Archive for the ‘tricks of the trade’ Category

For the picnic last weekend, I made and brought the food. The two most popular dishes–sweet and savory, respectively–were pies. In the savory department it was an Ithaca pie that I made using beautiful rainbow chard from my CSA. As for sweet, the crowd favorite was sour cherry pie.

A note on cutting chard. When cooking chard, you want to be able to enjoy both the leaves and stem, however, the problem can be that they cook at different rates. Instead of winding up with perfectly cooked leaves and undercooked stems, or well-cooked stems and over-cooked leaves, try separating them so they can both be cooked properly.

First, remove the leaves from the stem:
Then, stack all the leaves on top of each other and roll them up:
Next, cut through the roll so that you wind up with thinly shredded pieces (this cut is called chiffonade):
Lastly, dice up your stems as you would celery:
When you go to cook the chard, cook the stems first. Once they are almost done, add the leaves and cook until tender. This way, both parts will be cooked perfectly, yet you will be able to eat them together in one dish.

I’ve been wanting to put this tip in for a while, and now I finally have a recipe with chard. While it doesn’t call for the stems (I saved them for pickling), I thought I would share anyway. Back to the Ithaca pie. It’s similar to a Greek spanakopita in that it has greens and feta, but the crust of the Ithaca is a bit more hearty as is the filling thanks to the addition of rice.

After sauteing the filling, you roll out the dough, assemble the pie, and bake.


The result is a deliciously flaky crust, chock full of chard (or whatever other greens you may decide to use), accented by pungent dill and salty feta. (See recipe below.)

As for the sour cherry pies (I made two), I sat for an hour or so (catching up on my TV) pitting three quarts of sour cherries.

Once the tedious job was out of the way (my dough was already resting in the fridge), I macerated the fruit and filled my pies.


The cherries were quite juicy, which led to a significant amount of juice overflow. Definitely take the recipe’s advice to place the pie on a rimmed baking sheet. I didn’t, and now have an oven bottom full of cherry juice (which began to burn on the bottom of the oven and set off the smoke alarm, oh the joys of NYC apartment cooking). But, the pies came out just fine, and tasted wonderful. My mother has already requested one of her own.


Here’s a link to the Epicurious sour cherry pie recipe I used.

Ithaca Pie

Adapted from In Season by Sarah Raven
Serves 12-15 (as a main course)

(I used this recipe in a 12″ x 15″ x 3″ pan, and still had some dough left over, so you should be able to halve it and make the pie in a standard 9″ x 13″ pan. If you do this, check the pie at 30-45 minutes. If you do experiment, please leave comments to let us all know how it worked out.)

For the crust:
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups (3 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
3 eggs, beaten
Ice-cold water
1 tablespoon sesame seeds (optional)

For the filling:
2 pounds spinach, chard, kale (one, or a mixture of all, of these greens)
Large bunch of dill, finely chopped
4 tablespoons chopped mint
4 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 cup olive oil
4 scallions, finely chopped
2 leeks, finely chopped
1/2 cup long-grain rice (I used brown rice for the picnic, but have also made this with bulgur and actually prefer the result)
6 ounces feta (optional)
Salt and pepper

1. Sift the flour with the salt and rub in the butter or pulse in a food processor until it has the consistency of breadcrumbs. Add enough beaten eggs and ice water to bring the dough together in a ball. Wrap in plastic and leave in the fridge for at least 30 minutes (can be done a day in advance).

2. Remove the tough stalks from the spinach, chard, and kale. Coarsely chop the leaves and mix with the finely chopped herbs. Saute the onion and garlic in a little oil in a large pan until tender. And add all the greens, including the scallions and leeks. Mix well with most of the remaining oil. Incorporate the uncooked rice (or bulgur) and take off the heat. Season well with salt and pepper.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Divide the dough in two (one piece slightly larger than the other) and allow it to warm up for a minute or so. Roll out the dough–on a floured surface–as thinly as you possibly can.

4. Roll the larger piece around a rolling pin and transfer it to the base of your baking pan. Make sure that there is some pastry hanging over the side of the pan.

5. Add the filling and crumble the feta over it (if using). Cover with the other layer of dough. Crimp the two layers together by brushing with a little water and pinching around the edge.

6. Brush a little oil over the top and scatter with sesame seeds (if using). Prick the surface with a knife. Bake the pie in the preheated oven for just over an hour, until the top crust is golden brown.

This is delicious once it has cooled a little and is perhaps even better eaten cold the next day. It’s also excellent for feeding lots of people at a picnic.


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I cooked lunch for my friend Sonya yesterday to celebrate her birthday which was on Thursday. Knowing that Sonya likes her whole grains and dark leafy greens, I dug deep into my Natural Gourmet roots, and made a medley of dishes to satisfy her inner health nut.

You are looking at — clockwise from the top left —  sauteed red swiss chard with pine nuts and balsamic vinegar reduction (which you may recognize from my dinner with Irene); wakame, celery, and grape tomato salad with a blood orange vinaigrette; bulgur with dried cherries, almonds, and mint (that I also made for Tom’s going out of business party); and stewed azuki beans and butternut squash. The seaweed salad, which I simply made up on the fly with what I had in my fridge, was my favorite dish.

The stewed azuki beans and squash, in which I used up the last of my winter squash cache, seemed to be Sonya’s dish of choice.


The shining star of the afternoon, however, was the whole wheat pear ginger tart we had for dessert. It was a bit of a last minute decision, again, based on ingredients I had in the apartment.


I didn’t quite have enough time to let my crust sit in the fridge. But, aside from a slight loss of shaping around the edges during baking, I was quite pleased with the outcome. I adapted the recipe from my favorite cookbook, Whole Grain Baking by the folks at King Arthur Flour.

The key to making any butter crust is keeping all the ingredients that you’re mixing into the flour cold, and working fast so that the butter doesn’t have time to soften too much. I like to use a pastry cutter to cut the butter into the flour, but a large fork will work as well. Some recipes say that you can use your hands, but I try to avoid touching the butter as the heat from your fingers can over-soften it.


Once you have a solid mass of dough, you want to get it in the fridge as soon as possible. Again, rather than using your hands to mold it into a ball I recommend using plastic wrap to gather it up, which allows you to avoid unnecessarily warming the dough.


Once the dough is wrapped in plastic, it is also easier to handle to shape into a disk. The marbling you see, due to chunks of butter that remain in tact, will lead to a nice flaky crust.


After the dough has been sufficiently chilled, it’s time to roll it out and crimp the edges. I like to do this on a piece of parchment paper. Make sure that your rolling surface and rolling pin are well-floured, and that you apply equal pressure to both sides of the pin as you roll.

Once you have reached your desired diameter, fold up the edges to form a crust. Use the pointer and middle fingers of one hand against the pointer finger knuckle of the other hand, moving all the way around the crust, until you have a beautifully crimped finish.

While your crust is back in the fridge chilling, prepare your filling. First make the ginger sugar using a food processor, one fitted with a mini bowl works best.


Then, peel and core your pears. Some people like to use a mellon baller to remove the seedy center of the pear, but I think that a pointy paring knife works just as well and allows you to easily remove the rest of the core and the stem. Once cored, slice the pears as thinly as possible.

All that remains at this point is to arrange your pears, sprinkle them with lemon juice (to avoid discoloration), brush them with coconut oil (or melted butter if you prefer), and then sprinkle the entire tart with the ginger sugar.

Bake and enjoy.


Whole Wheat Ginger Pear Tart
Adapted from Whole Grain Baking by King Arthur Flour
Serves 8

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter
1 egg, lightly beaten
1-2 teaspoons cold cream (or milk)

2 large pears (Bosc or Anjou), peeled, cut in half, and cored
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons minced crystallized ginger
2 pinches of salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons coconut oil (melted if necessary)*

Prepare the crust:
Whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl. Cut the butter into small cubes and work it into the flour using a pastry cutter, fork, or food processor, until evenly crumbly. Add the egg, stirring with a spoon until well integrated. Add just enough cream or milk so that the dough holds together and no longer seems dry or crumbly.

Empty the dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap and use the edges of the wrap to gather it together into a ball. Pat the wrapped dough out into a 1-inch thick disk and refrigerate for at least six hours. Dough can be left for up to three days.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let sit for about 15 minutes, until it becomes slightly flexible. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.

Flour a piece of parchment paper and your rolling pin and roll the dough out into a 13-inch circle. Fold the edges up, forming a 10-inch circle, and decoratively crimp the edges. Slide the crust (on the parchment) onto a baking sheet and place in the refrigerator while you prepare the filling.

Prepare the filling:
Slice each pear lengthwise as thinly as you can.

Using a food processor (mini, if you have one), process the sugar, crystalized ginger, and salt until the ginger is finely ground.

Assemble and bake:
Remove the crust from the refrigerator. Arrange a circle of overlapping pear slices, just touching the raised edge of the crust. Sprinkle the slices with lemon juice, then brush lightly with coconut oil. Arrange another circle of pears inside the first. Sprinkle with lemon juice and brush lightly with coconut oil. Sprinkle the entire tart with one third of the ginger sugar.

Bake the tart for 10 minutes. Remove it from the oven, brush with coconut oil, and sprinkle with another third of ginger sugar. Bake for 10 minutes more. Remove from oven, brush with oil, and sprinkle with the remaining ginger sugar. Bake 10 minutes more, until the edge of the crust is brown and the pears are beginning to turn golden. Remove the tart from the oven and allow to cool for 30 minutes before serving.

*If you don’t want to use coconut oil, or don’t have it in the house, you can substitute melted butter

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A friend of Dave’s from biz school, Tom, is graduating and moving back to DC so he decided to throw a “Going out of business” party for which I had the privilege of making the food. I was told to cook for 50-60 people and so I made several larger dishes that would feed the masses with a few more detailed items thrown in for variety. The final menu included curried chicken salad, bulgur salad, whole wheat pasta with homemade pesto, mini salmon cakes with yogurt dill sauce, white bean dip, roasted red pepper dip, and a chocolate chip cake (with a train cake on top to represent the Acela).


The crowd favorite was definitely the salmon cakes.


The cake was also a big hit, and the biggest I have made to date (baked in a 12 x 15 x 3 in pan). What I didn’t know until I did some research, is that when you bake a sizable cake you have to use a heating core to help evenly distribute the heat. Otherwise, by the time the middle of the cake is done the outer edges will be hard and dry. While the core makes a hole in the cake, you simply fill it with a bit of a batter, creating a neat little plug that you insert back into the cake. Once the cake the frosted, nobody is the wiser. 

(So much batter!)


My favorite thing I made for the party was the roasted red pepper dip. Taking that extra step to roast the peppers brings out their natural sweetness and really deepens their flavor. To roast red peppers at home there are two things you can do: use your burners (if you have a gas range) or broil them in the oven. If you are lucky enough to have a fancy stove with an open grill grate built in, or you have access to a real outdoor grill, you can disregard what I am about to write.  If you are only doing a few peppers, and have the time to devote to a little babysitting, I prefer the burner method.


Simply brush your pepper with oil and place directly onto the burner, turning the flame on high. Rotate the pepper as each side becomes charred, don’t worry if it looks burnt, the skin should be turning black.  If you are doing a larger batch (as I was for my dip) the broiler is the way to go.  First, place your peppers in a large bowl and coat with oil.


Then place them on a tray and into the oven with the broiler on high. Turn the peppers every 7-10 minutes or so.


This batch took about 30 minutes. The peppers won’t get as charred in the oven (versus the stove top); you know they are ready when the skins becomes wrinkled the peppers begin to deflate. Once done, remove the peppers from the oven, place in a large bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Set aside for 10-15 minutes.

After the peppers have cooled enough for you to handle them, peel and seed them and remove the stems (the skin should slip off easily). This can be done under running water, if desired, which will make for a less messy process.



Once cleaned, your peppers are ready to be sliced and enjoyed, in salads, on pizza, however you like them. Mine went right into the food processor. 


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