Category Archives: life

Peppered Corn Meal

Preparing the perfect polenta sounds easy enough, but around my kitchen, it takes added patience to work with the grainy flour ground from white or yellow corn.

When simmering the flour in water to transform the fine grain into the consistency of porridge, I’ve stirred up thin batches and a few lumpy variations. Lately, a pre-cooked version makes a convenient heat-and-eat substitute. The packaged polenta is firm and ready to slice, as if a pan of my wishfully smooth porridge had cooled and set.

Adding fresh ingredients to the packaged product diminishes a bit of the guilt of not preparing the basic polenta from scratch. For this stovetop take on skillet polenta, shishito peppers make up for any shortfall with the grainy foundation. They boost the flavor and complement the dense cornmeal texture. Any mild peppers will do, but if you see these beauties at the farmers’ market, scoop up a few dozen. (I purchased mine from a farmer lady who guaranteed their great taste.)Minimized peppered polenta

A 24-ounce tube of the starchy ground corn costs little (under $3 at some local markets) and can be sliced, grilled, baked, fried or crumbled and mixed into a skillet. This easy working starch offers a change from the trite potatoes-rice-pasta routine. Polenta lovers in Italy have known for generations that the finely ground corn serves as a hearty filler, eaten alone as a creamy dish or enhanced with everything from tomatoes to cheese.

Minimized blistered shishito peppersShishito peppers blistered on high heat add a taste of sweet char without overpowering the cornmeal base. A cousin to Spanish Padrón peppers, Japanese shishitos taste sweet with a mild heat unit on the pepper measurement scale, nowhere near the fire of peppers like the habanero or serrano. Resisting the temptation to devour the slender green shishito pods may pose the primary challenge in reserving the blistered peppers for the medley. Combine sundried tomatoes or fresh mushrooms with shishitos and polenta to further satiate hungry dining partners. If eggs agree with you and your guests, make room for their protein-rich addition. Once ingredients warm through, crack eggs into the skillet and let them cook for a few minutes. Our family prefers cooking the egg to a soft-boiled consistency. With eggs, peppers and mushrooms mixed in, the polenta almost carries enough weight to stand alone as the meal. Finish the dish with a layer of grated Parmesan or your favorite cheese. To get the most from these grains, eat peppered polenta while it’s still hot.

Peppered Polenta

12 shishito peppers

1 small shallot, diced

1 cup fresh mushrooms, sliced

extra virgin olive oil

24 ounces pre-cooked polenta, crumbled

5 eggs

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

sea salt and fresh ground pepper

  1. In dry cast-iron skillet, cook peppers over high heat until skins blister and brown. Drizzle with olive oil and season with course salt. Remove from pan. Cool and cut into small pieces. Set aside.
  2. Add shallots and mushrooms to pan and sauté in olive oil. Mix in crumbled polenta and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste. Cook 10 minutes on high heat, stirring. Mix in peppers. Lower heat and make 5 wells in the polenta mixture. Crack eggs into wells. Cover and cook 3 to 5 minutes. Check eggs for doneness.
  3. Finish with shredded or grated Parmesan. Serve immediately.

Pepper Note: For a mild peppery snack platter aside from the polenta, prepare shishito peppers following the blistering directions but leave peppers whole with stems intact. Pass the platter and hope that it comes back with a taste for the host.

Text and photos by Mary Ann Ebner

First published at The Highlands Current

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Confined Confection

For the past few weeks, it feels as if I’ve been camping out in my own kitchen. To acclimate a four-legged family member to our home, we gated off and puppy-proofed that room. We may come to regret the kitchen location, but it seems to make sense for the baby who needs easy access when heading outdoors on quick notice.

Already named “Denver” before he joined us, this puppy’s routine around the kitchen finds at least one of us playing with him, brushing his chocolate-brown coat, teaching him to sit with miniature milk bones, or bumping into each other while opening the refrigerator to search for treats for the trainers.

Now that Denver’s entertaining himself for longer stretches of time, he runs loose around the corner into the butler’s pantry—a safe puppy play environment with no carpets or butler to be found.

Denver, like our older dog Cammie, loves tiny pieces of raw carrot, which make great little training rewards for warm, furry creatures. A more mature pet now, Cammie trained with carrots starting at 8 weeks old and they remain her favorite puppy perk. It’s impossible to bring an orange bunch into the house without her waiting patiently in hopes that one will fall to the floor.

Though the carrots serve as rewards, tiny dabs of butter work well as diversions. When we were training Cammie, she wanted to nip at everyone, and we learned from a devoted dog lover to curb her mouthing and nipping habit with a slather of chilled butter. Within 48 hours, she received countless praises and stopped the nipping. We’re keeping the butter to a minimum with Denver, and he nips when seeking attention or alerting us to his needs. A little sweet creamy butter even helps prevent the rest of the household from nipping at each other, too.

Minimized gooey butter cake tasteWhen a cake appears around our place, we’re suddenly all on our best behavior. Just as with puppies, where behavioral experts advise to have a toy ready at all times, it could prove beneficial to have a slice of cake ready at all times for people. If there’s a stick or two of quality butter on hand, use them to make this dense cake-based crust that holds a gooey layer of cream cheese, butter and powdered sugar.

If you can call it traditional, original gooey butter cake may be made with basic staples stocked in home kitchens. Quality butter and cake flour are worth the extra effort of rounding up, though any will do to turn out a rich gooey butter cake. In St. Louis, where locals claim to have created the confection, commercial bakeries offer the cake laced with everything from chocolate chips to key lime. The recipe shared here resembles the original.

Gooey Butter Cake

Crust

1 cup sugar

2 cups flour

¼ teaspoon salt

1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder1 stick unsalted butter, melted

2 eggs, beaten

Filling

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups powdered sugar

Topping

¼ cup powdered sugar

  1. Sift dry crust ingredients together. Add beaten eggs and melted butter and stir until thoroughly mixed. Press thick, sticky dough into greased 9 x 12 baking pan.
  2. Mix cream cheese with eggs, butter, vanilla and powdered sugar. Beat at medium speed 2 minutes. Pour over unbaked dough.
  3. Bake 35 minutes at 350 degrees until puffy and golden. Cool completely and dust with remaining powdered sugar.

 

Text and photos by Mary Ann Ebner, Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

First published by The Highlands Current

Choose your filling

minimized-hamantaschenHamantaschen are three-cornered treats stuffed with many favorites—prune, apricot, poppy seed or cream cheese fillings. The traditional pastries of Purim, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the defeat of the villain Haman, taste great any time of year. Make hamantaschen and test a triangle or two before curious neighbors smell the delicious aroma and drop in with an appetite.

Berried in Pumpkin

 

For all its warmth, silky smashed pumpkin, mildly spiced and tucked into flaky crust, might as well be classified as health food.

No matter how plentiful the turkey and Brussels sprouts, there’s always room for a velvety slice topped with whipped cream or served a la mode. Few Thanksgiving hosts challenge the pastry’s status as a given for holiday spreads which is how the traditional pie will manage to keep its place on our table this year, even as we break from family custom and add another dessert — pumpkin cranberry bars.

Minimized fresh cranberries

Fresh cranberries

Combining pumpkin with cranberries brightens any dish with splashes of crimson. Sweetened dried cranberries offer convenience, but they don’t do a baked good justice. A baking occasion calls for the fresh plump sort, the kind that make baked goods pop with color along with bits and pieces of tarty-sweet fruit and skin.

Pick up fresh cranberries just about everywhere this time of year, packaged in small bags at many local markets including Foodtown. Organic cranberries are also available locally, and Beacon Natural Market carries them in the fresh produce and freezer sections. If you’re cooking for one or two, a bag of berries goes a long way, but if you’re feeding the neighborhood, stock a supply to last the rest of the year. For those with a true cranberry crush … Beacon Natural Market is offering their own fresh organic cranberry sauce spiked with orange and a medley of spices.

To modify my own holiday menu, I’ve adapted a pumpkin bar recipe with the fresh berries and chia seeds. When I set out to include the seeds, I didn’t intend to create a superfood to overshadow the pie. I unexpectedly found myself with a supply of raw seeds on the doorstep — in a box from Amazon. One of my kids received a birthday gift from family friends and when the gift giver closed out his online shopping cart, the gift and a 2-pound bag of chia seeds were on the way to our address. Once discovered, there was no chance of redirecting the seeds to their rightful recipient, a master when it comes to blending morning smoothies with yogurt, fruit and chia seeds.

Minimized chia seeds

Chia seeds

Beacon Natural Market carries a selection of chia products ranging from vacuum-packed seeds to miniature single-serving packets in seed and ground form. Kitty Sherpa, market co-owner with her husband LT Sherpa, said the store stocks many brands and quantities of the tiny chia seeds, which according to the Mayo Clinic, date back to ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations as a dietary staple.

“The health benefits of chia have become popular over the last 10 years,” Kitty Sherpa said. “It’s high in protein and fiber and provides omega-3 fatty acids. It’s also high in antioxidants and a good source of calcium, magnesium and copper.”

With their healthy reputation, I couldn’t bear to let the seeds age on the kitchen counter, and they’ve been making their way into brownies and biscuits. When chia seeds sit in liquid for a short time, the combination thickens and takes on a gelatinous form that folds into batters just as naturally as eggs with a much lower dose of fat and cholesterol.

“With chia coming into prominence,” Kitty Sherpa said, “for things like baking, as an egg replacer, it’s a great way to use it. And it has such a mild flavor that it’s almost a hidden ingredient.”

Minimized pumpkin barsIt may take more time for chia seeds to land on the average shopping list and pumpkin bars could never replace pumpkin pie, but cranberries — packed with their own nutritional benefits — remind us to count our blessings, sweet and savory.

Cranberry Pumpkin Chia Bars

Yield: 3 dozen bars

1 ¾ cups flour

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ cups mashed pumpkin (use sweet sugar pie pumpkins or canned pumpkin)

½ cup canola oil

¼ cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

*2 tablespoons chia seeds

*½ cup water

3 cups fresh cranberries, rinsed and dried

½ cup butterscotch chips

Choose a 3- to 4-pound sugar pie pumpkin. Cut pumpkin in half and remove seeds (save seeds for roasting). Place split pumpkin on baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Cool. Scoop out pumpkin and mash or puree.

In a small bowl, add water to chia seeds. Let stand 10 minutes and stir. Seeds and water will take on a gelatinous consistency. In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. In another bowl, combine chia seed mixture, pumpkin, oil, buttermilk and vanilla. Add to flour mixture, stirring just until moistened. Fold in fresh cranberries and butterscotch chips. Pour into a greased jelly roll baking pan or cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until the surface bounces back from touch. Cool completely and cut into single-serving bars.

*In place of chia seeds and water, substitute 2 beaten eggs.

By Mary Ann Ebner, first published by Philipstown.info

A Toast to France

Cool fall weather marks the perfect time to toast France with a hearty meal and a glass of red wine.

Minimized Perfect Potatoes Make these creamy bistro potatoes.

I’m toasting our hosts in Paris for their fabulous hospitality. Merci!

Jarring jam … why small-batch jam tastes best

Small-batch jam from Coyote Kitchen

Small-batch jam from Coyote Kitchen

Preserving fabulous fruits results in the best jams and jellies. Lynne Goldman of Coyote Kitchen doesn’t overlook any of the fine produce of the Hudson Valley when she makes her small-batch products. When there’s little time to make your own, sample a jar of artisan jam by slathering it on a cracker, using it as a glaze or folding it into a simple cake. Check out the jam lady and this recipe for blackberry jam cake.

Break out this tomato pie a la vodka

If red-ripe tomatoes and a humble pie recipe succeed in their temptation, be prepared to reach for bottles of the good stuff, a fine bottle of extra virgin olive oil and a reputable bottle of vodka.

A few key ingredients ...

A few key ingredients …

You’ll want both of a decent quality to make tomato pie a la vodka.

A Southern-ish tomato pie sampled on an evening cruise up and down the Hudson and a not-so-light (but dripping with flavor) penne a la vodka side dish shared at a summer reunion inspired this hybrid conception. The pie served on the boat ride was made by a Southern gentleman who knows his way around the kitchen. When he shared the origins of his tomato pie discovery, he gave a good deal of credit to his father-in-law who had introduced him to the dish. What he discovered along the way when doing a little Google research of his own was that the family recipe looked remarkably similar to a variation by the celebrity Southerner Paula Deen. With his kitchen and relationship wisdom, he elected not to take the findings back to the family — his wife’s or Deen’s.

To preserve the traditional tomato pie for the Southern cooks who know how to put the right amount of flake in a recipe, an adaptation of my own credits all who’ve created a variation of some sort, whether with mayonnaise, a mild Gouda or creamed butter. Anyone can layer tomatoes and smother them with an assortment of cheeses and herbs, which makes a hybrid pie a good choice for putting the best of summer’s tomatoes to use.

A serving of creamy vodka sauce adds an extra-heavy layer of calories to anything it sits on, and that’s probably why it tastes great over everything from piecrust to pasta. To experiment with my own vodka sauce, I couldn’t find a drop of basic vodka on hand, as in a bargain brand. The limited release Ultra Luxury Stoli vodka (not readily available for sale in the U.S.) — elegantly bottled and recently hand carried by a friend returning from Latvia — was off limits. The pie prep called for a shopping trip. Without help from Russia or even Poland, the recipe needed something all-American. But before I could even make it in the house with a full bottle of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, produced in Austin, Texas, one tap of the Tito’s bottle resulted in a shattering crash of glass and spirits all over the stairway. For the record, no sampling of the distilled product had yet occurred. It’s certain that the scene actually looked pretty funny, then it didn’t — when my hand (still gripping the neck of a broken glass bottle) started bleeding … in three places. My lack of coordination often presents itself at inopportune times.

With a replacement bottle of vodka firmly in hand (while cautiously keeping my balance), I eventually set out to experiment with the sauce. I did end up substituting the splashed-away Tito’s Vodka with an even choicer option (Grey Goose) and didn’t risk touching the Stoli reserve bottle. My first batch needed to be cooled down for the mix of preferences in the family, so I eliminated hot red pepper flakes and dipped in to a supply of roasted Spanish paprika, which added the ideal blend of mildly smooth and smoky flavor to the sauce.

Jet Stars on the vine

Jet Stars on the vine

From my modest garden, Jet Star tomatoes produced the best-tasting crop at home this year. They matured earlier than expected but were able to vine-ripen before the squirrels and woodchucks moved in covertly to harvest them. The meaty fruit of the Jet Stars holds up firmly when sliced for a pie. If you’re buying tomatoes to slice for a similar pie, search for a large plump variety. A selection of enormous juicy tomatoes that I picked up in the Catskills worked well for firm slices and one hefty tomato filled a pie dish.

Without the expense of an entire bottle of distilled beverage, tomato pie a la vodka makes an affordable and simple meal. The pie combines ripened garden treasures with a sweet and tangy cream sauce that brings on even more tomato flavor. Served sliced on a plate, layered on a pizza or tucked into a flaky pie crust, there’s no better time to appreciate tomatoes.

By Mary Ann Ebner

First published: Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

The Paper/Philipstown.info

Wedge of tomato pie a la vodka

Wedge of tomato pie a la vodka

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tomato Pie a La Vodka

Yield: 8 servings

For a single layer crust

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup lard or shortening

3 tablespoons icy cold water

Mix dry ingredients and gradually cut in lard with two table knives. Add water by the tablespoon to mold together, handling as little as possible. Work dough into a ball and roll thinly on lightly floured surface with rolling pin. Carefully roll your dough back onto rolling pin and lay dough over pie pan or deep dish. Bake crust for 15 minutes at 350 degrees. Remove from oven and set aside.

For the vodka sauce and filling

1 large or 2 medium tomatoes, sliced

2 medium tomatoes, diced

2 cloves garlic, diced

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

¼ teaspoon sea salt

¼ teaspoon smoked paprika

¼ cup vodka

½ cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons flat parsley, chopped

2 cups shredded Parmesan cheese

  1. In heavy pan, sauté garlic in extra virgin olive oil over medium heat. Add diced tomatoes, sea salt and smoked paprika. Mix in vodka and allow mixture to cook for 5 to 10 minutes while continuing to stir. Stir in heavy cream, lower heat and cook while stirring an additional 5 minutes.
  2. Layer tomato slices into half-baked piecrust. Pour sauce over tomatoes. Add layer of chopped parsley and top with shredded Parmesan cheese.
  3. Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool and serve.