Friday, April 29, 2011

Browned Butter Brownies

No slumber party with my nephew is complete without a baking adventure in my kitchen. The Little Chef came over the other night while his parents went out for their anniversary dinner, and when I presented him with a few different scrumptious-looking goodies on my To Bake list, he naturally chose the most decadent option. (Is this kid related to me or what?) I’d had my eye on these Browned Butter Brownies for quite some time, and I was really happy for an excuse to make them with my little buddy.

These brownies were the cover recipe in the February 2011 issue of Bon Appetit. They are the creation of Alice Medrich, whose masterful book Bittersweet continues to give me great insight and understanding when it comes to working with chocolate. This recipe is similar to her Best Cocoa Brownies in Bittersweet, as both recipes produce a brownie with the most incredible soft texture and a crisp candylike crust on top. In this sublime version, the butter is cooked to a speckled brown before being blended with the cocoa and the rest of the ingredients. This simple-yet-ingenius step imparts a layer of fabulous nuttiness that dances perfectly in tandem with the richness of the cocoa.

As the Little Chef and I measured out dry ingredients and got to work browning the butter, I told him a story about my first year in New York when I cooked for a family in exchange for room and board. During my interview with them, I informed them that I had years of cooking experience, having trailed my mom in the kitchen since I was six years old. I made a point of telling them I had been occasionally hired to make cakes when I was in college and had actually catered post-concert receptions for friends. I was elated when I got the job.

Now I’m not sure what kind of cooks they’d had before I moved in because it took them a while to trust me in the kitchen. Eventually I won them over, but it was a long process that began with what I refer to as the Brownie Mix Incident.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Esalen Kale Salad Cravings

I’m home! I’ve had a whirlwind three weeks in the Southeast region of the U.S. while touring with HCJ and his big band, and it’s been a genuine thrill to be part of it all. There’s still more to come with concerts in New Jersey and Connecticut next week plus a whole week in Boston in late April, but I’m grateful for a week at home to catch up with friends and family. I'm also having some much needed time in my kitchen, and upon arriving home after three weeks away, I immediately headed to my local health food store to buy a humongous bunch of kale. I’d been craving bitter greens for weeks, and I couldn’t wait to make this Esalen Kale Salad.

My friend Marjorie had first told me about this particular recipe from the Esalen Cookbook around the time I’d posted my take on the City Bakery kale salad last fall. My raw kale bowl—with its Italian flavor profile featuring a lemony olive oil dressing while punched up with toasted breadcrumbs and grated pecorino cheese—was something I made countless times last fall. But I was intrigued by Marjorie’s salad that combined kale ribbons and marinated red onion slivers with thin mushroom slices and avocado cubes, all bound together by a lemon-soy dressing and a liberal sprinkling of toasted crunchy pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds. This recipe came up again in a recent conversation and I asked Marjorie to send it to me, which she did on the first day of the HCJ tour when I arrived in Thackerville, Oklahoma.

Now to give you a little context for why I’ve been totally obsessed with making this recipe, allow me to set the scene for you. In a place like Las Vegas, there are many location-themed grand casinos such as The Paris, The Venetian, and The New York New York, all standing proudly along the main strip. However, at the Winstar Casino in Thackerville, all of these international locales were combined under one roof to rather incongruous effect. As you entered the casino from the hotel, the signs and décor screamed LONDON as you walked past replicas of Big Ben and London Bridge. After walking past 50 feet of slot machines, you could pass under a big archway and suddenly find yourself in “Paris” with a mock Eiffel Tower. Another 50 feet of slot machines and an archway later, the Coliseum in “Rome” loomed large, and so on and so forth.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Memorable Meals On The Road

One of the most fun things about going on tour is finding culinary inspiration from new sources. Though I don't have kitchen access while on the road, I am definitely taking notes and gathering ideas for when I can play in my own kitchen again. Our touring schedule has been rather compressed as we’re traveling a lot and performing in new towns practically every day, but I have made a concerted effort to carve out a little time for myself, if only to find a fun place for lunch. My solo dining experiences are more enjoyable knowing that I can at least share some of these meals with appreciative friends in photo form, if nothing else.

It was not a promising start as the Winstar Casino in Thackerville, OK left a lot to be desired in the culinary department, as I mentioned in the previous post. However, the next day I had a few hours in Austin which more than made up for it. This roasted poblano and cheese tamale at La Condessa was one of the best tamales I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. It was steamed to tender perfection and enhanced only by the avocado crema and kicky salsa, and I savored every bite.

I was tempted to order a second tamale, but I’m happy that I saved room for dessert instead. I’ve never tasted anything quite like this goat cheesecake with roasted pineapple cubes and graham cracker shortbread crumbles, and it was accompanied by a saffron crème anglaise that truly made my head spin.

I had the good fortune to be steered in the direction of Cochon in New Orleans, a delightful restaurant in the Warehouse District recommended by friends who live in town as well as by HCJ himself. Lunch began with a fricassee of roasted wild mushrooms served over a cheese grits cake and topped with a perfectly poached egg. I’m a total sucker for anything with a poached egg on it.