Monday, December 15, 2008

You Know What?

I haven't blogged, a really long time. There are multiple reasons for this: in my family we have three birthdays between 10/29 and Thanksgiving. And then we have Thanksgiving. And then we have Christmas. It's pretty crazy at my house from the week before Halloween until New Year's.

So I must offer my sincere apologies and promise that I'll try to put something up between now and Christmas (I have a little dessert turnover that I took to Thanksgiving that's another of the "blank slate" type of offerings).

And maybe I'll muse on the various Christmas menus that we have coming up.

I'll be back!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Won Over

I'm not quite sure what drew me to Brussels sprouts. My mother used to claim she loved them but she never served them. Perhaps my father didn't like them. Perhaps she just liked the idea of them. They are quite cute: like little baby cabbages. It's probably a blessing she never did make them; in our house when I was a kid, vegetables were supposed to be mush. Correction, they were supposed to be canned.

In talking to people I find that childhood memories of Brussels sprouts are what primarily deter them from eating them today. Moms who boiled the daylights out of the poor little things (the Brussels sprouts, not the kids) and then served up acrid-tasting balls of soggy leaves have ruined many of my friends for the joy that is Brussels sprouts.

Something I've recently discovered: almost any vegetable is improved by roasting. Cut into uniform pieces, tossed with some olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roasted at 450 degrees until the edges are browning just about all vegetables are transformed. I've roasted the obvious choices, the usual roast accompaniments, such as potatoes, carrots, and onions, but I've also roasted things like butternut squash, fennel, endive, and Brussels sprouts with great success. I even roasted some asparagus one time that almost turned my opinion of it.

Once I'd discovered Brussels sprouts and was tiring of roasting them with olive oil, recipes popped out at me. Sauteed, roasted, steamed (although I confess I've never steamed them for fear of turning them to the aforementioned mush), with bacon, cream, or cheese. I've cut them in half, shredded them, and pulled them apart into individual leaves. I can't recall having made a bad Brussels sprout recipe.

We recently had some friends to dinner, one of whom was a vegetarian. Since Fall was just upon us, I wanted to serve something that reflected the season. When I mentioned Brussels sprouts to my friend, she curled her lip. She had childhood-boiled-acrid-mush syndrome. I felt it was my duty to cure her. The problem I faced was that every recipe I could recall had bacon in it.

And then I remembered Donna Hay. In a feature on roasts in her magazine, she offered half a dozen sides, one of which was a Brussels sprout recipe that puts all others to shame. The sprouts are cooked under a soft blanket of cream mixed with cheese and mustard. The mustard was originally english mustard, but I swapped it out for my beloved Dijon, and upped the amount. It also recommends that you blanche them first, but I confess I always skip this step. Trim the spouts and cut them in half, mix up the cream with the cheese and mustard, spread the cream mixture over the sprouts and bake for 20 minutes. The result is heavenly and could convert even the most determined Brussels sprout hater on the spot. As evidence of this I can report that my friend who curled her lip was convinced.

So because I want everyone to love them as much as I do, I urge you to go get some Brussels sprouts and try this recipe. You too will fall completely in love with them.

Cheesy Mustard Brussels Sprouts
adapted from Donna Hay magazine #26
allegedly serves 6, but in fairly small portions; to my mind this is enough for four

1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup grated mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
12 Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Combine cream, cheeses, and mustard. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed (because of the parmesan, it may not need any salt, but a couple of grinds of pepper are recommended). Place sprouts in a 4-cup capacity baking dish in a single layer. Spoon cream mixture over the sprouts, covering them evenly. The mixture is pretty thick, so you'll wind up sort of blopping it on and spreading it with the back of the spoon. Bake 20 minutes or until golden and bubbling. Devour.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Prolonged Absence!

Lawsy, I've been so remiss! I have a very good reason, however: I just started a brand new job, and you know how that is. First few weeks you have to actually be productive, prove yourself, learn everyone's name, figure out where the ladies room is. Stuff like that. Also, the computer I used to use for blogging belonged to my old company, which means I've been effectively without a decent computer to compose on and use for picture storage.

Now that I'm settling in, I promise to get back to posting more regularly. I've come to realize that I adore Fall and Winter vegetables even more than I like the Spring/Summer lot. Fresh tomatoes are great, but somehow I find myself much more excited about cabbage, cauliflower, endive, fennel, leeks, and butternut squash. I don't understand it, but I'm going with it. So far this month I've made:
  • Oven roasted fennel
  • Cauliflower gratin
  • Butternut squash gratin
  • Swiss chard gratin (yes, E, again)
  • Sauteed cabbage with oven roasted potatoes, cream, and Gruyere cheese

Every one of them was outstanding, and now that I'm resolving not to be such a blog slacker, I'll get start taking pictures of them and posting the recipes.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Sans Picture

If you’re a food blogger yourself, you know that there are some recipes that are hard to share because they just won’t photograph well. I was thinking about this at breakfast this morning, when I was eating a scrambled egg with duxelles, and a leftover concoction of cabbage, roasted red potatoes, onions, bacon, and cream. Both had amazing flavor, and were just heavenly (even the unlikely sounding potatoes and cabbage for breakfast), but boy were they ugly.

I like my scrambled eggs pretty dry (for which read: not fluffy and pretty, but more flat-pancake-like), and that potato and cabbage thing wasn’t particularly attractive when it was fresh, much less as a leftover two days later. If I showed you pictures of it, you’d wonder why I was eating it at all. And it wouldn’t tempt you to make any of it. But I realized as I was reading "Beard on Food," the amazing compilation of Beard’s articles from his various syndicated columns, that I was finding it necessary to keep a packet of sticky flags next to me as I read, so I could mark those recipes I wanted to try. And there are no pictures, just Beard’s discussion of the subject, and the recipes themselves.

The recipe I bring you today is one for something that isn’t really a thing by itself, but is a component of other things. An ingredient, if you will. I refer to the duxelles that was in my scrambled eggs.

I made duxelles once before, but I don’t recall it being much of a standout. In the first place, I think it was microwaved, and in the second place, I believe it was a recipe from Cooking Light, so it wasn't the lavish affair with lots of butter that Beard presents. And as we all know, butter makes the world go ‘round.

For some reason, after reading the recipe for this, I was overwhelmed by an urge to make it. Really, I have no idea what drove this. Certainly it wasn’t a sweeping desire to finely chop two pounds of mushrooms (do you know how many mushrooms are in two pounds? A lot, that’s how many). Maybe it was the comment Beard makes at the end of the recipe: that the lot, cooked down and spooned into a screw top jar, could be kept in the refrigerator for at least two weeks. Maybe it was his ideas for what to do with the duxelles once it was made.

Whatever the reason, Sunday morning found me with my two pounds of mushrooms, a knife, and a cutting board. I chopped and chopped and chopped some more. I got interrupted to go to the grocery store (Sunday is Donut Day, you understand), and to make some peanut butter sandwiches and various other kid food. I used plain old white mushrooms, rinsed off, and chopped both the stems and the caps into a pretty fine mince. This is actually easier than it sounds because the shape of mushrooms lends them to quick chopping.

Once I had my bowls and bowls of chopped mushrooms, I undertook the cooking part of the recipe. All this really requires is a pretty substantial block of time when you’re going to be in and out of the kitchen with some regularity so you can stir the mixture. Beard says it will take 1 ½ to 2 hours, but I found that to really cook them slowly and evenly it was closer to three. The result, however, was just as he’d promised: a thick dense mass of mushrooms, very dark, almost black in color.

Maybe what drew me to this recipe was his suggestions of what to do with them. Because now that you have this stuff, the question isn’t what do I do with it, but what do I not do with it? Beard’s offerings include stacking crepes eight or nine high layered with the mushrooms, dotting them with butter and baking them. This is served sliced in wedges. The way I’ve been eating them is in scrambled eggs, also recommended. Additionally, I made some pork lo mein the other night that called for shiitake mushrooms. I had none, so I stirred in a generous spoonful or two of duxelles; the mushroom flavor they added was amazing.

They can be stirred into mashed potatoes or celery root, spooned over hamburgers, or combined with 4 or 5 tablespoons of shredded cheese (Gruyere and Cheddar are mentioned, I think blue would also be admirable), spread over baguette rounds and toasted under the broiler as an hors d’oeuvres. Add it to sauces, Beard urges: cream sauce, brown gravy.

I can think of a few dozen more things to do with it, starting with adding it to roasted Brussels sprouts after cooking, or warming it up and scattering it over oven roasted roma tomatoes with herbs. It would make a great addition to a steak pan sauce, with a little Dijon or whole grain mustard and a little beef broth, all stirred in after the steaks pan fry. Combine it with hot pasta, fresh baby spinach leaves, and some grated Parmesan cheese.

About the only places I wouldn’t use duxelles is in lemon meringue pie, or chocolate cake or something like that. Otherwise, it's a fantastic “secret” ingredient that requires some chopping and watching time, but it stores well and has so many uses that it's well worth the time to make it. Just don’t expect to be able to take pictures.

adapted from Beard on Food, by James Beard
makes about 1 1/2 cups of mixture

1 1/2 to 2 lbs white mushrooms (Beard suggests that this is a good way to use mushrooms that may be somewhat past their prime, since looks really don't count)
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot or onion
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
2 teaspoons salt

Chop mushrooms fine, caps and stems. Beard calls for wringing them out in a kitchen towel before cooking, but I confess I barely squeezed out enough liquid to get the towel damp. If your mushrooms seem fairly dry, I think you could safely skip this step.

Melt butter in a large heavy skillet (mine is a 12" one) over medium heat. Add mushrooms and shallot or onion, and stir to combine with butter.

Cook over low heat, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes (or every now and then when you think of it) to move the mushrooms from the bottom of the pan to the top. Beard calls for adding more butter "as needed" but I found a whole stick to be ample, thanks. The duxelles are done when all the moisture has been drawn from the mushrooms and they are completely dehydrated, and are a thick blackish mass. They will appear almost burnt; they are not.

Add the salt and stir through. Spoon into a large jar or storage container and refrigerate. The mixture should be good for, as Beard says, at least two weeks. Use willy-nilly.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Picture Perfect: Concord Grape Jam Tart

Sometimes you want to run out of your house shouting, “I did it! Look at this, world! It looks as nice as it did in the magazine!” You want to take out an ad in the paper, call the networks, and invite everyone in to view your creation.

Today was one of those days for me. As is often the case in my life, an ingredient and an idea came together to nudge me into the kitchen. The display of Concord grapes at my grocery store was too overwhelming to resist. They just smell so…grape. Most of the grapes these days don’t smell like much of anything, but Concord grapes, with their dusky purple skins, smell like grapes should smell. So I bought a pound or so of them, with no clear idea what I was going to do with them. A pricey whim, I’ll concede, but one that paid off.

To the rescue came the October issue of Martha Stewart Living, which contained—ta da!—a recipe for Concord Grape Jam Tart. A beautiful bit of pastry with a cut out of grapes on the top to both indicate the flavor and give you a peek at the dark mysterious filling within. And it’s nice that it’s something unusual; jam tart recipes abound, of course, but the idea of making one with a jam you’ve made yourself seemed unusual.

Since I’ve been brushing up on my pie crust in anticipation of an apple pie to be made with apples picked 100 yards away from my house, and a pear tart to made from pears picked 100 feet away from my own house, I felt this was a good practice session. Would it be beautiful? Maybe. Would it taste good? Undoubtedly, with the Concord grapes cooked down to a thick pasty filling.

So I am happy to report that it was both.

I’ll admit that my first pass at the jam was disappointing. It was too thin and never did thicken up, even when it was cool. Figuring that I had nothing to lose, I returned the jam mixture to the heat and really cooked the daylights out of it. It almost boiled over, in fact. It still didn’t show any inclination to thicken up as it cooled, but since I hadn’t planned to make the tart until the next day anyway, I put it in the refrigerator and hoped for the best.

My efforts were rewarded with a thick purple product that was just what I was expecting it to be. This was, I knew, what it should be like: not as thick as a true jam, it ran off the spoon and left visible ribbon trails behind it. And it was so purple. You’d have to say purple a hundred times to truly express its purpleness. I’ve read that purple is “in” this season; if so, this is the tart the fashionistas should be eating (not that fashionistas eat tart I wouldn’t think, but if they did, this would be it). It has the sweetness and clear flavor of the grapes, with a wonderful almost creamy texture to it.

The dough pulled together without a hitch, and I rolled it out and prepared to line my tart pan. When it came to cutting out the grape design on the top, I hit a snag. The instructions call for using the non-decorative (if you will) end of two sizes of pastry tip to make the circles. I guess I got the low budget pastry tip kit, because all my tips were the same diameter. I used the plastic coupling ring instead, which was just fine. Also since I didn’t have the sanding sugar the recipe recommended, I used Turbinado.

Brace yourself—the top of this tart is going to sink as it cooks. It’s a bit of a shock to peer in at your beautiful creation and find that the top that floated so gracefully over the filling when you popped it in the oven has sunk down into the pan. But it turned out beautifully in spite of that. Just like the picture, in fact.

Concord Grape Jam Tart

from Martha Stewart Living, October 2008

makes 8-10 amazingly beautiful servings

For the dough

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

8 ounces (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2" pieces

1/4 cup ice water

For the jam

1 1/2 pounds Concord grapes, stems removed

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 cup granulated sugar


1 large egg, lightly beaten

Coarse sanding sugar, for sprinkling

Sweetened fresh whipped cream, for serving

For the dough: Pulse flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor to combine. Add butter, evenly distributed around the workbowl, and pulse until combined and mixture resembles coarse meal, about 10 seconds. Add ice water, one tablespoon at a time, pulsing 2-3 times after each addition. When all water is added, dough will be just starting to hold together. Turn out onto a lightly floured board, shape dough into 2 disks, wrap each in plastic and refrigerate 1 hour (or up to 2 days).

For the jam: Combine grapes and lemon juice in a medium non-reactive saucepan over high heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until grapes release their juice, about 7 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve, pressing the grapes to release all the juice. There should be about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of juice (discard solids). Return juice to a saucepan over high heat, stir in sugar and a pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until the temperature registers 220 degrees F on a candy thermometer, about 8 minutes (despite my checking this repeatedly, this is the step where my jam flopped, and I put it back in the pan and boiled the daylights out of it, then let it cool down and refrigerated it overnight, and was successful). Let mixture cool, stirring occasionally.

Assemble the tart: On a lightly floured work surface, roll out each disk of dough to 1/8" thickness. Move one round to a baking sheet lined with parchment, and fit the other into a 9 1/2" tart pan with a removable bottom. Trim the dough in the tart pan, and freeze both the tart pan and the baking sheet for 15 minutes.

Using the wide base of two pastry tips (or two other approximately 1" round cutters--one slightly smaller than the other) cut clusters of holes in the dough on the baking sheet to resemble a bunch of grapes. Use a paring knife to cut out a stem-shaped piece of dough. Freeze until firm.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Spread 1 cup jam over the dough in the tart pan (I just spread it all in there--the remaining jam was approximately 1/4"; not really enough for "another use"). Brush top edge of dough with egg white. Slide the remaining dough over the top of the tart, centering the design. Press the edges to seal, and trim excess dough. Brush the top with egg, then sprinkle with sanding sugar. Refrigerate 30 minutes.

Bake tart for 15 minutes, remove tart from the oven and gently tap the pan on the counter to release any air bubbles. Return tart to the oven and bake an additional 15 to 20 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool. Remove tart from pan and transfer to a platter. Serve with lightly sweetened whipped cream, and call the media to witness your astonishingly beautiful feat.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Loveable: S'mores Cookies

I believe I have found the world’s ugliest cookie. I made some cookies from a recipe in Gourmet magazine, and when I made a second batch, one of my nannies asked me what that log in the refrigerator was. I explained that they were the chocolate cookies that had been around the previous week. The other nanny was joyous that I was making another batch.

“I kept eating them,” she said, “And Kerina kept asking why I was eating those ugly cookies. I told her, they’re ugly, but they’re awesome!”

Indeed, I would say “ugly but awesome” sums these cookies up perfectly. In fact, so ugly are they that it took me half the batch just to find one that was attractive enough to photograph.

These are from a local company called Dish D’lish, run by a woman named Kathy Casey. The recipe was in the March issue of Gourmet magazine, in the You Asked for It section. A woman in the Seattle area said she goes out of her way to buy one of these whenever she flies out of Sea-Tac. Since I don’t fly (except in extreme situations), I realized would probably never get one of these cookies unless I made the recipe. And since there was no picture of the cookies with the recipe, I had to assume I was doing things correctly and that ugly was part of their charm.

The first time I made them I forgot to stir the candy bits into the cookie dough. The second time I made them I did, but I realized that I actually liked them better without them. Both times the recipe made more like 11 cookies than 10 (I'm not very good at rolling out the log to exactly 8" long).

Also the first time, I rolled the dough out into a log on a floured board, but didn’t like the look of the white flour on the chocolate dough. Remembering my Martha Stewart wisdom, I recalled the tip to “flour” cake pans for chocolate cake with cocoa to avoid that white-flour-on-the-outside-of-a-chocolate-cake look. I dusted the exterior of the dough log with cocoa powder. When baked off, the cookies had an extra hint of chocolate that was subtle, but interesting.

The topping is the real gotcha on these cookies. You have to mound the marshmallow goopiness perfectly in the center of the raw dough or it melts and slithers off onto the baking sheet, making it look like the topping was caught in the act of trying to escape when you opened the oven door and pulled the cookies out. If you manage to calculate the exact area of the cookie circle using the formula you remember from geometry, of course (isn’t it π x r squared?) and blop the stuff in the exact middle point, you wind up with a pool of melted marshmallow goodness that turns lightly golden. Using one large marshmallow half per cookie (cut around the equator), instead of the minis, also helps the appearance a bit. It’s still not very pretty, but it’s tasty.

I think the dough for these cookies could be used for more than just s’mores cookies. I see melting other things on top of them, such as caramels, or starlight mints. This bears consideration.

My one beef with these cookies is that after you make them, you’re left with most of a can of sweetened condensed milk to use up. It only calls for a quarter cup of it, and then you’re left with at least another 9 or so ounces of the stuff. I guess the solution is to make more ugly cookies.

I even put it on a really pretty plate in the hopes that it would make the cookie more visually appealing. Fail.

Chocolate-Toffee S'more Cookies
from Gourmet magazine, March 2008
makes 10-11 jumbo cookies

For Dough
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup shortening
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 (8 oz.) package toffee baking bits

For Topping
1 1/2 (5" x 2 1/2") graham crackers
1 cup mini marshmallows (or 5 large marshmallows halved through their equator)
1/4 cup sweetened condensed milk

Make the dough: combine flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl. Cream together butter, shortening, and sugars in the bowl of an electric mixer until fluffy, then beat in the egg and vanilla. With the mixer on low, add in the flour mixture and mix until the dough just comes together. Stir in toffee bits.

Shape dough into a log 8" long, 3" in diameter on a board dusted with flour (or a combination of flour and cocoa powder) with floured hands. Flatten the ends and chill, wrapped in plastic, for 6 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment. In a food processor, grind graham crackers into fine crumbs (about 1/4 cup). Combine crumbs with marshmallows and sweetened condensed milk (mixture will be very sticky).

Cut dough crosswise into 10-3/4" thick rounds. Place 2-3 slices on each baking sheet (these cookies spread about 5" during baking), and top with 1 heaping tablespoon of marshmallow topping, placing it in the center of each slice (this is where a single large marshmallow is easier than a clump of the smaller ones).

Bake cookies 18-22 minutes until topping is golden and cookies are baked through. Slide onto a rack to cool completely. Finish remaining cookies in the same manner.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mystified: Fried Green Tomatoes

I suppose it was inevitable that I would eventually come around to love fried green tomatoes. You don’t come from a Southern family and not have some genetic predisposition towards fried chicken, grits, and fried green tomatoes, and my family is about as Southern as you get (my dad grew up in the north part of Louisiana and Mississippi, my mom in the southern part of Virginia). My dad used to tell me about the kinds of things his aunts made for dinner when he was young: whipped potatoes as light as down made without a single electric appliance, only a wooden spoon; greens cooked to the point of disintegration in pot likker; lemon meringue pies with piles of meringue that were so high they had to crane their necks to see one another across the table. And of course every time my grandmother came to visit she’d make pralines. Real pralines with fresh pecans she’d brought with her that were, as I recall, merely pools of brown sugar and butter studded with whole pecans. I know there was more to them than that, but I still remember the grainy almost gritty texture of the praline, and the meaty heft of the nut as I bit into one. That doesn’t sound very nice, but I assure you, they were sublime.

I fought fried green tomatoes for years, even refusing my sister-in-law’s urging to try the very best ones in the whole world at Kudzu Café in Atlanta (a restaurant that has sadly closed its doors). I wasn’t wild about raw red tomatoes, and I was pretty darned sure that raw green ones—even if they were technically cooked—weren’t going to go over well. This just goes to show, I think, how wrong one person can be. Last week when we got several green tomatoes in our CSA share, I couldn’t really think of anything to do with them but coat them in cornmeal and fry them. I can’t even put my finger on what changed my mind. Generally I can trace my whims to a specific incident or occurrence that drove a small wedge in the sheer rock face of my refusal to accept the food I was so vehemently rejecting, and later caused my stubborn resistance to cleave in half. But not in this case.

I have now come to the conclusion that the reason to grow tomatoes is so you can have an endless supply of fried green tomatoes. They require some fiddling--what with dredging them in flour, dipping them in buttermilk, and then dredging them in corn meal--and of course you do shallow fry them, so they’re not the healthiest of fare, but oh my. Tangy and firm in the middle, light crisp crust on the outside, I never dreamed they could be so good.

Although I ate a fair number at dinner, the next morning the memory lingered on, and with the enthusiasm that only a new convert shows, I took a chance and heated the leftovers up for breakfast. I was pleasantly surprised; usually fried things aren’t as good when reheated. Their crust tends to get mushy, and the overall quality suffers. I wouldn’t say the tomatoes were as phenomenally good as they were the night before, but I didn’t push them off my plate either. I used the toaster oven and I think that may have had something to do with it; if I’d microwaved them they’d have gotten soggy for sure.

The recipe I used was from the Food + Wine annual cookbook for 2007 (which means it was published in an issue in 2006). Originally it was a fried green tomato salad, with the tomatoes served over frisee with bacon with a warm vinaigrette. In retrospect, this would be very good too, although my worry is that the vinaigrette would sog the crust of the tomatoes and make them just a shade less spectacular. In this case we used the recipe for the tomatoes only and let the rest fall by the wayside. Interestingly, since then I have gone through my cookbooks to find possible variations on fried green tomatoes to see if there’s another version out there I want to try, and they seem to all be almost identical. Flour, eggs (or buttermilk or milk), and cornmeal. It doesn’t appear that many people have deviated from that formula. I still have some more research to do, but preliminary findings suggest I’ve already got the perfect combination of ingredients.

Now I’m delighted that we planted all our tomato plants so late; originally I was in a fret that I wouldn’t get many red tomatoes. With the very chilly start we had to summer out here, we didn’t get the plants in the ground until almost July 4th. This means that by the time frost is threatening I’ll have at least several dozen green tomatoes, and a watertight reason to eat fried green tomatoes at nearly every meal for as long as they last.

Fried Green Tomatoes
adapted from Food + Wine Magazine, August 2006
makes about 12 slices, or two dinner servings + two breakfast servings

4 large green (unripe) tomatoes, sliced crosswise 1/2 inch thick
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
Cayenne pepper
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon water
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Canola oil, for frying

In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes with the garlic and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and let stand for 10 minutes.

In a pie plate or shallow bowl, combine 3/4 cup of the flour with salt, pepper and cayenne. In another pie plate, whisk the eggs with the water. In a third pie plate, combine the cornmeal with the remaining 1/2 cup of flour and the thyme and season with salt, pepper and cayenne. Line a baking sheet with wax paper. Drain the tomatoes. Working with 1 slice at a time, dip the tomatoes in the flour, tapping off any excess, then dip in the beaten egg and then in the cornmeal; press to help it adhere. Transfer the breaded slices to the prepared baking sheet.

In a large skillet, heat 1/4 inch of canola oil until shimmering. Fry the tomato slices in batches over moderately high heat, turning once, until golden and crisp, 5 to 6 minutes per batch. Transfer to a rack lined with paper towels to drain. Sprinkle tomatoes with salt.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Passionate: Bright Lights Chard Gratin

As obsessive as I clearly am when I find something I like (please see Exhibit A: Blackberries), I can’t believe I haven’t shared with you my current obsession. I know this may sound a little strange at first, but hear me out. My current love, the food with which I am so taken that I actually planted it in my own garden to ensure an immediate and almost unending supply thereof, is Rainbow Chard.

Right, I know.

Tracy, chard? It looks like some weird weed and it has a name that sounds like the discarded by-product of the cheese making process. What you say is true, but I can’t help it. I’ve fallen and I’ve fallen hard. And work with me here: for once my insatiable love is for something healthy. Oh yes, at this point I’m still in the smother-it-with-white-sauce-and-buttered-crumbs stage of the relationship, but at least I’m not deep frying it. I maintain that the American public can be gently guided to love any food provided that it’s either breaded and deep fried, or smothered in a cheesy white sauce. I mean, really: calamari. I rest my case.

But back to my newfound passion. It started turning up in my CSA share each week, and I thought, what do I do with this? Enter Deborah Madison’s “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets.” She has a recipe for Bright Lights Chard Gratin. In her introduction she says this recipe is just as good if you use some spinach or other green, plus the chard. Well there you go: I have no fear of spinach. Spinach and I are great pals. If I could get spinach, along with my old friends goat cheese, cream sauce, and bread crumbs, to introduce me to chard, why, I’d be at a party with a whole lot of folks I knew, and only one stranger in the mix. I could ease out of my comfort zone only slightly, and maybe make a new friend.

Since then I’ve eased further and further, and chard and I are now joined at the hip. I bought a packet of seeds and planted it in my garden, and the other night I made an all chard gratin with a combination of my CSA bunch and a fistful plucked from my own crop. It was still slathered in béchamel sauce, but it was all chard, no spinach invited (no offense, spinach; I still love you). I figure one of these days I’ll be brave enough to try a simple sauté, with the stems cooked first, and the leaves added after, all in just a touch of butter with some garlic, salt and pepper. But baby steps for baby feet, and I think my next experiment will be crisp chard cakes on a bed of creamy spinach (recipe in one of my new acquisitions, the Food + Wine 2008 cookbook). Still a chard/spinach combo, and still with the cream sauce and crumbs, but the cream sauce isn't in with the chard, and the spinach is a separate entity altogether. I can hardly wait.

Bright Lights Chard Gratin

from Deborah Madison’s “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets.”
serves 4 as a main dish; 6 as a side dish; or, if you're me, two days in a row for lunch

2 pounds chard, including half the stems (or an equal amount of greens, such as spinach, nettles or sorrel)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, finely chopped
sea salt, and freshly ground pepper
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tablespoons chopped dill or parsley
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup milk, cream, or a mixture of cream and stock
1 cup crumbled fresh goat cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F and lightly oil a 2-quart gratin dish.

Separate the leaves and chard stems. Wash the leaves well, then coarsely chop them. Trim the ragged edges off the stems, wash them well, and dice them into small pieces.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a wide skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and chard stems and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion has begun to brown, about 20 minutes. (Note: I found this took about 5-7 minutes, not 20; maybe my heat was higher. In any event, it shouldn’t be left unattended, because you may find this goes faster than the original recipe says it will.) Add the chard leaves (and any other greens you may be using), sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt, and cook until they’re wilted and tender, about 10 minutes (interestingly, this was about the correct amount of time).

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small skillet and add the bread crumbs, garlic and dill or parsley. Cook, stirring for about a minute, then scrape the crumbs into a bowl and return the pan to the heat.

Melt the last tablespoon of butter, stir in the flour, then whisk in the milk (I used plain old 2%). Simmer for 5 minutes, season with 1/2 teaspoons salt, and add to the chard mixture. Add the cheese, then taste the mixture, correct for salt, and season with pepper. (Note: I actually added the goat cheese to the white sauce in the pan and whisked it until the cheese was melted, then poured it over the chard mixture. This was successful also.)

Pour the mixture into the prepared dish and cover with the bread crumbs. Bake until heated through and golden on the surface, about 25 minutes. (The sauce will also be bubbling a bit.) Let settle a few minutes before serving.

Eat, and vow to make again as soon as humanly possible!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

A Collection: Things I Never Thought I Would Say (or would never have to say)

1) We don't clean the furniture with fruit

2) Don't throw the chicken (N.B. we were talking about a live chicken in this instance)

3) Yes, I'll get you some ketchup for your pizza

4) Peanut butter is not evil

5) Cheese and crackers really aren't a proper breakfast

6) So what if she got pizza sauce in her hair? She's still going to bed in 5 minutes!

I'm quite sure there's more. These are the ones that came to mind right after I said #3.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Rustic: Blackberry Pie

I’m sorry to keep going on about blackberries, but if you live in the Pacific Northwest (or anyplace else where blackberries abound) you’ll be sympathetic. Of course if you live in a place where you have to buy blackberries at four bucks a pint, as I used to, perhaps you’ll be somewhat sympathetic (and maybe a little envious) as well. They’re just everywhere and they’re free. I spent the weekend making blackberry pie, blackberry compote, and the lovely delicately flavored pound cake in Suzanne Goin’s “Sunday Suppers at Lucques” that goes by the name Pastel Vasco, which is both laced with the blackberry compote, as well as served with it. And I have more grand plans in the works for my little pretties.

Picking blackberries is very soothing activity, in spite of the danger of the thorns. Your only focus is the next berry. Sunday morning I took five children blackberry picking (four of them mine, one the neighbors’—not as insane as it sounds, since the blackberry bushes are a hundred yards from the house next door to us). The children picked and ate and squabbled over who had found the biggest berry. I noticed the almost opalescent quality of the berries after a brief but heavy rain that morning.

Blackberries are very friendly bushes, almost too friendly; if you move in too close, they begin to embrace you, their little stickers gently but firmly hooking into your clothing. I also noticed the surprising lack of spider webs in the thicket (with relief, I might add; spiders weird me out). I saw only one web the whole time I was in there, and even though there was a cluster of big perfect berries right behind it, I left the web intact in deference to a spider who had been brave enough to make his home there.

When I got them home I made the blackberry pie. The recipe is from Mario Batali’s mom (published in the August Food + Wine), and is pretty basic. The crust for this is a straightforward combination of vegetable shortening, flour, sugar, and ice water. I’m out of practice with handling pie crust, but this one turned out well, despite a few tears. In fact, I think the best way to describe the visual outcome of this pie is “rustic.” I always find rustic to be a useful term that’s employed to describe things that are really just kind of ugly and ragged. But since this pie turned out just like that, we’ll go with rustic.

The filling is nothing more than blackberries, lemon juice, and sugar. I discovered that I had used all of my white sugar and forgotten to pick up any more at the grocery store on Saturday morning, so I substituted brown sugar for half the white and crossed my fingers.

The result, while ugly (for which read: rustic), was exactly what was promised to me. The crust was melty and tender and the berry filling bubbled up around the edges of the crust and made little pools of purple sticky on the top. Because I can’t stand the suspense in situations like this, I had done a test to make sure the crust would be good. I took the trimmings and baked them separately on another sheet until they were turning goldeny brown, then pulled them out and tasted them. They offered me a number of possibilities if I chose to skip the sugar, up the salt, and think savory.

The baking time was about an hour in my oven, and I found a crust shield to be a necessity in the last half hour of cooking. I do think the instruction I had to let the pie sit for four hours was a key to the success, because while it was still somewhat juicy and runny, the berries had set up to a certain degree, giving it some structure. It wasn’t just blackberry soup with crust croutons. I ate my piece straight, without ice cream so I could really get a feel for the flavor and sweetness of the filling, instead of being overwhelmed by the supplemental sugar. It had a nice balance, and while I’m informed that ice cream made it even better, it was pretty darned good without.

Marilyn Batali's Blackberry Pie
from Food + Wine Magazine, August 2008
1 9" pie (1-8 servings)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup solid vegetable shortening, chilled
5 tablespoons ice water

2 pints (1 1/2 pounds, or about 20-30 minutes worth of picking) blackberries
1/2 cup sugar (I used 1/4 cup white, and about 1/4 cup of light brown; it came out fine)
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, and salt. Add the shortening and use a pastry blender or two knives to cut it into the flour, until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the ice water and stir with a fork until the dough is moistened. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gather into a ball. Knead 2 or 3 times until the dough just comes together. Divide in half, flatten each into a disk, and refrigerate until well chilled, at least an hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Let the dough stand at room temperature 10 minutes. Working on a lightly floured surface, roll out one disk of the dough to a 12" round. Transfer to a 9" pie plate Roll out remaining dough to an 11" round.

In a bowl, stir the blackberries with the sugar, flour, and lemon juice, lightly mashing the berries. Pour the berries into the prepared crust and sprinkle the butter cubes on top. Brush the overhanging pastry with water and carefully set the top crust over the berry filling. Press the edges of the dough together and trim the overhang to 1". Fold the edge under itself and crimp decoratively (or, in my case, messily). Cut 4 slits in the top crust.

Bake in the center of the oven (with a cookie sheet or piece of foil underneath it) for about an hour and 15 minutes, until the bottom crust is golden and the fruit is bubbling. If necessary, cover the edge with the foil for the last few minutes of baking. Let the pie cool at least four hours before serving.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Resolved: Two Easy Luches

Once upon a time, when I was a young bride…well, scratch that because I got married at almost 30, so I guess I was technically never a “young” bride. Anyway, back when I first got married, before I lost my mind and had four children (and the jury is still out on which of those things happened first), weekday lunches used to be leftovers from things I’d made for dinner the night before. My coworkers used to heat up their Marie Callendar frozen dinners while I was zapping my Star Anise Simmered Chicken with baby bok choy.

On weekends lunch was a fairly elaborate event. If we didn’t go out, I made something at home. I remember one time making mushroom crepes from an old Cooking Light. The recipe for these started out along the lines of, “Make the crepes…” and I did. I made crepes from scratch, sautéed mushrooms, made a light Béchamel sauce for them, and then baked them. It was through this recipe that we discovered that portabella mushrooms don’t sit well with Alex (although the recipe calls for generic mushrooms plus shiitakes, I recall that I used Baby Bellas, which resulted in…well, anyway, we don’t eat portabella mushrooms anymore, let’s just leave it at that).

But then I began accumulating children, and now lunch is a far simpler affair, even those I take on weekdays. Recently I found two recipes in Cooking Light’s Dinner Tonight column that turned out to be godsends. I didn’t make them for dinner; I made them on Sunday afternoon and immediately transferred them to containers for weekday lunches. Because each recipe made only two servings, it was perfect: one for me, one for Alex, and two days’ worth of lunches were taken care of.

One of my problems with making something like soup or risotto or a casserole is that I find I get really tired of it long before the week ends, especially if it was a dinner one of the weekend nights. I used to have a friend who couldn’t eat the same type of food two days in a row: if she’d had Mexican the night before, we couldn’t have Mexican for lunch the next day, even if the “Mexican” she’d had the night before was the Rice and Beans Weight Watchers Smart Ones frozen dinner. I’m not quite to that point, but I have discovered I can’t eat the same thing for lunch more than two days in a week without getting bored.

But another thing that happens every year around the end of summer is that I start to make resolutions. When I was in school, I always resolved at the end of August that I would do my homework on Friday nights this year, not leave it until Sunday afternoon; that I would study harder; that I would be really organized and keep my paper and books tidy. September seems a good time for resolutions, with the new school year starting, so even though I don't think I've ever kept a "school year" resolution (or a New Year's resolution either, for that matter), I keep making them. This year one of my resolutions is to take lunch to work more often, and find ways to keep myself from getting bored. These two recipes got me off on the right foot.

The shrimp curry recipe comes together in literally minutes (I think it took longer for me to thaw the shrimp than to chop the onion), and the pasta takes only a little longer than that. They give a time of around 40 minutes, but if you cook the pasta while you’re making the sauce, it’s really only about 20 or so minutes. I upped the curry paste in the shrimp recipe, and it was a little fiery (tempered by the basmati rice I had with it). If you like things spicy (like Alex does), you’ll want more than a ¼ teaspoon of curry paste; if you’re a wimp like me keep it to a ¼ or a ½ teaspoon. Also my shrimp were about an ounce each, which means if you want to taste it before you dish it up, you should add a “tasting shrimp.” Normally I leave out the crushed red pepper when recipes call for it, but I was feeling daring when I made the ziti, so I left it in, and it does add a nice kick.

And so here, to encourage you to take your lunch to work, or to give you two fast dinner choices, are the recipes from the current Cooking Light (September 2008):

Thai Coconut Shrimp Curry
from Cooking Light, September 2008
makes two servings, perfect for lunch

1 teaspoon canola oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 teaspoon red curry paste (such as Thai Kitchen)
1 teaspoon sugar
12 ounces large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/3 cup light coconut milk
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

1. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and curry paste to pan, and sauté 1 minute, stirring occasionally. Stir in sugar; sauté 15 seconds. Add shrimp; sauté 3 minutes or until shrimp are done, stirring frequently. Stir in coconut milk and fish sauce; cook 30 seconds or until thoroughly heated. Remove from heat; stir in green onions and basil.

Nutritional Info
CALORIES 255(26% from fat); FAT 7.4g (sat 2.6g,mono 1.8g,poly 1.9g); IRON 4.6mg; CHOLESTEROL 259mg; CALCIUM 111mg; CARBOHYDRATE 10.2g; SODIUM 740mg; PROTEIN 36.1g; FIBER 1.1g

Ziti with Spinach, Cherry Tomatoes, and Gorgonzola
from Cooking Light, September 2008
makes lunch for two!

4 ounces uncooked ziti (you're right--that's penne in the picture; we didn't have ziti--penne works too)
1/2 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
6 tablespoons half-and-half
3 tablespoons Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
1 cup fresh spinach
1. Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting salt and fat; drain.
2. Heat extra-virgin olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add cherry tomatoes, salt, crushed red pepper, and minced garlic to pan; cook 1 minute, stirring occasionally. Stir in half-and-half and Gorgonzola cheese; cook 2 minutes or until slightly thick, stirring constantly. Stir in spinach and pasta; cook 1 minute or until spinach wilts, tossing occasionally.

Nutritional Info
CALORIES 335(28% from fat); FAT 10.4g (sat 5.9g,mono 2.4g,poly 0.4g); IRON 2.6mg; CHOLESTEROL 26mg; CALCIUM 129mg; CARBOHYDRATE 49.9g; SODIUM 485mg; PROTEIN 12.3g; FIBER 3.6g

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Gratitude: Corn Blackberry Muffins

At last it’s blackberry season! It seems that perhaps they were later this year than in years past. Maybe as a result of the very cold spring and early summer we had here in the Pacific Northwest. But finally the brambles are showing the dark drops that are the blackberries we all love. I find it hard to complain too much about blackberry brambles; it seems a bit churlish and hypocritical to grumble and moan about them for ten months of the year, and for the other two revel in their gifts. So you’ll never hear me complaining about the blackberry bushes taking over the yard (besides, I don’t have to keep them under control; that’s Alex’s job).

I know I’m not the only one enjoying blackberries these days. Everywhere I go on the island I see people with plastic containers. Yesterday on my way home from dropping my son off at a friend’s house to play, I even saw a woman walking along the road, clearly headed somewhere, popping berries into her mouth that she’d picked from bushes along the way. Sure they’re an invasive weed, but how can you be mean about something that provides you with a free, portable snack?

This morning started out beautiful and sunny, just the perfect day for something blackberry. About 11 a.m. the clouds blew over, and the breeze kicked up, and as I type this I’m listening to the rain on the porch roof, and hearing it patter on the driveway. It may be October now, but this morning it was brilliantly August. My sons had some friends coming for a playdate, and their mom was going to be staying so she could get a house tour and chat over coffee. I am a firm believer that you can’t have coffee without something to nibble, and also that Sunday morning demands a little time spent in the kitchen making something special. Add to that the whole summer-blackberry thing, and I immediately went running for Sara Foster’s “Fresh Every Day” cookbook, which contains an admirable recipe for Corn Blackberry Muffins.

These are like sunshine in cake form, studded with blackberries. They’re August in a muffin. They can be made with frozen blackberries, but since my kids have been out picking blackberries with their nannies every day this week, we had a whole container of them in the refrigerator. They’re going to make cobbler next week, although my oldest son declared he didn’t like blackberries. “Then what,” I asked, “do you eat when you make the cobbler?”

“The cake part!” he declared. Of course. I don’t know why I ask these questions.

But I digress. These muffins turned out an outstanding product; the muffin has a slightly grainy quality, a result of the cornmeal, and the blackberries are folded in gently so that they remain whole and explode when you bite into them, releasing their juices and flooding your taste buds with summer. You could make them with any fruit, but since blackberries are free in my neighborhood, I can’t think of anything else I’d use. And, as Sara Foster says, cornmeal and blackberries just go together. The slightly corny flavor of these muffins does seem to marry beautifully with the sweet-tart richness of the blackberry.

I may be making soup for dinner if this rain keeps up, but earlier today we had summer for a few fleeting hours. So really, we have nothing to complain about.

Corn Blackberry Muffins
from Sara Foster’s “Fresh Every Day” cookbook
makes 12 large muffins--and I mean large; for a minute I was afraid they were going to do that overflow thing! They didn't.

1 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 ½ cups yellow corn meal
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
¾ cup well-shaken buttermilk
¾ cup canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (I used way more than this; possibly as much as 3 tablespoons—I heart vanilla)
1 ½ cups fresh or frozen blackberries

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line 12 large muffin cups with liners, or spray with vegetable oil spray.

Stir the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in a large bowl.

In another large bowl, combine the eggs, buttermilk and vanilla together. Gradually add the flour mixture to the buttermilk mixture, stirring just until the dry ingredients are moist and no flour is visible. Do not overmix or muffins will be tough. Gently fold in the blackberries.

Scoop the batter into the prepared muffin cups with a 1/3 cup measure, or with an ice cream scoop. Fill tins to just below the top of the liner. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the tops spring back when pressed lightly and a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean. Allow muffins to cool for 5 minutes in the pan. Turn out on a rack to cool a little more. These are best fresh from the oven.

Annoyed: A Form of Retaliation

Last night we had a little tiff. Well, not really. Someone made a comment that ticked me off, and then repeatedly asked me what was wrong. "Are you OK?" he kept saying, "Are you sure?" I kept nodding and shrugging, because the truth was, I was hacked off at him, but it was up to him to figure that out, frankly (he never did; I just got over it).

At one point he asked if there was anything he could do to help (this all transpired while I was making dinner), and I said no, but later it occurred to me that there were a number of excellent forms of revenge open to a person who was cooking against a person who had said something completely boorish and insensitive.

Here's what I came up with. You can make the person:

Pick thyme leaves
Make pesto by hand
Shell fresh peas for 8 or more people
Peel tomatoes or peaches
Toast and grind spices using only a mortar and pestle (double whammy here—not only do you make him pay, but you remind him in living color that you don’t have a spice grinder)
Pit cherries
Make elaborate cocktails for you, then take one sip of them and ignore them until they’re warm
Shell, toast and deskin hazelnuts
Unwrap caramels or other candies
Pick through dried beans or lentils looking for stones and other impurities

It was such a nothing comment that now I can't even recall what it was about (lie; I remember it with sparkling clarity) but this list lives on in my mind and will one day be called into service.

(Sorry there's no picture with this, but really, what would I take a picture of? Me standing at the kitchen counter looking peeved? The insensitive boor who made the comment?)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Lame: Why I Haven't Posted in Awhile

So I received a politely worded complaint (Molly) that I hadn't posted anything and that perhaps the pea soup had lost the allure and glamour that it had a week or so ago.

Well, yes. Here's what happened.

I tried to make some Jam Thumbprint Cookies from a Shaker cookbook I have. I don't know if the Shakers were just more talented makers of Jam Thumbprint Cookies than I am, or if the recipe is a total sham or what, because these were a complete flop. They started out looking quite promising (as you can see), but after I baked them, the cookies refused to hold up their end of the bargain and contain the jam at all, and the jam melted everywhere and all I can say is thank God I used a Silpat, because everything came right off with no problem.

So I need to try these again (because they had awesome flavor and if I can just get the darned jam to stay in the darned cookie, we'll be good to go), and I need to write up some nice peanut butter cookies I made last week and I promise that I'll get a few things up here this week and next for your viewing pleasure.

I'm going on vacation for a couple of days this coming week so while I may not be able to post a lot, the hope is I'll be able to cook a lot and have something to post. Sometimes I think I'd have been better off starting a political blog; at least those write ups just depend on other people doing something and me forming my opinion of their behavior. Then again, that would involve my having to follow politics closely, which would probably cause me to start drooling and/or fall into a comatose state because I personally find politics to be stupefyingly boring. Food is way more interesting. And really, if all the politicians in the world were to disappear, would we continue to exist? What if all the food in the world were to disappear? See? So we can clearly deduce which is more important.

With that, I'm off the to the farmer's market!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

In the Bag: Creamy Pea and Chicken Soup

This is supposed to be an entry to this month’s “In the Bag” competition over at A Slice of Cherry Pie. If it’s too late to make the roundup, then it’s just a post of a yummy soup.

Here in the Pacific Northwest we have an interesting summer phenomenon. We call it “Fall.” You see, summer kind of comes and goes. One day will be beastly hot and send us all scurrying for the swimming pool and thinking about what kind of salad to have for dinner. The next day we’ll need windbreakers in the morning, and there will be enough breeze all day long to make you feel like a little soup for lunch might be a good thing. At first this sort of annoyed me; come on, I though, pick a season. But now I rather like it. When I lived back east, in an area known for five months in a row of weather forecasts that consisted of, “Hazy, hot and humid, with a chance of afternoon thunderstorms,” we’d get to early August and I’d start thinking, “An overcast drizzly cool day would be a pretty welcome break right about now…” but it seldom happened. Now it happens all the time.

And so, because of this phenomenon, I created this soup using some springy/summery vegetables, but with a little weight in the form of the chicken to warm you and stay with you a bit. I bought the peas, but I had a yellow squash that came in my Community Sponsored Agriculture box. It was perfectly fine, but had some appearance issues. It wasn’t really pretty enough to just eat steamed or sautéed, but there was nothing wrong with it, so I added it to this soup. You could just add another half cup or so of peas if you didn’t have the squash, or you could use zucchini or another summer squash in its place.

In keeping with the In the Bag ingredients for this month, I added some grated parmesan at the end for flavor and a little saltiness. Be sure you taste the soup after adding the parmesan, but before adding any additional salt. Depending on your palate, you may find the parmesan (and the pancetta used at the beginning) make it salty enough.

This soup is going to be my lunch for the next few days, along with a slice of toasted bread with radish butter (a stick of butter with a half dozen radishes that have been diced up fine mashed into it). If you have an unseasonably cool summer day, you might give this a try. It would also be fine with frozen peas as an early Spring luncheon or starter to an early Spring dinner. It’s a lovely shade of pale green flecked with the darker green tarragon, and has the flavor of the peas and the chicken, but with a hint of licorice from the tarragon.

Creamy Pea and Chicken Soup
makes 6 servings

1 teaspoon olive oil
4 slices pancetta
1 ½ pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, cubed
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium yellow squash, cubed (optional, or you could use zucchini, or just another handful or two of shelled peas)
1 ½ - 2 cups shelled fresh peas
2 cups chicken broth
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup grated parmesan, plus extra for garnish
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
Salt and pepper

In a Dutch oven or large sauce pan over medium high heat crisp the pancetta in a teaspoon of olive oil. Remove from pan and reserve. Add cubed chicken and brown, about 7 minutes. Remove chicken from pan with a slotted spoon and reserve.

Reduce heat to medium, add onion to pan and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add peas and squash and cook until soft, about 7 to 10 minutes. Add chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Remove pan from heat and puree peas, squash, onion with a handheld immersion blender, or in a stand blender (take care when pureeing hot liquids in a blender; remove the center venting piece from the blender, but hold a dishcloth over the opening to avoid having the hot liquid spray everywhere, making a huge mess and potentially burning you and anyone in the vicinity). The soup can be as chunky or as smooth as you like. I left some very small pieces of vegetable in mine to give it a little heft.

Return the pureed soup to the heat and add the reserved chicken. Bring the liquid to a bare simmer and let cook until the chicken is cooked through, about 5 more minutes.

Add ½ cup cream, ½ cup grated parmesan, and 1 tablespoon chopped tarragon. Stir to distribute through the liquid. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

To serve, ladle soup into bowls, and scatter with reserved pancetta, chopped, and a scattering of grated parmesan.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Frothing: I never really liked these people that much anyway...

and now I really don't like them. The America's Test Kitchen/Cook's Illustrated/Cook's Country folks are getting a leetle too big for their britches, in my estimation. You can read the whole story here on Melissa's site.

The gist of the situation is that the PR rep for this group emailed a blogger who posted a version of a Cook's Kitchen potato salad she'd made. She changed several ingredients (four, actually) but credited Cook's Kitchen as the original source or inspiration. The PR woman (again, my opinion, although I am far from alone) was pretty snippy about the whole thing. We don't allow our recipes to be modified. They are tested up to a hundred times and they work. I read, "Your modifications to our recipes can't possibly improve them; they are the pinnacle of recipe perfection." Well, sorry, but they're not.

Melissa herself makes this point: they don't allow it. I would assert that once you publish a recipe, you're putting it out there for all to take a whack at. Granted, they can't republish your instructions word for word, but they sure can make your recipe and say, "Not bad, but you know, it needed more cumin. And maybe some ground coriander. And I bet if I added a little Old Bay seasoning it would make it interesting..." and they're off.

Recipes are a creative process. Part of the joy in food blogging is seeing what other people have done with a recipe. I myself had my eyes opened by food blogs in which people read magazines--magazines that I myself receive--and saw things I never saw in them. People taking what had been side dishes, or accompaniments, or even garnishes, and turning them into something amazing. And they credit those sources by saying "adapted from" or "based on the recipe in" and I myself see nothing wrong with this. Good lord, if it weren't for this kind of tinkering, we'd all still be cooking from Apicius or Escoffier. Or burning up slabs of dead buffalo in campfires.

Food is subjective. What tastes good to me may not taste good to you. The same goes for music, books, art, you name it. Melissa also publishes an excerpt from a Washington Post article from 2003 quoting Christopher Kimball (surely one of the ten silliest asses in America today, at least as he's characterized in this article) saying that changing one of their (ATC's that is) recipes is like saying you're going to play a Bach sonata but change the key. Surprise, Mr. Kimball, people do things like that all the time. Wander through a museum and watch a painter reproducing a great work on his or her own canvas. Read a book that's a pastiche of another work. Hell, watch The Lion King and ask yourself: who did it better? Shakespeare or Disney? You'll notice that The Lion King bears a striking resemblance to Hamlet (dead father, innocent son, evil uncle; they did miss out on the relationship between Hamlet's mother and his uncle--hey, this is a family movie, people).

And so, like so many other bloggers I say, back off, America's Test Kitchens. You didn't invent food. You didn't invent cooking. And in many cases, you didn't even take it to the heights of perfection that you so clearly think you did. I've made several recipes from your cookbook (the one that I own and now wish I could return; too late, I wrote in it a few years back...making notes on how to IMPROVE THE RECIPE, I might add!!) and then made other versions that I thought were better.

America's Test Kitchens is not God's gift to the culinary world. They need to stop acting as though they are.

And as my own small contribution to the nose-thumbing in the direction of ATC that's taking place all over the food blogging community, here's a link to my Chocolate Chip Scone recipe in which I reproduce the directions for the process word for word. If they demand that I do so, I will reword the instructions, but otherwise it stands as it is. Take that, ATC!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ARF/5-a-Day Round Up on Sweetnicks

The Modern Apron has the privilege of being part of the last ARF/5-a-Day Round Up that Sweeetnicks will be doing. Go over and say a fond farewell to a very noble effort--getting us all to eat more foods that are both yummy and good for us. Thanks for everything, Cate!

Phases: Roasted Fingerling and Tomato Salad with Green Beans and Arugula

It’s probably no secret by now that I have lots of kids. Lots of young kids. My oldest is five and starts Kindergarten in the Fall, the youngest is twenty months. In between we have a set of three year old twins. Thus it is that I spend most of my time unwrapping cheese sticks, making peanut butter sandwiches, and putting the valves back into sippy cups (the day my youngest gives up sippy cups we are going to have a huge bonfire and I’m going to throw every sippy cup in the house on it and dance a merry jig while they melt to a molten oozing charred oblivion; they’re a great invention, but for about four years now I’ve felt like I spend my days doing nothing but putting valves back into sippy cups).

However, this is not a rant about the evils of sippy cups, but more a discussion of the challenges of cooking with so many children so young. It’s very hard to get a large block of uninterrupted time to do anything. I was eyeing a chocolate cream pie with caramel whipped cream last week, and after reading the recipe through about three times, I realized I was either stupid or crazy (possibly both, of course). Did I really think I was going to have time to make a boiled custard, to say nothing of a chocolate pate sucree? Madness.

So what I need are recipes that can be done in stages, in which the components can be prepped, then left to sit before anything is done with them. Or they can sit around for a little while after something is done with them, and they won’t deteriorate. I found just such a recipe this weekend, and it’s elegant and yummy too.

The June issue of Martha Stewart Living had an article on potato salads with oomph. These were more than just your basic potatoes + mayonnaise + aromatics. These were actual meals. I had noticed a bag of Russian banana fingerlings in my grocery store two weeks ago, and when this salad, which uses them, caught my eye, it seemed like fate. Fate brings me to a lot of recipes (such as this one, and this one). Usually they’ve been pretty good in the past, so I trust this Fate fellow these days.

I was not disappointed this time either. The potatoes and tomatoes are roasted with some olive oil, garlic and thyme, and then tossed with arugula and blanched green beans in a red wine-Dijon vinaigrette. I cut the potatoes and tossed them and the tomatoes with the garlic and olive oil puree, scattered them with thyme (I didn’t even have to pull it off the stem! Talk about easy!) and popped them in the oven. This is about the only piece of this recipe that really couldn’t be left to languish; once the potatoes are cut up, they need to head for the oven promptly lest they turn that sad grayish color that potatoes do turn. But since the prep for this step is mostly done with a sharp knife and the blender, it can be completed in the time it takes one three year old to eat a banana and a bowl of animal crackers.

Next I topped and tailed the green beans, which could sit out with no ill effects. I made the dressing. Again, a patient component that will wait until you’re ready. When the potatoes and tomatoes were done roasting, I pulled them out and let them cool their heels on the stove for a little while, during which time I read “Hungry Pig” and explained that, yes indeed, the sun was going down. I think I may have had a glass of wine in there too.

I blanched the green beans, shocked them, and let them drain while I rounded up the last kid from a water balloon fight and saw him headed for a bath. He was allowed to watch George of the Jungle and then off to bed.

Finally, dinner time! I tossed the arugula and green beans with the potatoes and tomatoes (and I confess, I used more like three to four cups of arugula for four people versus the two in the original recipe, and 6 ounces of green beans, rather than the 3 ounces called for), and served the dressing on the side.

I won’t lie and say we ate before 9 p.m. but I will say that this salad held up to a phased preparation incredibly well. Nothing suffered because of the wait, and it all came together into an elegant and delicious meal. I heated up some rosemary ciabatta to go with it, and it was an excellent dinner for a summer evening.

Roasted Fingerling and Tomato Salad with Green Beans and Arugula
from Martha Stewart Living, June 2008
serves 4-6

For the Salad
5 garlic cloves
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 ½ pounds Russian banana fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise
1 pint cherry tomatoes
4 stems fresh thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper
6 ounces green beans, trimmed
3-4 cups baby arugula

For the Dressing
2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon minced fresh thyme
½ shallot, minced
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Make the salad: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Puree garlic and olive oil in a blender until smooth. Toss with potatoes, tomatoes, and thyme on a rimmed baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper. Bake until potatoes are golden and tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Let cool slightly. Or quite a bit.

Prepare an ice-water bath. Cook green beans in a large pot of boiling water until bright green and just tender. Transfer to ice-water bath. When cool, drain beans in a colander and let them sit as long as necessary. They won’t mind.

Make the dressing: Combine vinegar, mustard, thyme, and shallot in a small bowl. Add oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking until emulsified. Set aside until needed.

When all children are in bed, and you’ve had ten minutes to relax, toss potato mixture, beans and arugula with dressing (or you can do as I did and toss the vegetables together and serve the dressing on the side). Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately or at room temperature. If there’s going to be a gap of an hour or two between the preparation of all the components, and the actual serving, I recommend keeping everything separate and tossing it all at the last minute. Arugula gets so pathetic looking when it sits too long in dressing.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Relaxed: Best Buttermilk Pancakes

What says lazy and leisurely more than a stack of pancakes? Pancakes are Sunday morning food, vacation food. I remember going on vacations as a kid and eating at the hotel restaurant and ordering pancakes. I never got pancakes at home, so I took every opportunity to order them when I could. Even fast food pancakes are a food for a slow day. You can’t eat them in the car, so you have to have the time to go in and sit down. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t like pancakes in some form or other.

My kids are being indoctrinated into this mindset as well. On Sunday mornings they always beg Daddy to make pancakes. Usually by the time they’re made all the kids have had something else: a peanut butter sandwich, a bagel with cream cheese, a bowl of dry cereal (or possibly all three). But the sentiment is there.

Pancakes work for any season. True, in the hottest depths of summer, if you have no air conditioning (very common in the Pacific Northwest: we have only about two or three weeks of “air conditioner” weather per year; and I always say that you don’t need air conditioning often, but when you need it you need it) standing over a hot stove or griddle flipping pancakes may not be your favorite thing to do. But for the most part, pancakes aren’t season-specific as other things can be.

And pancakes are pretty hard to screw up. Short of not getting them to flip properly (a situation easily remedied if you make them a little smaller so the pancake turner fits under them easily), a good recipe will result in good pancakes. We’ve used several recipes over the years, all of them producing a pretty good product. In our young, carefree, childless days we ate a whole grain pancake recipe from Cooking Light. The scrap of paper lived on our fridge for years and was called into service every Sunday morning.

Then we moved, and the recipe got packed somehow, and we were thrown back to random other recipes from various sources. For awhile we used one from Marie Claire that used self-rising flour and few other ingredients, making it a great kid recipe. Then one morning I stumbled on a recipe that I think is the one I’ll be using from now on. I found it in The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook: The Original Classics. I’m not sure what led me to this recipe, but I’m certainly glad to have found it.

It’s got enough interesting ingredients (eggs, buttermilk, melted butter, vanilla) for my kids who now want to feel like they’re doing more when they “help” us cook, and it makes a light spongy pancake that soaks up the maple syrup but doesn’t fall apart. This is key. So often there’s not enough body to a pancake for it to withstand being drowned in syrup. They just collapse in a heap of soggy mush, impossible to pierce with a fork. You end up kind of shoving it onto the fork with the remains of a half of a slice of bacon, and sticky crumbs dribble back though the tines to the plate. Most disheartening.

If you’re still searching for that perfect pancake recipe, you should try this one. You can make the batter as thin or as thick as you like by adding a little more buttermilk or flour, and using only ¼ cup of batter per pancake means that if you have a reasonable sized pancake turner, you can flip it easily, without that horrible smeary mess that sometimes happens when they’re too big. The vanilla isn’t in the original recipe, but I love the little whiff of flavor that vanilla gives to pancakes, so I add a little.

Best Buttermilk Pancakes
from The Martha Stewart Cookbook: The Original Classics
The recipe claims this makes nine 6-inch pancakes, but we’ve always gotten way more than that out of it; it alll depends on how big you make the pancakes.

2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups buttermilk
4 tablespoons butter, melted
Butter for pan or griddle (if desired)

Preheat an electric griddle to 375, or place a skillet over medium-high heat. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar in a medium bowl. Add the eggs, buttermilk, and melted butter, and whisk to combine. The batter should have small to medium lumps.

Preheat the oven to 175 degrees. Check the pan or griddle by flicking a few drops of water on it. They should bounce and spatter right away. Brush on ½ teaspoon of butter, if desired, and wipe off excess with a paper towel.

I use a ¼ cup measuring cup to scoop some batter into the pan. If you have room for multiple pancakes in your pan (I don’t) you can pour out pools about 2” apart. When pancakes have bubbles around the sides and in the middle, and are slightly dry around the edges, flip over (this will take about 2 and a half minutes). Cook until golden on the bottom, about another minute.

Repeat with remaining batter. Keep cooked pancakes on a heat-proof plate in the oven. Serve warm.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Modern Apron on Sweetnicks

The berried muffins from a couple of week ago are featured in the ARF/5-a-Day Roundup on Sweetnicks. Hop on over and check out the other great offerings--always something good there!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Foods I Hate

Tell me blue Go Gurt comes out of pajamas. And the answer to the obvious question is: I didn't give it to her. The little angel next to her gave it to her. Guess I can't fault him for sharing.

No more Go Gurt in my house, ever!

P.S. You'll notice it's Wednesday and I'm still alive. Guess the strawberry jam is OK to eat (well, that one jar, anyway).

Monday, July 07, 2008

Trepidation: Strawberry Jam

Approximately four thousand years ago, I bought a home canning kit. It consisted of a proper round rack for holding the jars in a large stock pot, a set of scientifically engineered tongs for raising and lowering the jars safely into (or out of) the boiling water, a little plastic wand with a magnet in the end of it, for grabbing the metal lids and rings out of the water when sterilizing them, and I forget what else (probably at least a thermometer). With the exception of the rack, they were all a cheerful shade of aqua blue plastic that made me think of the color of a swimming pool under the summer skies. All of these items sat in pristine condition in my various kitchens, totally unused because I have a terror of explosions, botulism, and other shadowy horrors that I’m convinced surround the canning process.

Time passed, and I read over and over that canning wasn’t scary. Really, it wasn’t. Fannie Farmer reassured me. Magazine articles did their best to convince me. Cookbooks whispered comforting words of encouragement. Finally, when the strawberries in my local grocery store were being delivered on a daily basis by farms less than two hours away, I decided I was a big ol’ wimp and better give it a try. I brought home two flats of strawberries, and dove head first into strawberry jam. I read two magazine articles, two cookbooks, and recipe pamphlet circa 1959 from a box of commercial pectin. It’s also worth noting that the strawberries I had were approximately a quadruple batch of jam. Never let it be said that I do things by halves, even on the first go ‘round.

I am not going to pretend that canning isn’t a colossal pain in the ass. It is. People who write the instructions for jam making toss off a breezy, “sterilize x number of jars, lids, and rings.” All very well, but unless you have a really big stock pot, all of those jars are not going to fit in the pot at one time, and you will have to do the sterilizing, dishing up, and processing in batches. Also, they casually mention that you must put the jars on a rack in the boiling water; they can’t just sit on the bottom of the pot. Since that perfect rack I bought with my canning kit so many thousands of years ago has long since disappeared, I don’t have a rack that fits in any of my pots. All my racks are oval or rectangular roasting racks, or rectangular or square cooling racks. Hm.

So I turned to my assortment of kitchen tools and found some egg rings that make a reasonable platform for the jars. You could also use cookie cutters of various shapes jigsawed together (secured with paper clips) to form a circle-like shape. Or use the rings that go on the jars.

I’ve also read that when jam is ready it looks like jam. It forms a mass and just looks, well, jammy. I have also read that strawberry jam thickens as it cools. I certainly hope so, I thought, because otherwise I have the largest batch of strawberry syrup in the history of the world. I’d better break out the ice cream maker, just in case.

And jam making is apparently not for the clumsy. Remove the full jars from the processing bath without tipping them, I was cautioned. Without tipping them? Pardon my French, but shit, I was lucky to get them out without dropping them. And I didn’t always manage that. I dropped four of them and they wound up on their heads in the boiling water.

The easy part is the jam itself, it would seem (assuming it gels). Hull the strawberries, toss them in a big pot with some sugar and lemon juice, mash with a potato masher, bring to 224 degrees on a candy thermometer (or, if you’re me, on a candle making thermometer; don’t ask) and hey, presto. Jam. Well, in theory.

If the flavor of the syrupy starter is any indication, this is truly in the realm of the Best Jam Ever. Many years ago (and probably the event that propelled me into the Home Canning Kit Ownership age) I had some raspberry jam that a friend’s mother made from raspberries picked in their back field. It was incredible. It was bright and clear and true. You often read those words in descriptions of homemade jam, but there’s a reason. Homemade jam does taste more than store bought. It’s more immediate, more real. I can’t really describe it without sounding clichéd and verging on corny (and using an annoyingly excessive number of italicized words), but you really can’t fathom it until you have it (whether it’s yours or someone else’s).

But I’m actually writing this as the process moves along (four batches of jar sterilizing, plus processing, has taken the better part of three hours), and I have to say, I’m a little worried. Even the stuff in the pot isn’t thickening up, and it’s pretty close to cool. I may be left with 16 jars of strawberry syrup, a sticky stock pot, and a kitchen floor right out of a Smucker’s factory.

[14 hours later]

Well, some of it still looks a bit thin, and some of it looks fine. It’s not as thick as commercial jam, but I was warned that unless I used commercial pectin it wasn’t going to be that thick. As for how it tastes, I was right about it being amazingly good. As to whether or not I’m going to contract botulism and keel over, well, I can’t say for 24 to 36 hours, as I understand that’s the incubation period for botulism once ingested (don’t ask why I know this). So I have a ton of strawberry jam that I’m a little leery of eating. I’d call this experiment a success, although I won’t be able to declare it a complete success until I find out if I live to Wednesday. However, I didn’t blow anything up, or set my kitchen on fire during the canning process, so that’s on the plus side of the ledger.

Strawberry Jam
makes about 3 pints of slightly scary (to me) jam
adapted from a whole bunch of sources

6 cups hulled strawberries
3 -4 cups sugar (depending on sweetness of berries)
1 to 4 tablespoons lemon juice (again, depends on how sweet the berries are)

Combine sugar, berries, and lemon juice in a pot over medium-high heat. Crush berries with a fork or potato masher. Cook, stirring almost constantly, until sugar dissolves and strawberries liquefy somewhat.

Turn heat to low and cook 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the fruit has broken down and the mixture is thick. Test for gelling by putting a small spoonful of jam on a plate that has been in the freezer for a few minutes. Place plate in the refrigerator for two minutes. Check the jam; if it’s gelled, you can proceed to the canning. If not, cook for a few more minutes and test again.

Wash and sterilize canning jars (see, there I go, tossing that one off; you can use really big ones, or smaller ones, it’s up to you). Ladle jam into jars, screw lids onto jars, and place in a boiling water bath for 10-15 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.

Jam keeps for up to a year.

N.B. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I was forced to leave the strawberries and sugar on a low simmer for three and a half hours, plus the “regular” recommended cooking time. My stove is gas and has a “simmer” setting that keeps whatever it is just barely, well, simmering, for as long as you leave it. Did this have any effect on my jam? I can't say.

UPDATE: I stand corrected on botulism in strawberry jam. Botulism is possible in low-acid foods--carrots, green beans--that are home canned. But higher acid foods like strawberries or tomatoes wouldn't be suceptible. In retrospect, I recall having read this some years ago, but in my gripping fear, I forgot it. Phew, that's a relief!