Friday, October 26, 2012

Butternut Squash Bread Pudding

 The headline is a misnomer. I should have called it Butternut Squash, Mushroom, Sausage and Kale Bread Pudding. But that was a mouthful - granted, it's a good mouthful, but too long for a title of this recipe. Anyway, it's that time of year when butternut squash is abundant -- a vegetable that just screams "fall." I love it in soups, simply baked with olive oil and salt, or gussied up in lasagna or casseroles like this one. I served this as a main course, with a salad alongside, but you could leave out the sausage and serve it as a side dish. Thanksgiving will be here before you know it and it would be perfect on the table alongside Tom turkey.

There are a number of steps, but it's easy to make ahead of time if you want. Keep the bread and the squash cubes in sizable chunks when you cut them - not too teensy so they don't disintegrate into unrecognizable pieces after baking. 

After all the ingredients are sautéed, sliced, etc. place them in a bowl.

Add the eggs and cheeses and mix everything together with a spoon.

This is what you end up with - a large casserole that feeds lots of people - at least a dozen if it's a side dish or six if it's a main course.

Or bake it in a lot of smaller dishes if you want individual portions.

Either way, it's delicious, so get busy. And dig in.

Butternut Squash Bread Pudding

printable recipe here

In the photos, I used 1 cup kale, but I'd use more next time I make it. You can add or subtract any of the vegetables, and even leave out the sausage to make it completely vegetarian.

3 cups butternut squash, cut into cubes

2 T. olive oil

salt, pepper

ground sage or seasoned sage salt* or herbs de provence

4 cups sturdy Italian or French bread (preferably a day old)

2 T. butter

2 T. olive oil

3/4 cup minced shallots

3 garlic cloves

1/2 pound Italian sausage

1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced

1 1/2 cup kale, chopped

1 cup half and half

2 cups milk

4 eggs

1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

1 cup mozzarella or fontina cheese, shredded

*I make seasoned salt at the end of the summer, by harvesting a lot of herbs and blending them with kosher salt. Use any combination you have - rosemary, thyme, sage, lemon balm, etc. I went heavy on the sage last year and it makes a great seasoning for the Thanksgiving turkey as well as recipes like this.

Spread the mixture on a cookie sheet and let it air dry for a day or two. When the herbs are completely dried, place the mixture into the blender or food processor and blend finely before placing into jars.

For the bread pudding:

Cut the squash into cubes - not wimpy ones, but about 1 inch cubes. Oil a cookie sheet and toss the squash cubes in the oil. Season with salt, pepper and the dried sage or sage salt or herbs de provence. Go easy on the salt if using the sage salt. Bake at 375 degrees for about 40 - 45 minutes.

Cut the bread into large cubes and put it in the oven for about five minutes while the squash is cooking. Remove to a large bowl.

Meanwhile, saute the minced shallot in the olive oil and butter until wilted. Add the minced garlic and saute briefly until soft, then add the mushrooms and cook them through. When the mushrooms are browned and nearly done cooking, add the chopped kale and saute for a few minutes. If necessary, add a little more oil. Season all with salt and pepper, then remove from the pan and place all the cooked vegetables in the bowl with the bread.

Use the same pan to cook the sausage. Remove the casing from the sausage and break up the meat in the pan, cooking it through. Add a little more olive oil if there's not enough in the pan to keep the meat from sticking. Add the cooked sausage to the bowl with the vegetables, along with the squash when it is cooked through.

Whisk the eggs, then add the half and half and milk and stir in the cheeses. Pour the mixture into the bowl with the bread, the sausage and the vegetables and mix it all together with a wooden spoon. Let it sit for at least 10 minutes for the bread to absorb some of the liquid. You can even make everything to this stage and let it sit in the refrigerator overnight. Pour it into a greased casserole dish - mine was oval but it measures roughly 9 x 13 inches. Bake it at 375 for about 35 to 40 minutes. I also turned on the broiler near the end to achieve a little more browning. This also reheats very well as leftovers.

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake

There was a time decades ago when I would make poppy seed cake using a cake mix; and -- ok I fess up -- Harvey Wallbanger cake using a cake mix; and lots of other concoctions using cake mixes that I wouldn't think of doing today. Except this one.  While I long ago moved past those commercial products and have prepared my own cakes from scratch for years, this cake mix holds a spot near and dear to me. It's the cake I loved the most growing up and the one I always requested my mother to bake for my birthday.

She baked it in a heavy duty aluminum pan. And she used a cake mix. She had a whole set of these pans as a young bride in the late 1940s. This is the one that survived and this is the one I inherited when she died. There are lots of childhood memories in this pan. I can still remember the brown sugar dissolving into the melted butter and how I'd try to snitch a spoonful of the sweet mixture before my mom shooed me away. How she'd always plunk the frighteningly red maraschino cherries into the center of the pineapple rings even though I always picked them out later.

A couple of times I tried making a pineapple-upside down cake from scratch. But it wasn't the same. It didn't bring back those memories. And sometimes, like on my birthday, memories are more important than ever -- and those of you who know me personally know what I'm talking about.  So I continue to use a cake mix for this cake and for this cake alone. It is a little gussied up with some extra ingredients, so maybe that gives me a free pass for those of you who are the "cake police." If it doesn't, well I don't care. I'll continue to make it my mother's way, and now my way.

I wish I still had my mom to bake this cake for me, but she passed away decades ago, much too early in her life. So today, on my birthday, I present the cake to you. Complete with frighteningly red maraschino cherries. Feel free to pick them out. And I would love it if you let a young child standing nearby snitch a spoonful of that gooey brown sugar-butter mixture while its melting in the pan.

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake

printable recipe here

1/2 cup butter, melted

1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar

1 20-ounce can sliced pineapple

6-8 maraschino cherries, cut in half

pecan halves, optional

1 18-ounce package pineapple cake mix

1 5-ounce package vanilla instant pudding mix

1 cup pineapple juice (use the juice from the canned pineapple)

1/2 cup vegetable oil

4 large eggs

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Melt the butter in a large round pan (use a cast iron skillet or a 9 x 13 pan if you don't have a large pan like the photo.) Sprinkle brown sugar evenly over the butter. Drain the pineapple and arrange the slices evenly in the pan, covering the bottom. Place cherry halves in the center of the pineapple slices, cut side up. Place pecan pieces in remaining spaces between the pineapple halves. Combine the rest of the ingredients in a large mixing bowl and beat for two minutes. Pour batter into the pan and bake for one hour, or until the toothpick comes out clean. Invert.

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Monday, October 15, 2012


These appetizers get the award for cuteness. And they taste great too. It's a simple frittata made with spaghetti and cooked in a mini-muffin tin, then topped with a little pesto and tomato sauce. A friend named Diana found these on the blog "Foodalogue" and offered them at a recent reception. They were gone quicker than you can say "frittatine," a word that means more than one small frittata. 

Italian lesson of the day: frittata-singular; frittate-plural. Tiny frittata-frittatina; plural frittatina-frittatine. 

Frittatine (From Foodalogue)

You can make these in advance and either refrigerate or freeze them in a baggie.

Bring to room temperature and then reheat in oven before saucing. (I reheated in a microwave for about 10 seconds and it held its shape perfectly.)

It’s a good buffet item because they can be served at room temperature.

If you use a larger muffin mold, it makes a lovely first dish or lunch with a salad.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

Squash and The Columbian Exchange

OK, you may be wondering "What's The Columbian Exchange?" And what's it got to do with this recipe of couscous and butternut squash? Well, for those of you in the U.S., it's Columbus Day today. Now I know there's a huge controversy surrounding the Italian explorer's trips to the Western hemisphere and the "discovery" of America. But this is a blog about food and travel, so I steer clear of geopolitics here. What I will tell you though, is that his travels to the New World starting in 1492 opened the gateway to exchange between Europe and the Americas -- some good, like foods, crops and livestock -- and some not so good, like communicable diseases and slavery.

We'll stick to the food exchange on this post. 

Can you imagine Italy without tomatoes; Ireland without potatoes or Switzerland without chocolate? No, me either. But the Columbian Exchange, as it has come to be known, introduced those foods to other lands that hundreds of years later have nearly become icons of those nations' cuisine. In addition to the above examples, for instance, you can thank the Columbian exchange for oranges in Florida and bananas in Ecuador.

Squash made its way from the New World to Europe, which is why I thought this recipe would be perfect to present for Columbus Day. It combines flavors from the west (squash) with spices from the East (cinnamon, saffron). It's also a recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi, an Israeli-born chef whose recipes are enjoyed around the world. Columbus might have missed his goal of finding a sea route to Asia, but his travels kicked off an international exchange that was to alter world cuisine forever.

For those of you living anywhere near New York City, the statue in Columbus Circle pays tribute to the sailor from Genoa. It has stood on a granite column about 70 feet off the ground since 1892, visible to cars and passersby in this busy neighborhood of Manhattan next to the Time-Warner Center.

But if you travel to Columbus Circle now, you won't see the statue from the street. Instead, climb six stories of stairs, amid scaffolding, and witness Columbus close up in a conceptual art installation by the Japanese artist, Tatzu Nishi. Until Nov. 18, he's the centerpiece of what looks like a living room in a New York City apartment.

Here's the big guy himself - all 13 feet of marble. Until now, only the birds had such an intimate view.

His feet appear to be resting on a coffee table, surrounded by magazines and newspapers.

Have a seat and catch up with the news while Christopher surveys the living room.  

The apartment's wallpaper is designed with iconic American scenes.

Want to watch a little TV or read a book? No problem.

You'll have a great view of the Trump Tower apartment building across the street.

While you're there, savor the view of Central Park from your perch in the sky with Columbus.

Then come home and make this vegetarian dish of couscous with butternut squash and apricots from Ottolenghi - a legacy, if you will, from Columbus.

If you're in New York and want to visit, you'll need a ticket. It's free. Click here to find out more about the artist and the art installation.

Couscous with dried apricots and butternut squash

From "Ottolenghi, The Cookbook"

Printable recipe here

Serves four

(I increased the ingredients by half and made 1 1/2 times the recipe and it served way more than six as a side dish. I would count on at least six servings or more from the base recipe.

    1 large (red) onion, thinly sliced
    6 tbs olive oil
    50g dried apricots - (1/2 cup)
    1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 2 cm dice
    250g couscous (1 1/2 cups)
    400ml chicken or vegetable stock (1 1/2 cups)
    a pinch of saffron strands
    3 tbs roughly chopped tarragon
    3 tbs roughly chopped mint
    3 tbs roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
    1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon (go easy on the cinnamon - it's very assertive - I made 1 1/2 times this recipe and used this amount, but next time I'd use only 1 tsp.)
    grated zest of 1 lemon
    coarse sea salt and black pepper

    (I also added 1/2 cup toasted pecans.)

Preheat the oven to 180d Celsius. (I set it at 400 degrees F.)

Place onion in a large frying pan with 2 tbs oil and a pinch of salt. Sauté over high heat, stirring constantly for about 10 mins (I used less time), until golden brown. Set aside.

Pour hot water from the tap over the apricots just to cover them. Soak for 5 mins then drain and cut them into 5mm dice.

Mix the diced squash in 1 tbs olive oil and spread out on a baking tray to roast. Place in oven for 25 mins, until lightly colored and quite soft. (I cooked it for closer to 45 minutes)

While waiting for the butternut squash to cook, cook the couscous. Bring the stock to the boil with the saffron. Place the couscous in a large heatproof bowl and pour the boiling stock over it, plus the remaining olive oil (3 tbs). Cover with clingfilm and leave for about 10 mins for all of the liquid to be absorbed. When done, fluff with up with a fork. Then add the onions, squash, apricots, herbs, cinnamon and lemon zest. Mix well with hands, trying not to mash the squash to bits.

Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary. Serve warmish or cold.

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Monday, October 1, 2012

Per Se Perfection

Dear Mr. Keller - I would like to thank you sincerely for opening Per Se, the East coast satellite of your Yountville, California restaurant "The French Laundry."  Sure, it's taken me a while to get here, given that Per Se opened in 2004. Until now, the closest I've gotten was a goodie bag from your restaurant given to me by my son a few years ago. But now, having finally dined at Per Se and been transported to culinary nirvana, I can easily see why The New York Times awarded your restaurant four stars, the same accolades given to my other two favorite restaurants in the city - Del Posto and Le Bernardin.  

You've got a few things going for you that they don't have though -- one is that dynamite view across New York City's Central Park and Columbus Circle. Another is those fabulous salmon cornets that arrive as little amuse bouche before the main event. How did you ever come up with that idea? I mean, the way that salmon is minced so finely and blended with shallots and chives, it almost feels like a mousse. But then that cool, subtle soft texture and taste gets jumbled at first bite with the crunch of the buttery tuile cone stuffed with crème fraîche. That was really an inspired combination of flavors and textures. Seated by the fireplace, my daughter and I could easily have polished off a few more of these.

Oh Mr. Keller, I forgot to mention those gougères that came before the cornets. We were advised to eat them quickly, while they were still warm. We obeyed and were immediately rewarded with oozing melted cheese gushing out from these little puffs. The only complaint so far was we were wishing for more. But not really -- we knew there was plenty to come and we needed to leave room.  

 OK, enough with the amuse bouche. The intention was to whet our appetite and you certainly succeeded. Bring on the first course please. My daughter ordered this little gem - the Peekytoe crab beignet. It was resting on a creamy "panna cotta" made with hearts of palm, and accompanied by a smidgeon of avocado jam and cilantro shoots. Perfection.

But Mr. Keller, if everything else that preceded this was perfection, then I'm not sure how to describe one of your signature dishes -- "oysters and pearls." How about "Divine" - because it was certainly out of this world. When you die, you should get a special entrance into heaven just because of this dish. I loved that warm tapioca sabayon cuddling those plump oysters and the dollop of white sturgeon caviar beside it. You know how some people say they don't like caviar because it's too salty? Well, they've never had THIS caviar - this is the good stuff, not that briny salty junk that masquerades for caviar at Christmas cocktail parties. And I loved how you served it with that mother of pearl shell spoon. Yea, you know what you're doing alright. Eating this dish ranks right up there with a few of my all time memorable experiences - hearing Luciano Pavarotti sing at the Met, Christmas Eve mass at the Vatican, and my Aunt Carla's anolini.

Oh, before I forget, I have to tell you that I love the dinnerware you use in your restaurant. There's nothing like a beautiful white porcelain plate to showcase your food and you sure showed optimum flair in picking that Raynaud Limoges houndstooth check pattern. Those domed covers are pretty nifty too and heightened the drama.

Now it was onto the next course - and my daughter and I both chose the same - a pork jowl "fricasee" served with caramelized black mission figs and corn mousseline. Again, we loved how that outer crunch of the pork jowl contrasted with the soft textures of the rest of the dish. Who'd have thunk? Pork cheeks at a four-star restaurant? Yes, pork cheeks -- delicious pork cheeks -- at a four-star restaurant - another big "Wow." 

Let me mention the bread at this point, because I forgot to let you know how much we loved the selection. The little parkerhouse rolls and two kinds of butter at the table never got photographed, but rest assured Mr. Keller, we scarfed them down. It was thoughtful of you to include four other types of bread as well, but we both passed on the whole wheat and whatever the other one was, since we both had eyes for the crusty little bagette and pretzel-style roll. They did not disappoint. 

We also choose the same thing for the next course - sea scallops with a crunchy sesame coating, resting on a generous swirl of olive puree and grapefruit marmalade. Your chef showed a really deft touch with the perfectly cooked scallops and that sheath of filmy, milky shaving on top. The teensy addition of celery and sprig of cilantro added a colorful accent.

I like your sense of humor too, Mr. Keller in your "tongue and cheek" dish.  You created a fun and delicious dish of braised wagyu beef cheeks and grilled veal tongue with a softly cooked tomato and a tumble of baby artichokes and meyer lemon confit, all nestled in a brown butter sauce. Although I ate every morsel, I wouldn't say it was my favorite dish on the menu (the oysters and pearls take that spot), but I loved the playfulness. 

 And then there was dessert - an artistic masterpiece called "cookies and cream." Three small puffs of meringue accented one side of the plate, while the other was dominated by a small disk of chocolate, topped with another thin sheath of lacy dark chocolate. A quenelle of vanilla ice cream crowned the cake. A decorative swoosh of chocolate swirled the confection like a thin, dark ribbon. It really looked almost too pretty to eat Mr. Keller. The key word is "almost" so I dug in.

And wow, what a surprise when I did. The warm flood of chocolate came gushing out and begging to be scooped up. I had no problems in complying - and practically licked the plate clean.

We didn't really need another chocolate treat, but our eyes lit up when we were offered our choice from a box of artisan chocolate confections. Each flavor was explained to us twice since we had forgotten the first one by the time the server had gotten to the last description. And you know what, Mr. Keller -- she didn't seem to mind repeating herself. In fact, all the service we encountered that day was exceptional and everyone was eager to please us.

This was my cache - mostly dark chocolate - and one covered in a gold dusting. My daughter included some white chocolate in her selection. 

But we hadn't even eaten the second chocolate when this appeared on the table - two little bites of popcorn ice cream with a sprinkle of popcorn on top. 

The dessert deluge continued with coffee and donuts. But not an ordinary cup of coffee - this was a coffee semi-freddo accompanied by little spheres of cinnamon-sugar coated donut holes.  Again, so cleverly playful and so delicious.

Take a look and see for yourself.

Then the perfectly made macarons.

To sum it up Mr. Keller, We feel lucky to have had the experience and shared it with each other. Thanks for the recipe for the salmon cornets too, so people who can't come to your restaurant can enjoy that stellar dish at home.

Sincerely, Linda and Christina

If you can't get to Per Se, here's Thomas Keller's recipe for those unforgettable salmon cornets.

Thomas Keller's Salmon Cornets

printable recipe here

makes three dozen

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