Hearty Cauliflower Casserole for the Blizzards of 2015

When we retired to bed last night, the weather predictions were dire–blinding blizzards and high winds so severe, that weather forecasters were entertaining the idea of assigning names to the storms to landmark them, like hurricanes! We awoke to the newscasts of Boston, buried in snow, and Nantucket, beaten by 80 mile an hour winds, shores whipped by high seas, and no power. Dorie Greenspan, a favorite chef and cookbook author, Baking Chez Moi and Around My French Table, , posted a photo of snowdrifts and an icy river in Connecticut, I assume somewhere near her home. We are feeling grateful today.

The winter in our area of the world means some days with lows in the 40s and highs in the low 60s and blue skies and sun. We have an extended growing season, which means plenty of winter vegetables and blooming flowers. I began my day with a brisk, refreshing 5,000 step walk from home to downtown to one of my favorite historic buildings, McNulty Station. McNulty Station was once a railway station, old red brick, with arched Palladian-style windows, now home to a restaurant, loft condos, and office suites. The interior is contemporary now with lots of gleaming wood, skylights and sunny light streaming in through large expanses of windows and glass walls of suites.
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Our neighborhood historic preservation committee was meeting with a developer and architect for a proposed new development project in our neighborhood in order to educate them about the character and established patterns and architectural legacy of our historic district in order to shape the project so that it blends nicely, new into old. Interesting talk of mass and scale, pervious and impervious surfaces, fenestrations, window shapes, brackets, dormers, and green space. The negotiations were pleasant and gracious, although we were humorously characterized as “very tough!” The outcome appears to be a “win-win.”

No blizzards, but another chilly day here in the low 60s, so I planned a hearty dinner that began with a recipe that an old friend posted on Facebook. The recipe is for a casserole called Loaded Cauliflower, and it was originally posted on Facebook by Courtney Luper. I have mentioned previously that I am always looking for flavorful recipes with cauliflower as an ingredient, because cauliflower, while a very nutritious cruciferous vegetable is often bland. In addition, I am often searching for recipes where the meat content is minimized, really a flavor or condiment, rather than an entrée. While this is a low carbohydrate recipe, there is substantial fat content. This is blizzard comfort food!

I did make some modifications to the recipe, so if you would like the original, look for it as a November 18 post at www.facebool.com/just1courtney.

Thank you for the inspiration, Courtney!

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Susan’s Snowy Blizzard Cauliflower Casserole

Serves 6 generous main dish servings, or 8-10 as a side dish

2 heads of cauliflower, cored and cut into small florets
8 strips of your favorite bacon (I used Niman Ranch, uncured, a favorite)
1 large leek, halved, cleaned and sliced
8 ounces mushrooms (I found shitake on sale at my organic market!), cleaned and sliced
1 small red bell pepper, diced
1 cup lowfat sour cream
1 cup light mayonnaise (I used Hellmann’s mad with olive oil)
2 Tbls Dijon mustard
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese, or other cheese of your choice (I used Old Croc, extra sharp cheddar from milk from grass-fed cows, afind at my local organic market. Use what you like)
Extra cheese to grate on top, just a few ounces
Salt, Pepper
Fresh chives, 4-6 Tbls, chopped

Method

Steam the cauliflower until very tender, and then drain and cool.
Cook the bacon on a rack over a baking sheet in a 425 oven until crisp. Cool.
Sauté the leeks, mushrooms and peppers in 2 Tbls olive oil just until softened. Salt and pepper. Cool.

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Combine in a large mixing bowl the sour cream, mayonnaise, mustard, and 1 cup of cheese. Add 4-6 Tbls chopped chives.
Add the leek mixture to the bowl, and then the drained cauliflower. Crumble in the bacon, reserving a few pieces to crumble on top.

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Spray a large rectangular casserole, 2 and 1/2 inches deep, with a vegetable oil spray.
Spread the cauliflower in the casserole, sprinkle with additional grated cheese, and reserved crumbled bacon and bake at 425 F for about 20 minutes until bubbling hot and just a bit browned on top of those snowy peaks!

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This Loaded Cauliflower Casserole, that am re-branding Snowy Blizzard Casserole, is hearty, hot, creamy, and full of mild onion and cheese flavor punctuated by smoky bacon. We enjoyed it with a chilled Washington State Reisling Wine. This would make a side dish with star quality, although I might decrease the amount of bacon for a side dish. Fully loaded, it would make a decadent addition to a winter holiday meal. Hmmmm, could you see this as a brunch dish, topped with sunny side up eggs?

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I wish that I could transport a care package of soup and this casserole to friends and family in the cold, white North!

Please share your thoughts about this casserole, and your experiences if you try the recipe. I hope that you are safe and warm tonight!

Caldo Gallego, Spanish White Bean Soup for a Blustery Day

 

No one can tell me,
Nobody knows,
Where the wind comes from,
Where the wind goes.

Wind on the Hill, a poem, by A.A. Milne, in The Complete Tales and Poems of Winnie-the-Pooh

While I was out walking through the neighborhood, I had a memory from childhood of Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, a Disney production, I believe. Christopher Robin, Pooh bear, and friends tossed about the Hundred Acre Wood on the wind. Here, there are oak leaves swirling about across brick streets, palm fronds making rustling noises, and bamboo clattering. When I arrived home, I went searching for my collection of A.A. Milne, The Wind in the Willows for the story that inspired the blustery day in the Hundred Acre Wood. “Happy Winds-day, Piglet, ” said Pooh. I did not find such a story, but that the production was based on three Pooh stories by A.A. Milne. I came across a poem “Who Knows Where the Wind Goes” in my edition of the Milne collection. “No one knows where the wind goes…”

It is a blustery, chilly day here, the smell of wood-burning fireplaces in the air. It’s great soup weather, and I need little inspiration to create soups. It seems to be in my New England, Italian-American blood. But, sometimes I stray into other cuisine heritages. We found some paprika-laced fresh chorizo sausage at our local Fresh Market, and reminisced about the great Caldo Gallego that was served at a restaurant once loved, now gone, Pepin’s. It was served with warm, crisp Cuban bread. I found a recipe in The New Spanish Table , by Anya von Bremzen, for Caldo Gallego, or Galician White Bean Soup.
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Traditionally, Galician White Bean Soup is a complicated affair and rather meat-centric. You may remeember that Galicia is in the northwest corner of Spain, a region with Celtic heritage and a lush, green and craggy landscape with fjords and lagoons, von Bremzen tells us. Since it is far from the sunnier, warmer corners of Spain, it is a land of bracing, hearty traditional dishes, like Caldo Gallego. This region of Spain, by the way, is where the elegant Albarino white wine is produced, which would pair nicely with this soup.

The original recipe from the Spanish Table calls for meaty ham hock, veal, bacon and chorizo sausage. It also describes a day-before preparation with meat that must be separated, taken off the bone, and broth that must be chilled and skimmed of fat. I elected to make some adaptations to reduce the animal product content and to simplify the cooking method, hopefully making this soup recipe more agreeable to the home cook.

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Caldo Gallego, Galician White Bean Soup, recipe adapted from Anya von Bremzen, The New Spanish Table. Please refer to the book for the original recipe. My adaptation is published here.

Serves 6-8 generous bowls
Ingredients
2 Tbls olive oil
1 large yellow sweet onion
1 cup carrots cut into matchsticks (can be purchased in this cut for convenience)
3 ribs of celery, diced
1/4 pound of ham, diced into small cubes
1 pound of fresh chorizo (you could use dried chorizo if you prefer)
3 =15 ounce cans of garbanzo beans, drained
1 and 1/2 cups of cubed potatoes of your choice (I used some mixed organic yams, for nutritional impact)
1 bunch of chard, trimmed from the tough stems and chopped coarsely
48 ounces of chicken or vegetable broth
salt and pepper to taste

Method
Heat the olive oil in a 5 quart pot over medium heat that is suitable for simmering soup. I use a Le Creuset enamel over cast iron round Dutch oven.
Add the chorizo, onion, and celery, and cook until the vegetables are tender but not browning and the sausage is beginning to cook.
Add the ham, and cook for just 2-3 minutes, which will allow the ham to give off it’s smoky flavor.
ADD the carrots, potatoes, broth, and beans, and bring just to a bowl. You will see a foam appear on the surface of the pot–skim it off with a large spoon.
Simmer for about 40 minutes. You will note that the chorizo gives off a red color and a paprika flavor.
Add the chard and cook for another 10 minutes for the chard to become tender.

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The soup, or potage, is ready when the potatoes are tender and the broth has thickened slightly.
Taste–add salt and pepper as needed to season.
Ladle into deep soup bowls and serve with a crusty bread. You might want a small drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil on your serving to add a fruity, peppery flavor.

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This soup is very flavorful, in spite of less meat and an abbreviated preparation. The beans are creamy, and the ham adds a smoky flavor The chorizo adds that Spanish paprika flavor and color. There is plenty of nutritional value from the variety of vegetables. It is, as promised, a hearty soup for a blustery winter day.

Please let me know how you like this easy, quick version of Caldo Gallego, and share your favorite soups for cold, windy weather. The Comment box follows each post.

Pantry Essentials: Smokey Winter Soup with Butter Beans and Ham

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Although friends and family who live in northern climates do not believe that the winter season exists in Florida, it does exist. Today, we awakened to temperatures in the 40s and a predicted high in the mid-60s, which is fireplace and comfort food weather. In my area of the world, which is St. Petersburg, Florida, it is a time of Camellia blossoms, Azalea blooms, brilliant Brazilian Bouganvillea displays, and time to consider planting bulbs for Caladiums, Cannas, and Irises. It is time for us to be vigilant about whether our flashy sub-tropical foliage plants, Crotons, require protection from the cold. It is time to bundle up for walks around our Saturday Morning market on the Old Tampa Bay waterfront to peruse the organic farms’ winter crop of kale, squashes, beets, and colorful pigeon beans.

Today, I awakened to a low temperature in the 40s, lit a fire in the fireplace, lit some fragrant candles, and enjoyed a cup of coffee by the fireplace as I reviewed the Sunday newspaper. Then, we bundled up in scarves and jackets for a neighborhood walk. Sunday is typically a day at home for us, and a traditional Sunday dinner. Today, I visited a neighborhood church, which was established in 1924, and is dying. The pastor tells me that 9 churches close daily in America, no longer a central institution in the lives of Americans. I visited, because this church has served the neighborhood that has been my home for 33 years, and the idea that this church, which used to boast 1400 members is dying and may disappear concerns my community. It is not only a significant and lovely historic building, but it has had a central place in lives of many families in my beloved neighborhood until its congregation began to diminish 10 years ago.

A group of neighbors invited me to strategize with them about giving the church a rebirth as a community center. So, my day began considering challenges and opportunities. I was enthralled with the herb, vegetable and butterfly garden that was planted in the front yard by the teachers and the fifty students of the school that resides at the church. I met people in their 70s and 80s who have been members of this congregation for much of their adult lives. The congregation has dwindled to three households, and 25 people attended the service this morning. The Pastor tells me that there will never be a viable congregation here again, and there are many factors. This was a rather sad way to begin my day, but I am hopeful that our community may find a way to give this church a new life.

For Sunday dinner today, we found ourselves in the mood for a comforting soup. This is when a well-stocked pantry is helpful. I recently tasted a butter bean soup at a favorite restaurant on Beach Drive on the waterfront, Moon Under Water. This is a British Colonial Pub, with traditional Fish and Chips on the menu, with a pale-ale, crisp batter, tandoori, a variety of good curries, and pasties and Shepherd’s Pie. One very chilly day this Fall, I enjoyed a hearty soup of the day, a Butter Bean Soup–simple and comforting. So, after finding broth and four fifteen ounce cans of Butter Beans in my pantry, garlic, onions and carrots in my larder and refrigerator, I decided to see if I could create a similarly satisfying soup.

This soup suits my evolving sensibility about eating less meat and using meat more as a flavoring agent than as a main course. You can easily make this soup totally vegetarian or vegan if you like. I picked up a small ham steak for smoky flavor, but just four ounces will flavor a large pot of soup. This soup comes together in 40 minutes at most.

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Smoky Butter Bean Soup,, recipe by Susan Rebillot
Serves 6 generously

Ingredients
1 large Vidalia onion, or two mini Vidalias, which I had on hand and which look like gigantic scallions
2 carrots, scrubbed and cut into a small dice
3 ribs celery, diced
3 fat cloves garlic, peeled, smashed, chopped finely
4 ounces smoked ham, cut into small cubes, or perhaps smoked sausage
4-15 ounce cans of butter beans, or the equivalent in frozen (O loved dried, but can rarely find them, and then the cooking time is much longer)
32 ounces of chicken or vegetable broth
1 Tablespoons dried thyme
salt and pepper to taste

Method

in a 3 or 4 quart soup or stew pot, heat just a drizzle of vegetable oil over medium-high heat.
Add the ham or sausage and cook just for a few minutes to render some of the flavor-enhancing fat.
Add the onions, celery, carrots, and garlic, and cook for a few minutes until the vegetables are just softened.
Add the drained butter beans, broth, herbs, salt and pepper.
Bring just to a low boil and then turn the heat down to simmer for about a half hour.
Just prior to serving, I like to use my immersion blender to blend the soup, just a few pulses. I want to create a creaminess while leaving a lot of intact beans.

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You may want to garnish each bowl with a drizzle of your best extra virgin olive oil and some sprigs of fresh thyme from the herb garden.

We served this simply with crusty rolls, a glass of a crisp Belgian cider for me and a malty Samuel Adams Octoberfest beer for John. This is a hearty, satisfying soup with a creamy texture, but with some chewy texture of whole beans and vegetables, and a smoky flavor contributed by the ham. A crusty bread is a wonderful counterpoint to the creaminess of the soup, and when we ate leftovers, we added a bit of sharp Kerrygold cheddar melted over the rolls as they warmed in the oven.
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Simple Sunday supper for a cold winter day.

Winter Palate Cravings, Citrus and Warm Spice

DSCF5881There is not a season when my palate does not crave the flavor of citrus, but in winter, my taste buds crave citrus and warm spiciness. This is perfectly convenient, as winter in Florida and California is citrus season. There has been a very unfortunate disease impacting the citrus in Florida, and so this year, I have been sourcing gorgeous, meaty, sweet organic navel oranges from California. So, my inspiration for this simple and quick weekday dinner began with those oranges.

I picked up beautiful pork tenderloin from one of my favorite butchers, Joe at Mazzarro’s. It is helpful to have a trusted local butcher, who can tell you about the sources for his meats and that source’s agricultural practices. As someone who is still a carnivore, although less so than ever, I want better for my health animal products and humane conditions for the animals. So, I began to think about flvors that would enhance pork, beginning with the flavor of orange.

Pork and orange–a beloved flavor combination in a number of cuisines, Cuban and Italian to name two. But, I also began to consider the combination of orange, fresh ginger, garlic and red chile pepper. Citrusy, bright, warmly spiced flavors are great flavors for pork. I always have fresh garlic, ginger and red chile pepper flakes on hand. So, a recipe was born, beginning with a tried and true technique for cooking pork tenderloin.

Pork tenderloin is a wonderfully lean, tender, quick-cooking protein with no waste. You can serve four people with a one-pound tenderloin, if you serve reasonable rather than super-sized portions. This makes it an economical cut of meat. If you learn the technique of searing for 3–5 minutes each side range-top, medium-high heat in just a bit of vegetable oil, until all sides are nicely browned, then you just move the oven-proof skillet to the oven to finish cooking in about 15 minutes.

Then, you have this lovely caramelization on the bottom of the pan that provides a flavorful foundation for a quick pan sauce. Once you master this easy technique, you can create your own appealing flavors.

Pork Tenderloin with Orange-Ginger-Garlic Sauce, recipe by Susan Rebillot
Serves 6-8

Ingredients
2 pounds of pork tenderloin
1 Tbls canola oil
1 and 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (I personally like the combination of black, pink, green and white peppercorns)
2 Tbls dried ground sage or rosemary or thyme, or your favorite dried herb for pork

Sauce
Juice of 2 navel oranges
1 cup vegetable or chicken stock
1.2 cup dry white wine, something citrusy and fruit-forward that you would enjoy drinking with pork
2 Tbls fresh orange zest
1 Tbls freshly grated ginger
2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled, smashed and chopped fine
1 large shallot, chopped fine
1 Tbls honey
pinch red chile pepper flakes
1 Tbls cornstarch, whished into 1/2 cup additional stock

Method

Prepare the ingredients for the sauce, and set aside. This is a quick pan sauce, so you want to have the ingredients assembled, so that while the meat rests prior to carving, you can make the sauce. Combine the orange zest, chopped shallot, grated ginger, chopped garlic and orange juice in a small bowl.
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In an oven-proof skillet, place a tablespoon or so of vegetable oil of your choice. I typically use canola or an olive oil. Season the pork liberally with salt, pepper, and dried rosemary, thyme or sage–your choice.
Over medium high heat, sear the pork tenderloin for 3-5 minutes on every side, turning it as it browns. You will notice nice caramelization of meat juices developing on the pan.

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Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
Move the skillet to the oven to cook the pork for an additional 15-20 minutes, or until you pierce ii with a fork, and the juices run clear and not pink.
Remove the pork tenderloins to a platter and allow to rest, covered with foil.
Place the skillet back on the stovetop, remembering that the skillet will be extremely hot and a burn risk. Take care!
Turn the burner to medium-high, and add the white wine, stirring up the brown bits from the pork with a wooden spoon, and deglaze the pan.
Add the stock and orange juice, the ginger, garlic, red pepper flake, and cook for just a few minutes.
Add the cornstarch and stock mixture, the honey and the orange zest. Cook and stir for 1-2 minutes until you have a slightly thickened smooth, glossy sauce.
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Taste and adjust for salt and for sweetness. This is a savory, only slightly sweet sauce, with spice from the ginger and the red pepper flake. There is a prominent taste of orange from the juice and the zest.
Slice the pork tenderloin into thick slices, arrange on the serving platter, and serve the sauce on the side.

Pork tenderloin that is prepared in this way is quick, very tender, succulent, and can be flavored and sauced in a variety of flavorful ways. We enjoyed the savory, slightly sweet sauce, redolent with orange fragrance and flavor, with warm spice of ginger, garlic and red chile pepper. Readers, please share your favorite flavor combinations with pork tenderloin, as well as your experiences if you try this technique and recipe.

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The accompaniments that I selected to serve with this pork tenderloin were simple. I roasted cubed russet potatoes, tossed in just 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter, salt, pepper, and dried rosemary, roasted at 425 F for about half hour-40 minutes until golden brown.

I steamed small brussel sprouts whole just until tender, and then tossed them with a bit of butter, salt, pepper and grated lemon zest.

When you have a rich, busy life, it is good to have some quick and uncomplicated techniques in your repertoire in order to prepare a delicious weekday dinner for your family.

The Comment box follows each post. let me hear from you!

Composing a Life, Developing a Palate

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The impetus for this particular post was a phone call from my sister, who inquired with a worried tone of voice about whether I had been ill. She was worried, because I had not posted a new blog in weeks. I have been well. Life often simply happens to us, and our responses to life events contribute to the creation of the landscape of our lives. But, I have found that with each milestone, or with each new decade, I spend much time reflecting on where I have been, my values, what is important to me and what is not, my relationships and their impact on my life. With each new decade, and now often annually, I make shifts in the course of composing my life. Now, what does this have to do with a site about food? I think that composing a life and developing one’s palate, or taste buds, are similar journeys.

In August of 2013, I decided to retire from my profession of 30 plus years, because I felt that I had reached a point where I wanted to conclude that journey and to have energy for the pursuit of other interests about which I have great curiosity and passion. It is that stage of life for me, when I consider how much time I will remain on earth, and how would I like to spend that time? Food and cooking–all aspects, including family traditions around food, cultural influences, world cuisines, techniques, food writing, photography–are just my food-related passions. Historic preservation, architecture, community development, and gardening are also areas of great interest. I have resided in an old house, circa 1925, in a neighborhood that is on the National Register of Historic Places for 33 years, near a historic public garden, in a lively, evolving city that I love dearly.

I knew that as I contemplated retirement from my profession that I would develop a food blog. Food writing, recipe development, entertaining, living a somewhat food- centric life continues to be part of my journey, and one that I love. Here is the challenge!

Opportunities often present themselves when we least expect them, and then one faces the challenge of composing a life that is full, fascinating, and meaningful that is also balanced and reasonable. Since I launched Olives and Figs Chronicles, I also delved into the local world of historic preservation and some serious challenges to preserving the character of my neighborhood. My entry into this arena has brought many new people, new activities, much learning, and much joy and excitement into my life.

At the same time, after volunteering at our local historic public garden– which is located within my neighborhood–a tragedy occurred that presented an unexpected opportunity. The sweet, lovely gentleman who trained me to be a docent for the garden died unexpectedly. Just prior to Christmas, his position was offered to me, and now I have the privilege of being involved in the future of this unique, remarkable garden. This involves work that I have never done before, such as developing the horticultural education program for adults and children. Another opportunity for learning and widening the circle of people in my life–how wonderful is that?

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Finally, I never thought of myself as a writer, although I enjoyed creative writing and newspaper and yearbook work in high school and have always enjoyed journaling. I wrote an article about historic preservation for my neighborhood newsletter, and then received a call from the editor of a local community journal, who asked me to consider writing for the journal. The commitment is for one article bimonthly, human interest stories. My first article was published this month and I am researching my second.

Composing a life and developing one’s palate seem very similar to me. All that I have been exposed to over time and all that I am open to in the here and now influence my taste for life as well as my taste buds! These are my thoughts as I begin the new year, celebrate that Olives and Figs Chronicles continues, and challenge myself to keep a very rich life in balance.

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I cannot conclude this post without giving readers a taste of what’s going on in my kitchen! If you have been following this blog, then you know that roast chicken is one of my favorites; in fact, my choice for my last meal. Pay attention, dear husband! I have a variety of techniques that are favorites, but I caught an episode of America’s Test Kitchen this week, and decided to try their method for roasting a flavorful and succulent roast chicken. One key to having a rich and satisfying life is to reserve Sundays for family day at home, and to prepare a gracious Sunday dinner.

One of the very appealing things about this technique and recipe is that there is little added fat, and the fat is olive oil, not butter. I love Julia’s and Jacques’ techniques for massaging the bird with butter, and Martha’s technique for placing butter and herbs under the skin, but this technique by America’s Test Kitchen is very, very flavorful and moist without all of the added fat. The technique is about using a dry herb rub under the skin and then a wet herb paste on the skin. Perfect!

Roast Chicken with Herbs, adapted from America’s Test Kitchen, WEDU public television

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F
Place a V rack in the bottom of the roasting pan.
Serves 4 (or 2 very hungry persons with some scraps for your beloved dog!)
Ingredients
1 – 3 and 1/2-4 pound roasting chicken, patted dry
4 Tbls total of chopped fresh or dried herbs of your choice
3 fat cloves of garlic, chopped
4 Tbls olive oil
2 cups chicken stock or broth
1 and 1/2 cups dry white wine
2 large lemons

Method

Loosen the skin of the chicken breast, using your fingers, taking care not to tear the skin.
If you are using a combination of fresh herbs, such as rosemary, thyme and parsley, chop the leaves finely to total 4 Tablespoons. If you use dried herbs, measure out the same amount with clean hands. You do not want to contaminate your dried herb supply with hands that have been handling chicken.
Today, I used a dried herb blend from Savory Spice Shop that I love that contains garlic, lemon peel, thyme, rosemary, fennel and more, Limnos Lamb Rub, but you can use the herbs that you love with chicken. Tarragon has an affinity for chicken, and thyme is an excellent flavor with chicken.
Rub 2 Tablespoons of the herbs and half the garlic under the skin.
Combine the remaining herbs and garlic with the olive oil.
Place the chicken, breast side up on the roasting rack, the broth and wine in the bottom of the pan, and brush half the herb- oil mixture over the chicken, reserving half of the mixture for when you flip the bird.
Truss the legs with kitchen twine to keep the bird pretty and to aid in even cooking.

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Correct! Roast the bird breast side up for about 45 minutes til golden brown, and then flip the bird, back side up! You can do this easily using a wooden spoon with along handle inserted into the cavity of the chicken.
Brush the back of the bird with the remaining herbs, oil and garlic.
Roast an additional 30-45 minutes, or until golden brown and an insta-read thermometer inserted into the thickest portion of the breast registers 165.
Remove the chicken to a platter and cover with foil.

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Remove the rack from the pan, place over medium high heat, and whisk n two tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in broth.
Whisk the gravy til smooth, taste and adjust for salt and pepper, and toss in a bit extra of fresh herbs.
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Garnish the chicken platter with lemon wedges and some fresh herbs.
Serve with a gravy boat of sauce.

We were amazed at the results of the technique. Placing the chicken on an elevated V rack helps with even heat circulation around the bird, so it roasted perfectly evenly- no overcooked breast, no undercooked thighs. Flipping the bird resulted in even cooking and a beautiful, all over golden appearance. The dry rub of garlic and herbs under the skin combined with the wet rub over the skin resulted in robust herbaceous flavor that penetrated the flesh. The drippings deposited herbs in the sauce base in the bottom of the roasting pan. The sauce was flavorful without being fat- laden. Wonderful technique!

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Wild Rice- Mushroom Pilaf, recipe by Susan Rebillot

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We served our Roast Herbed Chicken today with a savory Wild Rice Mushroom Pilaf. I am a fan of the Lundberg organic rice, and the Country Wild blend of Wehani long grain brown and black Japonica is nuty and rich with flavor and texture.

Serves 6
Ingredients

1 medium sweet onion, diced
1 medium leek, halved lengthwise, cleaned and sliced
6 ounces mushrooms of your choice, sliced
2 Tbls olive oil
2 cups Mushroom Broth (I used pacific brand)
1 cup Lundberg Country Wild Rice
1/4 cup dried currants
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 teaspoon dried sage leaves, chopped
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
2 teaspoons Savory Spice Shop Herbs in Duxelles seasoning, if you can access this
(this adds to the earthy mushroom flavor, as it is made with a mixture of ground mushrooms, worth having in your pantry)
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped

Method
Cook the onion, leek and mushroom in oil over medium high heat until softened, about 8 minutes.
Add the broth.
Add the rice, herbs, currants and pine nuts.
Bring to a boil and then simmer covered for 45-55 minutes.
The liquid should be cooked out, and you should be able to fluff the rice with a fork. The rice should be tender to the tooth.

Take the rice pilaf off the heat and toss with the fresh parsley.

Rice can be oh so bland, but this pilaf is rich in flavor–earthy from the mushrooms, mushroom broth, and herbs in duxelles seasoning, nutty from the wild rice and pine nuts, herbaceous, and then there is that hint of slight sweetness from onions and currants. The final toss with fresh parsley prior to serving adds a fresh herbal flavor. Very delicious! Don’t have currants in the pantry? You can use dried cranberries, raisins, or chopped dried apricots. Pine nuts are too pricey? Substitute pecans or walnuts or chopped almonds. Recipes are just a beginning and cooking is an opportunity to be creative.

We rounded out this menu with simple steamed fresh broccoli with fresh lemon. I sipped a Mer Soleil Silver Unoaked Chardonnay–a new favorite Chardonnay, from the Santa Lucia Highlands of California. Bon appetite!

Readers, please share your New Year thoughts on composing a life and on food discoveries. I always love to hear about your experiences with the recipes featured on this blog. The Comment box follows each post.

Pantry Essentials: Luscious Lemon and Leek Pasta

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During the busy days as holidays approach, or during any busy week, it is helpful to have certain essential ingredients in the pantry and certain fresh items in the refrigerator. Then, you can put together a simple, quick but delicious dinner in half hour or less. My pantry is always stocked with a variety of pastas, stocks, beans, lentils, rice, canned tomato products and anchovies. I keep a well-stocked spice and dried herb cabinet. In terms of fresh items, fresh lemons are always available in a bowl on my kitchen worktable, garlic and shallots are in a terra cotta cellar on the counter, onions are always in my root vegetable drawer, and you will always find mushrooms in my refrigerator. My cheese drawer always has a grating cheese in it, as well as a variety of cheeses suitable for an impromptu cheese board or for cooking. If you happen to be an herb gardener, then you may have a choice of fresh herbs to use as flavoring agents.

Recently, I had a long day away from home, so I began to look for inspiration for dinner upon return. In the refrigerator, I had some beautiful cremini mushrooms, a large leek, a bit of heavy cream, and I had some beautiful large organic lemons and a package of Garofalo pasta. Luscious Lemon and Leek pasta was born.

Luscious Lemon and Leek Pasta
, recipe by Susan Rebillot
Serves 4 generous servings

Ingredients
1 pound pasta of your choice (I had Garofalo Mezze maniche Rigate on hand, a stubby, lined tubular pasta)
8 ounces mushrooms of your choice, cleaned and sliced
1 large leek, tough outer dark green leaves trimmed away
Zest of 3 large lemons
Juice of 2 large lemons
2 Tablespoons olive oil
8 ounces frozen peas
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup half and half
Salt and pepper to taste
Grating cheese, such as Pecorino Romano
1 bunch fresh parsley (sage would be a good herb for this flavor palate, too, or thyme. Use what appeals to you and is on hand)

Method

While you boil the water for the pasta, clean the mushrooms with a brush or damp paper towel. Trim the leek, slice it lengthwise, and rinse it thoroughly. Dry the leek.
Slice the mushrooms and the leeks.
Chop your herbs finely.
Zest and juice the lemons.
Cook the leeks and mushrooms in the oil over medium-high heat in a deep 12 inch skillet for about 10 minutes, until; the leeks are softened and the mushrooms a bit browned.

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Put the pasta in the boiling water to cook and set the timer according to package instructions.
Add the lemon juice to he skillet and stir.
Add the cream and half and half and stir to combine over low heat. Salt and pepper to taste.

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Add the frozen peas and cook on low until the sauce is just bubbling, thick, and the peas are cooked.
Drain the pasta, and add it to the deep skillet.
Add the lemon zest and the chopped herbs and toss to coat the pasta.
Adjust the salt and pepper, and you can add additional lemon juice if you really like a powerful lemon flavor. We find that the juice of two lemons is perfect for our palates.
Serve in pasta bowls with grated cheese.
Serve with a green salad, and perhaps a good Pinot Grigio!

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This pasta dish is creamy, has luscious lemon cream flavor, with mild onion flavor of the leek and the earthy flavor of the mushrooms. We used parsley, which adds that fresh, grassy, herbaceous flavor. The petite peas are sweet. The Pecorino Romano adds a saltiness. This dinner was ready in 30 minutes and took little effort.

Saturday is our market day, and whether we are entertaining or having a quiet dinner alone, as we were yesterday following a day of markets and Christmas shopping, then we look to market finds inspire our meals. So, yesterday at Mazzaro’s as we shopped for our beef tenderloin for Christmas dinner, we noticed D’Artagnan Venison and Pork Sausages with Cherries at the meat counter. We decided to try these. Next, we visited the new Locale Market in downtown St. Petersburg, a newly opened farm-to-table, market-retail-restaurant concept, a very appealing rustic contemporary space. Here, you can purchase prepared foods, or you can source quality ingredients to prepare yourself.

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Dry-aged beef

Dry-aged beef

Bakery

Bakery

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We chatted with Chef Pedro, who makes handmade pasta. We selected a mixed mushroom-filled ravioli, and one filled with prosciutto. When we arrived home, we decided to cook the sausage in small chunks with sliced cremini mushrooms in a bit of olive oil. This added the earthy mushroom and meat flavor to the oil, and then we tossed in the cooked ravioli and added salt, pepper, and finely chopped parsley. The handmade pasta took less than 2 minutes to cook. We grated a bit of parmigiana over each serving.

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The pasta were tender pillows with earthy flavored fillings, and they paired well with the rich flavor of the venison and pork sausage. There was a slight sweet cherry flavor, and the cheese added saltiness. Umami!

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Readers, please share your pantry essentials with me, and how they inspire you when you have busy days, and share your local market experiences, as well! The Comment box follows each post!

Appetizers for Special Occasions: Italian Stuffed Mushrooms and Alsatian Tarte Flambe

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When I am entertaining for special occasions, I like to prepare a few special hot appetizers, and these are two of my most requested by family and friends. Whether it is Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, or a dinner party, I consider the occasion, the entire menu, and, if these will be served as prelude to dinner, the time that dinner will be served when selecting the recipes. For example, on Thanksgiving Day, friends and family had hours of chatting and sipping wine prior to dinner, so an appetizer table with a charcuterie board and Italian Stuffed Mushrooms was welcome. However, there would be a savory bread dressing and some heavy dishes, so I did not prepare a Tarte Flambé for this occasion, which is rich and has a crust.

I did prepare the Tarte Flambé for a neighbor’s annual Christmas party. I make a few variations on this French Alsatian dish, which I fist savored in Colmar, France, while sitting in an outdoor café near a petite canal lined with colorful flower-boxes. This tarte traditionally has a thin, flaky crust, gruyere cheese, caramelized onion and bacon. For this variation, I used a fresh pizza dough crust, rolled very thinly, and then smeared with crème fraiche, sprinkled with fresh thyme leaves, and topped with slowly caramelized onions, smoky bacon, and Italian Fontina cheese. Both the tarte and the mushrooms were very popular items on the party buffet. Both are delicious served with a dry Reisling, although the stuffed mushrooms pair well with a Pinot Noir or a full-bodied Tuscan red, too.

Italian Stuffed Mushrooms, Recipe by Susan Rebillot

My Italian-American father had some food traditions for holidays. His family was from the Abruzzi region of Italy, where prime pork is raised and revered, and my father made a meat stuffing that he used to stuff roast capon for Thanksgiving or Christmas, and a Roast Breast of Veal for Easter. This stuffing was legendary in our family, and I decided to use a rendition of it to stuff mushrooms. This turned out to be a very happy marriage of earthy funghi and savory, spicy, porky filling!

Ingredients
Makes 60 large mushrooms

1 and 1/2 pounds of bulk Italian sausage from your trusted source (my local Italian market, Mazzaro’s, has incredible sausages!)
1 pound of Angus ground chuck
1/2 pound finely chopped prosciutto
1 and 1/2 cups fine fresh breadcrumbs (I use crumbs from either a Tuscan load of a Rosemary loaf from my Italian baker)
1 bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped
5 fat cloves garlic, peeled, smashed and finely chopped
3 large eggs, beaten
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
60 very large white mushrooms for stuffing

Method

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Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
You will need a full sheet pan with lip, brushed lightly with olive oil. (You can line the pan with foil to minimize the clean-up or use a disposable baking tray, as I did).
Clean the mushrooms with a brush or damp paper towel, changed frequently.
Trim out the stems, chop the tender bits and add to the stuffing, and save the tougher buts for making vegetable stock.
Lightly mix together in a large bowl, all of the remaining ingredients.
Stuff the mushrooms with a generous tableware tablespoon, rounding the top.

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Bake for 35 – 45 minutes. Check them at 35 for browning, and cut into one to check for any pinkness in the meat stuffing.
The mushrooms are done when there is no longer a pink color to the meat stuffing, and the tops are nicely browned.
Arrange them on a platter, garnish with fresh herbs, and serve warm.

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The mushrooms are tender in texture and earthy in flavor. The meat filling is powerful in pork flavor, with a hint of the prosciutto, garlic, cheese and herbs. This is a very savory bite with plenty of umami! Notice that there is no salt in the recipe–the salty flavor is contributed by the prosciutto and the Pecorino Romano cheese.

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Alsatian Tarte Flambé, Recipe by Susan Rebillot
Approximately 40 squares, one full sheet pan
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Ingredients

1 and 1/2 pounds quality pizza dough (when I have much to do and am making an unusually large tarte, I allow myself the convenience of using my local Italian market’s pre-made pizza dough, which is very high quality)
1 cup crème fraiche
1 and 1/2 cups finely grated Gruyere of Fontina cheese
6 large sweet onions, peeled, sliced thinly
1 bunch fresh thyme, leaves stripped from the stems
salt and pepper
Cornmeal
12 ounces Applewood-smoked bacon, cooked

Method

Line a full size sheet pan with lip with parchment paper and dust with cornmeal.
Peel each onion and cut them in half vertically. Place the cut side down, and cut thin 1/2 circle slices.
Sauté the onions in 2 Tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet (I use a 12 inch, shallow copper skillet for good heat conduction) over medium-low heat for about 45 minutes until caramelized a deep golden brown. You cannot rush this process. Put your feet up, relax, read or catch up on email!
Once the onions are ready, and the pizza dough has risen until double in volume, roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface until it will completely fill a full sheet pan.
Transfer the dough to the cornmeal dusted parchment in the sheet pan.
Combine the crème fraiche with 1 cup of the grated cheese and 2 Tablespoons fresh thyme leaves. Add salt and pepper. You can make your own crème fraiche by whisking 1/2 cup sour cream and 1/2 cup heavy cream together in a small mixing bowl.
Spread the crème fraiche mixture over the uncooked tarte dough, leaving a 1/3 inch border of dough.
Spread the caramelized onions over the crème fraiche.
Scatter pieces of bacon over the tarte.
Scatter the remaining cheese over the tarte.
Scatter additional fresh thyme leaves over the tarte.
Bake at 450 degrees F until the edges and bottom are deep golden brown. The rust should have a nice crispness. This will take approximately 30 minutes.
Cool for 15 minutes prior to cutting it into squares and placing on the serving platter. Garnish with fresh thyme sprigs.

Caramelized onions

Caramelized onions

Pizza dough for crust

Pizza dough for crust

Crème fraiche and cheese mixture

Crème fraiche and cheese mixture

The tarte crust

The tarte crust

The assembled tarte, ready to bake

The assembled tarte, ready to bake

This version of Alsatian Tarte Flambe has a crisp, savory crust, the sweet and savory flavors of caramelized onions and herbs, and the smoky, salty flavor of bacon. Again, umami!! This is good served hot from the oven, or just warm. It pairs well with crisp, dry white wines, such as a dry Reisling or a Sauvignon blanc. For those who enjoy beer, this tarte pairs well with wheat beers.

I confess that I was so busy on party day that I neglected to take the final photos of the Tarte Flambé! The photo of a completed tarte in a fluted pan that is seen at the beginning of the post was taken at a previous dinner party, and was made with a buttery, flaky, savory tarte dough recipe from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table. If time allows, and you are making smaller tartes, then use removable bottom tarte pans and a good tarte dough recipe!

I hope that readers are enjoying the holiday season, and that you are cooking for friends and family! Gathering others around a table of thoughtfully. lovingly-prepared food for conversation and laughter is the best way to spend the holidays, don’t you think?

Please se the Comment box below to share your favorite special occasion appetizers and entertaining ideas, and your experiences if you try these recipes. I love to hear from you!

Savory Comfort Food for Cold Weather: Short Ribs Braised in Red Wine with Gorgonzola Sauce

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When cold weather arrives, we crave comfort foods–those higher-in-fat, creamier, often slow-cooked dishes that warm us and encourage us to linger over the meal, and that elicit exclamations about how good the food felt in our mouths. There was a very talented chef working in our area of the world, who began introducing short ribs in several forms to the menus of the several restaurants that she graced before moving on to somewhere else. There were braised short ribs served with polenta, short rib sandwiches, and short rib egg rolls served with gorgonzola sauce on the side. All were memorable for being very flavorful and tender and perfectly satisfying.

Short ribs are the cut off ends of the prime rib, and the meat becomes meltingly tender when braised in liquid. They are high in fat, and since fat is a great distributor of flavor, the meat is very flavorful. So, we had a drop in temperature recently, and I had a day when I could complete my Christmas card writing while I slow-cooked something, so my choice was Short Ribs Braised in Red Wine, with Gorgonzola Sauce on the side. I consulted Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, a favorite resource on my bookshelf, page 433. Short ribs are no longer an inexpensive cut of meat–they have grown immensely in popularity, appearing on many restaurant menus, sometimes ground up as part of the mix for gourmet burgers. Mark’s tips on browning and de-fatting were very helpful.

You may want to try this on some very cold January day, fireplace and candles lit, with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon!

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Susan’s Short Ribs Braised in Red Wine

Serves 4
Ingredients
2 and 1/3 pounds short ribs
2 sweet onions, peeled, cut into quarters
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1/2 bottle Cabernet Sauvignon, a good one that you would enjoy drinking
32 ounces beef stock
1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 or 5 sprigs fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 large Yukon Gold or Red-skinned potato per person, scrubbed, halved
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, cleaned, whole

Method

You can brown the ribs in olive oil in a shallow skillet to achieve caramelization before placing them in a deep pot that is good for slow-cooking. But, I elected another method that Mark mentioned–I roasted the ribs at 450 degrees F for about half hour until deep brown and aromatic, with just a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper. In this way, fat was rendered and I poured this off before deglazing the pan with a bit of wine.
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Then, place the ribs in the 5 quart pot; add the onions, mushrooms and garlic; add the wine; and add the stock and herbs.
Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and then reduce heat to simmer.
Cover the pot and simmer the ribs for 2 hours, or until the meat is falling off the bone and can easily be shredded with a fork.
During the last 45 minutes, add the potatoes.
Stir the pot very occasionally, just to insure that the potatoes and all ribs are submerged so that they will absorb all of the good wine, stock and herb flavors.

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If there appears to be substantial fat slick on the surface, use your handy de-fatting tool to de-fat, or follow Mark’s recommendations to refrigerate the pot long enough to be able to easily skim the fat from the surface.

To serve, remove the sprigs of herbs. Remove the ribs and pull the meat from the bone, shredding.
Place the potatoes, onions, mushrooms and some of the braising liquid into a serving bowl.
Place the shredded meat on a platter.
Serve with ladles of the delicious braining liquid and a crusty bread to mop up every last delicious, rich drop!

Gorgonzola Sauce
Makes about 1 cup

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If you would like to serve a decadent, rich sauce that compliments these short ribs, or a holiday roast prime rib, or beef tenderloin, or a grilled steak, or a burger, then try this one.
Ingredients
1 cup heavy cream
1 ladle of the braising liquid
4 ounces Gorgonzola cheese
salt and pepper
2 Teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, stripped from stem

Method

Pour the cream into a medium saucepan and reduce over medium heat for about 10 minutes, reduced by about 1/3 volume.
Add a ladle of the hot braising liquid, or if making for burgers or a steak, hot beef stock
Whisk in 4 ounces Gorgonzola cheese, crumbles, and stir until smooth and slightly thickened.
Add the thyme leaves and salt and pepper to taste.
Serve in a sauce bowl.

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The short ribs, potatoes, mushrooms and onions were all meltingly tender, and rich with savory flavor of beef, wine and herbs. The mushrooms really absorb the wine and stock and add a richly earthy flavor. The Gorgonzola Sauce added a luscious creamy texture and piquant gorgonzola flavor.
Very satisfying, and pairs well with a Cabernet Sauvignon

I served some gorgeous fresh Brussels sprouts, first browned a bit in olive oil with some slices of garlic, then, garlic removed, cooked in a syrupy combination of balsamic vinegar and honey, salt and pepper, just until tender.

This was a richly satisfying meal for a cold evening, and I am now searching for some other recipes for short ribs!

Readers, please share comments if you try this recipe, or if you have comments to share about favorite comfort foods for cold days! The Comments box follows each post.

Decadent Holiday Desserts, Pumpkin-Ganache-Tiramisu Trifle and a Classic Chocolate Cake!

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As the holidays approach, I gather all of my old favorite recipes together, but I am always excited to create and share something new. This year, I consulted my niece, Heather–a terrific cook and baker–about Thanksgiving Day desserts. She chatted with me about a recipe that she found for a Pumpkin and Chocolate Tiramisu. Pumpkin and chocolate definitely have an affinity for each other. I began to think about a light, silky pumpkin mousse containing mascarpone, a fudgy river of dark chocolate ganache, and Italian ladyfingers brushed with rum, all layered in an elegant cut-glass bowl. And, there you have it–Pumpkin-Ganache-Tiramisu Trifle!

My husband’s birthday falls within a few weeks of Christmas, and this year, he requested a classic chocolate layer cake with chocolate frosting. So, I turned to an old Martha Stewart favorite recipe for Devil’s Food Cake. When I thought about the icing, I decided that it was time to attempt Italian Meringue Buttercream, that silken, luscious buttercream that is an essential reason why we all love quality wedding cake so much! Last year, I took a pastry-making class from a Master Pastry Chef, and this icing was one of our assignments in his commercial kitchen. It is a bit labor intensive and a fussy process, but I decided to follow my favorite advice from Julia Child and to be fearless in the kitchen. Although I was creating this for John’s birthday, I decorated it in a way that would be suitable for a holiday table–some fresh mint leaves and red candied cherries!

Pumpkin-Ganache-Tiramisu Trifle
, adapted from a recipe for Gingerbread-Chocolate Pumpkin Mousse Trifle by The Smart Cookie Cook blog

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8-10 servings
Ingredients
14 ounces of imported Italian Ladyfingers ( I used Vicenzi Vicenzovo ladyfingers, imported from Italy, found at the local Italian market)

For the Mousse
15 ounces pumpkin puree, not pie filling
8 ounces mascarpone cheese, softened
2 cups heavy cream chilled
1 and 3/4 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon salt

For the Ganache
16 ounces of dark, semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream

Method
You will need an attractive large glass bowl for best presentation.
This dessert is best made 24 hours prior to serving and stored in the refrigerator.

First, make the ganache. Heat the heavy cream in a small saucepan and heat over medium heat until it just comes to a boil.
Place the chopped chocolate in a large, heat-proof bowl, and pour the hot cream over it.
Stir the chocolate and cream until all of the chocolate is melted and the ganache is smooth. Set is aside.

Make the Pumpkin Mousse.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the mascarpone, the pumpkin the spices and salt until well combined and smooth.
In a separate bowl, beat the heavy cream and powdered sugar until stiff peaks form.
Fold the whipped cream into the pumpkin mixture, folding it in gently so that you do not deflate the mousse.

The Assembly
Brush the ladyfingers with rum or brandy.
Place a layer of lady fingers on the bottom of the bowl to cover and then stand ladyfingers on end around the perimeter of the inside of the bowl.
Add one-third of the Pumpkin Mousse. Add a layer of rum-brushed ladyfingers. Drizzle with ganache in rivers, allowing it to flow down the sides of the bowl between the ladyfingers.
Add another third of the mousse, additional ladyfingers, and ganache.
Add the last portion of the mousse, and drizzle with ganache.

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Chill at least 6 hours prior to serving.

This dessert is festive in appearance, and our guests loved it on Thanksgiving Day! They enjoyed the traditional flavor of pumpkin and spices, but in a new form. The lady fingers soften and absorb the rum and some of the mousse filling. The Mousse is light, creamy and warmly spiced, very silky in the mouth. The rivers of ganache are dark, luscious chocolate and pair beautifully with the Pumpkin Mousse.

This is one of those recipes that I love so much, because you can create other flavors using this basic technique for a Tiramisu Trifle. For Christmas, brush the ladyfingers with Limoncello, omit the pumpkin puree, and flavor the Mousse with vanilla and lemon zest. Layer the Tiramisu Trifle with fresh, sweetened raspberries and raspberry sauce. Perhaps just a drizzle of dark chocolate ganache on top! Let your creativity go, and create your own original!

Chocolate Devil’s Food Cake with Chocolate Italian Meringue Buttercream, adapted from The Martha Stewart Cookbook, pages 517 and 559. The recipe is paraphrased by me here, with just a few little alterations.

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When you want a decadent, class chocolate layer cake for a special occasion, whether it is a birthday or Christmas, this is it! The end result is a tall layer cake, tender and moist with rich chocolate flavor, with silky, incomparable Italian Meringue Buttercream. I used a bit more melted chocolate–bittersweet–to the cake batter recipe, and I added 5.3 ounces melted and cooled bittersweet chocolate to the buttercream as the final step.

You will need 3-9 inch cake pans. I actually used 1-9 inch cake pan and 1-9 inch, deep springform pan out of necessity–I was missing one cake pan! Butter the pans and set aside.
Preheat eh oven to 350 degrees F, and place the rack in the center of the oven.

Ingredients
The Cake
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate (I used 5.3 ounces bittersweet)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
5 eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour sifted (I used Fine Cake Flour)
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Method
Preheat the oven and butter the pans.
Melt the chocolate in a double boiler over simmering water and set aside.
Pour the boiling water over the baking soda in a heat-proof bowl. Add the melted chocolate. Set aside to cool a bit.
Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light, pale yellow, and fluffy in a medium bowl.
Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition.
Alternately add the buttermilk and the flour to the butter/eggs mixture in small amounts, incorporating well after each addition.
Add the melted chocolate and the vanilla and stir well.
Pour the batter into the prepared pans and smooth well.
Bake for 30 minutes or until a tester placed in the center comes out clean.
Cool the cakes in the pan for a few minutes, and then invert onto racks to cool thoroughly.

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Chocolate Italian Meringue Buttercream

Ingredients
2 cups sugar
2/3 cup water
6 egg whites
pinch salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
5 sticks of salted butter, room temperature ( 1 pound plus 8 Tablespoons)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 Tablespoons Grand marnier or brandy

Method

Combine the sugar and water in a medium heavy saucepan over medium heat and bring it to a boil without stirring, covered, for 3-5 minutes.
Uncover it and boil until it registers 240 degrees F on a candy thermometer, or until a drop of in in cold water forms a soft ball.
While the syrup is cooking, beat the egg whites with salt and cream of tartar until stiff peaks form.
Drizzle 1/4 of the sugar syrup into the egg whites, a few drops at a time, beating at high speed as you add the syrup.
Gradually add the rest of the syrup, drizzling it in a fine stream as you continue to beat at high speed for 8-12 minutes.
The meringue will cool down as you beat it. This is essential, because next, you will add butter.
In a separate bowl, beat the butter until it is light and fluffy.
Add the butter, just a few tablespoons at a time to the meringue, beating well after each addition, until all butter has been incorporated.
The mixture will be very thick and creamy.
Add the cooled melted chocolate, if you are flavoring with chocolate. Fold gently until it is incorporated.
If the icing does not seem thick enough, place it over a bowl of ice and stir–the ice will cool the butter and the meringue, and it should thicken nicely.

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Cake Assembly
Place a layer on a clean surface and brush the top with brandy. Then, apply a thin crumb coat of buttercream on the layer.
Repeat this crumb layer with the other layer or layers.
Place the layers in the refrigerator for 30-60 minutes.
Place a layer on the serving plate. Ice the top generously.
Place the next layer(s().
Apply the buttercream to the sides smoothly.
Apply the buttercream generously to the top.
Garnish as you like. I used fresh mint leaves from my herb garden and candied red cherries.

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Italian meringue buttercream does not freeze well, so share this cake with friends and family, ad refrigerate any leftovers. Best if eaten within a day or two.

This cake has tender, moist crumb, a rich, dark chocolate flavor, and makes a tall beautiful layer cake. Brushing a brandy or rum or liquor on the layers is certainly optional. The Italian Meringue Buttercream is decadent, lush and silky in the mouth, light, creamy, dreamy! It is almost light whipped cream. Once you have this buttercream. other types of icing are not so appealing!

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16 days until Christmas Eve! What decadent, traditional, or new desserts will you serve? Share your favorites in the Comments box, as well as any questions or comments about this post.

Pantry Essentials: Holiday Condiments that Sparkle!

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When the holiday season arrives, I begin to think about those special extra touches, those added conveyors of layers of flavor that I may not add to the table on an everyday basis.  I want condiments that sparkle in both flavor and appearance and that are versatile.  Can they be utilized in more than one way?  In savory or sweet applications?  On a cheese board or served alongside a gorgeous roast?  Is it possible that they can be gifted in a lovely jar with ribbon for guests to take home?  Those are the condiments that I want to create!

Blackberry-Cranberry-Raspberry Sauce

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This recipe is really a mash-up of multiple recipes that I have prepared through the years to serve with Thanksgiving Day roast turkey. During one year, I used a Bobby Flay recipe, Cranberry-Blackberry Relish, which I loved. But, I have family and friends who are not as fond of cranberries as I am, and do not like jalapeno, but I found that if I added a good proportion of other fruits, they enjoyed the sauce. The recipe is a savory-sweet-tart sauce that is excellent paired with poultry, is beautiful presented in jars as gifts, and, I must confess, is delicious over raspberry or vanilla bean gelato.  It would  be gorgeous in appearance and a wonderful pairing with Christmas holiday capon, turkey, or even ham.  It is delicious served on a cheese board with brie.

This recipe made sufficient sauce for serving 8 for Thanksgiving dinner, and a few small jars for gifting. It can be stored for about 3 weeks in the refrigerator.

Ingredients:

2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 sweet onion, finely chopped
1 Tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 and 1/2 cups fresh orange juice
1/2 cup sugar
12 ounces cranberries, divided in half
1 pint fresh blackberries
1 pint fresh raspberries
honey
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flake
2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest (this time of year, tangerines are fragrant, bright orange, which makes beautiful zest, and they are sweet!)

Method

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until softened and translucent.
Add the ginger and cook for 1 minute.
Add the orange juice, half the cranberries, and the red pepper flakes.
Cook, stirring occasionally, until the berries pop and are soft.
Add the remaining cranberries and cook for just a minute or two.
Remove from the heat and add the blackberries, raspberries, about a Tablespoon of honey and the orange zest.
Add 2 Tablespoons finely chopped flat leafed parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Taste and adjust seasonings.
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This version of cranberry sauce is sweet and tart, and the flavors of the raspberries, blackberries and cranberries are distinct flavors. There is a hint of ginger and red pepper flake for a slight heat, and there is fresh flavor of orange juice. The flavors are well-balanced. This sauce can be made ahead, and the flavors deepen as it cools.

Roasted Pear-Cranberry-Raisin Chutney
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I love the sweet-tart-tangy-savory flavor of chutneys! The inspiration for this particular chutney began with my love of roasted pears. In years past, I often prepared pears poached in wine as a dessert, as a gift-in-a-jar, or as a great garnish for holiday roasts. But, this year, I began roasting pears and discovered that roasting results in concentrated pear flavor with caramel-sweetness. Roasted Bosc pears began making appearances on charcuterie boards, with a dab of Point Reyes Bleu cheese and a drizzle of Cinnamon-Pear Balsamic. Roasted, beautifully golden brown and sliced and fanned out on a dessert plate with a scoop of gelato and a drizzle of sea salt and caramel sauce. Then, I created this chutney, beginning with roasted pears, which will pair well with roast pork or poultry, and will be equally welcome on a cheese board with a triple crème cheese, or a Huntsman, which is a Gloucester-Stilton combination.

Ingredients

6 ripe but still firm pears, Bosc or D’Anjou, halved and cored, skin on
12 ounces fresh cranberries
1/2 cup golden raisins, soaked in brandy for 1 hour and then drained
1 large shallot, finely chopped
2 fat cloves of garlic, minced
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1/3 cup vinegar of your choice (apple cider would be traditional, but6 I used a pear-cinnamon infused balsamic from Italy)
1/4 teaspoon crushed brown mustard seed (a Savory Spice Shop product)
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flake
1/4 cup White Moscato wine (or another sweet, white wine)
2 teaspoons lemon zest
orange zest for garnish

Method
Roast the pears, halved, cored, placed cut side down on parchment lines baking sheet with rim in a 425 oven for 30-40 minutes. The cut side will be caramelized and browned when down, but the pears will still hold their shape. Set aside to cool.

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Place the cranberries, sugar, vinegar, wine, and all seasoning in a medium saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil.
Lower the heat to simmer and simmer for 30-60 minutes, or until all the cranberries have burst and softened, and the sauce is thick.
Remove it from the heat.
Dice the pears, and add the pears and drained raisins to the chutney. Stir to combine.
Serve in a clear glass bowl or compote dish and garnish with grated lemon or orange zest. Actually, some candied orange peel would be lovely if you have some on hand, or have the time to make some!
This will keep for 1 month in the refrigerator.

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This chutney has the flavor punches that you expect from chutneys, but with the softer, milder balsamic vinegar and the sweet, deep flavor of the roasted pears. You will taste the savory shallot, a hint of garlic, an innuendo of brown mustard, and a harmonious blend of warm spices, and then the tart cranberries. This chutney would be wonderful with a roast pork loin or crown roast of pork, or with a ham.

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Here is an example of the versatility of roasted pears–I served a platter of them, dabbed with Point Reyes Bleu Cheese, drizzled with a bit of Cinnamon and Pear-infused balsamic vinegar as an appetizer on Thanksgiving Day.
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As the Christmas holiday approaches, there will be additional features about condiments and flavorful extra indulgences, such as Fig Port Wine Compote, to accompany a good brie, or a Pork Roast; a Gorgonzola Sauce to accompany your holiday Beef Tenderloin or Short Ribs; and a variety of Compound Butters. Please let me know if you have any requests for condiment recipes, or share your favorites as well as any other comments in the Comment box that follows each post.