Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Meyer Lemon Granita

A new market has opened up in my neighborhood. Everyone here in South Park has been anxiously awaiting the arrival of Stehly Farms to our little eclectic neighborhood. I stopped by there this week to check it out. It's a really cute, tiny space – about 800 square feet. Space constraints aside, it's filled with the most gorgeous organic produce from Stehly Farms Organics as well as a few other local farms. They also carry organic chicken and farm fresh eggs. 

Capping the back of the narrow, galley-style shop is a juice and smoothie bar, its sweet fruity scent tickling your nose and arousing curiosity the moment you open the front door. I hadn't planned on buying anything but the smell pulled me ever closer to the bar and I stepped up and before I realized what I was doing, I had ordered Smoothie No. 3, a blend of raspberries, banana, honey and vanilla yogurt. 

I perused the produce while I waited for my smoothie. So many beautiful colors of carrots, lettuces and greens to choose from. I even found fava beans and romanesco and made a mental note to return over the weekend to purchase some to try. 

I turned my attention to the fruit selection and found varieties of tangerines I had never heard of while juicy blood oranges teased me with their vibrant color reminding me of my successful blood orange bars of earlier this year. Then I noticed a beautiful selection of Meyer lemons and thought, ahhhh … granita. 

We're in the homestretch of Meyer lemon season folks. With Easter just a few days away, this is an easy way to add Meyer lemons to your Easter meal plan. It's an excellent palate cleanser between courses or a nice, light way to finish off the meal. I fell in love with granita when I made it last year to shoot our granita food cover for the newspaper. And this season, I plan on experimenting with a variety of flavors. For now, I'm giving my attention to this Meyer Lemon Granita. Mmmm. Pucker up, buttercup. 

So, what is a granita?

Granitas are an icy, semi-frozen dessert often associated with Sicily. Made from sugar water and various flavorings, it's related to a sorbet but, unlike sorbets, no ice cream maker is necessary for most recipes. The key to a lighter than snow texture is all in the freezing method. I won't lie to you, although this is a super simple recipe, it does require some babysitting. You can't just put it in the freezer and forget about it. Doing so means you'll end up with a big block of sweet flavored ice. If that's what you're in the mood for, just make popsicles with this recipe. Of course, I suggest going the granita route.

Although some recipes suggest using a plastic container when making granita, I found metal to be the most successful (I used a square cake pan and a 9 inch pie pan). After making the flavored syrup and allowing it to cool, I placed it in the metal pan and froze it undisturbed for the first two hours. Then I ran a fork through it to break up the still forming crystals, returning the now slushy syrup to the freezer. After that, I repeated the fork scraping every 30 minutes for the next 6 hours alternating the direction of the scraping to ensure a light, fluffy consistency. You are more than welcome to stop the scraping process after 4 hours but I found going the entire 6 hours produces the most delicate and yummiest of granitas. The 6 hour version is much finer and lighter than any icy treat I have ever had before. 

What you're doing with the constant scraping during freezing is preventing large ice crystals from forming (which, left undisturbed, will ultimately form one large chunk of ice). The more you scrape, the finer the crystals will be. The neat thing about this is that at the end of the scraping process, the crystals will stay separate and not reform into a big chunk of ice in the freezer (so long as the temperature doesn't fluctuate). So once you're finished with the scraping, you can transfer your granita to an airtight container more suitable for storage in your freezer and it will stay light and fluffy for several months (if it lasts that long!).

Once you have the basic technique down, you can experiment with so many different flavor combinations. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination. So get going. Make some granita. Let me know how it goes.

Meyer Lemon Granita

Yield: 6 servings

3 - 4 large Meyer lemons, zest reserved
1 ½ cups water
¾ cups granulated sugar

For presentation (optional)
6 whole lemons (if your pocket book can afford it, use Meyer, otherwise regular lemons are fine)

  1. Using a sharp paring knife or a good vegetable peeler, carefully remove the yellow skin only of the Meyer lemons from the white pith. Set the zest aside then juice the lemons to get about from 1 ½ to 1 ¾ cups of juice. Set juice aside.
  2. Place water, sugar and lemon zest into a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer until sugar dissolves. 
  3. Stir in the lemon juice and remove from heat. Allow to cool completely. 
  4. Fish out the lemon zest then pour the syrup into a shallow metal container large enough to keep the syrup at a height of no more than 1 inch deep. 
  5. Place the pan in the freezer and allow to freeze undisturbed for 2 hours.
  6. At the 2 hour mark, take a fork and run it through the granita, breaking up ice crystals and creating a slush. Return to freezer.
  7. Repeat the scraping process every 30 minutes for 4-6 hours. 
  8. Optional: In the meantime, cut the tops off of the 6 whole lemons. Carefully scoop out the flesh, leaving about a ½ inch or so of flesh at the bottom of the lemons. Reserve the removed flesh for later use.
  9. Turn the lemons over and carefully cut off just a sliver of rind from the bottom so that the lemons will stand on their own then place the hollowed out lemons in the freezer.
  10. When ready to serve, fill the frozen lemons with granita. Alternately, you can skip the lemon presentation and simply serve in small chilled glass dessert dishes.

So how was my smoothie from Stehly Market? Well, there's gonna be a bit of a learning curve for the poor new juice person. I picked up my smoothie and looked it over inquisitively. Hmm. Orangey / yellowy not red and berry-like. Kinda runny for a smoothie. Tasted it. Hmmm. Kiwi. Ick. I took it to the counter and asked, do you not use ice for smoothies here? 

Why, yes, yes we do. For the smoothies. 

Hmm, I said. I ordered Smoothie No. 3. 

Yes, yes, that's smoothie No. 3. 

No, I said, this is orangey and not even cold. 

Oh, sorry. Let me try again. 

And this time I watch. She dumps what I gave her BACK INTO THE BLENDER, looks over a flip book which I assume is filled with the recipes for their offerings, then proceeds to add apples to the the blender. 

Nooooo. There are no apples in Smoothie No. 3, I say. 

Well, my recipe book says there are. 

Yes, but the menu says there aren't. 

Finally, manager number 1 goes over to see what's going on. You're making Juice No. 3, she says. You flipped to the wrong page. 

I finally got a large Smoothie No. 3 when I ordered and paid for a small. So I guess that's something. 

I'll give the juice bar a try again once they've practiced on a few other neighbors.

Until next time…
Happy Easter everyone!


Monday, April 7, 2014

Debbie's Steak & Veggie Mini Pot Pies { recipe }

These individual Steak Pot Pies courtesy of my sister Debbie are perfectly portioned, not too heavy, and can be made with any leftover meat or vegetables that you might already have on hand. The crust is flaky and buttery and easy to make but you can also substitute ready made pie crust. 

"Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not all."

 ~Harriet van Horne
"I find cooking calms me, relieving my stress," my sister Deb told me on a recent Saturday as we danced around her teeny tiny studio kitchen, her with her ingredients, me with my camera and reflectors. "And I guess it's also a way for me to show people that I love them, you know?"

Yes, I do know because it's what we watched Dad do our entire lives. This idea that the preparation of and sharing of food is a way to show love has been a reoccurring theme here on 'Confessions' since it's beginning.

Like my parents before us, Deb and I both perfected our cooking styles by fearless trial and error. When it comes to reinterpreting the classics, however, I sometimes will read several recipes to get a point of reference. Debbie, on the other hand, is much more intuitive as she remembers the taste of a dish she liked and will trial and error until she comes up with a version that is as close to the memory - or better - as possible.

When are schedules permitted, we used to try to get together regularly to cook with each other and sometimes just for each other while the other looked on, glass of wine in hand. Those times are precious to me now as our busy lives have kept us from regularly connecting like that. So it was particularly special for me when earlier this year, she had me over for a Saturday visit and wound up "throwing" together pot pies for us from leftovers. They came together quickly and were delicious. A few weeks later, I asked if she'd be willing to let me share her recipe here with all if you. To my delight, she agreed. 

Debbie is a creative, sensitive and highly intelligent being. Her talents manifest in so many areas: she paints, sketches, excels in writing and math in ways I can't begin to comprehend. But more than any other form of creative expression, I feel cooking is a great vehicle for all that creative energy. It shows in every dish she creates.

"How did you come up with this recipe," I asked her as we sat, waiting for the pies to bake off in the oven.

"It was a soup, originally," she told me. She has said to me in the past that she often has either homemade or frozen pie dough on hand for just this kind of impromptu creative culinary session. "I knew I had the dough and I thought, if I thicken the soup so it's more like a gravy, I could use it for pot pies."

I'm a frozen pie crust kinda gal. I have never attempted to make it from scratch because it's always intimidated me. Deb, however, said she learned to make it watching Dad make his killer apple pies from scratch.

I've shared before that my earliest culinary memory was my mother teaching me how to make flour tortillas. Deb told me hers, too, involve helping Mom.

"Oh, yeah," she laughed. "It was shredding cheese for enchiladas. Mom was so worried I was going to cut myself." But Debs, as usual, attacked that chore and mastered it.

"I also remember being about 7 years old, standing on a chair so I could reach the chopping block and the stove, cooking breakfast for Cat and her friends," she added. I'll re-wind here. There are five siblings. All of us girls. And we are all named alphabetically in order of age. So I'm the oldest. Cathy is the third child.

What did she make for Cat and her friends? Omelets, hash browns and sausages. That's pretty fancy for a 7 year old if you ask me. I think I was probably still playing with my easy bake oven at that age!

Deb's  favorite food? Chicken and dumplings because it reminds her of mom. Mom didn't make it often, but when she did, it was always like welcoming an old friend who brings comfort and warmth. To this day, it's also one of my favorites. 

Last year my sister was involved in an accident that brought to light a few health issues. It was time for her to live better so that she can enjoy a longer, healthier life. That meant modifying her cooking habits. To that end, sh's adopted healthier fats and eshews the consumption of simple carbohydrates for more complex carbs. Even in her baking - which she loves to do - she is now experimenting with a mix of half flour and half oatmeal plus adopting healthier substitutions for cane sugar. She's upped her vegetable consumption which has forced her to get more creative with them. And she's choosing to eat less meat, opting for white chicken and eating as much fish as possible.

When I asked Deb what dish she'd like to learn, she said she actually would like to learn Greek cooking. Which makes sense as her newly adopted eating habits are definitely aligned with a Mediterranean style diet.

"Hmm. Spanakopita and moussaka. Yeah, I'd like to learn how to make those."

The changes have resulted in even more creative dishes to satisfy her tastebuds and the by-product has been a healthier, happier Deb.

For which I am truly thankful.

Debbie's Steak Pot Pies

The best crust is allowed to chill overnight. The cold butter is what makes the crust flakey; for best results, make the crust the night before you plan to make this dish. Also, my sister cubes the butter and places it in the freezer for an hour or so before beginning the crust. This isn't necessary but she says it helps produce a flakier crust because it won't warm up as quickly when mixing the dough. Another tip: she only partially defrosts her meat. This makes it easier to handle the meat while cubing. When selecting meat to use, choose a cut that is nicely marbled and avoid meat with gristle. Not eating red meat? Swap out the steak with chicken breast. Prefer vegetarian? Swap out meat with mushrooms like shitake or thick sliced baby bellas. Reserve leftover filling for lunch the next day served over rice or your favorite grain (I love it over farro).

Yield: 4 individual serving sized pot pies


For the crust
2 ½ cups self-rising flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup very cold butter, cut into ½ inch cubes
6-8 tablespoons ice water

For the filling
1 pound partially defrosted flank or top sirloin
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cups frozen mixed vegetables
¼ cup flour
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon onion powder
¾ teaspoon paprika
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, divided
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 green onions, chopped
2 cans beef broth
1 ⅔ cups water
1 heaping tablespoon of arrowroot

1 large egg
¼ cup water


Make the crust
  1. Whisk together flour and salt in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Using a pastry cutter, fork or whisk, cut in the butter. It should resemble a crumble topping with the butter not getting much smaller than the size of a pea.
  3. Add 6 tablespoons of the ice cold water.
  4. Quickly mix the dough with your hands until the dough holds a ball. Add 1 or 2 more tablespoons of ice water if it's too dry. Handle dough as little as possible so as to not warm it up.
  5. Cut a large sheet of plastic film wrap and place dough in center. Wrap tightly and chill overnight (or a minimum of 4 hours).
Make the filling
  1. Cut meat into ¼ inch cubes then season with salt and pepper.
  2. Whisk together the flour, garlic powder, onion powder and paprika in a bowl.
  3. Add the meat and toss to coat the meat in the flour.
  4. Remove meat to a plate or bowl, shaking off the excess flour.
  5. Add oil to a heavy bottomed stock pot and place on medium heat.
  6. Add the beef and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove meat and set aside.
  7. In the same pot, add the rest of the butter and the rest of the olive oil.
  8. Carefully add the garlic and green onions; sauté for 1 minute.
  9. Pour in the beef broth and water; simmer for 5 minutes.
  10. Return the meat to the pot and add the vegetables. Stir well and simmer for 5 minutes.
  11. Remove about 1 cup of the hot broth to a small bowl or mug and whisk in the arrowroot. Add this mixture back to the pot, stirring well to combine. Turn heat down to low and simmer for 5 minutes to thicken.
  12. Remove pot from heat and allow to cool slightly.
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Lightly flour work surface then roll out dough to about ¼ inch thickness.
  3. Using a lightly floured 3" biscuit cutter (or do what both my sister and father do and use a drinking glass or coffee mug), cut 8 rounds into the rolled out dough.
  4. Generously butter the insides of four ramekins. 
  5. Drop a round of dough into the bottom of a ramekin. Press dough into the corners and up the sides using the dough scraps to bring the dough all the way up the sides. Repeat for remaining ramekins.
  6. Carefully fill each ramekin up to ⅛ inch below the rim with the meat mixture.
  7. Cover each ramekin with a dough round and use fingers or a fork to press the dough down onto the ramekins making a tight seal.
  8. Crack the egg into a mug and whisk in the water to make an egg wash.
  9. Brush the tops of each of the pot pies with the egg wash.
  10. Using a sharp knife, cut slits into the tops of the pot pies and place them evenly spaced onto a rimmed baking sheet.
  11. Bake for 10-12 minutes, turning the pan midway through baking time to ensure even baking. Pies are ready when the tops are evenly golden.
  12. Remove pies from oven and allow to set for 5 to 10 minutes before eating.

¡Buen Provecho! 
Until next time…


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