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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bottoms Up

I promised Michael I wouldn't touch my camera during Thanksgiving. My sincere promise would've held up if it hadn't been for a bloody mary influenced mismanagement of time that forced me to roast our tangerine, celery, and onion stuffed herb-buttered 13 pound turkey much later than I'd planned. While I sliced, diced, chopped, assembled, and sipped bloody marys, time simply slipped away.

Mise un place.

It wasn't the end of the world because we had nowhere to go or nothing to do except lounge in our pajamas all day. Heaven-ish.  We eventually got hungry.  It was  Thanksgiving day, for heaven's sake.  Eat. Pimento cheese stuffed celery sticks quelled our appetites for a nanosecond. By mid aftternoon, I would have sold my soul for a  bowl of chili.

Eschewing peanut butter, cashew brittle, or cheese sandwiches,  I decided to make a snack with a few shucked Blue Point oysters from Charlies Seafood. We had  oysters on deck was Thanksgiving. Gotta have oysters. Although I wasn't sure where they'd fit into our meal, we had them safely tucked away for something.

With plenty of time to kill,  I played around in the kitchen and turned our something oysters into a mid-day riff on Oysters Rockefeller.  Last Thanksgiving, I made a bloody muddy mess in our kitchen shucking a dozen Blue Point oysters from the Lexington Seafood Company for an epic pre-dinner amuse bouche. Lesson learned. Not again. This year, I bought them shucked with their liquor reserved. Safe. Clean. Happy. No shells.

No shells? For Oysters Rockefeller?  Nope.  I had artichoke bottoms. Think about it.

Ok, so here's the deal.  I adore fresh artichokes. There are few things sexier than plucking petals from a beautifully steamed artichoke, dipping them in drawn butter or hollandaise, and scraping the soft flesh with clinched teeth through pouty puckered lips. Pluck. Dip. Suck. Repeat. All the way down to the hairy choke.

I also enjoy well turned fresh artichoke hearts and bottoms..... if somebody else does the tedious work. Who the hell enjoys cleaning, snipping, peeling, slicing, and paring a raw artichoke down to its glorious bottom? Not me. At All.  I always end up with nothing, so  I used frozen artichoke bottoms for our Oysters Rockefeller. Yeah, I know. Cop out.  Shoot me. It was only a snack and I didn't need a gigantic bowl of acidulated water to keep the fresh botttoms from turning grey.

Traditionally, Oysters Rockefeller are baked on the half shell,  topped with a mixture of minced parsley, chervil, watercress,  green onion, tarragon, butter, and a splash of anise flavored Herbsaint or Pernod. Too much work.  I pared the preparation  down to a simpler quick snacky riff on the traditional version using artichoke bottoms as a base.

It was fun, too.

While the artichoke bottoms thawed, I sliced thick-cut applewood smoked bacon into lardons and fried them in butter until crisp. After removing the bacon to drain, I tossed minced shallots and garlic into the buttery bacon fat to sweat before tumbling a handful of baby spinach (stems included) into the mix to wilt. When the spinach collapsed from the heat, I pulled everything out of the pan to cool. In lieu of Pernod or Herbsaint, I splashed the glistening sauteed spinach with white wine and ground fennel. That  was it.

After canking the oven to 425 degrees, I seasoned the artichokes with salt, pepper, and a dusting of ground parmigiano reggiano. After placing a plump Blue Point oyster into each artichoke bottom, I topped them with the sauteed garlic/fennel infused spinach, lemon butter, parmigiano reggiano, and the reserved bacon before slidimg them into the oven to bake for 8-10 minutes.

Oh my. Each bite literally exploded with layered flavors. The barely cooked oysters popped through the garlicky spinach, salty bacon, and nutty parmigiano, squirting sweet briney oyster juice swirled with hints of fennel and lemon down our throats. Oyster G-Spot. Perfect. 

Although I missed slurping oysters from their craggy shells, the artichoke bottoms provided a calming balance to their riotous toppings.



And a bit naughty.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tricky Times

The days leading up to Thanksgiving can be tricky times in our kitchen. Generally, Michael and I don't want to eat or taste anything remotely  familiar to the food  we look forward to eating on Thanksgiving day. Anticipation. 

I've spent the past few days dancing around Thanksgiving flavors. 
A few nights ago, we devoured a slow simmered sultry vegetable Moroccan tagine filled with silken turned carrots, wedged parsnips, sliced onions, halved black grape tomatoes,  golden raisens, and dried apricots bathed in a sensual broth spiced with  ground turmuric, smoky cumin, fragrant saffron, ginger, smoked paprika, citrusy sumac, salt, and cracked pepper.  

Exotic warmth.

The following night,  I threw together a very traditional sauteed veal scallopini piccata napped in browned butter and spiked with bright briney capers served  over untraditional steamed ribbons of yellow squash and zucchini.  The kicker?  Oven-roasted  Elmwood Stock baby purple potatoes jacked up with fresh rosemary, garlic, and lemons. Yeah, the potatoes came dangerously close to eating a standard Thanksgiving staple, but their mere pungent piney purple-ness averted the comparison. Safe.

No brainer. I sliced the potatoes into quarters, revealing their gorgeous flesh. After preheating the oven to 400 degrees, I tossed the lavender-swirled spuds with olive oil, sliced unpeeled candy onions, sliced lemon wheels,  minced garlic, minced rosemary,  fresh lemon juice, salt, and pepper. I gave everything a good mix and slid it into the oven to roast for 45 minutes.

When the potatoes were tender and browned, I finished them with fresh rosemary and  tumbled them onto our plates alongside the sleepy veal piccata  

The crisp purple potatoes were a great foil to the piccata, balancing the nutty brown butter sauce with flecks of pine-scented rosemary, mellowed acidic lemon, and roasted garlic. The onions completely melted into the potatoes, providing a slightly charred calming sweetness. Simple. Fabulous.

They were not my grandmother's Thanksgiving potatoes.

Mission accomplished.

Now, it's time to think about turkey.

Bring it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Two Bits

I ran into a friend  at the farmers' market this past weekend.  She was knee deep in Casey County sweet potatoes, rifling through baskets  for a vegetarian stew she planned to make. Thinking she might be interested in other varieties of sweet potatoes for her stew, I brought  her attention to a basket filled with small white sweet potatoes. Bad move. Information overload.  In an attempt to quell her obvious perplexed response,  I made a complete fool of myself praising the virtues of their uncanny delicate pale white sweetness.  She didn't go for it.  At. All.

Oh well.

As I walked away, a basket of baby purple eggplants caught my eye. They were gorgeous and only 25 cents each. Two bits for an eggplant? Brilliant.  How could I resist? Sold. I picked out a couple of plump purple babies and handed the vendor 50 cents. "Take the entire basket.", he said quietly. "It's the last of my crop. Take 'em all if you want 'em."  Really?  I guess he was tired of hauling them back and forth to the market.  Win. I happliy tumbled them into my bag, thanked him profusely, and stumbled away wondering what on earth  I would possibly do with  1/2 bushel of baby eggplants.

We were rolling in eggplants.

Caponata? Ratatouille ? Baba Ghanoush? Baked, stuffed, or grilled eggplant? While Michael and I enjoy any and all eggplant preparations, we're both suckers for fried eggplant. Specifically, fried eggplant parmesan. So, here's the deal.  I've had some  hits and misses with eggplant parmesan. To avoid any chance of yet another another miss, I decided to look at eggplant parmesan differently and deconstruct it.

I had a blast breaking rules.

I started with the sauce.  For unknown reasons, I had lean ground pork tucked away in the meat drawer of the refrigerator. Using a wooden spoon to break it up, I sauteed the ground pork in olive oil until it was cooked through before adding diced onions and minced garlic. When the onions were translucent, I seasoned the bubbling mix with crushed fennel seeds, salt, cracked black pepper, minced fresh rosemary, and chopped parsley.

I wanted to keep the sauce light, so I pulled several overripe heirloom black brandywine tomatoes from the windowsill, sliced them into wedges, and tossed them with the simmering pork. The tomatoes  immediately collapsed into the meat and released their sweet juices, creating a light pork ragu. I reduced the heat to a low simmer, covered the pan, and let it cook away.

 Funny, I could only salvage six of the baby purple eggplants from my 1/2 bushel. Tired aubergines.  It didn't matter. I wasn't feeding an army.

After slicing the ends from the eggplants, I used a vegetable peeler to remove alternating sections of the bitter skins. I sliced them into 1/4 inch rounds, dipped them in egg wash, and dropped them into well seasoned  parsley-flecked parmigiano-reggiano dusted  breadcrumbs.

I wanted cracklingly crisp eggplant pieces,  so I cranked the deep fryer to 375 degrees and waited for the green light to pop on. Working in batches, I carefully slid the breaded eggplant patties into the hot oil and fried them until they were golden brown. As I pulled each batch from the fryer, I seasoned them  with kosher salt and set them aside on paper towels to drain.

Mise en place.
I poured myself a huge glass of chardonnay and joined Michael in the parlor.

When it was time to eat, I stacked the fried eggplant rounds with alternating  layers of fresh mozzarella cheese and slid them into a 350 degree oven. While the eggplant crisped and the cheese melted, I whipped together a batch of quick cooking polenta.

The polenta was a no brainer. Following the instructions, I cooked the polenta until it erupted into plopping volcanic spurts. I calmed the molten mess by adding 1/2 stick of unsalted butter, a cup of creamy mascarpone cheese, a handful of grated parmigiano-reggiano, and fresh chopped parsley.

I spooned the creamy  polenta onto our plates and nestled the oozing eggplant parmesan stacks into the polenta pillows. I've killed many eggplant parmesans with too much sauce. Trust me. To avoid soggy eggplant,  I ladled the pork ragu  to the side of polenta which allowed the sweet tomato jus to spill around our plates, leaving the crisp eggplant stacks unscathed.  

To tart things up a bit, I topped the fried eggplant parmesan with a feathery baby mizuna salad tossed  in a light lemon vinaigrette. Unconvential. Sassy. Fabulous.

 With hints of anise from the fennel, the tomato-infused pork ragu was surprisingly light, like eating a delicious bite of porky air perfumed with  braised sweet heirloom  tomato essence. Ridiculous. Crazy.

Dripping and oozing with melted mozzarella cheese, the fried eggplant parmesan stacks remained perfectly crisp, breaking the soft richness of the polenta with needed crunch. Reminiscent of veal or chicken Milanese, the lemony mizuna salad provided bright acidity and subtle bitterness. Win.

Two bits for an eggplant?

Monday, November 7, 2011

To The Side

Some of the vendors at our farmers' market have started packing up for the season. The recent frosts and freezes have zapped most of their tender produce. 

On our last visit to the market,  most farmers were hawking the last of their seasonal wares. While pickings were slim at most tables, we were blown away with the variety of interesting things still offered by Elmwood Stock Farm. As I filled my bag with baskets of purple potatoes and handfuls of tender kale, Michael asked about their huge watermelon radishes.  He wanted to know if the green tops were edible.  I loved that. Of course, we snagged a bundle of the bulbous radishes.

A few nights ago, Michael and I craved comfort food. Old school comfort food like meat and potatoes with a little something to the side.

Cooked radishes taste a lot like cooked turnips, so I decided to pull a riff on basic kale and turnips by braising  the kale with sliced watermelon radishes and their greens, creating a  mixed  mess o' greens.

I wasn't shooting for pretty greens.  I wanted down and  dirty soulful long cooked greens. The kind that show up at church Decoration Day potlucks.

After slicing a few slabs of thick-cut bacon into 1 inch pieces, I dropped them into a very hot dutch oven to crisp before adding sliced onions, mashed garlic, and red pepper flakes.  While the onions cooked down, I  stripped the tender leaves from the kale and sliced them into bite sized pieces, repeating the process with the radish tops. After rinsing the sliced greens, I tossed  them into the hot oniony bacon grease to steam and wilt.

The pale exteriors of watermelon radishes belie their inner beauty. When sliced, they reveal shockingly vibrant fuschia colored flesh. The pinkness took my breath away. Stunning. 

When the simmering mixed greens wilted into the bacon fat, I deglazed the pot with chicken stock and added the sliced watermelon radish wedges. After bringing the liquid to a boil, I reduced it a simmer, covered the pot, and let it bubble away for 1 1/2  hours, adding more stock as needed to insure we'd have plenty of pot likker.

Just before serving, I showered the drab greens with cracked tellicherry peppercorns and freshly squeezed lemon juice. I spooned the greens into individual bowls, tucking the translucent radishes into the soupy nests with a scattering sliced purple onions, chives, and lemon slivers to brighten the sleepy mess o' greens.

Spiked with biting cracked pepper and acidic lemon, the long braised mixed greens were robust and deeply flavored, providing an earthy base  for the mellowed turnip-like tang of the watermelon radishes. Edible jewels. Comfort.

Although the braised greens and radishes were wonderfully warming, they paled in comparison to the luscious pot likker puddled in the bottom of our bowls. Tangy. Salty. Sweet. Tart. Drinkable.

In fact, sometime during the wee hours of the night, I snuck down to the kitchen, tipped the entire pot of greens to my lips, and drank every last drop of likker. Heaven.

So much for leftovers.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fry Me To The Moon

I'll deep fry just about anything.

Confession: I used to have a mack daddy deep fryer. It was a beauty, complete with a programable thermostat and the ability to auomatically drain cooled cooking oil through a fine meshed filter into a well, assuring me of clean oil for each use. Spiffy. What it took up in counter space, it made up for with outstanding  productivity and usefullness.   I loved it. I adored it.

CUI (cooking under the influence..of wine) can have its drawbacks and pitfalls in the home kitchen.  Given enough time, the odds of things going wrong are pretty strong. Trust me.  Stuff happens. Several months ago, during a slap-happy CUI evening, I cranked the deepr fryer to a ridiculous high temperature without refilling the cooking well with oil, causing the heating element to burn out. Bad move.  The fryer was dead.  Kaput.  Cooked.  I killed Kenny.

I've been stove-top deep frying since that night. Although I've gotten used to it, watching the mercury rise and fall through the looking glass of a thick teetering candy thermometer (while trying to retain a constant temperature)  hasn't been as fun as setting the temperature gauge and waiting for the green light to pop on.

It was a happy day when Michael surprised me with a smaller more compact  version of our old mack daddy deep fryer. Back in business. A few nights ago,  I decided to christen our new kitchen countertop toy with an all out  fry fest. I fried everything we had on hand. Literally.

There's nothing genius about frying food.  Culinary clouds don't part with thunder claps.  It's simply fun. A lot of fun. Period.

Using Weisenberger Mill seasoned flour, I double battered chicken wings by dredging them in the seasoned flour, egg wash, and additional flour before carefully lowering them into the smoking hot fryer oil. I covered the basket with a filtered lid to calm the usual messy spattering and let the chicken rip until it was crackingly crisp. After pulling the chicken to drain, I slid the pieces into the oven to keep warm while I fried everything else.

I sliced a huge onion into thick rings,  leafy celery into 4 inch batons, and market peppers into thick strips, and lemons into wheels.  While the chicken warmed in the oven, I brought the oil back to temperature and whipped together a very loose tempura-like beer batter with the seasoned flour, fresh herbs, and light beer.

After blanching the celery to soften it, I battered the batons, dropped them into the hot oil  to fry until golden brown, pulled them drain, and repeated the process with lightly battered  onions rings, pepper strips, and lemon wheels.

When the last lemon caramelized from the heat of the oil, I pulled the chicken from the oven and tossed it in a combination of floral wild flower honey, salty dark soy sauce, and fiery Sriracha sauce.

I finished the sticky chicken wings with a sprinkling of white sesame seeds and chives,  tumbling them onto our plates alongside the batter-fried vegetables. After filling small individual ramekins with stilten dressing and citrus-based ponzu sauce for dipping, I nestled little stacks of sliced fresh jicama sticks on the far edges of our plates for the slightest nod to freshness.

Happy dance. 

Although crisp and light, the batter-fried peppers and onions were fairly predictable. The fried celery, on the other hand, was a revelation with tiny bursts  of sweetness squirting through the crunchy coating. I mistakingly relegated the batter-fried lemon wheels to garnish status. They were bittersweet with soft tart undertones. Crazy good with the ponzu sauce. 

 The fried chicken was insane with juicy moist meat oozing through the crispy skin dripping in honey, soy sauce, and Sriracha? Are you kidding me? Crunchy sweet salty fire. Oh, my.  Heaven.  

 Fry me to the moon.

And back...for more.