Homemade Vanilla Extract, Moo Labels

vanilla bottles

I know it’s hard to think about the holiday gift-giving season when it’s 1000 degrees outside, but if you’re the type that likes to be prepared, I suppose it’s never too early. Here’s a fun little project to undertake the next time you find yourself trapped indoors this summer: homemade vanilla extract.

To start, you’ll need some vanilla beans. IndriVanilla, supplier of Fair Trade bourbon vanilla beans at beyond reasonable prices, is a great source. Since discovering them back in January, I have reintroduced vanilla beans to my pantry and have never been happier.

Next, a little alcohol. I made two batches with what I had on hand — vodka and rum — but the type of alcohol can vary from Frangelico to butterscotch schnapps to spiced rum to amaretto, all of with which Whitney Olsen, owner of IndriVanilla, has experimented. With 50+ variations of extract now bottled, Whitney has learned a few things, namely that the longer the beans steep and the more that are used, the stronger the vanilla extract will taste. And, moreover, because sugars in lower-proof alcohols can inhibit steeping, the higher the proof of the alcohol — 80 or above is ideal — the better the extract will taste.

And that’s really it. With vanilla beans and alcohol on hand, you are all set to start making homemade extract. The process couldn’t be more simple: heat alcohol just to its boiling point; pour it over split vanilla beans; let the extract steep for at least six weeks.

If you feel like turning your homemade vanilla into gifts, here’s what you’ll need:

Bottles. I, for once, was practical (thanks to guidance by Whitney) and didn’t order cute cork-topped bottles, which leak and apparently can impart unpleasant odors. I ordered 4-oz. amber glass bottles on Uline. Each bottle holds about 7 tablespoons (just under 1/2 cup) of liquid. At $1.05 a piece, my 24 bottles cost $25.20 and shipping brought the total to $36.81, making the ultimate cost per bottle $1.53.

Labels. There are lots of great resources for printing labels at home, but I love Moo.com, so I ordered my labels there. If you like the look of these, I’ve enclosed links to the files below, which you can download and order from Moo, too. There are three color options, and depending on when you get around to making the vanilla, you can choose a label with the appropriate 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-, 5- or 6-month-aged stamp.

Got it? Get crackin’. At the very least, order some beans and pick up some alcohol. The bottling and labeling can wait for a day this winter when you might find yourself trapped indoors again with any luck snow falling outside your windows.

filling the vanilla

vanilla bottles

vanilla beans

vanilla caviar

vanilla caviar

vanilla beans

vodka & rum

beans in jar

ball jars

bottles overhead

homemade vanilla, bottled


Homemade Vanilla Extract

Recipe adapted from Cooks Illustrated; much guidance sought from owner of IndriVanilla, Whitney Olsen, who happens to be the nicest person on the planet and is always willing to offer advice with anything vanilla related. Check out her FB page for recipes and ideas.

Whitney’s notes:
• For the Indonesian vanilla beans (the variety IndriVanilla supplies), Whitney believes that rum complements the flavor of the vanilla best.
• For strong extract ready to use in 6-8 weeks, you’ll want to use a minimum of 3 luxury vanilla beans or 4 ultra-premium vanilla beans or 5 gourmet vanilla beans per 8 oz. of alcohol.
• Steep for a minimum of 6 weeks, but the longer the better.
• Cheesecloth or coffee filters work well for straining if you wish to do so.

Cooks Illustrated proportions:
1 vanilla bean
3/4 cup alcohol of choice (Cooks Illustrated used Smirnoff vodka; Whitney recommends something with a proof of at least 80)

1. Split a fresh bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Place the seeds and split pod in a sealable container such as a mason jar. Meanwhile, heat the alcohol just to a boil, then pour over seeds and pod. Let the mixture cool to room temperature. Seal the container and store at room temperature for at least 6 weeks. Strain the extract, if desired (I didn’t), and store in a cool, dark place. The extract should keep indefinitely.

Labels for Download:
Order a pack of 50 on Moo for $16.99

Red Label, Aged 1 month
Red Label, Aged 2 months
Red Label, Aged 3 months
Red Label, Aged 4 months
Red Label, Aged 5 months
Red Label, Aged 6 months

Green Label, Aged 1 month
Green Label, Aged 2 months
Green Label, Aged 3 months
Green Label, Aged 4 months
Green Label, Aged 5 months
Green Label, Aged 6 months

Blue Label, Aged 1 month
Blue Label, Aged 2 months
Blue Label, Aged 3 months
Blue Label, Aged 4 months
Blue Label, Aged 5 months
Blue Label, Aged 6 months

Box of Moo labels:
box of Moo labels

moo labels

homemade for you

Maryland Crab Cakes

just-broiled crab cakes

My only goal for my week in Virginia Beach was to eat a good crabcake. Thanks to Dockside, I did. Broiled, lightly seasoned, meaty, the Dockside crabcake embodies everything I hope for in a crabcake.

Finding myself dreaming about this delicacy upon returning home, I called Dockside to find out the details, which they so graciously offered: crabmeat, mayonnaise, panko bread crumbs and Old Bay seasoning. They keep it pretty simple, which came as no surprise. Had they told me they used nothing but crabmeat, I wouldn’t have questioned them.

Recreating the Dockside crab cake was surprisingly easy. Because the cakes are broiled — as opposed to pan fried, which (and sorry for stating the obvious) involves flipping — the cakes can (and should) be delicately and loosely formed. In fact, if your cakes are almost falling apart as you’re placing them on your broiling pan, it’s probably a good sign. A nearly falling-apart crab cake will ensure that the mayonnaise and panko (or pulverized Saltines or bread crumbs or whatever you are using) are doing their job as binders but nothing more.

These cakes broiled for five minutes and disappeared in two. They were delicious.

Final note, crabmeat is expensive. Like, pit-in-your-stomach expensive. Like, oh-shit expensive. Like, how-can-I-rationalize-this-purchase expensive. But, it’s worth it. A good crab cake starts with good crab. The rest is simple.

crab meat

unbaked crab cakes

ready for the broiler

just-broiled crab cakes

Maryland Crab Cakes
Yield = 8 cakes, serves 2 to 3

Note: This crab cake recipe is inspired by the crab cakes served at Dockside in Virginia Beach. Dockside uses Old Bay seasoning in their crab cakes, but I could barely taste it and because I’m not a huge fan of it anyway, I just omitted it. If you like Old Bay, go for it, but don’t over do it — the crabmeat is so tasty on its own. Also, I used tarragon mayonnaise (because I had it on hand), which I feared might be overpowering, but which definitely was not. The tarragon adds a lovely flavor. If you don’t feel like making the tarragon mayonnaise, however, some freshly chopped tarragon or other herb — parsley or chives, perhaps — would be a nice addition to the crab cake mix.

1 lb. jumbo lump or backfin crabmeat
kosher salt
1/4 cup mayonnaise, preferably homemade with tarragon
6 tablespoons (1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) panko bread crumbs
squeeze of lemon (less than half of a lemon, so maybe a teaspoon)
a couple of tablespoons of freshly chopped tarragon, parsley or chives (see note above), optional

melted butter, for brushing

lemon wedges, for serving
tartar sauce (recipe below), for serving, optional

1. Place crabmeat in a large mixing bowl. Being careful not to break up the lumps too much, spread out the crabmeat into a single layer in the bowl. Season lightly with salt. Add the mayonnaise, panko, lemon juice and herb (if using). Gently fold all of the ingredients together using your hands or a spatula. The mixture should barely hold together when formed into a cake.

2. Preheat the broiler. (Rack should be about 4 inches from the heat source.) Lightly grease a sheet pan with butter. (Note: Before doing this, take a look at your broiler and make a visual note about where the burning elements will line up with your pan. For instance, I have two coils in my broiler, so when I greased my sheet pan with butter, I greased only the parts where I was planning on placing the crab cakes, which would eventually line up with the two heating elements in the broiler. Hope that makes sense.) Portion your crab mixture into 8 cakes. I used my 1/4 cup measuring cup as a portioner and used my hands to gently form the cakes. Place cakes on sheet pan and chill in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes.

3. Brush each cake with melter butter. Broil five minutes. Serve with lemon wedges and tartar sauce on the side if desired.

Tartar Sauce

I didn’t measure — sorry! — but you kind of can’t mess this up. Also, this can be made days in advance. It tastes better with each passing day.

1/4 cup mayonnaise, preferably homemade with tarragon
8 cornichons, minced
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 small shallot, minced
pinch kosher salt

1. Place all ingredients in a bowl. Stir. Taste. Adjust accordingly.

tartar sauce

just-broiled crab cakes

Homemade Tarragon Mayonnaise + A Squeeze of Lemon = Unbelievable Lobster Rolls

lobster roll

With lobster rolls on my brain for weeks, it was high time to brush up on my homemade mayonnaise making. I took my mother’s advice and made Mark Bittman’s food processor mayonnaise, which, as my mother promised, was both delicious and foolproof thanks to a teeny hole in the food-pusher insert (see photo below). From start to finish (including cleanup), the whole process took five minutes, the mayonnaise itself coming together in less than one minute once the blades started spinning.

In preparation for the lobster rolls, I threw in some tarragon at the end, an ingredient I’ve always associated with a good lobster roll — a good lobster roll made at home I should say. It has been too many years to say for sure, but I don’t recall any tarragon present in the $3 lobster rolls my mother and I inhaled three times a day for a week straight at the various roadside stands dotting the Maine coastline during one summer road trip. Those were the best lobster rolls I’ve ever tasted, ones I’ve never even tried to replicate at home.

At home I make lobster rolls just as my mother does with nothing more than homemade mayonnaise, fresh tarragon and a squeeze of lemon. They are so simple — with the exception of the whole killing/boiling/cracking of the lobsters process — and so delicious. It never feels like summer till I’ve had my first lobster roll, at a roadside stand or not, and these, despite arriving just days before the Fourth, were no exception. Happy Fourth Everyone!

A few notes on buying/killing lobsters: The consensus seems to be that it is more humane to kill a lobster by thrusting a sharp knife through the lobster’s shell behind its eyes than by dropping the live lobster into boiling water. A little internet research led me to a youTube video featuring Eric Ripert, whose comments and demonstration finally gave me the courage to kill the lobsters before boiling them. If you have any inclination to do this, watch Ripert’s video, and then go for it. As Ripert says:

“It’s not a pleasant experience, but when you eat lobster and when you eat any kind of animal, that animal has been alive and it’s very important to be aware that we are taking that life away and that we are going to eat it, and if we do a good job, we are actually paying homage to the lives that we sacrifice.”

I’ll be honest, it wasn’t a pleasant experience, and I had the jitters before, during and after the process (they seemed to linger all afternoon in fact), but it was worth it.

Finally, Seafood Watch’s Ocean Friendly Seafood App lists wild-caught lobster from California or Florida as the “Best Choice” and trap-caught lobster from the Northeastern U.S. and Canada as a “Good Alternative.” Wild-caught lobster from Brazil is on the SW’s “Avoid” list.

lobsters

lobster meat

lobster meat

lobster meat mixed with tarragon mayonnaise

See this teeny hole? It’s this hole that allows the oil to enter the food processor in a slow steady stream, allowing the mixture to emulsify perfectly into mayonnaise.

Cuisinart stopper

mayonnaise ingredients

homemade mayonnaise

fresh tarragon

tarragon mayonnaise

You all know how to cut a lemon, right? I mean the pretty way? Not sure? Check this out. It’s not necessary to cut lemons this way but it makes for a nice presentation.
lemon slices

Unbelievably Delicious Lobster Rolls
Serves: 3, but the recipe can be multiplied as necessary

3 lobsters, about 1 lb to 1.25 lbs each
kosher salt
homemade tarragon mayonnaise (recipe below)
fresh squeezed lemon juice, to taste
additional lemon for serving (cut like this for a pretty presentation)

hotdog buns (or homemade brioche hotdog buns)

1. Bring a very large pot of water to a boil. (Since I do not own a lobster pot, I used my two largest stock pots.) Kill lobsters, as described above (if desired), then plunge into boiling water. Boil for 10 to 11 minutes. Remove lobsters from pots, let cool briefly, then start cracking. Remove meat from lobster, chop coarsely and place in a large bowl.

2. Spread the lobster meat out in the bowl into a single layer. Season with kosher salt. Add tarragon mayonnaise to taste. To give you an idea, my three lobsters yielded 13.5 oz of meat, and I used a quarter cup of the homemade tarragon mayonnaise. Add lemon juice — I used about half a lemon — to taste. Gently mix the ingredients with a spatula. Taste. Adjust seasoning as necessary.

3. Toast hotdog buns, if desired. (My buns had been baked that day, so I did not toast them.) Spoon lobster meat into buns. Serve with additional wedges of lemon on the side.

Homemade Mayonnaise
Source: Mark Bittman and The New York Times

1 egg yolk or whole egg (I used a yolk)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon lemon juice or sherry or white wine vinegar (I used white balsamic vinegar)
1 cup neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn, or extra virgin olive oil, or a combination (I used extra-virgin because it was all I had)

fresh tarragon (optional) — I threw in a whole bunch (5 to 6 tablespoons maybe?)

1. Put the yolk or egg, mustard, salt, pepper and lemon juice or vinegar in the container of a food processor and turn the machine on. While it’s running, add the oil in a slow, steady stream. (Your food processor should have a teeny hole in the food pusher insert in the top). When an emulsion forms you can add it a little faster. (Again, the little hole makes this unnecessary.) Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Add the fresh tarragon (if desired) and pulse until chopped.

Homemade brioche hotdog buns:
brioche hotdog buns

Pesto & Pesto Pasta

pesto

You know pesto can be made with anything, right? No basil? No pine nuts? No parmesan? Pesto can still be done. All you really need is a bunch of herbs, a handful of nuts and some sort of hard salty cheese. While nothing perhaps marries quite as well as basil, pine nuts and parmesan, variations made with with other herbs, nuts and cheeses do the job quite nicely.

Earlier this week I pulled two tired bunches of cilantro and parsley from my fridge, and after refreshing them in some cold water (and extracting a few slimy strands), I buzzed them in the food processor with some raw almonds (all I had) and some grated Pecorino (all I had). With the exception of the herb quantity, I followed Darcy’s recipe to a T — it is fantastic. It didn’t need a pinch more salt nor a squeeze more lemon.

All week long I’ve been slathering the pesto on anything I can justify — eggs, roasted red pepper caprese salads, pasta. I’ve never felt more prepared for tomato season. It couldn’t arrive a day too soon.

cilantro pesto ingredients

cuisinart with pesto ingredients

cuisinart with pesto

pesto

dry Gragnano pasta

Pesto
Adapted from The Garden of Eden

Note: Darcy (from the Garden of Eden) made a basil pesto, so if you would like to follow her instructions, find the recipe here.

3 cups herbs* such as basil, cilantro, parlsey, chives, etc., rinsed
1/4 cup nuts such as almonds, walnuts or pine nuts**
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp. freshly-squeezed lemon juice (I juiced half a lemon)
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly-ground pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup grated dry salty cheese such as Pecorino or Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano

* I probably added double the amount of herbs? I didn’t measure. My goal was to clean out the refrigerator. Also, I always add stems and everything — no need to pluck leaves for pesto.

** Darcy used toasted pine nuts.

1. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and purée until nicely blended. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.

Note: Darcy first processed the basil, nuts, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper until almost smooth, then slowly streamed in the olive oil with the food processor on. Finally, she stirred in the parmesan cheese.

Final note from Darcy: To prevent discoloration when storing pesto, it is best to put a thin layer of olive oil over the pesto and then cover it.

Pesto Pasta
Serves 2

1/2 lb pasta, something like gemelli or orecchiette
1/4 to 1/2 cup pesto
1/2 cup pasta cooking water
Parmigiano Reggiano for serving (optional — I did not find additional cheese to be necessary)

1. Cook pasta al dente, reserving 1/2 cup pasta cooking water before draining.

2. Add 2 tablespoons of the pasta cooking liquid back into the pan. Place the pan over medium-high heat. Bring to a little simmer and add 1/4 cup of the pesto. Stir with the water until blended. Add the pasta to the pan and stir/toss until the pasta is nicely coated. At this point, keeping adding pesto to the pasta one tablespoon at a time. You might not need the full 1/2 cup — I did in fact use a 1/2 cup of pesto for the 1/2 pound of pasta, and it was delicious, but perhaps may have been just as delicious with a tablespoon or two less pesto.

3. Serve pasta passing grated Parmigiano Reggiano on the side if desired.

pesto pasta

pesto pasta

A Second Marcella Hazan Tomato Sauce + Hot Italian Sausage + Gragnano Pasta = Utter Deliciousness

Gragnana Vesuvio Pasta with Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce

It’s only February 2nd, and already I’m dreaming about Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce — you know, the one and only most delicious tomato sauce in the world. I won’t belabor my love for that sauce a sentence more, but I’d like to share with you a second Hazan tomato sauce I recently discovered.

You see, while the famed Hazan tomato sauce can indeed be made with canned San Marzano tomatoes — I’ve made it several times, and it’s very good — I find it leaves me wanting. In this other Hazan sauce recipe, from Marcella Cucina, canned tomatoes are brightened by olive oil and sautéed onions, a few cloves of crushed garlic, a little white wine, some chopped fresh parsley, and a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes. After about 20 minutes of simmering, it’s done. And it’s delicious.

While making this sauce, I learned something, too, from a note in the book:

As tomatoes cook down and their watery part evaporates, the fat you have used begins to run clear. When you skim the surface of the sauce with the side of a wooden spoon, or wipe away the sauce with the spoon from the bottom of the skillet, you see clear fat following the spoon’s trail, an indication that the tomato sauce is done.

It’s hard to envision this occurrence — clear fat trailing the path of your wooden spoon — but it happens, and when it does, your sauce is done. Cool, right? That Marcella, she knows her stuff.

I admit, this sauce doesn’t compare to the Hazan tomato sauce — what sauce does? — but it doesn’t leave me wanting. And it just might help these months leading up to tomato season pass a wee more quickly.

ingredients for pasta sauce

This is by far the best pasta I have ever tasted. I have a dear friend in NYC to thank for introducing it to me. It’s dry pasta from the Gragnano region of Italy, and my friend finds it at Eataly, a spot I have yet to explore, but which I hear I might like. The pasta hardly needs a sauce — it tastes delectable on its own with butter and Parmigiano Reggiano — but its shape is ideal for catching all of the goodies in any sauce, especially this one. It’s a real treat. Unfortunately, I cannot find an online source for this pasta. If any of you out there know of one, please let me know. I will be forever grateful! Eataly and Po Valley Foods now sell this pasta online.
dry Gragnano pasta from Eataly

Gragnano pasta from Eataly

Afeltra pasta from Eataly

Parmigiano Reggiano

I found a link to this Saveur video — How to Peel a Head of Garlic in Less than 10 seconds — on Food52. Totally amazing. It really works!
garlic, peeled after watching an incredible video

tomato sauce, just finished stewing

Ella, such a little helper

Browned hot Italian venison sausage… the husband has been hunting again. Venison, by the way, is so delicious. More on that soon.
venison sausage

Pasta with Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce & Hot Italian Sausage
Adapted from Marcella Cucina
Yield = enough for about 1/2 lb. to 3/4 lb. pasta depending on how saucy you like your pasta

For the tomato sauce:
1/3 cup olive oil
2 cups finely chopped white or yellow onion
3 cloves garlic, minced, be sure to watch this video
1/3 cup finely chopped parsley
1/2 cup white wine (I made this with Sherry once, too, and really liked it)
1 28-oz can of peeled whole San Marzano tomatoes,* crushed
crushed chili flakes
kosher salt

* I saw this trick on the Martha Stewart Show: Empty your can of tomatoes into a large bowl. Use scissors to cut the tomatoes into smallish pieces. Normally, I just get my hands in the bowl and squish the tomatoes to break them up, but this is really messy. If you are messy-averse, try the scissor method.

For the pasta dish:

1/2 lb. hot Italian sausage* (or more or less to taste)
1/2 to 3/4 lb. pasta**
freshly chopped parsley***
freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano to taste

* Optional — The sauce is flavorful enough without sausage, but if you’re looking to add a little protein to the dish, sausage is a good fit. I used hot Italian venison sausage, but any hot Italian sausage will be delicious. In Hazan’s book, the sauce is paired with lobster.

** New Yorkers — If you can get a hold of some Gragnana Vesuvio Pasta from Eataly, use it. It’s unbelievably delicious. I imagine it is available in other places as well, but I’m just not sure where — I can’t find an online source for it in the states. Eataly and Po Valley Foods now sell this pasta online. When I run out of my stash of the good stuff, I’ll return to using my favorites from my local supermarket — Barilla or DeCecco gemelli or orecchiette.

*** Optional — this is merely to add some color to the finished dish. The sauce is flavorful enough without the additional parsley

1. Place the olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan with the onions and sauté on medium until pale gold — you’re not trying to brown the onions here; you just want to sweat the onions.

2. Add the garlic and cook just a few seconds until you smell its aroma.

3. Add the parsley, stir once or twice, and then add the wine. Let it simmer for a couple of minutes until the alcohol smell dissipates.

4. Add the tomatoes, the crushed chili flakes and a generous pinch of salt, and cook at a steady simmer, until the fat begins to separate from the sauce (see note below*), about 20 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, brown the sausage in a large skillet until cooked through.

6. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook your pasta al dente. Drain, reserving some of the pasta cooking liquid only if you’ve made the sauce in advance and are reheating it to toss with pasta.

7. Place pasta in a large serving bowl. Toss with enough sauce to coat. Fold in sausage (if using). Sprinkle with some more parsley (optional). Pass cheese on the side.

*Hazan’s note: As tomatoes cook down and their watery part evaporates, the fat you have used begins to run clear. When you skim the surface of the sauce with the side of a wooden spoon, or wipe away the sauce from the spoon from the bottom of the skillet, you see clear fat following the spoon’s trail, an indication that the tomato sauce is done.

**My note: The sauce can be made ahead and heated as needed. It will definitely thicken up as it sits (especially in the fridge), so you might want to reserve some pasta cooking liquid to thin it out when you reheat it. It’s not necessary, but I’ve found this to be helpful.

Gragnana Vesuvio Pasta with Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce

Cheddar Biscuits + Food52’s Holiday Survival Guide iPad App Giveway

leftover ham & arugula sandwich on cheddar biscuit with mustard sauce

My family is arriving in 6 days, and I cannot wait. It has been too long since we have all been together — too long since I’ve heard my mother declare her beautiful dinner both over and undercooked and in any case ruined; too long since I’ve watched my sister excuse herself from dinner early, singing The Messiah as she curls up on the couch, signaling she is too, too tired to clean up; and too long since I have found myself in the kitchen, dish towel in hand, surrounded by the usual dutiful crew. Family, I love you so much and cannot wait to have you here.

What I’m most looking forward to, however, is not our big Christmas Day feast, but the days following, when the fridge will be stocked with the most scrumptious leftovers, and when out of the freezer and into the oven will go these buttermilk biscuits, the perfect vessel for housing slices of ham or turkey or roast beef, handfuls of arugula, and a slathering of mustard sauce (so delicious, a must-know sauce if you’re serving ham, see recipe below).

The biscuit recipe comes from Food52’s Holiday Recipe and Survival Guide iPad app, which is awesome and which, if you are interested, can be yours, too — just share your own holiday entertaining tips in the comment section below for a chance to win (Food52 is awarding five promo codes to the best entertaining tips, culled from everyone’s blog post comments).

Are you curious about the app? I was, too. Before I downloaded it, I wondered how it would differ from visiting the Food52 website — if many of the recipes in the app are available on the website, why would downloading the app be necessary? I’m probably stating the obvious for many of you, but for any of you app newbies, the difference is all about the experience. After just 15 minutes with the app, navigating from section to section became as natural as turning to my go-to recipe in a favorite cookbook, an experience you often don’t get with a website. Moreover, because the app is designed for the iPad, it’s lightning fast, so navigating from one chapter to another is instant. Truthfully — and I hate to admit it because I love my cookbooks — finding a recipe in the app is easier than finding one in a cookbook. And finally, because the app is a holiday survival guide, all of the content — recipes, videos, event checklists — is holiday specific. In other words, (and again, I’m stating the obvious) you’ve got it all in one place — how to carve a turkey, how to stock your bar, how to plan ahead — so you’re not wasting time jumping from one website to another, bookmarking various pages, printing recipes from this site and that.

I don’t need to tell you all how much I love Food52 — I’ve done it many times in the past (like here and here). I find their video clips to be very helpful. The first one I watched on peeling tomatoes led me to discover Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce (also known as the world’s greatest tomato sauce). The one included below — How to Make Three Minute Gravy — is another goodie.

So, do you have any great entertaining tips? I’ve got one: use the freezer. These biscuits bake beautifully straight from the freezer. No thawing is necessary, just a few minutes more in the oven and you’ve got the makings of the best breakfast sandwich, an irresistible lunch, or a perfect dipper for any wintry soup or stew. Yum.

biscuits, cut, with eggwash

cheddar biscuits, just out of the oven

dough, just out of the mixer

dough and biscuit cutters

Bake these biscuits straight from the freezer — no thawing is necessary, just increase the cooking time by 2 to 3 minutes:

cheddar biscuit, baked straight from the freezer

Are you making a ham this holiday? If so, make this mustard sauce, too. It is so delicious and so simple to prepare — it’s a matter of bringing a few ingredients to a boil and then passing the mixture through a strainer. It’s fantastic for leftover ham sandwiches.

straining mustard sauce

totally delicious mustard sauce

sandwich ingredients

Cheddar Biscuits

Source: Food52

Below is the recipe from the Food52 website, but I encourage you all to read through the comments and questions about this recipe on the Food52 website — I found the comment section very helpful.

Makes 10 to 12 large biscuits

3 1/2 cups minus 1 teaspoon all-purpose flour, plus more for shaping
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt*
9 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cold unsalted butter (use a good brand, like Plugra, with a high butterfat content)
2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 3/4 cup buttermilk
1 large egg

*Some people who commented on the food52 website found the biscuits to be too salty. We definitely did not, but if you are sensitive to salt, perhaps reduce the salt to 2 tsp or less.

1. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and put it in the fridge for 20 to 30 minutes. In the meantime, cut the butter into chunks and leave out at room temperature (you want it malleable, but not soft).

2. Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat it to 400 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Combine the chilled dry ingredients, the cheese and the butter in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on low speed for a few minutes, until the chunks of butter are no bigger than a large pea – or a small bean. (In the oven, the water in the chunks of butter creates steam, which in turn will creates lovely pockets of air within the biscuits.)

3. Add the buttermilk to the bowl and mix on low just until the dough comes together. Turn the dough out onto a floured board, dust your fingers with flour and gently knead it a few times. Quickly and carefully pat the dough into a large rectangle about 1/2 an inch thick.

4. Dip a 3-inch round cutter with sharp edges in flour and then cut the biscuits using an even downward motion, without twisting the cutter. Transfer the rounds of dough to the baking sheets, leaving an inch or two of space between them. When you’ve cut the first batch of biscuits, gently pat the dough into another rectangle and cut a few more — discard the dough or add the funky leftover shapes to the baking sheets after the second batch is cut (if you shape the dough a third time, the biscuits will be tough).

5. Beat the egg with a splash of water (if you’re feeling fancy, you can then pass it through a fine mesh sieve to get rid of any clumps of egg white that might burn). Brush the tops of the biscuits lightly with egg wash* and bake for about 20 minutes, rotating halfway through, until the biscuits are a deep golden brown. Cool for a few minutes on the baking sheets but serve them while still warm!

*At this point you can stick your prepared pan in the freezer. Once the biscuits are frozen, transfer them to a freezer bag to store. When you are ready to bake, there is no need to thaw the biscuits. Just bake them straight from the freezer. I had to cook mine about 3 minutes longer when baking them from the freezer. And I did apply the egg wash before freezing them — worked beautifully.

Mustard Sauce

In my family, this mustard sauce is as essential as the ham on the holiday table. It’s another one of those sauces your guests will want to bathe in.

1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
4 tablespoons dry mustard
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup heavy cream

1. Place a strainer over a medium-sized bowl (able to hold about 2 cups of liquid). Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to a boil while monitoring closely and stirring often. As soon as the mixture comes to boil, pour it through the strainer into the bowl. Let cool, then cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge.

leftover ham and arugula sandwich on cheddar biscuit with mustard sauce

Date Night at Home? Seared Duck Breast with Port Wine Reduction; Duck Hunting at Pine Island in Louisiana

seared and sauced duck breast

Seared Duck Breast with Port Wine Reduction — it’s a dish fit for a bistro menu. Truly, the sauce tastes as if it took hours to prepare, as if pans loaded with veal bones had to be roasted, as if those bones then had to simmer into a rich stock, and as if that stock had to reduce to a syrup. It’s the sort of sauce that elicits comments such as, “I could bathe in this.” I promise you, anyone could make this sauce. It’s foolproof.

The sauce, incredibly, has only three ingredients — port wine, shallots and chicken stock. Admittedly, a 750-ml bottle of port — cheap port but port nonetheless — gets reduced by more than half. And making it does require a bit of love, by which I mean time, about an hour total. This is not a sauce you want to casually dip your grilled burger into (as fantastic as that sounds). It’s a sauce you want to reserve for a special occasion, perhaps a date night at home?

It’s certainly a good recipe to have in your repertoire. It comes from Sally Schneider’s A New Way to Cook, one of my all-time favorite cookbooks. The spice rub recipe, a mixture of orange zest, thyme, salt, pepper and sugar, is a must-know as well. It’s simple yet critical for tenderizing the meat and imparting a subtle orange flavor, which complements duck so well.

Until about a month ago, when my husband returned from a duck hunting trip at Pine Island in Louisiana, I hadn’t cooked a duck breast in years. Duck is so yummy! I had forgotten. It has been such a treat having such incredibly tasty meat on hand. And while these breasts hardly need additional seasoning, the spice rub and sauce transform a simple seared piece of meat into a bistro-style entrée.

Unfortunately, I can’t prescribe a foolproof method for cooking the duck breasts. With a poor ventilation system and a smoke detector located just inches from our kitchen, we’ve developed a cooking method that foremost prevents the house from burning down. We start the breasts stovetop in a cast iron skillet and finish them in a 450ºF oven, flipping them once, cooking them no more than five minutes total. When the breasts are resting, we finish reducing the sauce, pour some wine, and prepare for date night at home. It’s fun. I think you’d enjoy it, too.

seared and sauced duck breast

Bags of cryovaced duck breast from Pine Island Hunting Camp.
duck breasts from Pine Island Hunting Camp in Louisiana

The husband, surrounded by dogs, never happier:
the husband, with dogs, never happier

morning at Pine Island Hunting Camp

Pine Island Lodge

Some good southern cooking — fried soft shell crabs, fried oysters, fried shrimp. Apparently there were some incredible biscuits, too. I’m just a little jealous.

some good southern cooking

The rub — a mix of orange zest, thyme, salt, pepper and sugar — for the duck breasts.
the rub — orange zest, thyme, salt, pepper and sugar

the rub — orange zest, thyme, salt, pepper and sugar

breasts with rub

breasts with rub

shallots and port wine reduction sauce

Duck Breast with Port Wine Sauce
Source: Sally Schneider’s A New Way to Cook

Notes: I cannot give you a foolproof way of cooking your duck breasts. I’ve described what we do below to yield a perfectly medium-rare duck breast from our kitchen, but every piece of meat is different, every oven is different, every pan is different, etc. There are so many factors and truthfully, we ruined several duck breasts before we figured out just how to get it right. The rub and the sauce recipes below, however, are simple and foolproof.

The Rub

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper (Schneider does a mix of 1/4 tsp each of black and white peppercorns)
4 allspice berries (I didn’t have any so didn’t use any)
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest (I used the zest of one whole orange)
1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

2 duck breasts*

Port wine sauce (recipe below)

*Schneider recommends boneless Moulard or Muscovy duck breast halves (3/4 to 1 pound each) or 4 boneless Pekin duck breast halves (about 6 ounces each). She also recommends removing the fat, which I have to disagree with — I think the fat adds nice flavor and helps protect the meat during the cooking process.

1. Schneider’s recipe calls for a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder because she started with whole peppercorns and allspice berries. I simply stirred my salt, freshly ground pepper, sugar, zest and thyme in a small bowl. It worked just fine. The mixture should look like sand.

2. Place the duck breasts on a platter and rub the spice mixture into them. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight. About 20 minutes before cooking, remove the duck breasts from the refrigerator and return to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 450ºF. Pat dry with paper towels. With a paring knife, remove the tenderloin, the thin strip of meat that runs lengthwise down the underside of each breast.

3. Heat a cast iron skillet over high heat. When the pan is hot — it doesn’t have to be smoking — put the duck breasts in fat side down. Let the breasts sizzle for about a minute (or longer if your kitchen isn’t getting too smoky) or a minute and a half, then place the pan in the oven. After two and half minutes total have passed, open the oven, flip the breasts over, close the oven and cook for another two to two and a half minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, transfer the breasts to a platter, and let rest for five minutes. Turn your oven off.

4. While the breasts are resting, finish reducing the sauce. (See my notes below with the sauce recipe — I make the sauce a day in advance, and then heat as much as I think we need for the two of us while the breasts are resting.) Place your sauce in a small sauce pan or frying pan and heat over medium-high heat. In no time, the sauce should start to thicken up, at which point you should remove the pan from the stovetop. Slice the breasts, if desired, and pour your beautiful sauce over top. (Or, don’t slice the breasts, just pour the sauce over top.)

Port Wine Sauce
Yield = 1/2 to 2/3 cup, about 4 to 6 servings

Notes: I make the sauce a day in advance and in the final reducing phase, I only reduce it to about a cup versus a half cup. Then, when I am serving the duck, since it is usually just for my husband and me, I pour about a half cup of the sauce into a sauce pan and reduce that amount to a syrup, which is more than enough for two servings. And then, on a subsequent night, I have more sauce with which to do the same thing. Am I making sense? Please contact me if you have questions.

One 750-millilter bottle Ruby Port (I couldn’t find Ruby Port, so I just bought the cheapest port I could find at the grocery store.)
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1/2 cup unsalted homemade or canned low-sodium chicken stock

In a heavy medium saucepan, combine the port and shallots and bring to a gentle boil over moderately low heat. Cook until the port has reduced to 1 cup, about 30 minutes.

Strain into a small saucepan and add the chicken stock. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook until reduced to about 1/2 to 2/3 cup, about 15 minutes longer. Serve hot.

The sauce will keep up to 1 month refrigerated in a tightly closed jar.

The duck, pre saucing:
seared duck breast

Red Wine Cranberry Sauce

red wine cranberry sauce

My sister LOVES cranberry sauce. And by LOVES I mean she enjoys a little turkey and stuffing with her cranberry sauce. When I think of Thanksgiving, I think of Lindsey mounding cranberry sauce onto every food group on her plate. And then I think of her finishing up her meal, dragging mom’s homemade bread across her plate, mopping up every last morsel of sauce. And then I think of the days following Thanksgiving, when she would assemble cranberry sauce sandwiches — yep, just two slices of bread flanking as much sauce as their structure will allow. And then I picture her sitting at the kitchen table, elbows bent as she holds her creation in front of her face, laughing as she bites into her favorite sandwich, giddy that this time of year has once again arrived.

My sister would not approve of the above-pictured sauce. If Peeps, Lindsey’s favorite candy (food?), are any indication of her sugar preferences, you understand why. She likes the traditional ratio of sugar to liquid to cranberries prescribed in most recipes.

I on the other hand feel otherwise. I do not love the sweetness of cranberry sauce, and I suppose I sort of feel indifferent to the sauce in general. But I like this recipe. It’s nothing mind blowing, but it takes no more time to prepare than traditional recipes — I certainly would not fuss over making cranberry sauce — and the flavors of orange zest, cinnamon stick and red wine are nice. It’s also a touch less sweet than traditional recipes.

If you’re a cranberry-sauce purist, this recipe is not for you. If, like me, you don’t really care one way or the other and want to spruce up your cranberry sauce a bit, give this recipe a go. Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

cranberries

Sally Schneider’s Red Wine Cranberry Sauce
Yield = 1 3/4 cups

2/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup dry red wine
1/2 cinnamon stick (1 1/2 inches)
1 package fresh or frozen cranberries (about 12 oz.)
1 tablespoon slivered tangerine, clementine or orange zest, or more to taste

In a saucepan over moderate heat, combine the sugar, red wine and cinnamon stick; bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved and the wine is reduced slightly. Add the cranberries and zest. Simmer for 10 minutes, or until the cranberries are soft and the sauce has thickened. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

Addictive Kale Caesar Salad with Brioche Croutons

kale caesar salad with brioche croutons

I have a question for all of you mortar and pestle users out there: Do you find us knife-wielding, blender-pulsing, whisk-twirling folk offensive? You probably do. I suspect Tartine’s Chad Robertson would not approve of my adaptation of his caesar dressing recipe. I used a knife first, and then a whisk. I’m not going to lie. I didn’t even reach for the mortar and pestle.

I suppose I shouldn’t be so skeptical of a technique before trying it, but the idea of using a pestle to work olive oil into a stable emulsion scared me. I’m just not that hard core. And as I read the recipe over and over again, I couldn’t help but think about who I was dealing with — did you know that Robertson doesn’t even own a toaster? It’s true. He and his wife, Liz Prueitt, toast their bread in a black steel omelet pan instead. That’s hard core. I’m just not there. I reached for an old standby: Whisk. He did not fail me. This dressing, made without mayonnaise or cheese, is lemony and lighter than most caesar dressings and is a wonderful complement to kale, an unsuspecting substitute in a classic dish.

I find this salad addictive. I’ve always loved kale wilted in soups or sautéed with garlic and tossed into pastas. And I love it in the form of chips. But I never imagined enjoying it raw until I dined at True Food Kitchen, where they serve a Tuscan kale salad made with bread crumbs, grated Pecorino and crushed red pepper flakes. It’s a delicious combination. Since discovering Robertson’s kale caesar last week, I’ve made it twice more, and I suspect it will be a mainstay on the dinner table this fall and winter. I’m already looking forward to it.

Kale from our Olin-Fox Farm CSA:
caesar dressing ingredients

kale caesar salad with brioche croutons

I finally got around to making the brioche recipe in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. It is delicious. I made several loaves of bread as well as a batch of the Sticky Pecan Caramel Rolls with the dough, and will report back on that shortly. I also used leftover brioche to make the croutons, which were delicious, but an unnecessary treat — any good bakery-style bread will suffice for these croutons.

homemade brioche

The Tartine Bread crouton recipe calls for an optional pinch of herbes de provence, which added a surprisingly nice flavor to the croutons.

brioche croutons, unbaked

brioche croutons, baked

Kale Caesar Salad
Adapted from Tartine Bread
Serves: 4 to 6

Note: The measurements below are those that are given in the book. Obviously, adjust quantities as needed. I tossed enough kale for two people with dressing to taste. I also added the croutons and Parmigiano Reggiano to taste.

2 lbs. black, Tuscan or dinosaur kale, center stems removed, and torn
croutons (recipe below)
2/3 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Caesar dressing (recipe below)

In a large bowl, combine the kale and croutons. Pour the dressing to taste over top and toss to coat. Add the Parmesan, toss again, and serve.

Caesar Dressing

Note: I made a half-batch of this recipe. I did not use a mortar and pestle, but if you are an adept m&p user, feel free. Also, if you have a caesar dressing that you love, feel free to substitute that in. In essence, this recipe is no more than a traditional caesar salad with kale swapped in for romaine. That said, I do really like this dressing — made without mayonnaise or cheese, it’s lemony and lighter than most caesar dressings I’ve come across.

2 lemons or 1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar*
3 cloves garlic
6 olive oil-packed anchovy fillets
1 large egg yolk
kosher salt
2 cups olive oil

*Update: I have been making this dressing a lot — all winter and spring in fact — and I actually prefer making it with white balsamic vinegar than with lemon juice. It is so easy and delicious. This is what I do: Finely mince 3 cloves garlic with 3 anchovy fillets — I add a pinch of salt while I’m mincing and drag my knife across the mash to help make a paste. Whisk in the egg yolk and the 1/4 cup white balsamic. Slowly drizzle in olive oil, whisking constantly until a thick dressing forms. I never measure the olive oil, so I can’t say exactly how much, but it’s probably about a cup or less.

1. To make the dressing, grate the zest from 1 lemon. Cut both lemons in half. Place the garlic, anchovies and lemon zest in a mortar and pound with a pestle to make a thick paste. (Alternatively, mince the garlic, anchovies and zest together on a cutting board. Add a pinch of salt, and mince further. Every so often, using the side of your knife, drag the mixture against the cutting board to create a paste. Transfer to a bowl.)

2. Add the egg yolk, a pinch of salt, and a squeeze of lemon juice and stir thoroughly to combine. Continuing to stir, begin adding the oil drop by drop. (Note: If you’re not using a m&p, whisk in the oil drop by drop.) The mixture should look smooth and creamy, a sign that you are building a stable emulsion. Continuing to stir (or whisk), begin adding the oil in a slow steady stream. The dressing should thicken. Periodically, stop pouring in the oil and add a squeeze of lemon. Taste the dressing and add more salt and lemon juice to taste. Add water, a small spoonful at a time, stirring to thin dressing to the consistency of heavy cream.

Croutons

3 slices day-old bread*, each 1-inch thick, torn into 1 1/2-inch chunks
2 T. olive oil
kosher salt
1/2 tsp. herbes de provence** (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. In a bowl, toss the torn bread with the olive oil and a pinch of salt. Add the herbes if using. Spread the bread evenly on a baking sheet and bake until golden brown and crisp, about 15 minutes. Midway through baking, redistribute the croutons if they are coloring unevenly.

Notes:
* I used day-old brioche (recipe from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, which I have yet to post), which was totally delicious but also unnecessary — any good (non-enriched) bread will do.
** This is normally an ingredient I would just as soon leave out, but I was surprised at what a nice subtle flavor the herbes added. I did not add 1/2 tsp. — a pinch was enough.

kale caesar salad with brioche croutons

Chez Panisse Eggplant, Caramelized Onion and Tomato Pasta

Gemelli with Eggplant, Tomato and Caramelized Onions

I don’t know about you, but I’m up to my eyeballs in eggplants here. My CSA delivery last week could have fed a small village, and I’m still feeling a little overwhelmed. Overwhelmed in a good way though. I mean, I’ve been eating my way though a very delicious eggplant chapter in Chez Panisse Vegetables, so far delighting in eggplant gratin with tomato and onion, and roasted eggplant and tomato pizza. I know, it’s been rough.

But this pasta. Oooooh, this pasta. This pasta recipe unexpectedly has eclipsed its chapter companions, its deliciousness attributed to perfectly ripe eggplant, the freshest tomato sauce, sweet basil, caramelized onions, and above all to a most unsuspecting ingredient: sherry vinegar. I don’t know how just a splash of anything could so transform a dish, giving it a depth of flavor that subtly persists through layers of tomatoes and eggplant and onions, but somehow the sherry vinegar has.

There’s something, too, about the way the roasted eggplant melds with the caramelized onions and the tomato sauce that makes cheese totally unnecessary. No cheese on pasta, you ask? Hogwash, you shout!  I mean it. This roasted eggplant tomato sauce spiced with crushed red pepper flakes and freshened with basil was enough for me. I even had some homemade ricotta in the fridge. I even had a bowl of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano sitting inches from my plate throughout dinner. I had no trouble refraining.

While I know a bowl of hot pasta perhaps isn’t crossing your mind very often in late summer, eggplants are reaching their peak right about now, and they are oh so good. Give this recipe a go. It’s a keeper for sure.

Finally, if you like  summer pastas, you might like this dish, too.

Chez Panisse Vegetables Cookbook

Eggplant from our Olin-Fox Farm CSA:
eggplant from our CSA

eggplant, uncooked and cooked

Making the Sauce

Eggplant, Tomato and Caramelized Onion Sauce

Gemelli with Eggpplant and Tomato

Adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables
Serves 4 to 6 (or 2 generously…see my notes for a smaller yield)

2 large globe eggplants (I used 1 eggplant, which yielded about 3 cups of diced eggplant weighing about 9.5oz)
olive oil
1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced (about 2 cups sliced)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 handful basil leaves
1 handful parsley leaves (I used only basil)
kosher salt
1 lb. penne (I used 1 cup of Gemelli pasta but use whatever you like)
sherry vinegar
2 cups tomato sauce (I used 1 cup of this sauce)
red pepper flakes
1/2 lb. ricotta salata cheese (I used no cheese, but served grated Parmigiano Reggiano on the side.)

1. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Cut the eggplants into cubes about 3/4-inch square, toss them lightly with olive oil and spread them out in a single layer on a sheet pan. (Note: I’ve made this twice now, and my instinct the first time was to toss the eggplant with some kosher salt before roasting. The instructions don’t call for this, and second time around, I used no salt, and I think the eggplant came out better.) Roast in the oven for 25 minutes or so, until the eggplant is brown and tender.

2. Put a large (or small) pot of water on to boil for the pasta. Add a large pinch of kosher salt. Cook the pasta al dente.

3. Meanwhile, heat a large sauté pan with the olive oil and onions over medium heat. Sauté the onions until just caramelized. (Note: I started the onions when I put the eggplant in the oven — I find that caramelizing onions slowly over medium heat works best. I also added a pinch of kosher salt while sautéeing. The onions probably sautéed for 25 minutes to 30 minutes total.) Add the garlic and cook for a moment more, and then deglaze with a splash of sherry vinegar. Add the eggplant, tomato sauce, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Heat the sauce to simmering. Drain the pasta, add it to the tomato sauce pan, and toss gently. Chiffonade the basil and add it the pan.

4. Serve the pasta with a generous garnish of the chopped parsley (I omitted) and ricotta crumbled over the top (I also omitted, but served Parmigiano Reggiano on the side.)

Gemelli with Eggplant, Tomato and Caramelized Onions