Thursday, December 27, 2007

Vanilla Salted Caramels

One of the nice things about spending your time reading food blogs is that you stay up to date with current trends in food and you can get feedback on recipes before you even try them. I'll admit, I'm not a big candy-maker (I often get put off by the use of candy thermometers), but I saw three separate bloggers like myself attempt different caramels, so I thought I'd throw my hat into the ring. My edition is a rather plain caramel base, but after that was made, I coated the small squares of deliciousness with Guittard milk chocolate and topped them with a mixture of Tahitian vanilla bean paste and English flake sea salt that I picked up at my local Napa Style store (which, by the way, I'm convinced is the most amazing foodie-hangout since Williams-Sonoma and Dean & Deluca).

The wall of amazing sea salts at Napa Style was my real inspiration. I know Dean & Deluca make an amazing range of sea salts as well (including a vanilla one, if memory serves) so feel free to experiment here. Some of the salts I tasted were too sulfurous, so I went with the English flake since it was the cleanest on the palate. The salt is what makes these caramels really pop. I resisted the urge to put a big pinch in the caramel base, however, and I think the balance turned out well. If I were to do it over again (and I'm sure my family will demand a repeat of these next Christmas due to the newcomer's overwhelming popularity among the old standbys on the cookie platter) I would probably add the bulk of the vanilla to the base rather than mixing it with the salt (the pure whiteness of the topping would be more elegant). These also make excellent house-warming or host/ess gifts, travel well, and last at least 2 weeks (but you'll never know since they'll be gone so fast!)
Vanilla Salted Caramels

4 Tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, plus some for greasing the pan
1 ½ cups heavy cream
2 cups sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
Pinch salt
1½ teaspoon vanilla extract, plus the scrapings of one vanilla bean
12 oz. milk chocolate, melted
1 Tbsp flaked sea salt (I used some from a specialty store, but Maldon would work fine here)

Directions: Grease a 9-inch square baking pan. Combine all ingredients except vanilla in a small saucepan and turn the heat to low. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves, hen cook, stirring only occasionally, until the mixture measures 250 degrees, or hard ball stage on a candy thermometer. Stir in the vanilla and pour into the prepared pan. When the mixture has cooled to room temperature, remove the block of caramel from the pan and use a sharp knife to cut it into small squares. The chocolate can be tricky—it needs to be close to body temperature to coat the caramels without pooling when you set them down. I melted the chocolate over low heat on a double boiler, and then allowed it to sit at room temperature for a few minutes. Dip the caramels into the chocolate then place on parchment. While the chocolate is still wet, sprinkle conservatively with the sea salt and don't remove from the parchment until the chocolate is completely set. Makes about 48 caramels. If desired, wrap in small squares of wax paper or place in petit fours cases for presentation.

Alpha Bar Brown Rice Salad

When all of the big eating holidays are said and done, this hearty warm salad provides a great winter meal without the guilt. It is inspired by the Alpha Bar, a legendary Oxford lunch take-away frequented by many a health-conscious student. It's my location of choice at least twice a week, owing to its never-boring create-your-own-salad box. Their version of this salad uses cabbage, which I've swapped for iron-rich kale, and soy sauce, which I replaced with a rich balsamic glaze. The beauty of this recipe is that, aside from being dead-easy to make and delicious as a leftover, you can trade ingredients (as I have done) to suit your own tastes. I have also had success using organic brown farro in place of the brown rice. So get creative!

Alpha Bar Brown Rice Salad

3 cups brown rice, cooked according to packet instructions
1/2 c. dried cranberries, soaked in 1/2 c. boiling water
2 Tbsp. olive oil, plus more for drizzling
8 fronds of kale, trimmed from stems and julienned
4 large shallots, chopped
1 Tbsp. garlic, chopped
4 Tbsp. crystallized ginger, chopped (optional)
2 Tbsp. each parsley and coriander, chopped
Balsamic reduction, for garnish

Heat a large, deep skillet over medium heat and add the oil. Fry the shallots until softened; about 4-5 minutesthen add the garlic. Add the kale and cover for a minute to wilt. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Continue to sautee until the kale is bright green and any water is evaporated, about 4 minutes. Drain the cranberries and add to the pan, along with the crystallized ginger, if using, stirring for another minute or so. Turn off the heat and add the brown rice and chopped fresh herbs. Check seasoning and adjust if necessary. Drizzle with a little extra oil and the balsamic reduction.

Serves 2 as a main course or 3-4 as a side dish.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Roast Butternut Squash Risotto

On a cold day like this when your face and hands are frozen and you walk in the door, packages in hand after a day full of frustrations and an overall lack of Christmas cheer, this recipe is what you want to have set in front of you for dinner. Not only is it deliciously seasonal and hearty, but I think the process of making risotto is somehow therapeutic. Standing over a pan full of sauteeing onions and garlic is inherently relaxing--ok, well at least it is for me.

This is a fairly simple and very straightforward recipe that can be scaled down or multiplied to suit any number (trust me, I once made this recipe to feed 70 hungry people!) and can also be made with the pancetta, or vegetarian. My SlowFood students gobbled this risotto up despite some early protests about disliking butternut squash. This will make a believer out of anybody.

Roast Butternut Squash Risotto (serves 4 as a main or 6 as a starter)

1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into cubes
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 large white onion, diced
½ cup diced pancetta (optional)
2 cups aborio or canaroli rice
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock, warmed
1 cup dry white wine (optional)
Small bunch of fresh thyme
Grated parmagiano reggiano cheese to serve

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F. Spread the squash on a baking tray so that it’s all spaced out. Drizzle with a little olive oil, season with salt and pepper and toss to mix. Bake for 20-25 minutes until the squash is fairly soft, but not falling apart. Meanwhile, set a large, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat and add the 3 Tbsp of oil. Add the diced onion and fry for about 4 minutes before adding the pancetta and cook for a further 4 minutes. At this point tip in the rice and continue to stir to coat it with oil. Add the stock a ladleful at a time. Add the squash and thyme and continue to stir (almost) continuously until the liquid is all absorbed. Continue adding stock (and the wine, if using—if not, adjust the amount of stock accordingly) in this manner and stirring until all the stock is gone, the squash is almost all incorporated, and the rice is al dente (should be about 25 minutes in total). Serve immediately topped with the parmagiano.