Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Martha and Me: Baby Sweet Potato Cakes with Sticky Caramel Sauce and Pecans

I’ve been struggling a bit lately writing a post that I feel is worthy of reading. When I learned yesterday that Jack LaLanne had died, I knew it was time for me to dust one off that I had written a while back, so here it is. I hope you enjoy it.

I come from a long line of “tough stuff, suck it up, get your stuff together, you're going to school” women. I’m not kidding. In my family if you don’t have fever, can’t produce visual signs (I won’t go any further) of illness, you ARE going to school. That vague headache or stomach ache stuff that some children enjoy getting away with, never worked for me, so if I got to stay home I savored every moment of it.

I even enjoyed watching 1970’s mid- afternoon television and watched anything without complaint knowing full well that I was an unwelcomed guest in my mother’s house at 1:00 in the afternoon and my visa was subject to revocation at any moment. Thank goodness that even though my mom liked her afternoon soaps, she loved watching Julia Child and Graham Kerr. I liked watching them too and learned that even though I loved my mom’s recipes, there was much more to cooking than chicken fried steak and coconut cream pie.

Even though my mom was a great cook in her own right, Julia’s style was much different than the south Texas fare that we were used to eating. Julia inspired both of us to give something new a try. In fact, at fourteen, the first main dish that I prepared all on my own was Julia’s recipe for braised turkey breast. I watched her prepare it one afternoon and for some reason it must have sounded especially delicious to me or we had all of the ingredients . . . no, strike that, no one ever had a turkey breast sitting around their kitchens in the 70’s, but I was determined to give her recipe a try.

My dear mom must have kindly taken me on a turkey breast hunt in our little town because we did manage to scare one up. I’ve since tried Googling the recipe so I could recreate it with no luck. Anyway, as I recall it consisted of a turkey breast sliced at an angle every 1” or so and sandwiched with a mixture of sautéed onions, carrots and celery. Wrap all of this in cheese cloth, sear it, then bake until golden brown and delicious and turn the pan drippings into gravy. Thanks to Julia, my maiden voyage into cooking was a success and a lifelong love of cooking was born.

Ten years later, I found myself working at a beautiful little boutique hotel in Houston while I attended college. Anyone who was anyone and came to Houston usually had the good taste to stay in our hotel. I worked in the beautifully decorated cocktail lounge that was attached to the bar and grill. In addition to some of the finest wines and spirits we also served wonderful cheese, seafood and caviar.

The lounge was reminiscent of a paneled study in a country home with intimate little rooms furnished with cozy sofas, arm chairs and overstuffed pillows. I loved working there. You never knew from day to day who might be sitting in your station when you arrived for your shift. I never asked anyone I waited on there for an autograph and I kick myself to this day for not doing so. I mean, all they could have done was say no, right? What would it have hurt? I guess I just wanted them to feel like a guest in my home, at ease and free to relax.

On one regular day, with tray and cocktail napkins in hand, I climbed the stairs to the lounge, looked up and found Julia Child and her husband, empty glasses in front of them just waiting for my arrival. I don’t remember what she ordered, but I do remember (besides her having a pretty good buzz on) she was snuggled up next to her husband, head on his shoulder, smiling, holding his hand. I can also tell you something else, they were both sweet and gracious to their cocktail waitress.

Anyone who works in the service industry will probably agree with me that you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat someone who is paid to serve them. Why didn’t I tell her about my braised turkey breast at fourteen and ask her for her autograph? She probably would have loved it. Oh how I wish her autograph was on a Remington Hotel cocktail napkin hanging in my butler’s pantry right now. I’m a dumbass.

Not all the celebrities at this hotel were quite as meaningful to me but some were great characters. Jack LaLanne of the 1950s exercise fame came into our bar one evening. He appeared to be either looking for someone or a bull to fight because he was dressed in full matador regalia. No kidding, he was wearing a gold lame ruffled stretch tuxedo. This was the late ‘80s and he must have been at least 100 then. He was very short and super fit. There must be something to those juicers that he and his wife sell.

Then there was the beautiful Gene Tierney who came in on a weekly basis, dressed to the nines, to have a glass of wine or two with her girlfriends. This was many years after her retirement from films and she was still a star. She probably would have loved knowing how excited I was to have her sit in my section by asking her for her autograph all the while gushing over her and all her wonderful movies. Another opportunity lost.

Calvin Klein came to visit our hotel one evening and who knows, if those guys from room service hadn’t stolen his table from me, his beard’s, uh, wife’s name may have been Karen instead of Kelly. Or maybe he would have seen me, been so taken by my beauty he would have swept me away from Houston and my life of cocktail waitressing and I could have become his muse for a line of Calvin Klein petite clothing. Well that may be stretching it, but at least I might have been brave enough at that very instant to asked him for his autograph. One more opportunity missed.

Then there was one of the founding members of ZZ Top. He would come in to the grill a couple times a week and sit in a very visible corner table all by himself. I can’t tell you how intriguing and intimidating I found this man and his super long beard. At this time in Houston he was a superstar and there he was just a few feet a way and I couldn’t work up the nerve to ask him to write his name down on a piece of paper. Years later I heard that he is one of the nicest men you could ever hope to meet and quite a good cook (I’ll reiterate, I am dumbass). I tell you what Billy Gibbons, if I ever get the chance to see you in person again, I’m going to ask you for both your autograph and your Renegade Guacamole recipe.

About ten years later on a train bound from London to Nottingham, we took advantage of the weekend special of the 5 pound upgrade to first class. We had had a difficult trip over from the States and were on the final leg of our long trip home. I remember my head was throbbing from too many cups of coffee trying to counteract too many glasses of Chardonnay. We smelled bad, like you do after an overseas trip, and looked a mess, but we were almost there when I looked over and right across the aisle I saw Alan Rickman. Good grief! Alan Rickman! I love him! I love his movies! I had no breath mints, no hair brush, and I’d been in my clothes for two days. I was almost relieved when we were told very loudly by the conductor that we were in the wrong part of the first class compartment for the 5 pound upgrade. No autograph for me!

Fast forward a few years later, I appeared on the Martha Stewart Show preparing my Baby Sweet Potato Cakes. I was so excited because I WAS going to ask Martha for her autograph. A victim no more, I went and purchased my favorite Martha Stewart Cookbook to have her sign it, and since I was thrilled to find out that Frank McCourt was also on the same show, I also bought Angela’s Ashes for him to sign as well. Well guess what, Martha kept herself so far away from me the whole time I didn’t even get a chance to ask her to sign my book.

Unfortunately I didn’t cross Mr. McCourt’s path either. Such a shame as he passed away a year or so later. Whoopi Goldberg was a guest on the show too that day and was so kind and sweet that she introduced herself to me. I was so nervous about my segment and just plain star struck, I couldn’t have asked even if I’d thought of it.

Well, that’s my tale of my brushes with fame. I could have paired this story with any one of many recipes but I thought since I’ve never used it on this blog and it is so good that it won me 10 grand from Southern Living and took me to Martha's show, I’d use my recipe for my Baby Sweet Potato Cakes. Of all of my recipes, this is the one I am most proud of. Give it a try and I’m sure you’ll see why I have gotten more miles out of it than an expensive set of Michelins.

Baby Sweet Potato Cakes with Sticky Caramel Sauce and Pecans

1/2 cup (113g) butter, softened
1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup (195g) sweet potato puree (1 medium sweet potato, cooked and mashed)
1/3 cup (83ml) buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 – 1/4 cups (138g) plain flour (all-purpose)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 cup (113g) butter
3/4 cup (150g) lightly packed light brown sugar
1 cup (250g) single cream (whipping cream)
1 teaspoon instant coffee
2 ounces (60g) chopped pecans, toasted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (180 C).

In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add sweet potato, buttermilk and vanilla, mix well and set aside.

In a medium size bowl, blend together the flour, baking soda, salt, ginger and cinnamon. Add the dry ingredients 1/3 at a time, blending well after each addition until it is all combined with the wet ingredients.

Spray a 12 count muffin pan with non-stick cooking spray before dividing the batter evenly among the sections. Bake in the preheated oven for approximately 20 minutes or until the muffins spring back when pressed in the middle. Cool for 2 minutes before turning out onto a cooling rack.

While the cakes are baking, prepare the sauce by melting the butter in the bottom of a medium size frying pan over medium heat. Add the brown sugar and stir until the mixture is bubbly. Add the cream and coffee granules and stir until it is once again bubbly and the coffee granules melt (I promise they will).

Serve warm cakes with warm sauce and pecans sprinkled over with a scoop of ice cream or pouring cream. Serves 12.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My Top Five . . . or Six Cookbooks of all Time

I’ve got more cookbooks than should be allowed by law. Many years ago my cookbook addiction began when I bought my first one which was an updated version of my mother’s favorite "go to" book the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. I venture to say that I am not alone. This red and white checked book could very well be sitting on your kitchen shelf right now and why not, its user friendly recipes housed in its three ring binder with easy to use tabbed subject dividers make finding a sought after recipe a breeze to locate.

Before I became experienced enough to make things like pie crust or biscuits by memory, this was the book I turned to. I’m sure the day will probably come when my memory fails me and I have to reference this book for these recipes once again. It is comforting to know that this old friend will be on the shelf patiently waiting for me when that time comes. Oh the circle of life.

Several years after my Better Homes and Gardens acquisition, my sister gave me a copy of her church’s homespun cookbook for Christmas. You know the kind, the plastic GBC bound book with a photo of the church on the front brimming with the favorite recipes of the women of the congregation. I have to brag a bit about these women because these are not just any church ladies, these are south central Texas Lutheran church ladies.

 For those of you who aren’t familiar with this area, it is a melting pot of Czech and German cuisines with a little Mexican thrown in. These cooks were kicking their recipes up a notch before Emeril’s grandmother was born. I am ashamed to say that this book sat idle on my shelf for a year or two before I pulled it down and made the Buttermilk Sheet Cake recipe that my sister coaxed me into. I was hooked. Whenever I want to bribe my husband or the teachers at school by giving them a downhome homemade treat, chances are this is where I go for inspiration. It’s kind of my secret weapon.

My other red covered favorite is a relatively new acquisition, The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. I haven’t made every recipe in this book but the ones that I have made have been close to perfection. The Snickerdoodles, Cinnamon Buns and Spaghetti Carbonara may seem simple and old hat to experienced cooks, but using their recipes and methods, you just might discover something new about these old standbys. I trust these recipes so much that I wouldn’t hesitate making any of them for the first time for guests. Packed with suggestions for easy substitutions, cooking tips and hints, this book is a clear favorite. It is also bound in a three ring binder with tab dividers. Hmm, I think I see a pattern here.

Over the course of the four plus years we lived in the UK, we learned to love Indian food. To this day, one of my favorite restaurants that I have visited anywhere on the planet is Laguna Tandoori in Nottingham, England. The perfection of their Chicken Tikka defies description. Even the simple poppadums and chutney that are given to you upon your arrival are a perfect combination of crispness, sweet, salty and tart. Sometimes some restaurants just do everything right. I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you a description of the full menu.

 Since we left Nottingham and only get to visit this restaurant once a year or so I started looking for a really good cookbook to make my own Indian deliciousness at home in the US. I managed to pick up a book or two here and there with marginal results. On a trip back to the UK several years ago I bought a copy of Madhur Jaffrey’s Foolproof Indian Cookery. This book has helped me cook many an authentic tasting Indian supper. If I want to cook something special for my family, this is the book I crack. Madhur’s Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Tikka Masala and Chicken Korma recipes are the closest thing to Laguna Tandoori on this side of the Atlantic. Thanks Madhur!

The final place on my shortlist was a tough choice between two really great books. I really love anything that Southern Living puts out especially The Southern Living Cookbook circa 1987. Three of my all time faves are in it which earns it a place close to my heart. It may be because I have a recipe in one of their later books and a couple on their website, but even at that I think I must stray and choose Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course.

I guess I would describe Delia as England’s answer to Martha Stewart but nicer and without the crafts. In my opinion her recipes are far superior to that of the better known (in the States that is) Nigella Lawson, but I guess she just doesn’t feel like she needs to come and conquer America. Too bad I think she’d be a real hit. I bought her book back in 1995 when we first moved to the UK out of desperation. Nothing and I mean NOTHING I cooked seemed to come out right so I waved the white flag and converted to the cooking of my new homeland, and it’s a good thing I did.

Under Delia’s direction I discovered the true beauty of traditional English cooking, and if you wince when I say that you don’t know true English cooking. Sure, there are some really gross recipes we’ve all heard about, but don’t laugh lest you forget we Americans invented Spam. We all have dark moments in our past. Delia’s Meatballs in Goulash Sauce, Chocolate Bread and Butter Pudding and Little Sticky Toffee Puddings never fail to earn me no less than raves when I serve them. I miss you Delia, but I’ll survive because I brought your recipes back with me.

Well there they are, my five, well six, top favorite cookbooks. I know some of you must be dismayed because there is no Dori Greenspan, Martha Stewart, Ina Garten or Rick Bayless books on my list. I do own some of their books and on occasion pull them down and make something from them, but these books are the ones that have earned my undying devotion and a special place in the cookbook nook by my stove. Because of their simple and unassuming recipes that I find easy and inviting, these books are like a well-worn pair of jeans or some old comfortable slippers, they just feel right.

Choosing a recipe to accompany this post was a snap. I have chosen a family favorite, and at risk of contradicting myself, I must admit that it is a little bit fussy to make but oh so worth it. I have chosen my own version of Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe for Chicken Tikka Masala with a little help from the folks at America’s Test Kitchen. This recipe is easy enough on its own but it must be started with Madhur’s recipe for the long marinated Tandoori Chicken. This recipe was originally developed by an unknown to me chef in the UK as a way to use up leftover chicken so they already had it on hand and got to skip the first step. If you’ve got special guests coming for dinner on a Saturday, start this on Friday night or Saturday morning and you’ll have a fabulous supper later that evening.

Tandoori-style Chicken

2 pounds (1 kg) skinless and boneless chicken breasts or 2-1/2 pounds (1.25 kg) bone in chicken pieces, skinned
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 large onion, cut up
1 large garlic clove, crushed
1 inch (2.5cm) piece of fresh gingerroot, grated
1 – 2 hot green chillies, roughly sliced
2 cups (500ml) plain yoghurt
2 teaspoons garam masala
Lime or lemon wedges to serve

If using chicken breasts, cut into 2” square cubes. If using chicken pieces cut breasts into 4 pieces and make 2 deep slits crossways on the meaty parts of the pieces. Lay the chicken in a single layer on a clean surface. Sprinkle evenly with the salt and place in a gallon size zipper seal bag. Pour lemon juice over the pieces, seal the bag and knead to cover; refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.

In a food processor or blender, grind the onion, garlic clove, gingerroot and chillies until they are finely chopped. Scrape the contents of the food processor into a large bowl and add the yoghurt and garam masala and mix well. At this point Madhur's recipe calls to strain this mixture through a sieve, but I like to grind my ingredients really well and skip the straining. If you are going on to make the Tikka Masala recipe, reserve 1/2 cup of this mixture at this time for use later on.

Pour the yoghurt mixture into the bag containing the chicken and knead well once again to cover all the pieces before resealing and returning to the refrigerator to marinate for 8 – 24 hours but no longer as the meat can begin to breakdown too much after that point and get mushy.

After marinating time prepare the chicken for cooking which can be done on the barbeque or in a very hot oven. If cooking in the oven, preheat the oven to its hottest temperature and set a shelf in the top third of the oven. Remove the chicken pieces from the marinade and spread them out in a single layer on a large, shallow baking tray. Watching carefully, bake for 20 – 25 minutes (for bone in pieces) or 10 – 15 minutes (for boneless breast cubes) or until cooked through.

If you are cooking on a barbeque grill (my personal favorite method), heat the barbeque to high. If using breast cubes, skewer them onto wooden or metal skewers being careful not to crowd them so they cook evenly. Watching carefully, cook for approximately 20 minutes, turning after about 10 minutes. Since grills heat differently and are affected by outside conditions, adjust your cooking time accordingly, cooking until the chicken is cooked through and juices run clear.

Serve as is with lime or lemon wedges or continue on with the Tikka Masala recipe.

Serves 4

*One important thing I have learned about Indian cooking is how important it is to have all of your ingredients measured out and ready to go before you start cooking. Because of the high heat and abbreviated cooking times you can quickly burn your ingredients if you are trying to measure or chop as you cook.

Chicken Tikka Masala

5 tablespoons oil
5 green cardamom pods
2 inch (5 cm) piece cinnamon stick
2 onions, finely chopped
2 teaspoons finely grated gingerroot
2 teaspoons garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more if you like it hot)
1 tablespoon paprika
1/2 cup of the reserved Tandoori Chicken marinade
1 large tomato, chopped with all of its seeds and juices saved
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 cup (250ml) water
1 teaspoon fenugreek (an optional addition of mine)
1 teaspoon granulated sugar (an optional addition of mine as well)
Salt and pepper to taste

Pour the oil in a large non-stick frying pan set over medium high heat. When the oil is very hot and glossy, drop in the cardamom pods and cinnamon stick; stir around for a few seconds before adding the onions. Cook until they are softened and slightly browned. Add the ginger and garlic and cook for approximately 1 minute. Add the cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne and paprika and stir for a minute longer. Add the reserved yoghurt mixture from the marinade a 1/4 at a time, stirring in well after each addition.

Add the tomato, tomato paste, garam masala, fenugreek and sugar, stir in well and cook for 1minute. Stir in the water and bring to a simmer; cover and reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for 10 – 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Add the cooked chicken and any cooking juices if you cooked your chicken in the oven. Increase the heat to medium and cook until the chicken is heated through and the sauce thickens enough to cling to the chicken.

Serve with rice and chopped fresh cilantro.

Serves 4 - 5

Monday, January 3, 2011

Keeping Up With the Joneses

We live in a great time for home cooks, for we live in the time of blogs. I really don’t know how trends in home cooking were tracked before the legions of us stepped up, signed on and picked up our cameras in an effort to show the world what’s on our dinner tables. I know that I don’t just speak for myself when I admit that most everything on this blog has been consumed by my family shortly after being photographed.

In the wintertime, bloggers’ dinners have to be served early (like retirement home early or nuked later on) so we can capture our food bathed in the warmth of natural sunlight. At any given time during the winter my fridge is stocked with carefully plated food that has missed optimal daylight plastered with Post-it Notes exclaiming “DO NOT EAT” threatening my family with swift and certain death should it be missing for the next morning’s photo shoot.

On the other end of the spectrum, summertime is heaven for food bloggers because we can cook, snap and eat at our leisure all after having a second Margarita on the porch with our neighbors. Then there are those blogs that are born in reverse. There’s been a time or two that after cooking out of sheer enjoyment, I have had an epiphany and snatched my children’s half eaten plate of food from them, fluffed it up and photographed it before returning it to them so I can have “one in the can” just in case I go through a prolonged blogger’s block. 

I have especially enjoyed reading my favorite sites during this holiday season. Some of these people can really cook! Long gone are the days when you can get by with cocktail wieners, cheddar cheese balls and French onion dip at holiday get togethers. Now days a host really has to step up their game to keep up with the Joneses and impress their guests.

All your guests need to do is sign on to any one of the millions of blogs in cyberspace to find out that others are enjoying delicate aged Gouda Palmiers, baby red potatoes topped with sour cream and caviar, and poached oysters in champagne sabayon, to know that they have drawn the short straw of New Year’s Eve parties if you serve anything less. Even though I love having all these delicious recipes so available it really is a double edged sword. I kind of liked it when my guests were impressed with a seven layer dip and a bowl full of tortilla chips. Wow, those were the days.

7 Layer Dip shot without daylight (sorry, we couldn't wait till morning)

Luckily I didn’t have to worry about impressing anyone this year as we just stayed home. No black tie balls for us. I don’t dance and my husband doesn’t drink so you can probably tell that we are just the life of the party. We stayed home and played Scrabble and had seven layer dip. No kidding. Just so you don’t feel too sorry for my husband and embarrassed for me, I did stir up some Dungeness crab bisque for our main course. Whole Foods had a crab sale a couple of days earlier and I gladly obliged them by buying one. Before the fishmonger cleaned my beautiful Dungeness it weighed a little over 2 pounds. I’m kicking myself because I didn’t weigh my pile of lump crab meat after I cleaned it further when I got it home. I’m guestimating that I landed up with a good cup which meant that my meaty bisque would have impressed even the most well-read of party guests.

Before . . . and after

Crab Bisque

1 – 1.5 pound (500 - 750g) Dungeness crab claws or any other fresh crab
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove crushed
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups (500ml) chicken or vegetable broth
1/3 cup (125ml) champagne or white wine
1/4 cup (60ml) sherry
1 cup (250ml) heavy cream
1 medium size bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and black pepper to taste

Clean crab claws (mine produced about a cup of lump crab meat); set aside.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When the butter is sizzling, add the chopped onion and sauté until they begin to turn slightly transparent. Add the garlic clove and sauté for 1 minute longer. Sprinkle the flour over the butter and onion mixture and whisk in to form a roux. Slowly whisk in the broth, wine, sherry and then the cream; bring to a simmer and reduce heat to low. Add the bay leaf, Old Bay and cayenne.

Rinse any grit from a few of the larger shells and add to the pot, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the shells, shaking off any broth or crab meat. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve in warm bowls.

Serves 4 lucky people