Tuesday, May 28, 2013

An afternoon in the Ladies' Home Journal test kitchen

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Ladies' Home Journal food and entertaining director Tara Bench in the LHJ test kitchen

One of the best side benefits of writing a food blog is participating in events like last month's King Arthur Flour Blog & Bake. Not only did I learn how to make flaky scones, pillowy pizza dough, and pie crust, I met a dozen other bloggers and food editors who share my passion for pulling flavors together into recipes and finding exactly the right words to describe the food I love.

One of my pie crust buddies in Vermont was Tara Bench, a professional chef and recipe developer who currently directs all the food and entertaining content for Ladies' Home Journal magazine. I had a few free hours during a recent business trip to New York, so I asked Tara if I could stop by to say hi. Perfect, she said - I'll be in the test kitchen making chicken. And she wasn't kidding - Tara and assistant food editor Hilary Merzbacher needed to finalize 25 chicken recipes for an upcoming issue.

Ever wondered what goes on in a magazine's professional test kitchen? The refrigerator looked like mine - the door was full of half-used condiments, the main compartment held plastic containers with leftovers and bagged produce. Lots of cabinets, drawers and shelves. Great lighting. Two sinks, two stoves. And a huge center island. Definitely enough room for two cooks to coexist comfortably, maybe even three.

So how do these two chefs come up with 25 chicken recipes? First, they brainstorm, making sure there's a mix on all fronts. Some recipes used whole chicken, others breasts or legs or wings or ground chicken. They needed a mix of ethnicities and a mix of cooking methods (oven vs. stove vs. grill). Then they sat down and wrote out all the recipes. Next, they ordered ingredients for each dish from the neighborhood grocery store. Then they made each dish as written, tasted, and noted what needed to be adjusted. Some of the recipes required enough changes that they decided to re-make them. Finished dishes got plated and photographed to show to the editors, who would then choose which dishes should be photographed for the final spread. Then they'll have to make the hero dishes again, style them, and bring them to the in-house photo studio to be shot for the magazine.

The chicken: delicious in all forms. The company: also delicious. Tara and Hilary even let me use a corner of their kitchen to cook up a batch of my favorite chicken rice fritters for them to taste. Here are a few shots from the afternoon:

Penne with chicken bolognese and ricotta

My chicken rice fritters with lemon-mustard mayo

Oven-baked chicken risotto with sweet potatoes - this recipe needed another  round of testing, as the texture wasn't exactly what Tara wanted

Chicken salad in lettuce cups - nice and light for a summer lunch

Chicken with succotash
Baked chicken with chili sauce - sweet and spicy

Me in the test kitchen

Spaghetti with chicken meatballs and marinara

Tara in her LHJ chef' jacket

Note: I attended the 2013 King Arthur Flour Blog & Bake at the King Arthur Flour Baking Education Center as a very grateful guest of King Arthur Flour.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Grapefruit guacamole - it won't turn brown!

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Last week I made a delicious, miraculous guacamole that will not turn brown.

This guacamole hung around for almost a week in a normal plastic container in the refrigerator and it barely discolored at all. (It lasted because I made a huge batch and we were out of tortilla chips, not because it wasn't good. Just in case you were wondering.)

I assume the secret is the grapefruit flesh. I love grapefruit, so I added the flesh of two beautiful pink grapefruits straight to the guacamole.

You do need to know how to supreme a grapefruit. It's not hard, though: You cut off the ends, carefully cut away the rind, and then slip your knife in along the membranes to loosen the flesh. This video illustrates the process pretty well:

This is a very simple guacamole: avocado, grapefruit, green onions, salt. It's also quite beautiful if you use pink grapefruit because you can see the little pink bits poking out among the light green avocado and darker green onions.

We ate this grapefruit guacamole alongside oven-roasted salmon, with multiple quesadillas, and on sandwiches with smoked salmon and cucumber. Even my grapefruit-wary kids loved it!

Thanks to the California Avocado Commission for sending me a flat of delicious ripe California avocados to play with!

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Grapefruit guacamole
A simple and delicious guacamole that won't turn brown. The secret ingredient: pink grapefruit.
  • 6 ripe avocados
  • 2 pink grapefruits
  • 2 cups green onions, chopped (1 bunch)
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
Cut the avocados in half and remove the pits. Scoop the avocado flesh into a large bowl and mash it with a fork or a potato masher.Supreme the grapefruits: Cut off the ends, the peel, and the white pith. Hold a grapefruit over the bowl with the avocado, then cut between the membranes, releasing the flesh of the grapefruit segments into the bowl. When you've cut all the grapefruit flesh away from the membrane, squeeze the membranes to extract all the remaining juice. Repeat with the other grapefruit. Mash the grapefruit flesh gently into the avocados; you want to retain some chunks, but most of the grapefruit should break up and mix in with the avocado.Stir in the green onions and salt, then mix to combine. Taste and add more salt if desired.Serve immediately. Note: Can be held in the refrigerator in a plastic container up to 5 days without significant discoloration.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 10+ servings

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Kinhaven's legendary butterscotch brownies

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When I was a teenager I spent July and August at The Kinhaven Music School, a small summer music camp in Weston, Vermont.

At Kinhaven, there were things you could count on. Bare feet from the moment you arrived until your parents came to pick you up seven weeks later. Mosquito bites. Making beautiful music with people you knew would become lifelong friends (hi Andrew, Shari, Wendy, Sarah, Kirsten, Andrea). And really good food.

The cooks at Kinhaven made every loaf of bread, every bowl of granola, and every sweet treat from scratch, using local butter, milk, and eggs. Above all other desserts, I loved the butterscotch brownies, a gooey bar cookie studded with nuts and chocolate chips made in huge sheet pans.

When my thoughtful friend Jeannie tracked down a copy of The Kinhaven Cookbook, once owned and since misplaced, she bought it and sent it to me. I made butterscotch brownies immediately - and I haven't stopped. Once you taste them, you'll see why.

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Kinhaven's legendary butterscotch brownies
Gooey bar cookies studded with chocolate chips and walnuts. Adapted from The Kinhaven Cookbook, published long ago by The Kinhaven Music School in Weston, Vermont.
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
  • 2 cups dark brown sugar, packed
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a quarter-sheet pan or a 9x13 baking dish with parchment paper or aluminum foil, then spray the paper/foil with nonstick cooking spray.In a medium saucepan, melt together the butter and brown sugar. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture smells like caramel. It may still be a little grainy; that's okay. Set aside for a few minutes to cool.Add the eggs and vanilla to the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment and mix about 1 minute, until the eggs are lighter in color. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt, and continue to mix about 1 minute. Normally, when you're making baked goods, you don't want to develop the gluten in the flour, but in this cookie you do, which makes the finished product a bit chewy.Scrape the butter-sugar mixture into the mixer and continue to whip another minute or so, until everything is well combined and you see ribbons starting to form as the paddle goes around. Stop the mixer, add the chocolate chips and nuts, and mix briefly. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top, and bake 30-35 minutes. Do not overbake; you don't want the center to be liquid, but you don't want the brownies fully set, either. The quarter-sheet pan is shallower and will require less baking time than the 9x13.When the brownies are done, remove the pan from the oven. Cool completely before attempting to cut or you will end up with a sticky mess.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 12 large or 16 medium-sized brownies

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Salmon salad with avocado for Cinco de Mayo

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Eight-seven million pounds.

That's how many avocados the California Avocado Commission estimates we'll be eating on Cinco de Mayo this year.

I'd bet most of those 87 million pounds of avocados will be consumed in the form of guacamole, scooped up with tortilla chips and washed down with beer and/or margaritas.

But I'm planning something a little more delicate for Cinco de Mayo this year. Something with protein and some more vegetables. And I'm skipping the deep-fried chips.

A little health scare chased me back to the straight and narrow this week. I'd gotten lazy, let my eating habits slip. Numbers don't lie. It's time to regroup.

California avocados are back in season, and I know they'll be a big part of my healthy eating efforts. Avocados provide more than a dozen essential nutrients, including fiber, potassium, Vitamin E, B vitamins, and folic acid. The monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are heart-healthy. And, of course, they're delicious.

This simple fish salad can be made with any leftover cooked fish, or even with canned salmon. Including the zest of the lemon as well as the juice brightens the flavor considerably, so don't leave it out.

Have a happy and healthy Cinco de Mayo!

More avocado recipes from my kitchen: Truffled avocado mousse on toast * Avocado-cucumber soup * Scrambled eggs with avocado * Avocado tacos with chipotle * Green garlic guacamole * Weston's guacamole * Celebrity chef Robert Irvine talks about avocados (exclusive interview!) 

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Salmon salad with avocado and cucumber
A light chilled salad with heart-healthy ingredients like salmon, avocado and greens. Serve in a scooped-out avocado shell.
  • 6 ounces salmon, cooked (use leftovers, or substitute canned salmon)
  • 1/2 cup cucumber, seeded and cut into small cubes (about 1/2 a large cucumber; measure after cutting)
  • 4 green onions, finely chopped
  • 1/2 lemon, juice and zest
  • 2 avocados, cut in half lengthwise, pit removed, flesh scooped from shells and roughly diced; reserve shells for serving
  • 2 cups mixed salad greens, for serving
Put the salmon in a medium-sized bowl and flake it with a fork. Add the cucumber, green onions, lemon juice, and lemon zest; mix gently until combined. Add the avocado chunks and toss gently once more. Divide the salmon salad evenly among the four avocado shells. Divide the salad greens between two plates and nestle the filled avocado shells on top of the greens, allowing two per person. Serve immediately.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 2 servings

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Nambé CookServ cookware giveaway and Thai fish stew

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{Scroll to the end of this post to enter Nambé's great giveaway!}

A long time ago, I got engaged to a wonderful man. 

And like many young brides-to-be, sparkling diamond on my fourth finger, I immediately trekked down to Bloomingdale's and registered for flatware, dishes, pots and pans, serving dishes, and crystal. 

One of the pieces I threw onto the registry as a lark ("You need to include items at every price point," counseled the wise and chic department store salesperson) was a medium-sized bowl by Nambé. Silver-toned, asymmetrical, off-kilter in a pleasing way, it stood out among the many bright, shiny objects on display.

In the 16 years we've been married, I've used that bowl many dozens of times. Still graceful, still surprising, it makes me feel fashionable and design-forward every time it's on the table. Those of you who know me in person know "fashionable" is not exactly one of my common states.

I don't do a lot of product reviews, but when Nambé asked me if I'd be interested in trying its new line of CookServ cookware, I had to say yes. 

When I took my Nambé 12-inch CookServ sauté pan and its lid out of the box, I think I moaned a little. This is the most graceful and beautiful pot that has ever entered my house. The handles alone make me catch my breath.

It was so beautiful I was afraid to cook with it. It took me more than a week to get up the nerve to put it on the stove over an open flame. 

But then I made a batch of my family's favorite Thai fish stew, and the pan looked just as beautiful when I was done as it had when I started. It's heavy, 5-ply stainless steel. You can use it on the stove or in the oven. It can even go in the dishwasher.

However you cook with this pan, here's the most important part: You can carry it straight to the table with your head held high. You could put this pan down in front of Queen Elizabeth and it would likely be the most beautiful thing she'd seen on the table in a long while.

I've encountered only one problem with this pan: It takes up a lot of horizontal space and thus it's been hard to find a good place for it in my drawers and cabinets. The handles on the sides, while gorgeous, stick out pretty far, making it hard to store. So far I've addressed that issue by leaving it out on the stove at all times, but eventually I'm going to have to find it a hiding place. That said, I have a lot of pots and pans already. If you're starting your cookware collection from scratch or buying a wedding gift for a couple furnishing their first kitchen, space constraints probably won't be as much of an issue.

Summary: Stunningly beautiful cookware. Good for all stove types, including induction. Safe for stove, oven, dishwasher. Would make a fabulous gift. See the entire CookServ collection here.

Oh, the Thai fish stew? You'll love this recipe. It's a variation on a dish served to me years ago by my good friend Rachel Kaganoff Stern of Inside the Kaganoff Kitchen. She calls hers Brazilian; I added the Thai curry paste and took it farther east. I use whatever combination of fish and shellfish strikes me, and I give you permission to do the same.

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Thai fish stew
A quick and simple stew with fresh fish, shellfish, coconut milk and Thai curry paste. Finish with a generous shower of fresh chopped cilantro and/or basil.
  • 2 pounds fresh fish filets and shellfish, any combination, fish cut into 2-inch chunks
  • 6 limes (juice only)
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 2 Tablespoons yellow or red Thai curry paste
  • 2 14-ounce cans coconut milk
  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro, leaves and stems, chopped
  • salt to taste
Put the fish and/or shellfish in a large bowl with the lime juice. Toss and leave to marinate 15 minutes.In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and bell pepper and saute 3-4 minutes, until the vegetables are softened. Add the Thai curry paste and stir to coat the vegetables; saute 1 minute. Add the coconut milk to the pot and stir until everything is well combined and the coconut milk is starting to bubble around the edges.Now add the fish and/or shellfish and the marinating liquid to the pot. Bring the pot to a boil, quickly turn down the heat, cover the pot, and simmer the stew about 15 minutes, until the fish is cooked through and flaky and the shellfish is cooked. Add the cilantro, stir, season to taste with salt, and serve immediately.
Prep time: Cook time: Total time: Yield: 6-8 servings

GIVEAWAY: Enter below to win a set of four Nambé CookServ sauté pans (8, 10, 12, and 14 inches). You can enter every day until the giveaway ends!

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Disclaimer: Nambé sent me the 12-inch sauté pan pictured above for this review. No cash changed hands. All opinions expressed here are mine (as if you couldn't tell).