Thursday, December 30, 2010

clam chowder

I love soups and sauces, as the disproportionate number of them on this blog attests. If I go to a restaurant, I usually gravitate towards them first on the menu. Some of the more memorable ones I've tasted include a spicy green tomato and applewood smoked bacon soup with shrimp on top from G Restaurant (r.i.p.) in Birmingham, a creamy leek bisque I had at a fancy, last-evening-of-the-trip gala dinner at One Whitehall Place when I went to London with my parents back in 1997, and finally, that marvelous cream of mushroom soup I ordered at Mythos Restaurant in the Universal Studios Theme Park last summer, which I mentioned in a post earlier this fall. I used to feel simultaneously delighted and frustrated when I would eat these delicious bowls of awesomeness, completely mystified as to how chefs (and even canned food companies) managed to cram all kinds of flavor into a simple soup, until I watched enough cooking shows to learn about reducing broths in order to concentrate their taste. That's the secret to this chowder: lots of reducing and cooking things in clammy liquid.

However, I should begin by admitting that this dish has not been entirely perfected yet. It has come out differently both times that I've made it, in terms of its consistency (crazily thick the first time, a little too soupy the second), and a thick chowder is one of D.'s must-haves. This time when we made it, it required straining out the potatoes and clams, returning the broth to the pot, and boiling it for a while longer until it reduced and thickened some. I think the current proportions of liquid and solid in the soup are finally just about right, but you can tinker with it a bit in the same way we did, depending on whether you like your chowder thinner or thicker.

Regardless, trust me when I say that the flavor has not been problem in either batch of the soup. It's such a nice combo: it tastes ocean-y like clams, with a little freshness from the onion and celery, richness from the potatoes and half-and-half, and faint smokiness from the bacon. As a last note, I guess I should also confess that I had never even tried clam chowder up until several years ago, when D. let me taste a bite of his at a restaurant, so I allow the distinct possibility that my recipe might offend the palates of some chowder connoisseurs. Still, I suspect at this point that I may have joined their ranks. :) 

Hope you enjoy...

alabama clam chowder

2 small cans minced clams, drained and juices reserved
2 bottles clam juice
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into a half-inch dice
1 large garlic clove, minced
half a large white onion, minced
1 large rib of celery with leaves, minced
2 small bay leaves
2 slices of bacon, chopped
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. flour
1 generous cup fat free half-and-half, warmed (but not boiled)
2 cups chicken broth

Add one bottle of clam juice to a large, heavy Dutch oven and bring to a boil. Reduce liquid by half. Add one cup of chicken broth and the reserved juices from one can of the drained clams. Boil diced potatoes uncovered in broth and clam juice mixture, just until tender. Remove to a bowl with any remaining liquid.

In the same unwashed pot, heat olive oil. Add bacon and sauté for a couple of minutes until it's a bit browned. Add bay leaf, onion, garlic, and celery, and cook over medium heat for several minutes until they have softened.

Add flour and stir until it's completely coated with the oil and drippings. Cook for a minute or two, just until the floury taste goes away.

Add the second cup of chicken broth, the second bottle of clam juice, and the drained liquid from the second can of clams to the pot. Let it come up to a boil, and then reduce heat to low. Simmer until slightly thickened and reduced.

Add half-and-half to the pot. Simmer for a couple of minutes until thickened and heated through. Finally, add canned clams and potatoes back to the pot. Heat through. Remove bay leaves.

Serve with baguette halves brushed with olive oil and toasted under the broiler for a couple of minutes.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

turkey tetrazzini (or thanksgiving, part II)

Today's posts are earmarked from last month, but somehow it seemed appropriate to post them now. Hope your holidays are merry and bright!

November 26, 2010

Yesterday marked one of my favorite days of the year. I worked out early so that I could veg out for the rest of the day with D and Esme in front of the TV, drinking beer, napping, eating, and watching football. I took two naps yesterday. It was heaven.

Anyway, while D was cleaning up after his evening workout, I threw together this recipe from some of the ingredients we had leftover from the big meal on Thursday: turkey breast, half a bottle of white wine, some half-and-half, a can of mushrooms, a couple of shallots, and some fresh herbs. I always keep homemade sourdough breadcrumbs in the refrigerator because they're so much better for you than the kind you buy ready-made (lots of hydrogenated oil in those), and well nigh anything tastes good breaded with them.

I once made a version of turkey tetrazzini for my family during the holidays, and when we ate this batch, D and I agreed that it should become a tradition for the day after Thanksgiving.

turkey tetrazzini

1 package angel hair, cooked and drained
1/2 stick of butter
1 medium to large shallot, finely diced
3 tbsp. flour
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. dry mustard powder
1 1/2 cups chicken stock, warmed
1 cup chardonnay (or other dry white wine)
1 1/2 cups half-and-half, warmed (I used a combo of fat-free & regular)
a couple of cups of diced leftover turkey
1 large can mushrooms, drained
1 tbsp. chopped fresh chives 

1 tbsp. stripped thyme leaves, chopped
1/4 cup (plus reserved 2 tbsp.) grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1 tbsp. chopped Italian parsley
2 tbsp. olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cook pasta to a couple of minutes shy of the package directions - it will cook the rest of the way in the oven. Drain and reserve.

In a large, heavy pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add shallot and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until it’s beginning to brown. Add flour and cook 1 to 2 minutes, until floury taste is gone. Whisk in hot chicken stock. Bring to a boil and add wine. Boil for a minute or so to let it thicken. Reduce heat, add half-and-half, and heat through. Turn off the heat. Add mushrooms, turkey, herbs, 1/4 cup of Parmesan, and pasta. Stir gently until everything is incorporated.

Spoon pasta mixture into a buttered 9-x-13 pan. In a small bowl, mix together bread crumbs, reserved 2 tbsp. Parmesan, Italian parsley, and olive oil. Scatter over the top.

Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, until bubbly. Crank the heat up to broil for the last couple of minutes so that the breadcrumbs get a bit browned on top.

Finally, here's to you: with a beer in my hand, wearing PJs with a cat asleep at my feet, I'm toasting the efforts of every Thanksgiving cook who made it to the finish line this year, no matter how many mishaps you had in the kitchen. Hope you enjoy your leftovers as much as we did ours.

Mmmmmmm... Zzzzzzz...

happy (belated) thanksgiving!

the spread
I love Thanksgiving. To be frank, ever since my sister died on the day after Christmas fourteen years ago, my family has always, to some extent, tended to limp a little through the holidays. You have to admit that even without those memories, Christmas is already a bit loaded: if you look forward solely to the presents, the holiday always tends to be anticlimactic. If you focus on being with your family, things turn out much better, but you still can't really avoid the profound case of the blues that sets in the day after. These days, I'm practicing being in the moment more, something that my brother Jeff has always been good at; that tends to pan out more happily than borrowing trouble, which I'm excellent at doing. :)  Anyway, Thanksgiving is so different from Christmas. It's about the food, sure, but it's also a time when all you have to do is hang out with your family and friends, eat, and feel grateful. I can get behind a holiday like that.

This was the first year I ever cooked for more than just D and me. We invited my parents, Jeff, D's parents, and his Grandma down for Thanksgiving dinner so that they could all see the new house, some of them for the first time.

The first Thanksgiving meal I ever cooked was three years ago when we lived in NYC, and I made a whole feast for just D and me in our tiny studio apartment kitchen, which was so small that I had to open the refrigerator door in order to get the oven door open. We were both terribly homesick, knowing that we wouldn't be able to go home until Christmas. D's parents were kind enough to transfer some funds over to his account so that we could go out to eat for our Thanksgiving. We got dressed up and went to Orsay, a French restaurant on the Upper East Side that had a prix fixe menu. The plates that arrived at the table had beautiful, harvest-colored daubs of turkey and vegetable on them in various combinations - very French and fancy. While we were walking home, we stopped in a little newsstand and petted a skinny, elegant black cat with a heart-shaped charm on her collar that, appropriately, had "Paris" engraved on it.

Still, it didn't seem quite right not to have some of the specific dishes we associated with our families - sage-heavy cornbread dressing, standard roast turkey, broccoli casserole, pumpkin pie, et cetera - so I made a meal for us, too. And I wheeled our 13-pound turkey home to our apartment, a dozen blocks down Fifth Avenue, in my "bag lady" cart.

That was a great Thanksgiving, if a bit lonely. This one was bittersweet in its own way: we've lost some important people this year, but I'm so happy that we got to spend Thanksgiving with our families.

just look at that pretty bird!
As for food, this year we decided to do Alton Brown's recipe for turkey because I'd been seeing commercials for it all month. Apparently, it's the most popular Thanksgiving recipe on the Food Network website, and when I looked it up, it had over 2500 reviews and ratings. That's a crazy number of people all making the same kind of turkey.

So, it's wonderful. If you have the time, energy, a few obscure ingredients like candied ginger and allspice berries (plus the extra refrigerator space for a brine-and-turkey-laden 10-gallon bucket), it is so worth it to make this turkey. The guy has figured out how to cook an entire bird so that it hits its various recommended internal temperatures simultaneously and thus stays moist, not to mention making sure the skin gets beautifully fried and golden brown. 

Anyway, here is the rest of the menu from Thanksgiving:

      Paula Deen's Mushroom Canapes (also delightful with some artichoke hearts thrown in)
      Alton Brown's Roast Turkey and gravy
      Claire Robinson's Add Thyme for Whipped Potatoes
      classic Campbell's Soup green bean casserole
      my Nana's broccoli casserole
      Sîan Griffiths's sweet potato soufflé
      my great-grandmother's cornbread dressing
      D's Granddad's cornbread dressing
      roasted brussels sprouts with bacon and balsamic reduction
      D's mom's pecan pie
      apple stack cake
      pecan pie

Happy holidays, y'all.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

olive oil cake

I'd been wanting to branch out a bit and do some more baking over the past few months, and this was a cake I cooked up using Cat Cora's recipe. She calls it "Ladi Tourta," which sounds so much fancier than my title, but in the end, it really is a very simple little cake. It's so fruity and moist, and it would be absolutely lovely in the summer with some fresh fruit.

The most important thing to remember with a recipe like this one is that its minimalism means that using good ingredients is crucial. It's like wearing the simplest white cotton dress: you need to make sure that the "undergirding" doesn't show through, at least not in a bad way. :) So, use the best, fruitiest olive oil you can find (if you're like me, you could drink a good olive oil by itself and any bread you dip in it is just a vehicle for conveying the oil to your mouth). Feel free to substitute your favorite adult libation for the Tuaca. I was going to buy Grand Marnier or Cointreau, both of which I love, but they're so darned expensive. I decided to try this less-pricy Tuscan liqueur, and I ended up liking it very well in the cake (though not so much to drink - I'm still researching drink recipes where it might taste good). 

I've only made a couple of amendments to Cat's recipe here, including decreasing the amount of olive oil. I based my changes on the comments that other cooks have made, which are listed under the recipe. (I always try to read recipe comments, if there are any - they can provide a wealth of advice about techniques and ingredients in a recipe that might need a bit of adjustment.)

Overall, this recipe reminded me that cooking is a learning process and that you can learn how to make anything if you do enough research. Any recipe I've ever "created from scratch," honestly, has been the result of not just considering which flavors and ingredients I think would go well together, but also first reading about how more experienced cooks have excelled at a particular kind of cooking, like roasting meat or baking cake. 

Anyway, thanks, Cat! (You are my favorite Iron Chef, by the way, and I want to marry your bourbon ice cream.)  

cat cora's olive oil cake (amended)
3 large eggs, beaten
2 cups raw turbinado sugar
8 oz. extra-virgin olive oil
10 oz. milk
2 oz. Tuaca liqueur
2 oz. freshly squeezed orange juice
3 tsp. orange and lemon zest
2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
3 oz. slivered almonds, chopped
powdered sugar, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 9-inch cake pan. Cut a circle of parchment paper the diameter of the pan and line the bottom with it.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, olive oil, milk, liqueur, orange juice, and orange/lemon zest. Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Mix the dry mixture into the wet mixture. Whisk until well blended.

Fold in the almonds. 

Pour the mixture into the buttered cake pan. Bake for 55 minutes to 1 hour. 

Allow the cake to to cool for at least a half hour. Run a knife around the sides of the pan to release the cake, and turn it out onto a plate. If you like things neater, flip it again so that it's right-side up and use a long serrated knife to carefully slice off the domed top of the cake. Then flip it back over and dust it with powdered sugar. (A little freshly squeezed orange or lemon juice mixed with some powdered sugar would also make a delicious glaze to drizzle over the cake instead, if you like that kind of thing better.)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

barramundi with noodles in miso broth + caramelized shallots + steamed bok choy

D and I did P90X in the fall of 2007 while we were living in Manhattan. All of the workouts. And the meal plan. In our 450-square-foot studio apartment. And survived. Without destroying furniture, windows, bones, or each other. Oh, how I grew to despise Tony Horton's voice. I still have nightmares about him chanting ominously, just towards the end of the warm-up for the Plyometrics workout, "Get reeeady... 'cause it's comin'...!"

I lost around 15 pounds in those three months. That sounds like a modest amount, so let me clarify. I got very slim and cut, my physique completely changed, and my net weight loss didn't exceed 15 pounds because so much of my body turned to muscle, which is heavier than fat.

Anyway, lately - and I admit that it's largely my fault because I've been cooking so much decadent food - we've been talking about how we should do P90X again. It can be a little tricky making time for the workouts - and the excruciatingly sore muscles you have for the next several days - but the meal plan isn't so difficult or weird. So here's a less indulgent recipe that I think even Tony Horton would approve of: big protein, high fiber, low fat and carbs, and a pile of greens. The only potentially iffy aspects are the pasta and the sodium content contributed by the soup mix, but you can leave the noodles out, and if you spoon less of the broth into your bowl at the end, you can cut the salt, too. (And to be fair, given their menus, P90X doesn't worry overly much about your sodium intake.)

Two notes about ingredients: I want to say outright that I made a version of this with sea bass when we were living in NYC that actually used authentic miso paste from Gourmet Garage, and it was fabulous. However, if you're working on a schedule and/or a budget, know that Kikkoman makes a lovely, cheap powdered miso soup mix that tastes exactly like what you'd get in a sushi bar, complete with rehydrated tofu cubes, seaweed, and green onion tops. I get it at Wal-Mart (I know, I know - if I could quit it, I would), and I keep packets of it in my office so I can make myself a cup of soup on particularly long days when I need something on my stomach to tide me over until dinner. This tastes much nicer than a plain glass of water - and requires almost as little caloric commitment.

Secondly, Dreamfields pasta is a recent Publix discovery that I highly recommend, while simultaneously divulging that it has lots of questionable (i.e. possibly genetically-engineered) "indigestible" carbs, as well as tons of fiber, along with - ahem! - the digestive consequences of that extra insoluble material.

Thirdly, we also recently discovered barramundi ("Australia's favorite fish!" declares the package) because Whole Foods carries it in their frozen seafood cooler. It's excellent, inexpensive, easily thawed in cold water, and not watery and wimpy textured like flounder or cod. In fact, it actually reminds me a little of sea bass (or a Real Housewife, I guess): rich and thin.

As a final note, let me just add: this dish would probably taste obscenely delicious just after a grueling round of Legs and Back followed by Ab Ripper X.

barramundi with noodles in miso broth + caramelized shallots + bok choy

3 thawed barramundi fillets

2 envelopes Kikkoman miso soup mix
1 cup water

2 green onions, green tops chopped and white parts cut into thirds
1 small piece of fresh ginger, peeled and cut in half
1 garlic clove, smashed and peeled
1 head bok choy, washed well and sliced into one-inch ribbons

2 good-sized shallots, halved and sliced into rings
2 tbsp. dry white wine
1 tsp. unsalted butter
3 tsp. olive oil, divided

4 oz. Dreamfields linguine

Cook linguine according to package directions. Drain, rinse, keep in water, and set aside.

Heat one teaspoon each of butter and olive oil over medium-high heat. Add shallots and cook until they are beginning to brown. Add wine and cook until almost all liquid has evaporated. Set aside.

Boil water in microwave and combine it with miso soup packets in a bowl. Let it reconstitute. (It will be twice the usual concentration of mix to water.)

Grind some black pepper over the patted-dry barramundi fillets. Heat a teaspoon of olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high. Add fish to pan and sear on both sides until lightly browned. Add miso soup concentrate to the skillet and turn fish gently to coat. Cover tightly and cook over the lowest heat setting for 10 minutes, carefully turning fish again halfway through.

Heat the last teaspoon of oil over medium. Add green onion white pieces, ginger, and garlic and cook for a few seconds. Add bok choy and 1/4 cup water. Cover and steam for 4 to 6 minutes. Uncover and let water evaporate. Add chopped green onion tops and stir. Remove ginger pieces.

Mound pasta in a shallow bowl, followed by bok choy. Perch fish on top of the pile, and pour broth over it. Garnish with a teaspoon or two of the caramelized shallots.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

butternut squash ravioli with sage brown butter + crispy country ham

This recipe is the amalgamation of several I've seen on various menus, both local and far-flung. I've never seen it garnished with country ham, though, and somehow, I think it's what gave this dish a little je ne sais quoi (or, in my own native tongue, a little salty awesomeness).

So, if there's one thing I've learned from TV show cooks, it's that wonton wrappers are your best friend if you want to make quick gourmet-style ravioli. In fact, I just saw a recipe for edamame and ricotta ravioli in the latest issue of Rachael Ray's magazine (she calls it "Green Alien Ravioli," in a Halloweeny attempt to get kids to eat veggies) that I would really like to try. However, in the meantime, I'm trying to use what's fresh, and the only things in my pitiful, dried-up garden that seem to be happy are the sage, the oregano, and possibly the romas. The sage in particular looks crazily robust, though we haven't had rain in forever. Maybe it thinks it's in Italy.

Anyway, while D and I were both cutting into the first test ravioli, neither of us spoke. We each tasted it, and then we looked at each other, and I said, "I like this." D said, "This may be the best thing I've ever eaten." Right after dinner, he was called back to the hospital to see a patient - which makes me happy for the patient but regretful for D, who has been on call all weekend - but before he left, he cast a glance back at the leftovers and said, "Please don't put this up. I want to finish this with you later, when I get home."

For my part, I openly confess: if someone fixed this for me, I really might consent to being his or her slave forever. You should make this for someone you adore, like I did.

butternut squash ravioli with sage brown butter + crispy country ham

1 medium butternut squash, cubed

1 to 2 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. dried sage
salt and pepper

1/2 stick + 2 tbsp. butter, divided
1 medium shallot, minced
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 tbsp. raw turbinado sugar
15 square wonton wrappers
1/2 cup half-and-half
1/2 slice Smithfield country ham, chopped
small bunch of sage, chopped
a few tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss butternut squash with olive oil, and spread it out in a single layer on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with dried sage, salt, and pepper. Roast for 30 minutes, tossing once, until golden brown. Cool completely and mash well into a paste. (Note: at this point, I refrigerated the roasted butternut squash for several days, so this step can be done way ahead of time.)

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add minced shallot and cook for a couple of minutes until it's beginning to turn golden brown. Add white wine and cook for a minute. Add mashed butternut squash and mix into the shallots. It should be fairly dry. Cook for a couple of minutes over medium-low heat. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar, grind a little pepper over top, and stir. Cook for another minute or two. Add half-and-half and stir for yet another couple of minutes. Let mixture cool completely. 

Heat a teaspoon or so of olive oil over medium-high to high heat. Fry chopped country ham until it's browned and crispy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove to a paper towel to drain.

To make the ravioli: take a wonton wrapper and put a generous teaspoon-sized ball of the butternut squash mixture onto the middle of it. Dip your finger into a cup of water and run it around the four edges of the wonton until they're all wet. Fold it over into a triangle shape, working from the center by molding the filling into the very middle of the ravioli, squeezing out any air bubbles, and sealing the edges well. Remove to a large plate and lay them out carefully in a single layer, not touching one another, if possible. Repeat for remaining 14 ravioli. (I had about half of the butternut squash mixture left over. If this happens to you, too, you might want to freeze it for a future batch of ravioli.)

Boil a medium saucepan full of salted water. Working in three batches of 5 or 6 ravioli, boil them for 2 to 3 minutes, and then remove to a colander with a slotted spoon. Sprinkle salt on each batch and then continue with the next one. 

In the meantime, melt remaining butter in a large skillet over medium to medium-low heat. Add fresh sage. Cook until it begins to smell a little nutty (and utterly wonderful). Add drained ravioli to the pan and toss gently with the sage butter. Remove to a large platter and sprinkle with crispy country ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

lady peas in country ham and thyme broth

Yes, sir - it's officially fall. Happily, despite the cooler weather, there are still field peas to be eaten. I had never made lady peas or, truthfully, even heard of them until I came to live in Alabama. I've seen them often enough on local menus, and Frank Stitt spends at least a page in his gorgeous cookbook, Frank Stitt's Southern Table, explaining the delicious nuances that distinguish various kinds of beans and peas, including a mention of this particular legume. 

Anyway, there's a vegetable stand on Rocky Ridge, and after my run on Friday I stopped by to see what they had. I left with a bag of okra, a ziplock of homemade boiled peanuts, and a couple of pounds of already shelled lady peas. I saw them and thought, hey, they have to be something like black-eyed peas, right? Which are awesome, by the way. 

Now for the second part of this recipe idea. Last fall, D and I went to see U2 play in Atlanta, and we ended up making a short vacation of it and spending two nights at The Mansion on Peachtree, which is entirely lovely - probably because it's also an apartment building in addition to being a hotel. P.S.: any hotel where you can order middle-of-the-night hot fudge sundaes and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies from room service is all right by me. 

We had read that Craft, one of Tom Colicchio's restaurants, was next door to our hotel, and as longtime Top Chef fans, we really wanted to try it. (I have loved Tom Colicchio ever since, in an earlier season of the show, he roundly lectured a contestant who had made some terrible fish concoction, and his most pointed criticism was that she had not shown sufficient respect for the creature who gave its life to make that dish. That profound gratitude and reverence for ingredients, particularly animal-derived ones, is one reason why I am also a huge fan of Eric Ripert.) We didn't arrive early enough on the first night for dinner at Craft, which ended up being fortuitous, because the lunch we enjoyed instead the next day was one of the best meals of my life so far. I had perfectly pan-roasted trout with gnocchi that were like pillows of mashed potato souffle, served over a succotash of fresh corn and beans, and swimming in a shallow bowl of (miraculously!) perfectly seasoned country ham vinaigrette. D's lunch was no less amazing: short rib cannelloni baked in béchamel sauce, possibly the richest thing I'd ever tasted. 

Yesterday I looked at my huge pile of fresh lady peas, and I thought: these want country ham. This recipe does take a little time and effort - like everything else I seem to make - but it's worth it. Two bits of advice: firstly, think carefully before adding any additional salt to this recipe. Believe me, I know it's second nature to season as you go, but the country ham broth, while tasty, is very salty already. You may find that you taste the final result and don't need to shake anything on top of it - this recipe was one of the few times that has ever happened to me, and I really like salt. Secondly, when you serve yourself up a bowl of this, make sure that you get plenty of the pot liquor. It is like liquid gooold.

lady peas in country ham and thyme broth

for the broth:
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 tbsp. olive oil
3 slices Smithfield country ham, cut into one-inch strips
about 4 cups water
6 to 8 stems of thyme
2 green onions, chopped (including green tops)
1 tsp. whole black peppercorns

for the peas:
1 tbsp. olive oil, divided
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 white onion, finely chopped
8 to 10 stems of thyme, half of them stripped
3/4 cup dry white wine
country ham broth
2 lbs. shelled fresh lady peas, picked over and rinsed
1 slice Smithfield country ham, roughly chopped

Make the broth: Fry country ham strips in a couple of teaspoons of olive oil, turning once, until they’re browned some on both sides. Add ham and any remaining pan juices and bits to a medium saucepan filled with about four cups of water. Add a pat of butter, thyme stems, green onions, and peppercorns. Bring to a boil and then lower heat and simmer for at least 30 to 45 minutes, until you have about a cup to a cup and a half of liquid remaining.  Strain broth and reserve as much of the ham and green onions as you can. Chop them roughly. Discard thyme stems and peppercorns.

In the same unwashed saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and olive oil. Let butter sizzle a little until it smells slightly nutty, and then add chopped onion. Sauté for 3 to 5 minutes until onions are somewhat caramelized, adding thyme leaves midway through so that they infuse the butter and oil. Pour in white wine and crank up the heat to high. Reduce until there’s about 1/4 cup of liquid remaining.

Pour in country ham broth, chopped country ham and onions from it, lady peas, and 4 to 5 whole thyme stems. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer. Skim foam as it rises to the top, and continue until the peas stop foaming. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes or so, just until they’re tender. Remove thyme stems.

While the peas are cooking, heat another teaspoon or two of olive oil in a pan over high. Fry chopped country ham slice until it’s browned and crisp. Drain on a paper towel.

Serve lady peas in a small bowl with a generous scoopful of broth and a sprinkling of crispy country ham on top.


Friday, September 24, 2010

cocktail and bar snack: gold rush + oven fried okra with smoked tomato aioli

Every summer for the past four years, I've traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, for eight days in order to read and score high school essays from the current year's AP English Literature Exam. There's much more good stuff from Louisville than you'd think: baseball, horsesMuhammad Ali, killer Ethiopian and Persian food, My Morning Jacketcool fossils, and bourbon a-go-go... 

Because this small city's downtown suddenly swells with over a thousand high school and college English teachers during that week in June, it's always a bit of a mixed bag: it is admittedly something of a socially awkward nerd-fest (present company included), but also, and at the same time, it's full of some of the coolest and most interesting people you'll ever hang out with, all of whom are packed into one frigid, fluorescent-lit convention center for a week of eight-hour days spent scoring largely mediocre high school writing, and who are chomping at the bit by five o'clock in the evenings for anything else to do but read. So, to pass the time, we have been known to find good restaurants, go bowling, do silly karaoke, dance at Howl At the Moon (shout-out to my man Ed), and drink lotsa bourbon.

This just in: whiskey
futures are soaring.
One of the more surprising spots in the downtown area is Proof, the bar and restaurant attached to the 21st Century Museum Hotel on Main Street - part hotel and part museum - which is also so much fun to visit for its rotating art exhibits. My AP friends and I generally eschew Proof on the typical go-out-to-dinner night because it's nearly impossible to get a reservation, but we do insist on going there for drinks on the final evening, when most of the other English teachers are already in bed in preparation for their flights the next day.

Proof has a constantly evolving menu of the best-named cocktails I've seen in a while. Two years ago, I felt obligated to try something called the Dirty Presbyterian, which completely lived up to the name (I only hope I could do as well...). This year was no different: we had a couple of rounds of delicious drinks, including the gold rush (which I found so haunting that I actually hunted down a recipe for it), as well as a basket of fries with an intriguing smoked aioli. I had no idea how to replicate that one at home, but I had just watched a Top Chef episode in which a contestant mentioned a smoked-tomato-something-or-other, so here is my homemade version.

It's probably too fancy to call this aioli. This is basically just a spicy, smoky, tomato-n-mayo-based dipping sauce, but it is GOO-OOD, to quote Cousin Eddie in Christmas Vacation

I've posted the recipe for oven fried okra here, which I realize is only in season during the dead middle of the summer in the South. At any other time, the romas for the aioli will still be available at any grocery store, as will baking potatoes for this best home fries EVER recipe. I recommend substituting your dip-ables as needed, season-wise.

gold rush cocktail
3/4 oz. honey, warmed
3/4 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 oz. bourbon

Pour all three ingredients into a cocktail shaker without ice and stir until well combined. (Stirring before adding ice keeps the honey from getting cold and congealing into taffy consistency, which will mess up the drink.) Now add several cubes of ice, put the lid and cap on the shaker, and shake vigorously. Strain into a highball glass with a lemon twist or a sprig of mint for garnish.

oven fried okra
1 lb. okra, washed, dried & split down the middle lengthwise
1/2 c. corn meal
sea salt, pepper, garlic powder, and cayenne to taste
olive oil spray (or Pam)

smoked tomato aioli
2 to 3 small roma tomatoes
1 medium garlic clove, minced
sea salt, pepper, sugar, olive oil
2 tablespoons Hellman’s low-fat mayo
1/4 tsp. liquid smoke
a pinch of cayenne pepper
a few shakes of chipotle Tabasco sauce (for the spicy smokiness)

Roast tomatoes:  Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Slice roma tomatoes lengthwise into thirds and remove ribs, seeds, and pulp. Drizzle with olive oil and toss them a bit so that they’re covered completely. Arrange them peel side down in a shallow oven-proof skillet and sprinkle with garlic, sea salt, pepper, and a little bit of sugar – making sure that these ingredients are on top of the tomatoes and not on the bottom of the pan itself. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, until they’re nicely caramelized and brown. Let them cool.

Don’t turn the oven off! Keep it preheated to 450 degrees.

In a paper bag, pour in cornmeal, garlic powder, cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste. Shake it around so that it mixes together. Put in halved okra, twist the top closed, and shake it around so that it’s all coated with the breading mixture. Dump the breaded okra into a not-so-fine sieve over the garbage can and shake all the extra corn meal off of it. Grease the bottom of a large rimmed baking sheet with olive oil and then arrange okra in a single layer, cut side down, spraying the top of everything well with Pam (or drizzling with olive oil). Roast okra for 30 minutes, shaking or turning it halfway through cooking time to make sure both sides get browned and crunchy.

While okra is cooking, in a small food processor combine cooled roasted tomato pieces, mayo, liquid smoke, and a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Blend until smooth. Add a sprinkle of cayenne and or few shakes of chipotle Tabasco sauce to taste (more if you like it spicy) and give a couple of extra pulses of the food processor to incorporate.  

Serve okra with aioli for dipping.

Sit back on your porch and enjoy your Kentucky-endorsed cocktail and bar snack.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

tarte tatin with chantilly cream

Let's get one thing straight: I've never been a baker. There was a short stint, back when I was taking Adult Living in high school, when I managed to make a nice sour cream pound cake and, more impressively, an apple pie completely from scratch, crust and all. But ever since then, I've been more of a savory sides-and-main kind of girl. 

I have another confession: this is not entirely my recipe. It's largely another cook's adaptation of a tarte tatin recipe from The Joy of Cooking, which I found at Deb Perelman's blog Smitten Kitchen. All I did was add the idea of the puff pastry crust, which makes the whole thing easier. I've proven once in my life that I can make a pie crust from scratch. I don't need to do it every time I make a dessert, especially when I like puff pastry better anyway.

And now, for the reason I chose this particular tarte tatin recipe: she calls it "Molly's Apple Tarte Tatin." For those who don't know me, I used to have a wonderful cat named Molly. She had a short tail that wouldn't bend and a calico coat so vividly variegated that it prompted me sometimes to call her names like "Butterscotch," "Bumblebee," and "Speckle." She adored pepperoni and anything made of pork - we used to say she lived in Birmingpig. She was (appropriately) a Leo who was sure upon meeting you for the first time that you were just going to love her. She had teeny, skinny arms and legs, an enormous belly, huge green eyes, and donkey ears. This may not make sense, but D always said that her features made her look sort of like Audrey Hepburn. Two years ago this November, we took her to the vet for some apparently innocuous breathing problems, and as it turns out, she had heartworms. She died on the ER table that night, lying between D and me, mercifully sedated. 

So, this recipe is for the lovely Molly, our little piglet.

I apologize that I only have a picture of the final slice of the tarte and not the whole thing, but I made it for dinner on Friday night with D's parents, and we demolished the whole thing in under 24 hours. Not bad. Anyway, I kind of like the picture the way it is: one lone slice left, swimming in a pool of pure salted caramel. 

The gestalt of this recipe is not to be underestimated. It's composed of a deceptively short list of simple ingredients that somehow, when cooked this way, become nothing short of sublime. As a final note, let me just encourage you not to skimp on the chantilly cream - when it comes to dessert, I say go big or go home.

tarte tatin with chantilly cream
7 medium apples (We used Gala.)
1 stick (4 oz.) salted butter
1 cup sugar (white or brown, depending on your preference)
1 frozen puff pastry crust, thawed in the refrigerator overnight

Take out the thawed puff pastry and unfold it. Using the same 10-inch skillet you’ll use for the apple filling as a template, lay the square of pastry over it and cut off the corners so that it’s basically circular and fits inside the skillet’s top edge. Fold it back in thirds and put it back in the refrigerator, covered in a tea towel or paper towel to keep it damp.

Peel and core the apples, cutting them into quarters – nothing smaller, as they’ll cook down quite a bit. You don’t need to toss them with lemon juice to keep them from browning; they’ll brown plenty in the pan, if you’re lucky! :)

In a 10-inch diameter, heavy, oven-proof skillet, melt a stick of salted butter over low heat. Remove pan from heat and stir in a cup of sugar. Tap or bump the pan so that the mixture is evenly distributed over the bottom.

Arrange the cut and peeled apple quarters side-down in the skillet, overlapping them first in a layer around the edge of the skillet and then filling in the middle. Stack them as closely as you can.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Put the skillet back on high heat on the stove. Boil sugar, butter, and apples over high heat for 10 to 12 minutes, until juices are starting to brown some. Using a sharp paring knife, spear each slice and carefully flip it over in the pan (it’ll take a couple of minutes to do all of them.) Then continue cooking on high for another 5 minutes or so, until it’s really brown.

Take the puff pastry crust out of the refrigerator and cover the skillet with it, tucking in the edges a bit on the sides. Be careful not to burn your fingers!

Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, just until the crust is as golden-brown as you like it.

Take it out of the oven, let it cool for a half hour, and then carefully flip it onto a large plate.  Use a rubber scraper to get all the caramel out of the bottom of the pan, and spoon it on top.

chantilly cream
1 small (6 to 8 oz.) carton whipping cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tbsp. sugar

Whip all three ingredients together in a large bowl with a hand mixer until they form stiff peaks. Put a dollop on top of your tarte slice.



Wednesday, September 8, 2010

sautéed corn with garlic, basil, and parmesan

This recipe was inspired by a Saturday trip to the East Lake Farmer's Market last month (following our visit to Ruffner Mountain for "Breakfast with the Animals," where we were the only adults present who didn't have children in tow, and where we got to meet and pet a possum, a screech owl, a box turtle, and a corn snake). We came home excited, tired, and laden with a huge bag of local produce, which I ended up making into a vegetable plate - incidentally, one of my favorite things to have for a summer supper - including sautéed corn, quick pickles, oven fried okra, and black-eyed peas with onion and bacon.

I have made this dish on a half-dozen occasions since, always to rave reviews, and I can't help but feel a little guilty because it was totally serendipitous, simple, and thrown-together. But it ends up being surprisingly elegant and impressive looking. 

A couple of tips: it's fine to let the corn and onions get a bit golden and even a bit golden-brown, but do yourself a favor and don't let the garlic brown. Just clear a little space in the pan, melt a tiny pat of butter there, add the finely minced garlic, stir it a little into the pool of butter, and let it sit and cook for just a half-minute before you work it into the rest of the corn/onion mixture. It will be buttery and garlicky, and between that and the lemon zest and the basil, your kitchen will smell like heaven. Tip number two: be sure you use a very sharp knife when you cut the corn off the cob. Finally, it can be messy work, so if you have a porch, I recommend doing your cutting outside so that you can just let the kernels fly.

sautéed corn with garlic, basil, and parmesan

4 fresh ears of white corn, cut off the cob
2 or 3 tbsp. butter, divided
1 to 2 tbsp. olive oil
half of a white onion, minced (a couple of small shallots will work, too)
1 medium clove garlic, minced
5 or 6 large basil leaves, finely chopped
zest of one lemon
1/4 cup shaved Parmesan
coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Melt olive oil and 2 tbsp. butter over medium to medium-high heat. Add onion and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes until it's softened and light golden.

Add corn and toss in the butter, oil, and onion mixture until it's completely coated. Sauté corn and onion until it’s golden and caramelized, about 5 to 8 minutes.

Make a little space in the pan and melt the remaining 1/2 tbsp. butter, and then add garlic. Sauté just until fragrant, about 30 to 45 seconds.

Remove from heat and stir in the basil and lemon zest, as well as salt and pepper to taste. A minute or two before serving, add the Parmesan and toss just a little bit, so that it doesn’t melt too much and stays in little chunks.

P.S. For my vegan friends, I have a suspicion that this would be perfectly wonderful with just the olive oil and without the cheese. 

My dad says this corn should be illegal.

And a pic of the whole shebang:

I love me some vegetable plate.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

roasted pork tenderloin with peach lambic glaze

This recipe started out as a dish for two friends who came over for dinner one night this summer. I’ve been brining and pan-roasting chicken breasts for months because I love how tender and juicy it makes them, but since I had just served that to one of our guests at another dinner just a few weeks beforehand, I figured I should use a different meat this time. I ended up making a wild mushroom sauce to go with the pork, but this week, when I made it again just for D and me, I thought something sweeter and less heavy would be nice; hence the lambic glaze.

Brining the pork beforehand will make the juiciest tenderloin you’ve ever had. D said it had the texture of filet mignon, yet it tasted like pork. Awesome. Plus, it's super easy. Over half of the ingredients are just for the quickly stirred-together brine. The only real components you need for the recipe itself are brined pork, lambic, olive oil, and salt and pepper.

I served this with a skilletful of sautéed corn with basil, garlic, and Parmesan (which I'll post soon) and Laura Calder's recipe (from French Food at Home) for Roasted Cumin Carrots. If you don't like peach lambic, I'll bet the black cherry (or "Kriek") flavor would be really good, too.

roasted pork tenderloin with peach lambic glaze
1 pork tenderloin (a little over a pound)
1 quart cold water
1 tbsp. whole black peppercorns
1 tsp. dried thyme
2 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
2 large (or 3 to 4 small) bay leaves, broken in half
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup salt
1 bottle peach lambic
freshly ground pepper

Brine the pork tenderloin: In a large bowl, whisk together water, salt, and sugar until they’re completely dissolved. Stir in peppercorns, thyme, garlic, and bay leaves. Cut off all visible fat and gristle from the tenderloins, and then rinse with clean water. Add the pork to the brine, and use your fingers to press the spices into the meat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to several hours.

About a half-hour before cooking time, remove pork tenderloin from refrigerator. Be sure to remove all the peppercorns. Rinse the meat well with clean water, and pat very dry. Crack some pepper over top of it (no salt - that's in the brine). Put it on a plate, cover it, and let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Make peach lambic glaze: pour an entire bottle of peach lambic into a saucepan. Over medium to medium-high heat, boil gently until it’s reduced to a third of what you started with and is the consistency of a syrup. Add a teaspoon or so of sugar if you like it a little more sweet than tart. Otherwise, it’s done.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high to high heat, add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. When it begins to smoke a bit, add the pork and sear well on both sides (peppering the other side when you turn it) until it’s well-browned, a couple of minutes per side.

Take the skillet off the stove and immediately put it in the preheated oven. Roast the pork for 20 to 25 minutes, turning once and basting once or twice with the lambic reduction, until a thermometer inserted in the center reaches 135 or so degrees. (I know they say 140 or 145, but trust me, it will come out perfectly medium-well this way.)

Remove to a plate, tent the meat with foil, and let it rest for 10 minutes. Slice it into thick rounds. Save the glaze and pan juices and drizzle them over the top of the pork slices.



Friday, August 20, 2010

once-a-year cream of mushroom soup called because, for the sake of my arteries, I don't think I should eat this soup any more frequently than that. Luckily - or unluckily, depending on how you see it - this recipe produces a pretty modest amount of soup, though it actually begins with a healthy amount of liquid.

But first, let me explain why I got a bee in my bonnet about making up a mushroom soup recipe. A few weeks ago, I went to Florida for my annual beach trip with my girlfriends from the University of Georgia. The five of us are now scattered all over the country, but we reconvene every summer in Melbourne Beach to drink margaritas, sit in the sunshine, read glossy magazines we would never otherwise buy, and earnestly discuss the Harry Potter books while swimming in the ocean. This year, we actually had the chance to visit the newly opened Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios theme park in Orlando. Excited as kids, we showed up early in the morning just before the park opened, lined up to get in, and spent four hours touring Hogwarts Castle, drinking butterbeer, and riding dragons and hippogriffs. At lunchtime, predictably, we were all exhausted, overheated, and ravenous. Just outside the Harry Potter section of the park, we found a restaurant called Mythos, which is supposedly the Best Theme Park Restaurant in the World, and we put in our names for a lunch table. Forty-five minutes later, we were sitting in a cushy booth, drinking large glasses of water and eating freshly baked rosemary bread with butter. When I saw the cream of mushroom soup on the menu, I knew I had to try it because it's so rare to find a restaurant that carries it. Also, you know, what do you crave most when you're hot, tired, and hungry, if not something warm and dairy-based? ;)

So it was sublime. And it wasn't just the hunger or the exhaustion, either.

I've been thinking about making a version of that soup for weeks, trying to figure out how to do it. I looked at a bunch of recipes from cooks I love but finally decided against all of them. Instead, I started by riffing off of a mushroom-and-thyme sauté that I made earlier in the summer. It looked like this...

mushrooms with butter, thyme, and white wine - mmm!
...and here's the recipe I ended up with. My strategy was to make sure each layer - the broth, the mushrooms, the shallot-and-garlic mixture - had plenty of complex flavors so that the soup wouldn't be bland. 

This is so incredibly not bland.  Trust.

cream of mushroom soup

16 oz. sliced button mushrooms
2 c. chicken broth
3 or 4 small shallots, finely diced
1 huge (or 2 small) cloves of garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. whole black peppercorns
10 to 12 stems of fresh thyme
1 tbsp. olive oil, divided
1/2 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2  c. white wine
1/2 c. dry sherry
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/2 c. whipping cream, warmed
3/4 c. half-and-half, warmed
coarse kosher sea salt
coarsely ground fresh black pepper

In a small saucepan, combine chicken broth, 1/2 cup of the wine, bay leaf, peppercorns, 3 or 4 stems of thyme, a few mushroom slices, and about a teaspoon each of the shallots and garlic. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 30 minutes until the flavors have infused the broth. Strain, keeping mushroom pieces. Set aside or keep on low heat.

In a large soup pot over medium-high, heat a couple of teaspoons of the olive oil and a few tablespoons of the butter. Add mushrooms, stir them to coat with the oil and butter, and crack some pepper over them. Don't salt them yet. Let them sit, without stirring them, until they’re slightly browned on one side. Stir and repeat a couple of times until all the mushrooms are a bit browned. Add another 1/2 cup of the white wine and 1/4 cup of the sherry. Deglaze the pan, stirring to lift the browned bits off the bottom. Add some salt to taste and another teaspoon or so of butter and stir to cover mushrooms. When mushrooms have absorbed some of the liquid, remove to a plate or bowl.

In the same unwashed pot, melt the rest of the olive oil and butter. Add shallots and a little cracked pepper and sauté for a couple of minutes over medium-low heat. Add garlic and keep cooking for another minute or two. Be careful not to brown it! When shallots and garlic are softened, add the paprika, some salt to taste, and the remaining thyme, white wine, and sherry. Stir and raise heat. Boil for a minute or so, just until the alcohol has burned off.

Add the broth and all of the mushrooms back into the pot and stir. (If you like some bigger mushroom pieces in your soup, pull a few of them out and chop them roughly before you puree it.) Remove from heat and puree the soup with an immersion blender. When it reaches the consistency you like, scoop out a cup of it and stir some it into the warmed cream and half-and-half, a little at a time, until you’ve combined them and they’re both relatively hot. Add the whole thing back to the soup pot. Bring it up to almost boiling, turn off the heat, and it's ready. Serve it in a shallow bowl with plenty more cracked black pepper and a few thyme leaves sprinkled over the top.