Saturday, December 27, 2014

Endive and Ham Gratin

This is a luxurious way to prepare Belgian endive. If you're like me you usually only use the little endive leafs as cups for appetizers and tapas. But after reading several posts from good cooks like David Lebovitz who resides in France, I decided to purchase Belgian endive at the next opportunity and prepare it as a winter side dish.

As luck would have it, our local market had fresh Belgian endive and not even in a package, but loose so I could sort through and select the best and most uniform sized specimens. Uniformity really is key to even cooking. I prefer the larger ones as two of this size are perfect even as an entree. As these tend to be rich and delicious you really can serve them as the main dish with a simple side of good rice or other green vegetable. I wrapped my in thinly sliced prosciutto and combined with the cheese sauce, there really is plenty of protein in this manly vegetable dish.

I don't recommend a lot of sauce as they will be plenty rich with just a little. However it’s hard to make a very small batch of creamy cheese sauce, so I included a recipe that makes 2 cups. I used less than 1 and saved the rest for broccoli which I'm serving later in the week.  The classic dish prepared in most of France doesn't include cheese in the sauce itself but rather just uses a white sauce called béchamel. It's just melted butter with a little flour, salt and white pepper worked in over moderate heat and then milk is added to make a rich velvety sauce. This is actually the base for most cheese sauces, so I stirred in about a 1/4 cup of the cheddar cheese, and reserved the rest to sprinkle on top.

As for serving size, as I noted above it you have larger endive and want to make this a main course, serve two per person with the ham and cheese sauce. A simple side will make a meal as the sauce is very rich.  If you are watching your weight, then plain butter-braised Belgian endive spears are great without the sauce. If you are feeding vegetarians, then omit prosciutto. The below recipe makes dinner for 4 (two per person as a main dish) or side dishes for 8 (one per person). I halved it for dinner for two.

For the endive and ham gratin:

2 tablespoons butter, salted or unsalted
8 Belgian endive spears
3 tablespoons water
juice of 1/2 lemon
8 thin slices of ham, such as prosciutto
3/4 cup grated cheese (most kinds will do, I used cheddar)

For the cheese sauce:

2 tablespoons butter, salted or unsalted
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk or half & half
1/4 cup grated cheddar cheese
pinch salt
pinch white pepper

Preheat the oven to 325F. Melt the 2 tablespoons of butter in a heatproof and flameproof baking dish or a skillet, on the cook top over medium high heat.

Trim any brown ends on the endive begin careful to only remove the very thinnest slice so as to keep all the leaves attached. Add the endive spears to the melted butter and cook, turning them occasionally, until they are browned on all sides, about 10 minutes total.

Add the water and lemon juice to the baking dish, cover the endive with a piece of parchment paper, and bake the endives in the oven until fully cooked. They’re done when you pierce one with the tip of a sharp paring knife, and it meets no resistance. Small to medium endives will take about an hour. Larger ones may take 15 minutes longer. While they cook, make the sauce.

To make the sauce, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan. Add the flour and when the mixture begins to bubble, cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Gradually add the milk, while whisking, until it’s all incorporated. Continue to cook the sauce at a low boil for 4 to 5 minutes, until it’s thickened. Remove from heat and mix in the salt and white pepper. Set aside. (You can make the sauce up to 2 days in advance, and chill it until ready to use. Warm and add a little more milk if necessary for proper sauce consistency.)

Remove the endives from the oven and increase the heat to 350F. Let cool for 15 minutes or until you can handle them. Remove from baking dish and empty any liquid from the dish.

Wrap each one with a piece of ham and set them in a single layer back in the baking dish. Spoon the sauce over the spears and top with the rest of the grated cheese  Bake until the cheese is melted and the top is browned, about 30 minutes. Remove and serve.

Storage: The endives can be cooked 2-3 days before being wrapped in ham, and baked in sauce.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Braised Red Cabbage with Cinnamon, Apples and Cider

A holiday plate looks more festive with this dish, but it's perfect all winter long. It's also easy to prepare and forgiving on the ingredient list. By that I mean you can easily substitute as I've noted in the recipe and get equally good results.

Julian's Braised Red Cabbage
If you have those that say they don't like the taste or smell of cabbage, they are referring to traditional green cabbage. This red cabbage has neither the odor or strong flavor of green cabbage. It's popular in most German restaurants and full of fall and winter flavors with cinnamon, apples and cider included. So do give it a try if you haven't made it before. Thereafter you won't even need the recipe, as it is easy to make and remember.

Oven Use:  With regard to the cooking location, below I've listed it as preparing on cook top and transferring to the oven, but you can simply turn it down to simmer and let it cook in the skillet, stirring occasionally. 

2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
1 red onion, sliced
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 medium apple, sliced (Granny Smith preferred)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar 
1 small head (about 2-3 pounds red cabbage),
1 cup red wine OR 1 cup apple cider
1 cup orange juice (optional)
1 cinnamon stick or pinch of grated cinnamon
3 teaspoons dried ginger (optional)
salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350F degrees. (see note above on oven use)

Heat a deep, heavy skillet. Add oil. Saute the red onion until translucent about 3-5 minutes. Sprinkle in brown sugar and cook for a few minutes until it starts to caramelize. Add sliced apples and red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar. Stir up any browned bits stuck to the pan. Bring to a low boil. Add red wine or apple cider and the optional orange juice, cinnamon, ginger and salt and pepper. Simmer for 5 minutes. 

Add red cabbage  and gently toss to combine. Cook for about 10 minutes on top of the stove. Transfer to a heavy casserole dish.  Cover and cook in 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes. Remove. Taste, and adjust seasoning, if necessary. 

Braised Red Cabbage Ready for the Table

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Christmas Cranberries ~ Four Great Ways to Use Cranberries in Your Holiday Meals

This time of the year I'm using cranberries in many dishes, from salads through to desserts. So today I wanted to share a few simple ways to include this colorful berry in your meals which make the holiday foods more festive.

From our home to yours, Merry Christmas!
Perhaps one of the easiest and most traditional ways to use cranberries is to make a quick cranberry relish/chutney to serve alongside a roasted Christmas turkey or goose. Cooking them until tender and just starting to burst with some added orange juice (from one orange), orange zest and sugar is quick and simple. And you can do it ahead of time so it's ready for the table when your bird is done. I don't like to overcook them as I want them to still look somewhat fresh. I'm looking for a relish not a sauce or gelatin. While cranberries are quite tart, take care in the amount of sugar you add. You don't want to turn this into a dessert. It should be just tart-sweet to make a good cranberry relish. My recipe is below.

Julian's Cranberry Relish in the Making

Cranberry-Apple Relish

1 medium orange
2 cups water
1 Granny Smith apple
1 bag (3 cups or 12 ounces) cranberries, fresh
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Peel the bright outer orange skin (the zest) from the orange insuring you leave the white pith behind. Squeeze the juice from the orange, set aside and discard the solid membranes and pith. Put the zest into a saucepan with the water, bring to a boil and cook for 10 minutes.  Drain, chop medium and set aside.

Peel, core and quarter the apple.  Chop the apple into small pieces and place in a saucepan.  Sort the cranberries, discarding any soft ones, and add to the chopped apple together with the orange peel, orange juice, sugar, cinnamon and cloves.  Place over medium-high heat, bring to a boil stirring occasionally, then reduce heat and simmer gently covered, until thickened.  Stir periodically. The apple should be tender and the cranberries should have burst.  This should take approximately 10-15 minutes.

Transfer to a bowl and let cool before serving.  (Can be covered and refrigerated but should be brought back to room temperature before serving.)

Cranberry Relish Makes for a Festive Plate
and Is Also Good on Turkey Sandwiches
Of course just sprinkling some dried sweetened cranberries on a salad will also be a welcome addition. Below I have a salad with fresh greens (arugula), apples, fresh mozzarella cheese and dried cranberries, with a simple vinaigrette dressing. Delicious and easy!

Christmas Salad
For dessert why not try an apple-cranberry crisp. Served with ice cream, the tartness of the apples and cranberries combined with a crumb topping (yet to be applied in the photo below) make for the perfect holiday dessert.

You can follow any of my crisp recipes already posted on this site or better yet, just toss some Granny Smith apples and fresh cranberries with sugar, cinnamon and corn starch and place them in a baking dish. Make some crumb topping using brown sugar, butter, a little flour, some oatmeal and a dash of cinnamon and salt and you have a great, easy dessert. If you've been measuring these things out from recipes found on my site or elsewhere, live a little. Just toss together what you think works and it won't be long before you are making crisps and crumbles of all kinds with no recipe at all. That's the joy of cooking! 

Finally, I'm going to give you my Aunt Rose's recipe for a cranberry jello salad. I know this may sound like a dessert, and sometimes she served it that way with whipped cream, but it really is a salad as the gelatin is just used to hold the ingredients together in a festive holiday wreath shape. It's not overly sweet and is always popular at my table as it has a nice cool, fresh crunch. For additional cranberry recipes such as cookies and biscotti, just search "cranberries" in my search box above left.

Cranberry Jello Salad with Orange Jello

Cranberry Jello Salad

12 ounces fresh cranberries
4 large carrots
4 large celery stalks
2 large boxes gelatin powder (orange, cranberry or strawberry)
2 cans frozen strawberries, lightly thawed (optional)

Chopped Carrots, Celery and Cranberries

Chop carrots and celery and all but a few of the cranberries, in food processor.

Prepare gelatin as directed on box and place in refrigerator, stirring occasionally until semi-set.

When gelatin is semi-set, add chopped ingredients and the optional strawberries, folding in gently.

Ladle into a jello mold or serving bowl and chill until set (3-4 hours)  To remove from mold, submerse mold to rim in warm water for a few moments and invert over serving plate.  Garnish with green leaves and the remaining cranberries.

Cranberry Jello Salad with Cranberry Jello

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Black Forest Crumble ~ Dark Chocolate and Cherries Make the Perfect Holiday Combo

If you can make a 'dump cake' you can make this wonderful dessert suitable year around, but it's particularly nice during the Christmas holidays. It has only FOUR basic ingredients! It marries together dark chocolate cake, melted chocolate bits and gorgeous red cherries. Topped with whipped cream, it tastes rich and delicious and is the perfect balance of sweet and tart.

Julian's Black Forest Crumble
Of course the traditional German dessert (Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte) is a time-consuming multi-layer chocolate cake with alternating layers of whipped cream and cherries. But for this version, my recipe is prepared in a single baking dish and for once, I prefer it over the traditional cake version. This is because you get more of the cherry sauce with every bite of the dark chocolate cake which actually has melted bits of chocolate in it. You really will love this dessert and so will your family. And unlike other dump cakes, which are mostly unremarkable, this one looks great and tastes better!

Note: The cherries are key to getting a good result in this recipe and as such you should select the canned cherries that will provide you with the most cherries possible. I prefer one can of traditional 'more fruit' cherry pie filling plus an additional jar of tart pie cherries in light syrup. These are available at my local grocer although today I used some fresh frozen pie cherries my friend Ralph brought back for me from Michigan. When using the jar of tart pie cherries, drain off the light syrup as the canned filling has plenty of heavy syrup and the extra tart cherries fold right in. You can alternatively use two cans of pie filling if you cannot easily find the jar of pie cherries or a bag of frozen pie cherries.

1 can cherry pie filling (21 ounces)
1 jar pitted pie cherries in light syrup
                     (about 20 ounces)
1 dark chocolate cake mix
1/2 cup (1 stick) of butter, melted
8 ounces dark chocolate chips, chunks or pieces
1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)
whipped cream (for serving)
Maraschino cherries (for serving)

Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Mix the cherry pie filling and the drained cherries together in a 9"x 11" baking dish or equivalent. Place the chocolate cake mix in a bowl and using a fork, blend in the melted butter until the mixture is crumbly. Toss in the chocolate and optional nuts and stir to combine. Sprinkle over the cherries. Bake for 45 minutes until bubbly. Remove from oven and add a Maraschino cherry to the top as a decoration. Serve with whipped cream and a Maraschino cherry on top of each serving.

Serve with whipped cream and a cherry.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Sitges ~ The St. Tropez of Spain

For the second time this year I find myself in Spain where the food is great, the locals are friendly, the weather is wonderful and the prices are reasonable. Work brought me back to Barcelona, which I have posted about previously. But with a few days to spare, a quick 30 minute drive to Sitges provides me with a welcome rest in a lovely Mediterranean resort, which quickly reminds one of France's famous St. Tropez.

I'm staying at the Melia Sitges for four nights which is located perfectly and perhaps the nicest full service hotel in the area. The photo above is taken a short walk from the hotel as I head into the old downtown area where all of the beaches and shops are located. As you can see the walkway is well maintained and feels safe day and night. The local government has done a wonderful job of making the area walker friendly and it seems most everyone is on foot. And why not, when you have such lovely weather and a walk along the seaside.

I'm here toward the end of September and the hotel staff tells me the big tourist season has ended, so the beaches and shops should be more quiet. They are certainly not crowded but there are plenty of people around to make it feel welcoming and friendly. The old city area is beautiful and the buildings have that classic seaside resort look. Certainly they are colorful, well maintained and brimming with shops, cafes and restaurants.

And you won't ever forget that you are right on the beach. A large well maintained beachfront is yours for swimming, building sandcastles, boating and jet skiing. I found the above cute little water paddle boats you can rent and then use their built in slides for playing in the cool Mediterranean. 

Don't be surprised to see naked babies and topless women on all of Sitges beaches, as it is the custom here. Of course you don't have to expose yourself if you are uncomfortable and you will find many women do cover up. But at either end of the very long, broad beach you will also find nude swimming areas where men and women of all ages are completely naked and enjoying the waters and sunshine. In these areas practically everyone is fully naked. Despite this you do not get any sense that it is the least bit sexual in nature and as such you can relax and enjoy the pristine setting just as nature made you.

Click to Enlarge
Of course the area boasts all of Spain's most famous foods and one of the reasons I like the Melia Sitges is that immediately below the property is a marina with a large number of restaurants providing every type of food imaginable, alongside plenty of fresh fish. I enjoyed locally caught fish in the classic sea salt bake. I also had lovely paella, pastas, pizza and great desserts. The local lobster was also very good. Having restaurants very close to the hotel is ideal because in Spain dinner isn't typically eaten until 10:00PM. No respectable restaurant even opens until 8:30PM and then that's just for the tourists. So with late dining and lots of great Spanish wine, I like my restaurant to be relatively close by the hotel.

When I posted the photo of the Iberian ham, on the hoof as it were, I got a few negative comments. Displaying cured ham this way is very common in Spain and Italy too. Don't be put off because you can clearly see where your food is coming from as it is particularly delicious and served everywhere. According to Spain's Denominación de Origen rules on food products, their ham (jamón ibérico) must be made from black Iberian pigs, or cross-bred pigs as long as they are at least 75% ibérico. Showing the black hoof of the pigs is a way to make sure your customers know you are serving them authentic acorn-fed Iberian ham.

Torró, the Catalan name for the candy we call nougat in English, is a local confection made of honey, sugar, and egg white, with toasted almonds or other nuts, and shaped into either a rectangular bar or a round cake. It comes in a wide variety of flavor combinations. Make sure you snack on some while you are there. It also makes an excellent gift to bring home to friends and family.

Julian at the Spanish wine tasting.
I just happened to be in town for the Sitges wine festival, which was fortunate because the area has a long wine making tradition and was the birthplace of the sparkling wine Cava, invented in the early 1870s at the Codorníu Winery. At the turn of the 20th century, the Catalan wine industry was at the forefront of Spain's emergence as a world leader in quality wine production, and the area is also in an important cork production region.  Wine is amazingly inexpensive here and I didn't have a one that wouldn't be considered top quality. Here at the wine festival you get your own full size wine glass and three vouchers for three full glasses of wine. Mind you this was around noon time and these were not small pourings. While I had a wonderful time at the festival, a nap was required upon my return to the hotel.

There is not a lot to do in Sitges, which is just what I was looking for. If you want to enjoy the sun, sit at the beach, shop the lovely small old town and enjoy wonderful food and wine, this is the place for you. I would certainly visit again and would encourage you to do the same!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Woodsy Mushroom Bisque

A perfect first course for winter holiday meals or great for lunch with a salad, this soup is nothing like the canned mushroom soup we all grew up with. In fact that mushroom soup is most often used as an ingredient in recipes and really is not suitable for regular consumption on its own.

Julian's Woodsy Mushroom Bisque with Salad
Perfect on a Cold Autumn Day
My first truly great mushroom soup came from the chef at the Fairmont Chicago where each fall we would hold a board meeting. The chef offered up the soup and thereafter we requested it be served each year long after it was not part of the regular menu options. Thankfully he gladly complied and since then I've tried to replicate that wonderful, woodsy dish.

Cremini, White Button, Shitake
Preferred Mushroom Combination
The key to really good mushroom soup is of course plenty of the right mushrooms and not so much cream as to overpower their subtle flavor. So imagine my delight when Cook's Illustrated published their version of "Best Mushroom Bisque" and it turned out to be almost identical to the soup I enjoyed at the Fairmont. So I've abandoned my own recipe in favor of this one and provide it to you below, mostly as published. My only suggested modification is that I prefer my soup to have a bit of mushroom texture, so instead of transferring it to a blender as directed (for a completely smooth finish) I use my stick blender in the pot to get the desired result. I leave it to you to decide what final texture you prefer.

1 pound white mushrooms
8 ouces cremini/brown button/baby bella mushrooms
8 ounces shitake mushrooms
salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small shallot/onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons dry sherry/vermouth/white wine
4 cups water
3 1/2 cups chicken broth
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon lemon juice
chopped chives for garnish (optional)
sour cream for garnish (optional)

Wash and cut off tough bottom-end stems of mushrooms. Place mushrooms in a microwave safe bowl and toss with salt. Cover and microwave for 12 minutes, stirring every 4 minutes, until mushrooms have released their liquid and reduced to about one-third their orignal volume. Transfer mushrooms to colander and drain over a bowl to collect the juices.

Heat oil in a large Dutch Oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are browned and starting to stick to the bottom of the pot, about 8 minutes. Add shallot/onion, thyme and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook stirring occasionally until shallot/onion is softened about 2 more minutes. Add sherry/wine and cook until evavporated. Stir in reserved mushroom liquid and cook, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pot. Stir in water and broth and bring to a simmer (low boil). Reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes, covered.

Puree the soup in the pot using a stick blender for a more course texture or transfer in batches to a traditional blender to puree until very smooth (blending 2 minutes per batch. Return to pot.)

Wisk cream and egg yolks together in a medium bowl. Stirring slowly and constantly, add 2 cups soup to cream mixture. Stirring constantly, slowly pour cream mixture into the hot soup. Heat gently, stirring constnatly, until soup is 165F degrees. Do not overheat. Stir in lemon juice and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with chives and/or a dollop of sour cream for garnish.

The French "liaison" of egg yolks and cream give
the soup it's silky texture.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

One Bowl Banana-Nut Bread ~ A Delicious Easy Breakfast Treat

A great way to use up those bananas that are starting to get overly ripe, this recipe is easy to prepare and comes out perfect every time. I've made this recipe for years and was surprised I'd never posted it to the blog. So here it is today for your enjoyment.

Julian's Banana-Nut Bread
Note that I give you an option that will provide you with two different outcomes. My husband prefers one version and I prefer the other. You can decide what's most likely to be popular in your household. If you add the optional applesauce (my preference) you'll have a moist dense banana bread more akin to the texture of a pound cake (but loaf cake sized). If you skip the applesauce, the bread will have a more dry, crumb akin to a cake or traditional breakfast loaf. This is what Kevin prefers. The nuts are also optional if someone has an alergy but I certainly think they add both flavor and texture and shouldn't be skipped unless there is a medical necessity.

The recipe below uses about 3-4 ripe bananas for a single loaf. The recipe is easy to double and comes out fine if you do so. I use non-stick dark baking pans which will provide more of a crust on the loaf. These I spray with food release (Pam). If you are using traditional shiny loaf pans, grease and flour the pans to ensure the loaves come out easily.

Ingredients (makes 1 loaf, 8 thick slices)
1 cup sugar (or 1/2 cup Spenda Baking Mix)
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups ripe bananas, mashed
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup applesauce (optional, see note above)
2 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup walnuts, chopped (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Grease the loaf pans (see note above).

Double Batch
Using an electric mixer blend together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in the eggs and scrape down the bowl. Add the mashed bananas and lemon juice and mix in. Mix in the optional applesauce. With the mixer running on low, spoon in the dry ingredients. Stir in the nuts (optional). Add batter to the prepared loaf pans and bake for 45-50 minutes, just until a pick inserted into the center comes out clean. Do not over bake. Cool slightly until you can easily handle without gloves and turn out the loaf.

They make the house smell wonderful!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Crockpot Glazed Pork Tenderloin

Fall-apart tender with a subtle flavor, this recipe is perfect when I need to literally 'set it and forget it'. In the Autumn I'm often busy with many projects around the house/garden and I was looking for a recipe that I could make without much effort that would cook all day on its own (no checking the pot). This recipe cooks for 6 hours!

Julian's Crockpot Glazed Pork Tenderloins
I'm often skeptical of the recipes that are posted on Facebook, but decided this one looked harmless enough and was worth a try. As it turns out, it worked pretty well and below I recommend only a few minor changes to the original which came from, which is largely a site full of ads and not much else.

With regard to selecting the pork tenderloins, you are looking for a package that is 2 - 2.5 pounds. As such it likely contains two smaller pork tenderloins, which really are best rather than one large tenderloin. I'm not sure you can even get a single tenderloin of that size, but it's preferable to have the two smaller pieces in the package for this recipe as the flavors are better distributed among the meat.

Ready for Cooking ~ 6 hours on low temperature.
Finally a word on crockpot cooking. Remember to NOT remove the lid during cooking as this lets the heat escape and dramatically lowers the temperature. Keep it covered and don't feel the need to check on it until you are near the end of the cooking time. A typical slow cooker on low cooks at only 200F degrees, so you don't want to reduce the temperature further by opening the lid periodically. Also note that the recipe makes a nice sauce for service over the meat, you'll need additional gravy if you are serving it with mashed potatoes.

2 to 2.5 pounds pork tenderloin
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon yellow mustard
3 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons diced dried onions
2 teaspoons garlic powder or granules

Place the tenderloins in a crock pot on the low setting. Mix the remaining ingredients together and pour over tenderloins. Cover and cook 6 hours. Remove and serve.

Fork Tender with Subtle Flavorings

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Potato Leek Soup or Vichyssoise

With Autumn upon us here in the U.S. Midwest today I'm making one of the simplest soups of the season. It may be easy, but it is also a favorite because of its delicate taste and comforting bouquet. If you serve this soup at room temperature or even chilled it's what they call 'vichyssoise', and is particularly good with a cold supper on a hot day. But the weather here is now decidedly chilly, so I will be serving it warm. With that said, I will still prepare the soup just after lunch and let it sit on the cooktop until just before dinner.

A Delicious Combination ~ Potato and Leek

Some cooks cooks use a chicken base and others add onions as well as leeks. But if you want the delicate flavor and perfume of the leeks, I would not recommend using either. Today I'm just peeling and chopping a couple white potatoes and cleaning and chopping a large leek. These are simply cooked in lightly saled water. Nothing else but cream will be added to the soup to ensure the leek flavor is not masked. Also, I puree the mixture but you really could eat it just as it. Still delicious. And you do not have to add the cream. It will still have a wonderful taste and texture. The cream just adds a bit of luxury!

Ingredients (serves 4-6)
1-2 large leeks
2 large white potatoes
Cold ater to cover the vegetables
1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)
pinch of white pepper
1/4 cup sour cream (optional garnish)
Pinch of chives or parsley for color (optional garnish)

Equipment:  Stick Blender OR Food Processor OR Drink Blender

Julian's Stick (In Pot) Blender
Caution must be taken when cleaning the leaks as they can have sand between the leaves. So cut off the root end and all but about 2-3 inches of the green leafy section. Halve the leak and then peel back the layers under running water to be sure you remove all of the dirt/sand. Then roughly chop the leek and place in a pot of cold water. Peel and roughly cube the white potato and place in the cold water with the leeks. Add some salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the cooking temperature to achieve a low simmer. Cover and cook until very tender, about 45 minutes.

When the vegetables are quite tender, turn off the pot. You can proceed or simply let it sit until closer to serving time. About 30 minutes prior to serving, puree the ingredients. I prefer to do this with a stick blender that you emerse directly into the pot. Puree until very smooth, about 2 minutes. Stir in the cream and add a pinch of white pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Reheat to just warm if necessary. Serve in bowls garnished with a dollop of sour cream in the center. Sprinkle with chives or parsley.

Julian's Cream of Potato Leek

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Spit Roasted Game Hens and Sauteed Brussels Sprouts

With crisp but pleasant Autumn air around I'm still roasting on the grill. Today I'm preparing spit-roasted Cornish game hens, which I discussed in more detail previously.   But those were oven roasted hens and I thought the smell and taste of fire roasted hens turning on a spit sounded particularly nice. I enjoyed sitting outside with the birds while they roasted, even though they needed no attention from me.

Half Spit-Roasted Game Hens with Brussels Sprouts and Rice
Roasting game hens is a simple task. I did two 22 ounce hens and cut them in half for serving to four adults.  Just wash, dry and then rub the hens in melted butter. Coat with your favorite rub or other seasoning and mount of the spit. I preheat my gas grill to 400F and also use the smoker box when I can. Then when the birds are mounted over the fire, I reduce the temperature to about 325F and let them slowly cook for 50 minutes or so before finally turning up the temperature to crisp up the skin. In all they were on the grill for about an hour.

I remove them from the spit and let them sit while we are having our first course. This assures the juices stay in the meat when the birds are cut for serving.

Julian's 22 Ounce Game Hens on the Spit
Sauteed Brussels Sprouts
Brussels sprouts always seem like a good fall food to me, although they are widely available year around and always of the same high quality. In any case, since I often prepare them other ways, today I thought I would give you the easy, classic technique that I often use when I don't want to turn on the oven. As the game hens are roasting on the grill it seems like quite a waste to heat up the oven just for the vegetable side. So instead I'm going to par boil then sautee the sprouts.

Par Boiled Sprouts Get a Warm Up in Seasoned Butter
Clean your sprouts by trimming off the stem end and any loose leaves. Cut a deep 'X' into the stem end to permit the water to penetrate. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and drop in the sprout. Stir them periodically during the 5-8 minutes of cooking time to ensure even cooking. Test a sprout by sticking it with a fork or removing it and cutting it in half. You want them to be firm but nearly done. Do not overcook them as you do not want them to be mushy.

Note:  I leave them whole but you can just as easily cut them in half which means you do not need to cut the 'X' into the stems.

When the sprouts are just fork tender, transfer them into a dish of cold water to stop the cooking. Drain and rinse with cold water and set aside. You can prepare the sprouts to this point well ahead. Immediately prior to serving, melt some butter in a saute pan. Toss in the sprouts and cook turning several times in the melted butter. Season with salt and pepper, or other spices of your preference. Cook until wamred through and serve.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Butter - it's all about the flavor!

Most of us are not used to the taste of really good butter. Given the flavorless ubiquity of most American brands, it’s not a surprise we didn't mind giving it up for margarine and have little brand loyalty if we do buy butter. That's a shame really, because butter is so very good and makes good food taste even better. One of the best ways to enjoy butter is simply served at room temperature on a biscuit or piece of bread, where you can really taste it. And what should it taste like? The New York Times described the taste of good butter as "a combination of creme fraiche's slight sourness and fresh cream's sweet wholesomeness." I think that about sums it up!

Amish Country Butter on Julian's Autumn Table
Most butter has little to no flavor, and cooks and bakers often don’t mind. Its purpose in cooking is to enhance other flavors. In baking it is to provide plasticity, which gives cakes and pastries nice texture. Typical makers of butter often add heavy doses of salt, partly to improve flavor and also to add shelf life. During the months it sits in storage prior to sale, butter can begin to turn rancid even before the sell-by date, especially if storage conditions are less than perfect. In your refrigerator, butter also easily picks up the flavor of onions, mushrooms and whatever else it is stored near. So most of our experience with butter flavor is a little salty, slightly rancid, and tasting mildly of whatever else is in the refrigerator. No wonder we don’t really enjoy eating it.

So how do you select and keep the best tasting butter?  You might think looking for higher fat content on the label would help.

Recently higher-fat (lower moisture content) butters have become available on the American market under brands such as Plugrá, (whose name comes from the French for "more fat"). Even brands such as the widely available Kerry Gold or President brands (both European imports) have more fat than most American butter. American standards call for butter to contain a minimum of 80 percent butterfat. As the fat content goes down, the water content goes up further diminishing flavor. Even small differences in the amount of fat noted on the label will perform better when making sauces as they can provide a more satiny feel on the tongue. But fat and texture on the pallet is not all we are seeking for good taste. Higher fat helps, and I do suggest buying the highest fat content butter you can, although this alone is not the total solution.

“I can already hear some of you saying that butter is bad for your health and instead you are on a Mediterranean diet consisting of fats from olive oil only.  Well I've traveled the Mediterranean and much of Europe extensively, and I can assure you they eat good butter and plenty of it. While good butter is 86-90 percent fat, oil is 100 percent fat. And when something has real flavor, it takes only a small amount to satisfy you. As my physician friends would agree, if you can eat only a little bit of something, it might as well be the very best, and the real keys to good health are a balanced diet and exercise. So let’s not worry about the fat, and move on.”

Before industrialization, farmhouse butter was almost always made with matured cream. The cream was stored until there was enough to churn and you had the time to churn it. So it naturally developed flavor from bacteria. Sweet-cream butter as it's called, is largely a postwar phenomenon and the result of industrial-scale dairies, which churn cream into butter just as soon as it is separated from pasteurized milk.

Butter Sprinkled with Sea Salt
Looks Nice, Tastes Wonderful!
Sweet-cream butters, the only kind we can buy in most American markets, are generally rather bland, despite that tasty sounding name. Butter of course comes from cream, and as noted above to meet safety regulations and reduce spoilage, commercial dairies heat cream to a very high temperature (pasteurization) so that it will last for weeks without souring, hence the term 'sweet cream'. The many strains of good bacteria that can give flavor to butter are destroyed in this process, along with the few bad bacteria that causes spoilage. This is why small artisan butter makers use cream inoculated with specially selected strains of bacteria that has been treated using a slow/low temperature pasteurization process. Cream of this sort must be made by the dairy specifically for this use, raising the ultimate cost of the butter but greatly improving its taste.

Proper Storage and Serving Temperature
Most experts agree that freezing butter in an airtight bag (to prevent moisture loss) works just fine for longer term storage. Storing it in your refrigerator for cooking purposes and until you are planning to use it at table or for baking is fine too, so long as you place it in the butter keeper of your refrigerator and away from anything that might flavor it. Although butter is a dairy product, it's high in fat and also has a relatively high amount of salt added, and as noted herein is almost always made from pasteurized cream. These factors help prevent butter from spoiling when left out on the kitchen counter when you home is a moderate temperatures. I generally say if you are too warm, so is the butter and it should be refrigerated if not being used. But most of the time, I leave butter in a dish on the counter for use on biscuits, toast and other table uses (think pancakes.) The worst thing you can do is serve cold, hard butter to anyone at the table. At the same time, you don't want rancid or worse yet, spoiled butter that makes people sick. For extra safety, I never place whipped butter or no-salt butter on the counter for long period.

Favorites for your Table

Remember to purchase salted butter for table use, and unsalted for cooking purposes. Look for a high fat content (84%+) as well as 'cultured' on the label to give it a slightly tangy flavor.

Available Online and Near the Butter Maker
Walnut Creek Foods, in Ohio’s Amish country, makes a good tasting butter from pasteurized cream. Not as tangy as the Organic Valley below, it still always garners positive comments when served at my table. I also like the rolled hand-made shape and golden color. Like most butter sold to consumers, this is grade AA butter, the highest rating available from the FDA, which indicates it has received a score of at least 93 out of 100 points based on its aroma, flavor and texture. Available online in quantity, or at the store.

Straus Family Creamery chooses not to add bacteria into the organically produced cream it uses, pasteurizing the cream at a lower-than-usual temperature to make fresh-tasting sweet-cream butter. It immediately freezes and ships the butter to several western states and is available online if you pay shipping costs. The dairy is located about an hour drive north of San Francisco.

Burro Occelli, who still makes butter in hand-cut wooden molds in Italy is sometimes available stateside. Formaggio Kitchen (617-354-4750) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, receives shipments frozen. If you are willing to pay the highest price, you will be rewarded with a tangy, nutty, deep, creamy flavor. Also widely available throughout Italy.

Widely Available in the USA
Organic Valley European Style Butter: Available at Whole Foods stores, this Organic Valley award-winning "Old World" butter has an exquisitely tart, nutty flavor and 84% butterfat. Excellent for eating and baking. The best widely available butter I've found, I use this for dinner parties if I do not have the Amish Walnut Creek butter.
Kerrygold: Available in most super markets, this may be your best option if you can't get any of the above. Grass-fed cow’s make this Irish butter taste silky and creamy and give it a rich, golden yellow color. Kerrygold salted butter is a good all-purpose, all-natural butter that could easily be your standard daily table butter. I always also keep their Garlic & Herb butter on hand for use on vegetables and potatoes. This variety contains a mixture of chives, parsley, garlic, fresh herbs and spices and is highly recommended as an addition to your standard butter supply.

President, is France's #1 butter and comes from Normandy. Noticeably more pale than Kerrygold, it still has a nice flavor with a very slight cultured tangy taste. A good second choice if you can't find Kerrygold, although it seems to have a higher moisture content than other brands.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Baked Corn Au Gratin ~ Consider it for Thanksgiving

With good seasonal sweet corn still available in our area, I'm making what you may call a corn casserole or just your favorite side dish.  Whatever you call it, today I wanted to share my sister's recipe which everyone in your family will enjoy. You'll note I listed it with 'potatoes' in the category tags, which you may find odd. But it really does replace the potatoes or rice in your meal, and really shouldn't be thought of as a vegetable side. For info on my other favorite gratin, see this posting on scalloped potatoes.

Julian's Corn Au Gratin Ready for the Table
With sweet corn still season in North America, you can and should use fresh if you have access. If not, then frozen corn is preferred over canned. The recipe takes only 10 minutes or so to prepare and another 50 minutes to bake, so it couldn't be easier and gives you plenty of time to make your main dish while it's in the oven.

Choose your Style: The amount of baking time will determine the style of the result. A shorter time will yield a creamy, delicious pudding-type dish. A longer baking time, where the knife comes out clean upon testing, will yield a firm result that can be cut nicely from the dish. People have their own preferences on this and I suggest you try both to see what your family likes best.

16 ounces corn, whole kernels cut off the cob (4-5 large ears)
1 (15 ounce) can cream-style corn
1 (8 ounce) package corn muffin mix
1 cup sour cream
Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
6 Tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 cup panko style bread crumbs

Note: The amounts noted above are approximate. Cans and bags of corn vary slightly in size, as do the amount of corn you remove from fresh whole ears. If using whole fresh corn, plan on about 4-5 ears to yield the necessary amount.

We prefer ours a little on the creamy side.
Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Spray a 2 quart casserole (usually a 9 x 9 inch glass baking dish or an medium oval au gratin as shown) with food release or coat with butter. 

Mix together the corn, muffin mix, sour cream, black pepper and 4 tablespoons butter in a bowl. Stir in 3/4 of the cheese. Pour into the prepared dish. Sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese. Stir together the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and the bread crumbs. Sprinkle on top of the corn mixture (this is what makes it au gratin).

Bake for 45-60 minutes (see Choose Your Style above) and the top is browned. If the topping browns too quickly, cover with foil during the remainder of baking. Uncover for the last 5 minutes of cooking to ensure a crisp topping.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

St. Louis Style Ribs

It's a great time of the year for grilling even though Autumn weather is upon us, and what doesn't taste better on the grill than ribs. Today I'm making St. Louis style pork ribs, which are a common cut of pork in that city.

Julian's St. Louis Ribs on the Gril
They are differentiated from other types of ribs as they are spare ribs with the sternum bone, cartilage and rib tips removed which creates a more rectangular-shaped rack. I usually prepare baby back ribs but as the local Costco had these on hand today, I thought I would prepare them instead.

Like most cuts of pork, the meat is not naturally highly flavorful as you find in beef. As such we typically cook pork with a variety of seasonings or other foods to render more flavor into the meat. For baby back ribs I generally use a wet barbecue sauce. So today for these St. Louis style ribs, I'm instead doing a dry rub that requires no sauce at all. You can prepare your own or purchase any number good rubs at the store.

2 Tablespoons dried crushed red peppers
4 Tablespoons brown sugar
4 Tablespoons Kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground white pepper
2 teaspoons granulated garlic or garlic powder
2 teaspoons ground ginger

Whatever type of rub you use, it's best to do this at least 24 hours in advance. Lightly oil the ribs and then rub them thoroughly with your rub of choice. Wrap them in plastic wrap and place them back in the refrigerator.

For extra flavor, I like to use the smoker function in my Weber grill particularly for ribs and BBQ'd pork shoulder, as both benefit greatly from the flavor. As ribs require a long, slow roast on the grill, this is a perfect time to use the smoker box. I generally use pecan wood chunks although most varieties will render good flavor. Just make sure you have soaked the wood chunks for at least an hour in advance and that you have a sufficient quantity wet and ready to go, as the long roasting time will need to have additional wood added throughout cooking.

I would not recommend you follow the instruction you often find on the package of ribs. Rather, lightly oil the grill grates to prevent the meat from sticking. Place the wet wood chips in the smoker box (or in a foil tray inside the grill if you don't have a smoker box). Then heat the grill to about 400F degrees and place the seasoned ribs inside. Turn off most of the burners except the one nearest or under the smoker box/foil tray of wood chips.  Watch the grill temperature carefully as it should be reduced to 250F degrees. At this temperature it will take 2 1/2 - 3 1/2 hours for a full rack of ribs to cook completely. It hard to get an accurate temperature on ribs, so instead I use the 'tong technique' to know if they are done. When you lift the ribs in the center with tongs, they should bend into a nice arch. This indicates they are tender, but not falling apart. The temperature should be around 180-190F degrees. But as I said, that's difficult to know because the meat is thin and close to the bone.

Julian's St. Louis Ribs
Unlike baby back ribs, these ribs are longer and as such should be cut into individual rib pieces for serving. They really do not require any additional wet BBQ sauce. Just a side of a couple good late summer fresh vegetables and you are ready for a feast.