Pumpkin Cheesecake with a Pecan Shortbread Crust

slice of pumpkin cheesecake

Pumpkin pie is the quintessential Thanksgiving dessert. Most people eat it just once a year, and that’s after first gorging themselves on turkey, mashed potatoes, yams, and about ten other side dishes. Yet more often than not I hear people say they’ll take only a “sliver” of pumpkin pie, saving any available room for the other desserts. Sure, we serve pumpkin pie each November, but mostly because it’s become obligatory: an expected holiday staple very few get excited about.

But pumpkin pie can be more than the standard fare of pureed pumpkin mixed with cream, sugar, eggs, and spices in a butter or graham cracker crust. I mean, honestly, do we all need to make the same pie every year? So this holiday, after a lifetime of eating traditional pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, I decided I was in the mood for something a little different. While enjoying some pecan shortbread last week, I started to wonder how it would taste paired with a pumpkin custard. But then my mind began to wander even further from the norm. Why make a regular custard filling when I could use cream cheese? I looked up some pumpkin cheesecake recipes, but most seemed more cheesecake than pumpkin pie, and I wanted to retain the pie’s essence for the holiday, so I decided to make up my own concoction.

As I wanted the pie to preserve some traditional flavors, I started with the customary pumpkin puree mixed with eggs, sugar, and cream, along with the conventional spices of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. With my eye on making my pie creamier and richer than in years past, I then mixed in a package of cream cheese that had been whipped with some sugar, more eggs and vanilla. Then, to wake up the palate a bit, I also added in some ginger. Of course I used a pecan shortbread crust, the idea of which started this whole adventure in the first place. Finally, once the cake cooled, I topped it with sour cream that had been flavored with maple syrup simply because I wanted a hint of tartness and sugar to help balance the rich creaminess of the cake.

My new and improved pumpkin dessert was light and silky with a rich Fall flavor that wasn’t overwhelming. Using only one package of cream cheese endowed the filling with a velvety sumptuousness that was more fluffy than overwhelmingly cheesy. The pecan crust’s nutty and buttery crispness was also the perfect foil for the creamy center. And did I mention that you just press the dough in the pan, which means you don’t have to prepare and roll out a crust? I have a feeling this new pumpkin dessert will find a place in my holiday repertoire of desserts, but I’m also open to future experimentation.

pumpkin cheesecake

Pumpkin Cheesecake with a Pecan Shortbread Crust

Makes: 1 8-inch cake

Ingredients:

Crust
1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 cup flour
1/3 cup chopped pecans

Pumpkin Cheesecake Filling
1 8-oz package cream cheese
1/4 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 15-oz can pureed pumpkin or 2 cups cooked pumpkin
3/4 cups brown sugar
3/4 cup whipping cream
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp salt

Topping
1/2 cup sour cream
2 Tbsp maple syrup
2 Tbsp chopped pecans

Preparation:

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Mix together all ingredients using either the paddle of a mixer or your hands.
3. Press crust into a 9-inch spring-form pan, being sure to make the bottom even and also pressing the edges of the dough about a 1/4 to 1/2 way up the sides of the pan. Set the pan in the refrigerator.
4. In a medium bowl, whip together the pumpkin puree, cream, 2 eggs, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and salt until fully incorporated.
5. Using a the paddle attachment on your mixer, combine the softened cream cheese, 2 eggs, granulated sugar and vanilla until creamy.
6. Gently add the pumpkin mixture to the cream cheese, being sure not to over mix.
7. Take the crust out of the refrigerator and set the pan on a large baking sheet. Pour the filling into the pan.
8. Place the filled pan (which should still be on the large baking sheet) into the oven for 45 minutes or until the center only slightly jiggles. If the middle shakes like jell-o, leave it in until it sets further.
9. Once the cake has cooled down, mix the sour cream and maple syrup together. Spread the mixture on top of the cake and then sprinkle on the chopped pecans.
10. Refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight and serve.

Related Posts
Pumpkin Bread
Fuyu Persimmon and Date Upside-Down-Cake
How to Save a Fruitcake

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Lasagna Illuminated

lasagna with raviolis

Lots of things can go wrong in the kitchen. Anyone who has spent any time cooking has burnt a finger, added too much salt to the sauce, or maybe even dropped an entire pan of food on the floor. Accidents are common and unavoidable and even those competitive souls on Top Chef can completely blow it every once in a while (which really helps ratings). Yet errors can also be illuminating. A few years ago when I added too much salt to a tomato pasta sauce I threw in some leftover mashed potatoes to help soak up the salt. Normally I would never (ever) add mashed potatoes to a pasta sauce, but was desperate. So I was surprised to find that those potatoes gave the dish a uniquely creamy and lustrous texture. It was an enlightening moment.

I was confronted with a similar situation last Saturday. My friend Christina decided it would be fun to have a ravioli-making party with the Italian ladies in her life. What a great idea. So on Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m., Christina, her friend Laura and I congregated in Christina’s kitchen to make homemade pasta dough. After comparing methods, we set to work using Laura’s grandmother’s tried and true pasta recipe (use one egg per person plus a half egg shell of water for each two people and then add semolina and flour “l’occhio” (by eye) — brilliant!). Laura had also brought over her Kitchen Aid pasta-making attachment, which had Christina and me oohing and aahing as those strips of pasta beautifully rolled through the press, perfect every time.

Once all the dough was made and laid out on the counter, one of us looked at the clock to discover it was noon. Laura had to take her two-year old home for a nap, Christina had to take her son to a friend’s house, and I had to dash off to my daughters’ soccer game nearby. After a few kisses on the cheeks and promises to be back by four, we all rushed out the door — our morning’s labor deserted.

dried pasta

Dried pasta

After a few hours, we met up again to fill those raviolis, but were horrified to find none of us had actually covered the pasta — which was still sitting on the counter, most of it dry as crackers and not fit to shape around a filling to make raviolis. After staring in horror at the pasta, we laughed at our mistake. I mean, honestly, what else could we do? Thankfully Christina’s husband Marhsall is handy with a shaker and he made us some Manhattans to ease the pain while we put our heads together to find a solution.

Although some of the dough was still pliable enough to make raviolis, most wouldn’t make the cut. We quickly used the most supple pasta pieces to make a butternut squash ravioli, but it seemed obvious we would need to abandon our meat ravioli plans as we quickly ran out of dough that could be shaped. The most logical and natural answer was to just make lasagna out of the dry pieces.

Now the three of us are all from Neapolitan or Sicilian families, so are used to preparing lasagna with fresh ricotta cheese and mozzarella (two ingredients we did not have on hand). The situation, however, demanded that we abandon those traditions. So instead of creating the usual cheesy lasagna, we decided to make the most of the perfectly seasoned and slow-roasted short rib ragù Christina had cooked and then pureed the night before as a ravioli filling, along with the light marinara sauce Laura had made earlier that day. We also chose to make a béchamel sauce to round out the flavors and finally added some aged Parmesan cheese. That’s it.

layering the lasagna

Layering the lasagna

So there we were, making béchamel, lining the dish with sauce and dried pasta, grating cheese, and drinking Manhattans. The lasagna went into the oven and we all sighed, wishing those ingredients had become raviolis instead. When the lasagna came out of the oven a while later, we set the table for the feast and then sat down with the other diners, laughing again about our pasta dough disaster.

But once we started cutting into the lasagna we knew something wonderful had happened in the kitchen that day. We had thought the butternut squash raviolis in a brown butter sauce with fresh sage would be the highlight of the meal, and although they were lovely, they were no match for the cobbled together and impromptu lasagna. Those once-dried noodles, ragù, marinara sauce and béchamel had melded themselves perfectly together. The raviolis were ignored as each person first smelled and then tasted the lasagna. Very few words were spoken — mostly “Wow!” and “Oh!” interspersed with the noise of forks touching plates. Finally one of the husbands said “Boy I’m glad you guys messed up the ravioli dough.” And so was I.

Never in my life had I experienced such perfect lasagna. The once-forgotten dough that had languished on the counter all day was transformed into a thing of beauty when combined with the meat filling and sauces. And that ragù! If we had used ricotta and mozzarella with it, the cheeses would have blanketed our taste buds with their creamy flavors and textures. Without them, the ragù was the diva of the dish — capturing our attention and mesmerizing us.

So remember that although some kitchen disasters lead to burned fingers, others lead to superlative lasagna.

lasagna in a pan

Lasagna

Superlative Lasagna

Makes: One 9×13 pan

Ingredients:
Homemade pasta dough rolled out into sheets
Christina’s Short Rib Ragù (recipe below)
Béchamel sauce (recipe below)
Marinara sauce (here is Mario Batali’s Marinara recipe if you don’t have a favorite of your own)
Parmesan cheese (enough to thinly coat each layer of the lasagna, about 1 cup)

Preparation:
1. Make and short ribs and marinara sauce ahead of time and then refrigerate. You can do this the morning you’ll make the lasagna or the day before.

2. Make the pasta dough. You can make it a couple of hours ahead of time, but should cover it with waxed paper or dish towels to avoid curling.

3. When ready to assemble the lasagna, make the béchamel sauce.

4. In a large 9 x 13 pan, assemble your lasagna by lightly layering the bottom of the pan with marinara sauce, followed by a layer each of pasta, ragù, béchamel sauce and grated Parmesan cheese.

5. Continue layering until you are out of ingredients, being sure to leave enough marinara sauce to coat the top of the lasagna. Sprinkle on a final coating of Parmesan cheese.

6. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30-40 minutes or until cooked through.

7. Serve.

Béchamel Sauce

Makes: 1 1/2 cups

Ingredients:
1 stick unsalted butter
3/4 cup all purpose flour (or enough to create a thick roux with the flour)
3 cups whole milk
Salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste

Preparation:
1. In a medium sauce pan, melt the butter on medium low heat.

2. Once the butter is melted, slowly whisk in the flour until the sauce has a smooth consistency.

3. Slowly add in the milk, whisking to avoid lumps.

4. Simmer sauce for a few minutes and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste (I only use a sprinkling of nutmeg, but you can add more of you like a heartier nutmeg flavor).

ragu

Christina’s Short Rib Ragù

Adapted from: Faux Babbo Ravioli recipe; Originally published with THE CHEAT; So You Still Can’t Get a Reservation at Babbo? By Sam Sifton, May 8, 2005

Makes: Enough ragù for one lasagna

Ingredients:

2 lbs short ribs
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion chopped
2 celery stalks chopped
2 carrots chopped
2 1/2 cup red wine
1 cup tomatoes diced drained
2 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary or oregano

Preparation:

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

2. Heat a large ovenproof skillet (such as a cast-iron pan) on medium-high heat.

3. Add the oil and then mix in the chopped onion, celery and carrots and sauté for five minutes.

4. Remove the vegetables and turn the heat up to medium-high heat. Brown the short ribs (being sure not to crowd the pan.

5. Remove the meat and deglaze the pan with the wine; add in the tomatoes and herbs as well as salt and pepper to taste.

6. Add in the meat and vegetables and then bring mixture to a boil.

7. Set the pan in the oven and bake for 2 hours or until the short ribs are falling apart.

8. Let mixture cool and then refrigerate overnight or at least two hours. Puree or chop until mixture is fairly smooth.

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Fuyu Persimmon and Date Upside-Down Cake

persimmon and date upside-down cake

Once the weather starts to cool down a little, and the leaves begin to turn various shades of gold and red, I reconcile myself to the fact that the time for peaches and watermelons is over. Yet as much as I love summer fruits, I shed no tears at their passing season. By this time I’ve eaten my fill of all those lovely stone fruits and melons bursting with juices and flavors. I’ve eaten plenty of peach tarts, cherry pies, and apricots fresh and delicious. Sure, I’ll miss them at times during the year (and I even have a stash of frozen cherries in the freezer for a holiday trifle I’ll make in about a month), but it is now time to move on. So instead of mourning the summer crops I have thoroughly enjoyed for months, I am embracing the amazing fall harvest. At the top of this list is the Fuyu persimmon — hands down my absolute favorite fall fruit.

As I mentioned in my Fuyu persimmon post last year, Fuyus should not be confused with Hachiya persimmons. Unlike the naturally astringent Hachiya, which needs to be so ripe it should look like a bag full of goop by the time you can eat it, Fuyus are sweet and firm when they’re ready. With Fuyus, you can just peel and eat. They’re amazing served fresh in salads or cooked in couscous and tarts. My favorite new fall dessert, however, is a Fuyu and Date Upside-Down Cake.

fuyu persimmons

I came up with the idea for this cake after eyeing a pineapple upside down cake recently. I loved how pretty the pineapples looked on the cake and then began to imagine how slices of Fuyu persimmons, with their natural star inlay, would look. As I had some fresh dates on hand, I decided to throw those in as well, along with some cinnamon and nutmeg to give the cake some spice.

After setting the lovely sliced Fuyus — which look like orange sand dollars — in butter and sugar, I added some chopped Fuyus and dates to the cake batter. And of course I used my trusty cast-iron pan so I could cook the persimmons in the butter and sugar first on the stove top and then just add the batter and place the whole thing in the oven. The result was truly something you could only get in the fall months: the chopped persimmons and dates inside the cake gave the dessert a wonderful sweetness while the whole persimmon slices looked quite pretty on top.

Raw or cooked, Fuyu persimmons are a special fall treat that will only be available for a short while. So take advantage of them up while you can.

piece of cake

Fuyu and Date Upside-Down Cake

Makes: one 8-inch round cake

Ingredients:

1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup butter (1/2 of one stick) softened
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup milk (preferably whole milk)
1 1/4 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp each cinnamon and nutmeg
3 persimmons (2 sliced into 1/4-inch slices and one chopped into cubes
1 cup fresh dates pitted and chopped
1/2 cup chopped walnut or almonds (optional)
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp sugar or brown sugar

Preparation:

1. In a medium sauce pan (an 8-inch round cast-iron pan if you have one), heat the 2 Tbsp butter until melted and bubbling. Add the sugar and caramelize until a light golden brown if using regular sugar or until melted if using brown sugar.
2. Lay the persimmon slices in the pan. Turn off the heat and set aside. If using a separate pan for baking the cake, pour the caramelized sugar and butter into the baking pan first and then lay the persimmon slices on top.
3. Beat sugar into butter using a stand mixer or by hand until fluffy.
4. Whisk in the egg and vanilla until fully incorporated.
5. Add the milk, mixing it in thoroughly.
6. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and nutmeg in a separate bowl.
7. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix until just barely incorporated.
8. Mix in the chopped dates and Fuyu persimmons (and nuts if using) until the batter is combined, but do not over mix.
9. Gently lay the batter on top of the persimmon slices in your baking pan, being sure not to disturb the pattern you made earlier.
10. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 20-25 minutes or until it is baked through.
11. With a thin sharp knife, separate the cake from the edge of the inside of the pan. Lay a flat plate over the pan and then, using an oven mitt, flip the plate over so the cake falls onto the plate.
12. Let cool and then top with powdered sugar.


Related Posts

Fuyu Persimmons

Hachiya Persimmons


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Resist the Box: Pancakes

stack of pancakes
I’ve been wondering lately about pancakes.

Why, for instance, do the majority of Americans use box mixes when homemade pancakes are almost as fast and easy to make?
Why do most people think the first pancake is inedible and should be thrown out?
And why do people press on their pancakes when they’re making them?

An inquiring mind wants to know.

I should clarify that when I say pancakes, I mean the traditional American variety that is usually served with maple syrup. Baked apple pancakes and lacy Swedish pancakes are noteworthy, but are not on today’s agenda. No, when I crave pancakes, I want good old American flapjacks.

Why you should ditch the box mix
Pancakes– also known as flapjacks, hot cakes and griddle cakes — are part of the quintessential American morning meal. They’re made in diners, fire houses, home kitchens, school cafeterias, and most other places serving breakfast throughout the country. But if they’re so beloved, why do most people resort to using box mixes? I realize these mixes are supposed to be faster and easier than cooking up a batch of homemade pancakes, but honestly, from-scratch pancakes just taste much better than anything you can make from a box mix. They are also easy to whip up and take only about a minute longer to prepare than “quick” mix pancakes.

Yes. One minute more. That’s it. I’m not lying. Although you can make super fancy pancakes — the kind where you need to separate eggs and then fold beaten egg whites into a luscious thick batter — these extra steps are in no way necessary for mouth-wateringly good pancakes. You also don’t necessarily need buttermilk to make your pancakes. Sure, buttermilk gives the pancakes a tangy flavor that is worth the effort of buying a carton of the stuff, but if you’re deciding to use a box mix simply because you don’t have buttermilk on hand, then just use regular milk. Another option is to let a teaspoon of lemon juice sit in your milk for a few minutes to mimic the buttermilk flavor. It’s surely better then the water most mixes require as a wet ingredient.

In addition to the usual preservatives and hydrogenated fats you find in most boxed mixes, what you’re paying for is really just flour, baking powder, and a little salt. You can easily toss these together in that minute I was talking about earlier (or less time). After that you just mix in eggs and milk or buttermilk and your batter is ready to go. That’s it. Easy peasy. Oh, and far cheaper than buying anything premade.

And, if you feel you really need something premade for hectic mornings, just mix up and a big batch of the dry ingredients in a Ziplock bag so you only have to add egg and milk when preparing later.

first pancake

Why the first pancake can be delicious
Now for the idea that you need to toss out the first pancake: ridiculous. For some reason people assume the first pancake will not live up to your pancake expectations and so should be thrown away. In Pieces of April — that 2003 film starring a young Katie Holmes looking pretty edgy for the future Mrs. Cruise — Katie (a.k.a. April) refers to herself as the first pancake, which alludes to her feelings that she doesn’t think her mother loves her as much as her younger siblings.

Poor sad sack Katie, I mean April, is so so wrong about first pancakes. Maybe her mother (the amazing Patricia Clarkson) made a soggy first pancake, but that’s probably because she didn’t preheat or own a seasoned cast iron pan. If you use one of these (or a cast-iron griddle) and simply heat the thing to make sure it’s nice and hot before you pour in your batter, you should have a wonderful first pancake.

Preheating is really the key here, although using cast iron also helps. Most other types of pans don’t regulate heat as well as cast iron and also aren’t as flat on the bottom. Cast iron, however, radiates heat beautifully and so creates the perfect atmosphere for batter to crisp up and cook perfectly. If you don’t have a cast iron pan, you can purchase one almost anywhere (from Williams-Sonoma to Target or Ace Hardware) for around $30 and you can use it to cook pretty much everything from pancakes to stews and even cakes.

ready to flip your pancake

Tips and Tricks to Making Pancakes
The first general rule is please, oh please, don’t press on your pancakes after flipping. I am always amazed when people do this. Why press on something when you want it to be fluffy? It also doesn’t make it cook any faster. Leave the spatula alone and just hold on for a minute or two while the pancakes cook. You’ll have fluffier and airier pancakes with a little patience.

Don’t over mix your batter. Although leaving small lumps may make you a bit uncomfortable at first, stirring or whisking too much will make your pancakes rubbery. Stir just until ingredients are incorporated and then stop. Smooth batter equals bad pancakes.

Grease your pan with butter, which gives the pancakes a crisp buttery finish. Be sure not to add more than a thin coating of butter to the pan, however, as you simply want to prevent sticking. Too much butter or oil can make the pancakes soggy.

Wait until the air bubbles are mostly popped before you flip your flapjacks. Once you pour the batter into your hot and greased pan, the pancakes will start to cook from the underside up, causing air bubbles to form in the cakes. You can tell when to flip by just watching the air bubbles. If they are evenly popping all over the pancake, you can flip. If not, then you may end up with a bit of a batter disaster in your pan.

For consistently-sized pancakes, use a ladle to scoop the batter out. If you don’t care if some flapjacks are larger than others, you can use an acrylic bowl with a pouring spout (which is what I use).

Cast iron pans can get pretty hot over time, so be sure to lower the heat if your pancakes seem to be getting darker than golden brown.

Try not to use overly thick batter, which usually results in a slightly burnt outside and underdone inside. If your batter seems too thick, just thin with a little milk until your batter pours easily from the ladle or bowl.

rolled up pancake with jam

Playing with your pancakes

As great as pancakes are, it’s fun and yummy to spice things up a bit. Here are some alternate serving and cooking ideas for making pancakes that you might like:

  • The most obvious here are blueberries. Mix them in and cook. Yum.
  • Cut bananas or apples into 1/4-inch pieces and mix into the batter.
  • Add chocolate chips to each pancake. I like to add these once the batter is in the pan as they can sometimes clump up in the batter. Plus you can make happy faces with them this way.
  • Add a bit more milk to the batter than normal so you can make crepe-like pancakes. Spread jam inside and roll up. Top with powdered sugar.
  • Cook berries in a pot with some sugar and spoon onto pancakes instead of syrup.
  • Cook bananas or apples in a pan with butter, sugar, and cinnamon and serve on top of the pancakes.
  • Add a tablespoon or two of pureed pumpkin plus a little extra sugar to the batter for pumpkin pancakes.
  • If you’re in the mood for something savory, add some crumbled bacon to the batter and then top with maple syrup when they’re done. Bacon with syrup is a great combination.

However you make them, resist the box.

buttermilk pancakes

Pancake Recipes

Whole Wheat Buttermilk Pancakes

Makes:
Enough for four people

Ingredients:


Note:
If you don’t have white whole wheat flour, just use 1 cup white unbleached flour

1/2 cup white whole wheat flour (I like the King Arthur brand)
1/2 cup white unbleached flour
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk (or one cup regular milk with a teaspoon of lemon juice if you don’t have buttermilk)
1/2 cup whole milk (omit if using regular milk instead of buttermilk)
1 egg

Preparation:
1. Mix your dry ingredients in a bowl.
2. Whisk your egg into your buttermilk and/or milk and then mix into the dry ingredients being sure not to overmix (leave it a bit lumpy).
3. Heat a cast iron pan or griddle on medium heat and wait until the pan is nice and hot.
4. Add enough butter to the pan to lightly grease the surface (don’t add too much. You can always add more butter to your pancakes later).
5. Pour in enough pancake batter to make3-inch round.
6. Wait until the bubbles in the batter are popping throughout the pancake.
7. Flip the pancake and cook for another minute.
8. Gently set pancake on plate and serve with whatever you want.

Other Recipes
Easy Buttermilk Pancakes — I’ve used this recipe numerous times. You can easily make only 1/3 of the recipe (i.e., 1 cup flour, 1 Tbsp sugar, etc.) for a small week-day morning breakfast).

Fancy Weekend Pancake recipe
— This recipe takes more time as you need to separate the eggs and then fold the egg whites into the batter. The process makes the pancakes incredibly fluffy with a nice crispy exterior, so it’s worth the trouble if you have a leisurely weekend morning.

Related posts:

Easy Breakfast Recipes

Perfect Scrambled Eggs
Stuffed Challah French Toast with Berries
Blueberry Muffins
Nut and Fruit Steel-Cut Oatcakes and Strawberry Oat Squares

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Vietnamese-Style Pacific Halibut

vietnamese-style halibut

Let’s face it. Leaving one’s comfort zone is intimidating at best and often downright scary. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing — traveling to a new place, trying a different career, or cooking food from a different culture — entering into the realm of the unknown can sometimes seem like more trouble than it’s worth.

This is why I avoided cooking any type of Asian food for years. My childhood training in my mother’s Italian kitchen made dishes like prosciutto pie, homemade ricotta cheese, and handmade pasta seem easy compared to delving into the unknowns of curries and fish sauce. I preferred sticking with olive oil instead of trying peanut oil. It didn’t help that I never even tried real Chinese food until I was in college. When I was a kid, Chinese food equaled Chow Mein Night, where the chow mein came out of a can and was served with Uncle Ben’s minute rice — mom kept the arborio for risotto and rice balls. I loved Chow Mein Night mostly because we were allowed to eat our dinner on trays in the living room while watching TV, but was always left feeling slightly queasy at the mass of baby shrimp and stringy vegetables on my plate. (My friend Shirley, on the other hand, grew up in an alternate Korean universe, where they would occasionally have Italian night. This meant her mother would cover the kitchen table with a red-checked tablecloth and serve spaghetti with jarred marinara sauce on top. We were destined to be friends.)

Yet once I was introduced to Asian cuisines, they topped my list of favorite foods. I distinctly remember eagerly trying hot and sour soup for the first time. I was in a little strip mall restaurant in Goleta, a town just outside Santa Barbara where I went to school. I was fascinated with the lovely shapes of the tree ear mushrooms and couldn’t get enough of the mixture of vinegar and black pepper. And then there was the Kung Pao, General Tso and so much else, the flavors waking up taste buds I never knew I had. It was all very tame stuff as far as Chinese food goes, but the experience was enchanting and completely eye opening to me. I didn’t explore Thai, Korean, Japanese or Vietnamese foods until after college when I lived in L.A. Again I started with docile dishes, but soon graduated to sucking shrimp heads that had been cooked in spicy sauces. Yum.

But as much as I came to love eating all types of dumplings, savory noodles, and curries, I never really tried my hand at cooking anything more basic than stir-fry until after I had my kids nine years ago. By this time I realized that making dumplings was a lot like making raviolis, and simmering Asian sauces was no more difficult than the multitude of Italian dishes I had made over and over. So I was excited to receive a copy of Food Made Fast Asian when I was working on some Williams-Sonoma books. Inside were easy instructions for making everything from dry-fried string beans with pork to Thai green curry shrimp and lemongrass pork. After trying a few dishes out on my family, I began to feel more confident using fish sauce, hoisin, coconut milk, and peanut oil. I then branched out and tried Asian recipes from other sources, and finally started to experiment on my own. It took a while, but I finally gained enough confidence to vary ingredients and spices to suit my family’s tastes instead of blindly trusting unknown and untried recipes each time.

Following is a dish I created one day when I had fresh Pacific Halibut and a hankering for something made with fish sauce and lime juice. I wanted some crunch so coated my marinated fish in corn starch and then fried until crispy. To add extra flavor, I combined soy sauce, fish sauce and lime with a dash of sugar and then simmered the already-cooked fish in it. If your family can handle some heat, I recommend adding some chile paste to the mix. The dish is simple and uncomplicated to make and an easy way to work in some fish sauce if you’ve never tried it before. I call the dish “Vietnamese-style” simply because fish sauce and lime are often used in that country’s recipes. But let’s be serious, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I am in no way an expert on Vietnamese cooking — or any Asian cuisine for that matter. But we all have to start somewhere. I am unabashedly in love with Asian foods and eager to make them at home, much as my friend Shirley, who was raised on kimchi, now makes some fantastic pasta dishes.

How about you? Still stuck in your cooking comfort zone or have you stretched your repertoire and tried dishes that were once foreign? I’d love to hear some stories.

simmering your fish

Vietnamese-style Crispy Halibut

Serves: 4 people

Although Pacific Halibut works great in this recipe, feel free to substitute another type of fish fillet. Almost anything should work, including shrimp or scallops.

Marinade
Ingredients:

1/4 onion
2 Tbsp ginger
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp water

Crispy Fish
Ingredients:

2 lbs Pacific halibut cut into fillets
1/2 cup corn starch
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp sesame oil (optional)

Finishing Sauce
Ingredients:
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp fresh lime juice
1 tsp water
1/2 tsp sugar
chile paste to taste (optional)

Preparation:
1. Puree the onion, ginger and garlic cloves for the marinade and then mix in the soy sauce, fish sauce and water.

2. Cover halibut with the marinade and refrigerate for at least one hour. When ready to cook, scrape the marinade from the fish.

3. Heat a large pan until it’s hot and then add 2 Tbsp vegetable oil plus 1 tsp sesame oil.

4. Gently coat each halibut fillet with corn starch and then lay in the hot oil. Fry for 2-4 minutes on each side (depending on the thickness of your fillets) and then turn. Cook the other side.

5. In a separate pan, heat the finishing sauce ingredients until everything is combined and the sugar has disolved. Turn off heat.

6. When all fillets have been cooked through, lay the fish in the pan with the finishing sauce mixture, turning the burner onto medium heat. Gently sauté the fish in the sauce for about 30 seconds on each side and then serve.

7. Serve with steamed or fried rice.

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Don’t forget your local farms, Mr. Bittman

As evidenced by my ode to Mark Bittman last year, I’m a fan. But I was disappointed with his article in last week’s New York Times Magazine, titled “Faster Slow Food.” Although I agree with the general premise of his piece, I was sorry to see that he didn’t promote the idea of using local farms and CSAs as shopping resources. Here’s the letter I sent to the Times today on the subject:

Normally I see eye to eye with Mr. Bittman’s philosophies on cooking and shopping for food, but in last week’s “Faster Slow Food” article, I found myself shaking my head. I agree that Mr. Bittman’s hopes for easier shopping through the use of “computers, including hand-helds and smartphones” so “we can make our preferences better known to the people who bring us the food we buy and eat” is something we should strive for, but hoping to find these solutions through large online grocery stores is not the answer. Why should MyWebGrocer.com be promoted in the article and local farmers and CSAs ignored? Many local farmers are striving to update their own distribution and ordering systems to create real local and organic solutions for customers who live nearby (often in cities). At this point, we all know that shopping locally guarantees that shoppers get the freshest foods available, which are usually organic and have the fewest food miles to boot.  What people may not know is that these farms often strive to personalize their services: one of the  local CSAs I use in the  Bay Area offers shoppers the option to state preferences in their account, so if you really hate broccoli, it will never be delivered.

As an advocate of local food, Mr.  Bittman should have mentioned that the convenience of shopping online doesn’t mean you have to abandon shopping at your local farm.

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Beer Battered Fish and Chips

beer battered lemon

For years I searched for the ideal fish and chips. Journeying 45 minutes away to a restaurant a friend of a friend swore by, or hanging out in a shop decorated with sticky vinyl chairs and soggy fries, I was on a mission. My hunt for the ideal fish and chips — crispy on the outside, steaming hot and tender inside — became increasingly elusive. Sure, I would occasionally stumble upon a place with decent and sometimes quite good platters of fish, but these were far and few between and hardly ever in the Bay Area. The sad truth is that there is more awful fish and chips out there than not.

Now I suppose I should explain that when I want fried fish I’m looking for the beer-battered variety. The type you would find in a first-rate British pub (although I’ve eaten bad fish and chips in the UK as well, so the problem isn’t just here). I want my teeth to bite into a perfectly crunchy coating that gives way to a delicate flaky center. I want to taste the beer in the batter and I don’t want my mouth to feel like an oil slick.  Bread crumbs are not an option and curses on whoever tries to pawn off breaded fish with potatoes as fish and chips. Here is an example of the horrors that lie in wait.

bad fish and chips

So a few years ago — after being served the soggiest bread-crumby fish I had ever encountered (and paying close to $15 for it) — I decided to make my own fish and chips. I was happily surprised to find that making truly decent battered fish is both incredibly easy and straightforward. And, as is the case with all home cooking, you can control the results: want it really crispy, fry a little longer; interested in smaller pieces, cut them up; in the mood for a hearty batter, use dark beer.

Another benefit to making your own fish and chips is that you can easily batter and fry up some lemon slices to go with it. These are a heavenly way to garnish the dish and after trying them at your own fish fry, you’ll never want to eat fish and chips without them again.

If you are lucky enough to live near a restaurant with wonderful fish and chips, I am happy for you. But if you’re like me and you don’t, I am here to tell you that you can make homemade fish and chips that will taste better than almost anything you can buy in a restaurant or pub, and cost a fraction of the price.

The recipe I use is tried and true. I’ve made it more times than I can count, and it has never failed me. Before you start, however, there are a few basic tenets to consider concerning frying the fish and also making and eating it.

fish fry

Basic frying rules to get under your belt

1. If you don’t have a fryer (which includes most of us), use a non-reactive deep pan that can hold enough oil to submerge at least half the fish. I use my trusty large cast iron pan and it works great.
2. Use an oil with a high burn rate. I like to use canola oil. Don’t use olive oil as it will scorch and flavor the fish.
3. Do not overheat your oil or it will burn the batter. I usually start the pan on medium high and slowly work my way down to medium and then medium low as the pan continues to heat the longer you fry.
4. Do not underheat your oil. Frying your fish in underheated oil leads to the batter sliding off the fish. Not a pretty sight. I’m not sure what the actual temperature of the oil should be, as I don’t have a thermometer, but you can test the oil by placing a small teaspoon of batter in the oil. If it doesn’t sink to the bottom of the pan and sizzles nicely, you should be good to go.
5. Use a fry screen if you have one as it will help reduce splatter and keep your stove from becoming a complete mess.
6. Be sure to gently lay the fish into the oil so you don’t spatter it onto your hand (which really hurts!).
If you follow these rules, you should be in good frying shape.

General rules for making and eating fish and chips

1. Dark beer gives the dish a more complex flavor while lighter beers are more subtle. Choose whichever you prefer.
2. Look for meaty white fish. Please don’’t use Atlantic cod as it’s endangered and, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list, we’re “fishing the last 10% of this population.” Other great choices are Alaskan Pacific Cod and Pacific Halibut. I’ve also made it with catfish, which worked well.
3. Try to use fresh fish instead of thawed frozen, which tends to taste dry.
4. Pat the fish dry with a paper towel before seasoning and dipping in the batter.
5. Serve with malt vinegar, which perfectly accents the beer batter. If you don’t have any, try fresh lemon juice.
6. Consider making your own tartar sauce by mixing good mayonnaise, chopped up sweet pickles, and a little horseradish.

As for the chips, I bake them. Yes… you heard me. I bake them. They come out crispy and seasoned perfectly. Best of all, my potatoes are not reduced to the sad fate of sogginess which often happens with home fried fries. Here’s my recipe.

beer battered fish

Homemade Beer Battered Fish

Serves: 4 people

Ingredients:

6 – 8 medium-sized pieces of white fish
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup beer
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Enough oil to fill half a large non-reactive pan (about 1 cup)

Preparation:

1. Pat fish dry and lay on a plate. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Heat oil in pan.
3. While oil is heating, mix flour, beer, salt, pepper and thyme in a large bowl. Whisk until everything is fully incorporated. The mixture should reach the consistency of pancake batter. Add more beer if necessary.
4. When oil is hot (test using method #4 in the frying rules section above), coat two pieces of fish in batter and then gently lie them in the oil. Be sure to fully coat the fish and be careful not to splash oil on yourself.
5. Cook fish until it is crispy and a rich brown color. Pick up each piece of fish with a fork and gently turn them over. Cook on the other side until done.
6. Drain fish on a plate lined with paper towels and fry the remaining fish pieces.
7. Serve hot with malt vinegar and battered lemon slices (recipe below).

Beer Battered Lemon Slices

Makes: 6 slices

Ingredients:

1 lemon cut into 1/4-inch slices (not including the ends)
Leftover batter and oil from your beer battered fish

Preparation:

1. Remove seeds from lemon slices.
2. Coat slices with batter.
3. Lay lemon slices in the hot cooking oil and brown on each side.
4. Remove from pan and serve with fish.

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