Saturday, December 19, 2015

Browning Butter

Browned butter
Ah, butter. What could be better? That's what I thought until I tasted pumpkin cake slathered with brown butter frosting. To be clear, I fantasize about cake not frosting. But it was the hint of caramel hidden in the frosting that made me weak in the knees. It delivered a dollop of comfort that made me rethink plain ol' butter.
Beloved by the French, brown butter (or beurre noisette) is used in sweet and savory dishes alike. It deepens the flavor of tarts, cookies, and cakes, and is the backbone of quick-cooking sauces that are drizzled over fish, spooned over vegetables, and mixed in with pasta to make memorable meals.
Before Starting
Some general tips before we start: It’s important to monitor the color of the butter as it cooks, so use a stainless steel saucepan with a heatproof handle rather than a non-stick or cast-iron pan, which tend to have dark interiors that make monitoring color changes difficult. Also, I always opt for unsalted butter unless a recipe specifically calls for salted butter, so I can decide how much salt ends up in the dish.
Although brown butter is incorporated into many desserts, it’s important to note that melting butter changes its structure. Melted butter does not form air pockets when whipped with sugar, which is crucial for leavening. When a recipe calls for creaming plain butter and sugar, brown butter cannot necessarily be used in its place. However, brown butter can generally be substituted for regular butter in icing, mashed potatoes, lemon curd, and many other luscious items.
How to Brown Butter
Set a fine-mesh strainer over a heatproof bowl on the counter near the stove.

You can brown any amount of butter. I prefer to cut it into 1/2-inch pieces before placing it in the saucepan.

Cubes of butter

Heat the butter over medium heat. Stir it a few times to ensure even melting.

After a few minutes, the butter will begin to foam. The water is evaporating and the butterfat and milk solids are in the process of separating. 

Butter begins to foam

After a few more minutes, the foam will disappear. The butter will start to darken as the milk solids brown. Watch it carefully.

As soon as the butter turns honey brown, remove it from the heat. If it continues to cook, the milk solids can end up burning, leaving a bitter taste. However, if the butter is dark brown instead of amber, don’t worry -- you can use it as long as it’s not burnt.

Butter turns honey brown

Slowly pour the butter through the strainer into the heatproof bowl to catch the little flecks of milk solids bobbing around the bottom of the pan.
Use the brown butter immediately or store, covered, in the refrigerator for several months.

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Spiced Pumpkin Cupcakes

Cupcakes with icing   

When I was seven, I received a copy of Cricket’s Cookery from my Uncle Matthew. Inside the front cover, he penned the following directive in a curly-cued script that tangoed across the page:

“To Susan, help your Momie in need. Here is a good cookbook for you. Hope you will make some of the recipes.

Christmas 1977”

Measure and mix together wet and dry ingredients

Cricket's Cookery turned out to be the perfect gift for me - a child enthralled by her mom's sorcery in the kitchen and eager to enter its culinary fold. At a half inch thick, it was easier to hold than the culinary tomes that anchored our book shelf. Inside it offered recipes for Roly-Poly Pancakes, Mighty Meatballs, Yum-Yum Stew, and other inviting dishes. 

Cool baked cupcakes

The instructions for many of the recipes were meant to be sung out loud, a bonus for someone already apt to break into song. 

The Rainy Day Popcorn, for example, was to be prepared “…to the tune of Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” 

Its instructions begin like this:

“Put oil and corn into the pot.
Cover pot and heat till hot.
With a Pop! Pop! here and a Pop! Pop! there.
Here a Pop! There a Pop! Everywhere a Pop! Pop!”

For me, the underlying message was cooking could be loads of fun. 

Whip together frosting_edited-1

With my mom's help, I baked Oh, My Darling Sugar Cookies, Sugar Crumb Pies, Apple Doodle, and the other desserts, greasing pans and packing brown sugar along the way. I cracked open eggs and fished out shards of their shells from whirly waves of butter again and again.

Over time, I became the family baker and my mom focused on dishes prepared with palm fulls and pinches versus carefully measured ingredients. 

Garnish with candied pumpkin seeds

I have rolled out thousands of cookies and baked hundreds of cakes since unwrapping Cricket's Cookery's beneath a tinsel-laden tree. Its cover is bandaged with scotch tape and its back pages are wrinkled from water spills. Even so, it continues to be one of my most cherished culinary companions.


Makes 12

If you're looking for a delicious holiday dessert, try making these moist, perfectly spiced little cakes! This recipe calls for many of the basic techniques I learned while cooking from Cricket's Cookery. Trader Joe’s carries candied pumpkin seeds, which add a lovely bit of crunch. If you can't track them down, use salted pumpkin seeds instead. 


2 eggs
3/4 cup sunflower oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 cup flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 cup butter
4 ounces cream cheese
2 cups powdered sugar
Candied pumpkin seeds


Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the eggs, oil, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and pumpkin puree in a medium bowl. Whisk until thoroughly combined. 

Place the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and cloves in a medium bowl.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Stir until just combined. 

Fill 12 cupcake liners 3/4 way full. 

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Cool completely. 

Place 1 teaspoon vanilla, butter, cream cheese, and powdered sugar in a standing mixer and beat until fluffy. 

Frost cupcakes and top with candied pumpkin seeds.
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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Slice and Dice: Onions

Purple, yellow, and white onions
Ever dependable, onions form the foundation of the soups, stir-fries, and South India fare that come out of my kitchen. Yellow onions acts as a full-flavored workhorse. Red onions add a splash of color, while white ones exude a bit of tang. Sweet onions are the mildest of the bunch and provide a pleasant punch in salads.

A tip before chopping: If you tend to tear up when prepping onions, refrigerate them for 30 minutes to reduce the amount of sulfur that’s released into the air. 

To remove the skin:

Cut off both ends of the onion.

Slice off end

Place either end on a cutting board and slice the onion in half. (This makes it easier to remove the skin.)

Slice onion down the middle

Pull off the skin. 

Peel onion

To slice:

Place one half of the onion face down on your cutting board. Place your hand over the stem end of the onion. Place your knife at a 45-degree angle at the root end of the onion and slice out the core.

Cutting out core

Place your hand at the root end of the onion to hold it in place. Curl in the tips of your fingers. Hold your knife perpendicular to the cutting board and make thin slices across the onion. 

Slice across

To roughly chop:

Place one half of the onion face down on your cutting board with the root end intact. With the root end facing away from you, place one hand on the side of the onion. With your other hand, hold the knife perpendicular to the cutting board and, starting at the end opposite your hand, slice three-fourths of the way into the onion towards the root end, leaving the root end intact. (This keeps the onion from falling apart.) Continue slicing across the onion, leaving a half inch or so between each incision. 

Slice across to roughly chop

Turn the onion 90 degrees and slice across the onion, again leaving about a half inch between each cut. This will produce roughly chopped pieces. 

Roughly chop

To dice: 

Place one half of the onion face down on your cutting board with the root end intact. Place one hand at the root end. With your other hand, hold the knife parallel to the cutting board and slice three-fourths of the way through the onion, leaving the root end intact. Continue slicing the onion with the knife parallel to the cutting board, moving up and away from the cutting board. Leave a quarter inch between each incision.

Slice through

Turn the onion 90 degrees so the root end faces away from you. Hold the knife perpendicular to the cutting board and slice three-fourths of the way into the onion, leaving the root end intact. Slice across the onion, leaving a quarter inch between each cut.

Slice perpendicular to cutting board

Rotate the onion 90 degrees. Again, hold the knife perpendicular to the cutting board and slice across the onion to produce small cubes.


You can use the same basic technique to prep shallots. Just swap out a paring knife for your chef’s knife and follow the steps outlined above.

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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Spiced Yogurt (Morum Vellam)


When we traveled to India as a family, we landed in Cochin during the summer monsoon season. Torrential rains soaked the ground, and although black umbrellas were pulled out to protect us, our chappals were often engulfed in a wave of water. At night, lightening blazed across the sky as if competing with the candles that were lit when the electricity went out. Thunder erupted with the force of what felt like 1,000 tons of TNT, occasionally jolting me out of sleep.

Crush ginger and onions

The heavy rains were accompanied by highs of 90 degrees and oppressive humidity. At the time, no one had air-conditioning, and the muggy air, which moistened the back of my neck and lower back, was circulated around the room by high-powered ceiling fans.
 Add curry leaves_edited-1
No matter where we went, piping hot tea was offered to ward off the heavy-handed heat. It was combined with whole milk and a very generous quantity of sugar. Sari shops and jewelry stores handed it out in a ceramic mugs mid-way through a sale. Snack vendors poured the scalding drink from one steel cup to another to produce a froth before serving it to customers who they had beckoned with their rhythmic call. "Chai, chai, chai, chai!!!”

Stir ingredients

At some point, I’d start to complain about having to drink so much tea as it never seemed to quench my thirst and, worse yet, forced me to frequent the bathroom. In response, my parents would buy me a bottle of Thums Up or Campa Cola from a snack stand en route to a relative’s house. They would also stop the car for tender coconuts that had been harvested and scalped with a sharp machete for their fresh, rejuvenating water. Afterwards, my parents would eagerly scoop out the tender flesh, which giggled like a soft boiled egg. At the time, I thought they were crazy.


When I complained to my aunts about having to drink so much tea, they would make me a glass of sweetened lime juice or morum vellam (spiced yogurt). Both drinks were perfect for battling Kerala’s tropical heat. 

Morum vellam


Serves 2 to 4

Morum Vellam is a comforting drink any time of year. If you’re sensitive to heat, I suggest removing the seeds and ribs from the serrano pepper before adding it in.


1 cup organic low-fat yogurt
2 cups water
10 curry leaves
1/4 cup finely chopped shallot or red onion
1 tablespoon roughly chopped ginger
1 small serrano pepper, sliced lengthwise - hot
3/4 teaspoon salt


Crush the onions and ginger using a mortar and pestle.

Put the yogurt and water in a blender. Blend them together until fully incorporated. Pour into a pitcher. 

Add the curry leaves, ginger, pepper, and salt. Stir together. 

Chill for 4 to 6 hours. 

Strain liquid to remove curry leaves, ginger, and pepper.
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Friday, July 31, 2015

Tour of Lincoln Square

After Devon Avenue, Lincoln Square is my favorite neighborhood to wander about. Where else can you find marzipan for baking, Za'atar to dust over buttered bread, and a knife skills class to inspire home cooked meals (which really can’t be beat)? Hidden across this historically German neighborhood are cultural gems just waiting to be discovered, including a segment of the Berlin Wall and an ornate lamp from the city of Hamburg.

My trips to the commercial heart of the Lincoln Square, or “the Square” as locals call it, often include a stop at Genes Sausage Shop & Delicatessen. The 18,000 square foot market stocks hard-to-find ingredients including duck fat, smoked fish, and Oblatten (translation: baking wafers) for making cookies. Gene’s produces 40 plus varieties of smoked sausages and meats in-house. It also sells a wide variety of imported spirits and beer. Flavored with grapefruit, Stiegl Radler is my favorite beverage among them.

Savory Spice Shop is located just across Lincoln Avenue. It is a relatively new but very welcome addition to the Square. As you might have guessed, it stocks a wide array of spices, dried herbs and spice blends, including Za'atar. I am particular fond of the herb offerings as they are very fresh. Savory Spice Shop is also a great place to find vanilla beans. You can take your pick among three varieties: Mexican, Tahitian, and the more common Madagascar "Bourbon." I also like to stock up on true cinnamon. I learned from staff at the store that the spice commonly labeled as cinnamon in the U.S. is actually its botanical cousin, cassia.

Chef outfit CB

The Chopping Block is a hop and a skip south of Savory Spice Shop. It started as a small store front in Lincoln Park, but has grown into the largest recreational cooking school in the U.S.! The Lincoln Square location, which opened in 2003, has a spacious teaching kitchen on the second floor and an outdoor classroom out back. If you’re eager to learn cooking fundamentals, I recommend taking their knife skills class. I signed up years ago, and have benefited from the instruction ever since!

At the end of my mini-excursion, I like to stop at Flirty Cupcakes, which opened a cupcake garage in the neighborhood last year. 

Interested in learning more about Lincoln Square after this jaunt through the neighborhood? Then check out our guided Tour of Lincoln Square. It's also a great way to entertain out-of-town guests you're hosting this summer.
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Monday, June 1, 2015

Slice and Dice: Fresh Herbs

Low in calories and immensely flavorful, herbs transform deviled eggs, potato salad, and rubs from ordinary to "oh my gawd" exceptional. Like a pied piper, they draw us to pesto, tabbouleh, and refreshing mint ice cream.

Cooking Tips

Basil, parsley, dill, and love-it-or-hate-it cilantro have delicate leaves and tender stems. Sensitive to heat, they are best eaten raw or added at the end of the cooking process. 

Rosemary, thyme, and sage on the other hand have thick leaves and tough stems that can withstand prolonged heat. Their raw leaves are rubbery, but become palatable with cooking. They should be chopped before they are cooked or added with their stem intact and removed before serving. 

Fresh Versus Dry


Fresh herbs have greater complexity than their dried counterparts. Fresh rosemary, for example, has notes of cloves, lavender, nutmeg, and pine, but when dried often loses all but its pine flavor. (See both pictured below). Opt for fresh herbs whenever possible. If dried herbs are your only option, purchase them in small quantities as they quickly degrade.


Prepping Fresh Herbs


Grab a sharp knife (to avoid bruising and crushing your herbs), a cutting board, and a few sheets of paper towel, and follow these simple steps:

Wash herbs and pat them dry with a paper towel.

To chop herbs with fragile leaves like parsley and cilantro: 

Remove the leaves from the stem (this step is optional when prepping cilantro). Pinch the base of your knife. With your other hand, wad up the loose leaves. Slice through them.

Hold the knife over the sliced leaves. Place your other hand on the back of the knife and rock it back and forth over the leaves.

To chop hardy herbs, like rosemary, thyme, sage, and marjoram:

Remove the leaves from the woody stem. With one hand, hold the knife pinching the base. Place the other hand on the back of the knife and rock the knife back and forth over the leaves.

To chiffonade (thinly slice) basil, sage, or mint:

Remove the leaves from the stems and stack five or six leaves in a pile. Roll the leaves lengthwise into a tight cylinder, then hold the tip of the cylinder with one hand and slice it into thin strips with the knife.

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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Cooking with Coriander Seeds

 Coriander seeds and cilantro

During my first year at the community garden, I planted cilantro for Honey, my spunky, produce-loving bunny.  She enjoyed sprigs of the tender herb throughout the summer. By September, it started to look tired and spindly, and I turned my attention to the local farmer’s market.  During the weeks that followed, the plants’ scalloped leaves turned feathery. Teensy-weensy white flowers appeared, eventually morphing into green pods. Then, as if by magic, the pods turned as tan as a paper bag and formed ridged. I was elated…nature had gifted me with, coriander seeds, a spice essential to my repertoire of recipes.

Coriander seeds are used to flavor delectable non-vegetarian Indian dishes including Spicy Fried Beef, Beef Cutlets, Kerala Beef Puffs, and my Mom’s Chicken Biryani. They are also a key ingredient in Sambar Powder, a dynamic masala used to season my all-time favorite comfort food. You will always find a jarful tucked alongside cardamom pods, turmeric, mustard seeds, cinnamon sticks, asafoetida, and tamarind in my cupboard. 

Purchasing Coriander Seeds

Like most spices, coriander seeds should be purchased whole. Once ground, they begin to lose their robust flavor, much like a pricked balloon seeps out air. Be aware that coriander seeds and cilantro (the beloved and oft despised herb it produces) can both be referred to as coriander in Indian recipes and ethnic markets. (Not sure if that is something else to pin on the British?) Either way, do not substitute one for the other as their flavors are dramatically different. Coriander seeds are warm and nutty while cilantro has a fresh, slightly grassy taste.

Cooking with Coriander

Coriander seeds are encased in a basket-like husk, which acts as a thickener in moist dishes, such as Sambar. For added texture when coating meat or fish, grind them roughly rather than pulverizing them into a powder. To heighten the seed’s flavor, dry roast them in a heavy bottomed pan before you grind them. 

Dry roasting coriander seeds 
Coriander seeds in a spice grinder

Ground coriander seeds


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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Slice and Dice: Mangoes

During my last trip to Kerala, I stayed with my dad’s younger sister, Jolly. I wanted to learn her culinary secrets so we spent a lot of time in the kitchen. It quickly become my favorite space in the house. An oft used jug of coconut oil rested in a cubbyhole above the stove. Peppercorns, which had been plucked from the yard and dried atop a copy of the local paper, were also just within reach. There was an earthenware vessel shaped like a large vase tucked below the stone spice grinder. I learned that my grandmother, Amachi, had used it to ferment green mangoes. After my grandfather died, she swore off pickling India's national fruit, and gave it to Jolly Auntie. Before the hand off, she had prepped many a mango.

The truth is if you want to cook and eat some really lovely Kerala dishes, you'll need to learn to prepare mangoes, which grows in abundance across the state. The native stone fruit can be used when they are firm and green or soft and juicy. Eager to slice one up? Then check out these tips.

How to Select a Mango

Mangoes come in many different shades. However, when selecting the stone fruit, don’t be fooled by its color. Give it a gentle squeeze. If it gives like a ripe peach, you’ll know it’s ready to eat. So nab it.

 How to Prep a Mango

Inside every mango lies a stubborn, oblong pit. The most important step when prepping the succulent fruit is separating the flesh from the pit. Here’s how it’s done: 

Carefully wash the mango. Slice off the tip to make it easier to peel. Then using a vegetable peeler, remove the skin.

Slice off the lower tip of the mango

Peel off the skin

Hold the mango on its side on a cutting board. Place the knife right next to the seed and slice off one side. If you hit the seed, move the knife further off center and give it another try.

Slice off the flesh from the side of the seed

Rotate the fruit and repeat on the other side.

Slice the flesh off of the other side of the mango

You’ll be left with a ring of flesh encircling the pit. You have two choices: either nibble it off as a gift to yourself. Or place the seed flat on the cutting board. Following the contour of the pit, slice off the flesh.

How to Slice a Mango

Place one half of the mango on a cutting board.  Cut across the fruit width wise or lengthwise depending on how large you want the slices.

Slice the mango width wise or lengthwise

How to Chop a Mango

Place the cut side of the mango on a cutting board.  Cut across it width wise. Rotate the mango 90-degrees and cut across it lengthwise.

Rotate the mango and slice into chuncks
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