Recipe: Lemon Cream Tart

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Anybody who knows me knows how obsessed I am with lemons. They are my favorite citrus fruit because they lend an aromatic & fresh zippiness to cocktails, desserts, and savory dishes. I love lemons so much that Colleen made me a white chocolate & lemon layer cake for my wedding last year. They are also unbelievably easy to grow here in our Mediterranean climate; I have two Meyer lemon trees in my back yard that produce year-round.

When my good friend Kendra asked me to make a dessert for her wedding this last weekend, I naturally wanted to use lemons. They aren’t exactly in season, but our Indian summer had been warm around here and the thought of something heavy and seasonal like pumpkin or ginger made me sad. Lemons are perfect for warm weather because they are refreshing and light, so I decided to make Dorie Greenspan’s Lemon Cream Tart for Kendra & Dan’s wedding. Plus, I am not much of a baker, and this recipe is easy to make. I’d hate to try a new recipe and have it turn out poorly for such an important event.

This lemon cream tart recipe is one that Colleen turned me on to a few years ago. The recipe comes from Pierre Hermé (a famous French pastry chef) via Dorie Greenspan – he is her ‘pastry hero’. It’s different from regular lemon curd because of the technique used to make it. Instead of cooking all of the ingredients together at once (lemon juice/rind, butter, sugar, eggs), you just cook the lemon juice/rind, sugar and eggs until they reach 180 degrees, then let the mixture cool slightly before whipping in room temperature butter in your blender or food processor. The end result is so much lighter, creamier, and luxurious than typical lemon curd. You will never use another lemon curd recipe again after making this one.

I’ve seen a few variations of this recipe online, so I will post the one that I’ve been using from another (now defunct) blog called Eat Me Delicious. The reason I chose this version is because the sweet tart dough recipe she has does not include almond flour, which all the others do.  I try to always be aware of allergens in the foods I cook for crowds, and it seems like tree nuts are a big one. All I can say is that I am thankful that nobody there was allergic to butter. I doubled up the recipe and ended up using a total of 2 lbs of butter, nearly a dozen eggs, and an unholy amount of sugar. DELICIOUS.

Side Note: It was very warm on my friend’s wedding day, and I was concerned about the tart getting warm. This lemon cream tastes best when cold, and with the tart shell at room temperature. Here’s what I did: I made the lemon cream the night before and put it into mason jars which I placed in the refrigerator. I baked the tart shells in the morning, let them cool, carefully wrapped them for transport, and put the jars of lemon curd in a cooler with ice packs. Once I arrived at the wedding, I spooned the cold lemon curd into the pre-cooked tart shells and then decorated them with raspberries in the shape of a heart. It worked perfectly.

Lemon Cream
adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours

1 cup sugar
Grated zest of 3 lemons
4 large eggs
3/4 c fresh lemon juice (from 4-5 lemons)
2 sticks plus 5 tbsp butter (10 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon size pieces, at room temperature
1 9-inch tart shell made with sweet tart dough, fully baked (see below)

Getting ready:
Have a instant-read thermometer, a strainer and a blender or food processor ready. Bring a few inches of water to a simmer in a saucepan.

Put the sugar and zest in a large metal bowl that can be set over the pan of simmering water. Off the heat, rub the sugar and zest together between your fingers until the sugar is moist, grainy, and very aromatic. Whisk in the eggs, followed by the lemon juice.

Set the bowl over the pan and start stirring with the whisk as soon as the mixture fees tepid to the touch. Cook the lemon cream until it reaches 180 degrees F. As you whisk- you whisk constantly to keep the eggs from scrambling- you’ll see that the cream will start out light and foamy, then the bubbles will get bigger, and then, as it gets closer to 180F, it will start to thicken and the whisk will leave tracks. Heads up at this point- the tracks mean the cream is almost ready. Don’t stop whisking or checking the temperature, and have patience- depending on how much heat you’re giving the cream, getting to temp may take as long as 10 minutes.

As soon as it reaches 180F, remove the cream from the heat and strain it into the container of the lender (or food processor); discard the zest. Let the cream stand, stirring occasionally, until it cools to 140 degrees F, about 10 minutes.

Turn the blender to high (or turn on the processor) and, with the machine going, add the butter about 5 pieces at a time. Scrape down the sides of the container as needed as you incorporate the butter. Once the butter is in, keep the machine going- to get the perfect light, airy texture of lemon-cream dreams, you must continue to bend the cream for another 3 minutes. If your machine protests, and gets a bit too hot, work in 1-minute intervals, giving the machine a little rest between beats.

Pour the cream into a container, cover tightly and refrigerate at least 4 hours, or overnight. (The cream will keep in the fridge for 4 days or, tightly sealed, in the freezer for up to 2 months; thaw it overnight in the refrigerator.)

When you are ready to assemble the tart, just whisk the cream to loosen it and spoon it into the tart shell. Serve the tart, or refrigerate until needed.

Sweet Tart Dough
Adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick plus 1 tablespoon (9 tablespoons) very cold (or frozen) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg yolk

Put the flour, confectioner’s sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse a couple of times to combine. Scatter the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is coarsely cut in – you should have some pieces the size of oatmeal flakes and some the size of peas. Stir the yolk and add it a little at a time, pulsing after each addition. When the egg is in, process in long pulses – about 10 seconds each – until the dough, which will look granular soon after the egg is added, forms clumps and curds. Just before you reach this stage, the sound of the machine working the dough will change – heads up. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and, very lightly and sparingly, knead the dough just to incorporate any dry ingredients that might have escaped mixing.

Butter a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Press the dough evenly over the bottom and up the sides of the pan, using all but one little piece of dough, which you should save in the refrigerator to patch any cracks after the crust is baked. Don’t be too heavy-handed – press the crust in so that the edges of the pieces cling to one another, but not so hard that the crust loses its crumbly texture. Freeze the crust for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer, before baking.

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 375F.

Press a sheet of buttered foil down over the surface of the frozen tart shell. Put the tart pan on a baking sheet and bake the crust for 25 minutes. Carefully remove the foil. If the crust has puffed, press it down gently with the back of a spoon. For a partially baked crust, patch the crust if necessary, then transfer the crust to a cooling rack (keep it in its pan).

To Fully Bake the Crust: Bake for another 8 minutes or so, or until it is firm and golden brown. Transfer the tart pan to a rack and cool the crust to room temperature before filling.

To Patch a Partially or Fully Baked Crust, if Necessary: If there are any cracks in the baked crust, patch them with some of the reserved raw dough as soon as you remove the foil. Slice of a thin piece of the dough, place it over the crack, moisten the edges and very gently smooth the edges into the baked crust. If the tart will not be baked again with its filling, baking for another 2 minutes or so, just to take the rawness off the patch.

Cooking Techniques: Chicken Stock

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf there’s any one commodity in my kitchen that is worth it’s weight in gold, it is home-made chicken stock. I’m not talking about the salty garbage you buy at the store that has been fined and filtered to oblivion and back, or even the kind that costs $80 for 2 cups worth at Williams-Sonoma during the holidays (I wish I was kidding). I’m talking about the kind that takes 8 hours to cook, anyone can make, and results in a rich, delicious, savory, viscous, concentrated broth.

What exactly does one use chicken broth for, other than the obvious chicken soup? Well, let me tell you all the things I use it for.

Risotto. Use your home made chicken stock to make the most delicious risotto you’ve ever had.
Matzoh Ball Soup. Get that matzoh ball mix from the store and get ready to indulge in this classic New York soup.
Pan Sauce. That’s right, you can use your home made chicken broth to make unbelievable pan sauce any day of the week.
Polenta/Lentils/Rice/Grains. Cook your whole grains with some chicken broth and go from ho-hum to OMFG.
Bread Pudding. If you’ve never made this before, you are missing out. Home made chicken stock makes it ethereal.
Braising Liquid. Use chicken stock to braise anything from chicken to veal.
Mashed Potatoes. Add this to your battle-worn mashed potato recipe and get ready to be amazed.
Stir-fry. Use chicken stock in your stir fry for a healthy alternative to oil.
Cereal. Just kidding.

So you see, you can use chicken stock in pretty much anything (well, except for your Cap’n Crunch, but I won’t tell anyone if you try it). This recipe will go over how to make a batch in an 8 quart stock pot, which should yield about 5 quarts of stock. That’s enough to last me about a month. You will find that although cooking it can take a really long time, there is really very little technique involved and it’s very easy to make if you have a whole day to spend at home.

The key is getting enough carcasses to start with. Some recipes call for a whole chicken, meat included. I feel this is a waste of perfectly good meat, as chicken is not great when it’s boiled. Also, the thing that makes home made stock special is the broken-down connective tissue, cartilage and bone which gives it an amazing texture. The only way to achieve this is by using lots of bones and cooking them for a really long time. The best way to get a high bone to meat ratio is by using carcasses with most of the meat removed. I like to use three carcasses to one pot of stock – use fewer and your stock may come out thin and bland. The cheapest way to obtain them is to buy your chicken whole from your local butcher, ask them to break it down into 4 pieces (leg/thigh, boneless breast/wing) and to wrap up the carcass & necks separately so you can freeze them. The meat will serve 4-6 people, or you can freeze the individual pieces and cook them as needed. Over time, you will end up with several frozen chicken carcasses, and then you’ll be ready to make stock.

As for aromatic vegetables to complement the chicken, the sky is the limit. Below I will make some suggestions and generally you want to use at least some carrots, celery & onions. You can really use anything you want. I tend to add herbs, parsley stems, fennel, bay leaf, peppercorns, and anything else that’s super aromatic and can stand up to long periods of cooking without disintegrating. Get creative here!

Tala’s Chicken Stock Recipe
Time Required: 30 minutes prep, 8 hours cooking

Tools:
8 quart stock pot (give or take)
Large fine-mesh strainer
Large heat-resistant container to strain your finished stock into (I just use my smaller stock pot)
Several 1 qt. & 1 pt. mason jars with lids
Fat separator (not mandatory, but saves you a lot of trouble)

Ingredients:
3 large carrots, broken in half
3 celery ribs, broken in half
2 medium onions, paper left on and sliced in half
1 whole head of garlic, paper left on and sliced in half
1-2 bay leaves (I just pick mine off the neighborhood Bay Laurel tree)
10-20 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tbsp. whole peppercorns
1 medium bulb of fennel, green parts removed & sliced in half
3 chicken carcasses, necks, feet, heads, whatever you have left over (except livers, do NOT use the liver as it turns bitter)
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMethod:
1. Put all ingredients into your 8 quart stock pot. Don’t worry if it gets really full (see below), as everything will break down within the first hour of cooking and fit into the pot.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA2. Fill the pot with water up to the top, leaving about an inch of space so that the water doesn’t boil all over the place.
3. Place on the stove and turn on the heat to high. I start with frozen carcasses and that’s totally fine. They don’t need to be thawed because you are going to be boiling them. Save yourself the trouble and let the water do the work.
4. Once the water starts to boil, turn the heat down to medium and bring to a simmer or slow boil. You will notice a grey scum collecting on the surface of the stock (see below). Skim this off with a large spoon and discard. The scum should stop forming after the first 30 minutes or so.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA5. Simmer for about 8 hours. You don’t need to boil the bejeesus out of it; a slow boil or a simmer is fine. Some of the water will evaporate, just add it back as it starts to get a little low. You want all of your ingredients to remain submerged, so don’t let it get more than a few inches low. You will also notice that the chicken will start to break apart after the first hour or so and will create more space in the pot for liquid. Below is a photo of what it might look like after a few hours.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA6.  After 8 or so hours have passed, turn the heat off and get out your fine mesh strainer & your second large container (I use my smaller stock pot).
7. Place your strainer over your container and SLOWLY pour the entire contents of your pot of stock through the strainer. Be very careful, ask for help if you need it, and for the love of God don’t burn yourself! You may need to empty out the strainer halfway through as it fills with chicken parts and spent vegetables.
8. Discard the solids from your stock. At this point you’ve boiled every last bit of flavor out of them and they won’t be good for much of anything.
9a. Now for skimming the fat. A fine home-made chicken stock has very little fat in it, but you may notice that the new stock you just strained is full of chicken grease. The easiest way to skim the fat is by using a fat separator. This is one of the very few single-purpose kitchen tools I have, because I make stock so often and it really does save you a lot of trouble. Fill the fat separator and give it a minute so the fat can float to the top. Then, pour off the clear stock into your mason jars, leaving an inch and a half of headspace; this will prevent them from breaking when you freeze them. Once filled, stick them in your freezer.
9b. If you don’t have a fat separator, then just put the whole stock-filled container into an ice water bath to bring the temperature down very quickly – this prevents bacterial growth. Once it’s cool to the touch, stick the whole container in your refrigerator until the fat has floated to the surface and turned solid from the cold. Then you can just remove it with a slotted spoon, then pour the fat-free stock into your mason jars (leaving an inch and a half of headspace!) and then freeze them.
10. When it’s time to use some stock, just pull a jar out of the freezer, remove the metal lid and ring, then stick the whole jar into the microwave and defrost. Use what you need and refrigerate or re-freeze the rest.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Make Your Own Tonic Water at Home

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Here at Winelandia, we are big fans of doing things “the hard way.” Sometimes doing things this way yields better results than doing them “the easy way,” and generally it’s never as “hard” as it initially sounds. Case in point: tonic. Buy the cheap stuff (Schweppes or Canada Dry) and what you end up with is high fructose corn syrup-infused, quinine-laced, artificially flavored Citrus Drank. It tastes about as good as it sounds. Go a step further and buy Fever Tree brand tonic and you are in much better shape… although it costs about $6 for four small 7 oz bottles. Our advice is to ditch the commercial options and make your own. No tonic tastes better than the kind you can make yourself.

There are a few fundamental principles of tonic. First: It always contains quinine, a chemical which occurs naturally in the South American cinchona tree’s bark. This chemical has been known to reduce fevers, act as an anti-inflammatory agent and anti-malarial, and has medicinal uses dating back to the 17th century. Second: Tonic usually has a citrus flavor which can be derived from the zest or juice of any citrus fruit, or by adding lemongrass. Really, you can use whatever you want but I think citrus as a foundation is a good plan when you are first getting started. Third: Tonic needs to have flavor components to balance out the bitterness of the quinine; botanicals have been added to tonic as flavoring agents to make the healthful tonic more approachable, but I think it’s more important to use sensory elements such as sourness and sweetness to balance out the bitterness. We do this by adding sugar and citric acid to the tonic.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The most difficult part about making tonic is finding a supply of cinchona tree bark. If you live in a culturally-diverse major metropolitan area, you can find it pretty easily at Asian or Latin markets. It’s usually sold in baggies with the other spices. If you can’t find it at the store, you can find it online pretty easily. I can’t attest to any of the brands found online, but I can find this Eden brand cut cinchona bark at the Duc Loi market on Mission street in San Francisco. You can find it in two different forms; powdered or cut. I have only ever found the cut bark at the aforementioned market, but you can put it through a mill grinder to make powder if you want a more concentrated tonic (don’t hold me responsible if you break your mill grinder, that bark is tough). Cinchona bark is dirt cheap, I recommend stocking up if you find it in a store because you will undeniably want to make gallons of tonic after you experience your first sip.

Citric acid is another ingredient that can be a little tough to find, but you can always find it at your local home brew shop, as it’s a common chemical used in home brewing and winemaking. If you’re unable to find it at a store, you can find it easily online. I got mine on Amazon.

Once you have your cinchona tree bark and citric acid, the rest of the ingredients are really easy to find and you can channel your creative energy into new, unexpected and exciting flavors. I am going to post a basic recipe first, and then I’ll post a list of potential ingredients that you could mix and match to make a flavor profile to complement your favorite gin.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Basic Tonic Recipe
(adapted from SeriousEats, Imbibe & my brain)

Tools:
Small saucepan
Sharp, sturdy chef’s knife
Citrus zester
Coffee filter, French press, cheesecloth or fine mesh sieve

Ingredients:
2 tsp ground cinchona bark or 4 tsp cut cinchona bark
1 lemon
1 lime
1 large lemongrass stalk
1.5 tsp citric acid
1.5 c sugar
2 c still water
Carbonated Water

Method:
1. Combine sugar, still water, citric acid and cinchona bark in a small saucepan and put on medium-high heat.
2. Cut lemongrass into 1/2″ pieces on the bias and add to saucepan.
3. Zest lemon and lime, then add zest to saucepan.
4. Juice lemon and lime into saucepan.
5. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 25 minutes (if using ground cinchona) or 45 minutes (if using cut cinchona).
6. Remove from heat and let steep for 30 minutes.
7a. IF USING CUT CINCHONA: Strain mixture through a fine mesh sieve into a sterilized glass jar.
7b. IF USING GROUND CINCHONA: Strain mixture through a fine mesh sieve to remove the large solids; then run the mixture through a coffee filter, 4 layers of cheesecloth, or french press to remove the finer particulate matter. Ground cinchona is very fine and will take a very long time to strain if using a coffee filter. Be patient, the coffee filter method will produce the most visually appealing result. Once filtered, put into a sterilized glass jar.
8. Allow tonic syrup to cool.
9. Add 1 part tonic syrup to 4 parts carbonated water for consumption by itself, with a squeeze of lime; or as a cocktail (just add 1 oz. gin or vodka).
10. Store left-over tonic in the refrigerator for a week or freeze for later use.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Now that you have your basic recipe down, it’s easy to start adding/replacing botanicals to create a flavor profile all of your own. My suggestion is to look for things you already have in your kitchen that will add a delicious and unexpected flavor combination to your next batch of tonic. Below are some ideas I’ve gleaned from my own kitchen, friends and research. In reality, you can add anything. Just be sure to use an ingredient that can hold up to extended periods of heat without damaging the flavor.

Kaffir Lime Leaf
Kumquat
Allspice
Lemon Verbana
Tangerine
Tarragon
Coriander Seed
Grapefruit
Thyme
Rosemary
Stonefruit
Star Anise
Bay Laurel
Pink Peppercorn

Do you have suggestions for other botanicals to use in home-made tonic, or combinations of them to create new and delicious flavors? Let us know in the comments!

Pastry Perfection, or; What I Did with All Those Sour Cherries

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Were you as crazy for pop tarts and toaster strudel as I was as a kid? I swear I ate them every day for years. Maybe that’s where my love of flaky, crispy pastry started – but I’m actually pretty sure it started with my grandmother making apple pie for me. Anyway, those little toaster pastries filled with jam-like fruit were the first thing that came to mind when I was assembling what came to be known as The World’s Largest Pop Tart for Tala’s birthday party last month.

cherrypiecrust

This pastry, a riff on Smitten Kitchen’s Sour Cherry Slab Pie, was, as Deb says, the perfect ratio of crust to filling. Tons of crust, some filling – pastry perfection. That giant sheet of pastry up there is the largest single piece I have ever rolled. And not to toot my own horn, but I have rolled a lot of pastry in my life. This is actually the only challenge the entire recipe. I used a double recipe of Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Favorite Flaky and Tender Pie Crust, and split it into two even pieces to rest overnight. I SWEAR BY this recipe, but as I heard once, just use the pastry recipe that works for you. You’ll need double the amount as for a regular double-crust pie, and store bought would be just fine. Roll it into a rectangle that fills any sheet pan that you have.

2013-06-23 09.18.18

The filling is about 4 pounds of sour cherries from that batch we pitted and froze a while back. This is exactly why I did so much – I knew this would be Tala’s birthday treat and I needed a lot of cherries. My pan was 18″ x 13″. Honestly and truly, all that’s in this filling is the freshest sour cherries, the juice of a half a lemon, 1 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup of corn starch, and a half teaspoon of salt. I suggest mixing the cherries, the lemon juice and sugar together, then tasting the cherries to see if they’re sweet enough for you. If not, add more sugar to taste. Stir it, pour it, top it, bake it, ice it. This bakes in a 375 degree oven for about 45 minutes. You’ll probably have a beautiful rustic crack appear, through which you can tell if the juices are boiling or not. All you really need is bubbly filling and golden brown pastry, so once you have both those visual indicators, you can take it out of the oven. Start checking at 30 minutes.

cherrypiecomplete

Rolling the top pastry is a little easier because it can be a bit smaller than the bottom one. The bottom piece has to fold up and over the edge of the top to seal, and that extra 1.5″ may cause you to tear your hair out. It’s true, there may have been a near pie-pocalypse in the baking of my own World’s Largest Pop Tart, but I was able to rescue it. My only advice is this – make sure your pastry’s edges are quite thin, or they may melt off the rim of your baking sheet while in the oven.

cherrypiecross

The last touch is a simple powdered sugar and lemon juice glaze. I poured it in a lattice pattern to make it seem even more like a breakfast pastry. The glaze amps up the visual appeal of the entire thing. I just can’t get over the contrast of those magenta cherries and the golden brown crust. They still manage to have that beautiful glow even when baked. But if you’re looking at this and thinking you hate me because you can’t find sour cherries, this recipe is very adaptable. You can easily use about the same amount (4 lbs) of any other fruit. Great variations could be blueberries, apples, peaches, blackberries… Lots of options here. So, did you get any sour cherries this summer? How did you use them? Let us know in the comments!

Cooking Techniques: How to Dice an Onion

We recently reached out to some of our readers and asked what they would like to see on the blog. One of the first responses was “How do I chop an onion… correctly?”. Well, esteemed reader, today is your lucky day. Here’s how to dice an onion uniformly and quickly, every time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Tip: Save yourself a lot of trouble and maintain the edge on your good knives. Dicing an onion is much easier when your knife is sharp. You can maintain the edge of an already-sharp knife with a honing steel (above, left), which is included in many knife sets. You can also purchase one for about $20. Just remember that you have to start with sharp knife if you want a honing steel to be effective. If your knife is dull from years of neglect, take it to your local knife sharpener first. A honing steel does not sharpen a dull blade, it only keeps an already sharp blade in great condition. I have my knives sharpened about once a year but I hone my knives before every use. This slideshow demonstrates how to use a honing steel.

Fine vs. coarse dice: The size of your dice depends upon the size of your cuts in the onion. The closer the cuts are, the finer your dice will be. If you want to do a very fine dice, make the cuts as close together as you can. If you want a coarse dice, make them farther apart.

Tools:
Chef’s knife
Honing steel
Cutting board

Ingredients:
Onions

Method:
1. Hone your knife & wipe with a soft cloth.
2. Slice your onion in half lengthwise, through the root-end of the onion.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA3. Peel off the papery exterior, then trim the opposite end from the root. Leave the root end intact.

4. Slice the onion horizontally towards the root end in layers, starting from the bottom and working your way up. Do not slice all the way through the root end of the onion; think of the slices like pages in a book, with the root end being the spine. Keep your fingers out of danger’s way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA5. Next, cut the onion lengthwise. Again, be sure not to cut all the way through the root end of the onion. The root end will be what binds the onion together when you do the final step and will make your life much easier.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA6. Finally, cut the onion across as shown below, making your dice. Go all the way until you reach the root end, and discard the roots.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Voila! A perfect dice every time. I learned this method in a knife skills class I took many years ago. I also dice shallots and garlic using this method.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

How To Store Fresh Herbs

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of the greatest boons to my cooking skills was the discovery of fresh herbs. Thyme, tarragon, sage, rosemary, chives, oregano, cilantro and parsley just to name a few. They pack so much flavor, add a lovely green kick to any dish you are making and can elevate a meal from average to ethereal. The problem with them is that they are hard to keep fresh… if you don’t know the secrets. If you throw a bunch of fresh tarragon in the fridge, wrapped in a damp paper towel like many people will suggest, it will turn into a bruised, blackened, slimy mess in just a day or two. The tarragon in the photo above is nearly a week old and it never saw a day of refrigeration. In this post I will share with you some tips and tricks to keep your herbs fresher for longer, which will save you money and thyme.

In my experience, every herb prefers to be stored in a slightly different way. Below I will name some common herbs and how I choose to store them.

Parsley: This very common but often overlooked herb is one of Ina Garten’s favorites. Most people don’t know that it not only lends a beautiful visual element to a dish, but it also packs a ton of flavor when it’s fresh. It’s the primary ingredient in Argentinian chimichuri sauce and is even used to flavor soup stocks, beans and other brothy things.
To store fresh parsley, cut a few millimeters of the ends off under running water like you would a bunch of fresh flowers and then put into a glass with water that goes an inch or two up the stems (but not any higher because it will start to rot). Keep this bouquet of parsley on your kitchen counter, away from direct sun, for up to a week. Trim the stems again a few days later, change the water & clean the glass every other day and it will stay fresher longer.

Thyme: This herb’s aroma reminds me so much of Thanksgiving. Hard winter squash, mushrooms, game birds, pork roasts, chicken stock and stuffing all benefit from a hearty helping of thyme. The greatest thing about thyme is that it can stand up to extended periods of cooking without damaging the flavor. You can add it directly to a dish cooking on the stovetop, use it in your braising liquids, or even deep-fry it for a lovely, flavorful, crunchy garnish.
To store fresh thyme, put it in a small glass of water filled to just above the bottom of the stems. I find that trimming thyme ends doesn’t do much for it, but it can’t hurt. You can store this either on the counter or in the fridge. It should keep for a little less than a week before it starts to dry out naturally. You should also change the water and clean the glass every other day to prevent bacteria from growing. Once it starts to go, take it out of the glass, cut off any parts that are turning bad, and lay it flat or hang to dry. Thyme keeps much of it’s flavor once it’s dry. The best way to store thyme, though, is by growing it in a pot. Grow it in partial sun, water it occasionally and take cuttings often to promote new growth.

Tarragon: This herb is one of the most delicious and hardest to find fresh. I have walked through many high-end farmer’s markets only to find that nobody has any. I do occasionally find some, usually when things like fresh fish are in season, which tarragon is a lovely compliment to. It has a unique almost anise-like aroma, but I like it much more than anise. It pairs well with many flavors such as lemon, asparagus, fennel bulb, tomatoes, beets, eggs, carrots and grapefruit. It also pairs terribly with some flavors, such as basil, oregano, sage and rosemary. Needless to say, it’s an herb best used by itself without any other herbs.
To store fresh tarragon, treat it just as you would parsley. Trim the ends under running water and keep in a glass with a little water which should be changed regularly. You will find that your tarragon will continue to grow in the glass of water, getting bigger and bushier before it finally bites the dust. Another great way to store tarragon that’s on it’s way out is by chopping it and mixing it with some soft butter, then freezing it. You can use this butter in various dishes and sauces throughout the year.

Cilantro: Also known as Coriander, this is one of the most polarizing herbs. Most love it, quite a few hate it. I’ve heard that genetics have a lot to do with cilantro intolerance but I am lucky to not have any issues with it. I LOVE cilantro. I add it to anything I cook that is Mexican or Thai inspired. It has such an interesting depth of flavor and is best used fresh, not cooked. Roughly chop the leaves (you can eat the stems, too, unlike it’s cousin parsley) and add it at the last minute to your dishes.
To store fresh cilantro, trim the ends of a fresh bunch and put in a glass of water much like you do with parsley and tarragon. Keep your cilantro in the fridge and it should last for several weeks this way. Change out the water occasionally  although you don’t need to do it as often as the refrigeration seems to thwart bacterial growth in the water. You will find, however, that it loses some of it’s punch over time so it’s best to use it up quickly even if it still looks nice.

Chives: Chives are extremely versatile and delicious, much like it’s cousin the Onion. They are fresh, pungent and lovely when thinly sliced and scattered over a dish. They are more delicate than a regular onion and are best used fresh, not added to a dish and then cooked. I like to mix them with softened butter and serve a little scoop over a nice filet mignon. If you’ve never had chive butter on a steak, you should get on that.
To store fresh chives, wrap them in a small plastic sandwich bag and keep in your refrigerator. You can chop as much as you need off the end of the whole bunch, then put it back into the bag and return to the refrigerator. They should keep a week or longer this way.

Basil: There is no greater indication that summer is in full swing than fresh basil at the market. This classic Italian (or Thai) herb has a powerful, pleasing aroma that is an excellent compliment to many other flavors. The classic pairing is with tomatoes, although you can use it in a zillion other ways. It’s also great with fish, mozzarella, eggs and zucchini. Basil is notoriously hard to grow, for me at least. It turns black within 2 days of being outside and I can only assume we don’t have the right climate for it here. Basil should be added fresh to dishes at the end of cooking, or used in cold dishes and salads with a healthy pour of olive oil and vinegar.
To store fresh basil, keep it in a glass on the counter like you would with parsley or tarragon. Do not put it in the refrigerator as it is sensitive to cold temperatures (maybe that’s why I can’t grow it). If you can find fresh basil with the roots still attached, it’s even better and will keep for up to 2 weeks on your counter top if you change the water regularly.

Rosemary: This woody, weedy, showy herb has a lovely, strong and unique flavor due to it’s high oil content. It’s best used during cooking and I can’t imagine using it fresh outside of a cocktail flavoring in full sprig format. It pairs well with all sorts of flavors, such as blackberry, other italian herbs, duck, garlic, pork, potatoes, beans, carrots, eggplant and lamb.
To store fresh rosemary, trim the ends and put in a glass of water like cilantro and store in the refrigerator. Alternatively, you can store it in a plastic bag as this herb is pretty hearty and won’t bruise or rot too easily. My favorite way to store rosemary, however, is in a pot of dirt, growing in my back yard. It’s very easy to grow and can quickly get out of control, so be sure to cut it back and use it often.

These storage methods are purely based on my own experience, so please feel free to chime in below in the comments and let us know if you have any tips or additions of your own.

Cooking Techniques: How to (easily) poach an egg

poachedegg

If you’re anything like me, you love brunch. You love it specifically because it provides a valid excuse to go out and eat poached eggs. They are delicate, fresh-tasting, healthy and satisfying. If you’re anything like me, you have spent countless hours trying to perfect this technique at home only to have your attempts explode into a water-logged, filamentous mess.

Through much trial and error, I finally came up with the easiest and most fool-proof method of poaching eggs. In my opinion, it’s easier than frying an egg and healthier too. No oil or butter, no cracked yolk, no hard-cooked nastiness.

Here are the important points to keep in mind:
1. Your eggs must be HELLA fresh. I am talking, right-out-of-the-chicken fresh. The older your eggs are, the runnier the whites will be and the harder it will be to poach them. You can determine how fresh your eggs are here.
2. Vinegar in the cooking water helps keep the white of the egg “tight” and keeps it from exploding.
3. You don’t want to plop the egg into the hot water; you need to lower it gently within a container other than the shell and gently DISPLACE the egg into the pan from the container with water.
4. You don’t want your water to boil hard or to create a “whirlpool” in the pot of hot water. While I’m sure someone, somewhere is able to poach an egg like this, I never have been able to and find that it just makes things really difficult.

I hope that this tutorial demystifies the process for you and helps you achieve perfectly cooked, tender, just-runny enough goodness.

What you’ll need:
Water
Extremely fresh eggs
Light-colored vinegar (champagne, white wine, apple cider, white)
Salt
A tall-sided skillet or shallow pot
Slotted spoon
4 oz canning jar, metal ladle, or a small bowl that can get hot
Something to put your poached eggs on (get creative)

Method:
1. Fill your tall-sided skillet or shallow pot with 2-3 inches of water.
2. Bring your water to a simmer. You should see lots of small bubbles and a few big bubbles (see photo).
3. Add a couple tablespoons of vinegar and a large pinch of salt to the hot water.
4. Crack your extremely fresh egg into your 4 oz canning jar, ladle or bowl.

rawegg
5. Gently lower the jar/ladle/bowl into the hot water and displace the egg from the container with the water.

displacedegg6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you reach the total number of eggs you want to eat (but don’t crowd them).
7. Set your kitchen timer for 3 minutes (soft cooked) or 3.5 minutes (medium cooked). We don’t poach eggs hard around here.

poachingegg
8. Gently remove the egg from the hot water with a slotted spoon and put on whatever vehicle you have chosen for your eggs.
9. Throw some shaved aged parmesan, chopped parsley, sea salt & pepper on there for a truly exquisite brunch. Skip the hollandaise sauce if you want to live a long and healthy life.

That’s it! Enjoy new skill.

Cooking Techniques: Pan Roasting

chicken

Ever wonder how your favorite restaurants prepare chicken with perfectly crispy skin, steaks that are evenly medium rare all the way through, and fish that is seared to perfection while being perfectly cooked and delicate inside? It’s not some kind of cooking magic, no. It’s a really simple method called Pan Roasting and I am going to tell you how to do it. Read and re-read this whole thing before you begin!

What you need:
Meat (pork chops, skin-on chicken legs or boneless breasts, fish filets, steaks)
An oven-proof stainless steel skillet or cast iron pan
Oil with a high smoke point (peanut oil or rice bran oil)
Salt (Kosher or sea)
Pepper

The first thing to consider is the temperature of what you are about to cook. Meat that is cold on the inside is not going to cook evenly. Ever have a steak that was burnt on the outside and too rare in the middle? It was probably too cold when it was cooked. If you are cooking a thick steak it’s probably good to take it out an hour or so before you cook it; longer for roasts. Obviously there are all sorts of food safety things to keep in mind and you shouldn’t leave it out all day, but for the most part it’s a standard practice to let red meat and pork steaks sit out at room temperature for a little while prior to cooking. I even like to let chicken sit out at room temperature for a half an hour or so prior to cooking. Fish you don’t need to worry about as much because it is delicate and cooks very quickly and it’s more prone to developing nasty flavors when it’s not kept ice cold.

TL;DR
Thick steaks: Leave out at room temp for 30 minutes to an hour prior to cooking.
Pork chops/steaks: Leave out at room temp for 30-45 minutes prior to cooking.
Chicken: Leave out for 30 minutes prior to cooking.
Fish: Don’t bother leaving this out prior to cooking.

The second thing to consider is salt. Ever have a steak that didn’t get that delicious crust on the outside and instead it seemed to “steam” in the pan? Chicken with floppy skin? Gross, dude! We don’t want that. Unless you are cooking a big roast that needs the salt to penetrate which will also spend enough time in the oven to dry it out, don’t salt your meat until RIGHT before you cook it. Salt draws the moisture out of meat, thus creating moisture on the surface which will steam while it cooks. This prevents the sear from forming. I pat everything as dry as I can with paper towels prior to salting and cooking. If you are cooking chicken, it also helps to rinse it in the morning, pat dry, and chill uncovered in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook it. This dries out the skin so it will get nice and crispy.

On a related note, there are several other factors that prevent a sear or crispy skin from forming.
1. Crowding your pan. Always use a pan bigger than what you are trying to cook, particularly if you are cooking multiple pieces of meat. Give them some space, you never want them touching.
2. Temperature. You want to get that pan HOT prior to putting the meat on it, but not so hot that it burns the oil. You can test the temperature by pouring a tiny drop of oil onto the pan. If it smokes like crazy, turn down the heat a bit and wait until the oil only shimmers when hot. Burnt oil tastes bad. NEVER use olive oil for searing as it has a very low smoke point.
3. Movement. Never, EVER, move the meat until it’s time to flip. Don’t be all nervous and constantly check to see if it’s browning. Trust me, it is. You will know it’s time to turn it when the sizzling noise quiets down. That means most of the moisture is gone and it’s searing. You can check progress by lifting a tiny corner, but don’t ever lift the whole thing with a spatula until it’s done.

Now, with all these very important things considered, you are ready to begin.

1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
2. Get your oven-proof skillet hot over medium-high heat on your stovetop (but not too hot).
3. Salt your chicken, pork or beef generously (fish less generously). Grind some fresh pepper over it too.
4. Pour a little oil on the pan, just enough to coat the surface when you turn it. You don’t want oil pooling. We aren’t deep frying.
5. Throw down your chicken skin-side down. If you are not cooking chicken with skin, it doesn’t matter what side you start on (duh). You should hear a loud sizzle; if you don’t then your pan didn’t get hot enough and you should let it get hotter next time.
6. Let it cook over medium-high heat until the loud sizzling becomes less loud. Don’t mess with it or move it around. Generally this takes around 3-4 minutes for pork and beef. Bigger pieces of meat will take longer. Once the sizzling quiets down, lift a tiny corner to see how it’s doing. If you are cooking fish, this is going to happen much faster so keep an eye on it.
7. If it’s nice and brown, flip it with a spatula (fish) or tongs (pork chop, steak, chicken). Nothing should stick if it’s seared properly. Chicken should be skin-side up now.
8. Turn off the stove-top heat and put the whole pan into the pre-heated oven.

Now comes the tricky part. Every oven is different, and every cut of meat cooks at different speeds. Additionally, everyone likes their meat cooked to different doneness. It takes time and practice to get this down perfectly, so be patient and don’t give up.

Chicken: This is the easiest protein to cook. I cook my chicken legs (drumstick and thigh as one piece) for exactly 20 minutes after they go into the oven. Chicken breast I cook for exactly 15 minutes (if they are big) and 13 if they are small.
Beef: Cooking time will vary based on the thickness and size of your steak. I like my red meat perfectly medium. I am able to tell how done it is by poking it with my finger. The squishier it is, the rarer it is. The firmer it is, the more done it is. If you are going for medium like I would, I would check my filet mignon after 4-5 minutes. Ribeye I would check after 5-6 minutes. Lean meat cooks faster than fatty meat. Try to resist the urge to cut into it to check because this causes all the juice to leak out. Get intimate with your food. Poke it with your bare finger and learn how it feels when it’s at different levels of doneness.
Pork: This is pretty much the same as beef. I like my pork perfectly medium. If you have never tried a medium pork chop, do it immediately. You will not get a parasite. Restaurants can legally serve pork at 140 degrees (medium).
Fish: Fish is going to cook in a flash. I like my fish a little on the rare side. Depending on the thickness, start checking it around the 2 minute mark. Don’t overcook it!

Once your meat comes out of the oven, remove it from the skillet to a warm plate in a room temperature part of your kitchen (not cold, not hot). Always take your meat out RIGHT before it’s reached your preferred done-ness, as the “carry-over heat” will continue to cook your meat after it comes out of the oven. So if you take out your steak when it’s perfectly medium, it will be medium-well after it rests. Do NOT cover it with foil, this will create trapped steam and all that crispy skin and sear will become mush. Just let it be. Let all of your meat rest for about 5 minutes before serving. Fish you can serve immediately as it will get cold quickly.

That’s it! This is really easy to do once you get the hang of it and you will be cooking restaurant-quality meals in no time. I will cover pan-sauce another time, but that will be your next step once you’ve mastered pan-roasting. Bon Appetit!

Cooking Techniques: Dry Beans

I once received a book from a foodie-friend for my birthday. The title was An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy & Grace. This book completely changed the way I cook; no longer do I rely on recipes, going to the grocery store to buy ingredients I think I need, spending frivolously just to make a meal the way I think it’s intended to be. This book taught me versatile cooking techniques, how to stretch your ingredients, and how to improvise.

One of the techniques I learned from this book is how to cook dry beans. I love beans. They are rich in fiber, protein and are heart-healthy. They lower cholesterol and make a nice compliment to any meal. They keep very well after being cooked and one pound of beans goes a long way.

My favorite purveyor of beans is Rancho Gordo. You can find their beans in natural grocery stores in the Bay Area as well as farmer’s markets. They are located in Napa and have a huge variety of heirloom beans at reasonable prices ($5.50/lb). I never knew beans could be so good until I started cooking with these employing the technique I learned in the above referenced book. My favorite variety is called Good Mother Stallard. They are velvety smooth and make an awesome bean broth.

Cooking beans is very simple. Generally it starts with a long soak. You only need to soak beans if they aren’t super fresh. Rancho Gordo beans don’t need to be soaked because they are always fresh, but I do anyway to reduce overall cooking time. Once you soak your beans, you can drain them, rinse them, add fresh water, and get to cooking.

The Most Delicious Beans You’ve Ever Had

1. Soak your beans during the day if you are into planning ahead. This will save you time later on.
2. When you get home that evening, drain the beans (you can give this water to a potted plant, if you have one), give them a good rinse, then add them back to the same pot & cover them with two inches of fresh water.
3. Add a good, long pour of olive oil. Add a couple whole smashed cloves of garlic, a bay leaf, and any odds and ends you may have in your refrigerator. Carrots, celery, onions with skins, fennel bulb, parsley stems, fresh thyme sprigs, parmesean rinds & celery root all give great flavor to the broth. Throw them in there halved or quartered. Don’t overdo it. You  don’t want your pot stuffed full with no room; the beans need space to expand. Do not add salt yet.
4. Bring the beans & things to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. I like to cover my beans to prevent the water from evaporating, and you also require less heat to simmer them this way. This saves energy.
5. Cook those puppies until they are tender and have a smooth consistency when eaten. This generally takes about an hour and a half from start to finish. They are done when you sample five beans and they are all delicious and smooth. Do NOT be afraid to taste as you go. Don’t over-cook or under-cook them. Add salt to taste at this point. Wait a minute or two, taste again, and adjust salt if needed. Turn off the heat.
6. Remove all the odds and ends from your delicious beans & throw into the compost bin. You’re done!

These beans can be used in any way and stored in mason jars in the fridge for up to a week. Sometimes I’ll reheat a pint of beans w/broth in a small pot and poach an egg IN the beans. Beans are great in soups, by themselves, with anything pork, mixed with sauteed bitter greens such as kale or beet greens, served alongside sausage, with fish, you name it. The greatest thing about these beans is the broth; even if you’ve eaten all the beans, save the broth in jars in the freezer and use it as a soup base. Nothing gets wasted.

I enjoyed these beans tonight with Fatted Calf Lamb Merguez Sausage & beet greens sauteed in olive oil. Delicious!