Three Steps to Better French Toast

1. Choose challah: I bought this gorgeous loaf from Open Harvest, a great cooperative grocery near my house. This spongy egg bread is the perfect foundation for French toast.

2. Orange: zest a whole navel orange into the custard. Don't skip this step! The citrus adds brightness and keeps the finished product from tasting like a donut.

3. Crème fraîche: top the custardy fried toast with crème fraîche and real maple syrup. The tangy crème fraîche is an important counterbalance to the richness of the toast and syrup.

French Toast
Adapted from Ina Garten
Serves 4

Ingredients

6 large eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
Zest of one orange
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tbsp maple syrup
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 large loaf challah
Unsalted butter

For Serving
Maple syrup
Crème fraîche
Fresh raspberries

Method

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a large shallow bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, orange zest, vanilla, syrup, nutmeg, and salt. Slice the challah into eight 1-inch thick slices. Soak challah slices in the egg mixture for 5 minutes, turning once.

Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the soaked bread and cook for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, until nicely browned. Place the cooked French toast on a sheet pan and keep it warm in the oven. Fry the remaining soaked bread slices, adding butter as needed. Serve hot with maple syrup, crème fraîche, and raspberries.

Braised Oxtail for Two

In my mind there's a growing list of items overdue for a revival: sherry, men's hats, luxury passenger train service, several forgotten cuts of meat. Some of the items are a bit fanciful, admittedly. But among the more obtainable is the recipe I present to you here:

Oxtail, with its rich marrow and its cute little pieces, is ready for its comeback. It's not a joke when I suggest you serve your Valentine something that once hung on the backside of a cow. IT'S REAL.

I came across this oxtail—not on the back of a cow—but in the back of a freezer chest at Whole Foods and quickly laid plans to braise it in red wine. Oxtail is an ideal candidate for braising, and it's difficult to go wrong when searing the meat and bathing it in thick reduced Cabernet.

I relied on a recipe from the December 1997 issue of Gourmet as a guide here, but have made adjustments to increase the vegetable content. I couldn't ignore a suggestion from Melissa Clark at the New York Times, who seasons her oxtail with allspice a few hours before searing. Allspice in tandem with the wine yields a gravy that's the real star of this dish. Serve the meat and gravy over mashed potatoes, and feel pleased with yourself for avoiding a crowded restaurant this year.

Braised Oxtail
Adapted from Gourmet and the New York Times
Serves 2 generously

Ingredients

1 bottle Cabernet
2 lb oxtail pieces
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp kosher salt
2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 shallots
2 garlic cloves
2 carrots
1 leek (white part only)
1 small onion
2 celery ribs
2 fresh thyme sprigs
1 cup beef broth
 

Method

In a large bowl, combine salt, pepper and allspice. Add oxtail to bowl and rub the mixture all over the meat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate a couple hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 325°F.

In a heavy saucepan boil wine until reduced by about half (about 1 and 2/3 cups). Pat oxtails dry. Season oxtails with allspice, salt, and pepper. In a deep heavy ovenproof kettle just large enough to hold oxtails in one layer heat 1 tablespoon butter over moderately high heat until foam subsides and brown oxtails on all sides and transfer to bowl. Coarsely chop shallots, garlic, carrots, leeks, onion, and celery. Add vegetables to kettle and cook over moderately low heat, stirring, until softened.

Arrange oxtails over vegetables and add reduced wine, thyme, and enough broth to just cover oxtails. Bring liquid to a boil and braise oxtails, covered, in middle of oven 3 to 3 1/2 hours, or until meat is very tender but not falling off the bone. Transfer oxtails and carrots with a slotted spoon to a bowl and keep warm. Skim fat from the braising liquid and discard. Push braising liquid through a fine sieve into a large saucepan and discard solids. Boil liquid until thick, shiny, then whisk in remaining tablespoon butter.

Garnish oxtail with chopped parsley. Serve with gravy over mashed potatoes.

Seared Sweet Potatoes + Sausage + Radicchio

My first apartment kitchen was terrible. The appliances were a grim 80s affair, the cupboard doors were covered with off-white tack paper, and it chronically smelt like stale nicotine when the furnace would run. I didn't do a lot of exotic cooking during that stage of my life; I was busy figuring out how to pay my own bills and keep enough quarters on hand to run the washing machine in the basement.

That winter was extra-arctic, however, and motivated by my lack of desire to venture outside of those nicotine-perfumed four walls, I hatched a plan for survival: sweet potatoes.

Often they were accompanied by a piece of roast chicken, and they were always caramelized within an inch of their lives. Happily, I lived that winter, eating my sweet potatoes and reading Major Barbara for my Twentieth Century Drama class.

When I saw this recipe in the Bon Appétit newsletter, with its convincing appeal to sear the sweet potato flesh, it reminded me of that winter—sitting in my cheap apartment, eating caramelized sweet potato cubes—and I knew I had to make it.

This dish really couldn't have come along at a better time, as it makes handy use of seasonal produce: bitter, purple radicchio and bright orange sweet potato. Spicy sausage and whole milk yogurt bind everything together, and a sprinkling of fresh mint is a pleasant reminder that winter won't last forever.

Raw radicchio can be a bit astringent, but here a dressing of pomegranate molasses, wine vinegar, and sausage pan drippings balances the flavors. Pomegranate molasses is available at most Middle Eastern markets, but if you can't track it down, mix one part balsamic vinegar with three parts honey for a good substitute.

The author of the recipe calls for merguez, a generously-spiced North African sausage that I've never seen before. Chorizo is a good substitute from what I can tell. And I wouldn't skip the yogurt on the bottom of the plate. The tang accents the caramelized sweet potatoes nicely and pairs well with the spicy chorizo.

Seared Sweet Potatoes with Sausage and Radicchio
Adapted from Bon Appétit
Serves 4

Ingredients
1 garlic glove, finely chopped
Olive oil
2 large or 4 small sweet potatoes
Kosher salt
1/4 cup pecans
1 head radicchio, cored and torn into pieces
8 oz merguez or chorizo
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 tsp sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
1/3 cup whole milk yogurt
1/4 cup mint leaves

 

Method
Preheat oven to 400°. Mix garlic and 3 tbsp oil in a small bowl. Prick sweet potatoes all over with a fork and rub with half of garlic oil; set remaining garlic oil aside. Season with salt and roast on a rimmed baking sheet, turning once, until flesh is soft and yielding, 40 minutes. Remove from oven; reduce heat to 350°.

Toss pecans and remaining 1/2 tsp oil on a rimmed baking sheet; season with salt. Toast, tossing once, until slightly darkened and fragrant, 8–10 minutes.

Let sweet potatoes cool slightly, then cut in half lengthwise. Brush cut sides with reserved garlic oil. Heat a large heavy skillet over medium. Cook sweet potatoes, cut side down, pressing lightly with a spatula, until browned and charred in spots, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate and reserve skillet.

Place radicchio in a large bowl. Heat 2 tbsp oil in reserved skillet over medium-high. Cook sausage, breaking up with a spoon, until browned and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Stir in red pepper flakes. Transfer meat to a plate with a slotted spoon and pour off all but 2 tbsp fat from skillet.

Reduce heat to medium. Combine pomegranate molasses, vinegar, and 1/4 cup water in skillet, stirring to combine and scraping pan to loosen browned bits. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring often, until sauce is slightly thickened, about 3 minutes, then drizzle over radicchio. Add reserved sausage and toss to coat; season with salt.

Mix yogurt and remaining 1 tsp oil in a small bowl, season with salt. Divide yogurt among plates and top with sweet potatoes. Arrange sausage mixture over, along with any pan juices. Top with pecans and mint.

 

    Butterscotch Pots de Crème

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    I like to call them, "Deconstructed Margot Tenenbaums. " 

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    What other flavor could be as complex and well-matched to the enduring internal battles of the adopted daughter of Royal and Etheline Tenenbaum? Real butterscotch, unlike that from a JELL-O box, has an acute duskiness from the almost burnt sugar, which matches Margot's sullen, but fiercely independent and deliberate persona.

    Luckily, I was dead set on making these little pots of custard because sorting out the recipe was a bit of a headache. Several seemingly contradictory methods persist online, and even when I finally narrowed it down to a recipe from Gjelina's Travis Lett, multiple variations appeared all over the Internet.

    Finally deciding to pull the trigger, however, was freeing—not unlike Margot finally owning up to her 22-year-long smoking habit and her romantic love for her adoptive brother, Richie. After all, what could possibly go wrong when mixing brown sugar with cream, eggs, and vanilla bean and topping it all with whipped crème fraîche, caramel, and sea salt? Not that much, it turns out. In fact, the result is a deliberate, complex, moody pudding that will have you pondering butterscotch in a whole new light.

    You may also feel as though you should "receive a Braverman Grant of $50,000 in the ninth grade" for having created such a confection. Deservedly so, I'd say.

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    The recipe printed below is the solution I arrived at after carefully examining the versions of the Gjelina recipe printed in Food & Wine and The Los Angeles Times, and I think it's a worthy compromise. Perhaps it's meant to be a loose custard, but I had to increase the baking time to achieve the consistency I was after. This may also be due to the fact that I crowded my ramekins in the bain-marie. So check yours after an hour—if they're not set, feel free to continue baking them for another half hour. I did, and I have no regrets.


    Butterscotch Pots de Crème
    Adapted from Travis Lett of Gjelina
    Makes 4 individual servings

    Ingredients
    6 tbsp unsalted butter
    1/2 cup dark brown sugar
    2 1/2 cups heavy cream
    3/4 tsp fine sea salt
    1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
    3 large egg yolks
    Boiling water

    Caramel Sauce
    1/2 cup sugar
    2 tbsp water
    3 tbsp butter
    1/4 cup cream
    Whipped crème fraîche, for serving
    Maldon sea salt, for serving

    Method
    Preheat the oven to 325°. In a large saucepan, melt the butter. Add the brown sugar and cook over moderately high heat, whisking constantly, until smooth and bubbling, about 5 minutes. Gradually whisk in the cream. Return the mixture to a boil, whisking constantly. Add the salt and vanilla seeds.

    In a large heatproof bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Gradually whisk in the hot cream mixture. Strain the custard into four 6-ounce ramekins. Set the ramekins in a small roasting pan and place it in the middle of the oven. Fill the roasting pan with enough boiling water to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover with foil and bake for 90 minutes, until the custards are set but still jiggle slightly when tapped. Transfer the ramekins to a baking sheet and refrigerate until chilled, 4 hours.

    While the custards are baking, make the caramel: In a large, heavy-bottom saucepan, combine sugar with the water. Heat over medium heat until the sugar turns a deep amber (dark, reddish brown) color and is fragrantly nutty, about 5 minutes. Add the butter and stir until it melts and is thoroughly incorporated. Gradually stir in the cream until incorporated; remove from heat and set aside.

    Top the pots de crème with the caramel sauce and whipped crème fraîche, sprinkle with Maldon sea salt and serve.

    Wallflower Chicken Tikka Masala

    In 2005, I was a sophomore in high school. I'd recently changed schools, I was bashful, and I'd yet to make many good friends. By default, I spent most of my Friday nights at home, cooking elaborate recipes and watching hours of Veronica Mars. Earning my driver’s license was fairly inconsequential then, except for the fact that it allowed me to freely travel back and forth from the Safeway across town. My 16-year-old palette told me that the supplies from this grocery store were far superior and much more gourmet than those available at the super center near my house.

    I don’t think it’s being overly dramatic to say that this unlikely outlet saved me from what otherwise would have been a mostly lonely period of my teenage years. I spent my lawn-mowing money on lamb chops and cardamom, and I had more lively conversations with the head cashier than with most of my classmates. When I was home for Thanksgiving this year, I want back to Safeway to buy a bottle of prosecco, and there she was; we were instant friends again.

    Preparing this chicken tikka masala took me back to 2005. I’d discovered Indian food, and it very quickly monopolized my Friday night schedule. The exotic ingredients made me feel sophisticated, and the flavors were comforting and warm. That makes this recipe perfect for winter and perfect for sharing with friends (if you've managed to emerge from your awkward stage and make a few). In fact, if you add a dozen bottles of beer and pick up some ice cream for dessert, this recipe is practically a complete dinner party.

    I know the internet will tell you to pair an IPA with Indian food, but keep in mind this is not strictly an Indian dish—more of an Indian-English hybrid, invented in a London curry house. The sauce is delicately flavored and rich, warranting a milder beer: a Belgian or another ale.

    This tikka masala is from the April 2013 Bon Appétit, and it’s a good one. The only significant change I made was to broil the chicken for nearly twice as long as the original recipe states in order to get just the faintest hint of char. I think it’s worth tracking down the chiles de árbol. I got mine from the Mexican grocery store near my house, an experience which made my inner 16-year-old feel very cosmopolitan. A huge bag set me back less than two dollars and added incredible depth and flavor to the sauce. 


    Chicken Tikka Masala
    Adapted from Bon Appétit
    Serves 6

    Ingredients

    6 garlic cloves, minced

    4 tsp finely grated peeled ginger

    4 tsp ground turmeric

    2 tsp garam masala

    2 tsp ground coriander

    2 tsp ground cumin

    1 1/2 cups whole-milk yogurt

    1 tbsp kosher salt

    2 lb skinless, boneless chicken breasts

    3 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil

    1 small onion, thinly sliced

    1/4 cup tomato paste

    6 cardamom pods, crushed

    2 dried chiles de árbol

    28 oz whole peeled tomatoes

    2 cups heavy cream

    3/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

    Steamed basmati rice (for serving)

    Method

    Combine garlic, ginger, turmeric, garam masala, coriander, and cumin in a small bowl. Whisk yogurt, salt, and half of spice mixture in a medium bowl; add chicken and turn to coat. Cover and chill 4-6 hours. Cover and chill remaining spice mixture.

    Heat ghee in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add onion, tomato paste, cardamom, and chiles and cook, stirring often, until tomato paste has darkened and onion is soft, about 5 minutes. Add remaining half of spice mixture and cook, stirring often, until bottom of pot begins to brown, about 4 minutes.

    Add tomatoes with juices, crushing them with your hands as you add them. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, stirring often and scraping up browned bits from bottom of pot, until sauce thickens, 8-10 minutes.

    Add cream and chopped cilantro. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens, 30-40 minutes.
    Meanwhile, preheat broiler. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and set a wire rack inside sheet. Arrange chicken on rack in a single layer. Broil until chicken starts to blacken in spots (about 10 minutes on each side).

    Cut chicken into bite-size pieces, add to sauce, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until chicken is cooked through, 8-10 minutes. Serve with rice and cilantro sprigs.