Saturday, November 28, 2009

My ingredients, a photolog

Castlevetrano olives

When I smashed them to remove the pits, I found I was making olive oil on my board. And yes, the most virgin of the oils tasted awesome.

Red snapper

Skinning the fillet, exposing beautiful grain

Sour dough.
Persimmon. Raw, it was a bit sweet but had a strangely coating taste in the mouth. We later learned this was from the tannins. Cooked down and blended, the tannins rendered the whole thing tongue scrapingly bad. I had to throw it out. According to wikipedia, our persimmon must have been unripe.

Tomato juice

Reducing the juice to come closer to a sauce.

The finished product, to be more fully explained at a later date. Crusted snapper over tortelini, coated in a bloody mary marinara, with sourdough toasts.

The weekend's winning dishes

Having gone to three separate Thanksgiving dinners, and traveled four hours to do so, Darling Husband and I got to talking and have compiled our "best of" list for the holiday.

Best Turkey:
My parents. It was moist and flavorful, with lovely white and dark meat. An all around nice bird--nothing fancy, but well seasoned and cooked just right.

Best Stuffing:
Darling Husband's paternal grandmother. Cooked in the bird and, therefore, wonderfully moist with the drippings from the turkey. I think we both got a touch of food poisoning from it, but it was darkly worth it. The veggies in it were not raw, as can be a problem with onions and celery in stuffing. It was the stuffing all stuffings wish they could be, and food scientists warn us about.

Best Potatoes:
My parents. Flavorful, creamy, dreamy. Just right as a vehicle for gravy or a foundation for a forkful of everything.

Best Pie:
Darling Husband's paternal grandmother. She says she'd rather bake than cook. God bless her, she's like my sister in that. It serves her well, though, as her pie was fantastic (even though she forgot the whipped cream). It wasn't glutenous or gelatinous, as pumpkin pie can be, nor was it heavy. The custard was just right. Baby Girl ate a whole piece herself.

Best Gravy:
It's a tie between my parents and Darling Husband's maternal grandmother. Actually, I think his mom actually made the gravy, and that's where the problem came in. Our mothers both made gravy the way they make gravy, and therefore we both picked our own mother's gravy as the most exemplary. My mom's was thinner than his mom's, with more of the flavor of the bird. His mom's was thicker and more stick to your ribs, with a lovely consistency. [It's worth noting that the other Thanksgiving dinner's gravy was unusually made. The aunt who was in charge insisted on using water from the potatoes for thickening the gravy. To us, it was a miss for a number of reasons, and this might have been one of them. For one thing, it just never emulsified and seemed greasy. As Darling Husband pointed out, the starch in the water would have already been cooked and done it's thing. For another, it's adding quite a bit of extraneous liquid to cook out. I guess it's an interesting idea, but for that reason or perhaps not, the gravy wasn't a hit for us.]

Best Beta Carotine Veg (sweet potato or squash):
Darling Husband's maternal grandmother. Darling Husband's aunt and uncle brought a lovely hubbard squash dish with cranberries and just a hint of cinnamon. Hubbard squash is rather pumpkiny in taste and texture; it's more fibrous than acorn or butternut. The cranberries were a wonderful bright note.

Best Veggie (unspecified):
This one also was a tie. The first veg we loved was at Darling Husband's paternal grandmother. They make a corn casserole, which is probably a spoon bread of some kind. Mmmmh, it is so good. It has corn kernels and corn meal and sour cream and I don't know what else. It's sweet but not sugary, starchy but fluffy. It's addictive.

The second veg we loved was, actually, our own. We made brussel sprouts and brought them to Darling Husband's maternal grandmother's Thanksgiving. First, we trimmed and halved the brussel sprouts, tossing them in olive oil and seasoning with salt and pepper. Then we roasted them cut side down on a baking stone in a 415 degree oven. Meanwhile, we reduced some balsamic vinegar slightly (we've over reduced before and wound up with tar, so I was a bit gun shy and could have reduced further) and halved some dried figs. When the sprouts were out of the oven, we added the figs and a few handfuls of candied walnuts and tossed with the balsamic. Roasting them brings out the sweetness and mellows the harsh cabbage bitterness, plus adds a bit of carmelization and wonderful flavor. The balsamic was tart and sweet and rich with umami. And while figs and candied walnuts are sweet, the overall flavor of the dish has enough dark flavors that it's not overwhelmingly sweet at all.

Oh, and then there was my mother's green beans, which had grown in her garden and had a wonderful crispness... Hmmm. I guess we ate pretty well this weekend. Thank you to all our family for their hospitality, good food and generous love. We're thankful for you all.

Leftover treasure

Darling Husband, Baby Girl and I don't make Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, we travel to my parents and both sides of Darling Husband's family- that's THREE Thanksgivings. I used to think that when we had children we'd whittle that down, but it hasn't happened yet. We're too excited to see everyone and show off our little girl to cut one out. It has up sides and down sides. It also means that we don't get much in the way of left overs unless someone packs them up and gives them to us. (I know someone who roasts their own turkey expressly for leftovers, though they eat dinner at a relative's house. I think that's overkill, myself.)

That being said, I've come up with a list of left over gems for you, my dear reader, to stave off hum drum turkey sandwich blahs.

  • Gumbo
  • Turkey Waldorf salad
  • Hash
  • Panini sandwiches
  • Cheddar tortilla soup
  • Fajitas
  • Pot pie
  • Chef salad

  • Potato pancakes
  • Potato cakes
  • Shepherd's pie
  • Gnocci
  • Perogi filling
  • Potato soup (possibly with bacon and/or leeks)

Cranberry sauce:
  • Reduced down as a glaze for pork tenderloin
  • On baguette with brie

  • Okay, if you made good stuffing, you wouldn't have any leftovers.

  • Breakfast strata
  • Savory bread pudding
  • Sweet bread pudding
  • Garlic croutons
  • Fresh breadcrumbs

This year, the only leftovers we're expecting is some home made turkey stock. I plan to freeze it in ice cube trays, then use it to make risotto or to flavor rice.

Hope this list helps! Feel free to add comments of your own ingenious ideas for left over turkey day fixins.

Friday, November 27, 2009

I give a fig

Figs are lovely and terribly underused. Fresh figs are pricey and hard to find at times, but they've available dried all the time. I think many people are afraid of figs, unless it's in a fig newton. The seeds inside are crunchy in a sparkly way; it's delightful.

What could be a simpler appetizer than a dried fig, split and stuffed with blue cheese? Salty, sweet, creamy, crunchy and just bite sized.

Tonight we made a quick, savory tart topped with sauteed onions which were deglazed with balsamic vinegar, asiago cheese, quartered figs, mozzarella and torn prosciutto. Along with a simple salad, it was just the thing to cap off black Friday.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

My magic 5

Darling Husband gave me the following ingredients, from which I am to make a yummy meal:

Sourdough bread
Red snapper fillet
Castelvetrano olives
Tomato juice

Initial impressions: hmmmm, interesting! And eww! I don't like to drink tomato juice, but I know it will be workable. Sourdough is not something I enjoy, but surely the flavor can be masked. Red snapper sounds rockin'. Green olives, which Darling Husband assures me are not very brined or aged... I'm intrigued. Persimmons are beautiful and I have no idea what they're like. Sweet? Tart? Full of pips? You got me; we'll find out.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Beaujolais nouveau est arrive!

Each year, on the third Thursday in November, the wine and spirit stores release the year's beaujolais nouveau for sale. Ah, and what a day it is! My parents have taken to celebrating with a cocktail party (serving, obviously, only beaujolais nouveau).

This is a wine meant to be drunk immediately, as a celebration of the harvest. It is young, immature, and frankly will not be the best wine you drink. Some years it's awesome (two years ago, in fact, was a phenomenal year) and others, a bit "eh" (like last year). For me, that adds to the charm. It may be vin ordinaire, but that doesn't mean it's bad. Apparently some people see this as the wine of Thanksgiving, although it honestly never occured to me to connect the two.

One should drink the beaujoulais nouveau before the next year's harvest, although in our house it's never lasted that long. Darling Husband has just reminded me that we gave away our last bottle of last year's wine this August, which I suppose is breaking that rule. Honestly, though, it was hiding behind some marechal foch and I found it in the wine rack and we were running late and it's not polite to show up empty handed and anyway it was a relatively informal picnic and...

Yes. Well. It's to be drunk by spring. Moving on.

My mother served "heavy hors d'oerves," which I think is a way for her to serve buffet style and not worry that people are leaving hungry. She still worried. She shouldn't have.

Here are some of lovely foods on which we nibbled:

*Shrimp with cocktail sauce
*Assorted fresh veggies
*Home made hummus
*Rice, cheese and spinach bake
*Assorted French cheeses (God bless runny cheeses...)
*Jalapeno poppers
*Mini corn dogs
*Ham, turkey and cheese with rolls, to make tiny sandwiches

I just might be forgetting something, but the dozen or so of us there munched and quaffed and laughed quite contentedly. Baby Girl was with a sitter for the first time (as opposed to spending time with her grand parents or aunt) and did very well, but I wasn't willing to let it go more than an hour and a half. It's too bad, because the conversation was sparkling, the company relaxed and convivial, the food fun and satisfying and the wine very drinkable.

If you're going to snag a bottle, better be quick about it. It doesn't last long in stores and some unscrupulous wine sellers have been known to put aside a case of it for themselves and their friends. If you don't see it on the shelf, ask and it's possible they will "find" a bottle in the back after all. :o)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Meatloaf and charred food

Much as I'd like to pretend they aren't, the holidays are around the corner. Everyone's familiar with the new wife story of burning the first Thanksgiving dinner with the in laws or some such cliche, right? Well, tonight was the 30 year old, 5 years married version: the burning of the first meatloaf dinner.

What's that, you say? You've never made a meatloaf? As I believe I've mentioned, Darling Husband has bad meatloaf memories/associations (as well as barbecued ham, sloppy joe's and anything else that seems to have ketchup as a main ingredient). Therefore there will not be a night when I say, "What would you like for dinner?" and he says "MEATLOAF!" Nor is there likely to be a night where I say, "Would you like meatloaf or stir fry?" and have him pick the former. As such, I never made a meatloaf. It wasn't something my mom made often, so it wasn't something I missed or craved.

Still, I was inspired by my mom's meatloaf she made a couple months back and heartened by the fact that Darling Husband ate it with good graces. It didn't have the ketchup glaze he seemed convinced it would have, nor did it taste appreciably of the K word as a binder.

Tonight I made my first meatloaf. I used ground beef, crushed ritz crackers, a packet of onion soup seasoning (savvy readers will find this familiar), an egg, some "kickin' chicken" seasoning and white wine. I formed it into two small loaves and set them on top of a rack over a rimmed baking sheet, to allow maximum crust formation and minimize the loaf bathing in fat.

For side dishes, I cut some carrots into coins and put them in a sauce pan with some ginger ale and a bit of sambol olek to reduce and glaze. Also, I made wild rice pilaf.

Where does the charred food come in? The smoke filled house? The tears?

Right here, folks (minus the tears. We were more stoic this evening.) They say Lucifer was cast out of heaven for his pride, and for the same reason my side dishes turned into fiery infernos. I was so blasted proud of myself for prepping the whole meal in the 20 minutes I could reasonably spare between work and picking up Baby Girl from daycare that I let myself get cocky. I set the water to boil for the rice, popped the loaves in the oven and got the carrots heating just before taking Baby Girl up to bed. I asked Darling Husband to peek in at them when he was done reading stories to her.

The next thing I know, he's telling me that the pan for the water has boiled dry and begun to burn, and the carrots are a tarry, charred, carbon mess. Whoops. I guess my brilliant plan isn't so brilliant. Fortunately, the meatloaf was fine. Multi tasking doesn't work. Studies say that, and so does the news and yet still I believe I am the one person on earth who can competently juggle things and not get, ahem, burned.

On the plus side, I was able to re-make the rice and found some peas and edamame in the fridge. Dinner was saved. As for the meatloaf? Well, Darling Husband had seconds. I think that speaks for itself.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Flashback--I forgot to say

Remember the cauliflower and potato gratin I kept meaning to make? When I finally did, it made so much we were eating it for every meal. I found a pretty cool way to use up the leftovers. I made it into soup by adding some chicken stock and a bit of milk and pureeing with my stick blender. A few crushed red pepper flakes and voila!

I know, I know, I keep saying I don't like soup and then I keep making soup. I guess it's just one of those things. I must be getting feeble in my old age. :o)

Challenge resolved

Darling Husband rose valiantly to the challenge I presented him. Namely, to create a meal using pepperjack cheese, a whole chicken, pomegranate, turnips and sweetened condensed milk.

I'm going to pause here to expound upon the ingredients. Whole chicken is daunting. Your first decision is whether to butcher it or roast it as-is, whereupon you'll have to butcher it to eat it (a slightly coarser but none less true way of saying "carve"). We are used to our chicken being butchered for us--or, at least, we are in this house. Mostly we buy boneless, skinless chicken breasts or breast tenders. This being the point of reference, facing an entire bird is a little like working from a 3-D model when you're used to a map.

Pomegranates, too, are a bit of a conundrum. There are multiple methods for extracting the seeds, which sit like tiny bombs packed tightly and vacuum sealed inside oddly styrofoam like sections. I generally slice off the top, crack it in half, then use my fingers to peel apart the membranes and gently massage out the jewel-like seeds. Other methods involve floating in water while you do it (the membrane hunks float, the seeds sink) or whacking the fruit with the back of a wooden spoon on the outside. Whichever method you use, you will still stain your hands with the juice. Hopefully you won't stain your shirt and counter, too. When you are finished, you are left with stunning little gems, resembling corn kernels but ruby red, that are tart and intensely flavorful. Each seed contains a relatively large pip. One generally eats them whole, but I find the pips get stuck in my teeth and crunch oddly. In other words, they carry baggage.

Turnips don't get a lot of love. Like rutabagas, brussel sprouts and parsnips, they are not fashionable and people aren't really sure what to do with them. Our grandmothers did, though, and we need to learn again. Turnips can be bitey and unapproachable in the way radishes are, but they can also be mellowed nicely. Darling Husband found a perfect way and turnips are destined to be a regular visitor to my kitchen. I also like the look of turnips. They remind me of buoys or those spacer things that hold up the ropes that set off lap lanes in pools. Did you know that turnip skin is actually white, but turns purpley where the sun hits it? In this way you can tell how much of your turnip was out of the ground when it was picked.

Sweetened condensed milk is tinned milk which has had much of the water removed and sugar added. As far as I know, it's used to make pie filings and other desserts. Certain parts of the world use it to sweeten coffee, and that sounds like a much better use to me.

Pepperjack cheese isn't all that odd or unusual or even unapproachable. It's just an oddity to mix with other stuff. Personally, I like it best cut into cubes and microwaved until just soft and stringy-oozy-goey, but not so far that it loses shape.

What did Darling Husband make with these ingredients? Well, the turnips he poached in mostly regular milk with a few tablespoons of the sweetened condensed milk, a bay leaf and a bit of allspice. I tried one cooked like this--heavenly, creamy, tasty, wonderful. From this he made a mash and added the cheese.

He cut the back bone out of the chicken and flattened it, then stuffed butter and rosemary under the skin. He seared the chicken skin side down, then finished roasting it in the oven. When it was done, he made a pan sauce out of more of the sweetened milk, some white wine and a bit of cornstarch to thicken.

Lastly, he created lardons out of pepper bacon, then wilted arugula into it and tossed with the pomegranate seeds. It was a beautiful side dish, all gem tones and poppy flavors.

The chicken turned out wonderfully moist and heavily perfumed from the rosemary. It was a bit daunting to serve; I ended up sectioning off the leg/thigh and then carving the breast off the ribcage. The sauce was rather thick, as it had cooled a bit, and also rather sweet. It had taken on a nutty component from somewhere and I kept looking for the nuts in it without realizing quite why.

I loved the greens, although the pip-conundrum was still there. Fortunately everything tasted like yummy bacon. :o) I delicately and discretely (I hope) removed a few of the pips from my mouth, but then gave up and just tried not to bite down too hard. Flavor wise, though, it was marvy and fab.

The turnips? Well, if he had stopped before the cheese I would be praising him to high heaven. As it was, though, I kept wishing the cheese wasn't there. It didn't exactly clash, and the textures weren't too dissimilar... I'm not sure exactly what it was, frankly.

All told, I think we learned some awesome things in this dish. Turnips are not scary and can be wonderfully prepared. Bacon and greens are fantastic. Chickens can be conquered!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Chopped challenge again

Darling Husband has the following ingredients:


A whole chicken


Pepperjack cheese

Sweetened condensed milk.

Tonight was supposed to be the night he was cooking, but Baby Girl spiked a fever after her nap and we were subsequently occupied by reading many, many books at her request. At 15 months, she delights in setting us to tasks. She'll hand me a book (and of course she can recognize her favorites) and I'll read a bit. Sometimes I finish, sometimes she grabs it away and hands me a different one, sometimes she takes it from me and hands it to her daddy to finish reading. Tonight we amused ourselves by giving the characters in The Little Mermaid accents. King Triton had a French accent. Ariel was Cockney British. Ursula was Eastern European. Sabastian was Jamaican (as he was in the movie) and Prince Eric talked like William Shatner. We ad-libbed a bit and cracked ourselves up, which made Baby Girl laugh, which resulted in us reading The Little Mermaid 3 times before the evening was out.

When she was finally asleep, we had only the energy to pop frozen chicken patties in the oven. Darling Husband put wing sauce and blue cheese dressing on his, while mine had bbq sauce and shredded cheddar. We'll go fancy tomorrow night.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Spud dud

It all started out so promisingly. A passing reference on the Food Network to the properties of frozen foods, a mention of the poor freezing qualities of certain veggies, the suggestion of using this to advantage...

Science experiments look great on paper. In the lab, however, it's every person for herself.

I should explain.

Freezing foods preserves them, but sometimes at a price. Ice crystals are sharp and jagged and poke holes in cell walls, breaking down structure and releasing liquid. This is why strawberries, once thawed, will always be sort of limp. For cooked foods, this has already happened through another process so it's not noticeable.

Baked potatoes are great. Mashed potatoes are great. But what if you could create both at once without the time and hassle of making "twice baked"? (this is probably my favorite potato prep, btw)

If I take a raw potato, scrub it well, then freeze it solid...

then defrost it...

then bake it...

will I get a lovely outer crust and mashed inside? Will it be the perfect food?

Um, no. In the defrosting, the potato sheds copious amounts of much-needed moisture. For some reason, the moisture is dark brown and creepy. It soaks the paper towels and drips all over my counter before I get smart and put them in a tupperware. However, touching the spud reveals a truly squishy potato. Already it seems like mashed potato trapped like magic in the skin. I am hopeful.

The baking takes absurdly long and the results are, well, surprising. The potato is now exponentially harder and firmer than it was before cooking. It also tastes raw. It's like my oven was a time machine instead.

What exactly went wrong? I think it was the release of all that liquid, depriving the potato of the building blocks of steam. Next time, we'll try putting them straight from freezer to oven in the hopes that this combats some of the loss of fluids.

It was such a cool idea, but a good scientist admits and publishes defeats as well as successes. I formed a hypothesis, tested it, and found that it did not hold up in this experiment. Further tweaking required.

If any of you try this and it works, let me know what you did to get it...

Super quick, yummy soup

I'm not big on soup, as loyal readers will remember. Butternut squash, however, just screams to be made into creamy goodness to be slurped from a spoon.

I like to roast my squash with garlic, tossed in olive oil, in a nicely hot oven until soft. Adding salt, pepper, crushed red pepper and broth makes it soup. Voila. Milk may be added to enhance creaminess (always a plus) and proportions are flexible as the desired consistency nears. It's hearty and wonderfully fragrant. A bit of fresh sage, a sprinkle of chopped walnut, a few little pastas would each be nice variations, but I tend to like my pretty straight forward.

Sweet and sour pasta

I was very excited to try a recipe we picked up at Wegman's last weekend, because it is one of the few recipes that seemed truly new to me. It's not something I ever would've put together, it didn't even exactly make sense, and if I hadn't tasted it I probably would've turned my nose up at it.

The name they gave it escapes me (and I can't put my hand on the recipe card--sorry!) but it was designed for a slow cooker. I chose to make it all at once, but I think it did lack a certain marriage of flavor and textural surrender that 10 hours of cooking brings.

The recipe calls for chopped green cabbage, golden raisins, sausage, tomato paste, crushed tomato, red wine vinegar, red onion, a pinch of sugar and, of course, salt/pepper. Originally all of this was to be layered in the crock pot and let go, but I adapted it. First, I browned the sausage and removed it from the pan. Then I softened the onion and added the cabbage, cooking until it was all soft and had released moisture. I chopped the raisins and pureed them with some of the tomato liquid to accelerate the flavor release, then added to the pan with the rest of the ingredients. I allowed it all to simmer and bubble away for an hour or so, then served over pasta.

It was, indeed, both sweet and sour, as well as hearty and tasty. Generally, the idea of cabbage with tomato sauce is a bit distasteful to me, although I know there' s a tradition of it, a la stuffed cabbage leaves. In this recipe, it worked. As a slow cooker recipe, the cabbage was almost indistinguishable. In mine, it was a bit more to the fore front. The raisins were inspired, I feel, although I want to punch the recipe up with some more spice (we added it individually to portions and it really helped) and possibly fresh herbs and wine. Glad we tried it!

Baby quiche

Here's a quick breakfast...

I took pre-made pie crust (I buy the Wegman's kind. It comes rolled up, two individually wrapped crusts to a box) and cut rounds with the top of a drinking glass. I pushed the rounds gently into the cups of a muffin pan, so that it made a shallow bowl but maintained contact with the sides.

Next I tore slices of swiss cheese into 1"x1" squares and put one in each crust. On top of that, I put about a teaspoon worth of ham, pinched off a mound of deli sliced ham.

In a separate bowl, I beat a couple eggs with a bit of milk, then spooned about two tablespoons of the egg into each quiche cup. Into the oven it went!

In about a half hour, I had a dozen perfectly sized baby quiche. I liked how easy they were and yet how tasty, filling, and fancy looking. They were a hit with Darling Husband and Baby Girl, who had helped make them by virtue of being held on my hip the entire time. Who says you can't cook one handed? Not in my house! I can even crack eggs single handedly-- beat that! :o)