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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.

Avocado on the Half-Shell

February 13, 2008

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 I’m not sure if this qualifies as a recipe, more a technique really, but it is my new favorite.  And it is beyond simple.  The only real requirement is an avocado in its perfect state, which isn’t hard to find right now.  I had almost given up on avocados through the fall; the ones we were finding were stringy and spotted.  But then I spotted some on sale last week and bought one.  It was everything an avocado should be: creamy and smooth, rich and still somehow green tasting – in a word, perfect.

 Since that find, I have eaten at least six avocados I can account for.  A couple in guacamole, true, but most eaten out of hand with a spoon, a drizzle of fresh lime juice, and a sprinkling of kosher salt.  I find them most pleasing when the flesh has been scored with a knife, allowing me to scoop a couple of chunks out at a time. 

 I have no problem polishing off a whole avocado by myself this way, but if you are feeling aesetic, or merely want to extend the joy to another session of standing in front of the kitchen sink, savoring each spoonful, you can wrap the half with the seed still in it tightly in plastic wrap, and it will keep for a short bit. 

 Eaten this way, an avocado is a secret pleasure, one that creates no dishes or mess.  Unsullied by competing flavors, one can comtemplate an avocado at its peak, spoonful by each perfect spoonful.  Consider it a love letter to oneself.

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 Last week, I found another cracker recipe on 101 Cookbooks and decided to take it as a sign. I love crackers and should probably buy some stock in the producers of Triscuits as many as I go through. And I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that making a batch of my own crackers wouldn’t be too hard – no yeast or rising required, but cracker recipes are relatively few and far between. When Heidi first published a recipe for crackers made with polenta, I was, of course, without polenta in the house. By the time I bought some, the cracker project had been forgotten. So last week’s post on semolina crackers was a nice reminder of that original mission and I happened to have some semolina sitting aimlessly in my pantry.

 The cracker dough couldn’t have been easier – all-purpose flour, semolina, salt, extra-virgin olive oil and water – mixed together, portioned out and let to rest. Glossy and pliable, the dough was easy to roll out; I used my pasta roller, which I adore and love any excuse to use, to thin the dough evenly. Using smaller balls of dough than Heidi reccommended, I was able to roll them thinner for a more crisp snap and then finished them in the oven on a hot baking stone.

 One of the strengths of this recipe, as Heidi notes, is the ability to play around with flavorings. I started with plain sea salt and fresh-ground black Tellicherry peppercorns, moved on to red pepper flakes and parmesan (which didn’t stick very well), and ended with balti seasoning, a spice mix from Penzey’s that contains coriander, garlic, ginger, cumin, dundicut chilies, Ceylon cinnamon, and quite a few other indian-inspired spices. The balti crackers were my favorite, delicately scented with just a hint of heat.

 After finishing the crackers, I wanted to pair a spread with the indian flavors of the balti spice without overwhelming the crackers I had just spent an hour rolling out and baking. Looking through the pantry, I decided on a classic hummus. It’s one of my go-to recipes, something I’ve been making regularly since I discovered it in college, one of my first culinary epiphanies. Concerned about my large consumption of hummus from tiny tubs in the grocery store, my friend Abby dug up a recipe for me. I can remember the awe I felt upon first making it – “This is so easy! And it tastes better! And it’s cheaper! Why didn’t anyone tell me this was this easy?” (I guess Abby did.) And I’ve been making this hummus ever since.

Hummus Bi Tahini

     thanks to Abby, makes ~ a little less than a quart, which goes pretty fast at my house

  • 2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed

sprinkle the minced garlic with a pinch of kosher salt, then scrape/press it across the cutting board with the edge of a knife to form a paste, breaking down the individual bits of garlic. add to the bowl of a food processor along with

  • 2 (15 oz) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup tahini (sesame paste)
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup warm water

process on low until oil is incorporated.

  • 2 lemons
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teapoons ground cumin, optional

add the juice of one lemon, salt, pepper, and cumin if you are using it. process until smooth and creamy. taste. add more lemon juice and seasoning to taste. the tasting part is key, as is a bit of restraint with the garlic and lemon. I’ve gone overboard with both in the past in this recipe and I’ve found that tasting carefully for balance between the ingredients is key here. you can also add a bit more warm water if you are looking for a creamier, more dip-friendly texture after you have got the acidity right.

for a pretty presentation, spoon into a serving bowl, make an indentation in the center, pool extra-virgin olive oil in the indentation and sprinkle with za’atar, a middle-eastern spice blend, or a bit of cayenne.