Shades of Van Gogh

I bought a jar of tahini the other day and cannot leave it alone.  It should be sold with a warning label.

I am hooked. I put tahini on or in everything, and it keeps tasting better.  I write these words as I eye my latest showstopper. I am worried because I may polish this cheesecake off before the sun comes up.

It all began with my musing over the possibilities of a tahini cheesecake.    Mmmm.      That’s when the not-so-obvious addition of turmeric registered.  Now that’s intriguing.  Yes, turmeric interests me, too.  I want to explore its rumored health advantages, its lovely color, its mysterious flavor…  But, wait! Why not throw in a gingersnap and date crust and see what happens?

Tahini Date Cheesecake whole (1)

I hit the kitchen and gather up what’s on hand: Greek yogurt and Neufchatel cheese.  Ah, yes.  Elegant, nuanced… a bit of honey for sweetener is spot on.  Into the pressure cooker it all goes for 30 minutes.  That’s it.

Well, what can I say?  The filling’s golden color is worthy of a Van Gogh painting.

20180125_205511

The flavor is subtle—yet profound. It evokes the question, “Is it really that good?” Perhaps another bite… or two.

Ah, yes, it is certainly good for me. I have no shame.  Call the doctor.

Tahini-Turmeric Cheesecake with Ginger-Date Crust

Inspired by cheesecake from:  http://flavorrd.com/2016/07/instant-pot-greek-yogurt-cheesecake/

Ingredients
Crumb crust
1 cup ginger snaps, fine crumb
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
½ cup dates, chopped
Filling
4 oz. cream cheese, regular or Neufchatel, softened
1/3 cup tahini
½ teaspoon turmeric, toasted
1/4 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch sea salt
1 1/2 cups whole or 2% Greek yogurt
2 large eggs, beaten

Directions

  1. Spray a 7” springform pan with non-stick spray and line bottom with parchment.
  2. For the crust: crush the cookies into fine crumbs, using either a food processor or a ziploc bag and rolling pin. Stir in the melted butter. When well combined add the dates and stir to distribute evenly. Press the mixture onto the bottom of a 7-inch springform pan, pressing firmly and spreading the crust about halfway up the sides of the pan (the bottom of a drinking glass works well for this job).
  3. For the filling: toast the turmeric in a small bowl in the microwave about one minute, until aromatic. In mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese until light.  Whip in the tahini, then the turmeric honey, vanilla and sea salt until well combined. Add Greek yogurt and whip until smooth.  , sugar and vanilla in a large bowl, and whip together until very smooth. Then add the eggs, mixing until just combined.
  4. Pour the filling into the springform pan, being careful to fully cover the crust around the edges (if any crumbs are exposed, they can become soggy from the moisture in the pressure cooker).
  5. Place a trivet rack into the pressure cooker, and pour in 1 cup of water. Place the cheesecake on top of the trivet and close the lid. Set the valve to sealing position, and cook on high pressure for 30 minutes. When done, turn off cooker and let stand for 5 minutes without disturbing, then release pressure.
  6. Open the lid and use the trivet handles to lift out the pan. If water has settled on top of the cheesecake, gently blot any excess with a paper towel.
  7. Allow the cheesecake to cool on a rack at room temperature for 1-2 hours, then transfer it to the refrigerator to chill completely (at least 4 hours). Serves: 1 to 8.
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Pizza Margarita in a Skillet: Faster than Dominos can Deliver

When using the very best ingredients it’s hard to beat a great combination like fresh mozzarella, vine ripened tomatoes, and basil leaves.  Add any other specialty touches like a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and you have the makings of a masterpiece.

Throw in a fine crispy bread and you will know why Pizza Margarita has long been considered one of the world’s great classics.

Last night I experienced such good fortune when I happened to have fabulous fresh bread dough—as well as all the above ingredients.  Easily, within ten minutes I was slicing into world class pizza.

I had a supply of excellent bread dough on hand thanks to local bread expert Marc Green, who has perfected his own no-knead bread for artisan bread baking.  With that in mind, I pulled out a heavy skillet and heated a good drizzle of olive oil. I flattened and patted out a portion of Marc’s dough, threw it into the hot pan, and covered it with a lid to create an impromptu oven.

Meanwhile, I gathered up pre-sliced mozzarella, thinly sliced fresh tomato, and plucked a few sprigs of basil off my doorstep plant. When the bottom was crispy, I gave it a flip and added my toppings.  It was quickly covered and left to cook for another 3-5 minutes, until the cheese melted and the bottom was golden brown.

Since my dough was well constructed and robust, it raised beautifully, much like a Chicago-style pizza.  Normally I prefer a thinner crust, but this was so good I nearly polished off the whole thing without stopping for a salad!

Given this simple technique, there is no reason why any other bread or ready-made pizza dough would not work.  I also sprinkled on red pepper flakes and sea salt but that’s a personal thing. Simply nothing else is required.  Not even a phone call or text message.

Pizza Margarita in a Skillet

Inspired by Marc Green’s No-Knead Bread

Ingredients
one recipe bread dough
fresh sliced tomato
fresh sliced mozzarella
fresh basil leaves
olive oil

Directions

  1. Turn raised, room temperature dough out onto lightly floured surface. Lightly dust with flour and cut into four or more portions and shape into balls.
  2. Heat a medium skillet (8” approx.), heat 1-2 tablespoons oil into bottom until it shimmers. Flatten one ball with hand and press into the diameter of the skillet; carefully slide the dough into pan.
  3. Cover with a lid and cook 3 minutes until golden brown on bottom and dough has risen, uncover and carefully flip over.
  4. Place the tomato slices, mozzarella slices, and basil leaves on top of the dough.  Cover with lid and cook 3-5 minutes longer until cheese is melted and bottom is golden brown.   Remove to cutting board, cut into wedges and serve hot.  Repeat pizzas as needed.

A Lovely Bunch of Radishes, Part 2

Anyone who has had a radish right out of the garden knows that a radish needs very little else; maybe a little salt to emphasize its flavor, but it’s hard to improve on perfection.  Perhaps strange to Americans, the French love their radishes with butter.

Here’s a variation on a tea sandwich that bumps that idea up a little bit more.  Use a good firm bread such as a baguette, rye, or pumpernickel sliced fairly thin—this is merely a platform for the radish.  Make a quick herb butter and spread it across the top of each bread slice.Baguette_herb butter

Layer on thinly sliced radishes and sprinkle with a few radish sprout leaves or more fresh herbs. Leave them open faced to enjoy the radish’s simple beauty, or top with a second slice of buttered bread for enclosed sandwiches.  Either way, just looking at them is enough to cause your fingers to travel in their direction!Radish teas

Serve anywhere you would enjoy bread with a hit of healthful crunch: with soup, salad, as a snack with drinks, or straight out of the garden.

Radish and Herb Butter Sandwiches

Ingredients
10   slices firm bread, such as baguette, rye, or pumpernickel
6     radishes, thinly sliced
Sprout leaves for garnish
Sea salt
Herb Butter
3         tablespoons butter, room temperature
2         teaspoon parsley
1/2      teaspoon thyme, minced
1/4      teaspoon lemon juice
1/4      teaspoon sea salt

Directions

  1. Prepare the herb butter:  combine butter with herbs, a squeeze of lemon juice, and salt to taste.
  2.  Slice the radishes thinly.
  3. To assemble: spread the top of each bread slice with herb butter.  Layer with radishes, top with sprouts if available.   Serve with a sprinkling of sea salt.

Dish and Dash

As I carefully wrapped my platter of chilled vegetables with attending dip this past weekend and prepared to dash out the door, it occurred to me that perhaps this simple combination was worth blogging about.  I grabbed my camera, took a couple of quick shots―plastic wrap still attached―and kept running.

All Wrapped Up

All Wrapped Up

Granted, crudités and bean dip is not usually reason to get wildly excited, but if you are like me, you are probably faced with the quandary of coming up with quick party trays and dishes, too.  I have used this one more times than I can recall.

During my catering days Tuscan Bean Dip was always a popular choice.  It can be made ahead and left to chill well-covered in the fridge until needed. The vegetable and dip combination make the perfect launching point for an expanded Italian platter, piled high with olives, pickled peppers, salamis and/or cheeses.

No time to assemble a tray of vegetables?  Folks love spreading Tuscan Bean Dip on crackers, smearing it on rustic sliced bread (grilled or not), and as a dipper with bread sticks.   Should there be any left over, try it slathered in a sandwich instead of mayo…

Since we are working with basic, earthy ingredients, the success of Tuscan Bean Dip depends upon the use of the best quality ingredients afforded.

Tuscan Bean Dip

Tuscan Bean Dip

I prefer real cannellini beans, or white kidney beans, because they are large, creamy, and have a rich, rounded flavor that blends well with all sorts of herbs and seasonings.  They carry their own magic.

For flavorings, on this occasion I opted for fresh basil, Italian parsley, green onions, and of course, a nice hit of fresh garlic.  (Rosemary is a real favorite, if used judiciously.)  Good quality extra virgin olive oil is a key addition to elevating this beyond ‘just another bean dip.’ Fresh lemon juice, its counterpoint, is also essential.  You will know there’s a party going on when its brightness amps up all the simple, rustic ingredients.

Turns out, it was a warm early evening with folks scattered about seeking the shade of sprawling oak trees.  The assorted veggies sprinkled with Italian olives and teamed with Tuscan Bean Dip drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, were a welcome complement to tomato bruschetta, frittata, yummy cheeses, and lots more.

Vegetable Platter with Tuscan Bean Dip 

Ingredients

2 lbs      Assorted vegetables: broccoli, snow peas, endive, celery, carrots (regular or baby) radishes, mushrooms, assorted peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, baby tomatoes

Tuscan Bean Dip

2         15 oz. cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
2 tbsp    fresh basil, chopped
2 tbsp    fresh Italian parsley chopped
2 tbsp    green onion, chopped
1-2       cloves garlic, crushed or minced well
2 tbsp    extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp    fresh lemon juice, or to taste
½ tsp     salt
1/8 tsp  freshly ground pepper

Method

  1. For bean dip:  drain and rinse the beans.
  2. In a food processor combine all and mix until blended and beans are slightly mashed, but still retain texture. Cover and chill if making ahead.  Yield:  2 -3 cups.
  3. For vegetables, trim and cut into finger-sized pieces.  Can be prepped ahead at this point.
  4. To assemble tray, begin at one ‘corner”, and mound vegetables in separate groupings, layering on top of preceding veggies while moving toward center.  Reserve space for the dip and continue filling in the platter. Garnish with radicchio and herbs.  Serves 10 approx.

Winter Pho Soup

Like much of the country, we’ve been hunkering down in absolutely frigid temperatures, facing daily threads of ice storms.  Parents don’t know what to plan from one day to the next since school closures come early in the morning with the slightest inkling of risk.

It hasn’t stopped me from getting out and exploring the Austin area.

On my latest foray to the Asian Market  at the Chinatown Center  I stocked up on all sorts of long missed spoils.  Browsing the aisles I found my favorite mushroom soy sauce and Chinkiang vinegar, a wonderful black rice vinegar.

The produce section displayed a stack of plump baby bok choy, bags of crisp mung bean sprouts, and a stunning mound of fresh shiitake mushrooms. When I spotted oxtails in the meat case, I knew that it was time for some serious soup making and nothing pleased me more than the idea of a steamy bowl of Pho.

pho union sq blog

There was a whole shelf of various types of pho seasonings and I opted for a box with disposable bags, reminiscent of the sort I enjoyed while in Miami. Pho condiments IMG_1215

A day ahead, I cooked and chilled the incredibly simple Oxtail Soup stock (included below).  The kitchen smelled delicious as it simmered away on the back of the stove, and in less than two hours I had an effortless, rich, and flavorful stock.

This soup takes no time to assemble.  I took Ming Tsai’s suggestion from Blue Ginger, and made a refreshing salad with bean sprouts and herbs to further season the soup.  Although rice sticks are the preferred noodle, we had a good supply of fresh somen noodles on hand that worked out fine and only needed a moment to be warmed in the hot soup.   We also had grilled beef left from our Super Bowl Summer Roll Spree which proved a tasty topping for our hot bowls filled with steamy Pho soup.

Pho, Vietnamese Beef-Noodle Soup with Vegetables

 Ingredients 

Soup Base 

  • 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1 Tbsp. ginger, peeled and minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 onion, peeled and sliced lengthwise
  • 2 serrano chili peppers, seeded and minced
  • 1 carrot, peeled and thinly sliced at an angle
  • 5 oz. shiitake mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and sliced (2 cups)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 Tbsp. dark soy sauce
  • 8 cups rich beef or oxtail stock
  • 1 bag Pho seasoning or in a cheesecloth bag: 6 whole cloves, 2 star anise, and 1 cinnamon stick

Soup Additions

  •  6 to 8 oz. rice stick noodles
  • 1½  lb. baby bok choy, cut in half lengthwise
  • 8 oz. lean raw tender beef, thinly sliced (tenderloin, sirloin, etc.)

Bean Sprout Salad

  • 2 cups mung bean sprouts, rinsed and drained
  • ½ cup Thai basil leaves, chopped
  • ¼ cup mint, chopped
  • 3 green onions, chopped
  • 1 Tbsp. Thai fish sauce   (nam pla)
  • 2 limes, juice

Additional garnishes:  sliced serrano peppers, basil or mint leaves, sesame oil, lime wedges, fish or sriracha sauce.

Directions

  1. For the soup base:  in a soup pot, sauté the oil with the ginger and garlic until aromatic;  add the onions and toss to soften, then add the peppers, the carrots, the mushrooms, and season lightly with salt and pepper.  Add the reserved beef,  soy sauce, the stock, and the pho seasoning.  Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes or until the stock is well flavored with the seasoning.
  2.  Meanwhile, soak the rice stick noodles in warm water for about 20 minutes.
  3.  For the Beans Sprout Salad, just before serving, combine the bean sprouts with the herbs and onions.  Combine the fish sauce and the limes toss the salad lightly.
  4.  To finish the soup, remove the pho seasoning bag, add the bok choy;  simmer briefly, until the base of the bok choy is barely tender, 1-2 minutes.  Add the rice noodles to warm them.
  5.  On the table, include additional sliced serrano peppers, basil or mint leaves, sesame oil, lime wedges, fish, soy, or sriracha sauce.
  6.  To serve, arrange bean sprouts in wide bowls, add a ladle of hot soup including noodles and vegetables, lay a few slices of beef on top, and finish with a favorite condiments.

Easy Oxtail Stock

  • 1 ½ – 2 lbs. oxtail, sections, rinsed and patted dry
  • 1 medium onion, cut into large chunks
  • 2 ribs celery
  • salt to taste

Bring oxtail to a boil in about 8 cups water.  Remove the brown scum that floats to the top and continue simmer for 1 hour.  Add onion, cook ½ hour; add celery and cook 15 minutes longer; salt to taste.  Strain the liquid, reserve the oxtails and chill well.  When cold, the stock will be thick and gelatinous; remove the layer of fat on stop. Pick the meat from the bones and reserve for soup, if desired.

Herbal Survivors: No Fair Weather Friends

Winter Herb Garden!

A Messy Winter Herb Garden

It’s typical winter weather here in Western Oregon; thus far we’ve had rain, hail, snow, and our share of serious sub-zero conditions.  In spite of all that, somehow my herb garden (no longer  stunningly glorious)  continues to deliver a steady supply of aromatics for regular cooking purposes.

Winter Oregano

Winter Oregano

Although it’s pretty bleak out there, yesterday I noticed that the oregano, thyme, rosemary, savory, and even a little sage are still hanging on.   There was enough to warrant another light harvest for winter drying.

I maintain a jar of mixed dried herbs―it’s my go-to house blend for everyday use.   I enjoy it so much that I’ve even managed to reduce my salt intake by adding the herb blend to my salt grinder for a quick dusting on eggs, soups, salads, popcorn…

herbs and jarWhen my supply begins to run low, I simply gather up a few handfuls of whatever is abundant in the garden (including lavender on occasion), place it all in a large shallow bowl, and let it dry on the counter for a week or two.  By then it’s time to replenish the herb jar.

When a dash to the garden isn’t feasible, the herb blend makes a delicious quick vinaigrette.  I’ve noticed the flavor of dried herbs is far more robust and lasts considerably longer than their fresh counterparts.

Herbal Vinaigrette

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup lemon juice, or a combination with white wine vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic, minced well
  • 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp. or more dried herb blend (oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, savory)
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • ¾ cup olive oil, or a combination vegetable and olive oil

Instructions

Combine all in a jar and shake well.  Serve over assorted chilled greens and a few fresh herbs, if available.

The Real Meaning of Comfort Food

When life around you tumbles into chaos, some might argue that cooking is not always the wisest course of action.  My response to them would probably be something approximating, “Well, you’ve got to eat, don’t you?” 
 
That was pretty much the case this weekend.  On Friday, I made a quick dash to the store to pick up a few remaining items necessary to prepare a sultry Moroccan ragu of pork, onion, carrots, butternut squash, chickpeas, enriched with layers of aromatics and sweet spices― all simmered into a state of lush complexity.   

Back at home, it was pretty clear that I had a problem with my kitchen sink.  When the faucet was on, water flowed from under the sink onto the floor.   Once I determined the water was no longer gushing, I placed a pan under the sink, mopped up my mess, and debated my next step. Living out in the country is wonderful, but there are a few drawbacks.  Such as: calling the plumber late on a Friday.   Additional scheduling time plus higher house call fees always give me pause.      

 

I sent up an SOS to my neighbor, Gerald, our resident handyman.   As long as I didn’t run water, we agreed that there was no great emergency; he would stop by in the morning with his wrench and we would assess the situation then.    

 
So much for any big cooking plans; they were squelched for the night.  Still in damage control mode, I decided to keep a lid on making any more of a mess than necessary and opted for a simple veggie burger dinner from the freezer.

In the morning, before Gerald arrived, I warmed a loaf of whole wheat soda bread from the freezer,  set out a charming bowl of muscadine jelly, a ramekin of butter, napkins, plates, coffee cups and juice glasses.   Just looking at it made me happy! Yes, food is very therapeutic.     
Meanwhile, since my urge to cook was percolating up again, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to begin simmering a pot of chicken stock.   From the freezer, I pulled out a recently frozen roasted chicken, dropped it in a pot of water, and got it simmering on the stove.  What better to time to prep the basic ragu vegetables than while adding the trimmings to the pot?  In went a rib of celery, a pinch of thyme, and a bay leaf, too.   There!  The vegetables were all prepped, tucked back in the fridge, and ready when needed.  Simmering on the back of the stove, the stock smelled divine.  All was well.   
It also looked like it I could quickly conjure up the Moroccan pork marinade.  In a blink I had a heavenly blend of ground coriander, cumin, ginger, turmeric, paprika, and pepper, all bound with a hint of lemon juice and a dash of olive oil.   Mmmm, what a mood elevator!
 At the market earlier, I had elected to decrease the usual 1-1/2 lbs. boneless pork for a ¾ pound slice of tenderized pork plus a package of sliced cremini mushrooms.  Such a small amount, I might as well cut the pork into cubes add it to the marinade, and store it in a zip lock bag.  Then, I gave it all a good massage and popped it in the fridge.    No muss, no fuss; another step done.  

 
Gerald arrived to a spotless kitchen; we put our heads together, and got to assessing the situation.   Yes, it looked like a clogged drain alright, but peering under the sink he spotted other issues that looked questionable― albeit easily remedied.   Waving his arms wildly, he put forth possible scenarios.   More tools required, more mop up, the day dragged on; the kitchen was slowly unraveling.  By late afternoon, the situation had worsened and Gerald was flummoxed.  When the faucet was on, the sink leaked more than ever and water now gushed from an errant hose onto the kitchen floor.   I thanked Gerald for all his help (sigh) as he dashed out the door shaking his head.  He had football games ahead and a big screen waiting for him at home.   
 

It looked like I had no choice but to call in the plumber; but not today.   I surmised I was safe as long as I didn’t run water in the sink.  I had Moroccan ragu in my future and tomorrow was another day.
 

Notes about the recipe:  this is a very adaptable concept.  As mentioned, I substituted cremini mushrooms for part of the pork.  Preserved lemons are on my hit list, but for now, I used the lemon as indicated, plus I included the lemon remains to the ragu as it simmered. I also added 2 to 3 cups of chopped chard from the garden with the return of the pork.  Since my ragu had plenty of liquid when done, I thickened it with 2 tablespoons instant tapioca pearls.  It proved to be outstanding thickener. I served it over a simple couscous seasoned lightly with fresh ginger and a bay leaf.  Bliss in a bowl.

Moroccan-Flavored Ragu with Pork and Winter Squash

Adapted from Eating Well

Ingredients
  • 2 lemons
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 2 teaspoons paprika, preferably Hungarian
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground, plus 1 pinch, divided
  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless pork chops, (1 inch thick), trimmed of fat, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 14 ounces chicken broth
  • 1 cup butternut squash, peeled and diced (1/2-inch dice)
  • 1 cup carrots, sliced (1/2 inch thick)
  • 1 cup canned chickpeas, rinsed
  • 1/2 cup onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup canned diced tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons preserved lemon, chopped rinsed, (see Note; optional)
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco
  • 1 Pinch ground cinnamon
  • 1 Pinch ground allspice
Instructions
  1. Zest and juice the lemon(s) to get 1 tablespoon zest and 2 tablespoons juice; reserve the zest. Combine the juice, 1/2 teaspoon oil, paprika, turmeric, coriander, cumin, pepper and 1/4 teaspoon ginger in a medium bowl. Add pork; stir to coat. Marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or up to 4 hours.
  2. Heat the remaining 2 teaspoons oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pork and cook, stirring, until no longer pink on the outside and beginning to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the pork to a plate.
  3. To the pan, add broth, squash, carrots, chickpeas, onion, tomatoes, preserved lemon (if using), tomato paste, garlic, hot sauce, cinnamon, allspice, the reserved lemon zest and the remaining pinch of ginger to the pan. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally; reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, 20 to 30 minutes.
  4. Stir in the pork, return to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the pork is just cooked through, 2 to 5 minutes more. Serve over couscous, bulgur or rice, and garnish with a blend of 1/4 cup chopped cilantro, 2 tablespoons chopped scallions and 1 tablespoon chopped mint.