Monday, September 28, 2009

Cold day, warm soup

I don't actually like soup very much, but it sounded like just the thing for this blustery day. It also helped me use up some left overs.

Lurking in our freezer were two unloved Smith's Cheddarbest, fantastic sausages left over from a fantastic summer grilling evening. I had taken them down to thaw a couple days ago and hadn't had much of a plan for them.

Also hanging out was the left over potato cauliflower gratin. Ah-ha! I decided to puree the gratin with some milk, hot sauce, salt and pepper (has it been underseasoned this whole time, or was it the puree that made it seem bland?) and call it soup. I browned the sausages in a skillet, cut them into coins and tossed them into the soup. Mmmmmmmmh...

The sausages were a wonderful textural and flavor punctuation to the soup, which was creamy and hearty. I liked particularly the juiciness of the sausage in with a bite of the rest. I felt like this was survival soup. We could eat this after a day of trudging through the snowy forest looking for lost hikers, after reviving ourselves with a brandy. It would stick to ribs, warm the core, fill the belly and cause happy full-tummy sleeps.

As a side note, I've been sleeping much better since the doctor gave me cough syrup with codine in it. Whew! That's potent stuff. Other than strange dreams about roasting tiny lizards on tiny spits, it's incredibly restful.

But back to tonight. Also, in a fit of practicality, I've planned, shopped and prepped a week's worth of meals. Things are labeled and baggied, ready to be sauteed or braised or baked. Ha! I still have meatballs hanging over my head, though. Not literally, of course. A good friend had surgery today and I wanted to bring over some meatballs later in the week. She and her husband are a bit picky, so quiche, lasagna and casserole were all out. I decided to make meatballs and freeze them individually, and bring both gravy and marinara (for the swedish meatball type dish or the italian) to give them variety and choice. I now have all the ingredients, but didn't have time tonight. Cold weather saps my energy. Cold weather and a 14 month old, that is.

I got a bunch of ground beef with the intention of making meatballs for myself, too. I kinda wish I had one of those small, spring loaded ice creams scoops for helping me portion these things out. Meatball uniformity is a problem for me. They start normal but then get bigger and bigger and bigger. Then I overcorrect and make them too small. This doesn't make for even cooking time across the dish. Oh well, I'll just do my best!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Calling steelhead fishermen

Holy cow, this is what you all have been pulling from the waterways around here? Well, why didn't you say so?!

We found this beautiful steelhead trout fillet at Sam's Club and couldn't resist. The color is like salmon. Plus, $6 for a big piece is a really good price. We decided to go for it and I am so glad we did!

I made a kind of mojo in which to marinate the fish. The zest of an orange and its juice as well, sambol olek, fresh parsley, basil and oregano. I added a tiny pinch of salt, too, to round out the flavors. I didn't have much time to marinate--maybe 15 minutes while I prepped the rest of the meal.

Citrus with fish, of course, can make a ceviche. People go on and on about how ceviche isn't raw because the acid in the citrus "cooks" the fish. This makes me crazy. Of course it's still raw, people! Did you apply heat? No! Darling Husband informs me it's a similar chemical process to cooking. However, when people say they're skeeved about eating raw fish, I find it misleading to tell them not to worry because it's cooked, really.
But I digress. The rest of the meal was wild rice (a mix, from a box) and baked acorn squash. I seasoned the squash with cayenne, chilli pepper, moroccan spice and pepper, then crusted brown sugar and topped with a pat of butter.
I fried the fish in some more butter, allowing it to get a nice crust on the one side. I had removed the skin with a fillet knife. Fish skin really, really grosses me out. Fortunately it's a snap to remove.
You make a small cut at the tail end, through the flesh but not the skin. This gives you a handle to hold on to. You place your knife facing away from you, just at the place where the skin meets the flesh and sort of pull the skin/push the knife/gently sweep the blade in arcs. It's quite impressive but really simple to do.
The fish was wonderful, firmly textured, very flavorful and not at all fishy. I was a bit proud of the fresh tastes of the marinade, too, and the nice herbal pop.
Now we must befriend steelhead fishermen to hook us up with more.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Comfortable cabbage

Sometimes some pretty wonderful dishes come together without much thought. We had fennel that we needed to use, but hadn't fully decided on how. We almost did a fennel and orange salad (a classical pairing) but decided we needed a main course instead.

Fennel to me goes well with sausage, as it is often a flavoring in sausage. So first, I browned some sage flavored sausage. Then I removed it from the pan and used the drippings to saute some onion (always a good bet) and the fennel, which Darling Husband sliced on the mandolin.

A note of caution about the mandolin: it is a wonderful tool, but all too easily it lulls you into a false sense of security. Always use the guard!! Pampered Chef actually makes one that you can't use without the guard. Maybe the design people at PC heard about my sister slicing off the tip of her finger making eggplant parm. Perhaps they, like me, have the image of her fingertip laying on the cutting board permanently seared into their cerebral mash. Or, maybe their lawyers just thought it was smart.

Back to the dish. We needed something to bulk up the dish and cut the assertiveness of the fennel, which could get old if overused. In went sliced cabbage. To help it all braise (though it was softening nicely) I added a bit of chicken stock. Meanwhile, I made little radiator style pasta in some more chicken broth, in order to impart as much flavor as possible. Combined with the cabbage/sausage/fennel mixture, the radiators had just the right amount of toothiness, with nooks and crannies galore. Excellent mouth feel. Warm, cozy, flavorful and fall like.

Ah, but I almost forgot about the cauliflower! I did, actually, make my cauliflower and potato gratin, on the previous evening. It was very nice, although my potatoes were a bit toothier than I might have wanted them to be (i.e., I undercooked them). I used a layer of club crackers for a crust, which I quite enjoyed. My mother also got cauliflower and has yet to fully plumb its culinary usefulness, as it's still sitting in her fridge. They were 2/$5 at Wegman's; the only proper course of action is to pick the biggest one so you're getting your money's worth. In this case, each head seemed bigger than the next. The one I picked seemed robust and I was pleased with it. It made a gigantic amount of cheesy veggie fun, so we're eating it for lunches.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Update for the curious

Still haven't made the cauliflour. Did get around to parboiling it, though... Got some sort of lurgy, a malaise, a plague that involves coughing until incontinence threatens and I can't catch my breath.

You're welcome for sharing.

Didn't even eat dinner last night, let alone cook. I had higher hopes for tonight but Baby Girl had other plans. Tomorrow? Hmmm... better cook 'em or freeze 'em! Wish me luck.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Late night dinners

Growing up, dinner was at 7pm and we all ate together. If you were going to be late (for a good reason... like maybe a piano lesson or something) we generally held dinner until we were all there. If my dad got caught up mowing the lawn, dinner would sometimes be very late. When I was little little, I'm sure I got mine earlier, but I just remember how very important it was.

Now, Darling Husband and I always eat dinner together, but Baby Girl often gets hers early. Partially because she needs to be going to bed early and partially because she's not big on table food or, well, letting me cook. (She's very into bananas, yogurt, bread, graham crackers, corn on the cob and those little fruit cups of peaches. She puts up with other things.) Darling Husband doesn't get home until six at best, which really pushes things back. We usually eat after she's in bed.

That being said, lately dinner here is unusually late. Darling Husband is in a play in a neighboring town, about 45 minutes away. This isn't as odd as it seems, as he works in that town and commutes daily. But it does mean that there isn't time for him to come home between work and rehearsal. This is the third night this week where we're not seeing him until after 10pm. Whew! I'm trying to be creative about meals. We had chicken patty parmasean sandwiches one night, meatloaf and mashed potatoes another. Tonight we were to have cauliflower and potato gratin. I haven't made it yet.

Part of the reason is I am sniffy and coughing and tired. Part of the reason is I took Baby Girl to the playground and we both got worn out. Part of the reason is Baby Girl chose tonight for her first real temper tantrum, and it took more out of me than the other parts combined.

I don't know if I'll get around to it. The cauliflower is already prepped, but I need to parboil it along with the potatoes (which aren't prepped). Then I'll make a cheesy bechamel and put it all into a casserole with crumbled club crackers on top. Into the oven it will go.

Ugh, it sounds so good but I am seriously wishing for a magic wand right now. Who knows? It might be lunch tomorrow instead.

Last night, Darling Husband made delicatta squash ravioli in a walnut sage brown butter. From scratch. Oh, it was heavenly! He used wonton wrappers for the ravioli, which makes a nicely light pasta. After roasting the delicatta, he pureed it with garlic (don't know what else) and spooned it onto a wonton. Before the top wonton was sealed on with egg wash, he put a pinch of asiago cheese. He served it with a fresh wine and cheese sausage, which he grilled. Needless to say, we didn't have any leftovers.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Vegan meat sauce

We accidentally made an amazing vegan meat sauce the other day. How does one accidentally make sauce? That's where happy accidents come in. I'd love to say I planned it out, but I actually only meant to make a fresh, summery marinara to serve over angel hair.

I started off with a miropoix, cooked until brown and caramelized and wonderful. I learned this trick from Anne Burrell on her show, Secrets of a Restraunt Chef. She kinda bothers me, but she has good tips, too. (I like her better when she's soux cheffing on Iron Chef). It adds amazing depth to almost anything, in particular tomato sauces. To this we added fresh tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped.

I follow the tried and true canning trick to remove tomato skins. You score an X on the tomato bottom then drop it into boiling water for about 20 or 30 seconds, then plunge into ice water. By the time you get a few into the water, the skins are loose enough to come off with barely any effort. Apparently this works with peaches, too, but I've never tried it.

Anyway, as we were doing all this with the tomatoes, the ones in the pan cooked down a bit further than we wanted them to. We added red wine to deglaze and to add liquid. Long story short, the sauce was almost burgundy dark, incredibly complex and wonderfully rich. It almost seemed unctuous, though there wasn't any meat at all. We threw it a bunch of fresh oregano and basil, and that helped to bring it a bit further towards the fresh. It was more of a fall dish than intended, but it was frankly incredible. :o) Serendipity in the kitchen.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Breakfast Place

Today we went for Sunday breakfast at a new place. Well, it's new to us. I'm not sure how long it's been there, but it seems to be where it's at, a hip and happening joint.

The Breakfast Place is on the East side, just off the Bayfront at 38th and McClelland. It shares a parking lot with Nunzi's. A friend of ours told us about it, but warned us that the line can be out the door at times. They weren't kidding! We waited maybe 5 minutes or so for a table to be cleaned, but just after we got there the line did indeed go out the door. There's no giving your name and sitting outside, either. It's "Please Wait Here to be Seated" and they're not joking.

Who wants breakfast? Well, families do. Older folks do. Drunk people do after the bars close... so The Breakfast Place is open during the week from 5:30am to 1pm, and on the weekend from 11pm until 1pm (2pm on Sundays). I think this is brilliant. A gentleman in line behind us said he plows snow and in the winter he's going to come here when his shift is over to warm up.

Speaking of which, the coffee is really tasty and the wait staff (all women that I saw) are always circling with pots of it. There's a diner counter area and one large seating room. The walls are covered with sports themed pictures, including some local stuff, but not nearly as kitchy as TGI Friday's or Applebee's. It's a bit old fashioned, but very comforting. It's not trying to be trendy or edgy or avant garde or anything. It's just trying to serve good, wholesome food at really good prices.

The menu is pretty straight forward; they have breakfast, obviously. The only non-breakfast items I saw were under the category "Breakfast Munchies" and included greek dogs, greek fries, and six packs of greek dogs or burgers to go. The rest of the menu was omelets, combo platters, side items, and breakfast sandwiches. I was really tempted by the grilled corned beef hash, but went instead for the fritatta. It was a three egg scrambled omelet with sausage, potatoes, onion, peppers, mushrooms, mozzarella and banana pepper rings. With toast. Whew! It was huge! The menu offered a half portion, but I was pretty hungry and decided to go for it. Well, Baby Girl excitedly helped me eat it and we still only made it through half! It was delicious, with very finely crumbled sausage insinuating itself throughout every bite. The eggs were mostly there as a binder, as there was way too much "stuff" to be contained. Banana peppers, an interesting choice, provided a nice, bright, sour note that offset the sweet flavors of the caramelized onions and peppers well.

Darling Husband opted for the Italian French Toast, made with dense Italian bread and served with eggs. He loved how well executed it was, with the chewy crust and moist, custardy center which, nevertheless, was not soggy. I managed to snag a bite before he happily gobbled it all up and I can attest it was darned good french toast.

Baby Girl, I must mention, had french toast sticks. This was the first time we've ordered off the menu for her at a restaurant. She loved them! I snuck a bite and they were pretty good. I think they might even have been homemade, considering the variation in size and shape. It was especially nice that they put a rush on her order so she could happily chow down while we sipped coffee and waited patiently.

And because I am her mother I must take a moment to brag. When our meal was just about finished, an older couple sitting next to us got up to leave. The gentleman made a point of coming by and complimenting us on Baby Girl's behavior, adding that she's one sweet, good little girl we've got there. That's particularly great to hear because we found two molars poking out today and she can't have been feeling too hot. On the plus side, there were lots of people ready to smile at her and wave, so she was pretty occupied.

Everyone was friendly. Most of the waitresses were young and wearing tie dyed shirts with markered on logos of The Breakfast Place, made to look a bit like team shirts for a sport. Was this because football season just kicked off? I don't know. I was impressed by the one girl's star tatoos up the inside of her forearm. Our actual waitress was "of a certain age" and looked just like you'd imagine a career diner waitress to be. She had on a plain t-shirt with the restaurant's name on it. Despite the line literally 6 feet from us, we never once felt rushed or hurried along. The staff was welcoming and accommodating, the food served hot and in a timely fashion.

I whole heartedly recommend trying out this breakfast spot. What's that, you say? You'd rather have a meatball omelet from that other famous after-bar breakfast place? Well, this breakfast spot has a meatball omelet, too.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Posting hiatus

You might think, if I'm not posting, I'm neither cooking nor eating. You'd be wrong. You might think I'm sick or super busy. Nope, not that, either. I'm even making interesting things; I just haven't much felt like blogging.

Sorry, all you loyal readers. I guess I'm in a little slump... blogs are not the place for self pity.


Actually, to be more accurate, this blog isn't the place for self pity. So I won't moan on, but instead I will vow to make more of an effort to blog. I enjoy it, you see. And while I haven't gotten many comments in a while, I believe others enjoy it, too.

Tonight, we made buffalo shrimp salad. We had buffalo flavored shrimp for the first time at Joe Root's Grill, and realized instantly that this was brilliant. Why everyone doesn't do this is beyond us, except (like us) it probably just hadn't occurred to them. We make a home made version by buying popcorn shrimp frozen, baking them, then tossing in wing sauce. Tonight, we also made shoe string fries and put both of those over a bed of baby romaine mix lettuces. We studded the salad with yellow pear tomatoes from our garden and crisp slices of local cucumber. Shredded cheddar and big croutons rounded out the dish. Darling Husband squeezed blue cheese dressing on his; I had ranch. A nice, refreshing dish after a long but fun day.

Did you know they had a petting zoo at Frontier Park today? Baby Girl got a pony ride and pet a pig.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The capers made it.

Tonight we made tuna burgers. To paraphrase Guy Fieri, a tuna cake is tiny but a tuna burger is huge! We put combined canned tuna, capers (yay!), freshly shredded parmasean, crumbled club crackers, an egg, salt and pepper (of course) and some mayo. Then we shaped the mixture into patties. We fried these in a pan and served on toasted buns with a spicy aioli and finely chopped scallions.

I think I mentioned I'm letting myself make mayonnaise based sauces here and there. For a long time, I avoided them because Darling Husband was very against them. I decided somewhat recently that he doesn't have to eat them, but I can enjoy them all the same. Tonight's was made with a thai chili pepper from the garden and some white balsamic vinegar added to the mayo. It was thin, tangy, spicy and briny tasting. It made a nice counterpoint to the tuna, I felt. I did get one bite with way too much spice in it--but that's the nature of the beast!

I really enjoyed the burgers, particularly the crunchy crust from letting them in the pan for a while. It was a nice texture counterpoint to the fairly creamy burger. The capers were fantastic, salty little pockets of flavor studded throughout. Great job to Darling Husband for thinking of them. They were actually best when they were on the very outside and got fried themselves. What a cool garnish that would be for something!

Capers are just cool little things. They are the pickled buds of the caper bush, which I understand to be a prickly thing which produces beautiful flowers (see picture) as well as fruit called caper berries. My father puts pickled caper berries in his martinis sometimes. The taste of capers reminds me of steak tartare as a child.

Making these burgers again, I'd probably add some fresh greens to the sandwich, such as bibb lettuce. I might also add some fresh herbs to the patties, and make sure they're not too thick so as to preserve the crunchy crust to soft middle ratio.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Gumbo, a taste of the bayou

I have no way of knowing how authentic our gumbo is, so I don't really care. In fact, our gumbo tastes different from itself, even. All I know is our gumbo is good.

Tonight darling husband whipped up a weeknight version. He made a roux with butter, which made wonderful popcorn smells through the house. As this is New Orleans cuisine, he used trinity instead of mirepoix (onion, celery and bell pepper as opposed to onion, celery and carrot) and garlic, of course. Chicken thighs, andouille sausage, jalepeno and okra, of course. He also used seafood stock, which was a wonderful addition. From the spice cabinet came a couple of bay leaves, salt and pepper and some file powder.

It bubbled away, looking like primordial lava, but didn't thicken as much as we expected. No matter. It was more soupy than stewy, which allowed plenty of broth to drink or to be soaked up in hunks of stale baguette. Very comforting and filling. Thanks for dinner, honey!

Feeling better food

I think it's neat that everyone's mom makes them special things for when they're sick. But does everyone's mom make the same thing? My mom and my mother in law both make people noodles with a little sprinkle cheese. That's for the I'm-feeling-some-better-but-I'm-not-sure-what-would-be-good-for-dinner dinner. Is this universal?

Here are ones I can think of:
  • Mint tea for almost everything, but especially tummy upsets.
  • Flat coke for nausea.
  • Ginger ale for nausea.
  • Noodles with sprinkle cheese.
  • A hardboiled egg, mashed with a fork, with a little toast.

My mom has been known to make ginger tea out of fresh ginger peels. It's strong and bitey, but tasty and soothing. My family makes tea as a kind of panacea, actually. Mint tea especially. You have an upset stomach? Mint tea. Sore throat? Mint tea. Sinus infection? Severed limb? Plague? Mint tea.

Emotional problems get mint tea, too. I guess it's less what's being given and more that it's your mom who's giving it. I wonder what my daughter will grow up thinking is feel better food?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

My silly mum

My mom is an awesome cook. All her friends know it, all the family. People comment on it all the time. There are probably aliens on Neptune who are jonesing for an invite. Even she knows it, but she is too modest to let herself remember sometimes. My father has often commented that eating out isn't much of a treat for him, as he eats better at home than he would out. This is a pretty cool compliment, but an accurate one.

Imagine my surprise tonight when my mom confessed that she hesitates to invite me to dinner now that she reads my blog. "I don't cook all gourmet like you do. I just use simple things," she protested. I was surprised and a little sad, because I love eating dinner there and I wouldn't ever want her to feel bad about herself or her hostess skills.

She is the ultimate hostess. She always makes too much food, and it's always so fabulous. She makes sure to account for people's tastes and sensitivities, and makes sure people feel welcomed and at home. Food brings people together, and my mother is the master at this.

I remember reading something Tony Bourdain wrote in A Cook's Tour about what chefs crave. Apparently, chefs play "what would you choose for your last meal?" type games a lot. His point was that each of these chefs, with access to all kinds of foodie frippery, chose something simple. A greasy cheeseburger. A slice of foie gras perfectly seared. A hunk of fresh, crusty bread with a little marrow and a bit of sea salt. (I said simple, not necessarily un-lavish) He said not one of them listed the tasting menu off some posh restaurant.

Do we always cook fancy? No. I might not blog about those nights so much, although I think I do a pretty good job of balancing it out. Darling Husband and I enjoy cooking, coming up with new tastes and experimenting with new ingredients. It's a hobby.

Besides, what's so wrong with simple? I think the simple things are sometimes harder to do well. Rocco DiSpirito espouses this, and I agree. If you're making chili, you can hide imperfections. Lots of tastes and textures can be like a magician's show, distracting your attention from the undesirable. Or, if you like, like a symphonic orchestra. The fifth violin in the section can miss a note or two or, even, stop playing a bit and you wouldn't necessarily hear it. If the soloist does it, or part of a trio, it's much more noticeable. Actually, there's a well worn culinary joke that says the same thing; roughly, that anything tastes good with the right sauce.

My mom does simple well and she does complicated well. She doesn't need to hide it in a sauce, but the sauces she makes kick ass.

For dinner tonight, my mom made artichokes with garlic aioli, grilled chicken marinated in lemon juice and tarragon and fresh beans from her garden. Super fancy? No. Super tasty? Yes. Simple? Maybe, but then again I wouldn't have thought of it that way. The chicken had wonderful brightness and depth (must've marinated a long time), the beans still had the snap of freshness but tenderness as well. The artichokes, a favorite of mine, were not at all water logged (as can so easily happen) and tasted sweet and tender. Her aioli was not harsh, as mine can be, but wonderfully balanced. We also had corn bread from Wegman's, bought my my father and consumed happily by Baby Girl as well as us.

I may be in big trouble for writing this without first letting mom know, but I should be in bigger trouble if I get too big for my britches. I still have a ton to learn from her, in the kitchen and out. (Remember when I made the chicken soup? I texted her to find out how to do it...) I love you, mom. Please keep inviting me to dinner. :o)