Honey Spiced Cakes

If you are a fan of pain d’epices, the classic French sweet bread made with honey and spice, then here’s a version that will make your head spin. Part of the appeal of the pain d’epices loaf is that it is designed to improve with age. However, once you’ve had a bite of one, it’s unlikely that will ever happen.

These smaller, personal sized cakes receive their distinct identity from an enticing blend of spices featuring aniseed and compounded with rye flour.  The healthy dose of honey adds enough richness and moisture to make it hard to believe they contain not a whit of butter or oil.

This particular Spanish twist comes by way of David Lebovitz and his great blog of the same name.  The cakes are one of a fascinating collection from  Chef Daniel Olivella in his new cookbook, Catalan Food: Culture and Flavors from the Mediterranean.  Olivella, born in Spain, shares his grandmother’s thrifty sweet cakes originally made with stale bread saturated in red wine. Daniel now lives in Austin, Texas where he operates Barlata Tapas Bar.

Rather than red wine syrup, David chose to roll his variation in sugar and then dip the tops in a cider syrup.  I passed on all that, since mine were plenty moist and sweet from the honey.   I also used smaller silicone molds, which hold about ¼ cup when filled, and less than a standard muffin cup.

For a final touch of sparkle,  I lightly dipped the baby cake tops in turbinado sugar crystals—and called it good!

Honey Spiced Cakes

Inspired by David Lebovitz’s adaptation of Daniel Olivella’s version in Catalan Food: Culture and Flavors from the Mediterranean.

Ingredients
For the cakes
1 cup honey
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup rye flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 cup whole or low fat milk
2 large eggs, at room temperature
Optional syrup
1/2 cup sparkling apple cider, hard or non-alcoholic
1/2 cup, plus 1/4 cup granulated sugar
Finish variation:  1/3 cup turbinado sugar

Instructions

  1. To make the cakes, preheat the oven to 350ºF. Use small silicone cups or line a muffin tin with 12 cupcake liners.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together the honey and brown sugar. If your honey is super thick, you may wish to warm it slightly before mixing.
  3. Sift together the all-purpose and rye flour with the baking powder, cinnamon, aniseed, nutmeg or ginger, and cloves, into a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the milk and eggs, stirring until partially combined. Add the honey mixture and stir until everything is well-combined.
  4. Divide the batter into the cups; each should be about two-thirds full. Bake until the cakes are barely set in the center and the tops are lightly browned 25-30 minutes. Let cool completely.
  5. Prepare the optional syrup while the cakes are cooking and cooling: bring the cider and 1/2 cup granulated sugar to a boil in a small saucepan or skillet, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
  6. To finish: put the remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a small bowl. Remove the cakes from the muffin cups and roll each in the sugar, coating the sides. Dip the tops of each cake in the syrup after you roll each one, and set them on a serving plate.
  7. Alternatively, simply dip the tops in turbinado sugar.

To serve:  Chef Olivella suggests serving with remaining syrup and a bit of crème fraiche, but as a snacking cake they are good on their own.  Store in airtight container at room temperature 4-5 days.  Yield:  about 12 cakes.

A Pansy Tribute

Pansies are one of those simple plants that just keeps on giving.  There must be a pansy created for every condition and region of the country.  I first became aware of them in Greenville, South Carolina where they bloomed like crazy in the blazing summer heat.   In my McKenzie River garden,  violas and violets,  pansies’ relatives, were the first to poke their tiny purple heads out the early spring snow.

Late this summer, I hastily added a few pansies to fill out a sparse planter in my dooryard garden. Without much effort, they consistently carried on and bloomed with the least amount of care; and still, as  winter approaches,  pansies  remain one of the durable spots of color in my depleted pots.

I tend to go with plants that serve a dual purpose in my garden: I prefer attractive as well as edible varieties. Some are perennials, like herbs, towering garlic onions and nasturtiums.  Annual favorites are mesclun blends, petite tomatoes, and climbing baby cucumbers.  Weirdly, when it comes to harvesting the pansies I have resisted.  I’ve been happy to simply behold their nodding faces in a spectrum of purples, blues, reds and yellows, all perfectly framed by their deep green leaves.

As I headed out this morning, I was alarmed to note that the pot of pansies had diminished to a sad state of drooping heads and withered yellow leaves.  It signaled the end of a season.  Later in a moment of reflection, I decided to stage my own act of thanksgiving—gratitude for my garden and all the pansies that have given so much joy this year.

Back in the kitchen, I set about creating a special salad featuring the pansies in an end of season tribute.  So, here it is, a pre-winter canvas of mixed greens and fresh herbs with a bit of radicchio and shredded carrot for crunch.

The basis of the simple dressing is a mild yet flavorful German mustard blended with a bit of chives and lemon juice all whisked into an emulsion with extra virgin olive oil. Atop the greens, a few dried cherries are scattered with crumbled feta cheese, toasted almonds and walnuts.  Finally, a smattering of pansy blossoms and petals grace the plate with their gentle sweetness and color.

A Pre-Winter Salad with Pansies

Ingredients
Per serving
3-4 organic pansy blossoms
2-3 cups mixed greens with radicchio and shredded carrots
1 tablespoon fresh parsley and/or other herbs
2 tablespoon toasted walnuts and/or almonds
2 tablespoons dried fruit: cherries, blueberries or cranberries
2 tablespoon feta cheese, large crumble
Dressing
¾ teaspoon German or Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon minced chives
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Pinch salt and pepper
1-2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, to taste

Directions

  1. Rinse and dry fresh pansies and any other available fresh flowers, mixed greens and herbs.
  2. Toast the nuts.
  3. Prepare the salad dressing: place mustard in small bowl, add the chives, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and combine well. Slowly whisk in the olive oil to emulsify.  Adjust seasoning and set aside.
  4. In small mixing bowl, place the salad mix, tear the petals from 1 or two blossoms, drizzle with part of the dressing and toss to coat.
  5. To serve: plate the dressed greens mixture, top with crumbled feta, dried fruit and nuts, and tuck in remaining flowers.  Drizzle with a bit more dressing and serve. Yield: 1 serving.

 

Let Them Eat Bread!

There was a time when the dinner roll was ubiquitous fare with evening meals throughout America. In the early half of the 20th century, most popular was the Parker House roll, that fluffy darling known for its addictive sweetness.  The cloverleaf roll and other flavorless knock-offs followed, and by the 70’s and 80’s the dinner roll had morphed into throw-away status, a mere place-holder for the most ravenous.

Before we knew it, our evening bread threatened to drift into obscurity.  For those conforming to diets and health regimens, the dinner roll was typically viewed as not worth the carb outlay and restaurateurs were forced to take a serious look at the role bread played on the plate. They recognized the value of bread: it bought time and was an affordable meal extender.  On the other side, diners’ palates were becoming more sophisticated. “Either give us something worth eating, or forget about it,” they demanded.

Enter the army of artisan breads. Apparently, the French knew what they were doing with their beloved baguette. It wasn’t long before delightfully innovative loaves had fully captured our attention and claimed a well-deserved place at the table. We made the turn from soft and fluffy dinner rolls to artfully crafted bread—worth eating every crunchy, chewy, tangy bite.

Me?  I’m somewhere in the middle. I enjoy a slice of crusty bread dipped in flavored olive oil. Currently on my counter?  I’ve got my own light, yeasty rolls cooling on a rack; they’re enriched with sweet potato, accented by fresh sage.

sweet potato rolls

Shades of Parker House rolls!  These slightly sweet copper-tinged beauties serve a dual purpose:  they are both nutritious and delicious.  The sweet potato provides a good hit of valuable nutrients like vitamins A, C, manganese, calcium and iron, plus it brings a touch of sweetness and adds fiber for the dough’s structure.

This particular recipe is actually reworked from a gluten-free one by Erin McKenna in her excellent cookbook, Bread & Butter.  In my version, the dough is quickly mixed by hand to bring the dry and wet ingredients together. I use instant dry yeast which cuts down on rising time. Best news here, no kneading is required. The scooped dough is dropped onto a baking pan with limited space between the rolls. Within the hour they double in size, ready for the oven where they rise up and support each other to form light pull-apart rolls.

These rolls have real character; they are a match with a simple smear of butter and they can stand up to big flavors.  I’ve used them as sliders with sausage, kraut, and spicy mustard.

They are perfect for breakfast with eggs and such. They are just right with minestrone soup, and the dough makes fantastic pizza!

IMG_0416

You get the idea, they are dinner rolls worth eating.

Sweet Potato and Sage Rolls

Adapted from Erin McKenna’s Sweet Potato and Sage Pull-Apart Rolls from Bread & Butter

Ingredients
1 tablespoon cornmeal for the baking pan
½ tablespoon butter for baking pan
1-½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat, spelt, or teff flour
2 teaspoons instant dry yeast
¾ teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sweet potato puree (from 1 small)
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons agave nectar
1 teaspoon dried sage or 1 tablespoon fresh, mince

Instructions

  1. Ahead: Prepare the sweet potato puree: bake 1 small for 6-8 minutes in microwave, turning once half way through. Let cool, scoop out the pulp, mash it well, and reserve ½ cup for puree. Butter the sides of 8×8” or 9×12” baking pan, line the bottom with parchment, sprinkle with cornmeal.
  2. In medium bowl whisk together flours, instant yeast, baking powder and salt.
  3. In a 2 cup measure or small bowl, combine the puree, 1 tablespoon butter, milk, agave, sage, and warm for 40-60 seconds in microwave to melt butter and bring it to 110-120°.
  4. Make a well in the dry and pour in the liquid; with a spatula stir to combine, until it is the consistency of a sticky dough.
  5. Using a 3-tablespoon ice cream scoop, measure portions into pan with no more than 1/2 inch between each roll on the pan. Cover the pan with a towel and let the rolls rise until light, 45-60 minutes.
  6. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Bake the rolls for about 16 minutes–half way through rotate the pan. Bake until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the rolls cool on rack for 10 minutes before unmolding. Yield: 9-12 rolls.

Socca: Guilt-free, Gluten-free

Ever need a flat bread or cracker with character to fill in as a snack with drinks or as an alternative bite with soup or salad?  This one is even gluten-free.

Socca is a fascinating chickpea based ‘crepe’ popular in the south of France.  In northern Italy, Farinata is a variation sold along-side pizza and focaccia.  No shaping or patting required, Socca is a simple batter built on chickpea flour, salt, water, and a bit of olive oil.

If time permits, let the batter rest overnight for it to relax and thicken. The flavor and texture will improve, resulting in a creamy interior and crisp exterior texture.  When ready, spread it into a pizza pan and bake in hot oven to set. Remove briefly, add toppings, and return to finish.

As you can imagine, this chickpea treat is full-flavored and needs little more than a light topping of olive oil, a sprinkling of sea salt, fresh herbs, perhaps a few olives for embellishment…  Rosemary is one such herb that is assertive enough to do well here.

Or, if you are feeling adventurous, try Zhoug Sauce , a highly addictive condiment from Yemen made with cilantro, jalapeno peppers, chile flakes, garlic, cardamom, and cumin seed.  I was lucky enough to discover the sauce at Trader Joe’s recently and it was a big hit on a recent Socca batch.  Be prepared, Zhoug packs quite a punch.  I liked it so much, I even added feta cheese.  So much for keeping it simple.

Socca

Inspired by King Arthur Flour, Socca

Ingredients

Batter
3 cups chickpea flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/3 cups water
2 tablespoons olive oil, more for the pan
Toppings
½ cup olive oil or sauce of choice
3 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped
3/4 cup pitted and sliced Greek olives
1 cup feta cheese (optional)

Directions

  1. Whisk the flour and salt together in a bowl. Add the water and olive oil and whisk until smooth. Cover and let the batter rest at room temperature for at least 2 hours, or overnight.
  2. Preheat oven to 450°F. Spread 9” pizza pan liberally with olive oil. . Place the pan in the oven to preheat for 5 minutes.
  3. Carefully remove the pan from the oven and pour in the batter, spreading to edges in an even layer. Bake for 7 minutes and remove from the oven.
  4. Lightly spread top with olive oil, fresh herbs or sauce of choice. Add feta cheese if desired, and return to oven for 7 minutes longer until the surface takes on color and browns. If the top doesn’t brown, turn the oven from bake to broil until crisp and blistered.
  5. Remove from the oven, cool for 5 minutes, then cut into wedges to serve warm. The top and bottom should be crisp, and the center creamy and moist.
  6. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to a week. Reheat in a preheated 400°F oven for 10 minutes before serving. Yield: 3 – 9” rounds cut into portions.

 

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.

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.