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December 28, 2010

Cocoa Nib Shortbread: A Classic Redefined

Oh, all the signs that winter has arrived and with it the joyous season of Christmas...freshly fallen snow, ice skaters on a frozen pond, wood smoke spiraling from chimneys, candles in windows....

Unless, that is, you're like me and you live in an apartment building at a busy intersection on a palm-tree lined street in a city. Then those classic signs of holiday cheer are nowhere to be found. You're more likely to see packs of drunk Santas on a pub crawl roaming your streets than rosy-cheeked children caroling door to door.

But that's not to say there aren't any signs of Christmas here. It's just that they're not all the stuff of a Norman Rockwell painting. They're different. And they do inspire.

For example, there's the transformation that takes place in a vacant corner lot in the Mission district of San Francisco every year, just before Thanksgiving. This little patch of land that sits diagonally across the street from me--the one my apartment overlooks--becomes a Christmas tree lot, practically overnight, and goes from quiet, dead, and empty to busy and bright. Lights are strung above the tall fence enclosing the lot--and the front gate, normally locked shut year-round, opens to rows of fragrant trees and a staff busy trimming branches and helping customers.

It was a particularly inspiring scene a few years ago when, just before Thanksgiving, someone broke into the fenced-in space and painted the iconic red, tan, and blue Shepard Fairey portrait of Barack Obama and the word "Hope" on the side of the building that abuts the lot. I loved the way Barack Obama was watching over the tree lot. It gave me a sense of hope for the season and the future; it made me feel happy and secure (especially since it reassured me daily that the end of George Bush's term was near).

The portrait is now painted over and gone. But the sight of the lot filled with trees each year continues to tell me it's time to embrace the season, prepare for winter, and look to the new year with hope.

This cocoa nib shortbread cookie reminds me of my urban Christmas experience. This is not the cookie your grandmother made: it doesn't contain nuts or preserves, it's not covered in red and green sugar sprinkles, and it's not the cookie you left on a plate for Santa when you were a child. It's a classic redefined: A buttery, crumbly shortbread cookie studded with crunchy cocoa nibs that cause you to pause and consider their unique flavor. You expect chocolate, but what you taste is something a little different: complex like a red wine, intensely dark, bittersweet, toasty, nutty, and fruity, with the texture of a coffee bean.

Tradition with an edge. Make it a new addition to your holiday cookie plate.

Cocoa Nib Shortbread
From Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies (a special holiday issue)

It may take a little bit of hunting around to find cocoa nibs, depending on where you live and what's available to you. I first checked the main chain grocery store in my neighborhood for them and was surprised they were not on the shelves. I found them at a small gourmet grocery store a few blocks away in the chocolate section (as opposed to the baking section, where I assumed they would be). 

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup confectioners sugar, sifted
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cocoa nibs

Beat butter with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until fluffy. Gradually add confectioners sugar and salt and beat until pale and fluffy (scrape down sides of bowl as necessary to ensure all sugar and butter is mixed together). Add the flour all at once; mix on low speed until just combined. Add cocoa nibs; mix to combine.

Divide the dough in half and shape into two flat, round discs; wrap each in plastic. Refrigerate for at least one hour, until thoroughly chilled.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Working with one piece of dough at a time, roll out dough on a lightly floured surface to 1/4-inch thickness. Using a 1 1/2-inch round cutter, cut dough; place 1 inch apart on parchment-lined cookie sheets. Chill in refrigerator 30 minutes. Bake until golden, 20-25 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

December 15, 2010

Ricotta Gnocchi with Chanterelles: Frances at Home

What do you do when the cozy restaurant that opens in your neighborhood becomes so popular you can't get near it? When the place is so booked, you need to plan eight weeks in advance to pay it a visit? Well, you stave off any resentment you might feel by cooking a few of their dishes at home and patiently wait it out until the hype dies down

Frances defines "neighborhood restaurant" in nearly every sense. It's a small, simply furnished space that holds roughly 20 tables--plus 10 or so seats in a tiny, slightly cramped bar area--tucked away in a quiet residential block of the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco. 

The menu is built on the popular premise that dishes made with fresh, locally grown, in-season ingredients are best prepared simply and honestly. Staple items include light, crispy bacon-specked beignet served with a tangy creme fraiche dipping sauce; blocks of chick pea batter fritters, stacked on tiny plates; sides of silky butter beans cooked in pigs trotters; and soft ricotta gnocchi in creamy tomato, mushroom, and fresh corn sauce nestled in the bottom of over-sized bowls. 

The extensive wine list features two rotating house wines--a white and a red--served in carafes resembling lab beakers with lines etched into the glass marking two-ounce portions; you pour it yourself and pay $1 per ounce for the amount you drink.

I was excited to hear that this restaurant was opening just a few blocks from my apartment. It's the kind of place I'd want to pop into spontaneously for a quick bite after work, often enough that the wait staff would start to know me, if not by name, at least by face. But apparently I'm not alone in my enthusiasm for Frances--good for Frances, not for me--because it's attracted the attention of the James Beard Foundation, Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle, Bon Appetit magazine, the Michelin Guide, and more than likely many others. It's on the map. Everyone knows about it and everyone wants to eat there--meaning that it's now a neighborhood restaurant only in terms of size, location, and simplicity of fare.

I've been lucky enough to eat there twice. Once, when I slipped in just after the doors opened and grabbed a seat at the bar, a space reserved for walk-ins. And a second time when my mom was in town. She'd heard about Frances--all the way back in Maine--and mentioned it when we were planning her visit, so I thought it would be fun to take her there. This is when I discovered just how popular the place had become; my six-week advance planning wasn't advance enough: I was told they were booked solid two months out. Fortunately, a friend pulled some strings and got us a table. 

The trouble is that now I want to go back--often. And I obviously can't ask this friend to pull strings for me again...and again... So, until things calm down at Frances--if ever--I'll attempt to recreate the experience at home. 

I won't try to make those pillowy fried beignet in my tiny kitchen since that's too messy and hazardous an undertaking. I've started instead with the sheep's-milk ricotta gnocchi with mushrooms based on a recipe from Frances' owner and chef Melissa Perello that I found online on the Food and Wine magazine website. They're easy to prepare and pure comfort food: like little squarish-shaped, puffy pancakes, crisp and browned on the outside and soft and tender inside; fresh-grated Parmesan cheese sharpens the sweet sheep's-milk ricotta dough. I topped them with buttery bacon- and thyme-flecked chanterelles.

I invited a few friends from the neighborhood over and we got our Frances fix--pretty much spontaneously. I suggest you do the same!

Sheep's-Milk Ricotta Gnocchi with Chanterelle Mushrooms
From FoodandWine.com (with a few alterations to the mushroom sauce)

The gnocchi dough is easy to make. The most challenging part, depending on where you live, is locating sheep's milk ricotta. If you're not able to find it, you can substitute cow's-milk ricotta. (Cow's-milk ricotta is moister than sheep's-milk ricotta, so you'll need to drain it overnight in a fine strainer.)

The dough sets for at least three hours in the freezer, so be sure to build the chilling time into your schedule. You cook the gnocchi in a skillet in batches. It's a bit of a scramble as you try to flip them quickly in the pan and get them into the oven to stay warm. I recommend using a fork and your fingers to make quick work of the frying (I initially used a spatula, but found that it was too big and clumsy for the job). 

I made some adjustments to the mushroom corn sauce in the recipe: I left out the corn, since it's not in season right now, and substituted thyme for tarragon; I added bacon to give the meaty chanterelles a smoky flavor, as well as garlic and shallots for more flavor:

Sautee two chopped strips of bacon with three minced cloves of garlic and two thinly sliced shallots over medium-high heat until the bacon is nearly crisp, the shallots are transluscent, and the garlic is fragrant but not brown. Add one tablespoon of butter to the pan and cook the chanterelles in batches, sprinkling each batch with thyme leaves and salt and pepper. Add more butter to the pan for each batch. Finish the sauce with a reduction of wine and low-sodium chicken stock and more butter, as called for in the recipe.

You'll find the complete recipe here on FoodandWine.com (for copyright reasons, I can't post it to my site).

Leftovers: If any chanterelle mushrooms are left over, fold them into scrambled eggs or an omelette with cheese for breakfast.

    December 8, 2010

    Long-Cooked Broccoli

    Until recently, I regarded broccoli as my starter vegetable. It got me hooked, it did its job, and then I moved on to more interesting stuff. 

    Broccoli was good to me. Through it, I discovered that a vegetable can be beautiful when it's cooked crisp to a vibrant color. It played a key role in the beef and broccoli dishes at the local Chinese restaurant in my hometown, lending crunch and brightness. It signified "formal," served on the side of every chicken or fish dish at special-occasion restaurants, smothered in rich cheese sauce. It was party food: I loved the way the florets held a hefty portion of ranch dip or hummus. 

    It was sturdy, it was available year round. And, well...it became boring.

    Other vegetables started to grab my attention, like the many new greens cropping up in the produce department: radicchio, micro greens, kale, and lacy, spiky leaves of frisee. Heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, and fava beans kept me busy. Plus, broccoli really didn't stand a chance once I met its slimmer, slightly bitter, but more exciting distant relative broccoli raab. Broccoli raab is on current restaurant menus, it tops flatbread pizzas, it's featured in food magazines! Where is broccoli these days? 

    But then I happened upon a recipe for long-cooked broccoli as I was leafing through my copy of Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters and immediately broccoli was back on my mind, like an estranged friend you suddenly bump into on Facebook. You might know how that works: You haven't thought about this person in years, then suddenly there they are, you see they've changed, you think of the good times, and you wonder. 

    This recipe was different from others I'd seen; it was somewhat daring with its instruction to cook the broccoli until it's almost falling apart--as in, to my mind, overcooked. Who cooks vegetables until they're soft, the fibers breaking down, the color drained from them, these days? It didn't seem especially modern, but it did sound flavorful with the addition of garlic, chili flakes, anchovies, and olive oil. I decided to try it.

    The preparation is ridiculously simple. Basically, you peel the broccoli stems of their tough skin and slice them thin, trim the florets into smallish pieces, and throw them all into a pot. You add water--or chicken or vegetable stock if you like--a generous amount of olive oil, several sliced garlic cloves, a sprinkling of chili flakes, and some salt and pepper. The recipe calls for finishing the dish with chopped oil-cured anchovies, but I add them to the pot at the start so they melt into the broccoli and infuse it with their brininess. You bring the whole thing to a boil, reduce the heat, and let it all simmer, covered for an hour until the broccoli starts to fall apart and the liquid nearly evaporates. Once cooked, you finish it with a generous squeeze of lemon and a healthy dose of fresh grated Parmesan cheese.

    The result is layers of flavor--sharp garlic, a kick of spice from the chili flakes, briny anchovy, smooth, rich olive oil, sparkly lemon--all melded together into the soft, supple broccoli. You could even call it sophisticated. 

    Give it a go. I hope, like me, you'll fall back in love with broccoli.

    Long-Cooked Broccoli
    From Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters (with a few changes)

    The recipe calls for eight cloves of sliced garlic, but I use less--five or so--depending on the amount of garlic in the accompanying dishes. As I mentioned above, the recipe says you should fold the chopped anchovies into the broccoli after it's cooked, as a garnish. I prefer to put them into the pot with the uncooked broccoli and let them infuse it with their flavor. Finally, I use chicken or vegetable stock, if I have some on hand, rather than water as called for in the recipe, for added flavor.

    2 pounds broccoli
    5 cloves garlic (or more, to taste)
    2 cups water (or chicken or vegetable stock)
    1/2 cup olive oil
    1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
    Salt and pepper
    3 salt-packed anchovies
    1 lemon
    Freshly grated pecorino romano or Reggiano Parmesan cheese

    With a swivel peeler or a sharp knife, remove the coarse leaves from the broccoli stems and peel away the tough skin. Slice the broccoli stems into 1/8-inch thick slices; trim the florets into smallish pieces. Put the slices and florets into a stock pot. Peel and slice the garlic and add to the pan along with the water (or chicken or vegetable stock, if you prefer), olive oil, and red pepper flakes. Roughly chop the anchovies and add them to the pot. Season with salt and pepper.

    Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium/low, cover, and simmer for about an hour, or until the broccoli is extremely tender and beginning to fall apart and the liquid is nearly evaporated. Add more liquid if necessary as the broccoli cooks.

    When the broccoli is done, transfer it to a serving dish, squeeze the lemon over and sprinkle with grated cheese.

    Serves 4.

    Leftovers: If you have leftovers, they make an excellent addition to pasta. Toss them with some spaghetti or any shape pasta, a splash of olive oil, some chopped black olives, toasted bread crumbs, and a shaving of Parmesan cheese for a quick dinner.