Thursday, September 30, 2010

Smoked Salmon Tea Sandwiches

Last time I went to Chicago it was by train.

It was cold, and the ground was frozen and little areas of snowy turf were visible spotting the Illinois countryside. I was a tad bored. My mind wandered and I started thinking about tundra, the steppe, babushkas, peasants, gulags, potatoes... and Dr. Zhivago. Yes, Mr. Pasternak. Seriously.
Why? Maybe it was the train and scenery medley.

You thought I might have talked about England here?

There was a little Solzhenitsyn thrown in, but no Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky- I don't know why.
With the visual portion of my imagination populated by an interesting Omar Sharif and Julie Christie/ Fiddler on the Roof combination cast my mind took off running from there. I will say that there was no dancing in this particular production.

My copy of Doctor Zhivago did not have pictures, I doubt yours did either. Anyway, Omar was convenient for this purpose... ready-made if you will. The same goes for Tevye and company. In addition to the imaginary scene being without dancing, there was also no singing. This was totally serious stuff.

Hmmm... it is interesting that Omar played a Russian very nicely even though he was Egyptian. Contrariwise, Yul Brynner the Russian played an Egyptian king (as well as a Siamese/Thai king and a cowboy), but did he ever pretend to be a Russian?

The trip back from Chicago should have been via train, however due to part of the track being torn up, it was on a Greyhound bus instead (Seeing Kankakee on a bus instead of a train? Unheard of! Should we tell Arlo Guthrie?).
It was new experience that shall never be repeated... it was awful for many reasons.

Salmon makes me think of blini with salmon, which I had several years ago on a train going to Salzburg. See? It's somewhat full circle. There are a few thematic connections here, folks (Russia, trains...).

Salmon also makes me think of Norway. When I think of Norway I think of fjords, skiing, sweaters, and snow. Ok, I'll admit I know pretty much nothing about Norway. Thor? Vikings, perhaps?
Well, I did read Kristen Lavransdatter... but that's a bit more medieval than modern (I'm not saying there's not a good message in the story by any means here).
Ok, so maybe that's my extent of Norwegian knowledge.
Just don't tell any Norwegians I said any of that. They might be insulted.

As for the recipe, the cream cheese spread also goes very nicely for cucumber sandwiches.

I like Pepperidge Farm Original White Bread. It's lightly sweetened, has a tight crumb, and is thinly sliced. If planning to use all the spread, you will likely need 1 1/2 loaves of bread.

Although for the cucumber sandwiches I think I'd prefer a darker, granier bread (which actually wouldn't be bad at all for the salmon, either... but if I made both types of sandwiches I would normally like some contrast).

For cucumber sandwiches you can either spread the cream cheese on both pieces of bread OR spread one slice with cream cheese spread and one slice with a thin layer of butter.
Also, don't make the cucumber sandwiches until you are ready to serve them since cucumbers are wet, and you don't want them to sit on the cream cheese bread and make sloppy sandwiches. However, the spread does somewhat act as a barrier to help protect the bread.

Smoked Salmon Tea Sandwiches
*cream cheese spread makes enough for approximately 48 triangular tea sandwiches.

5 T butter, room temperature
8 oz cream cheese, room temperature
3 t dried dill
1/2 t kosher salt
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper
zest of one lemon
juice from 1/2 lemon
12 oz smoked salmon
2 loaves good white bread (something with a dense crumb like Pepperidge Farm)

Cream butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add dill, salt, pepper, lemon juice and zest and mix until combined.
Spread a thin layer of cream cheese spread onto each piece of bread, add a layer of salmon, and top with another slice of bread with cream cheese. Press down lightly so the slices adhere to the salmon. Continue with the other sandwiches. Refrigerate sandwiches, wrapped in plastic, at least 30 minutes.
Prior to serving, cut off crusts and cut the sandwiches diagonally into triangular quarters.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Honey Caramels

Honey is good for you.
Well... in appropriate doses it is. Too much of anything can be bad, of course (any sugar, any fat... and there's even such a thing as drinking too much water).
AND, honey isn't good for anyone under a year old since it can cause a form of food poisoning. Because of babies' immature digestive system, they aren't able to fight off the botulinum spores that are present in honey. So, the spores multiply and produce the toxin that causes botulism. It's a very good reason not to give babies honey.

If you are going to use honey, you don't need as much of it to sweeten something (as compared to sugar) since it's sweeter and more dense.

And unlike sugar, honey will help keep baked goods moist instead of drying out since it absorbs moisture from the air.

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But other than adding sweetness to things, honey is also good at helping to fight allergies.
Raw and unfiltered honey contains pollen (but it's a good thing).
Using honey raw, and having honey that is harvested from an area close to you (within a 50-mile radius), or from and area with vegetation similar to that which surrounds you, will help with this.

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It's sort of like an injection- you get an inoculation and a small amount of a virus (such as measles) is present in your bloodstream. Your body is (normally) able to fight this bit off and you develop an immunity to it. This doesn't always happen though... I was "lucky" enough to develop measles from my MMR booster, and some people become very sick from flu shots.

Most of the people who read this are old enough to have had chicken pox. Whether you would have taken it or not, a vaccine was unavailable for most of those who might read this. If you've had a virus once, you're usually immune that specific virus rest of your life... your body recognizes it and knows how to fight it, it's no longer a threat.

It's similar to the way we have math formulas and theorems drilled into our brains... Pythagorean theorem, pi, sine, cosine, tangent... but once they're there you OWN them. Triangles are no longer a threat. I'd be willing to bet most of us could still recite them, but actually using them effectively may be a different story.

You can inoculate yourself against local allergies with the same idea as with a vaccine. A little bit of honey each day will help reduce seasonal allergy symptoms.
This is just how I imagine one might develop an immunity to iocaine powder

There are many ways to use honey in cooking, but it can be used raw in a vinaigrette, on oatmeal, toast, on plain yogurt, in a smoothie, with some cheeses...

Honey and propolis have antibacterial qualities and were used to help heal wounds a LONG time ago... and they're being used once again.

A little disclaimer here: these caramels aren't for everyone. They're stronger, more assertive caramels than what might be expected. They're sightly smokey and have a bit of a flowery/pollen-y taste. They're not bad by any means, just different.

Be careful when dealing with melted sugar since it can cause a bad burn. It doesn't just fall off when you shake your hand a little- it sticks.

You want to make sure to use a lighter honey here. It'll caramelize and get darker (I'm thinking honey caramelizes faster because of the type of sugar it is, but I honestly don't know...).
A darker one might become TOO dark and extremely assertive. This is another reason you want to make sure not to cook it too long! It can become burnt-tasting.

Once they're ready, you can eat the caramels as they are or dress them up a bit. Sprinkle them with salt, dip them in melted chocolate, add almonds, pecans, or walnuts...

Honey Caramels
adapted from Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich

2 c sugar
1/2 c light corn syrup
1/3 c plus 2 T light honey
scant 1/2 t salt
3 T butter, cut into pieces
2 c heavy cream
1 T plus 1 t vanilla extract.

Grease a piece of aluminum foil and line a 9x9 inch baking pan with it.
Heat sugar, honey, corn syrup, and salt in a heavy saucepan that will hold at least 4 qts (this helps protect you when the hot sugars boil). Cook over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon or a silicone spatula until the mixture simmers a little around the edges. Wash the sugar down from the sides of the pan with a pastry brush dipped in water. Cover and cook 3 minutes (rinse spatula or spoon so no sugar is left on it). Uncover the pan and wash down the sides again using the wet pastry brush. Attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan (don't let it touch the bottom!) and cook, uncovered, without stirring until the mixture reaches 305 degrees F.
While the sugars cook, heat the cream in a saucepan until tiny bubbles form around the edge of the pan. Turn off the heat and cover to keep the cream hot.
When the sugars reach 305, turn off the heat and stir in the butter until it's incorporated. Slowly stir in the hot cream, it will bubble and steam dramatically (don't get burned!). Turn the burner back on and adjust the heat so the caramel boils energetically but not violently. Stir until smooth and continue to cook, stirring occasionally until it reaches 245 degrees F. Cook, stirring constantly until the temperature reaches 250 degrees F. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the vanilla, and pour the caramel into the lined pan. Let set at least 5 hours or overnight.
When firm invert the pan onto a piece of parchment paper and peel the foil off.
Cut the caramels with an oiled knife into desired shape and size. Wrap each individually in waxed paper.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Another Easy Dinner...

I know meatloaf is a less than thrilling subject, the name leaves something to be desired, and it's certainly not glamorous... but I don't think I'll apologize for it today.

It's now fall, and this happens to make a nice, homey autumn dinner.

I honestly never understand it when I see meatloaf on a restaurant menu. Really? People actually go out and eat meatloaf? Who's doing this?

However, meatloaf is quick and easy to make, it doesn't take much planning, and it can be very good.
That said, it can be pretty bad, too.

At my house, I only ever remember one kind of meatloaf. No ketchup, no saucey topping... just well seasoned (good) ground beef.
When I was in grad school, I had a different (i.e. not from my house) meatloaf for the first time. I don't want to be disrespecting anyone's mom's food here, but... I hated it (I still ate it, don't worry).

A roommate made it, and I suppose this is what her mom always did. I think she used a packet or two of "meatloaf seasoning" and baked it with ketchup on top.
It was strange, even foreign to me... the flavor not what I expected... and it was sweet.
I thought, "Is this what other people eat for meatloaf?"

I will never make anything like that.
Ours is adapted from a compilation cookbook from the school I was at in first grade.
The actual name is "Chef Jean Pierre Meatloaf" (it's much more enticing if it's FRENCH, isn't it?). It's funny... I can't really imagine a French chef making meatloaf. How chic!

The story behind it was that American women put too much into their meatloaf and completely ruin it. This is simple: a few flavorings and voila! Frenchified meat loaf.
No sauces, no extra seasonings needed. AND it's all run-of-the-mill, regular things that you may have in your pantry already. Well, except (of course) the meat.

I think this may be one of the very few times I advocate using a certain shaker full of Parmesan cheese with a green top and label. Other than this I say always use the fresh real thing if you can. It's only because I'm a snob about it. I'm a cheese snob. And a meatloaf snob.

We can admit that meat doesn't usually photograph prettily.
"Brown" in general does not photograph very well.

It's extremely simple, but maybe once you try it you'll never go back. Very often simplicity can be the best.

My tip for today: if you want to shake the Parmesan cheese can to try breaking up some lumps, please make sure the top is on properly. Otherwise you may end up showering the kitchen with cheese. Get a broom...

I meant to post this earlier, but it just came out of the oven!

It goes very well with any kind of potatoes- although I would say some nice mashed potatoes or smashed (not fully mashed... with some lumps and maybe some parsley thrown in for color) red potatoes would be best.

Chef Jean Pierre Meatloaf (adapted)

2 lb. ground beef
1 can beef consomme, undiluted
1 sleeve saltine crackers, crushed
1/4 c breadcrumbs (seasoned or plain)
1 T dried parsley flakes
Parmesan cheese

Combine all ingredients except Parmesan cheese. Shape into a loaf in a 9x5 inch loaf pan leaving a "trough" down one side of the pan to help the fat drain and to make it easier to pour off once the meat is cooked. Top the meat with a good sprinkling of Parmesan cheese and a little extra parsley if you wish. Bake at 350 degrees F for approximately 1 hour.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Blueberry Almond Biscotti

Biscotti are great, you can make a lot of them with fairly minimal effort, they make nice homemade gifts, and they last a long time.

The name means "twice baked" and refers to the fact that they are, in fact, baked twice: once as a "loaf" and then the loaf is cut and the pieces are baked in their more recognizable form.

It's nice they're not as delicate as other cookies, and that they're not as "high maintenance" either.

You can pack them on the tray for the second baking and don't have to worry about that 2 inches worth of space you would need to leave for other more demanding cookies so they don't creep up an touch the other cookies on the tray (eek!).
Scandalous business.

Then again, cookies touching on a pan isn't as traumatic as peas and applesauce touching on a 5-year-old's dinner plate. So... maybe it's not so bad.

They're really great with a cup of coffee or tea, and nice for dunking (if you so choose) since they're a little more dry and crunchy than conventional cookies.

I had some blueberry-almond-white chocolate cookies recently. They were pretty good, and I wanted to try to re-create something like it. This is my interpretation.

I really did want to try to dip some in white chocolate, but when I went shopping for supplies, they didn't have any white chocolate at the store. Too bad. So, I bought a HUGE bar of dark chocolate instead (no loss).

To use the chocolate, chop as much as you will be using. Alternatively, I suppose you could just use chocolate chips.

Place a glass bowl over a simmering pot of water so that it rests in the pot, but the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Stir the chocolate occasionally until it is fully melted.

Remove the bowl from over the pot of water, and dip (or drizzle) the cookies to your heart's content.

When they were all dipped and lined up they reminded me of rows of eclairs.

Blueberry Almond Biscotti
makes approximately 50 cookies

1 c (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/3 c sugar
4 eggs
1 1/2 t vanilla
4 c flour
1/2 t salt
3 t baking powder
1 c dried blueberries
1 c almonds, lightly toasted in a pan and chopped
melted chocolate (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, with one oven rack in the lower third of the oven and one in the upper third of the oven.
Cream butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating a little between each addition. Add vanilla with the final egg. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Stir the flour mixture into the butter and sugar in several additions (to make sure it is incorporated well). Do not overbeat. Add the almonds and blueberries and stir only until they are scattered throughout the dough.
Remove the dough from the bowl to a lightly floured surface. Knead a few times and divide into four equal pieces. Roll each piece into a "log" shape about 12 inches long. Place 2 logs of dough longways onto a cookie sheet a few inches apart. Flatten each log slightly so that it is approximately 3 inches wide.
Bake the loaves (one on the upper rack, and one on the lower rack) 15 minutes. Rotate the pans back to front and top to bottom and bake about 15 to 20 minutes longer. The loaves should be dry/set and a pale golden color. Remove the loaves from the sheets and let them cool slightly until they are cool enough to handle.
Place one of the oven racks in the center of the oven.
Cut each log on the diagonal into slices 1/2 to 3/4 inch wide.
Place the cookies on one of the cookie sheets (I found I was able to get 2 "loaves" worth of cookies onto one sheet. Bake the cookies 5-7 minutes, turn them over, and bake 5-7 minutes longer. Repeat with remaining cookies.
Remove the cookies to a cooling rack to cool completely. At this point you can dip them in chocolate or and store in an airtight container.