Tuesday, March 31, 2009

RISOTTO QUEEN

Who said Lemons?

I have always found Risotto to be the most sensuous of foods; smooth, creamy and luxurious. It can be flavored for any taste: cheese, seafood, vegetable even sweet vanilla or chocolate. Stirring it and watching it as it changes from individual grains of rice to one thick, fragrant pudding-like dish is watching magic happen before one’s very eyes.

Beautiful Arborio rice for Risotto like little pearls

A truly quintessentially Italian dish, risotto was traditionally a poor man`s food, a first course, “il primo”, filling up tummies before the more expensive and thus scarcer meat course. Yet now it is served up as such a luxurious, rich, romantic meal in itself, gorgeous snow-white rice all dressed up with deep red Speck or chunks of lobster or shavings of truffle served with a bottle of excellent wine. Or a simple, rustic family dinner studded with inexpensive seasonal vegetables or dusted in freshly grated Parmesan.

I mastered Risotto after several years living in Italy, learning from the best of the best; technique and recipes from Anna Del Conte`s fabulous cookbook I Risotti, the love, care and special Italian touch that goes into and transforms a list of ingredients into the perfect Risotto from our neighbor in Italy, Nonna Anna.

And how often do I make Risotto, whether Saffron or Parmesan, mushroom in winter or Risi e Bisi (Rice and Kisses) with fresh, delicate, sweet summer peas? So often and so beautifully that I have been dubbed (or crowned?) the Risotto Queen.


Zorra of Kochtopf has proposed a Lemon Day, a gathering of all of our favorite lemon recipes. And what timing! Little does she know, but Lemon Risotto is our family favorite. Beautiful in the winter, smooth and warming reminding us of sunnier days, perfect in summer, that tangy lemon flavor tickling the tastebuds, oh so clean and bright, accompanied simply by a cool, crisp salad dressed in a tart vinaigrette.


Zorra, here is a fabulous Lemon Recipe for you!

RISOTTO AL LIMONE
From Anna Del Conte’s Italian Kitchen I RISOTTI

Serves 4 – 6 as a first course or side dish or 4 as a main dish served with a mixed green salad tossed with a Balsamic vinegar and olive oil vinaigrette.

2 pints (1.25 litres) light chicken or vegetable stock, homemade if possible, or if not…. I use 2 broth cubes
2 oz/4 Tbs (60 g) unsalted butter
1 Tbs olive oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 branch celery, finely chopped
10 oz (300 g) rice for risotto (arborio or carnaroli)
½ unwaxed, untreated lemon
5 or 6 fresh sage leaves or 1 tsp dried sage
Leaves from a small sprig of fresh rosemary or 1 tsp dried rosemary
1 egg yolk
4 Tbs freshly grated Parmesan
4 Tbs heavy or light cream
Freshly ground black pepper


Bring the stock to a boil and remove from heat. Some recipes say to leave it on a low simmer during the preparation of the risotto, but I never do.

This is a true Italian terra cotta Risotto dish with lid and accompanying paddle for stirring

Heat half of the butter and the olive oil in a large skillet, pot or terra cotta risotto dish. Add the chopped shallots and celery – what the Italians call the soffritto - and gently cook for a few minutes until translucent and soft.


Add the rice and stir to coat all of the rice well with the butter/oil. Cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes until the rice is translucent.


Pour a ladleful of the hot broth or stock over the rice, stir and allow to gently boil until the liquid is almost completely absorbed by the rice.


Continue to add the broth, ladleful by ladleful, or two at the most, over the course of the cooking period, stirring constantly, allowing each addition of broth to be almost completely absorbed by the rice before adding more liquid.

Meanwhile, grate the zest from the half a lemon and mix it into the finely chopped fresh sage and rosemary or with the dried herbs. Mix this into the rice halfway (about 10 – 12 minutes into the cooking.


Continue until the rice is meltingly tender to the bite and the risotto is thick and creamy. This should take more or less 20 minutes. Do not worry if you do not need all of the broth. Or if you do not have enough broth then add water at the end.


Squeeze the juice from the half lemon. In a small bowl, combine and whisk together the egg yolk, the grated Parmesan, the cream, the lemon juice and a generous grinding of black pepper.


When the risotto is cooked and the rice is very tender, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the egg, cream and Parmesan mixture along with the remaining butter. Cover the pan and allow to rest off the heat for 2 minutes before giving the risotto an energetic stir until well combined. Serve at once.


I usually serve this Risotto al Limone simply with a large, tossed salad dressed with a clean, tangy vinaigrette made with Balsamic vinegar and a good quality extra-virgin Italian olive oil. Add a loaf of fresh bread and maybe a plate of Italian cheeses or cold cuts and it is the perfect meal. Especially wonderful in the summer for some reason, maybe the tanginess and beautiful lemon flavor.


Monday, March 30, 2009

SEA BREAM WITH LEMON (DORADE AU CITRON)

CONFESSIONS: SEXY IS A MAN IN AN APRON

Call us the Cooking Avengers : she's groovy and mod, he may seem staid and serious, but what a cook! Together they are out to blast away the boring and usual and bring excitement and adventure into the kitchen

Or HOW OUR HERO BECAME A GREAT COOK


It all started in a northern suburb of Paris in the 1960s, a working class family living over the small corner grocery that they owned and ran. Papa worked 7 days a week from early morning until early evening, climbing the stairs only for meals or at the end of his working day. Maman divided her time between the shop where she helped the clients, hand-made cheese, stocked the shelves and weighed vegetables, and the apartment above, overseeing meal preparation, making sure homework was done and the baby taken care of.

My father-in-law in front of the family's shop and apartment, circa early 1960's

2, 3 and then 4 children sat around the long kitchen table doing homework. JP was the only son, about 10 years old, when it all began. His mother would start lunch, pot au feu or chicken and rice, peel, chop, add and stir, then fix the lid atop the pot and say “okay, as soon as it comes to a boil, come down to the shop and let me know.” Or “at 12:30 on the nose, turn off the heat and lunch will be ready.”

A year or two later, things had moved forward; everything started, she would get ready to head down to the shop and her clients and she would instruct the children, “When it comes to a boil, add the vegetables” or “when it comes up to a boil, turn down the heat and let it simmer for 30 minutes. Then make the rice.” Little by little, the responsibility grew, the duties expanded. Preparing, chopping, stirring, adding…. But Maman still did the heavy work.

But as the old French saying goes : “Petit à petit, le petit oiseau fait son nid!” (Little by little, the little bird builds his nest!) By the time JP was about 13 or 14, the chicken or the veal would be on the table, the pot on the stove, the rest of the ingredients found down in the shop. Maman would now say “Today you make “Poule au Pot” or “Blanquette de veau”, intimating “you have seen me make this hundreds of times over the past few years, you know how by now.” So as the story goes, our hero was able to prepare anything his mom had been making, all of those French home staples, hearty one-pot meals, soups, stews, dressings.

But here-in lies the problem for a lover of good food like JP : his mom had a somewhat limited repertoire, only preparing the several dishes that her husband liked. Everything else he refused. The traditional Christmas turkey replaced with a capon? Sunday chicken replaced with guinea fowl? This was a man of habit, the man who expected the same menu every holiday, the same meal in front of him every Sunday noon, whether chicken, rabbit or beef, it had to be prepared in the usual way.

By 16, JP was ready to explore. Tired of the same old, same old, he pulled his mother’s Françoise Bernard Les Recettes Faciles out of the cupboard and set out on a personal challenge : as he (more or less) was now in charge of a certain numbers of meals, he decided to work his way through the cookbook, trying something new every week. All he asked for was enough money to run to the butcher’s shop across the square for whatever meat was involved, and the rest he grabbed from the shelves of the shop downstairs.

And the rest, as we say, is history. Our hero has done very well, having taught himself over this years’-long, self-imposed cooking challenge to make everything French from Rabbit Terrine to Beignets au pommes, from Daube to Crêpes, Ham-wrapped Endives baked in Bechamel to Potée to handmade mayonnaise.

Later, his repertoire grew. Two years living and working in Morocco, hanging about kitchens with the women, watching and learning, our years in Italy together as well as the cooking cultures I brought with me to the marriage and all we have discovered together.

Always fun in the kitchen

He loves cooking, loves eating, loves exploring and discovering cuisines. But he is also a man adamant in his belief of cooking with and eating only the freshest, only the seasonal and only the local, when possible. He leaves the pastry to me, but he still and always will find the greatest pleasure in putting together a fabulous meal!

DORADE AU CITRON (Sea Bream with Lemon)
Made as a surprise Saturday morning as I was at the supermarket with Simon

1 whole sea bream, about 2 lbs (1 kg); ask your fishmonger to clean it if you prefer
2 to 3 shallots
2 or 3 cloves of garlic
Parsley or fresh coriander (cilantro), 1 bunch
1 lemon
Butter or margarine, about 2 Tbs (30 g)
Thyme, fresh or dried
Salt and freshly ground black pepper


Slice that lemon

Preheat oven to 420°F (210°C).
(Thanks Steve!!)

Generously butter a baking dish large enough to hold the whole fish.

Sea Bream

Scale, empty and clean the sea bream if not already done by your fishmonger. Rinse and dry it off.

Peel and chop the shallots and garlic, chop a large handful of the parsley or coriander. Mix together and then salt and pepper the mixture.


Stuff this filling into the open cavity of the fish, pressing it in so it is well filled with all of the filling.


Use toothpicks pushed through the skin to close the fish back up.


With a very sharp knife, make 4 or 5 incisions in the side of the fish which will be turned up in the baking dish.


Press a half-slice of lemon into each incision.


Salt and pepper the outside of the bream and dust generously with the dried or fresh, chopped thyme. Dot with butter.


Place the fish in the buttered baking dish and bake for 30 to 40 minutes – check after 30 minutes to see if the fish is cooked all the way through by pushing apart and looking deep into one of the incisions. Do not overcook.

Serve hot out of the oven with rice or fresh tagliatelle, followed by a cool, green salad. Perfect!

Spoon a little of the juices from the baking over the fish

Saturday, March 28, 2009

APPLE SPICE CAKE

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO HIM!

What, pray tell, would he do without me? We have saved each other from the risk of boring...

My men are a motley crew; Simon has no sweet tooth and sticks to the basics, the bare minimum : simple streusel-topped coffee cake, the simplest, moist but least dense chocolate cake, chocolate chip cookies. Clem goes wild for the creamiest, densest, gooiest concoctions : his own fabulous Tiramisu, creams and puddings, the richest, most chocolaty cakes with rich, dark, gooey frostings, everything slathered in whipped cream. JP is a fruit man : he loves most everything I bake, and he does have a weakness for perfect Panna Cotta, but if given the choice, he always chooses something baked with seasonal fruit, whether cake, tart, crumble or turnover.

Approaching his birthday, he once again begged me, beseeched me, implored me to cool it on the treats, the snacks, the cakes and breads. Too much is too much. He points to the goodies wrapped in foil piling up on countertops and to his expanding waistline (or so he feels).

But what, pray tell, is a birthday without a cake? If it were up to him, his birthday would just slide by unnoticed, no cake, no presents, no reminders. He does remember mine and always does something wonderful, dinner out, beautiful, thoughtful gifts. But this man truly needs saving from his own anti-holiday, anti-celebration sentiments.

Lucky he has me. I love birthdays, love buying gifts, love baking each one’s favorites, love surprises. Without me, who would bring the goofiness into the house, who would bring the party to the birthday, who would give everything that personal touch, the love and the fun? This man truly needs me to shake it all up!

So what to do for his birthday? He was out of town all day, so no surprise interruptions with him popping in for lunch in the middle of the baking. And no chocolate cake for him, no layers filled with cream, but something just for him.


Happy Birthday, JP!


APPLE SPICE CAKE for his birthday
Adapted from my brand-spanking new Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook

3 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground allspice (quatres épices)
1 cup sugar
1 cup packed brown sugar (I used light)
2 eggs
1 cup vegetable or other cooking oil
½ cup smooth applesauce, natural or sugar-free if possible
1 Tbs vanilla
3 cups peeled, cored, chopped apples (3 – 5 apples, depending on size) : I used Golden
1 cup chopped pecans, toasted (optional)


Allow the eggs to stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes, the time to prepare the apples and measure out the other ingredients.

This is the size I chopped my apples

Oops! Time to buy a new apple corer, I guess!


Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease (oil) and lightly flour a 10-inch tube pan.

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and allspice. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine eggs, granulated sugar, packed brown sugar, oil, applesauce and vanilla. Beat with an electric mixer on medium speed for 2 minutes.


Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and beat on low speed just until combined, scraping down the sides as you go. The batter will be thick.


Fold in the chopped apples and the chopped pecans (if using) until evenly distributed.

Sadly, we are a nut-free family as you know by now, so only apples get folded in

Spoon batter into the prepared pan and spread so it is even and smooth.


Bake for about 1 hour or until set; a tester inserted near the center comes out clean.


Cool cake in pan on wire cooling rack for 10 minutes, then lift out the cake on the center tube. Turn out onto the cooling rack.


Just before serving, dust with powdered sugar. Store, covered, in the refrigerator.


Result : This is one fabulous cake! Feathery light, yet so moist and amazingly flavorful. Each beautiful mouthful is filled with cinnamon and apple, accentuated by the chunks of fresh apple that melt in the mouth. I have never fallen so in love with a non-chocolate cake before this. Highly recommended.


I also do not miss the crunch of pecans in this one; the texture is too smooth and light to be weighed down by walnuts. Just the delicate chunks of apples is enough.

His only complaint? Not enough apples!

Serve with freshly whipped cream or ice cream to really complete this luscious cake.

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