Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving Pt 3: Pomegranate & Arugula Salad

arugula salad

::: Constables Larder has moved to :::

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

::: Constables Larder has moved to :::

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

::: Constables Larder has moved to :::

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

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!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Onion, Leek and Taleggio Tart


::: Constables Larder has moved to :::

My cooking tends towards comfort food in general, and when I'm stuck inside on a rainy November day caught between a cold and recovery from surgery, I don't need any additional excuses to crave comfort food. At least I was back on feet and able to tackle something in the kitchen. My latest challenge is savory pastry, so I set my sights on making an onion tart. Over twitter, Kelly from Sass & Veracity suggested adding taleggio cheese, to which I whole-heartedly agreed, and Lisl was kind enough to pick some up for me today when she was out.

I decided to stick with Elise's method for making Pâte Brisée (the pastry) since it worked last time and I'm new enough to pastry making that if it ain't broke, I shouldn't try to fix it (don't worry, the tinkerer will emerge soon enough). I'll note that both times I have made this, the pastry needed more than 3 or 4 tbsp of very cold water. Tonight it was more like 7 or 8.

I made the pastry first because it needed to rest in the fridge for an hour or so, and then turned to the onions.

Making the Tart
3 or 4 leeks, cleaned, halved and finely sliced
2 or 3 large onions (spanish or vidalia), peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1 red (or green) jalapeno, seeded and finely diced
6 sprigs of fresh thyme (or a large pinch of dried thyme)
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter
a pinch of salt
fifth to a quarter lb taleggio cheese, cut into 1/2 cubes
1 egg yolk and 1 tbsp water for egg wash

Make sure your leeks are well cleaned. Remove the very bottom of the leek, and then cut off the top a few inches above where the white transitions to green. With your knife, halve or quarter the top several inches of the leek and place it under a running faucet, opening up the layers with your fingers to remove any grit. Then thinly slice. Prep the onions by peeling, halving, and then thinly slicing. (By the way, I once read that if you keep a piece of bread in your mouth while you chop onions, you won't have as severe a reaction. As far as I can tell, it is true!)

In a large, heavy bottomed pot (a pot with a high edge is easier than a saute pan here so that you don't spill as you stir), heat up the olive oil and butter over low heat. Add the leeks, onions, thyme sprigs and a pinch of salt and slowly cook, stirrying occasionally, for 30 minutes. Add the jalapeno, and continue cooking for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. You want the onions to be soft and nicely caramelized. Turn off the heat and let cool. Taste for salt and pepper, but I found that very little salt was needed. You want the onions to be moist but not liquidy, so drain any extra liquid.

Preheat the oven to 375F.

When the onions are cool, chop up your taleggio cheese and have ready. Then take out a large baking tray and place parchment paper on top. Wisk up your egg wash (optional) and have everything ready for when you take the pastry out of the fridge.

On a floured surface, roll out your pastry into a thin 14" circle. If it starts to stick to the surface below, lift it gently up (you can use the rolling pin to carefully "unroll" it from the surface) and dust a little more flour down. Carefully fold the pastry over onto itself (half) and then again (quarter), to move to the baking tray, and then unfold on the parchment paper.

Spread the taleggio cheese around, keeping within 2 inches from the outer edge, and then scoop the onion mixture on top. Fold the outside edge over, overlapping and gently pressing the folds onto the pastry below. Brush the egg wash on the top of the pastry and then place in the oven for 45 or 50 minutes. When golden brown, remove and cool on a rack (you do not want to leave on the tray and parchment paper or it might get soggy).

The dish was deliciously rich, and Lisl gave me a big nod of approval on the results of my pastry. Thanks for suggestion Kelly! It might not have been the prettiest pastry ever made, but comfort food isn't meant to be some dolled-up, foam-covered, high-falutin' thing after all!

onion tart


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Beef Stew (our version)

beef stew plated

::: Constables Larder has moved to :::

I am chained to the bed today, fending off percocet-induced fuzziness after minor surgery yesterday (not to worry, I should be up again in no time). Lisl had to stay home from work to help me, and one lovely side benefit is the wonderful smell of baking bread wafting through the house. In between attempts to get work done, I've been catching up on food blogs, flipping through cookbooks, twittering more than usual, and trying to think how I can be as funny as Zen. I've decided that I need to accept my limitations. :)

I also decided to update my beef stew recipe on here since I made a big batch right before heading to the hospital (when I was still allowed to lift my dutch oven) and took a few pics of the process.

Most food bloggers probably have their own favorite beef stew recipe; ours comes from my mother, and one day many years ago I took notes as she put it together. She cooks the dish by feel so it is never exactly the same, but the basics are as follows:

2 medium onions, diced
2 cloves minced garlic
10 mushrooms (white or cremini), thickly sliced
2 pounds round or chuck beef
5 carrots, thickly chopped
5 stalks celery, chopped
2 large russet potatoes, cut into large chunks
large handful of green beans, ends removed and cut into 1" pieces
1.5 cups frozen peas
3 bay leaves
1 cup red wine
2 tbsp tomato paste
very large handful of parsley, chopped
1 tbsp oregano
salt & pepper

Trim some of the excess fat off of the beef, but leave some to add richness. Cut the beef into cubes of preferred size (I do rough cubes of about an inch) and lightly flour on all sides.

beef stew 1

Start boiling a kettle of water (or a medium pot) and pre-heat oven to 315F.

In a large oven-proof pot such as a dutch oven, heat some olive oil and saute the onions and garlic over medium-low heat. As they start to turn translucent, add in your mushrooms. Cook for several minutes

Remove the onions and mushrooms to a large bowl, add a little more olive oil to the pot, and brown the beef in batches over slightly higher heat (adding olive oil as necessary). Just brown the beef, do not cook. Remove the beef to the bowl with onions and mushrooms, and deglaze the bottom of the pot with some of the boiling water.

Your kitchen should smell amazing at this point. :)

Turn the heat down to low, and then return the meat, onions and mushrooms to the pot. Add everything except for the green beans and peas. Add 1 tsp of salt (you'll probably want more, but can add to taste later). Add the wine and then pour in boiling water until the water level is just below the tops of the meat and vegetables.

beef stew 2

Bring to a bubbling simmer on the stovetop, then cover and place in the oven for an hour. After an hour, skim any excess oil off of the top, then stir in the green beans and peas, and taste for salt. Return to the oven for another 2 hours, periodically pulling it out for a stir. The longer you can slow-cook it, the thicker it should get as the vegetables break down and thicken the stew. (you don't want to try to thicken it by boiling off liquid)

beef stew 3

I wait to add pepper until serving, and will often add some freshly chopped parsley. While it is very good on its own, we often serve with egg noodles or rice.

A few notes:
If you need to cook your stew on the stovetop, do your best to keep the simmer very light, and stir regularly especially if you have a thin-bottomed pot, because you do not want the bottom of the stew to burn. That happened to me once and the burnt flavor permeated the whole thing!

You can totally mix up the amounts of each vegetable to fit your flavor profile, or add more red wine to make it richer, or use rosemary instead of oregano, etc. This last stew I made (which is where the photographs came from) included some san marzano tomatoes, chunks of celery root, a jalapeno pepper, and we did not have any peas. It was delicious, but the base recipe my family likes to work off of is as described above.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Taking on the pastry challenge, and thumbs up on a Gourmet Veg. recipe

I've decided that in my quest to make great comfort/peasant food, I must become good at pastry. Historically, I've always leaned on Lisl for that task, because really, what's not to avoid? There is so much conflicting advice out there! Use butter, no, vegetable shortening! Food processor, no, scraper, no, hands! Rest and chill, no, use directly! 2 to 4 tbsp of ice water max!!! but don't be surprised if you use more! Isn't this part of cooking meant to be a science?

Anyone who has read the last chapter of The Man Who Ate Everything knows what I am talking about -- he researched a zillion different permutations for the perfect pie crust, and ended up getting a master demonstration from a baking queen who threw it all out the window and took him by surprise with her technique.

I made two decisions. I decided to avoid Crisco and stick to butter, and I focused my reading on three sources: a Nov 2004 Gourmet article I had on the shelf, a post from Shuna at Eggbeater, and a post from Elise at Simply Recipes. Because Shuna's site was down earlier for some reason, tonight's attempt at flaky pastry focused on Elise's approach.

It wasn't pretty.

It was a bit stressful.

But it actually turned out quite tasty.

One small step towards conquering my discomfort with baking.

Lisl watched me work with bemused expression on her face, and some helpful advice. My target was a marvelous farro and mushroom pie recipe I saw in November's Gourmet, in their vegetarian Thanksgiving menu. There are lots of different directions you can take the filling -- I added spinach and parsley -- but the core recipe is really good. If you are vegetarian and wondering what to make this year, I give this two thumbs up. It was the first time I had worked with farro and I quite liked it.

Gourmet's Farro and Mushroom Pie

farro pie

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Chickpea Stew with Coconut Milk

chickpea kale stew

For Sunday's dinner, I wanted to go vegetarian and hearty. This combination of chickpeas, potatoes, cauliflower, kale, and coconut milk really hit the spot. This was a real stick-to-the-ribs meal for a chilly fall evening.

Served 4

1/2 lb dried chickpeas
1 green pepper, de-seeded, de-stemmed and quartered
3 cloves of garlic, peeled

1 onion (spanish or vidalia), chopped
1/2 head of cauliflower, chopped into 1/4 to 1/2 inch pieces
2 medium red potatoes, chopped into 1/4 to 1/2 inch pieces
6 or 7 stalks of fresh kale, loosely chopped
14 oz coconut milk
1 to 1 1/2 cups of chickpea cooking broth or vegetable broth
1 tbsp tomato paste
10 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tsp of salt, then to taste
ground pepper
hot red pepper flakes

After washing your dried chickpeas and checking for small pebbles, place in a medium sauce pan and fill with water 1 1/2 inches above the top of the chickpeas. Add in the green pepper and garlic, and bring to a boil. Simmer for several hours until tender, then save two cups of the cooking liquid, drain the rest and discard the pepper and garlic. (Note: you can soak the chickpeas overnight to speed this up, or just use canned, but make sure you thoroughly wash the chickpeas if you use canned)

Preheat oven to 350F.

In a large oven-proof pot, saute the onion on medium heat, then add the potatoes. Let this cook for several minutes, then add the cauliflower and the sprigs of thyme. Cook for a few more minutes, and then add the kale, coconut milk (make sure it is well stirred/shaken), the tomato paste, ground cumin, and 1 tsp of salt. We used about 1 1/2 cups of broth, but if you are using canned chickpeas or less potato, you might want to start with 1 cup and add as needed. Cover and place in the oven for an hour or so, checking periodically to give it a light stir. If it looks too dry, add a little more broth. Grind in a little fresh pepper and check for salt before serving. Finally, add some heat by sprinkling red hot pepper flakes on top when you serve.

Notes: if everyone likes heat, I definitely would stew it with jalapenos as well. I am thinking this might be good with some smoked paprika but have not tried that yet.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Meatloaf Meets Thanksgiving Stuffing

meatloaf cooked and cut

I love my mother's meatloaf recipe. Maybe that is not unusual, but I always find myself satisfied when I make it, and I am invariably disappointed when I try meatloaf in restaurants. The recipe for the original recipe is posted here, and I hope you try it.

Tonight however, as a prelude to the looming Turkey Day here in the US, I changed things up a bit and brought hints of Thanksgiving "stuffing" into my meatloaf. The reaction was gratifyingly positive, so I deemed it blog-worthy. Apologies for the less-than-great photo above, but it gives you a sense of texture.

(Note: what kind of stuffing do I love? It comes from a 1973 NYTimes recipe for Thanksgiving turkey that my mother cut out and we have been making ever since, because it is just that good!)

1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground pork
1 large onion (spanish), finely chopped
8 white button mushrooms, finely chopped
3 stalks of celery, finely chopped
10 large black olives, chopped
1/3 cup walnuts, chopped
1 tbsp fresh sage, finely chopped (if you love sage, add more)
1 cup finely chopped parsley
1 tbsp worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp ketchup or tomato paste
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg

Pre-heat oven to 425F.

Heat up a splash of olive oil in a saute pan, and saute the onions until transparent. Add the mushrooms and cook for several minutes, and then add the celery. Cook for another 5 to 10 minutes, then turn off the heat and let cool.

In a large bowl, combine everything but the bacon. (note: I mix it all up with my hands, well-washed before and after)

In a large baking dish, shape your meatloaf. I usually mold it into a roughly-rectangular shape about 1.5 to 2 inches high and 4 or 5 inches wide. Then drape slices of bacon across the top.

meatloaf prep

Place in the oven, and after 10 minutes, turn the heat down to 350F. Cook for another 50 to 60 minutes -- if the meatloaf is firm, it should be done.

We served this with a potato, brussel sprout and celeriac gratin (in milk) -- good, but I want to continue to tinker with that recipe and improve it before blogging.

potato gratin

Stewed Meatballs with Arugula

stewed meatballs

::: Constables Larder has moved to :::

What's not to love about meatballs stewed in tomato sauce? It's a timeless combination, no? I love to cook variations of a recipe I originally picked up from Jamie Oliver (I'm a big fan of his cookbooks). My original adaptation of the recipe is posted here. The other day, I remade it with some changes to the meatballs -- there are so many directions you can go and still have it be delicious, as long as you don't use spices that will conflict with your tomato sauce. The other major difference was the use of a big bunch of arugula instead of basil to add more body (I'm guessing that kale would be good as well).

For this variation, I created a simple tomato sauce that combined 20 oz of peeled san marzano tomatoes with some sauted onions and garlic, ground savory, dried oregano, a splash of red wine vinegar, and seasoned with salt and pepper.

1+ lb of ground beef
2 slices of italian / farm bread, pulsed into breadcrumbs
1/2 cup of finely chopped parsely
1 tbsp dried mexican oregano
pinch of hot red pepper flakes
healthy pinch of salt
1 egg

Combine everything and mold the mixture into meatballs. I made 9, each about an inch and a half in diameter. Then brown them in an oven-proof pan and then turn off the heat when browning is complete.

meatballs formed

Once the meatballs are ready to go and the tomato sauce meets your approval, turn off the heat to the tomato sauce and stir in a large bunch of torn arugula leaves (my guess is about 5 oz worth - considerably more than the amount of basil that went into the original recipe).

Pour the tomato sauce over the meatballs and add some chunks of mozarella cheese.

meatballs final prep

Place in an oven preheated to 400F and cook for 20 minutes.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Fennel Gratin, Roast Chicken, and a night to remember

fennel gratin

::: Constables Larder has moved to :::

At 11pm, I felt relief. A few minutes later, I felt admiration for McCain showing his true colors by conceding with dignity. Then Barack stepped up and said what we all knew was true: tonight we have only opened the door -- now the hard work truly begins. We shall see what kind of President Barack Obama really becomes, but I am glad this country chose hope and change. Americans believe that our country is a beacon, and it is time we earned that belief once more. This country has a lot to do and fix, but tonight, I am happy.

But wait, food what when how?

Tonight we made two dishes: a roasted chicken stuffed with olives and potatoes from Stacey at Stacey Snacks, and a fennel gratin from an Alice Waters recipe. Both were absolutely delicious.

Fennel Gratin, slightly adapted from Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food

2 large fennel bulbs
2 tbsp butter
1 1/2 tbsp flour
1/2 cup milk
1/3 cup fennel cooking liquid
pinch of ground nutmeg
pinch of hot hungarian paprika
pinch of hot red pepper flakes
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 tbsp of minced fennel frond

Cut the fennel bulbs in half and then into wedges. Mince up a small amount of the fennel fronds and set aside. Boil the wedges in salted water for 5 minutes. Remove the fennel with a slotted spoon and set aside. Reserve 1/3 cup of the cooking liquid.

Next, make a white sauce by melting the butter on medium heat, adding the flour, and cooking for a couple minutes, whisking constantly. Then slowly add the milk and fennel cooking liquid in small amounts, whisking as you go. Once the liquid is mixed in, lower the heat to a very soft simmer and cook for another 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in a couple of pinches of salt, and the nutmeg, paprika, pepper flakes, and parmesan (note: Waters uses cayenne pepper instead of the hot paprika and pepper flakes).

Butter a baking dish and spread out the fennel wedges, and spoon the sauce on top. Bake in an oven set at 375F or 400F for 30 minutes or so (note: Waters calls for 375F, but we had the oven set to 400F since we were also finishing the chicken roast). When the tops are browned, remove, sprinkle with a little salt, pepper and the fennel fronds, and serve.

Comment: I found that the amounts for the white sauce led to a thick sauce that did not cover all of the fennel, but that actually ended up being a good thing, keeping the dish from being too rich and allowing you as the eater to choose what kind of mouthful you wanted.

chicken roast

The other part of the meal was a roast chicken with potatoes, olives, capers, rosemary and other good stuff. We spotted this recipe on Stacey Snacks (link), and Lisl prepped and cooked the dish. It was marvelous. Follow that link to the recipe, and listen when Stacey says to make sure that the potatoes are cooked before you put it all in the oven, because the potatoes stuffed inside the chicken will not cook all that much, even in the oven for 1 hr 15 minutes at 400F.

Happy election day.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Beef Pot Roast in Beer

braised beef sliced

::: Constables Larder has moved to :::

Yesterday I decided to do another braise, and since so many of my creations lately have been tomato-based, I decided to riff off of the spice rub from a recent recipe from Sass & Veracity, her Beef Chuck with Vegetables in Red Wine. I used a dark beer and had a few other alterations, but the direction definitely came from Kelly.

But first I wanted to touch on an interesting discussion
that Kelly kicked off a few days later that was focused on food photography/blogging and revolving around "food photo snobbery". You should read her blog and the comments it elicited, but to pull a few lines, Kelly wrote: "The problems begin when a judgment is made about the quality of the dish by looking at the photo alone. If this is all about photos, then why post a recipe." She also noted to me "If one is taking the time to think about content and "readers" are only scanning the pretty photos, then blogging becomes as impersonal as a pretty cookbook can be."

I can't resist going big picture for a second. This notion of quality is a recurring one in this era of online creation. When blogging first gained traction, there were (and are) debates over writing quality. YouTube, Flickr, and Second Life -- wherever there is "user generated content" -- all spur discussions of good versus ugly.

I love this video by Ze Frank (Internet artist/philosopher for lack of a better description), where he's riffing on "ugly" MySpace pages, and how the lowered cost of creation tools is opening up design to everyone, which is a very cool thing. (Ze is a trip of non-stop ideas -- I once shared a taxi with him on the way to a conference and thought my head would explode, but in a good way).

When it comes to food blogs, I appreciate authors who put effort into their pictures (and I count Kelly as one of those). Food photography is damned hard. I'm fighting with it constantly, especially since I do not use fancy equipment of any kind. I like a blog post that shares not just via words and measurements, but through images as well. I've probably driven half of you away by this point with all this text and just one picture so far! But I sally on! My personal preference leans towards more natural photos, just as my food preferences lean towards "peasant food" rather than foams and haute cuisine.

Photography is an art form, and as such quality is a subjective thing. Everyone should have confidence in their own subjective tastes, and ignore self-appointed critics. Look to improve, but not to be something you are not! Robert Henri, an influential early-20th-century American painter (he led the Ash Can School / Group of 8), nailed it when he said of art: "The man who has honesty, integrity, the love of inquiry, the desire to see beyond, is ready to appreciate good art. He needs no one to give him an art education; he is already qualified." (I should note that the Group of 8 got hammered by the art establishment of the time, so it's no surprise that Henri was saying "stuff your pedigree!")

Now, speaking of un-fancy photos, on to the pot roast, I mean braise, I mean whatever the heck it is! This one spent part of the time in the oven, and then was booted to the top of the stove to make room for Lisl's loaf of bread. If it is both a braise and a pot roast, that make it a broast?

And for the record, I find that it is very hard to take pretty photos of braises once plated. I tried for this meal and they were so damn boring, I left them off.

Beef Pot Roast in Beer

2 lb beef chuck roast
2 tsp coarse sea salt
2 tsp peppercorns
1 tsp mustard seed
1 tsp sweet paprika
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp brown sugar
6 slices smoked bacon, sliced into 1/2 inch pieces
base of a bunch of celery stalks
1 dark beer (I used a stout)
1 cup of water
2 large onions, loosely chopped
2 bay leaves
4 cloves of garlic, peeled
4 large carrots, peeled
Handful of medium red potatoes, peeled

Preheat oven to 350F. In a mortar, grind up your mustard seeds and black pepper, then mix in the other spices (salt, paprika, oregano, brown sugar). Rub the mix all over your roast.
braised beef rub

In a dutch oven on the stove top, cook the bacon until almost crispy, then remove. Sear the roast on both sides and remove, and deglaze the pot with the beer and water.

Add the roast back in, and sprinkle the bacon and onions around. I also chopped the "foot" off of some stalks of celery to add flavor, and tossed in an extra celery stalk, 4 cloves of garlic, and a couple bay leaves.
braised beef start

Let this cook for 20-30 minutes at 350F, then lower to 290F. At the hour mark, flip the roast. Let this cook for another 2 to 3 hours, flipping the roast once more, then basting it every 40 to 60 minutes or so. Keep an eye that the liquid doesn't get too low, and add some stock or water if it does (with the heat set this low, I did not have to add more). Add the carrots and potatoes with about 1 1/2 hours left and turn them about halfway through.

braised beef done

As noted, my pot was booted from the oven but I kept it warm at the lowest setting on our gas stovetop. I removed the roast, carved it across the grain (top picture), and served on a bed of egg noodles with the potatoes and carrots, generously spooning the fabulous liquid from the pot on top.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

pumpkin seeds

I love roasted pumpkin seeds and for some reason this is always the only day of the year I do it. Today, as an experiment, I tried the method from Simply Recipes where you boil the seeds in highly-salted water first, and then roast at 400F. This provides a "more balanced salt distribution," as Heidi put it.

The result was good, I will say that. I split my seeds into three batches, one which was roasted with no additional spices, one which was dusted with a mix of ground coriander seeds, ground cumin seeds, and ground cayenne pepper, and one that was dusted with curry powder.

However, I learned that I don't want more balanced salt distribution! I not only love the look of the salt crystals on the roasted seeds, I love the haphazard explosion of salt you get when you pop one (or 10) in your mouth. So in future I am going back to my usual method of cleaning the seeds, seasoning them, and roasting them at 375F in a touch of olive oil.

Happy Halloween ya'll. I hope you had a fun one. Below are the two victims who gave up their seeds for our enjoyment. I love the little guy on the left -- he was modeled after a pumpkin drawing that munchkin gave to me.