Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Panna cotta, cherry and champagne parfait (aka creamy, boozy, fruity Jello)

layers of cream, fresh pureed cherries and champagne adorn this simple, beautiful parfait

 Can I tell you a secret?  I love Jello.  Slurping fluorescent red goop between my teeth is pure pleasure.  I eat less Jello now than I did in college, but my obsession was so great that my friends bought me a whole Jello cookbook after graduation.  This is just one of the hidden junk foods that I love.  I am a total food snob with a private occasional hankering for all things processed, salty and neon colored-- I could never turn down a bright orange cheese puff. 

Call this dish what you want, panna cotta with champagne gelee, but let’s not hide the truth.  Think of it as a fancy creamy, cherry flavored Jello shot.  The recipe is very light and refreshing in this horrible heat. 

The parfait is very easy to make, it just takes some time because each layer must set before the next can be concocted.  The first layer, panna cotta, which I had never made before, tastes almost like ice cream without an ice cream maker and couldn’t be simpler to whip up.  Fresh bing cherries are not as fluorescent as red food coloring, but they are certainly more delicious.  Champagne makes a great gelatin dessert; make sure to add a pinch of sugar to help bubbles form as the parfait sets for the final layer. 

Panna cotta, cherry and champagne parfait (inspired the French Laundry cookbook)

9 inch loaf pan
pitted bing cherries to top

Panna cotta
1 packet gelatin
½ cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
3 tbsp sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Cherry layer
1 lb bing cherries, stemmed and pitted
2 ½ tbsp sugar
1 ½ packets gelatin
¼ cup champagne
juice of one lemon

Champagne layer
2 cups champagne, divided
3 tbsp sugar
1 ½ packets gelatin

To make the panna cotta, sprinkle gelatin over milk and let sit 5 minutes.  In a saucepan over medium high heat, bring cream and sugar barely to a boil.  Remove from heat, add gelatin and vanilla extract and whisk until all ingredients are combined.  Add mixture to loaf pan and allow to cool and set, at least one hour.

Cherry layer.  While panna cotta is setting, in medium bowl break up cherries with hands.  Add champagne, lemon juice and sugar and allow cherries to release juices for at least half an hour.  Add cherries and juices to blender and blend until smooth, about 3 minutes.  Strain mixture.  Sprinkle gelatin over ¼ cup water and allow to sit for five minutes.  Bring cherry puree to a slight boil, remove from heat and add gelatin.  Pour mixture over already set panna cotta and allow to cool and set, at least one hour. 

Champagne layer.  Over ½ cup champagne, sprinkle gelatin.  Bring 1 ¼ cup champagne to a boil with 2 tbsp sugar to cook off alcohol.  Remove from heat.  Add gelatin and whisk until combined.  Add final ¼ cup champagne and 1 tbsp sugar (this will make it bubble).  Quickly add to loaf pan and allow to set, preferably overnight. 

When ready to serve, loosen parfait from the sides of the pan with a sharp knife run along the edges.  Run the bottom of the pan under warm water for one minute and carefully invert onto platter.  Slice and enjoy with fresh cherries. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Corn, carbon and hair

Sweet, creamy elote dip made from fresh summer corn

A friend of mine asked me to write a dip recipe for the 4th of July.  Oops. Well, it’s still July isn’t it?  I based this recipe on one of my favorite foods that I’ve been introduced to since moving to Texas.  Termed “elotes”, which simply means corn in Mexican Spanish, these delectable treats are served in Dallas at roadside stands and adjacent to taco joints.  In a Styrofoam cup, corn kernels are layered with butter, sour cream, cheese, hot sauce and lemon pepper.  Certainly not a diet food, but my husband and I fell immediately in love with this local fare and even asked our caterer to make a fancy version for our wedding which was a huge hit.

This dip uses some sour cream and mayo but the creaminess is amped up by the corn itself, half of which is pulsed through a food processor to make almost a corn pudding-like consistency.   The dip is topped with a thin layer of cotija cheese, a salty dry cheese, not unlike a high quality Kraft parmesan.  The whole thing is baked for a nice gooey texture and served with corn chips.

I was asking my friend Heather if she thought this was too much corn for an appetizer.  She made an interesting point about a documentary she saw, King Corn, in which scientists used radioactive isotopes to trace about 50% of the carbon that we consume as Americans to corn.  As carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are the basis for carbohydrates, fats as well as amino acids and thus energy, it is quite remarkable how corn dependent our food chain is. 

The scientific methods used to trace the foundations of humans’ diet are fascinating and use human hair as the tissue of study.  Hair leaves an excellent footprint of what we eat—it is metabolically inactive, is derived from what we consume and immediately reflects changes in diet. This excellent article in the UVA magazine biographies one of the major scientists, Stephen Macko who helped advance research in using hair to trace the origins of diets, even using mummy hair to deduce food consumption among ice men and paleo humans.  He also helped the filmmakers of King Corn use their hair to measure the amount of corn in their diet. 

Using various concentrations of variations of carbon, nitrogen and sulphur, known as isotopes, scientists can deduce the biologic origins of humans’ diets.  Corn is rich in the 13C isotope, thus allowing scientists to trace corn as it escalates in the food chain.  Scientists also use 15 nitrogen isotopes, which increase in an animal that eats a plant, then in a human who eats that animal, to track the amount of meat somebody is consuming in their diet. 

In the US, most livestock is corn-fed, thus meat is a large contributor to the corn carbon isotopes.  In fact, it has been demonstrated that when somebody moves from the UK to the US, their carbon isotopes from corn increase by approximately 3%.  A 2008 study from the University of Hawaii traced the carbon isotopes of various fast foods, and after a survey of various restaurants throughout the US, only about 5% of the chicken and beef were not solely corn fed; also many of the fries contained large amount of corn isotopes. 

The politics behind corn growth, production, alteration and consumption is a heavy debate--one that represents many levels of lobbying, industry and culture.  It cannot be denied that corn is pervasive and permanent in our daily lives.  Surely though, it is not corn in its unaltered form, such as this delicious elote dip, that calls for concern.  What is alarming however, are the ways that corn is manipulated and passed through the food chain and can produce potentially damaging effects on health, the economy and the ecosystem. 

Elote Dip

4 ears corn, grilled, roasted or steamed, or 2 cups frozen corn defrosted
¼ cup mayo
¼ cup sour cream
¼ tsp cayenne
juice of ½ lemon
¾ cup grated cotija cheese (or if you cannot find this anywhere, grated parmesan)
1 tsp black pepper
2 tbsp Mexican hot sauce, such as Bufalo (or substitute for 1 tbsp Louisiana hot sauce)

Preheat oven to 400.  Cut corn off cob.  In blender or food processor place half kernels, mayo, sour cream, cayenne, lemon juice, pepper, hot sauce, pepper and ½ cup cotija cheese.  Blend until smooth.  In heatproof dish, combine blended mixture with the other half of whole corn kernels.  Top with leftover cheese.  Bake for 20-25 minutes or until brown and bubbly.  Serve with tortilla chips.

Macko, SA.  Engel, MH, et al.  Documenting the diet in ancient human populations through stable isotope analysis of hair. Philosophical transactions PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS- ROYAL SOCIETY OF LONDON SERIES B BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES. 1999, VOL 354; ISSUE 1379, pages 65-76

McCullagh, J et al.  Carbon isotope analysis of bulk keratin and single amino acids from British and North American hair.  Rapid Commun. Mass Spectrom. Volume 19, Issue 22, pages 3227–3231, 30 November 2005.

Jahren, A, Kraft R.  Carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes in fast food: Signatures of corn and confinement. PNAS November 18, 2008 vol. 105 no. 46 17855-1786

Petzke, KJ et al. Carbon and nitrogen stable isotopic composition of hair protein and amino acids can be used as biomarkers for animal derived dietary protein intake.  J Nutr. 2005 Jun;135(6):1515-20.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Grilled chicken and eggplant salad with arugula pesto

I’m feeling lucky and relaxed, back from another wonderful vacation with my husband spent in the car driving around the Midwest.  Also, even bigger cause to celebrate, I’m a second year resident!  Intern year is over and I feel so proud and accomplished of all that I learned and did in one year (tons of deliveries, dozens of C-sections, gynecologic surgeries, hundreds of emergency and clinic patients.)  More than anything, I’m freaking relieved by the promotion.  The second year schedule is a bit more forgiving and well balanced and there is a scant amount of clout that comes with the job. 

Even though I had an awesome year, it is great to know that it will be somebody else running around labor and delivery trying to get it all done--although I think I’m hard wired to sprint when I hear “doctor for decelerations/delivery/exam” on the overhead speaker.  As second year, we learn how to be consultants to midwives and are in charge of the women’s ER.  Plus, there will be lots of scalpel time as we are primary surgeon to all C-sections at night.  It is amazing how much I’ve seen after just one year, and I’m excited to keep learning and gaining more responsibility as I work my way up.

Perhaps now with a new year and a new job, July is a much better month than January to make New Year’s resolutions.  While in January I was merely trying to survive; to get out of bed, go to work and do the best job I could, I’m blessed to have a bit of time this month to make some real changes in my habits.  I’m feeling bloated after eating a hot fudge sundae every day of my vacation. This is worsened by the fact that even though I joined the gym almost a year ago, I haven’t been at all since February.  (My husband is surely chuckling)

Thankfully, summer is a great time to eat a lighter diet.  I found beautiful small eggplants at the grocery store and they grilled up just great. We have a gas grill as part of our apartment, and I know, I know it’s not charcoal but I’m getting the hang of the grill and hopefully someday can promote myself to hot coals. Even though pesto isn’t necessarily diet food, it at least is a step in the right direction.  I love making pesto with arugula as it has a wonderful peppery bite and is cheaper than basil.  This “salad” can be served hot or cold and would be great over bread, mixed in with lettuce or pasta or can be eaten alone.

Grilled chicken and eggplant salad with arugula pesto

Arugula pesto

Handful loose basil
1 cup arugula
Salt and pepper to taste
Clove garlic
¼ cup grated parmesan
¼ cup walnuts
1 tbsp high quality balsamic vinegar
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 lb eggplant
1 lb roma tomatoes, seeded and divided in eight pieces
½ red onion thinly diced
1 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts
Olive oil and salt for seasoning

To make the pesto, place basil, arugula, garlic, cheese, walnuts, salt and pepper into food processor.  Run until all components are well combined.  Scrape down sides and pulse in balsamic vinegar.  With machine running, slowly add oil until all ingredients well combined.  Set aside

Preheat grill to medium high heat.  If using small eggplants such as thai or Indian as I did, cut in half and salt and brush with olive oil.  If using a large eggplant, cut into 4-5 horizontal slices and salt and brush with oil each side.  With the chicken, salt and oil each breast.  Grill eggplant for about 6-7 minutes on each side until juices run from the eggplant and they are soft to touch.  Grill chicken for about 7 minutes on each side until juices run clear and the chicken has an internal temperature of about 150F.

Dice eggplant into about 1 inch cubes, doing the same for the chicken.  In a large bowl, add eggplant, chicken, tomato and onion.  Add pesto by the tablespoon until each piece of salad well coated.  You will have leftover pesto which can be put aside for a separate use.