Sunday, July 29, 2012

Mexican Chocolate Tofu Pudding

Mexican Chocolate Tofu Pudding

The Gastronomer emailed me this Mark Bittman recipe a full three years ago; when she requested a special dessert this weekend, I remembered it and decided it was pudding time! It's pretty cool: you start out with a block of soft tofu and some melted chocolate, add a few spices, blend it all up, and after chilling in the refrigerator for a bit, the result is a silky smooth pudding that I would have sworn was made with cream and eggs like this one.  I'm usually not that into chocolate, but I do love desserts with a spicy kick.  A few spoonfuls of pudding made for an extremely satisfying conclusion to my dinner tonight.

For another creative use of tofu, check out this pesto recipe.

Recipe by Mark Bittman, published in The New York Times.
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 pound silken tofu
  • 8 ounces high-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted in a double broiler
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder / cayenne pepper, or more to taste
  • Chocolate shavings (optional)
In a small pot, combine sugar with 3/4 cup water; bring to a boil and cook until sugar is dissolved, stirring occasionally. Cool slightly.  Put all ingredients except for chocolate shavings in a blender and purée until completely smooth, stopping machine to scrape down its sides if necessary. Divide among 4 to 6 ramekins and chill for at least 30 minutes. If you like, garnish with chocolate shavings before serving [I used white chocolate for visual contrast].

Yield: 4 to 8 servings, depending on how much chocolate you can handle in one sitting
Estimated Start-to-Finish Time: 40 minutes (including 30 minutes chilling time)
Actual Start-to-Finish Time: 1 hour (including 30 minutes chilling time).  I spent a significant fraction of this time figuring out how to melt the chocolate.  The second time around it will be a good deal quicker.
Substitutions: I was a bit unsure of what Bittman meant by "chili powder".  The chili powder in our spice cabinet is the type used to make chili (the chunky bean and meat stew)--it contains garlic and several other ingredients in addition to hot peppers.  I thought this would probably be an odd flavor profile to add to a dessert, so I used cayenne pepper instead.  Half a teaspoon made the pudding plenty spicy.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Thai Basil Pesto

Thai Basil Pesto

I'm stoked to report that The Gastronomer and I have added Thai basil to our potted herb garden this year, and the two small plants I purchased in March are thriving.  In fact, they've been growing so fast that even with a big pot of Ba Ngoai's pho in the house last week, our demand for the fragrant leaves hasn't been able to keep up.  I've grown tired of wasting perfectly good Thai basil when I trim off the parts that are flowering, so I decided it was time to make pesto.  This recipe is a delicious twist on a classic pesto, with fish sauce, sesame oil, peanuts, rice wine vinegar, and red pepper flakes giving it a distinctly Southeast Asian flavor profile.  It was surprisingly spicy for a Cooking Light recipe, I thought.  We enjoyed it with Vietnamese rice vermicelli noodles (bun) and vegetables.

Recipe from Cooking Light via
  • 2 cups fresh Thai basil leaves
  • 3-4 tablespoons dry-roasted peanuts
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons dark sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves
Place all of the ingredients in a food processor; process until smooth.  Toss with noodles and serve immediately, or transfer to a bowl, press plastic wrap onto the surface of the pesto, and store in the refrigerator up to one week.

Yield: 4-6 servings
Estimated Start-to-Finish Time:
Actual Start-to-Finish Time: 45 minutes (mostly trimming the basil, plucking the leaves from the stems, and washing them).
Substitutions: At the suggestion of a commenter on, I added extra peanuts (the original recipe only called for 2 tablespoons).  After making my way through half a bowl of noodles with the pesto, I decided that it was actually too spicy--I think I'll reduce the red pepper to 1/2-3/4 teaspoon next time.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Tuna with Angel Hair Pasta

Tuna with Angel Hair Pasta

The Gastronomer and I have been living a mere 10 minute drive from a Mitsuwa Marketplace for more than three years now, but we didn't start paying it regular visits until last month.  I guess we thought the only worthwhile Mitsuwa was the Torrance location, with its dynamite food court.  Well, it turns out the appeal of Mitsuwas extends beyond ramen and curry.  We've recently been enjoying amazing Sumo citrus fruits, and last week The Gastronomer made inari sushi at home.  In light of these successes, I felt like it was time to finally try out a recipe from our Nobu West cookbook.  Like most cookbooks from fancy restaurants, the Nobu book initially struck me as fairly intimidating, although it was more the shopping than the cooking itself that had me hesitating.  Nobu's recipes tend to be surprisingly simple, so the quality of ingredients is undoubtedly paramount in achieving the desired product.  I don't know much about picking out fish, but I felt like I couldn't go wrong at Mitsuwa.

For this simple twist on a Japanese noodle dish, I picked out two pre-packaged fresh tuna fillets from Spain, on sale for $22.99 per pound.  I've never spent this much for fish in the grocery store before, but it was worth it, as the quality turned out to be comparable to what we would expect from a nice sushi restaurant.  I do believe this was one of The Gastronomer's favorite things that I've ever made.

Recipe adapted from Nobu West by Nobu Matsuhisa and Mark Edwards. 
  • 3 ounces angel hair pasta (capelli d'angelo)
  • salt
  • 5 ounces boneless, skinless fresh tuna
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon chili-garlic sauce [I used Lee Kum Kee brand]
  • 1.5 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1/4 bunch of chives, finely snipped
Cook the angel hair pasta in plenty of salted, boiling water until just al dente.  Drain and refresh in cold water, then drain well again.  Following the grain of the tuna, slice it into long strips as thin as you can manage (~1/8 inch).  Combine with the drained pasta in a mixing bowl.  Add the sesame and olive oils and gently mix again.  Add the chili-garlic sauce to the soy sauce and gently mix into the salad, taste, and add a little more salt if required.  Place on a serving dish and sprinkle with the chives.

Yield: 2 servings (Nobu says that this recipe serves 4, but that would be very small portions--I ended up doubling the recipe so that we would have leftovers).
Estimated Start-to-Finish time: Not given
Actual Start-to-Finish time: 35 minutes (could have been about 20 if I had been a bit more confident cutting the fish).
Substitutions:  The original recipe called for 2 tablespoons sesame oil, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, and 1/2 bunch of chives, but these amounts seemed excessive.  I used the quantities listed above, and The Gastronomer and I felt that the dish was plenty oily and salty.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Mustard Batons

Mustard Batons

As a prequel to the Savannah banana pie that I served for dessert on The Gastronomer's recent birthday, I prepared a four-course meal from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table.  Greenspan's cookbooks are an internet sensation, but I chose her book of French-inspired recipes for this important cooking project mostly because of how much I enjoyed beggar's linguine, the first recipe that The Gastronomer prepared from Around My French Table earlier this year. Mustard batons were an obvious choice for an appetizer because The Gastronomer had just made a large quantity of gourmet mustard from scratch.  Plus there is nothing that makes me feel more at home in the kitchen than a recipe that requires one to make precise measurements with a ruler.  This is also a perfect recipe to serve as a hors d'oeuvre preceding a multi-course meal because the batons can be prepared ahead of time and frozen, then baked at the last minute.

Although the recipe couldn't be simpler, I found forming the batons to be a little tricky because I had to roll the puff pastry very thin in order to make a rectangle of the suggested dimensions. This led to some breakage when folding the dough in half.  It didn't help that my puff pastry sheet had been hanging out in the freezer a year or so too long and had some crusty corners.  However, The Gastronomer believes there is nothing more noble than using up old ingredients rather than letting them go to waste, so I knew she would appreciate my efforts.  I threw away the bad parts and proceeded with a smaller batch of batons, and the results were quite appealing.  The Gastronomer loved them, although how could she have not when they were made with her mustard?

Recipe from Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan.
  • 2 sheets frozen puff pastry (each about 8 1/2 ounces), thawed
  • All-purpose flour, for rolling
  • 1/2 cup Dijon mustard [or other mustard]
  • 1 large egg
  • Poppy seeds, for topping (optional)
Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.  Have a ruler and a pizza cutter (or sharp knife) at hand.

Working with one sheet of pastry at a time, roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface until you have a rectangle that's about 12 x 16 inches.  If necessary, turn the dough so that a short side of the rectangle is closest to you.  Measure the length so that you can find the middle, and spread 1/4 cup of the mustard over the lower half of the dough, stopping about 1/8 inch from the side and bottom edges.  Fold the top portion of the dough over the bottom and cut the pastry from top to bottom into strips about 1 inch wide, then cut the strips crosswise in half (if you prefer, you can leave the strips long).  Carefully transfer the batons to one of the baking sheets and chill or freeze them while you work on the second batch (you can make all the strips to this point and freeze them on baking sheets, then pack them airtight and keep them frozen for up to two months).

Lightly beat the egg with a splash of cold water and brush just the tops of the strips with this glaze.  If you'd like, sprinkle them with poppy seeds.  Bake the batons for 8 minutes.  Rotate the sheet from front to back and top to bottom and bake for another 7 to 8 minutes, or until the strips are puffed and golden brown.  Remove the baking sheets from the oven and let the batons rest for a couple of minutes before serving.

Yield: 40 batons
Estimated Start-to-Finish Time: Not Given
Actual Start-to-Finish Time: 45 minutes
Substitutions: I only made a half a batch (using a single sheet of puff pastry)--I recommend this if you're only serving a small number of people, since the batons are best when they're still warm and crisp from the oven.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Savannah Banana Pie

Savannah Banana Pie

I'm an experienced baker of cookies, cakes, and the like, but the thought of making a pie has always been a bit intimidating to me.  It took a very special occasion, The Gastonomer's 30th birthday, to inspire me to finally attempt my first pie without my mother's assistance.  I flipped through Maida Heatter's book of Pies and Tarts, pondering my options: peach or berry pie (awesome but out of season), apple pie (delicious and classic, but kind of boring), key lime pie (mmm... but choosing a simple graham cracker crust would be shying away from the true challenges of pie crust baking), ... When I saw this recipe, I knew it was perfect.  It didn't have a flaky crust, but bananas, toffee, and caramel are among The Gastronomer's very favorite things in this world. 

Heatter claims that this pie "has several parts to it--all easy and fun--but they do take time."  Nevertheless, there were definitely some technical steps.  Her directions are extremely detailed and clear, but somehow things still went awry.  I could tell as soon as I started pressing my crumb crust into the pan that it was way too buttery--my hands became very greasy as I worked with it, and when I brought it out of the oven after the recommended 8 minutes of baking, it was bubbling madly.  I think the fresh Amaretto cookies that I bought from Whole Foods might have been to blame; Heatter recommends pre-packaged cookies by Lazzaroni.  This wasn't a disaster--I put it back in the oven for 2-3 more minutes and it seemed like everything was going to work out.

However, I ran into more serious trouble when I tried to carry out Heatter's clever procedure for keeping the crust from sticking to the pan (which involves baking the crust with a layer of aluminum foil under it, then freezing it in the pan and removing the foil while the crust is rock hard).  The excess butter seeped through the foil and froze, cementing the foil to the pie pan and to the crust.  I was far worse off than if I hadn't used foil at all.  After several frantic minutes filled with various desperate schemes to get the pie to come loose, I finally succeeded in heating up the bottom of the pie plate enough that the frozen butter melted and I was able to pry the crust out of the pan with only minimal damage.  I then faced another daunting challenge in scraping the sticky foil off the bottom of the crust--a task I delayed for a few minutes by putting the crust back in the freezer to harden up again.  I ultimately did get the foil off and the crust back in the pan mostly intact, save for a few crumbled spots around the edges, and the rest of the recipe went smoothly (incidentally, I attempted Heatter's aluminum foil trick again the next time I tried making a crumb crust, and it worked great, so I don't hold her at fault--I really just think the cookies I used were a bit different than what she had intended for this recipe).

The pie came together and actually looked pretty good in the end, and The Gastronomer was thrilled to be presented with a "birthday cake" that contained so many of her favorite ingredients.  Unfortunately, the pie had a tragic flaw which, ironically, had nothing to do with the crust.  I had presumed that the caramel filling would thicken and set when the pie was chilled, but this did not happen even after many hours in the refrigerator.  The final product was sadly more like a banana caramel soup than a pie.  The Gastronomer reported that it was delicious on the first and second days.  However, it was far too large (and unhealthy) a pie to finish that fast, and by later in the week the runny filling caused the crust to disintegrate.  While we were left with a soggy mess in the end, I enjoyed my first pie-making experience enough that I returned to Heatter's book to try again (with a different recipe) a few weeks later.

Recipe from Maida Heatter's Pies and Tarts.

For Macaroon Crust
For Filling
  • 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • 3 to 4 ripe but not overripe bananas
For Whipped Cream Topping
  • About 3 ounces Almond Roca, English toffee candies, or Heath Bars
  • 1 1/2 cups whipping cream
  • 2 tablespoons confectioners sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 or 2 drops (only) almond extract
Make Macaroon Crust

Adjust a rack to the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Break up the macaroons, then process them in the food processor until they become crumbs.  Add the melted butter and process to mix.  Turn a 9-inch glass pie plate upside down on a work surface, and press a 12-inch square of aluminum foil over the back of it, shiny side down.  Turn the pie plate back over and place the shaped foil into the plate.  Press the foil firmly into place in the plate with a potholder or folded towel.  Fold the edges of the foil down over the rim of the plate.

Turn the crumb mixture into the foil-lined plate.  Using your fingertips, distribute the mixture evenly and loosely over the sides first and then the bottom.  Then press the crust firmly and evenly on the sides, pushing it up from the bottom a bit to form a rim slightly higher than the edge of the pie plate.  Be careful that the top of the crust is not too thin.  After pressing the sides and the top edge firmly, press then remaining crumbs evenly and firmly over the bottom.  There should be no loose crumbs.

Bake for 10 minutes.  Then cool to room temperature.  Freeze the crust in the pie plate for at least 1 hour, overnight if possible. It must be frozen solid. Remove from the freezer.  Raise the edges of the foil and carefully lift the foil (with the crust) from the plate.  Gently peel away the foil as follows: Support the bottom of the crust on your left hand and peel away the foil, a bit at a time (do not tear the foil) with your right hand.  As you do so, rotate the crust gently on your left hand.

Supporting the bottom of the crust with a small metal spatula or a table knife, ease it back into the plate very gently in order not to crack it.  It will not crack or crumble if it has been frozen long enough.  [note that at this point I slide the pie crust onto a flat dinner plate instead and put it back in the freezer, because I needed to use my only glass pie plate for the next step.]

Make Filling

Adjust a rack to the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Pour the condensed milk into an 8- or 9-inch Pyrex pie plate.  Cover it airtight with aluminum foil, pressing the edges over the rim of the plate to seal.  Place the plate in a large shallow pan.  Pour hot water about 1/2 inch deep into the large pan and back for 1 hour and 20 to 30 minutes.  The condensed milk will bake to a rich caramel color.  During baking, add more water to the large pan if necessary.  Remove the pie plate from the larger pan, then remove the foil covering and set the caramel aside to cool completely.

From 4 to 8 hours before serving, peel the bananas and cut them crosswise into 1/4 inch slices.  Do the cutting over the crust and let the slices fall into the crust.  Flatten the layer of bananas a bit.  With a teaspoon, place small spoonfuls of the cooled caramelized milk all over the bananas (if you place too much in any one spot you will not have enough to go around).  Then, with the back of a spoon, smooth the top a bit to voer the bananas completely.  Refrigerate for 4-8 hours.

Make Whipped Cream Topping and Assemble Pie

Unwrap the candy and on a cutting board cut down on the candy bars with a small sharp knife to slice the candy thin.  Set it aside.

In a small chilled bowl with chilled beaters whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla and almond extracts only until the cream holds a definite shape but not until it is really stiff.  Place the cream by tablespoonfuls in a circle around the rim of the pie--do not cover the middle of the filling.

Sprinkle the candy over the whipped cream.  Refrigerate and serve very cold.

Yield: 8 servings
Estimated Start-to-Finish Time: Not given
Actual Start-to-Finish Time: 8 hours [I usually leave out chilling time in calculating this, but in this case I was cooking several other dishes at the same time, and I really have no idea how much "active time" there was.  In any case, you'll need to start the recipe at least 8 hours before serving it, and making the crust the night before would be ideal].

Monday, February 27, 2012

Orange-Fennel Salad

Orange Fennel Salad

The centerpiece of this easy winter salad from Cooking Light's series of recipes with five ingredients or less just might be one of my top five favorite vegetables.  Interestingly, fennel is also an herb and a spice, which perhaps gives it an unfair advantage over its veggie competitors, but I won't count that against it--it's right up there behind corn, carrots, and artichokes and neck and neck with other more obscure flora like upright elephant ears in my personal power rankings.  I find its crispy bulb, dill-like fronds, and licorice-tinged flavor to be positively delightful.  The salad was intended to accompany sauteed snapper but, true to form, we ate it with shrimp instead.

Recipe by Cooking Light, January/February 2010
  • 2 oranges
  • 1 medium fennel bulb with stalks
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Peel and section oranges over a bowl, reserving 2 tablespoons juice. Thinly slice fennel bulb; chop 1 teaspoon fronds. Discard stalks. Place orange sections and sliced fennel in a medium bowl. Combine reserved juice, fronds, olive oil, salt, and pepper in a small bowl, stirring with a whisk. Drizzle juice mixture over fennel mixture; toss well to coat.  Serve with your choice of simply prepared seafood.

Yield: 4 servings
Estimated Start-to-Finish Time: Not Given
Actual Start-to-Finish Time: 30 minutes

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Honey, Lemon, and Thyme Dressing

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Honey, Lemon, and Thyme

Growing up, I viewed brussels sprouts in an extremely negative light. They stank up the house when my mom boiled them, and if I was ever brave enough to actually put one in my mouth, I definitely didn't give it a fair chance to impress. However, in the past couple of years I've come around and realized that they can be one of the most delicious vegetables out there. Maybe it was the brussels sprouts with prosciutto breadcrumbs at Pizzeria Mozza, or the brussels sprouts salad at La Grande Orange... It seems like every time I order brussels sprouts at a restaurant they're amazing. The Gastronomer is a fan as well, so I didn't hesitate to choose this recipe as a side dish for one of her birthday meals. I had never made brussels sprouts at home before, but they turned out to be just as good as in restaurants! As far as vegetable dishes go, this one is just about perfect. Simple, sweet, well-balanced, and even, dare I say, addictive?

Recipe from Olives and Oranges by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox, reprinted in Food and Wine's Best of the Best Cookbook Recipes (Vol. 12).
  • 2.5 pounds brussels sprouts, halved lengthwise
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
Preheat the oven to 400°F.  In a large bowl, toss the brussels sprouts with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper.  Spread the brussels sprouts on a large rimmed baking sheet and roast for about 30 minutes, tossing halfway through, until brown and tender.

In a medium serving bowl, whisk the honey with the lemon juice, thyme, and the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil.  Add the brussels sprouts, toss to coat, and serve.

Yield: 6 servings
Estimated Start-to-Finish Time: Not Given
Actual Start-to-Finish Time: 50 minutes
Substitutions: The original recipe recommended a 30 minute cooking time, but my brussels sprouts were well-browned and plenty tender in about 22 minutes.  The authors note that it is a good idea to try to purchase sprouts of uniform size so that they will all take the same amount of time to cook.
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