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BAKED WONTONS

The Sunday family dinner with Carol and her family has become a regular thing. Carol always comes up with interesting and delicious things to cook. In general, she has also tried to make things that are relatively simple so that she and the family can spend most of Sunday on the beach or at one or another family activity. Still, that puts the pressure on me to come up with something that is easy and tasty – with the added requirement that it is not a repeat of one of our earlier menus. This last week my assignment was appetizer and dessert. For dessert I made a mixed berry galette. I have included the recipe in an earlier post, but I had never made it for our family dinners, so its inclusion seemed legitimate. Berry galette bakes up beautifully and has the fresh, sweet taste of spring (even though it’s winter) I have made the recipe a number of times. My most important insight is that you should bake the galette on a parchment or Silpat lined jelly roll pan and NOT a cookie sheet. No matter how hard you try to seal the crust around the berries, some of the juice well leak out. If you have no sides to the baking pan, they will spill into the oven creating a lot of smoke and a huge cleanup project.

For the appetizer, I was looking for something simple and tasty. There is a recipe for deep-fried cheese-filled wonton wrappers in our family cookbook which served as the beginning idea. A search of the internet revealed a large number of versions of filled wontons, baked or fried, lots of fillings, often centered on crab. Since some of the family have an aversion to crab (How is that possible?), that was out. One of our diners has a great affinity for goat cheese. That was in. I picked shrimp, spinach, and mushrooms as other good stuffing ingredients.

These wontons are basted in olive oil and baked rather than deep-fried. I’m not sure if that cuts back on the calories, but it makes one feel more righteous. Our family recipe just calls for the wonton wrapper to be folded over the filling into a triangle. That seems dull. This version pulls the corners of the wonton wrapper into a little pyramid that bakes up with a golden crust. They look difficult to make. Actually, they are just as easy as the boring triangles

There was enough filling for 40 to 60 individual baked wontons. At the end of the evening there were none left. I call that success.

RECIPE

Baked Wontons

Shrimp filling

Ingredients

  • ½ cup crumbled goat cheese (may substitute softened cream cheese)
  • ½ pound small (51-60/pound) shrimp (sometimes called salad shrimp), cleaned, peeled and cooked
  • zest and juice of ½ lemon
  • ½ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
  • salt and pepper

Method

  1. Pulse the goat cheese in a food processor until smooth.
  2. Add the remaining ingredients and pulse only until combined, leaving shrimp bits to your liking.
  3. Set aside until ready to fill the wontons.

Mushroom and spinach filling

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 6 crimini mushrooms, chopped coarsely
  • 4 handfuls fresh baby spinach leaves
  • ½ cup goat cheese (may substitute softened cream cheese)
  • zest and juice of ½ lemon
  • 1 teaspoon Pernod
  • salt and pepper

Method

  1. Heat the olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium-low heat
  2. Add the mushrooms and sauté for a few minutes until the mushrooms are cooked through. Add the spinach and cook until the spinach is completely wilted.
  3. Pulse the mixture in the bowl of a food processor until the desired consistency.
  4. Add the goat cheese and pulse until well combined. Add Pernod and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
  5. Set aside until ready to fill the wontons

Baked wontons

Ingredients

  • 1 package of wonton wrappers (should have at least 60 wrappers)
  • fillings as above
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon water
  • olive oil

Method

  1. On a clean, dry surface, arrange wonton wrappers for filling.
  2. Place about 1½ teaspoons of filling in the center of each wrapper. Be careful not to overfill so that the wontons will stay sealed during baking.
  3. In a small bowl, beat the egg and water together until well combined. With your finger, trace the outer edge of a wonton with the wash. Then, pull up adjacent corners of the wonton and press together. Repeat with the other corners to form a four-sided “tent”. Make sure that the edges are all well sealed.
  4. Repeat with the remaining wontons. Repeat the entire process until you have used up all the filling or have gotten tired.
  5. Lightly oil a baking sheet with olive oil. Arrange the filled wontons so that they do not touch one another. With a pastry brush, lightly brush the tops of the wontons with more olive oil.
  6. Bake for 10-12 minutes in the middle of an oven pre-heated to 400°F.
  7. Cool on a rack. Serve while still warm or later reheat in a 300°F oven for no more than 5 minutes. Makes about 40-60 wontons.

 

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FRIED GOAT-CHEESE-STUFFED GREEN OLIVES

The other night we dropped by the bar at Staab House in La Posada Resort and Spa. That was where we had the reception for our younger daughter’s wedding some years ago, so we went back for a bit of nostalgia. It was Happy Hour, so we got their house cocktails. I got Julia’s Manhattan. The drink is named after the resident ghost of the Staab House. (Doesn’t very bar of any age have its own ghost?) and the drink included elderberry liqueur. It was delicious.

We also got some of their bar foods. A standout was the fried green olives stuffed with goat cheese and served with fried Marcona almonds. The olives were so delicious and so unique, that I determined to try them at home. I found some giant olives at the store along with goat cheese. I just bought things off the shelf, but you could get fancy and use olives from the olive bar and artisanal goat cheese.  The major challenge was to figure out how to get the breadcrumbs to stick to the olives. The bread crumbs on the original looked like panko, so that was a place to start.

I tried xanthan gum as the glue, but all I got was a sticky blob of clumped xanthan. Then I tried egg wash made from egg white diluted with a little water. That didn’t work any better than the xanthan gum. I checked my cookbooks to no avail, so I was finally forced to turn to the internet. There, mirabile dictu, were at least ten recipes for fried olives stuffed with all sorts of things including Italian sausage. They all described the dish as “easy”. What was the secret of all of these recipes? The answer seemed to be using classic breading technique – dry the olives, dredge them in flour, coat them in egg, and then dip them in bread crumbs. Regular bread crumbs work, but if you want to use panko, you need to grind them a little finer in a spice mill or with a rolling pin. I tried these suggestions and wound up with this recipe. After all my scouting efforts, I opened my new (May, 2015) cop of Saveur magazine to find yet another recipe for olives stuffed with ground beef and pork (page 57)

Shamelessly, I am posting my own recipe in the face of all of that professional competition. It might be easier just to go back to the Staab House.

RECIPE

Fried Goat-Cheese-Stuffed Green Olives

Ingredients

  • 24 colossal pitted green olives
  • 4 ounces mild goat cheese, softened at room temperature
  • all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 egg, beaten until smooth
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • dry bread crumbs or crushed panko
  • peanut oil for frying

Method

  1. Drain and dry the olives
  2. Place the softened goat cheese in a pastry sleeve fitted with a ½ inch plain tip. ( Alternatively, you can use a 1/8 teaspoon measuring spoon or your fingers to stuff the olives._
  3. Fill the pitted olives with the goat cheese.
  4. In a pie plate, mix the flour and salt. In a small bowl, combine the beaten egg and water. Sprinkle bread crumbs in a second pie plate.
  5. Dredge the filled olives in a shallow dish filled with flour mixture. Individually, toss the olives in your open hand to remove any extra flour.
  6. Dip the floured olives one by one in the bowl with the beaten egg mixture. Transfer to the pie plate of bread crumbs and toss lightly to coat the olives with bread crumbs. Make sure the cheese stuffing is well-coated.
  7. Dry the olives for 30 minutes on a rack. You can prepare the olives ahead up to this point.
  8. When you are ready to fry the olives, heat enough of the peanut oil in a heavy, high-sided pan to submerge the olives. Heat the oil to 350°F. Use a thermometer to check the temperature.. In batches, fry the olives for just a few minutes, turning occasionally until the crust is golden brown. Drain on layers of paper towels. Keep warm until all of the olives are fried.
  9. Serve while still warm.

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STUFFED SQUASH BLOSSOMS REDUX

It’s the time of year again when squash blossoms make their appearance at the local farmers market. When that happens, I always buy a dozen for stuffing. Of course, if you have your own zucchini patch, you can harvest your own squash blossoms. Choose the male flowers without the swelling at the bottom that will ultimately become the mature squash.

It is surprising how many things you can do with these delicate flowers. There is a lovely soup, sopa de flor de calabazas, and you can use them in quesadillas, pancakes, etc., etc., but I always wind up stuffing them.  Whatever you do with them, use them the day you buy or pick them because they fade very quickly. If the blossoms have stems, you can keep them fresh in ice water in the refrigerator with a plastic bag over them, just as you keep parsley and other herbs. Even then, you should try to use them the same day you buy or pick them.

Exactly three years ago, I posted a recipe for stuffed squash blossoms which I liked a lot (still do), but the batter was a little heavy. The mushrooms I used to stuff them were tasty, but there are so many other options, that I thought you might like this version which has a lighter tempura batter and a stuffing of local ingredients. You can even fry squash blossoms with no stuffing and no batter at all. In truth, whatever you do with the flowers, they almost always turn out delicious.

One step that is often overlooked is the removal of the stamen. You can stuff the blossoms with the stamen still in, but it may make things a little bitter, and besides you want there to be as much room for the stuffing as possible. To perform that little surgical task, you can use a pair of long tweezers. I use a surgical hemostat. Scissors might work, and if your fingers are not too fat, they might work, as well. An important caution with this step is not to tear the sides of the blossom cup or the leaves. If you do that you run the risk of having all the filling run out while frying, even with a patch job. Some images on the internet show part of the flower cut away. If you are just going to stuff the flowers, that will work, but if you plan to fry them, the stuffing needs to be hidden away.

Stuffed squash blossoms sound a bit complicated. They aren’t really, and they are certainly worth the effort.

RECIPE

Fried Squash Blossoms Stuffed with Goat Cheese and Pine Nuts

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces chèvre-style goat cheese softened at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons shallot very finely chopped
  • ¼ cup parsley, finely chopped
  • ½ cup pine nuts
  • salt and pepper
  • 12 fresh, large squash blossoms
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1½ cups ice water
  • peanut oil for frying

Method

  1. In a small bowl, combine the softened goat cheese and lemon juice to form a smooth paste. Stir in the shallot and parsley.
  2. In a small dry skillet over medium heat, roast the pine nuts for a few minutes, stirring them frequently, so that they brown slightly and release their oils. Be very careful not to burn. Remove from the heat. Cool. Chop coarsely if you like, and stir them into the cheese mixture. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Set aside.
  3. Prepare the blossoms by removing the stamens, being careful not to tear the petals of the flowers. If the flowers are dusty, you may rinse them, although they do best with as little handling as possible.
  4. With a spoon, pastry sleeve, or your fingers, fill each blossom with stuffing. I have found the greatest success using my fingers. Fill only to the base of the petals so that you can fold them over one another and seal them with a dab of the cheese mixture. Arrange on a plate and chill for the few minutes needed to prepare the batter and heat the cooking oil.
  5. Place one cup of flour in a pie plate.
  6. In a small bowl that is big enough to dip the blossoms individually, beat the egg yolk and ice water together and then stir in the remaining cup of flour. The batter should be smooth, but it is not essential to get out all of the lumps as long as they are not too big.
  7. Fill a deep heavy-bottomed pot with 2 inches of cooking oil and heat to 375°. It’s a good idea to use a thermometer if you have one. Temperature will plunge when you start to fry, so you will need to regulate the flame.
  8. Remove the filled squash blossoms from the refrigerator, and one at a time, dip them into the flour, shaking off any extra. Then dip them into the batter, drain for a minute, and transfer to the hot cooking oil. Working in batches of no more than three or four, fry the blossoms, turning them frequently until they are lightly browned and crisp on all sides.
  9. Drain on multiple layers of paper towel and transfer to a plate in the oven at 200° until they are all fried. Serve immediately.
  10. Three to six individual blossoms make a good appetizer-sized serving for one person. You can gild the lily, so to speak, with a dipping sauce or salsa, but the stuffed flowers can easily stand on their own.

 

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BOUILLABAISSE

Live lobster

Fish soup or chowder in one of the true delights of an early winter evening this time of year. There are so many delicious soups that it is hard to list them: clam chowder – both New England and Manhattan – cioppino, fish stew, seafood gumbo, and on and on. Probably the most elegant of all, though, is bouillabaisse.

Cooked lobster

Lobster ready to go in the soup

In Volume I of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, Julia Child reminded us that bouillabaisse started out as a simple fish soup made from the catch of the day or from leftovers of the fish monger. These days, though, the soup has morphed into something special served at the best restaurants.  There are hundreds of variations of this French classic, and each is claimed to be more authentic than the next.

Fresh vegetables for the soup

Prepared vegetables

Whenever we visit our daughters, they always try to make something special and yet also play on one of our favorites. This year, we visited our daughter in Los Angeles during the Thanksgiving week. This is her version of bouillabaisse, based upon a recipe by Alfred Portale in his classic cookbook, “Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook”, Doubleday, 1997. It is filled with lobster, clams, mussels, shrimp, and crabs. You can add any other fish you like, and squid is also a good addition.

Stirring the pot

Ready to be served to the hungry crowd

The recipe is lengthy, to say the least, but worth the effort and expense.

Serve it with a light salad. My daughter chose a salad of roasted golden beets, sugared pecans, and warm goat cheese on a bed of mesclun. She also served a crusty French bread for dipping after the shellfish and lobsters are all eaten.

Roasted beet salad with candied pecans and warm goat cheese

RECIPES

Ingredients

Bouillabaisse

2 live lobsters

1/2 Cup olive oil

4 Cups fish stock

1 medium onion, chopped

1/2 Cup chopped fresh fennel

1/2 Cup chopped leeks, whites only

1 head garlic, cut in half

2 teaspoons ground fennel seed

2 teaspoons ground white pepper

10 sprigs fresh thyme

2 sprigs fresh tarragon

1 star anise

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads

1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika

1/8 teaspoon red pepper

1 bay leaf

4 Tablespoons tomato paste

1 Cup canned tomatoes with juice

1 Cup dry white wine

2 Cups chicken stock

1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced

1 medium yellow bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced

1/8 teaspoon saffron threads

24 large, unshelled shrimp

24 Manila clams

20 mussels

8 ounces lump crab meat

2 Tablespoons Pernod

Bouilli Butter

3 three-inch strips of orange zest

8 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 large garlic clove mashed to a paste with salt

1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon

Kosher salt to taste

1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika

1/4 teaspoon ground star anise

1/4 teaspoon ground fennel seed

1/4 teaspoon saffron

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

  1. Bring at 3 gallons (12 quarts) of salted water to a rolling boil in a large pot. Plunge the lobsters in the boiling water, cover, and cook for about 4 minutes.
  2. Remove the lobsters to a cutting board, twist off the large claws and return them to the pot for an additional 4 minutes.
  3. Separate the lobster heads from the tails. Cut the tails in half lengthwise and combine them with the cooked claws in a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate.
  4. In a large stockpot over medium heat, heat the oil and then add the lobster heads. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the lobster heads are bright red. Then add the fish stock, onions, fennel, leeks, and garlic. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for about 5 minutes.
  5. Add the fennel seed, white pepper, thyme, tarragon, star anise, saffron, paprika, red pepper, and bay leaf. Cook for 5 minutes. Then add the tomato paste, tomatoes, and wine. Raise the heat to high and cook until reduced to about half.
  6. Add the chicken stock and enough water, if needed, to cover the ingredients. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes.  Remove from the heat for 20 minutes. Then strain into a large container, pressing the solids to extract the flavor.
  7. Cook the fingerlings in  a large pot of salted boiling water until tender, about 15 minutes. Set aside in the cooking water.
  8. In a large stockpot, heat the remaining oil over low heat. Add the onion and fennel, cooking until tender. Add the red and yellow peppers, cooking for another 15 minutes
  9. Add the strained stock. Bring to a boil over high heat. Drain the potatoes and add them to the boiling stock. Add the shrimp. clams, and mussels. Cover and cook for 3 minutes. Then add the cooked lobster with its juices and the crab.  Cook until all the shellfish open, about 3 minutes.
  10. In the meantime, prepare the bouilli butter. Blanch the orange zest in boiling water for 1 minute, drain, chop finely, and combine with paprika, star anise, fennel, saffron, cayenne, and white pepper. Add to the softened butter and combine throughly. Place the mixture on a plastic wrap, shape into a log, and chill for one hour in the refrigerator.
  11. Strain through a large colander into a large bowl. Transfer the shellfish and vegetables to a large serving bowl. Pour the strained liquid back into the stockpot and bring to the boil. Add Pernod and 4 tablespoons of the prepared bouilli butter. Then pour the soup into the serving bowl.
  12. Serve in large, deep soup bowls with plenty of good French bread for dipping.

Serves 6 to 8

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MOTHER’S NIGHT OUT – OR IN – AS THE CASE MAY BE

Goat cheese semifreddo with figs and walnut nougatine

It seems as though I have spent a fair amount of this summer cooking for myself or eating out or making do with popcorn. The reason is that my wife has been very busy on the baby-sitting circuit, a task that she enjoys. I am glad that our children and grandchildren, too, enjoy the visits. We are a conventional modern American family spread out all over the map. In times past, when parents needed a helping hand for whatever reason, Grandma lived just next door or even in the same house. That was certainly true when I grew up, and I spent many a day in my grandmother’s kitchen watching her cook or helping her with the bread making.

Chilled corn soup with padron peppers and nasturtium flowers

No more; and with two breadwinners in all of our family households, the emergencies seem to be frequent and without a local resolution. The good thing is that all of our children live just a short distance from a good-sized airport, and so do we.
So far this summer, one baby-sitting job occurred because Mom had to go on a business trip while Dad had some major work responsibilities. Another time, Mom had some responsibilities at work, and the kids were out of school with no place to go. Yet another time, one of our daughters became a first-time mom, so of course that required some grandmotherly help. That daughter is a professional chef who worked nearly up until her delivery. Now she is anxious to get back to work, but restaurant and baby schedules are in direct conflict because so much of both occur late at night.
A couple of weeks ago, my wife went to take care of our 3 month-old grandson while my daughter did the pop-up dinner I wrote about recently. It was a very successful event, so my daughter and her husband scheduled another dinner. Big problem – Grandma had already scheduled a baby-sitting date with my other daughter, who had a major project to complete at her work with no reliable childcare backup. Fortunately, she and my wife had built in a little slack in their schedules, so she [Daughter1] was able to fly up from Los Angeles to San Francisco for a day to help Daughter 2 with baby care.
It was a long day and night as Daughter 2 cooked and cleaned up until 2 AM. Baby managed to keep Auntie awake most of that time, and then the return flight to LA was so early in the morning that Daughter 1 got virtually no sleep. She also got no leftovers, so she didn’t get to enjoy what turned out to be another great meal. Still, she didn’t complain because she got to enjoy her young nephew.

Pappardelle with Douglas fir-roasted chicken and preserved lemon

     Thus is the life of modern mothers and grandmothers. It is hard to see how they manage to squeeze everything into a busy life and do it with love and patience. My hat is off to all the women in my family, including my busy daughter-in-law. They all deserve the love and support of their spouses. Fortunately, I think they all get that {Though secretly they probably all wish it could be more.)
Images this time are from the preparation and presentation of the most recent pop-up dinner.

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