Sunday, December 19, 2010

Buttermilk Pie with...Duck Fat and Vodka Pie Crust?!?!

Last month, around my birthday, my sister Kim called from Seattle to let me know a package would be arriving. Kim is an amazing pastry chef, and said it was being overnighted, so I knew it was going to be something delicious. We had a bunch of friends in town for the Built to Spill show at the Wilma, and they were here when the box arrived.

"Ooooh looky here everybody!" I called. "My sister sent me a birthday package, and I bet it's something we can eat."

Everyone gathered around the big brown box while I slit the tape and opened it up. The air prickled with anticipation. I reached in between the layers of packing material, and pulled out a jar.

"Homemade cornichons!" I exclaimed.

Murmurs circulated around the room..."What the heck is a cornichon? I dunno? Me neither...Some kind of pickle I guess..."

I reached deeper into the box and found a frigid cold plastic bucket. I grasped the handle and hoisted it up, reading the label aloud for all.

"Rendered duck fat," I said. "It's an eight pound bucket of duck fat!"

Many pairs of eyes gazed at me in confusion. The room went silent.

"I get it!" I laughed, "You bring the duck fat, I'll bring the cornichons!"

More silence. More confused eyeballs.

See, Kim's girlfriend Angie and I had this inside joke going on Facebook. She's the chef at this super swanky hotel, and we're always talking shop. Angie and I had decided that she and Kim needed to come to Montana for a visit, so we could chef it up together. "I'll bring the duck fat!" she said, to which I replied, "I'll bring the cornichons." And then we both LOL'd.

Chef humor.

I ROTFL'd, before stashing my bucket of white gold in the freezer. Nobody got it but me and Kim and Ang, but that's okay. I just explained to my pals that sometimes when you're a food person, you get birthday gifts like 8 lb. buckets of duck fat in the mail. Funny thing is, the next day I got a box of hand-crafted Michigan cheeses from my Mom, and a box of Montgomery Inn's pulled pork and baby back ribs, and Graeter's Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip ice cream from my bro. I made out like a bandit.

Duck fat delights: Smashed potatoes with sea salt.

I Facebooked Angie to let her know the fat had arrived and we exchanged ideas about all the things I could do with it. Duck Confit, Duck Rillettes, Duck Fat Smashed Potatoes, Duck Fat Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Duck Fat Fries, and ...Duck Fat pie crust?

Yes. Duck fat pie crust. Kim had judged some pie contests this past summer, and told me that hands down, the best crusts are made with a combo of butter and animal fat, like lard. So I thought, why not duck fat? A hasty search revealed that yes, people certainly do use duck fat for pie crusts, both sweet and savory. It has quite a bit of rich, animal flavor, so you want to use a low ratio of duck fat to butter, but apparently It makes a mean crust. 

I also came across the idea of using vodka in the crust. What?!? Yes. Vodka in pie crust.

Replacing about half the water typically used in a pie crust, with vodka, apparently has two benefits. It adds enough moisture for the crumbly pie dough to stick together and roll out nicely. It also evaporates during baking, so the resulting crust is light and flaky, leaving almost no alcohol flavor. If you didn't tell anyone you used it, they'd never know it was in there. My curiosity was piqued.

It just so happened that it was Thanksgiving time and I wanted to bake a couple of pie's for the weekends festivities, one of which was this Southern Buttermilk Pie. 

A college roommate had introduced me to Buttermilk Pie many years ago. I had never so much as heard of it, but one bite, and I never forgot.Think of it as a custard pie, somewhere between Creme Brulee and Flan. You can gussy it up with a fresh berry sauce, but it really doesn't need it.  

Buttermilk Pie is a crowd pleaser, even among lukewarm pie eaters. If you haven't had it, you're missing out. I always wanted to make one, and was reminded of it when I heard Natalie Y. Moore talk about it on NPR's "Kitchen Window." I printed her recipe and it's been floating around in my stack of recipes to try for the last couple of years.

The recipe Moore used is identical to many of the classic Buttermilk Pie recipes available online. There are variations, but Southern reviewers almost unanimously claim that this is the one they remember from their childhoods.

I stuck to the recipe, pouring the custard into my duck fat and vodka pie crust. The consensus? Well, people pretty much freaked out. I'll admit here that I am a lukewarm pie eater myself, so the appeal of a bomber pie crust is somewhat lost on me, but all at the table, especially my friend Mona, a bona-fide pie crust queen, said it was the best she'd ever had. Noah agreed, and he doesn't make those claims lightly. As for the filling, everyone at the table loved it, and couldn't believe that Buttermilk Pie wasn't more well-known. 

Making a dent in the duck fat
 I promised Mona the recipe, so here it is, for all to see. I think it would make a lovely addition to your holiday table, be it Southern, Northern, Eastern, or Western, but Buttermilk Pie is great any time of year.

Classic Southern Buttermilk Pie
(from Natalie Y. Moore, for NPR's "Kitchen Window")

This recipe is easy as... well, you get it.

3 eggs
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell

Preheat oven to 325. In a medium mixing bowl combine eggs, sugar, and flour and stir to combine. Add melted butter and mix well. Add buttermilk and vanilla and stir to combine.

Dust the unbaked shell lightly with flour. Pour filling into shell, and use a fine wire mesh strainer to evenly dust top of filling with a bit more flour.

Place pie on middle-rack of preheated oven. Place a rimmed baking sheet on the rack just below the one the pie is on, to catch any drips. Bake until top is golden and custard is set, about 1 hour. Pie may be served warm, room temperature, or chilled. Store in refrigerator for up to 2 days.

Duck Fat and Vodka Pie Crust
(makes 2 single 9-inch pie crusts)

I'm going to buck pie-crust tradition here and tell you that I don't chill the butter. If that's how you make your crust, that's fine, but I'm a lazy baker, and I think it's much less cumbersome to cut the fat into the flour when it's a bit more pliable than the super cold butter most recipes prescribe. When it's a bit soft (but not mushy room temp), you can even use your finger tips to work it in. It still maintains the little bits of fat that make pie crust light, flaky, and tender, and after being chilled for an hour, it rolls out easily, especially when you use the plastic wrap method outlined below.

2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cool but not chilled
1/4 cup rendered duck fat (you can substitute lard)
1/4 cup ice cold water
1/4 cup vodka

Combine flour salt and sugar in a mixing bowl and stir to combine. Slice butter into pats and add to flour along with duck fat. Cut the fat into the dry ingredients using a pastry blender, a food processor, or your finger tips. Continue working the fat in until the mixture resembles very coarse meal.

Add cold water and vodka and stir just until ingredients are moistened. Divide the dough into two balls. Place each ball on a large square of plastic wrap, and flatten into circular discs, about 1-inch thick. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate at least 1 hour before rolling. If pressed for time, you can speed the chilling process by placing in the freezer.

When ready to roll, unwrap the plastic, and place the dough disk in the center of the sheet. Place another large sheet of plastic wrap atop the disk and use a rolling pin to roll out the crust to about 11 or 12 inches in diameter. The plastic omits the need to flour your work surface or rolling pin. Peel one sheet of plastic from the dough, and use the remaining sheet, sticking to the dough, to lay the shell into a 9-inch pie plate. Trim the edges and then crimp by pinching with your fingertips, or pressing lightly with the tines of a fork.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Ultimate Smoked Salmon Spread

Last week, I was zipping around town in a holiday frenzy, looking for supplies for an article I was writing on edible homemade gifts. You can read that article, including 6 simple spice mixes, and a recipe for Dark Molasses Cranberry Granola, on Nourish Network. I zoomed to the spice store and the craft store and the fabric store. Then out to the hills to take Pablo for a walk. I zipped back into town to grab something to eat with Noah, while we discussed all the items we needed to put up a tree and hang some lights. Seeing that this is our first tree in our first home in our first hometown, we pretty much needed everything, from tree stand to ornament hooks. More zipping, zigging, zagging, and zooming. A blur of traffic lights, parking lots, and check out lines. We squeezed in a few of the never-ending errands that have come with our first year at the Ranchito-- look at snowblowers, go to the furniture store for the 15th time, pick up some ice melter from the hardware store. Sometime in the late afternoon, as the light was just beginning to fade, I looked at my phone. I had forgotten the ringer was off and I had missed 2 calls.

"#@*&!#@%!!! I missed my massage!!!"

My in-laws had bought me a massage for my b-day (thank you very much), and I had been looking forward to it all week. That morning, I scanned my calendar and thought, "Yay, massage today, 3pm." By the time I realized what had happened, it was 4:30.

I got that feeling in the pit of my stomach, you know, the sinking kind that comes from knowing that not only did you miss something, you screwed up someone else's day. Time and money were surely lost for the massage therapist. I called the spa.

"Hi, I had an appointment today, and I . . . well I don't know what happened. I think I got caught in a holiday time warp."

The receptionist laughed and said, "Yeah, I think that's been happening to people. We've had a lot of spaced appointments this week."

It was kind of a relief to know I'm not the only one. I was reminded again of the holiday mind melt reading my friend Kate's blog, A Life Like This One, where she likened her holiday state of mind to a, "Category 5 hurricane." And she reminded me that this is a time of year for togetherness, celebration, family, friends, and peace. Somehow, we have to hold that sacred, and make choices that create space for what's important.

In the whoosh of December, it's easy to miss the important things. My lesson this year is that as I enter the month of December, it's best to check my ambitions at the door. For example, while on deadline for that article, I needed to come up with a dish to pass for a Christmas party. I told Noah I was going to make salmon dip, then roll it in cream cheese and build a snowman, complete with a little path of grass clippings fashioned out of dill, a scarf made of shaved carrot ribbon-- complete with fringe, peppercorn eyes, and thyme stems for arms. Oh the edible wonderland I was going to create!!

"And when are you going to write this article?" Noah asked in reply, bringing me back to Earth.

"On second thought, maybe I'll just mix it up and put it in a bowl, " I said, "...with a dill sprig."

So that's what I did. And it was easy, and it was good, and ya know, it was enough. I made a lot of progress on my article that day, and felt relaxed going to the party, ready to bring some holiday cheer versus holiday stress. Oh that tightrope...she's a thin one. I wish you luck in walking your own this holiday season, in finding time to sit and admire the lights, to watch the snow fall, to remember the magic we knew as children, when it was our parents who were working their butts off to create happy holiday memories (Thanks Mom).

I had that massage, finally. After offering my heartfelt apologies for spacing out last week, the massage therapist generously gave me a most healing hour. She took me back home, back to center, where I am here, and only here. No zipping, no zooming, no doing, just being; aware of the truth that the important thing is not to impress people with salmon dip dioramas, but to show up.
So when it's your turn to bring a dish to pass, and you want to make something that comes together quick, but is still special enough for the season, try this salmon spread. Just remember not to spread it, or yourself, too thin ; ) 

Smoked Salmon Spread (makes 2 cups) 

This recipe was originally published in my Local Flavor column for The Juneau Empire. You can view the article here.

There are many ways to make salmon spread but, at least in my mind, this is the ultimate. Addicting, easy, and luxurious. Popular go-withs for salmon spread are buttery crackers (I like Late July Organic’s Classic Rich Crackers because they’re light yet sturdy), pumpernickel cocktail bread, bagel chips, or Lavosh-style flatbread.

8 ounces smoked wild Alaskan salmon (use hot smoked, aka "kippered" salmon, not lox)
4 ounces cream cheese
¼ cup sour cream
¼ cup mayonnaise
½ teaspoon Louisiana-style hot sauce
2 tablespoons capers, drained and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts (optional, but they add some nice texture)
2 teaspoons cream horseradish
2 teaspoons finely chopped dill, plus extra for garnish (or fresh chives)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1. Break the salmon into small pieces, discarding skin and bones. Set aside.
2. Place the cream cheese in a medium, microwave-safe mixing bowl. Microwave on high, 30 seconds or until softened.
3. Add all remaining ingredients (except salmon) to the cream cheese and stir to combine. Add flaked salmon and using a rubber spatula, fold into mixture until thoroughly coated.
4. Place in a serving dish, and garnish with extra dill. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve. May be made 1 day in advance.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Thai Beef Salad

Happy Holidays Food-G readers! We are one full week into the season of eating-- pun intended! Are you ready for something lighter yet?

Ahh the holidays... So good for the soul. So bad for the pants button. It's amazing how quickly it happens too. Over the course of a long Thanksgiving weekend I think I ate my own body weight in turkey, stuffing, gravy, pie, chex mix, prime rib, baked potatoes, and more pie . This morning, in the mild fog of a friend's super-fun Christmas Bash, I am reflecting on last night's hors d'oeuvre dinner: shrimp dip, salmon dip, spinach dip, queso dip, cured meats, cheeses, asparagus rolls, grilled beef skewers, and a couple of lil' smokies thrown in for good measure.

Don't get me wrong, I love the season's eatings (sorry, couldn't help it). Holiday food is so good, especially when consumed with family, friends, and a glass or two of holiday cheer. But in between feast days, it feels good to restore balance.

Noah and I fell in love with Thai Beef Salad in the little Australian surf haven of Byron Bay. I can't remember the name of the restaurant, but theirs became the hallmark for what would become our quest to recreate the ultimate. It's been eleven years since that trip to Oz, and we've had plenty of time to nail down a version we love. So without further adieu...

Thai Beef Salad (serves 4)

Topped with slices of marinated tri tip, still warm from the grill, this is a salad that will satisfy every part of you. One of the best parts is the Nam Jim dressing: salty, sour, spicy, sweet, and totally oil free.

There are a lot of components here, but this meal lends itself to some superb piggy-back cooking. Marinate a little extra beef and use the leftovers to make this Vietnamese Steak Sandwich. Add a little of the Nam Jim dressing to rice noodles, throw in some pickled carrot (from the steak sandwich), along with chopped cucumber, bell pepper, bean sprouts, peanuts, cilantro, and crispy shallot and you've got a light and zippy noodle bowl to take to work.

1 or 2 heads bibb lettuce (depending on size), washed, dried, and torn into pieces
1 red bell pepper, cut into matchsticks
1 carrot, coarsely grated
1/2 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and cut into matchsticks
Thai Marinated Beef (recipe below)
Chopped green onion
Fresh cilantro leaves
Dry roasted peanuts, chopped
Crispy Shallot (recipe below)
Nam Jim Dressing (recipe below)

On dinner plates, arrange lettuce and top with chopped pepper, carrot and cucumber. Add slices of marinated and grilled beef, and garnish with green onion, cilantro, peanuts, and crispy shallot. Drizzle lightly with Nam Jim dressing and serve.

Thai Marinated Beef
The pineapple juice in this marinade helps tenderize otherwise tough cuts of beef like flank steak. If using a large piece of tri-tip, cut into smaller hunks for more even cooking. Lightly score flank steak in a cross-hatch pattern before grilling to prevent the meat from "curling". Let rest 5 to 10 minutes after removing from grill, and always slice across the grain when serving.

2 to 3 pounds flank steak or tri tip (tri tip is fattier and more tender)
6 ounces pineapple juice
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 lime, zest and juice
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
pinch chili flakes
2 cloves garlic, pressed or minced

Combine all ingredients, pour into a large plastic Ziploc bag, and add meat. Marinate 4 to 6 hours before grilling over medium-high heat, 4 to 6 minutes per side, or until desired degree of doneness has been reached.

Crispy Shallot

1 tablespoon grapeseed or canola oil
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced shallot
pinch salt

Heat a medium skillet over high heat. Add oil, and when shimmery add sliced shallots and salt. Cook, stirring 7 - 10 minutes or until dark toasty brown. Watch closely. They can burn quickly at such high temps if neglected.

Nam Jim Dressing

2 med. garlic cloves
pinch salt
2 tablespoons fish sauce
3-4 bird's eye chilies, seeds removed for less spicy version (or sub. a pinch of chili flakes)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons palm sugar (best), raw turbinado sugar (better), or light brown sugar (good)
2 1/2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons finely minced shallot

Combine the garlic, salt and chilies in a mortar and pestle and grind to a paste. Add cilantro and continue to pulverize. Combine with sugar, lime juice and shallot and stir until sugar has dissolved. Alternately, combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and blitz until well-blended.

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