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Friday, February 24, 2012

Balsamic-Parmesan Salad Dressing

Are you as sick of balsamic vinegar salad dressings as we are? Don't get us wrong—the mellow, aged vinegar is wonderful stuff, but we unthinkingly overused it for years, to the point that we almost stopped tasting it. And when we did taste it, the rich flavor seemed cloying. So our big bottle of balsamic vinegar gathered dust on the back of the shelf.

That changed when we came upon a recipe that added a bit of Parmesan cheese, adding an extra layer of flavor to a pretty simple balsamic-and-olive-oil dressing. This has become our go-to salad dressing in recent weeks, but we're going to be careful not to overuse it and get sick of it.

The recipe is from the tiny but excellent Very Salad Dressing, by Teresa Burns.

Italian Parmesan Salad Dressing

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 T. lemon juice
2 scallions, green part only, chopped
2 t. Worcestershire sauce
2 cloves garlic
1 T. fresh oregano or 1 t. dried oregano
1/2 cup plus 1 T. olive oil
Dash of hot sauce
Salt and pepper

1. Using a food processor, combine the vinegar, cheese, lemon juice, scallions, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, and oregano. Blend until the scallions and oregano are finely chopped.

2. While the food processor is running, slowly add the olive oil, and combine until the mixture is emulsified.

3. Stir in hot sauce, and salt and pepper to taste. Chill.

4. Let stand at room temperature for five minutes before serving.

Makes 1 1/2 cups.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

No Need to Knead This Delicious, Easy Bread

Mark Bittman's recipe for No-Knead Bread may end up being his greatest legacy to cooking. Removing the tedious chore of kneading from breadmaking, the recipe is justifiably famous and has spawned scores, if not hundreds, of imitations.

We tried it ourselves not long ago, and although we were pleased with the bread we made, our friends Chuck Miller and Phil Van Kirk tweaked Bittman's recipe and came up with a version we like even better. Incorporating wheat germ, this bread is a bit denser than Bittman's, and it's tastier when it cools. Like Bittman's bread, it features a crackling, crunchy, irresistible brown crust. And it's jaw-droppingly easy. All you need are a few hours to let the dough rise.

Because the recipe requires us to run the oven at 450 degrees for almost an hour, we like to save energy by making two loaves at a time and freezing one until we need it.

No-Knead Bread

1/2 t. yeast
1/2 t. sugar
1/4 cup warm water
2 cups warm water

4 cups unbleached flour
1/2 cup wheat germ
2 t. salt

1. Mix yeast and sugar in 1/4 cup warm water, and stir to break up any yeast lumps.

2. Put two cups of warm water in a large bowl, and add the yeast/sugar mix. Stir a little to distribute the yeast.

3. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, wheat germ, and salt.

4. Slowly pour the flour mixture into the yeasty water, mixing with either a wooden spoon or your hands.

5. Cover the mixed dough with plastic wrap and set in a warmish place. (We've found that if we put it in the oven with the light on, that works great.)

6. After five hours or so, the dough will have risen considerably. Turn it out on a floured work surface, dust it with flour, and fold it over itself a few times. (The dough will be extremely sticky.) Put it back in the bowl, and return it to its warm spot.

7. After two more hours, the dough will have risen again. Remove it from the oven. Turn the oven on to 450 degrees, and put a Dutch oven or another covered dish into the oven to heat up. Make sure that the pot you use can withstand the high temperatures; plastic handles will melt. We use a Calphalon Dutch oven, but Le Creuset would also work well.

8. When the oven (and pot) are hot, carefully remove the pot from the oven and, using a spatula, scrape the dough into the pot. Let it bake with the cover on for 35 minutes.

9. After 35 minutes, remove the cover and let the bread bake for an additional 15 minutes.

10. When the bread is done, let it cool on a rack as long as you can stand it before tearing off a piece for yourself. Butter and honey make particularly fine accompaniments.

Makes one good-size loaf.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Make It Yourself: Vinegar

Yes, vinegar is plentiful and often cheap if you buy it in the store. And we do: rice, sherry, balsamic, pear, you name it. But we've had trouble finding a good red wine vinegar. The cheap stuff is sour and awful, and even the expensive stuff can taste a little harsh if you grab the wrong bottle, as we so often seem to do.

At the same time, we frequently end up with dribs and drabs of leftover red wine—the end of a bottle that never manages to get used for cooking, the half-glasses abandoned after a dinner party.

We were ruefully tossing a guest's half-full glass one evening when we remembered that back in Connecticut our friend Ruth Lively made her own red wine vinegar using a little oak cask she'd bought. We remembered that the little barrel made mellow, lovely vinegar. So we decided to get one of our own.

We turned to the Internet, which did not disappoint. Two-liter (and larger) casks were available at Oak Barrels Ltd.

The company recommends buying toasted oak for red, robust vinegar and non-toasted for white.

 The process of vinegar making is incredibly simple: Simply add your base (wine, cider), your starter (appropriately called "mother of vinegar" and also available online), and some water, and wait two months.

We waited eagerly for the weeks to pass, and after they had, the resulting vinegar was just as smooth and rich as we remembered Ruth Lively's to be.

So there will be no more wasted wine at this house, and lots more delicious salads.

* Photo from

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Mindful Eating: You Don't Have to Be a Monk to Try It

Today's New York Times Dining section has a wonderful story on mindful eating that ranges from the techniques of Buddhist monks to everyday tips for the rest of us. Check it out! You'll be inspired to spend more time noticing what you put in your mouth.

Be sure to check out the story today if you aren't a NYT subscriber; tomorrow it goes behind the paywall!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Last Minute Appetizers: Quick & Easy Bean Dips

We would find it hard to believe that the Super Bowl crept up on anyone, but let's imagine for a minute that the host of a party got sick and you volunteered to take on the hosting duties. Here are two very easy dip recipes for the big game that will tax neither your wallet or your cooking ability.

Complementary white bean and black bean dips for chips: preparation time, mere minutes.

1 can (15.5 oz.) white Great Northern, Navy or Cannellini beans (Great Northern or Navy preferred), drained
1 can (15.5 oz.) black beans, drained
1 medium onion, divided into two halves and chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt, divided in two
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon white pepper (or black if you have no white pepper)
1/2 teaspoon ground sage
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
3 Tablespoons Parmesan cheese
4 garlic cloves
1 4.5 oz. can chopped green chiles, drained
1/4-1/2 cup sliced green onion tops

For the White Bean Dip
In a food processor, combine the white beans, half the onion, Parmesan, half the salt, white pepper, and 2 garlic cloves and pulse until smooth. Taste for seasoning and adjust. Then remove to a bowl, cover and refrigerate.

For the Black Bean Dip
In the food processor, combine the black beans, half the onion, green chiles, black pepper, cumin and 2 garlic cloves. Pulse until smooth. Taste for seasoning and adjust. Remove to a bowl, cover and refrigerate.

In the spirit of opposing teams, spoon the black dip into one half of a serving dish. Then spoon the white dip into the other half. Garnish the dish with the sliced green onion tops, especially covering the middle where the two dips meet.

Serve with your favorite chips.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Our Wine Philosophy

 "Drink good wines habitually and fine wine occasionally."
—Andre L. Simon, wine writer and author of A Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy