Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pumpkin Pie

We sat down for our Thanksgiving dinner early this year. The menu plan was a small turkey, spiced cranberries, sausage cornbread stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans and pumpkin pie.

While I was cooking, my daughter asked for biscuits to be on the menu too, and my son and husband seconded the request. I pointed out that we already had two starch products on the menu, mashed potatoes and stuffing, but my family continued to stare at me with a zombie death stare until I relented and said we could add some biscuits to the menu. The pie was already done by then which is all I was really interested in this year.

I do not have a single thing that I love more than anything else at Thanksgiving. Some years I am excited about the stuffing. Other years it is the salad (we usually have salad but not this year) or the mashed potatoes. This year I felt excited about the pie. My daughter and I made the crust while my husband and son went out to acquisition a turkey.

After we had the pumpkin puree in a bowl, I started pulling cookbooks off the shelf to determine what recipe to make. I decided to try Alice Waters recipe from The Art of Simple Food. She goes really light on the sugar so I added a little extra since it was the only sweet we were having, as well as some nutmeg because I love the way it smells. I left out the freshly ground black pepper which sounded delicious but was just not what I was in the mood for.

Pumpkin Pie
Barely adapted from The Art of Simple Food
Yields 1 pie

2 cups flour
1 T sugar
1/2 tsp salt
12 T cold unsalted butter, cut into 1 T pieces
6 - 8 T ice cold water

1 sugar pumpkin or a 15 oz can of pumpkin puree
3 eggs

1 cup cream
2 tsp flour

1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt

Pre-heat the oven to 375.

Preparing the pumpkin (skip this if you are using canned pumpkin):

Cut the pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds and pulp and place it in a roasting pan. Pour in 1/2 cup of water and place in the oven. Roast for approximately one hour and a half (or less), depending on the size, adding more water if it gets too low. The pumpkin should be soft when pierced with a fork. Remove from the oven and let cool. Scoop out the flesh and mash (using a masher or a food processor). I just used a potato masher which worked well.

Preparing the pie crust:

Whisk the flour, sugar and salt together in a large bowl. Sprinkle the butter over the mixture and using your fingers, mash the butter into the flour mixture, until it resembles corn meal. Sprinkle the water over the mixture and using a wooden spoon, mix and press the mixture together. Form a ball, adding more water if needed, until it holds together. Form the dough into a disc, wrap in saran wrap and put in the refrigerator for at least one hour. Reheat the oven to 375, if you turned it off.

Roll out the dough and transfer to a pie dish. Crimp the edges and pierce the bottom with a few fork stabs so it doesn't balloon up. Cover with aluminum foil, pressing gently against the sides to hold them up, and weigh it down with pie weights or beans or rice. Bake for fifteen minutes, remove the aluminum foil and weights and bake for another 5 - 6 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Preparing the pie filling:

In a small saucepan, whisk 1/4 cup cream with 2 tsp flour. Place over medium low heat until it comes to a boil and thickens. Slowly whisk in the remaining 3/4 cup cream. Continue whisking and bring back to a boil (still over medium low heat). Remove from the heat.

In a bowl, whisk together 1.5 cups of pumpkin puree (15 ounces) and 3 eggs.

In a small bowl, whisk together the sugars, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, salt and nutmeg.

Add the cream mixture and sugar/spice mixture to the pumpkin, and mix together. Transfer to the pie shell and bake for 45 minutes until it is almost set but the center is still jiggles a little bit (i.e. it should not be cracked and dry looking, take it out before it reaches that point).

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Braised Short Ribs with Tomatoes and Beer

I made a rookie mistake the other night when I was making short ribs from my favorite butcher. I was making a braising liquid for some short ribs and in went a bad bottle of wine. This was after I had sauteed the onions, celery and some other root vegetables, added tomato paste, some broth and herbs. Then I noticed it smelled odd and so after bringing it to a simmer, I tasted it and cringed. I smelled the bottle, now empty and it was subtle but the flavor was sour.

The short ribs were already seared and sitting on a plate waiting patiently for me to muddle through this mess I had walked myself into. So I dumped the entire contents of that braising liquid in a giant bowl for disposal and started over.

Braising short ribs is not a precise science. The important steps are applying salt and pepper to the short ribs, searing them and cooking them until they are fork tender in a flavorful liquid. Whatever that might be. Into the liquid can go a lot of different things. In my opinion, nothing is off limits as long as it comes together to form a nice savory broth that will taste great as a backdrop to the short ribs and on top of the starch that you must, must serve them with. Like freshly baked biscuits or mashed potatoes or crusty french bread.

Since I was slightly turned off by wine after my mishap, I went a different route and popped open a bottle of dark beer. This second round of braising liquid smelled good and tasted great, so in went those patient short ribs for three hours in the oven.

Braised Short Ribs with Tomatoes and Beer
Serves 6

6 large short ribs (or 12 if they are on the small side - mine were almost a pound a piece)
2 T olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper

2 T flour
2 T tomato paste
2 tsp dried thyme
2 onions, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
10 cloves garlic, loosely chopped

28 oz crushed tomatoes
1 cup dark beer, like a porter
2 cups water and a bouillon cube or 2 cups vegetable stock
salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 375.

Sprinkle the short ribs generously with salt and pepper. In a large dutch oven, heat 2 T olive oil until shimmering over medium to medium-high heat. Add the short ribs, searing each side until they are browned. This will probably take two batches depending on the size of your pan.

Remove the short ribs and set aside. Drain off all but 1 - 2 T of the fat. Add the onion and celery to the pan and stir until the onion starts to look translucent, a couple of minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the flour and stir for two minutes and then the tomato paste, blending it into the mix. Add the beer, water, crushed tomatoes and thyme. Bring to a simmer, scoop out a small cup of the broth and dissolve the bouillon cube in it. Add it back to the mix. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more salt and pepper as desired. Bring the liquid to a simmer and submerge the short ribs in the pot, spooning liquid over them. The short ribs should be almost covered. If the liquid is too low, add some more water.

Place in the oven and cook for three hours. Turn the short ribs about half way through the cooking time, checking to see if you need to add more liquid. Check the short ribs by stabbing them with a fork, it should slide in easily and the meat should feel tender. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Capers

When I was a child, my mother served us piles of fruits and vegetables, especially vegetables. We ate salads almost every night and all different kinds of fruits and vegetables. I don't know if she had a master strategy but I still love salad and almost all vegetables. So being from the bay area, we also ate our fair share of brussels sprouts. I liked them but they were kind of an afterthought, usually served boiled or steamed with some butter on top. I never envisioned eating them any other way.

Fly forward to my twenties. I was living in Oakland and working at PGEC (which, if you are interested, is the plant gene expression center). We went to this great restaurant in San Francisco, a group of people including a woman that ended up being one of my prime inspirations in the kitchen. She is a fantastic cook, seemingly unphased by almost any challenge presented to her in the kitchen. Among other things she loved scrabble but wished there was a version that only allowed food terminology.

She thought we should order the brussels sprouts at this fancy restaurant despite all the amazing options on the menu. I remember feeling skeptical that this was a smart move but she was the food expert and we deferred to her. They came to the table, crispy and salty and covered with capers. They were delicious and it is my favorite way to eat my brussels sprouts.

Roasted Brussels Sprout with Capers

1 lb brussels sprouts, washed and trimmed (and halved if they are big)
2 - 3 T Olive Oil
3 - 4 T capers
Salt and Pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 425.

Place the brussels sprouts in a saucepan and cover with cold water and a little salt. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 2 - 5 minutes, depending on their size. They should be cooked through but still firm. Drain in a colander and shake to remove most of the water. If roasting immediately, pat the brussels sprouts dry with paper towels, otherwise leave them to dry out a bit, shaking the colander occasionally.

Toss the brussels sprouts with the Olive Oil and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Mix in the capers and spread on a baking sheet or roasting pan. Use a pan that is large enough so they have space around them, otherwise they will steam instead of roast.

Roast for 15 - 20 minutes, shaking once or twice, until they start to look brown and crispy. Remove from the oven, taste and add more salt, if needed.