Spring is here (even if it's gone back to more seasonal chilly weather). But I still have a ton of winter squash sitting in the pantry. And they're not getting any younger....So I decided to make one of my favorite lunches – a hearty farro salad with roasted delicata squash, baby spinach, goat cheese, a sprinkling of dried cranberries and toasted squash seeds, and a light vinaigrette.
I began by roasting the squash since that takes the longest. Just olive oil, salt and pepper is all you need. The roasting brings out the sweetness and the squash has a lovely nutty flavor. We also roasted the seeds as they are really lovely – I like them even better than pumpkin seeds.
Then I cooked up a mess of farro – a lovely ancient grain that is a living ancestor of wheat (it's official name is emmer wheat) that has a truly scrumptious nutty flavor to it and a nice, slightly chewy consistency.
I had some fresh herbs on hand, so I chopped those up and tossed them into the farro, too, since you can't go wrong with fresh parsley, basil, and dill.
Then I put the salad together on a bed of baby spinach, topping it with some chunks of chèvre, some of the roasted delicata squash seeds and a small handful of dried cranberries for added hints of sweetness. I drizzled olive oil, white balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper over it all and tucked in.
Farro Salad With Roasted Winter Squash, Spinach & Chèvre
2 large delicata squash (you can also use a single good-sized butternut squash or other winter squash)
1-1/2 cups semi-pearled farro
3-4 cups salted water or vegetable broth
2 teaspoons each chopped parsley, basil, dill, thyme or cilantro
A bunch of baby spinach (you can also use arugula or watercress and the amounts are really up to you!)
Handful of dried cranberries, cherries or raisins
Handful of roasted pumpkin or squash seeds (optional)
Goat cheese (aka chèvre, as much or as little as you like)
Freshly ground black pepper
Vinegar of your choice
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Toss the squash with several teaspoons of olive oil, sea salt and black pepper then spread in a single layer on a heavy baking sheet. Roast, turning often, for 15-20 minutes or until soft but still toothsome (you don't want the squash to fall apart in the salad.) Remove from the oven and let it cool.
While you're roasting the squash, cook the farro (please note that these directions are for the semi-pearled variety which takes about half as long to cook as the other kind.) Rinse the farro in several changes of water, then add it to the water or broth. Bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat for 15-20 minutes, until it reaches the desired consistency – the grains should still have some nice chewiness to them. Then drain the farro and place the grains in a bowl.
Toss the farro with olive oil (or walnut or pumpkin seed oil if you've got those on hand – they're even better!) until combined and season to taste with the sea salt and black pepper.
Wash and dry the herbs and the baby spinach (or whatever greens you're using). Then mince the herbs and toss with the farro.
Compose the salad starting with a bed of the greens, then a layer of farro, then a layer of roasted squash. Dot with goat cheese and toss on the dried
cranberries and roasted squash seeds. Drizzle with some olive oil and vinegar, then sprinkle lightly with sea salt and give it all a few grinds of black pepper.
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Life is made up of a series of memories; some big, some small, some clearly life-changing, and some seemingly inconsequential. My wedding day, the births of my children, the loss of loved ones … all clearly consequential. But the little memories … like singing the soundtrack to "Grease" with my sisters while we played on our childhood swingset or selling candy bars outside the grocery store or riding our bikes in the park … turns out that those are just as consequential. We just don’t always realize it in the moment.
I was playing around on my computer the other night and distractedly watching "American Idol," when two of the contestants come on stage and begin singing "Islands in the Stream," a duet originally performed by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. In an instant I was transported back to my childhood, in my parents’ room, where my sisters and I used to stand at the foot of their bed, with our toes jammed between the mattress and boxspring, so that when we’d lean forward, the edge of the mattress would catch our calves and we’d suspend there, bobbing forward with our arms outstretched. We’d sway back and forth, mock-gliding over the mattress singing "Islands in the Stream" at the top of our lungs … with all the wrong lyrics, I am sure.
Such a simple little memory and yet it’s etched in my mind. Because it’s more than the ordinary event of singing a song with my sisters. It was a matter of being together, of laughing, of loving, and of feeling at home. Those are consequential, life-altering sorts of things wrapped in a silly little memory and tied together with a country song.
Every morning, our boys come bursting into our bedroom. The baby is usually already there by that point, drowsily enjoying a morning feeding. But the older boys don’t wake drowsily. They wake with a lightening bolt and go 0 to 60 in the moment they open their eyes. They fly into our room in a flurry. They do not stick their toes between our mattress and sing a Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton duet. They mostly just make animal noises and shout things like underpants.
They climb into my armoire. They climb under the bed. They jump on top of the bed. (Just imagine if you released a couple of monkeys into an enclosed space … it’s exactly like that.) Every so often we can convince them to climb under the covers for a snuggle. And sometimes we’re inclined to just send them back to their room because the activity level far exceeds what we’re prepared to handle that early in the morning. But those morning memories, of waking to a family that loves them … those memories matter.
This weekend we’ll be making more memories, the kind that add a bit of mystery and magic to childhood. Though I’ve expressed my half-hearted support for the Easter bunny, he will be visiting our home, hiding eggs, and leaving a basket filled with soft, stuffed-bunny toys, bubble wands, chocolate-dipped marshmallow Peeps, chocolate eggs, jelly beans, and animal crackers hidden under the cellophane grass. We’ll color eggs and make a coconut-covered bunny cake with shoe-string licorice whiskers and a jelly bean nose. It’s tradition. And tradition matters, too.
For Easter dinner this year, we will most likely enjoy slow-roasted lamb with a fresh mint sauce, along with roasted red potatoes, roasted asparagus, and slices of warm French baguette.
Our family prefers lamb over ham, but for many families, ham is the star of their traditional Easter feast. With that in mind, I came up with this ham and corn chowder, which would make perfect use of leftover Easter ham. This satisfying soup is worth making, even if you don’t have leftover ham on hand! It’s hard to go wrong with sweet kernels of corn in a warm, creamy broth. Use fresh corn, cut from the cob, if corn is in season or use frozen when it is not. I used frozen corn kernels and it was perfect.
Ham and Corn Chowder
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
2 tablespoons flour
2 15-ounce cans vegetable broth (about 3 1/2 cups)
2 cups ham, diced (approximately)
2-1/2 cups sweet corn kernels (fresh or frozen)
6-8 green onions, sliced
1 large baking potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 cup half and half
1/2 teaspoon paprika
Salt and pepper, to taste
Additional sliced green onions, for garnish
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic. Cook for a few minutes, until lightly golden and tender.
Sprinkle the flour over the onions and garlic. Stir to coat and cook for another minute or so. Whisk in the vegetable broth. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for about 3 minutes. (The broth should begin to thicken slightly.)
Add the ham, corn, green onions, potato, and half and half to the pan. Bring the soup to a boil. Boil, stirring frequently, for 10-15 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. Ideally they should just be beginning to break down (to add extra thickness to the soup) but not so mushy that they’re falling apart.
Season with the paprika and salt and pepper, to taste. Serve warm, garnished with additional sliced green onions.
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Easter snuck on up me this year. Actually, all the special occasion days have: Pi Day (didn't make a pie), St Patrick's Day (didn't make anything green), Mardi Gras (no King Cake – OK, I probably wouldn't have made one anyway but still....), and so on.
It didn't help that we've had rain off and on for the past three weeks and it's been more winter than spring whereas winter was more spring than winter. So my seasonal timetables are all messed up. And now it's April. Yikes.
I am surfacing long enough to realize ahead of time that Easter is this Sunday. When I was a kid, we didn't do the whole Easter bunny/egg hunt thing at my house. Easter was more about Jesus and dressing a little more nicely on Easter Sunday in new spring clothes. As an adult, Easter is still about Jesus for me but I also enjoy a good chocolate egg here and there, primarily the Cadbury mini eggs with the hard shell coating and milk chocolate inside.
I also like the Cadbury caramel eggs with the liquid caramel inside a milk chocolate shell. Alas, however, I am indifferent at best, dislike at worst, all other Easter candy. The ones I'm indifferent to are all the candies you can get at any other holiday except at Easter, they're pastel colored and egg shaped. But Peeps? Oh no. They're marshmallows without Rice Krispies. And dyed marshmallows at that. Plus they come in weird shapes. I don't enjoy the visual of sinking my teeth into a gummy, stretchy, dyed bunny head or a baby chick; no real self-respecting bunny or chick would actually be any of those colors nor would I bite their heads off either. Sorry, Easter bunny, not in my kitchen.
But I do like to pay homage to my annual bag of Cadbury mini eggs. Last year for Easter, I made Chocolate Easter baskets using pretzels coated with chocolate to form a mini basket for my favorite Easter candy. This year, I took inspiration from two different blogs, Will Cook for Smiles using the Rice Krispies treat recipe to form baskets and Chef in Training's blog for the Nutella addition. This is a really simple and easy recipe to make. For the basket shape, I used a pan I got from Sur La Table that makes a well in the center. But you don't need any fancy pans to make baskets. If you don't want to freeform shape baskets by hand, turn a mini muffin tin over and shape the warm Rice Krispies mixture around each cavity. Then gently slip them off when they've set a bit. You can also use a regular size muffin tin if you want a bigger size basket. If you have kids, this is a fun recipe to make with them, especially for little ones.
I've made some slight modifications to the recipe and instructions I found (see below) as adding the Nutella into the melted marshmallow/butter mixture almost made the mixture seize and made it difficult to incorporate enough Rice Krispies into it. So I suggest warming up the Nutella first to get it to blend more easily without having to cook the marshmallow mixture more than necessary. If you overcook the marshmallows, your Rice Krispies treats will get too hard when they cool.
Nutella Rice Krispies Easter Baskets
5-6 cups Rice Krispies (I never measure, just add however much you can get in there)
1 10.5-ounce bag mini marshmallows
1/4 cup butter
1 cup Nutella
Melt butter and mini marshmallows over low heat until just barely melted, stirring constantly.
Warm Nutella in the microwave at 30-second intervals until it's liquid but not too hot. Add to the barely melted marshmallow mixture and stir to incorporate. Take off the heat and add Rice Krispies.
Work quickly to form the baskets using a turned-over mini muffin pan. Shape gently, let cool, and then turn right side up. When completely cooled and set, fill with your favorite Easter candy.
A few years ago, I was in charge of preparing an Easter lunch for my family. We were a small group that year, and decided on classic Southern brunch food – grits, fruit, ham. But a whole ham would have been more than enough food for our group. We would have had leftovers for years. But most of the smaller hams on the market are pressed hams, and I am not into that. And I didn’t want to serve pre-sliced pieces from a plastic package either.
I was standing at the deli counter, contemplating whether or not there was some kind of compromise I could work out. And then I saw the Canadian bacon. They sell it sliced, like any deli meat, but of course behind the counter, they have it in whole chunks.
It took some explaining to the deli supervisor, but I went home with a big chunk of cured Canadian bacon. I realized I could treat it both like a ham and like bacon, baking it with a sweet, sticky glaze and serving it sliced.
And it was a hit. Perfect for a small gathering, and perfect with the classic brunch accompaniments. You can slice it thick or thin, as you like, but basically serve as you would ham. If there are any leftovers, it is amazing on sandwiches or try an eggs benedict – the tangy, sweet edges on the bacon add a special touch.
Glazed Canadian Bacon
Serves 8 – 10
2 lbs. Canadian bacon, one piece, unsliced
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon bourbon
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon cane syrup, molasses or maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
Generous grinds of black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking dish with parchment or non-stick foil.
Place the piece of Canadian bacon in the prepared dish. In a small bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, cane syrup, mustard, mustard powder, ginger and pepper. Brush half the glaze over the bacon, spreading along the sides and ends. Add 1 tablespoon of water to the baking dish.
Bake the bacon until it reaches and internal temperature of 165 degrees F. This should take about an hour. About 20 minutes into the cooking time, spoon the remaining glaze over the bacon and continue cooking. When the bacon is done, leave it to rest for 5 minutes or so before slicing and serving. It can be served warm or at room temperature.
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Boom. It’s Tuesday again! And you know what that means? It’s TV Tuesday.
This week on Beyond The Peel TV we wanted to switch it up a bit and share with you a way to use up those items in your fridge that you know you should/need to eat, but you don’t, because you either don’t want to, or you don’t know what to do with them – aka you’re uninspired.
You know exactly what I’m talking about. The veggies that you thought you’d eat. The herbs you only used for one recipe. Yeah. Those are the ones I’m talking about.
Well, we’ve been putting "The Flavor Bible" by Karen Page and Andrew Dorenburg to the test, and just found another awesome use for it. Look up the ingredients in your fridge that are about to go bad and let the book work it’s magic. Come on, I’ll show you how….
Braised Red Cabbage with Apples and Cipollini Onions
1/2 head (or a full head) red cabbage
1 apple, cored and sliced or chopped
1 lb. cipollini onions
2 tablespoon bacon drippings or olive oil
3 tablespoons maple syrup
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Put a kettle of water on to boil.
Place all the onions in a large bowl and pour the boiling water over the onions and cover for 5 minutes. This will speed up the process of removing the skins. While the onions are steaming, roughly chop the cabbage and apple. Peel off the outer skin of the cipollini onions. Place the onions, cabbage and apples in a large 9″ x 13″ baking dish.
In a small bowl combine the fat, maple syrup and apple cider vinegar in a bowl. Pour the maple syrup mixture over the cabbage and stir to coat.
Lemon Thyme Roasted Chicken
3 chicken thighs and legs
1/2 a preserved lemon, pith and pulp removed and peel finely chopped (or 2 teaspoons lemon zest)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt (increase to 1/2 if using lemon zest)
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Mix the lemon, garlic, salt, pepper and thyme together to create a “paste.” Cut a slit in the skin of the chicken pieces. Use your fingers to create space between the skin and the meat. Put an even layer of paste under the skin of the chicken pieces. Season the skin with salt and pepper.
Add the chicken pieces on top of the cabbage and apple mixture and bake for 40 minutes or until the juices run clear. Ours took a little longer because they were barely thawed.
If you’d like to learn more about "The Flavor Bible" you can read about it right here.
Although I love making soup, it's always bothered me that making stock feels so wasteful. As the child of one of the world's thriftiest people (love you, mom!), the idea of tossing a whole bunch of gorgeous carrots, celery, onions, and herbs into the pot, only to remove them all a little while later, replacing them with new veggies that would feature in the actual soup, has always rubbed me the wrong way.
And buying cartons of stock is expensive and those cartons may or may not actually be recyclable (never mind whether my garbage company actually recycles the stuff it claims to recycle...) so that was not really doing it for me either. But then, a couple months ago, I saw a post on Facebook about making vegetable stock from kitchen scraps! My prayers had been answered.
So I started saving some of the veggie scraps (more below on which ones are best to use and which ones you should avoid) that would otherwise have gone straight into the compost bucket. I stored them in one of this one-gallon Ziploc bags in my freezer. Since I like to cook and I like vegetables, they started piling up pretty quickly.
Then I followed the incredibly simple instructions (basically, cover them with water, bring to a boil and simmer for one hour, then strain) to make my own homemade vegetable stock.
And guess what? It's good! It was easy. It was free. And absolutely no vegetables were wasted in its making. Once I was done with those scraps, they got tossed on the compost heap, too.
Now we've got several containers of the stuff in our freezer, waiting for the next time we want to make some delicious soup. We also did an ice cube tray or two as it's great to have some smaller units of stock on hand if you just need to de-glaze a pan or add a little bit of liquid to something but don't want to go whole hog and defrost an entire yogurt container (those are our freezing containers of choice for bigger, liquid-y stuff) of the stuff.
The only thing I plan to change is omitting onion skins as I think I might prefer a clearer-looking stock – onion skins add nice flavor but also darken the color considerably. This is totally up to you, though.
So get scrappy and then get simmering! Once you're fully stocked, I've got a short list of delicious soups you might want to try your stock on at the bottom of this post.
Homemade Vegetable Stock From Kitchen Scraps
Makes roughly 3 quarts
Veggies To Save
Onions, carrots, and celery form the backbone of veggie stock, but don't stop there! Lots of other veggies add sweetness and flavor: leeks, scallions, garlic, onions (see my note below), fennel, chard, lettuce, potatoes, parsnips, green beans, pea pods, zucchini and other squash, bell peppers, eggplant, mushrooms, asparagus, corn cobs (think sweet!), winter squash skins, beet greens, and herbs like dill, thyme, parsley, cilantro and basil. You can use anything that is beginning to lose its luster but steer clear of anything that has actually gone bad, of course.
Veggies to Skip
These vegetables tend to overpower the stock flavor-wise (and some of them turn a bit bitter) so you may want to dump them directly on the compost heap, instead: cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, rutabagas, artichokes. And skip anything rotten or moldy.
Veggies You May Want to Skip
You can use beet root scraps and onion skins but just be aware that they will make your stock either a deep red or a deep brown so you may want to skip them. I plan to skip 'em in the future.
Storing the Scraps
You will want to collect roughly 4-6 cups of vegetables to make 2 quarts of stock. You can either save your scraps throughout the week in a large Ziploc or some other airtight container in the fridge, or if you're collecting scraps for longer than a week, just keep them in the freezer (this is what I do.)
Making the Stock
1. Place roughly 4-6 cups of scraps in a 5 quart stock pot. Add 1-2 bay leaves and a few black peppercorns.
2. Cover it all with cold water then bring it to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and simmer uncovered for about an hour. Any more than an hour and the flavor will begin to deteriorate.
3. Strain vegetables using a fine mesh strainer or a colander and giving them a press to make sure you get all the broth. Quick tip: I made mine in my steamer pot from Ikea which made the straining incredibly easy since all the veggies were in the steamer insert and I just lifted it out of the pot once it was done. Let cool then pour into glass jars, clean yogurt containers or freezer bags. Let cool completely in the fridge and then freeze or store for up to five days in the fridge.
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Naturally, I had to adapt them for my own. I added coconut for a little more sweetness, and nuts for crunch, but this recipe is easily altered to satisfy your tastes.
I’m going to add peanut butter to mine next time. And you don't have to just eat them for breakfast, they make a healthy dessert cookie, too.
Healthy Oatmeal Breakfast Cookies:
Makes about 2 dozen
1-1/2 cups of rolled oats
2 ripe, mashed bananas
1 cup of unsweetened applesauce
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup unsweetened coconut
1 teaspoon cinnamonto taste cinnamon
1/8 cup chopped pecans or almonds (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Combine all ingredients in a bowl.
Spoon out teaspoonfuls of batter onto a baking sheet and bake for 30 to 35 minutes.
Let cool and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
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Remember Whatchamacallits? I used to love these candy bars when I was a kid – crisp rice, caramel, peanuts and chocolate, a no-fail combo. I don't know if they even make these anymore since I don't shop the candy aisle unless I'm buying them on sale after Halloween for brownie add-ins but I don't recall seeing them in recent years.
This recipe from the blogosphere caught my eye and the pictures looked so yummy, I had to try them for myself.
I did modify this though; instead of caramel topping, I used dulce de leche and instead of making the chocolate topping, I melted some milk chocolate candy melts and enrobed bar-size pieces to make a more authentic-looking Whatchamacallit bar.
After having tasted these, they were good but to make them a little closer to the original Whatchamacallit bar, I would consider cutting back on the flour and adding more rice krispies to get the crunch.
Adapted from Bru Crew Life
2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup dulce de leche
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1-3/4 cups flour
3/4 cup caramel bits
3/4 cup chopped peanuts, toasted
2 cups rice Krispies
Milk Chocolate Candy Melts (I used Wilton's Premium)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Line a 9" x 13" baking pan with foil and spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray.
Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs, vanilla, dulce de leche, and salt and beat on low until fluffy.
Sift the baking powder and flour and slowly add to the butter mixture. Stir in the caramel bits, peanuts and rice Krispies (in this order) by hand. Batter will be thick. Smooth top with small metal spatula.
Bake for 28 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.
Cut blondies into bar-size rectangles (your choice on how big or small you want them to be). Melt candy melts over low heat, stirring smooth. Spread over bars, using small metal spatula, encasing top and sides with the melted chocolate. Set on wax paper and let cool until chocolate is set.
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Soufflé. It’s the word that strikes terror into aspiring cooks. Actually, it can strike terror into the most experienced cook. The idea of any dish that must be treated with such care and delicacy, that a loud noise or simple sneeze might ruin all your hard work. Something thought so difficult that even the tiniest of misteps can turn it into soup or a leaden, burned brick. We’ve seen the TV episodes of the Fifities housewife desperate to impress the in-laws reduced to tears by a fallen soufflé. Soufflé the dread, soufflé the feared! Like the greatest sinners among us, we fear becoming The Fallen.
I have been instructed by experienced chefs, I have experimented in my own kitchen, and yes, I have had a fallen soufflés. But practice makes perfect, and mistakes sometimes take you where you meant to go. I worked on a soufflé recipe for months, making notes, crossing things out, writing in the margins, spilling milk on the ink and somehow I got here. I may not of reinvented the wheel, but I sure made it simple.
This is the soufflé for the culinarily challenged. I won’t say it is foolproof; it does take a little patience. But from the first time I accidently stumbled upon the formula to the many times I have made it since, I have never had a dud. My nieces and I used to create “restaurants” at my house. We’d design a menu, plan the cooking, make the signs, take the orders (from indulgent parents and grandparents) and cook and serve the meal. On the first menu of our first restaurant, we offered this Cheese Soufflé, and it was a best seller. So trust me, you can do it.
Cheese soufflé makes an elegant first course, a lovely light luncheon with a salad, or a sophisticated breakfast or brunch treat. Jazz these up with herbs added in, or the addition of a surprise at the bottom of the dish. I always argue for using the best ingredients possible, but in a simple dish like this it is really important that they shine. Farm fresh eggs, quality butter and really good cheese. I use a natural white cheddar.
It is important that the eggs are at room temperature, and that the cheese mixture has cooled before folding in the egg whites to get the puffy soufflé effect.
5 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup flour
1-1/2 cups whole milk
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 eggs, separated, room temperature
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Have a sheet pan ready. Butter and flour 6 ramekins, about 7 ounces each.
Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat, then whisk in the flour until it starts to bubble and turns white, about 3 minutes. Take off the heat and gradually whisk in the milk. Return to heat and whisk until bubbling and thick. Switch to a spatula or sturdy wooden spoon and add the mustard, cheese, nutmeg and salt. Pull off the heat and add the egg yolks. Stir vigorously until everything is smooth and fully incorporated. Cool.
In an electric mixer, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks. Stir a large dollop of the egg whites into the cheese mixture to loosen it up, then gently fold in the rest of the whites.
Divide the mixture evenly among the ramekins. Place a baking sheet in the oven to heat for about 5 minutes. Carefully place the ramekins on the heated baking sheet and bake until puffed and golden, about 15 minutes.
Serve immediately. These will deflate as they cool – deflate, not fall or collapse. They are still lovely, light and airy.
You can chill the pre-baked ramekins for up to 4 hours in you prefer. When ready to serve, cook as directed above, though they may take a minute longer.
*For a little flair, spoon an extra into the ramekins such as crumbled blue cheese, chunky salsa or chutney.
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One of the things I love about cooking is the prep work, getting everything chopped, minced, measured and ready to go. I still remember the first time, years ago, that I did a proper mise en place, organizing everything I would need before turning on the flame under the pan. Seeing the five or six little bowls of ingredients lined up on the counter, I could tell I had taken a step forward in my cooking.
An added bonus of doing the prep work, certainly with this dish, is all the wonderful aromas that take over. Garlic, shallot, cilantro, the lemongrass as you smash it with the side of the knife, the curry powder as you spoon it into a waiting ramekin…. Their fragrances come in waves as you work, layering together and hinting at the flavors you’ll soon be enjoying.
I’ve cooked mussels here a number of times. They’re inexpensive, especially for seafood, fun and elegantly messy to eat with your hands and so delicious. Their mild brininess blends beautifully with any number of flavors. And mussels cook up quickly. Once they hit the pan, you’re five to 10 minutes from dinner.
Mussels are also that extremely rare find – sustainably farmed seafood. I’ve written about that before here, but it bears repeating. Mussels don’t need to be fed other seafood; they filter their sustenance from the water around them. So they actually clean the water, instead of polluting it as some farmed seafood does. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, the go-to authority on seafood sustainability, calls farmed mussels a Best Choice. Most American-farmed mussels come from the coast of Maine.
Usually when I’ve cooked mussels, it’s been with a European direction – with tarragon and cream or oregano, saffron and tomatoes – or out and out French, with the classic Moules Marinières. This time, though, I took a pan-Asian (plus semi-global) approach. It started when I read a recipe somewhere for curried mussels. It sounded good enough to prompt finding more recipes for the same. There were many differences and one surprising constant (besides the mussels, I mean).
Camps were divided on the curry. Many called for Thai red curry paste, while some chose curry powder. Curries, I should point out, are actually dishes – usually vegetables, meat or fish – with a richly spiced sauce. While they originated in India, they’re found throughout Asia. Curry powder is a mix of spices used to flavor curries (the same with curry pastes). Shallots and garlic appeared in some recipes, but not in all, as did lemongrass, which is closely associated with Southeast Asian cuisines. Wine figured in some recipes, not Asian at all, as did vermouth. And while some relied on cream for richness, most went with coconut milk, a staple of Thai cuisine.
With all those differences, the one universal ingredient was cilantro. Get out your passports for this one. It probably originated somewhere in Mediterranean Europe and has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. But it’s also a big part of Southeast Asian cooking and practically mandatory for most Mexican recipes.
I’m not sure exactly what I expected when I put so many big flavors together. What I got was a surprisingly delicate balance. It was flavorful, make no mistake. But no one ingredient tromped all over the others – or our taste buds. Everything blended into one sublime meal. Each ingredient was definitely there and accounted for, but no one was shouting.
Curried Mussels with Cilantro
Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a starter
2 pounds mussels
1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 stalk lemongrass, crushed, cut into pieces (see Kitchen Notes)
1/2 cup dry white wine [editor's note: substitue cooking wine]
1/4 cup water
2 teaspoons curry powder
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper, optional (see Kitchen Notes)
2 generous tablespoons chopped cilantro, divided
1/2 cup light coconut milk
a baguette or other crusty bread
A quick note: Prep everything else before you clean the mussels – or even remove them from the fridge.
Clean the mussels. Scrub mussels with a stiff brush under cold running water, discarding any mussels with broken or cracked shells, or any opened mussels that don’t close when you tap their shells. Remove the beards which may appear along the hinge side of the shell, using a sharp knife or pulling with your fingers. Set aside in a bowl.
Heat olive oil in a large, lidded pan (a sauté pan is ideal) over a medium flame. Add the shallot and sauté until soft, about 4 minutes, until soft. Add garlic and lemongrass and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds, stirring constantly. Add wine, water, curry powder and half the cilantro and stir to combine. Add mussels in a single layer and cover pan. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low. Cook just until mussels open, about 4 to 6 minutes.
Transfer mussels to a bowl with a slotted spoon, discarding any mussels that don’t open. Add coconut milk to pan and raise heat to medium-high. Bring to a boil, stirring, and cook for 3 to 5 minutes to blend flavors. The broth will not appreciably reduce; that’s okay.
Divide mussels among shallow serving bowls. Spoon broth over mussels, avoiding pieces of lemongrass as much as possible (there’s nothing dangerous about it – it’s just chewy). Sprinkle with remaining cilantro and serve with crusty bread for sopping up the flavorful broth.
Lemongrass. This delicious Southeast Asian grass (yes, it’s really a grass) is filled with citrus oil. It’s also fibrous and tough. Sometimes, you need the actual plant, so you peel it down to the tender core and mince it well. Other times, like now, all you need is the oils. Peel off some of the outer tough leaves, cut the stalk into 2-inch sections and bash them with the side of a chef’s knife. This will release the oils into the broth as it cooks.
Heating things up. A little heat in this dish livens up the delicate balance of flavors. The curry powder I used was already packing heat in the form of ground Sannam red chiles. If your curry powder isn’t hot, consider adding crushed red pepper flakes.
Where’s the salt? You’ll notice there’s none in the recipe. The mussels release briny liquid into the broth, and extra salt is rarely needed.
Related post: Baked Mussels with Saffron and Tomatoes