Mini strawberry Pavlovas may be the most brilliant Passover dessert ever

If ever there was a dessert meant for Passover, it's this one: mini strawberry Pavlovas. 

So, what's a Pavlova, anyway?

It's an Australian dessert named for the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (so the story goes), following one of her tours through Australia. Traditionally it's a large, thick meringue disk – hard and crisp on the outside, soft and pillowy on the inside – topped with whipped cream and berries or other fruit. Made this way, it's sliced into wedges to serve. 

Sized individually, mini Pavlovas are just as impressive, not to mention great for entertaining as they're so easy to make and serve. 

Why are mini Pavlovas so brilliant for Passover?

Let me count the ways:

1. There's no flour, making the dessert welcome at the Passover table.

2. They star strawberries, just as the fruit comes into the full flush of its season. 

3. They're beautiful and impressive-looking, yet easy and fool-proof to make.

4. You can make their meringue bases ahead of time – even the day before – and cut and macerate the berries in advance. All that's left to do last-minute is whip cream and assemble the Pavlovas, which is no harder than assembling strawberry shortcake. They're easy enough to manage during the craziness of a seder. 

Pavlovas aren't just for Passover

Pavlovas are having a moment in restaurants – at least here in Dallas, where one of the city's top pastry chefs, Keith Cedotal, is turning out beautiful individually sized versions, filled with citrus mousse and mixed berries, at fashionable Mirador restaurant. 

Besides being chic and delicious, Pavlovas also happen to be gluten-free – just the thing for gluten-intolerant berry lovers who are accustomed to passing up the strawberry shortcake. 

When I say Pavlovas are easy to make, I'm not kidding. All you do is whip up some egg whites, beat in sugar and, if you like, a touch of lemon or orange liqueur. If you want to get fancy, add some lemon zest. Spoon them into messy circles on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for less than an hour, till they're light golden and hard to the touch. 

Layer them with whipped cream and strawberries (macerated in a touch of lemon liqueur or orange liqueur if you like), and there you are. If they're messy, or the meringues break that's OK – disheveled is part of their charm. 

Brilliant, right? Here's the recipe:

 

 

 

Warm, tender (thoroughly cooked!) asparagus is a simple, wonderful pleasure

Maximo Bistro's asparagus with hollandaise and pea puree

If you've never had properly cooked asparagus, you're missing out on something wonderful indeed.

I was reminded of its simple and irrefutable pleasure on a recent trip to Mexico City, over lunch at Máximo Bistrot Local, Eduardo García's glammy restaurant in the Colonia Roma neighborhood. I chose as a starter "espárragos, holandesa, ajo tostado," and loved what was set before me: fat, jumbo asparagus, beautifully trimmed and peeled nearly to the tips, poached to almost custardy tenderness and served with luscious, lightly lemony and perfect hollandaise sauce on one side and silky, buttery pea purée on the other. 

Classic hollandaise for me is a luxury (maybe it's time to rediscover its joys in a post!), but the real revelation on that plate was this: So many professional kitchens send asparagus spears to the table undercooked that if you're accustomed to eating it in restaurants, it's entirely possible you've never experienced how luscious it can be.

(Meanwhile, Máximo chef-owner Eduardo García has a pretty amazing cook-busting-borders story.)

Undercooked asparagus, crunchy and forbidding, can taste like a punishment. But if you simmer asparagus long enough to cook it through, its texture becomes soft and almost creamy, and its lovely flavor comes into full bloom.

 

It's worth taking the time to peel it first. First trim off the woody end of the stalk, then use a vegetable peeler to (gently, so you don't break the stalk) peel it about two thirds of the way up to the tip. I find that letting the spear rest flat on the cutting board and using only very gentle pressure to peel gets the job done most easily. 

Set a pan of salted water to a boil, add the asparagus and cook, covered, until the spears are tender. How long this will take depends on their thickness. Medium-thin to medium spears will take about 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 minutes, jumbos a bit longer.

But rather than time them, I lift them gently with tongs, and when they're just a bit floppy, like this:

 

. . . I pull them out.

Then I might serve them warm, letting a small pat of butter melt over them first if that's my mood, or leaving them plain if I'm going lo-cal.

If you know your way around a kitchen, you won't need an actual recipe for this, but in case you do, here you go:

Once you discover or rediscover this simple pleasure, you'll probably want to branch out. You can prepare the spears this way, skip the butter, pour a vinaigrette over them and serve them either warmish or room temp. You can also shock them in cold water, chill them, then dress in vinaigrette later. For the vinaigrette, I might go one of four ways: simple vinaigrette with a little Dijon mustard; the same boosted with a dab of anchovy paste; dressed in a simple vinaigrette then garnished with crushed pink peppers; or dressed in a shallot vinaigrette.

Last spring, I became obsessed with gribiche, which continues to show up on fashionable restaurant menus. Whether you make a classic version or a more modern one (like the new-wave one shown below), it's spectacular on poached asparagus. 

 

Of course there's an exception to the thorough cooking idea: Shaved raw asparagus can be wonderful in salads or as a garnish on fish or chicken dishes. But when you do choose to cook them, the lesson of thorough cooking holds for other methods besides poaching: stir-frying, roasting or grilling. (Lots of people steam asparagus, but it's not a method I love for this veg.) In any case, if you cook them past that hard, green-tasting crunchiness, they're so much nicer. 

Want more asparagus ideas? Here are a million, more or less. 

Isn't this the greatest season?!

 

 

 

How to fool your friends into thinking you shelled 9,000 English peas

When spring rolls around – and even before – I start craving asparagus. And strawberries. And English peas. 

Unless you live near a farm, grow them in your garden or have access to a great farmers market – and depending on where in the world you live – finding sweet, tender English peas can be a real challenge. If you're lucky enough to find English peas at a supermarket, they're likely to be hard and woody, or if they're still small and tender, they'll likely have lost their sweetness. 

The solution? Frozen peas. That's right – they're actually really good, especially if you pick up the tiny ones sometimes called petits pois. I usually have a bag or two in my freezer – even in springtime, when we're all focused on what's fresh. 

And nowhere do they show better than in this wonderful soup, based on traditional French potage Saint Germain. 

 

It's the easiest thing in the world to whip up. Wilt a head of soft Boston or Bibb lettuce in butter. (Hey, this is like a salad within a soup!) Add a couple bags of frozen peas, stir and cook 10 minutes. Add water, and a few fresh mint leaves and simmer for 20 minutes. Whirr it up with a stick blender, et voilà. Garnish it with a dab of crème frâiche. Or not. That's it!!!

It's vegetarian. And it's a knockout. Serve it to your friends, swearing you shelled 9,000 English peas for their pleasure. 

Or tell the truth. And get ready to hand over the recipe.

 

 

 

 

Winner, winner chicken dinner: A crazy-good, winter-into-spring one-pan wonder

As Sam Sifton wrote in a delicious story today in The New York Times Magazine, we're in that frustrating shoulder season when cooks are tired of winter and longing for spring.  Like Sifton, I'm finding inspiration these days – when it's too early for asparagus and English peas – in cabbage. In my case it's gorgeous, crinkly savoy cabbage, which, in my neck of the woods, has been turning up recently with lovely regularity in supermarkets. 

In the past, I've always had trouble figuring out how to treat savoy cabbage right. Usually I braise it, and that's good. Lately I've been roasting it – even better!

Also lately, I've been wanting to create one of those sheet-pan recipes that are so trendy right now. The reality has proved less miraculous than I'd hoped. Though I love the idea of tossing everything onto a pan, shoving it in the oven and forgetting about it for an hour, the truth is that things have different cooking times. Roast chicken thighs with turnips until the chicken is done, and the turnips won't be as tender, golden-brown and caramelized as you'd want them.

Adding the three main components of this dish – chicken thighs, turnips and savoy cabbage – one at a time to the pan solves the problem, deliciously. In fact, I think this one-pan dinner is one of the best things to come out of my kitchen in some time! Chicken thighs are great because they're chicken thighs. The turnips cook longer than everything else, so they get soft and caramelized almost to the point of sweetness, with really concentrated flavor. And the cabbage, which gets an umami boost from shiitake mushroom powder and soy sauce, roasts till it has all kinds of wonderful texture, from soft and silky to crunchy on the edges. The flavors and textures of the three meld together gorgeously. 

It's a dish so simple you can toss it together for glorious weeknight dinner, but it's impressive enough that you could serve it at as a main course for a dinner party. Here's a bonus: It's super-healthy, even for someone watching their carbs. (Turnips have way fewer carbs than, say, potatoes.) 

Chicken thighs with Savoy Cabbage and turnips

Here's the way it goes. Toss the turnips in a little olive oil, salt and pepper, throw 'em in the pan and roast 15 minutes. Push them to the side of the pan and add the chicken thighs skin-side down. These you've tossed with a little fennel seed, garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil. 

Next whisk together a little more olive oil and fennel seed with shiitake powder and soy sauce – for that blast of umami. Toss the Savoy cabbage leaves in that mixture to coat, then add them to the roasting pan. Thirty-five minutes later, dinner is ready.

Oh – unless you want a little sauce to pass with it. Either way, with or without, it's pretty great. If you do want sauce, arrange everything on a warm platter, deglaze the roasting pan with white wine or water (the recipe tells you how), and strain it into a pitcher to pass with the chicken.

Want the recipe? You got it: 

Bon app – and happy almost-spring!

 

Guest cook: Susie Bui shares her fabulous Hanoi-style catfish dish, Cha Ca La Vong – a cult favorite

The first time I heard of Cha Ca La Vong, it was on Susie Bui's Instagram feed. Back in November, she had posted a photo of her dad's version of the dish. I couldn't tell what it was exactly, but it was gorgeous – with tons of dill, and turmeric-stained morsels of something, and onions, all being pushed around in a wok. You could just tell looking at it that the flavors were vivid and wonderful.

And there were so many other delicious things on her feed, seemingly that she had cooked: shrimp and egg whites, Chinese style; hu tieu hoanh thanh (Vietnamese wonton soup); beef with mushrooms, chives and bean sprouts; tom kho tau (braised shrimp in roe). 

I'd never met Susie – or at least never in the normal way. I'd seen her and talked to her back in 2009, when she and her brother had a restaurant in Dallas, Lumi Empanada and Dumpling Kitchen. (Dallasites, do you remember it? It was in the wood-frame house on McKinney that later became Belly + Trumpet.) Her brother, married to a Brazilian woman, was the reason for the empanadas. I was an incognito restaurant critic, just starting out in Dallas when I reviewed the restaurant, and it charmed me. But because I was incognito, I didn't introduce myself. 

Susie had never run a restaurant before, let along owned one; prior to opening Lumi she was a marketing coordinator for Brinks Home Security. But she had a real flair. "Somehow," I wrote in a three-star review, "despite her lack of experience and the craziness of the concept, Bui has managed to pull it off with panache and a serious sense of style and fun." Plus a number of the dishes were terrific: Chinese five-spice duck and leek dumplings; traditional Vietnamese crab and asparagus soup; a crazy-good Thai-style blue-crab fried rice.

The restaurant didn't last long (despite the positive review,) and Susie left the restaurant business, and in 2014 she left Dallas for San Francisco.

The day before she left, though, something interesting happened: At a Dallas wedding, she met Tony Perez. "We kept in touch," she says.

And then some: In July, the couple plans to get married, in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. 

Susie has since returned to Texas, but not Dallas – she and Tony live in Houston, where he has a sandwich shop. Susie works for Samsung – out of the company's Mountain View, California office. (She only has to pop in every couple of months.) 

So, to get back to Susie's Instagram feed, everything she was cooking looked so delicious. By the looks of her posts, it seemed she visited Dallas with some frequency, so I invited her over as a guest cook for the blog. To my delight, she accepted.

On a Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago, she showed up at our house, with Tony and their friend Phong Tran in tow. So much fun to meet them, cook, hang out, talk food – and then feast on the results.

Cha Ca La Vong wasn't a dish I'd ever heard of before, and it turns out it has an fascinating story. "It's very popular in just one part of Vietnam," says Susie. "Hanoi. They even have a street named after it." 

Susie has never had the dish in Vietnam, but Phong has, two years ago, at the legendary restaurant named for the dish, Cha Ca La Vong. "It was the first time I tried it," he says; he only learned about it when he was researching what to eat in Hanoi. And it blew him away. "It was probably one of the best dishes I had in Vietnam when I was there."

Later I did some reading, and learned it's a dish with cult status. At more than 100 years old, Cha Ca La Vong is not the only place in Hanoi that serves it. In fact, there's a whole street called Cha Ca after the dish. 

Susie's parents are from the north; her dad, a wonderful cook, she says, taught her to make the dish.

Susie took stock of my kitchen (yes, I have cheesecloth! Yes, I have a mortar and pestle! Yes, I have rice paper!), then she put Tony and Phong to work grinding the galangal. It's a gnarly root that looks a bit like ginger root, but it's about 9,000 times as tough. They peeled it with a sharp paring knife, then pounded it with the pestle in the mortar, taking turns because so much elbow grease is required. "You can do it in a food processor, too," Susie said, but she enjoyed watching the boys do it the old-fashioned way. That would go into the rub for the fish. When I saw how hard it was to grind it, I knew I'd use a food processor.

Meanwhile, Susie showed me how to make our two dipping sauces: An all-purpose nuoc cham (fish sauce, lime, garlic, sugar and Thai chiles), and a funky-intense spin on it, mam ruoc cham, made by stirring pungent, fermenty fine shrimp paste into nuoc cham. Tony can't stand anything with shrimp paste – he ate too much of it once, the first time he met Susie's family, he reminisced, and he hasn't been able to manage it since. It's super-intense if you taste it on its own – and even the dipping sauce is pretty funky. But Thierry and I both loved it, especially with all those fragrant herbs in rolled up with the fish. The combination yells "wow!"

The nuoc cham, easy and approachable – and made from easily-found ingredients – will definitely go into my regular repertoire. To make it, we, just stirred together fish sauce, lime juice, garlic and sugar and Thai chiles, then adjusted the taste. For the Cha Ca La Vong, we just added a tablespoon of the shrimp paste. (If you're skipping the pungent version, you might want to serve double the amount of nuoc cham.)

 

Once we had the sauces ready and Tony and Phong had accomplished their galangal-grinding duties, Susie made the marinade for the catfish.

Oh, a word about the fish. I'm prone to bouts of angst and 4 a.m. brooding, and I worried about it. Do people want to eat catfish? My friends who are native Southerners love it, and I've always enjoyed it – whether fried Southern-style or steamed or fried Southeast Asian-style. Is it ecologically responsible and healthful? A quick check on Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch app assured me that American-raised catfish (which is what you will probably find) is a "best choice." This month's GQ magazine has Mark Bittman raving about catfish, which he calls "the one American fish we should all be eating." They're ugly customers, he points out. But "they're among the best-tasting, most sustainable fish you can find – white, flaky and tender, farmed with clean and smart techniques." Good to go!

OK, that marinade. Susie added a few tablespoons of water to all that ground galangal (what an interesting perfume it has!), then gathered it up in a cheesecloth and squeezed all the juice into a bowl. She then stirred in spices: ground turmeric, garlic powder, onion powder, sugar, mushroom seasoning and olive oil. She cut the catfish into pieces, coated them with the yellow marinade and let them sit for half an hour.

While they're marinating, I want to tell you about the mushroom seasoning. It's an ingredient Susie loves to use lots of dishes: soups, sauces, stir-fries – basically any dish in which other Asian cooks might use MSG, which Susie doesn't like to use. I didn't have an easy time finding it in a sprawling Chinese supermarket; I had to show three different employees a photo Susie sent me of her package. Finally one staffer led me to it: They had gigantic (17.5 ounce) envelopes of one brand, and it was expensive – more than $12. I bought it.

Between that and the Vietnamese herbs I sought, it was quite a goose-chase! 

Later I brooded about the mushroom seasoning, as it turned out the one I bought does have some MSG in it, listed last in the ingredients – after dehydrated mushrooms, vegetable powder, corn starch, salt, sugar and nucleotide. (The brand Susie uses does not, so check the ingredients if you're looking for it.)

The brand of mushroom seasoning Susie Bui uses does not include MSG in its ingredients.    Photo by SUSIE BUI

The brand of mushroom seasoning Susie Bui uses does not include MSG in its ingredients.    Photo by SUSIE BUI

 Not that MSG is necessarily so bad, but I don't love using it, or other products with lots of additives. Here's the good news: I wound up developing a substitute that works really well: powdered shiitake mushrooms, in combination with soy sauce. (Incidentally, that was a breakthrough that led to a whole slew of other kitchen breakthroughs – I will write about that very soon!) Anyway, our recipe for Cha Ca La Vong lets you use one or the other.

Half an hour after the marinade went on, Susie laid the fish pieces on a baking sheet and slipped it into a 375-degree oven, to help seal the marinade into the fish before we'd fry it. (In Hanoi, they grill it rather than baking before frying, says Susie. Maybe I'll try that once we're in grilling season.)

 

While the fish is roasting, that's a good time to boil the rice vermicelli, rinse it with water to cool and put it in a bowl, then set the table: dipping sauces, rao thom, vermicelli, roasted peanuts and rice paper. Make sure you have your sliced onion, scallions and dill ready at hand near the stove, along with a couple of platters.

 

After its 15-minute roast, we pulled the fish out of the oven, and Susie heated peanut oil in a large skillet, then fried the fish pieces (in a couple of batches) in the hot oil, transferring them to a platter when they were cooked. Then she poured out all but a couple tablespoons of oil, and stir-fried the onion and scallion, then added the dill. All that went onto a serving platter, then the fish on top, and then, as a garnish, roasted, unsalted peanuts.

To the table, yippeee!

Thierry rustled up a bottle of chilled rosé, I filled a shallow bowl with warm water for the rice paper wrappers, and the party began.

For our first tastes, we each dipped a rice paper in the warm water, piled herbs, lettuce, cucumber, a little vermicelli, a piece of fish with some onion, scallion, dill and peanuts on top.  Here's what mine looked like:

Then you fold the left and right sides of the wrapper over the ingredients and roll it up, burrito-style. Working with those super-thin, stretchy rice paper skins takes a little practice – don't overfill!

 

Success! Dip it in one of the sauces, and wow. So wonderful. Dip it in the other sauce, different – and also wonderful, so herbal and fragrant; all that dill and turmeric add up to something very unusually delicious, especially when you get that crazy funk from the mam ruoc cham.

After that, Susie made a rice-paper-free salad-bowl version, piling lettuce, herbs, fish, etc. in a small bowl, drizzling sauce on top and eating it with chopsticks.

Stylin'!

Up for trying?

The whole Cha Ca La Vong set-up definitely involves some serious shopping, whether in Asian groceries or online. And some adventuresome kitchen prep. But it's such a fun dish to serve at a casual dinner with friends; it's so interactively delicious.  And it's not something you're likely to find in any restaurant – unless you hop on a plane and head to Hanoi.

Yeah, I knew you were ready for the adventure. Here's the recipe:

If you make it, we'd all love to hear about it – please tell us how it goes in a comment!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My favorite roasted potatoes

I have to ask you to forgive me. I've been so busy putting together Palate, The Dallas Morning News' annual food and wine magazine, that I have been a delinquent blogger.

I promise I will make it up to you: I have a couple of really cool stories in the works. One will feature a guest cook I'm really excited to introduce you to – Susie Bui – who stopped by the house a couple weeks ago to show me how to make one of her favorite Vietnamese dishes. The other is a Japanese story I've been working on for some weeks.

In the meantime, I have this for you: my family's favorite roasted potatoes. They're super easy to make and incredibly delicious. I would even say crazy good. I don't know who invented them, but I think it must have been my dad, who was a wonderful natural cook (he picked up the habit later in life). My brothers and I all make them. Or maybe it was my mom; I don't really know, but I'm calling them Brenner Family Roasted Potatoes. My parents divorced when I was a teenager, and these potatoes were staples in both of their houses ever after.

The secret is letting the oven do all the work for you: Roasting gives the potatoes a deep, rich flavor and a wonderful texture – creamy soft inside and sort of chewy and crisp on the edges. And the roasted onion, which falls into petals when you cut it up through the stem end, melts into fabulous sweetness. If I could eat these potatoes once a week, I would. 

Before roasting, I toss them with lots of fresh thyme, but you can just as easily use rosemary – or both together. And of course a little olive oil, salt and pepper. That's it. They make a great side dish for just about any fish, fowl or meat. I love them with roasted branzino (and that makes an easy dinner for which you don't even need to turn on the stove), or roasted chicken, or sautéed pork chops – your imagination is the limit. 

Do you like the platter up at the top of the post? It's one of my favorites – an early piece by my old friend Christopher Russell, who has since become a well-known ceramist and sculptor. (Check out his website – I think his work is gorgeous.)

But often I roast the potatoes in a pretty oven-to-table roaster, and serve them straight from the oven. 

So. Thank you for being so patient. Here is the recipe:

And I promise: More good stuff coming soon.

Craving pasta? This soul-stirring lamb bolognese takes it to another level

I know what you're thinking: A massive platter of pasta smothered in some kind of luscious sauce would make everyone feel really good this weekend.

Sure, you can always simmer up a dependable beef bolognese, but maybe you want to branch out, take your ragu game up a notch. This sumptuous lamb bolognese is the answer.  

Start thinking now of your favorite people: That's who you'll want to make this for. Nibbles to start, then salad, then the massive plate of pasta. Red wine. The sauce's simmer may be long and slow, but this the easiest kind dinner to execute. Zero stress involved. And the flavor payoff is huge.

This is what your friends will see when they walk in and find you cooking.

This is what your friends will see when they walk in and find you cooking.

It's the kind of thing you want to make on a lazy weekend, when you want the kitchen to fill with dreamy aromas. Once you've put it together, you leave it to bubble quietly why you catch up on your reading. Or eat bonbons. Or paint your toenails. Or bake bread. OK, maybe baking bread doesn't count as lazy, but fresh-baked bread (or any good crusty loaf) would be just thing thing to sop up all that wonderful sauce. Or maybe this is the moment to make your first homemade pasta. 

But you don't have to: This bolognese is splendid on the fettuccine or pappardelle from a box, too. You can make the sauce a day or two ahead of serving, or put it on the table as soon as it's done. 

Lamb Shanks, with the meat cut off the bones

It all starts with lamb shanks, a relatively inexpensive cut. If you've ever made them, you know what happens to them in a long, slow braise: They become incredibly tender to the point of falling off the bone. That's the idea here, but you keep braising past that point, until the meat completely falls apart, melding gorgeously with the rest of the ingredients – wine, tomatoes, broth, aromatic vegetables, dried mushrooms. 

Soffritto

In order to easily brown the meat a bit before the braise starts, I cut it mostly off the bones, into large chunks. But what follows is not a major browning operation: just give the chunks a spin in a pan of shimmery hot olive oil rather than searing them hard. The idea is to get some of that nice caramelized flavor but keep the softness of the meat. It's quick and painless and you don't wind up spattering your kitchen with oil. Toss the bones in the pan, too, for added flavor, and since there's still plenty of meat clinging to them. No need to be careful when you cut the chunks.

After the meat is browned and set aside, next comes the soffritto: You know, that aromatic trio of carrots, onion and celery. Cook them with a little pancetta in a splash of olive oil till they're soft, toss in a few lightly smashed garlic cloves and you're nearly there (work-wise, anyway). 

Next you deglaze the pan with red wine – just about any old kind will do. (Not familiar with deglazing? It's a fancy word for adding wine and scraping up the browned bits sticking to the pan and sending them into the sauce.) Add broth, a can of tomatoes, bay leaves and rosemary, a handful of dried porcini mushrooms and a lemon peel. 

That's it. Leave it to simmer – and simmer and simmer – until your kitchen smells wonderful and all that meat relaxes into deliciousness with all those supporting flavors. 

 

So, what do you think? Is this the day you're going to make fresh pasta? It's probably easier than you think.  Here's the technique and recipe:

Or not. Either way. But if you're buying the pasta, considering splurging on the one that looks the best and most artisanal. Not sure? See if you can see the texture through the package: You don't want it to look too slick; go for one with some texture. Rustichella d'Abruzzo is a great Italian import you can sometimes find in really good supermarkets. 

Now let's go check on the sauce.

Wow, look – it's nearly done! Hey – did you think about wine? This would be the moment to open that great-looking Barolo your uncle gave you for your birthday. In fact, pretty much anything Italian would be fabulous with it, especially if it starts with a B: Barbaresco, Brunello (yeah, yeah, I know – they're expensive). Barbera! Bingo. Or Chianti, or Rosso di Montalcino, or just about anything, really. This is not a moment to be fussy.

Are you wondering what would make a great starter? How about an escarole salad with crispy prosciutto, egg and parm?

I just happen to have the recipe for you . . . 

OK. Time to eat. Aren't you excited? I know I am. Drop that pasta in the boiling water. Cook it till it's al dente. If your pasta's fresh, that'll just be three minutes or so. Pull it out of the water and drop it into that wonderful sauce. Give it a stir, let it simmer in there for a minute or three. 

Now onto the giant platter it goes. Don't forget the big chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano to pass with a grater at the table. 

Oh, I almost forgot: Here's the recipe:

Now start rounding up those friends. And try to save me a bite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steal this salad! Escarole, crispy prosciutto, 6-minute egg, shaved parm and lemon add up to a spectacular starter

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

You're bored with Caesar. Fed up with the wedge. Finished with chopped. But where, or where, is the simple yet stunning salad of your dreams?

If you don't have it, steal it.

That's what I did. 

The escarole salad I stole, back in December, at Sprezza.

The escarole salad I stole, back in December, at Sprezza.

One night back in December, Thierry and I were having dinner at Sprezza, chef Julian Barsotti's Roman restaurant in Dallas. Thierry first saw it on the menu: an escarole salad with egg and prosciutto. "We're having that," he said. He doesn't usually make such definitive pronouncements when I'm dining for work, but there it was. He had to have it. 

I would have ordered it any case (wouldn't you?).  It was pretty simple, just the bitter winter greens dressed in a lemony dressing, with crisped prosciutto, shaved Parmesan and a halved five-minute egg. (At least it looked like five minutes; it had one of those perfect, just-set, almost gelatinous bright golden yolks.)

Crisped prosciutto, just out of the oven

Crisped prosciutto, just out of the oven

The salad was as wonderful as it sounded and probably looks. The touch of lemon was exactly right with that salty ham. I knew it had to be mine. I would go home and recreate it. Steal it. For you. And for me.

With just one tweak: When I ate it, I wanted some of the egg in every bite, so I had to cut up that halved egg and toss it in a bit. I'd address that in my steal.

The first time I made the stolen salad, I was sort of stymied: couldn't find escarole at the two supermarkets I tried. With friends coming for dinner, I punted, and used Belgian endives. 

As I slid a baking sheet of prosciutto slices into to the oven, I thought about the dressing. Shouldn't be too hard to figure out. I'd keep it simple. Basically just lemon juice and good olive oil. Probably no added salt because of the salty prosciutto and the cheese. The bitter edge of the greens would be balanced by the richness of the egg.

I was getting hungry thinking about it, so nibbled on one of the prosciutto crisps. You can do that too: No one will know.

For the egg, I was a minute off. To achieve a perfect yolk, bring the eggs to a boil in cold water, remove the pan from heat, cover it and let the eggs sit in the hot water for six minutes. Drain and run cold water on the to stop the cooking. Perfect.

The salad came together beautifully, even with the endives. Frisée would work too. Or a combination of the two.

Next time I found escarole, and the salad was everything I hoped it would be; it was exactly the right starter for a pasta dinner with close friends. My pal Georges, a former chef who is even more critical than I, flipped for it. 

My new favorite winter salad is ideal for entertaining, as you can cook the eggs, crisp the prosciutto and wash and dry the escarole ahead of time. Just before you sit down, make the simple dressing, throw the greens in a bowl, add the eggs, toss it all together, then garnish with the prosciutto and shaved parm. 

Here's the recipe:

Who says crime doesn't pay?

 

 

 

 

Happy Chinese New Year! These 8 recipes will help you celebrate deliciously

For me, Chinese New Year started early this year – figuratively, at least. All I can think about is Chinese food: dim sum and fried rice and garlicky, gingery greens and succulent, crackly-skinned roast pork. 

Maybe you're headed out for dim sum to celebrate the Year of the Rooster this weekend (or the next one or two – the New Years celebration runs through February 15). If you're an aficionado, you need no help ordering. But if you're a newcomer to dim sum, check out this handy new guide to enjoying dim sum I just put together – including a video

But what about dinner? I'll be you'd love to cook!

Ever wanted to learn to make fried rice? Cook it once or twice, and you'll be amazed at how easy it is to make one that's blow-them-away delicious – better, even, than what you can get in many Chinese restaurants. Seriously.

Last spring I put two popular fried rice recipes to the test:

Lucky Peach's Chinese Sausage Fried Rice

Mission Chinese Food Salt-Cod Fried Rice

The first, as you'll see from Round 1 and Round 2 of the Fried Rice Smackdown is super easy, and the second – while no more technically difficult – requires a lot of advance prep. They're both gobsmackingly wonderful. 

As it turned out, I feel in love with the Lucky Peach cookbook. Linked in my three-wonton review are adaptations of several of the recipes: 

Lucky Peach's Chineasy Cucumber Salad

Author Peter Meehan wasn't kidding when he named this one, which is so simple that Wylie (who was 19 at the time) started making it every few nights. As Wylie is allergic to peanuts, he leaves them out, and also makes it a little spicier, upping the chile flakes. The recipe is infinitely adjustable and tweakable.

For another great starter, consider wontons.

I know, right? These shrimp-and-chive wontons from the Lucky Peach book (the book calls them dumplings) are actually pretty easy to make – and they're pretty spectacular. You could drop them into soup, or serve them with a simple dipping sauce. These, I promise, will wow your friends:

Shrimp and Chive Wontons

LUCKY PEACH'S STIR-FRIED ASPARAGUS

Coming into asparagus season (I'm guessing it has probably already arrived in Southern California), this quick and delicious version is a good one to keep handy.

One of the recipes has become my go-to dish when I want an easy, super-quick and stress-free way to stir-fry greens, even on a rushed weeknight:

Baby Bok Choy with Whole Garlic

If you don't try any of the others, do make this one – I think you'll love it.

Of course it's not only vegetables. There's the unforgettable Chinese lacquered roast chicken, which I came to think of as the Chicken that Changed My Life.

Lucky Peach Chinese Lacquered Roast Chicken

Well, after that, one thing led to another. My friend Michalene planted the idea – which I couldn't get out of my head – that this treatment could possibly make a killer duck. Boy, was she ever right. After some months of developing the recipe, I nailed it:

Glorious Chinese Lacquered Roast Duck

So there you have 'em – 8 super Chinese recipes. Do let us know, in a comment, how you like them. Happy Year of the Rooster! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What to make for Super Bowl Sunday: a big ol' pot of crazy-good Texas chili

A lot of people I know are really, really upset. Why? Because the Dallas Cowboys did not go all the way to the you-know-what.

Here's what I think they should do on Sunday, February 5: Make a big pot of Texas chili, turn on the TV, and pretend it's the Cowboys playing in the Super Bowl.

Why not? As long as they have something deliciously Texan to eat, that's the important thing. Right? After all, they're probably going to watch the Super Bowl. And the Super Bowl is, after all, in Texas this year. So chili is the thing. Maybe you want to make some guacamole, too (it wouldn't be the first time).

Dried ancho chiles

 

But back to the chili: Beans need not apply. Because we are in Texas, y'all. It's all about the meat. You can make a pot of pinto beans and serve it on the side, if that's your fancy. Just soak the beans overnight, drain them, place them in a big pot, cover with water by an inch, add an onion (cut in half), a bay leaf or two, a few whole garlic cloves (you don't even need to peel them), and (this is optional), a piece of slab bacon. Bring to a boil, then simmer a couple hours, till the beans are nice and tender.

But I digress.

Here's the way I feel about chili: You could use an "easy" recipe. You know, one that uses chili powder and ground beef. But as far as I'm concerned, there's nothing like chili made the old fashioned way: by soaking whole dried chiles and grinding them to a paste. I also prefer to chop the beef roughly by hand rather than using ground beef. 

Start with the right cut, not something lean: I like a well-marbled piece of chuck. Enlist your butcher's help with this. Then use a sharp knife to cut it into 1/2-inch dice.

Then you'll toast a bunch of dried ancho chiles in a dry pan, cover them with boiling water and let 'em soak. Half an hour later, purée them with a little of the soaking water to a lovely smooth, thick paste. Brown the meat, cover it with the purée and stir together.

Adding chile puree to browned beef for chili

Isn't that lovely? This is why cooks love to cook. 

Add some of the liquid from soaking the chiles, some garlic cloves and onion you've charred in the dry pan then chopped, freshly ground toasted cumin seeds, dried oregano, a couple of bay leaves and cayenne for heat.

Simmer it all together for a couple of hours: The beef will become incredibly tender and all those wonderful flavors will meld and deepen. In other words, it cooks down into crazy-good Texas chili. 

 

Here's the recipe:

Just the thing for watching (or not watching!) a hugely important football game in Texas. Let everyone serve themselves out of the pot. Put out bowls of chopped onion and grated cheese as garnish. Feel like making cornbread, or corn tortillas? That will go great – as will guacamole and chips. And beer. 

Houston, we have *no* problem. 

Luxuriously rich, easy-to-make, flourless Mexican-chocolate cake is blow-them-away fabulous

MexChocSitHoriz.jpg

It all started with a recipe in Michael Solomonov's Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking. The recipe, for a flourless chocolate cake – in which Solomonov and co-author Steven Cook use almond flour in place of wheat flour – is called "Chocolate-Almond Situation." I was drawn to the recipe because of its unusual name. Why "situation"?

Also, it looked so easy and good I couldn't resist. I melted chocolate, heated the oven, and went for it. 

Rich, luxurious and profoundly chocolatey, with a wonderfully moist, velvet-cream texture, the dessert was a big hit. And it was as easy to make as brownies. Another bonus: It's gluten-free. I posted a snap of it, with a description, on Instagram, tagged Solomonov and Zahav and added, "But still dying to know, Chef, why it's called a 'situation.'" 

"Gorgeous!" came the comment from Zahav. 

"Thank you!" I wrote. "Now why is it called a 'situation'?"

No answer. 

Meanwhile, I had an idea I couldn't get out of my head: Mexican chocolate. Wouldn't it be cool to make this cake using Mexican chocolate instead of regular dark chocolate? 

Last winter, my friend Michalene and I had enjoyed the most amazing Mexican hot chocolate at El Cardenal, a Mexico City restaurant known for its epic breakfasts. The drink, silky and incredibly rich, was prepared at the table by a waiter who used a molinillo, a traditional wooden chocolate whisk. I had to rush off early to catch my flight home, but Michalene surprised me by sending me a box of Doña Oliva chocolate tablets, which they use and sell at the restaurant. I was stunned to find that I could use a tablet to make a cup of chocolate almost as delicious as El Cardenal's; I've been rationing them ever since.

Since I'm always craving a cup, Mexican chocolate has been on my mind for months – especially since the start of winter. 

Could I maybe use the tablets to make a Mexican-Chocolate Situation? 

Nah...those tablets are too precious.

Meanwhile, I'd seen really cool-looking Taza organic Mexican-style stone-ground chocolate tablets at the supermarket. Maybe I could use those! But when I saw the price – they're $5 per 2.7-ounce tablet on the Taza website – I realized they'd be way too expensive, as we'd need four or five tablets for one cake.

Instead, I tried hunting down the Ibarra Mexican chocolate I grew up with. I didn't find it at my local supermarket, but found and purchased a box of Abuelita, another industrial brand.

What a disappointment: I brought it home and tasted it. It tasted nothing like chocolate. Just like sugar and chemicals. No way was this going into my cake (or yours). 

I was back to the drawing board.

Then, as she often does, Michalene came to the rescue. She suggested using the same high-quality 72% cacao chocolate I first used for the Situation and adding spices and other flavorings you'd find in Mexican chocolate. After all, I already had almonds in the almond flour. She suggested not just cinnamon and vanilla, which is what I'd naturally reach for, but also ancho chile powder and brandy. 

I made a couple other little tweaks to the recipe, for instance, changing the amount of chocolate to equal three 3.5 bars (10.5 ounces) rather than the 11 ounces the original called for. 

I whipped up the chocolate batter, added the ancho chile (just a touch), the cinnamon, the vanilla and brandy, mixed in the almond flour, spread it in a pan and baked.

Eureka! Same wonderful texture and richness, and now it had that dreamy Mexican chocolate flavor.

It was such a hit at dinner that one of my guests would not leave until I wrapped up two slices for him to take home.

You can bake it in a round pan and slice it into wedges, but be sure to make them small, as it is very, very rich. I'd say one 9-inch cake serves 10-12, rather than the 8 you'd expect. For an elegant dinner party, you might want to garnish it with a dollop of whipped cream, or whipped cream mixed with crème fraîche. You know what would be wonderful? Nata, the Mexican-style clotted cream El Cardenal serves at breakfast with the pan dulce known as a concha.

Or you can bake it in a square or pan and cut it into brownie-like bars. Dust them with powdered sugar or not, as you like. Honestly, they were so creamy, chocolatey and rich, they didn't need any adornment. 

Here's the recipe:

As for why it's called a "situation," well, that remains a mystery. Chef Solomonov, care to comment?

 

 

Luscious pappardelle with duck and porcini ragù can happen in your very own kitchen

Pappardelle with duck and porcini ragù

There they were, on a shelf in my fridge: six duck legs.

What to do with them? I could roast them, I thought. 

But I wanted something luscious. Saucy and luscious. I wanted a braise. 

A ragù! I could make a rich, delicious duck ragù to dress big, fat, toothsome homemade pappardelle noodles. Once it got to simmering, I could make fresh pasta, working slowly and lazily as the kitchen filled with magnificent aromas. 

I hadn't made fresh pasta in years. Maybe more than a decade. But now, suddenly, I had to have it. Oh, to feel the dough gliding through the rollers of the pasta machine, then later to bite into springy, lively noodles – bathed in that luscious ragù I'd already conjured in my brain's delicious-dream center.

No turning back now. 

What did I need? What did I have? Red wine, check. Onion and carrot, check. Fresh thyme, check. Can of diced tomato, box of chicken broth, check. I even had some dried porcini, which would be perfect with the duck, rounding out and deepening the flavor. Flour and eggs for the pasta, check. 

Looked like I was in business.

 

It might sound daunting to achieve something so impressive in your own kitchen, but the duck ragù part is actually pretty easy. If you don't feel up to making your own pasta, you can still feast deliciously on duck and porcini ragù with dried pappardelle. 

Here's how it goes. Brown the duck legs in a little olive oil, then sauté onions, diced carrot and garlic cloves. Deglaze the pan with red wine, add herbs, chicken broth, tomatoes, dried porcini and the duck legs, cover the pot partially and simmer – and simmer and simmer, low and slow. See? Nothing to it. And you're almost there.

Meanwhile, make the fresh pasta, concocted from nothing more than flour and eggs. You can make the dough in a jiff in the food processor, but lately I'm feeling low tech, so I mixed it by hand in a big bowl. (Also, my food processor blade has been recalled by Cuisinart.) It's not as difficult you might think; do it a few times, and it becomes goofy-easy. In fact, I'll reckon you can make better handmade pasta in your own kitchen than what's generally served in restaurants, where it's so often tough, or gummy.

And working with the dough – with those gorgeous aromas in the background – is supremely soothing. Even if your old-fashioned Atlas pasta machine has developed a high-pitched squeak from disuse. 

Wanna give it a whirl? Here's now to do it:

Back to our ragù, which is now smelling insanely wonderful. When the duck legs are almost falling-off-the-bone tender, pull them out, take the meat off the bones and put all that tender meat back in. Simmer the ragù a few more minutes – basically, until you can't stand for another minute not to be eating it. Even feckless teenagers, home, say for winter break from college, won't be able to stay away.

Drop your gorgeous pasta in boiling salted water. Leave it just two or three minutes – the fresh stuff cooks really quickly. Now pull it out gently with tongs, and drop it into the simmering ragù. Let it cook there another minute, so it soaks up all that incredible flavor. Turn it into a serving bowl or platter. Drop some chopped Italian parsley on top. Or not. 

Pour the red wine. Pass the parm with a grater at the table. Prepare to swoon.

Here's the recipe. Call me when you've recovered.

 

 

Warming lentil super-detox soup is a meatless Monday winter favorite

Warming Lentil Super-Detox Soup

Post-holiday food should never be about repentance. It should be about deliciousness and healthy renewal – clean eating at its best. 

That's why, after New Year's Eve revelry followed by an indulgent New Year's Eve lunch (on the heels of Christmas feasts and other holiday parties), what I craved for dinner was a warming bowl of chunky, vegan lentil-and-vegetable soup. Happily, I'd created one a couple weeks before – one that my family went crazy for. I'd whip up something like it again.

Only this time, I'd boost the turmeric, said to be a powerful antioxidant with terrific anti-inflammatory properties. And I'd add ginger, which I felt would work with the soup's flavors. And I'd try swapping in some red lentils, which have a softer texture than the green or black ones in the original. I didn't have any baby kale in the house, so I used baby arugula. And I left out the celery.

You know what? The soup was every bit as delicious; the ginger took it in a slightly different (and still wonderful) direction. 

It's a soup that can be all things to all people  or at least many kinds of people. It's vegan. It's gluten-free. The only processed ingredients are minimally processed (a can of tomatoes and the ground spices), so it's very clean. 

It's so soul-satisfying that carnivores probably won't miss the meat. Wylie, home for college for winter break, had three bowls. If you don't mention it's healthy, no one will be the wiser. 

Best of all, you can whip it up in a flash. Putting it together takes about 10 minutes, 15 max (if, say, you're in a post-holiday stupor). In less than an hour, it's done. 

Cooking for just one or two? Make a batch, eat some tonight, then take it to work later this week in a Thermos for lunch. 

Ready for the recipe? Here you go...

Happy New Year!!!

Smashingly elegant roasted cauliflower soup may be the easiest, most versatile starter in the universe

There's nothing easier and more satisfying than making a fabulous soup simply by simmering vegetables in chicken broth then puréeing them till smooth and velvety. It's something I've done a million times, with so many different vegetables: broccoli; leeks with potatoes; asparagus; cauliflower or a combo of several. 

It has long been one of my go-to soups when I want a quick weeknight fix that's satisfying and delicious, but also low calorie, super healthful and dairy-free. A serving is only about 100 calories, and it's packed with nutrition. It needs no cream for its lovely body, though if you want to enrich it with cream or crème fraîche, that's a different kind of great. 

I've also, on many occasions, served a cauliflower version as a starter at a dinner party. Why? It's easy and stress-fee, you can make it ahead, everyone loves it, and you can dress it up with so many kinds of garnishes. Crisped-then-crumbled prosciutto (or yes, bacon). Shaved white truffles (if you're lucky enough to have one). Fried sage. You could even substitute vegetable broth for the chicken broth, and voilà, it's vegan.

A couple nights ago something dawned on me. I love this soup. And I love roasted cauliflower. Why not roast the cauliflower first, as an easy way of deepening the flavor?

And so I did, and served the soup – garnished with a swirl of brown butter – as a first course for a French-themed Christmas Eve dinner.  It was a hit. It's really kind of incredible that you can get such a bang from such few ingredients (three), and such humble ones (cauliflower, chicken broth, olive oil. I'm not counting white pepper). Plus the garnish, which is just butter.

The next day, I did it again, and garnished it with harissa sauce – made in two seconds flat by combining harissa from a tube with a little chicken broth. Swirled that in, I did. And wow. It gave the soup a completely different character: exotic, North Africanish. Delicious. I love harissa. 

If you love cauliflower, please try this soup. I guarantee you will love it.

 

 

 

Rich and soulful, classic beef bourguignon is the ultimate dinner party dish

For as long as I've been a cook, I've been making boeuf bourguignon – the classic French wine-braised beef stew with mushrooms, lardons and baby onions. There's something so deeply soulful about the dish, which simmers for a couple of hours in the oven, filling the kitchen with an incredible aroma.

Those transporting scents always deliver on their promise: Beef bourguignon, a dish that coaxes maximum deliciousness from humble ingredients, is a dreamy dish to serve to friends – with good red wine and a loaf of crusty French bread for soaking up the fabulous, richly flavored sauce. It's impressive enough for any important celebration – such as New Year's Eve – or no occasion at all. Maybe it's just what you want to eat on a cold winter evening with a fire going in the fireplace. It's a dish that never shows off, but always thrills. And while it may look like a lot of steps, it's no more complicated or time-consuming than making chili.

And because you can completely make it ahead – even the day before – it's the ideal (stress-free!) dish to serve at a dinner party, along with boiled or roasted potatoes or buttered noodles.  Precede it with a wintry salad, céleri rémoulade, or, as I did this Christmas Eve, a super easy-to-make yet luxurious and velvety roasted cauliflower soup swirled with brown butter

I must have originally learned to make beef bourguignon from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but over the years, I've played with the recipe, trying to answer the questions that inevitably nip at a cook's heels: What's the best cut of beef to use? What kind of wine? Should you marinate the beef or not? 

After so many years, and so many versions – abetted by a recent round of reading and more playing – I think I finally have my be-all-and-end-all version. 

Let's start with the red wine. You use a whole bottle, so you'd better use something really good, right? Well, no – happily, it doesn't much matter what you use, as long as it hasn't turned to vinegar. I never spend more than $8 or $9 dollars on the wine for this dish.

For the beef cuts, I had to abandon my beloved Julia, who calls for "lean stewing beef." Mais, non! – what you want is a fattier cut, like beef chuck, which will become super-tender as its collagens break down through its long braise. Lean stewing beef becomes hard and tough. 

From Anne Willan, author of many wonderful cookbooks and head of La Varenne cooking school in Burgundy, I gleaned the idea of using a combination of chuck and beef shank. In her fine recipe in The Country Cooking of France, Willan calls for boneless beef shank. Why not keep the bone to cook in the stew, I thought, as it (arguably) adds body and flavor? Better than throwing it away, right? I was glad I did.

I read with great interest Serious Eats' thorough story on how to make a great beef bourguignon, and pulled from it other great ideas. Author Daniel Gritzer writes about extensively testing using a marinade versus not, concluding that there's no point in marinating a long-braised dish such as this. I will gleefully accept his assays, as I've never noticed a difference in marinated verses non-marinated versions, and it's a pain to dry off the meat before browning it.

And here's something even more interesting Gritzer concludes: Browning bite-size cubes of beef dries out their surface too much. That's definitely something I've noticed over the years. His solution is to cut the meat into big slabs, and brown just two sides of the slabs, then cut up the meat. I took a different (and simplified) approach, cutting the meat into large-ish chunks (around an inch and a half is ideal), and browning just one side of the cube well, then a quick sear on another side and that's it. It's much less time-consuming (and boring) than thoroughly browning the cubes, as I used to do, and it resulted in a texture that was definitely softer and more appealing, while still getting some of the wonderful, flavor-enhancing caramelization of browning. It's a lazy man's solution that pays off! 

Yes, I know; this is a lot of bla bla bla. But it's all in the service of trying and testing and experimenting so that you (and I!) get the best possible result with the least possible effort.

Ready to cook?

Here's the way it'll go, in a nutshell. Brown the meat, then lightly cook your aromatic vegetables – onion, celery and carrot – which you don't even have to dice (just cut 'em in a few pieces – another labor-saving idea I got from Serious Eats), and a little garlic. Deglaze the pan with a little wine, then add back the meat, the shank bone, the rest of the bottle of wine, a little chicken broth and a bouquet garni, bring to a simmer, then shove it in a slow oven for almost two hours, nearly unattended (just just want to stir it once or twice). Skim off the fat, discard the aromatic vegetables and bone, strain the sauce and add the meat back in, then add the garnishes you've prepared: lardons, mushrooms and baby onions, and braise another half hour.

It's more time than work, and the payoff is nothing short of awesome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Congratulations: You have found the Brussels sprouts recipe of your dreams

It's a Brussels sprouts world; we just live in it. 

Did you hate them once upon a time? It's understandable: In olden days (like 10 years ago), people would boil those little orbs, so biting into one was like eating a small head of boiled cabbage. Ugh.

No more. Now we now that you can roast 'em or sauté them, and they're delicious. My favorite Brussels sprouts dish involves pulling off every leaf, then slicing the centers, and sautéing it all with mirepoix and pancetta. Very delicious, and very labor-intensive.

This recipe is almost as wonderful – and 9 billion times easier. It's a no-brainer. You can cook this with your eyes closed. You can make it ahead, and serve it later, reheated. Or serve it right away. Or serve it room temp. 

All you do is this. Cut the Brussels sprouts in half or quarters, depending on their size. Toss them on a baking sheet with a little olive oil and diced pancetta. You can even cheat and buy the pancetta already diced, at Trader Joe's. I won't tell anybody.  My little brother Johnny, an ex-chef, taught me that trick. If Johnny says it's okay, it's okay. 

Want to make a vegan version? Just leave out the pancetta and add about a quarter teaspoon of salt.

Roast the sprouts in a hot oven for 25 minutes. Boom, that's it. You're done. You're ready to eat – with whatever gorgeous roast or braise or take-out you've dreamed up. Vegan or not, here we come.

Be sure to drop us a comment and tell us how you liked it.

Blood orange panna cotta makes a dramatically divine (and surprisingly easy!) dessert

Blood oranges are the beach vacations of winter ingredients.

Huh? What? 

You know: It's cold out, and maybe gloomy. Maybe it's snowing. Maybe you have cabin fever. Maybe you're dreaming of stretching out on the sand on the Mayan Riviera under the sun, with crystal clear turquoise-colored water lapping at your toes. 

I'd love that, too. 

But instead, I'm going to reach for the next best thing: blood oranges. How lovely that something so juicy, so deliciously vibrant and summer-like comes into season in the dead of winter – and sticks around till May. 

A good part of their allure is visual. When they're whole, they look almost like regular oranges, but notice their slight rosacea blush. Slice one open, and it's gorgeous, its segments streaked in shades of crimson and and ruby red and blackberry. Now taste: They have a lovely flavor, sort of like oranges tinged with berry, or yes – cassis. 

In the United States, they're grown in California and Texas (two of the three states I have called home!). But I associate them with Rome, I think because once upon a time when I visited, I breakfasted on a hotel rooftop where they served crusty rolls with good butter – and glasses of fresh-squeezed blood orange juice. 

For cooks, blood oranges are a boon, as they're both delicious and dramatic. Count on them to elicit oohs and aaahs at the dinner table – especially if you spoon them over a delicately sweet, trembly-soft blood-orange-flavored panna cotta, Italy's famous custard-like dessert. 

Made from warmed, sweetened cream set with gelatin, panna cotta isn't a Roman dessert; it comes from Piedmont, according to The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, which also points out that it is "usually flavored with vanilla" (which I knew) "and peach brandy" (which I did not know). Often, the entry continues, it is served with fruit after it is unmolded, or with genuine balsamic vinegar. (Something to try! Though not with the supermarket stuff that passes for balsamic vinegar.) "It is increasingly popular with enthusiasts of the lighter side of Italian food," the 2007 book's entry concludes.

Indeed. Over the last decade, panna cotta has become a hugely popular restaurant dessert.

Happily, it is incredibly easy to make at home: In most versions, you bloom powdered gelatin over cold milk, then stir in cream that's been warmed just enough to dissolve sugar in it, cool the mixture, pour into custard cups, chill till they're set, then unmold just before serving. David Lebovitz, one of my favorite food bloggers, wrote recently, "if it takes you more than five minutes to put it together, you're taking too long!" He's not exaggerating.

Blood orange compote

Flavoring a classic panna cotta with blood orange juice gives it a delightful new dimension.  It's wonderful on its own, but top it with a compote of blood oranges and it becomes positively spectacular.  

A few thoughts about the panna cotta itself, before we get to the blood orange compote. Traditionally, it's made with cream, which makes a really rich and thick panna cotta. I like my panna cotta lighter – and more silky than velvety – so I swap out most of the cream for half-and-half. And I don't want it too stiff: soft and trembly is the idea, so I use the minimum amount of gelatin possible in order for it to hold its shape (more or less) after unmolding. (If you want yours to be a little stiffer, add an extra half a teaspoon of gelatin to the three teaspoons my recipe calls for.) 

Because it involves blood orange juice, my recipe is a little different from the traditional one: You sprinkle the gelatin over blood orange juice, let it sit, then heat it up and dissolve the sugar in the juice. Let it cool a little, then stir in the half-and-half, cream and either vanilla or orange liqueur. Pour it into custard cups (which you've lightly oiled) and let them set up in the fridge. 

While they're setting, you can make the compote; for this the only real work involved is cutting the oranges. If you're comfortable slicing suprèmes, go for it – they make a beautiful presentation. (That's what's shown above.) To do this, use a sharp paring knife to cut all the peel and pith off each orange, then slice between each membrane to release the segments, freeing them of all the membranes. With a little practice, it becomes very easy. (Here's a good walk-through on the technique from Serious Eats – scroll down to "Citrus Suprèmes" to find it.)

If you don't want to sweat it, just cut the peel and pith off the outside of each blood orange, slice it, then quarter the slices. It'll still be really pretty.

When you're slicing, be sure to capture all the juice that escapes –  you'll need half a cup for the compote. You might want to have an extra blood orange or two on hand just in case you don't capture enough juice. Heat that juice with some sugar, and cook it down till it's syrupy, then stir in a spoonful of Cognac or other brandy and pour it all over the orange segments. 

When you're ready to serve it, run a small, sharp knife around the edge of each custard cup, then invert it onto a plate or shallow bowl and let the panna cotta unmold. Sometimes you have to give it a little nudge with butter knife to release it. Divide the blood orange compote over the panna cottas and serve.

Alternately, if you don't want to unmold the panna cotta – either because it makes you nervous or you prefer a different look – you can serve the panna cotta in a wine glass or dessert glass and simply spoon some of the compote over it. 

I happen to think it's the perfect light dessert to follow a rich holiday dinner. Yes, like roast duck! Or a crown roast of pork, or a prime rib.  It's also a great finish to a lighter New Year's Eve dinner – maybe steamed lobsters, or other seafood. 

I know what you're thinking: Recipe, please! Here you go . . . 

Meanwhile, here's some good news: Blood oranges have a nice, long season – they're usually available into May in California and Texas. So if you happen to fall in love it this dessert – or with the blood oranges themselves (they're wonderful eat out of hand, as long as you're not wearing a white tee-shirt) – this could be the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship. 

 

 

Delicious, soul-warming super-detox lentil-kale soup: Why wait till January?

It's only mid-December, and I'm already feeling like eating clean – at least in-between holiday parties and festive feasts. And here in Dallas, it's soooooo cold outside! 

What could be nicer, in such a circumstance, than the prospect of a big pot of soul-warming soup simmering on the stove? I'm thinking green lentils. And turmeric – for its strong anti-oxidant properties. And baby kale. And then a bunch of other stuff to make it delicious. 

That's what I thought yesterday morning, when it was 70 outside but I knew it was headed down to the 40s by the afternoon. 

I already had everything I needed to make the soup coming together in my head, except one key ingredient: I headed out at around 11 to pick up a cello-pack of baby kale at Trader Joe's.

By lunchtime the soup was ready – and the house filled with wonderful aromas. That's how quick and easy it is to achieve. 

The only work is chopping a few aromatic vegetables (onion, celery, carrot, garlic) and opening a can of tomatoes. (Make sure your tomatoes don't have sugar in them, or the soup won't be so detoxifying.) Sauté the veg in a little olive oil, add turmeric, coriander and herbs, then  the lentils, tomatoes and water. 

Did I mention that the recipe is vegan?

When the lentils are tender, throw in a bunch of baby kale, then let a cook a few more minutes till it all comes together. Lentils cook pretty quick, so it'll be done in just about an hour. 

Oh, baby – it turned out even better than I dreamed: lightly spiced, aromatic, earthy, soulful and satisfying. I knew Thierry would want some: Lentils are one of his favorite foods. But even Wylie (yes! He's home for winter break!) went along for the ride – that's how good it smelled. He'd just awakened at noon (college kids!) and had a bowl with us, just after his bagel and coffee. He loved it.

Here's the best part.  When I woke up this morning it was 15 degrees outside – 4 with the wind-chill factor. The tree is now decorated. We have plenty of firewood. This evening, we're going to our friends' holiday open house. 

Meanwhile, I know what I'm having for lunch.

Ta-dah! This glorious roast lacquered duck is a game-changer for duck-lovers

Ten months ago, a recipe for Chinese lacquered roast chicken from Lucky Peach 101 Easy Asian Recipes changed my life. It's brilliant and simple, and because it changed my life, I thought that was the end of that, recipe-development-wise. But the first time I wrote about it, my friend Michalene said, provocatively, "Have you tried it on a duck?"

I couldn't wait to give it a go. Unfortunately, it flopped: The duck's skin burned before the meat was cooked enough.

A mission was launched. I felt this duck could work, and I would find a way to make it work – even if I had to roast a hundred ducks. 

The very next try I got incredibly lucky – hitting the timing and temperature exactly right. What I got is what you see here: a gorgeous, shining, crisp-skinned duck whose meat was perfectly seasoned, wonderfully tender and incredibly succulent and flavorful. I couldn't believe something that insanely delicious was that easy to achieve. I made some Chinese steamed buns to go with it, and served it with cilantro, sliced scallions and hoisin sauce from a jar. But the duck needed no accouterments – it was incredible on its own.

Carving this gorgeous duck was almost as fun as eating it.

Carving this gorgeous duck was almost as fun as eating it.

You don't have to give it an Asian spin, though. The duck works beautifully as the centerpiece of a festive European- or American-style feast, surrounded by things like roast potatoes or sweet potato gratin and Brussels sprouts or braised Tuscan kale. 

Here's how easy the killer duck is to achieve.  It takes some time – two days – but very little effort.

Two days before you're going to serve it, you paint the bird with a glaze made from half-honey and half-soy sauce, and scatter salt on it. Slide it (uncovered) on a pan in the fridge. Next day, paint the bird all over again with the leftover glaze, and let it sit uncovered in the fridge overnight again. Next day, roast the bird at 450 for ten minutes, turn the temp down to 325 and let the bird roast for two hours. 

That's it. No flipping the bird or basted or fussing about it in any way. No need to make a sauce to go with it – it's that delicious. It's the perfect dreamy dinner for two or three people.

But here come the holidays, I thought. Wouldn't it be great to make two ducks and make them star of a dinner for four two six? So I invited a couple of friends over, and made glazed two ducks. Into the oven they went, and when my friends arrived, the house was filled with their enchanting aroma.

An hour later, after nibbles and drinks and general optimistic glee, we took our seats at the table. But these two ducks were not as wonderful: Set just next to each other on their rack set in a sheet pan, they crowded each other, preventing even browning. One side of each bird was a wee bit flabby, and I had to turn them and leave them in the oven longer, monkeying with the temperature to brown them properly.

Back to the store I went, seeking more ducks. 

Fresh ducks have a funny way of showing up in stores at exactly the moment I'm not planning on making one. It's just like the hair-dryer in the hotel rule. If you pack a hair dryer, you'll find one in your hotel room when you check in. If you don't pack one, you won't find one.

Serve the lacquered ducks with roasted Brussels sprouts and potatoes or sweet potatoes, and you've got an American-style holiday feast.

Serve the lacquered ducks with roasted Brussels sprouts and potatoes or sweet potatoes, and you've got an American-style holiday feast.

So, with two more friends invited for Saturday night duck dinner, on Wednesday I headed to the Whole Foods Market where I'd recently seen those gorgeous fresh ducks – at a much lower price than the last place I picked up a couple. (They set me back a whopping $45 each at Central Market; at Whole Foods they wanted $30-something each for 4 1/2 to 5 pound ducks.) When I arrived at Whole Foods this time, alas, there were no ducks to be had. I almost called another Whole Foods, when I thought better of it, deciding instead to head to the giant Asian supermarket, Super H-Mart, that's only a 10-minute longer drive from home. 

I thought I'd find fresh ducks at Super H-Mart, but I only found frozen ones. That was the bad news. The great news: The nice-looking Long Island ducks were only $16.50 apiece. Fortunately, they defrosted quickly enough for me to glaze them on Thursday. 

This time I solved the even-browning problem: I set them as far apart on the sheet pan as I could before roasting them. I thought I'd have to rotate the birds halfway through roasting for even browning, but those ducks continued to brown evenly as I looked in in them now and then. The space between them did the trick. Oh, man, they looked good – and they were!

This time I served them more Euro- or American-style: We started dinner with a baby kale and sweet-potato salad, then had the duck with roast potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta. It was a super-easy dinner to put together, as I literally never turned on the stove. (I'm lucky enough to have two ovens, though you could always make the potatoes ahead of time and reheat them and roast the Brussels sprouts while the duck is resting.) 

I'll let you go now. I know you'll want to run off and procure a duck or two. 

Here's the recipe:

Be sure to let us know how you love it! And happy holidays from Cooks Without Borders.

 

 

Cookbook gifts galore: The season's greatest titles for culinary adventurers

If there has ever been a more exciting year for cookbooks, I can’t remember it. That’s splendid news for anyone looking for holiday gifts, and particularly, this year, for globally-minded cooks.

I’ve culled through hundreds of review copies that came across my desk, seeking the most exciting, approachable, workable cookbooks for culinary adventurers.

None of the seven I’ve chosen as the gotta-have gifts for this holiday season are glitzy chef books, though a few were written by chefs, and none are gorgeous coffee table books, though they’re all quite beautiful. What they have in common is that they’re all books that can transport us deliciously, and they're all geared to real home cooks.

 To be honest, not all were published in 2016: Two were published last year – Michael Solomonov’s Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking and Anissa Helou’s Sweet Middle East. With those, I’m playing catch up. And while I’ve cooked from Zahav extensively (I meant to do a full-on review, but kept telling myself I just needed to try one more recipe, then another, then another . . . ), and from Diana Henry’s Simple, I haven’t yet cooked from the other five.  I'm suggesting them because they've the books I want to cook from. I have reason to trust each of the authors, whether because I’ve cooked from their books in the past, or I’ve given their recipes a close, critical look.

What’s remarkable is the trip around the world they offer as a group, taking us from Iran and Turkey and Azerbaijan to Italy, France and Britain, from Shanghai to Okinawa to England and Israel and back.

 Does the peripatetic cook on your holiday gift list happen to share your own initials? Don’t worry – your secret is safe with us.

Land of Fish and Rice

Ever wonder how best to cook baby bok choy, or wish you knew the secret to Shanghai-style soup dumplings? Maybe you've wandered through an Asian grocery, admired those beautiful bunches of tong hao – chrysanthemum leaves – or giant bunches of flowering chives and wished you knew what to do with them. If that sounds like someone on your gift list Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China is your go-to gift. Author Fuchsia Dunlop has all the answers. With the chrysanthemum leaves, for instance, you’ll want to blanch them, chop them finely, toss them with chopped tofu and sesame oil and top them with toasted pine nuts. Sounds lovely, doesn't it?

Her 368-page book explores China’s Lower Yangtze (Jiangnan) region, of which Shanghai is the gateway.  Dunlop explains in the thoughtful introduction that the region is known as “the land of fish and rice,” and she offers plenty in that regard: recipes for stir-fried shrimp with green tea leaves; a gingery Zhoushan fish chowder with tomatoes and potatoes; Shanghai fried rice with salt pork and bok choy. But it's not all fish and rice: There are cabbage-wrapped “lion’s head” meatballs, a gorgeous-looking dish of slivered pork with flowering chives (yay!), drunken chicken and wow – Nanjing New Year’s salad, an enticing vegetarian recipe, and just in time! 

 Dunlop even offers a recipe for soup dumplings, known outside of the region as “xiao long bao” (and in Jiangnan as “xiao long man tou”). “Be warned that these are a little fiddly,” Dunlop writes – “Chinese people don’t normally make xiao long bao at home.” Duly warned – or duly dared, depending on your point of view. Sounds to me like a delicious project for a wintry day.

Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China by Fuchsia Dunlop, W.W. Norton & Company, $35.

Taste of Persia

“When you assemble all the greens and herbs called for in this recipe, it’s hard to believe that the eggs with hold them.” Sold! The Persian Greens Frittata in Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Kurdistan is definitely something I want to make. Author Naomi Duguid's beautifully photographed book expresses perfectly what I love most about Persian food: so many fresh herbs.

I can’t think of a better guide to the cuisine than Duguid, an IACP Cookbook Award and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author with a passion for culinary travel.

In Taste of Persia's pages, I found many of the dishes I fell in love with in the Iranian restaurants of Los Angeles (a.k.a. “Tehrangeles,” with its huge Iranian population), such as classic Pomegranate-Walnut Chicken Stew. And I yearn to make others that are unfamiliar but that look incredible, like Easter Stew with Tarragon – a gorgeous braise of lamb (or beef) and lots of green herbs and spices. Duguid suggests easy-to-find tomatillos as a substitute for the stew’s sour plums, which sounds smart. 

Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan by Naomi Duguid, Artisan, $35

Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavors

I have a bunch of Diana Henry’s beautiful books, including A Bird in the Hand, for which the British author won a James Beard Award. But for some weird reason, I’ve only recently started cooking from them. From her newest book, Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavors, I’ve only made one recipe – Summer Fruit and Almond Cake – and it was not just spectacular, but incredibly easy and gorgeous. (I adapted an autumn version for the blog.)

Summer Fruit and Almond Cake

There are a grillion great ideas in these pages: Toasts with crab and cilantro-chile mayo. Pappardelle with cavolo nero (Tuscan kale), chiles and hazelnuts. Baked sausages with apples, raisins and hard cider. Her tone is easy and warm, her recipes super approachable.

I particularly love her dessert sensibility; I can hardly wait for summer to come around so I can try her hot cherries with grappa and ice cream. Meanwhile, how do lemon-ricotta cake or cardamom-scented Turkish mocha pots sound?

Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavors by Diana Henry, Mitchell Beazley $32.99

Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking

Michael Solomonov's cookbook – inspired from his Philadelphia restaurant Zahav – has been written about so much it seems silly to review it at this point, so I'll keep it short and sweet. His much-touted hummus recipe, as printed in the book, is a little glitchy; that's probably why you find it tweaked when adapted in food magazines and on blogs. But so many of the recipes in the exhilarating 368-page book are superb, and the photos and writing are so compelling one is inspired to cook anything and everything.

Some of the smashing recipes: charred eggplant salad; Moroccan carrotsquinoa, pea and mint tabbouleh; pargiyot (chicken skewers) three ways; twice-cooked eggplant; Malabi custard with mango; and marzipan. Meanwhile, Solomonov's recipe for tehina, the "secret sauce" around which the whole cookbook revolves, is so good I had to resist shooting it into my veins.

Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook, Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $35

Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking

If I could have an endless supply of Japanese pickles, I’d be a happy girl. With Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking by Masaharu Morimoto, my dream may soon be a tangy-salty-umami-rich reality. The chef-owner of Philadelphia’s Morimoto (and other restaurants in the U.S., Mexico and India) gives us a whole section called “Tsukeru” – to pickle. (So glad to learn a useful Japanese verb!) The book also supplies the basics of how to make the ever-important stock known as dashi, how to make hand-made udon, and plenty of great-looking homey dishes like takikomi gohan (dashi-simmered rice with vegetables); tonjiru (hearty miso soup with pork and vegetables) and oyako don (chicken and egg rice bowl).

If you’re dubious about how approachable a chef book might be for a humble home cook, this may relieve the anxiety: The book is peppered with boxed nuggets of “Japanese grandmother wisdom.” Things like “When you grate daikon, keep in mind that the fatter top portion of the radish tends to be significantly sweeter and less bitter than the narrower bottom portion.” Who knew? If you’re shopping for someone into food trends, take note: There’s no okonomiyaki in Morimoto’s book, but there is a recipe for uber-trendy Hawaiian-style poke rice bowl.

Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking by Masaharu Morimoto, Ecco, $45.

Mozza at Home

Nancy Silverton, one of my favorite chefs, has always understood what we really, really want to eat right now. Consider this inspiring headnote to her recipe for Bean Salad with Celery Leaf Pasta: “I love celery, and the leaves, combined with parsley leaves, make a refreshing alternative to the more common basil pesto. You might not use all the pesto for this salad. Serve leftover pesto with fresh burrata, or spoon it over grilled chicken or fish.”

Is that inspiring, or what? If there’s a cook on your list who loves Italian food, this is the gift to get. Not convinced? Try this: Saturday Night Chicken Thighs with Italian Sausage and Spicy Pickled Peppers. She had me at “Saturday Night Chicken Thighs.”

Mozza at Home, by Nancy Silverton with Carolynn Carreño, Knopf, $35

SWEET MIDDLE EAST

 I was first drawn in by Lebanese-born Annisa Helou’s enchanting Instagram feed, which takes us from London to Sicily to France to Dubai and back. And so when a review copy of her latest book, Sweet Middle East, appeared in my inbox, I cheered: Now I get to try her recipes. Turkish macaroons (acibadem kurabiyesi), Moroccan aniseed biscotti (feqqas), Persian saffron ice cream (bastani sa’labi), Syrian semolina and nut cake (h’risseh) – it all sounds and looks so good!

Sweet Middle East: Classic Recipes from Baklava to Fig Ice Cream by Anissa Helou, Chronicle Books, $24.95.