Avocado Fudge Pops

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A few years ago, I used to help coordinate a CSA in Manhattan. For those of you unfamiliar with CSA’s or farm share models, in brief, they are a way for farmers to sell directly to consumers without pesky middlemen or distributors. Standing for “Community-Supported Agriculture,” you generally agree to pay your local farmer a set fee up front for the season. This amount can vary between a couple hundred dollars to several hundred dollars. Known as a membership fee, your membership entitles you to “shares” of the harvest over the course of the season. These shares are usually picked up once a week from a designated location like a church or another community-friendly site.

If you can manage the up-front fee, a CSA is a win-win for both you and the farmer. The farmer gets more money to work with, and in exchange, you get a much better and better tasting product. The majority of CSA’s are either fruit or vegetable CSA’s, but of course my CSA was all about the meat: cows, pigs, chickens, sometimes lamb, sometimes duck. Basically anything cute with a face 😉

Running a meat CSA, you meet a lot of people: bankers, academics, writers, publishers, editors, lawyers, non-profit organization directors, retirees, beer distributors, you name them. It was also the first time that I ever encountered people on the Paleo diet, a modern diet that basically aims to mimic what our paleolithic ancestors ate.

I know.

At the time, I asked myself the same thing: is this a group of carrion-eaters that spends most of its time starving and the rest of its time fearfully living in caves? 

Nope! Apparently, what “going Paleo” really means avoiding processed food, lowering the amount of carbohydrates you eat, increasing how many fresh fruits and vegetables you consume, hunting and gathering in the bulk foods section of the Park Slope Co-Op, and eating a lot meat.

A. Lot. Of. Meat.

Now in all honesty, avoiding processed foods and being more mindful of what we consume are things that we could all do. But a few of these members kind of scared me.

There was the guy who asked me multiple times on multiple occasions if it was okay to eat raw sausage — it’s not. I mean, you can. You won’t die, but I’m pretty sure that it tastes better cooked.

There was another guy who told me that he went through 8 dozen eggs a week because he had a twelve-egg-omelette-a-day habit.

There was the guy who called his personal trainer in a panic because I wasn’t sure if our CSA beef was just grass-fed, or grass-finished (it turned out that it was grass-finished).

A few outliers notwithstanding, for the most part, our Paleo members were a great bunch of super-enthusiastic home cooks who were really into being conscious about what they put in their bodies, and being strong advocates for local farming and agriculture. I loved hearing what they did with their shares and would eagerly trade tips and recipes with them at each pick-up.

Chocolate avocado pudding is one of those freaky Paleo food experiments that I was always curious about, but never tried out of skepticism. Then, one day over the summer, two things serendipitously coincided:

Given that my inner 50’s house-wife cannot abide by wasted food, I thought that now would be the time to see if whizzing avocado and melted chocolate together in a blender would indeed be the dairy-free pudding of feverish vegan dreams.

It was high summer too, so I had to freeze it 🙂

How was it?

If this is what it’s like to eat like a fringe-y food cult member who likes lifting kettle bells for fun, set my place at the table 🙂

This recipe is truly fantastic. The result is not overly sweet, and the intensity of the chocolate really shines. The avocado adds a vague fruitiness to the pudding, but it gives it a texture that is as smooth as silk. It’s great as a pudding, and even better as a pop. Be warned though: you can freeze it in a tub, but you will need to remove it a good amount of time before you serve it. Otherwise, it will be very hard to scoop.

Ingredients:

1 can of coconut milk

A pinch of salt

1/3 of a cup of honey

3.5 ounces of dark chocolate (discs or bars broken into pieces)

1/3 cup of Dutch process cocoa powder (I used Valrhona)

2 very ripe avocados, pitted, peeled, and cut into cubes.

Equipment:

A blender

Popsicle molds

How to prepare:

1. In a medium-sized sauce pan, gently heat the coconut milk until it just begins to boil. Turn off the heat and add the chocolate pieces or discs. Whisk everything together. Once the chocolate is completely melted, whisk in the cocoa powder, the honey, and the pinch of salt.

2. Pour the chocolate mixture into a blender (I used a blender bullet) and add the avocado. Whizz everything together until the mixture is soft and shiny. You should not be able to see any more avocado. The mixture should be smooth and even.

3. Carefully spoon the mixture into popsicle molds and freeze.

Hummus + Zhoug

The best hummus is homemade.

The first time that I made hummus from scratch, I had no idea what I was doing. I was 22 and had just moved back to New York after college, living on my own for the first time.  Armed with a brand new food processor that I had scrimped and saved for, I remember that the chickpeas that I used came straight from a can. Too much garlic was thrown in as whole cloves. There was no lemon juice; in its place was lots of olive oil of dubious quality.

Needless to say, that batch of hummus was gritty, harsh, and unpleasant. At the time, I couldn’t figure out why anyone would possibly want to go through the trouble of making hummus at home when you could buy a tub of much better stuff at the supermarket just a few dollars.

Fast forward almost 15 years and times have certainly changed! The thought of store-bought hummus now makes me gag a little. Far superior hummus is so ridiculously easy to make that it boggles my mind why anyone would bother with the other stuff unless they were pressed for time, lacked a food processor, or were camping in the woods.

So what is so different now?

First of all, I know much more about food and cooking than I did when I was fresh out of my undergraduate university, the happy result of having read more, traveled more, eaten more, and cooked more. Secondly, I’ve had some really amazing hummus — more amazing than anything that came out of a supermarket tub. Those experiences alone have given me benchmarks against which to judge my own.

Finally, I have recently had much more practice because my hardcore punk rocker boyfriend is a vegetarian and is addicted to hummus.

You read that right: he’s a VEGETARIAN.

The universe can be very ironic 😉

For the first few months we were dating, I would always feel a little stab in my foodie heart every time  I opened his fridge and saw half-empty containers of mass-manufactured hummus. That little stab soon became a nagging inner voice : “You should do something about this,” it whispered, “No one should have to eat this way.” Once the semester was over, I resolved to stock his fridge and freezer with enough dip to keep him properly fed for weeks.

Homemade hummus is not hard to make, but it does require some advanced planning. You need to soak the dried chickpeas overnight (always use dried ones for superior hummus, never canned). Once soaked and drained, you need to cook them until they are almost, but not quite mushy.

And for truly ethereal hummus, you need to remove the chickpeas’ skins before puréeing them. Ah, the chickpea skins. They don’t need to go. In fact, it’s fiddly and annoying to get rid of them. However you set out to accomplish it, the act alone will make you feel like you need to be treated for OCD.

But trust me when I say that it makes a big difference. If you want hummus the texture of velvet, get rid of those skins!

So how do you do it? You can either rinse the cooked chickpeas under cold water until they are cool enough to handle and then pop each one out of its skin with your thumb and forefinger, keeping the peas and discarding the gross membranes (sometimes I think they look like sad, used bean condoms).

Or you can try another technique that I learned from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s recipe for hummus in Jerusalem: toss the soaked and drained beans in baking soda, the grit of which loosens the skins from the peas. With this method, after you cook the chickpeas to a very tender state, the skins kind of disintegrate into a nasty slurry that you can pour off in repeated changes of water. It’s kind of like rinsing rice until the water runs clear.

I’m not sure if making your own hummus is as cost-effective as buying it already made, especially if you use nice tahini and fancy dried chickpeas to do it. I think that because of the volume that I make each time, it works out to costing about the same. That being said, the results are really incomparable.

When my boyfriend dragged a tortilla chip through that first silky, creamy batch and popped it in his mouth, his eyes went wide and he said, “I can’t go back!”

Trust me. You won’t be able to either.

* That is my boyfriend impatiently holding his bowl of hummus because, when you date a food blogger, the camera always eats first.

** You can top hummus with almost anything: harissa, chopped eggs dusted with dukkah, tofu :-(, shawarma or, as pictured, zhoug. Also known as zhug or skhug, it is a spicy Yemeni condiment made from parsley, cilantro, garlic, chili peppers, and olive oil. The recipe is also included below.

Ingredients:

For the hummus (recipe adapted from Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s recipe in Jerusalem:

1 lb. bag of dried chickpeas

1 teaspoon of baking soda

2 cups of good tahini

The juice of four lemons

4 plump cloves of garlic, crushed.

Ice water

Salt

For the zhoug:

1 bunch of parsley, thick stems removed and remaining leaves and stems coarsely chopped

1 bunch of cilantro, thicker stems removed and remaining leaves and stems coarsely chopped

2-3 serrano peppers, stemmed, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 tablespoon of crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon of ground coriander

1 plump garlic clove, crushed

The juice and zest of one lemon

A pinch of sugar

Olive oil

Salt

Additional garnish:

Sumac

To prepare:

1. Place the dried chickpeas in a large bowl and cover them with about 2 inches of cold water. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let them soak overnight.

2. Before cooking, drain the chickpeas. Heat a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat and add the chickpeas and the baking soda. Cook for about three minutes, stirring constantly to loosen the skins. Add enough water to cover the chickpeas completely and bring everything to a boil. Be sure to watch the pot carefully as it can easily boil over. Reduce the heat to a simmer and as the chickpeas cook, skim off any foam and skins that rise to the top. Depending on how fresh the dried chickpeas were, it can take anywhere between 20-40 minutes to fully cook them. You will know when they are done when they are very tender and break up easily when you use a wooden spoon to press them against the side of the pot. Once fully cooked (they will be soft but not mushy), carefully pour off most of the liquid. Any remaining skins will have morphed into a sticky, unappetizing slurry that you can eliminate by very gently rinsing the chickpeas in several changes of fresh, cold water, kind of like rinsing rice until the water runs clear.

3. Once rinsed clean, drain the chickpeas and process them in your food processor with a pinch of salt until it you have a thick, stiff paste. Add the tahini, the lemon juice, and the crushed garlic and process everything together. Adjust the seasoning, including adding extra lemon juice or extra garlic if you want your hummus brighter or more garlicky. With the food processor running, add ice water, a little bit at a time, to thin the hummus out to your desired consistency. Your hummus is now complete!

4. For the zhoug, process the parsley, the cilantro, the serrano peppers, the crushed red pepper flakes, the ground cumin and coriander, the garlic, the lemon zest and juice, the sugar and a pinch of salt together. With the food processor running, add olive oil in a thin stream until you have the consistency of pesto. Add a little ice water to even out the consistency and adjust the seasoning.

5. To serve, top the hummus with the zhoug and a sprinkle of sumac.

Ramp Pesto

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Few seasonal foods make a locavore’s heart go pitter-patter as quickly as ramps. Ramps — the word is spoken in hushed, reverential tones — are a foraged food that hits the markets in early spring. Their appearance marks the definitive end of winter and the beginning of the growing season.

IMHO, ramps also win the award for World’s CUTEST Vegetable as its soft, tender leaves always remind me of floppy bunny ears. Added bonus? Its stems are often tipped the prettiest shade of oxidized pink.

In terms of flavor, ramps taste garlicky and green onion-y at the same time. They taste young, new, and freshly-sprouted: the essence of spring.

It’s the very end of ramp season here in the Mid-Atlantic, but if you’re lucky enough to still be able to get your hands on a few bunches for pesto, buy as many as you can and freeze the sauce for later! Ramp pesto is lovely tossed with warm pasta or used to dunk hunks of crusty bread. You can also drizzle it on steak, or anything really.

This post also marks the end of a looooooooooong hiatus! For those readers who are still with me, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

For anyone new who stumbles on this blog: Welcome!

To both old friends and new acquaintances, it feels good to be back.

Ingredients:

2 bunches of ramps, roots trimmed and cut into 1.5/2-inch pieces

1 knob of butter

1/4 cup of pine nuts

The zest and juice of one lemon

1/3 cup of grated Parmesan

Olive oil

Salt

How to prepare:

1. Heat the butter in a large frying pan set over medium heat. When the butter begins to foam, add the ramps and sauté them until the leaves are just beginning to wilt and turn a shade darker. Season them gently and transfer them to a small bowl.

2. When the ramps have cooled, process them with the pine nuts, the lemon zest, the parmesan, and a pinch of salt. With the machine running, add the lemon juice and slowly drizzle in the olive oil until the consistency is nice and creamy. You may need to scrape the sides of the bowl once or twice. Adjust the seasoning for a final time and transfer the pesto to another container.

You should plan on using the pesto in about three days, but it will also keep frozen for about a month.

Esquites (Mexican Corn on the Cob in a Cup)

It's elote for people who don't like to eat with their hands!

Who doesn’t love elote, that roasted Mexican corn on the cob slathered with mayonnaise, chili powder, and cheese, spritzed with lime juice, and served on a stick? I’ve come to associate it with summertime, when sweet corn is in season and I have my pick of local food trucks to sit in front of, snacking away.

As much as I love it, I have to admit that the fastidious Virgo in me doesn’t always love how sloppy elote is to eat. I get annoyed with how the grated cheese smears all over my chin, how the corn inevitably sticks in my teeth, and how glops of mayo always end up on my dry clean-only shirts. It’s the kind of annoyance that makes me hang my head in foodie shame as I go back to the truck to ask politely for a steak knife to cut off the kernels so that I can eat them with spoon.

That is why I really love esquites, which are essentially elote in a cup (or, as I prefer, a large bowl or a trough). Here, the messy work is done ahead of time and all you have to do is eat it, calmly and neatly.

Both elote and esquites are essentially street food and like most street food, there isn’t really an official recipe per se. The general consensus seems to be that there must be corn, it can be boiled but it is better roasted, there should be some kind of fat like soft butter, crema Mexicana,  or — even better — mayonnaise (I like my street food a little on the trashy side so it’s mayo for me). There should be some heat, some lime juice, and some salty, crumbly cheese like Cotija, but grated Parmesan or aged feta does the trick too.

Unlike eloteesquites often includes some chopped epazote, a traditional Mexican herb whose flavor is hard to describe. If pressed, I would say it kind of tastes like what would happen if cilantro and tarragon romped in a dusty field and had a herb baby. Epazote is worth seeking out; a little is all you need to add a wonderful earthy dimension to the corn. If you can’t find it, chopped cilantro is a good substitute.

Ingredients:

2 ears of corn

1 serrano chili pepper, seeded and finely chopped

Olive oil

Butter

Salt

1 tablespoon of mayonnaise, crema Mexicana, or sour cream

The juice of half a lime

Cayenne pepper to taste

1 tablespoon of epazote, finely chopped

1 tablespoon of grates Cotija, Parmesan, or crumbled feta

Tajín Clásico Mexican chili seasoning (or you can experiment with a combination of Ancho chili powder, more lime juice, and salt)

How to prepare:

1. Remove the corn kernels from the cob. To do this with minimal mess, stand each ear of corn in a large shallow dish and slice down the length of each ear with a sharp knife. Keep the knife as close to the cob as possible. Rotate the ear and continue to slice down each exposed side until all the kernels are removed.

2. Sauté the kernels and the chopped serrano chili in a large skillet or cast iron pan with about 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil.

3. Once the kernels have started to brown, transfer them to a bowl and add the mayonnaise, lime juice, and enough cayenne pepper to suit your taste. Stir in the epazote and the grated cheese. Adjust the seasoning, dust with Tajín, and serve.

Y Tu Mango También: Mango-Lime-Tequila Sorbet with Mexican Chili Seasoning

Go Shorty, It's Sherbert Day!

Summer is ending too soon. The weather is still warm, but college students are already filtering back into the city and the streets are starting to fill with people who have been out of town. Despite not having gotten away, this summer has been a great one. I’ve seen good friends and made a few new ones. I’ve eaten, drank, and danced. There have been rooftop parties, intimate dinners, and a lot of laughter. As a bonus, the weather has been unusually clement, so this summer has been a pleasure instead of a hot, sticky pain. All in all, it has been the best stay-cation that I could have asked for — and a sorely needed one at that.

Before work resumes and teaching takes over my life again, I want to fit in a few more blog posts, so …

Here is my write-up of this year’s Brooklyn Ice Cream Takedown and the recipe for my  Mango-Lime-Tequila Sorbet with Mexican Chili Seasoning.

How did I come up with the idea?

In terms of flavors, I had two in mind: a tomato sorbet resembling frozen gazpacho, and a tart and juicy mango sorbet with limes and tequila.

I personally thought that a tomato sorbet would be amazing, but the general consensus was that it might be a little too weird for the competition.

My vision for a mango sorbet? I wanted it to taste just like those sliced mangoes topped with either hot sauce or dried Mexican chili seasoning. The kind that you get in plastic bags sold from pushcarts by those mango ladies in and around the city.

And that is exactly what I made 😀

Kitchen stories of triumph over adversity are terrific, but this is not one of those. This story is actually pretty humdrum because after the drama leading up to last year’s Brooklyn Ice Cream Takedown, I swore that I would never again:

This isn't like some paper that you can write the night before!– Grossly underestimate how long it takes to prepare 2 gallons of ice cream at home.
– Fail to read the directions accompanying any new equipment in advance.
– Not have enough equipment to begin with.
– Wait until the last minute to start recipe testing.
– Have no back-up plan in case my freezer doesn’t get cold enough and/or my air-conditioner stops working.

I am happy to report that I took all the lessons I learned last year and this year, I started and finished early with (almost) no tears and minimal stress! Hooray!

What I have learned since the 2013 Brooklyn Ice Cream Takedown:

1. Start early.  Those stupid insulated bowls — which never really work that well to begin with — need at least 24 hours to freeze hard enough to churn your ice cream satisfactorily. So make room in your freezer, lower the temperature as much as you can, and park those things in the very back of it until they are frozen rock solid.

2. Buy all of your ingredients at the same time. Don’t wait. Don’t come back later. Just get them all when you see them. And buy enough to make an extra batch. Trust me. Once I had settled on a recipe and calculated how much I needed to buy in terms of ingredients, I realized that I would need 36-38 mangoes and about 80 limes. Does anyone want to haul home that much squishy fruit all at once without a car? No. What did I do? I only bought half of what I needed.

Can you guess what happened? When I went back to the store THEY WERE SOLD OUT OF THE COMPACT, SUPER SMOOTH, BUTTERY, FRAGRANT, AND AMBROSIAL CHAMPAGNE MANGOES FROM MEXICO THAT I WAS USING AND ALL THAT WAS LEFT WAS THOSE GIANT GREEN, RUBBERY, AND  COMPARATIVELY FLAVORLESS KENT MANGOES.

I went to 4 different Whole Foods before finally being directed to one of the buyers who told me that, sadly, the season was over. There were no more Champagne mangoes.

As tears began to prickle the backs of my eyelids, I asked him if he could suggest another variety.

“Those Champagne mangoes,” he sighed and shook his head. His eyes went soft and dreamy, “You can make anything with those mangoes.”

He jabbed his finger towards the current display, “Not like these green rocks.”

This is one of those moments when I am so thankful that I live in New York. After calling almost every specialty fruit vendor in the city, I tracked down one of the last pallets in town.

Marry me, Manhattan Fruit Exchange.

3. K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple, Stupid. I agonized over this one after doing just one test run and loving the results. But a single test batch? Was it possible to find the one after just one try? There were a ton of super creative, delicious, and mind-blowing ice creams at the Takedown like Chicken and Waffles, Cherries and Sour Cream, Blueberry Pancakes with Hot Maple Syrup.

But I know my limitations and, more importantly, the limitations of my kitchen.  I would have loved to have done a crazy flavor, but making it in a kitchen the size of a shoebox would have driven me crazy.

“Maybe it’s not wacky enough?” I asked myself.

Maybe that’s fine.

4. Use a stabilizer. Unless you are playing with liquid nitrogen, you will need something to smooth out the texture and prevent your ice cream or sorbet from having an icy or chalky mouthfeel. Stabilizers are additives to frozen treats that work to inhibit the formation of bigger ice crystals. Within that category, you can use guar gum or xanthan gum. However, a stabilizer does not necessarily need to be so exotic. You can use gelatin, alcohol, fat, sugar, and invert sugars such as glucose, honey, maple syrup, agave syrup, and corn syrup.

5. Ripe ripe, Baby. If you are making a fruit sorbet, you want your fruit to be very ripe — verging on overripe. How will you know if your fruit is ripe enough? It will feel like . . . well . . . let’s try to keep this forum as family-friendly as we can.

6. Strain. Evenly-textured ice cream and sorbet doesn’t just happen. Smooth base in = smoother frozen dessert out.

7. A watched ice cream maker never churns. Ari watched me swear and smack my stupid ice cream maker on the side after it failed to churn sorbet after . . . 5 minutes.

“Daisy, it says it will take ‘as little as 25 minutes’ on the box. It hasn’t been 25 minutes!”

She was right. Go, go watch an episode of 30 Rock and come back later.

8. So your ice cream maker fails to churn satisfactory frozen dessert and you have a slushie instead of a sorbet. This is what happens when your freezer bowl is not cold enough, your kitchen is too hot, or the freezer bowl is so overfilled that it loses chill faster than it can churn your ice cream or sorbet. This is when you get creative. This is when you let the ice cream set up more in the freezer, stick your handy stick immersion blender in it, and use it to break up the ice crystals before letting it freeze the rest of the way. Do this a few times as it continues to set up and you will be rewarded with some super smooth sorbet.

An important word on stick immersion blenders:

THEY LOOK INNOCUOUS, BUT THEY WILL MESS YOU UP IF YOU ARE NOT CAREFUL.

One only needs to google “immersion blender accidents” to be scared.

The worst kitchen accident that I have ever had did not involve an immersion blender (knock on wood). I had put a saucepan in a hot oven and after about an hour, I reached in, grabbed the handle and hefted it onto the stovetop. As I had been cooking all summer, I had “kitchen hands,” tough, calloused paws that didn’t register that the handle was over 350° until it was too late. I left some skin from my palm and my fingers on that handle. I spent the rest of the week with my hand in a tub of arnica cream.

In any case, when dealing with immersion blenders, TREAT THEM WITH RESPECT AND ALWAYS UNPLUG THEM WHEN THEY ARE NOT IN ACTIVE USE!

Although I realize that some of these pointers are most applicable if you are churning out a massive amount for something like an ice cream competition, I think that many of them are equally as valid for smaller batches

A word on the recipe that follows: What is that chili powder stuff on top?

Tajín is the brand name of a Mexican fruit seasoning consisting of only three ingredients, three flavors: a chili spice blend, salt, and dehydrated lime juice. As the components are few, I imagine that you could probably hack the recipe pretty easily using a basic Mexican chili spice blend, salt, and either dried, powdered lime zest or squeezing lime juice on top before serving. That being said, Tajín is so darn inexpensive (mine was $1.25) that it seems silly to hack it. I got mine at the Mexican supermarket, but I have also seen online forum posts about people seeing it at Walmart, Target, and at their neighborhood supermarket in the “Ethnic Foods” aisle. For a few bucks more, you can also score it on Amazon.

Of course, this sorbet tastes amazing without it, but the seasoning really does make a difference. It is definitely worth seeking out! You can also use it on just about any kind of fruit or vegetable (delicious on corn).

Another word on the recipe that follows: Why are there so many mangoes in the pictures?

As I have scaled the recipe down from the one that I used for the competition, you will see more fruit and more ingredients in the photos than are listed below. My competition recipe was for 2-quart batches and this scaled down recipe given will make a third of that. To make a full 2-quarts, simply triple the recipe. For example, instead of 2 mangoes, you will need 6, etc.

Ingredients:

2 very ripe Champagne mangoes

1/4 cup of water

1/2 cup of cane sugar

1 tablespoon of agave syrup

1 tablespoon of tequila (I used Olmeca Altos Plato)

1/2 cup of freshly squeezed lime juice (from about 4-5 limes), strained

Tajín Clásico Seasoning

How to prepare:

1. Gently peel the mangoes with a sharp paring knife and cut the flesh away from the pit. Do this in a bowl so you don’t lose any of the precious juice.

2. Purée the mangoes with 1/4 cup of water in a blender or using an stick immersion blender. Press the purée through a fine-mesh sieve with a silicon or flexible plastic spatula. Discard the solids.

3. In a large bowl, combine the mango purée with the cane sugar, agave syrup, tequila, and strained lime juice. Stir until the sugar has completely dissolved.

4. Churn the mango sorbet mixture in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. If your sorbet fails to set up properly, churn it as best as you can in the machine, transfer it to a sturdy container, and let it harden in the freezer. After 45 minutes, use an immersion blender to blend the sorbet and break up any larger ice crystals. You can do this a few times to ensure that you have a really nice texture. When the mixture is smooth, return it to the freezer to harden completely.

5. To serve, scoop the mango sorbet into bowls and sprinkle liberally with Tajín.

Our Growing EdgeThis blog post is another contribution to the Genie De Wit’s Our Growing Edge. Our Growing Edge is a monthly event that aims to connect food bloggers, broaden our horizons, and encourage us to try new things. I am so happy to see Genie’s project grow and reach a larger and larger audience of bloggers and readers! Anyone can be a part of the party! For more information, please go to the page Genie has set up on her blog Bunny. Eats. Design.

This month’s host is Lindsey from Sneaks & Sweets. Thank you so much Lindsey! To take a look at the participating bloggers this month, click here.

 

Homemade Basil Limeade

Tastes like a summer.

Like many people who love cooking, I loathe throwing food away. This is partly the reason why I have never been a member of a summer vegetable CSA: it’s just too much food for one person, maybe even too much for two or three. That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t love to be a part of one and when T. asked if I could pick up her Roxbury Farm share in her place, I jumped at the chance.

As expected, the haul was huge: two giant heads of lettuce, bagfuls of tender leaves, a big bunch of lacinato kale, an arrowhead cabbagepurple kohlrabi, zucchini, yellow squash, garlic scapes, green onions, Italian parsley, cilantro, and basil.  That wasn’t even the entire share; I had to leave some of it at the pick-up site because I couldn’t carry it all.

Back at home, it was food prep triage as I decided what needed to be eaten right away and what could be stored longer and consumed later. Of the most perishable, the basil was at the top of the list.

It is tough to keep basil fresh. If not used quickly, the leaves rapidly and easily oxidize; what starts off as vibrant and green can quickly turn grayish and sad. I’ve found that the best way to keep basil in prime condition is to treat it as you might fresh-cut flowers: stems trimmed, in water, in a vase, and covered with a loose plastic bag. It looks a little awkward on the countertop, but it does the trick. However, even with this nifty storage method, basil doesn’t stay fresh indefinitely.

A giant bunch of basil is a lot to work through unless you are planning on making pesto. As I am frantically trying to empty my fridge and freezer in time for the Brooklyn Ice Cream Takedown, I wasn’t looking to make an excess of something to store. Instead, I was trying to think of a way to use up all the basil and consume it in the same day. That’s when the thought came to me: don’t eat it, drink it. Should it be lemonade? No, limeade.

Basil and limes are a lovely pairing. Pungent, herbaceous basil finds its perfect counterpoint in aromatic, tart and juicy limes. There is something that feels a little Thai, a little Vietnamese, a little Mexican in the pairing too — something reminiscent of a tropical beach vacation. Toss in a splash of gin and you’ve got yourself a pretty nice gimlet-esque summer sipper as well.

A word on one of the ingredients in the recipe that is to follow: who would ever have guessed that innocuous-looking agave syrup (nectar, Wikipedia informs me, is a marketing term) was worse for you than high-fructose corn syrup? Whereas high-fructose corn syrup, the bête noire of conscious eaters everywhere, is around 50% fructose, agave syrup can clock in at a whopping 90% fructose.

Consider for a moment how much processing has to occur for that to happen. Nope, it’s not pretty. Furthermore, your liver apparently turns all that almost-pure fructose straight into fat. Joy.

But like that poor pair in Brokeback MountainI wish I knew how to quit you, Evil Agave Nectar. You and your clean, bright-tasting sweetness. You and how easily you dissolve in cold liquids.

*shakes fist at sky*

The only defenses that I have is that I use it rarely: only when I make lemonade and, I guess now, limeade. Either of which only happens once or twice a year. Plus I hardly eat any processed foods (so abstemious of me, I know!), so my yearly fructose intake is likely low enough that I don’t need to worry about turning my liver into foie gras every summer.

However, if what I just wrote about agave syrup gives you pause, I would recommend making your own simple syrup with cane sugar to use instead. It’s a 1:1 ratio, which means that there are equal parts sugar and hot water. Simply stir the sugar into hot water until it dissolves, and then wait for the syrup to cool completely before using.

Alternatively, you could sweeten your limeade with honey or maple syrup, but I don’t really know what that would taste like as both have strong and distinctive flavors. It might be interesting . . . or it might be gross.

If you have a relatively low-in-fructose diet like myself or just want to throw caution to the wind, by all means reach for the agave!

Ingredients:

The leaves from 1 bunch of fresh basil

1 cup of cold water

1 cup of freshly squeezed lime juice (from about 6-8 limes)

Simple syrup or agave syrup to taste (I used about 2/3 cup of agave syrup)

A scant pinch of salt

Special equipment:

A blender or a stick immersion blender

A fine-mesh sieve

How to prepare:

1. Using either a blender or an immersion blender, blend the basil leaves with one cup of cold water until you have a uniform slurry.

2. To this, add the lime juice, the simple syrup or agave syrup, and the scant pinch of salt. Stir everything together and let sit for about 5-7 minutes.

3. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve and add enough cold water to make one liter of basil-limeade.

4. To serve, pour over ice. As fresh basil oxidizes quickly, try to drink the basil-limeade the same day it is made.

Scotch Eggs

Go ahead. Eat like a Welsh rugby player.The first really, truly mind-blowing Scotch egg that I ever had was at The Breslin. The breading was shatteringly crisp, the sausage was moist and savory, and the yolk . . . oh the yolk! Just liquid enough, it oozed and spread over the plate like runny gold. I may have moaned. I most certainly peppered the server with questions: “But HOW???? How do they get the egg so PERFECT????? How do they possibly PEEL it so that the egg stays so intact????? The whites must be barely set! DO THEY HAVE THE DELICATE FINGERS OF ANGELS BACK THERE????” In response, I only got a coy smile.

Sous vide!” my friend Jason hissed, “It must be sous vide!

Possible, but doubtful. It was hard to imagine anyone going through the trouble of sous-videing the quantity of eggs that a restaurant would require every night. As we pondered and chewed, and pondered another round of Scotch eggs because anything good should always be ordered twice, I thought that this would be my deep-frying project. I will make this at home, I thought, and all the Scotch eggs will be mine!

As I must be the world’s worst egg peeler, I let the eggs boil until the yolks were firmer — about 5 minutes. Next time, I’ll let them be a little runnier as I found out that a layer of sausage hides a multitude of fingernail gouges and fingertip-sized divots.  The most important thing is that the oil remains hot — between 350-375° F — and the layer of sausage must remain reasonably thin.

All in all, it’s a pretty decadent affair for such a simple preparation. Deep-frying is messy business, but the final result is unbelievably satisfying.

Ingredients:

6 eggs + 2 eggs, beaten

1 pound of breakfast sausage

2 cups of panko bread crumbs

Vegetable oil (for frying)

To prepare:

1. Place 6 eggs in the bottom of a medium saucepan and add enough cold water to cover them. Over medium-high heat, bring the water to a boil. When the water begins to boil, cover the pan, remove it from the burner, and let it stand for 3.5-5 minutes, depending on how set you like to have your yolks (3.5 minutes for runny yolks, 4 minutes for just set yolks, 5 for perfectly set yolks) .

2. While the eggs are cooking, prepare an ice water bath. Carefully drain the water and gently roll the eggs around in the pan to crack the shells. Plunge the eggs into the ice water bath and let them sit there until they are cool enough to handle and peel. Once peeled, very gently pat them dry with paper towels.

3. Divide the sausage into six equal portions. Flatten and shape each portion into a thin disc about 1/4 of an inch thick.  Lay the patty in the palm of your hand and gently rest a soft-boiled egg in the center of it. Wrap and mold the sausage around the egg, pinching and sealing the seams shut as you go. Make sure that the sausage layer is no thicker than 1/4 of an inch, otherwise the sausage will not cook through before the outside of the Scotch egg begins to burn. Repeat with the remaining sausage and eggs.

4. In a large, heavy pot, pour in enough oil so that you have a depth of about 2-2.5 inches. Insert the deep-fry thermometer and bring the oil up to 375°. While the oil is heating up, whisk the remaining 2 eggs in a shallow bowl. Keep the panko crumbs another shallow bowl.

5. Right before the oil reaches the right temperature, work quickly and dip each sausage ball in the beaten egg and roll it in the panko crumbs. While keeping an eye on the temperature, carefully place each Scotch egg in the hot oil. You will need to work in batches and the temperature should never drop below 350° F.

6. Turn the Scotch eggs occasionally so that they cook evenly. When they are golden and crisp — about 5-6 minutes — use a slotted spoon to remove them from the oil. Let them drain on a paper towel lined plate. Serve immediately.

Bacon Bad: Blue Bacon Rock Candy

Blue bacon "crystal meth." You're welcome :-)
“Daisy, this Year of the Horse prediction-shit,” my cousin said, “Is exactly that: horseshit.”

I’m normally not a superstitious person , but lately I’ve been susceptible to all this talk about horoscopes and zodiacs. Contrary to what most people might think, the Year of the Horse is not lucky for those born in Horse Years. Speaking in general, the potential for you to fail increases a billion-fold when your Chinese zodiac animal year comes up. Why? Because my people are just messed up like that.

Even though your zodiac animal’s years are special ones, they can also leave you more vulnerable to bad luck and impending doom if you are not careful. To compensate for all the bad luck that you will likely experience this year, the universe promises — as a reward for your suffering — that next year will be amazing!

In addition to predicted “[c]onflicts, disasters, record high temperatures, an economic chill in Asia and more trouble for Justin Bieber,” this year of the Wooden Horse will also bring “some discomforts” such as “insidious diseases like dermatosis” to Horses. Women “should pay attention to problem in urinary system and males need to care more about their stomach.” Everyone should “be careful to avoid unexpected injuries by knives and other sharp items” and “remember not to eat too much for each meal.”

In particular reference to that last item, I am already so screwed.

Apparently the only people set to have a worse year than me in 2014 are those born under the sign diametrically opposed to the Horse on the zodiac wheel: the Rat.

Many apologies for this bad news, dear Rat Friends.

To combat the Heavens, I am supposed to A) exercise some feng shui cures — which are almost impossible to accomplish if you live in a studio apartment like myself and B) avoid having horse or donkey on the table this year.

(On a side note, only the Chinese would think to remind you not to eat your zodiac animal during your zodiac animal year.)

I remember the last Year of the Horse as being one of the worst years of graduate school that I had ever had. It was so bad that I moved to France (unbeknownst to me at the time, apparently traveling mitigates your bad luck since you will be physically removed from any potentially disastrous situations at home and can inflict your misfortune on a bunch of strangers instead). Furthermore, my grandmother died while I was away.

Horseshit,” my cousin reiterated. “And I might remind you that your grandmother didn’t die. Our grandmother died.”

Touché, dear Cousin, but as I watched our family bicker around the table at New Year’s Dinner, I couldn’t help but think it was an omen, a portent of things to come. It didn’t help that every conversation that I had in the two weeks following Chinese New Year’s Day was awkward and stilted. Those interactions were so uncomfortable that I was beginning to think that 2014 would be better off spent in a menstrual hut somewhere in the New Mexican desert.

During that time I thought, “Oh no. It’s starting. Pretty soon, dormant volcanos will erupt and rising sea levels will cover and erase Indonesia.”

I was so in the dumps that an Indian colleague, deciding that enough was enough, pulled me aside one day. “Daisy!” she said while looking me straight in the eye, “In my country everyone is superstitious! I used to be so superstitious! Until I finally told myself that this was ridiculous and I am the only one who controls my destiny!”

Although it sounded like a load motivational speaker clichés, I was oddly swayed by S. Maybe it was the conviction with which she told me to (wo)man up and stop whining. Maybe it was the fact that I was already tired of being anxious about 11 more months of social ineptitude and imminent disaster. In any case, I was finally able to pull myself out of my funk and look forward to what 2014 might bring.

One of the resolutions that I have made this year besides learning to rock a funky, colorful sock (a much more challenging endeavor for me than you would think), is to wrap up loose ends from last year instead of just avoiding them until they are no longer relevant. At the very top of that list is this blog post which has been sitting in my drafts folder for an absurdly long time.

So finally, dear Readers and Hormel Foods who — as a sponsor of the Brooklyn Bacon Takedown  — technically owns this recipe and to whom I was supposed to submit a copy over 4 months ago, here is how to make Bacon Bad, aka Blue Bacon Crystal Meth. 

Special equipment:

Two half-sized sheet pans

One candy thermometer

Popsicle sticks

Ingredients:

1 pound of bacon

4 cups of granulated white sugar

1 1/3 cups of light corn syrup

1 1/2 cups of water

Sky Blue gel food coloring

How to prepare:

1. Preheat oven to 400°. Arrange the bacon in a single layer on a half-sheet pan. Roast the bacon until it is really crispy and most of the fat is rendered, about 20 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate and let dry/drain until it is cool enough to handle. Either crumble or cut the bacon into bacon bits.

2. Combine the sugar, the corn syrup, and the water in a 4-quart saucepan. Stir the mixture over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and it just begins to boil. Stop stirring and insert the candy thermometer. Let the mixture bubble and boil until the syrup reaches the 300°.

3. While the sugar syrup is boiling, wash and throughly dry the sheet pan that you used to roast the bacon. Line both half-sheet pans with parchment paper.

4. When the sugar syrup has reached 300°, turn off the heat and remove the saucepan from the burner. Use a popsicle stick to quickly stir in a very small drop of food coloring (a little goes a very long way). Once the color is even distributed, divide the syrup between the two lined sheet pans. Tip the pans very carefully to make sure that the syrup spreads out and evenly covers the entire bottom of the pans. Divide the bacon bits into two equal portions and sprinkle each evenly on top of each tray of candy. Let the candy cool completely.

4. Once the candy has completely cooled, take a mallet, a hammer, or a meat tenderizer and crack the candy into very small pieces/crystals. Transfer the candy to airtight zipper-lock bags.

Victoria’s Maple Syrup and Garlic-Roasted Chicken with On-Ke’s Coconut Oil-Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Seriously good food.
No one likes to admit weakness, but I will here: after years of heavy teaching loads and graduate school stress, I am prone to burn out. I used to think that I was invincible, a survivor who overcame those horrible stretches of apathy by plowing straight through them. In reality, I was only papering over my needs and making the situation worse.

Today things are different. I recognize the signs of burn-out more easily, those dark twinges that hang just outside of my metaphysical peripheral vision. Unlike then, I realize now that if I don’t take care of myself, I’m no good to anyone: family, friends, students, and colleagues alike. So I draw boundaries at the end of each semester, knowing that I need to take some precious time to recharge my batteries so to speak.

One thing that always helps me recuperate and regain my joie de vivre is food, particularly cooking. When life gets hectic and the stacks of papers that I need to grade grow higher, I pretty much cease to cook at home — an obvious mistake as cooking calms me and the food that I prepare nourishes both my body and spirit. I love trying new recipes and cooking from new cookbooks, but when I am really aching for something soul-sustaining, what I love most are recipes from family and friends. Those recipes and dishes are the ones that are really special because they make me feel as if that person is in the kitchen with me even though they may be thousands of miles away.

I’ve been spatchcocking a lot of chickens lately. Partly because I’ve finally invested in a good pair of very sharp, spring-loaded shears, and also because I like how evenly and quickly the chicken cooks. The white meat emerges tender and moist from the oven, the dark meat is rich and succulent, and the skin comes out crispy, burnished, and golden.

For this particular chicken, I finally got around to trying a maple syrup-kissed rub/marinade that Victoria over at Bois de Jasmin mentioned in the comment thread of her post on Hot and Spicy Cranberry Sauce. Many people think of Bois de Jasmin as a perfume blog, but I always consider it much more than that: a celebration of life and of all things fragrant, including food and drink. Given that the olfactory and the gustatory are so intimately intertwined, is it surprising that many perfume lovers happen to be fine gastronomes as well?

Victoria calls this chicken an improvisation, but I call it genius. The chicken feels infused with a terrific depth of flavor. The maple syrup caramelizes to a sticky, burnt sugar-like glaze. Victoria uses a mortar and pestle to render the garlic cloves into a smooth paste. I would have done the same if I had one. However, as I do not, I made do with a garlic press. Regardless of which technique you choose, the garlicky chicken roasting in the oven will make your kitchen smell mouthwatering good. I used a pinch of cayenne pepper in place of a pinch of paprika, but Victoria also suggests a little bit a garam masala added to the mix — a delicious idea that I look forward to trying as soon as I get back to NYC.

As for the coconut oil-roasted sweet potatoes, I never would have tried a so-called Paleo recipe if not for On-Ke, who had recently completed 30 days of eating Paleo along with her daughter Siobhan and her family. I had initially gotten to know Siobhan through her wonderful blog Garden Correspondent. When we finally met in person, it was as if I had known her for years. Laughing and chatting animatedly over Italian coffee and pastries, Siobhan decided that she needed to introduce me to her mother, another “culture vulture” who lives rather conveniently around the corner from me. Needless to say, we hit it off right away and have spent this past fall terrorizing the city in a good way: museum visits, perfume sniffing outings, theater performances, and always food, glorious food! Siobhan, you are missed!

One afternoon, On-Ke served me a roasted and roughly cut up kabocha squash that was rubbed with coconut oil, seasoned with salt, and studded with cracked black peppercorns. Super classy woman that I am, I devoured what must have been half a pumpkin in one sitting. I couldn’t help it; there was something about that subtle coconut flavor that made that roasted kabocha squash even more irresistible. Ever since that afternoon, this has been my preferred way to cook just about any squash or yam. As I thought about a perfect complement for Victoria’s chicken, I couldn’t come up with a better one than these sweet potatoes roasted in the same way.

Special Equipment:

A good, sharp pair of cooking shears

One half-size sheet pan

One wire rack to fit the sheet pan

Ingredients:

For the sweet potatoes:

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 tablespoons of coconut oil (I prefer unrefined coconut oil because the coconut flavor is stronger)

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

For the roasted chicken:

1 whole chicken

1 tablespoon of dark amber maple syrup

3-4 cloves of garlic, finely minced or even better, pulverized using a mortar and pestle with a little course salt

2 tablespoons of good olive oil

A pinch of cayenne pepper, paprika, or garam masala

1 teaspoon of kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

How to prepare:

1. Preheat the oven to 400°.

2. While the oven is warming up, you can begin to prep the chicken. To spatchcock any bird, flip the bird over so that its breast is facing down on the cutting board and its back is facing upright. Using a good, sharp pair of sturdy kitchen shears, remove the backbone by cutting along either side of it. Remove any excess skin that is dangling from the neck hole. Turn the bird breast-side-up. Remove the wishbone with a sharp knife. Now with the heel of your hand, press directly down on the breast bone until you hear a crack. Congratulations! You have just spatchcocked a bird! To finish, tuck the wings behind the breast. For the legs, you can make small slits in the skin on either side of where the tail used to be and push the ends of each respective leg through them. You can also leave the wings and legs as they are. Your chicken will taste the same either way, but as a firm believer in trussing, I like to have everything looking neat. To help visualize this, here is a video.

3. Combine the maple syrup, garlic, olive oil, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Rub the mixture evenly all over the chicken. Lay the chicken out on a rack-lined sheet pan and let it marinate uncovered on the counter for about 40 minutes to an hour.

4. While the chicken is marinating, use your hands to rub each piece sweet potato with coconut oil. Season the pieces liberally with flaky salt and freshly ground black pepper, and spread them out in an even layer over another baking tray or in the bottom of a cast iron pan. I like my roasted sweet potatoes to be on the very roasted side, not exactly burnt, but just so that the surface sugars are caramelized. This should take about 40 minutes or so. If you prefer yours to be less roasted, you can remove them from the oven when they are softened and can be easily pierced with the point of a sharp knife.

5. When the sweet potatoes are done, remove them from the oven. Put the chicken in the oven and carefully pour about 2 to 2 1/2 cups of water into the bottom of the sheet pan. The water should not touch the bottom of the wire rack. Roast the chicken until it reaches an internal temperature of 165°, this should take between 1 hour and 1.5 hours depending on how big your chicken is. If at any point you notice that the garlic is beginning to burn, you can loosely tent the chicken with a sheet of aluminum foil, removing it when the it is almost done so that the skin can brown. When the chicken is done, take it out of the oven and let it rest for 10-20 minutes before carving.

Serve the chicken with the roasted sweet potatoes.

Texas-Style Cottage Pie with Roasted Sweet Potatoes and A.1. Compound Butter

Flavors are bolder in Texas.
Considering the extent of my bacon advocacy, most people are surprised to find out that I used to be a vegetarian. That was not a choice based on any kind of moral imperative. Instead, it was the best way that my 14-year-old self think of to annoy my mother. Now you would think that vegetarianism would have gotten old after a couple of weeks, but I was stubborn teenager and persisted in my gastronomic rebellion for twelve long and meatless years.

I didn’t just annoy my mother, I baffled my relatives who had never heard of Tofurkys until they were forced to procure them. My friends would collectively roll their eyeballs heavenward each time that I complained about the lack of vegetarian options on a restaurant menu. I irritated significant others to no end because it frankly sucks to not share food that you are really enjoying.

So it stands to reason that on the night before my undergraduate commencement ceremony, I would have my vegetarian graduation celebration at a barbecue restaurant.

Yes, you read that correctly.

What prompted such a paradoxical decision? You see, one of the last classes that I took at my alma mater was a cultural anthropology course on food — which ended up being a prescient choice since many of the books on that syllabus found their way into the bibliography of my dissertation. I had an amazing professor who had a number of terrific guest speakers come to talk to the class, one of first of which was Chris Schlesinger who was still at the East Coast Grill (he has since sold it to the former head chef, now chef/co-owner Jason Heard).

Until that class, I had never really thought that much about food apart from how much I liked to eat it. It never occurred to me that you could craft an approach to food that could be just as thoughtful, complicated, and elegant as any in literature, or that taste — both sensory and esthetic — could be a marker of identity, a beginning of a journey, or an end to one.

In any case, Schlesinger’s passion, dedication, and approach to big, bold American flavors made quite the impression. I also remember how he wasn’t adverse to vegetables being on a barbecue menu, which is how my friends and my family ended up at his restaurant graduation eve.

I don’t remember exactly what I ate that night (probably macaroni and cheese), but I do remember that the food was good and my dad was happy that he wasn’t forced to eat another avocado burrito in a New Age-y bookstore that smelled like patchouli, incense, and beans.

This recipe is adapted from Schlesinger’s How to Cook Meat, published the same year that I graduated. I bought the book to remember that night despite not cooking nor eating meat at the time. Who would have known how useful it would turn out to be a few years later when I was no longer a vegetarian and really did want to know how to cook meat!

I must admit that the first time that I made this dish, I wasn’t impressed; I found it too sweet and the flavors a little too weird. However, after years of vegetarianism, I probably just had no idea what I was doing. Now things are different (or back to “normal,” depending how you think about it). I find the combination of flavors to be complex, rich, and deeply satisfying on cold nights like the ones that we have been having here on the East Coast.

I’ve tinkered with the recipe over the years, making it a little less sweet (tomato paste substituted for ketchup; blackstrap for plain old molasses), and deepening the flavors a little more (roasting instead of boiling the sweet potatoes). The recipe easily doubles as the one given below is the proportions of the original halved.

Like any recipe that you have made your own, its evolution is indicative of where you come from and where you are going. In essence, that is the wonderful thing about recipes in general: they all tell a story and this is one of mine.

Ingredients:

For the compound butter:

1 stick of unsalted butter at room temperature

1 tablespoon of A.1. Steak Sauce

1 tablespoon of fresh parsley, finely chopped

Flaky salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

For the cottage pie:

2 large sweet potatoes

1/2-2/3 of a cup of half-and-half

1 tablespoon of butter

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 large red onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and diced small

2-3 garlic cloves, minced

1 small jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced

1/2 a tablespoon of ground cumin

1/2 a tablespoon of ground coriander

A scant pinch of ground cinnamon

1 pound of ground beef

1 tablespoon of tomato paste

1 tablespoon of blackstrap molasses

How to prepare:

1. Preheat the oven to 400°.

2. To make the A.1. compound butter, combine the room temperature butter, the steak sauce, and the chopped parsley in a small bowl. Season the butter with flaky salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Spoon the butter onto a piece of parchment or waxed paper, roll it into a cylinder, and refrigerate it until firm.

3. Prick the sweet potatoes all over with a fork. Place them directly on the wire racks of your oven and roast them until they can be easily pierced with a knife, about 40 minutes.

4. While the sweet potatoes are roasting, heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan or Dutch oven set over medium heat. Sauté the onions and diced bell pepper until the onions begin to turn golden, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic, the minced jalapeño, and the spices. Let them sizzle them for about 1 minute before adding the ground beef. Cook the ground beef until it is browned, crumbly, and no longer pink. Pour off any excess fat in the pan before stirring in the tomato paste and the blackstrap molasses. Adjust the seasoning.

5. When the sweet potatoes are cooked through, remove them from the oven and let them rest. Lower the temperature of the oven to 350°.

6. When the sweet potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them and discard the skins. Mash them with a tablespoon of butter and 2/3 of a cup of half-and-half. As the mixture should be on the loose side, add more half-and-half if needed. Season with salt and pepper.

7. Spread an even layer of the ground beef mixture over the bottom of a casserole or baking dish. Gently top the ground beef mixture with the mashed sweet potatoes. Bake until the filling is bubbly, about 40 minutes.

8. Remove the casserole dish from the oven and let it rest for about 5-10 minutes. To serve, you can either dot the top of the casserole with the compound butter before dividing it into portions, or you can top each individual serving with a slice of the compound butter.