Saturday, January 31, 2009

Butternut/Hazelnut Lasagna

It started when my friend Ann told me about a butternut squash lasagna that she had made - very tasty, but it had no structure. The squash was too loose, basically forming a mush that the noodles floated around in. Definitely not up to lasagna criteria. She was still craving the dish, though, so we went about trying to find a better recipe.

When I eventually stumbled across this recipe on Epicurious, I was intrigued. The hazelnuts, it seemed, would give the filling enough substance to stand up on its own, and I also tend to favor lasagnas that use bechamel, so I was sold. I did have to tweak the recipe anyway, though, because their rendition of bechamel - well, it just didn't work. We had to get out a strainer and there was lost garlic and - yeah, not worth it. I've subbed in a better (and easier) version of bechamel below.

We served with with some pan-fried kielbasa, and I think it was almost needed. The saltiness of the meat cut the sweetness of the lasagna and made for a more balanced flavor.

Also, my cheese measurements are approximate. I'm not one to cook with definite quantities (especially of things like cheese), so really, feel free to put in as much or as little cheese as you see fit (although, if you see fit to add less, we can no longer be friends).

Butternut/Hazelnut Lasagna

For the filling:
1 large onion, chopped
3 Tbsp butter
3 lb butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp white pepper
2 Tbsp parsley, chopped
1 Tbsp fresh sage, chopped
1 cup hazelnuts, toasted, loose skins removed, and finely chopped

For the bechamel:
5 Tbsp butter
4 Tbsp flour
5 cups milk
1 bay leaf
1 tsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
2 tsp salt

For layering:
2 cups coarsely grated mozzarella
1 cup finely grated pecorino Romano
1 lb fresh lasagna noodles, uncooked (you can use 12 sheets of no-boil lasagna noodles if you can't make or buy fresh pasta)

In a large skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and cook until golden, about 10 minutes. Add squash, garlic, salt, and white pepper, and continue to cook until the squash is tender, 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in parsley, sage, and half of the hazelnuts. Let cool slightly, then puree in a blender until smooth (if you like it a little chunkier, puree with an immersion blender). Set aside.

For the bechamel, using a small sauce pot on medium-low, heat butter until melted. Add flour and stir until smooth. Over medium heat, cook until the mixture is golden, stiring constantly, about 6 minutes. In a separate pot, heat milk until almost boiling. Add milk to butter, 1 cup at a time, whisking until smooth. Bring to a boil, add bay leaf and garlic, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add salt and nutmeg; remove bay leaf.

To assemble the lasagna, spread about 1/2 cup of the sauce on the bottom of a 13x9 glass baking dish. Lay down pasta sheets to cover the bottom of the pan, making sure they do not overlap. Spread with 2/3 cup of the sauce, then a third of the squash filling, then a half cup of mozzarella. Sprinkle with pecorino and remaining hazelnuts. Repeat layering process two more times, going from pasta to cheese and nuts. Finish with a layer of pasta topped with the remaining bechamel and cheese.

To bake, preheat oven to 425°. Cover the baking dish tightly with foil and bake in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 15 minutes, until the top is golden and bubbly. Let lasagna sit for 15 minutes before serving.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Blogger Dinner at Sandrine's

Prior to starting this blog, there were many foods and cuisines that I rarely ate. French was definitely one of them, and for no particular reason. I went to France a couple of times when I was a teen, but I mostly subsisted on crepes, baguettes with ham and cheese, and poorly-prepared hotel salmon - oh, and whatever (and I do mean whatever) wine was nearby. I've expanded my French repertoire since then, and I'm always happy to try another restaurant.

So when I received an email from Chris Lyons of Lyons Communications about a blogger's dinner at Sandrine's in Harvard Square, I knew this would be an excellent chance to experience the real deal. Chef Raymond Ost is a MaƮtre de Cuisiniers (Master Chef of France); the group's mission includes "to preserve and spread the French culinary arts," so I know I got a good representation of French cuisine. Sandrine's doesn't just do a more generalized French cuisine, however; Chef Ost focuses on the food of Alsace, so many of the foods (and wines) we tried were specialties of the region.

This was also a great chance to meet some of my fellow bloggers, all of whom I've been reading for a while now. Along with Chris, I got to enjoy the company of Richard from The Passionate Foodie, Jacqueline from The Leather District Gourmet, Adele from The Basil Queen, and Megan from MenuPages. We sat for three hours, talking not only about what we were eating, but also what we have eaten and what we'd like to eat - just my kind of company :)

We started with two Flammekueches (one was traditional, with bacon and caramelized onions, and the other featured mushrooms and Swiss cheese). With a crispy, brick-oven-cooked crust and just the right amount of toppings, these were fantastic. They're a great bar food or a perfect way to start a nice long meal.

While most of the table moved on to the foie gras for their appetizers, I went with the endive and roquette (arugula) salad, with black grapes, goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, and a champagne vinaigrette. The mixture of bitter and sweet, fresh and tangy, crisp and soft, all made for an incredibly well-composed salad. This is definitely not just a bunch of ingredients thrown together in a bowl. Each bite was a different combination of flavors, and it never got old. I'd probably eat more salads if they were all like this.

For the main course, we had lots of great options, and I had a hard time making a decision. The Alsatian Choucroute Garnie is the house speciality , but I'm not always wild about sausages, and the Lobster Risotto sounded right up my alley. I ended up going with the Rack of Lamb, however, since I rarely cook meat at home, and rack of lamb is something I tend to leave to the professionals. I'm so glad I made that choice, too, because the lamb was intensely satisfying. The meat itself was cooked perfectly (not that you can tell in that picture), with a crispy Herbes de Provence crust and a warm but medium-rare middle. The accompanying roasted potatoes and butternut squash were what everyone hopes for from roasted veggies - a good mix of crispy edges and creamy interior (I probably could have just eaten another serving of the squash for dessert, in fact).

But I didn't, because they brought out this behemoth for us. The platter took up most of the table, and we managed to stuff ourselves silly by trying each of the fabulous desserts. My favorite was the kugelhopf, which puts most Boston-area molten chocolate cakes to shame. But really, they were all good - even the banana sorbet and the pear meringue (neither of which I would ever order). The six of us did a disturbingly good job of cleaning this plate - another reason to love eating with foodies is that they're not shy about going back for another bite!

So overall, I highly enjoyed my time at Sandrine's. At it's mid-range price point, it would be a great place to go for a nice night out with friends, but really, I'm already dreaming of sitting at the bar for some wine, a flammekueche, and a kugelhopf. See, my knowledge of French foods really was expanded!!

Sandrine's Bistro on Urbanspoon

Cheap Eats: Gourmet Dumpling House

This past weekend, Chinatown was abuzz with preparations for Chinese New Year, which begins today. Tables were set up on the sidewalks, selling flowers and paper lanterns, the line to get into Eastern Live Poultry was down the block, and large family groups were grabbing tables at the Gourmet Dumpling House.

Gourmet Dumpling House offers a wide array of homemade Chinese dishes, but as the name implies, the dumplings (and buns) are a particular strong point. The Mini Steamed Buns with Pork ($6.25) are also known as soup dumplings (or Xiao Long Bao, or just XLB), and are filled with a mixture of pork, vegetables, and yes, soup. Be forewarned that eating soup dumplings is not the neatest of processes, nor the quietest, as you're bound to end up with soup on your chin and clothes as you slurp it out of the dumplings. The broth is rich and flavorful, and the filling and dough make this a filling and substantial dish. Another wonder on the menu is the Scallion Pancakes ($3.95) - every Chinese restaurant makes them, but these are near perfection. Gourmet Dumpling House has managed to produce the lightest and flakiest scallion pancake that this Bostonist has ever seen. For more cheap eats, visit any day of the week before 4pm for the lunch specials, all priced at $7.25, for a full plate of food, including rice and soup.

Gourmet Dumpling House is located at 52 Beach Street, between Harrison Ave and Oxford St. They will be closed today and tomorrow to celebrate the New Year, but will be open again on Wednesday. Chinatown will be celebrating the New Year on Saturday with a lion dance parade, so if you're in the neighborhood, give Gourmet Dumpling House a try.

Originally posted on Bostonist.

Gourmet Dumpling House on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Croissants are Surprisingly Easy

Another snowy weekend, another desire to bake. This time, I went with something a little more difficult than biscuits, and something I've only dreamed of making - croissants. I've always thought that croissants must be this time-consuming, nit-picky endeavor, since it is so difficult to find a truly delicious specimen. But as I started to tackle this recipe, I was astounded to discover that each step is fairly easy and short - it's just the waiting period between each step that makes this seem to take forever.

True, it took almost 24 hours to complete the croissants, but active time was under an hour. The result was exactly what I was looking for - buttery, flaky, light-as-air pillows of dough that practically dissolve on your tongue. I'm very happy to know that when I want the real deal, I can now make them at home, instead of driving all over, looking for something that may or may not sate my craving.

And since this was an experiment (I didn't even know if they would turn out at all - better to have low expectations when trying something "difficult," I feel), I opted to try both plain and chocolate croissants. Both turned out splendidly, and I actually liked splitting the batch in half so I could have both flavors. If you do split your batch, use only about half the chocolate I listed below, and save any chocolate that doesn't get folded into the dough for melting and drizzling.


3 cups plus 2 Tbsp flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tbsp instant or rapid rise yeast (about 1 1/2 packets)
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cup warm milk
3 sticks unsalted butter
1 large egg, beaten
6 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped (optional)

In the bowl of a standing mixer, combine 2 3/4 cups flour, sugar, yeast, and salt. With the mixer at low speed and the dough hook installed, slowly add milk and mix until the dough begins to pull together, about 2 minutes. Increase speed to medium-low and mix until dough becomes sticky and elastic, about 8 minutes. If the dough isn't forming roughly into a ball by about 5 minutes, add 1/4 cup more flour, 1 Tbsp at a time. Scrape down the sides of the mixer bowl and put the dough into a lightly greased bowl. Loosely cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Lay out a large sheet of parchment paper on a counter. Sprinkle 1 Tbsp of flour on the parchment, then lay the 3 sticks of butter side by side on the flour. Sprinkle 1 more Tbsp of flour on top of the butter, then top with another sheet of parchment. Working with a rolling pin, gently pound the butter until it is softened and the flour is incorporated. Roll butter into a 12-inch square. Keeping the butter in the parchment, refrigerate for 1 hour.

On a floured surface, roll out dough so that the butter square will fit diagonally in the center. Place the butter in the center of the dough in a diamond shape, with the corners of the butter at the middle of the sides of the dough. Fold the dough over the sides of the butter so that they meet in the middle and press to seal shut. Roll the dough out to a 14-inch square, sprinkling on more flour as needed to keep it from sticking. Once dough is rolled out, fold the square into thirds, like a letter, to form a rectangle, then fold that rectangle into thirds to form a small square. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Roll out the dough again, lightly dusting with flour to prevent sticking. Repeat the previous folding process, folding the dough into a rectangle and then a square. Refrigerate for 2 hours.

Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper (rimmed baking sheets are best). Roll the dough into a 20-inch square. Cut the dough into two halves down the middle.

For regular croissants, cut each half into 3 rectangles, then cut each of those pieces diagonally into 2 triangles. Cut a small slit into the wide end of the triangle, then gently roll the dough, starting at the wide end and moving towards the point. Place the croissants on the baking sheet and curl the arms around to form the crescent shape.

For chocolate croissants, cut each half into 6 even rectangles. Place a tablespoon of chopped chocolate at one end, then roll the dough up around it into a log shape. Arrange on the baking sheet with the seam on the bottom.

Loosely cover shaped croissants with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 10 to 16 hours.

Preheat oven to 400°. Brush the croissants with egg wash and place the sheets in the oven, using both racks. Bake until golden, 18 to 22 minutes. Rotate and switch the baking sheets halfway through baking. Serve warm or at room temperature. For chocolate croissants, wait until the croissants have cooled, then drizzle with melted chocolate.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Cheap Eats: McCormick & Schmick's

Despite the fact that Happy Hour drink deals are illegal in Boston, there are still a lot of great deals to be had at bars around town. The bar at McCormick & Schmick's, for example, offers up cheap and delicious meals, a pleasant surprise considering that dinner there can be more on the expensive side.

McCormick & Schmick's Happy Hour menu, served nightly in the bar area, presents a wide range of choices. For $1.95, you can choose from seafood cakes, spinach dip, potato skins, hummus and pita, or a full cheeseburger and fries, as shown above. The cheeseburger is cooked to order, topped with rich cheddar cheese, and served with ultra-crispy french fries - an amazing deal for only $2. Pay a little more for additional options - $3.95 for a cheese quesadilla, meatloaf sandwich, or buffalo wings, and $4.95 for dishes like steamed mussels or cashew-crusted tilapia. Portions are generous, especially considering the price point, and are great for sharing, so order a few and pass them around.

Happy Hour deals are available with a minimum drink purchase of $2.50 per person. That means that your drink may cost double what your food costs, but you can still get out of there for under $10. Happy Hour is available Sunday through Thursday, 3:30-6:30 and again at 9:00-12:00; Friday, 3:30-6:30 and 10:00-12:00; and Saturday, 10:00-12:00. The two McCormick & Schmick's in Boston are located at 34 Columbus Ave. in the Park Plaza, and in the North Market Building of Quincy Market.

Originally posted on Bostonist.

McCormick & Schmick's on Urbanspoon - Quincy Market
McCormick & Schmick's on Urbanspoon - Park Plaza

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Biscuits That Will Keep You in the House

Well, I knew my winter hibernation instincts had kicked in a while ago, but that's been more evident than ever lately. I have to convince myself to even leave the house, where there are warm pajamas, tv shows to watch, books to read while snuggled under my covers... and delicious baked goods, right out of the oven.

This isn't a new recipe to me, but I realized I hadn't yet put it up on here. And I can't imagine that I'm the only one who's been into hibernation lately (especially with the temperature in the teens this week), so I thought I'd share. These biscuits are simple to throw together, and they come out of the oven in no time - so you can get back in bed before your feet can even get cold.

A few notes:
This recipe works easily if the butter is cut up into little chunks first. I like to cut mine into about 90 pieces - slice the stick into three equal pieces lengthwise, then rotate 90° and slice into another three pieces lengthwise (so you'll have 9 long pieces). Then cut width-wise to form little cubes - 10 slices will get you 90 pieces total.

When you knead the dough, try to do so as little as possible. Overworking the dough will make it tough. Similarly, once you have stamped out the biscuits, gently rework the scraps into another 1-inch thick disk and cut more biscuits. The second batch will be slightly less tender and flaky because the dough has been reworked. By the time you get to a third batch, the dough is pretty tough, and the results aren't very good at all.

Buttermilk Biscuits
2 cups flour
1 Tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 stick (8 Tbsp) unsalted butter, chopped into small pieces and chilled
3/4 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 450° and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, mix together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Add in butter and, working quickly with your hands, press the flour mixture into the butter, rubbing between your fingers, until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add buttermilk, stirring until it is all combined into the flour. Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured surface and knead until the dough pulls together into a uniform consistency. Flatten dough out with the palm of your hand until it is 1 inch thick. Using a 2-inch biscuit cutter, cut out biscuits and lay bottom-side-up on the baking sheet.

Bake for 5 minutes, then reduce heat to 400° and rotate the pan. Bake for another 10-13 minutes until golden brown. Best served warm.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Cheap Eats: Excelsior

Excelsior may not seem like the type of place to find cheap food, but at the downstairs bar, there are always surprises to be had. Be it $1 oysters (on Tuesdays and Wednesdays), half-priced pizzas (on Sundays and Mondays), or their new Winter Warmer Suppers, the deals at Excelsior's bar offer gourmet food at very low prices.

The Winter Warmer Suppers are a new special that features a different comfort food each week, changing on Saturdays, for only $8. This week's feature is fish and chips with cole slaw and house tartar sauce. The white fish is tender and coated with a light and crispy batter. The large-cut fries have creamy interiors and act as a perfect vehicle for enjoying every last bite of the house-made tartar sauce. Even the cole slaw won over this slaw-hater, with its crunchy cabbage and carrots and its creamy and tangy sauce. Sprinkled with fried parsley leaves and a good dose of black pepper, this is one of the best fish & chips that this Bostonist has had in a long time.

Future Winter Warmer Suppers will include Venison Stroganoff (1/17-23), Buttermilk Fried Chicken (1/24-30), Beef Stew (1/31-2/6), and Lamb Shepherds Pie (2/7-13). Excelsior is located at 272 Boylston Street, across from the Public Garden. Food is served in the bar area Monday-Thursday, 4:30-11pm, Friday and Saturday, 4:30-11:30pm, and Sunday, 4:30-10pm.

Originally posted on Bostonist.

Excelsior on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Tourshi, or How It's So Easy to Always Have Salty, Crunchy, Healthy Snacks on Hand

Yes, I know canning is something that's usually done in the late summer/early fall, but when am I ever together enough to do something like that on time? As soon as classes ended last semester, I started in on making some gifts for friends and family, and the first thing I thought of was tourshi.

Tourshi is an Armenian recipe for pickled vegetables, traditionally with carrots, celery, cabbage, and cauliflower. My father used to tell me about the giant vat of the stuff that his parents kept on their back deck and how cold the brine would get in the winter when he went to sneak a snack. When I was a kid, it was something we only had occasionally, usually after a visit to the church bazaar. And tourshi was probably the first time I had cauliflower, and for many years, it was the only way I would eat it. A few years ago, when I got into a kick of basically opening the church cookbook up to a random page and making whatever sounded good, I finally tried my hand at tourshi - and it was so stupidly easy, I couldn't help but wonder why we hadn't been making our own all along. The hardest part to the whole process is cutting the vegetables into chunks and arranging them in the jar (and looking at my pictures here, it's clear that I didn't do the best job with packing).

1 lb carrots, peeled and cut into sticks
1 lb celery, cut into sticks
1 cauliflower, cut into bite-size florets
1 lb sugar snap peas, ends trimmed
1/2 large cabbage, cut into wedges
12 cloves garlic, peeled
1 bunch fresh dill
whole black peppercorns
2 quarts water
1 quart cider vinegar
1/2 cup Kosher salt
2 Tbsp sugar

Arrange 6 quart-size (wide-mouth preferable) canning jars on the counter or table. Place two garlic cloves in each (more if the cloves are small) along with a few sprigs of dill and a few peppercorns. In each jar, tightly pack in cleaned and cut vegetables until the jar is full. Top with more dill sprigs and a few more peppercorns.

In a large pot, bring water, vinegar, salt, and sugar to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar. Carefully ladle the brine into each jar (a small funnel is very helpful in this) and seal with clean lids. Store in a cool place for at least two weeks, and refrigerate before serving.

Also, once you've eaten everything in the jar, you can just throw in a few more veggies to get a second life out of the brine - they won't be as intense as the first round, but they'll still be delicious and salty with very little work.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Quince Jam for my Mother

When I was growing up, my family would receive a package from my father's uncle in California every Christmas. Inside would be a few Ball jars filled with quince jam, homemade from the quince tree in his yard. I never had quince in any other form or from any other source, so I thought it was some exotic treasure from all the way across the country.

So imagine my surprise when I found local quince at Westward Orchards while doing some food exploration back in November with Lily Von Schtoop. I scooped some up, having no idea how to cook them. Luckily, I found this simple quince jam recipe from Simply Recipes and, with a few small changes, was able to produce about 3 half-pint jars worth of delicious quince jam, two of which went into my mother's Christmas stocking (the third is sitting in my own fridge - can't give away all the goods!).

Quick Quince Jam
3 cups water
2 quince, rinsed and grated (discard hard core and seeds, but leave the skin on)
3 Tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp lemon zest
2 cups sugar
2 tsp vanilla paste

In a medium pot over high heat, bring water to a boil. Add quince, lemon juice, and lemon zest, and then reduce heat and simmer until quince is soft (about 10 minutes). Stir in the sugar and vanilla and bring back to a boil. Once all the sugar has dissolved, reduce heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture reaches jam-like consistency (about 40-50 minutes).

Place 3 clean and dry half-pint canning jars (without lids) in the oven at 200° for 10 minutes to sterilize. Carefully ladle jam into jars (I found that a funnel was very helpful in avoiding getting jam all over the edges). Submerge the tops of the jars in water in a large pot, and bring water to a boil. Carefully remove tops from the pot, dry, and seal jars.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year's Spinach and Artichoke Dip

I hope everyone had a great holiday season! One of my resolutions this year is to blog more regularly... hopefully that's something that won't go by the wayside once school starts back up.

For New Year's Eve, I stayed in at a friend's house and cooked dinner. There was no way in hell I was going to be caught outside (it was 4° out when I finally drove home). We enjoyed brie from Wasik's in Wellesley (crack brie, as Ann and I like to call it, because we get ridiculous cravings for it), this spinach artichoke dip, and champagne around 7pm, and didn't get to dinner (of shrimp bisque and popovers) until after midnight.

This spinach and artichoke dip was one of my first culinary adventures. My roommate and I made this a bunch of times during college - we felt so very adult, cooking with a bit of wine and drinking the rest as the dip bubbled away on the stove. She and I have shared a few wild New Years (I'm not sure which was the best - Hogmanay in Edinburgh or our cruise to nowhere in Mobile harbor), so I thought it was only fitting to make something that she and I had made so many times in the past.

And let me just say that this looks complicated, especially with so many ingredients, but it's really a simple recipe. You just throw everything into one pot, and then all of a sudden, there's dip to be had. Just make sure to prepare your mise, because this is much easier if you have everything chopped up and ready to throw into the pot. To serve, I like just putting it in a bowl with tortilla chips, but a bread bowl would make for a nicer presentation.

Spinach and Artichoke Dip
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp butter
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 white or yellow onion, chopped fine
1 tsp dried thyme leaves
1 small red bell pepper, seeded and chopped fine
2 Tbsp flour
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 can (15 oz) artichoke hearts in water, drained and chopped
2 boxes (10 oz each) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
2 cups shredded Italian cheese blend (will contain some combination of mozzarella, Parmesan, Asiago, and other cheeses - the one I picked had 6 types of cheese)
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large sauce pot over medium heat, heat olive oil and butter. When the butter has melted, add garlic, onions, and thyme. Saute for about 2 minutes, until the onions start to turn translucent. Add red pepper and saute for another minute. Add in flour, stir to coat veggies, and cook for another minute. Stir in wine and reduce by half. Stir in stock and let thicken for about 1 minute. Stir in cream. When the mixture starts to bubble, stir in artichokes, spinach, and cheese. Stir until cheese is melted and everything is well combined. Salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy warm.