Friday, February 29, 2008

February 29: Potato and Green Garlic Chowder

It's the last day of February and I have a hard time with the whole Leap Day thing. I mean, come on. If this were really a day, wouldn't we have one every year? This should be like, a bonus day or something, where we all sleep in until noon and nothing that we eat counts for calories or fat. That's a Leap Day I could get behind.

Anyway, it's almost March, which means spring vegetables are coming. Artichokes, asparagus, ramps, spring onions, and green garlic mean nice, light, balanced pasta dishes, sides, and appetizers, like asparagus with prosciutto in puff pastry and artichoke risotto and penne with green garlic and ricotta. Well, that last one might not be light exactly, but it is springy.

Green garlic, if you've never run into it, is an early spring treat if you have a great farmer's market. It's available from March to May and it's got a delicate garlic flavor, without the bite of raw regular garlic.

The Los Angeles times has a recipe for Potato and Green Garlic chowder, to which I say oh hell yes. Keep an eye out for these sprouty veggies; this sounds so worth having. Serves 4-6.

Potato and Green Garlic Chowder

1/2 pound green garlic
1 1/2 pounds fingerling potatoes
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon sherry vinegar
Black pepper
Good olive oil
Grated pecorino Romano

1. Trim the root ends of the green garlic and the very tips of the green leaves if they are dried out. Cut the green garlic crosswise in thin pieces. Slice the potatoes in half lengthwise and then into about half-inch pieces. Place them in a bowl of water to prevent coloring.

2. In a large saucepan, combine the butter and onion and cook over medium heat, stirring roughly until the butter melts and the onions turn soft and creamy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and the green garlic, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the mixture is fragrant, about 5 minutes.

3. Add the potatoes and turn them in the garlic mixture. Add the broth and salt, increase the heat to medium and bring to a simmer. Loosely cover and cook at a quick simmer until the potatoes are soft enough to be smashed with a fork, about 20 minutes.

4. Coarsely purée the potatoes and garlic. This is most easily done with an immersion blender but can also be done in a food processor or blender if you're careful to pulse quickly. The mixture should be chunky, not a smooth purée.

5. Add one-half teaspoon sherry vinegarand a generous grinding of black pepper. Taste and add more salt, pepper or vinegar if necessary. Return to the pan and simmer another 5 minutes. This makes about 7 cups of soup.

6. Stir briskly just before serving. Ladle into warm serving bowls, drizzle with a thread of olive oil and sprinkle over 1 to 2 tablespoons grated pecorino Romano.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

February 28: Salad of Smoked Trout, Radicchio, and Grapefruit

Ask me why I don't have any recipes for fish on this site. Quick, ask me. Well, I'll tell you: I am afraid of fish.

I have a pretty eclectic palate, I think, and I don't consider myself a fussy eater. But when it comes to fish, I'm Sam I Am. I do not like them in a car, I do not like them in a bar. I will not eat them here or there, I will not eat them anywhere.

Unless we're talking about smoked fish. And then I am on board. I can't tell you why I'm okay with smoked fish, except that I grew up close to Lake Michigan, and often vacationed there. When we did, my mother held an afternoon Happy Hour daily. We would come up from the beach to whatever condo or house we were renting and fix snacks and drinks and take them to the deck for a couple of hours before dinner. When it comes to liking snacktime better than an actual meal, I've been guilty as charged for my whole life.

Being near the lake, there was often smoked whitefish or lake trout available when we were vacationing, so that was often part of the Happy Hour snack buffet, along with veggies and dip, chips and salsa, hummus and pita bread, cheese and crackers, antipasto, stuffed mushrooms, or any other easy little easy snacks we had around. Even though I was never interested in fish in any other form, smoked fish is something I associate with vacation, summertime, long afternoons, and having nothing much to think about but cute boys on the beach.

I saw this recipe on another food blog this week, and I am aching to try it. In my head, I can see how it'll all come together: the sweet smokiness of the trout, the sweet-sour of the grapefruit, the bitter of the raddichio. This sounds like an amazing first course for an amazing meal, like maybe a roast tenderloin with crispy potatoes from the oven, followed by a poached pear with caramel sauce. I really need to invite people for dinner more often.

This serves 6. It originated in Food and Wine magazine nine years ago.

Daniel Boulud's Salad of Smoked Trout, Pink Grapefruit, and Radicchio

1 cup of bread in 1/2" cubes
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large pink grapefruit
1/3 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 head radicchio, about 3/4 pound
1 smoked trout (about 8 oz)
1/2 cup walnut pieces
2 teaspoons chopped fresh cilantro, plus additional whole leaves for garnish
3 small scallions, white parts only, thinly sliced

1. Toss the bread cubes with the garlic and oil and then bake them in a 350 degree oven until the bread cubes are golden, about 7 minutes

2. Toast the walnut pieces in 350 degree oven until they are fragrant, about 5 minutes

3. Peel the grapefruit, and then peel the membranes off the individual sections. Do this over a bowl so you can catch the juice also. Set aside six sections for garnish and cut the remaining slices into small (approximately 1/2”) pieces.

4. Whisk together the cream and vinegar and season with salt and pepper.

5. Tear the radicchio leaves into bite-sized pieces. Toss with enough dressing to moisten well. Add the smoked trout, walnuts, chopped cilantro, scallions, grapefruit pieces, and croutons. Add salt and pepper, then toss well, adding more dressing if needed. Taste and adjust seasoning.

6. Garnish with reserved cilantro and reserved grapefruit. Serve with additional dressing on the side.

Note: Daniel Boloud suggests reserving 12 of the largest radicchio leaves and serve the salad in those, two to a person.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

February 27: Lobster Rolls

That thing? The thing I wrote yesterday and a little bit today and posted right below here? Yeah, I still really, really mean it. Scroll down, read it, leave me a comment, and then come back. I'll wait.

Back? Great. Let's talk about lobster.

There are places I've not spent a great deal of time in my life and one of them is New England. Dan and I were talking, while we were on vacation, about places that we could retire to where we could live next to the ocean, have real winters, and not die from the humidity and heat in the summer. Maine came up, and Dan said "We could eat lobster all the time."

I understand (mostly from reading Stephen King novels) that people from Maine sort of poke fun at the tourists who come there to eat lobsters. Let me just say that Baltimore and points east don't have that problem with the tourists who come there to eat crab.

I could definitely live in a place where lobster is a staple of my diet, but it's mostly a delicacy now, and one I don't take advantage of, because mostly it's boiled to a rubbery fare-thee-well and totally inedible, or frozen so long it tastes mostly like iodine, and served in a restaurant that has the audacity to charge $24.99 for it. Lobster should be sweet, tender, briny, or I'll pass.

I can't remember where or when I saw this (probably on the Food Network, and years ago), but I once saw a chef preparing lobster rolls. A lobster roll is a New England regional specialty which consists of a plain white hot dog bun (chosen for its lack of anything to distract from the filling) stuffed full of lobster salad. Simple as can be. It looked amazing. Perfect.

This would be great, I think, for a casual get-together, especially as (knock on wood) the weather gets warmer. Serve it with coleslaw, chips, and cold beer.

Oh, and let me just say this about lobster: suck it up, okay? It's an ocean cockroach, it eats sea junk, it's the scourge of its own microcosm. Throw it in the pot and boil it, don't stand over the pot listening for it to scream. All current research says that they're not capable of feeling pain, so don't go and buy frozen lobster meat or any other ridiculous thing because you're squeamish; it's not the same. In looking at recipes for this, I found a site that illustrated how to keep a lobster's tail straight when cooking it, and it involved inserting a wooden skewer in a spot that...let's just say you wouldn't want a wooden skewer inserted in a corresponding place on your own person, but I'm not asking you to do that. Don't yell at me: I'm not all about the animal cruelty. But this is one time that I'm going to say that I'm at the top of the food chain and lobster tastes delicious, and my karma will just have to take the hit. This serves 4, maybe with a little salad left over to eat on a bed of greens the next day. Mmmmmmmm.

Lobster Rolls

4 Split top white hot dog rolls
4 large (1 1/2 lb.) live lobsters
1/2-2/3 cup mayonnaise, or to taste
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
4 scallions, white and about half of the green part, sliced thin
1 stalk celery, diced fine

Bring a large pot of water to a full rolling boil over high heat. Drop in the lobsters, lower heat to medium, and cover. Cook 8-9 minutes. Remove from pot and chill completely.

Remove meat from lobster: using a gentle twisting motion, separate the tail section from the body section. Break the claws away from the body. Use a sharp, very clean pair of kitchen shears to cut a slit down the tail section, and remove the meat. Use whatever means works best for you for removing the claw meat as well (I use a wooden skewer; those tiny forks just make a mess for me.)

Chop the meat into not-too-small chunks (maybe 1-inch chunks or so, maybe a little smaller.) Mix with mayo, salt, pepper, scallions and celery. This salad should be not too mayonnaise-y, but a little wet. Rely on your judgement and taste.

Pile lobster mixture into rolls. Serve.

The Politics of Food

Let me just say that I'm a political person. I follow politics. I am interested in politics. I pay attention to politics. I think politics are important and interesting.

A British chef and cookbook author who I mostly think is full of shit, however, thinks that cooks (and celebrity chefs in particular) should stay out of politics.

Delia Brown, I'll keep food out of politics when politics stay out of my food.

There was a great deal of discussion at Mark Bittman's blog Bitten yesterday about how poor people eat poorly (nutrition-wise, that is) due mostly to ignorance. I would just like to say that while this may not be the medium to get political, I am offended on the behalf of poor people living in cities everywhere.

The comments on the blog ranged from "These poor people should plant a garden and grow their own vegetables, eat less meat and poultry, and stop eating so much processed junk! We should educate poor people everywhere as to why their health is bad, their children are failing in school, and their communities are in ruins!" to "The cultural bias of poor people is to eat large amounts of bad-quality, badly prepared, unhealthy food. There's nothing that can be done for people who don't know any different."

I am horrified by the ignorant, elitist, stereotyping nature of these comments, as I feel quite certain that none of the commenters have any idea what it's like to be poor in the inner city.

Poor people don't eat junk food because they love to eat junk food. Poor people eat junk food because junk food is what's available to them and they don't get a lot of say in what is ultimately on their table at the end of the day.

If you don't think that there's any conceivable way that could be true, let me give you a snapshot of what it's like to be poor in Washington D.C.

You probably are the single head of a household in a family of three or four, and you're probably female. You probably work at least two jobs, one at $9-10 an hour, the other at $7. You probably live in Southeast, an area of the city that is frequently compared to certain parts of Atlanta, Detroit, and South-Central Los Angeles for its rates of poverty and crime, in a one-bedroom apartment. Chances are, you rely on Section 8 vouchers to help you pay your rent, and chances are, that is not the only form of public assistance that you recieve. You might be helping to support one of your parents, or a sibling. You're probably paying at least something for daycare, but you get some assistance from vouchers as well. Maybe you have a sister who watches your kids at night, or a parent.

You probably rely on public transportation, because you've never owned a car or learned to drive. In your neighborhood, there are probably a dozen carryout restaurants and at least that many convenience and liquor stores. There are check-cashing services, and maybe payday advance outlets. There might be a bank. There is no grocery store.

Let me say that again. There is no grocery store in your neighborhood. There isn't one within walking distance. You have to take two buses to get to the nearest grocery store, and walk 3/4 of a mile. On a Saturday, your only day to shop, it might take you an hour to get there if the buses run on schedule. An hour there, an hour to shop, and an hour home.

Remember, you are poor, so you're probably not in the best of health. Hypertension? Probably. Type II diabetes? Possibly. That mile and a half you walk round-trip to get to and from the grocery store is a major effort for you, especially in the winter, when it might be icy, or in the summer, when it's most definitely hot and humid.

But you have two or three kids to feed, and most of your food budget comes from WIC or other public assistance. The convenience stores in your neighborhood don't accept food stamps or Bridge cards, and even if they did, that pound of bananas that cost $.49 at Save-A-Lot? They're $1.89 in your neighborhood. A gallon of milk costs $2.99 at Shoppers; Joe's Convenience Store has that same gallon of milk priced at $4.19. A small can of vegetables is $1.49, but in your neighborhood, there isn't anyplace to buy fresh vegetables. And you have to pay cash.

So you might shop once a week at one of the bigger discount grocery chains, making that walk with your kids and your folding grocery cart, then taking the two buses. Say you've got two kids to feed for a week, plus yourself. Your kids qualify for free breakfasts and lunches at school (and don't even get me started on the quality and nutrition available in school lunches), and you carry your lunch and eat dinner at work (your second job is probably in food service somewhere), that's two breakfasts times three people (6), five lunches times one (5) and two lunches times three (6), five dinners times two people (10) and two dinners times three (6). That's 33 meals and no snacks. Count on ten bags of groceries.

So are you buying organic carrots for $3.99 a pound? Local produce at three times the cost of commercially-farmed? Of course you're not! Produce is expensive, and heavy, and doesn't stretch very far, even if there's anything like that available in the grocery store where you shop. This isn't Trader Joe's. Plus, your kids might not eat it, and that's a waste. So you're buying potatoes and rice and pasta and dried beans, maybe some canned veggies, fruit, peanut butter and jelly, cheaper cuts of chicken and meat. You might have an hour or two at home in the evenings to feed your kids before you go off to your second job, so things like TV dinners and frozen pizzas and lasagnas are quick and your kids like them. The WIC nurse says that your kids need dairy products for calcium, so it's milk and cheese and eggs and maybe yogurt. White bread, because it's cheaper. Individual bags of chips for snacks, maybe Fruit Rollups, maybe Kool-Aid or off-brand sodas. Sugar, flour, and other staples.

You've got a grocery cart which carries three or four bags of your heaviest groceries. Some grocery stores have riders out front--unauthorized taxi services that will take home shoppers and their groceries for money, usually in the $10 range. You need your $10 though, so you're taking the bus. Your oldest kid carries a couple bags, your youngest might carry a bag for you too. That leaves you pushing or pulling your cart and carrying the last three bags as well.

The bus is late. Hope it's not summer, because if it is, you're sitting in the sun with all that food--chicken, meat, milk, cheese, eggs, frozen food. It's all going bad while you wait.

Could you bake your own bread? Sure, maybe you'll get time for that someday, but not this week. Could you grow your own vegetables? Where? The fire escape? You don't have a yard.

I'm not making this stuff up or exaggerating; this is modern hunting and gathering for poor urban families where I live. Of course poor people eat junk food! Of course they're not in good health. Of course their kids don't do well in school. Of course this lifestyle contributes to a cycle of poverty that is hurting millions of people every day in very profound ways.

Food isn't like driving a nice car or having high-speed internet access. Think about how you would feel about your kids going to bed hungry at night, or being contacted by their teacher because they're falling asleep in class. Just think about how helpless you would feel at having to choose between keeping a roof over their heads or giving them the basic nutrition that they need to break this impossibly ugly cycle of poverty and dispair.

I shop at a comfortable suburban grocery store and I seldom worry about the cost of my food. I know what to give my husband and my son and myself and how to prepare it to keep all of us healthy and functioning at optimal, and I don't have to make impossible choices like keeping the lights on or keeping my kid from being too hungry to concentrate. I have the opportunity to shop for locally-produced, sustainably grown goods and organic vegetables, fruit, and meat, and as often as I can, I take advantage of it.

But this stupid goddamn elitist attitude of bragging about where our food comes from and then looking down our noses at people who genuinely don't have the luxury of making the choices that I make is absolutely the worst, stupidest, most ass-backward form of knee-jerk liberalism anywhere. It's bad, and not in a good way. It's unproductive. It's biased and sad. And I see so much of it in reading about food. The nerve of chastizing people who struggle every month to feed their kids and keep the lights on and the roof over their heads for not owning a bread machine with which to bake their own bread or a yard in which to grow their own vegetables is staggering to me. Practically demanding that poor people cease eating meat left me speechless.

I think we should have a real discussion about the politics of food in America's poorest communities, but I think that when the focus of this discussion is about why America's poorest communities aren't growing their own microgreens or baking their own bread, we are missing the point so massively that it makes me sick. I want to talk about why there aren't incentives for major grocery stores to move into neighborhoods where accessability to fresh, affordable food is a major roadblock. I want to talk about the correlation between food and education, especially early childhood education. I want to talk about why people whose food budget exceeds $1200 a month think it's okay to tell someone who doesn't own a car that they shouldn't eat junk food and only does so because that person is stupid. I want people to understand something about modern poverty: the solutions to this problem aren't fixed by organics. They're fixed by understanding what the problem really is.

So far, the people who are doing virtually all of the talking don't seem to be able to wrap their heads around it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

February 26: Chile-Garlic Salsa

Sunday Nite Dinner has a recipe up for Vietnamese Chili Garlic sauce that looks amazing. It calls for a pound--a pound!--of habanero chiles, unseeded. This has got to taste like a blast furnace.

Practically every grocery store in America carries a variety of hot sauces marketed, it seems, mostly to knuckleheads in football jerseys whose aim in consuming hot sauce seems to be to try to make their other knucklehead friends cry first. It doesn't require much of a palate, or an imagination--only a high tolerance for pain. California Tortilla Company, a restaurant in our neighborhood, even has 80 or 90 bottles of hot sauce on shelves around the restaurant to sample.

Most of them don't do it for me. I love the heat, but I also want a blast of flavor, not just a shot of gasoline shaken over my food. Most are overwhelmed by the flavor of smoke or vinegar and come between me and the flavor of whatever I'm eating.

My favorite hot sauce is one that I make myself. I don't remember where it came from originally, only that it is incredibly simple and it's pure genius. It is reminiscent of that big plastic bottle of Siracha Thai-style chili-garlic sauce, but without the hit of vinegar and with a bigger bang of heat.

What to do with it? What not to do? Stir it into hot and sour soup. Mix into Asian noodle dishes. Drizzle it sparingly over grilled chicken. Give your Mexican rice impact. Toss it with short, nubbly pasta along with some chopped grilled or roasted veggies and crumbled feta or queso anjio. Stir it into a bowl of sour cream with a squeeze of lime juice and it's pure heaven on a taco or an enchilada. Add to a dull jarred salsa to revive it. Add it to stir-fried veggies. Brown ground beef for tacos in a spoonful of it.

This is made with dried chiles, which have to be soaked. To keep them submerged while soaking, I use my folding vegetable steamer in a bowl slightly larger around than the steamer. I put the chiles in the bottom, the steamer on top of them, and pour the boiling water over top to cover by an inch or so. The steamer holds everything down.

Makes about 1 cup and keeps forever in the refrigerator.

Chile-Garlic Salsa

1/2 pound (about 30) dried red chiles (I use New Mexico or pasilla chiles, depending on what looks good in the grocery store--they should be dark red and slightly pliable, not dusty and fossilized. Other possibilities include ancho, cascabel, or mulatos)
10-15 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons table salt

Soak chiles in boiling water to cover for 20 minutes. Drain and reserve 1/2 cup soaking liquid.

In a food processor, combine chiles, garlic and salt. Process to a coarse paste. With food processor running slowly pour in the olive oil until everything comes together to a fairly smooth paste. If it is still a little thicker than you like, add the reserved soaking liquid, a tablespoon or two at a time.

Will keep indefinitely. If this is too hot for your taste, add vinegar to tame the heat.

Monday, February 25, 2008

February 25: Mexican Mini-Meatloaves

In a comment over the weekend, Kimberly asked about my Mexican Mini-Meatloaves, which I referenced in the thing about the bacon-wrapped's all meat all the time here, so I guess it doesn't matter that it's supposed to be Meatless Main Dish Monday here at Casa de Kitchen. My mini-meatloaves rule.

The truth is, I got the recipe out of a food magazine that Kraft publishes. Mostly, the magazine makes my skin crawl--the "recipes" are really just basically advertising for their products, and nary a fresh, wholesome, unprocessed ingredient to be found.

Not that there's a lot of fresh and wholesome in meatloaf. I have an ex-boyfriend whose hatred of anything vegetable was world-renowned; I used to puree spinach, zucchini, summer squash, mushrooms, and any other vegetable I could find and throw it in meatloaf and smile smugly as he wolfed it down without even tasting it, as he did with everything, a la Jessica Seinfeld. Sucker.

As Kimberly said, my husband does love little food. He couldn't be happier than he is with a plate of sliders in front of him, a situation which has led to a weight gain over the past five years that I don't think he would be totally comfortable with me talking about.

But this recipe couldn't be any simpler, and it's fast and easy. You can stir in whatever your imagination can come up with. I've made it Mexican-style, as I describe here, with sauteed sweet corn and peppers on the side. I've made it Italian-style, with marinara, parmesan cheese, and spaghetti on the side. I've even made it barbecue style, with leftover baked beans and barbecue sauce and longhorn cheddar, with garlic mashed potatoes.

The concept is not a complicated one: meat, binder, and whatever ingredients turn you on. Spray your muffin tins well with nonstick spray--this can be hopelessly sticky--or use silicone muffin cups, like I do. Get started with this, and then use your imagination for the things that can stand in for the salsa. Substitute ground turkey for ground beef, or even ground chicken. Go crazy.

Mexican Mini-Meatloaves

1 lb. 85% lean ground beef
1 package Stove top chicken stuffing
1 cup water
1 1/2 cups salsa (jarred, fresh, or pico de gallo from the deli)
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 350. Spray a muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray.

Mix together beef, stuffing, water, and 1/2 cup salsa. Pack mixture lightly into muffin tins, using your thumb to hollow a space in the middle.

Spoon the remaining salsa into the hollows. Sprinkle with cheese. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes, or until internal temperature reaches 160. Serve.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

February 24: King Ranch Chicken Casserole

Every now and then I run into a total food oddity. Fried pickles, for example: who would have thought that fried pickles would taste so good? A great fried dill pickle is battered and deep-fried until golden and crispy, and they are so straightforward and unpretentious that I can't resist them. It's like that aunt who everyone but you dreads seeing at family gatherings because she's so outspoken, dresses flamboyantly, and embarasses all her sisters, but you find completely hilarious.

Enter the King Ranch Chicken Casserole. According to one of my very favorite food bloggers, Homesick Texan, this casserole has simple roots: named maybe after a giant ranch in southern Texas or maybe after retro classic chicken a la king, this recipe is almost an enchilada casserole, and almost a chicken lasagna, Tex-Mex style.

In addition to being a big fan of Tex-Mex and Mexican food, I am a fan of casseroles as well. They are great comfort food, they freeze well, feed a crowd, and make great leftovers. I like the simplicity of a one pot meal coming to the table on a Monday night, giving you all your meat, starch, and vegetables in one spoonful and leaving minimal cleanup in the kitchen.

This casserole sounded incredibly weird to me the first time I heard about it, but after reading Homesick Texan's redux, I am a convert. This is her recipe, a grownup version of a casserole that originally contained two kinds of canned soup and a whole roasted 2 1/2 pound chicken. She calls this "slightly fancy-pants." I am okay with that.

King Ranch Chicken Casserole

1 1/2 pounds of chicken, without skin and bones
4 teaspoons of lime juice
1/4 cup of olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, minced
4 tablespoons of butter
1/2 an onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 poblano pepper, diced
1 10oz. can of Ro-Tel tomatoes (or you can use a can of regular diced tomatoes and a 4 oz. can of diced green chiles, or if tomatoes are in season, can use two cups of diced fresh tomatoes with 1/4 cup of diced green chiles, such as a jalapeno)
4 teaspoons ancho chile powder
1 teaspoon of cumin
1 cup of chicken broth
2 tablespoons of flour
1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
1/2 cup of half and half
1/3 cup of sour cream
1/2 cup of cilantro, chopped
3 cups of grated pepper jack and cheddar
10 corn tortillas
Salt and pepper to taste.

1. Cook the chicken in the olive oil on medium, adding 2 teaspoons of lime juice, 2 teaspoons of ancho chile powder and salt to taste.

2. When chicken is done (after about 20 minutes), shred it with two forks and set aside. Should yield about 3 cups.

3. Melt the butter in a saucepan on medium, and add the onions, red bell pepper and poblano pepper. Cook for 10 minutes.

4. Add the garlic, flour, cumin, cayenne pepper and 2 teaspoons of ancho chile powder, and cook for 1 minute.

5. Add the chicken broth and cook on low until mixture is thickened, a few minutes. Stir in the half-and-half and Ro-Tel cover the pot, and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

6. Uncover the pot, and add the sour cream, 2 teaspoons of lime juice and 1/4 cup of cilantro, and add salt and pepper to taste. Turn off heat.

7. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

8. Heat up the tortillas (you can do this by adding a bit of oil on an iron skillet and then cooking the tortillas for about 30 seconds on each side).

9. Ladle 1/2 cup of the sauce onto the bottom of an 11 x 7 inch baking pan.

10. Layer half the tortillas along the bottom of the pan (on top of the sauce). To make sure entire pan is evenly covered, you can rip some of the tortillas into strips to fill any gaps.

11. Add half the chicken, half the remaining sauce, half the remaining cilantro and 1 1/2 cups of grated cheese.

12. Repeat the layering, leaving the cheese layer on top.

13. Cook uncovered for 30 minutes or until brown and bubbling. Serves 6-12, depending on how big a portion you distribute. Goes great with sour cream and cilantro on top.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

February 23: Bacon-Wrapped Meatloaf

Classic, old-fashioned food re-interpreted in a new way is something I like a lot. I'm clearly not alone; there are whole competitions based on reinventing fried chicken, chili, and meatloaf, and as many variations on the classic dishes as there are people who are cooking them.

There are some things that my mother just never made when I was growing up. She made amazing tuna noodle casserole but I can remember eating rice maybe a dozen times between my earliest memories and when I went to college. We ate American chop suey--that ubiquitous mixture of elbow macaroni, diced tomatoes, and browned ground beef with spices--regularly, but I never tasted even the Americanized restaurant version of Chinese food until I was probably 13.

Meatloaf was another thing she never made, which probably explains my low-key obsession with it. However, I rarely make it either. My husband, in an effort to avoid being stop-lossed his last year in the military, switched from engineering to cooking; he makes meatloaf so well there is no sense in me doing it at all. When I do make it, I make a quickie Mexican version--individual meatloafs baked in muffin tins, stuffed with salsa, and topped with cheese. It sounds bizarre, I know, but with Mexican rice and a big salad, it's a great, easy dinner that even my 2-year-old snarfs right down.

I may try this recipe, though; it appeared in Fine Cooking magazine this month, one of three meatloaf recipes. It's exactly what I mean about new twists on a classic. Three chefs, three very different meatloaves, all variations on a delicious theme. I would double this recipe so that I could have meatloaf sandwiches later. It's one of those things that taste better the second day.

My grocery store does not typically carry ground veal. I think that I would just use more ground beef in this case.

This serves 8.

Bacon-Wrapped Meatloaf

4 oz. cremini or white mushrooms, cleaned and finely chopped.
1/2 cup minced onion
3 tbsp. dry sherry
1 tbsp. minced garlic
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 oz. dense white bread, torn into 1/2 inch pieces
1/4 cup milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 lb. ground beef (85% lean)
1/2 lb. ground veal
1/2 lb. ground pork
2 tbsp. light brown sugar
1 tbsp. worcestershire sauce
8 slices center-cut bacon

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350.

In a medium bowl, toss the mushrooms with the onion, sherry, garlic, 1 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp pepper.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the bread, milk, and egg. Stir well, lightly mashing the bread until most of the ligquid is absorbed. Add the beef, veal, pork, brown sugar, worcestershire, and the onion-mushroom mixture. Using a large, sturdy wooden spoon or your hands, gently mix just until all the ingredients are blended; you may need to push the meat against the side of the bowl to break up the pieces.

Put the meat mixture ina 9x13 inch metal baking pan. Shape the mixture into a rectangular loaf about 10x4 inches. wrap the strips of bacon around the loaf crosswise, overlapping them slightly and tucking the neds under the loaf.

Bake until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the loaf reads 160, 60 to 70 minutes. Take the meatloaf out of the oven and position the oven rack about 6 inches from the broiling element. Heat the broiler to high. Broil the meatloaf until the bacon is brown and crisp, about 3 minutes. Let the loaf rest at room temperature for at least 10 minutes.

Use two flat spatulas to transfer the meatloaf to a serving platter. Slice and serve.

Friday, February 22, 2008

February 22: Balsalmic Chicken With Pears

I like chicken breasts for the fact that they are a great blank canvas. They have to be treated with some care--they dry out quickly, so high fast heat is best when it comes to cooking them. Besides, I am a white-meat girl.

I found this recipe when I was looking for something to do with some chicken breasts that I have in the refrigerator that need to be used up. This seems like a hell of a find to me. I love all of these flavors, and the fact that this recipe is simple and healthy and straightforward is great.

I'm making this tonight with a salad, sauteed spinach with garlic and oil, and some leftover homemade macaroni and cheese from earlier this week. This serves 4.

Balsalmic Chicken With Pears


2 pears, cored and thinly sliced
1/2 cup red onion, thinly sliced
3 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven to 450°F. Wash hands. Place pear and onion slices in a single layer in 13 x 9-inch baking dish. Combine oil, thyme, salt and pepper in a shallow bowl. Spoon half of mixture over pears and onions. Cover dish tightly with foil; bake 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, place chicken in remaining mixture, turning to coat on all sides.

Uncover pear and onion slices; arrange chicken on top and drizzle with vinegar. Discard remaining oil mixture. Bake uncovered 20 minutes more or until chicken is done (internal temp 170°F).

Thursday, February 21, 2008

February 21: Baked Potato & Leek Soup with Cheddar and Bacon

Winter's back. It was 74 degrees as we were driving home from Virginia Beach last weekend. This morning, the temperature in our parking lot when we left home: 19.

Well, it's cold, so it must be soup. The grocery store across the street from my office offers three soups a day on their salad bar, something which I frequently partake in. I am a fan of soup, I have to admit. Their best is the southern-style chicken and dumplings, but a close second is their loaded baked potato soup.

Just as I was thinking about how I was hoping that they'd have potato soup today, an email from Fine Cooking popped into my inbox, and there it is, a recipe for a potato soup. I don't make it at home often; I tend to be a little lazy about keeping potatoes around the house, and while I love leeks, they aren't something I generally keep on hand.

I am making myself hungry just thinking about this soup. I may be forced to pick up some potatoes and leeks on the way home tonight. How have I gotten to a place where, instead of eating lunch on my lunch break, I write about lunch on my lunch break?

Serves 4

Baked Potato & Leek Soup With Cheddar and Bacon

2 medium russet potatoes (about 1/2 lb. each)
1/4 cup unsalted butter
2-1/2 cups sliced leeks (about 2 medium leeks; white and light green parts), rinsed well
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups homemade or low-salt canned chicken broth
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup sour cream
4 thick slices bacon, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 cup grated sharp Cheddar (about 1/4 lb.)
2 Tbs. thinly sliced scallion greens or chives

Heat the oven to 375ºF. Scrub the potatoes in water, pat dry, and pierce in several places with a fork. Set them directly on an oven rack and bake until very tender when pierced with a fork, about 1 hour. Let cool completely on a wire rack.

Melt the butter in a soup pot over medium-low heat. Add the leeks and garlic, season with salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the broth and 2 cups water. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook until the leeks are very tender, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the bacon in a skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until browned and crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer the bacon bits with a slotted spoon to a saucer lined with paper towels to drain and cool.

When the potatoes are cool, cut one of them in half lengthwise. Use a large spoon to scoop the flesh in one piece from each half. Cut the flesh into 1/2-inch cubes and set aside. Coarsely chop the potato skin and the entire remaining potato and add to the pot with the leeks. Purée the contents of the pot in a blender until very smooth (you'll need to work in two batches). Return the puréed soup to a clean soup pot and reheat over medium low. Whisk together the milk and sour cream until smooth and then whisk this into the soup, along with 1/2 cup of the Cheddar. Stir in the diced potato. The soup should be fairly thick, but if it seems too thick, thin it with a little water. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve garnished with the remaining Cheddar, the bacon bits, and the scallions or chives.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

February 20: Chicken Enchiladas With Tomatillo Sauce

I love great Mexican food. I even love sort of mediocre Mexican food, when it's pulled off. What I don't love: Taco Bell, Chi Chi's, or any of those other sorry fake Americanized Mexican restaurants with fishbowl-sized ultra-sugary margaritas (I was actually offered a pineapple-banana margarita recently, and I think I may have laughed right in the waiter's face) or bowls of melted Velveeta and Old El Paso salsa mixed together.

Enchiladas are the ultimate in horribly abused food. I've seen awful things done to what should be great Mexican street food, or at worst, sort of a comforting, Tex-Mex version of lasagna or manicotti. I love a simple cheese and onion enchilada with red chili sauce, or if I'm feeding some non-meat-eating friend, a spinach-and-mushroom enchilada sauced with a simple cheese sauce made from just a little butter, flour, milk, and Monterey Jack.

This is a great recipe, modified from America's Test Kitchen. If you haven't tried making your own enchilada sauce, do it. This is a simple dish that really benefits from fresh flavors and great-tasting ingredients, and the difference between this and a canned enchilada sauce is big. You won't be interested in boring restaurant versions of this dish ever again.

Simplify: use leftover chicken, either from a grocery store rotisserie or one you cook yourself. You'll want about a pound of chicken total. I like to double this recipe and have the leftovers for dinner the next night. Occasionally I made Mexican rice for a side; more often, I just make a big, crunchy salad with salsa vinaigrette.

This makes 10 enchiladas, and this is not a dish that freezes well without modification. If you're interested in freezing it, email me and I can send you some suggestions.

Chicken Enchiladas With Tomatillo Sauce

2 teaspoons vegetable oil or corn oil
1 medium onion, chopped fine (about 1 cup)
3 medium cloves garlic, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 1 tablespoon)
3/4 pound small tomatillos , husks and stems removed, each tomatillo quartered (about 1 1/2 cups)
3 large jalapeño chiles , seeded and coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon table salt

2 teaspoons vegetable oil or corn oil
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
16 ounces cooked chicken, cubed or cut into thin strips
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated (2 cups)

Tortillas and Toppings
10 corn tortillas (six-inch)
Vegetable cooking spray
3 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese (3/4 cup)
3/4 cup sour cream
1 avocado , diced medium
5 leaves romaine lettuce , washed, dried, and shredded
2 limes , quartered
1. FOR THE SAUCE: Heat oil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat until hot and shimmering but not smoking, about 2 minutes; add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, tomatillos, jalapeños, sugar and salt; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add 1/3 cup of water and bring to a simmer; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, until tomatillos are softened, about 8 minutes. Transfer mixture to blender and puree until smooth, about 30 seconds; set aside. Rinse out saucepan.

2. FOR THE FILLING: Heat oil in saucepan over medium-high heat until hot and shimmering but not smoking, about 2 minutes; add onion and cook, stirring ocassionally, until beginning to soften and brown, about 3 minutes, then reduce heat to medium and continue to cook until browned, about 3 minutes longer. Add cumin and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add chicken and cook, stirring frequently, until chicken is heated through, about 2 minutes. Transfer chicken mixture to large plate; freeze for 10 minutes to cool, then combine with cilantro and cheese in medium bowl and set aside.

3. Adjust oven racks to upper- and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 300 degrees.

Smear entire bottom of 13 by 9-inch baking dish with 3/4 cup sauce. Place tortillas on two baking sheets. Spray both sides lightly with cooking spray. Bake until tortillas are soft and pliable, about 4 minutes. Place warm tortillas on counter-top. Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees. Place 1/3 cup filling down center of each tortilla. Roll each tortilla tightly by hand and place in baking dish, side by side, seam-side down. Pour remaining chili sauce over top of enchiladas. Use back of spoon to spread sauce so it coats top of each tortilla. Sprinkle 1/4 cup grated cheese down center of enchiladas.

Bake enchiladas on lower-middle rack until heated through and cheese is melted, 20 to 25 minutes. Uncover and serve immediately, passing sour cream, avocado, lettuce, and lime wedges separately.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

February 19: Ancho-Coffee Dry-Rubbed Flank Steak

A couple of years ago, when we were in Michigan at Christmas, my husband and I were visiting the Saugatuck Spice Merchant, a local shop that carries a broad variety of dried herbs, spices, rubs, teas, and other implements of flavor, the man working in the store at the time suggested I smell the Coffee Barbecue rub. "It's very different," he said, "not hot, but spicy, with depth."

I never would have guessed that two flavors like this would have gone together this well, but they do. It has the warm dark notes of espresso-roast coffee, and the fruity, almost floral notes of chile peppers. I bought a 2-oz. bag and took it home, rubbed it into a piece of flank steak, let the steak sit in the refrigerator for several hours, then grilled it medium-rare on a hot barbecue.

Wow. Smoky, spicy, rich, and roasty--the most complex-tasting food I've ever prepared myself. I took one bite and was imediately glad I'd bought the biggest steak I could find, so that there would be leftovers. We ate the thinly-sliced steak on crusty bread with garlic mayonnaise the next day for lunch, chopped it and tossed it with a splash of lime juice and cilantro, and broiled it under cheese on open-faced quesadillas with guacamole and fresh salsa on the side the next night for dinner.

Since then, I've looked for a coffee barbecue rub--Michigan is a long way to go for this stuff. Here is the best of what I've found, at a food discussion website a few weeks ago. Haven't had a chance to try it out, but all the elements are there. The recipe does call for granulated garlic, which I don't care for. I've altered the character of this slightly, I'm sure, by suggesting fresh garlic, well minced or crushed, and worked into the rub. The garlic makes this almost more of a paste, but I would think the slightly sour, generally stale taste of granulated garlic would be distracting. The recipe calls for 1/4 cup of granulated garlic, if you want to put it back in, by all means, do so, and omit the four cloves of fresh.

Ancho-Coffee Dry-Rubbed Flank Steak

For the rub:
½ cup Salt
1/4 cup Brown sugar
¼ cup Ancho chili powder
¼ cup Espresso Grind Coffee (very fine grind)
¼ cup Ground black pepper
4 cloves garlic, very finely minced or pressed through a garlic press

1 2-pound flank steak, trimmed of visible fat
Vegetable oil for oiling the grill grate

Thoroughly combine all ingredients for the rub in a plastic bag or bowl. You will have enough for several applications of this.

Coat both sides of the steak liberally with the rub, pressing it into the meat with your impeccably clean hands. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours at least, up to 24 hours.

Light a medium-hot fire on a barbecue grill. When the coals are lightly covered with ash, put the steak on the grill for 4-5 minutes each side for medium-rare, 3-4 for rare. Turn once, grill an additional 2-3 minutes for rare, 3-4 for medium-rare. (This steak is at it's best cooked no more than medium rare--absolutely no more than medium.)

Let steak rest, loosely tented with foil, 10-15 minutes. Slice thinly across the grain on the bias. Serve immediately.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Meatless Main Dish Monday: Baked Pasta with Cauliflower and Cheese

A short administrative note: Warmest congratulations to one of my favorite blog-families, the Sweet Junipers; now proud parents of both Juniper and also brand-new Gram Woodward, born early this morning. Welcome to the world, little boy.

This is the dinner I intended to make tonight. We got home from the beach and we are not hungry, we are not interested in cooking, we are not patient enough to make this meal. So tonight it's sandwiches, but tomorrow, it's going to be this. It's surprisingly easy to throw together; the hardest thing is making the cheese sauce. Still, it's a little rich and a little luxurious, and it's got vegetables in it. It's not junk food, it's got veggies!

Serves 4

Baked Pasta with Cauliflower and Cheese

12 ounces pasta in short tubes, like elbow macaroni or rotini
1 head cauliflower, trimmed and cut into bite-sized pieces
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups reduced-fat milk
Salt and pepper to taste
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 onion (about 1/2 cup), very finely diced
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp dijon mustard
2 tablespoons plain yogurt
2 cups shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup parmesan cheese, finely grated
1 cup fresh bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 375.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Cook pasta and cauliflower in boiling water together for a minute or two less than the pasta package suggests (it should be very al dente.) Drain the pasta and cauliflower, keep warm.

In a heavy saucepan or Dutch oven, melt butter over medium heat. Add garlic and onions, stir until you can smell them cooking, 30 seconds or so. Sprinkle in the flour, whisk together and cook over medium heat until flour begins to become slightly blonde.

Slowly whisk the milk into the roux and adjust the heat so that the mixture comes to a bare simmer. Do not boil. Whisk in the mustard, yogurt, cayenne, salt and pepper to taste. If the mixture thickens too much (it should coat the back of a spoon) add a little more milk.

Add the shredded cheddar half a cup at a time, stirring between additions, making sure the cheddar is fully incorporated before adding more. Add half the parmesan cheese to the mixture as well.

Stir the pasta and cauliflower into the cheese sauce, and transfer to a large baking dish. Toss together the bread crumbs and the remaining parmesan cheese and spread over the top of the casserole. Cover with foil and bake 30 minutes, then uncover and bake until bubbly and browned, about 30-40 minutes.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

February 17, Again: Creamy Polenta

Polenta is a fabulous background for...well, really everything. I am crazy about soft-cooked polenta with spinach and slivered garlic sauteed in olive oil, sprinkled with a little parmesan cheese and a handful of toasted pecans. I like it for breakfast with a dab of butter and a fried egg, like oatmeal but better. I like it leftover, chilled in a slab, cut into squares, and grilled.

It's more work than pasta, potatoes, or rice, but it's worth it. Polenta, in many cases, benefits from a rest overnight, making it a perfect make-ahead dish. This recipe popped up in my inbox earlier this week, just as I was thinking about polenta underneath beef stew with mushrooms. I didn't get around to it before we left to go on vacation, but I will this week. This is enough for a crowd, 8-10.

Creamy Polenta

7 1/2 cups water
2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups polenta (9 ounces)
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 medium garlic clove, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 1 teaspoon)
Ground black pepper
2 ounces parmesan cheese, finely grated (about 1 cup)

1. Bring the water and milk to a boil in a partially covered, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and very slowly pour the polenta into the boiling liquid while stirring constantly in a circular motion with a wooden spoon.

2. Reduce to a simmer over low heat and cook, stirring often, until the polenta no longer has a raw cornmeal taste, all of the liquid has been absorbed, and the mixture has a uniformly smooth but very loose consistency, 20 to 25 minutes.

3. Off the heat, stir in the butter and garlic and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the polenta into a 13 by 9-inch baking dish. Sprinkle the Parmesan evenly over the top.

4. To Store: Wrap the dish tightly with plastic wrap, poke several vent holes in the plastic, and refrigerate for up to 2 days.

5. To Serve: Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 450 degrees. Remove the plastic wrap and lightly pat the cheese with paper towels to absorb any condensation that has accumulated. Bake uncovered until the polenta is bubbling and the cheese is nicely browned, 30 to 40 minutes.

February 17: Chicago Dogs

I've never understood that person that wants nothing but ketchup and mustard on their hot dog. A hot dog, to me, is a perfect blank canvas, the best possible receptacle for almost any kind of savory thing you can think of.

Hot dogs are to Chicago what cheesesteaks are to Philadelphia. Ask a Chicagoan, and they'll probably tell you that there is exactly one way to eat a hot dog. Same thing in New York, Boston, Dallas, and Portland. I've been served something called an "Atlanta dog" smothered in creamy coleslaw. I've also heard of a "Memphis dog" with bacon, barbecue sauce, and grilled onions, and a San Antonio dog with taco meat, salsa, lettuce, and cheddar cheese. I'm not sure I approve, but it's like any regional specialty: everybody's sure that their variation is the best.

As a midwesterner by birth, I am a big fan of a true Chicago dog, and it is really rare to find one outside of Cook County, Illinois. Surprisingly enough, we encountered one today here in Virginia Beach, at a hot dog restaurant where the proprieter is serious enough about authenticity to have the traditional neon-green sweet cucumber relish flown in from Chicago, and I cannot fathom what goes into creating this not-found-in-nature shade of green. It was good enough that I am already thinking about getting another one before leaving town tomorrow.

A Chicago dog is a very specific thing; there is no chili, no cheese, no ketchup involved. It is both science and art. Let me emphasize the following: dill pickle spear, sweet pickle relish. Kosher beef dog, natural casing, steamed or boiled, not grilled or fried.

This is more construction blueprint than recipe; I could make a hot dog at the age of eight without any real trouble. But if you've never had a Chicago dog and you won't be in Chicago any time soon, then it's worth doing. Seek out great hot dogs, poppy-seeded rolls, and the small, pickled hot peppers called sport peppers. They are spicy, but not uncomfortably so. Maybe banana peppers would stand in in a pinch, but the real thing is worth finding.

If you are like us, plan on eating two hot dogs apiece. This will serve two.

Chicago Dogs

4 good-quality, natural casing all-beef hot dogs like Vienna Beef, Nathan's, or Hebrew National
4 poppy seeded hot dog buns
1/4 cup diced white onion
1/3 cup sweet pickle relish
2 small tomatoes, sliced into six wedges each
1 large kosher dill pickle, quartered lengthwise
Yellow mustard
12 small whole pickled sport peppers
Celery salt

In a medium skillet over high heat, boil the hot dogs in one cup of water until water has evaporated. Turn off heat.

Assemble dogs as follows:

Hot dog
Three tomato wedges on one side
One dill pickle wedge on opposite side
Sweet relish over everything
Three peppers on top of relish
Sprinkle of celery salt over top

Serve immediately.


I missed a day. Dan and Max and I are spending the long weekend in Virginia Beach, VA., in an oceanfront suite that really is six steps off the sand, and we're having so much fun and eating so much great food that I have to admit that I missed a day.

We found this weird little dive called Jewish Mother where we had breakfast yesterday. It's a live music venue at night, but the rest of the day, it's a purportedly Jewish deli where, mysteriously, they serve bacon and sausage and ham. Dan had corned beef hash, and after briefly considering a Jewish Mother omelet (fresh avacado and mushrooms), I ordered a hot corned beef sandwich on Russian rye bread with swiss cheese and cole slaw, and a side of fries. Max had a hot dog, as he often will when left to his own devices. It came to the table as two hot dogs on a piece of homemade French bread, which was light and crispy and apparently buttered lightly with a touch of black tar heroin, because I haven't stopped thinking about that bread since yesterday. The hot dogs were amazing, those killer kosher deli ones with the casing that snaps when you bite into them. Yummy. And don't get me started on the pickles.

We ate dinner at a pizza place called Shorebreak that was recommended to me as particularly family-friendly. Tucked between three different military posts, it was jam-packed to the gills with soldiers on a Saturday night and their families. Itresembles a Hooters, based on the waitresses seriously skimpy outfits and the myriad of TVs showing sports around the room. We ordered a thin crust sausage-and-mushroom pizza and despite it not being made from particularly remarkable ingredients--canned mushrooms, for example--it was delicious. Great sauce, great crust, great everything. The game room was overcrowded and there wasn't any chance that we were going to get a shot at playing skee ball, but the noise level wasn't unreasonable and I appreciated the fact that it wasn't a tourist joint; that they didn't seem to be out to soak us for as little bad-tasting food as possible for as much money as they could squeeze out of us. We ran into that situation multiple times in Ocean City, Maryland.

Last night I asked Dan at dinner, "How is it that we keep going on vacation to places I feel like I could live at?" It's really true. It is beautiful here and it seems to be a place where people really live, as opposed to a place where people only visit. I highly recommend Virginia Beach as a vacation destination. If I could get away with not having a job, I would live here happily. Unfortunately, I have a job that I love that will not easily travel from Washington D.C. to Virginia Beach, and I am not yet willing to give up expensive cheese or buying kitchen gadgets at will.

I will return later with two recipes, one for yesterday and one for today. I promise to think of something wonderful, too, as the only cooking we are currently doing is sandwiches in the hotel room.

Friday, February 15, 2008

February 15: Potato Roesti

One of my favorite food writers isn't really a food writer. She is Nora Ephron, who wrote such Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan vehicles as Sleepless In Seattle, Hanging Up, and You've Got Mail. Blah. Bland as a cheap can of soup.

But she also wrote a book called Heartburn, a semi-autobiograpical novel about her second marriage to Carl Bernstein (of Woodward and Bernstein) and his affair with Margaret Jay, who was a Washington socialite who she described as looking like "a giraffe with big feet." She also described her husband as "capable of having sex with a Venetian blind." I'll tell you what, Nora's movies may function like narcotics to me, but when it comes to getting even rather than getting mad, she's a genius.

Because the main character is a food writer, the book contains several recipes, including one that I love for a pasta dish made with chopped tomatoes, basil, and red pepper flakes which I make during the summer when tomatoes couldn't possibly be any better. In another, she describes how she measures the evolution of a relationship with potato dishes. At one point in the relationship, usually when she is trying hard to impress someone, she makes Swiss potatoes, which she describes as being an enormous pancake of crunchy hash browns. She describes the process of flipping them wildly and dramatically, which is always an interesting way to cook.

America's Test Kitchen describes "Swiss Family Potatoes" which is the closest thing I've found to the recipe in Heartburn, my copy of which I can't currenly locate. Here is their giant Family-Sized Potato Roesti. At the end, I've also included some serving suggestions from America's Test Kitchen--Nora Ephron just suggests eating the potatoes as is.

Serves 4.

Potato Roesti

1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes (3 to 4 medium), peeled and shredded in a food processor
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon cornstarch
Ground black pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1. Place potatoes in large bowl and fill with cold water. Using hands, swirl to remove excess starch, then drain in strainer.

2. Wipe bowl dry. Place half of potatoes in center of kitchen towel. Gather ends together and twist as tightly as possible to expel maximum moisture. Transfer potatoes to bowl and repeat process with remaining potatoes.

3. Sprinkle salt, cornstarch, and pepper to taste over potatoes. Using hands or fork, toss ingredients together until well blended.

4. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. When foaming subsides, add potato mixture and spread into even layer. Cover and cook 6 minutes. Remove cover and, using spatula, gently press potatoes down to form round cake. Cook, occasionally pressing on potatoes to shape into uniform round cake, until bottom is deep golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes longer.

5. Shake skillet to loosen roesti and slide onto large plate. Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter to skillet and swirl to coat pan. Invert roesti onto second plate and slide it, browned side up, back into skillet. Cook, occasionally pressing down on cake, until bottom is well browned, 7 to 9 minutes. Remove pan from heat and allow cake to cool in pan for 5 minutes. Transfer roesti to cutting board, cut into 4 pieces, and serve immediately.

Ramping Up Roesti
The Swiss traditionally top roesti with a range of meats, cheeses, and vegetables to create a simple main course. But roesti is not pizza—you must use a light hand with toppings to preserve the potato flavor and proper texture. One topped roesti will serve two as a main course.

Slide 2 softly fried eggs onto finished roesti and sprinkle with 1/2 cup to 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese and coarse salt to taste.

Sprinkle 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup shredded Gruyère or Swiss cheese over roesti about 3 minutes before fully cooked on second side. While not traditional, sharp cheddar, Manchego, Italian fontina, and Havarti cheeses taste good, too.

Drape 4 or 5 slices cured ham or prosciutto over roesti a few minutes before fully cooked on second side. If desired, sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh thyme or rosemary and coarse black pepper and serve with whole-grain mustard.

Top with 3 or 4 strips crumbled cooked bacon and 1 large onion, sliced thin and cooked in 1 tablespoon bacon drippings or butter until soft and seasoned with salt and lots of black pepper. Sprinkle with sherry vinegar if desired.

Shingle 1 large tomato (sliced very thin, placed on paper towels, salted for 30 minutes, and patted dry) over roesti a few minutes before fully cooked on second side. (Particularly good when combined with fontina; put cheese down first so that it melts.)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

February 14: Truffles

Okay, so it's Valentine's Day. There must be chocolate. Great chocolate. Decadent, rich, addictive chocolate.

My mother has made truffles before but it always seemed like a lot of work to me. But oh man, the results are really something. What the hell, I figure. I'm going to give it a try.

There are evidently some fairly complicated rules when it comes to making truffles, which is surprising to me, because it's chocolate and liquor and cream, so how could it be complicated? Well, it's chemistry, which I was never that great at or that interested in, but I'm definitely interested in chocolate, so I'm willing. This recipe gives a thorough but not overly-egghead explanation of the highly mysterious reactions between the cream and the chocolate and heat and cold and fat, which is why I chose it.

This is a variation on JacqueTorres' recipe, which is fancy. He dips his chocolate in chocolate, which is, you know, really cool, but I think it's unnecessary.

This makes 180 truffles. Don't eat them all yourself. Share them with someone who will appreciate them. You could also send some to me.

Chocolate Truffles

For the ganache:
Generous 2 cups heavy cream
21 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
Generous 1/4 cup Grand Marnier or Stoli Razberi vodka (optional)

To garnish the truffles:
2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
2 1/2 cups shredded sweetened coconut, toasted
About 2 cups (8 ounces; 230 grams) toasted nuts, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted

Heat the heavy cream in a 2-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan until bubbles begin to form around the edge of the pan. Make sure that you have chopped the chocolate as finely as possible to allow it to melt quickly and easily. Place the chopped chocolate in a medium-size mixing bowl. Make a ganache by pouring about half of the hot cream over the chocolate and letting it sit for 30 seconds to melt the chocolate. Then slowly whisk until smooth and homogenous. Do not add all of the hot cream to the cold chocolate at once; the shock of the temperature extremes would cause the fat in the chocolate to separate. As the chocolate melts, you will see some elasticity if there is no fat separation. This means the chocolate still has an emulsion; the fat molecules are still holding together. If the ganache separates, it loses its elasticity, collapses, and becomes very liquid.

Add the remaining cream gradually and mix until all of the hot cream is incorporated and the ganache is smooth and homogenous.

If the ganache separates, it is very easy to fix. Simply add a small amount of cold cream and whisk well. This will bring the ganache back together. The ganache should be thick, shiny, and smooth. Add the desired flavoring and mix until fully incorporated. Pour the ganache onto a plastic wrap-covered baking sheet and spread evenly with a rubber spatula. Cover the ganache with plastic wrap and allow it to cool for at least 4 hours at room temperature. As it cools, it will thicken and set.When the ganache has cooled to the consistency of toothpaste, scrape it into a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain tip. Do not stir the ganache when you do this. Incorporating air by stirring will cause the ganache to harden. Pipe 1-inch-diameter mounds spaced 1 inch apart on a parchment paper-covered baking sheet. To pipe the mounds, hold the pastry bag at a slight angle and allow the tip to touch the parchment as you begin to pipe. Once you have formed the mound, stop squeezing and lift the tip straight up, leaving a small tail on the top of each mound. You can also use a spoon and drop small mounds of ganache onto the baking sheet. Let the truffles harden at room temperature for a couple of hours (or in the refrigerator for 15 minutes), until they are hard enough to roll with your hands.

When I roll the truffles, I usually wear surgical gloves. The gloves are not mandatory but if you do not use them, be sure your hands are very clean. To roll the mound into a ball, place a truffle between both palms, squeeze slightly, and roll between your hands. The truffles will look nicer if they are as round as possible. When all the truffles are rolled into balls, they are ready to be coated.

Roll the dipped truffle in the desired garnish. Place the truffles on a clean parchment paper-covered baking sheet and allow them to set, about 5 minutes.The truffles will keep for up to 2 weeks at room temperature, when stored in an airtight container.

Note: If you decide to roll the truffles by hand, it is important to make sure your hands are cold. A good trick is to dip your hands in ice water for a few seconds and then dry them. Do this immediately before rolling the truffles. If your hands are too warm and the truffles begin to melt while you are rolling them, redip your hands in the ice water, dry them, and proceed.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

February 13: Asian Turkey Burgers

What can I say? I am just a huge sucker for a burger. One of the great things about living in the D.C. metro: Five Guys Burgers & Fries. They consistently are on the Washingtonian Magazine list of Cheap Eats, and even better than being budget-conscious, they truly make a consistently perfect, juicy burger with your choice of literally dozens of toppings. It is a place where we regularly take visitors to the city; my mother plans entire visits around scheduled stops at Five Guys.

So, we've tried to back up off the red meat and turkey burgers are rarely as satisfying as the real thing. It's a matter of keeping expectations low and the moisture content high. Otherwise, you're expecting a reduced fat, reduced calorie treat, and instead you have a dried-out hockey puck. You can fight it, like this recipe does, with delicate handling of the burger. Don't pack it together like a snowball. You're not going to hit someone with it. Add moisture to make up for the missing fat--it'll steam the burger a little, protecting it from the harsh, dry heat of the fire or grill pan. And bring on the big flavors here. Fat = flavor, after all. If you're going to take away fat, add flavor in some other form. Most importantly, I think, remember that you're not eating a big, beefy burger. This is a turkey burger. You wouldn't expect a carrot to taste like a hot dog, would you?

I found this on Eating Well. After our good luck with the shiitake-mushroom teriyaki burger topper the other night, I'm totally up for this. Asian and burger go great together. An Asian-style slaw, with sesame oil and scallions and cilantro, would go great with this.

Serves 4.

Asian Turkey Burgers


2 slices whole-wheat sandwich bread
12 ounces lean ground turkey breast
1 8-ounce can sliced water chestnuts, diced medium
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 scallions, sliced thinly
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
4 hamburger buns

Preheat grill or grill pan to medium-high.

Place bread in a food processor and pulse into fine crumbs. Transfer to a large bowl. Add ground turkey, water chestnuts, hoisin, scallions, ginger, garlic and salt; mix well. (The mixture will be moist.) With dampened hands, form the mixture into four 1/2-inch-thick patties.

Oil the grill rack, or spray grill pan with nonstick spray. Brush the patties with sesame oil. Grill until browned and no longer pink in the center, about 5 minutes per side. (An instant-read thermometer inserted in the center should register 165°F.)

Meanwhile, toast buns, if desired, to serve with the burgers. Let the burgers rest for five minutes, loosely tented with foil, and serve.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

February 12: Brie Souffle

One of my favorite things in the world is a cookbook called The Silver Palate Cookbook. If my house were on fire, I would probably save my wedding pictures and pictures from my son's first two years of life, but only because I have the negatives and the cookbook can be replaced.

This cookbook was first published in 1982 by proprieters of a gourmet shop in New York City. Julee Rosso, who happens to be from my hometown, was one of the two authors. In 1988, she and her partner sold The Silver Palate. She now owns and operates a country inn called The Wickwood, in Saugatuck, Michigan. Saugatuck happens to be far and away my favorite place on earth. I grew up an hour or so away from this town on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan and my heart and soul is inexorably tied to this place, this little arts community and resort town full of boats and smart and creative people and quirky. I love the quirky. Over Christmas, when Dan and I were in Michigan, we dropped our son off with his parents and drove on up to Saugatuck for a day. It snowed madly all day, and we ducked into bars and restaurants all up and down the street to warm up for a drink or a glass of local wine or a snack. We had crispy fried portabello strips breaded in parmesan and fennel seeds at Phil's, and a bowl of clean-your-clock spicy chili at The Butler. It was maybe the best day I've had ever, and for no real reason except for the fact that there is something totally serendipitous and otherworldly about the place for me, for my husband. It is part of our story together, and although we're 14 hours away now, it will always feel a little like home to us.

Wow, I've wandered far afield. Julee Rosso of Saugatuck, Michigan, has this fabulous cookbook. It talks smartly and clearly and thoughtfully about really great, creative, and delicious food that has worked for them for over 30 years. One of my favorite recipes in it is this brie souffle. It isn't a "real" souffle, more like a savory bread pudding, but it is so rich and luxurious. I think it would be amazing for a special brunch, served along fresh fruit and champagne. I can't wait to have a reason to make this.

Serves 4-6.

Brie Souffle

8 Tbsp. (one stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 slices good quality white sandwich bread (I like Pepperidge Farms Hearty White), crusts removed
1 1/2 cups milk
1 teaspoon salt
Dash of Tabasco
3 eggs
1 pound slightly underripe Brie, rind removed

Preheat the oven to 350. Butter a 1 1/2-quart souffle dish.

Butter one side of the bread slices and cut each slice into thirds. Whisk together the milk, salt, Tabasco, and eggs. Coarsely grate the Brie.

Arrange half of the bread, buttered side up, on the bottom of the dish. Sprinkle evely with half of the brie and then repeat, using the remaining bread and Brie. Pour the egg mixture over the bread. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Bake until bubbling and golden, 25 to 30 minutes.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Meatless Main Dish Monday: Southwest Tomato & Roasted Pepper Soup

It was 18 degrees this morning and I got on the wrong bus (duh) which extended my commute by about an hour. All in all, it wasn't an auspicious start.

It's a perfect day for soup. It's cold, first of all, and it's Monday. My husband, who's a teacher, has tomorrow off for election day, so I'm expecting a piping hot dinner when I walk in the door tomorrow night. He does that. So tonight it's soup and cheesy garlic bread and a caesar salad.

I love this. It was in Fine Cooking this month, and it's perfect for a cold night when you don't want a big heavy meal with a big pile of leftovers. A day like this calls for something spicy, to get those food endorphins going. How great is it that the same rush that runners get you can get from eating a plate full of nachos? Okay, it's not exactly the same, but still.

A note about pureeing: beware. Hot soup can build steam up in a blender, which will blow the lid right off and shower you and your entire kitchen in hot soup. Take the center widget out of the blender lid and cover it with a dish towel. Also, for God sake, puree in small batches. Safety first.

This serves four as a main dish.

Southwest Tomato & Roasted Pepper Soup

1 large red bell pepper
3 tbsp plus 1/2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. ground coriander
3 cups reduced sodium chicken broth (use vegetable broth to go totally meatless)
28 oz. can whole peeled plum tomatoes, draned and coarsely chopped (reserve the juice)
1 cup small diced zucchini
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tbsp lime juice
1/2 tsp. finely grated lime zest
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tbsp loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves

Coat the red pepper with 1/2 tsp of the oil. Roast directly on the grate of a gas burner over high heat or undera broiler, turning occasionally until charred all over. Put the pepper in a bowl while still hot and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let rest until cool enough to handle. Stem, seed and peel the pepper, using a table knife to scrape away the charred skin. Coarsely chop and set aside.

In a nonreactive Dutch oven, heat the remaining oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until just soft, 8-10 minutes. Stir the chili powder, cumin, and coriander into the onions. Add the roasted pepper and cook for another minute. Add the broth and tomatoes and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and let simmer for 40 minutes.

Let cool briefly, then puree the soup in batches in a blender or food processor. Rinse the pot and return the soup to the pot. If it is too thick, add some of the reserved tomato juice. Add the zucchini and cook for another 10 minutes over low heat.

Meanwhile, combine the sour cream, lime juice, and zest in a small bowl. Season the soup to taste with salt and pepper. Serve garnished with the lime sour cream and the cilantro leaves.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

February 10: Creamy White Bean and Chorizo Soup

My favorite thing about the internet (besides, as Heather says, all the free goat porn) is that it gives you access to information that would normally, by its own nature, be inaccessable. The best example that I can think of, in this context, is recipes. I no longer have to carry subscriptions to Cooking Light, Cook's Illustrated, Bon Appetit, Fine Cooking, and Food and Wine--the recipes and a fairly broad array of their articles are available to me, sometimes for a minimal subscription fee, online.

Of course, I do still subscibe to several of these: Food and Wine, Fine Cooking and Cook's Illustrated. I do it because many of their articles are only available in their hard copies and also, because I like the collectability of them. I have several years of issues of all of them and they're like my cookbooks: practically priceless, at least to me.

I gave up my subsciption to Bon Appetit last year in favor of using Epicurious instead. It's simpler by far to search their archives than to page back through my collections to find exactly what it is that I'm looking for. When I woke this morning to the sound (and movement) of the heavy winds that are currently buffeting my condo, I knew exactly what I wanted: a hearty winter soup, starchy and creamy and spicy all at once. I knew where to go for it too: the Internet. I'm planning on making this tonight with some kind of bread, something rustic and toasty, and a 2003 California Pinot Noir that I've been hoarding.

This serves 6.

1 pound dried cannellini or Great Northern beans (generous 2 cups)

8 cups water
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
3 garlic cloves; 1 smashed, 2 chopped
1 large fresh rosemary sprig
1 bay leaf
1 large onion, coarsely chopped (about 2 cups)
1 large carrot, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 large celery stalk, coarsely chopped (about 3/4 cup)
2 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme, divided
4 cups (or more) low-salt chicken broth
1 pound fresh chorizo link sausages, casings removed
1/4 cup whipping cream

Place beans in heavy large saucepan. Add enough water to pan to cover beans by 4 inches. Let beans soak overnight at room temperature. (Edited: Or do what I do and use canned beans: a good quality, like 365 Brand from Whole Foods, about two cans, drained and rinsed.)

Drain and rinse beans; return to same saucepan. Add 8 cups water, 1 tablespoon oil, smashed garlic clove, rosemary, and bay leaf. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, partially cover, and simmer until beans are just tender, 1 to 11/2 hours. Season to taste with salt. (Can be prepared 2 days ahead. Cool slightly, cover, and chill.)

Drain beans, reserving cooking liquid. Discard rosemary sprig and bay leaf. Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, and celery. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté until vegetables are beginning to soften, about 10 minutes. Add chopped garlic and 1 teaspoon thyme; sauté 2 minutes. Add 2 cups reserved bean cooking liquid, 4 cups chicken broth, and beans. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium and simmer uncovered until vegetables are tender, about 25 minutes. Cool soup 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, sauté chorizo in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat until cooked through, breaking up lumps with back of spoon, about 5 minutes. Transfer chorizo to paper towels to drain.

Using slotted spoon, remove 1 1/2 cups bean mixture from soup; reserve. Working in batches, puree remaining soup in blender until smooth. Return puree to pot. Stir in reserved whole-bean mixture, remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons thyme, chorizo, and cream. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Chill uncovered until cold. Cover and keep chilled.) Rewarm soup over medium heat, thinning with more broth if desired. Season with salt and pepper. Divide soup among bowls and serve.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

February 9: Totally Inauthentic Philly Cheesesteak Sandwiches

Regional specialties ignite a firestorm of contempt in purists when they encounter someone who doesn't adhere to their strict standards. Want to infuriate a Texan? Serve them chili made with ground beef, tomatoes, and, worst of all, beans. Loathing in a Kentuckian? Screw up a Kentucky Hot Brown.

Philadelphians can be a little touchy about their local specialty, the Philly Cheesesteak. Did I say a little? Let me rephrase that. I'm guessing that homicides have been committed over less than this sandwich.

A true Philly consists of the following: thinly sliced ribeye steak and onions grilled on a griddle and served on a soft white roll with a glob of Cheez Whiz. Let me say that I have never tasted this exact concoction outside of the city limits of Philadelphia. Mostly what I've had is some kind of chopped, formed meat pressed into slices and fried with onions, sometimes peppers, and cheese, usually provolone.

I like something somewhere in between. Ribeye is expensive, somewhere in the neighborhood of $14 a pound, and it's too good to waste, in my opinion. Eye of round roast is economically feasable. Also, it's a lean, somewhat tough roast, well-suited to being thinly sliced and quickly fried, but still with good meaty flavor and texture.

And even for the sake of authenticity, I can barely stomach Cheez Whiz. One bite, and I'm eating my grandmother's boiled broccoli, drenched in the stuff. Blah. I like a good, strong, serious cheese, like aged provolone if you can find it, or smoked provolone, which is available almost everywhere now.

A Philadelphian would probably take a baseball bat to my car for serving this sandwich. I think it's so good it's almost worth it. It does require a food processor and a little prep time, but nothing outrageous. Forgive me, Philadelphia: I think this is even better than the real thing. This makes enough for six.

Totally Inauthentic Philly Cheesesteak Sandwiches

1 2-pound eye of round roast
1 white onion, peeled, both ends trimmed, cut in half through the ends, and sliced into 1/4-inch thick half-rounds
salt and pepper to taste
6 slices cheese (cheddar, provolone, or American)
6 hoagie rolls or 6-inch lengths of French bread
1 tbsp vegetable oil

Cut the roast into pieces that will fit in the feed tube of your food processor. Put on a plate and place in the freezer until the roast is partially frozen, about 1 hour.

Fit the food processor with the slicing disk and process the meat.

Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onions and cook until softened and beginning to brown, about six minutes. Add the sliced beef to the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally with tongs, until completely browned. Add salt and pepper to taste. Lower heat to low, put the slices of cheese over the meat and cover the pan until cheese is melted, about 3 minutes.

Divide the meat between the rolls. Serve immediately.

Product Review: Archer Farms Shiitake-Teriyaki Burger Topper

Remember when I said I would review the three sauces I picked up at Target? We had burgers with the Shiitake Mushroom-Teriyaki Burger Topper last night for dinner.

We kept it very simple: salt and pepper on 1/4 pound burgers cooked medium-well stove-top in a grill pan. The sauce is dark brown with generous amounts of big slices of mushrooms.

I had mine on a plain burger with a thin slice of onion. It was, honestly, much better than I expected: great teriyaki flavor without being too sweet, a little spicy, a little tangy. The texture of the mushrooms was very good--not canned or preserved-tasting. I kept thinking they would be great on a veggie burger. Dan had his with cheese--horseradish cheddar; I'll never understand this guy--and concurred. His description: "It tastes a little Asian without being gimmicky." Well-said.

My only complaint was that it was a little salty. I would adjust the seasoning accordingly on the burger next time. Overall, though, it has my stamp of approval.

Friday, February 8, 2008

February 8: Spiedies

My cousin Don used to work for IBM in Endicott, New York, on the Western side of the state. (He still works for IBM, but he lives in North Carolina now. This is in no way germaine to this story, but just for the sake of know.) One summer, when I was maybe 8 or 9 -- Don is maybe 15 or so years older than I -- he came home for a visit and announced that we were all having Spiedies.

Spiedies (pronounced spee-dees) are chunks of skewered chicken, although I guess a variety of meats are commonly used. They're marinated, grilled over charcoal, drizzled with fresh marinade, and served on a slice of Italian bread--the grocery store kind, with sesame seeds on top.

I can't explain to you how glorious this was. They were amazing, crusty, with a deep complexity, beautifully textured, served with a big bowl of my grandmother's cabbage salad--a recipe I'd love to give you, except that nobody in family seems to be able to reproduce it and she died four years ago--and my mother's exceptionally boring potato salad. I call it exceptionally boring because it is, and she even says so.

I forgot all about spiedies until ten years later, when I went away to college and my friend Ryan turned out to be from Westfield, NY, not terribly far from Endicott. Not only was Ryan familiar with this regional delicacy, he is almost as big a food nerd as I am. I don't know many 18-year-olds that served Sunday brunch to their friends in their college dorm rooms, but he did. And when I say brunch, I mean brunch: quiche lorraine, broiled grapefruit with brown sugar, vanilla french toast, country ham. That kid could throw down in the kitchen.

I seem to have forgotten about spiedies again until I heard some mention of them on NPR recently. Spiedies! Of course! Mmmmm, spiedies.

The recipe that I found for them uses beef, although you could really probably use chicken, or pork, or whatever else floats your boat. Not having tried this recipe, I have to say that I have serious reservations about the length of time that is called for in marinating, and the amount of acid in the marinade. At the risk of sounding like Alton Brown, acid turns meat fibers into mush. A mushy surface on your meat tastes...mushy. Consider reducing the marinating time, or not, as you see fit. I am not sure how many this would serve, the recipes that I found were all frustratingly non-specific. This seemed to be the simplest, most pure incarnation of a spiedie.


3 pounds boneless beef; cubed
1 cup olive or vegetable oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup fresh sweet basil; chopped
4 cloves fresh garlic; chopped
3/4 cup italian parsley; chopped
3 tablespoons fresh mint; chopped
salt to taste
pepper to taste
Sliced loaf of Italian bread

Combine marinade ingredients. Reserve 1/2 cup of marinade.

Let meat marinate in refrigerator for three days in a non-reactive plastic, ceramic, or non-aluminum metal bowl.

Skewer; grill over hot coals. (A note: as it is currently winter, I would consider another medium. Like maybe your broiler, or a grill pan.) Using a slice of bread as an oven mitt, grasp the meat with one hand and remove the skewer with the other.

Drizzle the sandwiches with the reserved marinade. Serve immediately.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

February 7: Gingery Sauteed Carrots

This month's Fine Cooking magazine has sort of tipped the scale for me in terms of the steel-cage death match of cooking magazines. Between it and Cook's Illustrated, there's way more advertising in Fine Cooking--since Cook's Illustrated doesn't carry any. Fine Cooking has way more recipes, and I like their variations on a theme. They also tend to have great little sidebars about great cook- and bakeware, special ingredients, tips, and other useful, interesting tidbits, rather than Cook's Illustrated, some of which read a little like a ten-year-old with Asperger's Syndrome talking about science.

Nevertheless, these are still my two favorite cooking magazines by far, and the only two I'm still subscribing to. I am really looking forward to making something Asian again sometime soon, so that I can make these gingery sauteed carrots that are in Fine Cooking this month. They sound wonderful. I make this chipotle-maple cashew chicken with brown rice. I think this might be a yummy side dish with that, with the flavor of maple tying them together. This serves 4 generously.

Gingery Sauteed Carrots

1 tbsp. maple syrup
2 tsp lime juice
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb. carrots, trimmed, peeled, and cut into sticks about 4 inches long and 1/3 inch wide
kosher salt
1 tbsp minced fresh ginger

Combine the maple syrup, lime juice, and 1 tbsp. water in a small dish and set near the stove. In a 10-inch straight sided saute pan, heat 1 tbsp. of the butter with the olive oil over medium-high heat. When the butter is melted, add the carrots and season with 3/4 tsp. salt. Toss with tongs to coat well. Cook, gently tossing occasionally at first and then more frequently, until most of the carrots are well browned and tender when pierced with a fork, 6-9 minutes.

Reduce the heat to low, add the remaining 1 tbsp of butter and the ginger and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan with a heatproof spatula, until the butter has melted and the ginger is fragrant, 15-20 seconds. Carefully add the maple syrup mixture and cook, stirring, until the liquid reduces to a glazey consistency that coats the carrots, 15-20 seconds.

Immediately transfer the carrots to the serving dish, scraping the pan with the spatula to get all of the sauce. Let sit for a few minutes and then serve warm.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

February 6: Ravioli Nudi (Naked Ravioli)

Edited: Holy smokes, was this amazing. I made the meatballs with 93% lean ground beef and ground pork, a 50-50 mix. I mixed in the Italian Sausage seasoning, and skipped out on the onion, because I think chopped onions in these little meatballs would be onion bombs. Besides, the key here was quick. Also, I am out of parmesan cheese (oh NOOOOO!!!) and used romano instead. A little stronger-tasting, delicious. I used more butter, maybe an additional 2 tablespoons, because I love butter, and I didn't have fresh sage, so I used Penzey's dried sage, about a tablespoon of it, crumbled between my fingers and thrown right in the brown butter for the last two minutes or so. I made rotini pasta because it looks fun and because it's easy for my kid to eat.

A resounding hit for the whole family. Meatballs=love. Pasta=love. Cheese=love. Brown butter and sage=lurrrrve. This was ready in twenty minutes, the hardest work that was required was making meatballs, and yet the brown butter and sage tasted indescribably complex, toasty and nutty and herby. Next time, to punch that up a little, I might garnish the whole thing with some chopped, toasted pecans.

I am going to try this dish, like, tonight. Seriously, that's how good it sounds to me. I found it on Bitten, the new food blog by genius and author Mark Bittman. Serious about the genius thing too; if he started a religion, I would totally join.

I probably won't go for the veal and pork though, those aren't always easy to find--I'm thinking lean ground beef, or ground turkey. Turkey might not hold together that well when poached though. I think I'll try ground beef. Or, maybe ground pork with that Italian Sausage seasoning I bought at Penzey's this weekend. Hmmmmm.

This is exactly the reason that I want to worship at the Church of Mark Bittman, though: a simple, smart recipe, intelligently conceived, beautifully executed. This is the kind of cooking that has made me believe that anybody, even the people stumbling around out there saying, "Oh, I can't cook, we should just get some take-out" really should give it a try.

Give it a try, you people. Start here. Serves 4-6.

Ravioli Nudi (Naked Ravioli)

1/2 pound each veal and pork, or other ground meats
1 egg
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, more for garnish
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
1/4 cup minced onion
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound fresh or dried pasta, any kind
4 tablespoons butter
20 sage leaves

1. In a bowl, combine meat with egg, cheese, parsley, onion, and salt and pepper. Mix well but do not knead. Form into balls 1/2 inch in diameter. Refrigerate until ready to cook. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it.

2. Cook meatballs in water for about 5 minutes; remove with a slotted spoon and keep warm. Cook pasta in same water until tender but not mushy. Meanwhile, in a medium pot cook butter and sage together until butter is light brown, about 5 minutes.

3. Before draining pasta, reserve a bit of its cooking water. Drain pasta, then toss it with butter-sage mixture and enough reserved water to make it saucy. Top with meatballs and serve, passing grated Parmesan at the table.

Owning My Addiction

I think there might be something wrong with me.

I mean, I am a visual person. I started college as a photojournalism major--although I didn't stick with it because I wasn't that great at it, nor did I have the resources to spend with impugnity the way that most of the students in the program seemed to. I would find it hard to believe that any of them graduated with less than $40,000 in debt.

But I am a visual person, and I found this website. I don't know if they really cook this way only on Sunday nights--I can't imagine some of this stuff on my table on, say, a Tuesday. All I know is that this is some of the most visually-arresting food photography I think that I have ever seen. At the very least, it makes me want to race out and invest $800 in a really good macro lens, not to mention a $1200 digital camera.

The post about Trader Joe's One Head Per Clove Garlic almost made me cry, especially when I got to the part about it no longer being available.

Like I said, I think I might have a problem. I might need some kind of an intervention.

Oh well. As they say, go big or go home.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

February 5: Cheddar Soup

One small administrative note: Dan and I stopped at a small Italian restaurant in a strip mall in College Park tonight. It failed miserably in atmosphere and fell far short in service. However, it had by far the best pizza that I've tasted in years. I promise to review Mamma Lucia's in more detail later this week, but I am just really mezmerized by American Idol right now.

Great cheddar soup is silky, elegant enough for company, and rich. This is a great lunch with a loaf of good bakery bread and a big crunchy salad and some kind of a fruity-berry tart for dessert. The bad news: this isn't a soup that holds well. The good news: it's simple and delicious and also, it's ready in 20 minutes.

This is plenty of soup for at least four as a centerpiece. You might stretch it to six for a starter.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, minced (about 1 cup)
1 medium carrot, minced (about 1/3 cup)
1 small rib celery , minced (about 1/4 cup)
1 medium clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 1/2 cups half-and-half
1 bay leaf
pinch cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons dry sherry
12 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (about 3 cups)
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
Table salt and ground black pepper

1. Heat butter in large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium heat until foaming; add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add carrot, celery, and garlic; cook until garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add flour and cook, stirring to coat vegetables, until mixture begins to brown on bottom of pot, about 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in chicken broth and half-and-half and add bay leaf. Increase heat to medium-high and bring to boil; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until vegetables soften, about 10 minutes.

2. Off heat, add cayenne and sherry; cool soup for 1 minute. Slowly whisk in cheese and thyme; season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.