Delicious but not Devastating

Incorporating vegetables into desserts is an appealing way to slip more valuable nutrients into our daily food intake. Carrot and zucchini cakes are solutions, likely loaded with exorbitant amounts of oil and smeared with heavy-duty cream cheese toppings. Any natural benefits have been all but cancelled out.

Delicious but not devastating, that’s my goal. Trying to elevate the plight of vegetable desserts, here’s my latest take on zucchini cake. First, I’ve learned that steaming, rather than conventional baking, can introduce moisture and lower the need for massive doses of oil.

I zeroed in on two other ingredients of interest: chocolate and nuts.  I like the chocolate and zucchini combination—but chocolate easily overwhelms, and I’m not looking for another chocolate cake (probably one of few to so admit). Nuts add deep taste, complexity, and crunch. Then, it made perfect sense: why not keep it simple and go with cacao nibs?  They have all that, and more.

Roasted Cacao Nibs

There is a difference between regular chocolate and nibs. Typical chocolate bars come from cacao seeds, which are fermented, ground, and further processed. Cacao nibs are crumbled pieces from the exterior cacao bean shell, with a bitter chocolate punch and nutty texture. Nibs are rich in flavonoid antioxidants, minerals, and more; they contribute plenty of fiber—but nothing extreme as gnawing on wood.

I’ve included another duo that works well together: coriander and orange. Instead of the usual grated zest, I’ve gone with tiny nibs of minced orange peel (white removed) for a super-charged citrus flavor that’s offset by the exotic perfume of coriander. The backdrop for all of this comes from a huge surplus of green summer squash, rather than zucchini.

Zucchini Cake with Cacao & Orange Nibs

The cake steams in 35 minutes—literally from the inside out—it cooks thoroughly, thanks to the center hole in the bundt pan. You would never guess it had been steamed; once turned out of the pan and cooled, it appears browned and perfectly baked. The cake’s surprisingly light texture is speckled with flavorful flecks from the orange, green squash, and chocolate brown cacao nibs. It’s quite a party!


Update! The pressurized steaming process also softens the cacao nibs. As the cake rests, the nibs seem to bloom (stored in the fridge). Their nubby texture relaxes, and more complex chocolate qualities unfold.  Fascinating… and highly delicious.


Steamed Zucchini Cake with Cacao and Orange Nibs

Ingredients
1½ cups AP flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp each baking soda and salt
1 tsp coriander
2 eggs
⅓ cup vegetable oil
½ cup each granulated sugar and brown sugar
2 Tbsp plain yogurt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1½ cups grated zucchini or summer squash, skin on
2 tsp orange peel, white removed, sliver and chop well
⅓ cup roasted cacao nibs

Instructions

  1. Thinly coat 8” bundt pan with Baker’s or nonstick spray.
  2. Prepare Instant Pot or other multicooker: fill with 1½ cup water and insert trivet. Cut aluminum foil cover for pan and prepare sling for pan.
  3. Combine flour through spices together and set aside.
  4. In mixing bowl whisk eggs, then beat in the oil. Whisk in the sugar to fully combine, and then stir in the yogurt and vanilla. Add the zucchini.  Stir in the dry ingredients just to incorporate and finally add the cacao and orange nibs. Scrape batter into the bundt pan and level the surface.
  5. Begin heating multicooker, set to Sauté More. Add 1 ½ cup water and place the trivet in pot.
  6. Cover filled bundt pan with foil. Fold the other length of foil into a long sling. Wrap it under the pan, up the sides, over the top, and lower it into the pot.
  7. Seal pot with lid, reset to Hi Pressure for 35 minutes. When complete, turn off unit, disconnect and let rest undisturbed for 10 minutes. Slowly release remaining pressure and open the lid. Using the foil sling, carefully lift pan out of pot and onto a rack. Remove foil and cool for 10 minutes. With thin knife, loosen any edges adhering to pan and turn cake out to cool onto rack.  Makes 1 cake, serves 10.

Sour Pickle Power

I link sour pickles with old-fashioned New York deli pickles. In traditional delicatessens they were stored in large wooden barrels that seemingly held a lifetime supply of pickles—and you were free to dip in and fish out your own. Unlike most off-the-shelf pickles that use vinegar, ’half sours’ are fermented in a salt-water solution and become only mildly sour.

My recent venture into sour pickle making stemmed from an over-abundance of fennel—and conjuring up new uses for those feathery fronds I have learned to cherish. I knew I had a plan when I coincidentally netted a supply of small Persian cucumbers.  They are similar to Kirby cucumbers, the popular clean-flavored babies used in pickle making.

Persian cucumbers

These pickles couldn’t be easier, they require no canning or water bath.  Brines and marinades, those stalwarts of the small kitchen, both provide natural preservative qualities and the ability to infuse flavors.

Sour Pickles, in the works

The salt water fermentation brings forth pickles rich in probiotics, vitamin B and K.  Depending on ambient conditions, a jar of crisp garlicky pickles is ready to eat in 7 to 10 days.

crunchy sour pickle taste test, yum.

In all fairness, the fennel flavor is not wildly apparent; I know it’s there, and that makes me happy. It’s tough to compete against the power of garlic, and the combination of dill and garlic is doubly hard to beat.

But, for pickle diversity, the fennel is a nice change and it works beautifully.

Sour Pickles

Ingredients
4-6 Persian or Kirby cucumbers; wash, trim halve
1 cup fennel fronds or 4 heads dill
4 cloves garlic, halved
2 cups filtered water, warm
1 Tbsp salt
½ tsp sugar
1 Tbsp whole peppercorns

3-4 cup clean jar with lid

Directions

  1. Dissolve the salt and sugar in warm water. Add the peppercorns and cool.
  2. Place a layer of fennel or dill in bottom of a 3-4 cup jar. Pack the cucumbers upright in the jar, distribute the garlic among the spears, and top with a layer of fennel or dill.  Pour in salt water to cover; reserve any excess.
  3. Drape jar top with a layer of cheesecloth and set on a plate to catch any potential brine overflow.  Let cucumbers ferment 1-4 days at room temperature—the warmer it is, the faster sourness will develop. Top off with more of the salt water to keep emerged. When the brine becomes cloudy and a foam forms on top, taste for sourness. Within 7 to 10 days they should be ready to eat.
  4. Seal with lid and move to fridge to slow fermentation and longer storage.  They will last in the fridge up to a year.  Yields 1 jar pickles.

Ready when you are

If you happened to read the preceding post, you know that this past St Paddy’s Day took a turn and the usual corned beef and cabbage evolved into homemade pastrami.  It wasn’t until well into the pastrami making process that I began to consider new accompaniments.

A peppery rub and time in the smoker had altered this corned beef so greatly that thoughts of traditional boiled vegetables seemed horribly wrong.  Rather, the deli side of the pastrami emerged far more intriguing. As I continued to tinker with the pastrami, visions of an upgraded deli potato salad took form… one with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes, carrots and fennel.

pastrami mixed grill deli plate

Pulling it all together, I’d keep it simple (famous last words): throw on a few stashed Red-Hot links during the smoking stage for a little variety and transition to an easy mixed grill. Maybe include some pickled items—no horseradish here, I’d pull out a delicious stone ground mustard.

The trouble with roasted vegetables is that they take so long to actually roast. I decided to help them out by briefly precooking the potatoes, carrots and fennel in the microwave (the fennel really works here). Then, when convenient finish them in a hot oven.

roasted potatoes, carrots, fennel

To be honest, I added a tangy spoonful of aioli to the dressing, rather than garlic and 1 tablespoon of the mayonnaise. It makes a dramatic difference if you have it; but the standard formula works well, too.

Roasted Potato Salad

As with many potato salads, this one improves when made ahead for flavors to fully develop. It will last 3-4 days in the fridge—good on a deli plate whenever you are ready.

Roasted Potato Salad

Ingredients

4 Yukon Gold potatoes, skin on
3 carrots, peel
½ cup fennel stems and fronds, chop
sea salt and fresh ground pepper
1-2 Tbsp olive oil
em>Dressing
2-3 Tbsp mayonnaise
1 clove garlic, crush
2 Tbsp plain yogurt
1-2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 small stalks celery, chop
2 green onions, chop
1 Tbsp fresh fennel fronds, light chop
1 Tbsp capers
1 tsp lemon juice or caper juice

Instructions

  1. Cut potatoes in chunks, place in microwaveable bowl add 2 Tbsp water, and a pinch of salt. Cover and steam for 2 minutes. Place in colander to drain. Repeat next with carrots and fennel.
  2. Distribute the semi-cooked vegetables on a lined baking sheet, toss with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake at 425°F for 20 minutes; turn the vegetables . Set broiler to 450°F and cook 5-10 minutes longer until cooked and beginning to brown. Remove and cool.
  3. Meanwhile prepare dressing: combine the mayonnaise, garlic, yogurt and mustard to taste. Add the celery, green onion, fennel fronds or 1 tsp fresh thyme, and capers. Point up with lemon or caper juice, season with salt and pepper.
  4. Place the cooled vegetables in a medium bowl, toss with dressing to coat well. Best made an hour or more ahead. Serves 3-4.

Pastrami making in the small kitchen

At my house, St. Patrick’s Day is traditionally celebrated with corned beef, cabbage, and all the trimmings. Since this year’s invasion of the coronavirus is like no other, I went off in a completely different direction. This year I tried my hand at pastrami making.

I began without much of a clue.  All I really knew was that corned beef and pastrami were similar, but I wasn’t certain how they differed. Turns out, pastrami has evolved, but not via Ireland. They are both frequently brined with spices, but pastrami further includes a final rub and smoking process.

Historically, pastrami’s roots stem from the Ottoman Turks where mutton, goat, and beef were preserved in salt and rubbed with spices. It made its way via the spice route to Romania where it became a favored process in preserving goose. When immigrating to America, Romanians brought the technique with them. Ultimately, it would transition to cheaper beef cuts, and pastrami would become a staple in New York delicatessens.

Notoriously tough brisket and rounds of beef require long cooking to tenderize.  Because I wanted a firm but not mushy texture for slicing, this was a major factor in my pastrami making.  Rather than the usual boil, I elected to steam the meat in the multicooker at high pressure.

With that settled, I selected a thick 3½ pound corned beef brisket that would fit in the pot I had available. No boiling meant I would first need to desalinate. I settled on 4 hours of presoaking time, with a change of water every hour. The brisket was then sealed in the multicooker and steamed for 90 minutes.

Uninspired steamed corned beef

Meanwhile, I developed a rub that would flavor the meat prior to the final smoking process. I toasted and ground black peppercorns, coriander and mustard seeds. After that, ground coriander, mustard and smoked paprika, garlic powder, sugar and salt were also added for faster absorption into the meat.

Rubbed corned beef

When cooled, I pressed the rub into the meat and let it air dry. Then, it was loosely covered to protect but allow air circulation—and refrigerated overnight. I turned the meat 2-3 times, and by the following afternoon it was ready to smoke.

I packed my tiny grill with a supply of coals for indirect heat and 2 foil wrapped pouches of wood chips for smoking.  After 30 minutes and a couple of turns on the grill, I moved the remaining coals about and gave the pastrami a final 5-minute sear.

Homemade Pastrami

This is where I failed.  I could not leave it alone.  It looked good but I wanted to see what it was doing inside!  So excited, I grabbed a serrated knife (what was I thinking?) and nearly ripped it apart.  Yes, it was so good, I kept at it and hacked away!!

(Sigh) Lesson learned. Let it rest, as you would a fine steak, and then cut.  With all that cooking, it will be cooked, and very nicely done!

Pastrami from Brined Corned Beef

Ingredients
3½ pound package corned beef (uncooked)
 Pastrami Rub
2 Tbsp mixed peppercorns
2 Tbsp whole coriander seeds
2 tsp whole mustard seeds
2 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp mustard powder
1 tsp garlic powder
½ tsp sea salt
¼ tsp brown sugar

Instructions

  1. Soak the corned beef.  Cover corned beef with water; soak 4-6 hours, change water 2-3 times.
  2. Trim. Remove all but ⅛” fat layer and any silver.
  3. Steam. In multicooker, pour in 1 cup water, add trivet and place meat on rack. Set to Hi Pressure, steam 90 mins. Rest 10 minutes and release pressure. It should be fork tender,  internal temperature at least 145°F (steamed in PC, likely 200°F. )  Drain and cool.
  4. Rub & Refrigerate. Press moist meat surfaces liberally with rub; less on thinner areas. Refrigerate 1-2 days, let air circulate.
  5. Smoke the pastrami. Create a bed of coals around the perimeter of the grill. Makes 2 small foil packets of wood chips and poke a few holes. When coals are hot, place the packets against the coals. Cover and and allow smoke to form.  Add beef and smoke approximately 30 minutes over indriect heat.  Move coals to center of grill, and sear the meal well for 5-8 minutes.
  6. Rest.  Let pastrami rest at least 10 minutes before slicing.  Refrigerate and seal well. It is even better the next day.

 

    

Freekeh Friday

I’m big on freekeh. I’m impressed by this ancient grain’s natural abundance of sweet mild flavor, protein, fiber, and vitamins. These days I’m on the lookout for more ways to incorporate it in my meal plan—especially on Fridays, my favorite day of the week.

Freekeh cooks fast, it has a slight chewiness and readily absorbs flavors, which actually makes it a viable alternative to ground meats. If you think about it, one reason why chili is so delicious is due to fat from the meats included—which further drives and elevates the various chile flavors.

For an acceptable chili substitute, I want one that cooks in a fairly short amount of time and delivers big flavors. With that in mind, I begin by sautéing onions and garlic in rich olive oil, then introduce levels of flavor from a range of chiles including adobo, canned Ortega chiles, smoked paprika, and chile powder. Precooked freekeh is added to absorb these flavors, backed up with tomato product and pinto beans.  It then simmers for 20-30 minutes to bring it all together.

4-Alarm Freekeh Chili

Good news. This 4-alarm chili is healthy and tastes delicious, plus it’s filling and easily digested. It does not make as much as a traditional batch of chili, but a little goes a long way and it is easily doubled.

I really like the chili spread on tostadas and topped with whatever else is on hand.

Freekeh Tostada

I learned this trick while living in Mexico—I was set free once I discovered that Mexican home cooks do not cook their own tostadas. They purchase precooked tostadas for everyday meals (they would use refried beans). Now I regularly stock a package for quick meals and snacks.

So, layer it in a bowl or try it on your own tortillas. You don’t need to wait for Friday to enjoy this chili.

Four-Alarm Freekeh Chili

Ingredients
2-3 Tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, chop
3 cloves garlic, mash & mince
1 Tbsp each chile powder and smoked paprika, 1 tsp ground cumin
2 chipotles in adobo, mince; 1-2 Tbsp canned chopped Ortega chilies
3-4 cups cooked cracked freekeh*
15-oz can crushed or diced tomatoes
15-oz can pinto beans, drain
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp cornmeal
1 cup water

Instructions

In a soup pot over medium heat, sauté the onion and garlic in hot oil. Add the chile powder, smoked paprika, and cumin and cook until aromatic. Add the chipotles and Ortega chilies and toss to combine.

Add the cooked freekeh, stir and cook for 5 minutes to incorporate flavors.  Add the tomatoes, pinto beans, Worcestershire, cornmeal, and water.  Bring to a boil and reduce to low. Simmer partially cover for 20-30 minutes until thick.  Adjust seasoning.  Serve 4

To precook freekeh:  Bring 1 cup cracked freekeh, pinch of salt, and 2½ cups water to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, simmer 20 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes; drain if needed.  Yields 3 cups, approx.

Anytime Bagel

This really isn’t a recipe, it’s more a prompt for designing a Breakfast Bagel & Lox.  In its simplest form, you begin with a toasted bagel and smear it with a topping such as cream cheese, ricotta, even hummus; it’s crowned with a healthy portion of thin sliced smoked salmon—plus any other touches, such as capers, onion, & dill.

People have their preferences on smoked salmon. If you are from the east coast it’s probably Nova Scotian or Scandinavian cold smoked salmon. On the west coast, we are all over the board, with even hot smoked a consideration.  As far as I’m concerned it is all good, but I do love pristine Nova.

Creating your masterpiece, you could go two-sided and build up both bagel halves. I’m happy enjoying a really good onion bagel with the focus only on one side. That’s plenty, because I like adding an egg.

For the egg(s), lately I’ve taken to using an egg ring and either poaching or scrambling the egg. It’s good to butter the ring and the pan surface before dropping in the egg. Once it begins to set, add water to pan, cover with a lid, and steam until the white is set and yolk is pink and cooked to taste.

If you are a dyed-in-the-wool bagel lover, you know this is not just morning food. Rather, it falls into the breakfast-all-day category. It’s good anytime.

Breakfast Bagel & Lox

Ingredients
1 bagel, sliced in half
2 Tbsp or more cream cheese or fresh ricotta
1 sliced tomato
1-2 eggs, poached*, scrambled, or fried
1-2 ounces thin sliced smoked salmon
capers, red onion, fresh dill or other herbs, ground pepper, sliced tomato, radishes, fresh lemon

Instructions
Toast the bagel and spread both sides with cream cheese or ricotta.  Layer on slices of tomato and top with prepared egg*.
Drape with smoked salmon and add capers, red onions, fresh dill and sliced lemon. Serves 1 or more.
*For poached egg using egg ring, heat skillet to medium. Butter ring interior and pan surface. Drop egg into ring in pan and let it set briefly. Drizzle pan with a few tablespoons of water to create steam, cover with a lid 2-3 minutes, until white is set and yolk is pink, or cooked to taste.

Sweet Dreams

We all have our favorite places and cultures to visit. Mine has long been the northeastern corner of Spain, the mysterious Basque country and the Pyrenees Alps. It’s got the total package, a rugged coastline and breathtaking mountains, plus resourceful, resilient people with a world class cuisine.

Basque food has the unique ability to reach into the heart and linger there, and such is the case with the notorious Basque Gateau.  Popular versions of it crop up across the border in the Pays Basque region of France and down into the southern reaches of Spain.  It’s a simple pastry marked by crosshatches across the top and filled with either cherry jam or pastry cream. So, what’s the big deal?

People praise the cake’s holding powers and reverently speak of it as the item to take when traveling or visiting friends.  Admittedly, I’ve had my own visions of romantic adventures complete with this charming cake—safe in the knowledge it would sustain in any conditions.

I’ve considered making a Basque Custard Cake but have been put off by the complicated process and rich pastry. However, there is one recipe I have held onto for quite a while. It’s an interesting take from the French perspective by accomplished chef Michel Richard.  In my notes, he describes it endearingly as a “pastry cream encased in two cookie crusts; aka a weekend cake in France because it holds so well.”  Sweet.

The more I’ve studied Richard’s approach, the more I like it. For example, pastry cream often uses egg yolks with cornstarch for thickener because cornstarch does not not lump when added to hot liquid; however, it can break down with prolonged cooking.  Richard’s version opts for flour instead, which makes sense since this pastry cream cooks twice.  His should hold up very well and continue to maintain mass at room temperature or cold.

I’m impressed with Richard’s brilliant crust solution, too. Rather than a labor intense, buttery pastry, he elects to use the whites left from the custard.  He cleverly incorporates them into a light, resilient cookie/cake-like base. The first thin layer is baked just to set, the filling is added, remaining dough is spread on top and it is given a final bake.  Simple enough.

Basque Gateau

I decided to give it a try.  Here are a couple of notes:  I further simplified Richard’s custard by using double the vanilla extract, rather than soaking a vanilla bean (which I was missing) for an hour in hot milk.  It also makes twice as much as needed, but that’s fine; it came in handy.  I also dabbed a small amount of cherry jam on the baked bottom crust before the pastry cream. It appears that cookie/cake dough is quite scant.  However, it blends beautifully with the pastry cream and works out fine.

Basque Custard Cookie Cake

So, there you have it.  I will definitely make this Basque Custard Cake again. (Actually, I did make it again. It was easier the second time with remaining custard and refined method. I kept my fingers off of it and it was just as good the next day!)  The cherry and custard combo gives it real character, but you could use either.

I dare you to eat just one piece—evidently, I practically polished an entire cake by myself!

Basque Custard Cookie Cake

Inspired by Michel Richard, Baking from the Heart

Ingredients
Pastry Cream
2 cups milk
pinch salt
½ cup sugar,  divided
2 tsp vanilla extract, divided
4 large egg yolks, room temp
⅓ cup flour
1 Tbsp butter
Cookie Dough
4 Tbsp butter, softened
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
3 large egg whites, room temp
½ cup AP flour, plus 1 Tbsp
½ cup cherry jam, optional

Instructions

1. Make Pastry Cream
In 4 cup microwaveable measure, heat milk in microwave with salt, and ¼ cup sugar for 2-3 minutes to dissolve sugar, add vanilla extract.
In small mixing bowl, beat yolks and remaining ¼ cup sugar until thick and pale yellow, 2-3 minutes.  Mix in flour.  Gradually pour in the hot milk and whisk to incorporate.
Pour the mixture into a small pan, set over medium heat and continue whisking as it thickens to avoid lumps and curdling.  Reduce to medium low and cook 2-3 minutes, whisking to keep smooth and not curdle. Off heat stir in butter and remaining vanilla. Scrape into a bowl and cover top with film. Chill 2-3 hours until cold, up to 1 day ahead.  You should have enough for 2 cakes.

2. Make Dough
Preheat oven to 350-375°F. Thoroughly butter and flour 9″ tart or springform pan.
In mixing bowl beat butter, add sugar in 3-4 batches, beating well after each addition until light. Beat in egg whites one at a time, incorporating after each. Stir in flour to just combine and form a soft batter.

3. To Bake
Spoon enough batter to thinly cover bottom of pan, about ½ cup spread ⅛” thick.  Bake 10-12 minutes, until dough is firm to touch, and edges turn golden brown.
If using preserves, randomly dot spoonfuls onto crust spreading away from edges. Top with cold pastry cream, leaving ½” border at edge.
Carefully spoon remaining dough evenly over all, spreading to cover cream and fill in border edge.  Bake 25-35 minutes, rotating pan until golden brown.  Cool completely on wire rack.  Release cake from pan and slice into wedges.  For best flavor, allow to come to room temperature for 1 hour prior to serving.  Cover and chill for storage.   Serves 6-8