Cassoulet

For those of you still suffering from this extraordinary winter, when barricading yourself in the kitchen and the promise of a warm and satisfying dinner is the only thing keeping you going, this may be a great recipe for you.  This is an old classic, slightly changed, but only in a few subtle ways.  I’ve also incorporated a few shortcuts to make the cooking process a little less time consuming.

Cassoulet.  The original south of France slow cooked meat and bean stew.  Being that the south of France is somewhat famous for it’s garlic sausage and wonderful fowl preservations, it comes as no surprise that a typical cassoulet may contain delicacies such as duck confit, French garlic sausage, lamb, bacon, pork jowl, goose, pheasant, or other game birds. Everything is slowly cooked to the peak of perfection in a rich white bean stew, sometimes finished with a lovely bread crumb topping.  It cooks for hours, perfuming your kitchen with the deep and rich aroma of moist and tender meats cooking with garlic, herbs, paprika and the white beans.  It’s not a slow cook, and rightfully so.  You need to earn the right to enjoy something so wonderful.

My version is really not that far from the classic.  To make it somewhat easier, I recommend buying very high quality canned white beans and garlic sausage.  I am also calling for homemade chicken confit, as opposed to duck confit because I love the flavor the chicken lends (I also love duck) and I think it’s easier and more practical to use chicken. I also love cooking it full of lamb shanks, but not everyone loves the flavor of lamb, so I am omitting, but if you love lamb, by all means, add it.  The end result will not suffer.  Your senses will not suffer.  Your stomach will not suffer.  It’s one more great recipe to help the last of the winter months pass. I hope you enjoy making and eating this as much as I do.

Dan’s French Cassoulet with Homemade Chicken Confit

3 chicken legs, skin on
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 bunch thyme, with a few sprigs reserved (fine chop the reserved sprigs)
1 tbsp. black peppercorns
1/4 lb smoked slab bacon, cut into medium dice
3 links French garlic sausage,
2 cans drained French white beans
1 yellow onion, small dice
3 cups chicken stock
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup white wine
2 cups baby spinach
1/2 cup san marzano tomatoes, drained
olive oil
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup fresh or panko breadcrumbs
French sea salt
fresh ground black pepper
good quality paprika

Method:

In a mixing bowl, mix the salt, sugar, peppercorns and thyme.  Evenly coat the chicken with the cure.  Wrap tightly and refrigerate over night.  The next day, wash the cure off the chicken and dry.  Sear the chicken in vegetable oil until golden brown (be careful, the chicken will splatter oil!).  Please the legs in a small stock pot, add the chicken stock, barely cover with water and simmer slowly until very tender, about 2 1/2 hours.  Remove from the stock, let drain and cool.  When cool enough to handle, peel the skin off and remove the meat from the bone.  Coarsely shred and reserve.

Place the sauce in a small sauce pot, cover with cold water, bring to a simmer and simmer for 10 minutes.  Drain and cool.  Slice the sauce into 1/2 inch pieces.  Reserve.

Heat an oven to 350

In a cast iron dutch oven or French casserole, begin rendering the bacon in a small amount of oil and butter.  When the bacon is well rendered and crispy, add the cooked sausage and onion.  When the onion becomes translucent, add the garlic and reserved thyme.  When highly fragrant, deglaze the pot with the white wine.  Using a wooden spoon, scrape the bottom of the pot as the wine reduces.  Add the beans, tomato, reserved chicken stock, about 1 cup of reserved chicken stock and a generous amount of black pepper and paprika . Very lightly season with salt.  Bring to a simmer and mix well.  Turn off.  Coat the top with the breadcrumbs, sprinkle a little paprika over the top and drizzle with olive oil.  Cover and place in the oven.  Cook for about 2 hours, or until the beans have almost completely absorbed the liquid.  Uncover and cook for 1/2 hr longer to toast the breadcrumbs.  Remove from the oven and let cool.  Serve right away.

Best with rustic French bread and either a sweet/fruity Riesling or light and aromatic pinot noir.

Enjoy.

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Goat cheese and Wild Mushroom Crostini with Sweet Fennel Sausage

This is just an all-round great appetizer.  Think of this the next time you’re having people over, and want to serve something more impressive than chips and dips or a vegetable platter.  This truly is a restaurant quality production, bursting with flavor, and really easy to put together.

The most important aspect of this dish, in my opinion, is the idea and thought process behind it.  The inspiration.. The flavors themselves are great:  goat cheese, wild mushrooms, herbs, Italian fennel sausage, arugula… but it’s not the flavors that I’m concerned about.  This crostini was inspired by a great pizza I ate at a small restaurant on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood.  It was an unexpected treat, and once again, got me thinking in new directions.  We love pizzas and flatbread ‘artisan’ pies have been a trend for some time now.  Why not take the flavors of our favorite pizzas and give them a new platform?  Pizza dough is tough to make at home, and very few of us have ovens and equipment capable of making restaurant quality pizza.  But anyone can cut French bread into crostinis.  Anyone can buy good quality lavosh and add a bunch of things on top.  Take the great ingredient pairings we find on great pizzas and put them on thin sliced French bread roasted with olive oil.  It’s a great way to experience those remarkable flavors at home, at the mercy of your own hands.

And so here we are, a wonderful crostini idea inspired by a pizza that really shouldn’t be made at home.  It’s just a great classic pair prepared correctly.  How many times have my recipes relied on that formula?  I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as I do, but moreover, I hope the thought process behind it inspires you and pushes you in a similar direction.

Goat cheese and Wild Mushroom Crostini with Sweet Fennel Sausage

Prep time:  15 minutes
Cook time:  35 minutes
Yield:  About 15 crostinis, depending on the yield of your bread

Ingredients:

1/2 cup goat cheese
3 tbsp. heavy cream
1/2 bunch chives, fine chop
3 cloves roasted garlic, smashed and chopped
2 cups sliced wild mushrooms, such as crimini, shitake, oyster, chantrelle, maitake, etc
1 large French baguette, sliced into 4in crostinis, about 1/2 thick
extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, room temp
3-4 links sweet fennel Italian sausage
2 cups wild rocket or baby arugula, washed
kosher salt
fresh ground black pepper

Method:

In a medium sized sauce pot, cover the sausage links with cold water.  Bring to a simmer, simmer for 10 minutes, drain and rapidly cook the sausage.  Slice the sausage on a slight bias into 1/4in think slices. Reserve.

Heat an over to 400 degrees.

In a hot sauce pan, add the butter and about 1 tbsp. olive oil.  Saute the mushrooms until golden brown.  Season with salt and pepper.  When completely cooked through, remove the mushrooms from the pan and let drain on paper towels.

In a mixing bowl, mix the goat cheese, roasted garlic and chives well.  Reserve.

Lay the crostinis on an oiled sheet pan (spraying a sheet pan, or cookie pan with cooking spray works).  Drizzle the cristinis with a moderate amount of olive oil.  Lightly spread the goat cheese mix on the cristinis (using the back of a spoon is a great trick for doing this).  Evenly place the sausage, mushrooms and arugula on top.  If there is any left over goat cheese, place it on top as dollops.  Drizzle a little more olive on top and lightly season with black pepper.

Roast until the cristinis are crunchy and lightly browned on top, about 15 minutes.  Let cool slightly and serve right away.

Best served with chilled Riesling.

Enjoy.

Apricot Barbeque Sauce

This is a barbeque sauce unlike any other you’ve ever had.  This is love.  This is genuine flavor.

When you think of ‘soy bbq sauce’, what you’re probably really thinking of is apricot bbq sauce.  The flavors are a true blend of east-meets-west, lending itself perfectly to the wonderful palette of Chinese and southeast Asian spices.  Cinnamon, orange, sweet rice wine, apricot, soy sauce, miso.. they all come together in harmony in a bold sweet and sour grilling sauce.  And that’s really what bbq sauce is: sweet and sour.  The flavor of soy, accentuated by the natural flavor or umami, is carefully brought out through other ingredients.  There is no one dominant ingredient; everything works together.  As you’re cooking the sauce you’ll smell cinnamon, orange, maple, the slight nuance of vinegar, and a lovely combination of Asian ingredients.

Of course apricots have a long heritage in south Asian cuisine.  Once, again, think along the lines of the great and ancient spice routes that crossed from Asian through the middle east and Persian and ended in Europe.  So many of our modern ‘national’ dishes originated along these routes.  Apricots were introduced to Asian from Persian and middle eastern empires, cinnamon from southeast Asia, and many of the other spices were picked up along the way.  Apricots became so important in Chinese culture that they became a symbol of intelligence and medicine. But it’s their flavor that interests us most.  Other than sweet, apricots are also very tangy, which yields tremendous natural flavor, which, as any pastry expert will tell you, is where flavor is derived. They are unique in flavor, but lie somewhere between a plum, pear and apple.  All great ingredients, all versatile ingredients.

Apricots therefore lend themselves very well to sweet, savory and sour dishes.  Like bbq sauce.  Add some additional sweetness, a little sour, a few elements from the great spice routes and a few staple Asian ingredients and viola!  Apricot bbq sauce.  Simply perfect.  Simply delicious.

Apricot Barbeque Sauce

Prep time:  10 minutes
Cook time:  30 minutes
Yield:  3 cups

Ingredients:

1 small yellow onion, julienne cut
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
4 roma tomatoes, cut in half
1/2 cup apricot preserve
1/2 cup maple syrup
2 tbsp. maple sugar
1/2 apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. light brown miso paste
1 cinnamon stick
zest (not fine chop!) of one orange
1 cup water
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
dash of sriracha
2 tbsp. mirin

Method:

In a medium sized heavy bottom non-reactive sauce pot, begin sweating the onion in the oil.  Add the tomatoes, cinnamon stick and orange zest.  Cook until the tomatoes begin to loosen from their skin.  Add the maple sugar, apricot preserve and syrup.  Cook, stirring frequently, until bubbling.  Deglaze with the vinegar.  Add all the other ingredients except the water.  Cook until it begins to lightly thicken.  Add the water, bring to a low simmer, and simmer until slightly reduced.  Turn off the heat, remove the cinnamon stick and most of the zest.  Blend well.  Return to the pot and simmer over low heat until it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

The sauce is now ready.  Best with chicken seasoned with five spice and grilled over a hot wood grill.

Enjoy.

Ponzu Marinated Tuna Tartar

This is one of my favorites.  All time, never fail, never lets me down, favorite things to make.  I have served this countless times in restaurants, and have had repeat customers order it time and time again.  The flavors are so familiar,  let so Asian, and evoke the great ‘umami’ taste that so many of us strive for.

Our taste buds are simple.  We ‘taste’ 4 things:  sweet, sour, bitter and salt.  This is a scientific fact.  Everything else, the subtleties, the nuances, the true flavors we experience are a derivative of taste and smell.  We can smell thousands of unique aromas, and in combination with the 4 basic tastes, we experience flavor.  And then there is umami.

Umami is regarded by many as a basic taste.  Basic, yes, but describing umami and acknowledging its presence is difficult, if you don’t know what it is.  It lies on the outside of obvious flavor, and can be confused with a mix of sweet and salty.  Umami is savory.  Umami is a savory delicious taste.  It tastes like a rich miso soup, a rich mushroom broth, Chinese food (with msg and salt), soy sauce, Japanese dashi or bonito broths, and certain naturally occurring vegetables, like celery and tomatoes.  Umami’s existence usually requires the assistance of salt to become, but is differentiated through the presence of the ‘delicious’ flavor, that your mouth can detect without the help of your nose.

We use and enjoy umami on an every day basis.  Doritos evoke umami, soy sauce on our food adds umami… It lends itself to Asian dishes very well, so why not take full advantage?  I love sashimi.  I love tuna.  Sashimi grade tuna mixed with sesame, cucumber, shallots, scallions and naturally occurring umami, found in a well made ponzu sauce is delightful.  It’s light, healthy, and bursting with flavor.  Below you will find my recipe for ponzu, which is really a tangy citrus soy sauce, and a Japanese inspired tuna tartar.

This recipe is targeted for your ‘small bites’ needs, to work as an appetizer, canape or mid-course intermezzo.  It’s easy to make, and I hope you like it as much as I do.

Ponzu Marinaded Tuna Tartar

Prep time:  15 min
Cook time:  20 min
Yield:  1 1/2 cup finished product plus extra sauce

For the Ponzu:

1 cup rice wine vinegar
1 cup mirin
1/2 cup sake
2 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp kombu or 1 tsp light brown miso paste
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tbsp yuzu juice or 2 cups orange juice reduced by half

For the Mix:

1/4 Japanese or English cucumber, seeds removed, cut into small dice
1 lb sashimi grade tuna (ahi or bluefin is best), sinew free
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp sambal olek
1 tsp toasted sesame seeds
1/2 shallot, fine chop
1 tbsp scallions, very thinly sliced on a bias
1 tbsp white soy sauce, or about 1/2 tsp sweet sea salt

Method:

For the ponzu:

In a small non-reactive sauce pot, begin reducing the rice wine vinegar, mirin, sake and kombu (or miso).  When reduced by 3/4, add the sugar and soy sauce and reduce by about 1/4.  Strain well and let cool. Add the yuzu.  It should be thin, slightly tart and rich in umame flavor.  Reserve.

For the Mix:

Very finely chop the tuna, ensuring that it stays as cold as possible.  Mix the tuna with the cucumber, sesame oil, sesame seeds, sambal olek, shallot and scallions.  Add about 2 tbsp of the ponzu and the white soy.  The white soy adds the necessary salinity; add enough until the mix is delicious.  If you feel it’s accumulating too much liquid, use salt for the final seasoning.

Serve right away on either crispy rice cakes, shrimp cakes or fried wontons.  It’s also excellent as a canape; served with roasted puff pastry squares, toast points, fried taro chips, blinis or Okinawa sweet potato crisps or latkes.

Topping with caviar (inexpensive tobiko) is appropriate.

Enjoy.

My Mother’s Holiday Broccoli Casserole

I call this my mother’s ‘holiday’ broccoli casserole, because it usually made it’s appearance during holiday

meals.  In fact, it was highly anticipated and expected during holiday meals.  If it didn’t make its appearance during holiday meals, we might as well have canceled Christmas.  As I mentioned in a post a long time ago, my mother doesn’t often cook, and when she does, she usually sticks to the things she makes well.  In addition to her famous applesauce, this broccoli casserole is a true ‘signature’ dish.  I am bias and definitely prejudiced when I say it’s phenomenal.  But I mean it.

My family does not live together or even close together any more.  We unfortunately don’t have the privilege to celebrate holidays together anymore.  So we call each other, and wish happy holidays over the phone, and try to remember what family holidays are like together, as a family.  And we talk about good memories, good times, and the things we enjoy about the holidays.  For my sister and myself, the broccoli casserole, in a unique way, represents what we miss about those times.  The smell of it cooking, the same yellow casserole my mother used year after year…  It was better than the turkey!  Of course there were a lot of other things, but holidays don’t seem the same without it. Anyway, in my case, during the holidays, that dish makes me miss my family.  I’m posting the recipe in hopes that you will add another great dish to your ever-growing repertoire.

Regarding the recipe itself, you’ll find it very easy and hard to ruin.  It’s truly a blast from the past, and as they say, classics are classics for a reason.  It’s rich, flavorful, warm and works so well with holiday dinner.  I hope you like it as much as we do!

My Mother

My Mother’s Broccoli Casserole

Prep time:  15 minutes
Cook time:  1 1/2 hours
Yield:  About 8-10 portions

Ingredients:

4 packs frozen chopped broccoli, thawed and drained (10oz ea)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 can campbells condensed cream of celery soup
2 cups grated sharp cheddar
1 sleeve original ritz crackers, smashed into crumbs
1 cup heavy mayonnaise
2 tbsp unsalted butter

Method:

Heat oven to 350. Mix everything well, except the crackers and butter.  Use 1 tbsp of the butter to grease a casserole or dutch oven.  Pour everything into the casserole, top with the ritz crackers and dot with butter.  Bake until cooked through, bubbling and golden brown on top.

Let cool slightly and serve right away.

Enjoy.

Let’s Talk Turkey – Restaurant Quality Thanksgiving Turkey

As an American, as a native New Englander, as a chef, and as someone who loves food, Thanksgiving holds

a place near and dear to my heart.  Being that this blog’s central theme is food from the perspective of a (former) restaurant and (former) hotel chef, I would like comment on why we, as chefs, love Thanksgiving so much.  Bare in mind, Thanksgiving means, for many of us, the beginning of our busy seasons.  Thanksgiving kicks the season off with a bang, and it doesn’t end until the New Year, and if you work in Los Angeles, it doesn’t end until award season is through.  Thanksgiving means lots of long nights and early mornings, lots of extra planning and work, and lots of added aggravation, that quite frankly, we don’t need in our lives.  Burn out syndrome begins.  So why do we care so much?  Why do we (chefs) love Thanksgiving.  We love it because we know how much it means to everyone else. We feel privileged that you would spend your family Thanksgiving with us, at our restaurant, eating the food and menu that we put together.  We live a life of servitude.  We are here to serve you, and if you’re happy, we do well.  Our job is to make you happy, and spending Thanksgiving with us makes us even happier.  In the end, the hours don’t mean a thing.  We clean up, pass around a bottle of red wine, wish each other a happy holiday, and go home happy.  The life of a chef is a different sort of life.  We work when you do not, we put ourselves through hell to take care of you.  And when you’re happy, so are we.

You may, from time to time, ask why restaurant turkey (at high end places of course) taste better.  It’s a valid question.  Is it the free range, organic, never frozen, grass fed Sonoma birds we use?  Yes…  Is it due to a lengthy brining, seasoning and roasting process?  Yes… But restaurants and hotels also do what average people would never dare to do:  We break down our turkeys well ahead of time.  Never will a hotel chef roast whole turkeys (unless it’s for a single show piece).  To better understand the cooking process is to better understand the turkey itself.

Like any other bird, a whole turkey is a combination of white (breast) meat, dark (leg) meat and bones (carcass).  We all know that white and dark meats cook at different rates, and white meat will dry out and overcook long before the dark meat.  To combat this, we truss the bird, brine the bird, and try to take lots of temperature readings so we don’t over cook the bird.  But, how many times have you shown up a friend or relative’s for Thanksgiving, only to be served beautiful but bone-dry turkey?

Restaurant style turkey.  Break down the turkey ahead of time.  Make the bones into a turkey stock which in turn becomes your gravy.  Brine the breasts and then slather them with a garlic/sage compound butter before roasting.  Confit the legs, which is a simple process of curing them before cooking them.  You won’t have a ‘showpiece’ turkey, but you’ll have the absolute best tasting turkey you’re ever made.  This is how I do mine for the holidays.  It may seem like a bit of work, but in the end, on game day, it will save you an enormous amount of work, and clean up.  If you’ve trusted me this far, take another step and give this a try.

Restaurant Turkey

Prep time:  45 minutes
Cook time:  4 hours
Inactive cook time:  12 hours to 1 day
Yield:  6-8 servings

Ingredients:

1 large fresh turkey (16-20lb), organic free range is best
2 cups kosher salt
2 cups granulated sugar
1 bunch fresh thyme
4 cloves garlic, roasted
1/2 bunch sage, fine chop
ground black pepper
3 large yellow onions, peeled and rough chop
3 carrots
2 ribs celery
vegetable oil
paprika
2 tbsp whole peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 stick unsalted butter, room temp
butcher’s twine

Method:

Break the turkey down into a classic French four piece (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5–amriFgsQ  Except don’t cut the legs in half!).

Make the stock:

Place the bones, 2 of the onions, the celery, carrots, 1/2 the thyme, 1/2 the peppercorns and 1 bay leaf in a large stock pot.  Add enough cold water to barely cover and bring to a simmer.  Skim the foam that rises to the top.  Cook for 4 hours and strain through a fine mesh strainer.  Return the stock to a smaller pot and reduce by half.  Cool quickly and reserve.

Brine the breasts:

In a small pot, heat 1/4 gallon of water with 1 cup salt and 1 cup sugar.  Add a few sprigs of the remaining thyme, the remaining peppercorns and the remaining onion.  When the sugar and salt are dissolved, pour the solution into a large container and add about 3/4 gallon of cold water.  Place the turkey breasts in the solution, cover tightly and let sit in a refrigerator over night.

Make the confit:

In a mixing bowl, combine the remaining sugar, salt, and remaining thyme.  Place the turkey legs in cure and make sure to cover evenly.  Transfer the legs to a non-reactive container, pour the remaining cure over the top and cover tightly.  Refrigerate over night.

Make the compound butter:

In a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, add the butter, sage and garlic.  Mix until well combined.  Season lightly with salt and pepper.  Reserve.

To finish:

First step is to finish the confit.  Remove the legs from the cure and rinse thoroughly to wash off all the sugar and salt.  Pat dry.  In a saute pan, sear the turkey legs in a little oil until golden brown on all sides.  Transfer the legs to a small pot, cover with the turkey stock and simmer until incredibly tender, but not falling apart.  Remove the legs from the stock and pick the meat off.

Second step is prepping and roasting the breasts.  Heat an oven to 400 degrees.Remove the breasts from the brine and pat dry.  Tie the breasts with butcher’s twine, making sure to pull the skin tight over the meat.  Rub the breasts in oil, season the whole things with ground pepper and paprika, and slather the top of the skin with the compound butter.  Roast on a roasting rack in the oven until the skin is crispy and the internal temperature is 150.  Remove and let rest in a warm place for about 10 minutes.

Gravy.  While the turkey breasts are roasting, use the turkey stock you cooked the legs in for your gravy.  I suggest mixing 1 additional stick of butter with about 3/4 cup flour until a paste forms and whisking this into your simmering stock and seasoning with salt and pepper, but you can use any gravy recipe you like.

Before serving.  Place the breasts back in the over along with the picked confit meat for about 3 minutes just to re-heat.  You can also heat the confit meat in warm gravy.  Remove the butcher’s twine and slice the turkey thin.  Serve with the confit meat and slathered in gravy.

Enjoy.

Smoked Tomato Sauce, Southwest Flavors

Tomatoes, sweet and sour, and smoke flavor.  Those would be the fundamental flavors of what?  BBQ sauce, of course.  Convert these flavors into a righteous tomato sauce, and you will be sitting on gold.  I mean GOLD.  I love this sauce.  It’s easy to make, is so versatile and pushes so much flavor into anything you make with it.  Right now, I have a small container in my fridge.  I use it by itself, for finishing sauces, for marinades, and for added ‘kick’ in whatever it is I’m making.  It works best with southwest cuisine, but really compliments everything.

If you like this sauce, and as long as even slightly enjoy southwest cuisine, you will; you may find, as I have, that this sauce becomes a culinary staple.  Something to keep in your arsenal of pantry weapons at all times.  It’s that good.  And easy.

Smoked Tomato Sauce

Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time:  20 minutes
Yield:  2 cups

Ingredients:

4 ripe roma tomatoes, stems removed
1/2 bunch cilantro
1/2 chipotle pepper (NOT in sauce)
1 dried ancho pepper
1/2 yellow onion, rough chop
1/2 cup sugar
1 clove garlic
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup vegetable stock
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp liquid smoke
1/2 tsp whole cumin
1/2 tsp whole coriander
2ea allspice
1 tsp vegetable oil

Method:

In a medium sized sauce pot, begin heating the oil.  Add the tomatoes and sear until the skin becomes dark and blistered.  Make sure to turn occasionally.  Add the onion, garlic and dried peppers and continue to cook until the onions are slightly caramelized.  Season with salt. Add the sugar and 1 tbsp water.  Continue to cook until the sugar is thick and bubbling.  Add the vinegar, cilantro, smoke and dried spices.  Stir to thoroughly combine.  Add the stock (or water) and bring to a simmer.  Turn the heat to medium and reduce by about 1/3.  Remove from the stove and transfer to a bar blender.  Blend until very smooth.  Reseason with salt.

The sauce is now ready.

Use by itself (especially with roast or grilled chicken), as a marinade, as a finishing sauce or as a component of other dishes, like black bean stews or pork carnitas.

Enjoy.

Fairy Tale Pumpkin Soup

One of the best things about fall and winter are the soups.  This is it: soup season.  Especially in New

England, where the change of the seasons is felt with every passing day, and the need for warm and hearty soups is a daily necessity.  Soups can be meals of their own, and can highlight the hard winter squashes and otherwise un-exciting late season produce.

We seem to love pumpkins, in the same way we love butternut squash and orange garnet yams and sweet potatoes.  Mixed with wonderful spices like cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, roasting and cooking pumpkins can embody everything we enjoy about fall and winter cooking.

The problem, of course, is that working with pumpkins can be messy and time consuming.  The best way around choosing the right pumpkins for the job.  The right pumpkin will also produce the best soup.  Long Island cheese pumpkins are the best.  When cooked, they have the deepest color, richest flavor and have the most sugar.  More convenient, and easier to find are varietals such as fairy tale and sugar pumpkins.  All of which are smaller, easier to break down and scoop, and produce sweet and richly colored final products.

This particular recipe is fairly easy.  The basic method can be applied to any hard winter squashes, sweet potatoes or even regular potatoes (think baked potato soup garnished with crisp bacon).  Most important is patience.  Let each addition of liquid reduce properly.  Take the time to completely roast the pumpkin.  Make the effort to puree the soup as smooth as possible, and strain the soup to remove any grit.  Each step is important in producing a wonderful, deeply colored, and fragrant final product.  And believe me, the final product is amazing.  I used to serve this soup in restaurants during holiday menus, and without fail, it was always a success.

Fairy Tale Pumpkin Soup

Yield:  1/2 gallon finished product
Prep time:  20 minutes
Cook time:  3 hours

Ingredients:

2 small long island pumpkins, or two fairy tail pumpkins
1 large yellow onion, rough chop
vegetable oil
1/2 bunch sage
1 inexpensive bottle of dry white wine
4 cups vegetable stock
1 cinnamon stick
2 tbsp dark brown sugar
1 tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground allspice
2 cups heavy heavy cream
2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
kosher salt
fresh ground pepper
2 ribs celery, rough chop

Method:

Heat your oven to 400 degrees.

Cut the pumpkins into quarters and scoop out the seeds and pulp.  Lightly toss the pumpkins with oil, salt and pepper and roast until tender and slightly browned.  Remove from oven and let cool to room temp.  Scoop out the pumpkin away from the skin and reserve.  Discard the skins.

In a medium sized heavy bottom stock pot, add a little more oil and being sweating the onions and celery.  When fragrant, add the cooked pumpkin to the pot and mix well.  Let cook together over medium heat until well incorporated.  Add the wine, sage, thyme, all the spices and a little salt and pepper.  Turn heat to medium high and let reduce.  Reduce until thick, but not sticking to the bottom.  Add the vegetable stock, sugar and syrup and reduce again.  This time, only reduce by 1/3.  Remove the cinnamon stick.

Working in batches, puree the soup with a bar blender until very smooth.  Press the soup through a fine strainer to remove any grit.  Return the soup to a clean pot, bring to a simmer and add the cream.  Cook over medium low heat until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.  Reseason with salt and pepper (the soup will probably require a heavy amount of salt).

Serve right away in warm bowls.

Best served with maple whipped creme fraiche and toasted pepitas.

Enjoy.

Wild Mushroom and Mascarpone Ravioli with Marsala Sauce

We recently took a little break from LA and spent some time up north.  Monterey peninsula and Carmel/Big Sur to be exact.  What a perfect part of the world.  The mountains crash to the sea, the scent of flowers and lavender are always in the air, and you find giant redwood groves in the forests not far from cactus grows.  As a chef, it’s like a breath of fresh air.  The land meets the sea.  It makes me once again realize that sometimes the simple things are best.

Carmel by the Sea

So I decided to post one of my more elaborate and favorite projects:  wild mushroom and chicken liver ravioli.  It’s such an amazing combination and is really a step back to the basics.  Simple ingredients, simple technique, done right.  This recipe will give you all the tools to make incredible fillings, incredible and versatile pasta dough, and step by step instructions how to make raviolis, and a simple but fantastic marsala sauce.  It’s a long process, but great if you’ve got the time and family members who enjoy being in the kitchen with you.  The end result is pure love, and you can taste it when you eat it.

For the Pasta:

1 pinch saffron
5 egg yolks
1 whole egg
1 tbsp whole milk
3/4 lb OO or semolina flour
1 tsp kosher salt

Beautiful Carmel by the Sea

For the Filling:

1 cup assorted wild mushrooms (oyster, chantrelle, crimini, shitake, etc)
extra virgin olive oil, as needed
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup chicken livers
2 tbsp brandy
kosher salt
ground black pepper
2 sprigs thyme, leaves only, fine chop
1/2 shallot, fine chop
2 organic egg yolks
1/4 cup brioche or excellent quality challah breads
1 tbsp mascarpone cheese

For the Sauce:

1/2 cup marsala wine
1/2 shallot, minced
1 cup homemade chicken stock
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tbsp unsalted butter, cold

Method:

For the Pasta:

Crumble the saffron with your hands over the milk.  Place the milk in a microwave and heat for about 20 sec (just enough to warm).Place the flour in a food processor, add the eggs and salt and pulse.  Add the milk and pulse until crumbly.  Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead until smooth and very dense.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let sit at room temp for 1 hour.

For the Filling:

In a heavy bottom saute pan, begin heating the olive oil.  Season the chicken livers with salt and pepper and sear on both sides.  Remove the livers and let drain on paper towel.  In the same pan, begin sauteing the mushrooms with the olive oil and butter.  Season with salt and pepper.  When the mushrooms begin to caramelize, add the thyme and shallots and return the livers back to the pan.  Saute for a few more seconds, remove the pan from the flame and deglaze with the brandy. Be very careful, this ignited easily.  If you choose to flambe, make sure all vents are, this will create a momentary fireball.  Otherwise, let the pan slightly cool, turn the flame down, and carefully evaporate the brandy.  Turn the flame off and let everything temper down.  Transfer to a food processor and pulse several times to break everything down.  You do not want to create a puree.  Transfer the mix to a mixing bowl and add the mascarpone cheese and egg yolk.  Work in.  Add the breadcrumbs and continue to work until well bound.  The filling is ready.

For the Ravioli:

Roll the pasta out using a pasta machine.  You want the final sheets to be the thickness of linguini and rolled into flat even sheets.  Arrange about 2 tbsp of filling in the middle of the pasta sheets, leaving about 1 1/2 inches between each mound.  Egg wash around each mound.  Place another sheet of pasta over the top and seal tightly by pressing the two pieces of pasta together.  Using a ring mold, punch out the raviolis.  Place the raviolis in a pan of flour to hold until you are ready to cook.

Preparing raviolis

For the sauce:

In a medium straight sided saute pan, begin reducing the wine with the shallots.  When the wine reduces to the consistency of a glaze, add the chicken stock.  Reduce by 3/4.  Add the cream and reduce until it will coat the back of a spoon.  Remove from heat.  Sauce is ready.  The butter is to be reserved for finishing.

To finish:

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a rapid boil.  Add all the raviolis.  Once they boil, cook for about another 2 minutes and then drain well.  Add the raviolis to the sauce, swirl in the butter.

Serve.

Best with fresh grated parmesan cheese.

Enjoy.

Chimichurri

Every country, so it seems, has its own ‘national dish’, and in many cases, many.  These dishes are influenced by many things, but are supposed to be indicative of a nation’s own culture.  A culinary representation of its people, their heritage and history.  And it’s these dishes we usually look for when we have ‘international night’.  If I go out for Mexican, I want carnitas, rice and beans and tacos.  If I go out for Chinese, I want some sort of dim sum dumpling and stir fry.  Japanese?  Sushi or something grilled with a wonderful miso dipping sauce.  Italian?  You got it.  Pasta.  But what about the lesser – known, but equally magnificent international dishes?  It’s an interesting and usually very rewarding path to walk down.  Here’s why:

Lesser  known cuisines tend to retain their identity more than those cuisines that we (Americans) have adopted.  When cuisines are ‘adopted’ into our, or anyone else’s culture, we tend to modify it.  We change it into a hybrid.  Chinese food becomes American – Chinese food.  Italian becomes American – Italian.  And so on.  But the cuisines that have avoided the mainstream tend to stay authentic.  If you were to walk into an Indonesian restaurant, your food would most likely be very authentic.  Why?  Because we haven’t adopted Indonesian food into our everyday palates.

Here in Los Angeles, trendy restaurants open and close all the time, and one trend that never seems to grow old is South American fusion.  Peru/Japanese.  Brazilian/Thai.

And then there’s Argentinean.  A cuisine unto its own.  When people think of Argentinean, immediately thoughts of wonderful grilled meat, full bodied wines and food of the earth come to mind.  Yucca, potatoes, quinoa.. And rightfully so, REAL Argentinean food is a marvel to behold.  It’s truly food of terrior (food from the earth); simple ingredients stand out.  And blow us away.

Chimichurri is an essential part of any Argentinean dinner, and with its vibrant and bright flavors, has adopted itself very well into American cuisine.   Grilled steak or chicken slathered with chimichurri immediately conjures thoughts of perfectly seasoned food, perfectly cooked food, and wonderful flavors.  It lies halfway between a sauce and a condiment, and is a great gateway to Argentinean cuisine.

Chimichurri

Prep time:  10 minutes
Inactive cook time: 12 hrs
Yield:  about 1 cup finished product

Ingredients:

1 cup flat leaf parsley, leaves only, rough chop
1/2 cup best quality extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup cilantro, leaves only, rough chop
1/2 cup oregano, leaves only, rough chop
juice of 2 limes
1/4 good quality red wine vinegar
2 tbsp small dice red onion
6 cloves garlic, fine chop
zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp coarse ground black pepper
1/2 tsp flaked sea salt
dash of ground cumin
1 tsp crushed red pepper

Method:

In a food processor, add 1/2 the parsley, 1/2 the cilantro, half the oregano and the olive oil.  Blend until well incorporated.  Transfer to a mixing bowl.  Add all other ingredients EXCEPT the lime juice, vinegar and salt.  Mix well.  Let sit covered in the refrigerator over night.  Just prior to serving, add the lime juice, vinegar and salt and mix well.  Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and vinegar only if necessary.  The flavor should be bright and vibrant.

Spoon over fresh grilled meats or chicken.

Enjoy.