Thursday, December 27, 2007

Prime rib roast and saffron pudding

For Christmas this year my mother said she wanted to make "something classic American." On Christmas Eve, we usually try to approximate the traditional Sicilian seven fish dinner. It's not just a clever name: it means you literally eat seven different fishes during the Christmas Eve meal, although sometimes people interpret it as to make seven different seafood dishes. We didn't really manage to do it, I think we only got up to 4 or 5 different fish; pasta with clams, a pasta with sardines, maybe some salmon somewhere, shrimp in the appetizer...don't really remember. My mom said it was OK that many of our fish were actually crustaceans but I think it means that we're all probably going to hell. Oh, in case you are wondering, the reason you eat seven fishes is because it represents the seven sacraments of the Church, or maybe to represent the seven sins or possibly the seven days it took Mary and Joe to get to Bethlehem...yeah, nobody really knows. But for Christmas Day dinner, my mom abandoned the mysticism and we did the real American thing with meat and potatoes. We went a little nutty at dessert though, with a saffron milk pudding with a citrus-pomegranate sauce. Can't abandon your roots.

My mother procured an 8 pound prime rib roast. It was pretty fatty on the outside but you don't want to trim it because it needs the fat to baste itself as it renders out in the oven. We put it on a v-shaped roasting rack that went inside a large roasting pan, let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes, and stuck it in the oven at 400 degrees. Notice that we did not salt the meat at all. We poured about 1/2 cup of red wine over the top after about 45 minutes of cook time. NOTE: The better the wine the better the roast! Don't listen to my mother who believes in using wine for cooking that you wouldn't dream of drinking! If the alcohol burns away, all that is left is the flavor, right? So...why use the bad stuff? It doesn't really matter in a situation where you are just pouring a little bit over a roast but then you might as well just use whatever you are drinking while cooking (you are drinking while cooking, right?). Anyway. Don't be cheap. I turned the roast around in the oven every 30 minutes or so to keep it evenly cooking. After 1 1/2 hours at 400 degrees, we turned the temperature down to 350 and let it roast for another 1 hour and 45 minutes. Pull it out and let it rest for about 20-30 minutes, then carved it up. I took the roasting pan that had collected the drippings and red wine for basting, and stuck it over two burners on the stovetop. Added 1/3 cup of red wine, 3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Brought it up to a boil, stirring rapidly, and let it reduce somewhat--about 3-5 minutes. This makes a easy, delicious sauce for the roast and whatever else.

While the roast was going, I sliced in half 1 1/2 pounds of brussels sprouts and tossed them on a baking sheet with 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon sesame oil, salt, pepper, 2 teaspoons sugar and a teeny pinch of red pepper flakes. Put them cut side down on the baking sheet and put them in the oven at the same temperature as the roast. They went along merrily for about 20 minutes, then after the roast got taken out, I stirred the sprouts around, turned the temperature up to 425, and let them roast quickly for another 8-10 minutes. They are done when they are browned in spots on top and caramelized on the cut edges. We had roasted a ton of chestnuts and I made Francesca help me peel them. I then chopped about 1 cup worth of the chestnuts up into chunks and tossed them together with the roasted brussels spouts and about 2 teaspoons of white balsamic vinegar and a smidge more olive oil before serving. It was really delicious. We also made mashed potatoes. The only difference between these and my usual yukon gold mashed potatoes is that I mixed in about 2 tablespoons of horseradish condiment, which really makes it go well with a rich prime roast. My mother also made a salad with mixed greens, green apple slices, and olives.

The dessert was really interesting--we wanted to make something exciting but light so we settled on a beautiful citrus-saffron pudding. We doubled the recipe and took a few other liberties, but here is the basic idea. It will make just about enough for 10 people, but not in a big American dessert kind of way. Soak 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads in 3 tablespoons boiling water. Combine 3 cups milk, 2 cups heavy cream and 1/2 cup sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stir it until the sugar is all dissolved. Remove it from heat and stir in the saffron threads and water that it was soaking in. Stir 2 packets of unflavored gelatin into the hot milk mixture (we had some trouble with this, we originally used only 1 1/2 packets and it wasn't enough. Learn from our mistakes) and let it cool down to room temperature, then pour it into whatever serving dish you plan to use and refrigerate it for between 6-8 hours. I'm not sure how long it really needs to take--the original recipe calls for you to put the pudding into individual serving dishes or molds but we used a big communal dish so it took a bit longer to gel up than it would have in individual dishes. It would be so cute in little personal cups though so you should do that if you aren't as lazy as I am. While it is chilling, make the sauce. Combine the juice from 2 sweet oranges with 1/4 cup pomegranate juice, the juice from 2 lemons and 1/2 cup Vincotto (a dark, supersweet Italian vinegar) in a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Stir in at least 2 teaspoons honey, let it boil hard for about 1 minute, then take it off the heat. I then stirred in 2 tablespoons sweet marsala; the recipe actually called for Grand Marnier but my mother refused to buy a big bottle of it for such a small amount. For some reason I couldn't find a smaller container at the liqour store and so cheapness reigned once more. I encourage you to use it though, it would certainly be a better choice--if you use it, double the amount to 4 tablespoons instead of 2. Let it cool to room temperature, then store it in the fridge until it's time to eat dessert. Seve the pudding with a spoonful of the sauce over the top. Here are some notes on the pudding--the recipe actually called for blood oranges (my mother calls them "bloody oranges" which is HILARIOUS and sort of gross if you think about it), so if you want to, use 4 of those instead of the regular oranges and omit the pomegranate juice. Also, we decided that an aromatic note of cardamom would be excellent in this--add in 1/2 teaspoon with the hot milk mixture if you think you'd like to try it that way. There's a lot of potential for experimentation with this recipe. Also, if you don't want to call it pudding, you can say you are making a "fior di latte," as that is the Italian name for this kind of dessert. Impress your friends!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Gingersnaps and shortbread

I'm at my parent's house for the holidays and there is an unbelievable quantity of snow. Not to mention how damn cold it is. So my mother and I stayed indoors yesterday and made a couple really good cookies. My mom has a stand mixer so these were an easier time to make than they would have been just by hand.

First we tried to make some gingersnaps because Mom found a recipe on the flipside of a lid that was on a container of crystallized ginger. We made a few modifications. First beat together 3/4 cup of softened butter with 1 cup sugar and 1/4 cup molasses. Dump in 1 egg and beat it into the mixture. Mix 2 teaspoons baking soda really well with 2 cups flour, about 1/2 teaspoon salt, at least 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon and about 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves.

Here is a little one-act play that I like to call Mom's Old Cloves:

Mom, brandishing a dusty aquamarine canister: "I have ground cloves!"
Me: "How old are those?"
Mom: "They were a wedding shower present!"
Me, to the dog: "Wedding shower present? Her wedding shower?"

My mother has been married for 33 years. Moving on.

Dump the dry flour mixture into the wet mixture and beat in along with 1/2 cup of crystallized ginger that you have cut up into teeny chunks. Mix it all up really well. If it's too goopy for you to mess with you can refrigerate it for half an hour to make it easier to handle. We just went ahead and rolled it into 1" balls and put them on baking sheets. Don't squish them down. My mom kept doing that and I had to slap her hands to make her quit. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 10 minutes. Let them cool on racks. They'll be more crispy if you chill the dough before baking but we liked them soft.

We also made a shortbread recipe that mom found in the local paper, which I am including here because I have never made shortbread before. Mix in a large bowl 2 1/4 cup flour with 3/4 cup slivered almonds, 3 tablespoons poppyseeds, and 1/2 teaspoon salt (Mom: "I have never heard of poppyseeds and almonds together!"). In another bowl, hopefully the workbowl of your supersweet KitchenAid mixer but it's OK if it's not, add together 2 sticks of softened butter, 1 cup sugar, and 3 tablespoons honey. Beat together until fluffy, then add 2 egg yolks and the zest from 2 oranges (my mom's zester SUCKS, it is not up to Microplane standards AT ALL. That is what she is getting for her birthday, now that I know the sad state of affairs). Beat in until smooth. Slowly add in your flour/poppyseed/almond mixture until it has all been fully incorporated. Here's the fun part. Split your dough in two and plop each half onto a sheet of wax paper. Roll it and shape it to form a 12" rectangular log. Wrap it up in the wax paper and stick it in the fridge for 2 hours or more (my mother found this directive ridiculous and so we just stuck it in the freezer for 15-20 minutes. I'm pretty sure that worked just fine too, so do whichever works better for your schedule). Haul it out of fridge or freezer and slice the logs into thin, 1/8" slices. Bake them on parchment paper-lined cookie sheets in a pre-heated 350 degree oven until the edges are golden brown (about 12-15 minutes). You don't want them to brown all over, just the edges. The bottoms will be lightly golden as well. Cool on racks. The recipe also indicated a simple glaze (whisk 1 cup powdered sugar with vanilla and 1 tablespoon milk) for the edges and to decorate with festive suagr sprinkles, but I think these are actually better without any embellishment. Maybe if you added citrus to the glaze to make it a little piquant and referential, and definitely skip the sprinkles. Our container of red and green jimmies was seriously from the year I was born.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Spinach rice

This is like risotto for losers. It's pretty easy and is great if you feel lazy because it doesn't really use a traditional risotto technique or anything. I made this last night with roasted chicken and also this red cabbage-bacon-cranberry-pine nut thing that I made last year. It's in the 2006 posts, if you are interested. But I don't think I've ever written about spinach rice before, even though it is one of my standards, so here you go:

Take a big bunch of spinach (I use the flat-leaf kind rather than crinkly) and cut off the stems. Slice into strips or chop it up. Wash the spinach really really well--it is often muddy or gritty. You can dump it into a sink full of water, swish it around, and then dry it off well. I usually put it through the salad spinner, which I consider to be one of the rare kitchen gadgets that is actually worth owning. Anyway, chop and clean your spinach and set aside. Sauté 1 small minced onion in at least 1 tablespoon butter--since I was roasting a chicken, I actually ended up using the chicken fat from the bottom of the pan rather than just butter. You could use olive oil instead but some kind of fat is necessary. When the onion is soft and golden, add in 1 ½ cup short grain rice. I usually rinse the rice first but if you would like the consistency to be more starchy and risotto-like, don't rinse it at all. Sauté the rice with the onion for about 2 minutes, until the grains are sort of clear looking but not browned. Slowly add in 3 cups of chicken stock (or you could use a good vegetable stock), stirring it in well until it is up to a light boil. Turn it down to a simmer, cover and let the rice absorb all the cooking liquid--about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large pan, sauté 3 cloves minced garlic in olive oil (or butter or chicken fat) until golden then add a pinch red pepper flakes. Add in your cleaned, chopped spinach and toss with the garlic and pepper flakes over medium-high heat until it is all wilty. It will go from being a huge pile of raw spinach to, like, maybe a cup of cooked down greens. A fascinating thing to watch. After it is cooked down, let it sit a minute and then pour off any of the liquid that has accumulated, unless you like green spinach water. When the rice is all cooked, stir it around then add in the cooked spinach and mix it thoroughly so the spinach is all distributed and the rice is kind of green. Remove from heat and add the juice of one lemon and as much lemon zest as you feel like peeling off. You can never have too much.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Spiced nuts with brown sugar bacon

A long time ago in our big dirty house in Milwaukee I cooked up a batch of bacon in brown sugar with pecans. It was really good and completely addictive. It also made the house smell like burned, sugary pork product for about a week. This last week I saw a recipe in the New York Times for roasted nuts topped with sugared bacon--it kind of reminded me of the pig candy episode from many years earlier so I decided to make something like it for Melanie's holiday potluck party last night. It turns out that there is a way to make sugared bacon in your oven without making your house smell porky. Who knew?

I got a bag of cashews and a bag of almonds from the market, both were roasted, unsalted nuts. I think each bag probably had about 1 ½ cups of nuts in it. I added in the rest of a bag of pecans that I had to make about 3 ½ - 4 cups of nuts total. This is a successful mix--cashews, pecans and almonds--but you could do all cashews or something if you prefer. Separated the whites out from 2 eggs and beat them lightly in a big bowl (I saved the yolks to make zabaglione the next morning). Dumped all the nuts into the beaten egg whites and tossed until they were coated. Added 1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt, 5 tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon allspice, 1 teaspoon cayenne and 2 teaspoons garam masala. Stirred everything up really well so all the spices were evenly mixed throughout the nuts. Spread the spiced nuts out on a baking sheet and popped into the oven to roast at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. Keep a really good eye on them--get in there with a spoon and move them around often. They will be soft while they are in the oven but will crisp up after you get them out of the heat. If you're vegetarian, you can skip this next part and you'll just have some delicious holiday spiced nuts to eat, but the bacon is what really elevates this, so here's what you do next: Take a package of bacon (usually 1 pound) and lay the strips flat on a sheet of parchment paper over a baking sheet. If you don't use parchment paper then you will have a bacony mess everywhere, so be sure to do that. Also be sure to use the kind of baking/cookie sheet that has a raised edge--I think they're properly called jelly roll pans--because then the bacon grease will be contained. Needless to say, the first time I made this years ago I did not use parchment paper nor a jelly roll the oven got all spattered and it's amazing we didn't have a grease fire or something. Also, that's clearly what accounted for the semi-permanent sugar/piggy smell in our house thereafter. Anyway. Lay out your bacon on your parchment papered jelly roll baking sheet and proceed to sprinkle brown sugar all over the slices, at least 1/2 cup of sugar. Rub it all over the bacon strips so both sides are covered then stick it in the oven with the nuts at 350 degrees. The bacon will also probably take about 20 - 25 minutes, again keep a good eye on it and turn the pan around if one side appears to be browning faster than the other. There is nothing sadder than burnt bacon, after all. Take it out when the bacon is golden and crispy looking. Take the strips of bacon off the parchment paper and let them cool on a wire rack--they'll become delightfully crispy. Now break (or cut) the strips of sugared bacon up into teensy pieces and toss them in a serving bowl together with your spiced, roasted nuts. Byron and I were eating these alongside our tumblers of bourbon and it is a seriously good cocktail snack--salty, sweet and spicy all at the same time.

Monday, November 26, 2007


I know it has been a while since I posted anything new...there was traveling and then thesis work...all these things conspired to keep me from making anything noteworthy. Until Thanksgiving! Jocelyn & Nick took the train down from Philadelphia for the long weekend and we had a great time. Lots of basketball watching, 3-D movies, walks with small dog...and of course, cooking and pie-making. The turkey was made the same way I made it last year--if you are actually curious on the step-by-step or how to carve and all that, see the post from November 2006. It's a high-heat cooking method that makes the time much shorter--our 14.8 pound bird cooked up in just over 2 hours. As always, a good digital meat thermometer is essential--you want to make sure the temperature at the thickest part of the thigh is 170 degrees before you pull it out. Then it gets a resting period of 30 minutes, during which the temperature continues to rise to 175, which is perfect. Here's what we made this year that was noteworthy and different from last year:

Cranberry-port-tangerine relish! This was fantastic and remarkably easy. We only had 7 people for dinner so I just used one 12 ounce bag of fresh cranberries but you may wish to double it. Pour a healthy 1/2 cup of port wine into a large saucepan and heat it to boiling. Dump in your bag of fresh cranberries (wash and pick them over first) and stir around. When they begin to pop (maybe 3-5 minutes over medium-high heat, if that) add 1/2 to 3/4 cup of sugar, zest from 2 tangerines and the juice of one tangerine. Stir it all up and continue to cook for about 5 minutes, then cover & turn off the heat. That's it! After it is cooled off some, pour it into a container and stick it in the fridge for whenever dinnertime is. It will get all jelly-like and awesome.

We also made butter beans. They are sort of like lima beans but I think they are more tasty. They're probably hard to find outside of the south though, so you could probably just use frozen baby limas. Wash 3 cups butter beans well and boil until soft but not mushy. Drain and set aside. In the same pot, lightly saute 1/4 cup minced shallots in 2 tablespoons of butter, but don't let them brown or anything. Add the beans back in, add salt, plenty of fresh ground pepper, 1 tablespoon minced parsley and 1 cup heavy cream. Stir occasionally over medium heat until cream has cooked down a little bit--about 5 minutes. Delicious! You could also use chives instead of shallots, if you wanted to. I also put in about 1/2 cup of frozen corn kernels to cook with the cream for added sweetness and to make Jocelyn think it was succotash.

Let's see, what else did we have? There was the turkey, of course, and gravy. We made mashed potatoes, but I have discussed those at length in the past. Also, green salad with fennel, goat cheese and pomegranate seeds that I know I mentioned a couple weeks ago. And roasted kabocha squash and roasted brussels sprouts. Those were really neat--the ones in the the bin at the market were too big so I ended up buying a whole stalk and cutting them off myself. They were much tinier and really delicious. Ryan and Betsy made cornbread. For appetizers we had roasted garlic and the goat cheese crostini with cherry preserves that I made a couple weeks ago also. Jocelyn made awesome stuffed mushrooms. She's really good at it. You clean and de-stem a bunch of largish mushrooms, then chop the stems up very fine and combine them with bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, parsley, sage (anything else, Jocelyn?) then stuff the caps , mounding the stuffing up attractively on top. Then you bake them at 350 for about 10 minutes, I think. I'm not sure how she does it but they are simple and delicious.

We also made two pies--one pumpkin and one that was chocolate-pecan pie. That one was really particularly good. I have seen recipes for it before but Gourmet ran one this month so I thought we'd give it a shot. It's really easy, especially if you are too lazy to make your own pie crust. Melt one bar of bittersweet chocolate (you can do this in a bowl over boiling water if you don't have a double boiler). Spread it into a crust that you have ready in a 9-inch pie plate. Let it harden up, then cover with 2 cups toasted pecan halves. Whisk in a bowl 3 eggs, 1/3 cup light brown sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla and a pinch of salt. When it is all mixed up, whisk in 3/4 cup dark corn syrup. Pour this over the pecans in the pie plate and stick in the oven at 375. Keep an eye on it--ours took about 50 minutes. It gets all puffy and golden and irresistibly delicious looking. Jocelyn and I felt perhaps this recipe was a little bit too sweet--perhaps you could cut down the sugar to 1/4 cup or maybe some bourbon in the mix would temper the sweetness a little. But it is a really good pie, especially with the whiskey whipped cream that Jocelyn made to go with. We had lots of Baileys and hot chocolate, and also this cocktail called a Dark and Stormy that Melanie made--I think it was ginger beer, lime juice and rum, shaken with ice. Between that and the many sparkling wines, it was a highly successful Thanksgiving, regardless of food.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Chicken with garlic

I felt inspired to make a version of the classic chicken with 40 cloves of garlic after reading about someone's recipe in this week's New York Times. Mine is different--less of a crispy saute and more of a chicken pot-au-feu in texture. The garlic is super soft and not as browned. I wanted to make special dinner because Melanie was leaving to run the New York City Marathon over the weekend and Jeremy was going along to cheer her on (in fact, she is running it right now as I am writing this and she is making great time! go, Mel, go!) and I'm traveling to a conference this whole week so it was to celebrate and also because we're not going to see each other for a little while. So I figured we'd eat something particulary delicious, full of protein for a runner, and super-garlicky to keep the competition back several paces.

Before I tell you about the 40 clove chicken, I need to tell you about our appetizers because they were really tasty. Melanie had brought us some really great cherry preserves from her trip to the Bay Area last week so we made goat cheese crostini--slice a baguette into thin rounds, rub a little olive oil on them, top with a slice of goat cheese, salt, pepper and a sprinkle of parsley. Toast in the oven at 350 until the bread is slightly crispy and the goat cheese is warm--about 10 minutes. Pull them out and dab a little cherry preserve on top. We also had an entire head of roasted garlic--just to fully embrace the theme of the evening. This is an easy and delicious thing that you will want to make over and over again. Take an entire head of garlic and slice off the top 1/2" so that the cloves are exposed. Rub it all over with olive oil. Put it in a small ovenproof dish of some kind, like a ramekin. Pour in about 1/3 cup of white wine, drizzle over a little more olive oil, sprinkle with parsley, salt and pepper and put a healthy tablespoon of butter on top of the garlic head. Stick it in the oven at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes-1 hour. Occasionally you can baste it or roll it around in the cooking liquid in the bottom of the baking dish. It is done when the garlic cloves are as soft as butter when you prod them with a knife. Take it out, warn everyone that the dish is hot and serve with good bread. You eat it by taking a clove off the head and squeezing out the roasted garlic onto slices of bread. The wine-butter-olive oil in the bottom of the baking dish is also completely delicious to mop up with the bread.

Now for the chicken. This is VERY easy and you will want to make it often because it is delicious. Get a large chicken--mine was about 5 pounds--and have your butcher cut it up into 10 pieces. Or just buy it cut up already, I don't care how you do it. Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper and set aside. In a large dutch oven (or any other big heavy pot), melt 2 tablespoons butter with 2 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. When it is hot but not smoking, add the chicken pieces (you will probably need to do this in 2 batches) and brown them in the hot butter/olive oil, 5 minutes on each side. Remove all the chicken after this initial browning step and turn your heat down to medium. Add an unbelievable quantity of peeled garlic cloves. If you feel like actually peeling up 3 heads of garlic, be my guest, but I went ahead and bought one of those containers you find in the refrigerated part of the produce section--there's a company that sells plastic bottles of pre-peeled garlic. I think I used one that was 6 ounces of garlic--you can use even more if you want! Anyway, take your peeled garlic cloves and toss them around in the hot fat at the bottom of the pot until they get a little browned, then cover them with all your chicken pieces so it is a layer of garlic, then a chicken stack on top. Let it cook for about 10 minutes like this then add 3/4 cup of chicken stock and 3/4 cup of white wine. I wasn't measuring very accurately and I daresay it doesn't matter a whole helluva lot. Stir it around every now and then and let it cook for about 30 minutes then fish out all your chicken pieces onto a serving platter and put them in the oven to keep warm. Take a look at the cooking liquid left behind in your pot--is it thin or thick? You want it to get sort of reduced and it should be, after cooking uncovered for 30 minutes, But if it is still really liquidy, turn up the heat and stir it around until it is a bit thick. This sauce here is so delicious it will make you want to slap somebody. When it is a saucey consistency, take it off heat and pour it over your chicken pieces on their serving platter--turn the chicken pieces over so they get nice and coated in the sauce and be sure to pour more over and fish out the soft garlic cloves when you serve it. We had the usual toasted large grain couscous on the side to maximize the potential of the delicious garlic clove sauce. Rice or potatoes or anything else starchy that floats your boat would be good too.

We also had a good salad--mixed greens tossed with a thinly sliced head of fennel. Topped this with sliced goat cheese, pomegranate seeds and toasted almonds. Tossed all together with a dressing made with equal parts olive oil to champagne vinegar, 1 teaspoon sugar, salt and pepper. It was delicious.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Root soup

For many years in Milwaukee, the root soup at County Clare was one of my favorite things. I would go there with Jocelyn, or any number of other people, and we would get that and maybe a salad (Waitron: "How is everything?" Jocelyn: "This is the best fucking salad I have ever had.") and I would definitely drink beer and there were some good times. I had a birthday party there once, years ago, that's where we met Brent for the first time, if you can believe that there was a time when we didn't know Brent. And my going-away party, when I left Milwaukee for Atlanta, was there, in the Saint's Snug, which is in the corner by the fireplace and a prime location if you can snag it early on a weekend night. Our roommate, Not-Gay-Jonathan, his father used to run the giftshop (now there's a soccer watching room where the giftshop used to be) and they always decorated really really well for the holidays. And they would put a little shamrock into the foam atop your Guinness. Anyway, there's some other great Irish bars in Milwaukee (I also can wax profoundly upon the merits of Paddy's), but County Clare has a special place in my heart. I didn't realize until writing this just how how much time we spent there--I think we must have wound up there a lot more often than I thought. I remember us walking past the building in the daylight once and I said "what? it's PINK?" Apparently it is, I had just never noticed. Their root soup is that fantastic. Here's my version of it; not as good, but when you are 800 miles from home, beggars simply can't be choosers.

Peeled and chopped into smallish chunks 1 large sweet potato. Dumped it in a roasting pan along with a ton of peeled, chopped carrots--probably at least 2 pounds worth. I just had a ton of extra carrots in the fridge for some reason. Put the pan with the veggies into the oven at 400 and roasted them until soft and lightly browned, tossing often, for about 25-30 minutes. Heated 2 tablespoons butter with 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat in my large cast iron dutch oven pot. Added 1 small onion, chopped and stirred around until it started to get a little bit soft, then added in the roasted sweet potato and carrots from the oven. Also put in about 8 cloves of garlic, peeled, smashed and chopped. I don't think the original version uses parsnips, but I would have added it if I had had one around the house. I also added one small peeled and chopped up potato because I felt like I had a lot of carrot and needed to balance it out. You don't need to do that if you don't want. After the vegetables were all getting soft, added in about 5 cups of chicken stock and 1 1/2 cups of heavy cream and covered to simmer for 25 minutes or so. The cream thickens up everything as it simmers. Took the pot off heat and poured the soup through a food mill and cranked it into a clean container. I actually ended up putting it through the food mill twice to smooth it out. If you have a good blender that might work better, but make sure you don't burn yourself. Pour the smooth soup back into your original cooking pot to reheat if necessary and taste for seasoning--I ended up adding a bit of black pepper, a pinch of nutmeg and some salt. By the way, since you had the oven going anyway to roast the carrots and sweet potatoes, dump some cubes of bread (I had pumpernickel and mulitgrain) into the now-empty roasting pan and cover them with olive oil, salt and pepper, toss them around and return them to the oven to crisp up into croutons. Keep a good eye on them, they can burn up, so probably no more than 10 minutes or so. County Clare never put croutons in their soup--but they did drizzle a little crème fraîche shamrock shape on top.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Glazed turnips

Turnips are an underappreciated vegetable. You’d think people would be naturally drawn to them—they’re so pretty, all white and purple. And they’re very sweet and flavorful, especially if you buy them organic and from a farm stand (as I did with these particular specimens) and they are on the smallish side. They will keep a long time in the fridge crisper if you wrap them up in a bag.

Peeled 4 smallish turnips and cut them into small cubes. They peel really easily, which is a nice change from some other stubborn root vegetables that I could mention here. Put them in a saucepan with 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat. Stir them around occasionally until they begin to get soft. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon sugar over the top along with salt and a lot of fresh ground black pepper, stir well, then leave them alone over the heat (but keep an eye on them so they don’t burn!) and allow them to become golden brown in places—about 2 minutes. Add ½ cup of chicken stock and turn up the heat to reduce the liquid down into a glaze. When most of the liquid is gone, add a couple tablespoons of sherry or white wine and cook for a few more minutes. The turnips should be soft and golden brown with a shiny glaze. You can add fresh minced parsley or any other herb you have handy if you like. Chives would be good.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Happy birthday

You may have noticed a few changes here. That's because today is the one year anniversary of Il Piatto Blu and I thought the old girl deserved a facelift, maybe a little Botox around the eyes. They say you can't start too young.

This blog started mostly because I realized one day that I was forgetting everything I had cooked. I would make something one day then be unable to duplicate it on another because I had no record of what on earth I had done to begin with. I guess I could just have typed it up and saved it or written onto little index notecards and saved them in my recipe file...but I'm sure I would never have maintained that as a habit. There's something about knowing that people might be reading that makes you keep up your behavior. So, in addition to the original intent of this blog as culinary memory aid, it has turned out to be a great way to let those who I love and miss, those who I don't get to see as much as I'd like to, know what's going on around here. My mother, bless her shit-starting little heart, told me that I only seem happy when I'm talking about fashion or cooking. To which I say "well, yeah."

So happy one year old to me and to us. Good for me for sticking with something. Good for you for reading. Let's keep in touch.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Pumpkin soup

On Saturday we had our annual Little 5 Points parade viewing and pumpkin carving festivities. In case you are unfamiliar, Little 5 Points is a wacky little neighborhood that is right by where we live now--actually, it was where we first lived in Atlanta--and every year they hold a really excellent parade to celebrate Halloween. All the local businesses make insane floats and there are some fantastic costumes on display. You really have to see it for yourself-there's not a good way to do it justice in words. Anyway, over the years it has become traditional for friends to meet up and walk to the parade with beers, sit in the exact same place to watch it (I like my traditions VERY traditional, thank you), drink more beers, then walk back to our place to carve pumpkins and drink even MORE beers. It's pretty great. There were some particularly good pumpkins this year. Dana made one that was supposed to say "Boo!" but it might have ended up saying "Roo!" or possibly "Doo!" Byron's pumpkin had another, smaller pumpkin in its mouth, sort of like a pumpkin cannibal. And Emma etched a crying elephant stuck in a spider web onto hers. It was neat. Katie made these really, truly amazing deviled eggs that are based on a recipe from an Atlanta chef that we both admire--Scott Peacock from Watershed restaurant. And I made a pumpkin soup that was sort of based on about a million different things, but it ended up coming together pretty well in the end. You could also make this with any type of winter squash, if you like.

I got about 2-3 pounds total of small sweet pie pumpkin. These are VERY DIFFERENT from the pumpkins that we carve up for jack o'lanterns. They look like tiny versions of the big ones but are sweet and suited for cooking. So be sure to grab that kind, not the decorative kind for your doorstep. I cut them in half and pulled out the seeds, then chopped up the flesh off the rind. I wanted to roast the pumpkin for a deeper flavor but it got late and I ran out of time. If you aren't in a hurry to get to a Halloween parade with all your friends, you should roast the pumpkin or squash or whatever before proceeding--it will be much more tasty. Just cut it in half and stick it in the oven at 350 for about an hour. Then it will pop right out of the rind and that's much easier than slicing the flesh off, as I had to do. Anyway, get your pumpkin out of its natural state in some way or another and toss it into 3 tablespoons of butter mixed with 1 tablespoon of olive oil that is heated up over medium high heat in a big pot or dutch oven on the stovetop. Add 4-5 cloves of garlic, smashed and chopped, 2 small onions, coarsely chopped up and 2 apples, peeled and coarsely chopped. Stir everything around and add more butter if it seems dry. Allow this all to get soft and tasty and lightly browned, and then add in 2 teaspoons nutmeg, 3-4 tablespoons of minced, fresh tarragon, lots of salt and black pepper. Let cook for another 5 minutes, and then pour in chicken (or vegetable) stock. I am so sorry that I didn't measure it better. I used one and a half of one of those organic, shelf-stable packages. They are 32 ounces, so I guess that means I used 48 ounces all together. I don't know what that is in cups though, sorry. So mix up your chicken stock and all the vegetables, then cover and let it cook up for about 30 minutes. Then get somebody like Jeremy to put down his dang drink for a second and pour it through a food mill for you. Food mills are very useful and incredibly low-tech. You just crank your soup into a clean container through this gadget to get a smooth puree. I always use it for making gnocchi and things that need to be all smoothed out. I guess you could use a blender or a food processor instead, if you don't have a food mill. Return your pureed soup to the cleaned out pot that it cooked in originally and put it over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of minced chives, 1/2 cup of medium-dry sherry and 1/2 cup of heavy cream. Cook another 10 minutes (do not allow it to boil), then taste and correct for salt.

While the soup is cooking, cut up half a loaf of dark pumpernickel bread into small 1" chunks and toss in a baking dish with lots of salt, pepper, a few red pepper flakes and about 2 tablespoons olive oil. Put this in the oven at 400 degrees, tossing often until crunchy--about 10 minutes. Also cut up a round of Camembert cheese (rind and all) and set this out along with more minced chives and the pumpernickel croutons. Your guests put a couple chunks of cheese and croutons into their bowls and then ladle soup over the top and add more chives if they like. It is delicious.

I almost carved out a pumpkin to serve this in but Jeremy pointed out that it would be a little bit over the top so I didn't do that in the end. Also I ran out of time! There was a parade to get to! Beers to drink! You know how it goes.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Macaroni and cheese

Macaroni and cheese is a good thing to know how to make from scratch. It always seems to make people happy and it is really easy yet lightly impressive for some reason--maybe because it involves making a cheese sauce which sounds cool but is not at all difficult. Ho-made macaroni and cheese is especially delicious when consumed with red wine and America's Next Top Model, which is totally not at all what Melanie and I might have done the other night.

First off, you need to make a roux, which will be the base for a simple white sauce to which you will simply add shredded cheese, thereby magically elevating it into a cheese sauce. Melt a couple tablespoons of butter over medium heat. When it is hot, sprinkle in a couple tablespoons of flour. The amounts do not matter too much, just keep the proportions about 1:1 and you'll be OK. Stir around your flour in the hot butter until it is all thickened up and browned lightly--about 2 minutes. There is your roux. Add in about 3/4 cup of milk, slowly in a drizzly kind of way. Stir it in and keep stirring until it is a thick, smooth sauce. If it is thick like paste, it is too thick and you should keep adding milk until it is the consistency of thin yogurt. Now you have made a white sauce--aren't you smart! Add 1 teaspoon of cayenne and dump in a whole lot of shredded cheese. I used about 1/2 cup of white cheddar and also mozzarella and provolone to make somewhat less than 1 cup total. It was tragic, actually--I had gone out on purpose over my lunch break to find special cheeses and pasta to make this for dinner then went and left everything in my fridge at work. So it was lame and I scrambled to make it work with the odds and ends of cheese at my house already. Turned out that I didn't really need to go out and buy any cheese to make mac and cheese--I had plenty lying around. Same with the pasta--I just ended up combining the leftovers from two different packages of pasta shapes. So the moral of the story is actually how ho-made mac and cheese can be very easy, spontaneous, economical, and a good use for leftovers! But I’m still lame for forgetting my ingredients at work. Anyway, I digress. Stir the cheeses into your white sauce until it is melty; you may actually wish to add some more milk if it thickens up too much. When the sauce is done, add salt and pepper, stir it up again and then add into the cheese sauce a little less than a pound of cooked up pasta. I boiled my odds and ends of pasta until they were not quite al dente--they will be cooking further in the oven so it is important not to over boil them at this point. You can use whatever shape you like. Elbows are traditional, I guess, but shells or other fancier shapes are fun too. Mix up your cooked pasta into the cheese sauce, and then pour the whole lot into a baking dish. You could, of course, just stop right here and you'd have pretty good mac and cheese but I think it is the baking step that really elevates it. Take about a cup of breadcrumbs and toast them in 2 tablespoons of butter until they are browned (I used panko because I was making this with leftover packages of things from my pantry and it worked really well, but you can use breadcrumbs made from scratch or from the store or from the depths of hell or wherever, it doesn't matter one bit). Mix the breadcrumbs with a few tablespoons of finely grated sharp, hard cheese--I used more provolone--then cover the cheesy pasta in the baking dish with a nice layer of the toasty, cheesy breadcrumbs. You could even sandwich another layer of cheese of your liking in between the pasta and the breadcrumbs if you really really really like cheese, as I know some of you do. Then put the baking dish into the oven at about 350 for around 25 minutes or so--you want it bubbly, browned and completely irresistible.

Obviously, this is a great dish for additional improvisation. Adding a tablespoon of mustard to the cheese sauce will give a more piquant flavor. Add hot sauce in for a similarly kicky effect. Cut grape tomatoes in half and stir them in with the pasta before pouring into the baking dish. Try mixing in some teeny green peas. You get the idea.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Smoked turkey lentil soup

I was trying to think of a more catchy name for this post. Like "french lentil soup" or something. Because, while the preparation itself was not so french, the lentils I used were of the small, green lentil du pays variety. You can use any kind of lentil you want, I just like those best. But I guess what makes it most interesting is that I went and got a smoked turkey leg to make the stock with, then shredded the meat to add into the soup. If you don't have a source for smoked turkey legs, just use a chicken carcass after you roast a chicken...or just skip the stock making step all together and use a good packaged chicken stock. It won't be exactly the same thing but it will still be a tasty soup. Or you can make it vegetarian by using vegetable stock. You may need to adjust the seasonings somewhat but you'll still end up with lentil soup.

Covered one smoked turkey leg with water to fill up my dutch oven pot and brought to a boil. While it was heating up I sloppily chopped up one very small onion, 2 cloves garlic, 2 celery stalks and 3 carrots and added those in to join the turkey leg, along with 2 bay leaves. Brought it all up to a boil together, covered and let simmer for at least 45 minutes, possibly even one full hour. You just need to make sure you keep it more or less covered so you don't boil off all the liquid. Removed the turkey leg and set aside to cool off slightly. Poured the rest of the stock through a fine mesh strainer into a clean container and set aside. When the turkey leg was cool enough to handle, pulled off the skin and shredded all the usable meat off the bone and set it aside to add back into the soup later. In the now-empty dutch oven, sauteed 1 small minced onion in 2 tablespoons butter. When they were softened, added 3 diced celery stalks and 2 diced carrots and a teaspoon of red pepper flakes. When all the vegetables were very soft but not browned, added back in the stock and 2 cups of lentils. Stirred everything well, added a bouillon cube and a pinch of thyme and brought it to a simmer/light boil until the lentils were just beginning to get soft-about 10 minutes. Added back in the shredded smoked turkey. Covered the pot at this point and turned it down to a simmer. Once the lentils were very soft (about 30-40 more minutes, depending on your lentil type) added 2-3 tablespoons of tomato paste and 1/4 cup red wine. When the soup had thickened to a consistency that pleased me (you may want to add more water or wine if you want it thinner or perhaps let it boil a little bit harder with the cover off to reduce it if you want it thicker) and the lentils were soft and delicious, stirred in 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, let it cook for 2 more minutes, then removed from heat to serve. If you have fresh herbs such as parsley or anything else you like, feel free to stir them in at the end.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Kielbasa and red cabbage with apples

Something about the advent of October makes me want to cook hearty Germanic things like sausages. It doesn't really feel like fall in Georgia yet but last night we did have windows open and were able to enjoy a cool evening. Melanie said it was a fantastic weekend, weather-wise. I wouldn't know as I was busy working on my thesis--beautiful weather and I squandered it in front of the computer. But we had a seasonally appropriate dinner last night, so that kind of made up for things:

I bought 4 kielbasa sausages from the DeKalb market and put them into a dry saucepan over medium-high heat. I let them sear until browned, then flipped them over to do the same on the other side. Each side probably took about 2 minutes to develop a nice browning. Then I covered the sausages with almost an entire bottle of Sweetwater Happy Ending Imperial Stout. I used it because the one lone bottle had been lingering in our fridge for ages and nobody seemed likely to drink it anytime soon. You can use any kind of stout that you like, otherwise any darker beer would be fine too. The stout adds an interesting malty sweetness though. I also added 1 chopped/smashed garlic clove and 2 heaping tablespoons of tomato paste and mixed them into the stout over the sausages. Let the kielbasa cook in this liquid for about 10 minutes, or until done through. The liquid will cook down into a thick sort of sauce. Serve the kielbasa one per person with some of the sauce.

We also made mashed potatoes (you know how, cut up Yukon Gold potatoes, boil them until soft, make Jeremy mash them up with lots of butter, some milk and tons of salt and pepper). The stout-tomato sauce from cooking the kielbasa is really tasty drizzled over the mashed potatoes like gravy on the side as well.

I appropriated the red cabbage and apples recipe from something in Gourmet magazine. Melanie sliced up 1 small head of red cabbage into thin strips. I sauteed lightly 2 chopped cloves of garlic in 1-2 tablespoon of butter until soft. Then dumped in all the red cabbage sliced up by Melanie, tossed it around in the butter over medium-high heat. We chunked up 1 apple into 1" pieces and added that to the cabbage along with about 1/4 cup of apple cider. Mixed everything up well, added a teeny pinch of allspice, salt and pepper, then turned the heat down to medium and covered the pot. Checked on it about 7 minutes later, stirred it up and uncovered to cook down some of the liquid. It cooked for another 10 minnutes or so. It turns this brilliant, pretty purple-red color and the apples get very soft. At that point, turn off the heat and add 1-2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar and more salt and pepper to taste.

We also had another variation on arugula salad. This time first toasted pine nuts in butter and salt and pepper until they were lightly browned--no more than 1 or so minutes stirring them over high heat should do it. Tossed the arugula with one chopped yellow tomato, half the pine nuts, a ton of grated parmesan and a dressing (made with juice of 1 lemon, 3 tablespoons olive oil, salt and pepper, all shook up together in a jar, as usual). When it was all tossed up, topped it with the rest of the toasted pine nuts and small chunks of parmesan.

Dessert was sort of exciting--I never make dessert but the tomato tarts from earlier in September had me thinking about a sweet(ish) version. Took a sheet of puff pastry and trimmed it into an oval shape. Spread the center with about 1/2 cup of marscapone cheese. Drizzled the cheese with honey. Thinly sliced 2 black plums in half and then the halves in half--to make lots of little half moon shapes. Placed the plum slices in an overlapping concentric circle pattern over the honey and marscapone. Drizzled with some more honey and tucked almond slices in all around. Pulled up the sides of the puff pastry to form an open faced tart around the plum slices. Baked it at 350 degrees, until the pastry was poofed up and seemed to be fairly set--about 25 minutes. Delicious and fall-appropriate.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Kabocha squash and bok choy

We're coming up on the winter squash season. Kabocha ("Japanese pumpkin," according to some sources) is my favorite sweet, winter squash. I use it for gnocchi di zucca but also just simply roast it. It comes in many sizes but always looks about the same--kind of a ball shape that has been squished slightly top and bottom. It's a pretty, deep-green color, sometimes with yellow or orangey stripes. I have found it ranging from baseball sized to football sized, so you can see there's quite a bit of variation there. It's my favorite because it is incredibly sweet and not at all watery. The flesh is a deep orange color, which is usually a good indication that the vegetable in question is good for you--kabocha is high in vitamins A & C, as well as a great source of potassium, omega 3, beta carotene...the list goes on. It has an affinity for butter, rosemary, sage, curry, spicy things and would be great in a soup. And if that all wasn't enough, it is incredibly easy to make--I found a big one at the market the other day and just roasted it:

I used my cleaver to cut up my large kabocha, but you can probably just use a large, sharp knife if you don't have one. Hacked it in half, then each half into 3 pieces to make 6 more or less even, half-moon slices of squash (we had not just Jeremy and Melanie over, but also Josh and Paul so it was a full house for dinner). Scrape out the seeds from the center of each squash slice and discard (although, I guess you can roast them like pumpkin seeds and they are delicious, so maybe you should try doing that and tell me how it goes). Put the pieces cut side down in a large baking dish. Added about 1/2 cup of water to the bottom of the dish--this is to prevent burning as the sugars caramelize while the squash roasts. I was already roasting a chicken in the oven at the time so I just chucked the squash in to go along with it--it took a little less than 1 hour at 350 degrees, and this was quite a large squash. After 40 minutes into the cooking, I flipped over the pieces so the cut sides were faced up and basted them with the chicken fat & juices that were collected in the bottom of my chicken roasting pan. If you aren't roasting a chicken, just dab some butter or something on top. At this point I also added a teensy sprinkle of sugar and ground lots of salt and pepper liberally over the top. They're done when they're totally soft and delicious looking. After hauling them out of the oven and feel free to add more butter if you like.

In addition to the chicken and squash we had the large grain couscous that I usually make alongside chicken--I know I've talked about it here before so I won't get into it. But it is really delicious. I also sauteed baby bok choy for some healthy green vegetables to complement the squash. Took about 6 tiny heads of baby bok choy and sliced off the ends so they fell apart into separate leaves. Washed them really really well and set aside. In a frying pan, heated 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt and 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes. When it was hot, added all the bok choy and moved it around until the hot oil and seasonings have gotten on all the leaves. This takes a second, but don't worry. It looks at first as if the bok choy will overflow your pan but actually it will cook down to fit very quickly as long as you keep it moving over the heat. Sometimes I use tongs to move things around at first. It is done when it is bright green in color and wilted down but still a bit crisp in the white stems. Doesn't take more than 4-5 minutes. If you can't find baby bok choy just get a head of the big stuff and cut it up into little pieces. After it is all done, sprinkle with black and white sesame seeds and serve right away while hot.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Fried spinach

Years ago I went on a post-vegetarianism meat eating binge. I think everybody goes a little cray-cray after finding themselves out of self-imposed dietary restrictions. And I was vegan before that for years, so you can imagine the fallout! Bacon! Bacon cooked in brown sugar! Actually, I didn't cook a whole lot of meat, but I did tend to order it whenever possible. Once I was out at the Metro in Milwaukee (not sure now if that is the right name? or was that the place that had free hors d'oeuvres on Thursdays? and we would go order a couple drinks and stuff ourselves at the buffet like whores for shrimp cocktail? anyway) with Jocelyn and her moms and I ordered a big ol' burger that had as a topping fried spinach. Fried spinach! It was super crispy and along with that amazing texture it had a delicious silky flavor. So fast-forward to now and I have wicked cut back on the meat eating but I still remember the weirdly awesome fried spinach. So I warned Melanie ahead of time that it was an experiment but I went ahead and tried making it for part of our dinner last night:

I used a great big bunch of spinach for this--not the bagged-up, wee little baby leaves. Those are generally preferred for salads and most light cookery as they are more delicate and tender. But for frying, I got a bunch that had much larger leaves and was more robust looking. Trimmed the stems off and washed them very well--spinach is incredibly sandy so don't screw around. Get out your salad spinner. If you don't have a salad spinner, fill your sink with cold water and dump your trimmed up leaves in there and swish them around real well, then dry them off. You don't want Melanie to be eating sand. She'll be nice about it but secretly upset. When your spinach is clean, stack up about 8-10 leaves flat on top of each other, roll them up like a cigar and then slice down crosswise to make thin strips. We have used this technique before with greens--it is a chiffonade and is very useful. When you have finished getting all your spinach into a chiffonade, set it aside and heat up about 1/2 cup of olive oil in a large pot. Get it super hot and sizzly, then dump in your spinach. Grab some tongs and move your spinach around in the hot oil. It will shrivel up and get wilty pretty quick, but you're not done yet! Keep it moving in the hot ass oil until it turns dark dark green and is crispy in texture. It takes a little while, maybe almost 10 minutes. I suspect in the restaurant they probably just popped it into the deep fryer--much easier. You can tell when it gets crispy though, so remove it from the hot oil, spread it out on paper towels to drain and crisp further as it cools. Sprinkle with sea salt and fresh black pepper. You won't be sorry--it's ridiculously delicious. Fried spinach is a really special side dish and it would also make a great garnish for some interesting main course.

Melanie and I drank wine and ate butternut ravioli from the farmer's market with sage and butter, to go with our fabulous fried spinach. We also had salmon and roasted spaghetti squash and probably ate too much.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Arugula salad

This might not be very interesting but it is really good, especially if you like arugula. And who doesn't? I buy my arugula at at the DeKalb Market where they are packed up into little plastic bags by the employees there. If you hover over their shoulder you can get a really nice looking bag of greens (and a few dirty looks). I know you can buy it in bulk, in the loose bins in the produce section at Whole Foods and maybe at a Publix. Otherwise you probably would get it in the prepackaged salad greens cooler at any old grocery store. Arugula is for people who want something real out of their salads. It is a dark green with small, delicate leaves that have a full and sort of peppery flavor. It is actual, real food, as different from your average lettuce as wet cellulose is from a hardy, well-built wasp's nest under a Rhode Island porch (a full 24 hours elapsed between the two parts of that simile, so don't hate).

Tossed one bunch of washed and dried arugula with a quarter head of shredded red cabbage. To that mixture I added about 3 tablespoons each of pine nutes and grated parmesan. Tossed this together with grape tomatoes (about half the container) and then with a dressing made like this: 4 tablespoons olive oil, juice of 1 lemon, 1/2 tablespoon champagne/white wine vinegar , salt, pepper, all shook up in a little glass jar. After you have dressed & tossed the salad, top with 1 avocado, cut up into chunks and sprinkled with lemon or lime juice.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Beef vegetable stew

I'm back from my sojourn in Rhode Island. I'd like to say "back and better than ever" but that's not true as I have acquired both a broken toe and an eye infection since being away. While in the Ocean State, I cooked a number of little things but none were really particularly new so I won't go into them much. Caesar salad, sweet potatoes with curry, that sort of thing. But last night I really got it into my head to make a beef stew of some kind, so that's the first thing I did in the kitchen upon getting back home. Even if it is still a bajillion degrees here in the south and feels just like summer, in my mind, fall has begun, so it is time for stews, braises and things like that.

Chopped up about 3/4 of a package of cremini mushrooms into quarters or slices, depending on their size. If you have a whole package, feel free to use all of them--the only reason I used a smaller amount was because that was all that was left over in the fridge. I used my large, cast iron dutch oven pot to make this, so if you have one, use it. Otherwise any big, heavy pot will do. Sauteed the mushrooms in 2 tablespoons of butter until they became soft and were begining to exude their juices. Added 3 cloves of thinly shaved garlic--not chopped, actually go ahead and shave the garlic cloves with your knife to create thin slivers. After the garlic has lightly browned and the mushrooms are soft and getting a little brown, remove from the pot and set aside. Next I dredged small chunks of stew beef in 1/2 cup flour mixed with salt and pepper. I only bought somewhere between 1/2 to 1 pound of stew beef chunks from the butcher (actually, I think it was 0.72 lbs on the scale), so you don't really need all that much. Then when I got home, I cut the chunks into smaller little pieces before dredging them with the flour mixture. Heated 3 tablespoons of olive oil in the bottom of the pot over medium-high heat and when it was sizzly, added the floured chunks of stew meat. Turned them over to brown in the pot; it probably took no more than 5 minutes to brown all sides of the beef chunks. When they were browned, I added 3 shallots, thinly sliced. Stirred everything around over the heat until the shallots were softened (about 3 minutes) then added 2 small, diced carrots, 1 large, diced parsnip and about 4 tiny, diced Yokon Gold potatoes. Stirred all the veggies and beef chunks up together and let it cook over heat for 2-3 minutes, then added 1 package of beef stock. I used Pacific Organic beef broth--it comes in an aseptic package, looks like a soymilk container. The package size is 32 ounces and I used all of it. After I poured that in, I added back the mushrooms and garlic, along with 1/2 cup of pearled barley to cook along with everything else and brought it up to a simmer. Then I covered the pot, turned the heat down to medium and left it alone for about 30 minutes. When I returned, the liquid had reduced down somewhat and the barley had softened. I added 1/2 - 3/4 cup of lima beans (if you hate lima beans use green peas instead), let it cook for another 5 minutes, then added 3 tablespoons of tomato paste and 3/4 cup of red wine (I believe cabernet, but I don't think it really matters since it was 2-Buck Chuck. Sigh). Stirred everything in really well and added about 1 cup of water since the liquid had really decreased quite a bit. Cooked for another 10 minutes then removed from heat. It's really to taste at this point: if you think it is too thick--add a little more wine then a bit more water, let it cook off the alcohol and proceed. If it is too thin, simply turn the heat up a bit and let it cook uncovered to reduce. However, if you keep it over night it will not only improve in flavor but it will thicken up considerably so keep that in mind. You can always add a little more liquid when reheating. And this one last thing, I forgot to do this last night, but I will when I reheat it--at the end of cooking, add 2 tablespoons each minced parsley and chives. This will also freeze really well, if you're the kind of person who likes to cook ahead. Make sure you have more red wine to drink alongside and also some good bread.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Tomato tarts and grilled vegetables

I haven't had a chance to post on the cooking I've been doing lately...Angelica and Marc had a baby so I am here in Rhode Island, enjoying my new baby nephew. Let me tell you--he is one ridiculously cute baby. But there were a few interesting things that have been made recently, so I'll try to write them out.

I first made these tomato tarts back at home last week but I made them again yesterday for a big family meal. They are based on a recipe I read in the New York Times. Marc's parents and younger sister were here, as were my parents and Francesca. Oh, and of course little baby William, but he didn't eat any of these on account of the fact that he's only a few days old. You need to get puff pastry to make these--it should be in the freezer section at the grocery store. Usually it is next to the frozen pie crusts in a box. Defrost it to a point where you can unfold the sheets of puff pastry (usually a package will contain 2 sheets of pastry). Unfold them and cut out circles of about 4 inches diameter. Place the circles on a baking sheet that is covered with a sheet of parchment paper. Take one or two very good tomatoes--hopefully you can find some good heirloom varieties at your farmer's market--and slice them into thin rounds (less than 1/2") that will fit inside the circles of puff pastry with room all around to pull the edges up. Don't worry about making them perfectly tidy--you can cut them to fit inside if you need to. Spread about 1 or 2 tablespoons of marscapone cheese onto each circle of pastry, then sprinkle about 1 teaspoon chopped fresh basil over the cheese. Put a slice of tomato over the basil, salt and pepper on top, then pull up the pastry round and pinch the edges to make a sealed tart with the tomato slice showing out of the top, but the edges all around sealed up. Do this for all the tarts, then sticke them in an oven at 425 for 15 minutes. A good variation would be to add pine nuts sprinkled inside. Also maybe instead of tomato you could make this with slices of roasted eggplant and some mint instead of the basil. Or a sweet variation would involve thin slices of plum with slivered almonds and a drizzle of honey on top. Lots of fun.

For the big family dinner we grilled out flank steaks and I made a compound butter for on top. Minced up 1 small clove of garlic, 1 tablespoon capers and 1 tablespoon parsley. Mixed these all up with half a stick or so of very soft butter until it was well incorporated, shaped it into a little mound, then stuck it into the fridge to solidify. When the flank steak was done grilling, sliced it thinly against the grain then put the flavored butter out for people to put on top. We also had grilled red peppers and small portobello mushroom caps. These are really easy and I know I've written about simple grilled vegetables before but Marc would like to know how to do it so I'll write it out again for him, in simple language that even a professor of of international conflict and territorial disputes can understand: Slice well-washed red peppers in half the long way and remove the very top with the seeds and stem. Take your pepper halves and rinse them well to remove any more seeds that might be hanging around. If the halves seem large to you, slice them in half again, but you probably shouldn't cut them any smaller or they will fall through the grill. Put your pepper slices in a large bowl; and cover them with a liberal amount of olive oil, at least a couple tablespoons. Add salt and pepper and red pepper flakes for a little bit of heat. Toss the peppers around they are well coated, then stick them on a hot grill and turn them continually, keeping a good eye on them. They will get very soft and the skins will blacken a little bit. They shouldn't take more than 10 minutes or so to cook. You can use red, yellow or orange peppers with success; however, green peppers are a fool's errand and should be avoided at all costs. They are not really mature vegtables, did you know that? They are unripe peppers that have not yet reached the delicious status of a full grown red pepper. They are gross. For grilled portobello mushroom caps you just take the stems out of the cleaned mushrooms then cover them with olive oil, a little balsamic vinegar, 1 small minced clove of garlic, salt and pepper. Mix them up well in this marinade, let them sit for about 20-30 minutes, then toss them on the grill. Turn them frequently and let them stay over the heat until they are very soft and getting a little browned. They take about 10-15 minutes, but don't let them burn.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Fish tacos

This was actually Melanie's idea...she said it might be fun to try to make fish tacos at home and it was indeed an intriguing thought. Molly and Dyanna were in the neighborhood anyway so they came over with all the requisite groceries, 2 6-packs of beer and their pico de gallo production skills. We fit a lot of people into my teensy kitchen and made a pretty good feast.

We used tilapia to make our fish tacos. If there is another mild, medium-to firm fleshed white fish that you prefer, you may of course use that instead. But tilapia is cheap and sustainable, so we just went with that. I cut up 4 fillets into small pieces of about 3" long and no more than 1 1/2" wide. Dredged them in 1/2 cup of cornmeal mixed with salt, pepper and 1 teaspoon paprika. After they were covered in cornmeal, put about 1/2 cup of oil in my dutch oven and heated it up over medium-high heat. You can use whatever oil you like for frying. Grapeseed oil is really good for you and cooks clean, while peanut oil has a high smoke point, so that's good. I think I just used canola because that's what I had in the pantry. Dropped the cornmeal-covered fish pieces into the hot oil and let them cook about 2 minutes on each side, turning them over when they became browned. Removed to a paper towel-lined dish in the oven. I had to cook the fish in about 3 or 4 batches because I think if you overcrowd the pot, they take longer to fry and don't get as crispy. When all the fish was done, just kept it in the oven until everything else was ready to go. Try to keep the fish in as much of a single layer as was possible while they wait--this will keep them crispier. To assemble our fish tacos, we had corn tortillas heated up in the oven along with 1/2 a head of red cabbage, finely shredded. There were also 2 avocados, sliced and covered in lime juice and salt & pepper, as well as jalapeno tartar sauce--to make this, we mixed 1/3 cup of mayonaise with a little lime juice plus 1 tiny minced pickle and 5 minced, pickled jalapeno slices. I'm not sure how they did it, but Dyanna and Molly also made a really good pico de gallo salsa--they diced up fresh tomatoes and mixed them with lime juice, cilantro, onion and corn. Maybe some other stuff too. It was delicious. So, when it was time to eat you just took a tortilla, put some pieces of fried tilapia inside along with tartar sauce, pico de gallo and avocado then topped it all with shredded red cabbage. Delicious.

On the side we had yellow rice (made with tumeric and chicken stock) and black beans--sauteed 1/2 minced onion in olive oil with cumin, chile powder, salt, pepper, a little cayenne, then added 1 16-ounce can of drained and rinsed black beans along with 2 minced and de-seeded jalapenos. After the onion was soft, added a handful of diced tomatoes and 1 tablespoon fresh minced cilantro. Cooked for about 3 more minutes, added lime juice & removed from heat. We also had cornbread--it was the same recipe that I wrote about a few posts ago and it was again delicious.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Gnocchini and red sauce

Melanie and Jeremy watched the dog for us while we were visiting in San Francisco last week so we made thank you dinner last night for them. I didn't make Melanie's favorite thing ever, which is gnocchi di zucca, but I did make a pretty decent faux bolognese sauce to go over these cute little gnocchini that I found at Sawicki's deli in Decatur. Gnocchini are just tiny-sized gnocchi. These were potato and a pretty good brand that I will certainly buy again. It's kind of difficult to make your own potato gnocchi--they get very gummy due to all the starch. I haven't tried doing it at home yet because the squash ones are so much easier and really delicious (I think I posted on them last fall). The sauce I made was my usual red sauce but I decided to add ground turkey to make it a little more substantial. Not really a bolognese at all but it was pretty tasty.

Minced one yellow onion and sautéed over medium heat in 2-3 tablespoons olive oil. Added 1 pound ground turkey and sort of mixed it around with the minced onion. You can't really brown turkey. Added 4 cloves minced garlic and 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes and kept stirring it until the minced onion pieces were totally soft and translucent--probably took about 10 minutes. Added 2 32-ounce cans of peeled, whole plum tomatoes. I use Rega, which is an imported Italian brand that comes packed in tomato puree with basil leaves tucked in. You can use whatever kind you like--crushed tomatoes or whole. Added salt and got Brian to mash up the whole tomatoes in the pot for me as they cooked. Added 3 tablespoons of fresh, chopped basil and 2 tablespoon fresh minced parsley. Let everything simmer for about 10 minutes, then added about 1/2 cup of whatever red wine that was in my glass. Covered the pot and continued to simmer for another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, then uncovered and tasted to see if it needed more salt. It didn't, but yours might, so you should check. Brought a pot of water to boil and added my package of gnocchini. They are done cooking when they float to the surface--it only takes about 3 minutes, if that. Drained them and tossed with a half cup of the sauce, then served them with fresh grated parmesan and the rest of the sauce on the table for people to add themselves.

I also made the salad that I usually make--baby greens from the market with chopped cucumber, tomatoes, kalamata olives and feta cheese. Toss it all up with a dressing that is made from juice of 1 lemon, 2-3 tablespoons olive oil, and lots of salt & pepper. An interesting difference to the salad this time was that I added pine nuts and used a really good Greek sheep's milk feta cheese. Another interesting thing about this salad is that Brian hates it but Melanie loves it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Orange quinoa and salmon with kohlrabi

Have you been wondering to yourself whether there is a grain out there that is more nutritious than brown rice? Have you? Well, there is! In fact, there are probably several. But if you would simply like to try something new, I suggest quinoa. I can't remember if I have posted about it before or not. It is really interesting--an ancient grain that was first cultivated by the Incas and is distantly related to spinach, not that you can tell by looking at it. It is highly nutritious because it contains a balanced set of essential amino acids for humans. It is delicious because it is nutty and flavorful and really easy to cook. I made it yesterday to go with some gorgeous salmon that I bought at the DeKalb market--oh my god, it was this perfect reddish color. I couldn't remember what type of salmon was OK to eat, whether it should be farmed or wild, so I pulled out my little wallet guide to ethical fish consumption and consulted it while standing in front of the fishmonger. Turns out that we should all be eating wild alaska salmon, which fortunately was sitting right there in the case, looking amazing. So I bought it and cooked all this:

Rinsed 1 1/2 cups of quinoa in a fine-mesh strainer through several changes of cold, running water. One of the interesting things about quinoa is that the grains are coated in a natural, bitter-tasting chemical called saponin. Most saponin is removed during the processing of the grain but you will still want to rinse it a bit to make sure there is not any left on it. Covered the rinsed quinoa in 2 cups of chicken stock and put up to cook on the rice cooker. Took one orange, washed it really well and zested it, stirring the zest into the quinoa. Juiced the orange and poured a teensy bit into the quinoa (maybe one teaspoon), but set aside most of the juice for cooking the salmon. When all the liquid was absorbed (about 20 minutes), stirred the cooked grains to make them fluffy, then set aside until everything else was done. If you have no rice cooker, you can make it on the stovetop: just stick the quinoa and liquid in a pot, bring it to a boil, then cover and turn down to simmer until all the liquid is absorbed.

Mixed the set-aside orange juice with 2 tablespoons soy sauce and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Put the lovely piece of salmon in a pan over medium heat and covered it with the orange-soy mixture. Turned the salmon over once after 2 minutes of cooking and spooned the sauce over the top of it as it cooked. Turned it back over again after 2 more minutes, spooned over some more of the sauce, then covered the top of the fish with sesame seeds. Let cook for another 3-4 minutes, then cut into it to see if it was getting close to done. You might have a thinner or thicker piece of fish so it may not take the same amount of time to cook. Took the fish off the heat and reduced the remaining sauce down over high heat for 1 minute to make a glaze to pour over the top of the salmon.

I also made some kohlrabi, which is a particularly delicious vegetable. You can usually find it in the market with the greens attached to the top--it's a funny looking, roundish, pale green root. Like a turnip from outer space. Cut off the green tops and peel the roots. They are thick peels and fiborous, so be sure to get it all off. That is the annoying part of kohlrabi--all the peeling that you have to do. After that, it is simple: cut the peeled root into cubes or slices of about 1/2" thick, then steam or boil them until soft--about 15 minutes. I steamed the ones I made yesterday over the quinoa as it cooked--yet another wonderful aspect of my rice cooker. But, again, if you have not a rice cooker, simply put a little bit of water (no more than 1/2 cup) in the bottom of a pot and bring to a boil. Put the cut up kohlrabi in the pot and cover it. They will steam happily that way as well. When they are soft, drain and toss them in a bowl with butter, salt and pepper. You win.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Mashed yuca, cornbread and roasted brussel sprouts

Once when I was at Molly's house for dinner she made this mashed up yuca dish. It was really good--super starchy in the best possible way. I asked her what was in it and tried to recreate it myself at home. It was pretty successful in that it tasted a lot like what she made at her house. Jeremy and Melanie both really liked it and I don't think they had ever had yuca so it's not like it's an acquired taste or anything. If you've never heard of yuca before, do a Google image search. It's really ugly--a big, long brown root. It also goes by the names cassava or manioc. It's popular mostly in Central & South American cooking and we have about a billion different varieties of it available at our DeKalb Farmers Market here in Atlanta. I'm not sure how hard it is to find otherwise--my guess is that any supermarket that serves a Hispanic population will probably sell it. Anyway, it makes an incredible side dish, read on for details:

I peeled 2 large yucas--it was easier to do than I thought it would be. They look very tough but the brown, waxy peel actually comes right off, revealing a white tuber underneath. Cut up the peeled yucas into small 1 - 2" chunks, covered them with water in a pot and brought to a boil. Let them boil for about 15 minutes, until they were quite soft. Drained them and set aside. In a large, high sided pan melted 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat then added 1 onion very thinly sliced. I mean, really thin. I basically shaved it with my knife. Let the onion cook until very soft (but not browned) in the pan, then added the cooked yuca chunks and another tablespoon of butter, salt and pepper. Began mashing up the yuca in the pan with the onion over low heat. You might find a potato masher handy for this part. I used a fork and a wooden spoon. I also added a little bit of water (maybe 1/4 cup) at one point to make it easier to mash. Yuca is starchier than potato but it will eventually fall apart. You don't need to try to make it totally smooth--some little whole pieces in the mash are a desirable textural element. Taste it to make sure there's enough salt and add more butter if it needs to be creamier. I probably used at least 4-5 tablespons all together. When it is all done being mashed, turn off the heat and add juice of 1 lemon and 1 lime. Stir very well and serve.

It seemed like a good day to make cornbread as well. Here's the absolute best way to do it: Mix up 1 ½ cups of cornmeal with ½ cup of regular flour, 1 ½ teaspoons of baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon sugar (this isn't meant to be sweet ass cornbread--I guess you could add more sugar if you wanted it sweeter). In a separate bowl, mix up 1 ¼ cups of plain yogurt with 1 egg. If you wanted to, you could use buttermilk instead. If you only have milk around the house, you could use that as well. If you add 1 tablespoon of white vinegar to the milk and let it sit for 10 minutes you'll have a pretty good substitute for buttermilk. But, like I said, regular milk will do in a pinch, it just won't be as awesome. Mix your wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. If you use yogurt you might need to add a little milk if the mixture seems too dry to you. I added about 1/4 cup of milk while mixing when I made this. Meanwhile, take a cast iron skillet and put 3 tablespoons of butter in the bottom. Stick it in an oven at 375 degrees until it is quite melted and all heated up. Make sure you don't burn yourself because those suckers get hot as shit. When the butter is melted all over the bottom and the skillet is hot, pour in your cornbread batter and bake for about 30 minutes. It'll get all puffy and golden and should pop right out of the skillet with a buttery bottom crust. If you don't have a cast iron skillet, just use any old pan, glass or metal or whatever. You can follow the recipe like I described and it will work fine. Then go out and buy a cast iron skillet because no matter how good that cornbread was, it will be even better if you make it in a cast iron skillet.

Because I also decided to roast a chicken, I made brussel(s?) sprouts in the bottom of the roasting pan as the chicken went along. Trimmed 1 ½ pounds of brussel sprouts--sliced the bigger ones in half and left the small ones whole, but cut an 'x' in the bottom of the stems to facilitate cooking. After the chicken had only about 15 minutes left to go I used my baster to draw out most of the juices & fat from the bottom of the roasting pan, then put the sprouts in there and tossed them around a little bit. I also added one of the heads of hardneck garlic that I had bought in Ohio--still have some of it left! I just peeled the cloves and cut them into chunks and tossed them in with the sprouts. The oven was set at about 400 degrees, I believe. I removed the chicken from the oven, stirred the sprouts & garlic around a little bit to get them evenly browned and then turned up the stove to 425 for about 5 minutes to finish the vegetables.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Low country boil

This is one of those things that works even better when it is not made in a tiny apartment kitchen. Ideally you should have a gigantic outdoor pot (perhaps the same one you deep-fry your thanksgiving turkey in?) and a bunch of people standing around drinking cold beers. If you can't do it that way, you should at least have a enormous stockpot bubbling, one big enough to contain a full set of 6 month old triplets. What you don't want is my situation--two medium sized pots on a medium size stovetop in a wee kitchen that heats up to death valley in an Atlanta summer. Oh well. Low country boil is just shrimp in the shell boiled up with potatoes, sausage and corn. It's really easy to make for a bunch of people and the only difficult part is timing the ingredients so it is all cooked at the same time. Last year I made it at my friends Betsy & Ryan's wedding--it was easier because it was all in a great big pot and then I had two guys drain it for me. When I made it the other day, I had no lackeys and the pots were subpar. So my advice is--use your biggest pot but if your biggest pot isn't big enough for the crowd you are cooking for then you must use two because otherwise it won't cook with enough room.

Fill your biggest pot with water and bring it to a boil with about 1/2 cup of Old Bay seasoning in it. That is sort of a "to taste" measurement; you may want more or less. When it is boiling, add 2 pounds of potatoes. I pick out the tiniest fingerling potatoes that I can find--that way I don't have to cut them in half and also I like the flavor of fingerlings. If you don't have tiny tiny potatoes to choose from, just buy red potaotes and cut them in half if they are small or into quarters if they are large. Boil the potatoes for 15 minutes, then add about 1 pound of sausage, cut up into 2" pieces. I use Georgia Boy sausage but you can use any kielbasa type that is handy. Boil for another 5 minutes then add about 1 pound of corn on the cob that you have shucked and trimmed into 3" pieces. Let boil for another 3 minutes then add 2 pounds of raw shrimp in shell (this is great for lazy cooks who do not want to peel or devein). Let everything boil for another 2 minutes then find somebody to drain it off for you or just suck it up and do it yourself. If you found crab legs at the market, you could add those along with the corn and that would be delicious. Put it all on a platter and let everybody share. Put out lemon and cocktail sauce and also some french bread. A dish for eaters to dump shrimp shells in is also handy.

On the side we had collard greens that I had made the other day and put in the fridge to get more flavorful. I like these with Louisiana hot sauce on top. I put about 1/2 pound of smoked, peppered fatback chunks in the bottom of my cast iron dutch oven of medium heat until they became soft, I added 1 thinly sliced onion on top and let it all cook until the onion was also softened. Meanwhile I took a large bunch of collard greens and trimmed the stalk and center rib out of each leaf. Stacked about 5 trimmed leaves on top of each other then rolled them up like a cigar and sliced them crossways to make ribbons (this is the chiffonade technique that I usually use with green--essential for preparing collards). Washed the strips of collards then added to the pot on top of the smoked meat and onions. You may need to let them wilt down in the pot somewhat before adding more greens on top. Covered and turned down to low heat and let cook until very tender--about 45 minutes, stirring every so often. They will taste even better a day or so later so you can make them in advance and then reheat.

Molly, Byron, Jeremy and Melanie all had dinner with us. Byron and I had found a key lime pie at the DeKalb Market and it was actually pretty good. We drank beer and it was a pretty fun night.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Avocado, mozzarella and tomato salad

This is sort of a cheat post because this isn't really cooking. It's what I make usually for an appetizer or a snack for people. But last night I pretty much just ate it for dinner, so I guess it qualifies as something I should write down here for yall. It's a good summertime thing anyway.

Cut up one avocado with my totally awesome avocado slicer tool that I know I've described before. It's just so neat! You slice open and pit the avocado then use this tool to scrape out the delicious insides into neat slices. Totally worth the $9.99 or whatever it cost over at Cook's Warehouse. Tossed the avocado slices with the juice of one lime and a bunch of salt and pepper. Lay the slices attractively on a plate. Cut one large ball of mozzarella into small even slices. Toss the slices with a generous 2 tablespoons of olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper. Lay the slices of mozzarella on the opposite side of the plate from the avocado slices so the lime juice doesn't mix into the cheese. Slice up one, perfect summer tomato. If you don't have an actual, delicious garden tomato either skip it or get some of those little grape tomatoes. Lay the slices of tomato between the avocado and the mozzarella and drizzle just a little olive oil over it. If you have good bread around, like a nice, crusty baguette or something, now is the time to slice it up to eat with the avocado, mozzarella and tomatoes and also to mop up the delicious olive oil left over. And don't forget to open up some wine. You might as well just take the rest of the night off anyway.

See? It's cheating because it is easy but it also comes highly recommended. I probably eat this every other day of the week when avocados are good. Don't even get me started on how often I drink the wine.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Mashed potatoes and dinosaur kale

Everybody knows how to make mashed potatoes, right? There's probably a thousand different ways to do it and if you are somebody who makes them you probably already have a preferred methodology. But I got excited about making them recently and I don't know if you've noticed, but there is quite a derth of potato recipes on this blog. That's because I don't really like potatoes. They bore me. But right now I am extremely interested in mashed potatoes and I plan to make them again very soon. If you haven't made them lately, give it a shot! It's so easy it'll have you wondering why you don't do it every single day. Or if the reason you don't do it every single day is because the little bastards are not particularly nutritious, take note that I cooked some very healthy dark, leafy greens alongside and that sort of mitigates the butter-salt-starch whammy of mashed potato perdition. Also, potatoes are a great source of Vitamin C! It's true, look it up! How else do you think the Irish avoided scurvy all those years?

Peeled up 4 large-sized Yukon Gold potatoes. This type of potato is often only available on the smallish size so you may need more than 4. It was probably just shy of 2 pounds total. After peeling, cut into even-size chunks and put them in a pot to boil under they were tender. This really only took about 15-20 minutes. Drained them and left them in the pot to mash up with about 2 tablespoons of butter, cut into small pieces. You could definetely add more butter, but since we put a load on top after mashing was complete, that was a good place to stop. We didn't have any whole milk in the fridge so we used skim and then also some half-and-half. It was probably about 1/2 cup of liquid altogether. Just keep on mashing the potatoes up with the butter and liquid dairy product of your choice, then add a ton of salt and pepper. Taste it to make sure there is enough salt because it's just incredible how much salt you have to put in before you can even notice it. Mash, mash, mash until it is of a consistency that you enjoy. Then add more butter on top and eat them. Seriously--that's all you have to do. Boil peeled chunks of potatoes until soft, drain them and then mash them up with butter and milk, salt and pepper. And then you will have mashed potatoes. The next day you can fry leftover mashed potatoes in a pan until heated through and add minced pickled jalapenos with the shredded cheese of your choice. Or with pieces of bacon and sauteed mushrooms. It's like ghetto potato galettes. Perhaps I should call them ghetto-lettes?

The nutritional redemption of your meal can come in the form of dark, leafy greens. I bought a bunch of dinosaur kale at the market, mostly because it has the word "dinosaur" in the name. The same day I also bought a fruit called "dinosaur pluots" so I guess I'm pretty easy to market to. Cut off the stems of the kale and took out the central rib, which is a little bit too tough to cook well. Sliced up the kale into ribbons and washed it well (it can be kind of sandy). In a large high-sided pan, heated 3 tablespoons of olive oil and added 4 thinly sliced cloves of garlic (it was my beloved Ohio hardneck garlic, actually) and about 1 tablespoon of red pepper flakes. When the garlic was soft and getting a little bit golden, added in the kale and stirred well until it was reduced in size. Then turned down the heat and covered to cook, occasionally stirring. Added about 1/3 cup of chicken stock after about 15 minutes of cooking and uncovered the pan to reduce the liquid somewhat towards the end of cooking. It probably took about 20-25 minutes for the greens to cook. They were spicy, garlicky and full-flavored, which makes them a perfect partner for mellow mashed potatoes.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Chicken with garlic sauce, braising greens & roasted mangolds

I went to Columbus, Ohio for a conference last week and got to spend a lot of time wandering around the city, which really impressed me. It looked like it would be great for bicyling around and there was a really nice bookshop and many cool little neighborhoods. But perhaps my favorite part of this neat little town was the North Market which was near the Short North neighborhood. It was really cool--the permanent part of the market kind of looked like a smaller version of the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia (as described in the "what I ate in Philly" post). You could find all kinds of wonderful, locally produced, organic/free range produce, meat and dairy. There was also a great farmer's market going on right outside that day and it featured some beautiful vegetables, so as we walked around I couldn't help picking some up even though I knew I would have to fly home holding them on the plane, thereby fully completing my transformation into my mother. I talked to some of the farmers and they took such obvious pride in their work and their fine looking produce--it was really a pleasure to discuss food with them. I stopped to buy some braising greens from one stall simply because they looked so beautiful and like such an unusual mix--he told me what everything was, but I don't really remember now. I think there were dandelion greens, maybe some varieties of endive & escarole, perhaps some little chards, definetely some burgundy amaranth...can't remember what they all were, but they were delicate and beautiful so I bought them. Then my eye was caught by these cute little yellow roots called mangolds that I was told were related to beets--they were available in a detroit dark-ruby hue or golden yellow, so I took the yellow ones. These farmers let us taste the arugula microgreens they were growing, the flavor was an intense, superconcentrated spicy-nuttiness. They told me to go check out the garlic from another vendor, so I did and bought some fragrant hardneck garlic from him. That was about all I thought I could handle for not actually being in a town with my own kitchen. For immediate sustenance, we found coffee and a delicious pretzel roll stuffed with pancetta and some type of soft cheese...true to form for this market, the bread was freshly made right there, the pancetta and cheese were locally produced...I think I might be in love.

Last night I braised my braising greens--I realize not everybody had access to the Columbus Farmers Market this weekend, but you can use any type of dark green--kale, chard, beet, turnip or mustard greens...if you can find small, young delicate ones, that's great, but you may only be able to find the older, thick stem ones. Just trim the stems and cut out the central stem "vein" as well, if it looks too thick. Then roll up your greens and cut the rolls into slices--this makes a chiffonade that will help your green cook more quickly. But if you are lucky enogh to find delicate baby greens, by all means, use those! You do not need to trim or slice them at all if they are young and tender. Heated 3 minced cloves of my precious hardneck garlic in olive oil, then tossed in my beautiful mixture of greens. Tossed with the garlic and olive oil over medium high heat until they shrank down (if you are not a regular green cook, you will be shocked at how much they shrink down). The greens began to put off liquid which started to evaporate out in the heat--at that point I added 1 cup of chicken stock, salt, pepper, turned the heat down and covered them to cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure they didn't burn. While that was going on, I took my golden mangolds and trimmed off all but the top inch of their greens and put them whole in a small pan in a 350 degree oven to roast. I eventually added some water to the pan to keep them from getting too toasty. This is usually how I cook beets so I just did the same thing for the mangolds. When they were soft (it took awhile--maybe 30-40 minutes) I peeled off the skins and sliced them up. Meanwhile, I had put up two cups of bhutanese red rice to steam in my beloved rice cooker. The only reason I used this rather exotic rice was because I was pretty much all out of my usual brown rice, but I wanted something with a similarly nutty flavor, and I remembered that someone once gave me a packet of this fancy rice that was hanging out in my cupboard. It's really good, actually, if you see it for sale someplace, pick it up and try it. It cooks much faster than brown rice and has a pretty red color. While the rice, greens and mangold were all cooking away happily to themselves, I sliced 2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts in half to make them more thin, then pounded them lightly to equal width. Sauteed them in olive oil, salt and pepper until lightly brown and cooked through, then set aside. In the same pan, I added 1 tablespoon of butter to the remaining olive oil and chicken juices, then after it was sizzly, added 4 cloves of my Ohio hardneck garlic, sliced very thinly. After it was golden and soft, I sprinkled in flour, probably no more than about 2 tablespoons. After that was absorbed and had thickened my butter mixture somewhat, I added 3/4 cup of chicken stock, stirring it until it became a velvety texture, then removed it from heat and added 2 teaspoons champagne vinegar, stirred in well. Put chicken on the red rice, drizzled a little sauce over the top and put the greens and roasted mangold slices next to it. It was a regional Ohio feast.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Shrimp couscous with fava beans

When we were young, dumb and living in Milwaukee, Brian and I used to make this thing for dinner was couscous with lima beans, lemon, and maybe shrimp if we had gone shopping at Sendik's recently. It wasn't very good--I know we used packaged couscous and I probably bought precooked shrimp because deveining scared me--and it was just a total mess to look at. But for some reason we were really into it and made it often. Probably because it was full of melted butter and salt. When I asked Brian what he wanted for dinner on his birthday he said something about wanting shrimp couscous, which I thought was cute because it had been a really long time since I had thought of making it. So I thought about all the components and how to improve on an idea while maintaining the nostalgia.

I started with the lima beans--I actually like lima beans quite a bit although I realize they are a polarizing ingredient. I found some good looking fava beans at the market and decided they would consititute an improvement on the original so I bought about 3/4 pound of favas in the shell. Do you know how to prep fava beans? It's a pain in the ass. You get these big, green seed pod looking things and you shuck them and inside are large, pale green beans, like peas in a pod, which they basically are. Then you take each bean and skin it to reveal the bright green, delicious fava bean inside. It is time-consuming and probably explains why I don't make them very often. But they are really delicate and wonderful in flavor so it is worth it for a special occasion. After the labor of love involved in preparing fava beans, it's great to follow up with the equally annoying task of shelling and deveining shrimp--I did this with just over 1 pound of shrimp and between that and the fava beans it was a prep-work intensive meal indeed. So that was two improvements--fresh fava beans for frozen limas and fresh shrimp for precooked. Next I looked at the couscous--instead of the small grained box of yore, I toasted 2 cups of large, pearl couscous in butter until they became brown and nutty, then poured 1 ¾ cup of fresh chicken stock over the top, brought to a boil, covered and simmered until the liquid was all absorbed. After it was done cooking, kept the lid on but removed it from heat to prevent burning uintil everything else was ready to go. Minced up a ton of garlic--about 7 or 8 healthy-sized cloves. Put a shocking amount of butter (I think something like 4 tablespoons, maybe 5) to melt in a pan and added the garlic when it was sizzly, reserving about 1 clove worth. When the garlic was lightly golden and still tender, removed from the pan and set aside along with most of the butter it cooked in. Put a teensy bit more butter into the pan and added 2 zucchini that were chopped into small cubes. I made them pretty and also improved the final texture by peeling them in stripes--you know, instead of peeling them totally, just peel a strip down so you have a green-white-green-white pattern on the squash. It looks pretty and also keeps enough peel on for texture but gets rid of some of it to prevent an overwhelming peeliness when you take a bite. Then to make small zucchini chunks you cut the squash in half, then each half gets sliced into thirds. Cut the thirds crosswise into little chunks, and voila! Put the zucchini in the hot pan with the added butter and the reserved minced garlic. Sauteed over medium-high heat until the zucchini got a little golden in places, then added the fava beans, salt, pepper and about 1/2 cup of chicken stock. Cooked down until the stock was totally reduced off and the fava beans were tender, about 5 minutes. Removed from pan and set aside covered until everything else was done. Wiped out the same pan, returned to stove and added the garlic and shocking amount of butter from before. When it was heated up added the peeled, deveined shrimp. Tossed them over medium-high heat just barely until they began to get a bit opaque, about 2 minuntes. Added a teensy bit of chicken stock--probably only a few tablespoons--then when the shrimp were pinkish and pretty much done through (about 3 more minutes), added 2 tablespoons each of finely minced fresh parsley and dill. Stirred the herbs in thoroughly, then took off heat and added zest from 2 lemons and the juice. Mixed everything up together well, then put a mound of couscous on the plate, topped with the shrimp and then the fava bean-zucchini around the bottom. We had a good wine (read: not two-buck chuck)--some Argentinian wine called High Altitude which was a malbec/cabernet sauvignon.

Jeremy and Melanie came up for angel food cake later, which I did not make, but I did decorate it with whipped cream and raspberries and blueberries so at least it looked pretty. Happy birthday, Brian!