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June 29, 2006

Food Network Favorites: Grilled Shrimp in Lettuce Leaves with Serrano-Mint Sauce

Another quick grill idea from Bobby Flay. No problems with this one; proportions were good, and the sauce makes a tasty accompaniment to the grilled shrimp.

You could substitute other lettuce for the green curly leaf lettuce called for in the recipe. Butter, Boston, or Bibb would all work, as would red leaf lettuce. Use whatever looks freshest at the market.

To tone down the spiciness of the sauce, seed the chiles before adding them. The sauce with the chiles in it is moderately spicy, although the mint leaves help to cool down the flavor.

My prep time below is based on using already-peeled and deveined shrimp. If you have a good fishmonger and can buy them already prepped, by all means do so, since it cuts way down on the prep time. If you have to peel and devein the shrimp yourself, add about 20 minutes to the prep time.

The chile oil can be found in the Asian food section of the supermarket. It's optional, but adds a nice extra kick to the shrimp.

In an oversight, the ingredients list says to save additional mint leaves for garnish, but when the instructions are telling you to garnish the dish, only the cilantro leaves are mentioned. I think there was plenty of mint flavor in the sauce, and you only need to sprinkle the shrimp with the cilantro leaves at the end. I've noted that mint leaves for garnish are optional.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

Serrano-Mint Sauce
1 cup tightly packed mint leaves, plus additional for garnish (optional)
2 serrano chiles, coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 tsp granulated sugar
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp fish sauce

1 1/2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled, deveined, and tails off (about 36 shrimp)
3 Tbsp canola oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
12 leaves green curly leaf lettuce (or other lettuce, as desired)
Chile oil, for drizzling (optional)
Fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish

Preheat the grill to medium-high.

Make the Serrano-Mint Sauce: place all ingredients except salt in a blender and pulse until smooth. Add salt to taste. Set sauce aside.

Make the shrimp: In a large bowl, turn shrimp in oil and seasaon with salt and pepper to taste. Grill the shrimp for 1 to 2 minutes per side, or just until cooked through (do not overcook, as the shrimp will become rubbery). Remove from the grill.

Place about 3 shrimp in each lettuce leaf. Drizzle with the Serrano-Mint Sauce and a little chile oil, if desired. Sprinkle with cilantro leaves (and mint leaves, if using) for garnish. Roll up the lettuce leaves and eat immediately.


June 28, 2006

Food Network Favorites: Shredded Chicken & Tomatillo Tacos with Queso Fresco

A fast dinner idea from the Bobby Flay chapter in Food Network Favorites . The tomatillo sauce is easy to make and tasted great mixed with rotisserie chicken from the grocery store. The proportions were off, however.

The original recipe in the book says to use 1 1/2 cups of shredded rotisserie chicken, to serve 4 people. That breaks down to slightly more than 1/3 cup of chicken per serving, which makes 2 very sad, skinny looking tacos. That amount of chicken also swam in the tomatillo sauce, which should coat the chicken nicely, not drown it. I increased the amount of chicken to 3 cups. That amount of chicken works well with the amount of sauce, and gives you 2 nice plump tacos per serving.

If you don't want to make this dish on the grill, it can easily translate to the broiler. Cook the tomatillos on one side until blackened, then turn over and cook the other side. Then proceed with the recipe as directed. The tortillas can be heated under the broiler or in the microwave. If you can't find blue corn tortillas, substitute any other interesting or handmade tortillas you can find (Trader Joe's makes very good handmade flour or corn tortillas that are light-years better than the perfectly round, boring white disks sold at the grocery store). Similarly, if you can't find queso fresco, you can substitute another mild crumbly cheese (mild feta or goat cheese, for example).

A sign that this recipe was written by someone who doesn't have to wash his own dishes: Bobby Flay says to sauté the tomatillo mixture briefly in a small pan, and then when you mix the tomatillo sauce with the chicken, use a large pan. I prefer not to have to wash 2 different pans for such a simple dish, and it's very easy to do both tasks in 1 medium-to-large pan. I've made that clear in the revised instructions, below.

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

6 tomatillos
1 serrano chile
Olive oil
1/2 small red onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Juice of 1 lime
2 Tbsp honey
About 3 cups shredded rotisserie chicken (approximately half the meat from 1 chicken)
8 blue corn or other tortillas
1 cup crumbled queso fresco

Preheat the grill to medium heat (or heat the oven broiler to high). Husk the tomatillos and rinse them under warm water to remove their sticky coating. Put the tomatillos and chile on the grill and cook until blackened all over, about 2 to 3 minutes per side (or cook under the broiler until blackened). Remove from the grill and roughly chop (remove the stem from the chile and discard). Put them in a medium-to-large sauté pan with about 1 Tbsp olive oil and briefly sauté on the grates of the grill (or on the stovetop).

Put the tomatillos, chile, onion, garlic, cilantro, lime juice, and honey in a blender and blend until smooth. Pour the mixture back into the sauté pan and place on the grates of the grill (or on the stovetop on medium heat). Add the chicken and heat through.

Place the tortillas on the grill and briefly heat through (or heat under the broiler or in the microwave). Spoon the chicken mixture into the tortillas and top with queso fresco. Fold in half and serve immediately.

June 27, 2006

Food Network Favorites: Spice-Rubbed Pork Tenderloin with Ancho Chile-Mustard Sauce

From Bobby Flay, a very good recipe for pork tenderloin. I've had to add some information to the ingredients and the instructions for clarity, but the end result is a very good dish.

Flay says to use 2 pork tenderloins, "about 12 ounces each," but this cut of meat isn't the most common variety of pork tenderloin you'll find at your grocery store. It's possible to find small tenderloins like this from specialty butchers, for a very high price. More likely to be on the shelf at the market, however, is a product like this, a 1.5 pound tenderloin from Hormel. If you can find the smaller size, by all means use it. But if you're stuck with the bigger one, you should cut it crosswise through the middle to help reduce cooking time, and even in 2 pieces, this larger cut of meat will take longer to cook -- about twice as long as Bobby Flay's instructions indicate.

My other issue with the recipe is the treatment of the ancho chiles. You're supposed to soak them in hot water and then purée them, and apparently Bobby Flay never has any trouble with leftover bits of tough, chewy skin when he does this. I, on the other hand, have puréed many a chile this way, and I always end up with a fairly good amount of purée, mixed with some flaky pieces of skin that don't want to get smooth no matter what you do. These bits are unpleasant to bite into, so you'll need to press the purée through a sieve with a rubber spatula to get the hard bits out. I use a strainer with a medium mesh because it's easier to push the purée through. If you can get perfectly smooth purée from dried chiles, you can skip this step, but I've never been able to, so I had to strain them. I've also added some more detailed information to the purée instructions, since Flay's note merely says to soak chiles in water, with no indication of how many chiles to use. I've given instructions to use a 3-oz. package, which will yield more purée than is necessary for this recipe, because it's much easier to purée a larger amount of chiles. Trying to purée one lone chile will only lead to frustration, in my experience.

Food Network Favorites makes a big deal about the different varieties of chile powder in the spice rub, saying that if you can't find them in a store, you should try to order them online. Truthfully, you're not going to get a huge difference in the flavor profile if you don't happen to be able to get ahold of guajillo powder, or pasilla powder, or whatever. I live in the Western US and it's easy for me to find all of these, but if you can't find them, just substitute whatever is available. Try to use at least 3 different kinds of chile powder, but don't fret if they're not the same exact varieties listed in the recipe.

Prep Time: 30 minutes, plus at least 1 hour to soak dried chiles
Cook Time: 15 to 25 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

Spice Rub
3 Tbsp ancho chile powder
1 tsp chile de arbol powder
1 Tbsp pasilla chile powder
1 Tbsp guajillo chile powder
1 tsp allspice
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Ancho Chile-Mustard Sauce
4 cups chicken stock or broth
1 cup apple juice concentrate
6 black peppercorns
1 tsp puréed canned chipotle in adobo
2 Tbsp ancho chile purée (see below for instructions)
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
2 Tbsp crème fraîche
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pork Tenderloin
2 pork tenderloins, about 12 oz. each (or 1 pork loin, about 24 oz., cut in half crosswise)
2 Tbsp olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Make the Spice Rub: In a bowl combine all ingredients, including salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Combine the chicken stock, apple juice, and peppercorns with the chipotle and ancho purées in a medium saucepan over high heat and reduce to a sauce-like consistency, about 10 to 15 minutes. Whisk in mustard and crème fraîche and cook for 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

While sauce is reducing, cook the pork. Dredge the loins in the spice rub and pat off excess. Heat the olive oil in a medium ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Add the pork and sear well on all sides. Place the pan in the oven and continue cooking to medium-well, about 155 degrees on an instant-read thermometer (about 10 minutes for smaller tenderloins, 20 to 25 minutes for thicker loins). Remove from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes before slicing into 1-inch pieces on the diagonal. Spoon the sauce onto the pork slices.

For ancho chile purée: Soak a 3-oz. package of dried chiles in hot water to cover for about 1 hour. Drain, then pull the stem ends off and discard. The seeds can be discarded or blended with the chiles, depending on how spicy you want the purée to be. Blend the chiles in a food processor until smooth, adding a small amount of their soaking water if necessary (no more than 1/4 cup). Press the purée through a medium mesh strainer with a rubber spatula, leaving the leftover large pieces in the strainer. Discard large pieces. This will give you more chile purée than is needed for the recipe. Leftovers can be stored in the freezer for up to 3 months. Freeze the purée in ice cube trays for easy measuring and future use.

June 26, 2006

Food Network Favorites: Rum Buttered-Glazed Grilled Pineapple with Vanilla-Scented Mascarpone

Bobby Flay's second dessert contribution to Food Network Favorites. This is a very simple way to serve pineapple. Grilling it helps to bring out the flavor, and the rum and vanilla notes in the accompaniments give a nice tropical flair to the dish.

Be sure to use a ripe pineapple; the fruit should be plump-looking and should yield slightly to pressure, without being mushy. The stem end should smell like pineapple. If the leaves are brown instead of dark green, pick a different one.

Since the pineapple is not cored before you grill it, you'll have to eat around the hard center of the slices. You need to eat this with a knife and fork anyway, since the pineapple slices are covered with sticky rum glaze and topped with rich mascarpone cheese.

Flay gives the yield for this dessert as 4 servings, but I think it could serve 6, especially if you've got a fairly large pineapple.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: about 6 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

6 oz. unsalted butter
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1/4 cup dark rum
1 ripe pineapple, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch rounds
1 cup mascarpone
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped (reserve pod for another use)
1/2 cup fresh blueberries, for garnish

Preheat the grill to medium. Melt the butter, sugar, and rum in a small saucepan.

Grill the pineapple on both sides until golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Spoon the rum glaze over the grilled pineapple.

Whisk together the mascarpone and vanilla seeds. Top each slice of pineapple with a dollop of vanilla mascarpone. Garnish with a few fresh blueberries.

Food Network Favorites: Fresh Fruit Batidos

From the Bobby Flay chapter in Food Network Favorites . "Batida" means "beaten" in Spanish, and since the fruit and ice cream are beaten together in a blender, it seems an appropriate name. Another way to think of this drink? Mango milkshake.

It's very tasty, and as the book notes, a sweet, creamy beverage like this would make a good dessert after a spicy meal. Make sure you use a ripe mango, and don't hesitate to add a little extra if you like.

Flay's recipe says to pour the batido into a 10-oz. glass, but my yield was 12 to 13 oz. It's a big shake, and can easily serve two people.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Yield: 1 or 2 servings

1 cup mango sorbet
1/2 cup vanilla ice cream
1/2 cup chopped fresh mango, plus slices for garnish
1/2 cup cold milk
1 to 2 Tbsp honey, or more to taste
Mint sprigs, for garnish

Put the sorbet, mango, ice cream, milk, and honey into a blender and combine until smooth. Pour into one 12-oz. glass or two smaller glasses. Garnish with mango slices and mint leaves, if desired.

June 23, 2006

Food Network Favorites: Grilled Steak & Papaya Salad

It's summertime, and I'm ready to start grilling, so it's on to Bobby Flay's chapter in Food Network Favorites . This is a delicious spicy salad topped with grilled marinated steak. It's a wonderful meal for a summer evening.

No problems with the recipe; Flay's ingredients and instructions all worked fine, but I did make one small change in the way the dish is plated. Flay has the cook put the greens on plates, top them with the papaya and carrot, and then drizzle dressing over the top. I thought it made more sense to toss the greens and the papaya mixture with dressing first -- that way each bite is flavored with the dressing. I've rewritten the instructions so that the salad is served this way.

If you're worried about the spiciness of the Thai chiles, or if you can't find them, serranos can be substituted. You can also seed the chiles before using them if you'd like to tone down the heat.

It's also possible to substitute beef loin steaks (aka filet mignons) for the whole tenderloin called for in the recipe. (This is the same cut of meat. Filet mignons are cut from the whole beef tenderloin.) Reduce cooking time to about 4 minutes per side for medium rare if using individual steaks.

Prep Time: 30 minutes, plus 1 hour marinating time
Cook Time: 8 to 12 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

Marinade and Tenderloin
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 Thai chile, chopped (substitute serrano if desired)
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp fresh lime juice
2 to 3 Tbsp honey
1/4 cup peanut oil
1 1/2 pounds beef tenderloin, OR 4 filet mignon steaks, about 6 oz. each

Papaya Salad
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
2 Thai chiles, finely chopped (substitute serrano if desired)
1 Tbsp chopped fresh mint leaves
1/2 cup rice vinegar
2 tsp granulated sugar
2 Tbsp fish sauce
6 large red romaine leaves, cut into strips
1 bunch watercress
1 large green papaya, peeled and thinly shredded
2 carrots, peeled and thinly shredded
1/4 cup chopped roasted peanuts, for garnish
Cilantro leaves, for garnish

For the marinade: Put the garlic, chile, soy sauce, lime juice, honey, and oil in a mini food processor and process until smooth., Place beef in a small baking dish, pour the marinade over it, and turn to coat. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

Preheat the grill to medium-high. Remove the beef from the marinade and season with salt and pepper to taste. Grill the meat until charred and medium-rare (internal temperature of 125 to 130 degrees), about 10 to 12 minutes for a whole tenderloin, or 4 minutes per side for individual steaks. Remove the meat from the grill and let it rest 10 minutes before slicing into 1/4-inch-thick slices.

Meanwhile, make the salad: In a small bowl, whisk together the shallot, chiles, mint, vinegar, sugar, and fish sauce. (Dressing can also be made in the mini chopper. Pulse all ingredients together until smooth.) Set aside.

In another bowl, toss the lettuce with the watercress and a couple of tablespoons of the dressing. Arrange the leaves on a platter or individual serving plates. Combine the papaya and carrots in the same bowl and gently toss with about 1 tablespoon of the dressing. Arrange the papaya mixture over the lettuce leaves. Drizzle with additional dressing, if desired.

Arrange the steak slices over the top and drizzle with a bit more dressing. Garnish with chopped peanuts and cilantro leaves.

June 22, 2006

Food Network Favorites: Mosaic Chicken Terrine

When Paula Deen doesn't use exorbitant amounts of butter, cream, and cheese, her recipes are very good. This is a very pretty and tasty dish that would be nice for a luncheon or a bridal shower. It needs to be made at least 1 day in advance, and it's not super easy to eat, but it tastes fantastic.

Food Network Favorites gives a helpful picture of the terrine on the facing page, for which I thank them. My terrine ended up looking just like the picture, which is always nice. Chicken breasts are layered with artichoke hearts and prosciutto (or other meat, such as salami), then weighted down and baked. After being thoroughly chilled, the terrine is sliced and served with an herbed mayonnaise and some crackers.

The proportions were good and the instructions worked perfectly. My only addition to the recipe is to indicate that you may need more than 6 slices of salami or mortadella. If you're using big pieces, such as prosciutto, 6 slices will probably be enough for even coverage. But if you're using smaller slices, such as salami, you may need more.

Do not forgo the step of weighting down the terrine, as it is vital to compress the layers so that they stick together. If you don't have a brick, improvise with something else that's ovenproof (I used a large rock from my yard, wrapped in foil).

Getting the terrine out of the loaf pan takes a bit of doing. Deen's recipe merely says to "carefully turn the terrine out of the pan onto a platter" but I found that I needed to run a knife along the sides of the pan and then gently shake the loaf pan over a plate before the terrine would slide out.

Eating the terrine is...interesting. A knife and fork are definitely necessary, as you need to cut the terrine into manageable bite-sized pieces. Try to get a bit of chicken, artichoke, and salami all in each bite.

This is going to be my last test from the Paula Deen chapter. I've been averaging a 60 to 70% test rate for each chef in Food Network Favorites, but Deen has done me in. There weren't any other recipes of hers that sounded good to me. They all have gobs of sour cream, cream cheese, crème fraîche, bacon...I'm crying uncle. I've tested 50% of the recipes in the Deen chapter, and that's as good as it's going to get.

Tomorrow I'll start with someone who uses a lot less fat in his cooking: Bobby Flay.

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Yield: 12 to 14 servings

2 large eggs
1/2 tsp lemon pepper
1/2 tsp seasoned salt
4 boneless skinless chicken breast halves, about 6 to 8 oz. each
2 cups grated Parmesan
2 cans artichoke hearts (about 14 oz. each), drained and cut in half
6 (or more, as needed) slices mortadella, prosciutto, or salami
12 to 16 fresh basil leaves or 8 spinach leaves

1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh dill or 1/2 tsp dried
1 tsp chopped fresh parsley
Buttery crackers, for serving

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-by-4 or -5-inch loaf pan with parchment paper. Wrap a brick in 1 or 2 layers of aluminum foil, and set aside.

In a bowl, beat the eggs and add the lemon pepper and seasoned salt. Dip the chicken breasts into the egg mixture and then in the Parmesan. Dip the artichoke hearts into the egg and then the Parmesan.

Layer 2 chicken breasts on the bottom of the loaf pan. Cover the chicken with 3 slices of mortadella, prosciutto, or salami (use more if necessary to get complete coverage). Cover the meat with half of the artichoke hearts, then with the basil or spinach leaves, using all of the leaves. Repeat the layers of chicken, salami, and artichoke hearts. Cover with parchment paper or aluminum foil and place a brick or other heavy ovenproof weight on top of the terrine to compress the layers. Place the loaf pan into a larger pan and pour hot water into the larger pan to come halfway up the sides of the loaf pan. Bake for 1 hour 20 minutes.

Let the terrine cool completely, then refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

In a bowl, combine the mayonnaise, garlic, dill, and parsley. Chill the mayonnaise mixture.

To serve, run a knife along the sides of the loaf pan and then carefully turn the terrine out of the pan onto a platter and remove the parchment paper. Slice the terrine into 3/4-inch slices. Serve with mayonnaise mixture and buttery crackers.

June 21, 2006

Food Network Favorites: Corn Casserole

Another Paula Deen recipe from Food Network Favorites . Another case of me saying "Yikes!" at the amount of fat that's in the dish. This one's a mixture of canned corn, cornbread mix, sour cream, butter, and cheese. Sure, it tastes pretty good (how could it not?), but is it worth it? Do you really need all that saturated fat in a simple side dish?

I'm not really uptight about calories or the nutritional content of the recipes that I test. But Paula Deen is giving me pause, because everything that I've tested from her thus far is just way, way too much. Too much butter, too much sour cream, too much oil, too much cheese. I love fatty food as much as the next person, but I can't base my entire diet around Piggy Pudding or Better Than Sex Cake or this casserole. It's just too overwhelming.

I tried this recipe again with half as much butter, sour cream, and cheese, and liked it a lot better. The texture isn't quite as gloopy, and it tastes really good without being quite so laden down with dairy products. I've given Deen's recipe as it appears in the book, and appended my reduced amounts of sour cream, butter, and cheese in parentheses. Make sure that you cook the casserole until the center is no longer wobbly, and let it stand for at least 5 minutes before attempting to dish it up.

I've made a couple of other small changes for clarity. Deen calls for an 8-oz. package of Jiffy cornbread mix, but Jiffy comes in 8.5-oz. packages, so I've changed the ingredients list to reflect that.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: about 1 hour
Yield: 6 to 8 servings

15.25-oz. can whole kernel corn, drained
14.75-oz. can cream-style corn
8.5-oz. package corn muffin mix (such as Jiffy)
1 cup sour cream (for less fat, use 1/2 cup)
1/2 cup melted butter (for less fat, use 1/4 cup)
1 to 1 1/2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese (for less fat, use about 3/4 cup)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 1 1/2-quart casserole with nonstick cooking spray.

In a large bowl, stir together the canned corn, corn muffin mix, sour cream, and butter. Pour into the prepared pan and bake until golden and no longer wobbly, about 45 to 50 minutes. Top with the cheese, and return to the oven for about 5 to 10 more minutes. Let stand about 5 minutes, then serve.

Food Network Favorites: Bubba's Country-Fried Steak & Gravy

Not just any Bubba, but Paula Deen's younger brother, whom she taught to make this steak. Like all of Deen's cuisine, it's a calorie-laden dish. The flavor is merely okay; I didn't think it was worth making again, to be honest.

Tenderized round steaks are dredged in seasoned flour then browned in a whole lot of oil. The oil is mixed with flour to make a pan gravy, and the browned meat simmers in the gravy until tender. I found the gravy to be really, really oily, and the flavor is pretty overwhelmingly peppery, without much else to it. Maybe it tastes better if you use the optional monosodium glutamate, but I don't use MSG in my cooking, so I don't know. If you decide to try this recipe, be sure to use cube steak, which has been through the butcher's cubing machine and looks like this.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: about 50 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

1 1/2 cups plus 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
8 4-oz. tenderized beef round steaks, aka cube steaks
1 1/4 tsp Paula's House Seasoning (you can eyeball it: about 3/4 tsp salt and rounded 1/8 tsp each of garlic powder and black pepper)
1 tsp seasoned salt
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 tsp salt
4 cups hot water
1/2 tsp monosodium glutamate, optional
1 bunch green onions or 1 medium yellow onion, sliced

Combine 1 1/2 cups flour and 1/4 tsp black pepper in a wide dish. Sprinkle 1 side of the meat with the House Seasoning and the other side with the seasoned salt and then dredge the meat in the flour mixture.

Heat 1/2 cup oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Fry the steaks in batches, adding more oil as needed, until browned, about 5 to 6 minutes per side. Remove the steaks to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.

Make the gravy by adding the remaining 1/4 cup flour to the pan drippings, scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon. Stir in the remaining 1/4 tsp black pepper and the salt. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until the flour is medium brown and the mixture is bubbly. Slowly add the water and MSG if using, stirring constantly. Return the steaks to the skillet and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and place the onions on top of the steaks. Cover the pan and let simmer for 30 minutes, then serve.

June 20, 2006

Food Network Favorites: Is It Really Better Than Sex? Cake

Paula Deen does have a colorful way with titles. As for the answer to the question, I'll leave it to you to determine for yourself. This is a very rich, decadent cake with pineapple, coconut, and vanilla pudding. It's extremely simple to put together. I had one little quibble with the ingredients, but the final result is a very good dessert.

I've also given a recipe for the more common chocolate version of Better Than Sex Cake, so if the tropical variety doesn't do it for you, the chocolate and toffee one probably will.

Paula Deen calls for a 3.4 oz. package of "French vanilla pudding." That's the size that instant pudding comes in, but she doesn't indicate that it's instant in the ingredients list. It's not a huge deal, but I think it makes sense to identify the product as clearly and precisely as possible. The addition of one simple word would make sure that no one is ever confused about what product they're supposed to use. Just say "Instant." Simple.

I checked a couple of different stores in my area, but none of them carried this product, just the regular Jello brand vanilla pudding. According to the Jello website, they do indeed make French vanilla, but I couldn't find it here. If you can't find French vanilla in your area, regular vanilla works fine. If you want to use cook-and-serve pudding instead of instant, that also works fine. Use a 3-oz. package.

Prep Time: 20 minutes, plus chilling time
Cook Time: 30 to 35 minutes
Yield: 16 to 20 servings

18.25-oz. package yellow cake mix, plus ingredients to prepare
20-oz. can crushed pineapple
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
3.4-oz. box instant French vanilla or regular vanilla pudding, plus ingredients to prepare
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 cup flaked sweetened coconut, toasted (see instructions below)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare the yellow cake mix as directed using a greased 9-by-13-inch pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes.

While the cake is baking, combine the pineapple and 1 cup sugar in a small saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Remove the cake from the oven and poke holes into it, using a fork or a chopstick. Pour the pineapple mixture over the hot cake and set aside.

Prepare the pudding according to package directions. Spread the pudding over the cake and refrigerate until it is completely chilled. Whip the heavy cream with the remaining 1/3 cup sugar until stiff. Spread the whipped cream over the top of the cake and sprinkle the toasted coconut on top.

To toast coconut: Spread the coconut on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and toast in a 350 degree oven for about 8 to 10 minutes. Stir the coconut every 2 to 3 minutes, and check often, as it will go from golden to burnt very quickly.

Chocolate Better Than Sex Cake
18.25-oz. package dark chocolate cake mix, plus ingredients to prepare
14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
12-oz. jar caramel sauce (try Mrs. Richardson's)
1 tub Extra Creamy Cool Whip
6 bars (about 1.4 oz. each) Heath bars or other chocolate toffee candy, chopped into small pieces

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare the chocolate cake mix as directed using a greased 9-by-13-inch pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes.

While the cake is baking, combine the condensed milk and caramel in a small saucepan and bring it to a gentle simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Remove the cake from the oven and poke holes into it, using a fork or a chopstick. Pour the caramel mixture over the hot cake and set aside. Let the cake cool for about 1 hour, then refrigerate until completely cool.

Spread the Cool Whip over the cake. Sprinkle the toffee bits over the cake, and serve.

June 19, 2006

Food Network Favorites: Piggy Pudding

I was going to test 2 more recipes from the Giada De Laurentiis chapter in Food Network Favorites , but to be honest, I got kind of bored, so I'm moving on. And next up is Paula Deen, the Food Network's down-home, Southern-fried queen. If you're looking for healthy meals, this chapter is definitely not the one to turn to. In the Q&A page at the front of her chapter, Deen says that the 3 ingredients she can't be without in the kitchen are butter, mayonnaise, and cream cheese. And that's no exaggeration.

This recipe as originally written is a disappointment, even though it's loaded up with sausage and syrup. The ingredients are very simple: pork breakfast links, sliced apples, cornbread batter, and syrup. You layer the sausages and apples in a baking dish, pour the cornbread batter over the top, bake it, and then serve it with maple syrup. So, from the word "pudding" in the title, I was expecting that the sausage and apples would be suspended in the cornbread, and that you would cut out squares which become pudding-like when soaked with maple syrup. I guess my expectations were wrong, because that's not what I got.

Because the recipe calls for such a small package of cornbread mix (only 7.5 oz.), there's not enough batter to hold the apples and sausage together. There isn't even enough batter to cover the tops of the apples completely, and what comes out of the oven is a loose mix of links and half-baked apple slices, some with a wafer-thin smidge of cornbread crumbs on them. Now, I'll freely admit that the only reason I was expecting something different was because of the word "pudding." There isn't a picture of the finished dish, and nowhere in her instructions does Deen indicate that the dish with be a cohesive casserole. But I have to say that what I was expecting makes a lot more sense. What's the point of a dish of sausage links, apple slices, and a few cornbread crumbs?

The idea behind this recipe is good, and if the proportions make more sense, it's a very good brunch or breakfast casserole. I've offered 2 modified recipes below; one for a smaller 8-inch dish, and one for a larger 9-by-13-inch dish. These were truly "puddings," in my estimation. The cornbread holds the sausage and apples together and becomes deliciously moist when syrup is poured over the top. Paula Deen's original recipe, with its weird proportions, is at the bottom of the page, for comparison.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: about 35 minutes
Yield: varies, see recipe

For an 8-inch dish, serving 4 to 6:
8 links pork breakfast sausage (use brown sugar or maple-flavored variety, if you like)
Butter, for greasing
1 or 2 tart apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored, and sliced 1/4-inch thick
8.5-oz. package corn muffin mix, such as Jiffy, prepared according to package directions
1 cup maple syrup, for serving
Fresh sage leaves, for garnish (if desired)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Cook the sausages in a skillet over medium-high heat until done, piercing with a fork to let out the fat. Drain on paper towels and arrange in a greased 8-inch square baking dish. Layer the sliced apples on top. Pour the cornbread batter over the top and bake until the cornbread is done, about 20 to 25 minutes. Serve with warm maple syrup and sage leaves.

For a 9-by-13-inch dish, serving 8 to 10:
16 links pork breakfast sausage (use brown sugar or maple-flavored variety, if you like)
Butter, for greasing
3 or 4 tart apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored, and sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 packages (8.5-oz. each) corn muffin mix, such as Jiffy, prepared according to package directions
1 1/2 cups maple syrup, for serving
Fresh sage leaves, for garnish (if desired)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Cook the sausages in a skillet over medium-high heat until done, piercing with a fork to let out the fat. Drain on paper towels and arrange in a greased 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Layer the sliced apples on top. Pour the cornbread batter over the top and bake until the cornbread is done, about 20 to 25 minutes. Serve with warm maple syrup and sage leaves.

Original Recipe, from Food Network Favorites :
16 links pork breakfast sausage
Butter, for greasing
4 or 5 tart apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored, and sliced 1/4-inch thick
7.5-oz. package corn muffin mix, prepared according to package directions
1 cup maple syrup, for serving
Fresh sage leaves, for garnish (if desired)

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Cook the sausages in a skillet over medium-high heat until done, piercing with a fork to let out the fat. Drain on paper towels and arrange in a greased 9-inch square baking dish. Layer the sliced apples on top. Pour the cornbread batter over the top and bake until the cornbread is done, about 30 minutes. Serve with warm maple syrup and sage leaves. Serves 4.

June 16, 2006

Food Network Favorites: Cinnamon-Pancetta Carbonara

Very rich, with tons of calories, this recipe from the Giada De Laurentiis chapter of Food Network Favorites is delicious, and absolutely not diet food. My only nitpick: I thought there could have been a little more cinnamon.

The cinnamon flavor was so subtle, it was practically nonexistent. I've added the option to increase the amount in the recipe below, since the additional spice adds a lot to the finished dish.

Giada De Laurentiis' recipes have been very successful (just a few small quibbles) during this trip through Food Network Favorites; I've got a couple more coming up next week, and then it's the Paula Deen chapter.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Yield: 6 servings

8 slices pancetta or bacon, chopped
1/4 to scant 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 cups whipping cream
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan
6 large egg yolks
18 oz. fresh fettuccine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp chopped fresh chives

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Saute the pancetta in a heavy large frying pan over medium-high heat until almost crisp, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle the cinnamon over the bacon and saute until the bacon is crisp and golden, about 2 more minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly, about 2 minutes. Whisk in the cream and cheese. Whisk in the yolks to blend.

Add the fettuccine to the boiling water and cook until it is just tender but still firm to the bite, about 3 minutes. Drain. Add the fettuccine to the cream mixture and toss over medium-low heat until the sauce coats the pasta thickly, about 5 minutes (do not boil -- you are gently cooking the egg yolks, so keep the heat low and toss constantly). Season the pasta with salt and black pepper to taste. Transfer the pasta to a large wide serving bowl. Sprinkle with chives and serve.

Food Network Favorites: Creamy Ricotta Tart with Pine Nuts

Another dessert from the Giada De Laurentiis chapter in Food Network Favorites . It's a very good tart; it's just not my favorite kind of dessert. The pine nut crust is topped with a lightly sweet custard, and more pine nuts are strewn across the top. You need to really like pine nuts for this one to appeal to you, because their flavor is very, very strong.

The recipe works well and there are no problems with proportions or cooking time. The tart wasn't a big hit for me because I thought that the custard wasn't quite sweet enough, and the pine nut flavor was overpowering. These are, however, matters of individual taste, so if you're a pine nut fan, give this dessert a try.

Be careful that you press the crust all the way up the sides of the tart pan. The filling is the consistency of milk when you pour it into the crust, and needs to be completely contained. If you happen to splash any filling over the sides of the crust, as I did (just a smidge!), it will pour out of the bottom of the tart pan and make a black, burnt mess on the bottom of your oven. (Thankfully, I only had about a 1-inch wide piece of tart that had some overcooked custard on the outside of the crust. The rest of the tart was fine.)

Prep Time: about 45 minutes, plus about 1 hour chilling time
Cook Time: about 1 hour 15 minutes
Yield: about 8 to 10 servings

1 1/2 cups plus 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
3/4 cup pine nuts, toasted (see note, below)
Pinch salt
4 oz. unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly (1/2 cup)

1/2 cup water
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 cup ricotta cheese
6 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
2 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
3/4 cup pine nuts, toasted (see note, below)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Make the crust: In the bowl of a food processor, pulse flour, sugar, pine nuts, and salt until finely ground. Add the butter. Pulse dough just until it comes together. Place the dough into an 11-inch tart pan with a removable bottom and press down to cover the bottom and sides of the pan. Make sure the crust comes all the way up the sides of the pan. Refrigerate until the dough is firm, about 30 minutes.

Line the tart shell with aluminum foil and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake the tart shell in the lower third of the oven until just set, about 25 minutes. Carefully remove the foil and weights and continue to bake the shell until lightly golden, about 10 more minutes. Remove from the oven and cool completely, at least 30 minutes at room temperature.

Make the filling: Stir the water with the sugar in a small saucepan over low heat just to dissolve the sugar; don't boil. Stir until the sugar dissolves and remove from the heat.

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the ricotta cheese and cream cheese until smooth. Add the eggs and egg yolks, one at a time, and process until smooth. With the machine running, add the sugar syrup in a thin steady stream and process until smooth.

Pour the custard into the cooled tart shell and bake until the filling is almost set, about 20 to 25 minutes. Scatter the toasted pine nuts over the top and bake until the tart is set, about 10 more minutes. Let the tart cool completely before serving. The tart can be wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to 3 days. Bring the tart to room temperature before serving.

To toast pine nuts: Spread the nuts onto a baking sheet and bake at 300 degrees for about 8 to 10 minutes, or until golden and fragrant. Watch carefully, as nuts burn very quickly.

June 15, 2006

Food Network Favorites: Pork Chops Alla Pizzaiola

Very simple to make, and extremely tasty. These pork chops are seared in a hot skillet, and served with a spicy, herby tomato sauce. My only issue: Giada De Laurentiis doesn't seem to allow quite enough cooking time, unless you like rare pork.

I know the US pork supply is nearly trichinella-free these days, but I'm still not comfortable eating pork at an internal temperature lower than 155 degrees.

Here's what happened: As instructed in the recipe, I seared my 1-inch-thick chops for 4 minutes per side, removed them to a plate, made the sauce, returned the chops to the pan, and cooked for 3 more minutes. Then I tested the internal temperature of the chops, and it was 110 degrees. I needed to cook the chops in the sauce for about 6 to 7 more minutes to ensure that they reached an internal temperature of 155 degrees. That's the rarest I want my pork (it's already somewhat lower than the government's recommended temperature of 170 degrees) and it still produces a moist, tasty chop. I've adjusted the recipe to reflect the longer required cooking time.

Other than the cooking time being off, this dish is quite good. Use more red pepper flakes if you like a spicy sauce.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: about 35 minutes
Yield: 2 servings

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 thick-cut bone-in pork loin center-cut chops, about 1 inch thick (about 12 oz. each)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small onion, thinly sliced
15-oz. can diced tomatoes in juice
1 tsp herbes de Provence
1/4 tsp (or more, if desired) crushed red pepper flakes
1 Tbsp chopped fresh Italian parsley

Heat the oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle the pork chops with salt and pepper. Add the pork chops to the skillet and cook until they are well browned, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer the pork chops to a plate and tent with foil to keep them warm.

Add the onion to the same skillet and saute over medium heat until crisp-tender, about 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes with their juices, herbes de Provence, and 1/4 tsp of red pepper flakes. Cover and simmer until the flavors blend and the juices thicken slightly, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Season the sauce with salt and more red pepper to taste, if desired.

Return the pork chops and any accumulated juices to the skillet. Turn the pork chops to coat them with the sauce, and cook for another 6 to 7 minutes, or until the internal temperature is at least 155 degrees. Place 1 chop on each plate and spoon the sauce over it. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

June 14, 2006

Food Network Favorites: Nonna's Lemon Ricotta Biscuits

Another very good recipe from Giada De Laurentiis. My only quibble, and it's really more of a question, is to wonder why she specifies using paper muffin liners? Plus, these aren't biscuits. They're muffins -- very tasty ones.

De Laurentiis doesn't even entertain the idea of not using paper muffin liners, which strikes me as strange. I made the muffins with nonstick spray, and they came out of the tin without any difficulty. If you like peeling the paper off, go ahead and use the liners. But if you don't want to fuss around with that stuff, you don't have to.

Be sure that the butter is at room temperature. And be careful not to overcook the muffins; begin testing at about 15 to 18 minutes. These muffins would be a yummy snack with coffee or tea, or an excellent addition to a brunch.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: about 20 minutes
Yield: 12 muffins

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup granulated sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 Tbsp finely grated lemon zest, from about 2 lemons
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
1 large egg
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/3 cup thinly sliced almonds

Line 12 standard muffin cups with paper liners, or spray the muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray (a variety that contains flour works well). Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl.

In a large bowl, combine the 1 cup sugar, the butter, and the lemon zest with an electric mixer until fluffy. Beat in the ricotta. Beat in the egg, lemon juice, and almond extract. Add the dry ingredients and stir just until blended (batter will be thick and fluffy).

Spoon the batter into the muffin tin and sprinkle the tops with almonds and some sugar. Bake until the muffins are just pale golden on top, about 20 minutes. Cool slightly. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Food Network Favorites: Stuffed Shells with Arrabbiata Sauce

A very good stuffed pasta from Giada De Laurentiis' chapter in Food Network Favorites. The sauce is quite spicy, and the contrast with the creamy ricotta filling is delicious.

If you don't need two dishes of pasta, you can halve the recipe. Don't skimp on the red pepper flakes, which add a lot of flavor to the sauce. If pancetta is unavailable, you can substitute bacon, although the flavor isn't exactly the same.

My only change is to boil the pasta a bit longer than specified in the original recipe. De Laurentiis says to boil it for only 4 to 6 minutes, so that it still has some bite. But when the dish goes into the oven, the pasta doesn't get completely covered by the marinara sauce, and any pieces that are sticking up will be too firm if the pasta is only parcooked for 6 minutes. I've increased the pasta cooking time to 10 minutes, which yielded better results in my tests.

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 25 to 20 minutes
Yield: 8 to 10 servings

2 Tbsp olive oil, plus extra for greasing baking sheet and dishes
12-oz. box jumbo pasta shells
6 oz. thinly sliced pancetta, diced
2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
2 garlic cloves, minced
5 cups marinara sauce
2 15-oz. containers whole milk ricotta cheese
1 3/4 cups grated Parmesan
4 large egg yolks
3 Tbsp chopped fresh Italian parsley
3 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
1 tsp chopped fresh mint
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Lightly oil a baking sheet and set aside. Lightly oil two 9-by-13-inch baking dishes and set aside. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until tender but still al dente, about 10 minutes. Drain the pasta shells and place them on the oiled baking sheet, spreading them out so that they don't stick together, and allow them to cool.

Heat the 2 Tbsp oil in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the pancetta and sauté until golden, about 5 minutes. Add the red pepper flakes. Add the garlic and sauté until tender, about 1 minute. Add the marinara sauce and bring the sauce to a simmer, stirring often.

In a medium bowl, stir together ricotta, Parmesan, egg yolks, parsley, basil, mint, salt, and pepper. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spoon 1 cup of the sauce over the bottom of each of the baking dishes. Fill each cooked shell with about 2 Tbsp of the cheese mixture. Arrange the shells in the baking dishes. Spoon the remaining sauce over the shells, then sprinkle with the mozzarella. Bake in the lower third of the oven until the filling is heated through and the top is lightly golden, about 25 to 30 minutes.

June 13, 2006

Food Network Favorites: Chocolate Amaretti Cake

And on to the Giada De Laurentiis chapter in Food Network Favorites. I've already reviewed her book Everyday Italian and found it to be pretty good, although it could have used a tad more editing. Is there any reason to check out her recipes in this new book?

Of De Laurentiis' 10 recipes in Food Network Favorites, 2 of them appear word-for-word the same in Everyday Italian. Happily for my purposes, they aren't recipes that I tested on my first go-around, so I won't be repeating anything. This chocolate cake is one of the overlapping recipes, and while I skipped it last time, I'm happy that I tried it this time. It's a moist, tasty cake, strongly flavored with almonds and orange zest.

De Laurentiis specifies "baby" amaretti in her ingredients list, but regular amaretti will work just as well, since the cookies are pulverized in the food processor anyway. My only real quibble with the recipe is the listing for the chocolate. In Everyday Italian, the list merely calls for 3/4 cup chocolate chips, which is easy to measure. In Food Network Favorites, however, the chocolate has been changed to say chocolate chips, like before, OR 3/4 cup chopped bittersweet chocolate. This is a tad inconvenient, since if you decide to use bittersweet chocolate in bar form, you're going to have to guess how much you need in ounces, which is how bars of chocolate are sold.

I'd guess that someone added the variation to the recipe when it was included in this new book, without stopping to think about how chocolate bars are different from chocolate chips. I finely chopped a 4-oz. bar of bittersweet chocolate and was pleased to find that it measures 3/4 cup. This information would have been good to include in the recipe, however. I've also reduced the baking time from the original 35 to 40 minutes, since my cake was done after only 30 minutes.

For a truly decadent treat, serve the cake slightly warm with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 30 to 35 minutes
Yield: 8 servings

Butter-flavored nonstick cooking spray
3/4 cup (4 oz.) chopped bittersweet chocolate or semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup slivered almonds
1 cup amaretti cookies (about 2 oz.)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp orange zest, about 1 orange
4 large eggs
Unsweetened cocoa powder, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch springform pan with cooking spray. Refrigerate.

Microwave the chocolate until melted and smooth, about 1 minute, stirring every 20 seconds.

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the almonds and cookies until finely ground. Tranfer the nut mixture to a bowl. Add the butter and sugar to the food processor and blend until creamy and smooth. Add the orange zest and pulse briefly. Add the eggs, one at a time, and blend until incorporated. With a rubber spatula, scrape down the sides of the bowl and blend again. Add the nut mixture and melted chocolate and pulse until blended. Scrape the sides of the bowl and pulse again. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the center puffs and a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 30 to 35 minutes. Cool the cake in the pan for 15 minutes, then unmold the sides and place the cake on a platter. Sift the cocoa powder over the top and serve.

Food Network Favorites: Fried Crab Wontons with Sesame-Soy Dipping Sauce

To finish off the Tyler Florence chapter in Food Network Favorites , here's a very good, very time-consuming recipe that's perfect for parties. Delicious wontons filled with an Asian-inspired crab stuffing make for a tasty hors-d'oeuvre. But I wouldn't try this one for a weeknight dinner.

The wontons are crisp and tasty, and the dipping sauce is a nice accompaniment. Assembling the wontons is a fiddly, time-consuming task, however, so I'd save this dish for a special occasion. One of the book's "Kitchen Tips" says that the wontons can be frozen uncooked and then fried for "impromptu guests." That's the extent of the tip -- there aren't any additional hints on how best to freeze the wontons, or if you need special instructions to cook them after you take them out of the freezer. This is an oversight on the part of Food Network Favorites that I find pretty egregious. You can't just say, "Oh, freeze them, they're great!" without more detailed instructions.

Anyway, to test this meager helpful hint, I froze a batch overnight and cooked them the next day. To freeze the uncooked wontons, lay them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and freeze for at least 2 hours, or until completely frozen solid. Then you can place them in heavy duty freezer bags and not worry about them sticking together. To cook, take the wontons out of the freezer about 1 hour before you're going to cook them, lay them on cookie sheets so that they are not touching, and let them defrost. If the wontons are still somewhat frozen when you put them into the hot oil, they may take an additional 1 to 2 minutes of cooking time to become deeply golden brown. By making them ahead of time and keeping them in reserve for a party or other special occasion, you can take a lot of the work out of the day of the party. I would only keep frozen wontons for about 1 or 2 months before using them.

If you have a deep-fat fryer, you can use it instead of cooking the wontons in hot oil on the stovetop. Follow your machine's directions to cook the wontons, making sure that they get deeply golden.

Florence's recipe says to use Dungeness crabmeat if available, but I've removed that suggestion from the recipe. Even in season, Dungeness crabmeat can be very expensive, and I don't believe that it's superior to regular lump crabmeat in such a full-flavored recipe. At least, it's not superior enough to justify the cost. If you are able to find Dungeness crabmeat at a price comparable to lump crabmeat, then go ahead and use it. Otherwise, use the more cost-effective choice -- it still tastes great.

A couple of quibbles; First, Florence says to use a 12-oz. package of square wonton wrappers to make 60 wontons. My 12-oz. package contained 48 wrappers, and I did have some extra filling. To be sure none of your filling goes to waste, invest in an extra package of wonton wrappers, just to be sure. Second, I've modified some of the instructions; namely, Florence tells the cook to "chop" all of the vegetable and aromatics for the filling. I've modified this to say "coarsely chop," because the food processor will do all the work for you. Also, the original recipe says to put 1 Tbsp of the crab filling into each wonton. I found this to be too much, and have indicated a scant 1 Tbsp in the instructions. Experiment to find the right amount that will allow you to fill the wontons and still be able to wrap them without the filling squooshing out.

Lastly, don't do what I did for the first 2 or 3 wontons -- I didn't get the wrappers completely separated, and was grimacing and muttering about how difficult it was to fold them up into bishop's hat shapes. Oops...thankfully I realized pretty quickly that I was wrapping up the filling with 2 wonton wrappers, not 1. Pull the wrappers apart carefully so that you're using 1 at a time. They're pretty thin, so be careful not to tear them.

Prep Time: about 1 1/2 hours
Cook Time: about 10 minutes to heat the oil, and 2 to 3 minutes per batch for the wontons
Yield: about 60 wontons

2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 shallots, coarsely chopped
1/2 carrot, coarsely chopped
1 green onion, coarsely chopped
2 Tbsp fresh cilantro
1 Tbsp peanut oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 Tbsp mayonnaise
1 pound lump crabmeat, picked through for shells
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
12-oz. package square wonton wrappers
1 egg white, beaten
Cornstarch, for dusting
Vegetable oil, for frying

Dipping Sauce
3/4 cup soy sauce
3 Tbsp dark sesame oil
3 Tbsp rice vinegar
2 tsp minced fresh ginger

Make the wontons: In a food processor combine ginger, shallots, carrot, green onion, cilantro, peanut oil, and lemon juice. Pulse until fine. Put vegetable mix in a mixing bowl. Add the mayonnaise and crabmeat, and salt and pepper to taste. Combine gently, making sure not to mash the crabmeat (you want some texture when you bite into the wontons).

Lay a wonton wrapper on a flat work surface and brush with the egg white. Drop a scant 1 Tbsp of crab filling into the center of the wrapper. Fold the wonton in half, corner to corner, to form a triangle. Press around the filling to squeeze out any air bubbles, then press the seam together to seal. You can leave them this shape or continue by brushing the 2 side points with egg white. Then with your index finger in the center so you have something to press against, fold 2 sides into the center, slightly overlapping, and press the dough against your finger with your thumb to form a tight seal. (When folded this way, the wontons look like bishop's hats.) Lightly dust the filled wontons with cornstarch to keep them from sticking, and place them on cookie sheets.

Heat 2 to 3 inches of oil in a deep heavy saucepan to 370 degrees. Add a few wontons to the oil and cook, turning 2 or 3 times to get them nicely browned all over, about 2 to 3 minutes. Carefully lift them out of the pan with a slotted spoon or a spider and place on a paper towel-lined platter to drain. Cook all of the wontons this way.

Make the dipping sauce: Combine all the sauce ingredients in a medium bowl. Serve with the hot wontons.

June 12, 2006

Food Network Favorites: Pan-Roasted Halibut with Prosciutto, Lemon, White Wine & Capers

A very tasty treatment for fish. It's essentially halibut with picatta sauce, although Tyler Florence doesn't call it that. If you like the classic combination of lemon juice, white wine, and capers, you'll like this recipe.

No complaints about the technique on this one: it's a straightforward roast with a simple pan sauce. I have added an optional greater amount of prosciutto in the ingredients list. Florence's recipe calls for 2 slices, but the crispy prosciutto is very good, and the dish could handle more, if you'd like.

You could substitute any firm white fish for the halibut. Try cod, scrod, hake, shark, orange roughy -- whatever's fresh at the market. Watch the fish carefully so that you do not overcook it.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish.
Yield: 2 servings

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 halibut fillets, about 6 oz. each (or other firm-flesh white fish)
2 Tbsp olive oil
3 Tbsp butter
2-4 slices prosciutto, cut into strips
1/2 cup white wine
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tsp capers
2 Tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus sprigs for garnish

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Put the flour in a shallow bowl or deep plate. Season well with salt and pepper. Dredge the fish in the flour. Put a medium oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat, add 1 Tbsp oil and 1 Tbsp butter, and get the skillet hot. Add the fillets, skin side up, and cook until browned on 1 side, about 2 to 3 minutes (if your fish does not have skin, cook the most attractive side first, so that it is the presentation side when serving). When you put the fish in the skillet, also add the prosciutto, stirring until brown. Flip the fish, put the skillet in the oven, and roast until the fish is just cooked through, about 5 to 10 minutes, depending on thickness and variety of fish.

Remove the fish to 2 serving plates. Drain the prosciutto on paper towels. Put the skillet back on medium heat. Add the remaining oil and butter, white wine, lemon juice, capers, and parsley and bring to a boil; keep at a boil until reduced and thickened. Season with salt and black pepper to taste. Pour the sauce over the fish, top with the prosciutto, garnish with parsley sprigs, and serve immediately.

June 07, 2006

Food Network Favorites: The Ultimate Cheesecake

Cheesecake fans tend to fall into two different camps: those who love a dense, firm cake (the traditional New York-style cheesecake), and those who prefer a lighter, fluffier-textured cake. This recipe falls into the latter category.

I personally prefer a denser cheesecake, and found this one to be almost too loose-textured. Even after following the instructions exactly, and then allowing the cake to firm up overnight in the refrigerator, I still thought that the center of the cheesecake was too soft and moist, almost like yogurt.

There are a million recipes out there for classic cheesecake. This one isn't good enough to claim the title of "Ultimate Cheesecake." The texture is too soft, and the lemon flavor is very strong. I recommend that you try different recipes, depending on which style of cheesecake you prefer. This is an excellent version of dense cheesecake. If you prefer the fluffy style, you could try Florence's recipe, and see if you like it. But I think you can probably do better than this.

This is the second "ultimate" recipe of Florence's that hasn't lived up to the name. I'm beginning to to think that hyperbole, at least, is something Mr. Florence has got down pat.

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Bake Time: 45 minutes, plus 1 hour with the oven turned off, and additional cooling time
Yield: 8 to 10 servings

2 cups finely ground graham crackers (about 30 squares)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 stick unsalted butter, melted (1/2 cup)

1 pound cream cheese, softened
3 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1 pint sour cream
Zest of 1 lemon
1 dash vanilla extract

Lemon Blueberry Topping
1 pint blueberries
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 Tbsp granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Spray an 8-inch springform pan lightly with nonstick cooking spray.

For the crust: In a bowl, combine graham cracker crumbs, cinnamon, and butter with a fork until evenly moistened. Pour the crumbs into the prepared pan and use the bottom of a measuring cup or drinking glass to press the crust firmly into the bottom and about 1/2 inch up the sides of the pan. Refrigerate while making the filling.

For the filling: In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese on low speed for 1 minute until smooth and free of lumps. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and continue to beat slowly until combined. Gradually add sugar and beat until creamy, 1 to 2 minutes. Add sour cream, lemon zest, and vanilla. Periodically scrape down the sides of the bowl. The batter should be well mixed but not overbeaten. Pour the filling into the crust-lined pan and smooth the top with a spatula.

Set the cheesecake pan on a large (18-inch wide) square of aluminum foil and fold the foil up around the sides of the pan. Place the cake pan in a large roasting pan and pour boiling water into the roasting pan until the water is about halfway up the sides of the cake pan. Bake for 45 minutes. Turn the oven off and let the cake sit in the oven for 1 hour. The cheesecake should still jiggle in the center when you turn the oven off; be careful not to overbake. Remove the cake pan from the water bath and let cool for 30 minutes. Cover loosely and chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours.

For the topping: In a small saucepan, combine the blueberries, lemon zest and juice, and sugar and simmer over medium heat until the fruit begins to break down slightly, about 5 minutes. Let cool before spreading on cheesecake.

Loosen the cheesecake from the pan by running a thin metal spatula around the inside rim. Place the cake on a serving platter. Using a spatula, spread a thin layer of Lemon Blueberry Topping over the surface. Slice the cheesecake with a knife dipped in hot water and wiped dry.

Food Network Favorites: Spinach Salad with Honey-Brown Butter Dressing

A very simple and tasty salad from the Tyler Florence chapter in Food Network Favorites . Just sauté some shallots and butter, add honey and vinegar, and toss. The end result is a yummy wilted salad.

If you have a mini-chopper, you can make fast work of the shallots. Watch the butter carefully, since it can go from brown to burned very quickly.

Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: about 5 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

4 Tbsp butter
1 shallot, chopped
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tsp honey
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 loosely packed cups fresh spinach (about a 6-oz. bag)

Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until shallot is tender and butter is light brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in vinegar, honey, and salt and pepper to taste.

Pour the desired amount of dressing over the spinach in a bowl and toss. Serve immediately.

June 05, 2006

Food Network Favorites: The Ultimate Roast Chicken

Is it an adequate version of roast chicken? Sure. Is it the "Ultimate"? Eh, not so much. Like most roast chicken recipes, this one tries to be unique by stuffing the chicken with various stuff (in this case, herbs, onions, garlic, and an orange). But roast chicken always ends up tasting like...roast chicken. There's not a whole lot you can do to it to make it interesting.

This Tyler Florence recipe adds a pan gravy that's made from the chicken drippings, broth, and dry sherry. It's a nice, innocuous little sauce that helps to keep the chicken moist. There's not really much else to say about the recipe; if you don't already have a roast chicken recipe that you like, give this one a try. But if you have an old favorite that always works for you, I don't see any reason to switch to this one. It's fine, nothing more.

You'll want to watch the onions in the roasting pan carefully. Florence doesn't warn the cook at home that the onions could burn if the chicken isn't giving off enough juices. I recommend that you pour about 1/2 cup of chicken broth into the bottom of the pan if the onions look like they are getting too dark. Your cooking time may also be longer than the 50 minutes that's given in the original recipe. I've made the estimated cooking time more flexible.

Also not indicated in the recipe: what to do with the bacon that's draped over the chicken for the first 25 minutes of cooking. I assume that Florence intends for the bacon to be discarded, since he doesn't indicate anything otherwise. And I can't think of a whole lot else to do with it, since it comes off the chicken looking pretty flabby and unappetizing. Still, this should have been indicated in the recipe.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 50 to 60 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

5 1/2 pound free-range chicken
1/2 bunch each fresh oregano, thyme, and parsley
1/4 pound unsalted butter, softened
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 orange, halved
1/2 head garlic
1 small white onion, peeled and halved, plus 1 onion
6 strips smoked bacon
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 1/2 to 2 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup dry sherry

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Divide the herbs, keeping half of them whole. Finely chop the other half. In a small bowl, mash the softened butter with the chopped herbs until combined. (The herbed butter can also be made in a food processor or mini-chopper. Combine the butter and herbs and process until smooth.) Rub the herbed butter under the skin and all over the outside of the chicken. Season the bird all over with salt and pepper.

Stuff the cavity with the orange, garlic, onion halves, and the remaining herbs (you may need to cut the orange into smaller wedges to get it to fit). Tie the legs together with kitchen twine. Place the chicken, breast side up, in a roasting pan. Put the whole onion into the pan to help color and flavor the sauce. Lay the strips of bacon across the breast of the chicken and roast for 25 minutes.

Remove the bacon and discard. Check to make sure that the onion in the roasting pan is not getting burned; if it looks too dark, add about 1/2 cup chicken broth to the pan. Baste the chicken with the drippings and cook for another 25 to 35 minutes to brown the skin. Chicken is done when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 180 degrees (the legs should wiggle freely). Remove the chicken to a platter and let stand for 10 minutes before carving.

Meanwhile, remove the softened onion from the roasting pan and discard. Tilt the pan so the drippings collect in one corner, and skim off as much fat as possible. Place the roasting pan on top of the stove over medium heat and use a wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Stir the flour into the drippings to make a paste. Pour in the 1 1/2 cups chicken broth in stages; continue to stir to prevent lumps. Stir in the sherry and bring to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To serve, carve the chicken tableside and squeeze the oranges from the cavity over the meat.

June 02, 2006

Food Network Favorites: Spicy Grilled Beef Tenderloin

Another offering from Tyler Florence. The title of this recipe really should be "Broiled Tomato Salad," since all you do with the beef tenderloin is season it with salt and pepper and throw it on a grill. As far as I'm concerned, that's not actually a recipe. It's the accompaniment to the steak that's the recipe here: cherry tomatoes are broiled and combined with onions, chiles, and cheese to create a warm salad. It's a tasty side dish, but I have some quibbles.

Tyler Florence instructs the cook to preheat the oven broiler and a grill or grill pan. If you're using a grill pan, you may want to cook the tomatoes under the broiler, since you may not have enough space to cook them in the pan. But if you're going to heat up an outdoor grill, it makes no sense to cook the tomatoes in the oven. Use the grill to cook the tomatoes as well; it's more energy efficient and doesn't heat up your house. Wrap the tomatoes in a foil packet, or cook them in a grill basket or grid with small mesh. Easily done, and I find it a bit of an oversight that the original recipe doesn't make this suggestion.

You should use the smallest, sweetest tomatoes you can find. Florence's recipe calls for cherry tomatoes, but if you can get grape tomatoes, they're even better. Florence doesn't say to seed the serrano chile, so it's up to you: if you want the salad to be very spicy, leave the seeds in, otherwise take them out for a milder flavor.

The beef tenderloin is really more of a suggestion than anything else. You could easily grill up whatever cut of meat you're in the mood for or is on sale at the market. Try rib eyes or porterhouse, and grill for about 4 to 5 minutes per side for medium rare.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 to 20 minutes
Yield: 8 servings

4 pints grape or cherry tomatoes
1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for drizzling and rubbing
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Juice of 2 limes
1/2 red onion, sliced thin
1 serrano chile, sliced thin (seeded if desired)
1/2 bunch chopped fresh cilantro, plus leaves for garnish
1/2 pound queso fresco or feta cheese, crumbled
1 4-pound beef tenderloin, or 8 rib eye, porterhouse, or other steaks, about 6 to 8 oz. each

Heat the broiler. Put the cherry tomatoes onto baking sheets, drizzle some olive oil over them, and season with salt and pepper. Broil until the tomatoes burst, about 4 to 5 minutes. Alternatively, place the seasoned tomatoes in a foil packet or mesh grill basket and place on the hot grill. Cook until burst and starting to blacken, about 5 minutes. Remove from the oven or grill and allow them to cool a bit. In a large bowl add the 1/4 cup olive oil, lime juice, onion, chile, chopped cilantro, cheese, and the tomatoes. Mix carefully to avoid breaking up the tomatoes too much. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt and pepper; set aside.

Heat the grill or a grill pan to medium. Rub the meat with some olive oil and season it generously with salt and black pepper to taste. Grill the tenderloin, browning it on all sides, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the meat reads 130 degrees F for medium-rare, about 20 minutes. Remove the meat to a cutting board, cover it with aluminum foil, and allow it to rest for about 10 minutes before slicing. (If using smaller individual steaks, cook for approximately 4 to 6 minutes per side for medium rare, depending on thickness. Set aside for 5 to 10 minutes after grilling before serving.)

Slice the meat thinly, place it on a platter, and spoon on the cheesy tomato dressing. Garnish with a bit of olive oil and cilantro leaves.

June 01, 2006

Food Network Favorites: Chocolate Date Pudding Cake

Next up in Food Network Favorites : Tyler Florence, host of Food 911. This chocolate cake is a version of the popular molten chocolate cake. The end result is very good, but I have to say that for the host of show that addresses cooking problems, Florence's instructions are oddly bare-bones.

This kind of cake is very similar to a soufflé, which requires delicate handling of the egg whites so as not to deflate the batter. Tyler Florence doesn't give any special instructions on how to handle this cake batter, however. His original instruction for how to mix the egg whites with the chocolate-date mixture reads: "Fold the egg whites into the date mixture." And that's it. No indication of what the batter will look like or how thoroughly it should be mixed. I've added more detailed instructions to the recipe below. Essentially, you want to combine the two elements of the cake very gently, but thoroughly, so that the egg whites are fully incorporated but the batter is still light and fluffy.

Also unclear is whether or not the dates AND their cooking water should both be puréed together (or if the cooking water should be drained off). The natural assumption is that they should indeed both go into the food processor to make a date paste, but Florence's instructions should clearly state this. It's never good when you have to make assumptions, particularly in a dessert such as this, where mistakes will ruin the end result. I've clarified the instructions, below.

Florence's instructions are also rather stark when it comes to doneness, stating merely "Cook until the outside is just set." Further information about the cake's final consistency would have been helpful, since the center of the cake will still be very runny, but a novice cook might not realize that this is the intended result. The original recipe states that the cake should be cooled to room temperature before serving, but I believe that a molten-type cake should still be warm when served. I've modified the instructions so that the cake will still be warm in the center when you serve it.

The flavors are very good. The dates are quite noticeable in the cake, so if you're not a fan of the combination of chocolate and dates, this cake might not work for you. It's an intensely chocolately dessert, and a simple sprinkling of powdered sugar is all the embellishment it needs.

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 20 to 25 minutes
Yield: 8 servings

6 oz. pitted dates, about 2 cups
3/4 cup water
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
6 large egg whites
Confectioner's sugar, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 1 1/2 quart soufflé dish with nonstick cooking spray.

Put the dates and the water in a pot over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring, for 10 minutes, until dates are very soft. Transfer the softened dates and their cooking water to a food processor and purée until smooth. Add the sugar and vanilla; purée again until well blended.

Scoop the purée out into a mixing bowl. Sift together the cocoa powder and flour, and add to the date mixture. Fold in using a rubber spatula; combine gently until well mixed.

In a mixing bowl, whip the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Scoop one-quarter of the stiff egg whites into the chocolate mixture, and combine until there are no streaks and the chocolate is fluffy. Fold the chocolate mixture into the remaining egg whites and combine gently until there are no white streaks in the batter. Pour the batter into the soufflé dish, spreading evenly with a spatula. Bake on the middle rack for 20 to 25 minutes, until the outside is just set (the center will still appear wobbly). Cool for about 45 minutes. When ready to serve, sprinkle with confectioner's sugar. Cut the cake into wedges and serve on dessert plates.




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