Thursday, February 24, 2011

wild mushroom risotto with seared sea scallops

To those of you who enjoy ordering risotto at restaurants but are somewhat hesitant to make it at home, I hope this post will convince you to think the other way around. Home cooks are often under the impression risotto is a laborious and tricky affair, best left to professionals. Not true! In fact, it's simple to make at home, and I've yet to have great risotto at a restaurant. I think the main problem is timing, since this is a dish that's best eaten the moment it's ready. Try cooking it ahead, or holding it through a dinner service - as restaurants are wont to do - and you're apt to end up with a gluey, overcooked mess. Restaurants may try to disguise these ills by adding lots of cream or butter, but that results in another dish altogether.

To me, the whole point of risotto is to coax rice and broth into a rich, saucy union without relying on cream or butter. Certainly, these things, and well as grated cheese, may be added as flavorings, but a properly made risotto does not depend on them.

As far as technique goes, all that's required is a bit of patience and a willingness to stir.

While this dish obviously shines when fresh wild mushrooms and peas are in season, dried porcinis and frozen peas are respectable substitutes, and provide a welcome taste of spring in the dead of winter.

Scallops make this a meal without being complicated or competing with the main event. They're easily seared just as the risotto is nearing completion, and are topped with a sprinkling of parsley and grated lemon zest just before serving.

Wild Mushroom Risotto with Seared Sea Scallops

1/4 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
olive oil
8 ounces fresh cremini or button mushrooms, sliced
1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry vermouth
5 cups reduced sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup frozen peas, thawed
zest of 2 lemons
1/3 cup chopped parsley
1 1/2 pounds large sea scallops
2 tablespoons butter
fresh grated parmesan to taste

Place dried mushrooms in a soup bowl; cover with 1 cup warm water. Allow to soak 1 hour, or until soft. Skim mushrooms off surface of liquid and coarsely chop. Strain soaking liquid into a medium saucepan, being careful to leave any sand or grit behind.

Add 5 cups chicken broth to mushroom liquid in saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium high heat. Turn heat down to medium low and cover to keep hot.

Rinse scallops well; check each one and remove any tough muscle straps (as shown below) that may be attached. Spread scallops out on paper towels and dry well.

Tough muscle strap - be sure to remove before cooking
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a dutch oven over high heat. Add fresh mushrooms and saute until browned. Remove mushrooms from pan and set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium high heat in same pan and saute onion and garlic until softened, about 4 minutes; add chopped porcinis and stir to combine. Add rice and stir over heat 3 minutes. Add vermouth and stir until vermouth is absorbed.

Begin adding hot broth to rice, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring continuously until liquid is absorbed before adding more.

Broth just added
Liquid is absorbed; ready to add more broth
When rice is just slightly underdone and you have about 1 cup of broth remaining, add peas, sauteed mushrooms, half the lemon zest and half the chopped parsley. (In the meantime, begin to cook scallops as directed below.) Continue as before until rice is soft but slightly chewy and a thick glossy sauce has formed. Check the seasoning and add salt and freshly ground pepper as needed. *If you prefer a richer risotto, now is the time to add butter or grated cheese, stirring well to incorporate them.

To cook scallops: Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a saute or frying pan over high heat. Add scallops and cook about 2 minutes or until well seared. Season scallops with salt and freshly ground pepper. Turn scallops and repeat on other side, searing quickly but being careful to not overcook. Scallops should be ready just as the risotto is nearing completion.

Place risotto in large bowls. Top with scallops. Garnish with chopped parsley and grated lemon zest. Serve immediately.

Serves 4 - 6.


Since rice varies, you may not need to use all the broth or you may need to augment with a little extra. Judge by level of doneness and consistency of "sauce." Ideally, risotto should be just soupy enough that it doesn't hold a distinct shape when mounted on a plate; it should creep across the surface.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

french onion soup

French onion soup is one of those things that anyone who lives in ski country should cook at least once. Not only is it the stuff people dream of when hunger strikes on the chairlift, but once you see how easily it's made you're bound to whip up future batches freestyle - no matter what your cooking experience - and everyone needs dishes like that in their arsenal. It's quite adaptable to ingredients you have on hand: Don't have beef broth? Just chicken broth will do. Used the last of the vermouth in your morning martini? Use white wine. Don't have good artisan bread? Use rye toast. As long as you follow the one incontestable rule of onion soup - reduce lots and lots of onions down to their deepest, darkest essence before adding broth - your house will fill with a beckoning aroma and your patience will be truly rewarded and appreciated. 

French Onion Soup au Gratin

2 tablespoons butter
5 large Spanish onions, peeled
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup dry vermouth
4 cups chicken broth
4 cups beef broth
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
crusty country-style artisan bread or french baguette, 1 thick slice per serving, toasted
grated gruyere cheese, enough for topping each slice toast

Thinly slice onions by hand, or in a food processor with slicing blade. Mince garlic cloves.

Melt butter in a large dutch oven over medium high heat. When foaming subsides, add onions and garlic and stir to coat well with butter. Season with salt and pepper, keeping in mind that canned stock can be quite salty, so better to under salt at this point. Cook uncovered, stirring regularly, until onions are a deep golden brown. This takes time! The success of the soup depends on well-browned (not burnt!) onions, so don't rush them. It may take an hour or more to achieve proper browning, depending on the pan used and moisture level of the onions.

Once onions are done, sprinkle with flour and stir over heat 3 - 5 minutes to cook the flour a bit and blend well with the onions. Deglaze pan with vermouth, scraping bottom to stir up browned bits; add chicken and beef broths, bay leaf and thyme.

Raise heat to bring soup to a boil; then reduce heat immediately to a slow simmer. Check soup for seasoning, cover pot and simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, toast bread slices and set aside.

When soup is ready, set oven to broil. Fill broiler-safe bowls or crocks with hot soup. Float a piece of toast in each bowl. Top toast with grated cheese, being sure to cover toast completely (exposed toast will burn under broiler). Note: This would look nicer in a classic onion soup bowl, or at least a smaller circumference bowl, but since I currently have no place to store said bowls I must soldier on with what I have.

Place bowls on a large sheet pan and slide under broiler. Watch carefully and remove from oven when the cheese is melted and beginning to brown in spots.

Serve immediately.

Makes 4 - 6 servings.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

whiskey-soaked dark chocolate cake

The first time I baked this cake and shipped it to my father-in-law for Christmas, he called to claim he had to be helped up the stairs after eating it. Although he was kidding, you may be surprised by just how potent it is, as other cakes of the type tend to wimp out on the booze.

I found this recipe while I was searching for something else: a decent rum cake recipe. I had recently tasted a highly regarded commercially-made cake, only to be shocked, (shocked!) at how awful it was. Although the ingredients list did boast a smidgen of rum, it tasted more like a calamity of artificial extracts, each obscuring the flavor of the others so none were recognizable in the end.

This challenged me to make my own cake, one with quality ingredients and a true rum kick - but that turned out to be easier said than done too. Since I rarely bake cakes I turned to the internet for help, expecting to find numerous enticing recipes from which to start. But surprisingly, all links pointed to a recipe based on yellow cake mix, and I mean, people love this recipe with the same fervor shown to the aforementioned  store-bought cake.  While it very possibly does taste good, I couldn't muster the proper enthusiasm knowing of its dubious underpinnings. Call me a control freak, but  I wanted to bake my cake from scratch.

While eventually I did find one rum cake contender to try in the future, I became bewitched in the meantime by an all together different recipe for the following chocolate cake.

Boy, is this cake good: deeply chocolaty, dense and moist, and very grown up. I figure if I love it this much, a true whiskey tippler would take a crazy shine to it. (And, just a reminder for you romantics out there, Valentine's Day is fast approaching.)

The recipe, originally published in the New York Times, expands on one by Maida Heatter, using more chocolate, less sugar and more booze - agreeable adjustments in my opinion! It may not be for everyone though, so know your crowd.

Whiskey-Soaked Dark Chocolate Bundt Cake

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened, more for greasing pan
2 cups all-purpose flour, more for dusting pan
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1/4 cup instant espresso powder
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup bourbon, rye or other whiskey, more for sprinkling
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
confectioner's sugar, for garnish (optional)

1. Grease and flour a 10-cup capacity Bundt pan (or two 8 or 9 inch loaf pans). Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a microwave or double boiler over simmering water, melt chocolate. Let cool.

2. Put espresso and cocoa powders in a 2-cup (or larger) glass measuring cup. Add enough boiling water to come up to the 1 cup measuring line. Mix until powders dissolve. Add whiskey and salt; let cool.

3. Using an electric mixer, beat 1 cup butter until fluffy. Add sugar and beat until well combined. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract, baking soda and melted chocolate, scraping down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula.


4. On low speed, beat in a third of the whiskey mixture. When liquid is absorbed, beat in 1 cup flour. Repeat additions, ending with whiskey mixture.

Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth top. Bake until cake tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean, about 1 hour 10 minutes for Bundt pan (loaf pans will take less time; start checking them after 55 minutes).

5. Transfer cake to a rack. Unmold after 15 minutes and sprinkle warm cake with more whiskey. Let cool before serving; garnish with confectioners' sugar if you like.

Yield: 10 to 12 servings.

Recipe by Melissa Clark, New York Times, December 3, 2008


* I used strong brewed espresso instead of espresso powder, adding it to the cocoa powder until it reached the 1 cup line.

* Use high quality unsweetened chocolate.

* If you're going to saturate a cake with whiskey, it should be something you enjoy drinking. In my case, I used Crown Royal because that's what we had in the bar, but I'll probably try Jack Daniels the next time around.

* I sprinkled about a half cup of whiskey over the cake after unmolding it, rendering it "soaked" indeed, as the name suggests.

* It seems this cake, like most liquor-infused cakes, just gets better with age as all the flavors meld.