Onion confit is easy

Anyone who has cooked for awhile knows the culinary world is rife with conflicting information, and there are often several (sometimes many) ways to achieve the same outcome. I used to work at a food magazine where the technique to create a lattice pastry for pie was the source of passionate debate. And the truth was, everyone was right.

Definitions also are fluid. For example, I’ve found at least three definitions for the difference between broth and stock. Some people say stock is made with roasted bones while broth is not. Some of my culinary instructors say the difference is salt: broth is salted, but stock is not. Wayne Gisslen’s Professional Cooking, the textbook I’m using these days, says a broth is made from simmering meat and vegetables, and is usually a byproduct of simmering meat or poultry for a recipe, whereas stock is made from simmering bones (unroasted or roasted) and vegetables.

I’ve come across similar confusion with the definition of confit. Food Lover’s Companion, the go-to reference for many foodies and editors, defines confit as salting and cooking meat in its own fat as a means to preserve it–as in duck or goose confit. Gisslen goes a bit broader, defining confit as a food “saturated with one of the following: vinegar (vegetables); sugar (fruits); alcohol (fruits); fat (poultry).”

So with Gisslen’s definition in mind, I prepared this Red Onion Confit, which is a remarkably easy and versatile condiment. All you do is cook the onions over gentle heat until they’re ultra-tender, sweet, and sour. You can serve the stuff with crackers or toasted baguette as an appetizer (great with gin and tonic), a condiment with grilled or roast meat, or, as I did on a pizza with fontina cheese using the most reliable pizza dough recipe, ever. It’s the new favorite pizza in our household.

Red Onion Confit-Fontina Pizza

Red Onion Confit-Fontina Pizza

Red Onion Confit

Hearty red onions and balsamic vinegar lend this confit vivid flavor. You can experiment with other varieties of onions, different vinegars, and various herbs. The confit will keep in the refrigerator for about 1 week.

Recipe adapted from Le Cordon Bleu.

1 tablespoon butter

1 large red onion, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pinch of dried thyme

1/2 cup red wine (such as malbec)

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Add butter, and cook until browned. Add onion, sugar, salt, pepper, and thyme; stir to combine. Cover, reduce heat to medium, and cook 5 minutes, or until the onions are tender.

2. Uncover pan, and add the wine, scraping the pan to loosen any browned bits. Cook until the wine almost evaporates. Stir in vinegar. Reduce heat, and simmer, uncovered, 30 minutes or until the onions are very tender. Stir occasionally. Adjust salt and pepper as needed. Yield: about 1 cup. 

Red Onion Confit-Fontina Pizza

1 recipe Basic Pizza Dough

1 tablespoon cornmeal

1/2 cup shredded fontina cheese

1/2 cup Red Onion Confit

1. Place a pizza stone in oven. Preheat oven to 500 degrees F.

2. Roll out dough into a 10-inch circle on a floured surface. Transfer dough to a pizza peel or rimless baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal. Sprinkle dough with cheese. Top with Red Onion Confit. Transfer to preheated pizza stone (the dough should slide off the peel/baking sheet easily, though you may need to use a spatula to guide the dough onto the stone). Bake 9 minutes or until the edges are lightly browned and top is bubbly. Yield: 1 pizza.

Fresh chickpeas

 

Fresh chickpeas are a pretty harbinger of spring.

Fresh chickpeas are a pretty harbinger of spring.

Isn’t it nice when you discover an unexpected treat in the middle of an otherwise mundane day? That’s what happened when I swung by Marina Farms market to pick up a few items. Now, Marina Farms is a gem of a local corner market, tucked away in a bland corner of Del Rey, an LA neighborhood that’s not Playa del Rey, not Marina del Rey, ’cause it’s a bit inland. So it’s just plain old Del Rey. The market is chock-full of an eclectic assortment of fresh, regional produce, bulk nonperishables, and speciality items. In one trip, you can pick up a bag of farro, guacamole-flavored Mexican tortilla snacks, fresh fava beans, sherry vinegar, and a freshly made chicken empanada as a snack. And the prices are terrific.

I was trolling past the bins of fresh mushrooms when my eyes fell on fresh chickpeas. This struck me as a rare and wonderful find. Well, rare to me, since I think fresh chickpeas are become more widely available, much the way fava beans have in recent years. Still, it was a treat to me, so I filled a bag with a couple of handfuls of the fuzzy green pods.

But what to do with them? The fresh chickpeas were familiar, yet…not. Their inch-long pods are peach-fuzzy and papery. Each houses one pea. Occasionally you’ll find two in a pod, but for the most part chickpeas cop an exclusive attitude. Unlike English peas or fava beans, chickpeas are reluctant to share their digs. The pods are delicate and airy–they sometimes make a satisfying pop when you open them.

This pod is mine!

This pod is mine!

Inside, the peas are a lovely, pale green. On her blog 101Cookbooks.com, Heidi Swanson accurate describes them as looking like little brains. Yes, like little green Martian brains.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. Since they’re fresh, they don’t need soaking or the long-ass cooking time of their dried cousins. After doing some research, I decided that steaming was the way to go. Indeed, it works beautifully. The chickpeas retain their shape, and cooking enhances their emerald hue. They have a lovely, delicate, nutty, vegetal, and slightly sweet quality that begs for simple treatment, like this easy spread.

Sign of spring: Chickpea Spread

Sign of spring: Chickpea Spread

Chickpea Spread

OK, since I only picked up a couple of handfuls of fresh chickpeas, this has a small yield, but you can double the recipe. I used a pressure cooker to steam the chickpeas, since I appear to obsessed with my pressure cooker of late. You can steam them in a regular saucepan in about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve this spread with crackers or crusty bread.

3/4 cup shelled fresh chickpeas (about 6 ounces unshelled)

1 garlic clove

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons grated pecorino Romano cheese

1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

1. Fill the pan of a pressure cooker with water to a depth of 1 inch. Bring to a boil. Place chickpeas in a steamer basket; add steamer basket to cooker. Lock on lid, and bring to high pressure over high heat. Reduce heat, and cook 5 minutes. Release pressure using automatic pressure release OR transfer cooker to sink and run cool water over the rim. Carefully open the cooker, pointing the lid away from you. Drain chickpeas. Rinse with cool water; drain thoroughly.

2. Add garlic clove to work bowl of a mini food processor; process until minced. Add chickpeas, process until chopped. Add olive oil, cheese, and lemon juice; process until fairly smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Yield: about 3/4 cup.

Randy’s Superfine Cheese Straws

 

Now that Randy has shared his recipe for Superfine Cheese Straws, I can enjoy a taste of Dixie in the City of Angels anytime.

Randy has shared his recipe for Superfine Cheese Straws, so I can enjoy a taste of Dixie in the City of Angels anytime.

When I moved from Alabama back to Southern California in December and listed the Dixie specialities I’d miss, I overlooked a gem: my friend Randy’s Superfine Cheese Straws. He and his partner Phillip were kind enough to give me a generous batch of these delicate treats before I left Birmingham. I’m pretty sure I ate them all (with a little sneaky help from Rascal) before the car pulled out of the driveway.

They’re that good. As I noted in an earlier crazy rant, cheese straws as they’re made in the Deep South are a savory pleasure of cheddar cheese, butter, and flour. Love ‘em with a gin and tonic, which was usually how Phillip served them to me. 

Randy’s Superfine Cheese Straws

Surprisingly, cheese straws are not the place to use your fancy English Cheddar. “The cheap stuff, like Cracker Barrel, works best for us,” says Phillip. A cookie press is a gadget that allows you to load the dough into a barrel and press out cookies–or cheese straws–in a uniform shape. Most come with an assortment of attachments for different shapes and sizes. If you don’t have one, shape the dough into little logs by hand. The results won’t look as refined as the photo above, but you’re using Cracker Barrel for crissakes, so there’s no need to be high-falutin’.

9 ounces flour (about 2 cups) 

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne (or more, if you want them hotter)

4 ounces (1 stick) butter, melted

1 pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated and at room temperature

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Sift together first 4 ingredients. Place butter butter and cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment; beat until smooth. With the mixer on, slowly add flour mixture, beating until dough forms. Place dough into cookie press, squeeze desired shape. Place on 2 baking sheets covered with parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees F for 12-15 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool 2 minutes on pans. Cool completely on wire racks. Store in an airtight container for up to a week (though I can’t imagine they’d last that long). Yield: well, that depends on how the size of cheese straws you choose. I mean, don’t go overboard or anything. They’re just supposed to be a lil’ cocktail nibble.

Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette

 

A cross between an lemon and an orange, Meyer lemons deliver sweeter flavor and less acidity than standard lemons.

A cross between a lemon and an orange, Meyer lemons deliver sweeter flavor and less acidity than standard lemons.

There was an abundance of Meyer lemons at the farmers’ market this week. These lovely winter citrus fruits have been trendy for a few years, and now you can find them in some supermarkets. The skin ranges from vivid yellow to orange-tinged. That’s because they’re a cross between a lemon and an orange, so they are rounder and less acidic than a standard lemon. The juice is sweet and delicate, while the rind has a mellow quality that works nicely in baked goods. They’ll keep in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, but you’ll probably use them long before that.

I picked up several Meyers and used them to make this simple vinaigrette.

 

Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette

Meyer lemon juice has a delicate quality, so you don’t want to use an overly fruity or peppery olive oil. That’s also why there’s no mustard in this vinaigrette–I didn’t want the condiment to overwhelm the lemon. With these proportions, it emulsifies just fine. Use the dressing on salads or drizzled over grilled fish. If you plan to use the rind in another recipe, go ahead and grate or peel the rind before juicing the fruit.

1/3 cup mild-tasting extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons fresh Meyer lemon juice

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl. Stir with a whisk. Yield: about 1/2 cup.

Rock a crock of guac

 

Ali's Loaded Guacamole

Ali's Loaded Guacamole

If you love avocados, it’s hard to pass up a bargain like the Mexican Haas avocados for $1 apiece I found at Whole Foods earlier this week. I snapped those suckers up and put ‘em in a paper bag to ripen as soon as I got home. Now they’ve soft enough to make guacamole.

I suspect people fall into three camps when it comes to guacamole:

  • Those who hate it (and I’m not sure I want to know them)
  • Those who are purists and believe guacamole should be little more than mashed avocado, salt, and lime juice
  • Those who are the Ben & Jerry’s of guacamole–the more stuff in there the better

I fall into the last group, though I can understand the purists. Avocados are wonderful on their own and really don’t need much to dress them up. But I like a variety of tastes and textures. Here’s my version:

Ali’s Loaded Guacamole

I enjoy the contrasting flavors and textures in this guacamole–the way the sharp bit of onion plays off the cool, creamy avocado, the hint of smokiness from the cumin, the touch of heat from the cayenne. Adjust the ingredients and seasonings to suit your preference. Avocado is a personal thing. Serve with tortilla chips, Mexican beer, and margaritas.

3 medium avocados*

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper

1 minced garlic clove (optional–sometimes I throw it in, sometimes I don’t)

1 finely chopped seeded jalapeno pepper (optional–if I have one on hand, I’ll use it)

1/4 cup finely chopped onion (any kind is fine, but I like the bite of red onion)

1/4 cup finely chopped seeded tomato (this time a year, I use Roma)

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

1. Cut the avocados in half and remove the pits. Use a fork to scoop the flesh out the skins into a small bowl. Mash avocado with the fork. Stir in the juice, salt, cumin, red pepper, garlic (if using), and jalapeno (if using). Gently fold in the onion, tomato, and cilantro. Yield: about 2 c ups (serving size: well, that depends on whether you’re willing to share).

* Lighten the load: Avocados are good for you, no doubt about it. They’re packed with heart-healthy fat and fiber. But they also have a lot of calories–about 225 per fruit. To lighten the caloric load, replace half the avocado with slightly frozen thawed peas. Sounds odd, but it’s delicious; the peas add a subtle sweetness. I had this rendition at Rancho la Puerta recently, and loved it.

Gumbo and the Green Goddess, part 1

 

Green Goddess Salad is a nice counterpoint to gumbo.

Green Goddess Salad is a nice counterpoint to gumbo.

It started on Sunday afternoon, while I was perusing The New York Times, a ritual that takes up the better part of the day. Flipping through the magazine, I came across Amanda Hesser’s story about the Green Goddess Salad with a circa-1948 recipe for the iconic salad. Crisp romaine dressed in a briny, pungent mixture of anchovies, garlic, Worcestershire, and mayo is a classic recipe, and one I wanted to share with friends. So last night a bunch of us gathered in the kitchen of my friend and neighbor Aimee, who had asked another  another friend and neighbor, Jon, over to teach her how to make his gumbo. Jon has a made a study of this Cajun stew, and perfected his recipe. I’ll share his lesson in a follow-up blogs.

The evening was the ideal opportunity to try out the recipe. You need to make the dressing at least an hour before serving so the flavors have plenty of time to develop their signature punch, which makes this salad good for entertaining. I couldn’t help pondering how much the Green Goddess Salad has in common with another iconic California (albeit Baja California) salad: the Caesar Salad, which legend says was born in 1924 in Caesar Cardini’s eponymous Tijuana restaurant.

The classic Caesar dressing–as opposed to the bastardized version that haunts so many chain restaurant menus these days–uses raw egg yolks, olive oil, smashed garlic, Worcestershire, and anchovies, along with, white white vinegar or lemon juice, a dash of mustard, and Parmesan cheese. The Green Goddess dressing employs mayonnaise (which is an emulsion of raw egg yolks, oil, and acid), Worcestershire, garlic, anchovies, and white wine vinegar to create a briny bite and lovely creamy consistency very similar to Caesar dressing that coats the crisp Romaine lettuce beautifully. If you really want to make this salad sing, you’d use homemade mayo (whenever I’m moved to whisk up a batch of mayonnaise, I consult James Peterson’s recipe from Essentials of Cooking), but in this case, I just opened a jar of Hellmann’s. If you use jarred mayo, it’s important to use a good-quality one, since it’s such a key ingredient.

Up next: Gumbo and the Green Goddess, part 2: Do Roux

Lunch for 1

 

Grilled Asparagus is a supereasy side for any meal.

Grilled Asparagus with a quesadilla is my idea of a great lunch.

Lunchtime rolls around, and I don’t always want to pop out to pick something up. Today, I had a hankering for my favorite comfort food: quesadillas, which are basically my go-to breakfast/lunch/dinner. I like mine made with corn tortillas and Monterey Jack cheese, cooked in a grill pan (if you don’t own one, get one–you’ll be glad you did). I love the way the tortillas puff up as a they cook. Add a dollop of Sriracha hot sauce, and I’m ready to chow down.

Today, I wanted some kind of side, and I had some asparagus in the fridge. OK, granted, asparagus aren’t exactly in season (they’re a spring veggie), but the stuff is in the supermarket all the time now. I’m not sure it even knows it has a season anymore, but that’s an issue for another post. I also had limes on hand, so I could make one of my favorite, all-time sides. Here’s the recipe.

Grilled Asparagus for 1

The amounts aren’t exact on this, and you can use other veggies instead of asparagus. I’ve made this with sliced zucchini and summer squash for a summertime appetizer. Of course, you can make this on an outdoor grill; just be sure to skewer the asparagus or cook them in a grill basket.

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon OR lime juice 

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

3 ounces trimmed asparagus

Fleur de sel (optional)

1. Combine the first 4 ingredients in a shallow dish; stir with a fork or whisk to combine. Add the asparagus; toss to coat. Let stand 20 minutes.

2. Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat. Add the asparagus and marinade. Grill 4 minutes or until the asparagus is tender and some grill marks have formed. The cook time really depends on the thickness of the asparagus; very thin stalks will just need a few minutes, while thicker stalks will need more time. Sprinkle with fleur de sel, if you like. Yield: 1 serving.