Monday, April 27, 2009

The Non-Baker Bakes: Daring Bakers Cheesecake Challenge (Mango-Calamansi Cheesecake with Macademia-Gingersnap Crust)

Okay, I'm not a baker. Ask anyone who knows me, and they'll tell you I can make a mess of the easiest baking recipes.

Why? Well, for one, I can't seem to follow recipes. Measuring everything exactly is not my thing. I lose my place, get distracted ... how many cups of flour did I put in? Was it baking soda or baking powder that was called for?

And the oven? The oven doesn't like me. It overcooks everything. The timer is also in a conspiracy with the oven.

To make things interesting, I decided to join the Daring Bakers, so I could push myself. I'm not sure it's going to work, but I can try.

The April 2009 challenge was cheesecake, and the DB chiefs sent us off with a recipe and the mandate to "Be Creative." A double whammy for me since I have never made even a regular run-of-the-mill cheesecake, and while creative, had no idea how my creativity would affect the inherent chemistry of the recipe.

That said, this is a challenge, is it not? So with that, I decided to channel the Philippines and make a cheesecake with mango puree and calamansi, otherwise known as the "Philippine lemon." I considered using coconut milk or condensed milk instead of heavy cream and do a mango puree swirl in the cheesecake, but I decided to use the mango puree in lieu of the cream to cut down on the calories. I also considered putting toasted coconut flakes in the graham cracker crust, but decided on macadamia nuts because I had them in the pantry. I also wanted to use some gingersnaps in the crusts because I thought the ginger flavor would go nicely with the mango.

I considered making a mango curd to top off the cheesecake for color and to intensify the mango flavor, but after seeing that the curd had a load of egg yolks and butter, I decided that topping the cheesecake with mango, strawberries, and kiwis and glazing the fruit with a mango glaze I made out of extra mango puree and gelatin was better.

Mango cheesecake decorated with colorful fruit before the mango glaze has been applied.

End of story for my first challenge is that I got lucky. The cheesecake turned out perfect ... no cracks, not overcooked, and my substitutions resulted in a light and flavorful cheesecake. While I sprung a leak in my foil in the waterbath (as the DBs warned), I made an adjustment that ended up working as the crust was not soggy at all, thanks to a tip from a fellow DB-er. I was a little stumped at first as to how to make mango look pretty on the top of the cake, but I came up with a flower pattern that worked.

I brought the cheesecake to work, and people really enjoyed it. They oohed and aahed over the presentation. The gingersnap-macadamia crust in particular was a big hit.

Here's the Daring Baker Recipe. I wrote my modifications in caps but the original recipe is intact. My additional notes are below as well.

The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey’s Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge.

Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake:

2 cups / 180 g graham cracker crumbs (I USED 1 CUP GRAHAM CRACKER CRUMBS AND 1 CUP GINGER SNAPS)
1 stick / 4 oz butter, melted
2 tbsp. / 24 g sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract

3 sticks of cream cheese, 8 oz each (total of 24 oz) room temperature
1 cup / 210 g sugar
3 large eggs, ROOM TEMPERATURE
1 tbsp. lemon juice (I USED CALAMANSI JUICE)
1 tbsp. vanilla extract (or the innards of a vanilla bean)
1 tbsp liqueur, optional, but choose what will work well with your cheesecake (DID NOT USE)




1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (Gas Mark 4 = 180C = Moderate heat). Begin to boil a large pot of water for the water bath.

2. Mix together the crust ingredients and press into your preferred pan. You can press the crust just into the bottom, or up the sides of the pan too - baker's choice. Set crust aside.

3. Combine cream cheese and sugar in the bowl of a stand-mixer (or in a large bowl if using a hand-mixer) and cream together until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, fully incorporating each before adding the next. Make sure to scrape down the bowl in between each egg. Add heavy cream, vanilla, lemon juice, and alcohol and blend until smooth and creamy.

4. Pour batter into prepared crust and tap the pan on the counter a few times to bring all air bubbles to the surface. Place pan into a larger pan and pour boiling water into the larger pan until halfway up the side of the cheesecake pan. If cheesecake pan is not airtight, cover bottom securely with foil before adding water.

5. Bake 45 to 55 minutes, until it is almost done - this can be hard to judge, but you're looking for the cake to hold together, but still have a lot of jiggle to it in the center. You don't want it to be completely firm at this stage. Close the oven door, turn the heat off, and let rest in the cooling oven for one hour. This lets the cake finish cooking and cool down gently enough so that it won't crack on the top. After one hour, remove cheesecake from oven and lift carefully out of water bath. Let it finish cooling on the counter, and then cover and put in the fridge to chill. Once fully chilled, it is ready to serve.



Pan note: The creator of this recipe used to use a springform pan, but no matter how well she wrapped the thing in tin foil, water would always seep in and make the crust soggy. Now she uses one of those 1-use foil "casserole" shaped pans from the grocery store. They're 8 or 9 inches wide and really deep, and best of all, water-tight. When it comes time to serve, just cut the foil away.

Prep notes: While the actual making of this cheesecake is a minimal time commitment, it does need to bake for almost an hour, cool in the oven for an hour, and chill overnight before it is served. Please plan accordingly.

Mango cheesecake that has cooled for five hours in the fridge before it's decorated.


1) Having room temperature cream cheese and eggs seems to help with a successful cheesecake. Overmixing or overwhipping the cheesecake adds extra air into the batter, which can lead to the cheesecake rising and then falling in the oven. Room temperature ingredients come together more easily. Tapping the pan on the counter after you put the the cheesecake helps get any air bubbles out.

2) In the recipe's note above, it mentions that water leakage into springform pans is an issue. I didn't have the foil pan she mentioned, so I used my springform pan and wrapped it in one sheet of extra-wide heavy duty foil. I did get a leak (I poked a little hole in the foil when moving it), so as a possible fix suggested by a fellow DB-er in the DB forums, I took the cheesecake out of the water bath after it did its first cook in the oven for 45 minutes and put it back in the oven, hoping that it would dry out. I was dumb enough not to put the pan on foil, so when I took it out, there was grease all over the bottom of my oven. However, the fix worked! The crust was dry and delicious.

Another trick mentioned in the DB forums if you're using a springform pan is to buy a silicone pan in which you can put your spring-form pan. Alton Brown of Good Eats uses a regular pan but lines the bottom and sides with parchment paper.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Crab Cakes

Since I had some leftover jumbo lump crabmeat from making crab rangoon for Culinary Cory, I decided to make crab cakes.

I love blue crabs. After emigrating from the Philippines, my uncle settled in Baltimore, Maryland. When he visited us in Ohio, he would bring bushels of steamed Maryland blue crabs, covered and coated with the crab vendor's special seasoning.

We would spread newspapers out on the table and crack open the crabs with our seasoning-covered hands, seeking the tender white morsels to dip them in vinegar mixed with chopped garlic and eat them with fingerfuls of steamed white rice. One of the youngest children, I was a vulture of sorts, perched on my dad's chair. He did the hard work of harvesting the crabmeat and handed me the sweet meat, piece by piece.

Crabcakes offer a more refined way of eating crab, and while Maryland crabs themselves may be hard to get outside of Maryland, jumbo pasteurized canned crabmeat is widely available in grocery stores in the seafood section. Much of this crab comes from Asia, but it still makes a nice crabcake.

Crabcakes are made of simple ingredients: crab, fresh breadcrumbs, mayonnaise, and an egg white to hold them together. To that I add a shot of lemon juice, a shot of tabasco, a shot of worcestershire sauce, a spoonful of dijon mustard, minced scallions and parsley, and Old Bay seasoning. Pan fry for a few minutes on each side, and you have yourself a lovely meal.

My tips on making crabcakes:

1) The best crabcakes are mostly crab, so I recommend not using too much bread. You only need enough to help hold everything together. In terms of a ratio, if I had 1 1/2 cups of crabmeat, for example, I would use about 1 cup of freshly made bread crumbs. Please do not use the dry breadcrumbs that come in a cardboard container at the grocery store, which are much too finely ground and dusty for this use.

2) Mix the mayonnaise and other seasonings together first, so you can taste it and adjust the seasonings before you add the mayonnaise dressing to the crab and breadcrumbs.

3) Use a light hand when mixing the cakes together. You don't want to break up the crab too much.

4) After you shape the crabcakes, let them set up in the refrigerator for one hour.

Panfry and enjoy. You can serve these with tartar, shrimp cocktail, or remoulade sauce, but I like them with just a squirt of lemon juice.

Since I cook by "eye," I've included pictures so you can see how things look at each stage. I've put together a recipe below, but these are approximations. Taste as you go along.

Clockwise from the top left: crab with breadcrumbs, scallions, parsley, Old Bay Seasoning, salt and pepper; crab with mayo-egg mixture added; formed crabcakes before they go in the fridge to set; panfrying crabcakes on a thin layer of oil.

Makes about 12 crabcakes

16 oz. can of jumbo lump crabmeat
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs made from good bread (use a mini-food processor to make crumbs; you may need a little more or a little less)
3 small scallions, minced
Fresh parsley, minced
Old Bay Seasoning
Salt and pepper

1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 egg whites or 1 egg
2 tsp. dijon mustard
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
Couple shots of worcestershire sauce
Couple shots of tabasco
Salt and pepper

In a bowl, lightly mix crab, breadcrumbs, parsley, and scallions together, sprinkling Old Bay Seasoning every time you gently turn the mixture so that the seasoning gets distributed evenly along with the other ingredients (see picture above). Set aside.

In another bowl, mix together mayonnaise, egg whites, mustard, lemon juice, worcestershire sauce, tabasco, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings to your liking.

Gently fold mayo mixture into crab mixture, being careful not to mash the crab. See the picture above for how the completed mixture looks.

Using a 1/2 cup measure, form crabcakes into patties and place them on a non-stick surface (I use a Silpat or easy release aluminum foil), gently pressing and pushing them into a patty shape. Alternately, you can make them smaller if you're making appetizer size portions. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for one hour to set.

Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add a thin film of olive oil into the pan. Add crabcakes to the pan, being careful not to break them. Turn down heat to medium and cook 3-4 minutes on each side until golden brown. If you're cooking in batches, put the finished crabcakes in a 200 degree oven so they stay warm.

Serve and enjoy with your favorite sauce.

Crab Cakes on Foodista

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Crab Rangoon

Culinary Cory posted about his mishaps with Crab Rangoon recently, so I thought maybe I could help out.

My mother-in-law Joyce loves these crispy morsels, so I made up a Crab Rangoon recipe for her when I was on summer vacation in July 2004. Crispy and filled with a cream cheese and crab filling, these fried wontons are a standard offering at American Chinese restaurants and restaurants with a pan-Asian flair.

Some tips when making Crab Rangoon:

1) Use real crab if you can instead of the imitation crab. I like a one-to-one ratio of crab to cream cheese.

2) Use Asian wonton wrappers or eggroll wrappers that you can find in the Asian grocery stores or more well-stocked national chains and preferably not the "fake" wonton wrappers in national chain grocery stores in the U.S., which I find gummy and unpalatable.

3) Taste your filling and adjust the seasonings before you stuff. Its flavors should be more pronounced than if you were to eat the filling alone, because it has to add enough taste to "carry" the wonton skin. If the filling tastes bland to you before you fill the wontons, it will definitely taste bland after it's cooked, so taste, taste, taste. Still not sure? Make a few sample wontons, fry them, and taste the finished product; adjust the seasoning as necessary and check if you're happy with the amount of filling you have in the wontons. I always do this when I'm making these or Filipino spring rolls. Even though I have to heat up the oil to do a test, it's completely worth it to me, because I don't want to invest all the time in making the wontons if they don't come out tasting great.

4) I used to shape these in the traditional wonton shape, but I now think the simpler, the better. The minimalist triangle shape is actually better for tasting the filling and makes for easier eating of the crispy edges.

5) Use beaten egg white to seal the edges. This is important when frying, because you want a good seal so they don't open.

6) When you seal the wonton, seal right next to the filling, pushing out any air bubbles. Air bubbles will make your wontons explode when frying, particularly if you are using the thinner wonton wrappers vs. the thicker eggroll wrappers (And I do mean eggroll wrappers vs. spring roll wrappers or rice paper wrappers ... I know, it's confusing.).

7) Freeze your wontons for an hour before frying. Unlike meat or veggie-filled wontons, these wontons have a tendency to explode in the oil because as the cream cheese melts, it releases moisture which turns into steam which then needs to find its way out. Freezing the wontons helps minimize this process. To be extra sure, use eggroll wrappers instead of the wonton skins because they are thicker and will hold up to the steam.

8) Get a deep fryer which is really convenient, whether you fry a lot or just once in awhile. We have a Delonghi deep fryer. It closes, so you don't have to worry about spatters and odors. It regulates the temperature, so you don't need a fry thermometer. The oil can stay in there and be used again (you'll know when you need to change it if there's an off odor or it's really dark in color), so you don't have to keep looking for a receptacle to store the oil you just used in a pan.

6 oz.-8 oz. jumpo lump crabmeat (fresh preferable (the cheaper claw meat is fine too), but canned, or artificial crab can be substituted)
8 oz. package of cream cheese, softened
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 scallions, finely chopped
2 tsp. soy sauce
A shot of worcestershire sauce or patis (fish sauce)
A shot of tabasco or a sprinkling of cayenne pepper
Squeeze of lemon juice (to taste)
Salt and pepper
1 egg white, beaten

Wonton wrapper package(about 50) or eggroll wrappers (these are bigger in size so when you use them, you have to cut them in 4 smaller squares)

Combine ingredients. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Open wonton package and cover it with a damp paper towel so the wontons don't dry out. If you're using egg roll wrappers, cut them horizontally across the middle and vertically down the middle, being as accurate as possible, to make four smaller squares. I usually take a stack of them, fold the top one in half to get a light crease, and then use a knife to cut through the stack along the crease. The stack should be big enough that you can be efficient, but not so big that some of wonton sheets will slide when the knife goes through and creates some wonton sheets that are unevenly cut. Cover with a damp paper towel.

Take a wonton skin and put it on your board. Brush edges with beaten egg white. Put about a teaspoon of filling in the center of the dough. Fold over wonton, so that it looks like a triangle, lining up the edges. Starting from the filling, press the wonton skin together and out toward the egdes, sealing and pushing out any air bubbles while you do this. Set wonton on a non-stick tray (I use a Silpat or non-stick aluminum foil to make sure the wontons don't stick to the tray) and repeat until done. Do not overstuff, as wontons will open during cooking.

Cover wonton-filled tray(s) with saran wrap and put in the freezer for an hour. If you're planning to keep them frozen and use at a later date, put them in a plastic zip-top freezer bag after they've been flash-frozen on the trays.

Deep fry at 370 degrees until golden brown (a couple minutes). You'll likely have to turn the wontons over for them to cook evenly. If a wonton starts leaking, turn over the wonton immediately and let it finish cooking with the hole on top.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Mussels Fra Diavolo

Everyone has his/her cooking specialty. For me, it's making something new out of leftovers.

Tonight, I decided to make mussels fra diavolo with linguine, because I had leftover steamed mussels and a few clams in their steaming liquid, pizza sauce from making pizza (a seasoned thick tomato sauce, almost like tomato paste), half of a heirloom tomato, and half a package of grape tomatoes. I also had fresh parsley, basil, garlic, and Chardonnay.

The spicy kick of fra diavolo, contributed by a generous dose of red pepper flakes, complemented the brininess of the mussels and the acidity of the tomatoes. I particularly enjoyed the grape tomatoes, as their plump and sweet bursts of flavor brightened up the dish. When I make this dish purposefully, instead of out of leftovers, I will add the grape tomatoes for sure.

I don't have a recipe as much as a technique I can share:

Steamed mussels with its liquid
Several cloves garlic, minced
Cut tomatoes
Minced parsley
Chiffonaded basil
Dry white wine
Italian seasoning
Pizza sauce or tomato paste
Olive oil

Heat a large pot of water for linguine.

Take mussels out of their liquid and their shells, saving a few in their shells for presentation if desired. Strain the mussel liquid.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes. Saute for a minute, making sure the garlic doesn't burn. Add about a cup of wine and the mussel liquid, along with Italian seasoning. Let simmer and reduce by half.

When pasta water reaches a boil, add a generous amount of salt to the water, let it come to a boil, and add linguine. Cook according to the package directions, although be prepared to take it out a minute before it's fully cooked.
While the pasta is boiling, add enough tomato paste to the wine liquid to thicken it and have enough for the linguine. Add tomatoes and mussels to warm through. Taste and adjust seasonings.

When linguine is almost cooked, add it to the pasta sauce so it can finish cooking in the sauce. Add parsley and basil to garnish. Enjoy.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Giada's Caesar Salad

Aggie Goodman posted this Caesar Salad on her blog, and I just couldn't resist. What's not to love about crisp romaine lettuce, shards of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, slivers of sundried tomatoes, and toasted pine nuts, all brought together with a lemony, deeply flavored dressing? I've eaten this salad three times this week -- it's that good! The first time I served it with grilled, butterflied chicken, the second time with pizza margherita and garlicky steamed clams and mussels, and tonight with mussels fra diavolo.

The dressing is absolutely delicious and definitely worth a try.

Italian Caesar Salad with Polenta Croutons
Recipe from Giada De Laurentiis, Everyday Italian


3 garlic cloves
4 anchovy fillets, chopped
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Garlicky Steamed Mussels and Clams

For some reason, I had a craving for mussels and clams, steamed open in a garlicky wine sauce. Actually, I know why I had a craving -- I wanted to try out sauteing and steaming on my new addiction, the Big Green Egg, which is an amazing charcoal grill/smoker that also acts as a convection oven and hearth oven.

I was also making pizza margherita, regular cheese pizza, and a big Caesar salad, and it all seemed to go well together.

Because of timing issues, I ended up starting the mussels and clams on the stove inside and then moving them to the Big Green Egg for the last final minutes. When I get another chance, I'll do them on the grill and put an addendum here on how it goes, as I really want to see how smoke affects the taste of the mussels and clams.

One doesn't really need a recipe for steaming clams or mussels. It's really easy: put in a pot with a little liquid and steam.

Use great ingredients as there aren't many: shellfish bought from a trusted purveyor, shallots, garlic, red pepper flakes, tomato, a lovely olive oil and/or butter, a dry white wine you wouldn't mind drinking, and lemon for serving.

My main recommendation for steaming the mussels and clams is to not put too much liquid into the pot. The mussels and clams will exude their nectar during steaming and you wouldn't want to dilute that, would you? For a dutch oven or large pot, you only need enough liquid to start the steaming process. It's probably only 1/2 an inch from the bottom, or a cup or two of liquid. Definitely don't fill the pot more than a quarter of the way up from the bottom.

Feeds 3-4

3 lbs. mussels and/or clams
1 large shallot, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
Olive oil (and/or butter)
1 or 2 tomatoes, diced
A dry white wine like Chardonnay (the stuff you would drink, not cooking wine)
Red pepper flakes
Fresh parsley, minced
Lemon wedges and/or bowls of melted butter

When you get the shellfish home, immediately open the plastic bag they come in so they can breathe and won't suffocate. Put them in the fridge if you're not going to use them in the next few hours.

Clean shellfish by scrubbing them with a vegetable brush in a bowl of water or under running water. Debeard mussels by pulling off the "beard" which looks like a small bunch of black fibrous threads. Throw out any shellfish with chipped or broken shells and ones that have expired; you'll know they're dead by doing this: if the shells are open, push them closed; if the shellfish responds and closes, it's alive. If it does nothing, it's likely dead. It's okay if they're a little teeny bit open, but more than a 1/2 inch means they're definitely expired).

Put in clean water with a lot of black pepper and let sit for 30 minutes. Apparently, this helps the clams and mussels spit out any sand (this is really for the clams, as cultivated mussels are usually clean).

When ready to cook, rinse off the shellfish and set aside. Heat over medium heat a dutch oven, paella pan, or pot big enough to hold the shellfish and has a lid.

When the pot/pan is hot, add some olive oil and/or butter (enough to be able to saute the garlic and shallots at minimum, e.g. a tablespoon; you can add a lot more oil if you want for flavor) and then the garlic and shallots. Add a couple sprinkles of the red pepper flakes and a little salt. Saute the garlic and shallots for a minute or two until translucent (don't burn them; if they're browning very quickly, turn down the heat). Add the tomatoes, stir them around, and add the wine and let simmer for a minute.

Add mussels and clams, cover the pot, and cook over medium-high. Check the pot every 1 1/2 minutes or so, turning the shellfish when you check them, and then putting the lid back on. When the mussels and/or clams are open, it's done! This can happen pretty quickly, so don't overcook them. Turning the mussels and clams during the process helps them open evenly. Top with parsley and mix the parsley in. Taste broth, and if necessary, adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, and/or red pepper flakes.

Put the shellfish in a bowl, and distribute the juice in smaller bowls (if there's four people, you just need two bowls). Also have another empty bowl on the table for the empty shells. You can have bowls of melted butter too if you want, and lemon wedges. People can get the mussels or clams out of their shells, dip them in the broth and/or dip them in butter, and/or squirt them with butter. Serve with crusty bread and white wine. Delicious!

Use any leftover shellfish and broth to make a pasta dish like mussels fra diavolo or a chowder.

Grilled Pizza Margherita on the Big Green Egg

My husband came home today after being in Korea and China for over a week. I figured he might want to eat something non-Asian, so I made garlicky steamed mussels and clams, a big Caesar salad, and Pizza Margherita on the grill (the Big Green Egg).

Pizza Margherita's beauty is in its simplicity, so get the best quality ingredients you can: extra virgin olive oil, real bufalo mozzarella, ripe heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil, garlic, and fresh pizza dough. I often cook pizza at high heat in the oven (see this post) for a quick weeknight meal, but cooking pizza on the grill on a pizza stone over charcoal gives it a wonderful smoky flavor. The Big Green Egg does pizza exceptionally well.

Pizza Dough (homemade or if you can buy it freshly made at a local store, you can use that)
Olive oil
2 cloves garlic, smashed
Grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
Ripe tomatoes, sliced
1 large ball, Bufalo mozzarella
Fresh basil, cut in chiffonade

Put garlic and 2 tbs. extra virgin olive oil in bowl. Put in microwave and warm on high for 30 seconds, so that the garlic can infuse the olive oil.

Stretch dough out into a disk (see post for more information on how to do this). Put cornmeal on the pizza peel and put the disk onto the peel. (If you're cooking in the oven and not on the grill, you can use parchment paper instead of relying on the cornmeal to be able to move the pizza from the peel to the pizza stone.)

Brush dough generously with garlic-infused olive oil. Sprinkle dough with grated parmigiano reggiano cheese. Evenly distribute tomato and mozzarella slices. Sprinkle toppings with sea salt and pepper and additional parmigiano reggiano.

Cook on a heated pizza stone at 450 to 500 degrees (grill or oven) for 10 minutes or until crust is browned and cheese is bubbling. If your grill goes higher to 600 or 700 degrees, you can cook your pizza at those temperatures too. Remove and sprinkle pizza with basil. Serve.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Big, Bold, and Beautiful Pesto Pasta Salad

Pesto is Big, Bold, and Beautiful and fits perfectly with the spirit of this blog. It's fresh, fragrant, colorful and bursting with the flavors of basil, garlic, freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, toasted pine nuts, and extra virgin olive oil.

Pesto can discolor and get muddy-looking, so my secret to fixing the bright, green color is to blanche the basil. Works every time.

I like to serve pesto on rotini pasta with grape tomatoes, and if it's a meal, with diced chicken, cubes of fresh mozzarella, and whole toasted pine nuts.

This can be served hot, cold, or at room temperature, and it's great for parties.

Pesto sauce (see recipe below)
1/2 lb. of rotini pasta
Grape tomatoes
Extra pine nuts and grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Cook rotini according to the directions on its package, in salted, boiling water until al dente.

Drain pasta (do not rinse), put in a bowl and mix with pesto sauce. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. Add grape tomatoes, pine nuts, and grated cheese to your liking.

Pesto Sauce
2 cups basil leaves, picked from their stems and loosely packed
1/3 cup fresh parsley
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
3 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 extra virgin olive oil or more

Rinse basil thoroughly to rid it of any dirt. I use my salad spinner to do this and/or I soak the basil in a large bowl of water so the dirt will fall to the bottom of the bowl.

Bring a pot of water to boil. Add the basil and blanche, cooking for a minute or so, or until the color turns a little darker. Cool immediately in an ice water bath or under cold running water.

Use the salad spinner to dry the blanched basil and or wrap in a dishtowel remove any excess water.

Blend the basil and the rest of the ingredients except for the oil in a mini-food processor or blender. Slowly drizzle in the oil until a paste forms.

TO TOAST PINE NUTS: Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Add pine nuts and cook, stirring, until you can start smelling the nuts and they get a little brown. Keep an eye on the nuts and stir as they can burn.

Butterflied Grilled Chicken on the Big Green Egg

With the temperature comfortably rising into the 70s and the sun dominating blue skies, it finally felt like Spring today.

Bunches of perky daffodils and perfumed cobalt hyacinths clustered together outside like excited and chatty schoolgirls. The magnolias proudly showed off their large, curvy flowers. With their parasols of delicate pink blossoms, the dogwoods reposed demurely in the dappled shade. Ah, the beauty of Spring.

Eager to enjoy the warm weather and colorful display of flowers, we brushed off the picnic table, put down a French Provencal tablecloth, and set it for the first outdoor meal of the season: a crispy, juicy chicken, butterflied (or "spatchcocked"), and grilled on the Big Green Egg, a vibrant pesto pasta salad with cheery grape tomatoes, and a fresh and perfectly balanced Caesar salad which Aggie Goodman shared on her blog, Aggie's Kitchen.

After we ate, we hit the beach where the kids searched for steamer clams and dared each other to enter the cold waters, still frosty from the winter season. I reclined on a beach chair and read a cookbook. A perfect day.

Roaster chicken, 5-6 pounds
Salt and pepper
Your favorite seasonings (for example, BBQ, Cajun, Mrs. Dash, Italian seasoning, paprika ... whatever you like)
3 cloves of garlic, minced
Olive oil
3 tbs. of butter, softened

Cut the backbone out of the chicken with kitchen shears or a knife. Turn it over and flatten it, so that it will lay flat. Gently slide your finger under the skin, loosening it from the breast and thigh meat, so that you can slip the compound butter in.

If you have thought ahead, you can stick the bird, uncovered, in the fridge, overnight. This will make for crispier skin.

Mix garlic with softened butter and a little olive oil. Distribute the butter mixture underneath the skin and on the outside of the bird, massaging the butter as much as possible into the nooks and crannies of the bird. If you need a little more, just rub the bird with a little more olive oil.

Season the bird, both sides, and in and around the wings, by sprinkling it generously with salt. Add pepper and other seasonings of your choosing. For this chicken, I put a good amount of paprika and Mrs. Dash, in addition to the salt and pepper.

Heat the Big Green Egg or grill to 350 degrees. Cook skin side down for 20 minutes (direct heat in the Egg; if you're using a grill, you can start on direct heat and if it starts burning or browning too fast, put it on indirect heat). Flip over bird and cook another 30-40 minutes or until center of breast reaches 160 degrees. I always use a thermometer, which makes for easy and accurate cooking.

If you're using an Egg, remember to keep the lid closed as much as possible. Don't keep opening and closing it, as the greatest benefit of the Egg lies in its shape and its ability to cook evenly and maintain consistent temperatures when it is closed.

When the chicken is done, let it rest for ten minutes, then carve and serve. Enjoy!

CREDITS: Magnolia photo from and dogwood photo from

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Pork Spareribs Redux - This Time on the Big Green Egg

Pork Spareribs after four hours on the Big Green Egg

This is the second time I've made ribs this week. Earlier in the week, I smoked some Mmm Good Spareribs in my indoor smoker for 45 minutes, cooked them at 225 in the convection oven for four hours until they were tender, and then finished them on the grill.

In the middle of the week, I got my husband a Big Green Egg for his birthday and promptly broke it in by smoking four racks of ribs to bring to my sister's house. I prepared them the same way that I had prepared the earlier ribs, covering them with a dry rub, and then after they were smoked and slow-cooked until tender, brushed them with sauce and finished them over medium heat on the grill.

Ribs and hickory smoke in the Big Green Egg

Thanks to Curt McAdams who freely shared his expertise with me, I sailed through my first use of the Egg. His blog is Go check it out and learn from an award-winning and very nice BBQ maven.

After making these ribs, all I can say is Holy Smokes!

While these were both ribs, the Big Green Egg ribs are in a completely different category from the ribs I cooked earlier in the week. The BGE ribs were moist yet had a bark on them and were incredibly flavorful from their 5-hour smoke at 225 degrees. These were the best ribs I ever tasted.

Ribs after they've been smoked

Side view of ribs with pink smoke ring.

I intended to bring four racks of ribs to my sister's, but one of them ended up back on the Big Green Egg to get charred and eaten for dinner. If you're interested in getting a Big Green Egg, I say get one!

Ribs after they were brushed with sauce and charred on the grill.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Mmm Mmm Good Pork Spareribs

Note: This is a recipe for ribs smoked using an indoor smoker. For ribs smoked and cooked outside on the Big Green Egg, go to this blog entry.

I have had a bad craving for pork spareribs the last few days, spurred on by the House of Annie's BBQ challenge and my looking into a Big Green Egg for my husband's birthday (shh, it's a secret but he never reads my blog).

So, it's Monday night after work, and I'm prepping a rack of spareribs for Tuesday dinner. I did my normal version of a dry rub, which consists of generously covering both sides of the ribs with kosher salt, pepper, paprika, brown sugar, garlic powder, and onion powder. I also added a sprinkling of cumin, cayenne, dried mustard, allspice, and nutmeg. I rubbed this all into the meat.

If you like to measure things before putting the dry rub on the ribs, I've included a standard dry rub mix recipe below. Or you can use a packaged mix like Penzey's BBQ 3000 or one you can get in the grocery store. Personally, I don't think it matters that much as long as you season the ribs well with some sort of spice rub.

I stuck the ribs in my Cameron's indoor smoker (highly recommended for its convenience and results when you don't have the time to fire up the smoker outside or you don't have an "outside") for 45 minutes over hickory. OMG. The lovely and light perfume of wood smoke wafted through the house. If we were cartoon characters, we would be floating through the air with dreamy looks on our faces, hooked to the aroma streams coming from the kitchen.

I then wrapped the ribs in foil and transferred them to a 250 degree oven to cook another 3-4 hours. They were done around 10:30 p.m. My poor daughter Christina. She kept getting out of bed, saying "Mmm, those smell so good."

When I pulled them out, I couldn't resist pulling off a couple pieces from the edges, even though it was way past dinner. The smell was intoxicating, hickory wood interlaced with smoky paprika, toasty brown sugar, and that little high note of allspice. I reluctantly put the rack in the fridge, to cool down and be ready for grilling tomorrow.

The next night, we couldn't wait to get home. I fired up the gas grill and heated it on high for about ten minutes. I then turned down the grill to medium, seared the ribs on both sides, turned the grill down to low, brushed it with BBQ sauce, and grilled it again on both sides enough to caramelize the sauce and warm the ribs through.

I served the ribs with a confetti coleslaw and extra BBQ sauce. We went through the rack in minutes. They didn't need any sauce -- they were that good. Sigh. If only there were more.

NOTE IF YOU DON'T HAVE A SMOKER OR A GRILL: You can still enjoy great ribs even if you don't have a smoker or a grill. Season your ribs as indicated above. Put on a cookie sheet, add a little (like a 1/2 cup) of beer or water, and cover with foil. Cook until tender and coming apart a little at the bottom of the bone). If you're making BBQ sauce, add a drop of liquid smoke, which is literally just liquid smoke and A-okay. Brush ribs with sauce and put under the broiler until caramelized.

Dry Rib Rub

2 tbs. paprika
1 tbs. brown sugar
2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
1/4 tsp. cayenne

Feel free to add additional spices as you desire. You can put any leftover spice rub in a jar.

BBQ Sauce

2 cups ketchup
1 cup apple cider or juice
2 tbs. worcestershire sauce
2 tbs. molasses
2 tbs. cider vinegar
2 tbs. brown sugar
2 tbs. yellow mustard
1/2 tsp. ground pepper
1/2 tsp. cayenne
Some of the dry rub spice mix

In a saucepan, mix together ingredients and bring to a simmer. Cook down to desired consistency.

Confetti Coleslaw

The other night, I made some delicious pork spareribs, which I served with coleslaw.

Every time I serve this coleslaw, everyone asks for the recipe. It's crisp and fresh, the exact opposite of the goopy, soggy, mayo-laden coleslaw I usually see.

My go-to side dish for parties, the coleslaw dresses up the buffet table with its pretty colors and it holds up well over time. With its sweet and sour flavors, it's a nice palate cleanser and partners well with richer summer foods like ribs, grilled or fried chicken, pulled pork, carnitas, etc. Shredded thinly, it's a wonderful topping for tacos.

I don't like to marinate my coleslaw. I serve it right after I put on the dressing to preserve maximum crunch. However, it's perfectly happy sitting in the fridge for a long soak if you want to make it the night before or a few hours ahead.

I don't measure the coleslaw ingredients, putting in as much as my eyes tell me to put in. Think color when picking ingredients:

Shredded green cabbage (your base)
Shredded red cabbage
Slivered carrots
Sliced red onions
Sliced red or yellow bell pepper
Granny Smith apple, matchsticked (the apple really makes it, but add it and make sure the dressing covers the matchsticks so they don't discolor)

The following dressing is my standard dressing, and I use some or all of it, depending on how much veggies I cut up. If I need more, I make more.

1/3 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup oil
1 tbs. dijon mustard
1 1/2 tbs. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper

This dressing is very adaptable. If you wanted to add mayo, you could.

Or if you want a Mexican-style dressing, replace the vinegar with lime juice, add a little paprika, cumin, and oregano, and throw in some matchsticked jicama and jalapeno to your other vegetables. You get the idea.

If you try this, I think it will become part of your summer repertoire. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Mark's Standing Rib Roast

Growing up, my husband's family tradition was to eat prime rib for Christmas Eve. Every year, his father would never tire of saying, "I hope you like this, because it's the last time you're going to have it before you're 25 years old and have to buy it yourself."
After years of hearing this, Mark, who's now way past 25, can't resist buying a prime rib roast when it goes on sale. And it was this weekend, for Easter.

Mark is a master with meat. He will tell you that the secret of cooking a great prime rib roast is to
1) honor its inherent flavor and stick with simple seasonings,

2) use a meat thermometer to cook it to the perfect temperature of 123 degrees (when it rests, the temperature will continue to go up and the meat will be medium-rare to medium), and

3) let it rest for 30 minutes, so the juices can redistribute themselves.

As the beneficiary of Mark's cooking, I can tell you that this rib roast is irresistible with its crackly seasoned crust and tender, juicy, pink interior.

1 Beef standing rib roast (approx. 7 lbs. and 3-4 bones)
Kosher Salt
Garlic Powder
Onion Powder
Celery Salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (use convection roast function if you have it on your stove).

Let meat sit out until it's about room temperature. Do not trim the meat.

At this point, you can tie it with twine to keep the roast together during cooking. We don't do this as some in the family, like myself, like it more cooked than others. If you don't tie it, the outer edges will cook a little more.

Pat meat dry, and generously cover each side with kosher salt, garlic powder, onion powder, and celery salt (the celery salt makes a difference), patting it down on one side before moving on to the next. You can also use Penzey's English Prime Rib Rub Seasoning, which is one of my favorite mixed rubs.

Put the roast in a roasting pan (no rack necessary).

Cook until it's 123 degrees in the center according to your meat thermometer, which took about an hour and a half. This will give you medium-rare to medium meat (see picture of sliced meat).

Tent with aluminum foil and let it rest on the counter for at least 20 minutes before slicing and serving. My husband lets it rest 30 minutes. I'm usually running around trying to get the sides done, so I appreciate the extra resting time. :)

Apple Pancakes

It's Sunday morning, and I was thinking, "What's for breakfast?" Then I saw Greedy Gourmand's apple pancakes on Tastespotting and FoodGawker.

Simply dressed with a sprinkling of confectioner's sugar and cinnamon, these apple pancakes were the perfect accompaniment to a cup of joe on this sunny and breezy Northeast morning.

Greedy Gourmand got the recipe from the Crabby Cook, who learned it from his mother. I wonder what his mother would say when she learned her apple pancakes were being made in households possibly all over the world.

To Crabby Cook's mom's recipe (see slightly modified version below), I added a little bit of vanilla and cinnamon to the batter and then sprinkled them with confectioner's sugar and cinnamon after they came out of the skillet. Crabby Cook recommended eating them with fruit preserves.

Makes about 6 small pancakes

1 egg
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup milk
3 heaping TBSP flour
1 Apple, peeled & cored, preferably Granny Smith or Cortland
Vegetable oil for frying

In a medium bowl, beat egg with sugar. Add the milk and a dash of vanilla. Mix in the flour and sprinkle in a little bit of cinnamon.

Coarsely grate the peeled and cored apple. Add the apple to the batter mixture.

The batter should be thick but pourable, so adjust the flour and milk accordingly after you add the apples.

In a large saute pan, heat about 1/8" worth of oil over medium heat. When hot, add several pancakes worth (I used a 1/4 cup as my pancake batter ladle) of the batter mixture to the oil, patting down the pancakes to make them of even thickness and in generally round shapes. Make sure they're not touching each other, so they don't stick together. Gently fry until golden brown, turning once, approximately 5 - 7 minutes total cooking time.

Allow to cool slightly and serve with fruit preserves or jam, or confectioner's sugar and cinnamon.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Gotta Have Sesame Balls

My daughter Christina is absolutely addicted to sesame balls, the king of the dim sum sweets cart. She can go sesame ball-free for awhile and then she goes on a bender. For a spate of Sundays (the day when a local Chinese place serves dim sum for part of the day), it's "Can we go for dim sum?"

The sesame-encrusted crunchy outside, the soft white curves of sweet and smooth glutinous rice, and then that heart-melting pearl of sweet bean paste in the's heaven.

Can you tell her mother is addicted to them too?

I referenced sesame ball recipes on two great blogs, Dessert First and Flavor Explosions. I also watched a video on making sesame balls. I had the glutinous rice (Mochiko brand), brown sugar, sesame seeds, and water. All I needed to do was pick up some canned red bean paste, which I bought from the local Asian store.

The next time I make these, I am going to try white sugar as I missed the white color of the sesame balls that we get at the local dim sum place, and the brown sugar was a little too assertive for me. I also learned to cook the sesame balls under 350 degrees as cooking them higher than that makes a crust that is too hard. Finally, it takes practice to get the filling right in the middle and to determine how much filling you need; we were a little stingy when we made the balls this time around. It was still a delicious adventure, and we now know we can make our own sesame balls.

Below is the recipe from Dessert First, mentioned above. You should definitely check out the site if you haven't seen it.

There is also another great recipe on Epicurious, which gives important advice on how to fry the balls and help them expand:

"In a 8-inch wide, 5-inch deep pot, heat vegetable oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking, about 330 degrees on a deep-fat thermometer. Carefully add 6 sesame balls at a time, and cook over medium heat until golden, 6 to 7 minutes. As the balls float to the surface, begin to press them gently with the back of a metal spatula against the sides of the pot. The balls will expand as they are gently rotated and pressed. Increase the heat to medium-high and fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes. "

Sesame Seed Balls

makes about 20

1 lb glutinous rice flour

1 1/4 cup dark brown sugar

1 1/4 cup water

1/2 cup red bean paste or 3 oz dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces

1 cup sesame seeds

oil for deep frying

Put the rice flour into a large bowl. Bring the water to a boil and add the brown sugar, stirring to dissolve.

Pour the sugar water over the rice flour and stir together with a wooden spoon to combine. You can add up to 1/3 cup more water if the mixture seems dry and isn't coming together. Once the dough is cool enough to touch with your bare hands you can stop using the spoon and just knead the dough - don't overwork it or it will become tough.

Once the dough is soft and smooth, break off a piece about the size of a golf ball and roll between your hands to form a ball. Place in a dish and cover with some plastic wrap, then repeat with the remaining dough.

Take one of the dough balls and make a well in it with your thumb. Place either a teaspoon of the red bean paste or a few pieces of the chocolate in the well, then push the dough together to cover up the filling. Roll the ball between your hands again to make it smooth and round without cracks.

Wet your hands with water and roll the dough ball in a dish of the sesame seeds, pressing gently to get the seed to adhere to the dough ball. Place the ball back under the plastic wrap and repeat with remaining balls.

Pour the oil in a wok or other pan so it is deep enough to cover the dough balls when you fry them. Heat over medium heat until it is 350 degrees.

Place a few dough balls (about 4-5) in the hot oil and let cook. Use a ladle or wooden spoon to press the dough balls against the side of the pan to rotate them - this is important to help them cook evenly and prevent spots from burning.

When the seeds start turning golden and the dough balls start floating to the top of the oil, the balls should be done - about 5 to 6 minutes. You might want to fish one out and cut it in half to make sure the dough has cooked all the way through.

Remove the balls and drain them on paper towels, then repeat with the rest. The sesame seed balls should be served as soon as possible to preserve freshness.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Spanish-Style Mixed Rice

I'm an improvisational cook. I look around, see what I have, and then make something out of it.

I don't usually plan out what I'm going to do; frankly, I have enough of that at work. The work me is methodical, systematic, detail-oriented, and exacting. The home me likes to be flexible, relaxed, and with no end point of where I have to be. I just do what comes to me.

On my way home from work, I was mentally going through what I had in the kitchen -- chicken thighs I had bought on sale, lite turkey kielbasa, red and green peppers, tomatoes, lemons -- and I thought "paella." I also knew I had shrimp and peas in the freezer, capers, chicken broth, and some chardonnay in the fridge, and saffron and smoked paprika in the pantry.

What I didn't have was Valencia rice or arborio rice, so I used good old Uncle Ben's, a rice I use when I'm making mixed rices, and instead of Spanish chorizo, the kielbasa. They work great in this Spanish-style mixed rice.

4 skinless chicken thighs
Smoked paprika
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup white wine
1/4-1/2 tsp. saffron
2 cups chicken broth
2 bay leaves
8 oz. kielbasa (1/2 of a pre-wrapped kielbasa), cut in rounds and then rounds cut in 1/2
12 jumbo shrimp, deveined, deshelled and defrosted
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup each green and red pepper
1 or 2 tomatoes, seeded and diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cumin
1 heaping tablespoon Spanish capers, drained
1 cup Uncle Ben's rice
1/2 cup peas (or more if you want more peas)
Chopped parsley
Lemon wedges

Sprinkle chicken thighs generously with, salt, pepper, and smoked paprika on both sides.

Heat a heavy-bottomed sauce pot over medium-high heat, deep enough to hold the chicken broth. When the pot is hot, add a little olive oil. Add the chicken thighs. Brown one side for a few minutes and then brown the other side. If there is a lot of fat in the pot after browning, take out the chicken and remove the excess fat. Place the chicken back in the pot over heat.

Add wine and let it simmer happily for a few minutes, so the alcohol can evaporate. Add chicken broth, saffron, and bay leaves and when the chicken broth starts boiling, turn down the heat, partially cover the pot, and let the chicken thighs gently simmer in the broth for 20 minutes.

While the chicken is cooking, add 1 clove of minced garlic to some olive oil in a bowl enough to hold the shrimp. Season the shrimp with salt, pepper, and smoked paprika and then add to garlic oil, mixing to distribute the oil and garlic over the shrimp. Put bowl of shrimp in the fridge.

When the chicken is done cooking, take it out of the pot and put it on a plate. Pour the broth into a pyrex liquid measuring cup; it should be about 2 cups. If it's more or less than that, adjust it so that's it 2 cups, adding water or more broth if need be.

Put the pot back on the stove and heat it over medium heat. Add kielbasa and brown, taking it out and setting it aside when it's done. Add a little olive oil and add onions, bell peppers, cumin, and salt. Saute for 5 minutes over medium-low heat. Add the tomatoes, capers, and remaining garlic and cook three more minutes; the tomatoes will dissolve and blend in with the other veggies.

Stir in rice and cook another 5 minutes. [At this point, you can transfer the rice mixture to the rice cooker, add the kielbasa and chicken broth, turn it on and then proceed with recipe).

Add the kielbasa back and reserved stock. Bring to a boil and then turn down to medium-low or a gentle simmer. Cover.

Cook for twenty minutes, checking occasionally to make sure the stock isn't boiling but simmering. While the rice is cooking, cut up the chicken thighs into bite-size pieces.

After twenty minutes, add cut chicken thighs, along with the peas (you could also add the shrimp at this point, but I didn't). Cover and cook for another 5-7 minutes. After 5-7 minutes, the rice should be cooked and the liquid mostly absorbed. If there's still liquid, let it cook a few more minutes over low heat.

After you add the chicken thighs to the rice, heat a separate skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, lay down shrimp on the skillet, cooking 2 minutes on one side and 2 minutes on the other side. When you check the rice after 5-7 minutes, add the shrimp to the rice at that time.

When the rice is done, add minced parsley for color and serve with lemon wedges.