Thursday, December 31, 2009

Buttermilk biscuits for the new year

Well, looks like this is my last post of 2009. And it's going to be a short one. I've got things to do, people!

But I've always got time for a little breakfast. This morning: Ina Garten's buttermilk cheddar biscuits.

Like all of Ina's recipes, this one's not shy of butter (12 tablespoons for 8 biscuits!) or salt (kosher inside and coarse sea salt on top). Plus cheese and buttermilk...good grief.  2010 may be a good time to start reining it in a little. But for now, it's still 2009, and I'm letting it ride.

The biscuits turned out super flakey, moist, and buttery. The tops were golden and crusty, with little bursts of sea salt, and the insides were light and airy and had those gorgeous layers you only find in good biscuits. No hockey pucks here.

What's that? You want a closer look? Why, sure.

Happy new year (and decade!) to you all! I'd like to take a moment to thank all of you lovely folks who read this silly thing, many of whom I have never met in person but who continue to be loyal, regular visitors. And, I'd especially like to thank those of you who take the time to comment. I appreciate each and every one, and undoubtedly would have stopped writing long ago had my posts been met with utter silence. It's been a fun first year of blogging and I can't wait to get started on year two.

Here's to 2010: may it be full of good health, great food, and lots of friends, old and new!

Monday, December 28, 2009

After the holidays, something simple

As the husband astutely pointed out a little while ago, one of the reasons you grow up and move away from your parents is so that you can do things the way you like. There is almost no better example of this than how you choose to host a holiday.

In addition to keeping the menu simple so that I can spend more time with my guests and less time in the kitchen, the main thing I have discovered about holiday entertaining is that it is best to blend family and friends. Having a dinner comprised solely of family is no good; you need outsiders to lighten the feel, even among the happiest of families.  Any holiday, because of the great potential for joy, contains the capacity for high emotions, old baggage, and general disappointment. Diversifying your portfolio of guests is an excellent way to ensure that the mood stays festive.

Plus, it can be interesting to mix people up. This year, we had my mother, two friends from the neighborhood, and another friend who used to live in the neighborhood but left us for a fancier zip code. These friends sort of knew each other, though not well. Because everyone was getting acquainted, the conversation skipped some of the dullness you sometimes fall into with people you know well: How is your job? How is so-and-so, our mutual friend? With (socially adept) strangers, the conversation veers toward the less personal and more fun: politics, movies, food, dogs, travel.

So went our Christmas dinner. The food was good and stress-free, there was plenty of wine and a Growler of beer from Magnolia, and lots of lively banter. The pork roast and gratin went over nicely and we finished dinner with our friend Liz's delicious mixed berry crumble, a perfect sweet-tart ending to the meal.

Saturday was spent recovering, eating ramen at Tanpopo and going to the movies.

By Sunday I felt like cooking again, but nothing laborious. Something simple like Marcella Hazan's pork sausages with red cabbage, served over soft polenta, fit the bill.

As you know, Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is a favorite of mine. If I could only cook from one book for the rest of my life (what an absurd idea!), this would be it. I've already mentioned her chicken with marsala and porcini mushrooms, her bolognese sauce, and you're probably sick of hearing me wax poetic about her chicken with two lemons.  Add this to my list of recipes I could not live without, the ingredients for which simply read: pork sausages, red cabbage, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper.

The cabbage is cooked low and slow for close to an hour, turning it soft, sweet, and deeply purple. Served over creamy pale yellow polenta, it's the perfect contrast to the slightly salty pork sausages.

We haven't yet entered the obligatory healthy eating mania that often follows the holidays, I suppose because the holidays aren't quite over. No doubt New Year's will require something a little decadent to go with a sparkly drink. But the fancy part of the holidays are over, to me at least, and this is the kind of rustic food that is best enjoyed without tinsel, gifts, friends or fanfare, just a good bottle of wine.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas cake

In addition to being a Christmas post, this is my 100th post! Time to celebrate! With cake!

The husband and I enjoyed a quiet and peaceful Christmas morning, not so different from our many other quiet and peaceful mornings, but enhanced with Christmas cake.

Actually, it's just this cake, but instead of raspberries I used cranberries, and I grated some orange zest and squeezed some orange juice into the batter. I love this cake. Buttermilk is just a wondrous thing, isn't it? Makes cakes so light and delicate.

I served it on the two Christmas dishes that we own, cherry red plates bearing happy little snow men and perfectly symmetrical snow flakes.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Visions of sugarplums and rocky road

While I'm not a huge Christmas person, there are three things I really like about this time of year:

1) Extra days off work.

2) The license to consume obscene amounts of sugar and alcohol.

3) The spirit of generosity.

All of these things converge this week. Starting tomorrow, I have five days off, which is not as great as the two weeks some people have but is certainly better than no days off! Among the things I want to do before Christmas is deliver cookies around town.

While many people bring sweets to their friends and neighbors, I've gotten in the habit of delivering cookies to some of the people I appreciate all year round even though they're not friends. This sometimes includes the corner grocer or the local drycleaner, but it always includes the butcher and the vet.

This year's goodies include the fabulous array of cookies my friends and I baked on Sunday. Of course there were my Mexican wedding cookies, but there were plenty of other treats, truly something for everyone.

Peanut butter and jelly cookie sandwiches: a good excuse to eat two cookies masquerading as one.
Biscotti, for the adult in some of us.
Soft ginger cookies.
Thumbprints filled with homemade jam.

I'll happily risk losing a tooth for this toffee.

Cranberry-orange-pistachio cookies, in perfect Christmas colors.

My miniature black and whites (which were not nearly as photogenic as the ones on the Gourmet cover.)
Sugarplums, which I'd never had before. They were nutty, chewy, and delicious.
Shortbread with peppermint bark: buttery, minty, chocolatey perfection.
German cinnamon stars, crunchy and spicy.

And the divine rocky road.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Hungry Dog

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Lonely heart Mexican wedding cookies

This morning, the husband left at the crack of dawn for Kentucky. It was so early--around 4 am--that I barely remember kissing him goodbye before he was off, and Frances and I shuffled back to bed. When I awoke several hours later, it seemed like a dream.

But once I was up and the dog was walked and I was settled in front of the newspaper with a cup of coffee, I became intensely aware of how quiet the house was. Don't get me wrong--the husband is not a loud person. In fact, he's particularly quiet in the morning. But when you've got a steady routine built up for about 10 years, something as subtle as someone not being around to say nothing is noticeable.

It's nice to have a few hours to yourself, that's true. I lazed around the house, finished my mystery novel, and wrote out a few holiday cards. After that, I started missing the husband for real.

So as not to dwell on things too much, I thought I'd better make some cookies. Tomorrow, my mother and some family friends and I are gathering for our annual cookie baking day. We'll all bring a few batches to share--some dough to bake off, as well as some cookies baked but needing final touches, and we'll spend the day baking, frosting, decorating, and eating. At the end of the day, we'll stagger away in sugar comas, having swapped cookies so that we all return home with at least a dozen different kinds.

I usually bring two kinds, and the first I'd decided on were Flo Braker's Mexican wedding cookies. The recipe is dead simple and took just moments to pull together. Once I pulled them from the oven and dusted them with powdered sugar, I had trouble resisting them.

Since no one was around to judge me, I decided not to.

I mean, look at these little guys. They're positively bite-sized.

They had a buttery, tender crumb, and I could taste the walnuts running through them. These cookies are beautiful and easy and will definitely become a staple in my repertoire.

Later tonight or tomorrow, I'll start my miniature black and white cookies. I'm planning to bake them ahead of time, then frost them at the party. But for now, I think I'll settle in on the couch for a bit, see if I can find some guilty television to watch. I miss my honey but I may as well enjoy being master of the remote control while I can. With a little plate of cookies, of course.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas test run: Alice Waters's potato gratin

This year, we'll be hosting Christmas dinner for my mother and some friends. I've been assembling the menu in my mind, looking for the perfect balance of festive and simple, trying to pick things that will be delicious but not cause me too much stress. So far, I've decided on a roast pork loin with fig sauce and a potato gratin.

I've made gratins before, mostly with success, but with some mishaps, including a few that turned out too liquidy or not cooked all the way through. Over the weekend, I combed through my recipes and figured doing a test run might not be a bad idea.

When looking for a simple, perfect treatment for vegetables, turning to Alice Waters seems natural. Last year, the husband gave me her cookbook, The Art of Simple Food. For some reason, I haven't cooked a lot from it--I'm not sure why.

I liked the sound of her potato gratin, which called for the following short list of ingredients: Yukon gold potatoes, milk, butter, salt and pepper. You can't get much simpler than that.

She suggested some ways to jazz it up a little, which I did. I rubbed the baking pan with a clove of garlic, and added thyme and grated parmesan between the layers.

Now, about the potatoes.

Four years ago, we received a mandoline as a wedding gift. Since May of 2005, this lovely and thoughtful gift has sat in its little box and stared at me, threatening to slice my fingers to shreds. It took until last weekend for me to risk it.

What's my problem? you ask. I'm a scaredy cat dog.

In my defense, shortly after we got married, I sustained a traumatic kitchen injury resulting in a trip to urgent care, and had to bumble around with a cumbersome bandage over my left hand for a few weeks. It took me a year to use that Globe knife again (also a wedding gift), which had proved to be very sharp indeed. Trying out another tool that came with all kinds of warning labels did not seem appealing.

Anyhow, I finally braved the mandoline, and what do you know, if you use the safety guard and go slow, it's really not that terrifying. It sliced the potatoes into delicate, thin slices, which I spread out in ruffly layers in my beloved Emile Henry baking pan.

The gratin turned out perfectly golden, with crispy edges, smelling of woodsy thyme and parmesan.

Inside, it was soft and creamy, the potatoes perfectly cooked. Success!

Now, to figure out dessert.

Alice Waters's Potato Gratin
adapted from The Art of Simple Food

4 large Yukon gold potatoes (about 1 1/2 lbs), sliced about 1/16"
1 cup of milk (I used whole)
3 T. butter, cut into pieces, plus a little more for greasing the pan
1 clove of garlic, peeled and cut in half
fresh thyme, parmesan, salt and pepper, all to your taste

Preheat the oven to 350.

Rub a 9x12 baking pan with the garlic, then grease with butter.

Spread one layer of potatoes over the bottom, sprinkle salt, pepper, thyme, and parmesan over, and repeat. Do not exceed three layers. Pour the milk over the top, so that the milk comes to the bottom of the top layer of potatoes. Add more if necessary. Dot with butter and sprinkle with more parmesan. Bake for 30 minutes. At this point, press down on the gratin with a spatula to make sure the milk is reaching all the potatoes. Bake for another 30 minutes, or until browned and bubbling. If you'd like (I did), add a little extra parmesan to the last 15 minutes of baking. Let sit for 5-10 minutes after removing from the oven.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Jammy apricot crumb cake

A week or two ago, I was running some errands in Noe Valley and noticed that the old pizza place we liked when we lived there was gone. Not only was it gone, but a Boulange de Noe had popped up in its place. 

I was sad about the pizza place, but I do like these boulangeries that dot the city. There's one in my neighborhood, Cole Valley, as well as one on Hayes and one on Fillmore, and I think a few others as well.

I happened to need some bread so stopped to pick up a quarter loaf of their multigrain levain, which makes excellent toast. The bakery had the happy hum of people at ease on Saturday morning: couples enjoying the newspaper with big bowls of cafe latte, mothers buttering rolls for children, and people like me, spontaneously picking up something delicious to bring back home.

The line was long, and while I waited I admired the lovely pastries and breads. When I got up to the register with my levain, I noticed little jars of brightly-hued homemade preserves. There was mission fig, raspberry, and apricot. On an impulse, I decided to buy the apricot. It looked cheery and rustic in its little jar.

I ate it on toast a few times, enjoying the tangy sweetness. Then, yesterday morning, a rainy Sunday, I decided to use it in this simple crumb cake I'd made once before with raspberry preserves.

I'm not sure whether I prefer apricots over raspberries, or, more likely, that the quality of the boulangerie's apricot jam was superior to the raspberry jam from Trader Joe's. All I know is that this cake was light and tender and not overly sweet, with a perfect jammy layer of apricots nestled under a cinnamon and brown sugar crumble.

The husband and I inhaled two rather large pieces, warm from the oven, without uttering a word.

This is a great recipe to keep on hand. You could use any kind of preserves or jam, and the batter is incredibly simple to throw together. No need to have softened butter ready or to pull out the hand mixer: this one comes together with a whisk and a spoon. Perfect for a lazy Sunday morning.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Creamy butternut squash soup with a side of...

Here's a weeknight dinner you're all probably familiar with, especially those of you with immersion blenders: the pureed soup. While the husband is only marginally interested in them (he craves more texture), these soups are a cook's best friend. You can make them out of nearly anything, use up all kinds of vegetables, use broth or water, add cream or don't, etc. See where I'm going with this? You can always make a delicious, creamy soup with what you've got on hand.

What I had on hand recently was a couple of small butternut squash, some leeks, sage, and (don't tell the husband) some fennel. He's not much for fennel but we often get it in the produce box, so I hide it in soups and he's none the wiser. Guess we'll find out if he's actually reading this blog.

Had I been a bit less lazy I might have fried up the sage leaves, but "short cut" is my middle name.

Looks pretty good, right?

"Hey, Hungry Dog," you're saying, "what's that next to your bowl of soup?"

Oh, just some cornbread...with ham.

Yeah. Ham. Check it out. Cornbread is a bestseller no matter what; add some ham, as my friend Irma Rombauer suggested, and you've really outdone yourself.

I love how cornbread has that nubby texture. Do you know what I mean? It's gritty but in a good way. Last night I was wishing I had some canned corn on hand so I could surprise the husband with the cornbread of his childhood, which he lovingly refers to as "corny cornbread." Yep. But, I don't think I've ever bought a can of corn in my life. I do, however, often have Niman Ranch ham lying around. And since Irma suggested it...

I baked it in a cast iron skillet, which gave the bread a nice crispy edge.

It was a delicious accompaniment to the pretty orange soup, which we held in warm bowls over our laps while watching the finale of "Top Chef." Not to run off on a tangent, but wasn't that the best season ever? I wanted Kevin to win, so was a little disappointed, but Michael was clearly an excellent chef, so it wasn't as traumatic as when Hosea the Cheater won last year, or that idiot Ilan from season two. 

So, do a quick inventory of your fridge and pantry, and I guarantee you'll find you have the makings of a beautiful, seasonal soup. And if you've got some cornmeal on hand, you can whip up a little batch of (ham) cornbread to go with.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Now for some fast food (and an award!)

A few weeks ago I was singing the joys of slow food, the kind of lazy weekend cooking most of us like to do now and then. But equally satisfying is a speedy weeknight dinner, like sesame-drizzled sockeye salmon with stir-fried vegetables.

This isn't much of a recipe; I wasn't even going to post about it. Sometimes I'm not sure what makes a dish blogworthy. Most of the food I make is fairly pedestrian, occasionally dressed up for the sake of a photo, but originally conceived of and ultimately executed with the sole purpose of being something delicious to eat.

Anyway, this one turned out pretty good-looking, so I thought I would post it. I roasted the salmon first on the stove and then in the oven, and stir-fried bok choy with carrots, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and Chinese rice wine. When everything was done, I drizzled sesame oil over the fish. A quick, satisfying dinner.

In other news, I am thrilled and honored to accept the Honest Scrap Award from Kate at Serendipity. Thanks, Kate!

If you haven't checked out Kate's blog, you are missing out. Not only is Kate a wonderful cook, writer, and photographer, but she has a life most of us only dream about. She's an American living with her husband in Belgium, and her blog details her incredible experiences living, cooking, and eating abroad. I highly recommend you add Serendipity to your daily reading list.

In addition to the nifty badge, the award comes with a few instructions.

1) Post the award on your blog and present the award to seven others whose blogs you find brilliant in content or design, or those who have encouraged you.

2) Tell those seven people they've been awarded HONEST SCRAP, inform them of the guidelines, and ask that they link back to you.

3) Share 10 honest things about yourself.

I'd like to first pass the award to some fellow bloggers who early on encouraged me. There are several other loyal bloggers who I would happily pass the award to but I think they've already received it.

Food Gal. Food Gal is in entirely different territory from The Hungry Dog: she actually makes her living through her blog. And, she's probably already received this award about 100 times. But, I wanted to mention her, because I really enjoy and admire her blog and she has always been kind about reading my blog and posting comments.

egg to the apples. Mark encouraged me from the beginning, and was the first to link me from his site! That was very exciting. And, if you haven't checked out his blog, which is a cool mix of recipes, music lyrics, and gorgeous photography, you should.

Test with Skewer. Shaz's blog documents her ambitious cooking and baking experiments in Australia, which range from Malaysian Mondays to Eating our Way Through the Alphabet. She has boundless creativity and energy and has always been an avid commenter at The Hungry Dog.

For all around coolness, I'd like to give the award to:

wasabi prime. She's very funny and has a great approach to food. Plus, she loves dogs. I suspect we'd be fast friends if we met in person.

The last three are blogs I've recently discovered that I really like, for both the design and writing.

And finally, for my 10 honest things.

1) I love Los Angeles. If you live in San Francisco, you're supposed to hate it, but I don't. I went to college in L.A. and in the years since I graduated, I have always had a little longing to move back. The husband is entirely on board with this. So, one day The Hungry Dog might be coming at you from sunny Los Angeles.

2) I used to think blogging was stupid. It seemed like a very self-indulgent thing to do, and one which I mocked freely until I took the time to actually read some blogs. I was surprised to discover that among the dross, there is some incredible writing out there. I still kind of hate the word "blog" but have resigned myself to it.

3) When I go to work, I feel like I am in a little play. Every day I put on my work costume and go to the set and exchange lines with my fellow actors. Don't get me wrong: I like my job fine, and I like my coworkers quite a bit. But, the Hungry Dog that goes to work is not the real Hungry Dog.

4) I am a terrible movie watcher. I often space out and miss some small but critical detail and then am completely lost. Also, I frequently fall asleep. I cannot tell you how many movies I have been informed by the husband that I have already "seen."

5)  I have a fantasy of moving to the north shore of Kauai and opening a little bakery. Because it's a fantasy, I don't have to worry about all of the reasons why this would be a difficult and probably foolish endeavor.

6) The most comforting smells to me are brewing coffee and steaming rice.

7) Four years ago I had the chance to help out the pastry chef at A16 for a few weeks, while I considered pastry school. The experience, though fun, convinced  me I am not cut out for the restaurant world.

8)  I've hardly traveled and feel it is a hole in my life that I want to begin filling in 2010.

9) I'm constantly learning how to be a strong, kind, optimistic, and forgiving person from my dog. She has comforted me in times of grief; made friends out of strangers; forgiven us for leaving her in strange places; and survived shots, baths, surgeries, and chemotherapy with  her cheery disposition intact. In addition to loving her absolutely, I admire her.

10) In spite of my food snobbery and everything I have ever written on this blog, I really like In-N-Out burgers.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Perfect apple almond crisp

When the weather is cold and you've had a hell of a week, it's a good idea to make an apple crisp.

On friday, I arrived home after a very long week of work, feeling the need to make something simple and soothing. Our produce basket was overflowing with apples, so I started to think about an upside down apple cake. Mark Bittman recently ran a recipe in the Times for a maple pear upside down cake, and it's been on my list to make, swapped out with apples. But the husband really loves apple crisp, and since he'd had a rough week too, that's what I settled on.

I always use the apple crisp recipe from Baking Illustrated and I cannot imagine finding a better one. I'm not sure what makes it so good--if it's the ratio of butter to flour, or the fact that you chill the topping before you sprinkle it over the apples and bake it. Whatever the reason, this recipe is a real winner.

Usually I use walnuts, but as I had no walnuts and plenty of almonds, the almond apple crisp was born. Then, in rummaging around for the cinnamon and nutmeg, I also discovered a little bottle of almond extract I had forgotten about. A splash seemed like it would provide a lovely perfume to the whole dessert.

The crisp turned out exactly as I hoped. The apples were soft but not mushy, and full of warmth from the spices and extract. The almonds made the topping much crunchier than it usually turned out with walnuts--and, we decided, much better. We ate it with vanilla ice cream, which I consider mandatory with fruit desserts. No matter how great a crisp, crumble, or pie is, it's guaranteed to be better with ice cream. Actually, that goes for most things.

If you do not own the Baking Illustrated cookbook, I highly recommend it. It's a cookbook for the very nerdy, containing only a handful of glossy photos and long paragraphs of explanation preceding most recipes. The writers make clear the reasoning behind all of their measurements and directions. While I don't read every word, I do read quite a bit of it, and I appreciate the great care that went into the creation of each recipe. And to date, I have yet to make recipe from the book that hasn't worked out perfectly.

But back to the crisp at hand, or at fork...

The smell of apples baking with cinnamon and nutmeg is irresistible on its own, but if you add almonds, it might just send you over the moon. The crisp was sweet, crunchy, and full of appley goodness--exactly what we needed to smooth the edges of a rough week.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Chicken and grits

When you marry a southern boy, you find yourself introduced to all kinds of new foods.

A lot of them are sweets: Derby pie, chess pie, jam cake, buckeyes, and bourbon balls. Derby pie is a chocolate and nut candy bar in a crust. Chess pie is a gooey, brown sugar pie. Jam cake was a surprise and a revelation to me, and writing this is a reminder to me that I've always meant to make it myself. The husband's dear mother hand-wrote the recipe for me years ago and I've failed to make it yet. You might picture some kind of a layer or swirl cake, a plain-ish cake cut through with jam. Well, you'd be wrong. Jam cake is more like a spice cake with raspberry or blackberry jam stirred into the batter, giving it a pinkish hue. Then it's frosted with caramel icing.

Buckeyes are balls of peanut butter, sugar, and butter half-rolled in chocolate to look like buckeyes. Bourbon balls seem self-explanatory.

I like some of these treats, particularly the jam cake, but the southern things I've come to like best are savory, like grits.

I make grits all the time. They're quicker than polenta and go with everything. When I feel decadent, I make them with a little cream and some grated cheese: are there two more beautiful words than cheesy grits? When I feel disciplined, I make them with water or chicken broth and a little milk.

I made grits the other night to go alongside our weekly roast chicken and some kale sauteed with bacon and garlic. Now, if I were really keeping it southern, the chicken would have been fried, there would have been some cream gravy drizzled on top, and the kale would have been cooked into a grey oblivion. That's one thing I can't get behind with southern food--the need to turn all vegetables brown or grey with overcooking. I'll take my veggies green, thank you.

I like to think of this as a hybrid dinner, a little California and a little Kentucky, wrapped into one delicious package.