Friday, August 29, 2008

Quick Dish: Presto Pesto

Pesto is one of my all-time favorite go-to quick dishes. You can whip it together in literally 1 minute and use it a thousand ways: it’s great on hot or cold pasta, mixed into scrambled eggs, as a base sauce for pizza, dolloped on baked fish or as a ‘marinade’ for grilled shrimp…the list goes on and on. You can also feel free to vary the ingredients based on what you have on hand – walnuts or pistachios instead of pine nuts, parsley, cilantro and/or spinach for the green, etc. However, as an addict of the summery zing of fresh basil, I tend to stick with my basic version. (Though one word of caution: don’t use purple basil. Pretty as it is prior to blending, nobody finds brown gloop very appetizing).

Even better - pesto freezes well. I make at least a double batch each time, pour some into a baggie and toss it in the freezer for another night. (This is also a great way to have "fresh" pesto come fall when farmers' market basil is long gone).

Presto Pesto
1 packed cup fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, smashed
Zest and juice of one lemon, optional
1/4 to 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, depending on your chunky/smooth preference
¼ cup parmesan cheese
Plenty of salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place all ingredients into a blender and process until smooth.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Quick Dish: Dried Figs Stuffed with Ricotta, Pine Nuts and Bacon

In case you didn’t know, I’m a big fan of stuffing things – pasta, roulades, jelly rolls, name it, I’ll fill it. So in the spirit of stuffing, here’s a quick appetizer that’s great for a party – or just for stuffing yourself.

24 dried figs
4 ounces ricotta cheese
4 slices cooked bacon, cut into small pieces*
Handful of toaste pine nuts
Honey for drizzling
Several basil leaves, chopped fine

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Cut off the tops of the figs and use a chopstick or similar tool to hollow out a bit of the center. If necessary, squish the figs gently to make them stand upright for baking.

Fill the corner of a sturdy plastic baggie with the ricotta cheese, tie to close, and snip off just the very tip to create a makeshift piping bag. Fill the cavity you made in the figs with the ricotta, then stuff a piece of bacon and a few pine nuts into the cheese.

Bake for 15 minutes. Remove, drizzle with honey and sprinkle with basil. Serve warm.

*Try cooking the bacon in the oven: 425 degrees for 10-15 minutes, on a rack over a cookie sheet covered in aluminum foil. It’s much easier - and less splattery – than on the stove.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Happiness Is: Me at a Farmer's Market

Few things making me as happy as wandering through a farmer’s market in August (except for maybe wandering through one in September). It’s just impossible to be in a bad mood surrounded by all those bright colors and smells. Here’s a pic of my recent bounty, courtesy of the 14th and U market.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Love Dish: Sunday Cupcakes

Apparently following the mini dessert craze sweeping DC, the August edition of Food and Wine magazine included a great section called “Perfecting the Cupcake.” It featured two cake batter recipes (golden and chocolate), three frostings (white buttercream, chocolate and marshmallow), and a multitude of topping suggestions (including caramel-pretzel, rocky road and strawberry shortcake). I tried them out, and I can honestly say they’re some of the best cupcakes I’ve ever had.

My favorite version is below, and will henceforth be known as “Sunday cupcakes” because they made the end of the weekend a whole lot easier to take. Try them out yourself next Sunday, and if, like me, you feel a wee bit gluttonous making a dozen cupcakes all for your lonesome, just take them to work on Monday and spread the love.

Chocolate Cupcakes

4 tbsp unsalted butter
¼ cup vegetable oil
½ cup water
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup plus 2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
¾ tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
1 large egg
¼ cup buttermilk
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper or foil liners, or coat with nonstick cooking spray.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter with the vegetable oil and water over low heat.

In a large bowl, sift the flour with the sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. Add the melted butter mixture and beat with a handheld mixer at low speed until smooth. Add the egg and beat until incorporated, then add the buttermilk and vanilla and beat until smooth, scraping the bottom and side of the bowl. Pour the batter into the muffin tins, filling them about three-fourths full.

Bake the cupcakes in the center of the oven for about 25 minutes, until springy and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the cupcakes cool slightly, then transfer them to a rack to cool completely. Frost with white buttercream frosting.

White Buttercream Frosting
6 tbsp butter, softened
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
½ tsp pure vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
2 tbsp milk or heavy cream

In a medium bowl, using a handheld mixer, beat the softened butter at medium speed until smooth. Add the confectioners’ sugar, vanilla extract and salt and beat the mixture at low speed just until combined. Increase speed to medium and beat until smooth. Add the milk or heavy cream and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Spread the frosting on the cupcakes. Sprinkle with semisweet chocolate chips. Sigh with pleasure.

Quick Dish: Goat Cheese-Stuffed Squash Blossoms with Curry Powder

Much as I love squash blossoms, until this past weekend, I had yet to buy the little beauties this summer. A recent trip to the 14th and U Farmers Market changed that. One stall had pristine blossoms in plastic boxes, as well as the flowers still attached to baby squash. I stocked up on the former, and even got a free recipe to boot, as the nice man I bought them from shared his favorite preparation with me – stuffed with goat cheese, sautéed for just a minute in a little olive oil, and sprinkled with curry powder. No batter? “Never,” he said. “It ruins their delicate flavor.”

He was right - rather than simply being a vehicle for the gooey filling, the fresh, grassy flavor of the blossoms themselves could shine through. My only addition – a little chopped basil mixed into the cheese.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Love Dish: Best. Damn. Banana Bread. Ever.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a house with two great cooks. My mom could whip up an excellent meal, even on a weeknight, with nary a recipe in site. My dad, in contrast, lived for recipes, and still does. Whereas my mother and I cringe at exact measurements, my dad reveres them. Not surprisingly, he’s a kick ass baker, and the crown jewel in his repertoire has got to be his banana bread.

He’s been perfecting it for as long as I can remember – the right mix-ins, the right temperature, the right timing. Its creation has truly been a labor of love. Luckily, the actual making of this delicious wonder bread takes a lot less effort.

And now, dear reader, I bequeath to you the best damn banana bread recipe under the sun. Or at least under my dad’s roof. (Only caveat – you have to be a chocolate lover).

Dad's Banana Bread

Dry ingredients:
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt

Wet ingredients:
2 medium overripe bananas (the blacker the better), mashed
¼ cup milk
1/3 cup oil
2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup dried cherries
2/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350. Coat a loaf pan, preferably a glass one, with nonstick spray.

In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients and in a medium bowl, mix together the wet. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir to combine (be careful not to overmix or your bread will be tough). Gently fold in the cherries and chips. Pour the batter, which should be very thick, into the prepared pan, smooth over the top, and bake for 50-55 minutes, until the top is a light golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the bread comes out clean. (My dad would probably tell you to bake it for 53 minutes exactly, and he would probably be right). Let the bread sit for 15 minutes in the pan, then run a sharp knife around the outside of the bread to remove.

This banana bread is great warm or at room temperature, and will stay great for several days as long as you keep it covered with aluminum foil. You can also freeze it for up to 3 months - just make sure to wrap it tightly in plastic wrap.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Dish on Commonwealth

1400 Irving Street, NW

Although I live just three blocks away from Commonwealth, I’ve held off on visiting Chef Jamie Leeds’ (at right) new gastropub in Columbia Heights since it opened on August 6th. The reason: I desperately want to love the place. I’m a huge fan of Hank’s, and Leeds in general, plus our hood could really use some great new restaurants. But what if it doesn’t blow me away? Or worse, what if it’s just plain bad? Much like a blind date arranged by a good friend, despite the strong credentials I’ve been afraid the in-person version just won’t live up to the hype. However, after getting back to town late last Sunday and feeling way too tired/lazy to cook, I figured it was time to finally make my date with CWG.

First of all, let me say I love the space – from the red “phone booth” doorway to the ample patio seating to the overall mix of dark wood and modern steel…at the very least, this is definitely a bar I can see myself wasting spending lots of time in.

So – on to the food.

A Jewish rebel after my own heart, Leeds’ butcher’s plate is a great starter, and one to which she clearly gave a lot of thought. Beyond the usual charcuterie selections, choices are divided into hot and cold and feature some pretty unique options, including black pudding, house-made head cheese, stuffed trotters and deviled sweetbreads. I went for the latter, as well as the Surrey country ham and duck sausage. The ham and sausage were great, particularly with the grainy mustard and sweet jam, respectively, that accompanied them. The sweetbreads, however, were another story. The first bite was all the gamey tenderness that offal should be; the next bite, all the gamey chewiness it shouldn’t. Though the sherry-spiked sauce was a nice touch, I’ll hope for a better specimen next time around.

As for entrees, the “Sunday Roast” was tempting – for about $25, a pick between two meats (beef or pork when we visited) as well as vegetables and potatoes served family style. However, in an effort to explore more of the menu, my date (aka Rory, my fiancé) and I went our separate ways.

Rory ordered the fish and chips, a good choice: tender flaky cod with a crackly crust and big fat fries, just the way those Brits like ’em. However, as Rory so aptly pointed out, what makes Eamonn’s – our hands down favorite chipper spot – such a standout isn’t so much the fish or the chips, but the variety of sauces available for dunking. A few more selections on CWG’s menu other than the standard tartar would be a welcome addition.

I ordered the smoked haddock cakes and mash entrée which was…ok. The cake, though relatively mild, seemed to be made more of chopped vegetables than fish. The lemony tartar sauce offered a light, bright note to the dish, but overall I was jealous of Rory’s more traditional entrée.

And that’s where my concern for CWG lies – I worry most DCers will steer clear of the black puddings and various pig parts and seek out the “safe” choices on the menu – the aforementioned fish, the grass-fed burger and the roast chicken will most likely see a lot of play. But are those few standards, particularly with their steep prices, enough variety to keep folks coming back? Time shall tell.

As for me, return trips to Commonwealth will most likely focus on further exploration of the beer and apps menus (lemon stuffed fried olives, anyone?) and the occasionally scary pork product. Though there were no fireworks on our first date, this is still a new thing we’ve got going, and I’m hoping we can get to know each other better before I start making judgments.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Summer's Perfect Fruit: White Peaches

Check out this excellent article on about the awesomeness that is white peaches. Here’s an excerpt:

“White peaches are low in acidity. Bite into one and you'll taste no tartness—only an aromatic, floral sweetness. A ripe white peach has an undertone of raspberries, and if it matures for a few days, the flavors deepen and it starts to taste a little like muscat grapes. Eating good white peaches is the real thing—a rare experience.”

If you haven’t already, you’ve got to get yourself some of these summer beauties before they’re gone. (Toigo Orchards’ white peaches, which I've picked up at the Dupont Farmers’ Market, have been especially luscious).

Monday, August 18, 2008

Love Dish: Goat Cheesecake with Balsamic-Basil Blackberries

Goat cheese? Balsamic vinegar? Basil? That’s right, dear reader. The ingredients may be a little unusual, but this is a wow ’em dessert, and I guarantee it’ll be your new favorite summer cheesecake recipe.

(The cheesecake recipe was adapted from a version by Tyler Florence, and the basil-blackberry topping was inspired by a crumble dessert created by Jamie Oliver. Thank you, gentlemen).

2 cups finely crushed graham cracker crumbs
1 stick butter, melted
¾ tsp cinnamon
Pinch of salt

1 8-ounce package cream cheese at room temperature
8 ounces fresh goat cheese at room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 pint (2 cups) sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
Zest of one lemon

2 pints fresh blackberries
1 handful finely chopped fresh basil
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp sugar
2 tsp honey

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Set a sauce pan filled with water over high heat to boil.

For the crust:
Lightly coat the bottom and sides of an 8-inch springform pan with nonstick cooking spray. In a mixing bowl, combine the crust ingredients with a fork. Pour into the pan and press the crumbs down into the base and about 1 inch up the sides, using the bottom of a flat glass or measuring cup. Refrigerate while preparing the filling.

For the Filling: In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and goat cheese with an electric mixer until smooth and free of any lumps. Add the eggs, one at a time, and continue to beat slowly until combined. Gradually add the sugar and beat until creamy, for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the sour cream, lemon zest, and vanilla and mix briefly to combine. Don’t forget to scrape down the sides of the bowl often. Be careful not to overbeat the batter. Pour the filling into the crust-lined pan and smooth the top with a spatula.

Set the cheesecake pan on a large piece of aluminum foil and fold up the sides around it. Place the cake pan in a large roasting pan and pour the boiling water into the roasting pan until the water is about halfway up the sides of the cheesecake pan (the foil will keep the water from seeping into the cheesecake). Bake for 45 minutes. The cheesecake should still jiggle (it will firm up after chilling), so be careful not to overcook it. Remove cake from the water bath and let cool on the counter for 30 minutes, then chill in the refrigerator, loosely covered, for at least 4 hours.

Loosen the cheesecake from the sides of the pan by running a thin metal spatula or knife around the inside rim. Unmold and transfer to a cake plate. Pour the blackberries over the top (recipe below). Slice the cheesecake with a thin, non-serrated knife that has been dipped in hot water. Wipe dry after each cut.

For the blackberries:
In a small saucepan, add the balsamic vinegar, sugar and honey and stir to combine and dissolve the sugar. Slowly bring to a boil over medium heat; allow sauce to boil gently for 1 minute. (Be careful not to boil too long as the sauce will become a syrup). Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Pour over blackberries, add the chopped basil, and stir gently to combine.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Quick Dish - Thai Noodle Salad with Shrimp and Calamari

Although the flavors in this quick dish are resolutely Thai, I’m a big fan of using kishimen noodles – a Japanese wheat noodle that’s slightly thicker and wider than udon. (I buy my kishimen at Daruma, a great little Japanese market in Bethesda that also has wonderful takeout. Check out Sietsema’s review of Daruma here). You can use whatever rice pasta you prefer; just be sure to check the cooking instructions on the package, as some noodles just need a quick soak rather than boiling.

3 garlic cloves
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup sweet chili sauce
Scant 1/3 cup fish sauce
½ cup lime juice
1 large tomato, rough chopped
½ small red onion, thinly sliced
½ cup chopped cilantro
8 oz rice noodles
1 lb medium shrimp (shelled and deveined)
1 lb calamari rings, thawed
½ cup unsalted dry roasted almond slivers
Extra cilantro for garnish

Bring a large pot of water to boil (do not add salt).

In a large bowl, add first five ingredients; stir to dissolve sugar. Toss in tomatoes, red onion and cilantro. Set aside to let flavors combine.

Add the rice noodles to the boiling water and cook until tender, about 4 minutes. Remove noodles from pot and transfer to bowl of cold water to stop cooking. Add the shrimp to the boiling water and cook just until firm, about 1 minute. Remove and transfer to a bowl of cold water. Add the calamari and cook just until firm, only about 45 seconds (be careful not to overcook – tough calamari is the worst). Transfer the calamari to the cold water bowl with the shrimp.

Drain the noodles and add them to the sauce. Add the seafood and toss to combine. Sprinkle with the slivered almonds and cilantro and serve.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Did You Hear?

Tom Sietsema reported in last week’s Dish column that Chef Brendan Cox (at right) of West End’s Circle Bistro is packing up his knives and heading over to DC Coast, chef-turned-restaurateur Jeff Tunks’ flagship restaurant on K Street. (Tunks' restaurant group, Passion Food, is also the force behind TenPenh, Ceiba, and Acadiana).

While I’m not a big fan of the space or the service at CB, I am a big fan of Cox’s focus on pristine, locally sourced ingredients and his simple and elegant preparations. Here’s hoping the chef can breathe some new life into a restaurant group whose quality has, at least in my opinion, been steadily declining over the last few years.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Great Dish: Fresh Figs with Prosciutto and Gorgonzola Cheese

In my opinion, one of the (only) good things about training for a marathon is the requisite carb binges that precede a long run. It was with this excuse, er, goal in mind that I headed to Sette Osteria in Dupont on Saturday night. Sette is one our go-to restaurants for decent, reasonably priced Italian food, and while I’m actually not too crazy about their pizzas, most of their pastas are pretty darn good (particularly the gnocchi with tomatoes and mozzarella and the cavatelli with spicy sausage and broccoli rabe).

Carb-driven though I was, the appetizer on the ‘daily specials’ page caught my eye – fresh figs with prosciutto and gorgonzola-slathered bread. I couldn’t resist my first taste this season of that delicious, summery sweet fruit, and its tangy/salty pairing was the perfect complement. Who knew such a little fruit could steal the show from all that pasta?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Love Dish: Lasagna Primavera

While quick dishes are perfect for late nights and lazy days, sometimes you just feel like spending some time in the kitchen. Hence, Love Dishes - dishes that require a little bit of love (because in cooking, time = love. Just ask Grandma).

This lasagna is an excellent way to showcase summer's beautiful vegetables. Baking the cherry tomatoes in the lasagna gives the dish an unexpected, intensely tomato pop, and mixing goat cheese with the traditional ricotta provides a nicely balancing tang. The prep time is only 15-20 minutes, but it does need about 45 minutes in the oven. So toss it together, pour yourself a glass of wine, and get ready to enjoy the labors of your love.

Lasagna Primavera

1 package no-boil lasagna noodles (Trader Joe's has a good version)
1 jar good quality pasta sauce (or go crazy and make your own tomato sauce...but seriously, stick with me on the store-bought noodles)
1 package - about 3-4 loosely packed cups - baby spinach
8 ounces fresh button mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
3 garlic cloves
2 medium zucchinis, sliced in half lengthwise and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
Several handfuls of cherry tomatoes, halved
6 ounces fresh ricotta cheese
6 ounces fresh goat cheese
1 handful basil leaves, chopped
Parmesan cheese
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

For the bechamel sauce:
1 1/2 cups milk
4 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
dash of nutmeg
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the spinach; sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Toss the spinach to evenly distribute the garlic. Turn the heat up to medium high and add the sliced mushrooms. Remove and set aside after all leaves are wilted, but not overcooked, about 2 minutes. (The mushrooms will still be very firm). Increase the heat to high, add another 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and add the zucchini and tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook, tossing frequently, until the zucchini begins to get a little color, about 4 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.

For the bechamel sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk together, cooking about 1-2 minutes. Add the milk, and whisk again to incorporate the butter/flour mixture. Increase the heat to medium-high, and bring sauce to a boil, stirring often. (Boiling the flour/butter mixture will thicken it - you'll know the sauce is ready when it can coat the back of a spoon). Let cool slightly.

Spread some of the bechamel sauce on the bottom of a large lasagna dish, enough to fully cover. Place lasagna sheets on the bottom of the pan, overlapping slightly. Top with more bechamel sauce - about 1/2 cup - and some of the pasta sauce - also about 1/2 cup. Add the spinach/mushroom mixture, spreading evenly. Spoon the ricotta sauce in dollops over the vegetables and sprinkle with half the chopped basil. Top with another layer of noodles, pressing down gently. Repeat bechamel and pasta sauce, this time adding the zucchini/tomato mixture and dollops of the goat cheese. Sprinkle with remaining basil and cover with one more layer of lasagna sheets. Pour remaining pasta sauce over the top of the lasagna, coating evenly. Dust with Parmesan cheese.

Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake on center rack of the oven for 35 minutes. Remove, uncover and baked for another 10 minutes. Serve with basil sprigs.

A great accompaniment for this dish is a fresh, simple salad tossed in balsamic vinaigrette.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Quick Dish - Kitchen Sink Veggie Curry

Ok, so this quick dish might not be ready in five minutes, but it’s totally worth the 20-30 it takes to prepare. It’s a great way to use up any of those expensive farmers market vegetables you don’t know what to do with, and while it requires a few unique ingredients, if you’ve ever attempted any kind of Asian cooking you most likely have all this stuff in your fridge anyway. Plus, you can stretch any leftover curry sauce into a second meal just by adding some cooked rice noodles (and shrimp if you’re carnivorously inclined). Think of it as two quick dishes in one. Enjoy!

For the curry sauce:
2 cups chicken stock
1 can (14 oz) coconut milk
2-3 tablespoons red curry paste – or more depending on your heat preference
¼ cup of julienned ginger
3 tbsp canned chopped lemongrass
1 tsp salt
1 lime
1 tbsp brown sugar
Few dashes of hot sauce

For the veggies:
Really, you can use just about anything you have on hand. Below is a random combo I tried recently and really liked. Sugar snap peas, eggplant, squash (think pattypan or zucchini), mushrooms and bok choy would work nicely, too.

Several handfuls of grape tomatoes
1 can o’ green beans
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled, nuked until cooked through but still firm, and cubed
1-2 handfuls of basil leaves, torn

For the rice:
1 cup jasmine rice
1 ¼ cups water

Place all curry ingredients in a large sauté pan. (For the lime, slice it in half, squeeze the juice into the pan, and then toss in the halves). Stir together, bring to a boil and let simmer for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, rinse the rice and add it to a saucepan with the water. Bring the rice to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and let simmer for 15 minutes, or until all the water is evaporated. When the 20 minutes is up on the curry, strain the sauce, return it to the pan and add the vegetables. Cook until heated through. Serve over the rice.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Commonwealth (Almost) Open!

Chef Jamie Leeds' newest restaurant unofficially opened tonight, serving food and drinks to a packed friends-and-family-only crowd at the Columbia Heights outpost for British-y food. The official opening is this Wednesday, August 6th, when Leeds hopes to officially launch her movement to dispel "the myth that British food is bad." Jamie, if anyone can make black pudding and shepherd's pie sexy, it's you.