Monday, December 27, 2010

Leek Bread Pudding and Red Lentil-Basmati Rice Pilaf

I love bread pudding.  I love sweet bread pudding, and I love savory bread pudding.  It's quite magical how stale or toasted bread cubes soaked in custard and baked can result in such luscious perfection.  I desperately needed to make this bread pudding for our Christmas menu.  It had been missing from my life far too long, and it quickly became a favorite among many of our dinner guests.  The top is crusty and cheesy with a creamy, silky, leek-infused base.  The marriage of textures and flavors in this simple-by-Thomas-Keller's-standards dish is perfect.  The original recipe calls for 3 cups whole milk and 3 cups heavy cream in the custard, but I wanted to lighten it a bit, so I used mostly whole milk, with just a touch of cream.  I know, that's not really "light," but you need a little richness in bread pudding, and this small change probably made a huge difference in calories.  This leek bread pudding officially has a following from many of my family members, and I'm sure if you try it, you'll get hooked as well!

I'm also sharing a spiced and flavorful spin on rice pilaf, adding delicious, high-fiber red lentils to the mix. The rice and lentils are cooked separately and then mixed together. Ginger, cumin, coriander, and hot red pepper flakes impart a bit of spice to the lentils, while the rice cooks simply with sautéed onions and a bay leaf. We used some chicken broth to cook the rice instead of plain water (for more flavor), but you can follow the original recipe (below) and keep it completely vegan. It's almost like Middle Eastern rice and beans! This is definitely a unique side dish, and even a house full of Armenians were impressed by how different rice pilaf could be :)

Leek Bread Pudding
Serves 12 as a Side Dish, 6 to 8 as a Main Course
(Adapted from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home)

2 cups 1/2-inch-thick slices leeks (white and light green parts only)
Kosher salt
4 T. (2 oz.) unsalted butter
Freshly ground black pepper
12 cups 1-inch cubes crustless bread (such as Brioche, Pullman sandwich loaf, or Italian bread)
1 T. finely chopped chives
1 tsp. chopped thyme leaves
3 large eggs
5 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
Freshly ground nutmeg
1 cup shredded Comté or Emmentaler cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Put the leek rounds in a large bowl of tepid water and swish so that any dirt falls to the bottom of the bowl. Set a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat, lift the leeks from the water, drain, and add them to the pan. Season with salt and cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes.

As the leeks begin to soften, lower the heat to medium-low. The leeks will release liquid. Stir in the butter to emulsify, and season with pepper to taste. Cover the pan with a parchment lid, and cook, stirring every 10 minutes, until the leeks are very soft, 30 to 35 minutes. If at any point the butte breaks or looks oily, stir in about a tablespoon of water to re-emulsify the sauce. Remove and discard the parchment lid.

Meanwhile, spread the bread cubes on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for about 20 minutes, rotating the pan about halfway through, until dry and pale gold. Transfer to a large bowl. Leave the oven on.

Add the leeks to the bread and toss well, then add the chives and thyme.

Lightly whisk the eggs in another large bowl. Whisk in the milk, cream, a generous pinch of salt, pepper to taste, and a pinch of nutmeg.

Sprinkle 1/4 cup of the cheese in the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Spread half o the leeks and croutons in the pan and sprinkle with another 1/4 cup cheese. Scatter the remaining leeks and croutons over the top with another 1/4 cup cheese. Pour in enough of the custard mixture to cover the bread and press gently on the bread so it soaks in the milk. Let soak for about 15 minutes.

Add the remaining custard, allowing some of the soaked cubes of bread to protrude. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup cheese on top and sprinkle with salt.

Bake for 1 1/2 hours, or until the pudding feels set and the top is brown and bubbling.

Red Lentil-Basmati Rice Pilaf
Serves 4
(From The Union Square Cafe Cookbook)

4 tsp. vegetable oil
1/2 cup peeled and diced onion
3/4 cup imported basmati rice, rinsed (if using domestic, do not rinse)
1/2 bay leaf
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
3 cups water
1 T. peeled, minced ginger
3/4 tsp. ground cumin
3/4 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
3/4 cup split red lentils
1 scallion, white and green parts, trimmed and sliced

In a 1 1/2-quart saucepan, heat 2 teaspoons of the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 3 minutes, stirring, until translucent. Stir in the rice, bay leaf, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Add 1 1/2 cups water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside to rest, covered, for 5 minutes.

In a separate 1 1/2-quart saucepan, heat the remaining oil over medium heat. Stir in the ginger, cumin, coriander, and red pepper flakes and cook 1 minute. Add the red lentils and stir to coat evenly with the spices. Add the remaining 1 1/2 cups water, season with the remaining salt and pepper, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.

In a large, warm serving bowl, combine the cooked rice and lentils, mixing thoroughly, and served topped with the sliced scallions.


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