Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday Food & Wine Finds: September 17, 2010

Once again, it's Friday and I haven't posted a recipe all week. I sort of feel like a slacker, but in my defense, I just got back from San Antonio on Wednesday. That's a good excuse, right?? No? Well, maybe these food and wine links will help...

The Top Chef finale. What can I say (without revealing the winner's name for those of you who DVR like me)?? It was a completely shocking decision, and one that I certainly didn't see coming (neither did he. Padma: "You are Top Chef." The winner: "I am??") Please Pack Your Knives and Go has a recap, and it's clear they're just as befuddled at the judge's decision as I was (when the winner was declared, I shrieked "WHAT???" in an octave which can only be heard by dogs).

Turns out Bravo accidentally revealed the winner a little early. Whoops.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday Food & Wine Finds: September 10, 2010

Happy Friday! I'm currently writing this dispatch from the glamorous Des Moines airport, where the vast food and beverage choices would make your head spin. OK, I'm kidding. There's a coffee shop, and that's about all I can say. But luckily, I'm off to San Antonio today and looking forward to some excellent Tex-Mex food. Anyone have recommendations for me? Leave them in the comments!

On to the food and wine finds...

This NY Times article describes the recent rise of boozy ice cream drinks. Um, with all due respect to the Times, I'm pretty sure my roommates and I invented boozy ice cream drinks back in college. Captain Morgan ice cream floats, anyone?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Friday Food & Wine Finds: September 3, 2010

Happy National Grilled Cheese Day!

Seriously, September 3rd is National Grilled Cheese Day. (Would I make this up?? I heard it on Twitter, so clearly it must be true.) Actually, Foodimentary says today is also National Welsh Rarebit Day. Though in this particular case, I'm fairly sure "National" refers just specifically to the nation of Wales. I doubt that anyone in this particular country has taken to the streets to celebrate Welsh Rarebit. Though perhaps they should... it sounds like a slightly more sophisticated grilled cheese. No wonder it shares a day of celebration with my beloved grilled cheese.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Recipe: Risotto with Tomato and Goat Cheese

Risotto gets a bad rap as a laborious and time-consuming dish, but the truth is, I secretly enjoy making it. Maybe it has something to do with the the fast pace and busy workload of a typical weekday, but I find that the whole process of infusing hot liquid into rice is incredibly relaxing. For twenty minutes, all I have to do is stand in front of the stove, wait, and occasionally stir. The best part? At the end, I get to enjoy a creamy, rich risotto.

I almost always have Arborio rice in my cupboard, but I rarely have chicken stock. For a long time, this kept me from making risotto as often as I'd like. For some reason, it never occurred to me that a quick vegetable stock - or even hot water! - could create risotto equally as well as chicken stock. A couple of weeks ago, I read a Mark Bittman article on how easy it is to make risotto with any hot liquid. Lacking chicken stock (as usual), I decided to take his advice and make garlic stock.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday Food & Wine Finds: August 27

Hi everyone! I'm off to Kansas City today, but thought I'd throw together a quick round of food & wine finds before I go. By the way, I keep hearing conflicting opinions - really, what's the best barbecue in Kansas City? Arthur Bryant's or Oklahoma Joe's? I know Anthony Bourdain is a big Oklahoma Joe's fan, which tends to sway me. Let me know in the comments if you feel otherwise (or if you have any other fun KC recommendations for me).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Recipe: Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho

For a quick summer meal that's fresh and seasonal, there's nothing tastier and easier than gazpacho. The term 'gazpacho' usually refers to a tomato-based soup which doesn't require cooking and is served chilled; beyond that, there are infinite variations. More often than not, gazpacho recipes include liquids like chicken stock, tomato juice, or even water to thin out the vegetable puree. Because it's August and the farmer's market is filled with truly wonderful heirloom tomatoes right now, I wanted to make a gazpacho that would allow their flavor to shine through. I added a little olive oil and red wine vinegar for texture and taste, but all the rest of the liquid in this recipe comes from the tomatoes themselves rather than from stock or purchased juice. Because it highlights the flavor of the fresh vegetables so well, it's the perfect vehicle for my best farmer's market finds.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Food & Wine Finds: August 20

Happy Friday! Today marks the start of Restaurant Week in Des Moines, which means $25 three-course dinners all week long from some of my favorite spots around town. (Most restaurants are also offering 2-for-$25 lunches, but since I'm never in Des Moines during the day, I won't be partaking in any lunch specials and thus I like to pretend they don't exist.) 

To celebrate the best week of the year, I've decided to devote this edition of Friday Food & Wine Finds to highlighting the best-looking Restaurant Week menus around town. Since Restaurant Week actually runs for ten days (August 20-29), I'll choose my top ten destinations, one for each day. Just for fun, I'll also tell you what I would order at each restaurant. Here they are!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Recipe: Caramelized Onion, Shiitake, & Goat Cheese Ravioli

I grew up in a strict no-onion household. My dad has harbored a lifelong aversion to onions, aided first by my grandmother, who routinely makes a small "Scott-only" version of every dish she prepares, and then by my mother, who was never a big fan of onions anyway and was quite happy to ban them from her kitchen.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Recipe: Homemade Pasta

I've written before about how dried pasta is my go-to meal when I'm too tired to put anything else together, but fresh pasta is a whole new level of kitchen mastery. Ever since I first made gnocchi and marveled in amazement at how potato and flour could form a concoction of legitimate shape and texture, a pasta machine has been on my wish list. In awe, I would watch shows like Top Chef Masters where someone whips out a pasta machine and, moments, later, fresh ravioli emerges. I couldn't wait to try it myself.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Travel: Atlanta

I travel pretty regularly for work, and generally speaking, I enjoy it. I love having the opportunity to get lost in a brand-new city: exploring new places, creating new experiences, and leaving with a long list of favorites to revisit next time around. But when I found out I would be heading to Atlanta during the absolute hottest part of the year... well, let's just say I wasn't exactly rushing to pack my bags. Never having been to Atlanta, I didn't know a lot about the city, but you don't need to be a travel expert to know that visiting any place nicknamed "Hotlanta" in late July is not exactly going to be pleasant.

Luckily, I was wrong. Well, kind of wrong; the weather was, in fact, miserable. It was the sort of suffocating heat that steams up your sunglasses the minute you step outside and doesn't let you take a breath until you're well within the safety of air conditioning. But the city itself was full of pleasant surprises.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday Food & Wine Finds: August 13

It's the end of another week and time for my weekly compendium of what's new, fresh, and exciting in the world of all things food and wine (but especially beer this week. I should find a way to work that into the title of these posts). Here we go!

Are you a budding food star? Know someone who should be a TV Chef? The Food Network is now accepting applications for Season 7 of the Next Food Network Star. Yes, you too could be the next Dzintra. (No? No one else watches that show? Oh well. Suffice it to say she drove me crazy and got kicked off early.)

Believe it or not, you can now "get frosted" (really) at a new Pop-Tarts cafe in Times Square. While I can't imagine going all the way to NYC to eat pop-tart sushi (yes, that's a real thing), I got really excited at the mention of PUMPKIN pop-tarts. Really? There are pumpkin pop-tarts?? How did I not know about this?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Recipe: Fried Chicken Livers with Tomato and Goat Cheese

I never had one of those "liver and onions" childhoods. (In my mind, being fed liver and onions goes hand-in-hand with "I had to walk five miles to school, uphill, both ways.") For me, liver of any kind was the stuff of legend - never touched it, never tasted it, never even saw it. I had the vague idea that livers were something disgusting served to punish children. Whenever I bought a whole chicken, I couldn't discard the bag containing the neck and livers fast enough. What else was I going to do with those things?? I had no idea how to prepare them. Chicken livers are notably absent from my go-to cookbook How to Cook Everything... and if they're not in How to Cook Everything, well, maybe they're not supposed to be cooked.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Recipe: Avocado Salsa, or "Megan's Dip"

Though it's simple to make, this is by far my most-requested dish. Because I can put most of it together ahead of time and then store it in the fridge, I end up serving it at nearly every party - at this point, I could probably make it in my sleep. It's great with fresh summer produce, easy to put together, and it's even been known to win over a few avocado detractors. In fact, by posting this on my blog, I feel like I'm about to give away some sort of long-held secret recipe (complete with a proprietary blend of thirty-seven herbs and spices!).

There are several well-known variations on this dish (usually called cowboy caviar or Texas caviar), but it's only ever referred to as "Megan's Dip" in my family. At mom's recent birthday party, my sister and I tried to rename it "Avocado Salsa" thinking it would be more descriptive and helpful for party guests, but it didn't take. Mom continued to refer to it Megan's Dip, so I finally gave up - the name has stuck.

This leads to frequent protestations (not to mention eye rolling) from my brother. It was actually Trevor who first introduced a variation of this dip to our family after one of his friends shared it with him. Every time I serve it, I'm reminded of this fact. "Poor Marisa," he'll say with a rueful shake of his head. "The only good thing she's ever made, and now everyone calls it 'Megan's Dip.'" What can I say? Sorry, Marisa. The recipe was too good to leave alone.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Friday Food & Wine Finds: August 6

Happy Friday! It's time for another roundup of my latest finds, articles, and creative kitchen inspiration. I'm sticking to "Friday Food and Wine Finds" for now, though I think it lacks a little creativity. Naturally, suggestions are still welcome if you come up with a better idea!

Tonight, Des Moines is hosting this fabulous-looking al fresco dinner prepared by notable local chefs. Of course, it comes with an equally fabulous price tag, but it looks incredible and I would LOVE to go. Maybe next year! 

Building on last week's post on DIY barstools, check out this dining table made from shipping pallets. I am really taken with this idea... so taken that I am currently fighting the temptation to grab a pallet and build one myself.

I subscribe to too many magazines, which I never get around to reading until I'm traveling and have some serious airplane time to kill. I just finally read my July issue of Food & Wine this week, and I'm now obsessed with this barbecued chicken recipe from Tim Love. I'm not a big chicken person, but this recipe looks so, so good.  I truly can't wait to try it!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Recipe: Rhubarb Ginger Frozen Yogurt

By now, I'm pretty sure my love for rhubarb is well-documented on this blog. Along with asparagus, rhubarb is one of my favorite harbingers of spring. As soon as the first farmer's market rolls around in May, I search out the brightest, reddest stalks and buy pounds of it every week - much to the chagrin of my mother, who is kept in constant, free supply by a generous friend with a garden and plenty of rhubarb to spare. Ahem. Step it up, friends with backyards.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Food & Wine Finds

So... what do you think of the new title? I rather liked Trevor's suggestion on my last Friday post for "Friday Offal Links," but maybe you have nicer things to think about today than dining on the internal organs of animals. 

And now that I've brought it up, I'm sure you can think of nothing else.

Anyway, what do you think of "Friday Food and Wine Finds?" Leave me a comment and let me know!

On to the food and wine finds...

I'm in Atlanta this weekend, so guess where I'll be eating tonight? Oh yes... Woodfire Grill, home of the bearded one. For those of you who don't watch Top Chef, this is the restaurant of last season's Kevin Gillespie where slow cooking rules and pork belly is king.  SO excited. If I survive without blowing a coronary artery, I'll report back on the food.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Recipe: Blueberry Mojito Frozen Yogurt

Last Friday was my dad's birthday, and once again I found myself headed up to Okoboji to celebrate. Because there was no elaborate surprise party involved this time, I didn't have to pull together three kinds of cupcakes. (Thank goodness!) However, my mom did get an entire dessert buffet's worth of food on her birthday; at the very least, dad deserved to have some kind of celebratory homemade dessert.

Friday, July 23, 2010

This post is not about herbicide.

I've got an idea I'd like to pitch to all 17 of my followers (as well as any lurkers who might be out there in the blogosphere reading Peas of my Heart anonymously, probably sitting in the dark while stroking a hairless cat. No? That's just in Bond movies? OK, if you say so).

I'm generally far too exhausted to type up an insightful post or a fun recipe on Fridays; besides which, it's summer and I've usually got an exciting, fulfilling weekend to start. (All right, so I'm just going to pour a glass of wine and binge on expensive cheese from Gateway Market. Don't judge; we all measure excitement differently.) Therefore, I'm starting a regular Friday feature rounding up articles, news, and thoughts from the week. To fit with the theme of my blog, I'll stick to the topic of food, drinks, and restaurants. 

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Recipe: Chocolate Chipotle Cupcakes with Cinnamon Buttercream

I realize what I'm about to say could be offensive to some of you, but I feel like most chocolate cupcakes are just kind of... uninteresting. They can get a little too rich for me, and if they are overly sweet, I get bored and don't want to finish them. Cut that sweetness with the hot, smoky flavor of a chipotle chile, on the other hand, and I'm completely on board.

The first time I tried a Mexican chocolate cake was on my brother's birthday in Minneapolis several years ago. I was sold from the first bite. Especially if you use dark chocolate, the deep, rich sweetness helps to keep the chiles and spices from being too overpowering. Unfortunately, when I tried to replicate the cake later, I couldn't find any recipes with the deep, smoky flavor I wanted. I started playing around in the kitchen, and eventually came up with a recipe of my own.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Recipe: Tres Leches Cupcakes topped with Dulce de Leche

When we started planning food for my mom's surprise birthday party, the main part of the menu was a no-brainer: Taco House. If you have never been lucky enough to visit this Okoboji staple, it's hard to describe the appeal; from the outside, it looks like a dirty, hole-in-the-wall restaurant with too little seating and far-too-long lines (or, at least, that's how Dad describes it). But the food... is... fantastic. Mom eagerly awaits the opening of Taco House every spring and mourns its closing in the fall - for her birthday, it was really the only choice.

To keep the Mexican theme going through dessert, my brother suggested tres leches cake. I'd never made it before, but it seemed like the perfect dessert for our theme. My sister-in-law got me started with a recipe from a coworker, and with minimal adaptation on my part, tres leches cupcakes were born.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Recipe: Bananas Foster Bread Pudding "Cupcakes"

Earlier this month, my dad threw my mom a huge surprise birthday party. My brother, sister and I all love food and entertaining, so we volunteered to plan the menu. Though we nailed down most of the elements pretty quickly, we were stuck on what to serve for dessert. Birthday cake was out of the question - I've never known my mom to get particularly excited for cake. In fact, she's notorious for skipping dessert altogether! None of us wanted to see her skip dessert at her own party; we wanted to come up with something she would truly love.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Recipe: Mint-Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

As I think I mentioned in this post, mint-chocolate chip ice cream was among my favorite childhood summer treats. I like my ice cream to have a little texture to it, and the crunch of the frozen chocolate is such a perfect counterpart to the cool, creamy mint. Since we frequently missed (or hid from, ahem) the Schwann's man on his weekly route, I don't remember actually having mint-chocolate chip ice cream in our freezer that often. Instead, I would order it whenever we went to dinner at Mrs. Lady's in Okoboji. It was a special treat for us to eat at Mrs. Lady's, but the most exciting part was being allowed to order ice cream cones for dessert. There was a mind-boggling variety of flavors to choose from - with particular aversion, I remember a horrifyingly pink and chewy bubble gum ice cream - but I always went for the mint chocolate chip.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Recipe: Easy Rosemary Roasted Beets

In the last couple of weeks, I've been playing with different ways to use beets from the farmer's market. Inspired by how well beets and rosemary worked together in last week's glorious beet hash browns, I decided to roast them in foil this time with rosemary, garlic, and olive oil.  The trick to roasting beets is not cooking them too long - otherwise they'll turn to mush - but just until they can be easily pierced with a knife.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Recipe: Pasta with Fresh Tomato Sauce

Anytime I lack the time or energy to make a full-on meal, I tend to fall back on pasta. It's quick to make, and even better, nearly foolproof to execute.

Of course, just because it's easy doesn't mean it has to be boring! If you have fresh tomatoes on hand, you can make homemade sauce in less than ten minutes. It'll take at least that long to boil the water and cook the pasta, so why not make fresh sauce instead of opening a jar?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Recipe: Beet "Hash Browns"

A somewhat shocking fact: I have never in my life eaten a beet until this week.

Last Saturday, I was intrigued by all the beets I saw at the farmer's market. At one particular stand, they were so ruby red and vibrant that I couldn't help buying a bundle of them. What was I going to do with them? Well, I would figure that part out later.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Recipe: Sauteed Beet Greens

I've recently become a big fan of beet greens. I bought a bunch of beets last weekend at the farmer's market, and I was thrilled to find that the greens are just as tasty as the roots - it's so nice to be able to use the beets for one dish and the greens for another without throwing anything away.

Wilted, garlicky greens couldn't be easier to throw together, and are especially good if you have some extra vegetables on hand to throw into the pan. I like to add carrots for a little sweetness, and French breakfast radishes for crunch. (French breakfast radishes are sweet and mild without the acidic tang of traditional radishes - I like them raw, but if you cook them lightly they'll lend a nice crisp texture to a dish like this one.)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Recipe: Brown Sugar and Banana Ice Cream

Just a few short weeks ago, I unexpectedly found myself in possession of a "vintage" ice cream maker (read more about that here), and immediately started researching recipes. When I read this article on the ReadyMade website, I knew I'd found a recipe worthy of my first batch of ice cream. The article is packed with great flavor combinations, but I instantly zeroed in on the Brown Sugar and Banana Ice Cream recipe. Anything that's described as "a delightful variation on Bananas Foster" is right up my alley.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I Scream, You Scream...

For most of my life, I never knew it was possible to make ice cream. The prevailing philosophy in my mother's kitchen is, "why bother making it when you can just buy it?"  As a consequence, a gallon of Schwan's mint chocolate chip was far and away the most exotic thing in our deep freeze. Of course, I was a big fan of that ice cream and would eagerly await the one day of each week when the Schwan's truck would stop at our door.  More often than not, my mom didn't want to buy anything and made us hide from the Schwan's man ("Ssshh! Pretend we're not home!"), but occasionally we would get lucky and end up with a stash of frozen treats. Choco tacos, ice cream sandwiches, drumsticks... these were my formative experiences with ice cream.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Recipe: Perfect Roasted Potatoes

Whether they're fried, baked, mashed, or roasted, I think potatoes are the ultimate comfort food.  My longstanding love affair with potatoes stems from my mother, who derives no particular joy from cooking but will make an exception when it comes to potatoes. I remember eating a lot of baked potatoes as a child, but occasionally - and this was a real treat - we'd have them tossed with dried rosemary and roasted until the skins attained a satisfying crunch. Other than peas (yes, really), I think roasted potatoes were my most often-requested dish growing up.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Recipe: Homemade Popcorn

OK, everyone. It's time for a pop quiz... literally!

Raise your hand if you eat microwave popcorn. Don't lie. Do you make it at work? Do you eat it while you watch movies at home? Wait... is there a box in your kitchen cupboard RIGHT NOW? There is, isn't there?

Homemade popcorn is my favorite snack. It's simple, healthy, and almost as fast to make as the microwave variety. Of course, you'll have to give up that gritty, chemical-tasting "butter" that clings stubbornly to your fingers, but you can add almost anything else you like: savory spices, parmesan and herbs, sugar and salt... and you don't even need special equipment. All you need to make your own delicious popcorn is is a heavy lidded pot, a little oil, and some good quality popcorn.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Recipe: Chiles Rellenos stuffed with Picadillo and Queso Fresco

There seems to be a lot of confusion over the proper terminology for the dish I'm about to describe. Is it chile relleno? Chiles relleno? Chiles rellenos? To tell the truth, I don't really know. My high school foreign language experience was limited to four years of German, so I'm far from an expert on proper Spanish conjugation. Mexican cooking, on the other hand, I can handle.

There are just as many variations for making chile rellenos as there are for spelling the name. I've had chile rellenos stuffed with beef, chicken, pork, or just cheese, and I've tasted batters ranging from a soft eggy coating to a crisp fish-and-chips style crust. I'm not a big fan of the fried-egg batter; I like my chiles rellenos to have a light coating with a just a little crunch. The recipe below has a light, crispy crust that comes from whisking the egg white separately, then combining with the yolk to make the traditional egg batter. Dipping the chiles into the flour twice gives you the desired crispiness, while the whipped egg whites keep it from being too heavy.

My favorite chiles rellenos are stuffed with picadillo, a stewed meat dish that usually includes nuts and raisins. I had canned pork from the meat locker in my pantry (occasionally my saving grace on busy weeknights), which I combined with homemade queso fresco, tomatoes, onions, garlic, golden raisins, walnuts, and spices.  You can stuff chiles rellenos with just cheese, but I like a more substantial filling if I'm making them as a main dish.

Recipe: Chiles Rellenos stuffed with Picadillo and Queso Fresco 4 large poblano peppers
1/4 cup walnuts
1/2 of one onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lb cooked, shredded pork
1/2 cup crumbled queso fresco
1 peeled, diced tomato
1/3 cup golden raisins
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp cumin
1 1/2 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp cayenne

For Batter:

1 cup corn masa flour (you can use all-purpose if you like, but corn flour tastes much better)
Salt and pepper
2 eggs, separated

For Salsa:

2 tomatoes, peeled and diced
1/2 of one onion, sliced thinly
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp cumin
2 jalepenos
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup cilantro leaves
Juice from 2 limes

Blacken the chiles and jalepenos by placing them directly on the burner of the stove, turning them frequently until the flesh is evenly charred and blistered. Place chiles in a plastic ziploc bag for 5-10 minutes - this will make the skin much easier to peel.

Once the chiles are cool, peel away the blistered skin and make an incision in each, starting just under the stem and ending about halfway down the length of the chile. Cut out the seeds and membrane from the inside with a paring knife, then scoop out any remaining seeds with a spoon. Be careful not to tear the chiles; they will be very delicate.

For salsa, toast 1 tsp cumin in saucepan until it begins to smoke, then add onion, 1 tbsp olive oil, and garlic. Cook until onion begins to brown. Add the rest of the ingredients except the jalepenos and simmer over low heat. Meanwhile, seed and chop the jalepenos. Add them to the pan and continue to simmer until salsa thickens slightly.

In a saute pan, toast walnuts with a little cumin until fragrant. Add the onion and garlic and cook for five minutes, or until the onion softens.

Stir in the shredded meat, tomatoes, raisins, nuts, and spices. Saute until meat mixture is dry, about 10-15 minutes, then remove from heat.

Stuff chiles with cheese, then with meat mixture.

Secure the slits with toothpicks - this will keep the filling inside the chiles while frying. You can remove the toothpicks before serving, so don't worry if this isn't very pretty!

Mix flour with salt and pepper. Dredge each chile in flour, then set aside on a plate.

Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. In a separate bowl, stir egg yolks just until combined. Gently fold yolks into whites, then transfer into a shallow container. Dip floured chiles into egg mixture, then into flour mixture again.

Keep all chiles on a plate until ready to fry.

Heat 1-2 inches of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. If you do this the non-scientific way like me, you can test the oil temperature by dipping a dry toothpick into the skillet - if the oil bubbles around the toothpick, it's ready.

Fry chiles two at a time, turning frequently, for a few minutes each. Chiles are done when the crust is flaky and golden brown.

Drain chiles on paper towels, then remove to a warm oven until all are finished frying.

Serve warm, topped with salsa and crumbled queso fresco.  Serves two as a main course, or four as an appetizer.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Recipe: Make Your Own Queso Fresco

I'd like to make a confession: I'm addicted to cheese. Doesn't matter if it's hard, soft, or blue. I love it all. Gruyere, Manchego, Emmental, Brie... the mere utterance of one of these words makes my mouth water. Given my strong affinity for cheese, I decided it was high time I made my own.

Queso fresco, the crumbly cheese that's a staple in Mexican food, literally means "fresh cheese." It's quick and simple to make - the only ingredients you'll need are milk, vinegar, and salt. Get the best quality milk you can find; since the recipe has so few ingredients, the milk's taste will be amplified when it turns to cheese.

At the end of this process you'll have a cup or two or cheese on your hands, and well over a quart of whey. While most people drain the whey down the sink, it can also be refrigerated and used later to make ricotta cheese. You can even substitute it for the water when cooking pasta or bread. It's full of nutrients and protein, so go ahead and save it if you're so inclined.

Queso Fresco
2 quarts very fresh milk
1 1/2 tbsp kosher salt or sea salt
3 tbsp white vinegar

Combine milk and salt in a pan and slowly turn up the heat to avoid scorching. Once milk is at a boil, immediately turn the heat to low and stir in the vinegar. The milk will start to curdle; gently stir with a wooden spoon for a couple of minutes until curds are fully developed.

Strain milk into a cheesecloth-covered strainer with a bowl underneath to catch the whey.

Squeeze any remaining liquids out of the cheesecloth.

That's it! The cheese is basically ready to eat now, but if you prefer, you can press it to make it more firm. To do this, squeeze out all liquid and shape the ball of cheese in a bowl, then cover with weighted plates and dishes to press the cheese.

Above: my makeshift cheese weights.

Store cheese in a closed container in the refrigerator.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Cocktail Hour: Rhubarb-Ginger Infused Vodka

After a particularly overzealous shopping expedition at the farmer's market, I found myself with quite a lot of rhubarb on my hands last week.  Having exhausted many of my best recipe ideas, I decided to try my hand at a rhubarb vodka infusion.   

Though strawberry and orange seem to be the most often-used complementary flavors for rhubarb, ginger is a little more unexpected and will give it a nice bite. This is one infusion I've never tried before, so I'm quite eager to see how it turns out.

Depending how tart the final product is, I think it would work nicely as a summer martini with champagne.

Rhubarb-Ginger Infused Vodka
1 pound rhubarb, cleaned and chopped into 1-inch segments
1 tsp fresh sliced ginger root
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 - .75 liter bottle of vodka

In a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine rhubarb, ginger, and sugars.  Pour vodka over and swirl to combine.  Seal the jar, making sure that the lid is airtight.

Leave jar in a cool, dark place for at least two weeks, swirling every couple of days to help the sugars break down.  When vodka is infused to desired level, strain the solids through a strainer, pressing on rhubarb to extract as much liquid as possible.  After passing through a metal sieve, strain again through coffee filters to catch any remaining solids.

Pour vodka back into the bottle and refrigerate.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Recipe: Rhubarb-Raspberry Bread Pudding

It was only a couple of years ago I realized that I liked bread pudding.  Up until then, something about the name had put me off; perhaps it made me think of that oft-served school lunch staple, rice pudding (shudder). 

The first time I actually tried bread pudding was in New Orleans, at Nola.  The first bite was a revelation - a billowy, soft custard with a syrupy glaze and just a hint of crunch.  It was like nothing I'd had before, and I couldn't believe I'd gone so many years without really knowing what the dish had the potential to be.  I never looked back - I've been baking bread puddings ever since.

In the winter months, my favorite recipe is a pumpkin bread pudding with brown sugar caramel. As pumpkin isn't exactly a summer staple, I decided to give a rhubarb and orange pudding a try.  The following recipe is loosely based on this one from Bon Appetit - I was missing some of the ingredients and wanted to refrigerate overnight, so I adapted as written below.

Starting with good bread is essential.  I made my own brioche for this one, but any stale, rich bread will do.

Rhubarb-Raspberry Bread Pudding
1 cup seedless raspberry preserves
1/2 cup orange juice
2 lbs rhubarb, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup raspberries
1 tbsp orange zest
3/4 cup brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 recipe homemade brioche cut into 1-inch pieces (or substitute a loaf of thick egg bread)

Whisk preserves and orange juice in a saucepan over medium heat.  When dissolved, add rhubarb , raspberries, and orange zest.  Cook until rhubarb is tender, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Pour mixture through a strainer set over a large bowl. Press on solids then allow to drain, about 15 minutes.  Reserve solids; at this point, sauce can be refrigerated.

Combine sugar, eggs, whipping cream, milk, and vanilla in a mixer.  With a wooden spoon, stir in the bread cubes and rhubarb solids, then pour the enture mixture into a greased 9 x 13 pan.  Press down on pudding with a wooden spoon to evenly distribute through the pan. Cover with foil and refrigerate at least 2 hours, or up to overnight.

When ready to cook, take the bread pudding out of the refrigerator and preheat the oven to 350 F.  Sprinkle the top of the pudding with a little brown sugar, then bake 30 minutes covered.  Uncover the pudding and bake for 15 more minutes, or until pudding is puffed and golden.

Meanwhile, take syrup out of the refrigerator and check for tartness - depending on your preserves and orange juice, you may need to whisk in up to 1/2 cup of sugar. Bring syrup to a boil and reduce to 1 cup, about 10 minutes.  Keep warm.

Serve puddings topped with warm syrup and whipped cream or (my favorite) ice cream.  Makes 16 servings.