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.

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.

So Much for Scraps

Perhaps you too suffer small twinges when faced with throwing away odd scraps of food.  These days I’m becoming increasingly aware of the waste factor and I try to think before chucking food.  In the heat of the moment there are still plenty of times when I’ll do the ‘should I, or shouldn’t I?’ shuffle and toss away—only to regret it later.

The latest such event proved to be a good lesson in why I need to pay attention when that twinge hits.  It happened while prepping tender red chard leaves for a fast brunch dish.  At the time I wasn’t much interested in the stems, they were in my way and I was ready to pitch.  I took another look at the intensely  beautiful burgundy stems, and in that moment my better self intervened. Instead of sending them arbitrarily to the trash I dropped them in the fridge instead. I’d deal with them later.

The next day I consulted Lindsay-Jean Hard’s Cooking with Scraps cookbook to get her take on chard stems. She says they are well worth roasting, grilling, pickling, even steaming… and my plan began to take shape.

I considered my obvious resources and centered on a small spaghetti squash that needed attention and a jar of fresh mozzarella balls marinating in a yummy garlicky evoo herb blend.  I’d keep it simple; I’d steam the squash and stems, liven them up with a little of the marinade, perhaps tuck in a bit of cheese, maybe some fresh basil, and see how that all works.

Steamed Spaghetti Squash & Red Chard Stems

Despite its appearance, spaghetti squash is very forgiving to prepare—I’ve even had success cooking it in the microwave. For manageability, I prefer smaller squash, 1½ to 2-pounds in size. My plan here is to cook both the squash and stems at the same time in the Instant Pot. It’s the pot-in-pot concept in which you layer 2 or more dishes or items into the pot and steam them simultaneously.

I’ve read cutting spaghetti squash in half, across its mid-line, will cook faster than lengthwise, plus yielding longer strands and using less space. I accumulated over ½ cup of seeds while scraping them out of the squash, and sampled one; they were mild and meaty. Again, my better self stepped forward and I set them aside;  they were well worth saving for a short brine and fast roast in the microwave.  I figured they might not make it today, but they’re enough for a later snack, a salad topping, or other such.   I’m on a roll with scraps—when I’m paying attention there are benefits all over the place!

Marinated Red Chard Stems & Spaghetti Squash

I move on and place the two squash halves in the Instant Pot on a trivet with 1 cup water. The stems are cut into smaller lengths, tossed with a bit of marinade for flavor and moisture, and sealed in a foil packet.  It’s all layered in the Instant Pot and set for 7 minutes under pressure. That’s it.  Once cooked and removed, the squash drains a few minutes to release excess moisture from steaming.

Ah, the stems, the stems… what a surprise. They are earthy, tender, and absorb just enough marinade to elevate them straight to delicacy status.  The sweet spaghetti squash is a perfect foil, lightly seasoned with salt, red pepper flakes, the marinade further helps to separate the strands. The ruby red stems are folded in like jewels and pieces of mozzarella meld into the warm spaghetti squash.  This is an affirmation to slow down and give scraps a chance.

Steamed Spaghetti Squash & Red Chard Stems

Ingredients
1½ – 2 pounds spaghetti squash
stems from 1 bunch red chard
Marinade
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic mash & sliver
1 tsp fresh rosemary or thyme
¼ tsp sea salt and coarse ground pepper
1-2 tsp white wine vinegar
1 fresh round mozzarella or 1 cup other melting cheese
¼ tsp crush red pepper flakes
fresh basil or other herbs

Instructions

  1. To prepare marinade, combine olive oil, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper and whisk in the vinegar. If time permits, marinate the mozzarella overnight in the fridge.
  2. If the chard stems are large, cut them lengthwise into ½” thick strips and then into 1-2” lengths and place in medium bowl. Lightly drizzle with about 1 Tbsp of marinade and toss to coat.
  3. Carefully cut the spaghetti squash in half across its mid-section. Remove seeds and set them aside.
  4. In liner of Instant Pot, add 1 cup water and place trivet in bottom.  To preheat, set pot to Sauté More.  Wedge the squash halves sideways in the pot on the trivet.  Place 18” length of foil on work surface and pile chard stems and marinade in center; wrap and fold foil to seal packet and wedge into pot with squash.
  5. Seal lid and set pot to Hi Pressure for 7-8 minutes, depending on squash size. When time is up, disconnect pot, let stand 5 minutes and then release remaining pressure.  Carefully open pot. The squash should be fork tender; remove the squash to drain upside down for 5 minutes. Open foil packet and check stems, they should be tender and fragrant.
  6. To assemble, loosen squash with fork into spaghetti like strands and place in medium bowl.  Season lightly with marinade, salt, red pepper flakes, and toss. Gently add the chard stems. Slice the mozzarella and tuck into the warm squash to soften. Sprinkle with fresh herbs. Serves 2.

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

(Dirty-Little-Secret)

I spend a lot of my free time reading cookbooks and checking out online recipes. It’s my form of relaxation. But there are times when all I really want is a familiar, well-tested recipe; one that delivers what I expect.

When I’m thinking ‘casual cake’, here’s a contender. Not only is it always good, it is basic and highly adaptable. I especially like tinkering with this one because it  easily changes with the season—and it loves fresh fruit, too.

At its heart is a well constructed European-style cake that rises high and fills the pan. It uses 3 eggs, which I consider generous, but they are core to its success: they add structure and don’t fade into the background. To control the fat quotient, I tend to use plain yogurt for tenderness and moisture and then fold in a little olive oil on the finish.

While this cake benefits from a good beating to get the eggs and sugar fully integrated, I have taken to forgoing a mixer in lieu of a whisk. You could call it a dump cake, because the dry ingredients are quickly added to the wet. Olive oil is gently folded into the batter and it’s quickly popped into a moderate oven.

That’s it.  Since any additions and flavorings incorporated will become quite apparent, I tend to use a mild olive oil because a bold extra virgin oil can overly dominate. Which brings us to what prompted this cake…

At my market they have been actively promoting beautiful blueberries from Chile.  Of course, I would pause and stare. I’d mentally note that it’s a long way to go for something that grows like crazy in Oregon, and then I would move on.  It’s wrong—on so many levels…

That argument blew up today. They reduced the price of the blueberries, and I buckled. (My dirty-little-secret.) So, today’s cake features two of my favorite things:  blueberries and polenta.

Blueberry Polenta Upside-Down Cake

I’ve gone with a simple upside-down cake that features sweetened blueberries topside and includes a bit of fine polenta in the batter for taste and texture. These two are true partners in crime, and what a color combination!

Since blueberries have an affinity for lemon and nutmeg, they flavor the cake beautifully and bring it all together.  Vanilla ice cream or whipped cream would be worth considering, too.

Blueberry Polenta Upside-Down Cake

Ingredients
Berry Layer
1 tsp butter
1½ cups fresh or frozen blueberries, picked and rinsed
⅓ cup granulated sugar
Dry Ingredients
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup fine polenta or cornmeal
½ tsp each baking powder and baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp nutmeg
Wet Ingredients
3 eggs, room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ cup plain yogurt, room temperature
2 tsp grated lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla
⅓ cup mild olive oil

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Butter a 9″ cake pan and spread the blueberries evenly in the bottom of the pan; sprinkle with sugar and set aside.  On wax paper, blend the flour through nutmeg and set aside.
  3. In mixing bowl, whisk the eggs until light and gradually beat in the sugar.
  4. Add the yogurt, lemon zest, vanilla, and mix.  Stir in the dry ingredients just to incorporate. Fold in the oil; don’t over mix.  Scrape bowl down and spread the batter evenly over the berries.
  5. Bake for 35-40 minutes, rotating to brown evenly, until center springs back when touched.
  6. Cool on rack for 10 minutes. Run a thin knife around the edge of pan to loosen the cake, cover with a serving plate, quickly flip to invert cake onto it and cool.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve. Serves 8-10.

The Unplanned Blog

As I sit here on the cusp of a new decade, I’m staring at a blank screen reflecting on the past 10 years.  This blog was in its infancy 10 years ago, a mere experiment.  I considered it more of a journal where it could record my adventures in food and tinker with an alternate form of writing.

Early on, my goal was to post 4 blogs a month… and for the most part I’ve stayed true to that.  There have been times when I could not see the point and had nothing to say, but somehow I found something to write.  It regularly amazes me that we are still at it, 10 years later!

Isn’t that the whole point, though? Oftentimes we don’t have a real plan, we just begin. Then, something drives us; we keep going, and life unfolds in beautiful ways. Culinary Distractions, the unplanned blog, has allowed me the joy of casting my discoveries and words out into the world and releasing them.

I’ve been happy not monetizing and for the most part, remaining add-free. However, in the coming year I suspect there will be positive happenings and changes worth including here.

To all who visit this silly space, thank you for stopping. Thank you for your support and kind words.  They are never expected and pure frosting on the cake!

Here’s a sweet thank you and big New Year wishes.

Grape Clafoutis

Clafoutis is a favorite on this blog and the goofy grape idea has been rattling in my head for some time—it’s fun and really does work!

What a perfect time to share…  Happy New Year!

Grape Clafoutis  

Ingredients
butter for baking dish
3 cups seedless grapes, such as Scarlotta grapes
⅔ cup milk, warm
1 Tbsp butter
3 large eggs, room temperature
⅓ cup sugar
⅓ cup all purpose flour
¼ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp almond extract
½ tsp lemon zest
¼ cup almonds, slivers
1 Tbsp granulated sugar

Instructions

  1. Butter an oven proof shallow 9″ casserole dish, quiche dish, or pie plate.
  2. Warm the milk and the butter together. In a medium bowl, whisk eggs and sugar until frothy, sprinkle in flour, nutmeg, extract, zest, and whisk until smooth. Gradually add warm milk mixture, whisking until well combined. Let stand 30 minutes at room temperature.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350-375°F. Distribute the fruit evenly in the baking dish.  Pour the batter over the fruit. Scatter almonds on top and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until puffed and brown. Rotate dish as needed to brown evenly.
  4. Serve warm or room temperature. If desired dust with confectioners’ sugar; or add a spoonful of ice cream or sweetened whipped cream.  Cover and chill for storage.  Serves 6

Brunch Beauty

This holiday season I’ve gone crazy with fresh Homemade Ricotta.  Now that I have perfected the process, I’m looking for ways to use it and haven’t been disappointed with the range of spreads, dips and desserts that it delivers.

Here’s a brunch idea I’ve used for years and tweaked this Christmas.  It begins with a tasty and impressive French toast which can be cooked to order or made ahead for all to enjoy together.

French Toast Tower, Ricotta Cream, Berries

At its heart is a luscious Ricotta Cream, reminiscent of a cannoli filling, teamed up with plenty of fresh berries.  The scrumptious cream begins with a good quality ricotta cheese whisked with a bit of sugar or honey and flavored with fresh grated orange.

Despite its simplicity, the cream is incredibly versatile. You could include grated chocolate, pistachios or almonds, but they tend to get lost here.  Instead, add them on top with a flourish.

For bread, I’ve had surprising success with a bake-at-home sourdough batard sliced and soaked—without pre-baking. But any dense, day-old bread such as challah will work; one which absorbs and holds the soaking custard.  You’ll probably have extra dipping liquid, for more toast and taller towers…

Once all the bread is toasted a quick heat in the oven results in a lighter, crisper French toast. Let everyone personalize their toast with an assortment of toppings.

French Toast Tower with Ricotta Cream and Berries

Ingredients
8 slices ¾” thick, dense day-old bread
2 Tbsp melted butter
Soaking Custard
4 eggs
1 cups milk
1 Tbsp sugar
Pinch salt
½ tsp vanilla
Ricotta Cream (see below)
12-ounces strawberries or other berries, trimmed, sliced and sweetened with 2 Tbsp sugar
Toppings: chopped semisweet chocolate, or chopped toasted nuts;  ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar, honey or maple syrup

Instructions

  1. Ahead, make Ricotta Cream, slice and sweeten berries with sugar. Line 2 baking sheets with foil.  Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. In a wide bowl for dipping, whisk the eggs with milk, sugar, and flavorings.  Lightly dip both sides of bread slices in the egg mixture and place on a baking sheet and repeat with all slices.
  3. Heat a wide flat skillet or griddle over medium heat and brush with butter. Place soaked bread onto hot surface and cook until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes.  Flip and brown the second side, 2 to 3 minutes longer.  Place on baking sheet, cover with foil and repeat. Prior to serving, place French toast in oven for 5-10 minutes, until heated and still moist.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar.
  4. To serve:  spread French toast with Ricotta Cream, top with fresh berries. Add another toast layer if desired, more berries, and dust with confectioners’ sugar, drizzle with syrup or honey.  Serves 4

Ricotta Cream
2 cups homemade or good quality ricotta cheese
4 Tbsp granulated or confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp vanilla or ¼ tsp almond extract
2 tsp grated orange zest, or ½ tsp cinnamon
3 Tbsp chopped semisweet chocolate, or chopped toasted nuts (optional)

Whisk the ricotta, sugar, vanilla, and orange zest to lighten. Adjust flavors.
Add or garnish with chocolate and/or nuts if using. Chill the cream for 2 hours or longer to set and blend flavors. Can be done a day ahead.  Yield: 2 cups