December 28, 2012

Great Cornbread

If you use artisanal cornmeal that’s been coarsely ground, this very simple recipe yields something remarkable.  The cornbread is crunchy, textured, just a little bit sweet, with a complex flavor tasting strongly of corn. Served warm, it’s irresistible with chili- and the little muffins are perfect the next morning, briefly warmed in the microwave, with eggs for breakfast.

This recipe serves two; you can double the recipe and bake it in a larger skillet or a 9 inch cake pan.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. 

In a medium bowl, whisk together 3/4 cup really good coarsely ground cornmeal, 6 tablespoons flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, a half teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of baking powder and a quarter teaspoon of baking soda.

Put a half stick of sweet butter into a small (6 inch) cast iron skillet in the oven until it is melted.

Mix half a cup of buttermilk with 3 tablespoons of milk and a large egg.  Mix these dry ingredients into the cornmeal mixture. 

Swirl the butter around in the skillet, then pour it into the batter and stir it in. Pour most of the batter into the skillet; pour the remaining batter into a muffin tin (it will make 3 extra muffins; I use individual silicone muffin cups).  Put the pans in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Serve warm. 


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Last Minute Suggestions

December 24, 2012


It's the day before Christmas, and you're desperate. I've culled past gift guides for a few last-minute presents that would make great gifts.  Most are promises for the future – but then anticipation is one of life's great pleasures.

Kishus from Ojai

The Kishus are coming. Soon. 

Alice Waters introduced me to these tiny tangerines, which carry a little sunshine into the cold winter world.  I can’t think of anything more fun than bringing out a handful (yes they’re that tiny) and watching a child’s delight in the sweet juicy fruit. 

The season is very short – just a few weeks in January – but you can sign up to be alerted when they start shipping. If you’re wracking your brain for a last minute gift, this is a wonderful one. It’s a few weeks away, but your friends will thank you each time they peel a tangerine and experience that deep, golden flavor.


Artisanal Soy Sauce

 Nobody goes out and spends twenty bucks on a bottle of soy sauce. At least too few people do. Which makes this a perfect gift opportunity.

Artisanal soy sauce is one of those magic elixirs that makes everything taste better. If you’ve never had it, you won’t believe how different it can be from the commercial kind. (And if all you’ve ever tasted is the really cheap supermarket soy sauce that is basically caramelized water, you have a real revelation ahead of you. Just the jump from that to, say, Kikkoman, is huge. The leap into one of the hand-made brands is another enormous step forward.)

You can buy a few different brands of fine soy sauce from Corti Brothers in Sacramento. You can buy it other places as well, but when you go to the Corti Brothers website you can also download the most opinionated, illuminating and interesting newsletter in the business. I learn something every time I read one of Darrell Corti's entries. That's another great gift – and it’s free.


Rare and Wonderful Balsamic Vinegar

One of the first theories of gift-giving is to offer your friends the indulgences you most covet but feel guilty about buying for yourself. Great aged balsamic vinegar definitely falls into that category.  I love it, find it endlessly useful in the kitchen – and am always reluctant to spend the money for the best. 

Buying it for friends is another matter.  It is, I think, a perfect gift. Choosing which one to buy is a constant problem, but here is a suggestion.  Aceto Balsamico of Monticello is a wonderful elixir, with deep, concentrated flavor.  (And this year's is the best ever.) Organic and hand-made, it is aged in Italian casks for thirteen years.  It is rare – only a thousand bottles are sold each year. And – here’s the amazing thing – it is made in New Mexico. Paul Bertolli of Fra' Mani first told me about it, and I am forever in his debt.

This is, obviously, a present for someone you really care about. But if they dole it out the way that I do, a drop here, a drop there, it will last all year. And they’ll think of you each time they taste the mysteriously deep, dense flavor.


Salted Caramel Bourbon Sauce

Got ten minutes?  Then you can make this terrific sauce that requires nothing obscure in the way of ingredients.  (If you have no Bourbon, you can substitute Scotch, Cognac or Armagnac – or simply leave it out altogether. )

One suggestion: Before you begin, read David Leibowitz’s wonderful post on making caramel,here. Caramel can be tricky, and it will save you a lot of trouble down the line.

And another: Use a larger pot than you think you'll need.  I use a 5 1/2 quart casserole. Trust me – it makes everything easier.

Cut 3/4 of a stick of the best butter you can get your hands on into small pieces and put that next to the stove.  Let half a cup of heavy cream come to room temperature. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of Bourbon.  Now pour a cup of sugar in an even layer into a large, heavy, light-colored pot and watch it melt over moderate  heat. When it begins to liquify around the edges, begin stirring with a spatula, watching carefully. When it is completely liquid, has turned a deep copper color, and is just on the edge of smoking, stir in the butter until it is completely incorporated into the sugar. Turn off the heat and stir in the cream mixture.  It will hiss and sizzle and generally act nasty. Ignore it  – this is the nature of caramel – and whisk until you have a smooth sauce. Add a generous quarter teaspoon of coarse salt (or a bit more if you've used unsalted butter).

This is great on just about everything, and it will keep for a month or so in the refrigerator. (Rewarm the sauce in the microwave for a minute before serving.)  Divided into half cup portions and poured into pretty jars, it will make three friends very happy.


And last but not least…..A hard to find and very seductive brandy

 It was pretty much love at first whiff. The first time I tasted this aged, plum brandy the aroma came surging toward me out of the glass. It was so mellow that I imagined a crackling fire, violins playing, a cashmere hug. I folded my hands around the glass and the aroma lingered, still seducing me with its perfume long after the liquor itself had vanished.

I love cooking with Vieille Prune; add it to apple sauce, or chicken liver pate, or just toss a drop into a ragu – and whatever you’re making becomes softer, rounder, more appealing.

For years you couldn’t buy Vieille Prune in America, and I faithfully brought bottles back from France for my friends. I usually bought mine at La Maison de la Truffe in Paris, because I loved the old-fashioned writing on the label. This wonderful liquor is still shockingly rare in the United States – and isn’t that one reason to offer it as a gift? – but I’ve found a source in California. If anyone knows another place to buy Vieille Prune, I’d still love to know about it.




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It’s Not Too Late: Gift Guide, Day 23

December 23, 2012



Every year I try to include one interesting magazine subscription in my gift guide. Last year it was Lucky Peach, and if you’re still not reading this great addition to the food world, what are you waiting for? (While we're talking about great food magazines, Fool is another one you should know about. Published in Sweden, this wonderfully quirky publication is not easy to find; try Omnivore books in San Francisco, and Kitchen Arts and Letters in New York.)

This year I’m suggesting Modern Farmer – whose first issue will appear this spring.  They describe themselves this way: “Modern Farmer is a print quarterly, website, event series and online marketplace for people who care about where their food comes from.”

Here’s an article about Modern Farmer.  

Just the existence of this magazine makes me happy; it’s proof that farming has finally become hip. The magazine looks ambitious, more Esquire than Farmer’s Almanac, and they’ve got an impressive reach, promising great writing and gorgeous graphics. Give this gift, and you’re giving twice: Once to your food-forward friends, and again to this feisty little magazine.


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Gift Guide, Day 22

December 22, 2012

Making great pie may be the ultimate test of a cook:  so much can go wrong.  That’s why Evan Kleiman’s wonderful new easy as pie app is such a thoughtful (and inexpensive) gift. Who wouldn’t want this? 

Kleiman, hosts the always interesting Good Food on KCRW radio (if you love food and aren’t listening to this show, you’re missing out on something great). She’s a passionate food person and a generous interviewer with a slew of fascinating guests.  A former restaurateur (her beloved Angelli Caffe was one of the first really authentic Italian trattorias in the country), Kleiman is extremely opinionated about pie, and she walks you through the process. beginning with crusts (flour, graham cracker, easy cream cheese, etc.) and ending with toppings (meringue, whipped cream, various crumbles).  There are 20 different pies here, enough to interest even a veteran baker. Classics include a serious apple, lemon meringue, deep dish berry and the decadent banana coconut cream. Savory suggestions include a rather decadent butternut squash, apple and bacon concoctioin as well as a cherry tomato pie with a cheddar cheese crumble top that I'm planning on making tonight.

From the very first moment, when Kleiman joyfully splahses flour across a board, you know that you’re in very good hands. I challenge you to come up with a better gift for less than two dollars. 

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Gift Guide on the Solstice

December 21, 2012

If you really want to impress a good cook, give them the best vanilla beans you can buy.  Great vanilla bears no resemblance to the dark, sad, shriveled little pods you find in most supermarkets. The finest vanilla beans I’ve ever met were the organic pods sourced by Le Sanctuaire, which startled me with the intensity of their fragrance. They’re long – about half a foot – soft, and a deep mahogany brown, and when you split them open you find a profusion of plump little seeds nestled into a thick paste.  They make everything they touch more complex and interesting.

It’s late to order by mail at this point, but many good spice emporiums sell excellent vanilla beans. What you’re looking for are deep brown, well-padded, pliable pods with a strong, fragrance. 

For a really great gift throw in this recipe for homemade vanilla extract, a small bottle of liquor and a tall pretty glass bottle with a stopper.  Your friends can use a few pods to make their own extract; they’ll think of you every time they use it.

Vanilla Extract Recipe

3 excellent vanilla beans

1 cup vodka, bourbon or brandy (vodka will produce a neutral extract; other liquors will contribute their own complexity of flavor)

Keeping the beans whole, slit each one down its length with a small, sharp knife. Put the beans into a small jar and pour in the liquor so that they are completely submerged.  Close tightly and store in a cool, dark place for a month or two, rotating every week or so.

The extract will keep for at least a year, becoming more intense over time.  Add more liquor as needed, to keep the beans covered. 


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