From Paris' trendiest tables to yours: Whelks with basil aïoli are a snap to make

If you've been to Paris in the last few years (I just got back!), you know that bistronomie – laid-back bites in relaxed, new-style bistros – is Parisians' favorite way to dine these days. Expensive, elaborate menus dégustations (tasting menus) are pretty much for tourists and rich old fogies. OK, perhaps that's an exaggeration, but that's how it feels.

Thierry, Wylie and I dined bistronomie-style each of four nights when we visited Paris earlier this month, and twice we found bulots – the small sea snails English-speakers call whelks. They seem to be having a moment! I'd seen and eaten them occasionally in decades past on plateaux de fruits de mer – chilled seafood platters – where they'd sometimes be mingled with oysters and clams on the half-shell and steamed or boiled bigourneaux (periwinkles). 

"Bulots mayo," is how they were announced on the blackboard menu at Jeanne A – a terrific little bistro in the super-hot 11th arrondissement. I had to order them (6 euros) – for the three of us to share with our other starters. 

They came chilled in a coffee cup, accompanied by a little pot of good, house-made mayo. So much fun! A couple nights later, there they were again – listed under "zakouskis" at Le Servan, which offered them with mayonnaise au piment for 8 euros. (Le Servan, by the way, was wonderful – the best meal I had in Paris this trip, also in the 11th.) 

Ding ding ding ding ding! A lightbulb went off over my head: We can make bulots at home! Why? Because I know where to find them – and very inexpensively: at Jusco, an Asian supermarket with a fabulous seafood selection, in the Dallas suburb of Plano. In fact, I'd picked some up (about $6 per pound) to toss onto a seafood paella just a couple weeks before my France trip.  

As I researched bulots on my return, I learned a few things. First, that they're also called buccins, though I've never seen them called that on a menu. Second, that they're traditionally served in Provence with aîoli – the super-garlicky mayo whose name has been appropriated by American chefs who want to make gentler flavored mayos sound chic.  And third, that whelks is a term applied to several different types of sea snails, which explains why they don't always look quite the same – some are striped or ridged; others are spotted and smooth.

In any case, they couldn't be easier to cook. First, give 'em a 10-minute soak in cold water, so they release any sand, and rinse. Then boil them in heavily salted water for 20 minutes. That's it. I went a step further and tossed some sliced onion, thyme and bay leaves to the water as it came to a boil, and added a splash of white wine – a court bouillon on-the-fly. 

But first I whipped up some aîoli – a real one, with lots of garlic. It's easy to make in a blender. I flavored half of it with chopped basil. Or you could add chopped or puréed roasted red pepper. Or you could serve the bulots with mayo from a jar, dressed up with a squirt of harissa from a tube. But even plain mayo – home-made or store-bought would be swell.

With the aïoli – and glasses of chilled rosé – they were outstanding, a fabulous pre-dinner nibble, ideal for laid-back entertaining. Serve 'em warm, or chilled, or room temp – with toothpicks, which you need to coax the meat out of the shell. Delicious fun indeed. Want to try it? Here's the recipe:

Please let us know if you find them in your neck of the woods – and how you like 'em!

 

 

Having friends over for dinner? Be sure to invite Mikie's fabulous marinated olives

One of the best parts of visiting my hometown, L.A., is dinner or lunch at my friend Michalene's. I've mentioned Michalene – or Mikie, as her family and a few close friends call her – in many posts. It was Mikie, for instance, who wondered, after a recipe for Chinese lacquered roast chicken changed my life, what would happen if I adapted it to duck. (Answer: more life-changingly delectable fowl play.) 

I met Mikie in 2003, when she was Food Editor at the Los Angeles Times, but I'd long been a fan. Before arriving at the Times a couple years earlier, she'd been Dining Editor at the New York Times, producing the Dining section that quickly, under her tenure, became a must-read. I hadn't realized I wanted to work at a newspaper – in fact I thought I didn't. But the minute I met Michalene, who invited me for a drink to discuss the possibility of my coming on board as her deputy editor, and she talked so excitedly about her love for cooking, and eating out, and editing and writing and putting together a food section, I knew I had to give it a go. 

Before long, we became not just co-workers, but fast friends. That meant we cooked and dined together often. It's one of the things I miss most about living in L.A.

So, dining at Mikie's. There are lots of great things about it. Hanging out with Mikie, and her partner Dan (who happens to be an amazing cook, too, and an awesome bread baker). They have an spectacular view of the ocean, over their rows of vineyards, from their house in the Malibu hills, so dinner's often on the patio. They are warm, generous, thoughtful and altogether brilliant hosts. 

 

I always secretly hope, as I drive up Pacific Coast Highway toward their place in Corral Canyon, that Mikie will have made her fabulous marinated olives: They're just so much better than any other olives anywhere, perfumed with orange and herbs, and spiced just so – a dreamy pre-main-event nibble.

A couple weeks ago, with friends coming to a dinner with a Spanish theme, I thought, as I tried to figure out the tapas y pinxtos, hey – why don't I make Mikie's olives? I texted her, asking for the recipe, and she told me it's from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. – just tweaked a little. She adds orange zest, she tole me, and fennel seed. And she uses more vinegar than Bittman does, and less olive oil. Oh, and her technique is slightly different.

In other words, Mikie has made the olives her own. Honestly, I think it's the orange zest and fennel that knock them out of the park. 

How good are they? Well, I spent all day cooking to prepare for that dinner. I made bandilleros – all kinds of pickly and cured treats, prettily skwered. And some really nice tapas – piquillo peppers filled with brandade. And grilled asparagus with Serrano ham. And seafood paella. (OK, I blew the paella, if truth be told. Overcooked it terribly. Don't tell anyone.) Want to know what got the most applause? Mikie's olives. 

They take all of about five minutes to put together: It's just assorted olives (I like to use Castelvetranos, Picholines, Niçoises, Cerignolas and anything else that looks great – with pits), plus a few smashed garlic cloves, bay leaves, thyme branches, red pepper flakes, fennel seeds, orange zest, olive oil and red wine vinegar. Combine it all, and let it sit on the counter all afternoon – or even just an hour. Give it a toss with a spoon every now and then. That's it. 

Here's the recipe:

I will be eager to hear whether you love them as much as I do.

 

Easy pan-roasted seafood antipasto turns a simple pasta dinner into a special event

A funny thing happened on the way to my okonomiyaki.

You know, okonomiyaki – the Osaka-style seafood pancake that homesick Japanese transplants in America go wild for. It's sort of become a cult thing, maybe because it's crowned with katsuobushi – bonito flakes – which wave mysteriously around, making the thing look as though it's alive.

I'm working on a recipe for okonomiyaki; I promise.  You can see a video of my last attempt (it's close! nearly there!) on my Cooks Without Borders Instagram feed. In fact, I'd bought all the ingredients to make it a few days ago – squid, shrimp, scallops and more, thinking I'd nail it that evening.

"Oh, man," said Thierry. "Okonomiyaki again?!" Yeah, yeah, I'd already made it twice in just a couple weeks, but the third time's the charm, right? Recipe development can be a process of trial and error, and this one – which diverges from traditional ones – has proven to be tricky. 

But I'm nothing if not flexible, so I did a quick pivot – Japan to Italy. I knew there was a bottle of crisp white wine in the fridge, along with some parsley, and baby arugula. We have a giant rosemary bush out back. A warm seafood antipasto, I was thinking – that would be lovely with an arugula salad. It would be nice to eat light.

I turned to an old favorite cookbook for inspiration: Evan Kleiman's Cucina del Mare: Fish and Seafood Italian Style. Kleinman is a wonderful chef who for many years had a beloved restaurant in Los Angeles called Angeli that delighted Italian food lovers for decades. When I moved to Dallas in 2009 as a then-incognito restaurant critic, a commenter on one of the local food blogs tried to out me by posting my photo online. Ha! The photo wasn't me, it was Evan Kleinman. That cracked me up. Nice try, amici miei

The recipe I found was for pan-roasted squid, calamari arrosto. Kleiman gave the squid a toss with olive oil, fresh rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper, popped it in the oven, roasted it for 25 minutes, then gave it a squeeze of lemon and a parsley garnish. Nice! 

The seafood, tossed with olive oil, rosemary, garlic, cherry tomatoes, salt and pepper, is ready to go into the oven.

The seafood, tossed with olive oil, rosemary, garlic, cherry tomatoes, salt and pepper, is ready to go into the oven.

 

I used the same method with the shrimp, squid and scallops, tossing in some halved cherry tomatoes. It worked beautifully. And so easy. 

We poured glasses of crisp white wine, and I tossed an arugula salad. We sat down to a perfect, light, simple dinner, which incidentally would also make a lovely lunch.

In spite of its simplicity, the dish's taste is pretty snazzy. I'm always looking for an easy and delicious antipasto to jazz up a pasta dinner, and this certainly fits the bill.

Want the recipe? It's yours.

Serve it with good, crusty bread to sop up the delicious juices. 

 

 

Celebrate el Cinco de Mayo with Cooks Without Borders' favorite Mexican recipes

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know: El Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates Mexico's victory against France in the Battle of Puebla in 1862 – during the French-Mexican War – isn't much of a holiday in Mexico. It's definitely not Mexican Independence Day; that would be September 16. My smart Dallas Morning News colleague Cassandra Jaramillo explains it all here.)

In fact, given that el Cinco de Mayo is all about a war between two of our favorite countries, it wouldn't even seem to be one Cooks Without Borders would celebrate.

However . . . 

There is that irresistible cross-cultural thing. And there is the fact that it has turned into an American holiday that celebrates Mexican culture, largely through food. So, hey – we're on!

 

And we've got some great things for you to cook, starting with my favorite guacamole, which you can whip up tonight. 

Here's the recipe:

So, guac and chips – and beers and margaritas. Then a Caesar salad.

 

But not just any Caesar salad; this is he most insanely delicious Caesar ever. No doubt you remember that the Caesar salad was invented in Tijuana, so yes, it's Mexican. But this is a modern take – a boffo version of a recipe I thought could be improved.

 Next, the main event: carnitas. Killer carnitas! I promise you these are way easier to make than you might imagine. 

I know what you're thinking. This is a lot to whip up on a Friday evening, when you have to work all day.

How about this: You could just make the guacamole tonight and make a whole big fabulous Mexican feast tomorrow. Or next week. Or next month. After all, it's not a real holiday, so you don't have to celebrate it on the exact day.

Meanwhile, as long as you're going to make carnitas, you really should have some wonderful warm corn tortillas to wrap them in. Right? 

Don't worry – I'm not suggesting you go through the elaborate process of making nixtamal. I know you don't have a molina to grind the corn; I don't either. I'm talking cheater corn tortillas made from mixing masa harina with warm water, rolling and pressing them into disks and throwing them on a griddle. Try this once, and you'll be hooked for life. Just don't tell Diana Kennedy.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking? This is turning into a taco party

So you'll want some salsas. My favorite with carnitas is salsa verde, which is really simple to make; roasting the tomatillos and serranos takes it to another level. Pass around bowls of guacamole, cilantro leaves, chopped onion, queso fresco, sliced radishes and lime wedges and invite your pals. (Yep, they can bring the beer.) Taco party achieved!

Here's a bonus recipe, in case you're looking for an all-consuming Mexican cooking project: a lamb barbacoa recipe adapted from Alex Stupak's cookbook. 

This, of course, is crazy-good wrapped in corn tortillas. As long as you're going to all that trouble, you might as well make salsa borracha, too.

But wait – what about dessert?

Oh, I am *so* excited to tell you what we have in store: two of my absolute favorite recipes that have ever been on the blog. The first, perfect for this season (and for this holiday) is Strawberry-Mezcal Ice Cream. 

As you can imagine, it is really good with a sip (or 10) of mezcal. 

It would also be fantastic with another of my favorite desserts: the Mexican Chocolate "Situation." Sounds like something that could have led to the Battle of Puebla, doesn't it? Which brings us full circle. This recipe has been a reader favorite, too – border-free cooks who have made it have gone crazy for it. 

Starring the flavors of Mexican chocolate, these rich, creamy bars use almond flour rather than wheat flour, so they're deliciously gluten-free. 

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

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.