ll overpower the other spices. You could also substitute dried ancho chiles if guajillos are not to be found.


1. Heat a cast iron or other heavy skillet over medium heat. Toast the chiles in the dry skillet, turning frequently and taking care not to burn them. Remove the seeds and roughly tear the chiles into pieces; place in a blender. Pour over the 2 cups boiling water and replace the lid; allow to soak while you prep the vegetables.

2. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy, lidded pot over medium heat.  Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook a minute more.

3. Increase the heat slightly and add the meat, salt, and all of the spices except the cocoa. Cook until the meat is browned- this will vary depending on your choice of meat; venison is very wet so it takes longer, but keep going until the liquid has evaporated. Meanwhile, process the chiles and water for 30 seconds in the blender.

4. Add the tomatoes, crushing them with your hands as you add them to the pot, and all but 1/3 cup of the pumpkin puree; add the cocoa powder and stir to incorporate. Strain the chile water into the pot with a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth, pressing to extract all the liquid (guajillo skins are very tough; if you use ancho chiles you don’t need to strain them). Add more water to reach your desired consistency, allowing for some evaporation (I added about a cup).

5. Cover and reduce heat to a very low simmer; cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding a splash of water if it looks too thick. About halfway through, add the black beans (canned beans often verge on overcooked, so I prefer to add them toward the end).

6. Taste the chili for salt and adjust as needed. Whisk the reserved pumpkin puree with a cup or so of sour cream. Serve the chili garnished with pumpkin sour cream, a generous sprinkling of cilantro and a few scallion slices.

bangladesh by way of hamtramck: aromatic fish curry

This summer, in between trips to the florist and the seamstress and the hairdresser, I was working on a feature article accompanied by some listings of  Hamtramck’s many ethnic grocery stores and markets. For readers who are unfamiliar with the Detroit area, Hamtramck (and no, I’m not missing a vowel, that is the correct spelling!) is a roughly 2-square-mile city, surrounded on all sides by Detroit and situated pretty much right in the middle of it. Originally settled by Polish immigrants, it is now home to a whole host of ethnic communities, Albanians, Bosnians, Yemenis and Bengalis being the most prevalent these days. Here’s a slideshow of images taken by Marvin on our excursions there:

Coincidentally, I also recently purchased the cookbook At Home with Madhur Jaffrey: Simple, Delectable Dishes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.  Excited that I had finally obtained some ingredients I hadn’t previously been able to locate (amchoor, asafoetida, curry leaves and more), and in honor of the many Bengali stores I visited, I decided to make not just “Indian food” but a specifically Bengali/ Bangladeshi meal.*

*NB: Bengali is an ethnic designation and Bangladeshi is a regional designation. Some of the recipes were labeled “Bengali” in origin and some were labeled “Bangladeshi”. Bangladesh is made up of 98% Bengalis (so it’s fairly safe to assume a Bangladeshi is Bengali), but Bengalis are found in other regions besides Bangladesh. Got it?

According to Jaffrey, fish is the main animal protein consumed in Bangladesh, whose occupants are fond of eating the many freshwater river fish in the region. I figured this was as good a place as any to start, so I selected a fish curry recipe, and then a dal recipe since they’re so easy and I never feel an Indian meal is complete without one. I wanted one more vegetable dish, and would have chosen something green or crunchy or salad-y for more contrast, but I already had a butternut squash in the house and lo and behold there was a recipe for Bengali squash with mustard oil (another Hamtown purchase). The dal recipe did call for a handful of greens though, so I managed to use up some chard that was threatening to get wilty, and get a little more color in the meal.

I would make all three recipes again, especially in light of how easy they were, but the fish was far and away my favorite. The main flavoring came from curry leaves, which have a wonderful nutty, toasty aroma that you just have to taste or smell to understand how good it is. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a dish in a restaurant which used curry leaves, so it was exciting to be exposed to a totally new flavor. If you ever come across curry leaves, buy some and put them in the freezer in a zip-top bag with the air squeezed out like you would kaffir lime leaves. I lucked out and bought a bag at the Eastern Market this summer for a dollar. The flavor may have been diminished slightly from their time in the freezer (not sure since I’ve never used them fresh), but they were still plenty aromatic.

Can’t wait to delve a little deeper into Bengali cuisine- I still have a few more ingredients I have yet to try out, such as the amchoor (a sour powder made from dried green mangoes) and screw pine (pandan) essence. Let me know in the comments if you’ve tried or used either!

Bangladeshi Fish Curry (adapted from At Home with Madhur Jaffrey)
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According to Jaffrey, in Bangladesh this would be made with a freshwater river fish; she calls for flounder. Any mild-flavored fish will work. Jaffrey also calls for kaffir lime leaves as the “first choice” and curry leaves as a substitute, but the curry leaves are definitely worth trying if you can get your hands on some. As a last resort, use basil.

1-1¼ lbs fillets of mild fish such as flounder
½ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1½ teaspoons crushed or very finely minced garlic
1½ teaspoons micro-planed ginger
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
3 tablespoons mustard oil (substitute 3 Tbs vegetable oil + ½ teaspoon dry mustard powder)
⅓ cup thinly sliced shallots
10 kaffir lime leaves or curry leaves, lightly crushed

Sprinkle the fish on both sides with the salt. Cut into 3-inch pieces and set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the garlic, ginger, paprika, cayenne, turmeric, and mustard powder (if using) with 3 tablespoons water; stir to form a paste.

Heat the oil in a 12″ skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the shallots and fry until lightly browned and softened. Add the spice paste and fry for 1 minute. Add 1 cup water and lime or curry leaves; bring to a simmer. Reduce heat and simmer for a few minutes. If other dishes are not yet ready, remove from heat.

When ready to serve, bring the sauce to a simmer over low heat. Place the fish pieces in the sauce. Cook 1 minute; turn the fish pieces over gently and cook an additional 2-3 minutes depending on thickness, spooning the sauce over the fish as it cooks. Serve immediately.

first dinner married

Ok, so technically our first dinner married (not counting the actual reception) was some carryout from Thang Long. But our first home-cooked meal- cooked as a joint effort, no less- was a simple but satisfying meal of grilled rib-eye steak, a green salad, some sliced heirloom tomatoes (left over from the wedding), and roasted cauliflower with garlic, parsley and lemon. (Oh, and a bottle of Zinfandel, also left over from the wedding, if you can believe it.)

It’s an understatement to say I’ve never been drawn to cauliflower. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hate it, but it’s certainly not a favorite, especially when steamed or raw (allow me to insert an immature “blech“). So it was pretty uncharacteristic of me to pick up a head of it while we were shopping for dinner. But leave it to New York Times food writer and cookbook author Melissa Clark to make something as unsexy as cauliflower sound appealing. I’ve been making my way through her book In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite as bedtime reading, and came across a section where she talks about roasting vegetables- when in doubt, crank the oven to 425°, give the vegetable(s) a sheen of olive oil and a generous sprinkling of salt, and in 40 minutes or so, you’ll have roasty caramelized goodness. I’m no novice when it comes to roasted vegetables, but sometimes it takes someone else’s enthusiasm to reignite interest in a tried-and-true method.

Coincidentally, that morning I had come across an article in this month’s issue of Saveur by Lesley Porcelli entitled “The Soft Approach”, about cooking vegetables past what common kitchen wisdom would deem done. As someone who has never appreciated, say, the overly vegetal, grassy taste of a near-raw green bean, I recognized a kindred spirit. Porcelli talks about cooking vegetables as her Italian grandmother did, to the point where their sweetness develops; a stage many would call overcooked. This is exactly what I planned to do with my cauliflower: heat-blast it into submission.

I preheated my oven and cut my cauliflower into bite-sized florets. Into a large bowl it went, tossed with olive oil and salt, and then dumped on a baking sheet. If I’d been at home, I might have sprinkled on some additional seasonings at this point as Clark does in her recipe, like smoked paprika or even curry powder, depending on what I was serving it with. I put the cauliflower in the oven for 10 minutes before adding whole peeled cloves of garlic and chunks of red onion (also tossed in oil and salt). In retrospect I probably could have added the garlic from the beginning, but I wasn’t sure what the timing would be and didn’t want to risk it burning. When the onion and cauliflower were done, the garlic was soft and cooked through but not browned at all. Still, smashed and smeared on a piece of rare rib-eye and dragged through the tomato juices on our plates, neither of us was complaining.

To finish the dish, I sprinkled on some fresh chopped parsley and squeezed a bit of lemon juice over everything to brighten the flavors. Next time I might follow my friend Evan‘s lead and add capers and a dash of good-quality vinegar (a combination which I raved about in this post). For someone whose attitude toward cauliflower has been ambivalent at best, I was more than pleased at my results and would definitely repeat the experiment. In fact, if I’d had enough left over, I would have played around with a roasted cauliflower & garlic soup. Note to self: next time put an additional tray of veg in the oven to be used for this purpose!

All photos this post courtesy of the hubs. Check out his sweet new website.

Roasted Cauliflower with Garlic, Parsley & Lemon
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You can change this recipe up in a dozen different ways- substitute a sweet onion for the red, or leave it out altogether; ditto for the garlic (although… roasted garlic!). Add spices as you see fit, or finish the dish with the simple parsley/lemon combination I used. In her version, Melissa Clark uses whole spices cumin, coriander and mustard seed for an Indian-influenced dish, adding sliced almonds in the final 5 minutes of cooking. I was away from home and didn’t have my spices, so I settled on this simpler version.

1 head cauliflower
1 large red or sweet onion (optional)
cloves from one head garlic, peeled (see note)
about 3 Tablespoons olive oil (less if not using onion)
1 handful fresh parsley, chopped
juice of half a lemon, or to taste

Note: If garlic cloves are on the small side, add them with the onions after the initial 10 minutes of cooking so they do not burn.

Preheat oven to 425°. Rinse cauliflower and trim away any brown spots. Cut into small bite-sized florets, about 3/4″ to 1″. Place cauliflower in a large bowl with the garlic cloves and toss with just enough olive oil to coat. Toss with sea salt to taste, about 1 teaspoon, and pepper or other spices if desired.

Spread cauliflower and garlic on a baking sheet large enough to hold it all without crowding; ideally, there should be a little space between all the pieces so they roast and don’t steam. Place in the oven for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut the onion into 1″ pieces; toss with olive oil and salt. When the 10 minutes is up, give the cauliflower a stir and add the onion. Cook for another 10 minutes and stir again. Continue cooking for a final 10-15 minutes or until cauliflower has plenty of browned spots (see photo). Transfer to a bowl and finish with the lemon juice and parsley to taste. Sample and adjust any seasonings as needed.

summer tomatoes and a savory zucchini bread {les culinettes}

Summer tomatoes may seem like an odd thing to post about right now, as most other North American food bloggers are fully in fall’s sway. But now that I have this silly wedding business behind me, I’m catching up with a few odds and ends- blog posts I’ve been sitting on; photos I’ve been meaning to edit; recipes I wanted to share. Besides, the particular recipe I have for you today- a savory zucchini-tomato bread- is actually more suited to this time of year, because who wants to turn up the oven on a sweltering August day? (Oh, that’s right, I did.) This bread, though- if you still have a glut of zucchini but are tired of sweet zucchini bread, this is the ticket. It’s rich, eggy, cheesy and perfect for a cool fall day, and it keeps for a few days because of how moist it is. Also, if you’re grabbing bushels of Roma tomatoes to make these roasted Romas, this is a great use for them. Mine were from last year (roasted and frozen in olive oil) but they held up beautifully. If you don’t have tomatoes you can throw in a handful of black olives, or even a little diced ham.

The last meeting of our cooking club took place on August 12 and as we have a seasonal bent, we celebrated the tomato. Once again, I wondered how we would pull off 8 or so dishes with the same ingredient in common and not have it be “too much”, and once again, I needn’t have worried. From just-picked to barely cooked to long-simmered to roasted, the permutations were as creative as they were delicious. Sarah skewered fresh tomatoes with melons, basil and mozzarella for a salad on a stick. Molly puréed tomatoes from her garden with peaches and a little yogurt and garnished it with tarragon for a chilled summer soup, a riff on a Mark Bittman recipe. Amy, ever the fancy-pants (I say this with the utmost admiration!), stuffed squash blossoms with seasoned diced eggplant, fried them and set them on a bed of barely-cooked tomato sauce. Heavenly.

Speaking of heavenly, I want to digress just for a moment here to talk about our hostess Abigail and her stunning Ann Arbor home, which you can see a tiny glimpse of in a couple of these photos. I hope it doesn’t embarrass her if I say that I was absolutely enamored with her house and its decor, a perfect blend of old world/antique and whimsical modern. The house itself is in amazing condition, with original woodwork throughout, a gorgeous fireplace and many other cool details. And the landscaping- let’s just say gardening is Abigail’s labor of love, and it shows. Much of Abigail’s decor, including the “most beautiful chandelier in the world” (as she told her husband to convince him they needed to buy it and ship it back) was purchased during their time living in Italy. I’m guessing the heavy linens on the dining table were of European provenance as well- you just can’t buy stuff like that at a department store.

Of course it’s no surprise that such impeccable taste would carry over to the kitchen. Our hostess made two knockout dishes, one an appetizer with multiple components, the other a homey potato gratin (in a vintage enameled casserole, no less). The appetizer was composed of a whipped chive goat cheese and a deeply savory tomato-shallot-vinegar compote topped with a basil leaf, on little almond biscuits. The sweet cookie-like biscuits were unexpected but totally worked. It was a struggle not to devour too many, as we all wanted to save room for dinner.

It’s been well over a month since this dinner and I’m struggling to remember what Emily and Meghan brought- please forgive me, ladies! I believe the roasted tomatoes with capers and mozzarella were Meghan’s contribution, and Emily brought a simple salad of tomatoes from her garden. She was understandably much too busy to prepare anything more complex (not that she needed to anyway), as she was getting married the following weekend. Congratulations Emily! I don’t think I would have even been able to attend any social events the week before our wedding, as I was so busy taking care of last minute details, but she seemed much more organized than I.

As usual, we had a grand old time eating, drinking and making merry. We were privileged to have been joined by Abigail’s old school friend Chiara, who was visiting from Brooklyn on her first weekend away from her kids. I hope we showed her a proper good time. Kids, if you’re reading, she was fighting back the tears pining for you the whole time. Really!

Some say a bride experiences a let-down after the wedding, when there is no longer a big event to focus on, and the attention dwindles. I don’t feel this way in the slightest, at least not yet- on the contrary, I’m really excited to have time once again to cook and have dinner parties. I will of course post about the wedding very soon, once I get our photos and have some time to digest everything, so to speak. The ultra-short summary is that we had the time of our lives and the food was to die for. But I can’t wait to get back in the kitchen, so here’s hoping we’ll plan another Culinettes party ASAP!

Savory Zucchini Bread with Roasted Tomatoes and Parmesan
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The inspiration for this recipe is the savory “cakes” served in France as part of the apéro (pre-dinner drinks and snacks). The first time I made it, I used roasted tomatoes and black olives, but wanted to adapt it to make use of the overabundance of zucchini in gardens and markets at the end of summer. The results are a delicious departure from sweet, muffin-like zucchini breads.

Prep: 20 minutes
Yield: 2 large loaves or 4 small loaves

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
5 ounces Parmesan or other hard cheese, grated
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
5 large eggs
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup olive oil
2 cups shredded zucchini
1 cup roasted Roma tomatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup grated shallot or onion
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary (or other fresh herbs of your choice)

Preheat oven to 400°. Grease 2 loaf pans or four mini loaf pans.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cheese, salt and pepper. In another medium bowl, lightly beat the eggs with the wine and olive oil. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour the egg/wine mixture in. Slowly mix the dry ingredients into the wet until fully incorporated; do not over-mix. Lumps are fine. Fold in the vegetables and rosemary. Divide the batter evenly among the pans and bake until the top is golden and crusty and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45-50 minutes for small loaves and an hour for large loaves (please note that I didn’t make large loaves so I can’t vouch for the timing- keep an eye on them and test to be sure).

achieving wok hay

Ever since reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper last year, I’ve been hankering to get into more authentic Chinese cooking. I realize “authenticity” is subjective and can be cause for debate, but in the broad sense I mean food that would actually be prepared in a Chinese home, rather than  dishes that were created Stateside and appear on every Chinese take-out menu from Dubuque to Des Moines.

With that in mind, I picked up The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young from the library recently. It focuses in on the techniques of wok cooking as a necessary component of Chinese cookery, as opposed to some Asian cookbooks that reassure the cook that it’s fine to just stir fry in a skillet if need be. The way Young describes the use of a wok, it’s practically an ingredient unto itself. Anyone who’s had a well-prepared stir fry can identify the flavor of wok hay, the essence or “breath” of the wok, as Young translates it. It’s that underlying hint of smokiness that you just don’t get unless you cook at extremely high temperatures, and it is simply not possible to accomplish with a Western skillet.

So vital is the selection, care, technique and culture of the wok that Young spends the first 65 pages of her book discussing these topics before any recipes are given. I read most of those pages, but the other night I was feeling eager to dive in so I thought I’d forge ahead and try my hand at one of the recipes, a scallop & asparagus stir fry. Apart from one misstep at the very beginning (minced garlic that turned black within seconds of being added to the uber-hot wok), the recipe was a breeze. Best of all, when I tasted the dish, there it was- the slight “grilled” flavor of wok hay! It felt like a revelation. I served it with a very non-authentic but delicious variation of my favorite carrot and avocado salad, where I subbed in ginger, hot chili paste, rice vinegar and a touch of soy sauce for the French vinaigrette.

Even if you only make the occasional stir fry, I would highly recommend reading Young’s chapters about wok use and putting her advice into practice. That little bit of knowledge just might have you creating some wok hay of your own, and I’m here to tell you it’s worth whatever small extra effort might be involved. My scallop stir-fry was easily one of the best I’ve made- the scallops seared but juicy; the vegetables crisp-tender; the sauce just a sheer glaze that nicely flavored without drowning the ingredients. I have a feeling the wok is going to be put to use a little more often in our household in the near future.

I can’t summarize Young’s 65 pages for you, of course, but here are a few tips for achieving wok hay in your own kitchen:

  • Use a carbon-steel wok, never nonstick.
  • Have all ingredients close at hand; the process goes lightning fast and there’s no time to realize you forgot a component during cooking.
  • Don’t exceed the amount of ingredients a recipe calls for or add too much to the wok at one time; it brings the temperature down too far and your food will steam instead of sear.

Scallop & Asparagus Stir-Fry (adapted from The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young)
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Notes: The original recipe called for 1 lb of asparagus. I only had about 3/4 lb so I subbed in some snow peas for the remaining 1/4 lb. The important thing is not to go over 1 lb total of vegetables, because it will reduce the wok’s heat too much. The only other change I made was to sprinkle the garlic on top of the scallops when I put them in the wok. When I put the garlic in first, I found that it instantly burned and I had to start over.

1 lb. scallops (if you want to splurge, use fresh dry sea scallops, but I used frozen, thawed bay scallops and they tasted fine)
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed & cut into 2-inch pieces
1 ¼ tsp salt
4 tsp Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
2 ¼ tsp cornstarch
1 ½ tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp ground white pepper
1 Tbs peanut or other  vegetable oil
1 Tbs minced garlic

Put 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan with 1 tsp salt and bring to the boil. Add asparagus. When the water returns to a boil, remove from heat and drain the asparagus; set aside. (If using any snow peas, they do not need to be blanched.)

Rinse the scallops and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels. Combine in a bowl with the sesame oil, white pepper, 1 ¼ tsp of the cornstarch, 1 tsp of the rice wine and the remaining ¼ tsp of salt; mix well to combine. In another bowl, combine the remaining 1 tsp cornstarch, rice wine, and the oyster sauce with ¼ cup cold water.

Place scallops, asparagus, sauce and garlic within hands’ reach of the stove. Heat a 14″ flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1-2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil. Add the scallops, carefully spreading them in a single layer. Sprinkle the garlic on top. Cook undisturbed for 30 seconds to allow them to brown; then stir-fry with a metal spatula for 30-60 seconds or until scallops are light brown but not cooked through. Add the asparagus. Stir the sauce mixture and add to the wok. Bring to the boil to thicken the sauce and finish cooking the scallops, about 30 seconds.

Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal.