Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Prickly Pear Margarita


When my sister recently traveled to Tucson, Arizona for business I begged her to bring me back some prickly pear goodies. Prickly pears, or cactus pears, are vibrant pink fruits that grow on cacti. Prickly pear products are commonly sold in Arizona, where prickly pears thrive. Although I have occasionally seen fresh prickly pears sold at my local Whole Foods, products made from the fruits, such as syrups and honeys, are not as readily available in many other states, although they can be ordered online.

My sister headed directly to Cheri's Desert Harvest manufacturing center in Tucson, which houses a small gift shop where she was able to purchase a selection of their products to bring back to New England so we can pretend it isn't so cold here this time of year...

In addition to a large bottle of prickly pear syrup (perfect for prickly pear margaritas and topping pancakes), I also requested a few jars of prickly pear honey, prickly pear jelly, and margarita marmalade, made with lemons, limes, tequila, and triple sec.

Prickly pears are actually extremely beneficial to one's health! Studies have found them to aid in the management and treatment of type 2 diabetes, have anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties, among other incredible qualities. They are also high in dietary fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidants. So really, these prickly pear margaritas are good for you. Totally healthy.

These hot pink cocktails are not only delicious and refreshing, but they are absolutely gorgeous to look at. The color is completely natural and oh so beautiful. For my first attempt I used 1 ounce of prickly pear syrup, and although it was delicious it was almost cloyingly sweet. Half an ounce is a much better amount, and yields a more balanced margarita. If you have a sweet tooth, feel free to increase the amount of syrup to a full ounce. I certainly won't judge you. You can also double the recipe to make a giant margarita like they serve at Mexican restaurants!

Prickly Pear Margarita
Makes 1 serving

Kosher salt
1 1/2 ounces tequila
1 ounce triple sec (or Cointreau)
1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 ounce prickly pear syrup
1 slice lime

Wet the rim of a margarita glass or tumbler by running a lightly squeezed lime wedge around it. Rotate the rim of the glass in kosher salt spread on a flat plate.

In a cocktail shaker filled with ice combine tequila, triple sec, fresh lime juice, and prickly pear syrup. Shake vigorously, then strain into the prepared glass. Add a few ice cubes to the glass, and garnish the rim with a slice of lime. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Baked Cinnamon-Apple French Toast


Brunch is my favorite meal that I rarely get to enjoy. I used to go out for brunch more often when I lived in Los Angeles and New York City, and although there are some great weekend brunch spots in Rhode Island, I don't brunch as often as I would like. Breakfast foods are some of my favorites though, and when a recent opportunity arose to participate in a brunch my sister was hosting, I immediately took the lead to plan the menu and execute some of the dishes.

When making breakfast for a crowd, and planning a complex menu, you can't really stand around flipping pancakes all day. With careful planning, you need to make smart menu choices to cover savory and sweet options with minimal effort.

While the savory half of the menu included a frittata, cheese and meat boreks, spanakopita, and a selection of charcuterie and cheeses, the sweet half consisted of fruit salad, chocolate chip scones, and this decadent baked cinnamon-apple French toast. And of course there were mimosas and coffee to wash it all down.

This baked French toast is really a cross between French toast and bread pudding. It's a cinch to make, especially if you can find Texas toast at your local grocery store. I found that it was more trouble than it was worth to visit more than a couple grocery stores with this goal in mind, and instead decided to bake a loaf of white sandwich bread, and slice it thickly to replicate the Texas toast. This worked beautifully!

Before baking

After baking (and before deflating--still puffy right out of the oven!)

The bread slices are soaked overnight in vanilla-laced custard, topped with a blanket of tender, cinnamon-spiced apple slices. The next morning it's baked for about an hour until puffy, golden, and fully set. Err on the slightly longer side if you notice a bit of loose custard sneaking up through your French toast. You want to make sure all the custard is set before you serve this to guests. Maple syrup is an excellent accompaniment, although I found the French toast to be perfect, delicately sweet, and well-balanced even without this addition.

The guests at brunch raved over this baked French toast, and like I said it really couldn't have been easier to make! Even though I baked my bread from scratch, I used a simple recipe that didn't require a lot of effort, and the entire dish just fell into place.

Baked Cinnamon-Apple French Toast
Serves 8
(From Gale Gand's Brunch)

6 medium apples (use a variety) (I used 5 large apples; it was plenty)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut up into small cubes, plus more for the baking dish
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
8 slices Texas toast (thick presliced white bread) (I struggled to find commercially available Texas toast, so I baked my own white sandwich bread, and cut it into 8 one-inch-thick slices)
8 large eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 1/2 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

Peel, core, and cut the apples into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Heat the butter in a saute pan over medium heat until it starts to foam. Add the apples and cook them until tender, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Set aside.

Lightly toast the bread. Cut the toast slices in half to make triangles. Butter a 9x13-inch baking dish, and arrange the bread in two rows, overlapping in the dish.

Beat the eggs in a medium bowl; then whisk in the sugar, milk, and vanilla to make a custard. Pour the custard over the bread triangles, and spoon the apples over the top. Cover, and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Uncover the baking dish and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until the custard is set and doesn't shimmy when you shake the pan (err on the longer side to ensure its baked through--mine baked a little over 60 minutes total because I noticed a bit of runny custard bubbling out one of the sides around the 50 minute mark). It will puff up and brown slightly. Remove from the oven and let it rest for 10 minutes before serving. Serve it in squares or large spoonfuls with maple syrup, if desired.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Garlic-Lemon Salmon Piccata


Salmon is one of the most widely available and commonly cooked fishes in the United States. There are many ways to prepare salmon, but easily one of my favorites is this Garlic-Lemon Salmon Piccata.

It's super citrusy, a wonderful flavor profile for any fish dish, and adds a burst of bright green color from handfuls of baby spinach and a sprinkle of parsley to finish.

I find that this salmon is never dry because it's pan-seared and cloaked in the delicious lemon, garlic, and white white sauce.

Although the recipe calls for four 6-ounce fillets of fish, you can use smaller fillets if you prefer, which is what I did. I took a side of salmon (weighing just over 1 1/2 pounds) and cut it into relatively equal-sized portions.

Garlic-Lemon Salmon Piccata
Serves 4
(From Delish)

1 cup all-purpose flour
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper (I also like to sprinkle paprika on my salmon fillets)
4 (6-ounce) salmon fillets (or equivalent weight salmon in small fillets)
3 tablespoons butter, divided
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup capers, drained
1 lemon, thinly sliced
4 cups baby spinach
Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

In a shallow baking dish, add flour. Season salmon with salt and pepper (and paprika if desired), then dredge in the flour, and toss until coated.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon butter and olive oil. Add salmon and cook until golden, 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate.

Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter to skillet. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, 1 minute, then add lemon juice and white wine and bring to a simmer. Stir in capers, lemon slices and spinach and let cook down until wilted, 2 minutes.

Return salmon to skillet and combine. Garnish with parsley and serve.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

French Onion Soup Dumplings


The Stanton Social was a local haunt in the Lower East Side of Manhattan for many years until it recently shuttered, hopefully temporarily until it relocates to another space. For years it was one of my favorite culinary destinations in the Big Apple. From its sinful craft cocktails to its extraordinarily original shared plates, it was THE place to be, and I have many fond and delicious memories that I hope to recreate through chef Chris Santos' sublime cookbook Share.

Arguably the most famous and revered dish on the menu at The Stanton Social was one of my personal favorites as well. French Onion Soup Dumplings. Let that sink in.

Fried wonton wrappers encase a filling of luxurious melted onions and shallots bound together with a bit of wine and broth.

Getting the soup into the dumplings is quite simply the result of freezing and cubing the filling before assembling the little purses of dough.

After deep frying these soup-filled bundles, they are topped with a mound of shredded Gruyère cheese and broiled. A skewered garlicky crouton is the final touch before serving these crowd-pleasing, artery-clogging bites.

A few notes from my personal experience making these dumplings. 1) the recipe calls for too much butter. Listen, I love butter, but I found that an entire stick of butter was just way too much for the amount of onions, and my final result felt quite greasy around the edges of the pan. It was so much fat that it really felt more like I was frying the onions and shallots rather than allowing them to slowly sweat and caramelize, even with the heat on low.

I have reduced the amount of butter in the recipe below, and even scraped off a bit of the frozen butter that solidified on top of my frozen filling to make up for the excess.

2) I also highly recommend reducing the amount of Gruyère cheese from the original recipe, which would be 1 1/2 pounds of cheese melted over 36 tiny dumplings. I shredded an entire pound of cheese, and honestly only used 8 ounces to cover all of my dumplings. I arranged 6 dumplings in an escargot dish (although the indentations weren't really large enough for deep enough, it still managed to serve its purpose) and used a Pyrex baking dish for the remainder.

French Onion Soup Dumplings
Makes 36
(Adapted from Share)

Onion-Shallot Filling:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter (the original recipe calls for a whole stick, and I found it to yield a greasy filling so I would recommend scaling it down to about 6 tablespoons at the most)
1/2 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced (1 cup)
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced (1/2 cup)
1 cup red wine
1 cup beef broth
1 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme (I used 1 tablespoon dried thyme)
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, preferably aged
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

3 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
Thirty-six 3/4-inch cubes of artisan bread
3 garlic cloves, minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Soup Dumplings:
36 square wonton wrappers
1 egg, lightly beaten

Vegetable oil, for frying
2 cups (8 ounces) grated Gruyère cheese (the original recipe calls for 3 times as much cheese for the 36 dumplings, and you are welcome to use that amount, but I think this was plenty)
Softened butter, for greasing

Make the filling: At least 6 hours before making the dumplings, melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and shallots and reduce the heat to medium. Cook, stirring often, until they are deep golden brown and very tender, about 20 to 30 minutes.

Add the wine, increase the heat to high, and cook, stirring often, until the wine has evaporated to a glaze, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the beef and chicken broths and bring to a boil. Cook until the liquid has evaporated by half, about 7 to 10 minutes, so the consistency is thick and mainly onion (if you over-reduce you can add a bit more broth to thin it back out). Stir in the thyme and balsamic vinegar, then season with salt and pepper. Let cool completely.

Line the bottom and sides of an 8-by-4-inch loaf pan with plastic wrap (I used an 8-1/2-by-4-1/2-inch loaf pan and it was fine). Pour the filling into the pan and loosely cover the top with plastic wrap. Freeze until the filling is solid, at least 4 hours, or up to 1 day.

To make the croutons: Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400° F. In a medium bowl, toss all of the crouton ingredients to coat the bread thoroughly. Spread the mixture onto a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake, stirring occasionally, until the croutons are golden brown, about 15 minutes. Set aside.

To make the dumplings: Invert and unmold the frozen soup mixture onto a cutting board. Using a knife, cut the mixture lengthwise into 4 long strips, then vertically into 9 sections to make 36 cubes total. Keep the cubes frozen until ready to wrap.

Working with about 9 wonton wrappers at a time, place the wrappers on a clean work surface. Lightly brush the edges of the wrappers with the beaten egg. Place one cube in the center of a wrapper. Bring up the edges and tightly pinch them closed to create a small packet, resembling a purse. Transfer to a baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining cubes and wrappers. Cover tightly and freeze for at least 2 hours. (To freeze longer, transfer the frozen dumplings , separating the layers with waxed paper, to an airtight container, and freeze for up to 1 month.)

In a deep large saucepan or Dutch oven (or deep fryer), heat 2 inches of oil to 350°F. Place a rack over a large rimmed baking sheet to drain the fried dumplings.

Remove dumplings from the freezer. In batches, without crowding, carefully fry the dumplings in the oil until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Using a wire spider or slotted spoon, carefully transfer them to the wire rack to drain. The dumplings can stand at room temperature for up to 30 minutes.

Position the broiler rack about 8 inches from the heat source and preheat on high. Lightly butter several escargot dishes or a large baking dish (or a combination of the two--I used 1 escargot dish and a baking dish for the rest of the dumplings).

Place each dumpling in its own indentation in the escargot dishes, or arrange them in rows in the baking dish. Cover the entire dish with the shredded Gruyère. Broil until the cheese is melted and golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Meanwhile, spear each crouton onto a skewer.

Insert a crouton-speared skewer into the top of each dumpling, being sure not to poke the bottom of the wrapper, or the dumpling will leak. Serve immediately.


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