Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Beef Brisket braised in White Wine

brisket braised in white wine

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I'll just come out and say up front that this is the best straight-up brisket braise I have ever done, and I've been tinkering with brisket recipes all year. It is easy to prep, and just requires a little patience with the slow cooking. So with no further ado:

Spice Rub
2 tsp salt
1 tsp spanish/smoked paprika (pimenton)
1 1/2 tsp oregano
3 bay leaves
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seed
1/4 new mexico red chile powder

Main Ingredients
2 to 3 lb beef brisket (grass-fed if you can get it)
2 large carrots, roughly chopped
1 1/2 large onions, roughly chopped
6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 28 oz can of whole, peeled tomatoes
1/2 bottle dry white wine
3 or 4 tbsp of olive oil

In a spice grinder, grind up the components for the spice rub. Remove the brisket from the fridge, wash it and pat it dry. If your cut has a large amount of excess fat, you can trim it but leave some for flavor and moisture. Apply the spice rub and let the brisket come to room temperature for about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 275F.

In a large dutch oven, heat up the olive oil on medium-high heat until very hot (a drop of water will sizzle and pop). Brown the brisket on one side for 2 minutes, then brown the other side for the same. Remove the brisket to the side, and lower the heat to medium-low.

Add the onions and garlic into the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions start to turn translucent. Add in the carrots and cook for another couple of minutes, then pour in the white wine. Scrape the bottom of the pot with your wooden or plastic spatula to deglaze any remnants from the browning of the beef. Add in the tin of whole, peeled tomatoes and the accompanying juice. Do not break up the tomatoes.

Nestle the brisket into the liquid and vegetables, cover the dutch oven and place in the oven. Braise for 5 or 6 hours at 275F, gently turning the brisket every 1.5 to 2 hours.

Before serving, remove the dutch oven from the oven and carefully spoon out as much of the excess fat/oil from the top of the liquid around the brisket. Remove the brisket to a warm plate or a cutting board, and blend up the liquid and vegetables into a gravy using a blender, food processor, or an immersion blender (which is what I used, thanks to a lovely Christmas gift from my sister). Return the brisket to the dutch oven and cover to keep warm if you need a few more minutes to prep your dinner.

Serve by slicing against the grain (expect it to fall apart as you slice) and either present on a serving tray with the gravy on the side, or plate with several spoonfuls of the gravy on top and maybe a little fresh pepper.

brisket braised in white wine, plated
I served this with a favorite treatment for potatoes, which is to peel, halve or quarter, and steam about halfway done. Then you bake them with a sprinkling of olive oil and coarse sea salt on top until fluffy and tender inside and browned on the outside. So good.

Previous Recipes: If you like beef brisket, you might try Brisket braised in Slab Bacon, Sweet Peppers and Squash

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Chicken Pot Pie, the Basics

chicken pot pie

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On Saturday, we crawled through traffic back up the Eastern seaboard and returned from visiting family in Washington DC. There are few things more soul destroying than hours stuck traffic. Naturally, I needed to make a chicken pot pie to recuperate. Chicken pot pie is scientifically proven to pack high levels of emotionally recuperative bosons and gluons by the ounce.

It is a little known fact that they plan to test FermiLab's Large Hadron Collider by accelerating a chicken pot pie to the speed of light and thus duplicating comfort food conditions at the origins of the universe. It will either cause the end of the world, or it won't; there appears to be some debate, which is comforting in and of itself.

Below is a recipe for a simple pot pie, and a decent framework for elaborating upon with other ingredients (leeks, peas, turnips, parsnips) and herbs (parsley, rosemary, oregano, tarragon, etc). Note: I hope you'll excuse the hack-job of the pastry edging in the above picture... I was moving fast in a race against the clock for Munchkin's dinner time.

Chicken Pot Pie

1.5 lb chicken breast, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 medium red potatoes, cut into 1/4 to 1/2 inch cubes
1 white onion, diced
3 medium/large garlic cloves, peeled, woody end removed, and minced
3 medium carrots, sliced into 1/4 inch rounds or smaller
3 celery stalks, cut into 1/4 inch slices
1 tsp ground savory (alternative: 1 tbsp parsley and/or 1/2 tsp dry thyme)
1/2 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper
olive oil
5 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup flour
2 cups milk
2 cups chicken stock (or water)

1 1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt + a couple more pinches
7.5 tbsp butter
approx 5 tbsp ice cold water

Egg wash: 1 tbsp water, 1 egg yolk

Making the Pastry
For this pot pie, I decided to work off of Alice Waters' savory pastry proportions from The Art of Simple Food. I was only making the pastry for the top, so reduced the amounts from the 2 cups of flour in her book, keeping with her proportions (hence the extra pinches of salt to get to around 1/3 tsp).

Cut the butter into 1/4 inch cubes and place in the freezer for 15 minutes. Fill a glass with ice water and place next to your food processor. Combine the flour and salt in a food processor and pulse a few times to mix. Add the butter to the processor and add 4 tablespoons of the ice water, pulsing the mixture between each tablespoon.

Remove the mixture to a clean surface and gently work it together. If it is not holding together at all, add another tbsp of the ice water. When the crumbly mixture is just holding together (you do not want it sticky or wet, and it is ok to have a little still crumbly), form into a rough ball, wrap in plastic wrap, flatten, and place in the fridge for an hour.

Preparing the Filling

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Bring some lightly salted water to boil in a medium sauce pot and boil the potato until just tender, no more than 10 minutes given the small cut. Drain or remove to a bowl with a slotted spoon, and keep the sauce pot around for the white sauce.

Heat a splash of olive oil in a large saute pan on medium heat and brown the chicken, then remove to the bowl with the potato. Lower the heat to medium-low and saute the onions and garlic for a couple of minutes, then add the carrots. Cook for 5 minutes, then add the celery, ground savory (or other herbs), white wine, and a couple pinches of salt and pepper. Cook for another few minutes then turn off the heat.

At this point, turn to the sauce pot: melt 5 tbsp of butter on medium-low heat, then wisk in the 1/2 cup of flour and cook for a minute stirring regularly. Theoretically, it is best to have your milk and stock (or water) already at a near boil, but if you haven't had time or the energy to dirty another pot, it isn't the end of the world just to add them directly now. Cook at a gentle simmer for another 5 minutes. (If you like your pie really rich, you can add 1/4 cup of cream too)

Stir the white sauce into the saute pan with the vegetables and taste for salt and pepper. Then stir in the chicken and potato. Spoon the mixure into your pie dish until it is near the edge.

chicken pot pie fill
Photo note: the mixture looks a little green-ish because of the ground savory.

Finishing the Pie
Remove the wrapped pastry from the fridge, and on a lightly floured surface, with a floured rolling pin, roll out your pastry into a thin layer an inch or so bigger than you need for the pie dish. Lightly flour the top, to prevent it from sticking, and gently fold the pastry in half or in quarters to safely lift it in one piece to the top of the pie dish. Crimp the pastry around the edge of the pie dish, and then cut off any excess pastry hanging over the edge with a sharp paring knife. Make some vent holes in the top with the knife (or a fork).

If you have the time, it is nice to mix an egg yolk with a tbsp of cold water and brush this egg wash on top of the pastry. (I did not, this time around)

Place the pie in the oven (which was pre-heated to 375F) for 45 minutes, then let cool for 10 or 15 minutes before serving.

chicken pot pie

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Food Blog Photography Lessons, Pt 1

banner for post

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This post has tips for the beginner food photographer; in particular, for food bloggers working with a point-and-shoot digital camera. If you are like me, you might suffer from the following challenges when it comes to food blog photography:
  • your effort is hindered by hungry and impatient people requiring the food and your presence at the dinner table asap (i.e. you must work very fast)
  • you do not have the space and/or budget justification for fancy camera and lighting equipment
  • you do not have the space and/or budget justification for endless props such as serving dishes, image backgrounds, serving utensils, etc
  • you usually cook in the evenings after work, so always have poor light situations
For the last several months, I've been meaning to write up some of my tips from experiments in creating photos that do not completely suck, while dealing with the above constraints. If you are a winner of DMBLGIT, this post is probably not for you. I aspire to get to that level of proficiency.

I should note that this post dwells mostly on technical details I've been grappling with, rather than aesthetics (I tend towards the "natural" end of the food photography spectrum). If someone else finds my lessons useful, then I am happy.

On Point-and-Shoot Digital Cameras
I do not own a digital SLR, much as I drool over them; nor do I have time to set up a tripod. I have barely enough time to grab a couple lights from the shelf, put food on a plate, attempt to make it reasonably attractive, fire off a number of shots at various angles and focus points, hope for the best, and make for the dinner table.

OK, not exactly professional, but I make no bones about being in the early-amateur camp. My enjoyment of the challenge and my desire for improvement offset frustration over results.

Before food blogging, I'd never bothered to open the manual on a point-and-shoot digital camera. However, these little cameras today (see below for mine) are packed with features that you really need to know. My favorite features:
  • the setting for "digital macro" shooting: chances are your camera has a setting for close-up or still life photography that will improve your close-up shots immensely. Note: camera makers often use a little flower or tulip icon for this.
  • setting the default focus point to center: when it comes to food photography, you don't want your camera trying to figure out where to focus. Set the camera to focus on the central point, so that you get to choose where to focus. Once you've got the camera focused appropriately for your shot, you can then shift the way the camera is angled to frame your image as desired (on most models, this would be done while holding the "shutter" button down halfway). Just remember that tilting the camera left, right, up or down will be ok, but if you change the distance of the camera to the object, say by taking a step back, then you need to refocus.
  • manual white balance: a lot of models have the ability to manually set the white balance, which in many cases will solve color correction problems (the glorious "orange cast" effect). This is not a panacea, but it will sometimes save you in low light situations.
  • the ability to turn off the flash
cameraOne feature I do not use is the manual ISO setting. Bumping up the ISO for low light situations just creates a more grainy image, in my experience. For the record, my camera is a point-and-shoot digital camera, a Canon SD1100. There are a number of other interesting features that I am starting to experiment with, but the above are the standouts so far.

On Lighting
A few things I believe:
  • Food photography is so much better in natural light (exceptions made for for cool artsy styles)
  • Never use the flash unless you have a high-quality setup like Deb at Smitten Kitchen
  • Mirrors are very useful, if you have time to break them out
Those of us who cannot shoot in daylight must develop work arounds. Some folks buy fancy lighting equipment and tripods. If you are handy like Jai, you can make your own lighting setup. My problem is that I have no space to keep lighting equipment, nor time to pull it out and set it up, so my current solution is cheap clamp lights that you can get from a hardware store for under $10. Below is an example of my very-temporary setup at the end of the island in our kitchen:

lighting example
As you can see, it is a bit haphazard but I can set it up and take it down very fast. I just grab the lights (and their extension cord) and a few objects that can hold them in place without tipping over. The necessary distance between the lights and the food will vary, and you may need to angle the lights more indirectly if the type of food is too reflective. Reflections are the downside to this type of lighting -- ideally you would defuse the light somehow rather than have a bare bulb, but I haven't McGuyered up a cover yet that that would stay in place and not freak out a fire inspector.

Other Notes:
  • Mirrors and white boards can be great -- they reflect light and can even out the lighting in your shot, or remove unwanted shadows. I don't always have time to grab or use them, however.
  • I've been playing with a trick where I will hold one of the clamp lights in my left hand, while holding the camera in my right. I'll press the camera shutter button halfway down to set focus and the light meter, but then I'll move the light in my left hand around until I get an effect I like. This is how I captured that apple shot with the dramatic lighting at the very top of the post.
  • I'll also note that I have been using Chromalux light bulbs, which I discovered eons ago in my art days, and which cast a warmer, more natural light. You can often find them at art supply shops. However, I'm not really convinced that these are worth the money here, since I still need to solve color balance issues either via manual white balance or Photoshop (see below).

On Photoshop
If you don't have great camera and lighting equipment, I don't see how you can get the right color balance for your shots without either: 1. effective use of your camera's manual white balance feature, or 2. by having good image editing software (I use Photoshop). In truth, I usually try both. I take at least one shot using automatic white balance (which is then edited in Photoshop), and one shot using manual white balance. I never quite know which method will produce a better image - it really varies.

Below is a crude example of what I am talking about. Shot #1 was taken with the camera on automatic -- it shows that typical orange cast that needs to be fixed in Photoshop, the results of which are #3. Shot #2 shows the image without any Photoshop editing, but with manual white balance set on the camera.

levels vs white balance examples

Photoshop - Levels
While I might use a number of different tools in Photoshop for a particular image (Hue/Saturation, Color Balance, Brightness/Contrast, etc), the feature I use most often is the manual setting of Levels.

When you open your picture in Photoshop, you can go to Image > Adjustments > Levels and you will see something like the below pop-up. To keep things simple, focus on the three little arrows under the histogram (one black, one grey, one white). These arrows help you set the brightness, shadows and midpoint of the image. You will also note that you can change the "Channel" you are working on (circled in red).

levels channel picker

The RGB channel will make changes to the composite image should you just want to work on shadows and brightness. However, if you have color correction to do, you'll want to look at each of the Red, Green, and Blue channels.

You'll want to experiment, but to keep things simple, I will note that you can fix a lot of color problems by going to each Level channel and dragging the black and white arrows under the histogram to the point where the histogram starts (i.e. where you see a rise off of the baseline - see the red arrow in image below). Sometimes it takes a little fiddling to get a picture you are happy with, but this tool will take you a long way forward.

levels channel set

Photoshop - Saturation
I am not a fan of people who use Photoshop to blast out their color saturation (i.e. carrots with an orange that could light up the Tokyo skyline). I will sometimes use the Hue/Saturation tool to tone down an image, or a particular color, where color correction has increased saturation too much for my taste. However, sometimes computer monitors are to blame here, and it is just a problem that comes with Web. We can't control what computers our readers are using. Different monitors will show color very differently. Mac and Windows machines also have really different default settings.

Photoshop - Unsharp Mask
The Unsharp Mask filter can be useful when working with point-and-shoot JPGs. Some images which theoretically should be in focus, don't always look that way once they are shrunk down. This filter can help, and don't let the name fool you (it neither unsharpens nor is related to Photoshop's masking features).

When Photoshop sharpens an image, it increases the contrast between neighboring pixels, or pixels on an "edge" in the image, and Unsharp Mask gives you a fair amount of control over this. There are three settings:
  • Amount: the strength of the sharpen effect (on a 400x300 pixel image, I usually use 25 to 35)
  • Radius: determines the thickness of the sharpened edge (on a 400x300 pixel image, I usually use 1 or 0.5)
  • Threshold: determines what Photoshop recognizes as an edge -- the higher the number, the fewer points of contrast will be considered edges (on a 400x300 pixel image, I usually use 3 or 4; I find zero to be harsh in most cases)
I don't always use this filter, and I will pass on a word of warning: be really conservative using Unsharp Mask on images where you have light reflections off of liquid or oil. It doesn't look good.

Photoshop can be an overwhelming application, but it is truly amazing. I've only scratched the surface of it, and learned most of what I know through the Photoshop CS2 Bible, Professional Edition, and highly recommend that book although it costs a small fortune.

Lots of Pictures
Even though I am moving fast, I usually take several different type of shots, since I don't know what I will like until I get to look at them. I'll try an angle shot, a vertical looking-down shot, a super close-up, etc. That's the great thing about digital cameras -- you can take lots of pictures.

Final Notes and Links
I know I didn't spend any time on aesthetics, but really I view that as a hugely subjective realm. Everyone has their own taste and needs to feel confident in developing their own style. Have confidence in yourself, even if you hate your own results for a while as you improve. Look at lots of pictures on blogs, flickr, cookbooks and magazines, and think about what you like, don't like, and why.

Here are some links to other food blog photo tutorials that you might check out, in no particular order:
I hope some of this was useful to a few of you out there in the food blogosphere. If you have tips from your own experiments and lessons, I'd love to hear them!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bayless' Tomatillo Pork Braise

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Before I talk about this recipe, I wanted to highlight the Menu for Change fundraiser going on for the World Food Program. You can find out information at Steamy Kitchen or Chez Pim. It's an inspiring effort. Another good cause I would point you too is Kiva, the micro-lending site. If you are into the food blogging community, you might join the 101 Cookbooks team over there.

The first time I heard of Rick Bayless was his appearance on Top Chef - Chicago. I was flipping through a Food & Wine book and ran across his Tomatillo Pork Braise recipe, which was originally in his Mexico One Plate at a Time cookbook. Always being one to try a braise, I kept reasonably true to his recipe, split the work for this over two work nights, and loved how it came out. It is deliciously tart and has a real kick.

pork tomatillo braise

Tomatillo Pork Braise, adapted from Rick Bayless

2 lb boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 tbsp worcestershire sauce
1 to 1 1/2 lb tomatillos, husked and cut into half-inch slices
4 medium garlic cloves, peeled and halved
1/3 cup pickled jalapeno slices, most seeds removed
1 dried ancho chile, stem and seeds removed, and halved
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 cup dried Cargamanto Cranberry beans

Preheat oven to 300F.

Place the cut pork into a bowl and add the worcestershire sauce, stirring it around to coat the pork evenly. In a dutch oven, layer the tomatillos, then scatter the garlic, half of the cilantro, jalapenos and ancho chile (ie dried poblano pepper) on top. Sprinkle with 1 1/2 tsp salt. Then scatter the pork evenly over the top. Place in the oven for 3 hours. (Note: my picture shows a few cilantro stalks thrown on top for good measure)

During this time, you can cook the beans if you are doing this dish all on the same day (see note below). Bring the beans to a boil for 2 minutes, then drain. Refill pot with water an inch or so over the top of the beans and cook until tender. Drain and set aside.

pork tomatillo braise

When braise is done, remove the pork to a bowl with tongs.

Remove any excess oil from the braise vegetable mixture, and then puree in a food processor or blender. Place back in the dutch oven and cook over low heat. Add enough water to bring the sauce to the consistency of a creamy soup (I probably added 1/4 cup or possibly more of water to mine).

Stir in the beans, the rest of the cilantro and the pork and cook on low heat until everything is warm, then serve.

pork tomatillo

1. Bayless recommends adding a little sugar if the sauce is too tart for your taste. I found it perfect without the sugar, but then I'm a big salsa verde fan.

2. If you don't want to use beans, Bayless recommends placing potatoes, turnips or even carrots in below the meat at the start of the braising stage, and removing before the puree step. If you like beans, I think many variations will work here. Bayless recommends Great Northern. I used a Cranberry bean variant and think Pinto beans would probably work nicely too.

3. Bayless also suggests tossing in some fresh spinach and creme fraiche when pureeing the sauce, which does sound pretty good (I didn't have any on hand)

4. because I was cooking this on work nights, and didn't want to eat at midnight, I split it into two nights. The prep is pretty quick, so the first night I just had to get the braise into the oven and leave it for 3-hours. I placed the meat and sauce mixture in the fridge overnight, in separate containers. The second night, I cooked the beans, pureed and finished the sauce, added the meat and heated everything up together on the lowest heat setting (pot covered).

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Lentil Soup with Pesto

lentil soup with pesto

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Ever since I married an Australian, one of those rare moments of perspicacity, I have developed a fondness for all things antipodean. For many months, I've been wanting to join in the "Hay Hay it's Donna Day" event, needing no other motivation than the fact that it is from down under. This month's event focused on pesto, and is hosted by two blogs I have long enjoyed: 80 Breakfasts and Bron Marshall.

For HHDD, I decided to make an arugula pesto, and put it to work similar to an aioli in a soup. In this case, I made a rich lentil soup with ham and a healthy dose of tarragon that complemented the pesto marvelously.

Arugula Pesto

arugula pesto

1 cup arugula, finely chopped (1 cup after being chopped)
3 small/medium garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 1/2 tbsp lightly toasted pine nuts, finely chopped
1/2 cup finely grated pecorino romano cheese
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
a small pinch of salt

The Donna Hay recipe that 80 Breakfasts put forth used a rough chop method. I decided to loosely follow in those footsteps and leave the food processor in the cupboard, but I still ended up chopping everything pretty finely.

To lightly toast the pine nuts, heat up a non-stick saute pan and then toast the pine nuts for a minute or so, shaking the pan to move and roll the nuts around.

I should note that when I normally make pesto to eat with pasta or with bread, I go much lighter on the garlic, but this pesto was purpose-made for the following soup. I had the strong garlic aioli of Provence in mind as a rough inspiration.

Lentil and Ham Soup

1/2 lb dried lentils, washed
3 carrots, 2 roughly chopped, 1 whole
3 celery stalks, 2 finely chopped, 1 whole
5 small/medium garlic cloves, minced
2 medium/large onions (1 white, 1 spanish)
1 cup of smoked ham, chopped in a 1/3 inch dice
4 slices of bacon, cut into 1/3 inch pieces
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 tbsp tomato paste
1 tsp salt + more to taste
3 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp tarragon, finely chopped
1/8 tsp ground pepper (to taste)
olive oil

In a large soup pot, heat up a tbsp or so of olive oil and saute, over medium heat, the garlic and onions until onions are translucent. Remove onions to a bowl and place the bacon into the pot. Cook the bacon until it is 2 or 3 minutes away from being crispy, then add in the ham and cook, stirring occasionally, for another couple of minutes. Remove the bacon and ham to the bowl with the onions and drain any excess bacon fat.

Heat up the pot again with medium-high heat and deglaze the bottom of the pan with the white wine. Add back in the onions, bacon and ham, and stir in the lentils, chopped carrots, chopped celery, tomato paste, salt, parsley, and tarragon. Pour in enough water to about 2 inches above the tops of the vegetables. Add in the whole carrot and celery stalk (for added flavor), and the bay leaf.

Bring to a boil and then immediately lower down to a gentle simmer. Skim any foam or excess oil off of the surface as it cooks, and simmer for 3 hours (if you can wait that long). Taste for salt and pepper, and if the soup is looking too thick for your liking, add some boiling water as needed. Before serving, discard the whole carrot, whole celery stalk and bay leaves.

Serve in a bowl with a large dollup of pesto in the middle. As with most soups, this only gets better the next day.

Additional notes: I do not usually make lentil soup with tarragon, but found that it added an interesting element (and I like the herb - if you are less sure, halve the amount). In particular, I found that the tarragon complemented the pesto extraordinarily well, and the two together elevated a hearty, peasant-like lentil soup to another level of sophistication.

If you choose not to go with the tarragon and pesto flavoring as shown here, serve the soup with a nice handful of roughly chopped flat leaf parsley.

lentil soup w pesto

Friday, December 12, 2008

Holiday Greetings, Egg Nog, and Oyster Stew

2008 holiday card

What a magnificant time of year it is. Winter has set in like the unfurling of a crystal flower. Snow is still exciting, not troublesome, and we have not yet reached the tired, bitter bite of February and March. The house smells like a frasier fir, and the world is lit up all around by fairy lights. My musical tastes switch almost entirely to classical music this time of year.

I happen to be the worst person in the world at sending Christmas Cards, as my acquaintances will readily admit, but here is my little homemade holiday card to you -- friends old and new. Happy holidays to you all!

For those who are eggnog fans, I might recommend Grandma House's eggnog recipe (link). Grandma House, you might ask? Well, my father was one of seven children, who all had children, and every year our massive clan would descend upon her house in the middle of the Maryland countryside. The house was originally built in 1747 (I remember my cousins discovering civil war era swords in one of the ancient barns), so had a memorable quality. Somehow, when we were all very little, she became known as "grandma house". She is long gone now, but I do miss her. Quite a lady.

I warn you, even though I have reduced the alcohol level from what *she* used to do, the recipe still can have a real kick. I might advise adding the alcohol in batches, then tasting, rather than all at once.

The other dish that I always think of this time of year, which also came from Grandma House, is oyster stew (link), which is really a soup. While we vary our Christmas dinners from year to year, this soup is always a mainstay by popular demand.

All the best to you, and may you have a safe and happy holiday season.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Veal Braised in Milk; a lesson learned

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IN WHICH Pooh visits the butcher and does a Silly thing
Pooh, being a bear of very Little brain, was happily flipping through cookbook pictures, given that he was nearly always hungry and that words were best left to Eminences like Rabbit. Pooh did not exactly know what an Eminence was, but had a vague feeling that it had something to do with arugula and very expensive sea salt. As Pooh read, he hummed a little song:

Cooking for bears is like
Poaching with pears, and baking
a cookie or two.
You think we like honey but
the funniest honey...

At this point Pooh was wondering how honey could be funny, and if it really was appropriate to have two uses of the word honey right next to each other, but honey being what it was, Pooh decided that more was always better. Then he stopped, because on the next page was something called veal braised in milk.

Pooh had never eaten veal braised in milk before, but he knew that he must like it, not in a Tigger-looking-for-breakfast kind of way, but with a I-must-make-this-recipe-right-now feeling. So by and by, Pooh set off for the local butcher. Pooh knew in the back of his head that veal was expensive, but he figured that since it was a braise, it should be a cheaper cut, as most well-behaved braises are. After waiting in line, Pooh came to the proprietor.

"How can I help you," said the butcher.
"A boneless leg of veal, about 2 or 3 pounds please," asked Pooh.
"What part of the leg?" asked the butcher (who tended towards the irascible).

At this point, Pooh was very Confused. The recipe hadn't called for a part, just a leg, although obviously Pooh wasn't going to be cooking an entire leg, but still it felt Highly Irregular. The butcher rattled off a list of parts, then asked what it was for, and then rattled off some other parts. Pooh thought to himself, "WWOD?" (What Would Owl Do), and then nodded his head, trying to look sage but not doing a very good job. He also snuck little glances at the line of customers behind him, waiting for him to Hurry Up and make up his mind.

"Yes," said Pooh, figuring that yes would be faster than no, and definitely faster than maybe.

The butcher disappeared and after a few minutes his Helper brought out a wrapped piece of veal and went over to the cash register.

"That will be $72.68," said the Helper.
"_" said Poo, taken aback.
"!" said Poo, trying again and attempting to recollect why he had gone to the butcher's in the first place.

Now Poo, being a bear and a stuffed bear at that, cannot really look stricken, but if Pooh could look stricken, then that is how he would have looked.

"How much is that per pound?" asked Pooh, cautiously.
"Twenty-two dollars," stated the Helper, who was starting to look at Pooh a little Suspiciously.

Pooh, feeling a little miserable now, not to mention a little foolish, bought the veal and took it home, and attempted to avoid telling Mrs. Pooh just how much he had spent on a part of a leg of veal. He could not tell if he was angry at the butcher for not warning him, angry at the veal for being so expensive, or just angry at himself for being such a Silly bear.

However, when Pooh cooked up the veal braised in milk for some visiting Relations, everyone agreed that it was a delicious meal, a very tender and subtle cut of meat, and a lovely way to cook it. But Pooh learned the lesson of always, always asking for the price ahead of time.

veal in milk

Veal Braised in Milk, adapted from Tori Ritchie's Braises and Stews

1 3lb boneless leg of veal
1 vidalia onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
3/4 cup Riesling (on the sweet side)
whole milk
coarse sea salt
coarsely ground pepper
olive oil

An hour or so before cooking, wash and dry the veal. Rub it all over with 2 or 3 tsp of coarse sea salt and 1/2 to 1 tsp of coarsely ground pepper. Let the meat come to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 320F.

Set the flame to medium-high and heat up a couple tbsp of olive oil in a dutch oven large enough to hold the veal, and when the oil is quite hot, brown the sides of the veal. Set the meat aside and lower the heat to just below medium.

Add the chopped onion and cook for a minute or two, then add the celery and carrot and the wine, stirring and scraping the browned bits on the bottom of the pot. Cook for about 5 minutes and return the meat and any juices to the pot. Pour in enough milk so that it comes halfway up the side of the meat. Bring the milk to a boil, then cover and place in the oven.

After an hour, flip the veal. If it looks like the liquid is bubbling a little too much, lower the oven temperature to 300F. Cook for another hour, and check tenderness with a fork.

Remove the veal and tent with aluminum foil. The milk in the braising liquid will appear quite coagulated but that is expected. Let the liquid cool for a several minutes, taste it for salt and pepper, then carefully puree it in a food processor or blender.

Slice the meat, spoon the sauce on top, and serve.

* * *

Any resemblance between me and the Pooh character above is entirely coincidental. But what an amazing coincidence! The meal (which happened several weeks ago) was truly delicious, and I comforted myself with the thought that I fed 5.5 people (counting Munchkin) a restaurant-quality dish for a lot less than if we had eaten out, however I still felt like a bit of an ass.

When I was next at Fleishers up in Kingston, a butcher shop where I feel a lot more comfortable, I asked the owner Josh Applestone about butcher etiquette. He agreed that once I had let them cut the meat, I had to buy it ("that is, if you wanted to ever go back there!" he laughed). He also thought that the cost was rather high, and noted that some butchers carry veal because they can get away with sky-high prices. It was foolish of me to allow myself to get intimidated, and to fail to learn the price before I made a decision, but lesson learned.

I don't know that I will be splurging again on such a cut anytime soon, but it was a very interesting cooking method, and I might try it again on veal shoulder, if more reasonably priced, or some very good quality pork.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Chicken Braised in Coconut Milk, Lime, and Cilantro

chicken braise

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Over the summer, I discovered a Brazilian fish recipe destined to be one of my top-five fish recipes. The other day, I decided to try adapting the spirit of the recipe for chicken. Fast forward to me cutting extra slices of bread just to sop up the fantastic sauce, and you have the following...

6 chicken thighs (or more or less, depending on size)
3 limes
6 cloves garlic, minced
6 tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped
1 large vidalia onion
1 carrot
1 celery stalk
1 13.5 oz can of coconut milk
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 jalapeno, seeded and sliced (double or triple if you want hot)
1/2 cup crushed tomatoes

Marinate the chicken in the garlic, 2 tbsp of the cilantro, the juice of 2 limes, and a healthy sprinkling of salt. Let it rest for 30 or so.

In a food processor, combine the onion, carrot, celery stalk, and coconut milk and puree.

Preheat oven to 325F.

Heat 1 tbsp of olive oil and 1 tbsp of canola or vegetable oil in a dutch oven on high until very hot, and then brown the chicken thighs for a couple minutes on both sides, then remove back to marinade dish. Deglaze the bottom of the pot with the white wine, lower heat and return chicken to the pot, adding in any garlic, cilantro and lime juice from the marinade dish. Pour the coconut milk puree over the top, and add the crushed tomatoes, the jalapeno, another 2 tbsp of cilantro, the juice of the last lime, and two more pinches of salt.

Gently mix the sauce around and spoon over the chicken thighs.

Place in the oven and after 30 minutes, turn the heat down to 300F. Let cook for another 45 to 60 minutes.

The one pain about this dish is that before you serve, you will need to spoon off the layer of oil (from the chicken fat).

This dish is best served with some white rice, lots of sauce poured on top, and a sprinkling of fresh cilantro (that last 2 tbsp).

I served this with some beet greens sauteed with sherry vinegar, a touch of red pepper flakes, half a small onion, and a clove of garlic (I had wanted to try this recipe, but had run out of apple cider vinegar). Still, this variation was still quite nice. In the chaos of my evening, I didn't have time to make rice, so made do with some huge hunks of ciabatta bread. The meal went really nicely with a spicy, medium-to-full bodied red wine.

Now if only I had some of your cookies for dessert. Or, perhaps, some Zen insanity.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Peasant Bean Stew

Peasant bean stew plated

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Yesterday I set out to make a cassoulet-inspired dish, without sacrificing my entire Saturday to the process. Anyone who has been reading this blog knows that I'm in love with peasant / comfort food. My problem with many cassoulets I've had in restaurants, even very reputable ones, is how dry they tend to be. I've read Julia Child's cassoulet recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but always procrastinate taking it on because of the time involved. Here is one attempt to solve both those problems, and I admit to being very happy with the result.

The post is long because I've gone into some detail, but the actual time involved was quite efficient.

Peasant Bean Stew

3/4 lb dried red nightfall beans (or great northern)
1 bunch parsley, tied with kitchen string
4 carrots. 2 whole, 2 chopped
2 celery stalks
4 sweet italian sausages (4" in length)
4 or 5 slices good quality bacon, sliced into 1/2 to 1" pieces
1 to 2 inches of hot sopresatta salami, chopped
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
3 or 4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup red wine
1 full tbsp of finely chopped fresh tarragon
2 or 3 tbsp finely chopped parsley
1 1/2 cups bread crumbs (3 slices of farm bread pulsed in a food processor)
reserved bean cooking liquid (from making the dish)
salt and pepper
olive oil

Peasant bean stew 1

The beans: I used red nightfall beans (part of my Rancho Gordo habit), but there are many kinds of beans that would work well for this dish. Flageolet or Tepary beans would be nice, as would I think Cannellini beans. If you are working from a normal US supermarket you can usually find Great Northern Beans.

I put the beans in cold water to soak in the morning, but this is an optional step. It does speed up cooking time, however. I also do a quick, and optional, step at the start to reduce the enzyme in beans that causes gas in folks not used to eating legumes. This step, suggested by Peter at Kalofagas, is a bit easier than the steps Bittman suggests in How to Cook Everything: you put the beans in cold water in a large pot, bring to a boil for 2 minutes and drain.

Place the beans back in the pot, fill with cold water to an inch over the top of the beans. Add in two peeled carrots, 2 stalks of celery (halved to fit), a bay leaf, and a bunch of parsley tied up with kitchen string. Optionally, you can toss in part of a ham hock or some bacon here. Bring back to a boil, and then reduce to a light simmer. Turn off the heat when the beans are just tender -- cooking time will vary but start testing around 40 minutes in. Save the bean cooking liquid in one bowl, and put the beans aside in another.

Peasant bean stew 2

Discard the parsley. Place the cooked carrots and celery in a food processor, along with 1/2 cup of the cooked beans and 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Puree and set aside.

Note: I then switched to a 3" deep cast iron skillet, which I placed in the oven when prep was done. If you don't have something similar, you can use a medium-size dutch oven or continue using the pan you used to cook the beans and transfer to a baking dish before putting in oven.

Preheat oven to 375F.

Cook the bacon in the deep skillet until almost crispy, then set aside. (Note: I would have preferred to have worked from good slab bacon, rather than thin slices, and thus have chunkier pieces, but had to work with what I had on hand) Brown the sausages in the skillet until just firm, and set aside. Drain the excess oil.

Add a splash of olive oil and saute the onion and garlic on medium-low heat, stirring regularly, until the onion starts to turn translucent. Add the chopped carrot and cook for another couple of minutes, then pour in the puree. Add 1/2 cup of red wine, another 1/2 cup of the reserved bean cooking liquid, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for several minutes.

Peasant bean stew 3

Slice the sausages into 1/2 inch segments, and add the sausage, bacon and hot salami to the pot. Then gently stir in the beans, chopped tarragon, and parsley. Add some of the bean cooking liquid until the pot starts to get a bit soupy (see below), but not to the point where everything is swimming. Keep the rest of the bean cooking liquid on hand, however, in case you need it at the end if it comes out of the oven drier than you want.

Peasant bean stew 3

Turn off the heat and sprinkle bread crumbs on top. Place in oven at 375F for 15 minutes, then turn down the heat to 350F.

Peasant bean stew 4

Bake the dish for an hour or so. Optional: about 45-50 minutes in, you can test for how dry/moist the dish is by breaking into the breadcrumb crust and checking for moisture deeper into the dish. If it is looking too dry, ladle some more cooking broth around the top and place back in the oven for long enough that the bread crumbs get dry and toasted again.

Peasant bean stew 5

There are so many directions you can take a dish like this, in terms of the herbs you use and the meats. It would be a great use for leftover brisket or a pork shoulder braise. If you do end up doing a riff on this recipe and like the results, please let me know!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Fennel Risotto

fennel risotto

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Good lord I can't believe it is December already. Where did the year go? Between work, parenting, election and the economy.... bbbzzzzzaaapppp! I haven't even gotten up to the Met to see the Morandi exhibit. How someone could so happily paint so many bottles for so long is beyond me. Well, no, that's a lie. I love that kind of obsessive focus on a problem, like Lucien Freud and his portraits. I'm totally obsessive too, but my obsessions tend to rotate. I can feel the breeze of art obsession starting to waft back in... look, I'm already digressing madly!

But I have to get caught up to the fact that it is December (I think surgery stealing part of November is a culprit). I love New York City in December, so have to find some time this month to wander my grand city.

Like many of you, we're working through leftover ingredients from last weekend. I've got a whole bunch of leftover fennel, so decided to whip up a risotto inspired by an old recipe in one of Food & Wine's compilations.

Fennel Risotto

1 large fennel bulb, halved, cored and thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
3 or 4 sliced of prosciutto, chopped
2 sweet sausages, poultry or pork, removed from skin
2 tbsp butter
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 cup arborio risotto rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 or 5 cups chicken (or vegetable) stock
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1 handful of parsley, finely chopped
a few fennel fronds, finely chopped
olive oil
salt and pepper

Bring your stock to a boil and then keep covered until needed at the lowest heat setting.

Heat up a splash or two of olive oil in a large saute pan on medium-high heat and add the fennel, then half of the minced garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the fennel is cooked and just starting to brown, then remove to a bowl.

Add a little more olive oil to the pan, and brown the sausage for a few minutes, breaking it into smaller pieces as it cooks with your spatula. Add the chopped prosciutto and cook for another couple minutes then remove to the bowl with the fennel.

Add the butter and as it melts, stir in the onion and remaining garlic, add a pinch of salt, and saute until the onion starts to turn translucent. Stir in the arborio rice and cook for a minute or so, then stir in the white wine.

To finish cooking the risotto, you want to stir as continuously as you can stand it, adding one ladle's worth of stock (or half a cup) at a time. When most of the stock has been absorbed or evaporated, ladle in some more. You don't want the rice to ever get too soupy or too dry -- it should remain bubbling. After 18 to 20 minutes, start tasting the rice. You want there to be a little bit of an al dente texture, i.e. not mushy.

Stir in the fennel, sausage and prosciutto and stir for a minute then turn off the heat. Stir in most of the parsley and parmesan cheese, and -- very important -- taste for salt and pepper.

Serve and garnish with a bit of the remaining parsley, cheese, and a pinch of the fennel fronds.

P.S. for the umpteenth millionth time, I wish I could take food photos during the daytime!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Marcella's Op-Ed; Stewed Meatballs and Brussel Sprouts

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Before I get to food, did you see Marcella Hazan's op-ed in the New York Times the other day?

She bemoans the overuse of the word "chef" rather than "cook", and what that means for food culture today. She misses "the old world of Mediterranean family cooking, a world where satisfying flavors had been arrived at over time and by consensus." She then writes, "that world hasn’t disappeared, but it has receded, making room for a parallel world, one where food is often entertainment, spectacle, news, fashion, science, a world in which surprise — whether it’s on the plate or beyond it — is vital. This is the world of chefs."

That sounds a lot like the shift in the art world during the 20th century, where innovation and surprise took precedence over quality, or rather, defined quality.

I wonder how much of this is true in the food world; how deep does this penetrate, and is it restricted to the major urban centers? Yes, there is clearly a general fascination with molecular gastronomy today, and I celebrate the experimentation going on. I don't think it threatens the core of cooking, but then again, Marcella does use the word "receded" not "replaced".

Professional critics and writers, looking for new ways to keep themselves inspired in their trade, no doubt admire and appreciate surprise, but this attitude is by no means universal. If Top Chef can be viewed as a cultural bellweather, it is interesting to note that the judges love innovation but do not hold it above all else, otherwise Marcel Vigneron and Richard Blais would have won their seasons.

In any case, time for this cook to talk about brussel sprouts...

Stewed Meatballs and Brussel Sprouts

pork meatballs

I have a very simple dish to post today. Lord knows I love variations on stewed meatballs. My wife can't stand hamburgers, which I jokingly say is un-American since she is, of course, not American! However, she loves these meatball dishes I play around with. In this case, I used pork and put brussel sprouts to very good effect.

I had 1 pound of ground pork leftover from Thanksgiving, and being in the mood to avoid turkey, I made small meatballs with the following mix, pulsed finely in a food processor:

a hunk of stale bread (crust removed)
half of an onion
1/3 tsp fennel seed
1/4 tsp ground cumin
a pinch of arbol pepper flakes
a tbsp of chopped fresh oregano (use less if using dried)

At the same time, I whipped up a quick tomato sauce, using canned tomatoes, onion, garlic and fresh rosemary (still alive in our garden, but it never survives the winter).

I washed and halved a dozen large brussel sprouts and pre-heated oven to 375F.

I browned the meatballs in a cast-iron pan, removed to a plate, and browned the brussel sprouts cut-side down for a few minutes, then gave them a big stir, added in the meatballs, poured the tomato sauce on top, and popped in the oven for 30 minutes or so.

The brussel sprouts taste a bit like braised cabbage here. Granted if you don't like sprouts *or* braised cabbage, this combination is probably useless to you! Just toss those meatballs in with your pasta. However, in our household this dish was wolfed down by adult and Munchkin alike.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving Pt 3: Pomegranate & Arugula Salad

arugula salad

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Part 3 concludes my posts on Thanksgiving dinner. It was a lovely meal with family, and while we fought with our oven (I think the thermostat has gone a little haywire), the results were really quite good. I did not take many pictures. My family enjoys this blog, but I had a feeling I didn't want to let my camera get between them and the food.

The last dish I wanted to highlight was one of my favorites: a very refreshing pomegranate and arugula salad Lisl put together, inspired by a salad recently posted by Sass & Veracity. The pomegranate seeds were gorgeous little festive jewels on the plate, and their tart sweetness complemented the arugula and vinegar really well.

2 bunches arugula leaves, carefully washed
seeds from 1 pomegranate
3 slices of good bacon, cooked then chopped
handful of cremini mushrooms, finely sliced
1/3 red onion, finely sliced (optional)
white wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl. Wisk vinegar and oil together (start with a 1/3, 2/3 split) with a pinch of salt and pepper and add vinegar or oil until you reach the desired flavor. Add some dressing and toss -- add just enough dressing so that everything is lightly coated but not drenched.

We served this with a Lucien Albrecht 2001 Gewurztraminer, from Alsace, courtesy of my father. I don't usually like sweeter wines at the start of a meal but this paired really well.

Other Thanksgiving Notes
One of the great highlights of the meal was the wine. My father was ridiculously generous and brought three amazing bottles up from his collection: two 1994 Cain Five reds, which we decanted for an hour before dinner and were just sublime, and a 1975 Chateau Suduiraut sauternes which was absolutely delicious (I am sipping it as I write this!).

I should note that we had opened a 1967 sauternes, also given to me by my father, at the 24-24-24 dinner we put on in September, but the wine had really lost most of its body. Not so with the Suduiraut, which I suppose should be expected given the fame of that vineyard. I really should follow in my dad's footsteps, buy some young sauternes, and save them for 30 years for future special occasions.

My sister and brother-in-law also brought some wonderful wine, but we didn't actually make it to those bottles. Luckily for me, they are still sitting on our shelf. To the cooks go the spoils!

More on food...
The stuffing came out really well. We had a really big bird, so decided to cook it with onion and lemon inside and do the stuffing on the stovetop. The recipe is here. In past I have used ground pork and my own spices, but since this was a gathering of my parents and sisters (along with husbands and kids), I decided to use Bob Evans breakfast sausage for the meat in the stuffing since that was the way my mother often makes it.


The element that made all the difference in the quality of the gravy and the stuffing was a really good turkey stock we made the day before. We had bought a turkey leg and thigh from the butcher, browned them really well in our dutch oven (such an important step!), and then simmered together with a large onion, several carrots and celery stalks, a couple bay leaves, a tsp of salt and water.

stock making

Lisl also made the cranberry-orange-ginger relish posted by Stacey Snacks, and she loved it. She also made a sweet potato concoction which was supposedly amazing, but the poor thing -- all my siblings and I have inherited the "no yams" gene from my father, and my daughter has inherited it from me! So it was a dish only for those who married into the family!

What I *did* really appreciate was Lisl's pumpkin pie, which we served with the sauternes and two delicious fruit tarts brought by my parents. All in all, it was a wonderful day of good food, good conversation, and the wonderful re-affirming of family.

I hope all of you had a marvelous Thanksgiving day as well!

pumpkin pie

Thanksgiving Pt 2: Potato & Fennel Gratin

potato fennel gratin

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While much of our Thanksgiving dinner was pretty traditional to our family, Lisl and I decided to change up the usual scalloped potato dish and add fennel to the gratin. Stacey, of Stacey Snacks, mentioned that Ina Garten had a great recipe, and I found a version on the Food Network website. I made a few changes, reducing amounts and layering rather than mixing in a bowl (I just love how attractive the layered approach looks when it comes out of the oven).

The results received universal approval from the adults at the table (munchkin, not so much, but the three-year-old palate is a frustrating thing to cook for). This was a convenient dish as well since I was able to bake it 90% done before the turkey took over the oven, and then just finish it off while the turkey rested.

Potato & Fennel Gratin, adapted from Ina Garten

4 to 6 medium-large idaho/russet potatos
1 large fennel bulb
1/2 large spanish or vidalia onion
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
2 cups gruyere cheese, thickly grated
1 3/4 heavy cream
salt and pepper

Thinly slice the onion. Remove the fronds and 1/4" of the base of the fennel, cut in half, remove the core, and then thinly slice.

Preheat oven to 350F.

In a saute pan, heat the butter and olive oil on medium-low and cook the onions and fennel for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. While this is cooking, thinly slice (1/8" or 2mm thick) the potatoes.

Butter the bottom and sides of a baking dish and place a first layer of potato, slightly overlapping each piece like fish scales. Sprinkle some gruyere cheese, a small amount of salt and pepper, and pour a little cream. Add a layer of half of your onion and fennel, and repeat with the cheese, salt, pepper, and cream. You will add another layer of potato, a layer of onion/fennel, and a final layer of potato, interspersing each one (including the top) with cheese, salt, pepper, and cream.

Place in the oven and bake for 1.5 hours until the top is nicely browned and the potatoes are very tender.

sliced potato

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Pt 1: Crostinis

Olive Tapenade

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At many dinner parties, I've found that guests hit a dangerous period before you are ready to serve, where they are hungry enough to down all the cheese and crackers you can throw at them and in doing so throw off their appetite. For Thanksgiving dinner this year, I decided to offer a "snack" starter course with varied crostinis that both started the meal off in a delicious way, as well as controlling portions. They are quite easy to make, especially if you have access to the oven to toast your bread.

Four Crostinis

1. Mixed mushrooms
2. Olive tapenade
3. Hummus and roasted red pepper
4. goat cheese and prosciutto

You can serve these individually or just put a whole bunch out on a platter. The recipes for the first three components are below. Of course, for #4, I simply bought good goat cheese and imported prosciutto; I had originally wanted to try a combination of goat cheese, fig and a touch of honey but couldn't find figs this time of year.

We served these on very thin, toasted slices of homemade sourdough. Lisl was kind enough to bake two long, flat loaves for me to use. The only pieces I basted with olive oil were the ones for the mushroom spread, but frankly, it would probably be a delicious move on all of them, time permitting.

Our mistake was not toasting the bread slices in the oven before the turkey took all the room in there. We ended up using the toaster, which is much more work than you need when busy working on a big dinner.

Mushroom Spread
handful of finely chopped yellow onion (or shallots)
1 garlic clove, minced
7 or 8 cremini mushrooms, finely chopped
3 or 3 white button mushrooms, finely chopped
5 or 6 shitake mushroom caps, sliced into thin strips
1 tbsp butter
1/4 cup chicken or turkey stock
3 tbsp port
1 tsp fresh oregano, finely chopped
salt and pepper
olive oil

Melt the butter in a splash of olive oil in a heavy bottomed pan and saute the garlic and onion on medium low heat. Add the mushrooms, oregano, a couple pinches of salt and pepper, and cook for 5 to 10 minutes stirring occasionally. Turn up the heat slightly, and stir in the stock and port and let the liquid reduce. Cook for another 5 or 10 minutes, tasting for salt and pepper, and don't hesitate to add a bit more port if you want to punch up that part of the flavor.

Brush the toasted bread with a little olive oil before adding the mushroom mixture.

Olive Tapenade
1/2 lb kalamata olives
1 1/2 small anchovy filets
1 tbsp small caper berries
1 clove of garlic
turn of ground pepper
juice from 1/2 a lemon
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and blend. My family and I, we're olive nuts, and this spread was a huge hit.

Hummus & Roasted Red Pepper

Making the hummus
Garlic cloves
Lemon juice
olive oil

Frankly, I never make hummus exactly the same way; I do it by taste. I usually work from dried chickpeas and make batches with about half of a 1 lb bag. To cook, bring the chickpeas to a boil and then simmer for 1.5 to 2 hours until tender. You can do this a day or two in advance, if need be. I'll start with by placing the chickpeas, 1 1/2 tbsp of tahini, 2 garlic cloves, juice from 1 or 2 lemons, and a couple pinches of salt in a food processor. Then I dribble in several tablespoons of olive oil as it blends. I'll check for taste and add more of various ingredients until I am happy.

For the red peppers, normally I have blackened them whole under the broiler, then placed in a plastic or paper back for 10 minutes or so before peeling. This year my mother gave me the tip that it is easier to peel the peppers if you have already cut them into fairly flat strips. After trying that technique, I have to agree with her.

For the crostinis, I just put a thin spread of hummus on the toasted bread and then two small slivers of red pepper. It is easier for your guests to cut the red pepper in half so they aren't trying to bite it in half with their teeth.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thanksgiving planning

The clock is ticking. So far here's what we're thinking (subject to inspiration when I get to the market tomorrow morning):

Amuse: 3 crostinis: mixed sauted mushrooms; goat cheese with figs and honey; homemade hummus with slices of roasted red pepper; all on slices of Lisl's sourdough bread

Starter: butternut squash soup with leeks and ginger

Main: Turkey and stuffing (using our usual recipe; the one year I tried a brine I wasn't happy)

Side: potato and fennel gratin

Side: most likely a green bean dish, haven't decided how simple vs complex
(I also think Lisl is making something with cranberries and something with sweet potatoes, but I have an aversion to both so do not have insight into her schemes! With the exception of middle-eastern tagines, I am just not one for mixing sweet fruit and meat.)

Dessert: I'm guessing Lisl will make an apple or pumpkin pie, and I believe that family coming to visit might be importing some dessert as well

Wine: plenty!

What am I thankful for? A lot:


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Minestrone, and the joys of making soup with Parmesan rind

minestrone soup

Today was the first time I've been really happy with my results with a from-scratch minestrone soup attempt, and I give all the credit to Stacey Snacks for suggesting the addition of a rind of parmesan cheese. Soooooooo much better.

This was a day for soup. Our town had a festival sponsored by the local businesses (the Christmas decorations are out in force already), and I got to stand around freezing while Munchkin happily leaped around inflatable castles like a maniac. Ah, energizer bunny. I had made the soup for lunch, but by the time I got back I wanted nothing more than another bowl. The cheese transformed a vegetable soup into a comfort dish.

1 large onion, diced
4-5 large garlic cloves, crushed and minced
4 carrots, chopped into circles
4 celery stalks, chopped
1 fennel bulb, chopped
6 white button mushrooms, sliced
1 rind of parmesan cheese
1 cans (~400gr) of cooked red kidney beans
1 can (~400gr) of cooked "young" red kidney beans
2 bay leafs
large handful of parsley, washed and tied into a bunch
handful of parsley leaves, finely chopped for serving
3 or 4 tbsp tomato paste
3 or 4 handfuls of dried small pasta shells
1/3 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese, plus a little more for serving
salt and pepper
olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
water (huh, what's that? is that organic?)

Fill a kettle with water and bring it to a boil while you put the soup components together.

Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in a soup pot on medium heat and saute the onions and garlic for several minutes, and then add the carrots, celery, mushrooms, fennel and the parmesan rind. Add a few pinches of salt and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.

Rinse the beans well in a collander and stir into the pot (Note: you can use two cans of red kidney beans, but I liked the texture difference of having normal and young kidney beans, the latter of which Goya sells as "small red beans" or Habichuelas Coloradas Pequenas).

Place the tied parsley on top, add the bay leaves, 6 or 7 whole peppercorns and the tomato paste, and then pour in the cup of white wine and the hot water from your kettle -- add water until the level is over the top of the vegetables. Stir gently, bring to a boil, and then reduce heat, cooking covered at a gentle simmer for 40 or 50 minutes. Give it an occasional stir and make sure the tomato paste has disintegrated nicely into the soup.

In another pot, boil your pasta shells in lightly salted water until al-dente and then transfer the pasta to the soup pot. Depending on the desired consistency for your soup, add water from the pasta pot. Cook the soup for another 10 minutes, tasting for salt and pepper. Right before serving, stir in the grated pecorino cheese.

Serve with a little freshly chopped parsley and grated pecorino cheese on top.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Farroto with walnuts and beans

This has been a busy work week, so it is time to catch up. First off, I was glad to see the very positive reception to my note to the Foodbuzz community, calling for restraint with the "send to a friend" feature, which was leading to email overload.

Second, I had a very enjoyable meetup with a great group of bloggers at Batali's Lupa restaurant. That's Kalofagas (whose being in town brought this gang together), Colloquial Cookin, Bacon & Rhubarb, Chefs Gone Wild, and Stacey Snacks below.
blogger lunch
It was a very friendly, unpretentious group of people and the conversation ranged all over the map. I had not been back to Lupa for about 8 or 9 years since its early days, and I have to say that I had an absolutely fabulous meal. The wine complemented my advil mercifully (I think it was a bit more walking than I was ready for, but I wasn't going to miss meeting this bunch!).

Now, on to a vegetarian dish that I made earlier this week, adapted from a recipe by Lorna Sass in the Rancho Gordo cookbook (I thought I would give it another shot). I have discovered I really like farro. I find this word "farroto" to be rather amusing -- it means farro cooked like risotto. I can't decide if it is silly, harmless or pretentious, but I do admit that it is catchy and makes me laugh.

farro risotto
Farroto with Walnuts, Pecorino and Beans

With the recipe, I had to change a few things (including not having a pressure cooker or scarlet runner or marrow beans), and the result was healthy, filling and had a nice, nutty flavor. I enjoyed it quite a bit (including the leftovers for lunch), but Lisl thought it needed to be punched up with something green, like a big handful of chopped parsely. I'm thinking maybe some parboiled baby spinach? Or perhaps an earthy porcini angle? I'd love to hear your ideas on improvements.


Farroto with Walnuts, Pecorino and Beans
serves 4

1/3 cup dried Mayacoba beans (or a favorite bean)
1/3 cup dried Vallarta beans (or a favorite bean)
1 1/4 cups semi-pearled farro
1/3 cup dry white wine or vermouth
2 to 3 cups vegetable broth (or chicken broth if you are not vegetarian)
2 cups reserved bean cooking liquid
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1/2 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
1/3 to 1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese (orig. recipe uses parmesan)
1/2 tsp saffron threads
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh rosemary (or thyme)
salt and ground pepper

After checking the beans for any small pebbles, place them in a pot and cover with cold water an inch over the top of the beans. Bring to a boil, then let simmer for 40 minutes to an hour, until tender. About 15 minutes before they are done, soak the farro in cold water in another bowl and then drain, discarding soaking liquid.

Remove the beans with a slotted spoon to cool, and leave two or three cups of the cooking liquid in the pot. Add 2 cups of vegetable or chicken broth and bring to a boil, then turn off the heat.

In a large saute pan with a high side (I like to use my large cast iron frying pan), heat up a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-low heat, then saute the onions until they start to turn translucent. Raise the heat to medium or just above, and add the farro, a pinch of salt, and stir for a minute or so. Then stir in the wine. Crumble in the saffron threads and begin stirring in the warm stock one ladle or 1/2 cupful at a time, treating it just like a normal risotto and not letting it get too dry. After about 3 1/2 cups of broth and 20-25 minutes, start checking to see if it is tender (but not mush). In my case, I found it took 4 cups and 30 minutes.

Turn the heat to its lowest setting, add another few pinches of salt and some grindings of pepper, and stir in the beans, walnuts, rosemary, and pecorino cheese. Taste for salt and pepper (gently stirring it in) -- it will probably want a healthy amount in all.

Serve with a little extra grated cheese on top, and a medium-bodied red wine, such as a Rhone.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hopkinson, Cookstr, and Recipe Links

It is time for another installment of musings and recipe links.

spices 1

Hopkinson and "mindless innovation"
My brain hit pause-and-spin when I read in NYTimes' piece on Simon Hopkinson: "he is driven nearly mad by carelessly peeled potatoes, badly washed lettuce and what he views as mindless innovation. 'Why on earth would anyone put cumin in mint sauce for lamb, or a Caesar dressing on bibb lettuce?' he asked, wincing in genuine pain. 'There’s no reason for it.'”

No reason for it? How exactly does Hopkinson think that our flavor combinations emerged in the first place? Did mirepoix emerge from Zeus' thigh like Athena? Or perhaps innovation emerged via casual collisions on ancient street corners: "Hey you got your honey in my yogurt!" "No, you got your yogurt in my honey!" (I wonder how many people have seen the Reeses Pieces candy ad to which I refer)

Rules of flavor have emerged through trial and error over centuries. With trial, comes error! It might be bad, but don't question the why. In ancient times, "fusion" happened through military expansion and today it continues via travel and trade. I do not believe that the door has been closed on originality or food innovation, either through flavor experimentation or today's molecular gastronomy investigations.


Cookstr & Online Recipes
The other week, the NYTimes also had an article on Cookstr, a new recipe website being started by a former publishing exec which pulls in recipes from the cookbook stars and in doing so hopes to sell more books.

I am firmly in the camp that the Internet, and social media in particular, sells more books. Cookbooks are a purchase of desire, not necessity. If it was the latter, all you would need is a copy of How To Cook Everything, or Joy of Cooking, or The Cook's Companion if you are down-under, and you would have more than enough to eat well. I believe that the blogosphere (and its hugely-increased word of mouth dynamic) is one of the strongest marketing channels for cookbooks. I have bought numerous books because bloggers I like have tried and shared recipes, and in doing so raved about a book. Word of mouth works because of trust; trust emerges through time and relationships, even tenuous ones. It means a lot more than a review from a stranger on Amazon.com.

While there are many places for recipes online, people still want to feel like they are making a "safe" bet before they labor over a stove, and nothing screams reputation more than a big name. I believe that Cookstr will do well and carve out a place for itself.

Looking ahead, I wonder if Cookstr be able to control the impulse to "shut down" the recipe sharing that goes on in the blogosphere. A natural inclination might be to become the "exclusive" source for their authors, or fight modifications like that misguided attempt by Cook's Country earlier this year. Over the last several years, traditional media, PR and marketing has been fearful, controlling, and at times even threatening to social media, but it is a bit like trying to stop the tide from coming in (not to mention an excellent exercise in how to alienate your customer base).

I think that Cookstr will be wise to embrace and incorporate social media into their planning and product. Like any startup, no doubt they shall begin small, but over time we shall see if Cookstr's founder, or his consultants, really understands this new medium he is embracing. I will note that Jamie Oliver did not come across well in his quote in the article. It smacked of arrogance and a refusal to acknowledge that his recipes come from a deep foundation of recipe sharing and evolution, but I'm going to give Jamie the benefit of the doubt since he seems like such a down-to-earth bloke and the wrong soundbites, out of context, can make anyone sound terrible.

Musings and misgivings aside, I look forward to Cookstr's launch and am hopeful that they will be an excellent online resource.

Recipe Links
All that talking and finally some links! Here are some of my favorite posts from the last several weeks. I seem to be pie crazy at the moment!