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I adore shopping at asian groceries because of the element of suprise, those moments of “what is this?” and “how could I use up this?”.  I always end up with something I haven’t had the chance to cook with before.  Usually I end these trips at home curled up with Asian Ingredients by Bruce Cost, which provides clear explanations, pictures, and recipes of many things I can’t even begin to pronounce.  Wheeling my cart around the produce section, I came across kumquats.  Charmed by the idea of tiny citrus and having no idea what to do with them, I took them home with me. 

This time though I thought of Chez Panisse Fruits, a cookbook I always flip through with good intentions, happily browsing the stylized relief prints and reading the essays before giving up because I live 300 miles from the nearest Meyer lemon.  I rushed home with my kumquats, sure that Alice Waters would approve and I would finally cook something from this beautiful cookbook! 

I was right – Alice had some great ideas for me, from a spring onion kumquat relish to candied kumquat slices.  Apparently, kumquats are the only citrus in that the skin is sweet and the flesh is tart, which sounded perfect for marmalade to me.  The thin skins also mean you don’t have to go through the blanching step that other citrus marmalades require.

Thankfully, I hadn’t bought all that many kumquats, so I didn’t have to feel bad about not actually canning anything, just making a jar to keep in the fridge.  The recipe only calls for two ingredients: kumquats and sugar, though I added some lemon juice for brightness, and couldn’t be any easier.  The results were stunning, a sweet-tart marmalade with an unusual flavor…

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Kumquat Marmalade

     adapted from Chez Panisse Fruits, makes a couple of cups

  • 1/2 pound kumquats
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice

cut off the stem end of the fruit, then split each lengthwise.  slice each half into 1/8-inch moons, removing and discarding the seeds as you slice.  place the kumquats into a small saucepan and just cover with water.  add sugar and bring to a boil over high heat for 15 minutes, skimming off any foam that comes to the top.  reduce heat and continue simmering until the marmalade thickens to the consistency you like.  add the lemon juice and stir. let cool, then put in a pretty jar and refrigerate.

The marmalade came out so well that I decided I needed something to eat it on and with a quickness.  For me, that means biscuits, probably my favorite quickbread.  I used to be intimidated by biscuit-making and, trust me, I had made my share of hockey pucks to prove why.  Two things have revolutionized biscuits for me: powdered buttermilk and a really good recipe.  I stand by them both and I now make darn good biscuits to prove it.  Ones that are pretty enough for a photo shoot, if they last that long…

I discovered the powdered buttermilk when I was packing foods up for my dad to take on a long hiking trip and I haven’t looked back since.  I occasionally buy buttermilk for projects like buttermilk-marinated fried chicken, but it never seemed like I had any around when I needed it for baked goods.  If I did buy it for biscuits, I would use half a cup and then the rest would slowly, despite my best intentions, go bad in the fridge.  Now I can whip up a batch of buttermilk biscuits without running to the store.  Completely worth it, I promise.  Go buy some, toss it in the back of your fridge, and you will be amazed how often it comes in handy. 

The recipe comes from The New Best Recipe from the editors of Cook’s Illustrated, a cookbook I turn to regularly for baking, and produces the best biscuits I have ever made.  Using the food processor, it takes me six minutes flat to get these biscuits in the oven and another ten to bake, which makes them possible for everyday, rather than just special occasions or Sundays.

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Buttermilk Biscuits

     adapted from The New Best Recipe, makes 8 biscuits

adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 450 degrees. line an ungreased baking sheet with a piece of parchment (optional).

  • 1 cup (5 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) plain cake flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons powdered buttermilk

place into the bowl of a food processor, blitz ten seconds to mix dry ingredients.

  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 inch cubes

sprinkle the butter cubes evenly over the dry ingredients.  process in twelve 1-second pulses. add

  • 3/4 cup water

process until dough gathers into moist clumps, about eight 1-second pulses.  transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and gather it into a loose ball, being careful not to overmix.  cut the ball into quarters, then split each quarter into eighths.  with floured hands, shape a rough ball of each piece and place on the baking sheet, about a half-inch to an inch apart.  bake for ten minutes, check and put in for a minute or two more if needed to achieve golden biscuit perfection.

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I was reading Julia and Jacques Cooking At Home yesterday – in bed, I might add.  At five pounds of large-format hardcover, this is not the perfect book to cuddle up with.  I had put down this book for too long though, and glimpsing it on the shelf, I grabbed it on the way upstairs.

I like this cookbook for the back-and-forth bantering exchange between two such amazing chefs.  First, Julia will say “Well, when making such-and such, I like to…”, then on the opposite page, Jacques will say “Julia likes to do it this way, but I prefer…” and come up with a completely different method.  It reminds me that there is always more than one way to do something and do it well. 

My scrambled egg technique (from Jacques) is flawless.  They were, in fact, the first thing I ever cooked for my boyfriend (intimidatingly at the time, a professional cook).

This go around, the book threatening to suffocate me if I fell asleep and the snow falling outside, I was looking for recipes to use some of the beautiful savory bacon I had cured.  Flipping through, I came across a recipe for potato salad that included bacon and had the added advantage of tossing the hot potatoes with cider vinegar, a technique I’d never considered. 

So this morning when I woke up, I wasn’t too suprised that I had a serious jones for some potato salad, even if it wasn’t picnic weather.   It’s one of the first things I can ever remember making, probably in first grade, with some precooked potatoes and illustrated recipe cards.  I might have added too much vinegar then, because ever since, I have been a fan of tart potato salad.  This one completely fits the bill.

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Classic American Potato Salad

     adapted from Julia Child in Jacques and Julia Cooking At Home, serves 2 or 3

  • 1 pound Yukon Gold, or other waxy variety, potatoes
  • 1 teaspoon salt

peel potatoes and slice into 1/2 inch chunks.  put in a saucepan and just cover with water.  add salt.  bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer for 6 to 7 minutes.  check potatoes to make sure they are tender and cooked through.  drain and toss with

  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar

let sit 10 minutes, tossing occasionally, to absorb the vinegar.

  • 1/3 cup red onion, finely chopped
  • 2 slices bacon, crisped and chopped
  • 1-2 tablespoons cornichons (or dill pickles), finely chopped
  • 1 hard-boiled egg, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 1 scallion, finely chopped, including some of the greens

combine and toss gently with potatoes. 

  • 1/3 cup mayonaise
  • 1-2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
  • salt and fresh-ground pepper, to taste

fold into potato mixture, tasting and correcting for balance.  refrigerate at least an hour to chill and retaste for seasoning and acidity.