Sunday, March 31, 2013

"Untraditional" Irish Soda Bread

I know I'm a little behind the times, as St. Patrick's Day was last week, but since I was busy on the actual holiday we had our annual St. Patty's dinner a week later. Why untraditional Irish soda bread you ask? I've recently come across a wonderfully informative site called the "Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread," dedicated entirely to traditional Irish soda bread. You never know what you'll find on the internet! The recipe I'm providing below comes from Ina Garten and is far from traditional. It's actually considered a cross between a "cake" or "spotted dog," as it contains eggs, butter, and currants. Traditional Irish soda bread is made from just four simple ingredients: flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. Baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) for baking was first introduced to Ireland sometime around the 1840s. It became a popular leavening substitute for yeast in breads and other baked goods for daily meals. 

That being said, I've been making this version of Irish soda bread for the last several years at our annual St. Patrick's Day dinner. I guess it's appropriate to serve this version with corned beef and cabbage, as neither are traditional Irish fare. As I've written in a previous post, in Ireland, beef would have been considered an expensive luxury, but for Irish immigrants in the U.S., corned beef was cheap. It is thought that Irish immigrants living in New York City bought corned beef from Jewish butchers and adapted it to their cuisine. 

While it may be far from the traditional breads made by Irish families living in Ireland over a century ago, there's no denying this bread is delicious. It can be made in a snap and comes out beautiful every time. It's great alongside a big (Irish-American, if you will) St. Patrick's Day feast, but I think I love it most for breakfast, toasted and smeared with butter or jam. Happy (belated) St. Patrick's Day... oh yeah and Happy Easter too!

Recipe from Ina Garten, Barefoot Contessa at Home

4 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1 tbsp. extra for currants
4 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 3/4 cups cold buttermilk, shaken
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 tsp. grated orange zest (optional)
1 cup dried currants or raisins 

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper or a Silpat baking mat and set aside.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (if mixing by hand, combine all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl). Blend the dry ingredients and then add the butter, mixing on low speed until the butter is mixed into the flour (if mixing by hand, use your fingers to break up the butter blend it with the flour). 

In a large measuring cup, combine the buttermilk, beaten egg, and orange zest. Lightly beat the ingredients until blended. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture (alternatively, stir the wet ingredients into the dry using a wooden spoon). Toss the currants with 1 tbsp. of flour and mix into the dough. The dough will seem very wet.

Turn the dough out onto a well-floured work surface and knead it a few times. Shape the dough into a round loaf. Place the loaf on the prepared pan and lightly cut an "X" into the top of the bread using a razor blade or serrated knife. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. When you tap the bottom of the loaf, it should have a hallow sound. 

Allow the loaf to cool on a cooling rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. 

Yield: 1 loaf

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Braised Lamb Shanks with White Beans & Rosemary

While spring has technically arrived, I'm still wearing my heavy winter coat and craving hearty stews. In a couple months I know the thought of using my oven will make me cringe, so I've got to get all the delicious braises in while I still can. Braised lamb shanks with white beans is a rustic one-pot meal that really sticks to your bones! 

Lamb shanks are cuts from the lower part of the lamb's leg, beneath the knee. The shank is one of the toughest cuts of meat on the animal as this area gets a lot of use. When braised however, they turn into something magical. The scent of lamb simmering away in winey, aromatic liquid fills your home with joy and makes your dog go crazy. Need I say more?

This is not a bad dish to make for company as it can be made a day or two in advance and kept in the fridge allowing its flavors to meld. This big rustic stew can be enjoyed throughout the fall, winter, and early spring. As expected, this dish screams for a glass of red wine and some crusty bread to sop up the delicious sauce.

Adapted from Julia Child, The Way To Cook, and Molly O'Neill, The New York Times, October 15, 1995

4 lamb shanks (about 5 lbs.)
2 tbsp. olive oil
3 carrots, peeled and diced
3 celery stalks, diced
2 yellow onions, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup dry red wine
1 (28 oz.) can whole peeled tomatoes, tomatoes quartered 
3 cups chicken stock
2 sprigs rosemary 
2 bay leaves
1 lb. dried white beans, such as Great Northern or Cannellini (or 3 (15 0z.) canned white beans, drained), soaked overnight or quick soaked (see notes below)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Remove any excessive fat, sinew, or silver skin from the shanks and discard. In a large Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the shanks (two at a time) to the pot and brown both sides, about 10 to 12 minutes per batch. Transfer shanks to a large plate and set aside.

Add the carrots, celery, onions, and garlic to the pot and saute until vegetables are tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Pour in the wine and allow it to come to a boil for a minute or two. Using a wooden spoon, scrape up any brown bits on the bottom of the pot. Add the tomatoes and their juices along with the chicken stock. Tie the rosemary and bay leaves together using butcher's twine and add to the pot. Return the lamb shanks to the Dutch oven, along with any juices that may have accumulated. Nestle the shanks into the pot, they should fit snugly and almost be covered with the braising liquid. Bring to a boil, cover and place in the oven for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the meat is nearly falling off the bone.

While the lamb is cooking, prepare the beans (if using dried beans). In a 4 quart saucepan, bring 6 cups of generously salted water to a boil. Add the drained and rinsed beans. Reduce heat, and simmer gently with the lid slightly ajar, until the desired tenderness is reached, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. 

Using tongs, remove the shanks and place on a clean plate. Spoon off as much fat from the surface of the braise as possible and discard the herb bundle. Gently stir the beans into the braising liquid and return the shanks to the pot and serve. Alternatively, place 1 shank on each plate, spoon on the braising liquid and beans, and serve.

Yield: 4 servings 

  • To prep the beans: pour the beans out onto a clean work surface, sort through them, and discard any shriveled beans or small stones. To soak overnight, rinse the beans in cold water and place in a large bowl. Cover with 6 to 8 cups of cold water. Let stand overnight or at least 6 to 8 hours. Drain and rinse the beans in cold water. For a quick soak, rinse the beans and place in a medium saucepan along with 6 to 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil, and continue boiling for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and cover. Let stand 1 hour. Drain and rinse the beans in cold water. They are now ready for cooking. 
  • Veal shanks can be substituted for the lamb shanks. 
  • If you're feeding a crowd, feel free to pull the meat from the bones and then add it back to the stew (just don't forget to eat the yummy marrow before discarding the bones). This will ensure there's enough meat to go around. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Classic Pot Roast

There are few things more comforting than a perfectly cooked pot roast; a great weekend dinner on a chilly night. I grew up in Sonoma, CA, and on special occasions my family would go to the historic Swiss Hotel for their famed Wednesday night special: pot roast. I remember one occasion when my grandmother, Nonnie, took me to The Swiss on a date with the sole intention of ordering our beloved pot roast. The restaurant and bar are adorned with photos and mementos from Sonoma's past and has remained virtually unchanged since the early 1900s. I have fond memories of Nonnie telling me about the various photos on the wall, reminiscing about Sonoma long before its wine country claim to fame. 

Many recipes advise to use the carrots from the braise as a side served along the finished roast. I don't know about you, but mushy carrots that have been cooking for hours on end are not what I consider good eats. In my opinion, their sole intention is to flavor the roast and its braising liquid and should be discarded after the roast has finished cooking. Besides, all their delicious flavor has seeped into the rich winey sauce. I also find many recipes call for too many tomatoes. For me, this overpowers the entire sauce and ends up tasting more like a tomato sauce than a brown sauce. I find a 6 oz. can of tomato paste adds the right amount of acidity, without overpowering the entire sauce.

This recipe is reminiscent of those delicious pot roasts my family enjoyed at The Swiss. A good pot roast takes time and a little patience, but is always worth the wait. Don't be tempted to rush the process; the roast is done when a fork pierces the meat with ease. A perfect dinner to cook on lazy weekend afternoons. Trust me, your family and friends will thank you for it. Enjoy!

Adapted from Julia Child, The Way to Cook and Ina Garten, Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics

1 (4-5 lb.) boneless beef chuck roast, tied (see notes below)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
All-purpose flour
Olive oil
4 carrots, unpeeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 yellow onions, peeled and quartered
4 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
5 large garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 cups red wine, such as Zinfandel, Chianti, or Burgundy 
1 (6 oz.) can tomato paste 
3 cups beef stock
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature 
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour 

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Dry the roast using a paper towel. Generously season each side of the roast with salt and freshly ground black pepper and dredge in flour. In a large Dutch oven, heat 2 to 3 tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Add the roast and brown for 4 to 5 minutes. Turn the roast using tongs and sear the rest of the sides, 4 to 5 minutes per side. Once the roast is nicely browned, transfer it to a plate and set aside.

Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the Dutch oven. Add the carrots, onions, celery, and garlic, and season with salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the wine and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pot. Once the wine begins to boil, add the beef stock and tomato paste and stir to combine. Tie the thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf together using butcher's twine and add to the pot. Return the roast to the pot along with any juices that have accumulated. Baste the roast with the braising liquid and bring to a boil. Cover the pot and place in the oven for 3 to 4 hours, until the meat is fork tender.

Remove the roast from the Dutch oven and transfer to a cutting board. Cover with tin foil and set aside. Strain the braising liquid through a colander set over a large bowl, pressing on the vegetables to extract as much liquid as possible. Using a large spoon, skim off the top layer of fat from the braising liquid. Return the liquid to the Dutch oven (you should have 3 to 4 cups of sauce) and bring to a simmer on the stovetop. To thicken the sauce, make a beurre manie: combine the butter and 2 tbsp. flour in a small bowl and blend them together using a fork. Stir into the braising liquid. This should thicken the sauce nicely. Taste the braising liquid to adjust seasonings. Remove the butcher's twine from the roast and cut it across the grain into 1/2-inch slices. Spoon the sauce over the meat and serve. 

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

  • If you're unfamiliar with tying roasts, see this helpful tutorial.

Monday, March 18, 2013


I had my first Sidecar a couple years ago at the Commander's Palace in New Orleans, and ever since, this classic cocktail has quickly become one of my favorites. As is the case with many old school cocktails, the origins of the Sidecar are unclear. It's believed to have been created in either London or Paris around the end of World War I. Regardless of its origin, this cocktail has stood the test of time. 

With only three ingredients: brandy, Cointreau, and lemon juice, it's a very simple cocktail to make. French recipes often call for equal parts brandy, Cointreau, and lemon juice, but in The Savoy Cocktail Book, circa 1930, the drink calls for 2 parts brandy to 1 part Cointreau and 1 part lemon juice. I prefer the latter English version over the French, which is the recipe I've provided below.

While the use of brandy or cognac in cocktails has largely fallen out of favor since the Sidecar's birth, most people today wouldn't even know it was in there. When I make it for friends at parties I always have them taste it before I tell them what's in it (otherwise the thought of brandy has them running for the door). But once they try it they're usually sold and before long request another. 

The beautiful amber hue of the Sidecar is complimented by its sugar rim, a now classic addition that was adopted sometime in the 1930's. But don't be deceived by the Sidecar's sugary rim, as it isn't some silly affectation or indication of a cloyingly sweet drink. The sugar actually works to balance the tartness of the lemon and compliments the brandy base. This is a drink I enjoy anytime of the year, but particularly in warm weather months. As spring is just around the corner, I can't think of any better way to celebrate. Cheers!


1 lemon
2 tbsp. granulated sugar or superfine sugar
2 oz. Cognac or brandy
1 oz. Cointreau or triple sec
1 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice

Squeeze half the lemon on a small plate, discard any seeds. Place the sugar on another small plate. Dip the rim of a chilled cocktail glass in the lemon juice, followed by the sugar. Set aside.

Combine the Cognac or brandy, Cointreau, and lemon juice in a martini shaker with ice. Shake until nice and cold and strain into the prepared cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon peel or slice of lemon (seeds removed). 

Yield: 1 Sidecar

  • Try making a Sidecar with Meyer lemons when in season. The drink will lose some of its acidity, but it's a fun seasonal variation to experiment with.
  • I like the "crunch" of regular granulated sugar on the rim, but if you prefer the texture of superfine sugar, simply give the granulated sugar a whirr in a blender or food processor. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Ice Cream #16: Peanut Butter

The other night I had dinner with my friend Carolyn at The Meatball Shop in the west village and tried their peanut butter ice cream for dessert. I thought this would be a fun one to recreate at home. Aaron, being a peanut butter addict, was all too pleased with my decision. It runs in the family; his sister Amy loves peanut butter just as much. We once threw her a birthday dinner with peanut butter in every course (Amy, get your toosh over here before this ice cream's gone)! 

Feel free to use any peanut butter you choose. I particularly like the freshly ground honey roasted peanut butter that you can find at Whole Foods or other specialty markets. I like the grainy texture in the ice cream, but use creamy peanut butter if you prefer it perfectly smooth. 

Initially I was going to add chopped Reese's peanut butter cups to the ice cream, but after tasting it, I decided to stick with that unadulterated peanut buttery goodness. I love how this ice cream is nice and salty. It's unbelievably light, creamy, and the perfect ice cream for all you peanut butter lovers out there!


2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 tsp. sea salt
4 egg yolks
1 cup peanut butter
2 tsp. vanilla extract

Fill a large metal bowl with about 2-inches of ice water. Put a slightly smaller metal bowl inside. Place a fine mesh strainer over the two bowls and set aside. 

In a medium size saucepan, combine the cream, milk, sugar, and salt. Stir to combine and 
bring the mixture just to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a medium size bowl, whisk the egg yolks until smooth. Very slowly pour the hot cream mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon (it should register about 170 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer). 

Pour the custard through the fine mesh strainer into the prepared bowls. Whisk in the peanut butter and stir over the ice bath until the custard has cooled. Stir in the vanilla extract. Cover the surface of the custard with a sheet of plastic wrap and place another sheet over the bowl. Refrigerate until cold, preferably overnight. Process in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. Transfer ice cream to a quart container and freeze until ready to serve. 

Yield: 1 quart


  • After processing the ice cream, feel free to stir in chopped Reese's peanut butter cups or other fillings, if desired.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Oysters with Mignonette Sauce

There's nothing quite like raw oysters on the half shell with classic mignonette sauce. They're thrilling to eat: cold and briny; a jewel of the sea. They make great no-cook hors d'oeuvres for cocktail parties or a small gathering of friends. I'm sure my mother is shocked to be reading this, as I used to print out diagrams of oysters and mussels when I was a kid and present them to bivalve lovers attempting to prove a point. "Don't you realize you're eating... everything!?" But once I gave in and tried my first oyster suddenly those diagrams didn't seem to matter.

Most people are familiar with the saying "only eat oysters in months with an r." This old adage was especially important in the days before refrigeration, as eating oysters in warm water months and transporting them in heat was potentially dangerous. Not to mention, wild oysters spawn in the late spring and summer. Farmed oysters can be enjoyed year round, however, so long as they come from a reliable source (for more information on wild and farmed oysters, see the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list).

For me, the thought of oysters always brings to mind M.F.K. Fisher's book, Consider the Oyster. In it she writes, "American oysters differ as much as American people." Truer words have never been spoken. While there are only five species of oyster grown commercially in the U.S. and Canada (Eastern, Olympia, Pacific, Kumamoto, and European Flat), there are endless varieties of each named after the waters in which they're grown. 

Whichever variety of oyster you choose, see that they're stored on ice when you buy them with the curved sides of their shells facing down. This ensures that the oysters are resting in their juices. Fresh oysters will feel heavy in their shells and be tightly closed. But enough oyster talk, here's the recipe for a simple mignonette sauce:

Adapted from Alice Waters, The Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook

1/4 cup Champagne vinegar
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 medium shallot, minced
Freshly ground black pepper
12 to 36 oysters, washed and scrubbed under cold water

In a small bowl, stir together the vinegar, white wine, and shallots. Let stand for 20 to 30 minutes. Season with freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, shuck the oysters: if you don't own an oyster knife, an old school bottle opener works just as well. Place the oyster on a clean cutting board with the rounded side down and the hinge-end facing you. Hold the oyster with a dry kitchen towel to keep it from slipping (and to protect your hand) and insert the knife into the hinge. Rock the knife back and forth until you feel it push in. Twist the knife until the hinge pops. Carefully slide the knife along the top of the oyster to free it from the adductor muscle on the top shell, being careful not to puncture the oyster. Slide the knife under the oyster to free it from the adductor muscle on the bottom shell (being careful not to let the oyster liquor spill out). Discard the top shell. Check for any shell pieces or grit and place the oysters on a tray of ice (a metal baking pan works well) and serve immediately. Spoon on the mignonette sauce and enjoy!

Yield: Enough mignonnette sauce for about 36 oysters