Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Mascarpone, Basil and Jack Daniels

This recipe is good any time of year, but seems more appropriate during the cold winter months.  Sweet potatoes, yams, garnet yams, baby garnet yams, okinawa sweet potatoes… all work so well.  Sweet potatoes are, of course, one of those superfoods we talk so much about.  It’s rich in complex carbs, fiber, beta-carotene, and many other vitamins and minerals.  It ranks at the top of the most nutritional lists, and is one of the best foods you can eat.  And it’s delicious.

Many recipes call for the addition of a lot of unnecessary ‘junk’ to make the sweet potatoes sweeter.  Marshmellows, brown sugar, sweetened condensed milk, and so on.  While tasty, they’re not necessary to have great sweet potatoes.   You do need some sort of fat to bring the flavor together and produce that creamy texture.  I am using mascarpone cheese in this recipe, but butter work, coconut milk works, cream cheese works, and so on.

 It’s richness is cut with the brightness of the basil, which also adds a wonderful complimentary flavor.  Remember, balance is important.  Add a little jack for the complex smokiness, and you have a great recipe!

Mashed Sweet Potatoes with JD, Basil, and Mascarpone

Prep time:  5 minutes
Cook time:  30 minutes
Yield:  4-5 servings

Ingredients:

4 medium sized sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1 inch pieces
8 oz mascarpone cheese
1/2 bunch basil, very fine chiffonade
2 tbsp jack daniel’s whiskey
1/2 cup heavy cream
kosher salt
black pepper

Method:

Place the sweet potatoes in a pot and cover with cold water.  Add about 1 tablespoon salt.  Bring to a simmer and cook until tender.  Strain and return to the pot.  Return the pot to heat and cook for about 30 seconds to dry the potatoes.  Remove from the heat and mix in the jack, mascarpone cheese, heavy cream and a little salt and pepper.  Use a potato masher.  Work until smooth.  Check the seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if necessary.  Mix in the basil at the very end.  Serve right away.

Enjoy.

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Pizza Crust

I am convinced that you can put almost anything (or almost nothing) on pizza, as long as the crust is perfect, and it will be great.  Let’s face it, that’s the focus: the crust.  How thick, how thin, how crisp, the flavor, the chewiness, the bubbles… a great pizza crust doesn’t need an excessive amount of cheese or toppings.  Proportion is the key, and the crust is the foundation, focal point and probably the hardest thing to master.

Pizzas are, of course, diverse creatures.  How must a pizza be?  If you’re from Chicago, deep dish is the only way to prepare the pie.  If you’re from New Haven, CT, or New York, it’s thin crust all the way.  A lot of Italian restaurants, gastro pubs, and so on are doing flat bread pizza.  They are all great.  But, because I am from southern New England originally, I am going to stick with thin crust.  But no matter what you choose, the crust recipe is the same.

Before we get into the logistics of making a good crust, I want to mention that using a pizza stone in your oven is critically important.  It holds the heat of the oven, providing an even-heated cooking surface.

Pizza dough is, of course, bread dough.   Its leavener is yeast, and the longer the fermentation, the more developed the flavor.  It’s very similar to baguette dough.  My recipe calls for 00 flour, which is a finely ground high gluten flour.  It can be expensive and hard to find, so subbing with a very good quality high gluten flour will work.  I also cut it with fine ground semolina, which add fantastic flavor and texture in the end.  Give it time, let it slowly rise and develop over night.  With a great crust, you won’t need to mask the flavor with a lot of greasy meats and cheeses.  The crust speaks for itself.

Pizza Crust

Prep time: 2 hours
Inactive cook time: 18 hours
Cook time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 large pizza crusts

Ingredients:

3 1/2 cups 00 flour (or bread flour) + 1/2 cup for finishing
1 cup fine ground semolina flour + 1/2 cup for finishing
1/2 tbsp fine sea salt
1 tbsp double active yeast
1/3 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp good quality extra virgin olive oil
1 1/4 cups luke warm water

Method:

Place the flours in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.  In a small bowl, whisk together the water, sugar and yeast.  Let stand until foams appears on the top.  Add the liquid to the flour, turn the machine on low and run for about 30 seconds, or until the water is just barely mixer.  Cover with plastic wrap and let sit 20 minutes.  After the 20 minutes, uncover, add the salt and olive oil and turn the mixer back on, medium speed until highly elastic and smooth (about 10 minutes).  Lightly oil a mixing bowl with a little more olive oil and transfer the dough to the bowl.  Cover tightly and place in the refrigerator.  Let sit over night.

About 2 hours before baking, remove the dough from the fridge.  Gently work the dough down, cover and let sit in a warm place until doubled in size.  Cut the dough into 4 equal pieces. Dunk each piece into a little flour and semolina mixed together (the reserved flours) and work into a circle using your knuckles.  You can also use a rolling pin.  This step takes practice and patience.  Take the time to really stretch the dough, without breaking.  Form a nice crust, make sure it’s even, and thin.

Heat the over to 475 with a pizza stone in the middle.  Sprinkle some of the semolina/flour mix on a pizza paddle.  Place the stretched dough on the paddle.  Shake it a little to make sure it’s not sticking.  Garnish the pizza dough in whatever way seems best (cheese, tomato sauce, basil, and so on).  Slide the pizza onto the pizza stone and bake until bubbling, the crust is crunchy, and it’s completely cooked through in the middle.  Remove, let cool slightly, and slice.  Serve.

My absolute favor pizza is smoked duck, brie, roasted red pepper, arugula and white sauce.  Food for thought it guess, but it’s the suggestion that counts: be creative.

Enjoy.

Crepes

Crepes.  Yeah, yeah, you say, here we go with the French food.  The only thing good about crepes is the filling, right?  Otherwise they’re sort of thin, bland pancakes.  Without the nutella, banana, jams, chocolates, and fruit fillings, what good are they?

In some ways, I agree.  They are somewhat of a blank canvass.  They do need other rich flavors.  But, think of crepes the way the Chinese view noodles.  Ying and yang.  Balance and harmony.  A great noodle is nothing without a great sauce.  A great sauce will not hide a bad noodle.  They need each other, and they need each other to be great.  So, a great jam alone has no purpose.  It needs a host, if you will.  A blank canvass.  A piece of toast?  Sure, but how about a perfectly made crepe.  Get the idea.  It’s synergy, it’s a relationship.  They need each other to exist.  The better they are alone, the greater the final product.  The crepe and the filling work off each other, both have to be great to work.

So, what’s the secret?  Couple of things… First, the batter itself should, ideally, sit over night.  This gives the flour time to relax and absorb the liquid fully, letting the gluten strands relax, yielding a delicate product.  Second, the pan has a lot to do with the finished product.  They sell crepe pans, but unless you’re going to do this a lot, it’s not necessary.  You do need a very clean, well greased non-stick pan, preferably 10 in (like an omelet pan).  Third, you usually need to adjust the heat a few times until you get it locked it.  This usually means sacrificing your first or second crepe.  Once you have the pan at the optimal temperature, you won’t have any more problems.  And last is the amount of butter used while cooking.  One of the best tricks for this is to dip a small cloth in melted butter and work it in the bottom of the pan.  You need the fat, but only a minimal amount.

Please keep in mind before doing this:  crepes can be sweet or savory, can be made a day or two in advance (though not recommended) and, unlike their American counterpart, the pancake, they are not necessarily a breakfast item.

Crepes

Prep time:  10 minutes
Inactive cook time:  1 – 12 hours
Cook time: 30 minutes
Yield:  about 1 dozen crepes

Ingredients:

1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup fat free (skim milk)
1 large organic egg
1 tbsp melted organic unsalted butter (have more butter reserved for cooking)
1 tbsp sugar

Method:

Sift together the flour, salt and sugar.  Whisk in the milk, egg and butter.  Whisk until smooth.  Cover and refrigerate 1 hr to 12 hours (longer is better).

Heat a 10 inch non-stick pan over medium flame.  Dip a soft cloth into melted butter and rub into the pan.  Ladle a couple ounces of the batter into the pan, tilting the pan to evenly spread.  If you put too much in, pour a little out.  The crepe should be as thin as possible.  Cook until slightly browned on the bottom and the edges are crispy.  Flip and finish cooking.  Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment in a warm place.  Continue until the batter is gone.

Traditionally, crepes are folded into quarters and served with a variety of fillings.  Banana, chocolate, nutella, honey/yogurt, berries, and jams are the most traditional.  There are also specialty crepes, such as crepes suzette, which is a dessert crepe made with an orange sauce, flambeed table side.

I like adding chopped herbs to crepes and finishing them with a goat cheese mousse and smoked salmon.  But they are, like everything else you make, yours.  Be creative, try different things.

Enjoy.

Tri-colored Chicken Nachos

Nachos.  Football food, right along with chili and chicken wings.  Perfect for having a cold beer.  Is it restaurant food?  Absolutely.  Fine dining? No, but any sports bar, pub, casual restaurant, Mexican place, etc will have nachos on their menu.  Why?  Because everyone loves nachos!

Crispy, smooth, spicy, savory, cheesy… delicious.  Perfect game – time finger food.

So, what’s the trick?  Why do we need a blog recipe for nachos?  We don’t, but there are a few things I would like to emphasize (other than how good these are).  First and foremost:  just like every other multi-part recipe I have posted, it is critical to make sure every component is made correctly, seasoned and cooked correctly before we combine everything.  It may seem obvious, but it’s so important.  Second, I think some people get intimidated with cheese sauces, homemade pico de galo (or raw salsa), guacamole, and bean puree.  It’s easier to open a few bottles of tostitos cheese sauce, bean dip and salsa and call it a day.  Not a bad idea, and when you’re in a pinch, it’s a great idea.  But there are excessive amounts of fat and salt in those pre-made items, and a limited amount of true flavor.  Better to make it yourself, control your ingredients, and have far superior finished product.

So here it is.  My recipe for nachos.  I broke it down component by component, so you can choose what you want to make, what you want to buy, when you want to make them, and to just make the process simpler.  Don’t be afraid to serve this with my chili recipe or roasted chicken wing recipe.  They all work together!

Tri-colored Chicken Nachos

Prep time:  10 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Yield:  enough for 5

You will need to prepare the guacamole and pico de galo from this earlier post:

http://chefnotebook.blogspot.com/2012/08/guacamole-and-pico-de-galo.html

Ingredients:

For the cheese sauce:

4 oz jack cheese, shredded
4 oz sharp yellow cheddar, shredded
1 cup heavy cream
1 small can jalapeno peppers

For the chicken:

3 skinless boneless chicken breasts, pounded thin
1 tbsp montreal chicken rub
1 tsp chili powder
juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp vegetable oil

For the chips:

1 package tri-color tortilla chips
few tbsp sour cream

For the beans:

1 can black beans
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 bunch cilantro, rough chop
1/2 red onion, rough chop
franks or tapatio hot sauce
1 tbsp chili powder

Method:

For the cheese sauce:

In a small sauce pot, heat the cream and add the cheese in 2 installments, with the jalapenos.  Whisk until melted, keep warm but not hot.  Reserve.

For the beans:

In a small sauce pot, add 1/2 cup of water, the beans, hot sauce, chili powder, onion, and garlic.  Bring to a boil and reduce slightly.  Transfer everything to a blender and blend until smooth.  Add the cilantro at the very end.  It should be thick.  If it’s not thick enough, return to the sauce pot and over low heat, reduce further.  Check seasoning.  Reserve and keep warm.

For the chicken.

Mix the chicken with the seasonings, lime juice and oil.  Liberally salt both sides and grill over a hot grill, until slightly charred and just cooked through.  Slice into thin strips.  Keep warm, and reserve.

For the Chips:

Gently warm chips in a low oven.

To finish:

In a mixing bowl, toss the warm chips with the bean puree, 1/2 the cheese and 1/2 the pico de gallo.  Transfer to a platter or serving bowl and drizzle the rest of the cheese sauce over the top.  Top with the remainder of the pice de galo, sliced chicken, guacamole, sour cream, and the remainder of the chopped cilantro.  Serve right away

Feel free to add diced bell peppers, additional red onions, additional shredded cheese on top, sub steak for chicken, add additional avocado on top, and so on.

Enjoy.

Quick Chili

This is not a fine-dining, restaurant-quality recipe.  This is a chef’s recipe, which means delicious, spicy, quick (relatively), is appropriate to consume with beer, and totally satisfying.  Will it have the incredible deep, rich and layered flavored of my original post (http://chefnotebook.blogspot.com/2012/08/for-my-first-recipe-blog-i-chose-my.html)? No.  How could it?  But it think it might be more user-friendly, and a lot easier to make.  And with football season almost in the playoffs, it’s better to not focus on baby-sitting chili all day.

From the moment you apply heat to the pot, it should take no longer than an hour to produce this dish.  Of course, letting it simmer longer with enhance the flavor, but this recipe should take an hour to complete.  And if this is game day and you’re roasting chicken wings, making nachos, salads, etc, an hour is easy money.

So give it a shot, it’s a great recipe!

Quick Chili

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
Yield: Enough for 6

Ingredients:

1 large yellow onion, medium dice
5 tbsp minced garlic (used the store-bought already minced product)
3 jalapenos, small dice
1/2 can chipotle in adobo, mashed into a paste
1 lb ground beef (15/85)
1 lb ground pork
1 lb ground veal
1 can black beans
1 can pinto beans
2 cans dark kidney beans
3 tbsp tomato paste
1 small can tomato puree
1 small can diced tomatoes
1 bunch cilantro, rough chop
2 limes
4 tbsp dark chili powder, or ancho chili powder (have extra on hand)
tapitio hot sauce
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp dry mexican oregano
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground corriander
Vegetable oil
1 can regular coke
kosher salt

Method:

In a medium sized heavy bottom stock pot, begin browning the meat in the oil.  Add the onion, garlic, and chopped jalapenos.  Season with salt.  After a couple minutes, add the garlic.  When you can smell the garlic, add all dry ingredients.  Add all the beans and chipotle.  Let cook down for about 5 minutes.  Add the tomato paste and cook until everything is evenly coated.  Add the coke and stir.  Add all tomato product.  Season again with salt.  Add 1/2 the cilantro and juice of two of the limes.  Let simmer for 45 minutes.  Chili should be thick.  Adjust seasoning with salt, hot sauce, and lime juice.  Turn heat off and add remainder of cilantro.  

Chili is finished.  Serve with shredded cheddar cheese, dice red onion, lime wedges and extra cilantro.

Enjoy.

Cuban-style dry rub

This one is about as easy as it gets.  Cuban style can imply many, many different spices, seasons, techniques and so on.  Cuban cuisine is traditionally defined as a mis-match mix of Latin American, Spanish and African cuisines.  The spice palette alone is heavily influenced by Latin American flavors, and as such, so is this dry rub.

There isn’t much explanation needed! Liberally use the rub, add salt when ready to cook, and let the spices speak for themselves!  Have fun!

This rub is best on any kind of slow cooked pork or chicken.

Cuban style dry rub

Prep time:  2 minutes
cook time: 5 minutes
yield: 1/2 cup

Ingredients:

1/8 cup dry cumin
1/8 cup dry coriander
1/8 cup annatto seed (dry achiote seed)
1 tsp dry onion
1 tsp dry garlic

Method:

In a heavy dry skillet, toast the cumin, coriander, and annatto seed.  When highly fragrant remove from pan and let cool slightly.  Put the toasted in the spices in a spice grinder and grind until powdered.  Add the garlic and onion powder and mix everything.  Store in an airtight container until ready for use.

Enjoy

French Baguette – In honor of Michael

I think it’s clear that more often than not, the simplest of preparations, using the simplest of ingredients, can yield the very best food.  But, it’s not easy.  You need a deep understanding of each ingredient, how they work together, exactly what your final product should look and taste like, and the technical skills to achieve your goals.  Simple ingredients combined just right will also have enormous synergy.  Salad caprese is my favorite example.  By themselves, tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, and basil are all good ingredients, but nothing special.  Combine them just right, adding flaked sea salt, virgin olive oil and maybe a touch of balsamic, and look at the result!  Simple done right.

I think this philosophy can be found throughout all culinary disciplines.  Simple ice cream with real vanilla beans, top quality sushi, fresh baked French boules, Alaskan halibut seared with a touch of soy… simple, simple, simple.

Simple ingredients also implies the best ingredients, which gets us into market fresh, maybe organic, hormone free, in season, and so on.  If you want to make the best and serve the best, you need to buy the best.

I will reiterate: simple is not always easy.  Getting into today’s recipe, the king of French bread, the baguette, is also one of the simplest breads.  Flour, water, yeast and salt.  Four ordinary ingredients.  The rest is method and technique.  I will be honest and say, for a very long time, my bread was unacceptably bad.  I was unable to combine the simple ingredients and make magic.  I have since spent a great deal of time to learn French bread, and can confidently write this recipe.

I am going to re-post a previous post.  The bread recipe is the same.  The finishing and shaping are different.

Good bread is a complex thing.  Anyone can make average bread, but to develop that deep flavor, crunchy crust and soft elastic glutens takes a little practice. 


So let’s go through the three key essentials:

  • Deep flavor:  This is a product of fermentation, and the best way to do this is through the use of a pre-ferment (or starter dough) and letting the bread slowly rise, several times, before baking.  A pre-ferment is like a basic bread dough that is made the day before the actual dough.  

  • Crunchy crust:  This is the easy part.  Make sure the oven is HOT, and make sure you have some sort of moisture on the bread prior to baking.  Spraying the bread with a little water or using an egg wash are two techniques for accomplishing this.  And, of course, do not open the open excessively while the bread is baking.  Don’t let the heat escape.  

  • Elastic gluten (soft and chewy inside).  This is the tough part.  Initially working the dough until elastic is critical, as well as turning the dough several times before baking.  This is similar to punching the dough, except that instead of outright deflating the dough, you will fold it several times, reworking it and letting the dough gently reform its glutens.  

This recipe produces wonderful rolls stuffed with a sweet and tangy compound butter, but the dough itself is a lean dough, and can be shaped into baquettes, boules, French loafs, and so on.

French Baguette 


Prep time: 20 minutes
Inactive cook time: 1 day
Cook time: 1 hour
Yield: about 15-20 rolls

Ingredients:

Pre-ferment:

1 cup water
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tbsp double acting yeast

Bread

3 cups bread flour
1 cup water, slightly warm to the touch
1 tbsp double acting yeast
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 egg, beaten

Method:

Pre-ferment:

Mix all ingredients in a small mixing bowl, cover tightly, and let sit at room temperature over night.  

Bread:

You will need a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook.  In the bowl, add the flour, water, yeast, sugar and pre-ferment.  Turn the machine on low and work until barely mixed.   Turn machine off, wrap bowl with plastic wrap and let sit for 1/2 hour at room temp.  This allows the flour to absorb the water (salt will hinder this process and may kill the yeast, so it’s added later)  Add the salt, turn the machine on medium fast and work until glutens have formed (dough is pulling off the sides and has become stretchy and elastic).  If it is too dry, add water, 1 tbsp at a time (ambient humidity can affect this).  If too wet, add flour, 1 tbsp at a time.

Turn dough out into a lightly greased mixing bowl, cover tightly and let double in size in a moderately warm place.  This will probably take 1 to 1 1/2 hours.  ‘Turn the dough’ .  To turn the dough, place it on a lightly floured work surface, and fold it in half twice, always keeping the same side exposed to the air.  After turning, place the dough back in the mixing bowl and cover.  Turning the dough does two things:  slightly deflates the dough, works the dough creating better glutens, and allows more time for the dough to ferment, or develop, creating better flavor.

Turn the dough 3 times in total, once every half an hour.

Heat your oven to 450. 

Cut dough into 4 equal portions.  One at a time, and like a pizza, use your hands to work each piece into a rectangle.   Roll each rectangle into a rope, using the side of your hands to press the seal shut.  Gentle work each rope a little smaller and longer (you want the diameter in the middle to be about 1 1/2 inches, and the ends to taper).  This technique not only gives it the proper shape, but also traps gas within the bread, producing the correct ‘crumb structure’ or internal consistency. 
Cover with a damp paper towel and let proof until doubled in size.  Score the dough and spray with water (or use a pastry brush) until very wet.  Lightly sprinkle the top with flour (this adds a nice finishing touch).
 Place in oven and bake until deep golden brown and cooked through.  Let cool completely on a wire rack. This allows the steam to be re-absorbed by the bread, keeping it moist and developing the correct finishing texture.  Rewarm slightly before serving.

Enjoy.

Hungarian Goulash

It’s cool now in Los Angeles, and after a brutally hot and dry summer, it’s a welcome change of pace.  I write a lot about fall/winter dishes, and as a native New Englander, it’s nothing but appropriate to do so.  In LA, when the weather dips below 60, it’s cold.  I still think it’s funny. You will see people walking around in winter coats, hats, gloves, everyone at work talking about how cold it is, and how their bones hurt and they’re getting sick.  I find this amusing because in New England, 60 is not by any means cold.

However, it is a change of pace.  It is cooler.  So now, I am sitting here, drinking a warm cup of coffee, and the sound of a chicken stock happily bubbling away in the kitchen is keeping me company.  The cat is, of course, passed out somewhere.  She’s of no use right now.

So with the smell of chicken stock perfuming my apartment, and with the weather slightly cooler than it has been, there seems no better time than to once again talk about great winter dishes.  Winter dishes are fun.  When it’s brutally cold and dark out, you really have to be inside most of the time.  Cooking great food becomes a pass time, just like grilling is during the summer months.  Cooking great food also makes you feel good, in many ways.  The meal itself will be consumed within half an hour, but the afterglow lasts for much longer.

Hungarian Goulash

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 3 hours
Yield: 6 portion

Ingredients:

2 beef marrow bones, roasted until dark
5 lbs beef tri-tip, cubed
4 carrots, cut into oblique or medium dice
1 large sweet onion, or 2 medium onion, small dice
2 ribs celery, small dice
4 tbsp Hungarian paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp ground black pepper
kosher salt
3 sprigs thyme, minced
2 sprigs rosemary, minced
3 tbsp tomato paste
1 750ml bottle dry red wine (cab, merlot are best)
beef or chicken stock
2 tbsp minced garlic
1/2 bunch parsley, rough chop
1 lb crimini mushrooms, quarteres
vegetable oil
1 bay leaf
1/2 lb red ‘new’ potatoes, scrubbed and quartered

Method:

In a medium sized heavy bottom stock pot, begin heating a few tablespoons of the vegetable oil.  Liberally season the beef with salt and pepper.  Sear the beef, caramelized all sides.  Remove the beef from the pot and let drain in a colander.  Refresh the oil in the pot and add the celery, carrots and onion.  Turn heat to medium and cook until deeply caramelized.    Add the herbs and garlic and season with salt and pepper.  Continue cooking until highly aromatic.  Add the tomato paste and cook until everything is evenly coated.  No do put any color on the tomato paste, it will lend a bitter taste to the stew.  Deglaze with the red wine, scrape the bottom of the pan to remove any bits, and let reduce by more than half.  Add the beef back to the pot along with the marrow bones, season again with salt and pepper, and add your stock until the beef is slightly covered.  Add the potatoes and all the paprika and cayenne pepper.  Bring to a very gently simmer, and cook for about 2 1/2 hours, or until the beef is extremely tender (using tri-tip will produce a tender product, not dry).  While the stew is cooking, saute the mushrooms in a separate pan until deeply caramelized.  Add the mushrooms to the stew during the last 1/2 hour of cooking.

Check the stew’s seasoning, and season with additional salt, pepper and paprika if necessary.  Remove the marrow bones and bay leaf.  Add the parsley.  Serve right away.

Best served with warm mulled red wine, semi-soft cheese like brie or St Andre, and European bread.

Enjoy.

Chinese 5 Spice Ribs

When you go to a Chinese restaurant and order ribs, what do you usually get?  What real question is, what do you want to get?  What are you hoping will be put in front of you?  In my experience, you usually receive a few pieces of overcooked and sometime tough ribs, with only a small amount of meat.  They are cooked in char siu sauce, or Chinese bbq sauce, which, while flavorful, gives the ribs that classic pink-red appearance. On a side note, I would love to tell you that the color is derived from a secret mix of peppers and spices, but really, it’s just red food coloring.

So, back to the real question, what do you want?  Speaking for myself, I want tender, fall off the bone ribs loaded with those classic Chinese flavors.  Cinnamon, fennel, allspice, Szechuan peppercorns, scallions, garlic, and some of the more pungent items, such as fermented black bean sauce, hoisin, and so on.  Char siu, in my opinion, is great for finishing the ribs, but should not be the flavor base.

I also do not want to discount char siu.  The red Chinese bbq sauce, when used correctly, is amazing.  Try marinading shrimp in char siu a few hours before cooking.  Use it to lacquer fish, chicken or duck.  It’s best used as either a finishing sauce, or as a marinade for quick-cooking items (like shrimp).  In the case of slow cooked ribs, if you must use it, wait until the very end and apply it as a finishing sauce only.

Point made.  So what then?  I am not Chinese, and have never worked at a Chinese restaurant, but I spent a great deal of time getting this one right, and feel confident that you will find it delicious, and a refreshing change from the ordinary.  My three base flavors are:

  • 5 spice powder
  • hoisin sauce   
  • plum sauce
Everything else I include is for subtly, balance and depth of flavor.  5 spice can be found at almost any grocery store, and includes the following powders, blended in correct proportion:  star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, szichuan peppercorns, and fennel seeds.  It’s strong, unique, and lends itself perfectly for ribs.
Chinese 5 spice ribs
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 4 hours
Yield: 4-5 portions
Ingredients:
2 racks st louis or baby back ribs, double cut
8 oz plum sauce
8 oz hoisin sauce
1 stalk lemon grass, smashed
2 whole heads of garlic, cut in half
3 bunches green onions, rough chop (save a few for garnish)
1 cup orange juice
1/2 cup brown sugar
zest of 1 orange
5 spice powder
kosher salt
4 dried szechuan peppers (hot chinese peppers)
1/4 cup light soy sauce
1 tsp toasted sesame seeds
2 tbsp sesame oil
vegetable oil
Method:  
In a mixing bowl, toss the ribs liberally with 5 spice powder, the sesame oil, a little veg oil and kosher salt.  Sear in a heavy skillet and let drain.  
In a medium sized sauce pot, add the plum sauce, hoisin sauce, lemongrass, garlic, sugar, green onions, orange juice, orange zest, hot peppers, soy sauce and a small amount of 5 spice. Add about 1 cup of water.  Bring to a simmer, and with a whisk, thoroughly incorporate everything.  
Heat an oven to 300 degrees.  Place the seared ribs in a heavy (disposable is sometimes best) roasting pan.  Pour the liquid over the top and cover tightly with foil.  Cook for about 3 hours, or until ribs are very tender, but not falling apart. 
Remove the ribs and let them cool slightly.  Strain the cooking liquid and return it to a sauce pot.  Reduce until slightly thick (this shouldn’t take long).
Prepare a hot grill.  Quickly grill the ribs to re-char.  Glaze them with the sauce while grilling.  Cut the remaining scallions on a bias (chinese style).  Place the hot ribs on a platter, sprinkle the sesame seeds and scallions over the top.  Serve right away.
Best served with with Asian style finger foods.
Enjoy.  

Buttermilk Cupcakes with Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

Buttermilk cupcakes… oh what fun!!  C’mon, who doesn’t love cupcakes!?  Even those you like me- fitness nuts, who eat sprouts and barley.  Or my father, who will pretend he doesn’t want one for ‘health’ reasons, and when he thinks no one is looking… feeding frenzy…

The point I am making is that EVERYONE loves cupcakes.  And decorating them is half the fun.  But recently, a lot of attention is being brought upon the little baked good.   It’s remaking its name as a gourmet item.   I pass Sprinkles cupcakes on South Santa Monica Blvd in Beverly Hills almost every day, and almost every day the line goes down the street.  These are well off, respectable people, waiting in line for a cupcake.  What does that tell you?  Shows on Food Network about cupcakes, cupcakes decorating classes… It’s getting a lot of attention!

And why buttermilk?  Let’s go back to the basics.  Add as much natural flavor as possible, building those wonderful layers of flavors, creating balance… With a sweet batter, sweet topping, and sweet garnishes, you need a little balance in there.  Buttermilk, without overpowering, will provide that.  Just like lemon and vanilla add a wonderful contract in many other desserts, buttermilk’s naturally sour nature brings out flavor that would otherwise be buried in sweetness.  In other words, it makes everything else taste better.  Perfect contrast.  Balance.

So give in, let temptation take over.  It’s the holidays, and this is a great way to bake with the family, make something fun for friends or co-workers, or simply create something wonderful and satisfying.

Your new trick will be the buttermilk, I guarantee it.  On a side note, this is by no means my recipe.  This is not the free-for-all anything goes savory world I normally live in.  I did not create this.  I think this is the best way to make the item, and I do want to share it with you, along with my explanation because I think it’s important.  This is an easy recipe that you can easily share with your loved ones and take pride in.  It might not be healthy, but it will certainly make you feel good.

Buttermilk Cupcakes with Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: Approx 20 minutes
Yield: 1 doz large cupcakes

Ingredients:

Cupcake:

1 1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
2 large organic eggs, brought to room temp
2 egg yolks, also brought to room temp
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup unsalted organic butter, gently melted
1/2 cup buttermilk

Frosting:

1 stick unsalted organic butter, room temp
1/2 lb cream cheese, room temp
3 cups confectioners sugar, well sifted (to remove lumps)
4 oz semi-sweet or milk chocolate melted (microwave at a gentle setting is easiest)
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Method:

Cupcake:

Heat an oven to 350.  Grease a muffin pan with pan spray and line with capcake paper.  Sift together all the dry ingredients except the sugar.  In the bowl of a stand mixer fitter with a whisk attachment, begin creaming the eggs, yolks and sugar together.  Take your time, let the mix almost double in volume.  Slowly add the melted butter and buttermilk.  Turn the machine to low, and add the dry ingredients in stages (don’t dump everything in there at once).  Gently mix until incorporated and smooth.  The mix should be light and fluffy.  Ladle the batter into the muffin pan evenly, and bake for about 20 minutes (toothpick test).  Let cool slightly and remove from the muffin pan.  Let cool on a wire rack for another 15-20 minutes.

Frosting:

In a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, cream the butter and cream cheese together until light and creamy.  Add the sugar slowly, chocolate and vanilla.  Continue to mix until well incorporated.

To finish:

Slather the frosting on the top of each cupcake in whatever manner you see fit.  You can fill a piping bag with the frosting, insert the tip into the middle of the cupcake and stuff it too.  Garnish with sprinkles, M&Ms, chocolate shavings, coconut shavings, or whatever you want.  Or nothing at all.  Either way, you will have delicious cupcakes!

Enjoy.