Pork Stew with Prunes and Armagnac

’Tis the season for Armagnac – in your food as well as your glass:

Pork Stew with Prunes and Armagnac

In this window of time between Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas excess, take a break from fancy feasts and indulge in a robust and rustic one-pot meal. This wine and brandy-laced stew is guaranteed to warm you in the cold weather. After all, while libations are certainly for sipping, don’t overlook their power to enhance flavor in food, such this pork and prune stew fortified with Armagnac. If this recipe doesn’t warm you, I’m not sure what will.

Armagnac is a brandy produced in the southwestern region of France. Like cognac, Armagnac is derived from grapes – but the difference veers from there. While cognac is twice distilled, yielding a smoother pour, Armagnac is distilled only once, which lends more nuance and character to its flavor. And while this certainly makes for intriguing and wonderful sipping, it also adds delightful complexity to soups, stews, sauces – even desserts.

In this recipe, Armagnac teams up with luscious prunes and pork to create a rich and homey stew perfumed with juniper and rosemary. Just remember to pour yourself a splash to enjoy while you are preparing the meal.

Pork Stew with Prunes and Armagnac

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 3 to 3 1/2 hours, plus steeping time
Serves 6

20 prunes, pitted
1/2 cup Armagnac brandy
3 pounds pork shoulder, excess fat trimmed, meat cut into 1 ½ -inch chunks
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 ounces bacon, coarsely chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
3 medium shallots, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 bottle full-bodied red wine
1 cup high quality beef stock
1 bouquet garni: 4 juniper berries, 3 rosemary sprigs, 2 thyme sprigs, and 2 bay leaves wrapped in cheesecloth and tied with a kitchen string

1. Combine the prunes and Armagnac in a bowl and let stand at least 1 hour.
2. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
3. Season the pork on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven or oven-proof pot with a lid. Add the pork in batches, without overcrowding, and brown on all sides. Transfer to a bowl and repeat with the remaining pork.
4. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon pork fat from the pan. Add the bacon and sauté until its fat renders. Add the carrots and onion and sauté until the onions soften and the carrots are crisp tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.
5. Return the pork and any accumulated juices to the pan. Add the prunes and Armagnac, the wine, bouquet garni, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover the pan, transfer to the oven, and cook until the meat is very tender, 2 1/2 to 3 hours, stirring once every hour or so.
6. Remove the stew from the oven, discard the bouquet garni, and taste for seasoning. Serve with mashed potatoes, polenta, or crusty bread.
(The stew may be prepared up to two days in advance. Warm over low heat or in a 300°F oven before serving.)

Mashed Root Vegetables – A Colorful and Healthy Alternative to Mashed Potatoes

These Roots are Smashing

Mashed Root Vegetables

Root vegetables are fall and winter’s best-kept secret. Packed with nutrients, natural sugars and starch, the humble root is a healthy and flavorful substitute for the ubiquitous russet potato, and a superb way to get your vitamins and nutrients in the cold weather season. A good peel of skin reveals a rainbow of antioxidant-rich colors ranging from magenta to ochre to buttery yellow, sure to brighten any gray day – and your holiday table.

Feel free to mix and match roots, such as sweet potato, parsnip, rutabaga, carrot, celery root, and of course the dependable russet, to your taste and preference. Try to choose a balance of sweet and savory roots for even flavor and mash them to your desired consistency. It’s ok if the mash is a little chunky – it provides a pleasant texture. This recipe calls for a combination of sour cream and Greek yogurt in the mash, which creates a balance of smooth richness and tangy lightness. So long as you use a combined amount of one cup, you can opt for all of one or the other.

Mashed Root Vegetables

Active Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes
Serves: 4 to 6

3 pounds mixed roots (such as 1 pound each of sweet potato, celery root, and rutabaga)
Salt
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup whole milk Greek yogurt
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Peel the root vegetables and cut into 1-inch chunks. Place the vegetables in a large pot with 2 teaspoons salt and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the vegetables are very tender, about 20 minutes.
2. Drain the vegetables and return them to the pot; cool 5 minutes. Add the garlic and butter and mash with a potato masher until the butter is melted. Add the sour cream and yogurt and continue to mash until the ingredients are blended and the mash is to your desired consistency (I like mine a little chunky). Add 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, taste for seasoning, and add more if desired.
3. Spoon into a serving bowl and serve warm.

Prepare ahead:
The mash may be prepared up to 1 day in advance of serving. Cool completely and transfer to a buttered gratin dish. Cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. Remove from refrigerator 1 hour before serving.
To reheat, heat the oven to 325°F. Dot the top of the mash with about 1 tablespoon of finely diced butter and cover with foil. Bake in the oven until heated through, 30 to 40 minutes.

Cranberry Orange Trifle for the Holidays

A Festive (and Do-Ahead) Dessert for the Holiday Table:

Do-Ahead Cranberry Trifle Dessert

This billowy cranberry trifle will carry you through the holiday season. It’s a great do-ahead dessert with impressive results: orange-infused pound cake blanketed with layers of cranberry compote, whipped mascarpone cream, and candied walnuts. Each bite is light and airy with the pop of sweet-tart cranberries, and the satisfying crunch of cinnamon-dusted nuts, so be sure to get a little bit of everything in every spoonful.

Don’t let the length of this recipe deter you. It’s composed of several separate short recipes for each component that can (and should) be prepared well in advance of assembling. And the entire trifle can also be assembled in advance of serving, which leaves you plenty of time to wrestle with that turkey.

Cranberry-Orange Trifle with Candied Walnuts

Assembly Time: 20 minutes
Makes one large trifle, serves 8 to 10; or 8 individual trifles

1 loaf Orange Buttermilk Pound Cake (recipe follows)
Cranberry Compote (recipe follows)
Candied Walnuts (recipe follows)
Orange Mascarpone Cream (recipe follows)
Finely grated orange zest, for garnish

1. Cut the pound cake into 3/4-inch cubes. Set aside a few whole cranberries from the compote for garnish.
2. Pour a thin layer of cranberry compote into the bottom of the trifle dish or individual serving glasses. Arrange a snug layer of pound cake over the compote. Top with a layer of cream. Sprinkle a few of the nuts over the cream.
3. Repeat the layering process, finishing with a layer of cream and nuts. Garnish with the reserved cranberries and finely grated orange zest.
4. Serve or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 6 hours before serving.
Optional: Lightly brush each layer of pound cake with Cointreau or Gran Marnier for an adult version of this dessert.

Orange Buttermilk Pound Cake
Active Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Makes 1 loaf

Cake:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
3 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup buttermilk

Syrup: 
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter a 9-by-5 inch loaf pan. Line the bottom with parchment and butter the parchment.
2. Whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt in a bowl and set aside.
3. Cream the sugar and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in the orange zest and vanilla.
4. Add half of the flour, then the buttermilk, and then the remaining flour, mixing to combine after each addition.
5. Pour into the loaf pan. Bake until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes clean, about 55 minutes.
While the cake is baking, make the syrup. Combine the juice and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Simmer until the sugar dissolves, and then remove from the heat.
Remove the cake from the oven and transfer to a rack. Pierce the top of the cake all over with a skewer and brush with some of the syrup. Cool 10 minutes and then invert the cake onto a rack. Brush the sides of the cake with the remaining syrup and cool the cake completely.
Note: The pound cake may be prepared up to 2 days in advance. Wrap with plastic and refrigerate until use.

Cranberry Compote
Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 10 minutes
Makes about 1 3/4 cups

12 ounces cranberries, fresh or frozen
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of salt

Combine all of the ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Cook until the cranberries pop and release their juices, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and cool completely.
Note: The compote may be prepared up to 2 days in advance. Refrigerate until use.

Candied Walnuts
Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1 1/2 cups walnut halves
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking tray with parchment. Spread the walnuts on a separate baking tray and bake 10 minutes.
2. Heat the sugar over medium heat in a small saucepan. As soon as it begins to dissolve, stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar liquefies and is amber in color.
3. Immediately add the walnuts, salt, and cinnamon and stir to coat. Remove from the heat and spread the walnuts on the parchment-lined baking tray. Cool completely, and then break into coarse pieces.
Note: The nuts may be prepared up to 1 week in advance. Store at room temperature in an airtight container.

Mascarpone Cream:
Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 10 minutes
Makes about 3 cups

8 ounces mascarpone cream, chilled
1 1/2 cups heavy cream, chilled
1/4 cup sifted powder sugar
1 tablespoon Cointreau (optional)
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest, plus extra for garnish
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Add the mascarpone to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a wire attachment and mix on medium-low speed to soften.
2. With the machine running, slowly add the whipped cream and mix to combine. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until soft peaks form.
3. Add the sugar, liqueur (if using), the orange zest, and vanilla, and beat until stiff peaks form.
Note: The cream may be prepared up to 6 hours in advance of assembling the trifle. Cover and refrigerate.

Apple and Oat Muffins

Add a little apple to your morning muffin:

Healthy Apple Oat Muffines

I don’t bake muffins often, but when I do, I try to make them healthy. This way they are on hand for an easy breakfast or a snack. My issue with muffins, is that they often resemble mini-cakes, packed with sugar and fat. To some extent, this can’t be avoided if you wish to eat a muffin that doesn’t resemble a hockey puck or bird food. But I adjust, reducing some of the sugar and fat and adding healthy grains or cereals, fruit and nuts to the batter. I also add grated fruit, which is a key ingredient for natural sweetness and moisture.

Grated apple is the star of this muffin recipe, which also includes raisins, chopped nuts, and oats for extra fiber. As muffins go, they are reasonably healthy, while sufficiently naughty to indulge a craving for something moist and sweet. You can tweak this recipe if you like – just make sure to follow the ratios. In place of apple, try adding grated carrot, zucchini, or pear; and bran can be substituted for the oats. There’s no need to peel the fruit. The nutrients in the skin add a little extra healthy boost – I’ll take my small victories where I can.

Apple Oat Muffins

Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes
Makes 12 (2 1/2-inch) muffins

1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/4 cup unsulphured molasses
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup old-fashioned oats
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup raisins
1 medium sweet and crisp apple, such as Honey Crisp, grated, about 1 cup
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Oil a 12-muffin tin (or line with paper liners).
2. Mix the sugar and oil in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in the molasses and vanilla, and then mix in the buttermilk.
3. Whisk the flour, oats, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl. Add to the sugar mixture and mix on low speed until just combined, without over-mixing. Stir in the raisins, apple and walnuts, if using.
4. Spoon the batter into the muffin tin or paper liners, filling them. Transfer to the oven and bake until a tester comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Cool 10 minutes in the pan, and then remove and cool the muffins completely on a rack. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Butternut squash mingles with its fall friends in this festive soup:

Curried Butternut Squash Soup

There is something magical about roasted butternut squash. Its brilliant orange flesh softens into buttery squidginess, and when roasted, its natural sugars are coaxed out and gently caramelized, accentuating the squash’s inherent nutty flavor. It’s hard to believe something so rich and sugary can be loaded with nutrients and beta-carotene, but so it is. One cup of butternut squash provides a health nut’s worth of Vitamins A and C, as well as a robust shot of potassium, manganese and fiber. In this recipe, roasted butternut squash mingles with its fall buddies – apples, cider, and loads of warming spices – yielding an essential autumn soup. Serve it as a starter to any meal, or dress it up in little shot glasses as a fancy soup starter when hosting a crowd. It’s a great way to kick off the holiday season.

Curried Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

Active Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Makes 4 to 6 large bowl servings or 16 to 18 small appetizer shots, depending on size of glass

1 medium butternut squash, about 2 pounds
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, diced
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
3 cups chicken stock (or vegetable for vegetarian option)
1 cup apple cider
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 to 2 teaspoons salt, to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Heat the oven to 375°F. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Lightly brush the exposed flesh with olive oil. Place squash, cut-side-down, on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until the flesh is fork tender, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove from oven and cool slightly. When cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh and set aside.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until softened without coloring, 3 to 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the apple, curry powder, cumin, coriander and cayenne. Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add the roasted squash and chicken stock. (There should be just enough stock to cover the squash and apples. If needed, add additional stock to cover). Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover the pot, and simmer until the apples are very soft, about 20 minutes.
3. Carefully purée the soup in batches in a food processor (or with an immersion blender). Return the soup to the pot and stir in the apple cider, brown sugar, salt and pepper. Warm thoroughly over medium-low heat and taste for seasoning. Serve warm, garnished with a small spoonful of crème fraîche or sour cream if desired.

Chicken Tortilla Soup with Corn and Black Beans

Rely on your leftovers for this warming Chicken Tortilla Soup

Hearty Chicken and Black Bean Tortilla Soup

My inspiration for making soup is often a convergence of too many vegetables in the refrigerator combined with leftovers from a roast chicken dinner. This recipe is not an authentic tortilla soup, as I managed to empty most of the contents of my veggie drawer into it. It’s chock-a-block full of corn, beans, zucchini and peppers, simmered with a few must-have aromatics (onion and garlic) and pantry staples (canned Italian plum tomatoes and black beans). I spiced up the stock with warming southwestern spices in defiance of the dreary drizzle outside, and finished the soup with a shower of shattered tortilla chips, which happened to be leftover remnants in the bottom of their bag – too small for swiping through a bowl of salsa. Leftovers never tasted so good.

If you don’t have leftover chicken on hand, a store bought rotisserie chicken and packaged stock will do the trick. Season and spice the soup to your taste. Ideally it should have a little heat, but since our family is divided on what constitutes “spicy,” I pass a bottle of hot sauce around the table so everyone can fire up the soup to their taste. This soup is meant to be thick. More chicken stock may be added for a soupier consistency

Chicken Tortilla Soup

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Serves 6

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 poblano pepper, stemmed and seeded, diced
1 sweet red pepper, stemmed and seeded, diced
1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed and seeded, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 small zucchini, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
4 cups chicken stock
1 (28-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes, with juice
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
1/8 teaspoon cloves
3/4 pound shredded cooked chicken
1 cup fresh corn kernels (or defrosted frozen)
1 cup cooked black beans
1 to 2 teaspoons brown sugar (optional)
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
Tortilla chips, broken in pieces, for garnish

1. Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the peppers and sauté until crisp tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in the garlic and zucchini and sauté briefly, about 1 minute.
2. Add the chicken stock, plum tomatoes with juice, tomato paste, cumin, coriander, salt, pepper, cayenne, and cloves. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes.
3. Stir in the chicken, corn, and beans. Simmer, partially covered, until thoroughly heated through. Taste for seasoning. Add 1 to 2 teaspoons brown sugar if desired.
4. Stir in the cilantro leaves and serve warm, garnished with the tortilla chips.

Braised Moroccan Spiced Chicken Thighs

Transport yourself to Morocco in just one hour with this easy braised chicken thigh dish:

Braised Chicken Thighs with Moroccan Spices

Feeling wanderlust? This dish will satisfy any cravings for far-flung fragrance and flavor. The Moroccan spice-infused paste is crucial to the flavor of the chicken and ultimately the entire dish. While you can easily prepare this meal in 1 hour, you can also take the time to let the chicken marinate for several hours or even overnight. It’s worth it.

Braised Moroccan Chicken Thighs with Tomatoes, Ginger, and Honey

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, plus optional marinating time
Serves: 4 to 6

Paste:
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8 bone-in chicken thighs with skin

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced
2 teaspoons finely grated peeled fresh ginger
1 (28-ounce) can crushed Italian plum tomatoes
1 cup chicken stock
1 (6-inch) cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon honey or light brown sugar
2 teaspoons harissa paste (or red chili sauce, such as Sambal Olek)
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
Chopped fresh Italian parsley or cilantro for garnish

1. In a small bowl, combine the paste ingredients. Rub the paste all over the chicken and between the skin and flesh. (The chicken can marinate for up to 24 hours. If not proceeding with cooking, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Remove from the refrigerator 30 minutes before proceeding.)

2. Heat the oil in a casserole or braising dish. In batches, arrange the chicken, skin-side down, in the skillet without overcrowding. Brown the skin and then flip the chicken and briefly cook until the meat takes on color, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

3. Heat the oven to 350°F.

4. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat from the skillet (if skillet is dry, add 1 tablespoon olive oil). Add the onion and sauté until soft, about 3 minutes. Add the ginger and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock, cinnamon stick, brown sugar, harissa, salt, and pepper. Simmer for 5 minutes, and then taste for seasoning.

5. Return the chicken to the pan and nestle into the sauce, skin-side up, without submerging the skin. Transfer to the oven and bake, uncovered, until the chicken is thoroughly cooked, about 30 minutes. Garnish with fresh parsley or cilantro.