Monday, October 26, 2009

The Calm Before the Storm

I kind of feel like a teenager who's missed curfew and is trying to sneak back into the house without their parent's detection. You know you're late, but you're hoping there's some way to get into bed and then act all nonchalant like you've been there for hours doing your nails when your mom pops her head into your room and finds you there. Personally, I could never pull it off. At a certain point you just had to suck it up and face the music. So without further ado . . .  I realize I haven't blogged in 22 days. I wish I had a good excuse (i.e. alien abduction), but I don't really have one (although I was recently in New Mexico). At least when I was younger, I could usually blame my older brother ("Mom, I swear I wanted to come home on time. I couldn't get Rob to leave the party!"), but I can't play that card here. How about just "I'm sorry and I won't let it happen again. And here is a nice recipe I think you'll enjoy!" 

I do feel as if this time of year is the calm before the storm. Once Halloween hits, it seems like the holiday tornado is unleashed. I admit I considered momentarily ordering holiday cards last night as I booked my airline ticket for Thanksgiving, but couldn't bring myself to do it. For one, the 87 degree weather we're having is tricking my brain into thinking that Labor Day is around the corner. And two, I want to relish the peaceful pre-holiday window just a tad longer. Plus, it's a great time to make some tasty treats you can pop in the freezer now to enjoy in the midst of the holiday hustle and bustle — which really is just around the corner.  

I think it's nice to have a few tricks up your sleeve for the holidays, which means you have to plan ahead. OK, that sounds a bit soap-boxy. What I really mean to say is it's much easier to do this now than when you're trying to juggle the end-of-year push at work, family commitments, holiday shopping, insane people who are also out holiday shopping, bad weather, travel, etc. I discovered this great recipe, which I think makes for the perfect holiday "secret weapon." These empanadas would make an awesome Thanksgiving amuse-bouche, a delicious (and easy) addition to a holiday cocktail party or buffet (thumbs up for anything you can make ahead), or even a thoughtful gift (as long as there is a freezer nearby) for any hardworking, food-loving hostess. 

They'll be the perfect foil to the holiday madness. And you'll look like a rock star.  

Chicken and Chorizo Empanadas with Raisins, Olives and Spinach
Adapted from Gourmet (R.I.P.)

1 breast and 2 thighs of rotisserie chicken, shredded and chopped
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 large onions, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 California bay leaf (or 2 Turkish)
3/4 cup finely diced Spanish chorizo, casing removed
1/2 tsp Spanish smoked paprika (not hot)
1 tsp coriander 
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 cup pitted green olives, chopped
1/3 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup dry white wine or vermouth
1/2 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
8 oz frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
Empanada dough (recipe following) or 1 lb pizza dough
1 egg 

Saute onions, garlic and bay leaves in olive oil until onions are softened, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add chicken and chorizo, along with paprika, coriander, salt and pepper. Add olives, raisins, spinach, wine and broth, then reduce heat to moderately low and simmer until liquid has evaporated but mix is still moist. The goal is to avoid a soupy empanada filling. 
Divide your empanada dough into two sections. Roll out first section on a floured surface until the dough is very thin, probably 1/8" in thickness. You need the dough to be thick enough to hold the filling but not so thick to overwhelm eat bite so all you get is a mouthful of dough. Keep the other half of the dough wrapped in plastic and refrigerated. 
Cut out 3" circles as your empanada base. Place a dollop of filling in the middle of each circle. You don't need much — about 1 Tbsp per circle. Wet the edges of the circle and fold in half to seal. Press the edges with a fork to create a decorative border. I think it goes faster if you do this in an assembly line fashion: cut out all the circles, then add the filling to all, then fold and seal, etc. Brush the top of each empanada with an egg wash of 1 yoke and 1 Tbsp water. 
If you are going to eat them immediately, place them on a lightly greased cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 25-40 minutes, until golden brown. 
If you are going to freeze these, simply put the finished empanadas on a cookie sheet and stick in the freezer until firm. You can then remove them and store in a Ziploc bag for a month or two in the freezer. To reheat, place them on a cookie sheet and thaw for about 15 minutes. Bake them at 350 degrees for 25-40 minutes, until golden brown. Yields: Approximately forty 3-in empanadas. 

Empanada Dough
2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 large egg
1/3 cup ice water
1 Tbsp distilled white vinegar

Sift flour with salt into a large bowl and blend in butter with your fingertips or a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse meal with some pea-sized butter lumps. 
Beat together egg, water, and vinegar in a small bowl with a fork. Add to flour mixture, stirring with a fork until just incorporated. The mixture will look "shaggy."
Turn out mixture on a lightly floured surface and gather together, then knead gently with the heel of your hand once or twice, just enough to bring dough together. Form dough into a flat rectangle, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Yields: Approximately twenty 3-in empanadas. 

Note: The filling can be made 2 days ahead and cooled, uncovered, then chilled, covered. It also can be frozen until you're ready to make these. Just bring the filling to room temperature before assembling. This recipe actually makes a lot of filling (enough for 40+ or double the dough recipe), so you may want to make one batch and then freeze the rest until you're ready for your next batch. Just make sure there's not a lot of excess water from the spinach. 
I have not made these with pizza dough but that is what the original recipe called for. To me, it was not difficult to make the dough from scratch — and that is coming from a non-baker! I'm sure they'd still be a hit if you used the shortcut, which may be all the time you have during the holidays so don't let that stop you. As an alternative, you might even consider making this into a calzone, which would also be sure to please on a cold winter's night. 

Sunday, October 4, 2009

All Gussied Up

I am particularly picky about bananas. I will only eat them when they are JUST ripe, still with a tinge of green to them. Ideally they should be unblemished with nary a black mark on the peel. And God forbid I bite into the banana to find any mushy brown areas. The whole banana goes into the garbage (guilt by association). But I love bananas. I eat at least one every day. However, given my very narrow definition of edible bananas, I end up going to the grocery store and buying a few barely ripe bananas about every two to three days.  

Every once in awhile I get over zealous and buy a half dozen. I carefully select them from four or five different bunches, trying for a spectrum of greenness in hopes of each banana ripening in turn so I can get almost a week's worth of bananas. In spite of my efforts, the bananas don't cooperate. By day two the remaining and previously totally green and unripe bananas are suddenly speckled and dark yellow! ¡Quelle horreur! I'm embarrassed to admit this but they usually go immediately into the trash. 

Of course, from time to time, my conscious gets to me and I take the inedible bananas and make banana bread with them, which is truly the only acceptable use of bananas in such a compromised state. But why make just your ordinary banana bread when you can make a banana bread that's all gussied up?! That's what I thought . . . . 

One of my favorite reads this year was A Homemade Life by Orangette blogger Molly Wizenburg. It's bursting with great and personal stories about her life and the influence food has had on it — whether it was in the background or the center stage, to help nurse wounds or celebrate happy moments, or just to serve as reminders of experiences that shape us as individuals. Part of the joy of this book is the numerous recipes Molly so graciously shares with her readers. I'm not exaggerating when I say I've dog-eared three-quarters of the pages to mark recipes I want to try. One of the highest repeating recipes thus far has been Molly's Chocolate Chip Banana Bread with Crystallized Ginger. That's right: Moist, dense banana bread oozing with little pockets of melty chocolate and piquant studs of translucent golden ginger. 

It's hands down the fanciest banana bread, and dare I say gussied up banana bread I've ever eaten. It's sumptuous enough to serve as dessert after dinner, something I'd never do with the original version. It strikes a delicious harmony with the rich semisweet chocolate, the crystallized ginger (which is like an adult gumdrop with a slight kick), and the bananas. Honestly, once you try it, it's virtually impossible to eat Plain Jane Banana Bread ever again. 

And did I mention how easy it is to make? It doesn't even require a mixer or softened butter, which is my baking nemesis. Maybe that speaks to my impatience (not my proudest trait). When I want to make cookies, I want to make cookies. Right then. Not six hours later once the butter has softened up. Let me just tell you that I've yet to perfect the "softening" of butter via the microwave. I just get liquid butter. But I digress . . . . 

So next time, instead of force-feeding yourself those disgusting overripe bananas, make this instead. It will make you feel all pretty and decadent — even if you're sitting at home in your sweat pants eating off a paper plate. 

Banana Bread with Chocolate and Crystallized Ginger
By Molly Wizenburg

6 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/3 cup crystallized ginger, finely chopped
2 large eggs
3 ripe bananas, mashed
1/4 cup well-stirred whole-milk plain yogurt (not low or nonfat)
1 tsp vanilla extract

Set a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Grease a 9x5-in loaf pan with cooking spray or butter. 
Melt butter on the stove or in the microwave and set aside to cool slightly. 
In a large bowl,whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Add the chocolate chips and crystallized ginger and whisk well to combine. Set aside. 
In a medium bowl, lightly beat the eggs with a fork. Add the mashed bananas, yogurt, melted butter and vanilla and stir to mix well. Pour the banana mixture into the dry ingredients, and stir gently with a rubber spatula, scraping down the sides as needed until just combined. Do not overmix. The batter will be thick and somewhat lumpy, just make sure all the flour has been incorporated. Scrape the batter into the loaf pan and smooth the top. 
Bake until the loaf is a deep shade of golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 50 minutes to an hour. If the loaf seems to be browning too quickly, tent with foil. 
Cool the loaf in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Then tip out onto the rack and let it cool completely before slicing. Yields: 1 loaf pan. 

Notes: Try to chop the crystallized ginger as finely as possible, which admittedly is not easy but is worth the effort. And definitely keep it to 1/3 cup. I added more once and it was too strong and seemingly disjointed. I have been told this freezes well wrapped in plastic and again in foil, but I've never had any left to freeze. But speaking of freezers, you can keep ripe bananas in there until you're ready to use them. They will turn black but will be perfect for baking when thawed.