Sunday, March 21, 2010


Despite being rather fearless in the kitchen, I lack the DNA for making soup. Maybe it is because unlike most people, soup is almost always my last choice as a meal starter. Perhaps it was because my mother, excellent cook that she is, rarely made soup from scratch (though I do remember a wonderful split pea and ham soup). She was a busy working mom who relied on Campbell's canned soups (I shudder at the memory of something called "Pepper Pot, which contained tripe!). I actually like soup. But it never speaks to me in the same way that other starters do. And to be frank, some of the most disappointing things I've attempted in the kitchen can be blamed on soup. Those who say soup is forgiving--that you can dump anything you like into a pot and it will still be delicious, have clearly never sampled my feeble efforts in the genre. Now along comes Clifford A. Wright's superb collection, THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD (Wiley; ISBN: 978-0-470-18052-5) to finally set things right and help me conquer my fear of soup, instilling in me some culinary discipline and a desire for success.

Widely admired by food writers, this fine teacher and cookbook author should be better known to the public. I worked on Wright's last book, Bake Until Bubbly, the last word on the subject of casseroles (to me at least). Without resorting to any packaged soups or any other canned nonsense, he renewed and elevated this abused category without a whiff of pretension. That book received outstanding reviews and rightfully so. The casseroles I cooked from it swept me back to my childhood, reviving my love of this savory (and sweet) comfort food. He has admirably performed the same hat trick in THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD. Ranging far beyond the overly familiar Cream of Tomato, or French Onion Gratin (though these and many other favorites are here), Wright has assembled an imaginative collection of 247 superb soups from every area of the planet.

Dusting off the accumulated culinary cobwebs of some of the most popular soups, THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD is divided into categories, i.e., broths, clear soups, chunky meat soups, chunky vegetable soups, smooth creamed soups, minestrone-type soups, grain-based, soups, chowders and bisques, cheese and egg soups, seafood soups and chilled soups. His recipe for Gazpacho combines the versions he ate in two different restaurants in Spain, and he insists that for the best results, gazpacho can only be made and truly enjoyed at the height of the late summer tomato season. How interesting to discover that Vichyssoise was not created in France, but in the kitchens of the Ritz-Carleton hotel in New York. He offers three recipes for Borshch, two cold and one hot with meat. There is a very charming recipe for Ike's Home-Style Vegetable Soup, written by Dwight D. Eisenhower and found in his presidential library in Abilene, Kansas (and staying with politics for another moment, there's also the famous U.S. Senate Bean Soup, adapted by Wright "to assure a delicious soup"). There are fourteen minestrone-style soups, many of them from Italy.

My favorite part of the book was to discover so many International soups, and soup lovers will want to expand their repertoires with Cambodian Stuffed Cabbage Roll Soup, Georgian Beef and Apricot Soup, Turkmen Boiled Soup, Kurdish Chicken and Yogurt Soup, Korean Bean Paste Soup, Spinach-Stem Soup of the Turkish Jews, Chayote Soup from Nicaragua, Fava Bean and Chickpea Soup from Andalusia, Congolese Peanut Vegetable Soup, Persian Greens and Barley Soup, Cream of Plantain Soup (Cuba), Venezuelan Creole Soup, Icelandic Curried Langoustine Soup, and so many others. Wright has thoughtfully included an appendix of soups by region. I list so many because Clifford Wright is such an entertaining writer. The headings of each recipe are full of lots of interesting anecdotes about soups discovered during his many travels, suggestions for making better soup, and other fascinating information.

I decided to make the Cream of Cauliflower Soup to illustrate this review. It was a serendipitous choice as I had just enough heavy cream on hand, and my market was offering heavy, snowy heads of cauliflower on sale. The recipe was a snap to put together and the resulting potage was an elegant and pleasing blend of cauliflower, potato, chicken broth, tarragon, a touch of curry and nutmeg, lemon juice and white pepper with chopped tarragon and chive for garnish. It pleased my guests but most of all it pleased me and is an encouraging start to what I hope will be a renewed commitment to making soup and often. Memo to Clifford A. Wright: I think you have converted me!

Cream of Cauliflower Soup

In the 1950s, when I was a child, my father was stationed in France with the U.S. Air Force, and we lived for some time in Beaumont-le-Roger in Normandy. Although I don't remember the food from those halcyon days of my rural French childhood, I have made many subsequent trips to the area and am quite fond of Norman food. The region is famous for its duck, apples and Camembert cheese. Norman soups, especially cream soups, have a lusciousness I always associate with French cuisine.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

4 cups chicken broth
1 cauliflower (about 2 pounds), trimmed and broken into florets
1 small boiling potato (5 ounces), peeled and diced
Bouquet garni, tied in kitchen twine, consisting of 2 tarragon sprigs
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon curry powder
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground white pepper
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh chives
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh tarragon

1. In a large pot, bring the chicken broth to a boil over medium-high heat, then add the cauliflower and potato with the bouquet garni, cover, and cook until very tender about 15 minutes.

2. Transfer the vegetables to a blender and blend until puréed. Return the purée to the pot, add the cream and stir. Add the curry powder, nutmeg, lemon juice, salt, and pepper and heat over medium heat until hot. Serve in individual bowls sprinkled with the chives and tarragon for garnish.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

52 Quick, Stylish Dinners from Martha Stewart

Sometime around the early 90s, I bought Martha Stewart's Quick Cook, a collection of menus for meals to make that worked for week nights as well as for company. I've cooked my way through that book at least three times, and some recipes, such as Thyme -Sauteed Pork Chops with Apple Slices, Sea Scallops Sauteed with Scallions, Mahagony Fried Chicken, Oranges in Red Wine, and especially Old Fashioned Bottom-Crust Apple Pie, are part of my regular repertoire. In MARTHA STEWART'S DINNER AT HOME: 52 Quick Meals to Cook for Family & Friends (Clarkson Potter/Publishers; ISBN: 978-0-307-39645-7), Martha returns to the idea of great meals, easily prepared and this collection is a winner.

Martha's game plan is simple. Help solve the "what to have for dinner" question by offering 52 all new seasonally arranged menus, or one complete meal to try for every week of the year. That means interesting recipes using a broader range of easily available ingredients we're using these days such as pancetta, Greek yogurt, Vidalia onions, phyllo dough, wonton wrappers, cardamom and blood oranges. Each menu is handsomely photographed with appealing plates of great looking food, such as Braised Chicken Marsala with Sage Polenta, Summer Squash and Olive Phyllo Tart, Pasta Shards with Fresh Herbs topped with Poached Eggs with Brown Butter, Salmon with Creamy Leeks, Grilled Steak with Blue Cheese Potatoes, Grilled Spiced Lamb Chops, and Quail with Figs and Pine Nuts. Broiled Black-Pepper Tofu with a Soy-Lemon Dipping Sauce makes for an excellent introduction to this popular Asian ingredient.

The book has many interesting side dishes, including Quinoa, Pea, and Mint Salad, Haricots Verts with Tapendade, Couscous with Golden Raisins, Spinach and Grilled-Corn Salad, Fennel, Red Onion and Parsley Salad, Porcini and Parsley Farro, Orange and Endive Salad, Warm Lentils with Spinach, and Grated Potato Cake.

MARTHA STEWART'S DINNER AT HOME offers lots of fun and interesting desserts such as Vanilla-Poached Rhubarb, Coffee Ice Cream Affogato, Apricot-Almond Ice Cream Sandwiches, Bread and Butter Pudding with Strawberries, Blackberry-Red Wine Gelatin, Caramelized Persimmons, and Rice Pudding with Candied Kumquats.

Each menu features a convenient "Preparation Schedule," and the headers for each menu offer truly practical advice that help insure success. The back of the book offers some useful basics and a few stocks. And each of the starters, "mains," sides and desserts is listed by season, making quick reference for decision making. The combination of simple and sophisticated, familiar and new, and all elegantly understated is vintage Martha Stewart. I never tire of adding a good new cookbook that offers me a combination of the familiar some challenge. These are recipes you can get on the table during a busy week or linger over the weekend when our thoughts turn to relaxation and entertaining. This new book from Martha easily makes the cut.

Braised Chicken Marsala

Serves 4

4 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs (about 1. pounds)

4 chicken drumsticks (about 1 pound)

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 red onions, peeled and quartered through the stem

2 plum tomatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces

6 sprigs thyme

¼ cup Marsala (sweet Italian fortified wine)

1 ¼ cups chicken stock, homemade (see page 260) or low-sodium store-bought

Sage Polenta

Preheat oven to 400°F. Rinse chicken, pat dry with paper towels, and season both sides with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large, high-sided sauté pan over medium-high.

Working in batches, brown chicken on both sides, turning once, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer chicken to a platter; tent loosely with parchment paper, then foil, to keep warm.

After all chicken is browned, pour off excess fat.

Add onions, tomatoes, and thyme to the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 4 minutes.

Pour in Marsala; cook until reduced by half, about 5 minutes.

Return chicken to pan and pour in stock; bring to a simmer. Transfer to oven; cook until chicken is cooked through and tender, about 35 minutes. Transfer chicken to a platter, and cover to keep warm.

Skim off excess fat from liquid in pan; simmer liquid over medium-high until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. To serve, divide polenta among shallow bowls and arrange chicken on top; spoon pan sauce over each.

Sage Polenta

If the polenta is ready before the rest of the meal, keep it in the pan and press parchment or waxed paper directly on the surface to prevent a skin from forming; partially covering the pan with the lid will also work. Stir well before serving. Serves 4

5 cups water, plus more as needed

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

1 cup coarse Italian polenta

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

Bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat, then add 2 teaspoons salt. Whisking constantly, add polenta in a slow, steady stream and return to a boil.

Reduce heat to a very low simmer. Cover partially; cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture is creamy and starting to pull away from the sides of the pan, about 40 minutes, adding sage in last 5 minutes. If polenta is too thick to stir, add more water (up to ½ cup), a little at a time, and continue cooking, stirring occasionally.

Remove from heat. Stir in butter, and season with pepper and more salt, as desired. Serve hot.

Vanilla-Poached Rhubarb

Fromage blanc, a fresh cheese made from cow’s milk, has a mild, tangy taste and a creamy texture. It can be found at specialty food stores and cheese shops. If you cannot find it, simply double the amount of heavy cream and proceed, beating with the sugar and vanilla until soft peaks form, then chill.

Serves 4

For rhubarb

1 cup dry white wine

1∕3 cup water

1∕3 cup sugar

½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped

½ pound rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces (about 2 cups)

For cream

½ cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons sugar

½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped

4 ounces fromage blanc (½ cup)

Poach rhubarb: Bring the wine, water, sugar, and vanilla bean seeds to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Continue boiling 6 minutes, then add the rhubarb and reduce heat to a simmer; cook until rhubarb is just turning tender, about 2 minutes, tilting pan occasionally to coat the pieces with the poaching liquid.

Remove from heat, and let cool completely.

Whip cream: With an electric mixer on medium-high speed, whisk the cream, sugar, and vanilla-bean seeds until medium-stiff peaks form. Add fromage blanc, and beat

1 minute more, or until mixture is still fluffy but will hold its shape. Transfer to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate 30 minutes, just until chilled.

To serve, spoon the cream mixture into small serving dishes. Using a slotted spoon, top each with some rhubarb, then drizzle with syrup.

5 cups water, plus more as needed

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

1 cup coarse Italian polenta

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

Bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat, then add 2 teaspoons salt. Whisking constantly, add polenta in a slow, steady stream and return to a boil.

Reduce heat to a very low simmer. Cover partially; cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture is creamy and starting to pull away from the sides of the pan, about 40 minutes, adding sage in last 5 minutes. If polenta is too thick to stir, add more water (up to ½ cup), a little at a time, and continue cooking, stirring occasionally.

Remove from heat. Stir in butter, and season with pepper and more salt, as desired. Serve hot.

Reprinted from the book Martha Stewart’s Dinner at Home by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. Copyright (c) 2009 by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. Photographs copyright (c) 2009 by Kate Sears. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, Inc.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

DAISY MARTINEZ: Irresistible!

Daisy Martinez first showed up on PBS in her first TV series--Daisy Cooks! She was a breath of fresh air, sexy and personable and a very skilled TV cook ( she is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute and worked as a private chef before turning to TV). I acquired her Daisy Cooks!, the companion cookbook to the series because I wanted to know more about Latin cuisine. At the time I often had lunch at a local Dominican Republic coffee shop near my Soho office, and wanted to know how they prepared their delicious Pernil (roast pork shoulder). I liked the series, but kept thinking that her audience was more Food Network-oriented than the more staid PBS food show viewer. Now Daisy can be seen on the Food Network and she has a new cookbook, DAISY: MORNING, NOON AND NIGHT: Bringing Your Family Together with Everyday Latin Dishes (Atria Books ; ISBN: 978-1-4391-5753-4). Like Latin music, you cannot easily categorize Latin cooking and Daisy Martinez refuses this easy categorization too. Based on her many travels, Daisy presents a delightful collection of recipes that covers much of Latin America and a little of Spain too!

One of the inspirational sources for this new collection "occurred to me when my youngest child, Angela, turned eight and Santa Claus, coincidentally, stopped visiting our house," Daisy writes in the Introduction to DAISY: MORNING, NOON AND NIGHT. "I sat my children down (all four of them!) and said that in previous years, my husband, Jerry, and I had spent a small fortune on gifts for Christmas that were all but forgotten within two weeks. From now on, Mom and Dad would be giving them memories as holiday gifts. You could have heard a pin drop in that room," she continues. "Before they could shake off their shock and begin to protest, I explained that starting the following year, we would travel as a family to a different country each year during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day in order to experience that country through its food, historic sites, and cultures. The whoops and hollers were exactly what I had hoped for."

It's a good thing the Daisy's fine home cooking had set the standard for her children's curiosity because the family travels through Spain and Latin America have ranged widely from Barcelona and Madrid, Cuzco and Lima to Oaxaca and the Yucatan, Puerto Rico and as far south as Buenos Aires (a city teeming with superb restaurants). For me that diversity began with Arepas, gluten-free corn cakes that are popular in Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. I first encountered the recipe through a friend who was testing recipes for them for a magazine last year. I liked these appealing cakes which are about the size of an English muffin, and can be split and stuffed with ham and cheese, or scrambled eggs (I think they would make a great cocktail sandwich, stuffed and cut into bite-sized pieces). Daisy's Arepeas are simple to make and are flavored with cotija cheese (a popular Latin American cow's milk cheese) and minced fresh chives. The humble, yet addictively delicious Stoveotop "Wrinkled" Potatoes are a popular tapas treat in Spain and a delightful reminder of my visits there. Braised goat is very popular in the Dominican Republic, and Goat Braised in Coconut Milk from the "Buffet" section will grandly feel a crowd of twelve besides introducing you to this delicious meat. Empanadas, savory little stuffed turnovers are wildly popular and every Latin American country has its own version (including the dough). Daisy offers four different fillings, my favorite being with bacon and shrimp. As for Pernil, nothing could be simpler or more aromatic than Daisy's festive version of Puerto Rican roast pork shoulder . This is a perfect holiday entree, economical--and will serve a lot of guests. The book also has some wonderful desserts, the most eye-opening is something called Crepe and Dulce de Leche Stack. Crepes are slathered with a thick coating of dulce de leche, toasted pecans and powdered sugar until you have a stack of seven or eight layers of them--my idea of dessert heaven.

In DAISY: MORNING, NOON AND NIGHT, Daisy imparts her kitchen wisdom on every page. In addition to the many fine color photos of finished dishes, and step-by-step instructions, you'll find basics on many ingredients including sofrito, the essential Latin American staple that "is the heart of the Latin kitchen, dry and wet Adobo rubs, and other condiments, a glossary of commonly used foods and products, and menus. On nearly every page, Daisy offers notes in which she explains various techniques, or warmly imparts her secrets and wisdom for making the reader a better cook, plus her suggestions for many variations a recipe can go through.

From breakfast to a late night snack, Daisy Martinez makes you her co-conspirator in your kitchen, introducing the reader to all the flavors, aromas, and generous fun that are at the heart of the Latin kitchen. Daisy is a born teacher, and we've long needed an advocate like her to give us a thorough grounding in this wonderful cuisine.

AREPAS (corn cakes)

Arepas are gluten-free corn cakes that are popular in Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. In Venezuela, they are served as a side dish with huevos pericos (scrambled eggs with tomato, bell pepper, and onion). They can also be split, some of the creamy filling scooped out (or not!), and filled with mozzarella cheese, any type of ham, or the above-mentioned scrambled eggs, among other things.

Makes about twenty 3-inch arepas. Prep time: 30 minutes (mostly unattended resting time). Cook time: 35 minutes.

1 cup precooked white cornmeal (the most common brand is Harina P.A.N.)
2 cup finely grated cotija cheese
1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
1 teaspoon salt

1. Stir the cornmeal, cotija, chives, salt, and 1 1/4 cups hot water together in a large mixing bowl. Stir to make a slightly sticky dough. Set aside to rest until the dough is softer and no longer sticky, at least 20 minutes, or up to 2 hours.

2. Preheat the oven 350 degrees F.

3. Form 3 tablespoons of the dough into a ball, then press it flat to make a 3-inch disk about 1/2 inch thick. Repeat with the remaining dough. Line the disks up on a baking sheet as you form them.

4. Heat a large well-seasoned cast-iron or heavy nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add as many of the cakes as will fit without crowding and cook, turning once, until browned in spots on both sides, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a separate baking sheet an repeat with the remaining dough.

5. Bake until the cakes are crisp and feel light when picked up, about 25 minutes. Let stand for a few minutes before serving.

Arepas filled with ham and cheese: form 4-inch arepas using about 1/4 cup of the dough for each. (This recipe will yield about twelve 4-inch arepas.) Panfry and bake as above. Slice fresh mozarella 1/4-inch thick (you'll ned 8 to 12 ounces) an cut into pieces more or less the size of the arepas. After the arepas have rested for a few minutes, split them into top and bottom halves and scoop out most of the creamy center, or leave in if you like (Careful, the centers will be quite warm.) Lay a slice of the cheese and a thin slice of deli ham, folded as necessary, over the bottom of each arepa. Top them off and serve warm.