Saturday, May 23, 2009

Berry Cheesecake

In the United States, Memorial Day weekend marks the social beginning of summer (as opposed to the calendar start on June 21). One of the most delicious pleasures of the season is fresh fruit. My favorites include watermelon, peaches, and berries, which were featured in last week’s muffin recipe.

This week, I’ve decided to go back-to-back with another berry recipe. For this cheesecake, you can use one of several types of berries, or a combination. However, I favor blackberries, a generic term which describes several hundred species of dark red, purple or black berries native to the cooler climates of the Northern hemisphere. The berries can also be found in Australia, New Zealand and Chile where they are often considered invasive weed species. Oregon has the distinction of producing more blackberries than any other region in the world.

The earliest indication of blackberry consumption comes from forensic evidence from a 2500-year old Danish “mummy” discovered in a peat bog in the nineteenth century. These fruit contain high levels of dietary fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, folic acid and manganese. Blackberries are used extensively in cooking, especially in the production of jams, cakes and pies. The fruit is sometimes used to make sauces to marinate or glaze pork, chicken or beef.

In modern life, the word 'blackberry' more often refers to a wireless handheld device than the fruit. So named because of its dark color and a keypad that resembles a collection of seeds, the ubiquitous gadget is so addictive to users that it has been nicknamed the crackberry.

Serves 8

3 cups graham cracker crumbs
2/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup white sugar

1 lb cream cheese
1 cup white sugar
4 eggs

4 pints berries (whole blackberries, whole raspberries and/or quartered strawberries), washed and at room temperature
1/4 cup brown sugar (optional)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 300 F. If using a 10-inch springform pan, use the ingredient list above. If you don’t have a springform pan, make cheesecake in a 9-inch metal pie tin but use HALF of ALL the ingredients.
2. To make crust, in a large bowl mix graham cracker crumbs, melted butter and sugar.
3. Using your fingers or the back of a spoon, pack the crumb mixture so that it evenly covers the bottom of the pan. If using a pie tin, make sure there is crust on the sides as well as the bottom.
4. To make filling, in a large bowl beat cream cheese, sugar and eggs until smooth. Pour into the pan and bake for 40 minutes or until the surface is very light brown. Let the cheesecake cool for 30-60 minutes at room temperature.
5. In another bowl, toss the berries, brown sugar and cinnamon. Spoon onto the warm cheesecake and serve immediately. You can also chill cheesecake in the refrigerator for 4 hours or overnight. Either way, place berries on the cheesecake just before serving.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Berry Muffins

On Sunday mornings, we sleep in to balance our perennial 6am weekday alarm. Between blinding sunlight and circadian rhythms, however, we’re not always successful. For me Sundays are special because we have time to make a warm breakfast or brunch. Eggs are our regular fare, but once in a while we’ll make pancakes or waffles.

This past Sunday I got up early to create berry muffins, and they were just coming out of the oven when my boyfriend woke up. There’s nothing more divine than warm baked goods slathered in butter, jam, apple butter or cream cheese.

I used frozen blueberries for this version but you can also use strawberries, raspberries or blackberries. Also, flavored yogurt can provide an interesting twist. Try vanilla, banana, strawberry or peach.

Makes 12

1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup unbleached, all purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick), melted
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup yogurt (low fat and flavored okay)
1 cup fresh or frozen berries (chop strawberries, other berries can go in whole)

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Line a muffin pan with foil cups and squirt each cup with cooking spray.
2. In a large bowl, mix flours, sugar and baking soda.
3. In a small bowl, mix butter, eggs, vanilla and yogurt.
4. Toss berries into flour mixture and then add yogurt mixture.
5. Mix well. The batter may appear slightly dry but do not add additional liquid.
6. Spoon batter evenly into muffin liners and bake for 20 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.
7. Cool for 5 minutes and serve immediately. Will keep in an airtight container for 3 days. To reheat, microwave for 15 seconds. Serve with your favorite spread.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Vegetable Samosas

Samosas are wildly popular among Indians and are commonly served as appetizers or snacks. They are also loved by non-Indians, which makes them a good item to serve in mixed crowds, even with relatively unadventurous eaters. Who doesn't like deep fried stuffed pastry?

In the Ismaili community, we make samosas that are relatively small (3-4 inches on the edge), flat and have a medium-thick pastry. Those of you living in North America are probably more familiar with the baseball sized, thick-pastry variety which are served in Indian restaurants. When I was young my mom would make meat and vegetable samosas from scratch. Later on, we would buy uncooked versions and fry them up for our guests. My mom, who is a health nut, started to bake them, which was much healthier and prevented a 'deep fried smell' in the house. While the recipe below is not hers, I take insipiration from her artery-friendly methods.

Although most commonly associated with India, samosas originated in Central Asia before the 10th century, and were introduced into the Indian subcontinent by traders in the 13th and 14th centuries. The word can be traced to the Persian word sanbosag. Other names include sanbusak in Arab countries, samsa in Turkik languages, sambosa in Afghanistan, sambusa in Iran and chamuça in Goa and Portugal. Due to migration and globalization samosas are now popular in Southeast Asia, East Africa, United Kingdom, North America and the former Portuguese colonies of Africa.

Samosas are usually triangle-shaped pastry shells stuffed with vegetables, potatoes or beef. Variations abound including chicken, fish, lamb, pork, pumpkin, paneer or cheese. Apparently, sweet versions are also produced in some places. In addition to different fillings, the pastry varies significantly from delicate phyllo dough to thick pastry crusts.

Traditionally samosas are deep fried, though in many Western countries they are now baked. I would not recommend frying this phyllo version due to the delicacy of the pastry. If you want deep fried samosas, use commercially available samosa wrappers (you can also use spring roll pastry or wonton wrappers) which are made from a thicker dough. Samosa are usually served with chutney. I prepared a tamarind version but mint or coconut/cilantro chutneys are also popular.

Makes 36 small samosas

Tamarind Chutney
2 cups hot water
2 1/2 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon cumin

3/4 pound red potatoes, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 tablespoons oil (canola or corn)
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
5-8 curry leaves
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cups frozen mixed vegetables (peas, corn and carrots), defrosted to room temperature
2 teaspoons garlic
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1 tablespoon lemon juice
handful of cilantro leaves, chopped
1 to 2 sticks (1/2 cup to 1 cup) unsalted butter, melted (butter substitute or olive oil for vegans)
8 ounces phyllo pastry dough (9 x 14 inch sheets), thawed overnight in the fridge

1. To make the tamarind chutney place all of the ingredients in a medium bowl or large lidded jar. Mix or shake well. The chutney can be prepared ahead and will last in the refrigerator for a week or frozen for three months. To defrost, thaw overnight in the fridge.
2. To make the samosas, boil potatoes until almost cooked. Cool to room temperature. Can be done a day in advance but make sure potatoes are at room temperature for this recipe.
3. In a large pot, heat oil on medium. Add mustard seeds and curry leaves. When mustard seeds pop, add onions, potatoes and vegetables. Cook on low heat until tender.
4. Add the next eight ingredients and continue cooking for 2-3 minutes.
5. Remove from heat and set aside to cool to room temperature. Once cooled, add cilantro and mix well. Set aside samosa filling.
6. Melt one stick of butter in the microwave or on the stovetop. Once melted, unpack and unroll the phyllo sheets. Cover the sheets with a damp (not wet) towel to keep them from drying out. You will have to work quickly once the phyllo is unwrapped.
7. Place one sheet of phyllo on a clean work surface (a cutting board works well) and brush liberally with butter. Place another sheet on top and brush with butter. Cut the sheets into strips that are approximately 3 inches wide and 9 inches long.
8. Make sure the strips are laid out vertically. At the end of one strip place 1 to 2 tablespoons of samosa filling. Fold one corner in to fully cover the filling (thus forming a triangle tip). Now fold over the section containing the filling twice, making sure to keep it from falling out. Brush all visible surfaces with butter before folding once more. Fold the remaining phyllo over and use additional butter/oil to seal the samosa. Melt more butter if necessary. Click on this recipe for Spanakopita Triangles to see photos of the process step-by-step.
9. Place samosas (seal on the bottom) on two parchment or foil-lined baking sheets. Cover with a damp towel until ready to bake. [see second image above]
10. Repeat with other strips of phyllo and then with all phyllo sheets.
11. Bake at 375F for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm.
12. Leftovers can be refrigerated and reheated in a toaster oven or oven (do not use a microwave as samosas will become soggy). Alternately, unbaked samosas can be frozen immediately and baked when needed (bake from frozen, do not thaw first).

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Simple Guacamole

Mexico is getting a bad rap this week as the epicenter of the soon-to-be pandemic H1N1 (aka Swine) flu virus. To balance out the hysteria, especially of those who advocate sealing off the U.S.-Mexico border, I want to highlight one of the great things that has come to us across that border (or maybe it was through the 1848 cession/annexation of Northwestern Mexico, which is now the American Southwest).

In any case, many Mexican dishes have become adapted or served as inspiration for American cuisine, including quesadillas, tamales, fajitas, chilli, tacos, churros and burritos... I could go on. Guacamole, an avocado-based relish or dip, is a great accompaniment to several of these dishes and many others.

The name guacamole comes from an Aztec dialect via the Nahuatl meaning avocado sauce. Traditionally, it was made by mashing avocados in a mortar and pestle and adding tomatoes and salt. Many restaurants prepare guacamole at the table using a traditional molcajete, which is a large mortar and pestle made from lava rock.

Some versions contain lime/lemon juice, chilli peppers, garlic, cumin, cilantro and onions. I once made a recipe from Martha Stewart’s magazine containing fruit chunks including grapes. Yuck! In addition to the above dishes, guacamole is often served with tortilla chips or as a topping for toast, burgers, baked potatoes, grilled meat, eggs and sandwiches.

Why not plan a Mexican-style meal this Tuesday in honor of Cinco de Mayo? ¡Viva México!

1 lime, juiced
2 avocados
1/2 white onion, finely diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
2 tablespoons cilantro, thinly sliced

1. Put lime juice into a medium bowl. The lime will prevent rapid browning of the avocado.
2. To remove avocado flesh, slice avocado in half. Turn the halves in opposite directions to separate. Gently peel the skin off each half – it may help to slice the pieces to make it easier to remove the skin. Cut avocado into small cubes and place in the lime juice.
3. Using a fork, mash the avocado slightly. Leave it chunky - do not make it into a sauce. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.
4. Guacamole will brown if left out too long. Some claim that leaving the avocado pit in the guacamole overnight will prevent this but it has not worked for me. Therefore I suggest you serve and consume immediately.