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Friday, April 30, 2010

Bottom Dwellers

Every now and then I have to clean out the refrigerator.  I usually make a stock with the bottom dwellers in the vegetable bin along with reserved bagged frozen chicken parts.  Last night, the vegetable bin was packed with more than just stock stuff.  There were good things lurking under onion skins, empty bags, and broken separated garlic cloves.  I love the challenge that comes with a refrigerator clean out night dinner.

I happened to have all the ingredients for a Salad Nicoise with the addition of some unconventional vegetable bin squatters.  I whisked up a traditional vinaigrette of lemon, dijon, salt, and pepper and set it aside.

I chopped , rinsed, and dried the crunchy pale green inner parts of romaine lettuce. After boiling a couple of eggs, quartering roma tomatoes, and slicing purple onions into rings, I got my grill pan very hot over a gas flame.  I wanted a combination of fresh vegetables mixed with smoky grilled vegetables, so I grilled blanched green beans, fresh pencil-thin asparagus, and quartered Yukon gold potatoes.  While they were still warm I tossed the them with the lemony mustard dressing to absorb the flavors.  While they soaked up their vinaigrette bath I grilled thinnly sliced Black Forest Ham until it was curled and crisp.

With the grill pan smoking hot, I flash-marked sushi grade ahi tuna steaks and set them aside to rest.

After layering the chopped romaine hearts with tomatoes, halved boiled eggs, pickled radishes, and the crisped julienned ham, I placed the marinated grilled vegetables  over the chilled uncooked salad, fanned the sliced medium rare ahi tuna over the top, and scattered Nicoise black olives over the tuna. Once everything was drizzled with the remaining vinaigrette, I cracked a ridculous amount of Tellicherry black peppercorns for aromatic heat.

Salad Nicoise with attitude.  Major attitude.  The grill provided a smoky rich under-flavor that complimented the fresh bright vinaigrette and the uncooked crisp salad base. Clean and deep.

A tasty dinner and an empty vegetable bin. Time to reload.  Heaven.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Fannie Farkle's, Corn Dogs, & Trout

Gatlinburg Tennessee is a strange strange land.  It is both fantasy and real. Whereas DisneyWorld is a total make believe land with castles, costumed characters, and rides scattered throughout a huge area, Gatlinburg is a real town with  ghost castles, chalets, bizarre characters, and rides entagled throughout the township.  It's a funny place.  A happy place.

We are not chalet people.  We would have to drive down the mountain into town to eat and drink and then drive back up.  We always stay at the Edgewater Inn along the banks of the Little Pigeon River. The front side of the hotel overlooks the town and back side overlooks the mountain. We prefer the town view.  All the bars, restaurants, and attractions are within walking distance from the hotel. The haunted castle is next door.  Christ In The Smokies, a personal favorite, is just a block away and portrays the entire life of Jesus in wax figures, 1960's dioramas, and gently posed silhouettes. Fun!  We don't ski, but the ski lift is handy for a leg-dangling ride to the top of the mountain for cocktails before the horrific descent back into town.  Nice views. Steep.

The Parkway is the main drag in Gatlinburg. It is the pot o' gold and  the tourist G-Spot.. Everything is on the Parkway; the Pancake Pantry for breakfast, the pulled taffy store,  Ripley's Believe It Or Not, and Fannie Farkle's.  After dining on  foot long corn dogs from Fannie Farkles,  championship Skee-Ball awaits next door.  Who could possibly pass up spending alot of money rolling a wooden ball up a ramp to fall into a hole to score points in the hope of winning a tiny hairy toy donkey?  Who?  Corn dogs and tiny donkeys?

We Do.It. All. Gatlinburg is not a land of pretension.  Dress the part, play the games, and ride the rides.
We tend to turn our trips to Gatlinburg into one gigantic drinking game. We bar hop and explore. We play the game.

 Gatlinburg has alot of restaurants. They come and go with the wind.  Big corporations have taken a foothold with their chain restaurants and familiar menus.  They look the same and taste the same.  Familiar.

And then there is the Smokie Mountain Trout House, located on the eastern part of the main drag.  We always eat at the Trout House at least once during our Gatlinburg adventures. It is an old restaurant in an old two story building with out dated furniture and stained carpeting overlooking the Parkway.  It's not fancy, but they have the most succulent fresh mountain trout in the area.  Caught fresh daily, they offer Baked Lemon Rice Stuffed Trout, Broiled Trout with a Creamy Mustard Sauce, Pan-Fried Trout, Trout Almondine, and Green Bean Tomato Stuffed Baked Trout with a White Wine Sauce.

We only order the Trout Almondine. After ordering, an entire whole head-on and tail-on trout is brought to the table on a large platter arranged as if still alive and swimming through a river of curly parsley.  The server artfully slices behind the head of the trout.With the use of a fork and spoon in tandem, the server pulls the entire bone structure up and out  of the cooked trout allowing each tiny pin bone to release a noiseless vacume behind it. The trout fillet is then sauced with a sea of melted butter and toasted almonds flowing freely from a sauce boat.  Meshed halved lemons are provided to cut through the fatty goodness.  Old school.  Delicious.
Butter lips.

Fresh mountain river trout. Perfect and real.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Twisted Chicken & Waffles

There are chicken and waffle recipes and then there are twisted chicken and waffle recipes.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with the traditional southern version of chicken and waffles, butter covered and maple syrup drizzled with fried chicken on the side.  That version is fabulous and tasty. Very comforting.  I wanted more.
Last night I made peach glazed pan-fried chicken served over buttermilk, cornmeal, and chive Belgian waffles. Whacked.
Using Weisenberger Mills stoneground cornmeal, I mixed together 1 1/2 cups cornmeal, 1 1/4 full fat buttermilk, 1 teaspoon of baking powder,1 teaspoon of baking soda, 1 egg, and snipped chives.  Once the waffle maker was hot enough, I ladled in the mixed batter and let the waffles steam cook.  As each one finished, I held them in a warm oven until plating.

I salted, peppered, floured, and panfried two pounded boneless chicken breasts in clarified Plugra butter until golden brown and crisp. After removing and tenting the breasts to rest and keep warm, I sauteed diced shallots in the skillet.  Once the shallots were tender and translucent, I deglazed the pan with chicken stock to scrape up any remaining chicken bits to flavor the gravy.  I  let the shallot infused stock simmer until it reduced by half and swirled in 1/2  cup of peach preserves to melt and blend into the gravy before tossing in 2 sliced fresh peaches.
I let the gravy simmer and thicken until the fresh peaches softened, retaining a toothsome bite.

I plated the waffles and buttered them liberally. The butter melted into the waffles and oozed through the channels,  filling  each waffle square with butter pools.  I placed the warm crisp chicken on top of the butter soaked waffles and ladled the savory sweet peach chicken gravy over everything.

A sprinkle of torn parsley and toasted almond slices finished it off.

Unbelievable. The crisp tangy buttermilk cornmeal chive waffles were savory enough to support the buttery peachy chicken gravy while the salty chicken added crunch and depth. The al dente cooked peaches gave a velvet mouthfeel while the few specks of verdant parsley hinted to grassy  freshness and the toasted almonds finished it off like nutty sea salt.  It was the perfect balance of sweet and savory.  
A rule breaker with every twisted bite.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Fideua: Spanish Fideos

I was fascinated with the PBS series On The Road Again....Spain with Mario Batali, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Bittman, and Claudia Bassols.  They seemed like odd bedfellows at first, but their chemistry was wonderful, as they traveled by convertable throughout Spain eating, drinking, and museum hopping.  They covered every region from coast to coast and I totally went along for the ride.

I became obsessed with Spanish cuisine.  I started buying Spanish olive oil-packed sardines that tasted better than fresh, fruity Spanish olive oil to drizzle on bagels,  bulbousValencian bomba rice for paella, and Spanish wine.  I even ordered an authentic paella pan from Spain!

Michael gave me the series companion book, Spain: A Culinary Road Trip, as a kind gift that seemed to throw gas onto my burning Spanish culinary tormented fire. 
I was hooked.  I started cooking my way through the book.  I stopped buying jarred roasted red peppers and began roasting my own. I was making Caldo Callego, a white bean, chorizo, turnip, and turnip green stew, instead of my normal soups.  Pan Con Tomat, grilled bread rubbed with garlic and ripe tomato became our house bread.  I became irritated that our local grocery store didn't carry head-on fresh gambas (shrimp).  I even managed to work the fresh sliced pineapple with drizzled lime juice and molassas appetizer into an event menu at work.

My first paella with my new paella pan was at our Spanish cookout last fall.  I wanted to cook it over a charcoal fire so that the smoky fumes would permeate the paella much like the one Mario Batali created in the series over burning grape vines.  It worked and managed and to season my pan as if it had cooked a 1000 paellas.

The burning and yearning desire for Spanish cuisine eventually started to wane in intensity, but still remained deeply important.  There was one recipe in the book that alwayes eluded me.  I was afraid to try it.  It seemed so wrong.  The name, Seafood Fideos sounded silly and intriguing.

I made it last night with calamari, shrimp, sausage, chicken, and shelled clams.

It was basically paella with pasta instead of Valencian rice.  Thin pasta.  Fideos or, in my case, angel hair pasta broken into 2 inch lengths.

It went really fast.  Mise en place was definitely in order.  I sliced green bell pepper, onions, garlic, roasted red bell peppers, and set them aside.  The earthy autumn hued spices (tumeric, saffron, paprika, and smoked paprika) were set in place in demi mise en place cups and  whole san marzano tomatoes were hand crushed into a side bowl.  A combination of fish stock and saffron-infused chicken stock simmered quietly on the back burner until needed.
I  cleaned, de-inked, de-quilled, and cut the heads off the calamari before slicing them into rings leaving the tenticles whole.  The shrimp were deviened  and left tail on.

I got my paella pan screaming hot, drizzled it with olive oil, sauteed the sausage, chicken, green peppers, and onions until caramelized and almost cooked through, and set them aside. I then sauteed the pasta in the pan drippings until toasted and nutty and deglazed the pan with white wine and stock.  The pasta needed to be very toasted and dry in order to soak up the stock and tomatoes.  After adding the spices, tomatoes, and remaining stock, I tossed in the calamari, shrimp, chicken, sausage,roasted red bell peppers, and let it simmer to thicken.  Unlike paella, the fideua went into the oven at 350 to bake and absorb for 30 minutes.

It was interesting.  It was almost the opposite of paella.  With the direct  heat of stove top cooking, the paella soccarat ( crunchy, sweet caramelized rice candy) forms on the bottom of the pan.  With the oven method, it formed on the top of the fideua with crunchy pasta sticks.  The shrimp and calamari were perfectly tender, adding a bounce back bite to contrast the soft pasta, meaty chicken, and grainy sausage.

It was good.  Very good.  What I thought sounded so wrong was completely right.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tom Turkey

Michael and I spent our first several Thanksgivings together traveling to Washington DC.  I had just moved here from NYC and probably needed a big town fix.  Washington was familiar to me and felt like home, so I guess that's why we journeyed there every year for Thanksgiving.

As with everything in life, the journey was always as important and special as the destination.  The drives to Washington through the Shenandoah Valley on bleak gray mid-Novenmber days still dance in my head as   reminders of simpler times.  The farm houses would slowly pass by our car windows as we sped down the interstate in my 1977 white Ford Granada with dish a rag in place of a gas cap.  Simple times.  Even from a distance the houses looked happy with driveways full of cars from visiting family members and little clouds of smoke poofs drifting from their chimneys.  All those Thanksgiving families gathered together in all those passing farm houses. A mental postcard.

We always stayed at the Howard Johnson's Hotel in Washington across the street from the Watergate building. Even then it was run down and old, but it was cheap.  Not even the dish rag spilling out of the gas tank of my beat up Granada drew a second look in the parking lot of this HoJo's.
We would arrive in the afternoon on Thanksgiving day and have dinner in the too brightly lit hotel reataurant. It was a HoJo's after all and ambience was not their strong card.  It is poignant now to think back on the cheap room temperature white wine served in cheap bulky stemware that began our special Thanksgiving  holiday meals at HoJo's.  It was always the same.  Very consistant. Warm wine in cheap glassware.
Thanksgiving dinner for two:  A rounded  ice-cream  scoop of  cornbread dressing topped with sliced turkey and gravy, buttered corn, and  an oval slice of tin-can indented cranberry  aspic. Pumpkin pie with whipped cream was included  for dessert. Those meals were always wonderful. They were always comforting and familiar. They were our Thanksgiving  meals and we were always thankful.

Those were our first trips together out into the world.  Funny how food memories burn into our hearts. Forever, it seems.

Even now when we cruise,  and we cruise alot, one night is always a dedicated Tom Turkey night, the universal European, Scandinavian, Norwegian, and Panamanian interpretation of American Thanksgiving.  It is the same presentation on every ship and every cruise line, always arriving on a very large plate with a melon ball rounded scoop of dressing, an index finger-long slice of turkey artfully arranged over the top, a drizzle of gravy, and a side of cranberry sauce.  Michael has never and will never turn down turkey and dressing, even if it so tiny we have to order pizza afterward.  It is his favorite meal. Period.

Michael was in Miami this past weekend on business and I was here at home having my food fun. In the midst of my crazy mice en place-ing, sauteing, pan-searing, and whacked-out ingredient laden self indulgent food orgy, I was also thawing and brining a 14 pound turkey to roast for his arrival home dinner.

Fresh herb and plugra butter rubbed roasted turkey, pineapple sweet potato souffle', herb polenta cakes, brandied creamed onions, cornbread dressing with pan gravy, and cranberry sauce. 

Welcome home. 

Welcome back old stored away memories. Welcome back Washington, warm wine, turkey dinners, happy passing  farm familes, and chimney smoke poofs.

Welcome home, Michael. 

That night smelled like Thanksgiving.  It tasted like Thanksgiving. The house became a home again and we were unselfishly and endlessly thankful.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Beet Goes On

Beets are  beautiful vegetables..  Even if some people don't like their flavor, there is no denying their actual physical beauty, especially when cooked.  Their color is un-worldly, glowing, deep, rich, and so powerful  that even  when sliced, the inside color drips and stains, a permanent reminder of their status.

I had another weekend of food freedom these past few days while Michael was in Miami on business sipping mojitos in a cabana overlooking the blue Miami water and eating the freshest of seafood.

Last night, I had beets, scallops, asparagus, and soft boiled eggs prepared and paired together in way that utterly surprised me. 

 Roasted beets and beet green salad, cipollini onions and grilled radicchio in a lemon honey vinaigrette topped with pan-seared sea scallops. To the side, grilled pencil-thin asparagus topped with a sliced soft boiled egg and snipped chives. Garnished with toasted almonds, kalamata olives, and diced roma tomatoes.

The fresh beets were brushed with olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, roasted in the oven at 350 for an hour, peeled, sliced thinly, and left to rest and chill in their olive oil beet juice.  While the beets were roasting, I blanched and shocked the beet greens and blanched and peeled the cipollini onions. Chilled and resevered.

The vinaigrette was a simple one to three ratio of olive oil, fresh squeezed lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper.

After seasoning the asparagus, I grilled them in a very hot grill pan until just cooked, but still crisp and bright green.  While they grilled, I tossed oil brushed cipollini onions, radicchio wedges, and almonds onto the pan to sear and color.

After thoroughly drying the scallops and liberally dousing them with salt and pepper, I pan-seared the scallops until an almost opaque medium rare doneness.

While the scallops and asparagus were still warm, I plated the roasted beets and greens, drizzled them  with the  vinaigrette, and topped the beets with the  pan-seared scallops. I fanned the asparagus to the side, sliced open the soft boiled egg allowing the warm runny yolk to ooze down between the tender stalks, and snipped fresh spring chives over the eggs to finish.

I sprinkled everything with toasted almonds, kalamata olives, and diced romas tomatoes........and ate.

It was a total adventure on a plate.  The many components were perfectly balanced and complimentary to each other. The beets were incredibly earthy, tasting like dirt( in a good way) and the ground they were raised in and pulled out from, while the vinaigrette sharpened their earthy tone. The beet stained briny sweet scallops were the perfect counterpoint to the unctuous beets.  Surf and turf.  Sea and earth. Perfect.

The crisp salty asparagus draped in a warm egg yolk was unbelievable.  Creamy, soft, and rich with an al dente grassy asparagus bite and enough fresh chive to cut through the buttery fatness.  Undone.

The almonds and Kalamata olives were the tongue heros.  The briny sharpness of the olives hit the front of the tongue while the almonds lingered and tickled the back. As in music, the almonds undertones were key, grounding all of the flavor notes like a baritone or bass taming an out of control diva soprano.

Roasted Beets. Scallops. Asparagus. Soft Boiled Egg. Olives. Almonds. Vinaigrette.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Out Of The Closet

So, we all keep secrets hidden in our closets with  the doors firmly shut and locked.   Sometimes the doors fling open and sometimes they remain bolted shut.  From the time I was a kid, into my teenage years, through college,  and up until now I have always loved and craved SpaghettiOs. Yep, SpaghettiOs.  Those happy looking cans of pasta circles in a cheese and tomato sauce.There you have it.  Outed. I have not been dragged out of the food closet by lurking food police.  I have happily and unapologetically flung my food closet door wide open and stepped out into the light of day!  It was inevitable.
I can't help it. I crave that taste.  That tinny cheesy tomato pasta flavor. SpaghettiOs were introduced in 1965 and  were marketed as a "less messy" spaghetti  option for kids.  My father must have fallen for the convenience of easy open canned pasta while  I guess I simply fell for the taste; hook, line, and sinker.

I usually eat them straight from the can with a spoon. When a can of SpaghettiOs is first opened, the pasta circles are compacted toward the bottom of the can and a juicy red gooey sauce is afloat on top.  That  top sauce is what always drew me in.  Must be why I first started eating them from the can, to taste the red goo. A few bites of sauce, a quick stir, an empty can. Done. 

I love how the cheesy tomato sauce is a perfect blend and ratio of cheese to tomato. Tomato Puree [water, tomato paste],  Enriched Macaroni Product [wheat flour, niacin, riboflavin, folic acid], and Cheddar Cheese [cultured milk, salt, enzymes, calcium chloride]. And a bunch of other things. The ratio, spot on. Carrot extract is also part of the blend which likens it to sauce bolognaise, sort of. Well, that might be a stretch.

Granted, the pasta is not al dente.  Some might even deem it mushy. 

I typically go for the original version of SpaghettiOs. They now come shaped like alphabet letters, race cars, ravilolis, and Disney princesses. Can't tolerate the off-shoots. They are called SpaghettiO's for a reason.  O shaped for less mess! Some even have tiny little fake hot dogs and meatballs.
I won't even dignify the store brands with mention.

I had a can of SpaghettiOs for lunch today.  I gave into civility and ate my Os  from a pasta bowl and not from the can. I even warmed it up and went up-town with the tiny fake meatball version.

I did commit SpaghettiOs heresy by topping it with reggiano cheese, sea salt, basil, and a sprinkle of fresh parsley.  Rule breaker.

It was everything I knew it would be. Cheesy and saucy and soft. Perhaps it was even better all dolled up like a cheap whore with the bright grassy notes of parsley and the salty nutty edge of reggiano cheese.
I paired it with an arugula salad radicchio bowl, lightly dressed in a vinaigrette as an acidic cleanser to the canned pasta.  Delicious.
Even extravagantly adorned, it was still a can of SpaghettiOs.  My old friend in a happy labeled can with familiar taste and mouthfeel.

Out of the closet. 

Friday, April 16, 2010

Pretty Food

The reminiscing lately about my grandmothers ability, or lack of ability, to cook has had  me aching for some of the things she could cook well.  So, last night when most people were probably grilling out or having dinner at an outdoor restaurant patio, I was craving smothered pork chops and fried corn.  Down and dirty country food. Soul food. Food for the soul.
I wanted a good dressing or stuffing as a bed for the slow braised smothered  pork chops, so I pulled all of my bread scraps out of the freezer, the ones I always intend to save for Thanksgiving, but never do.  I had ciabatta, baguettes, biscuits, cornbread, sandwich bread, and even some raisin bread.  I tore them into cubes and toasted them in the oven to dry out.
I satueed sweet sausage, diced Granny Smith apples, onions, celery, and garlic until tender and mixed them with the dried bread.  After seasoning with salt, pepper, poultry seasoning, and fresh sage, I moistened the whole shooting match with chicken stock and beaten eggs.

After covering the bottom of a dutch oven with the dressing, I topped it with seasoned and floured  panfried pork chops and thick sliced white sweet onions. Once the pork chops were panfried in a cast iron skillet, I deglazed the residual floury pork fat with water to pick up the flavor bits from the bottom of the pan and added a chicken stock slurry to create a voluptuous pan sauce. I poured this over the onion,  pork chop, and dressing layers, covered it tightly, and let it braise in the oven for 3 hours.  3 long very aromatic hours.

Fried corn.  Pretty basic. I shucked the corn, cleaned  the silk with my fathers silk brush, cut off the kernels, and scraped the cob to milk it.  After sauteing  thick cut slab bacon until crispy and fat rendered, I added the corn, seasoned it liberally, and fried it in the bacon fat.

I plated the falling apart chops on top of the dressing, spooned generous country-portion amounts of sauce over all of it, and sprinkled it fresh minced parsley as a wink and a nod to healthy eating.  Fried corn to the side with buttered dinner rolls to sop.

The aroma alone took me back in time.  Jolted memories. Like being back at an old-time church pot-luck dinner with food  lined up and down on a flat bed wooden wagon hauled in by a tractor and parked right by the church cemetary on a hot summer day.

The pork chops had almost disintegrated, the way they were supposed to, but with enough texture and bite to retain their integrity.  Moist and soft.  The dressing, having soaked up the pork fat drippings and gravy,  had caramelized underneath from the intense 3 hour braise and was luscious.  Savoury and rich bread pudding with a hint of sweet tart apple.  The magic came from the onions.  The thick cut onion rings had completely melted onto the pork chops forming an outer onion pork skin, sugary sweet and slurpingly tender.  The bacon fried corn added crunch and saltiness, especially good when swiped through the sweet onion sauce.

This was not pretty food.  It was not intended to be.  

My country people didn't cook pretty food. They cooked pretty damn good food.

Monday, April 12, 2010

My Big Food Night In

Michael was out of town on business last night which meant  I was flying solo for dinner.  There are certain things I cook when he is out of town.  I use ingredients and methods for cooking for me that I love that he doesn't neccessarily like or love.  Most seafood items, soups, chowders, spicy dishes, and pastas are the culinary building blocks of my food pyramid.  It's not that Michael doesn't like those partucular foods, he just doesn't love them enough to eat them as often as I can and do.  Bouillabaisse, Cioppino, Bermuda Fish  Chowder, Noodle  Bowls, Cajun anything, and blackened anything are all examples of my sub categories under my basic food groups, along with alot of vegetables.  Michael is more of a meat and potatoes person and I am everything else.  He likes lean  steaks.  I like well marbled fatty steaks.  He likes white meat.  I like dark meat.  I adore duck for that reason.  He doesn't. I crave spicy food.  Michael doesn't care for spicy food. It makes for interesting interpretations of recipes and dinners.

So, when he is away, I have carte blanche and the world is my oyster, sometimes literally.  His one night excursions are the most difficult menus to plan because I have one opportunity to cram everything I want into one meal. It makes my head spin. Two nights and over excursions afford me the chance to gradually ease into my dining desires and expectations.

Last night, I killed two birds with one meal. I satisfed my desire for seafood and soup.  My one night only selfish meal.  I couldn't decide between bouillabaisse or cioppino,both  tomato and wine based fish stews similar in technique and style, but with very different flavor profiles.  I decided on Cioppino with a nod to bouillabaisse.

I sauteed a thinly sliced fennel bulb, cipollini onions, and garlic in our new find: Plugra Clarified Butter.  With  the butter fats removed, this butter has a higher smoke point and can be used to saute and flavor without fear of burning, similar to an olive oil and butter saute combination.

Once they softened and started to color, I added tomato paste to color and  white wine to deglaze.  Fish stock, crushed san marzano tomatoes, fresh parsley, orange peel, salt and pepper finished the sauce. 

I let that simmer for about an hour to thoroughly infuse and combine before tossing in gorgeous tagged & labled fresh farm raised littleneck clams and pearly white fresh halibut.  Topped the pot with a lid to steam open the clams and within minutes, orange fennel tomato dripping steamed clams and halibut.

I tumbled the clams and halibut into a large pasta bowl, bathed them with the briny anise sweet acidic sauce, drizzled it with Pernod and olive oil, and garnished it with the fennel fronds and parsley.

  • I normally have  good crunchy bread on hand to sop, but  last night used two slices of regular untoasted unadorned  white sandwich bread to absorb and soak up the broth. The very ordinariness of it made it the perfect sponge. It was messy. I ate the first fennel draped clam and used the empty half shell as a scoop to pry the remaining clams from their shells and to spoon broth from the bottom of the bowl. Even though both  fork and spoon were within reach I turned it into finger food, alone in my pajamas in front of the television devouring a heaving bowl of Cioppino, clam by clam and scoop by scoop.  I was sticky and covered in clammy tomato broth with shiny olive oil lips.  I was in heaven.
I ate 25 clams, a half pound of halibut, and drank every drop of broth straight from the bowl.

It was my night.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Boeuf Bourgiugnon

Boeuf Bourguignon. Beef Burgundy. Beef in Red Wine. Under any guise, it is a fairly straight forward dish.  It is beef stewed in red wine. Good ingredients and careful preparation can elevate a good beef stew into a great beef stew.

Last night I had great ingredients, albeit unconventional and non-traditional ingredients, but still great.  I started with a beautiful bone-in Not For Sale  shoulder roast that was a gift from Banjo and  marinated it overnight  in a full bodied (and affordable) Perrin Cotes du Rhone Villages Rouge.
I had nice slab bacon rendered fat that was used to flavor and brown the cubed meat.
I sauteed trimmed pencil-thin carrots, stemmed shitake mushrooms, peeled cipollini onions, and blanched pearl onions in butter, olive oil, fresh thyme, and honey until browned and tender.  Reserved with saute juices.

After browning the meat in the bacon fat and adding tomato paste  for a touch of acidity, I flambe'd  it with brandy to deglaze the bottom of the pan and pick up the flavorful fond.  I poured the wine marinade into the pot, added a few bay leaves, some parsley stems, crushed garlic, fresh thyme, and let it bubble and simmer for 3 hours.
While the stew was making the house smell amazing, I made fresh pasta to serve with it.  I love making pasta.  It takes no time, little effort, and is totally worth the trouble.  It simply feels good to work the dough, feel the dough, to roll it out, and to cut it.  You can actually taste the love and tenderness that goes into fresh made pasta. 

When the stew had simmered the meat into tender morsels, I removed the meat, discarded the bay leaves and parsley stems, skimmed the fat, and thickened it slightly with a beurre manie, a kneaded flour butter mixture.

Once the stew was at its perfect gloss and texture, I added the reserved meat, carrots, onions, and their juices to heat through and coat with the luscious braising sauce.

Served it over al dente' pasta with a shower of fresh parsley for grassy freshness and a sprinkle of fleur de sel for crunch.

It was a bowl of rich velvet textures wrapping and lapping around each other.  The shoulder roast melted into the sauce while the vegetables retained their form and flavor.  Earthy and fresh.  Delicious.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Army retirement is a funny thing.  There is the first retirement when the retiree retires and then sticks close to base and does army related work.  The second retirement is the final one.  And so it was with my father.  He retired from the army and we moved back to the United States and settled in Washington DC. After a few years with no nanny, housekeeper, or cook, he retired retired from the Army and moved us home to a small town in western Kentucky to live with his parents, my grandparents.  In 12 long short years, I lived and moved  from Stuttgart, Germany to Washington, DC to Heidelberg, Germany to Vienna, Austria to Asmara, Ethiopia Africa to Washington, DC to small-town, Kentucky. That was my normal.  I thought that's what everyone did. That move was different, though. That move was a shock, a cultural shock. I was treated differently.  I wasn't liked. I didn't fit in.  I didn't belong. Officials almost didn't let me enroll in school because my birth certificate was German.   I was called saurkraut for years, which, at least, was a food term. Thank God army brats were tough and thick-skinned.  We had to be. We were used to rejection and change.  I was normal.  They weren't.  I could deal.

The biggest shock from the move was living on a farm, my grandparents farm. It was edged by Barren River Lake with deep jagged cliffs overlooking the water and had acres of rolling green fields with cattle and horses. The farm had cornfields, tobacco fields, oil wells, and vegetable gardens. There was a chicken coop with chickens, roosters, and brown eggs nestled on straw beds.  Next to the coop was a smoke house with dangling hams hanging from the ceiling smelling like salt and pig. I loved that smell. There were grape vines and apple trees. I would eat the tart green un-ripe fruits until my baby belly ached with misery and delight. Most importantly, for a mischievous and outcast boy, the farm had a pond.  A big brown muddy water pool, filled with catfish and frogs and algae.

It was Eden.

There were things to get used to and new termonology to accept.  All of a sudden, what I had always known of as lunch became dinner and dinner became supper.  It was confusing.  My accustomed breakfast of soft boiled eggs, halved grapefruit, and boxed Sugar Pops cereal  morphed into fried country ham, scrambled eggs, biscuits, and gravy.  Dinner  was always an army of meats, sides, and desserts; smothered  pork chops with onions, fried chicken, baked beans with ground beef topped with sweet bacon candy, green beans, chess pie, transparent pie, and those orange sugar-coated jelly candies.  Supper was usually a warm-up and rehash of leftover dinner. It was crazy to me and I loved every bite.

In the summer, Granny would can things.  Everyone canned things.  That confused me as well.  Everyone was canning, but there were no cans. There were plenty of glass jars.  Why didn't they call it jarring? I never really got over that issue.  I would help shuck corn, snap beans, pluck peas, and squeeze tomatoes.  Those things pleased Granny.  We would be sticky, sweaty, and hot, but we were always happy and laughing, whispering secrets to each other. Country women doing country things, Granny and me.  Legacy.

I was the fetcher in the family.  Come supper time, it was always "Tommy, fetch Granny some green beans and potatoes from the cellar".  Or, "We're having stewed tomatoes.  Tommy, fetch some canned tomatoes from downstairs."

Downstairs.  The cellar.  Me, the fetcher.. I hated that cellar.  It was like those cellars on television in mid-western America where sweet kind families would flee from tornados.  Cold and dark, swathed with cobwebs.  One lone dim light bulb illuminated that cellar. Sinister.  Dusty jars (not cans) of tomatoes, green beans, beets, onions, pickles, and carrots were stacked ladder high.  Fetch.  The potatoes, mid-winter, had arms growing out of them and looked like aliens wishing and wanting  to crawl away.

I did as I was told. I fetched.

Granny was a fairly good cook.  She paired great ingrediants with simple techniques.  Some things were delicious. Some were not.  Her squash was a mystery.  I never knew what it was.  It was always black from too much pepper.  It wasn't very good.  For years, I thought squash was one big pot of all the garden's  vegetables cooked, peppered, and squashed into a pulp with a potato masher. Squished vegetables.  Squash.

After four years on the farm, my father re-married and we moved into a regular house with a yard. Another move. Another mother. Another woman. I thought, here we/I go again. Marge was different.  She was inspiring.  She loved to cook well. She taught me to cook and to care about cooking.  I lapped at her ankles. I adored her. I am me because of her.  Legacy.

The first time Marge made squash for me, I was undone.  I didn't know it was yellow.....or delicious.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


The weather has been so nice lately and I have been yearning to grill out on the back deck.  I have also been craving mediterreanean flavors, especially those of Greece; lemon, olive oil, garlic, and oregano.  I had a whole chicken in the refrigerator, but didn't want to cut it up.  Cutting up a whole chicken is not that big of a deal, but I was being lazy and simply didn't want to deal with the mess.  I decided I would spatchcock the chicken, a method of cooking  a whole chicken evenly.  It was fairly simple to do;  using kitchen shears, I cut the backbone out of the chicken and threw it in the freeze for future stock, turned it over, snapped the breast bone to make it lie flat, and skewered the breasts and thighs through and across the bird.  The cock was therefore spatched.

To infuse it with as much flavor as possible, I whisked up a marinade of fresh squeezed lemon, olive oil, oregano, mint, onions, garlic, salt, and pepper, poured it over the chicken and marinated it overnight.  While it was innocently marinating, the Mr. Hyde part of my brain went into overdrive, planning an entire Greek meal.  We had beautiful whole squid at work, so brought some home to make Kalamarkia Yemistra  or Greek stuffed squid.

I cleaned the squid, leaving the bodies whole, jiggly cone-shaped squid vessels. The filling was a traditional rice mixture cooked in  a tomato, fresh lemon juice, and white wine stock.  After the rice had absorbed all the flavors of the liquid, I added finely chopped peppers and shredded fresh spinach. Once filled, I skewered the squid pockets shut, sprinkled them with smoked paprika, and grilled them until browned and cooked through.

 I then braised them for an hour in the remaining tomato, lemon, and white wine stock.  For perfect squid tenderness, squid must be either flash cooked  or long braised.  Nothing in between.  The in between cooking time creates shoe leather.

While the stuffed squid Kalamarkia Yemistra braised away in the oven smelling heavenly, I readied the spatchcocked chcken for the grill.  I pulled it out of the marinade, dried it, reserved the marinade as a baster, and showered it with sea salt, pepper, and dried oregano.  I grilled it skin side down to caramelize and flipped it over to fully cook, gently moving it to the cooler side of the grill.  I tossed some lemon halves onto the grill to impart a smoky citrus tent and also for later squeezing. 

The chicken took some time to grill, but the smoky aroma alone made the wait enjoyable.  During the process, I sampled the cook's treats;  marinated livers, gizzards, and hearts.They were delicious,  charred lemony garlicky chicken offal-candy.

I served the chicken with the grilled lemons, the braised squid with its sauce, and topped them both with snipped chives and sea salt.  A Kalamata olive, green pepper, sliced onion, caper, and feta cheese salad provided a bright acidic balance to the voluptuous chicken. 

 The stuffed squid swelled from the filling expanding during the long braise, almost to the popping point.  They were fork tender, savory and rich from the tomato sauce, tart from the lemon wine addition, and earthy from the spinach and peppers.  The chicken was moist and tender, exuding smoke, garlic, lemon, and oregano with charred crackling salty skin.

Greek Surf 'n Turf, with some spatchcocking thrown in.


Monday, April 5, 2010

The Possibilities

I love this time of year when everything is blooming.  The garden is glistening green with new growth.  The early bulbs are showing their stark and gentle colors through the gardenscape.
As corny as it sounds, it still amazes me that things come back.  I forget from year to year exactly what is in the garden.  It  always surprises and amazes me. Sometimes it's not my forgetfulness, but the amusing interloping of squirrels moving bulbs around,  hiding their "nuts" for the cold hard winter.  Some are moved about by the wind whirling dried seed pods everywhere.  Sometimes they move because I moved them and forgot that I moved them.  The winter months can do strange things to the mind.

What I  cherish are the possibilties that come with starting seeds inside when the weather is breaking into spring and before the spirit is broken by winter.

 At first, it always feels useless starting those tiny black seeds, those dots, in little peat pots, keeping them in the dark away from the sun and watering little patches of dirt.  Then,  out of nowhere, little green leaves poke up and out leaning toward the light.  The uselessness turns into hope and the possibilties begin.

The herbs are my garden and cooking backbone, always within  steps of the kitchen.

I look at the tiny basil babies and start planning their futures;  freshly torn onto pizza Margherita, tossed into marinara sauce, or pounded into pesto with a fine reggiano, good olive oil, and toasted pine nuts.  Will I snip them into salads,  roll them around smoked salmon, tear them into a Tuscan ribolita soup, or layer them with gruyere for a grand grilled cheese? Our good friend, Banjo,  is basil growing,  longing for salad caprese, the ultimate fresh basil bite. 

Parsley, the workhorse of the herbal garden, will go onto and into everything.  Nothing will go to waste..  The stems will go into stock and the leaves will flavor soups and stews.  The parsley will freshen and finish almost every meal during summer. 

One of my favorite herbs is fresh dill.  Delicate dill.  When bushy and fragrant it will adorn chicken noodle soup, matzoh balls, grilled salmon, or chowders.  I love to cure huge salmon filets slathered in fresh dill, salt, and sugar, turning it for several days until the sweet salted dill infuses the salmon and cold cooks it and cures it.    In late summer, when pickling time rolls around, fresh dill shines and delivers.

With limited space to garden, my vegetable growing is relegated to tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. I grow several varieties of each and we never tire of them. Tomatoes are the darlings of summer; fresh cut into salads, roasted until intensely sweet and concentrated, or sliced onto white bread with salt, pepper, and mayonaise as a summer sandwich.  I love them plucked straight from the vine still warm from the sun, eaten like apples, dripping juice down my chin and leaving seeds on my cheeks.

I can't wait.  I must wait.  I will wait. I'll watch them and help them grow.  These tiny seedlings have so much potential and endless possibilities.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Meatless Friday: Good Friday: Finis

The seventh Friday of lent came and went.  Aside from the St Joseph Feast Day reprieve and the Fifth Fourth Friday cooking competition,  we did pretty well not eating meat.  There are alternatives.

Yesterday being Good Friday threw a different spin on the meatless Friday concept.  It was also a day of fasting until sundown.   Fasting.

I work in a restaurant,  Fasting in a restaurant with the aromas and sights of juicy steaks, grease dripping hamburgers, and  crisp salty fries was almost unbearable. Liquids are allowed, including broth, so I had some vegetable broth around noon with a liberal crack of pepper, a few cans of tomato juice, lots of water, and some skanky crab broth mid-afternoon.  It was difficult to not eat just by habit.
The Head Chef was prepping lobster butter-lettuce cups for dinner service.  He offered me a lobster claw!  An entire claw, glowing pink-salmon colored, limp and firm at the same time, and cracked right from the shell shiny.  I  stared at it, at him, and back at the claw.  Who would know the difference?  I could taste the  luscious meat swiped through drawn butter, slapping my cheeks with sticky lobster meat.  I could actually taste it. 

Maybe that was enough.  To imagine tasting it.  I went back to work, feeding those not bound by Good Friday fasting rules.  There was pleasure in watching others eat.

We had planned a simple dinner after church and the hours long service last night.  By the time we got home, we were hungry.  We could have eaten oven brasied flip-flops served over sauteed shredded newspaper, buttered of course. 

I asked Michael how a pureed pepper soup sounded, knowing he was tiring of my soup making.  His reply, "I don't care, I'll eat anything."

After cramming a few pieces of crackers and cheese down our thoats to have to stength to even drink wine, I started dinner.

I sliced and satueed red, orange, and green bell peppers, onions, and brussel sprouts in olive oil and butter until tender.  I thawed vegetable stock from the frezzer and added it to the soup along with fresh thyme leaves, and let  it simmer for about 30 minutes.  After pureeing in a blender and pouring into serving bowls, a simple drizzle of white truffle oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh thyme, and parsley finished it off.
We had  the soup with Michael's fantastic double-cheese grilled cheese sandwiches for dunking.

Simple.  Nourishing.  Light.

Good Friday. Easter. Peace.