Thursday, February 28, 2008

Go ahead and blush: poached pears

It’s pear season! Passing by myriads of pears in the fruit section of Whole Foods the other day sent a strong message that it’s time for a pear recipe. “Winter pears” are harvested in the Fall before they are ripe and kept cold to stop the ripening process until they are ready to be sold. They can be kept in cold storage for up to six months, which explains why you see beautiful pears in stores for as long as you do. Pears are among my favorite fruits. I love Seckel pears in particular. They are sweet and juicy when ripe and relatively small: the perfect pear for a dessert.

Martha had a gorgeous recipe for cranberry-poached pears in the magazine a few months ago. I made a note of it and finally got around to trying it out this week, even though we’re not exactly at the height the cranberry harvest. The best thing about poaching with cranberries is that they produce beautiful, delicately rosy pears – like a child’s cheeks after a romp in the snow. The poached pear color is deeper on the outside, fading to a faint blush on the inside. The dish has just the right sweetness to make it a refreshing end to a meal without cloying in any way. If you take offence to cranberries, as I know some people do, my guess is that poaching with pomegranate seeds would yield a similar result (both in color and level of tartness). Due to the popularity of pomegranates, it’s relatively easy to find frozen seeds, which would make much quicker work of producing the poaching liquid.

I served my little pears with fromage blanc which provided a nice tart complement to the pears’ sweetness. This is a lovely little guilt-free dessert.

Cranberry-poached pears (from Martha Stewart Living)
(serves 8)

8 small pears, such as Seckel or Forelle, peeled, stems intact
2 tablespoons superfine sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 large strip (4 to 5 inches) orange peel
1 large strip (4 to 5 inches) lemon peel
5 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
2 3/4 cups (10 ounces) fresh cranberries
1 tea bag, such as green tea or fruit tea
1/4 cup dried cranberries (optional)
Greek yogurt, crème fraîche, or soft goat cheese, for serving

Place pears in a saucepan large enough to hold them snugly. Add enough water to barely cover them (about 4 cups). Add sugar, cinnamon, citrus peels, honey, and lemon juice. Using the tip of a paring knife, scrape vanilla seeds into pan, and toss in pod. Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Reduce heat, and simmer gently until pears are tender, about 10 minutes.

Add fresh cranberries, and simmer until cranberries are soft but not mushy, about 3 minutes more.

Use a spoon to transfer pears to a dish. Spoon cranberries and syrup around pears. Add tea bag and dried cranberries if using. Let cool for 15 minutes. Cover, and refrigerate overnight.

Before serving, remove vanilla bean, cinnamon stick, citrus peels, and tea bag. Transfer pears to plates with some of the cranberries, syrup, and a dollop of yogurt, crème fraîche, or cheese.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Behind the scenes of a food photography shoot with Judd Pilossof

above photo: Judd Pilossof
I had the great fortune to sit in on a food photography shoot of one of my favorite photographers, Judd Pilossof. How did I fall into such a windfall? Judd is teaches a one-week still life photography class at the Maine Media Workshops in Rockport, Maine that I have signed up for this summer. It is so rare to find a class taught by someone whose work and aesthetic one admires. I couldn’t believe my luck stumbling upon his listing (well, I didn’t exactly stumble, I’ve been looking and looking for just the right class for a long time)! I emailed Judd to ask some questions about the class, and in the course of our emails asked if he wouldn’t mind if I watched one of his shoots. Coincidentally, Judd’s studio is about 10 blocks from my apartment. About a week later, he emailed to say he had a three-day shoot scheduled for a food product company’s publication, and I was welcome to come and observe one of the days.

above photos: Judd Pilossof
It was a terrific experience to be a fly on the wall during a shoot. There were about 15 people bustling around his studio: five clients helping to guide and approve the shots, ~5 people on the photography team working on lighting, backdrops, shooting and manning the tethered computers, ~2 food stylists preparing and prepping the food, and ~2 stylists dealing with props. Each shot was perfectly planned out. The ultimate publication was storyboarded and posted on a wall in the studio. The areas for copy both within and around an image were mapped out and each individual shot was sketched in its appropriate place. The photography and styling team had a list of products, food items and props for each shot. Some of the props came from the client, some from prop rental companies. As sets were broken down, the styling team swooped in with the next batch of props and set up the next shot. There were three simultaneous camera/sets at any one time and an unimaginable 15 shots were scheduled for each day.
Scenes from the Shoot
1) Storyboard for the lobster shot
2) The mighty Hasselblad

3) The very beginning of the lobster shot
4) A blue sky backdrop is tried
5) The backdrop is switched to a plain white cloth (later covered with a solid blue cloth, and back-lit). The food “stand-ins” arrive.
6) Scene from behind the camera

7) The real stars arrive and are prepped: lobster, grilled corn, potato salad and lobster bisque
8) The final shot on the computer

Some of the shots were product silhouettes and were accomplished reasonably quickly. Others were environmental shots with more elaborate sets and tricky lighting schemes and were worked on for several hours. During this time, food “stand ins” were put on set until the actual food was dropped in closer to the final shots. The entire operation was amazingly efficient. Everyone knew his/her role and buzzed around executing the shots like a perfectly choreographed silent ballet. The food arrived perfectly prepared for the shot and the team tweaked and garnished it on set. Lighting was adjusted, backdrops were experimented with and props were shifted but it all happened very quietly and decisively. The kitchen was a mad scene of cooking but was very serious and calm – so serious, in fact, it was clear an interloper would not be welcome, so I only occasionally dropped in to check out the proceedings. Everything that came out of the kitchen looked beautiful, and it fascinated me to watch the lighting and set changes that ultimately created incredible, production-ready images (never heard a single “we’ll fix that in post-production”: everything was perfected in camera). I wish I could share more of the images from the day.

above photos: Judd Pilossof
All of this only made me more excited for the summer class. Judd was extremely generous, taking time to talk and explain things throughout the day. There was tons of equipment on set that I have no idea how to use, and would love to know more about. There were also many techniques that I know about but don’t currently do: namely studio lighting (a major one), strategic use of black cards to absorb light and more scientific use of white cards to bounce light. I picked up all sorts of neat little tricks that I can’t wait to experiment with. Judd has an incredible talent for making even studio-lit shots look natural and soft. His shots look so luscious, rich and tactile – if I can just pick up a little fairy dust this summer, I will be delighted.

For more information on the Maine Media Workshops and Judd’s class, see here. To see Judd’s portfolio, see here.

above photo: Judd Pilossof

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Sweetie sweets: chocolate truffles

I had intended to post this prior to Valentine’s day, but one thing led to another and I didn’t end up having time. Let this therefore be an idea for next year, or even better, a gift idea for a random expression of love!

I love Valentine’s day. I know some people think it’s a commercial, Hallmark holiday. Not me. I love having a day assigned to expressing and celebrating love. I don’t need flowers or presents, just an excuse to have a nice dinner date, and perhaps to bake something sweet.

Coincident with the holiday, R decided he’d like a cooking project and offered to help with whatever I had planned for the week. Perfect time to try the truffle recipe that I’ve been eyeing in the Tartine cookbook I blogged about here. The recipe looked simple enough, and contains very few ingredients, all of which I had on hand (except of course the pretty little boxes and wrappers that truffles demand). One of the nicest things about the recipe is that it’s basic. No exotic flavors. No lavender. No cardamom. Just chocolate. That’s just the way I like my chocolate: pure and unadulterated.

The truffles were divine. Smooth, silky and creamy. As I am writing this I had to jump up and pop one in my mouth as just thinking about it made me want one immediately!

The recipe suggests that you allow the chocolate mixture to cool and firm up, and then pipe it into inch thick logs on a baking sheet, allow it to firm more in the refrigerator, and then cut the logs into inch pieces that you roll in your palms to get an uneven ball. All of that is well and good, except if your baking partner falls asleep after they’ve been put into the refrigerator, and you lose track of time. If left to cool too long, you risk ending up with logs that are too firm to be coaxed into balls. I was on the verge of the point of no return when I rescued them. I used a couple of paper towels and my fingertips (vs. my palms) to roll them since the heat of my hands started to make them melt on the outside. The paper towel looked like evidence that a chocolate murder had occurred, but it worked. You can skip the piping method altogether and just scoop balls out of the firm truffle mixture. This would probably result in more even, less traditionally shaped truffles, but I might try that method the next time out of convenience.

Save this for next year or use this as an excuse to spread the love any time!

P.s. I am helping a friend with a photo collaboration project (Sea and Sky Journal) this week (My involvement started yesterday). It's a daily diptych using one of her photos, and one of someone else's (unplanned). It's pretty neat. To check it out, click here.

Chocolate Truffles (from Tartine by Elisabeth M. Prueitt and Chad Robertson)
(yield: about 60 1-inch truffles)

1 lb bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp light corn syrup
5 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
~1 cup cocoa powder

Place chocolate in a heatproof mixing bowl. In a small saucepan, combine the cream and corn syrup and heat to just under a boil. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and let it sit for a minute or two. Stir with a rubber spatula in a circular motion until the chocolate has melted. Add the butter and stir until it is incorporated. Let the mixture firm up in a cool place until it can be piped from a pastry bag. The amount of time for the mixture to become firm depends on how cool the room is. Or, place in the refrigerator to speed the process.

Line a baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper. Transfer the contents of the bowl to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2 inch (no 6 or 7) plain tip. Pipe out long logs abut 1 inch wide. Place in the refrigerator and chill well, about 1 hour. If you don't have a pastry bag and tip, you can leave the mixture in the bowl in the refrigerator until well chilled.

Remove the baking sheet from the refrigerator and cut logs crosswise into pieces about 1 inch long. Roll each piece between your palms into an irregularly shaped truffle. If you have left the mixture in the bowl, use a small scoop or spoon to scoop out each truffle and then roll between your palms. Once the truffles are shaped, place the cocoa powder in a shallow bowl and roll each truffle in the cocoa, coating evenly.

The truffles will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Time to make the donuts: Italian Zeppole

I was so excited when I saw that Tartelette and Culinary Concoctions by Peabody were hosting "Time to Make the Donuts," a donut blogging event. After all, what a great excuse to make the universally crowd pleasing fried goodie! What's more, it gave me a great opportunity to go back and revisit a very old post and update it with new photos and thoughts. Thanks, guys, for justifying frying up a batch of these sweet treats!

Every culture has it's own take on fried dough. In Italy, it's Zeppole, which is traditionally served for St. Joseph's day in March. For more about the history and tradition read here. Zeppole can be filled with custard, or a honey mixture or can be unfilled. There's a version that is made with ricotta cheese that is next on my list. There is also a savory variety that incorporates anchovy. Zeppole are typically rolled in powdered sugar and / or cinnamon once cooked. They are light and airy, and about two inches in diameter.

The recipe that I've used many times is from Giada De Laurentiis. The batter is simple and fool-proof and can be whipped up in less than 10 minutes. There's no waiting, refrigerating, rising, or pastry bags involved. The tricks are to use a tablespoon-sized ice cream scoop to measure out equal portions of dough, and to fry the zeppole in small batches of 4-6 (depending on your pot size) so as not to overcrowd your pan and lower the temperature of the oil. The only adjustment I make (noted below) is to add vanilla extract to the batter and, if you like, some grated lemon zest. These must be eaten right away. The batter can be prepared ahead and you can fry them right before serving.

(adapted from Giada De Laurentiis)
(yield: 4-6 servings)

1 vanilla bean
1/2 cup sugar, plus 3 tablespoons
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 stick butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 eggs
Optional: 3/4 tablespoon vanilla extract
Optional: 1/2+ teaspoon grated lemon zest
Olive oil, for frying

Cut open the vanilla bean lengthwise. Using the back of a knife, scrape along the inside of the vanilla bean to collect the seeds. Scrape vanilla bean seeds into a small bowl. Add the 1/2 cup sugar and cinnamon and stir to combine. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan combine the butter, salt, 3 tablespoons of sugar, and water over medium heat. Bring to a boil. Take pan off the heat and stir in the flour. Return pan to the heat and stir continuously until mixture forms a ball, about 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the flour mixture to a medium bowl. Add vanilla extract and / or lemon zest if using. Using an electric hand mixer on low speed, add eggs, 1 at a time, incorporating each egg completely before adding the next. Beat until smooth. If not frying immediately, cover with plastic wrap and reserve in the refrigerator.

Meanwhile, pour enough oil into a large frying pan to reach a depth of two inches. Heat the oil over medium heat until a deep-fry thermometer registers 375 degrees F (watch the temperature as you fry and adjust heat accordingly to maintain 375 F).

Using a small ice-cream scooper or 2 small spoons, carefully drop about a tablespoon of the dough into the hot olive oil, frying in batches. The zeppole will immediately float to the top and puff up. Turn the zeppole once or twice with the size of a slotted spoon, cooking until golden and puffed up, about 5 minutes (watch constantly as cooking time might also be quite a bit shorter). Drain on paper towels. Toss with cinnamon-sugar. Arrange on a platter (or in a cone) and serve immediately.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Loveable cold noodles: Otsu

I love a cold noodle dish. Pasta salad. Leftover pasta served cold. I know many people reject cold pasta dishes due to a perceived lack of flavor. Well, if you are one of those people, consider Otsu – a cold soba noodle dish (one of my favorite cold noodle varieties) with a ton of spicy, tangy, zippy flavor.

I first saw this dish on 101 cookbooks many moons ago (see link for a great definition of Otsu and description of the dish) but the recipe was taken down before I had a chance to try it. It stuck with me, however, and recently I Googled it and found that She Who Eats had made a version of it, and the original recipe, which is from Pomelo, a restaurant in San Francisco, was posted in a forum on Chowhound. I was so excited to find the recipe I couldn’t wait to try it. It’s one of those recipes you can just tell will be fabulous just based on the ingredient list.

I tried it this week and it did not disappoint. In fact, we had it for lunch and then had to polish it off for dinner. The dressing is a very tangy, spicy, rice vinegar, cayenne, lemon, soy, ginger sauce and it is so packed with flavor it cannot be discounted as boring! She Who Eats made note that the key to the dish is patiently cooking the tofu. I was so glad to read that as I went beyond the original instructions to “cook the tofu until it’s bouncy” and hung in there a little longer to brown the tofu on all sides. It took ~20 minutes to patiently pan fry the tofu to golden perfection, but it was worth every minute.

The dish comes together quickly, and you probably already have most of the ingredients in your pantry. If you are time-pressed, you can make the sauce ahead of time. Either way, you will have plenty of sauce leftover for another go at it.

I found the 101 cookbooks recipe on The Amateur Gourmet after I had made the dish using Chowhound’s version. The former used a few different ingredients: honey instead of sugar, shoyu instead of the Chinese (saltier) soy, and olive oil instead of canola. I’m sure all that works well too (a couple of ingredients probably a bit harder to find), but the version I tried was so fabulous I’d hesitate to improve up on it. I’ll post below the recipe I followed, but the other is here if you would like.

Otsu (originally from Pomelo restaurant in San Francisco, as reprinted in the Chowhound boards)

Ginger-sesame dressing:

zest of 1 lemon
1 1/2 oz. cleaned ginger, thinly sliced
1 T. granulated sugar
3/4 t. cayenne
3/4 t. salt
1T. fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 T. canola oil
2 T. pure sesame oil

In a food processor (or with mortar and pestle), combine lemon zest, ginger, sugar, cayenne, and salt and process to a smooth puree; add lemon juice, rice vinegar and soy sauce. Blend well. Slowly add canola oil and sesame oil until well combined.

Soba Noodle Salad:

8 oz. portion frozen soba noodles, thawed and softened in boiling water and rinse in cold running water (or equivalent dry soba noodles, cooked according to package instructions)
1/5 block (3 oz) firm tofu, cut to 1/2" cubes
2 T. canola oil
1 T. chopped cilantro (CC note: I used Italian flat leaf parsley as I'm not crazy for cilantro)
1 scallion, green and white part, cleaned and thinly sliced
1/2 cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut in half lengthwise then cut across into thin half-moons (CC note: would also work well julienned)
Sprinkle sesame seeds + cilantro sprigs for garnish (CC note: I like the way black sesame seeds look with these dark noodles)

Add tofu to a large non-stick skillet without any oil and toss over high heat until all water has evaporated; add canola oil, reduce heat to medium-high and fry, tossing frequently until tofu is firm and bouncy; beware of possible splattering; drain over paper towels (CC note: cook tofu until well browned on all sides, make take 20 minutes); in a large mixing bowl combine drained soba noodles, cilantro, scallions, cucumber and 2-3 oz dressing, toss well; arrange salad in center of large plate and top with fried tofu. Garnish with sesame seeds and cilantro sprigs.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

"No ice cream maker" green tea ice cream

I think I broke some kind of cooking record this week. I made the same recipe four times. Green tea ice cream. The first time I made it, it was so good I wished I had made more. I also couldn't believe how easy it was, and that it did not require an ice cream maker. I found the recipe in one of my new Harumi cookbooks, and I had all the ingredients on hand (eggs, sugar, milk, cream) except for the matcha powder, which was easy enough to find. I've never cooked with matcha powder before. It's a very fine powder similar in consistency to talc and is made from dried, de-stemmed, de-veined, stone-ground green tea leaves. It's so delicate that you worry that one wrong breath will send it flying across the room in a green cloud.

I just had to see if I could improve upon the recipe by using high-quality, high fat, heavy cream and milk, and whether it would make a difference if I processed the ice cream in an ice cream maker. When I switched from conventional store-bought milk and cream to Ronnybrook heavy cream and creamline milk (not ultra-pasteurized and not homogenized, high in fat). I got a very creamy ice cream, but it was very soft even after freezing for a day. I did some research and found this article on David Lebovitz' blog that explains the higher the fat content, the softer the ice cream. Surprisingly, I would rather have harder ice cream at the expense of less creaminess (and it was wonderfully creamy the first time around anyway) and would stick to the conventional milk and cream.

Processing it in an ice cream maker, which is supposed to make lighter and creamer ice cream, did not seem to change the texture, but it did make things marginally easier. When making ice cream in the freezer, you have to vigorously stir the ice cream every couple of hours to break up any ice particles that form to ensure maximum creaminess. This is simple, but requires some monitoring. Apparently, custard-based ice creams can easily be made without an ice cream maker. I might not do it this way every time, but it was kinda fun and low tech in a refreshing sort of way.

I loved the recipe and might only make a couple of modifications: 1) heat the milk/cream/sugar/egg mixture over low heat (being careful to not let it come to a boil) until it coats the back of a spoon - most of the other recipes I looked at incorporate this step which gives a little peace of mind about ensuring the eggs are cooked (if, like me, you are concerned about this sort of thing), and thickens it, and 2) strain that mixture through a fine sieve before adding in the lightly whipped cream to make sure it's perfectly smooth.

Another tip I learned is to chill the final mixture in the refrigerator for an hour or two before freezing it. A cooler mixture will freeze much more quickly.

Green tea ice cream (adapted from Harumi's Japanese Home Cooking)
(recipe says it serves four but I would double the quantity for four)

2 tablespoons green tea powder (matcha)
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 egg yolks
3/4 cup milk
3/4 cup heavy cream

1. In a small bow, mix the green tea powder with 2 tablespoons granulated sugar.

2. In a separate bowl, mix together the egg yolks and remaining sugar.

3. Pour the milk into a small pan and gently heat taking care not to let it boil (ideally the temperature of the milk should be 176 degrees F). Remove the from the heat and mix a few spoonfuls of the warm milk with the green tea powder and sugar in a small bowl. When you have a smooth paste, add it to the remaining milk in the pan, then gradually combine with the egg yolk mixture.

4. Return mixture to the stove and heat slowly over low heat (taking care to not let the mixture boil), until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat, strain through a fine sieve, and allow to cool completely.

5. Lightly whip the cream and then add it to the cold green tea-milk mixture.

6. Transfer the mixture to a large container and [chill for an hour or two in the refrigerator] and then put it in the freezer. As ice crystals start to form, remove, and mix well with a spoon (use a wooden spoon and stir very vigorously) to break them up and return the mixture to the freezer. Repeat this a few times as it freezes to ensure that the ice cream is smooth.