October 29, 2012

Bread Pudding Comfort by Another Name

Bread Pudding

When I think of comfort food, bread pudding is the first to come to mind. Warm and soothing, it's a childishly easy concoction of eggs and milk. A dish of innocence and assurance, it's one of the first recipes I learned to make with my grandmother. We'd toss in a handful plump raisins and dust it with cinnamon sugar to make a crackly crust. She'd pull it from the oven, all puffy and golden; cut with a long handled spoon, it released steamy, satisfied sigh. On dreary nights, we'd eat it for dinner, especially on Sunday after we were all stuffed with the big midday family meal. (She called it supper; today we'd say lunch.) Leftovers were the best at breakfast, a thick slice fried in butter and drizzled with syrup, like French Toast.

When I first moved to Minneapolis from my home in NJ, I worked in a warehouse office building across the street from the old New French Cafe. On Friday my partners and I would feast on bread pudding made of left-over croissants; quite beautiful thing - so airy, so rich, so right with bowls of foamy cafe au lait.

Bread Pudding can be sweet or savory; serve it for breakfast, lunch or dinner, snack or dessert, it's a sure bet, any time of day. It makes luscious use of the artisan bread I hate to throw away, muffins, croissants, whatever. To turn it savory, use herb breads and add a handful of shredded cheese, chopped meat and left over vegetables. It comes together in a wink and bakes up on it's own in about an hour, leaving me to attend to other tasks (maybe even read the paper). What more can a tired cook ask?

Classic Bread Pudding
Serves 6 to 8

About 5 cups bread (use a mix of any good bakery bread)
2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups whole milk
3 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons cinnamon sugar

Butter casserole or deep baking dish. In a medium bowl, beat together the milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour this over the bread. Set aside and allow to soak at least 1 hour or cover and refrigerate over night. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. If the dish has been refrigerated, allow to come to room temperature. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and bake until the edges are firm but the inside is still soft and moist,  about 40 to 45 minutes.

Savory Bread Pudding
Follow the directions for Classic, but make the following changes:

- Omit the sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg
- Add 1 cup shredded cheese of your choice
- Add 1/2 cup chopped ham or turkey, optional
- Add 1/2 cup chopped cooked vegetables (broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, etc.)
- Add 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- Add 2 teaspoons chopped marjoram or rosemary

October 9, 2012

A Good Roast Chicken ...

A Good
Roast Chicken
Will Never Let You Down!

"A good roast chicken will never let you down," grandmother told me. To this day, it's the easiest dinner I know.  The aromas -- sizzling onions, carrots, thyme and garlic -- stir up hungers while the chicken does its thing, unattended, and you're free to go about your business. Yesterday, I slathered a nice fat roaster with butter, salt and pepper, shoved it in the oven and took off for two hours. When I got home, dinner was done. It felt as though my dear grandmother had snuck into my kitchen and left me a gift. To complete the meal, I tossed a salad, sliced some crusty bread, and poured a little wine in the bottom of the pan for a velvety sauce, then we finished the rest of the bottle when we all sat down.

The only thing you really need to know about roasting chicken is to pick the best bird. Look for a "roaster",  a chicken that weighs in around 5 to 7 pounds; larger than a broiler or fryer, that weighs in less than 6 pounds (usually between 3 and 4). The older the chicken, the more flavor it will have, and the firmer its meat is likely to be. Look for free range chickens that have spent most of their lives outside pecking and scratching bugs, grass and kitchen scraps in the sun. I won't detail the horrors that chickens suffer on conventional farms. (If you are reading this, you probably already know). Just remember that all chickens are not raised the same. Without getting too detailed, if you're not buying directly from a farmer at market, look for chickens labeled "Certified Humane Organic." These free range birds are also higher in Omega-3's and CLA and lower in cholesterol.

This fall, I keep going back to the things I know like this trusty roast chicken and my grandmother's wisdom ...  "Keep it simple: as simple as possible, but no simpler," she once told me (and she told Einstein that, as well).

Serves 4 to 6

1 big roasting chicken, about 5 to 7 pounds
3 to 4 tablespoons softened butter
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
bunch of parsley
several sprigs fresh thyme
1 onion thickly sliced
3 to 4 whole carrots
2 ribs celery
4 to 5 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup wine or water

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Rinse the chicken thoroughly then pat dry. Rub the butter all over the chicken and work some under the skin of the breast. Season with salt and pepper. Stuff the cavity of the chicken with the parsley and thyme. Put the onion, carrots, celery and garlic in a roasting pan and set the chicken on top. Roast the chicken for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees F and continue roasting until the thickest part of the thigh reaches 160 degrees on an instant read thermometer, about 1-1/2 to 2 hours. 

Remove the chicken and allow to rest. Discard the vegetables and herbs.  Pour the wine into the roasting pan and set on top of the stove. Scrape up any of the brown bits sticking to the bottom of the pan. Cook until the juices and the wine form a thick sauce.

Carve the chicken and serve drizzled with the pan juices.

October 4, 2012

An Honest Bowl of Soup

Lake Country Land School Photo
by Andy Gaertner

A Good Day for Soup

After the debates did you feel beat up, discouraged, let down? Did you pull the covers way over your head like me? Or is it the weather I'm huddling from?  This nasty election is racing towards us, the first in a series of winter storms, none of them kind. 

If the best defense is a good offense, then a big bowl of steaming squash soup is just the thing to fend off the demons. Spicy, comforting, goddamned honest, homemade soup from homegrown pumpkins and an onion or two. I start with stock made from vegetable scraps and roast a sweet pie pumpkin that's just out of the fields. These look like mini-Jack-O-Lanterns, but they are denser and tastier and the shells make a pretty little bowl you can serve the soup in. Any old squash -- butternut, acorn, turban, delicata -- will do. Right now, they're all especially tasty because they're so fresh. The skins are tender, they cook quickly and their flavors are sweet and true. This recipe is flexible and open to interpretation. If you're not fond of curry then season the soup with cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamon, or give it a Mexican twist with chile and cumin. It is easily doubled and can be frozen for later; best to have extra for when the election is over and we are calf-deep in snow.

Curried Pumpkin Soup
Serves 4 to 6

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk with leaves, finely chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons curry good quality curry powder, or more to taste
3 cups vegetable stock
1 sweet pie pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch chunks
½ cup coconut milk
1/2 cup fresh apple cider
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Chopped scallions and cilantro

            In a deep heavy soup pot, warm the oil and cook the onion and celery until very soft, about 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the curry powder and cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Stir in the stock and bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and add the squash and cook until the squash is tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Whisk in the coconut milk, cider and salt and pepper, to taste. Serve garnished with chopped scallions and cilantro.