Archive for November, 2009

I thought I had everything.

You know what I mean–you have an idea of what you’re going to make, and while you’re at the store, you’re picking everything you need, with the thought in mind that you already have one of the key ingredients at home.  You get home, and find that the ingredient you were sure you had isn’t there.

With the cooler weather finally taking root here, my thoughts turned to a creamy corn chowder, flavored with red peppers and bacon, and loaded with big, meaty pieces of shrimp.  I get home from the market, with everything I thought I needed for the chowder in tow.  I get the bacon cooking in the pot while I start chopping vegetables, and I bend down to retrieve a few potatoes from their storage drawer, and to my surprise, they were all gone!  It seems that Choo has taken a liking to making baked potatoes for his lunch, and I was completely out.

Now, see, it’s not a tragedy, because it certainly was a fine soup, but I can’t call it chowder.  Why?  One of our lessons in school was on chowders, and for a soup to be a true chowder, it must contain three items:

  1. Salt pork.  Traditionally, it’s fatback, but bacon works just fine.
  2. Dairy, either in milk or cream, or a combination of the two.
  3. Potatoes.

Ah, you see?

But it’s still a really good soup.

By the way, this recipe makes a rather big pot of soup, but this was even better the next day for lunches, and it freezes nicely.

Creamy Corn, Shrimp & Bacon Soup

1/2 pound of bacon, chopped

1 pound raw shrimp (medium-sized, 31-40), peeled and deveined

1 medium onion, small dice

1 red bell pepper, small dice

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 pounds corn kernels (frozen is just fine in this case)

4-5 sprigs fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

2 1/2 cups chicken stock ( a little more if you like it a bit soupier)

1 cup half & half

Salt & Pepper to taste

  1. In a large, heavy-bottomed stock pot, cook bacon until crispy over medium heat.  Remove bacon and set aside; drain all but 2-3 tablespoons of bacon fat from pot.
  2. In the remaining bacon fat, sauté shrimp until pink and flesh is firm, about 5 minutes.  Remove from pot and set aside.
  3. Add the onion, bell pepper, and garlic to pot, and sweat until vegetables are tender.
  4. Add corn, then add thyme, bay leaf, and chicken stock.  Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and let simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Remove thyme sprigs and bay leaf, and add half & half.
  6. Before bringing soup back to a full simmer, either use an immersion blender and give the soup a few pulses, or take about 2 cups of the soup and puree in a blender, and return to pot.
  7. Bring soup to a full simmer, and add bacon and shrimp.  Season with salt and pepper as desired.

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I have to admit, there’s one thing about the Thanksgiving meal that ranks high on my list is the desserts.  And, there may be cakes, or puddings, or flans… but we really know Thanksgiving dessert is pie.

I have found over the years that I am the only one who really loves pecan pie in my local family, and it just Breaks. My. Heart.  I still made one a few days before, to share with people in the office, for the main reason to be able to have a piece without having an entire pie to myself (especially when there would be so much else in the way of leftovers).

A few years ago, I discovered a Maple Pecan Pie recipe, and to tell truth, it’s pretty darn perfect as it is.  Ok, I do add a bit more pecans than the recipe calls for, but otherwise, it’s a fantastic pie, and I find that adding the maple syrup gives it a nice earthiness and rounded sweetness, where some other pecan pie recipes can be cloying.

And, it certainly wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie.  I’ve tweaked this recipe every year, and I do believe I have hit it on the head:  it’s dense but creamy and rich, full of spice, and has a nice hint of molasses from the brown sugar. It was even better when one of the pumpkin pies sat, hidden, in the fridge for two days, for Friday breakfast.

Pumpkin Pie

1 9″ pie crust, unbaked

3/4 cup golden brown sugar

1 Tablespoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground clove

1 16-ounce can pumpkin puree

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup sour cream

3 eggs, lightly beaten

  1. Preheat oven to 350°
  2. Whisk together brown sugar, cornstarch, and spices to blend.
  3. Add pumpkin, heavy cream, sour cream, and eggs; whisk until smooth.
  4. Pour into prepared pie crust, and bake for 45-50 minutes, until center of pie is set.
  5. Cool on rack, then chill for 2-4 hours.  Can be made a day ahead (in fact, I think it’s better that way).

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You guys, it’s been weeks, I know.  Between a family wedding, working on some non-cooking crafty stuff, and getting a wild hair to sell pies and desserts for Thanksgiving, I have been busy. Of course, I’ve been thinking of all these things to be writing about, since Thanksgiving is just one of those big food-centered holidays.  I love to argue about brined vs. non-brined turkey;  whether it’s safe to cook the stuffing in the bird, and should that stuffing be cornbread or white bread.  Alas, it was not meant to be this year.  But, I remembered to take a few pictures here and there over the past week so I can write up a few things, that I can have bookmarked for next year.

The idea for the Banana Cream Pie came from a few sources, the main one being that one of the pies that I happened to have for sale was a Mexican Chocolate Cream Pie (a chocolate-cinnamon mousse in a meringe crust), which left me with a mess of egg yolks.   It was an easy jump to go from having egg yolks to thinking about pastry cream;  then going from pastry cream, and deciding that the best way to use that pastry cream is in a banana cream pie.  I’m not particularly a lover of bananas, but Choo and Kiddo are, and I knew my in-laws and their guests would be excited. Ok, I was a little excited, too, because one of the ways you can get me to eat bananas is to have it smothered in pastry cream and whipped cream.

First, there’s a graham cracker crust.  What in the world did we do before the day of the graham cracker crust?  I don’t know, but it was certainly a grayer, sadder world without it.  It’s definitely one of those tactile things, where your hands will get all covered in buttery crumbs, but the best way to know there’s enough butter in the crust is to grab a fistful and give it a squeeze–if those crumbs stick together, it’s ready to get pressed into a pie plate.

I happened to use Trader Joe’s Cinnamon Graham Crackers, but any other graham crackers will suffice.  Know what else might be for a good twist on this pie?  Gingersnaps.  You should try it and get back to me.

Press those crumbs into a pie plate firmly, and bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes, until toasted and set.

While the crust cools, it’s time to make that pastry cream.

Oh, Lord knows I love a vanilla bean.  I know they’re not cheap, but if you have a membership at Costco (or know someone who does), I found mine there for a respectable price–10 for $12.  Considering I’ve seen 2 for anywhere between $5-$10 at the local supermarkets, that’s quite a bargain.  Sure, you can use vanilla extract, but I’m a visual person, and I love seeing the little vanilla bean specks.


I had a conversation with someone who hated using vanilla beans because she thought they were a waste–that seeds did not create enough of a vanilla flavor in her ice cream base;  The trick is to add the seeds, but to also steep the bean in the milk for about 20 minutes, as the pod is full of the essential oils that will add to the overall flavor.  Here, I split and scraped the pod and added the seeds, along with the pod, into the milk, heated it all to a simmer, then took it off the heat and let sit for about 20 minutes.  Those egg yolks I saved were whisked with some sugar, cornstarch, and a bit of milk while I reheated the milk back to a simmer.

So, here’s a lesson from culinary school: tempering.

See, you just can’t drop those egg yolks right into the saucepan of simmering liquid, because the heat will cook those egg yolks too quickly, and then you’ll have scrambled egg pieces in your pastry cream, and honey child, that’s pretty gross. I made that mistake a long time ago making lemon meringue pie, and boy, I won’t ever do that again.

So, to keep that from happening, you need to slowly bring up the temperature of the yolks so the protein doesn’t coagulate into clumps. Whisk your egg yolks as you pour in about a half cup of the hot milk, and once it’s combined, whisk in another half cup of hot milk. This should sufficiently warm up the yolks and also help the protein strands to loosen up. Pour the yolk mixture into your simmering milk, and stir, stir, stir until it hits a simmer and has begun to thicken. Now, not only have you mastered the technique of tempering, you have also made an emulsion. Bless that lecithin in your egg yolks and its magical ability to hold fat in liquid.

Pour that pastry cream into a clean bowl and cover the surface with plastic wrap and chill for about an hour.

Once it’s cooled, it’s time to put everything together.

How many bananas to use will depend on how deep the pie plate is;  I happened to be using a Pyrex deep-dish pie plate, so I ended up using 4 large bananas;  a shallow pie tin would definitely use less.  Slice the bananas just under 1/2″ thick, and start a first layer on the bottom of the shell;  the bananas should be close enough to be touching, but not squished together–there has to be enough space for some of that lovely pastry cream to be filling in those gaps.

Spoon on a third of pastry cream and spread over bananas, making sure the pastry cream fills in the spaces between the banana slices.  Repeat with two more layers of banana slices, and spreading the final third of pastry cream on top.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of 4 hours to let everything set.

When it’s close to time for serving, whip up some heavy cream with a bit of sugar, and top the pie.  You can just spread it on, or pipe it if you’re feeling fancy:

Banana Cream Pie


3 cups graham cracker crumbs

5-6 tablespoons melted butter (amount of butter will depend on type of graham cracker crumbs used)

  1. In large bowl, mix together crumbs and melted butter.  Test by pressing crumbs together; if it falls apart, add more butter.
  2. Firmly press crumb mixture into 9″ pie plate.
  3. Bake at 350° for 8 to 10 minutes until browned and set.  Let cool completely before assembling pie.

Pastry Cream

2 1/4 cups whole milk

1 vanilla bean

6 egg yolks

2/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup cornstarch

  1. Pour 2 cups of milk into saucepan and heat on a medium flame.
  2. Split vanilla bean and scrape seeds; add seeds and scraped pod into milk.
  3. Bring to a simmer, then remove from heat and let steep for 20 minutes.
  4. Begin to bring milk back to a simmer; whisk together egg yolks, remaining 1/4 cup of milk, sugar, and cornstarch in a medium bowl.
  5. Once milk reaches a simmer, temper in about 1/2 of the milk into egg yolks, then add yolk mixture to saucepan, whisking constantly.
  6. Continue to whisk pastry cream as it reaches a simmer.  Once it thickens, remove from heat, remove vanilla pod, and pour pastry cream into a clean bowl, cover surface with plastic wrap, and chill for an hour.

Pie Assembly

3-4 large bananas, peeled and sliced between 1/4″-1/2″ thick

1 1/4 cups heavy cream

3 Tablespoons sugar

  1. Lay banana slices in a flat layer on bottom of pie shell.  Slices should touch but not be packed tightly.
  2. Spread 1/3 of pastry cream on top of slices, letting pastry cream fill gaps.
  3. Repeat layers two more times, cover surface of pastry cream with plastic wrap and chill for 4 hours to let set.
  4. Whip cream with sugar to medium peak;  spread or pipe whipped cream on top before serving.

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It’s pretty clear that my first love in cooking is baking, hands down.  I’m fascinated by the chemical process behind leavening;  I love the smells that waft from my kitchen when there’s a batch of muffins or a cake in the oven.  We get it, Jen, you’re a sugar addict.

But, one cannot live by sugar alone.

One must cook “real” food:  meats, vegetables, grains–the stuff that nutritionists nod their heads and say, yeah, that’s much better for you.

And, when it comes to cooking meals, one of my favorite cooking processes is braising.  I mean–look–it’s part of the title of my blog.  When a home cook masters braising (and, really, it doesn’t take that much to learn how–it’s rather forgiving, this cooking method), a world of rich stews made from inexpensive cuts of meat opens up.  Granted, it’s not a technique that turns out a fast meal–the key to braising is a long cooking time in a low temperature oven.  It has the ability to take cheap, tough cuts of meat, and with some aromatic vegetables, flavorful liquid, and some patience, to the end result of tender, luscious bites in a rich sauce.  Part of the magic behind this technique is that the cuts of meat used for braising are full of connective tissue;  it’s the slow,  moist cooking method that allows the connective tissues to break down and not only creates a tender piece of meat, but those connective tissues break down to gelatin to help create that rich sauce.

A tagine is an excellent example of a braised dish;  the name comes from the clay pot that was perfectly designed for braising, as the conical-shaped top allows the steam that rises from the stew to collect and condense at the top, and drip back down into the pot.  (Don’t worry about buying a tagine, really–as long as you have a dutch oven or a heavy pot with a lid that can go stove-to-oven, you’re fine.)  This type of tagine is a Moroccan tagine–you’ll often see them as either chicken or lamb (but beef and vegetarian versions with lentils are not uncommon), with various vegetables, fruits such as quince, preserved lemon, dates, dried plums or apricots, and seasonings such as garlic, cinnamon, ginger, cumin, paprika and pepper.  You’ll want to serve a tangine with couscous or some flat bread–anything to soak up the leftover sauce, as you’ll not want it to go to waste.

So, let’s go over the basics for braising–tagines and other dishes:

1.  A heavy bottomed pot with a well-fitted lid that can go stove-to-oven.

2.  Inexpensive tough cuts of meat.  An already-tender cut of meat will dry out in the long cooking period–a cut of meat such as lamb shoulder and shanks, beef brisket, short ribs, and chuck roast.

3.  A flavorful liquid such as chicken or vegetable stock, red wine, or juice.

4.  Aromatic vegetables and herbs–onions, celery, bell peppers, garlic, bay leaves, thyme, cinnamon sticks, etc.

5.  Patience.


Let’s start:  Heavy-bottomed part.  Check.  Tough cut of meat.  Check.

Don’t skip the step of browning the meat first.  I know it’s kind of a pain, especially when you want to get it all in the oven and started already.  It’s not about “sealing in the juices” because that’s a myth.  Browning meat is all about flavor–that bit of caramelization will infuse the dish with a depth you will miss if you skip it.

Once all the meat is browned and removed from the pan, the vegetables are added and sauteed briefly, then the liquid, any other seasonings are thrown in, then the browned meat is returned to the pot.  Bring the liquid to a boil, cover the pot, and immediately pop into the oven to cook for 1 1/2 hours.


In this particular dish, the butternut squash and dried plums are stirred in later, as they would fall apart too easily with the long cooking period.


Serve tagine on a bed of couscous (the Fastest Pasta in the West) and top with chopped cilantro.  But, Jen, there’s no cilantro in your picture. I know, I know, that’s what happens when I’m shopping at Trader Joe’s where all their fresh herbs are packaged in the little clear boxes, and being in a rush, I grab a box of cilantro, and carry on with my shopping.  Choo helps unpack when I get home, and come the day I cook this tagine and I’m all ready to grab my box of cilantro and LO AND BEHOLD my fresh cilantro has turned to MINT.

This stew is absolutely perfect for a cool Autumn evening, and it’s healthy and packed full of good-for-you things.  Another part of the magic of braising is that leftovers are often better the next day, once all the flavors have had a chance to marry.  That is, if you have any leftovers to begin with.


Lamb, Butternut Squash & Red Pepper Tagine

1 pound boneless lamb shoulder, trimmed and cut into 1″ cubes

1/4 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 Tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, 1″ dice

1 red bell pepper, 1″ dice

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes

2 1/2 cups chicken stock

2 cinnamon sticks

2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1″ pieces

1 cup pitted dried plums

Salt & Pepper to taste

1/2 cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped


  1. Preheat oven to 350°
  2. In a large bowl, mix flour with cumin, paprika, ginger, salt and pepper, and dredge lamb pieces.
  3. Heat large pot on medium-high, and add oil.  Brown lamb in two batches, transferring to a bowl.
  4. Turn heat to medium and add onion and red peppers.  Saute 2-3 minutes then add garlic, tomatoes, chicken stock and cinnamon sticks.
  5. Return lamb to pot and bring to a boil.  Top with lid, and place into preheated oven.  Cook until lamb is tender, about 1 1/2 hours.
  6. Stir in butternut squash and return to oven for 30 minutes, or until squash is fork-tender.  Stir in dried plums and return to oven for 10 more minutes.  Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste.
  7. When tagine is done, set aside for 10 minutes before serving (perfect amount of time to prepare couscous).
  8. Serve on bed of couscous, top with fresh cilantro.



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As you may remember, I have been on a mission from my mother these past few months to fill this large bag of mason jars full of whatever I thought would be delicious for Christmas gifts.  First, there was the Strawberry, Black Pepper & Mint Jam, and then I made Peach, Ginger, and Vanilla Jam.  I still had jars left to be filled, and now I was well out of the reach of summer fruits, so it was time to turn to the abundance of Autumn.


Aren’t they just a sight?  I’ve got some McIntosh, Braeburn, and a few Pippins–all ready to be turned into apple butter.  I’ve noticed that combining a few different varieties of apples helps bring a good balanced flavor to the butter.


The best $5 I’ve ever spent at a yard sale.

I do love my Apple Whirlygigger.  Yes, Whirlygigger.  And don’t try to tell me it’s called anything else.  It peels!  It slices!  It cores!  All at the same time!


If you’re a novice at making preserves, you might want to try your hand at apple butter–there’s no adding pectin (apples are naturally packed with pectin) and if you happen to not simmer it long enough, not to worry–call it apple sauce and you’re still golden.  I also like it because it doesn’t require a ton of sugar like some jams as the long simmer brings out the sugars in the fruit.

I still had half a bottle of the Calvados left from a few weeks ago, so that went into the pot, along with some apple cider;  when simmering apples, there needs to be some liquid added–unlike berries and stone fruits, there’s just not as much water in apples.  Apple butter also needs lemon juice, as the acidity will help keep any nasties growing in your jars and adds a nice brightness and balance in flavor–without it, it would be a bit cloying.  I threw in a few cinnamon sticks, and just a small amount of nutmeg and clove, as I didn’t want to overpower the apples–they’re the ones who are supposed to be the stars of the show, you know?


It takes some love and patience to get to this point.  Apple butter when it’s done will be thick and a spoonful of the butter will remain mounded and thick after cooling for a few minutes.

The one and only disappointment is how much this reduces–I started with 14 cups of chopped apples, and ended up with only just over 3 1/2 pints, most of which will be passed on as gifts.

I guess that means I should make more, yes?


Brandied Apple Butter

14 cups peeled, cored and chopped apples

2 1/2 cups sugar

1 cup Calvados (a French Apple Brandy)

1 cup apple cider

juice of 2 lemons

3 cinnamon sticks

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

In a large, heavy bottomed pot, add all ingredients and bring to a boil on medium-high heat.  Once boiling, turn down to medium-low heat and simmer until the apples are very soft.  Mash apples or puree with an immersion blender (remove cinnamon sticks while using stick blender and return when finished) and continue to simmer, stirring often, until apple butter is thick, about 2 hours.  If preserving in jars, this page has excellent information on how to can apple butter.


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