Category Archives: Dark Days

Valentine’s Honey Ricotta Cheesecake Pie (Dark Days)

Remember how I said that I love cheesecake? Well, the stars aligned this week, and I finally had a good reason to make a cheesecake. For the Dark Days challenge, we were asked to make a local, seasonal Valentine’s day dessert. I’ve also been experimenting with cheesemaking, and had just made a fresh batch of ricotta from local Strauss cream and milk. So I went looking for a cheesecake recipe that I could make with local ingredients. As I searched, I found a great recipe from Giada De Laurentiis for a honey ricotta cheesecake.

However, the crust was made with biscotti, which I definitely could not source within 150 miles. So I decided to make the crust with local almonds and butter. The only challenge I had was that the recipe called for sugar. I decided that I would continue to use the small amount of sugar called for in the recipe, as I didn’t think that honey would work from a textural standpoint completely.

I don’t currently have a springform pan, so I decided to modify the recipe to be made in a 9″ pie pan instead. So it’s technically not a cheesecake, though I used a cheesecake recipe. I’m calling it a cheesecake pie, but the key is that it’s simple–no water bath, and it’s easy to put together. (FYI, you can still do a water bath if you want–I did have some cracking on part of the outside edge, which the water bath likely would have prevented. I’m not that picky, however!)

Another great part of the recipe is that it’s entirely made in the food processor. And for those of you out there without a food processor, unfortunately, this is probably not a recipe that will work for you (you really need it to grind the crust and puree the ricotta). For the crust, I used whole raw almonds, local Strauss butter, and a few tablespoons of sugar. The process is ultra simple–just blend the nuts, salt and sugar till finely chopped, then add the melted butter and pulse until it is incorporated. The mixture will look like breadcrumbs–definitely not like a pie dough–you can see it above.

Preheat the oven to 375°. Dump the mixture into the pie pan, and spread it around evenly with your hands and the bottom of a glass or measuring cup that is flat. Press it into corners and about 1/2 of the way up the sides of the pan, trying to keep it at equal thickness all over. Make sure you compress the crust, as it needs to be firmly in place to keep from crumbling when you pre-bake it. The crust needs to be baked empty for 15-20 minutes, until it is light brown. Take it out to let it cool for at least 30 minutes.

Honey Ricotta Cheesecake with Almond Crust

Serves 8

For the Crust

  • 2 cups raw almonds
  • 5 tbsp sugar
  • 5 tbsp butter (unsalted)
  • 1/4 tsp salt (omit if using salted butter)

For the Filling

  • 1 (12-ounce) container fresh whole milk ricotta, drained (or 10-oz well drained homemade ricotta)
  • 2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, room temperature, or 16-oz creme fraiche, if that is what is available to be sourced locally
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup orange blossom or clover honey
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest (or blood orange, lime, etc.)
  • 4 large eggs
Optional–for Topping
  • 1 blood orange
  • lemon or lime curd

While the pie crust is cooling, turn the oven down to 350°, and place the ricotta into the food processor (I didn’t bother to clean it after making the crust–it only had a few bits left in it). Blend until it is completely smooth. This is important, as the texture of the cheesecake is much better without the pronounced graininess of the ricotta. Then add the cream cheese or creme fraiche (I used local Bellwether Farms creme fraiche, which is very thick and similar in texture to cream cheese, because I couldn’t find local cream cheese) and the sugar, and blend until well mixed, stopping once or twice to scrape down the walls of the processor.

Then add the honey and lemon zest, pulsing until incorporated. Finally, add all 4 eggs and blend just until they are mixed in. Pour this filling over the cooled crust. Make sure not to jostle it around very much, as the drips will tend to burn. For the most attractive cheesecake, fill only up to the level of the crust. If you have any extra filling, you can always fill a ramekin or two and bake them separately for a cook’s snack (take out much sooner).

Place the pie pan in the oven, and cook for about 40 minutes. This is much faster than a typical cheesecake, as the filling is thinner in the pie pan. Be sure to take the pie out before the center is firm–it will continue to firm up as it cools, so the ideal creamy cheesecake is jiggling a bit in the middle when you take it out. Let it sit out for about an hour, then cover and chill for at least 4 hours in the refrigerator before serving.

As you can see above, I added a simple little valentine’s flourish with some blood orange segments. Just cut out a blood orange into segments, and pick two of similar size. Lay them out on the cutting board paired together, and trim to develop the heart shape. Transfer to the top of each slice, and you have a lovely Valentine’s heart. This cheesecake is also delicious served with lemon or lime curd. You can drizzle some on the bottom of the plate before you put down a slice, then add the blood orange heart on top, or place a dollop of lemon curd on the top, as you see below. This makes for a fun and relatively easy Valentine’s dessert, or really a great base for any seasonal toppings you want throughout the year.

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Filed under Dark Days, Dessert

Braised Lamb with Curry and Cardamom (Dark Days)

When I get invited to parties by close friends, I am often encouraged to bring a dish or to come early help out with cooking. It’s such a pleasure to have the ability to contribute to the meal, and I’m usually happiest in the kitchen, anyway. When the wife of one of my closest friends asked me if I’d be interested in bringing a lamb dish to his birthday dinner, I was thrilled to help out. I remembered seeing a recipe that looked amazing in my copy of Dorie Greenspan’s Around my French Table, and decided to give it a go. I was (over)due for a Dark Days meal as well, so made sure to use local produce and lamb from a local Sonoma producer.

The recipe looked really interesting–who would have thought of mint, cardamom and curry in a French recipe?  I did end up making a few changes from the original recipe. I started out by browning the meat before cooking down the onions–the recipe called for adding them to the onions and spices instead. There were 3 lbs of meat, so I just wanted to be sure it got that lovely flavor going from the browning. The key to good browning is to keep the meat from getting too crowded, as you see above. For the 3 lbs of lamb meat, I did four rounds of browning. After each batch, just set it aside to rest. One you’re done, remove the last of the lamb and start cooking the aromatics. I also decided to add a few other local ingredients, as I had some local parsnips and sweet potatoes that needed to be used. So I cut the number of fingerling potatoes in half, added a cubed sweet potato and tossed in a few parsnips as well. They were a great addition, and also helped to stretch the stew for a crowd.

One of the nice parts of starting with the lamb is that you have a dark and flavorful fond–the brown crusty goodness that develops in the bottom of the pan–that creates a lovely depth of flavor in the meal when it breaks down into the liquid. All of the spices, garlic and onions go in, and cook down until the onions soften, about what you see above. Then toss in the seared lamb, potatoes and onions, and enough water to cover, and you’re almost there. When I initially read the recipe, I was surprised to see the addition of honey, apples and figs to a stew like this. I was uncertain how I would like those sweet flavors initially, but then I thought of the age-old tradition of pairing lamb with mint jelly, and figured I’d trust Dorie. I’m so glad I did. The sweet was just right, and really paired well with the gaminess of the lamb.

The diced apples went in along with a couple tablespoons of local honey. The recipe called for dried figs, but I didn’t have access to local dried figs, so I used a few tablespoons of local fig jam I had made earlier this fall. The recipe is pretty simple after that. I started it cooking on my stove, closed up the cast iron pan and swaddled it in kitchen towels, and drove it 45 minutes north of Oakland to my friends’ home, where it finished cooking.

My only problem was that the party–as parties often do–didn’t quite start on time, and we ended up eating about and hour and a half later than planned. I was a bit worried, as the pan stayed simmering on the stove that whole time. Though aesthetically it wasn’t as pretty, since the potatoes and apples broke down into the sauce, the dish still tasted fantastic. This was a discerning crowd (a lot of folks who work in the Napa wine and restaurant industry), and I heard many rave reviews for the stew. We served it over the birthday boy’s legendary polenta, and I saw many folks take seconds. This is my favorite kind of party food–prep and begin cooking well in advance, then it’s waiting for you when you are ready to eat. It’s also wonderful for winter weekends like this one!

Braised Lamb with Cardamom and Curry
Adapted with a few changes from Around My French Table

1 small bunch mint (about 6 sprigs)

About 2 tablespoons olive oil (to brown the meat)

3 pounds boneless lamb leg or shoulder, fat removed, cut into 1-inch cubes and patted dry

2 large onions, finely chopped

6 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled

2½ tablespoons curry powder (I used Madras, as Dorie recommended, and it was lovely)

½ teaspoon ground cardamom

4 crushed cardamom pods (optional)

Salt, freshly ground black pepper

3 parsnips, peeled and sliced on a bias

1 large sweet potato, peeled and chopped into 2″ squares

5 small potatoes (like fingerlings) cut in half or quarters

1 cup water

2 teaspoons honey (optional)

3 dried figs, sliced (I used my local fig jam, as I didn’t have local dried figs handy)

2 tart-sweet apples (I used pippins)

Preliminaries: Tie the mint stems in a bundle with kitchen twine. Pull off the mint leaves (reserve the stems) and chop the leaves.

Put a Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed casserole over medium-low heat and pour in 2 tablespoons olive oil. When it’s hot, brown the lamp in 3-4 batches. Remove the lamb to rest, then stir in the onions, garlic, curry, cardamom powder and optional cardamom pods (I ground mine in a mortar and pestle). Heat, stirring, just until the onions are translucent and soft, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, then pour in the water, toss in the mint bundle, and stir in half of the chopped mint, and, if you’re using them, the honey and figs. Scatter the potatoes, parsnips and apples over the meat, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a boil.

Lower the heat to a gentle simmer, put a piece of aluminum foil over the casserole, and cover it with the lid. Braise for 1 hour and 15 to 30 minutes, or until the meat and potatoes are tender enough to be pierced easily with the tip of knife. Check at the one-hour to see if it needs more liquid: ideally, the stew will not be watery at all, but will still have a bit of a thick sauce.

Taste the juice and add more salt and pepper, if needed. Sprinkle over the remaining chopped mint.

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Pumpkin – Apple – Tomato Soup (Dark Days)

Excited to dig into round two of the Dark Days challenge, I again scoured my fridge and pantry for ingredients. I had seen a recipe a few weeks ago for an apple and butternut squash soup on the blog Running with Tweezers, and was intrigued by the combination. I had a 10lb cheese pumpkin from the farmer’s market that had been sitting outside since Halloween, and needed to get used soon. I had also purchased a 20lb box of tart-sweet pippin apples from Mariquita Farm, a lovely organic farm about 85 miles south of me in Watsonville. They have a great program where they offer mixed “Mystery Boxes” for $25, and also offer single-item boxes like apples for very good prices. They drop off once or twice a month at a restaurant near me, and I love being able to decide when I want things and order them, vs. the regular deliveries of a CSA.

I decided to start with cooked pumpkin, as I hate peeling raw squash, and I knew I would need to cook the whole thing anyway. I cut the cheese pumpkin in half, seeded it, and coated the cut sides with a little bit of local olive oil. I put the cut sides down on a baking sheet, and baked at 400° for 2 hours. The inside was soft, and much of the juice had collected in the pan. Then all I had to do was scoop out the interior and discard the peel.

You wont need all of the pumpkin for the soup–I just used three cups. There is no need to puree the pulp for the soup, as you’ll be blending it when it’s done. I love having local pumpkin around for pies and other delicious seasonal desserts, but find that the fresh pumpkin is far too moist to be used directly in those recipes calling for canned pumpkin. Instead, I puree the cooked squash in the food processor, then strain it and squeeze as much water out as possible. Below, you can see the rest of the pumpkin sitting to strain. I let it sit for a while, then lift up the edges of the cloth and wring it out. Typically, the pumpkin reduces by about half with a good squeezing, and then is the right consistency for typical pumpkin recipes.

One of my favorite tools in the kitchen is a set of straining cloths (called “All-Strain cloths”, pictured above) I purchased from the chef Michael Ruhlman. He has a shop on the website Open Sky where he sells kitchen implements that he and local Cleveland craftsman have made. Open Sky is an amazing site where many chefs and other prominent folks sell items they personally use and endorse at a competitive prices. It’s one of those sites where you have to join to see prices and buy, but it’s really worth it–I’ve gotten many things from chefs like Tom Colicchio and Dorie Greenspan. If you are interested, you can follow this link for $10 off your first purchase.  All-Strain cloths are $22 for 3, so only $12 with the discount. They are heavy-duty, and I use them for everything from straining stocks to draining fresh goat cheese. (I do get a little referral bonus if you follow my link to Open Sky and end up purchasing, but I wouldn’t share it if I didn’t really buy a ton of kitchen things from them!)

As I worked to come up with my own recipe variation, I came across these lovely oven-roasted tomatoes in the fridge. I visited Mariquita Farm for a tomato u-pick with my local Slow Food chapter back in September, and roasted about 10 lbs of San Marzano tomatoes in my oven. These are not exactly like sun dried tomatoes–more tender and juicy–but store really well in olive oil in the fridge. I decided they would be a great addition to the flavor profile. You could definitely use olive-oil packed sun dried tomatoes to equal effect.

I rounded it out with more stored onions and garlic, chicken stock that I pressure canned, and some butter and sour cream from the local Straus Creamery, just 60 miles from me in Marin County. I used Bragg’s cider vinegar (though I am making my first round of cider vinegar with apple peels and cores at the moment–more on that soon) to bring up the acidity. I felt like it needed something else, and I’m kind-of in love with smoked paprika right now, so I added some at the end. The 1/2 tsp is not enough to be really strong, but it brightens the flavor and gives a mild smoky aftertaste that I found lovely. You could add regular paprika, or even red pepper flakes as well, though the flavor wouldn’t be quite the same.

I like my soup to be really thick–you can see above the consistency at which I finished the cooking, before I pureed with an immersion blender. The flavors of the tomato, apple and pumpkin really blend well–none is super prominent. The smokiness of the paprika and the tanginess of the sour cream really take this over the top for me!

Pumpkin – Apple – Tomato Soup   (about 4 servings)

1 tbsp butter

1 large onion (chopped)

2 cloves garlic (chopped)

4 small or 3 medium tart apples, diced (I used pippins)

3 cups cooked pumpkin

1/3 cup oven/sun dried tomatoes (in olive oil), plus

4-5 oven/sun dried tomatoes sliced (for garnish)

2 tbsp apple cider vinegar

1 pint chicken stock

1 pint water (or more, to desired consistency)

1/4 cup sour cream, plus more for garnish

1/2 tsp smoked paprika

2 tsp sea salt (adjust based on other ingredients–my stock was not salted)

pepper to taste

snipped chives or other fresh herbs (for garnish)

Melt the butter in a large saucepan (3 quart or more) and add in the onion and sauté until browned and softened. Then add in the garlic and diced apples. Cook until the apples start to soften, then add in the vinegar, stock, equal amount of water, chopped dried tomatoes, and pumpkin puree. Cook for 10-15 minutes, until apples begin to break down and the mixture is at your desired thickness.

Blend with an immersion blender or transfer to a blender or food processor. Blend until totally smooth. Add in sour cream and blend a bit more, then stir in salt, pepper, and paprika to taste.

To garnish, add a spoonful of sour cream, some diced tomato, and fresh chives. Dig in and enjoy!

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Dark Days Challenge–Sausage, Kale and Cranberry Bean Sauté

I follow a lot of blogs…probably too many (I’d rather not calculate, but it’s probably more than 100). One that I enjoy is Not Dabbling in Normal. It’s a group of 10 bloggers who share stories about their attempts to cook and live in more traditional (and therefore “Not Normal”) ways. They are hosting a challenge where fellow bloggers are asked to cook at least one meal per week of SOLE food (sustainable, organic, local, ethical) . The goals is to make meals using only foods from less than 150 miles away, with the exception of spices, chocolate, coffee and oils.

As I plotted my first post, I decided to add the additional challenge of only using things I already had in my house (or maybe I just hadn’t had a chance to go shopping with the challenge in mind…). In any case, I raided the freezer and my garden, and was able to create a fantastic, entirely local, one-dish meal.

I began with some proscuttio. And yes, it is local! I made it myself this summer, with pork belly from a local pig. A fellow vendor was doing a pork butchery demo at the San Francisco Underground Market, using a small local pig. After he finished, I bought the two bellies from him, and used one to cure bacon and one for prosciutto. I froze segments of the finished prosciutto, and have been doling them out throughout the fall. I thinly sliced pieces of prosciutto, and sauteed them until crispy, then removed to drain on a paper towel. One benefit of starting with the prosciutto was that the pan was nicely greased for the next addition, the sausage. Definitely don’t drain off the fat, as you’ll use it as a cooking medium for the rest of the components (no non-local oil needed)!

The Bratwurst sausages were purchased from Riverdog Farm, located outside of Sacramento in Guinda, about 99 miles from me. They primarily specialize in vegetables, but several times a year, they have pork available by the box. I bought a 20 lb. mixed box of pork this summer using the Bay Area Meat CSA. It’s not really a single CSA–it’s more of a message board that connects Bay Area residents with nearby farmers, organized by our local Slow Food chapter. Farmers post about meat and eggs they have for sale, and groups can coordinate to purchase in bulk to save time and money. Over the last few years, I’ve gotten a half a Berkshire-Tamworth heritage pig and 1/10 of a grassfed cow using the board, among other things. It’s been a great way to support local farmers who are raising animals in natural ways, and to get to know more local foodies as well!

The rest was easy. After the sausage finished cooking, I removed it to rest, and added in 2 diced medium onions. They were about as local as you get, coming from my stash grown this summer in my garden. I added diced garlic, also from my garden stash–waiting until the onions were already softened. Garlic burns easily, so I always add it later than the onions.

Then came kale! Kale grows like a weed in my garden, and I usually have it year-round. The plants I have growing now are actually a year old. We had such a cool summer here in Oakland that they never bolted. So they are about 3 feet tall, basically spindly sticks with a pouf of green leaves at the top. But they are still going strong, so I keep eating kale. I picked about 6 large leaves, and tore the leaves into chunks, tossing them into the pan. You definitely don’t want to add the rib, which is really tough, unlike chard. I like tearing it, as it is easy to leave the spine behind.

Sauté just until the kale wilts, then add the beans. I used the Cranberry beans I had purchased fresh at the farmer’s market this summer and froze, but any firm pre-cooked bean–like cannellini–should work well (even from a can, if you’re not trying to make a SOLE meal!). I took them out of the freezer to thaw the day before, so they were cool but not frozen.

While the beans warmed up, I cut the cooled sausage into slices. After the beans were ready, I added the sausage back into the pan to mingle with the other ingredients. I finished by deglazing with some white wine (I used a good Napa chardonnay–thankfully, only 46 miles away). I felt like it was still lacking something, so I raided the garden for some herbs, finding sage and chives that I added at the end, for some fresh flavor. I also diced the cooked prosciutto and sprinkled it on the top of the bowl, so it stayed crispy.

Sausage, Kale and Cranberry Bean Sauté 

 (serves 3)                                                             SOLE Factor

3 pork sausages (about .75 lbs)                   99 miles, organic

2 cups cooked Cranberry Beans                  Farmer’s Market purchase, organic

2 oz thinly sliced Prosciutto (or Bacon)   Farmer’s Market purchase, sustainable

2 medium onions (or one large) diced      Grown organically in my garden

3 cloves garlic, minced                                    Grown organically in my garden

1 bunch (about 6-8 leaves) kale, torn        Grown organically in my garden

1/2 cup white wine                                            46 miles–not organic or biodynamic

6 sage leaves, diced                                           Grown organically in my garden

2 tbsp diced chives                                            Grown organically in my garden

Dig in and enjoy your local meal! This was a really easy meal, but definitely not a combination I would have tried had I not been scouring my house for SOLE ingredients. I really enjoyed this process, and am looking forward to the inspiration it is sure to provide in the months to come!

To the new folks coming by due to the challenge, thanks for visiting my blog–I hope you come back and visit throughout the Dark Days challenge and beyond.

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