Perfect Broccoli: a method and recipe

This time of year, after all the gluttony, many of us are downright craving veggies. I actually chose broccoli over the last lingering piece of pecan pie for lunch. Even my fellow food bloggers, pushers of glorious food porn, are all posting healthy recipes right now. Sassy Radish has gone from fleur de sel caramels to tofu.  Smitten Kitchen from biscotti to chickpeas and squash.

What I want to share is a recipe, for sure, but it’s more of a method. Like my post on perfect (indoor) grilled chicken, this is a basic cooking technique that will teach you how to cook broccoli for a variety of uses.

This is not soggy broccoli, needing cheese sauce to mask its gray impotence. (Did anyone even eat broccoli without Velveeta in the 80’s?) This blanching method gives you bright, crisp, vividly green florets with the nutrients intact and less of the bitter tones that become so loud when broccoli is overcooked. I’ve had customers say it’s the only way they like broccoli, even snacking on it straight out of the fridge.

The trick is to blanch the broccoli, very briefly, in properly salted water. Blanching brings out the best in vegetables, amplifying their color and retaining their crispness and a sense of freshness. Blanched florets can then be tossed in a hot pan with any seasonings you want.

I’ve posted two recipes below: one for the basic blanching method and one including a great seasoning combination. I’ve chosen orange rind, garlic, and a hit of freshly cracked coriander seed, which brings an aromatic quality. With citrus in season, you probably have some sort of citrus knocking about – a satsuma, tangerine, or clementine – and you can substitute any of these for the orange peel.  I’ve even used thinly sliced kumquats, which were fabulous. You can also just omit the coriander if you haven’t got any handy; the orange peel and garlic are wonderful on their own.

Perfect Blanched Broccoli
Briefly blanched broccoli is gorgeously green and crisp and lacks the unappealing funkiness of overcooked, soggy versions.

Serves 4

1.5 lbs. broccoli, cut into florets, any thick stalks removed

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rapid boil. (Use about 1 tbs. kosher salt per gallon of water.)

Drop broccoli into boiling water. Cook for 1.5 to 2 minutes, depending on the size of your florets. Broccoli will turn bright green but not be soft or falling apart.

Drain immediately. Quickly toss with any hot fat (butter, oil), seasonings, salt, and pepper.

Do not let broccoli sit around in the colander or it will continue to cook. If not serving immediately, spread out in a thin layer so it cools quickly or dunk into a bowl of ice water.

Tip: If you want to blanch multiple batches, use a strainer to lift the broccoli from the water rather than dumping the whole pot into a colander. You can keep reusing the blanching water (brought again to a rolling boil) until you’re finished.

Broccoli with Garlic, Orange Zest, and Cracked Coriander
With slivers of fresh garlic, ribbons of orange zest, and aromatic whole coriander seeds, cracked just enough to release their flavor.

Serves 4

1.5 lbs. broccoli florets, blanched as described above
1 Tbs. butter
1 orange, zested into strips
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. whole coriander seed
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Crack coriander.  If you have a mortar and pestle, grind the seeds until they open and separate. Or, you can put the seeds in a plastic sandwich bag and bang them with the bottom of a heavy pot or rolling pin. A coffee grinder can also be used.

Melt butter in a large skillet.  Add broccoli to the blanching water.  To the butter, add orange zest, garlic, and cracked coriander. Cook over medium heat until aromatic, 1-2 minutes. Do not allow garlic to brown.  Drain your broccoli and add to the skillet, tossing to coat. Season with salt and pepper.


Penne with Butternut, Bacon, and Sage

Have you ever debated buying the $0.99/lb store-brand pasta versus the De Cecco brand that costs $4.35?  Is there any reason to buy the more expensive pasta?

Oh yes, there is.

The ingredient list on both brands may look nearly identical, but brands do taste different.  In the same way that different loaves of white bread can all be made of flour, yeast, and water, but small changes can make each loaf taste unique; white French bread does not taste like white Italian bread, even though the ingredients are similar.  Pasta makers may choose different wheat, the semolina may be ground coarse or fine, various drying temperatures and times may be used, and the cuts or ridges may be made in ways that help a sauce cling to the pasta. (De Cecco has a very interesting web page explaining this in more detail.)

Salt is also crucial. Have you ever put just a pinch of salt into a huge pot of boiling water for pasta? That’s not nearly enough. A properly salted pot of water should taste salty like the sea; you need around 1 tablespoon per gallon of water. Try this change the next time you make pasta and you’ll taste an improvement.

Once you’ve got a good brand of pasta and the proper salting and cooking technique, you may find yourself saucing your pasta the way the Italians do – with just enough sauce to coat – so that the pasta flavor really shines through in the finished dish.

This recipe is a great example of barely-sauced pasta, using golden chunks of butternut squash, a hit of smoky bacon, torn bits of fresh sage, a pinch of red chile for heat, and a handful of salty Parmesan, all accenting the pasta without overwhelming it. As a bonus, even with the bacon, this is a pretty light dish; there’s no huge amount of cream of cheese weighing it down.

So what’s in this elusive, transparent “sauce”?  The trick is to add a bit of the starchy pasta water to the pan before you add the cheese. As the water evaporates, the starch helps to bind the ingredients and flavors all together without being all that saucy or watery. Just ladle a cup of water out of the pasta pot just before you drain the pasta and set it aside.

This nifty little technique makes it easy to improvise pasta dishes out of any veggies, herbs, and knobs of cheese you’ve got knocking about your deli drawer, because you can always bring it all together with a ladle of pasta water.  There’s no need to skip spaghetti for dinner because you haven’t got tomato sauce.

Penne with Butternut, Bacon, and Sage

A hit of chile, a handful of sage, salty Parmesan, and a touch of bacon smoke come together in this simple pasta dish loaded with chunks of sweet butternut squash.  Use good pasta and salt the water well–the flavor will shine through in the final dish.

Adapted from Food and Wine, March 2003

Serves 4

for roasting squash:
1 small butternut squash (about 4 cups), peeled, 1/2″ dice
1 Tbs. olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

for pasta:
3/4 lb. penne rigate (penne pasta with ridges)
1/4 lb. bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2″ pieces
2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
16 fresh sage leaves, torn into pieces
red pepper flakes, to taste
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup Parmesan, grated or shredded

Heat oven to 425F. On a baking sheet lined with greased foil, toss together the butternut, oil, salt, and pepper.  Spread into one layer. Roast 15 min. or until tender.

Boil a large pot of salted water.  Use roughly 1 tbs. kosher salt per gallon of water.

Cook pasta until al dente or according to package directions. Ladle 1 cup of the pasta water into a heat-proof container (like a Pyrex measuring cup) and set aside.  Drain pasta and do not rinse.

While the pasta cooks, heat bacon in a high-sided skillet over medium heat until browned, 4-5 min. Add the shallots, sage, red pepper flakes, and black pepper. Cook until shallots are soft, 2-3 min.

Add the roasted squash, cooked pasta, and reserved cooking water to the pan. Cook over medium-high heat, tossing gently, until the water has evaporated, 2-4 minutes. Add cheese and toss. Adjust salt, pepper, and chile flakes as needed.

Serve with additional cheese at the table if desired.





5 Ways to Eat Better in the New Year — Without Superpowers

We are constantly reminded to make a million better food choices: No fast food, no processed food, low-fat, low-carb, low-calorie, eat local, buy organic, five servings of veg a day, less meat, more raw.

On top of that, you’re supposed to exercise more, dress better, be a better parent, “take time for you”, advance your career, and basically be a superhuman all the time.

A person cannot do all these things. And yet, with New Year’s resolutions, we’re all going to try!

Many of us will make broad declarations to give up red meat, quit bread altogether, or munch only on carrots for the rest of eternity. But how many times have you managed to actually keep these resolutions beyond a few weeks?

This year, focus on easy changes that might actually stick with you past January. Even small changes can make a drastic improvement to your diet if they become good long-term habits.

Here are 5 simple ways to eat better now, without superpowers:

1.  Read the labels of the five foods you eat most often. Throw out and stop buying the most appalling one. Replace it with a healthier food.  Do this occasionally.

2.  At a restaurant, place your napkin over your food when you’re full. You won’t mindlessly pick at the remaining food and the waiter will take it away, saving you from yourself.

3.  Stop drinking soda. Start drinking water, tea, or small amounts of fruit juice mixed with carbonated water. You will eliminate a lot of calories (or fake sugar) and loads of chemicals.

4.  Trade your 200-500 calorie Starbucks sugar bomb for a drip coffee with a tablespoon of half-and-half and a teaspoon of sugar.  The real cream and sugar will only add up to 40 calories.

5.  Buy the best produce you can and display it on a nice platter or cake stand on your kitchen island. Hide all visible junk food in the pantry. You’ll eat and cook what you see, and you’ll have to look the fresh veg in the face before ordering pizza.

Don’t stress out about magically changing your entire diet on Jan. 1. You know big changes like that rarely stick anyway. Small, incremental changes might actually be lasting changes.

I’d love to hear more suggestions.  Please comment!


Frozen Cookie Dough: Chocolate-White-Chocolate Chunk

I’m feeling downright Scroogey for not making a load of Christmas cookies, but my pants are already tight and I can’t handle the extra calories right now.

But, jeez, I’ve got to bake something.

Problem is, I can’t be left alone with the standard recipe yield of 24-48 cookies.  I wind up eating fistfuls of cookies. Fistfuls. 

Luckily, there is a good compromise:  Frozen cookie dough. You can bake 2 cookies at a time instead of 24.

I’m not talking about that frozen commercial crap from the Home Shopping Network.  That junk is full of margarine, oil, artificial flavors, and waxy, bad chocolate. (I know the description says “butter-based”, but check the ingredient tab on that link.  Where’s the butter?) If I’m going to eat a sugar bomb, I want my sugar mixed with real butter and spectacular chocolate.

So I freeze homemade cookie dough.

Not all doughs freeze well. Trial and error seems the only way to tell, with some doughs turning oily and others working perfectly fine. (If anyone out there has a theory that will predict freezer success, please chime in!) The important thing is to freeze the dough into individual portions before you pack them away. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to scoop small amounts of rock-hard frozen dough without thawing the entire batch.

Your girlfriend/husband/whoever will adore you when you pull hot, homemade cookies out of the oven with on a cold winter night. Cookies for no particular reason! Ye shall get kisses.

Luckily, my all-time favorite dough, Ina Garten’s Chocolate, White Chocolate Chunk, freezes beautifully.

Alas, there is one tiny problem: Once the cookies cool completely after baking, the freezing does seem to affect the final “set” texture. They get a bit crispier than normal. Not bad, but not quite like the original.

Right out of the oven, they are perfectly moist, decadent, divine.

So you should eat them hot.

Oh, bummer!

Chocolate White-Chocolate Chunk Cookies – the frozen version
This recipe by Ina Garten makes an incredible cookie.  A grown-up, racy version of the standard chocolate chip. Use good cocoa and you’ll be rewarded with deep, dark flavor playing off the cocoa-butter richness of white chocolate.

adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties!
yields 36-40 cookies

for the dough:
1/2 lb. unsalted butter, at room temp
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 cup white granulated sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
2 extra-large eggs
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa (I recommend Valrhona)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. kosher salt
1.5 lbs. white chocolate, cut into chunks (I often use chips instead)

for freezing:
small ice-cream scooper (I use a 1.75-inch diameter)
freezer-duty zip-top bags
a straw, optional

To make dough:

Use a stand mixer with paddle attachment.  Cream the butter and sugars on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Beat in vanilla.  Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add the cocoa powder and mix well, on low speed.  (Low! Or cocoa goes everywhere.)

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt. (Alternative: use a whisk to thoroughly mix/fluff the dry ingredients.)

With the mixer on low speed, gradually add the dry flour mixture.  Mix just until combined.

Use a sturdy spoon or spatula to fold in the white chocolate.

To freeze:

Use the small scoop to portion dough into balls. Place on baking sheets lined with parchment.

Place entire baking sheets in freezer and chill until dough is firm, 30-45 minutes. (If you can’t fit all the dough in your freezer at once, chill the big bowl of dough in the refrigerator and portion/freeze the dough balls in batches.)

Remove from freezer.  Pack dough balls into zip-top bags. Lay bag flat and pack in a single layer. Seal tightly, removing as much air as possible.

(Sealing tip: Zip the bag closed but leave a corner open. Insert a straw.  Suck the air out, pull the straw out while inhaling, and quickly close the zipper. It’s a makeshift vaccuum seal. Your dough balls will now stay in one neat layer.)

To bake:

Heat oven to 350F. Place frozen dough balls 2-inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Bake 13-15 minutes or until cookies are starting to set. Let cool on the baking sheet for 2-3 minutes until the firm up a bit. Serve warm!