Friday, December 02, 2011

Roasted Kabocha Squash Soup with Port and Apple ... and other sexy foods

As a chef I am often drawn into conversations about food. Most typically a request for tips, hints and fixes. But in our post Food Network world, cooking is a topic of conversation which nets a surprisingly diverse cast of gastronomically informed people. And so I've recently encountered a more sophisticated range of conversation. During the weeks before Thanksgiving I shared in an enthusiastic debate over what makes a superior stuffing. My emphatic opinion was that hand cut stale bread was crucial.

Occasionally during these conversations, I'm met with lapses of silence when I've waxed a little too poetic in my descriptions and directions. Actually, I don't think it's about being too poetic, but more accurately it's just me stepping out of the box and using my own language to describe flavor. Personally I don't see the problem, it all makes sense to me.

Maybe it goes back to my lack of formal culinary education, which I've always said has gifted me much more than it has ever held me back. I've discovered more by using an ingredient "inappropriately" to dynamic effect than any class in kitchen chemistry could have informed me with. And of course, NYC is "lousy" with culinary graduates, so I've never lacked for someone to tell me what temperature a creme anglaise is set at, or to show me how to de-vein a lobe of foie gras should I need the skill set.

And so, if we are having a kitchen throw down, or just sharing a meal worth discussing... you might hear me say that "It's good, but it needs a solid bottom note." Translation... It's tasty but it's all ethereal. It needs a flavor to help plant it's feet in the ground. It might be a judicious amount of a strong herb like bay, thyme or rosemary. Or maybe a dash of Worcestershire Sauce if it's a reduction or vinaigrette. Some molasses or switching out brown sugar for white...

A few weeks ago I was interviewing with a "young buck" of a chef who seemed full of desire to impress with his style that he's infused himself with in the 6 top quality restaurants he's worked in in the last 9 years.... When he asked me what kind of food I wanted to cook I said "honest food". And in answer to his quizzical look... "By that I mean, food that represents itself as what it is. A Brussels Sprout should taste like the best Brussels Sprout it can be. Heighten flavor don't change it. Ultimately it's NEVER going to get much better than homemade strawberry jam on a warm buttermilk biscuit with sweet butter. Whether we're cooking lobster, sweetbreads, heirloom tomatoes, white truffles or artisinal mac & cheese. If the flavor's not true and honest, you've missed the mark.

Which brings us to what I call sexy food. I remember developing dishes and hors d'oeuvres back in the day and sending back many an idea requesting my team to help me make it more sexy. This term, like pornography is mostly defined in the eye of the taster I suppose. But also, like the often referenced quote about pornography, I know sexy food when I taste it. Forest Honey with Gorganzola on a Whole Grain Crostini. Grilled Duck Breast with Pomegranate Walnut Chutney on Soft Polenta, Warm Oven Poached Oysters on the Half Shell with Truffle Butter Leeks, Properly Made Spaghetti Carbonara (especially when in Rome), or maybe just sweet butter with Maldon salt on a perfect slice of sourdough baguette. I think a lot of what makes a dish sexy is mouth feel. Something luxurious, typically rich and oh so smooth.

This is why any winter squash soup often fills the bill of a steaming hot dish of sexiness. At the same time, it's undeniable hominess can toss a grandmotherly blanket on it's sex appeal. And so I've found a way to throw some fishnets and high heels on this unctuous bowl. A little accessorizing never hurt any of us.

Serves 8

For the Soup:
3 - 4 pound Kabocha, Buttercup or Butternut squash
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
¼ pound Sliced Bacon – cut into 1 inch pieces (optional)
1 Tablespoon Butter, (2 Tablespoons if eliminating Bacon)
1 ½ cups Onion (chopped)
2 medium Garlic Cloves, chopped (1 generous Tablespoon)
1 teaspoon Fresh Thyme Leaves- chopped
1 teaspoon Spanish Smoked Paprika - sweet
½ teaspoon Ground Cumin
¾ teaspoon Cinnamon
½ teaspoon Ground Ginger
¼ teaspoon Black Pepper – freshly ground
¼ teaspoon Nutmeg – freshly ground
¾ cup Port Wine
1 large apple (Honeycrisp, or other sweet-tart apple), peeled, cored and cut into 1” pieces
5 cups stock - (Chicken, Vegetable or a Combination
1 cup Half & Half

Yield – 2 ½ quarts

For the Garnish:
1 ½ cups Port Wine
1 large Apple – (again a Honeycrisp, Granny Smith or other apple that's not too sweet) cut into matchstick julienne
1 Tablespoon Parsley – chopped

Soup Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray with non stick cooking spray.

Cut the squash in half and remove seeds. Paint the cut flesh surface with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place squash cut side down on the aluminum foil and roast until tender when pierced with a knife. 30 – 40 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool. When cool, peel or cut away the hard rind, and reserve the cooked flesh of the squash.

In a large soup pot, warm the butter and add the bacon (if using). Sauté over medium heat until bacon begins to release fat. Add onions and garlic, and sauté until onions are translucent. Add thyme, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper and nutmeg. Stir and cook until spices are aromatic. Raise heat and add port wine. Simmer to release all the flavor from the bottom of the pan about 1 minute, then add apple, and stock. Lower heat, cover pot and simmer for about 15 minutes. Add reserved squash flesh and continue to simmer until apples are soft. Approximately 15 minutes depending on variety of apple used.
Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.

Puree the soup in batches in a blender. For the smoothest result, puree the solids with just a little of the cooking liquid first, adding more liquid as you go. Transfer the puree to a sieve set over a larger bowl. Using the back of a ladle push the soup through the strainer, discarding the solids left in the strainer. Soup may be refrigerated and chilled at this point.

When ready to serve, warm the soup over medium heat. Stir in Half & Half, adjust seasonings (especially salt) and serve very warm. Garnish each bowl with the reduced Port and Apple Salad (See Below)

Garnish Directions:
In a skillet warm the port wine until simmering. Allow to reduce in volume to approximately ¼ cup, this may take 20 minutes or longer. The reduction should be syrupy. Watch closely to avoid burning. Set aside and reserve. I recommend making the reduction ahead of time.

For the apple salad, immediately before serving, julienne the apple and combine with the chopped parsley. After placing soup in the bowl, place a small portion in the center of the dish. Drizzle port reduction into the soup, around the salad and serve immediately.

All recipes, copy and photos Copyright Big Mary's Kitchen 2011

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pomegranate Walnut Chutney ... The UN-Cranberry Sauce

Cranberry Sauce seems to have a unique place on the Thanksgiving table. For some people it's iconic. It must be served directly from the can, on the "cranberry sauce plate" with molded rings from the can proudly displayed. Witness Marisa McClellan's great blog Food in Jars where she reports on her efforts to repackage her homemade cranberry sauce into a re-purposed bean can for the "right look" of her turkey condiment.

Other people change up their cranberry sauce annually. One year cranberry jelly, the next raw cranberry orange relish, maybe this year cranberry jalapeno compote! I guess their thinking is that any dish with so much tradition must have something to recommend it. If only they can find the right recipe...

Other families dutifully buy a bag of cranberries every year and efficiently cook it up with whatever recipe is on the bag. It's then dropped on the buffet in grandma's cut glass side dish and thoroughly ignored by every person in the buffet line, with the exception of the kids table where it is perfect ammunition should Cousin Bobby start any trouble.

And there's always the chance that like Big Mary, you may truly enjoy the tart, sweet and slightly bitter edge cranberries bring to a this typically over rich meal. At the same time, I will pass right on by that "jellied straight out of the can" style that was both traditional and traditionally ignored at my youthful Thanksgiving dinners.

And so I offer you all an option that might just start a new tradition for your holiday buffets. Pomegranate Walnut Chutney! If not for tomorrow's Turkey, then perhaps for your Christmas Ham. And if you have any plans for serving duck breasts over the season, you'll thank me for recommending this as a tasty accompaniment. It keeps well when refrigerated, up to a week or so. I promise it will dazzle any surprise guests served with a humble grocery rotisserie chicken and impress the hell out of the cocktail crowd accompanying a simple chevre.

Have I oversold myself? Perhaps my enthusiasm is getting the better of me. I do not recommend it on Cheerios or scrambled eggs. Though a spoonful or so tossed in a salad .... OK OK OK I'll stop.

Truth be told this is not really a chutney. It's more a relish since it is not cooked. But the flavors and how they work together remind me of a chutney, and so I'll not stand on ceremony.

Pomegranate Walnut Chutney

1 Cup Walnuts
¼ Cup Currants (or small raisins)
2 teaspoons Vinegar
1 Cup Pomegranate Seeds/Arils
4 Large Pitted Prunes, diced small
1 Tablespoon Fresh Lemon or Lime Juice
¼ Cup Pomegranate Molasses *
¼ Cup Dark Strong Honey (such as Buckwheat or Forest)
Salt to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place walnuts on a baking sheet and place in oven. Toast 6 -7 minutes until nuts are lightly toasted and aromatic. Set aside to cool and chop roughly.

In a small sauce pan, combine currants with vinegar and warm over low heat for a few minutes allowing currants to “plump” in the vinegar. Drain and cool.

Combine walnuts, currants and remaining ingredients, season with a little salt and serve.
Maybe made several days ahead and kept refrigerated.

*Pomegranate molasses is reduced syrup of pomegranate juice. It is easily available in specialty or Middle Eastern markets.

Have a wonderful holiday. Find, remember and cherish all you are thankful for. And spread the love thickly.

All recipes and photographs are Copyright 2011 Big Mary’s Kitchen

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Peanut Butter Cookies (and Gluten Free to boot)

Big Mary has a confession.  I have not always been the most sympathetic chef to guests claiming allergies or other types of food restrictions.  Though I admit to being a born cynic, there's just been too many events where I saw the Kosher clients decimating the caviar station.  Had I been gifted with that proverbial nickel, I'd have a paid off my mortgage from all of the faux allergies that were really just masks for foods a client doesn't enjoy... cilantro, cumin, anchovies, grapefruit, etc...etc...etc...........

But the reality is, there's too many people with real allergies, with life altering consequences, for Big Mary to indulge in said cynicism.  I can't imagine the stress from any Mom who's child could stop breathing from a brush with a walnut.  And I've also known a few friends who describe an unenviable hell after consuming a perfect slice of sourdough.  That got my attention.  Life without baguette?  Say it ain't so!

So, for the last few years, I've been on the lookout for gluten free options for our buddy and Clay Diva, Ellen.  As this year's birthday arrived, her angels aligned, and tossed a recipe across my laptop for Gluten Free Peanut Butter Cookies.  It was at, a website that usually makes me want to head for the kitchen.  I happily fell for the bait and am excited to report that somewhere between my momentarily motherly instinct and culinary research I discovered my new favorite peanut butter cookie.

I upped the spices a twitch, 'cause that's who I am. But I send major kudos to the creator of this recipe, Judy Haubert's pastry chef friend Lindsay.  I love most that it's a recipe which fits our friend's gluten free requirements, without using any obscure ingredients.  Arrecha! (Bravo!) as the handsome Venezuelan proclaims...
See if it doesn't beat your go-to PB Cookie!

Peanut Butter Cookies (Gluten Free) 
Makes 4 - 5 dozen

16 oz. Jif brand creamy peanut butter*
1 cup sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt

¼ teaspoon nutmeg (freshly ground)
¾  teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 cup (approximately) demerara sugar  
1. Preheat oven to 350° with racks in the upper and lower thirds. Line two rimmed baking sheets with non stick Silpat mats or parchment paper and set aside. In a medium mixing bowl cream together peanut butter, sugar and brown sugar. Beat in eggs, vanilla, baking soda, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon until thoroughly combined.

2. Place demerara sugar in a small bowl. Form peanut butter mixture into 1-inch balls (approximately a Tablespoon of cookie dough) and roll in demerara sugar, coating lightly. Place balls 2-3 inches apart on prepared baking trays and flatten with the tines of a fork in a perpendicular cross-hatch pattern, if desired.

3. Bake 10-12 minutes (rotating and turning at 6 minutes) until puffed and lightly brown. Allow to cool 10-15 minutes on trays to set before removing.

*The original recipe strongly suggested Jif brand.  Not sure why.  I plan to experiment.  Jif does make a “natural” peanut butter with less sugar that doesn’t separate.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Peach Poor Man's Pie - or cherry, or apricot ...

Should you peek in my kitchen cupboards, and I know you want to... you will always find a large can of sliced peaches.  You might also find a large jar of pitted tart cherries.  There's one simple explanation.  Mom Magel's Po' Man's Pie.  Armed with this canned fruit, a few other staples that are routinely stocked in my pantry and 75 minutes, and I am always at the ready to whip up a last minute dessert sure to impress surprise dinner guests or just satisfy a childhood sweet tooth craving.  I also enjoy remembering Ma when I make it.

This recipe is one of the few from Mom Magel that I proudly brag on, and make with amazing repetition and consistency.  It's just that good, and if possible, even easier to make than it is delicious.   Nah, who am I kidding?  It's more delicious!  But it is crazy easy.  One of the few recipes I have in my head at the ready to mix together. It might also have been memorized because of the many times I've written it out for someone after serving it.

When I Googled Poor Man's Pie I learned the more traditional recipe is even humbler than Mom Magel's.  Most recipes are merely a combo of equal parts sugar (brown & white mixed) and flour with a pinch of salt, placed in the bottom of an unbaked pie shell.  Drizzle this with a can of evaporated milk, don't stir, add a few bits of butter, and bake it off in the oven.  One recipe even substituted water for the evaporated milk, creating what might be called Dirt Poor Man's Pie.These recipes seems to date from the Great Depression.  Mom Magel's dates from a bridge club luncheon in the 1960's.

Her Po' Man's Pie lies somewhere between a cobbler and a clafoutis.  Not as dense with fruit as a crisp, but once you've tried the buttery cake and crisp chewy edges it bakes into, you wouldn't want any additional peach competing for your attention. My research did pull up some fruited versions similar to this one.  Interestingly they often have you add the canned fruit WITH the syrup.  I don't honestly know if her version originally had the syrup used as well, and hopefully I have a little more time here on earth before I get the chance to ask Ma, but it seems to me that it would come out achingly sweet.  Besides, this recipe is so NOT BROKE, that I'd be tempted to slap anyone trying to fix it.

I offer you here a Peach and Berry version that is my personal gilding of the lily.  Mom almost always used only peaches.  Her recipe calls for a large can of peaches, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the size of a large can of peaches has shrunk in the 40 some years since she first made the recipe.  With just 29 oz of peaches, the recipe seems to me just a half step from perfection.  That's why I started to add the berries, that I always seemed to have a bit of in my freezer (add them to the pie directly from the freezer. You could of course just add more peaches. For the record, this recipe also works perfectly with fresh or frozen peaches substituted for canned. Just toss them lightly with sugar before adding to the dish.  My personal favorite version of Poor Man's Pie is made with fresh or frozen red tart cherries (sprinkle these heavily with sugar).  Alas, these are something almost never seen here in Brooklyn.  But the Polish and Russian markets DO have jarred tart cherries that I have happily deployed to the baking dish.

Peach Poor Man's Pie

4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup All Purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon Vanilla extract (or almond extract)
1 29oz can sliced peaches in syrup - drained
1/2 pint blackberries, red raspberries or blueberries

Vanilla Ice Cream (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cut butter into 4 pieces and place in a 9 x 13 inch baking dish.  Preferably oven proof glass, ceramic or CorningWare.  Place butter in the baking dish and put dish in the oven as it preheats.  Remove baking dish when the butter is melted.
Meanwhile combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a medium mixing bowl  Whisk to combine.  Add milk and vanilla extract.  Stir until a smooth batter is formed.  Drizzle batter loosely over the melted butter in the baking dish.  Drop peaches over the batter, distributing evenly.  Scatter the berries evenly over the pan.
Bake for 50 - 60 minutes.  The "pie" should be evenly brown and slightly darker around the edges.
Allow to cool slightly and serve warm with ice cream.
I hope you enjoy this one soon!  There may not be another recipe closer to my heart.  Treat some lucky dinner guests to this piece of heaven this weekend.  And if no one asks for the recipe... ?
Get some better friends!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Big Mary's Granola

I've never been much of a cereal person.  Even as a kid.  In fact I was a little bit infamous for talking my Mom into purchasing whatever cereal had the most tempting prize hidden deep among the flakes, crisps or crunchies... promising that for sure this time I'd eat the cereal...and then never touching the box again.  It wasn't that I meant to be wasteful.  I'd been graphically informed about the starving children in Africa, India and Bangladesh, and would have happily sent each and every box off to them, sans mystery secret code ring of course.  It was just that come breakfast time I could always think of so many other things I'd rather consume.  And I was never such a big fan of milk.  As I'm writing this I realize the greater issue may have been that I was spoiled and beloved by the lovely woman known as Mom, and was never sat down in front of a big bowl of Sugar Pops and however forcefully made to be true to my word.

And in later life, I've learned I'm also not so much of an oatmeal person.  Inspired by a growing legion of faithful oatmeal breakfasters in my culinary circle, and their nutritionally superior pride in product... I picked up some steel cut, Irish, whole grain, slow cooking, multivitamin laden, organic, boutique market driven Oatmeal.  And it was delicious.  Especially delicious when gilded with sweet butter, dried fruit, maple syrup and maybe a drizzle of half and half (to cut the richness as my Mom might have said).  I learned that I had missed the point.  And honestly, with just a spoonful of honey and some berries... that bowl of oatmeal just wasn't doing it for me.  So I returned to my egg beaters and English Muffin and was left with the better part of a box of morally superior oatmeal on my shelf.

Just days before I was ready to succumb to a rainy day oatmeal raisin cookie intensive, I happened upon a recipe for homemade granola.  And who knew?  I do like granola, especially when it's my version.  Or maybe I mean any good indulgent version.  I won't make any claims that this recipe is low fat, healthy, diet friendly or virtuous in any way, though it may flirt with some of those attributes.  I will claim that its delicious and allude to potentially addictive.  The handsome Venezuelan and I really enjoy this over Greek Yogurt with a honey drizzle!

I've written this recipe so that you can tailor it to your own tastes and pantry.  For the "wet sugar" you may use agave nectar (my 1st choice), honey, maple syrup or corn syrup (the latter not my recommendation, but its up to you).  For the nuts, seeds and dried fruit, use what you love or what you have on hand.  For the version in the photos I used cashews, sliced almonds, sunflower seeds, dried cranberries and golden raisins.  I can also recommend using pecans, walnuts, peanuts, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, dried apricots (chopped), dried cherries, dried apples, and currants.  You could also switch out vanilla extract for maple flavoring or almond extract if you wish.  Replace the cinnamon with pumpkin pie spice mix or garam masala... you get the idea.  The important ratios to keep constant are the amount of oats, sugars, oil and fruit/nuts.  I've also noticed that if you are making granola on a humid or rainy day, you may want to turn off the oven and let the finished granola rest inside with the oven door propped open for an additional 5 minutes or so.

Big Mary's Granola

2 Cups Oats - Not instant or quick cooking
1 Tablespoon Water
1 – 1 ½ teaspoons Ground Cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon Salt
2 – 4 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar
3 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil
¼ Cup Wet Sugar - such as agave nectar, honey, maple syrup, etc.
1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1 ½ Cups combined raw nuts, dried fruit, seeds - reserve nuts & seeds separate from dried fruit

Preheat oven to 325*.
Toss together oats, water, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl.
Whisk together sugar, oil, wet sugar & vanilla in a separate bowl.  Toss together with the oat mixture, leaving a Tablespoon or two for the nuts and seeds.
Scatter oat mixture loosely over a parchment lined (or aluminum foil sprayed with non-stick spray) approximately 12 x 17 baking sheet.  Bake for 8-10 minutes.

Toss raw nuts and seeds with reserved sugar mix and add to sheet pan, toss and bake for an additional 12 - 13 minutes.  Spin pan back to front when returning to oven.

Remove from oven and add dried fruit.  Cool and store in air tight container.

Note - If you want to double this recipe, be sure to use two pans.  It's important to not crowd the granola on the baking sheet.  Also, if doubling the recipe.  Make sure to rotate pans when you add the nuts mixture.

Text and Recipe by Edward Magel
Photos by Edward Magel & Yder Leon Laya
Copyright 2011 ©  Big Mary's Kitchen

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Crispy Eggplant Parmesan-Caprese Salad

I have garden envy.  It's one of those conditions one learns to live with; sublimated by early Saturday strolls through a Farmer's Market. Or transferred in some form of shopper's pride to an overflowing grocery cart of exotic produce from faraway lands. It overwhelms me at least twice a year.  February and March are often the toughest times as my mailbox begins to plump with seed catalogues that laugh right out loud at my shade infested Pocono garden.  They'll be no tomatoes here mon frere.  No worries of a zucchini glut in this August plot. Hosta pesto?  Just not an option.

Late summer, as you might surmise, is the other rough patch for my frustratingly dirt free green thumb.  My soul just knows it's way past time to be putting up bread & butter pickles, canning tomato sauce for winter feasts, or jamming, conserving and "chutneying" all sorts of stone fruits and summer berries.  Though it's true, I never let the season go by without filling up a few shelves with canned treasures.  But it's without the connection that the gardener gets from weeks of weeding, watering, fertilizing, coaxing, supporting and cajoling from sprout to flower to fruit. Totally lacking the parental pride of color, girth and scent.  Ah well, Big Mary must remain content with the flourish of magnificent herbs that continue to scent my windowsill garden.  That and the few prodigious basil plants that I've managed to situate in the 4 sunny microclimates of my dark and moody property.

More than any other home grown treat, freshly picked ripe tomatoes are what I find myself envying the loudest. Never mind that I was raised on tinned green beans, frozen broccoli, and Ragu from a jar.  Come June my otherwise food neutral Dad, would occasionally arrive from work with one of his summer farm stand trinity, Strawberries, Fresh Corn, or Fragrant Muskmelon (the Midwest's version of Cantaloupe). However tomatoes, though bountiful on the Ohio country road stands, were always snapped fresh from one of his heavy bearing plants by the side of the house.  Dad grew two things with pride, Roses and Tomatoes.  That was it.  Back then they were best enjoyed in thick cold slabs with a sprinkle of salt or sandwiched between crisp bacon, lettuce and Miracle Whip.  And I grew up spoiled by the opportunity to be sick and tired of sweet, red tomatoes by the end of every September until I left for college.

So that's why I grumble just a touch as I hand over $2 per tomato at the farmer's market.  But my how the tomato has exploded since those days deciding between Early Girl, Big Boy or Beefsteak!  Back in the day, a yellow tomato was about as exotic as it got.  This summer, even the smallest of markets were plump with Brandywines, Mr. Stripey's, Mortgage Lifters, Cherokee Blacks and multi hued Plum, Cherry and Currant tomatoes too.  So Big Mary may be a bit conflicted, but certainly not deprived by any tomato bounty.

This recipe came about after a typical over purchase at the farmer's market, when everything just looked to good to pass by.  It actually combines two of my summer standards, Caprese Salad and Crisp Oven Fried Eggplant.  Like the old commercial about Peanut Butter and Chocolate, it was bound to happen.

I'm not giving you a totally written out recipe for this because it's really just about putting it together.  I'll just give you the details for cooking the eggplant and reducing the balsamic vinegar. You can serve this to as many or as few friends and family as you wish.  It can be a great veg lunch or light dinner. It could also be reconfigured as a buffet platter.

Crispy Egglant Parmesan-Caprese Salad        

Eggplant - Preferably a    thinner one, not bulbous. 
Panko Bread Crumbs.
Grated Parmesan Cheese.
Whole Eggs, Egg Beaters or other Pasturized Egg White Product.
Olive Oil.
Aerosol Oil Spray (Pam, etc).
Fresh Tomatoes - sliced thin.
Fresh Mozzarella - sliced thin.
Basil Leaves - cut in chiffonade.
Marjoram Leaves - chopped or left whole if small.
Reduced Balsamic Vinegar.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Sea Salt & Freshly ground Pepper.

To Reduce Balsamic Vinegar - This is the time to use a bargain brand from the large package store.  Pour balsamic vinegar in a small saute pan.  Over medium high heat, bring to a boil.  Lower heat and simmer until reduced by about 75%.  This will probably take from 12 - 20 minutes.  Remember the reduced vinegar will be slightly thicker when room temperature. Remove from heat and cool.  Place in an air tight container or bottle and keep refrigerated.  Will keep for months and months.

To Make Crispy Eggplant - Preheat oven to 425*.  Place panko crumbs in a sealed plastic bag and using a mallet or bottom of a pan, crush them slightly.  Transfer to a shallow dish and stir in 25% parmesan cheese.  Meaning if you have 1 cup of crumbs add 1/4 cup parmesan cheese.  Whisk eggs (or egg product) with a splash of water, salt & pepper, and put in another shallow bowl. Peel or partially "stripe" peel eggplant if you wish.  Slice the eggplant into 1/2" thick discs.  Place a sheet of aluminum foil on a baking sheet.  Brush the foil lightly with olive oil.
Dip an eggplant slice in the egg mixture and then transfer to the panko crumbs. Flip and press well, getting as much crumb mixture as possible to stick to the eggplant.  Transfer to the prepared baking sheet and repeat with the remaining eggplant.  Spray tops of breaded eggplant with oil spray.  Place baking sheet in preheated oven and cook for 14-18 minutes, until dark golden brown.  It's a good idea to rotate the pan about 10 minutes into the cooking.

To assemble the dish - Place 1 or 2 crispy eggplant slices in center of the plate, (still warm from the oven is heavenly). Season with Salt and Pepper and drizzle lightly with reduced Balsamic. Add sliced tomatoes and mozzarella, alternating and seasoning each layer with salt.  Finish with a small disc of eggplant.  Drizzle entire salad with some Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Balsamic reduction.  Finish with herbs.

Obviously you can enjoy this eggplant on it's own.  Serve it with fresh lemon wedges, maybe a crumble of feta cheese.  And as for Caprese Salad, let's face it.  We've only got a few more weeks to enjoy the real thing.  Be it Heirloom, Beefsteak or Plum ... enjoy this summer's bounty till it's gone.

Copyright  © 2011 Big Mary's Kitchen
All copy by Edward Magel
Photos by Yder Leon Laya

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Vegetarian Chile Rellenos

I do believe that I am of a generation where almost all of my cohorts in Life have at one time or another felt the desire, need or duty to try vegetarianism.  For Big Mary it was the summer of 1974, when through some sort of cosmic hiccough I was awarded a 1 semester scholarship in modern dance.  Now understand, I was no stranger to a show tune by this time, but I had neither the physique nor the inclination to persue such close contact with leotard & tights ... not to mention a dance belt. 

Nevertheless the gods of chance decided it would be too much fun to resist, and so it was that my path crossed that of Margit Heskitt, a lunatic and questionably talented choreographer who was down to her last 24 hours to fill a spot in Bowling Green State University's Summer Arts Festival.  A quick handwritten note to the registrar and before I knew it, I was lunging and stag leaping with real "honest to god" artistes. Or so it seemed to this freshly hatched high school graduate.

Desperate to fit in on some level,  I found the holy trinity of coffee, cigarettes and vegetarianism was going to be a much more successful bonding experience, than graceful jetes or a perfect 5th position.  And so it was that I learned to drink my coffee black, switch to low tar cigarettes and substitute veggie burgers for beef.  I will spare the reader any further details of that less than graceful summer.  My pas de deux with Modern Dance is best remembered with the haze of these 30+ years.  These days I am happily free of nicotine and unreliant on caffeine, but I do still enjoy meat free cuisine on a regular basis.

Goddess knows there are plenty of reasons for us all to consider vegetarian options when it comes to planning a weekly meal plan.  There's cholesterol, there's methane gas, there's the horrors of the industrial farming of animals, there's the inefficiency of grain to flesh protein ration, it's a karmic and social dilemma.  For Big Mary, the most persuasive point is that sometimes I just get so weary of chicken, beef or pork.  Seafood always tempts, until I see the price tag.  And there's only so much disguising one can do with tilapia or swai.......

So lately, I've been having a lot of fun with grains, tofu, seeds and nuts; and most all of the experiments have been succinctly praised and enjoyed by the Handsome Venezuelan and I.  Here follows one such recipe. 

Vegetarian Chiles Rellenos

½ cup brown rice, raw
4 large Poblano peppers
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, 1/4 inch dice (1 cup)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
¾ cup walnuts, toasted and chopped *
8 oz extra firm tofu, small dice
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 Tablespoon canned chipotle chiles en adobo, finely chopped
¾ teaspoon salt
6 oz mixed vegetable juice (like V-8)
4 oz cheddar cheese, shredded
2 oz cheddar cheese, shredded
1/3 cup Mexican crema** (or substitute sour cream)

Bring about a quart of lightly salted water to a boil. Add brown rice, lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Drain rice and return it to the pan, cover, and set aside to cool.

Preheat oven to 475*. Lightly rub poblanos with vegetable oil. Place on foil lined baking sheet and roast until skins begin to darken and blister. Approximately 10 minutes. Remove from oven and gather foil to completely enclose poblanos. Set aside to cool. When cool, carefully remove as much skin as possible from poblanos. Make a lengthwise cut on each poblano starting at stem end. Remove all seeds, while keeping the pepper as intact as possible. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a medium sauté pan. Add onion and garlic. Cook until soft and add cumin, chipotle and salt. Add V8 juice and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 375*. Combine rice, walnuts, onion mix, tofu and 4 oz cheddar cheese. Gently fill the 4 poblano peppers. Place peppers into a lightly oiled baking dish that holds them fairly tight. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with remaining 2 oz shredded cheddar. Return to oven for an additional 7 - 10 minutes.
Serve with Avocado Tomatillo Salsa and drizzle with Mexican crema.* to toast walnut, place nut meats on a baking sheet in an oven preheated to 375 degrees.  Toast for 5-7 minutes, until nuts just begin to darken and are aromatic.  Set aside to cool.
** Mexican crema is often available in the dairy secion with Latin American cheeses

Tomatillo Avocado Salsa

1 pound Tomatillos, husked
3 medium garlic cloves
1 medium jalapeno
1 med/large onion (12-14 oz), peeled and quartered
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ large Haas Avocado, ripe
¼ cup cilantro leaves and tender stems, packed

Put all tomatillos, garlic, jalapeno and onion in a medium pan. Add water to cover, and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until tomatillos change color to a duller green. Remove from heat, drain, seperate jalapeno and transfer to a blender container. Cut stem from jalapeno and add to blender. Add salt and pulse until mixture is a rough puree. Chill in blender container for 30 minutes.

Add half avocado and cilantro and pulse until smooth. Serve room temperature.

You should know that this Tomatillo Sauce is crazy delicious, not only on these peppers, but chicken, pork, hell even Tilapia!

Text and recipe - Edward Magel
Photos - Yder Leon Laya
© 2011 Big Mary's Kitchen

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Spicy Chocolate Relief from an Italian Heat Wave

Chipotle Spiced Brownies

One of the techniques I've recently been employing to buy some relief from the summer heat of 2011 is to time travel back to our Italian Grand Tour of 2006.   Remembered best by the Italians as the summer they won the World Cup in soccer.  Remembered by all tourists as the most diabolical summer heat torture since the martyred Saint Lawrence requested to be turned over on the grate so he could be cooked on the other side.  Ooohhhh Big Mary will pay for that one...

But it was crazy hot in Italy that July.  We arrived in Rome, greeted by the Handsome Venezuelan's expat niece, already apologizing for the heat.  Hmmm not the exact welcome we were hoping for.  By the time we had arrived at the Hotel Santa Presede and rejected two rooms for the lack of functioning air conditioning, we began to understand that it was more a matter of cultural translation than engineering.  Clearly air conditioning to Italians was a relative term not so clearly experienced by pampered Americans like ourselves.  We experienced a similar discordance trying to locate some ice cubes for "en suite" cocktails later that night, when handed a tiny tray of pellet sized cubes more typical of a summer hail storm in my neck of the woods.

But what the hell....  We were on vacation, in the heart of Rome, so we just leaned out the windows like all the other nonnas, watched the pigeons drift over the 15th century church across the street and sipped delicious cheap red wine until sleep became an option.

Italy made it into the World Cup finals just in time for us to head to Florence.  There we found the same lack luster air conditioning as well as a few degrees tick up to 98* Fahrenheit... BUT we were somehow booked into the hotel's handicapped suite.  Complete with a marble tiled bathroom as large as our bedroom, completely open for wheelchair accessibility.  It took the Handsome V'man less than 5 minutes to block the door's threshold with towels and create his own marble lined wading pool to cool his fevered brow and more....

We were moved to another room the following day.  There was no explanation, but since the new room was on the top floor terraced with a Duomo view... I asked no questions.  It was still hot as one of the lower rings described by Dante, but with that view.... you weren't going to catch me arguing with my fate.
And it proved the "punto perfetto" to watch a long evening of celebration as the city celebrated their team winning the World Cup.

But that energy just added fuel to the fire apparently, as we melted off the train in Bologna and faced an undetermined hike from the termini to our hotel.  Luckily the early hour and new surroundings distracted us as we trudged the many blocks to our destination.  Happily arrived, we registered and were handed a map to where our actual lodgings were.   Really?  Another 6 blocks?  It's kind of amazing what vacation energy can help you accomplish...

20 minutes later we arrived, sheltered most of the way by the gorgeous and oh so smartly engineered porticos of Bologna which harness both shade and breezes to make Life seem like not an altogether ill-conceived notion after all.  And that brings us dear readers to Gelato Cioccolato Azteca and the inspiration for this blog post.

To the right side of the gates that welcomed us to our brief residence in Bologna was a gelato stand that proved to be renowned among the cutting edge gourmands in a very "gourmand-town".  It took less than a sidelong glance from me to confirm gelato was just what was needed to comfort these two about to be "Ugly Americans".  We are both about 99% sure it was called Gelato Stefino, but at that moment in time we were both 100% sure that Cioccolato Azteca was what we wanted.  Sitting back on the bench under the portico, sweat dripping from several "orrifi", we started giggling from travel fever as we dug greedily into the gelato we clutched in our hands.  I think it was the Handsome Venezuelan that said it first... "It's so spicy it hurts, but I can't stop myself!"   And that's the memory I hope to honor here.

Fair warning... these brownies don't come close to the "It's so spicy it hurts..." moment.  But they do deliver a great punch not only of heat but rounded spice.  If you experience anywhere near the reception they got at a recent backyard smoked food fest... you'll be doing good.
Side Note:  The air conditioning in Bologna, could have powered a meat locker!  That didn't phase our enjoyment of Cioccolato Azteca!  If jaded memory serves, we were there 4 times in 2 days! 

When I started to head into the kitchen to develop my idea for Spicy Chipotle Brownies, I googled the idea to look for a base recipe to fiddle with.  The tiniest amount of research delivered a recipe on one of my favortie blogs (The Smitten that was everything I had in mind and more.  And so I pass on her delicious recipe, based on one from Baked, a recipe here in Brooklyn.  I have made only the slightest of changes, never being content to leave well enough alone.  In her blog Chef Deb mentions that a spice free version can be made by eliminating the chipotle, cinnamon or cardamom.

Chipotle Spiced Brownies

Yield: 24 - 48 brownies Depending on size

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons dark unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons chipotle powder
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
11 ounces dark chocolate (60 to 72% cacao), coarsely chopped
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees farenheight. Butter the sides and bottom of a 9 x 13 glass or light-colored metal baking pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, salt, cocoa powder and chipotle, cinnamon and cardamom together.

Put the chocolate, butter, and instant espresso powder in the top of a double boiler ( or in a 3 -4 qt heat proof or metal bowl) and set it over a saucepan of simmering water, stirring occasionally,
Heat until the chocolate and butter are completely melted and smooth. Turn
off the heat, but keep the bowl over the water and add the white and brown sugars.
Whisk until completely combined, then remove the bowl from the pan. The
mixture should be room temperature.
Add 3 eggs to the chocolate mixture, one at a time and whisk until combined. Add the remaining 2 eggs and whisk until combined. Add the vanilla and stir until combined. Do not overbeat the batter.

Sprinkle 1/3 of the flour mixture over the chocolate mixture. Using a spatula, fold the flour mixture into the chocolate until just a bit of the flour mixture is visible. Repeat twice until all the flour is incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake in the center of the oven for 35 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies
comes out with a few moist crumbs sticking to it. Let the brownies cool completely, then cut them into squares and serve.

I find they cut better after being refrigerated, but definitely let them come back to room temperature to serve
Store tightly covered with plastic wrap. These brownies also freeze well.

Copyright (C) Big Mary's Kitchen 2011
Copy by Edward Magel
Photoes by Edward Magel & Yder Laya

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Cool, Cool Cucumbers

Cucumber Basil Limeade & Chilled Indian Spiced Cucumber Soup

Oh lordy, but this heat makes Big Mary cranky! I understand how it must destroy your image of the nuturing, loving, considerate and pleasant, big bear of a love bug that I almost always am, but lately there's just not enough talcum, air conditioning or sno-cones to keep my mind and mood from chaffing.

Work's been slow, but I think that may be the good news. It only takes a few random freelance shifts in an un-air conditioned kitchen with a raging 12 foot gas grill to make you consider permanently taking up residence in the walk in freezer. And I do mean permanent. Talk about your quiescently frozen treat! (Side note here: Ever wondered about that term on the Popsicle box? Turns out it just means frozen at rest. Not frozen while being churned - as in ice cream. Frozen while at rest - as in my fat butt while resting in the walk in freezer.) But alas, a Creamsicle I was not meant to be, so here I sweat with the rest of you, looking for a little relief.

Perhaps this is why Mother Nature steps up her game in such a timely manner come July and August. A perfectly red ripe strawberry does pull my focus from the rising thermometer ... And I do know the hotter the summer, the sweeter the tomatoes about to arrive. As the Farmer's Market begins to swell with stone fruits, tender greens and fragrant herbs, I seem able to relax by surrendering to the coolingperfume of a local canteloupe. Nothing cuts through the heat like an ice cold wedge of watermelon or muskmelon? It's such an intense sweet wetness. No wonder melons have taken on a metaphoric sexiness.

Yet it's cucumbers than have thrown down the challenge of "Who's the coolest?" The answer it turns out, doesn't grow far from the vine. As I started working on this entry I discovered that a cucumber really is a melon, and with a little research learned it shares the same genus as a muskmelon. Like the tomato, the cucumber is really a fruit, not a vegetable.

And this "vegeruit" or "fruigetable" takes a chill like nobody's business. While I know there are recipes out there for warm cucumber side dishes, forget about those for now and get as cool as that cucumber. I'm offering two options for a cucumber chill down. The first is a crazy cool refresco - Cucumber Basil LimeAde. This refresher has also been known to curry the favor of some icy vodka. Then I like to call her "Down the Garden Path".

Cucumber Basil Limeade
2/3 cup water
2/3 cup granulated sugar
Zest of 2 limes – taken with vegetable peeler
1 small Bunch of Basil, at least 20Basil leaves, well washed
1 large Cucumber, peeled, seeded and rough chopped
1 cup water
3/4 Cup Fresh Lime Juice
24 ounces Plain Seltzer, chilled
Basil leaves, Lime slices & Cucumber slices for garnish
Combine water, sugar and lime zest. Bring to a boil and simmer 3 minutes. Add Basil, return to a boil then remove from heat and let cool.
Puree cucumber with the water in a blender. Strain into a pitcher. Add lime juice.
Strain the sugar syrup, discard the basil and zest, and add the sugar syrup to the pitcher. Stir well, add seltzer, ice and garnish (if using)
Serve immediately

The second recipe is a riff on a raita, that classic Indian curry cooler -

Chilled Indian Spiced Cucumber Soup
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 cup yellow or white onion, roughly chopped
1 medium fresh garlic clove, chopped
1 teaspoon Garam Masala*
1 cup low sodium chicken stock or vegetable stock
2 large cucumbers, peeled, seeded & diced (about 3 cups)
1/2 medium jalapeño, stemmed, seeded & chopped (or to taste)
2 cups buttermilk
¼ cup fresh mint leaves, packed
¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves, packed
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
Warm olive oil in a medium skillet. Add onion and garlic. Sauté until soft and transparent, 3-5 minutes. Add garam masala, stir, cook 3 minutes, and remove from heat. Transfer into a small bowl and chill.
Prepare remaining ingredients. Note: Jalapeños vary drastically in terms of spiciness of jalapeño for this reason, reserve the second half of jalapeño in case you wish to increase the spiciness.
Place all ingredients in a blender. On a low speed, blend all ingredients. Increase speed to blend the soup into a smooth puree. Serve well chilled.

* Garam Masala is an Indian spice mixture that varies from household to household, but typically contains : black & white peppercorns, cloves, mace, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, star anise & coriander seeds. A great version is available from

And why is it that cucumbers come off as such cool characters.

Copyright Big Mary's Kitchen
Photos by Yder Leon Laya

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

More Culture... More Yogurt

Well wouldn't you know? The moment I'm poised to begin my sabbatical from regular employment and take up the Museum Saturation, Gallery Crawl and Summer free-for-all of cultural opportunities - My hidden chef for hire becomes as popular as frozen daiquiris in Hell. (Hemingway's line, not mine, but I've always wanted to borrow it.) And like said daiquiri, time was essential in taking advantage of being in the hot seat.

Just as I managed to juggle last minute freelance bookings (Really? You JUST decided to get married on the 4th of July?), with my desire to either hide out in the Poconos for a week or three or delve into a cultural odyssey, my in-box popped up with 2 responses to my personal chef ad on Craigslist. Well yeah, I did place the ad, but figured it was more a gesture than a possibility. But no, I'm not interested in living above your East Hampton's garage and cooking for you and you friends Wednesday's thru Sunday's till Labor Day. And now the cell phone's ringing with my most recent boss's number displayed and he's asking if I'm in town or in the country.... because he's got some ... (cue the back lit halo effect) recipe development work for me.

It's short notice... I don't care ... Fage yogurt .... Love their product .... We just made up the recipe titles in 3 minutes ... Sounds great .... Not sure they can work ... They'll work ... It only pays .... I'll take it! ... We need it by noon tomorrow.... WTF? I mean, No problem!
See, I really love recipe development. It makes me happy. And these gigs are hard to come by. So I didn't care, sabbatical be damned. I'm off to the grocery store. And feeling damn special about it too.

So the task ahead was to develop, test and write up 8 recipes as quickly as I could put knife to product, food to fork and ink to paper. Yogurt, Fruit and Nut Parfait - easy enough. Yogurt Dijonaisse Potato Salad - no worries. Lemon Yogurt Coleslaw - where's the problem? Yogurt Panna Cotta with Rhubarb Strawberry Compote - Done and done. Yogurt Mac & Cheese - hmm OK, will yogurt be stable when heated? Yogurt Fried Chicken - OK... do I confess now I've never actually fried chicken... Yogurt Dill Biscuits - that's more like it. Yogurt Hollandaisse - screeching to a halt... Really? What were they thinking? But no worries, it'll happen.

And so it does. One by one, happily substituting yogurt for sour cream, or milk, or buttermilk; And tossing in more Fage in lieu of said creaminess. That said....In spite of my satisfaction I'm not ready to share all recipes I developed. Several of which are already being berated in hindsight into a position of submission. I'm guessing I'd significantly bump up the seasoning in the fried chicken marinade and coating as an example. Mind you they all work, and are seriously tasty, but the 14 hour deadline did force some truncating I'd prefer to avoid.

But here's the fun part... It was the Yogurt Hollandaisse that was the eye opener for yours truly. While the classic Hollandaisse has no milk products (save the obvious butter) the addition of the yogurt stabilized the sauce and added to it's rich mouth feel. Who'd a thunk?

And so my Greek version of the ever present NYC Brunch option is what I'm sharing today. Even the Handsome Venezuelan (who prefers his eggs "crispy"- it still gives me shivers 12 years into...) proclaimed this dish a total winner.

Makes 12 2” biscuits

1 ¾ cups All-Purpose flour
1 teaspoon Sugar
1 ½ teaspoons Baking powder
½ teaspoon Baking soda
½ teaspoon Salt
4 ounces Unsalted butter, cut into small dice
1 cup Fage 0% Yogurt
¼ cup Fresh dill, finely chopped

Combine 1st six ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer with paddle attachment. Add diced COLD butter, and mix into the dry ingredients, using slow to medium speed until the butter is worked down into small pea sized bits. Stop mixer. Add yogurt and dill. Slowly mix together until just combined.

Turn out onto a floured board and mix by hand until last floury bits are combined. Roll out dough to about ½” thickness. Using a 2” cutter, cut out biscuits and place on parchment paper lined baking sheet.
Place baking sheet in freezer.

Preheat oven to 400*. When oven is ready, remove biscuits from oven and brush tops lightly with heavy cream.

Bake for 16 – 18 minutes, rotating baking sheet after 10 minutes.


3 large egg yolks
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon dry mustard powder
¼ teaspoon Siracha pepper sauce
4 ounces butter, warm & melted
3 Tablespoons Fage yogurt

Place all ingredients (except the melted butter) in the bowl of the blender. Mix briefly to combine well.
With machine running on low, gradually add the warm melted butter in a slow stream through the center opening of the lid.
Transfer mixture into a double boiler over warm water (no flame). Whisk in yogurt. Serve warm, not hot.

Serves 4

8 Fage Yogurt Dill Biscuits

8 medium Canadian bacon slices

10 ounces Fresh spinach leaves, washed and dried
1 tablespoon Olive Oil

1 recipe Fage Yogurt Hollandaise

8 large Eggs
1 Tablespoon White Vinegar

1/3 cup Feta cheese, crumbled

Place 2 biscuits on each plate.
Put salted water in a large skillet to the depth of about 2 inches. Add vinegar. And bring to a simmer.
Gently sauté Canadian bacon in a dry sauté pan and keep warm.
Warm a medium sauté pan with olive oil. Add Spinach and sauté until wilted. Season with salt & pepper and keep warm.
When water with vinegar is just barely simmering, crack an egg into a small dish, then gently slide egg into water. Repeat with remaining 7 eggs. Cook each egg 3 – 4minutes.
While eggs are poaching, top each biscuit with 1 slice of Canadian bacon and sautéed spinach.
With a slotted spoon, top the spinach with one poached egg.
Spoon Hollandaise Sauce over each egg and garnish with crumbled feta.
Serve immediately.

Big Mary's Kitchen 2011
photos by Yder Laya