Exotic Fruits of My Labor — Passionfruit Shortbread

Passionfruit Shortbread.

In this continuation of my previous post, I have a recipe I found on the food blog, “Lucy’s Friendly Foods.” The writer is a mom with training at Le Cordon Bleu who cooks for people who have food allergies (the common ones, like dairy, soy, egg, and nuts) and those who are on vegetarian/vegan diets.

While I don’t have any food allergies (I thought I was allergic to seafood as a teenager because my eyes always itched and I had nausea, but the red eyes were from rubbing melted butter in them and the nausea could have been from foodborne illness) and you will never see me stick exclusively to a vegetarian/vegan diet (I love meat and junk food too much), age and my time as a culinary student with Job Corps made me more mindful of what I eat. On top of that, it’s an interesting cookie recipe no home cook (be they pro or amateur) should be without. It’s not going to take the place of Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies, but it’s something you have to try once (unless you hate passionfruit or shortbread cookies).

Happy eating!

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Exotic Fruits of My Labor

Whether it’s traveling the world, publishing that novel that’s been in your head and on paper since high school, or living to see your kids grow up and have families of their own, we all have something we want to do before we die. For some foodies (be they world-class chefs or lowly bloggers and food writers who write about world-class chefs), their goal is to try new and exotic foods. Cuisines from around the world, a healthy spin on a favorite snack, a meal/snack that was popular in the past and can be recreated today, anything locally grown/made from scratch, a popular dish from a hole-in-the-wall eatery– those are all common items on the culinary bucket list. My culinary bucket list is no different, only I have a few culinary things I’ve done that some either wouldn’t have put on the list or haven’t done yet.

  • I got involved in a culinary education program and graduated (Job Corps does count. I know it’s not as glamorous as The Restaurant School, but I don’t want to put myself deeper in student loan debt).
  • I ate at Claudia Sanders (a Kentucky restaurant created by the wife of Colonel Sanders [the man behind Kentucky Fried Chicken]).
  • I went to two culinary expos (one in Kentucky and one in San Francisco)
  • I went to a wine tasting — one year as a greeter and another as a…well, I don’t know what I was. I originally came in to be a prep cook for one of the booths, but then I was put in charge of refilling the water pitchers, then put in charge of dishwashing. I was tossed around more times than a salad, but it was worth it, because when does someone like me get to see wine snobs up close?
  • I experienced firsthand what it’s like to work in the foodservice industry (and now have a better appreciation of those who do. I may never get another job in foodservice, but at least I know about the trials and tribulations of front- and back of house service, especially when I worked as a waitress for Chef Ron Schoenberg’s class and when a miscalculation caused me to run out of aioli for fried calamari in the middle of service. Мне очень жаль, Chef Valdet).
  • I learned baking from a German baker (Dankeschön, Kopf Egon!)
  • I ate at In-and-Out Burger. Sadly, I didn’t have any secret menu items from it, but it’s nothing a copycat recipe can’t fix. For my money, though, I like Carl’s Jr. better. Maybe I should have gone for the Double-Double special if I wanted a hamburger meal that will put me in a temporary food coma on a lazy weekend afternoon.
  • I got to work with sugar and chocolate art in pastry class. I even have pictures:

Chocolate Designs 1 P01-09-12_10.50

The sugar flower was very hard to do. I don’t know if you know this, but working with sugar that’s been heated to almost near-boiling point (by water standards) is not for those with delicate hands or a low tolerance for pain from burns. Once you get used to it, though, it’s almost like working with glass — and I should know. I went to a college where making art from molding and coloring glass was a legitimate major.

  • I got to try milk and cheese that didn’t come from a cow. Might not seem like much, but when you’re away from what you’re used to, you do begin to realize how boring it is and want to try something different.
  • I traveled to San Francisco and went to the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market. It’s a very nice place to go on sunny weekends (which is almost always in California. It only rained, like, twice when I was there, and snow is almost unheard-of, unless you live in Northern California) and you get to sample most things there, from homemade soda to foods I’ve never tried.

…Which leads me to my next point. Thanks to my time at Job Corps for Culinary Arts (February 2010 to September 2012), I’m still on the look-out for foods I haven’t tried, recipes I want to do for the family, and relatively unknown eateries I want to visit. One of the items on my culinary bucket list: trying out exotic fruits.

Now, this may not seem much like a feat, but some of the supermarkets around my town only have the “safe” exotic produce (and by “safe,” I mean “Everyone has tried this at least once in their lives”), like pineapple, coconut, banana, lime (which I love sliced in wedges or in circles and sprinkled with salt for a bare-bones margarita. You can dip the wedges or rounds in tequila before you salt them if you like your margaritas the way you like your women or men: not a virgin), blood oranges, mangoes, and papaya. I’m interested in the kinds of fruits  that either aren’t readily available in the United States or are only available either at a farmer’s market or as juice or part of a juice blend.

Here are some of these fruits I’ve tried, and some that I want to try.

Fruits I’ve Tried

1)

This first fruit I found was when I went shopping at this store called Produce Junction. They were labeled as “lychees,” even though a lychee’s skin is thinner and not as “hairy.” What I was eating was a rambutan, which is larger than a lychee, has a larger seed in the middle, and a flesh that taste vaguely like a white grape. My youngest sister, Ashley, took the last one I had (I bought four), then told me, “Don’t buy any more hairy grapes.” Siblings can be so cruel.

The rambutan, part of the Sapindaceae family and related to the lychee, the mamoncillo (Spanish lime), and the longan (but not the loganberry), is a Southeast Asian plant native to the Indonesian Archipelago, but has spread westwards to Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Sri Lanka and India; northwards to Vietnam, and the Philippines. Much like humans, the tree of this fruit can be male (producing only staminate flowers and, hence, produce no fruit), female (producing flowers that are only functionally female), or hermaphroditic (producing flowers that are female with a small percentage of male flowers). The fruit is round to oval (described as being as big as a golf ball or an average-sized testicle, depending on who you ask) and the seed inside is flat and, in Southeast Asian cuisine, edible — something I wish I knew before I ate just the flesh of it. Oh, well, next time.

There’s another fruit that looks like this (or at least has the same flesh and seed) called the pulasan, which is native to Malaysia, but has grown in the same places as the rambutan (mostly The Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand).

2)

This isn’t an orange. It’s a kumquat, which tastes like a really sour-to-bitter orange, and, unlike the orange, you can eat the entire thing whole and don’t have to worry about the pith. Credit goes to Chef Georgia Murphy (the Fine Dining instructor I first met. Sadly, I never had her as a teacher because she left) for introducing me to this fruit. Like the rambutan, no one in my immediate family likes this fruit, except for me.

The kumquat fruit grows from a slow-growing evergreen shrub or hydrophytic short tree with dark green leaves and white flowers (similar to its more common citrus relatives). Depending on the conditions, can produce hundreds to thousands of kumquats annually. Like the rambutan, the kumquat is found in Southeast Asia, but the kumquat has also been found in other Asian countries, like Taiwan, India, and Japan, and has even been cultivated on some islands on the Pacific Ocean.

3)

You have probably seen this fruit a lot on beautifully-crafted fruit baskets (Edible Arrangements does them all the time) and assumed they were pineapples cut into star shapes. I thought that’s what they were as well, until I read in my culinary notebook that star-shaped fruit does exist.

Starfruit (real name: carambola) and the tree on which it grows can be found in the tropical regions of the world, particularly in the Asian countries of India, Sri Lanka, The Philippines, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, but the trees also grow in the South Pacific and even the Caribbean. Don’t let the bright orange color fool you. This is not a citrus fruit. Speaking from experience, the taste is more on-par with a honeydew melon with a hint of cucumber. Besides using it as an interesting piece in a fruit basket, you can use it as an interesting piece in fruit salad (or a green salad. Hey, if grapes, tomatoes, and cranberries can do it, then this fruit can too). And don’t rule this out when grilling fruit (it tastes just as good as grilled pineapple on a hamburger) or using it in making flavored water.

The best looking star fruit may not be the most ripe and delicious, so choosing the right one is important. Your best bet is to find the fruit with the least amount of green on the edges and the richest orange color. This could mean there are some brown edges, but don’t let that deter you. It’s still good.

4)

The stamen does look like something from a low-rent sci-fi movie about aliens, but what girl wouldn’t want this as a corsage or the centerpiece of a dress or wedding veil? I know I would.

You’ve probably seen this around — maybe not the actual fruit, but its juice has made appearances — both solo and with other juices (even if it’s artificially flavored). The top pic is a passion fruit (if you’re reading this in South Africa, then this is known to you as a purple granadilla; if you’re reading this in Hawaii, then it’s a lilikoi), a fruit from the vine plant Passiflora edulis. Its flower (shown below) looks like the kind of flower that has graced the wrists of many a dolled-up prom queen or a bride who wants a wedding that’s part fairy tale, part Polynesian/South Pacific paradise. Passion fruit gets its name, not because the fruit is said to be an aphrodisiac, but because parts of the flower will remind Christians and Roman Catholics of Jesus’ crucifixion (often referred to as “The Passion of the Christ”), in this case, the tendril-like petals circling the plant’s reproductive organs look similar to the crown of thorns Jesus had to wear as he was carrying the cross on which the Roman soldiers would nail him. Grisly, I know, after I said that the flower looked like it could be on a corsage or a wedding veil, but that’s the beauty of this blog: you get gritty, disturbing facts and whimsical opinion/kooky observation all in one sitting.

Passion fruit is native to Brazil, but have also grown in Central America (the countries between Mexico and South America, like Honduras and Costa Rica), the Caribbean (specifically Haiti and The Dominican Republic), the United States (California, Florida, and Hawaii, as those states have the right climate to grow this type of fruit), Asia (west and east, meaning that you can see passion fruit plants in Israel as well as Cambodia), and in Australia. Basically, any place that’s always warm and doesn’t have to worry about snowy conditions is where passion fruit thrive.

Passion fruit comes in two varieties: the purple one with the yellow and black seed sacs (which I have tried and is what is commonly used when bottling passion fruit for commercial use) and a vanilla type that’s elongated, yellow, and has a pale green flesh that (surprise, surprise) taste like vanilla. I don’t know if you can use it as a substitute for vanilla beans like people do with vanilla extract, but if you can find the vanilla passion fruit, it does make for a good frozen treat flavor. Can you imagine vanilla passion fruit ice cream with dark chocolate chips or vanilla passion fruit sorbet served as a tasty palate cleanser between meals?

For cost reasons, the actual passion fruit isn’t used often in the kitchen, unless you’re an ambitious pastry chef/pastry instructor with connections and/or money to burn, as I have seen pictures of passion fruit pulp used as a topping on high-end restaurant-style desserts. (You know the kind I mean: the kind served on plates with sauce fancifully drizzled over the dessert, the ice cream is molded into quenelles rather than scoops, the portions are small and the price is somewhat more outrageous than what you had to shell out for the entree, but the flavor usually makes up for it, and the dessert itself is often soaked in an after-dinner liqueur and lit on fire for dramatic effect — I’m looking at you, cherries jubilee, crêpes Suzette, and bananas Foster). Most chefs find that it’s just better to use canned nectar or passion fruit juice and only use the actual fruit if you’re making a jelly or pastry filling.

Like with the rambutan, I found and bought passion fruit at a produce store. In this case, however, it was Iovine’s Organic Produce at the Reading Terminal in Center City, Philadelphia last summer. It didn’t cost much ($2.99, I believe) and wanted to try it just for the purpose of making a blog post about it (in fact, this originally was supposed to be the second or third post, but I had a hard time making it work). You’d think a fruit like this would have a taste that’s out of this world. Well, it does and it doesn’t. It has a creamy flavor and its juice is infinitely better than what you can get at the store, but that’s if you can handle the tart flavor that almost parallels what pomegranate tastes like. Not saying I can’t handle tart flavors, it’s just that I expected passion fruit to be different since it’s a more-or-less rare fruit and not many people have tasted it. It’s similar to how people say most meats taste like chicken, despite how exotic and uncommon it is (though I’ve had lamb and goat before, and you will never hear me say that they taste like chicken, beef, or pork).

And that’s where I am in trying rare/weird fruits on my Culinary Bucket List. I want to reach ten, so that means I have six more to go. I know the next fruits I want to try are dragonfruit (pitaya), mangosteen, and, the smelliest fruit on the planet, durian.

Which exotic/tropical/rare fruits do you, my readers, think I should try. The comments section is yours to offer suggestions.

Thanks, and Happy Eating!

Operation Thanksgiving 4: Side Dish Follies

Welcome back to “Operation: Thanksgiving.” We’re in our fourth day (or blog post) on how to make Thanksgiving a little less hectic on the kitchen front (if you need help on the family and relatives front, I’m not qualified for that). I laid out my plan on day one. Day two outlined the history of Thanksgiving and why a turkey was chosen as the main course. Day three focused on the turkey and the easy ways to make it juicy and moist (along with debunking every moisture retaining technique you learned from family and the media). Today, we make like a bad Operation player and touch the sides.

Stuffing

What would Thanksgiving be without stuffing in or served alongside the turkey? For some people, better.

I used to be one of those people who thought stuffing was disgusting – without even tasting it, which is a cardinal sin in culinary. You have to taste everything at least once before you can pass judgment. You may be missing out on something great. That’s how I found out that gluten-free brownies are just as good as ordinary brownies. I didn’t discover how good stuffing could be until November 2011, when my culinary class was assigned to cook Thanksgiving lunch and dinner for everyone at Whitney M. Young Job Corps center (which averages in at about 400 students, not counting students who leave because they finished the program, got thrown out, or decided not to stay, plus the regular staff members) and the kitchen staff taught us how to make it by hand. It was just a typical bread and celery stuffing, meant to be served alongside the turkey during the lunch and dinner rushes.

Initially I refused, citing that I didn’t like it. My teacher insisted, and I figured, “I’m not going to stick to most of my ways. I came out here to Kentucky to try new things.” It…wasn’t too bad. It could have stood to be seasoned a little more, but it wasn’t as gross as I imagined it would be.

Now, why would I think stuffing is disgusting? I mean, look at it.

Great Grandma's Bread Stuffing Recipe

Its name is appropos to what it looks like: stuffing, from an old couch that a stoner must have thought would taste better in the oven. Also, it seems that the stuffing and the turkey are competing for being the dryest thing at the table since that time your theatrical son chose to read Oscar Wilde’s memoirs instead of saying grace at the dinner table (hey, it’s more educational and less embarrassing than the time Uncle Gerald gave that stirring reading from Penthouse Forum. Sitting at the adult table can be vastly overrated, sometimes)*.

“So, Canais [or “Philly Foodie,” if you can’t make heads or tails of the pronounciation of my name],” you ask, “How can I make my stuffing moist?”

Now, assuming that’s not more food-based sexual innuendo, I’d answer, “It’s very simple…”

Or maybe not.

Because while you might dream of having moist stuffing inside a roasted bird, reality in the form of borrowed time, better resources (more pans, more oven room), and/or guest request may call for the stuffing to be cooked separately. Frankly, it doesn’t matter which method you use (stuffed in the bird vs. cooked separately), as long as you follow these steps to better, more moist stuffing:

Use bread: You can use grains or eschew stuffing all together if you have guests who don’t like/can’t eat gluten, but the truth of the matter is: You need bread for your stuffing. Now what kind of bread depends on what kind of stuffing you’re aiming for – and it has to be fresh bread. Don’t try to cheat with prepackaged croutons. It’ll taste like crap and everyone will know it. If you want to stick to tradition, use Pullman bread (the typical, square loaf bread, often sold as “white bread”). Whole grain bread adds a sweeter, fuller taste. Italian loaves cut into cubes is what I used when my class made stuffing from scratch. They’re great for sopping up the juices and, if you happen to have an Italian loaf flavored with olive oil or an Italian herb (basil or oregano), all the better, as it imparts a very homey taste. Good, old San Francisco sourdough gets you chewy, tangy stuffing (which is equal parts good and bad). Whatever you use, estimate 3/4 to 1 cup stuffing per person when figuring out how much you will need, or, failing that, err on the side of too much rather than too little. This is good advice, because the next blog post will be about what to do with all those leftovers.

Dry your bread: Nobody likes mushy stuffing, except those so hungry and desperate that they will eat anything, and even then, it’s a crapshoot. As I mentioned before, you can’t use prepackaged croutons, but you can make your own with fresh bread. Cut whatever bread you’re using (if you’re using cornbread or buttermilk biscuits as your base, all you have to do is bake your cornbread or biscuits and crumble them when they cool off) into cubes and toast them in the oven for 15 minutes (or until golden brown) at 275°F.

Aromatic vegetables are your friends: As I mentioned in the turkey section, a mix of diced or roughly cut (but small enough to be inconspicuous) aromatic vegetables (mirepoix) is essential, whether you’re making sauce or roasting poultry, and here, it’s no exception. The only difference is, instead of carrots, use garlic, along with your celery and onions, as you sauté them in a pan slicked up with a full stick of butter (you can cut it in half if the mere mention of a stick of butter makes your heart seize up in a pre-emptive attack).

Fresh herbs are also your friends: I already touched on this in the turkey post, so I’m not going to belabor the point. In the case of stuffing, you can’t cheat and use powdered herbs. You can, if you don’t have any fresh herbs, but if you want the stuffing to taste like something, then I advise you to use fresh and dried herbs. Sage, thyme, and parsley are the herbs associated with stuffing, but you can improvise and either add on or substitute any of those three for ground cloves, allspice, mace, and/or nutmeg. Rosemary — an herb my mother hates with a passion (I myself love it) — can be used as well, but it will impart a pine tree-like flavor to your stuffing if you use too much — unless you want to combine Thanksgiving and Christmas in one meal, then by all means, go nuts. In seriousness, though, a pinch of the herbs and spices is all you need to give the stuffing a pop without making it overbearing.

Pack the stuffing loosely: The stuffing expands as it absorbs juices, and if it’s too tightly packed, it won’t cook through. On top of that, you run the risk of causing food-bourne illness if you do pack it tightly. If your hand can’t fit inside the cavity after you stuffed the bird, it’s too much. The excess stuffing can be cooked off in a casserole pan or put in a freezer bag for later use.

A little liquid goes a long way: This will make or break your stuffing, as the liquid is what keeps the stuffing together. However, too much can make it soggy. You’re going to need one to two cups of stock (not broth, stock) of any kind (chicken is the gold standard, but you can use vegetable or mushroom if you don’t want to make your vegetarian eaters mad), but if you want to mix it up, create a liquid mixture made of milk, white wine, and the stock of your choice. The key here is to have something that will not only hold the bread crumbs together, but also give it a great flavor.

Next up, Cranberry Sauce

Like stuffing, I was never a fan of this Thanksgiving staple. Not because no one knew how to make it right, but I was under the impression that no one made it at all, and that the only form it existed in was the can, jellied monstrosity by Ocean Spray. My “Damn you, Ocean Spray” from the previous post was half-funny and half-serious. I just really hate that Ocean Spray came up with the canned cranberry sauce (their cranberry juices are okay in my book). It wouldn’t be until college that I realize that cranberry sauce need not be this way. One of the student orientation heads brought some homemade cranberry and orange sauce. One taste and all my preconceptions about cranberry sauce vanished.

It wouldn’t be until I went to Job Corps for culinary arts that I went searching online for homemade cranberry sauce recipes I could put in my Thanksgiving repertoire. This one I picked (and just did) because it’s more of a relish than a sauce and it’s very versatile. It can be equally enjoyed at the Thanksgiving table or on a shrimp salad pita sandwich during your lunch break at work.

Pomegranate Apple Cranberry Relish (credit to A Spicy Perspective)

Ingredients:

2 cups pomegranate juice
1/2 cup sugar
1 12-ounce bag fresh cranberries
1 medium crisp apple, peeled, cored, diced (I used a Granny Smith apple because I wanted it to taste tart, but you can use the mild apples, like Gala or Red Delicious)
1 cup pomegranate arils (seeds) [See my blog post about POM and pomegranates for how to break and de-seed one of these suckers. It’s not as messy as handling cranberries]
1 teaspoons orange zest
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint (or parsley)*

*I substituted for ground cinnamon for two reasons: 1) it gives it a bolder flavor that’s more suited for autumn, and 2) my mother couldn’t find any mint, and I didn’t go shopping with her to look for it myself. I also forgot to put salt in it, but I think I made up for it with the cinnamon.

Directions:

1) Simmer the pomegranate juice and sugar until it reduces to less than half, and a thin syrupy consistency is reached—about 15 minutes (longer if you feel it could be a little sweeter).

2) Meanwhile, using a blender or a food processor, coarsely chop the cranberries.

3) Pour them into a medium bowl and add the pomegranate syrup. If the syrup is still warm, don’t worry about it. You can make up for it by chilling it in the refrigerator.

4) Add the diced apple, pomegranate arils, orange zest salt and mint. Mix well.

5) Serve right away or chill for up to a week. Makes about 4 cups.

Mashed Potatoes

Mashed potatoes seems like a no-brainer recipe. Boil some spuds until soft and yielding, mash as you pour in milk or cream, season to taste, the end. Which is why I don’t understand why people would resort to instant. Yes, if time really isn’t on your side, you can whip this up in 15 to 30 minutes flat, but I’m the kind of person who at least wants to put some effort into something, whether or not it’s stupid easy. If that means I’m an ovethinker, then, well, that’s what I am.

And just like anything that seems easy to make, it’s also easy to screw it up. Case in point: I had to make mashed potatoes for wonton filling in my garde manger (pantry) class. The potatoes were only half soft when I had to mash them. Also, it would have been best if I peeled them before cubing them. My point is, “Don’t do what I did.”

As long as you use Russets (Idaho) or Yukon Golds (they’re starchier and result in a creamier mash, mash it by hand instead of machine (immersion blender and food processors), don’t overdo it on the mashing, don’t add too much liquid (and if you do, then you can turn it into potato soup), respect the “2:1 potato-to-butter ratio” (for every pound of potatoes, use a half-pound of butter), and don’t make them too far in advance (to avoid drying them out), then you’re golden.

I will, however, add that I swear by stock and cream cheese for really good mashed potatoes that don’t also double as stucco.

Vegetable, Grain, and Legume Dishes

Normally, green bean casserole (the one with the fried onion sticks in them) is the go-to veggie dish for the Thanksgiving table, but let’s be honest. It’s time to retire it. It had a good run and it should have gone out on top before 1979 ended (kind of like how The Simpsons should have ended after the season nine episode where Homer becomes the sanitation commissioner for Springfield and then buried the entire town in trash, which would be around 1998-1999).

At my table, the vegetable dishes are usually collard greens (or some kind of braised greens dish. Mustard greens and kale have been served before), a rice and veggie dish (usually broccoli, and usually with that bright yellow cheese sauce), asparagus spears, or baked potatoes. Vegetables don’t really get much attention at my family’s table, which is a shame, because that’s an essential part of a balanced diet. If I had my way, I’d prepare ratatouille (not that Pixar movie; it’s an actual vegetable dish of North African and Mediterrenean roots), creamed spinach, and brussel sprouts (yeah, it’s not everyone’s favorite vegetable, but, if cooked right, it will be. Brussel sprouts really benefit from some time in a slow cooker).

My family doesn’t do beans at the table, since not everyone likes them (myself included). I have taken a liking to quinoa, thanks to my internship at Three Stone Hearth, a community kitchen/health food store in Berkeley, California. Quinoa is a grain-like crop grown primarily for its edible seeds. You can use it as a substitute for rice if you’re making a pilaf recipe, but I enjoy quinoa more in a salad recipe (like this recipe below):

Greek Quinoa Salad

Ingredients:

  • 3-4 cups water or vegetable broth
  • 1 1/2 cups quinoa, uncooked
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • juice from one lemon
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup kalamata olives, sliced if desired
  • 1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

Preparation:

1)      In a medium-large saucepan, cook the quinoa in vegetable broth for 15-20 minutes, until tender, stirring occasionally. Allow to cool.

2)      In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil.

3)      Gently toss the quinoa together with the remaining ingredients, except the feta.

4)      Pour the olive oil mixture over the quinoa.

Add more salt and pepper to taste and gently stir in the feta cheese

Breads (Biscuits, Cornbread, and Croissants)

If you don’t know how to make bread by hand, you can take a shortcut and get your breads either from a bakery or just use Pillsbury or Jiffy brand. But, if you have the know-how and the time to make biscuits, cornbread, and/or croissants by hand, then read on:

I’m a fan of knock-off recipes. A knock-off recipe (also called a “copycat recipe”) is a recipe written to imitate a certain food or meal from a popular chain restaurant or fast food joint. You see them all the time online, from imitations of Outback Steakhouse’s Bloomin’ Onion to imitations of your favorite candies, like Almond Joy and Reese’s Cups. The knock-off recipe appeals to my “I can do better than these guys” sensibilities, because why go to Dairy Queen for a Blizzard when you can just throw some ice cream (either store-bought or homemade) in a blender and mix in some candy, fruit, nuts, or cookie dough pieces until it’s so thick that it can’t slide out of the cup? And why go to Red Lobster for the Chedday Bay biscuits when you can make them yourself at home? I think you see where this is going.

Cheddar Bay Biscuits

Ingredients

2 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup chilled butter, cut into pieces

1 cup buttermilk

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 cup cheddar cheese, shredded

Method

-Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

-Mix the dry ingredients, then cut the butter pieces into it with a pastry cutter or two knives.

-Add the buttermilk, stirring just until a sticky dough forms.

-Turn it out onto floured surface, pat it into a square, and fold it in on itself a couple of times, like a letter.

-Pat it out again to about 1/2 to 1 inch thickness, depending on how you like them. Use a biscuit cutter to cut the biscuits out.

-Arrange them on a baking sheet, as close to each other as possible without touching. Make a small indentation in the center of each biscuit with your thumb (I’ve heard this helps them rise straight, but I’ve never not done it, so I have no idea.)

-Mix butter or margarine and garlic powder. Brush mixture over warm biscuits before removing from cookie sheet.

Cornbread

Good cornbread is hard to find. In my younger, more naive days, I thought Jiffy brand Cornbread Mix was the quickest way to good cornbread. Then, one day, I tried a piece of Jiffy cornbread after years of not having it and was shocked to find that it wasn’t the little slice of buttery heaven it was before. I learned a horrible truth about my beloved cornbread: real cornbread (as in, “From the Deep South of these United States. The kind of places where answering ‘No’ to the question, ‘You ain’t from around here, are ya?’ will get you strung up faster than a piñata at a little kid’s backyard birthday party”) is grittier than packaged or bakery versions. Why? Because wheat flour and sugar, among other ingredients, dominate commercial mixes. From then on, I’ve been on a journey to find a cornbread recipe (from scratch) that would make me love cornbread again.

And I made it when I was at Whitney M. Young Job Corps Center:

Juffy Cornbread Mix (Not very creative, but it’s still mine)

Dry Mix:

2/3 Cup Flour
1/2 Cup Yellow Cornmeal
3 Tablespoons Sugar
1 Tablespoon Baking Powder
1/4 teaspoon Salt

Wet Ingredients:

1 Egg

1/3 Cup Milk

2 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil

Method:

1)      Combine dry ingredients in a bowl, mix well.

2)      Whisk in vegetable oil and mix until dry mixture is smooth and lumps are gone.

3)      Combine mix with egg and milk, mixing well.

4)      Fill muffin pan 1/2 full,

5)      Bake for 15-20 minutes or until toothpick poked in center of one of the cornbread muffins comes out clean.

A note for cooks: Cornbread is a quick bread, meaning that its batter or dough should be made quickly. Working on it too long or mixing it too much can and will result in a less than savory crumb.

Croissants

As I said before, you’re better off just getting ready-made crescent rolls from either a very good bakery or the grocer’s freezer in one of those tubes that go “POP!” when you press on it with a back of a spoon, as croissant dough is very labor intensive to work with.

I’d like to thank Fine Cooking.com and my Baking Class instructor, Master Baker Chef Egon Grundmann from Treasure Island Job Corps Center for teaching me how to work with this dough and for the recipe:

Ingredients:

For the dough

  • 1 lb. 2 oz. (4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour (add more for rolling, so the dough doesn’t stick)
  • 5 oz. (1/2cup plus 2 Tbs.) cold water
  • 5 oz. (1/2 cup plus 2 Tbs.) cold whole milk
  • 2 oz. (1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs.) granulated sugar
  • 1-1/2 oz. (3 Tbs.) soft unsalted butter
  • 1 Tbs. plus scant 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
  • 2-1/4 tsp. table salt

For the butter layer

  • 10 oz. (1-1/4 cups) cold unsalted butter

For the egg wash

1 large egg

Method:

Make the dough

Combine all of the dough ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix on low speed for 3 minutes, scraping the sides of the mixing bowl once if necessary. Mix on medium speed for 3 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured 10-inch pie pan or a dinner plate. Lightly flour the top of the dough and wrap well with plastic so it doesn’t dry out. Refrigerate overnight.

Make the butter layer

The next day, cut the cold butter lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slabs. Arrange the pieces on a piece of parchment or waxed paper to form a 5- to 6-inch square, cutting the butter crosswise as necessary to fit. Top with another piece of parchment or waxed paper. With a rolling pin, pound the butter with light, even strokes. As the pieces begin to adhere, use more force. Pound the butter until it’s about 7-1/2 inches square and then trim the edges of the butter. Put the trimmings on top of the square and pound them in lightly with the rolling pin. Refrigerate while you roll out the dough.

Laminate the dough

Unwrap and lay the dough on a lightly floured work surface. Roll into a 10-1/2-inch square. Brush excess flour off the dough. Remove the butter from the refrigerator—it should be pliable but cold. If not, refrigerate a bit longer. Unwrap and place the butter on the dough so that the points of the butter square are centered along the sides of the dough. Fold one flap of dough over the butter toward you, stretching it slightly so that the point just reaches the center of the butter. Repeat with the other flaps, then press the edges together to completely seal the butter inside the dough. A complete seal ensures the butter center won’t come out over the edges.

Lightly flour the top and bottom of the dough. With the rolling pin, firmly press the dough to elongate it slightly and then begin rolling instead of pressing, focusing on lengthening rather than widening the dough and keeping the edges straight. Roll the dough until it’s 8 by 24 inches. If the ends lose their square shape, gently reshape the corners with your hands. Brush any flour off the dough. Pick up one short end of the dough and fold it back over the dough, leaving one-third of the other end of dough exposed. Brush the flour off and then fold the exposed dough over the folded side. Put the dough on a baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and freeze for 20 minutes to relax and chill the dough.

Repeat the rolling and folding, this time rolling in the direction of the two open ends. Fold the dough in thirds again, brushing off excess flour and turning under any rounded edges or short ends with exposed or smeared layers. Cover and freeze for another 20 minutes.

Give the dough a third rolling and folding. Put the dough on the baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap, tucking the plastic under all four sides. Refrigerate overnight.

Divide the dough

The next day, unwrap and lightly flour the top and bottom of the dough. With the rolling pin, “wake the dough up” by pressing firmly along its length—you don’t want to widen the dough but simply begin to lengthen it with these first strokes. Roll the dough into a long and narrow strip. If the dough sticks as you roll, sprinkle with flour. Once the dough is about half to two-thirds of its final length, it may start to resist rolling and even shrink back. If this happens, fold the dough in thirds, cover, and refrigerate for about 10 minutes; then unfold the dough and finish rolling. Lift the dough an inch or so off the table and allow it to shrink from both sides—this helps prevent the dough from shrinking when it’s cut. Check that there’s enough excess dough on either end to allow you to trim the ends so they’re straight. Trim the dough.

With a knife and a ruler, mark the top of the dough at 5-inch intervals along the length. There should be 7 marks in all. Make a mark 2-1/2 inches in from the end of the dough. Make marks at 5-inch intervals from this point all along the bottom of the dough. You’ll have 8 marks that fall halfway between the marks at the top.

Make diagonal cuts by positioning the yardstick at the top corner and the first bottom mark. With a knife or pastry wheel (better known as a pizza cutter), cut the dough along the marked lines. Repeat until you have cut the dough diagonally at the same angle along its entire length. Change the angle of the yardstick to connect the other top corner and bottom mark and cut the dough along this line to make triangles. Repeat along the entire length of dough. You’ll end up with 15 triangles and a small scrap of dough at each end. Toss the scraps out if they aren’t triangular enough to be made into croissants.

Using a paring knife or a bench knife, make a 1/2- to 3/4-inch-long notch in the center of the short side of each triangle. The notch helps the rolled croissant curl into a crescent. Hold a dough triangle so that the short notched side is on top and gently elongate to about 10 inches without squeezing or compressing the dough. Lay the croissant on your work surface with the notched side closest to you. With one hand on each side of the notch, begin to roll the dough away from you, towards the pointed end.

Flare your hands outward as you roll so that the “legs” (the thin ends) become longer. Press down on the dough with enough force to make the layers stick together, but avoid excess compression, which could smear the layers. Roll the dough all the way down its length until the pointed end of the triangle is directly underneath the croissant. Now bend the two legs towards you to form a tight crescent shape and gently press the tips of the legs together. Don’t worry if they come off during the proofing phase. That’s normal.

Shape the remaining croissants in the same manner, arranging them on two large parchment-lined rimmed baking sheets (8 on one pan and 7 on the other). Keep as much space as possible between them, as they will rise during the final proofing and again when baked.

Proof the croissants

Make the egg wash by whisking the egg with 1 tsp. water in a small bowl until very smooth. Lightly brush it on each croissant.

Refrigerate the remaining egg wash and put the croissants in a draft-free spot at 75° to 80°F. Wherever you proof them, be sure the temperature is not so warm that the butter melts out of the dough. They will take 90 minutes to 2 hours to fully proof (perfect time to watch a movie). The croissants are ready if you can see the layers of dough when the croissants are viewed from the side, and if you shake the sheets, the croissants will wiggle. Finally, the croissants will be distinctly larger (though not doubled) than they were when first shaped.

Bake the croissants (Finally!)

Shortly before the croissants are fully proofed, position racks in the top and lower thirds of the oven and heat it to 400°F convection, or 425°F conventional. Brush the croissants with egg wash a second time. Put the sheets in the oven. After 10 minutes, rotate the sheets and swap their positions. Continue baking until the bottoms are an even brown, the tops richly browned, and the edges show signs of coloring, another 8 to 10 minutes. If they appear to be darkening too quickly during baking, lower the oven temperature by 10°F. Let cool on baking sheets on racks.

Well, we reached the end of this battle in “Operation: Thanksgiving,” but the war isn’t over yet. Once I’ve and you’ve recovered from our respective food comas, I’ll be blogging about what you can do with all those leftovers.

Goodbye, happy eating, and Happy Thanksgiving (or Happy Hanukkah, since that happens to fall around the same time as American Thanksgiving this year. I’ve never seen this happen and I’m glad to be alive to see it. Mazel tov!).

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*NOTE: Those two events never happened to me personally. I’m just painting a hypothetical picture of how dry the stuffing and turkey can get. All recipes and excerpts are property of their respective books and websites unless otherwise noted. All commentary is copyright of Canais “Philly Foodie” Young.

All About Pom (or Pomegranates 101)

This is Pom.

Pom is a Northern European free spirit — a little wacky, with outré ways that won’t win over everyone, but she does have a lot of friends who want to abandon their toxin-laden, supermarket-shopping, fat American ways and try something…different. Her hourglass figure brings to mind Mae West in her prime or Betty Boop before the Hays Code cracked down on her jazz-era sense of sexual freedom. She comes with a charming tag with diagrams on how many antioxidant properties she has than her Far East sister, Green Tea, which I love both as a drink and as an ice cream flavor.

With the exceptions of grape juice (which, to me, tastes too much like cough syrup with sugar in it), I love fruit juices of all kinds. I am very partial to cranberry juice (which, as a girl, is essential for cleaning out any and all infections in my urinary tract), lime juice (put some sea salt in it and you have a non-alcoholic margarita. Of course, you can add tequila and triple sec along with the salt if you want the real deal, but I’m not much of a drinker), tomato/vegetable blend juice like V8 (which I can always count in if I feel I’m not getting enough fruits and vegetables in my diet and is one of the reasons why I feel a blender is essential in the home kitchen), and any kind of exotic fruit juice (mostly from fruits associated with tropic climates, like passion fruit and mango). That’s where Pom comes in.

The concept of pomagranate juice will make those who aren’t used to it a little suspicious. For one thing, the inside of a pomegranate looks like this:

Your pomegranate insides may vary, but that’s typically what it looks like when you break it open, which may seem hard to cut with a kitchen knife because of the thick skin, but if you have a professional-grade kitchen knife, you can slice through it like it’s nothing. As for me, I’d rather summon the ghosts of my primitive, cave-dwelling ancestors and just slam it against something hard until it splits. Unlike my ancestors, however, I’ll be careful not to get any juice or seeds on the floor.

And that’s another thing about the pomegranate and Pom in general. Pomegranates are not like any fruit you’re used to. They don’t  have juicy flesh that can be fit through a juicer. You can’t twist one on a citrus reamer like you do with a lemon, a lime, a grapefruit, a pomelo, a tangelo, or an orange. Its interior looks  like a uterus with a serious ovarian cyst problem (one that needs surgery, not birth control pills, to fix), and, if you do manage to figure out that the seeds are the juicy part of the fruit, then you’ll discover that it’s very bitter and it’s bitterness doesn’t let up. Where’s the sharp, yet safe and refreshing taste of citrus or the mild, familiar autumn taste of apple juice (and its country cousin, apple cider)? You won’t find it here.

The pomegranate was originally from Iran and has been cultivated there and other parts of Europe and Asia, such as the Mediterrenean, the Caucasus region [that’s the area that includes countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, the southwestern tip of Russia, and Georgia — not the Southern U.S. state between Florida and South Carolina. This Georgia also goes by the name “Sakartvelo,” has Tbilisi as its capital city instead of Atlanta, and was part of the Soviet Union until the early 1990s], the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and parts of Southeast Asia, it has religious symbolism (not like the apple as a forbidden fruit, which is actually a myth, as the Garden of Eden story in Genesis doesn’t mention that the forbidden fruit that was on the Tree of Knowledge was an apple. But that’s a blog post for another day) in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and in the religious beliefs of ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, Persia, and China. Pomegranates were brought to California with the early Spanish settlers, the southwest coast and inland valley being ideal for cultivation. It’s juice improves well-being and mood in healthy adults (according to a study from endocrine-abstracts.org). The juice is also extremely high in antioxidants, which is said to be good for you. Since the science behind antioxidants is largely unproven, I’ll let you research and come to your own conclusions.

History and health benefits aside, attaining the tart juice of a pomegranate (not the seeds; the seeds are easy to get) does not come easy — and I’m speaking from experience as a former student cook/chef. It can and will leave a mess. Not in the “Oh, no! I gotta wash this shirt!” mess; more like “I swear, Officer!  I was juicing pomegranates three days ago and just now found this stabbed coed’s corpse!”

Most ways I’ve heard about juicing a pomegranate include breaking the fruit with a kitchen knife and careful hands, then reaming the sections like a lemon, putting the seeds in a plastic Ziploc bag and gently crushing them with a rolling pin (which makes the juice bitter, but this can be prevented if you’re gentle with it), and, of course, letting the juicer/food mill handle the dirty work. The last way is the easiest way if you want to reduce mess in your workspace (whether you cook in a professional kitchen or a home one that looks professional), and yes, if I had a juicer, a food mill, or one of those souped-up blenders they have nowadays that can do anything a professional cook can do, only better, then you’d see me use that to juice pomegranates. So, what’s the best way to juice a pomegranate? Why, the Ziploc bag/rolling pin method, of course (though, if you don’t have a rolling pin, anything heavy will do, like a big soup can, your fist if it’s big enough, the bottom of a tumbler or a measuring cup), as seen in this video:

Pom’s juice are great straight up or diluted with water. For those who don’t like her plain (her tartness won’t win over most) or want something a little more, there’s Pom with tangerine or mango juice. As mentioned before, Pom wants to be friendly and helpful to your body underneath its free, often unconventional ways, and will clash with those who are set in their ways. For those who want to party, Pom tastes better with Crown Russe (or any kind of) vodka than it does with anything else at the bar.

I’d like to close out with some pomegranate (both the juice and the fruit) recipes I have on my culinary bucket list):

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Appetizer:

Pomegranate Bruschetta — a fall/winter season take on a popular Italian appetizer. If you want it simple, just spread some regular cream cheese (or cream cheese made from goat’s milk) on a toasted baguette slice or a slice of Pullman bread (the type of bread people use for toast, grilled cheese sandwiches, club sandwiches, any kind of cold-cut sandwiches, the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich [that perennial favorite of most children who haven’t been cursed with a peanut allergy], and paninis) with the crust cut off and sprinkle pomegranate seeds on top. The pomegranate seeds are edible, but if you don’t like seeds, then you can do what I do when I chew gum: spit it out when the flavor’s gone (though that is definitely frowned upon in more polite settings. I suggest either swallowing the seeds, discretely spitting them out in a napkin, or tucking them in between your cheek and gums and excusing yourself to the restroom when you can’t hold any more).

If a bruschetta isn’t your thing, you can do a Turkish dip called muhammara that combines pomegranate molasses, walnuts, and roasted red bell peppers into a delicious, Mediterrenean/Central Eurasian spread that you can put on pita sandwiches or use as a substitute for ranch or blue cheese dressing with your vegetable platter.

Muhammara (Pomegranate, Red Pepper, and Walnut Dip) [Recipe credit goes to localfoods.about.com. The commentary is, however, copyright of me]

3 to 4 red bell peppers
1 pomegranate, split open
1 to 1 1/2 cups walnuts
1 clove garlic
1 to 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 to 1 tsp. sea salt

1) Roast the red peppers until the skin is blackened and about to fall off. If you have a gas stovetop or a culinary torch, you can roast them that way (I love this way of roasting red peppers). If you have neither, then lay your red peppers on a parchment-covered baking sheet and set the oven to “broil”. Let the peppers sit, covered in plastic wrap or in a plastic Ziploc bag, for about 15 minutes.

2) Preheat your oven to 350°F for the walnuts.

3) While the oven heats, seed the pomegranate by using a sharp knife to cut through the peel from stem to end (that’s called “scoring”). A medium pomegranate can be scored into six sections, and, depending on the size, you may have more or less. That’s normal. After scoring from stem to end, cut off the top of the pomegranate, being sure to cut off enough of the top to reveal the bright red seeds underneath, then use your bare (or gloved) hands to pull the pomegranate apart. If you want to reduce messiness, do this over a mixing bowl or a small to medium pot or pan. Seeding a pomegranate is very labor-intensive, as there are a lot of seeds to pick off the pith, but if you have fast hands and a lot of patience, it shouldn’t be a problem.

4) Lay the walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and put them in the oven. Cook until lightly toasted. While ten minutes is ideal time for your walnuts to toast, it’s not always the best time to go with, as oven cooking time varies from brand to brand and walnuts go from raw to burnt very quickly. My advice: invest in a cooking timer (or use a timer app on your cell phone if your cell phone has one) or check your walnuts frequently so they don’t burn.

5) While the walnuts cool, remove the skin from the peppers (which, as I mentioned before, will easily slip off). You can rinse them under cool running water, but this step is optional. Why? If I had to hazard a guess, it’d be because you might want to keep in some of the roasted flavor or maybe the charred pepper skin didn’t leave any black burn flakes behind.

6) Gently rub the walnuts with a clean kitchen towel or paper towels and lift the walnuts off the towels. You won’t remove all the walnut skin, nor do you need to, but it should remove a fair amount of it. You can be how I used to be and be totally anal about making sure every piece of walnut skin is removed, but it’ll take too long, so if you don’t get them all, it’s not the end of the world.

7) Put the peppers, walnuts, pomegranate seeds (if you want, you can save a few for garnish), garlic clove, olive oil, and salt in a blender or food processor and whirl until the mixture is creamy and smooth.

8) Add lemon juice to taste and adjust salt to taste. Serve immediately or cover and chill to serve later. The dip will keep for several days.

9) Garnish with reserved pomegranate seeds (optional)

Best ways to eat it: on crackers or toasted baguette slices/mini toast squares with the crust cut off; with raw or lightly steamed vegetables; as a sandwich spread (toasted chicken or vegetarian flatbread or anything on a pita); with pita chips or homemade or storebought Doritos or potato chips.

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Soup:

Ash-e Anar, a Persian (Iranian) dish made from pomegranate juice and seeds, lentils, mint leaves, spices, ground beef meatballs (sometimes, but most recipes I’ve seen don’t call for meat of any kind. The Iraqi take on this dish, called shorbat rumman, is one such version), and rice. It’s more of a stew than a soup, as the broth is thicker and it’s very filling. It’s a very sweet and sour soup, and the pomegranate seeds are not only beautiful, but also acts as the wuji between the yin of sweet and the yang of sour.

3/4 cup lentils
2 tablespoons butter, margarine, or ghee [a type of clarified butter commonly used in South Asian (Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepali, Sri Lankan, and Pakistani) cuisine and religious rituals in Hinduism]
1 medium onion, chopped
8 cups water (2 quarts)
1 cup long-grain rice
1 teaspoon turmeric
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1 cup pomegranate juice (either storebought or homemade)
1 tablespoon butter, margarine, or ghee
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint or 2 teaspoons crushed dried leaf mint
1 tablespoon raisins
1 lb ground beef, seasoned and shaped into meatballs (optional)

1) Pour the lentils in a colander. Set it in the kitchen sink and run cold water over them to clean them. Rinse them until you are sure that they are clean. Set it aside to drain.
2) Melt two tablespoons butter, margarine, or ghee in a large saucepan. Add onion and saute until tender.
3) Add water, drained lentils, rice, turmeric, salt and pepper and meatballs (if using them). Bring to a boil.
4) Reduce heat and cover. Simmer over low heat 40 minutes or until lentils and rice are tender.
5) (if making pomegranate juice by hand): Open the pomegranate and extract the juice using a lemon squeezer, or separate the seeds and use juicing method mentioned in this post. Skip this step if you are using storebought pomegranate juice.
6) Add the pomegranate juice along with parsley and green onions and simmer about 15 minutes longer.
7) Melt 1 tablespoon butter or margarine in a small skillet.
8) Add mint and raisins. Saute until butter or margarine is golden brown. Pour over soup.
9) Garnish with pomegranate seeds and fresh mint leaves and serve.

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Poultry Dish: Roasted Pomegranate Chicken (with credit to Everyday Cooking for the Jewish Home by Ethel G. Hofman)

I never cooked this one before, but I hope to do so soon. If you’re Moroccan Jewish, this is a favorite at a Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year or the Feast of Trumpets; celebrating the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, and their first actions toward the realization of mankind’s role in God’s world) table.

1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 (3 1/2 to 4-pound) chicken, quartered
1 pomegranate, halved
1/4 cup dry white wine
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon cinnamon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

2) In a cup, mix oil and garlic. Brush garlic oil over chicken.

3) Place chicken in a shallow baking dish. Drizzle any remaining oil over chicken. Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes, basting several times with pan juices, until skin is browned and juices run clear when a thigh is pierced at thickest part with a fork.

4) Remove 1 tablespoon seeds from pomegranates. Set aside for garnish. Squeeze juice form remaining pomegranate through a sieve into a small bowl.

5) In a small, nonreactive saucepan, mix pomegranate juice, wine, lemon juice, and cinnamon sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and cook 5 minutes. Season sauce with salt and pepper to taste.

6) Transfer roasted chicken to a serving platter and pierce each piece several times. Pour sauce over chicken. Garnish with pomegranate seeds and serve at room temperature.

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Beef Dish: Beef Filets with Pomegranate-Pinot (or Pomegranate-Burgundy) Sauce [with credit to CookingLight.com]

Pomegranate seeds make a pretty garnish for this dish. Some recommended side dishes: grilled vegetables, potatoes dauphinoise, or a really nice mushroom risotto

4 (4-ounce) beef tenderloin steaks, trimmed
3/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
Cooking spray
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1/3 cup pinot noir or burgundy wine (use a burgundy cooking wine if you don’t have or don’t want to use real wine)
1/3 cup pomegranate juice (either store-bought or homemade)
1/3 cup fat-free, lower-sodium beef broth (either store-bought or homemade)
1 thyme sprig
1 1/2 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into small pieces

1) Heat a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat.
2) Sprinkle steaks evenly with salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
3) Coat pan with cooking spray.
4) Add steaks to pan; cook 3 minutes on each side or until desired degree of doneness.
5) Remove steaks from pan; keep warm in an oven at 200-250 degrees Fahrenheit
6) Add shallots to pan and sauté 30 seconds.
7) Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper, wine, juice, broth, and thyme sprig; bring to a boil.
8) Cook 7 minutes or until reduced to about 3 tablespoons.
9) Remove from heat; discard thyme sprig.
10) Add butter to sauce, stirring until butter melts. Serve sauce with steaks.
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Side Dish: Pomegranate and Quinoa Pilaf

When you hear “pilaf,” it’s always associated with rice — thanks, in no small part to brands like Rice-A-Roni (I never did find out if Rice-A-Roni really is the San Francisco treat. I know San Francisco has cable cars, so those commercials aren’t that far off) and tradition. I’m here to tell you that a pilaf dish doesn’t always have to be rice-based. Orzo (a rice-like pasta) works, as does bulgur (a cereal food made from the hulled kernels of several different wheat species, most often from durum wheat), but the best rice substitute for pilaf is quinoa (a chenopod that biologically has more in common with tumbleweeds, spinach, and beetroots rather than the Poaceae family [the family that includes corn, wheat, rice, barley, and millet]).

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 cup quinoa
2 cups chicken broth or stock
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1/2 cup diagonally sliced scallions
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted

1) Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Saute the onion until translucent and fragrant.
2) Add the quinoa and stir to coat. Add the chicken broth or stock and bring to a boil.
3) Lower the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed and the quinoa is tender.
4) In a large mixing bowl, combine 1 tablespoon olive oil, pomegranate seeds, scallions, parsley, lemon juice, zest, and sugar.
5) Add the quinoa and season with salt, and pepper to taste.
6) Garnish with toasted, slivered almonds.

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Dessert:
Pomegranate lends itself better as a sorbet or a water ice than as an ice cream (though it is possible to make a pomegranate ice cream or a gelato), but most dessert cooks will usually play it safe and use pomegranates for either a dessert sauce or use the seeds as a garnish to something like spiced pears, chocolate cookies, or as the base for a syrup or frosting that just lazily gets draped on a cheesecake or a sponge cake like an oversized T-shirt on the shoulders of an ’80s flashdancer.

However, if frozen treats and easy-make sauces on more established desserts aren’t for you, then try a pomegranate meringue, either by itself, on top of a tart or pie, or as part of a Baked Alaska (since the color of a pomegranate meringue is red, this would be ideal for Valentine’s Day or the dessert to any romantic dinner).

For your meringue, you start by whisking egg whites and salt (either by hand or with an electric mixer. An electric mixer is more ideal if you don’t have time or energy to burn) until frothy, keeping the whisk position as horizontal as possible. As you’re mixing, add a mix of cornstarch and sugar in small quantities until the end of the process. In about ten to fiften minutes of mixing, you’ll notice the egg whites are forming stiff peaks. That’s your cue to gently fold in some red food coloring and pomegranate juice for color and mix on low, creating beautiful swirls. With the help of two large slotted spoons, spoon the egg whites onto the parchment-lined baking tray. Twirl each of the meringue mounds so they finish off with a pointed peak. Bake your mounds for about an hour. After an hour, leave them to cool inside the oven with the door slightly open for 15 minutes. Serve your meringues with whipped cream or a handful of pomegranate seeds on top.

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Drinks: This is where the pomegranate’s juice really shines. From raw cleanses to cocktails (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic), you can find pomegranate juice as the star. Here are three favorites:

Homemade Pomegranate Ginger Ale

Back when I was living in San Francisco as part of my Advanced Culinary training, I would (if I had the money) go into the city on the Muni on Saturdays to go to the farmers’ market. The people at Job Corps encouraged the culinary students to go out and see the many restaurants the city had. Since I was broke and did not the city well, it took me a while to get out there and do so. When I did, I began frequenting the farmers’ market. It had a lot of fruits, herbs, and vegetables that weren’t seen much back in my home state of Pennsylvania (blood oranges, pomelos, pluots, especially). It was there I tried out quark cheese, persimmons, bizarre-flavored ice cream from Humphrey Slocombe (you haven’t lived ’til you had Secret Breakfast ice cream [that’s cornflakes and bourbon]) and homemade ginger ale.

Prior to that, I didn’t know soda could be handmade. To me, it was either bought at the store or made with that SodaStream machine. Once that sweet, yet spicy taste of homemade ginger ale (and real ginger ale has that satisfying throat burn of real ginger. You don’t get that with Canada Dry or Schweppes, much as I love those two brands), it just blew my mind and showed that you can make soda from scratch, even cola and root beer, which have a lot of complex flavors that you don’t really taste in brand name soda. I came up with the pomegranate recipe for ginger ale like most foodies do it: by accident. I bought Pom and some Canada Dry and mixed them together. I looked online for a homemade variant, but could only find the recipe for regular ginger ale.

The Recipe:

2 cups (about 10 ounces) coarsely chopped, peeled fresh ginger
3 strips lemon peel (about 4 inches each), yellow part only
1/2 cup pomegranate juice (fresh)
1-1/2 cups (about) sugar
3 quarts chilled club soda

1) Place ginger, lemon peel, and 4 cups of water in a 4-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Simmer at a low boil, uncovered, for about 10 minutes. Add sugar, stirring constantly, and continue to boil until reduced to about 3 cups, another 15 minutes.

2) Place a fine wire strainer over a large bowl. Pour in ginger mixture to separate solids from liquid. Discard the lemon peel.

3) Cool the syrup, pour into a glass container, seal tightly, and chill at least 1 hour until cold.

4) For each 16-ounce serving, mix 1/4 cup ginger syrup with 1 cup cold pomegranate juice and club soda. Pour over ice. Additional ginger syrup and/or sugar may be added to taste.

Pomegranate Star Fruit Greek Yogurt Smoothie

Smoothies were part of my daily breakfast when I was in college (when I was living in the dorms with my sister, and when I commuted). That was the only reason my sister and I bought a blender (that and my sister wanted blended coffee drinks and I wanted to make smoothies and mousse from scratch). Back then, my smoothies had no exotic fruits in it (unless you consider cranberries exotic), but when I became an intern for Three Stone Hearth and frequented the Farmers’ Market on the Bay (and became temporarily obsessed with Jamba Juice), I tried out some different smoothie flavor combinations. Jamba Juice had a pomegranate blueberry smoothie that I thought was good, but was nothing compared to its strawberry lime peach smoothie, which tastes like summer if summer had an official flavor.

Don’t get me wrong; pomegranate and blueberry is a good smoothie combo, but it’s a little overexposed (as far as Internet searches are concerned). To counter the tartness of the pomegranate, I used the understated, not-quite-citrus taste of star fruit (carambala) and the smoothness of Greek yogurt.

The Recipe:

2 cup(s) plain Greek yogurt, well chilled
2 cup(s) pure pomegranate juice (fresh squeezed or bottled fresh), well chilled
2 star fruits, cut into pieces

1) In a blender, combine the chilled Greek yogurt with the pomegranate juice.
2) Add the sliced bananas and puree.
3) Pour the smoothie into tall, chilled glasses and serve at once.

Pomegranate Sparkling Sangria

A normal sangria is made of brandy, a sweetener (usually honey, orange juice, flavored drink syrups, and agave nector), red wine (sangria is from the Spanish word for “blood” — perfect for those over-21 Halloween parties), and some kind of chopped fruit (oranges, lemons, limes, apples, peaches, any kind of melon, any kind of berry, pineapples, grapes, kiwis, and mangoes are the most popular). If you don’t drink, are underage, or are a recovering alcoholic, you can switch out the brandy and wine with fruit punch, seltzer, or any of your clear lemon-lime sodas (Sprite and 7 Up).

This sangria is red because of the pomegranate liqueur and the Cabernet Sauvignon (a very popular red wine. It’s like Merlot, only more robust and doesn’t hit you as hard — at least that’s what I’ve been told the two times I volunteered for “A Taste of Mendocino”). Like a Long Island Iced Tea, it’s very heavy on the alcohol, so it’s not for lightweights who think they can handle anything stronger than American beer.

The Recipe (credit goes to www.stirrings.com)

1 oz. BV® Coastal Cabernet Sauvignon
1 oz. Stirrings® Pomegranate Liqueur
0.5 oz. Captain Morgan® Original Spiced Rum
2.5 oz. apple cider
Garnish: citrus or apple wedges

1) Combine the first 3 ingredients in an ice filled rocks glass and top with sparkling cider.

2) Stir well.

3) Garnish with citrus wedges and or apple slices.

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Thank you, and Happy Eating!