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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Roasting

Nothing promotes lazy couch time better than roasting meats and vegetables. With a little prep work, they practically cook themselves.

A couple of nights ago, I did a riff on veal parmesan using leftover stuffed pork tenderloin with roasted tomato sauce served over roasted spaghetti squash.

I sliced a few roma tomatoes into quarters and tossed them into a bowl with whole grape tomatoes, sliced onions, smahed garlic cloves, salt, cracked pepper, and olive oil.  After giving them a good toss, I spread them on a foiled baking sheet and roasted them at 350 degrees until caramelized and broken down.  When they cooled a bit, I spooned the roasted vegetables along with the roasting juices into a blender with 1 cup of chicken stock and pureed the mix into a smooth tomato sauce before pouring it into a sauce pan. After seasoning it with dried oregano and dried marjoram, I  simmered it over a low flame until thickened and set it aside.

I adore veal parmesan.  I've probably concocted hundreds of variations  using veal and chicken. I had neither, so I revisited the laborious stuffed pork tenderloin from a few nights ago.  Thankfully, I had carefully double-wrapped the untouched half which kept it moist and juicy. After pulling it from the refrigerator, I removed the kitchen twine and sliced the rolled stuffed pork tenderloin into 1/2 inch rounds. After dredging the pork pinwheels in seasoned flour, egg wash, and fresh parsley/parmesan-studded panko bread crumbs, I slid them into the refrigerator to set.

Wine? Check.  Back to the couch.

I halved a medium sized spaghetti squash, scooped out the seeds, and placed the squash halves cut side down in a glass baking dish.  With the oven still burning at 350 degrees from the roasted tomatoes, I poured a cup of water into the squash baking dish and slid it into the oven to roast for 35 minutes or until a knife could easily pierce the skin.

While the squash roasted, I got a cast iron skillet smoking hot and added a few tablespoons of olive oil.  After turning the heat down to medium, I sauteed the breaded pork tenderloin medallions until deeply browned and crispy.  I carefully placed them onto a sheet pan, topping them with  roasted tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella cheese before sliding them into the oven with the spaghetti squash.

I pulled the squash from the oven and allowed  it to cool briefly.  Using a fork, I scraped the squash from stem to bottom, creating angelic strands of squash spaghetti.  After a quick toss with unsalted butter, I swirled the spaghetti  onto our plates and nestled the parmesan pork bundles into the buttery faux pasta. After spooning extra sauce into small ramekins, I showered our plates with fresh parsley and additional parmesan cheese. A final fried basil leaf gilded the lily.


The roasted tomato sauce was decadent and luxurious. Roasting pulled every bit of sweetness from the tomatoes, garlic, and caramelized onions. The spaghetti squash was magnificant, stealing our culinary hearts with its light, bright, and fantastic biting texture.  It snapped  when bitten into, holding its own under the rich velvety sauce. We were giddy, pulling forkfuls of squash  from our plates, raising them over our leaned-back heads, and lowering them into our mouths.  Every bite savored.

Spaghetti squash is fascinating. It transforms when roasted, turning from a hunk of squash into delicate 
strands of translucent squash pasta. A beautiful thing.
I usually overlook it when shopping for winter squash, choosing acorn or butternut squash instead.

Not anymore.





Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Playing With My Food

 A couple of nights ago I made an outrageous spinach, prosciutto, and parmesan stuffed pork tenderloin; butterflied, stuffed, tied, seared, roasted, sliced, and sauced. It was fabulous.......and exhausting.  After we ate, I decided my next adventure in the kitchen wouldn't require a follow-up of sedatives and a trip to the chiropractor for recovery.

Soup was the calming answer to my previous kitchen antics. Yesterday morning I pulled a bag of Meseca from the cabinet to see if I had enough flour to make corn torillas for tortilla soup.  In doing so, I spilled a bag filled with butternut squash, baby potatoes, and baby onions from our trip to the Farmers' Market.  I'd forgotton they were there.  Were they still good?  My Granny's potatoes and onions languished in her root cellar for months during winter and hers were always fine.  Although a bit gnarly, mine were too. I was inspired by a spilled bag. That was it.  Butternut squash soup.  The squash was tiny, too small to roast for pureed soup..  I thought about butternut squash ravioli, but wasn't up to pasta making.  I had round wonton wrappers in the vegetable drawer.  I could've gone the ravioli route with the wonton wrappers, but when I make ravioli I want to make ravioli with fresh made pasta. Well then, I decided to make butternut squash dumplings with vegetable soup.
Game on.  I had everything I needed except good bread and cheese.  I stopped by W + M Market on the way home from work yesterday for my weekly splurge.  I love that place. I browsed the cheese counter, gazed at the lovely cheeses, and ordered a block of pecorino romano. I couldn't resist picking up a couple of bags of cornichons and caperberries before nabbing a crusty baguette from Sunrise Bakery, paying my tab, and driving home.



I started with the simple soup.  While small orange cauliflower florets and diced parsnips roasted in the oven at 350, I sauteed seasoned split cherry tomatoes, halved tiny baby potatoes, whole baby onions, diced celery, and minced garlic.  When the vegetables softened, I deglazed the pan with white wine and let it reduce by 1/2 before adding a quart of chicken stock.  When the cauliflower and parsnips were beautifully caramelized, I dropped them into the soup, turned the heat to low, and let the soup bubble away.

With the soup rippling at a gentle simmer, I poured myself a glass of wine, sat down at the kitchen table, and played with my food.
After boiling diced butternut squash in salted water until tender, I dropped the squishy squash into a bowl with 1/2 cup whole milk ricotta cheese, grated pecorino cheese, minced parsley, salt, pepper, and fennel seeds.  I gave it a good mash and set it aside.  I covered my cutting board with round wonton wrappers, brushed the edges with egg wash, dolloped a heaping teaspoon of filling onto each one, and sealed them shut. After crimping and pleating the edges for extra strength, I nestled them onto sifted cornstarch and slid them into the refrigerator.








Every soup needs a crouton. I sliced the gorgeous baguette into 1/2 inch oblongs, brushed them with olive oil, and toasted them in the oven at 350 for 15 minutes, turning them over until browned on both sides.  While they cooled, I whipped 2 tablespoons of softened unsalted butter with 1/2 cup Crottin Montchevre' goat cheese. I slathered the croutons with the buttery goat cheese,  topped them with paper thin slices of prosciutto di Parma, and set them aside.










When it was time to eat, I plunged the butternut squash dumplings into heavily salted simmering water.  While they poached in their water bath, I dropped a handfull of fresh baby spinach into the soup to wilt before ladling the soup into large pasta bowls.  When the dumplings floated to the top, I used a spider (meshed ladle) to carefully scoop them out and add them to the soup.  A splash of fresh lemon juice with shavings of pecorino were finishing garnishes.

It was just what the doctor ordered. Light, hearty, and soothing.  The nutty roasted cauliflower combined beautifully with the sweet parsnips and tomatoes.  The rich golden broth, brightened with fresh lemon juice, was mellow, soft, and deep. Medicinal, even.  The dumplings were fantastic, with springy pasta shells giving way to creamy  rust-colored and cheese-laced mashed butternut squash.  Soft and earthy. 

The gentleness of the vegetable dumpling soup was shattered with crackling bites of the goat cheese prosciutto croutons. Salty. Tangy.  Crunchy.  Ridiculous.

It was calming and fabulous. 
Trouble?  Nope. It was fun.

Compared to wrestling a stuffed pork tenderloin into submission,
it was nothing.

Nothing and delicious.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Fritto Misto

I love shopping for food. I can't help myself.  I adore dropping by small local markets to see what's tucked on shelves, stuck in nooks, and buried in crannies. During the summer months I have  Farmers' Markets to quench my thirst for interesting and beautiful food. During the lean winter months, I  rely on small local markets, supermarkets, specialty markets, and grocery stores to satisfy my inner shopping needs.  Gorgeous produce, vegetables, meats, fruit, and grains can be found in the most unassuming places.

This past week, I forced myself to stay away from any and all markets.  My pantry, freezer, and refrigerator were overflowing.  I may have wanted something, but I certainly didn't need anything.  I made it a challenge to cook with what I had on hand.

Typical weeknight meals usually don't allow time for long braises, stews, or homemade pasta. Weeknight meals force me to dig into my imaginary culinary 'bag of tricks'.

The freezer.  My beloved freezer.  It houses all my stuff I can't bear to part with.  It's packed and stocked to its limit.  The freezer light can't even cast a glow.   Last night, I pulled 1/2 pound of bulk italian sausage from the freezer to thaw.  It was nestled between gifted not-for-sale beef liver, chicken hearts with gizzards, and whole grain teff flour.  I found 2 small bagged hamburger buns peeking from behind Elmwood Stock Farm chicken wings and a pint of Ben & Jerry's Peanut Brittle Ice Cream. There wasn't enough sausage to build a meal around and the hamburger buns were tiny, but I thought a combination of the two might pair nicely  for italian sausage sliders. Yeah...sliders.  Who doesn't love a good slider? Once the sausage meat completely thawed, I shaped it into two small patties and placed them back into the refrigerator.  Easy.

Sliders with....what?

The vegetable bin.  Oh, the vegetable bin.  The keeper of secrets and black hole of forgotten produce.  After rifling through several half-empty  plastic bags, I found orange cauliflower, radicchio, broccoli, curly parsley, onions, and lemons.  I know me. As I gathered the loot from the vegetable bin,  I knew exactly what I was going to do with the vegetables.  I'd fry them.  All of them.  Fritto misto.  Perfect.

Fritto Misto, translated from Italian, means "fried mix".  Traditionally, it consists of morsels of meat, seafood, or vegetables coated with batter and deep fried.  Hello.  I'll deep fry anything.  And have. 

 Fritto misto is more a method than a recipe. It was embarrassingly simple to prepare. 

Mise en place.  I sliced the vegetables into bite-sized pieces and the lemons into paper thin rounds.  That was it.

Ok.  That prep left plenty of time to enjoy several glasses of wine with Michael while we awaited dinner.

Eventually, I pulled myself from our fabulous coziness and started dinner.  After sauteeing the italian sausage sliders with sliced purple onions until well browned, crispy, and caramelized, I deglazed the pan with Oliva Bella balsamico di modena, a heavenly concentrated balsamic vinegar, olivabella.com.  Oh my.  When the sweetly acidic vinegar completely bathed the sliders with a purple haze/glaze, I topped them with fresh mozzarella and slid them into a warm oven to melt the cheese.

After heating peanut oil to 350 degrees until it rippled, I dipped the vegetables in egg wash, dredged them in seasoned flour, tapped off the excess flour, and fried them until golden brown.  After repeating the process with the sliced lemons and fresh parsley, I showered everything with sea salt, cracked black pepper, lemon zest, and fresh lemon juice.

I scooped the sausage sliders onto their toasted buns, filled ramekins with lemon aoili, and piled the fritto misto onto our plates.

My, my, my.

The sliders were sweet, spicy, and dripping with carmelized balsamico. The glaze seemed to trap the moisture within the crispy pan-seared crunchy sweet exterior.  They were crisp and soft at the same time. Gooey sticky candied purple onions balanced the oozing mellow mozzarella cheese.

The fritto misto provided an interesting counter to the fabulous sliders.  They were crispy, well seasoned, and tart from the lemon juice.  The broccoli and cauliflower flavors were intensified from the short fry and seemed almost nutty. They weren't pretty, but they were tasty when swirled through the tart lemon aoili.  The radicchio was pedestrian.  Fried lettuce?  What was I thinking?  Braised radicchio is a glorious thing.  Fried, not so much. The fried thinly-sliced lemon wheels were a revelation. They were sweetly astringent.  Puckery and pleasant.  Lovely.

It was a fun weeknight meal. 

Bold and easy.
Sassy, even.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Just A Little Something

For the past several days, between home and the restaurant, I have been a frenzied cook.  Although extremely enjoyable, I needed calm in the kitchen.  Quiet unfrenzied calm.  Last night, long braised short ribs provded the languid peace I craved.

Being Valentine's Day, I wanted to try something a little different from the standard red wine and beef stock braise.  I love experimenting.  Using the same method for red wine braised short ribs with celery, carrots, onions, garlic, and canned San Marzano tomatoes, I simply replaced those ingredients with white wine, chicken stock, parsnips, leeks, fresh fennel, and fresh yellow tomatoes.

Basic stuff. I seasoned, floured, and browned the short ribs in a large dutch oven before removing them to a plate.  I dropped cleaned sliced leeks, sliced fennel, diced tomato, smashed garlic, peeled parsnips, and peeled carrots into the hot oil to soften without color.  When the vegetables were tender, I deglazed the pot with 1/2 bottle of chardonnay and 2 cups of chicken stock. When the braising liquid came to a boil, I added the short ribs, 2 bay leaves, fresh parsley stems, carrot fronds, salt, and pepper. I covered the  dutch oven and slid it into a low 300 degree oven to braise for 4 hours, checking it periodically to determine if I needed to  add more wine and stock.
As I lounged on the couch all day, the short ribs practically cooked themselves.  Easy.  After 3 hours, I removed the spent carrots and parsnips, replacing them with fresh ones.  Back into the oven it went for another hour.  The house smelled amazing. 

To bump up the Valentine's Day factor, I decided to serve the short ribs over lobster risotto.  Sexy.  Luxurious.  Indulgent.  The prep was fairly simple. After dicing a roma tomato and small shallot, I split a large lobster tail, brushed the flesh with olive oil, and par-cooked it on a very hot grill pan until just underdone.  After pulling it from the pan, I removed the tail meat, diced it into bite sized pieces, and set it aside. 


Risotto waits for no one. When it's finished and hot, you eat it. Period.  I usually don't fall prey to dishes with requirements, but risotto is a different beast. While the short ribs bubbled away, Michael and I enjoyed several glasses of wine while exchanging Valentine's chocolates, cards, gifts, and other things.  30 minutes before we decided to dine, I started the risotto.
While 2 cups of chicken stock simmered with a pinch of saffron in a stock pot on a back burner of the stove, I pulled a stool to edge of the stove, poured myself a glass of wine, and made the risotto.  Calming.  I sauteed 1 cup of arborio rice in olive oil with minced shallots until well coated before deglazing with white wine.  When the wine reduced by half, I added chicken stock 1/2 cup at a time, allowing the rice to absorb the stock between additions.  The slow absorbtion of the stock slowly releases the starches in the rice, insuring creamy risotto.  Midway through, I tossed the diced tomatoes into the mix to soften, breakdown, permeate the rice. When the risotto was creamy with a hint of a bite, I added the sliced lobster meat to cook through, adding further flavor to the dish.

Before plating, I swirled 4 ounces of Crottin Montchevre' goat cheese into the risotto, letting it melt into the creamy rice.  I pulled the short ribs from their steam bath and  set them aside while I finished the sauce like a classic blanquette de veau.  I tempered 2 egg yolks with 1/2 cup of the warm sauce before slowly incorporating it back into the mix to further thicken and enrich the melted leek,  fennel, garlic, parsnip, carrot, chicken stock, and  white wine braised blanket of goodness. 

The short ribs were so tender from the long braise.  The sweetness from the vegetables enhanced their unctousness, while the egg yolk rich sauce completely  enveloped them with ribbons of leek and soft anise-toned fennel. They were comforting, soothing, and reminscent of a warm loving embrace.  With that being said, the chevre-laced creamy lobster risotto was like being lip-locked and french-kissed with furious abandon. It was insane. The soft melted creamy rice was puncuated with briny sweet al dente lobster bites, undertones of sweet tomato, savory saffron, and  tangy piquant fresh chevre. Moaningly ridiculous. Perfect in every possible way. 

It was a fabulous sexy Valentine's dinner, 
calming and relaxing to prepare. 


Eating it turned into
a feeding frenzy.
Oh happy day!

Friday, February 11, 2011

...Or Am I Losing My Mind?

Michael had a business dinner a couple of nights ago, which left me alone to conjur madness in the kitchen.  I reserve my true culinary insanity for when I'm alone, cooking only for me. Solo night usually involves fish or shellfish combined with enormous amounts of spice and heat.  Call me crazy, but when I dine alone, nothing is left  at the door. I bring it.  Big time.

I had a fews days to plan and imagine what my dream dinner  would be. I have a lovely soft spot in my heart for bouillabaisse, but even a well made bouillabaisse lacks the punch I crave when I can have anything I want. It had to be asian.  Period.

 I stopped by Charlie's Seafood and picked up a meshed bag of New Zealand green-lipped mussels.  While they cozied over crushed ice on the passenger seat of my P.T.Cruiser, I made my way to YuYu Asian Supermarket for inspiration.  I was told it was an off day at the market, but even an off day at any asian market is like dropping acid at Disney World on a hot summer day. (not that I would know)

I stepped into YuYu, grabbed a cart, and made my way down the sparse vegetable aisle, scooping a few small round Thai eggplants into a plastic bag and dropping them in my basket along with  two slim stalks of lemongrass.  I veered toward the refrigerator section and loaded up on bird chilis, red peppers, white beech mushrooms, and enoki mushrooms.  The mushrooms were beautiful. Even without a plan, I had to have them.

After picking up a bag of mung bean thick noodles, Korean chili paste, and dried shrimp chips, I headed to the aromatic seafood section.  The seafood, thankfully, was well iced.  Blue crabs were gone. They had plenty of tuna chunks soaking in murky water.  Nope.  I spotted jumbo whole head-on shrimp.  Really?  In Lexington?  Sold.  As a nod to Audrey Hepburn in a scene from Breakfast At Tiffany's, I had my basket draped in the crook of my arm while I attempted to manuever the huge shrimp onto long tongs to bag.  I felt like an idot.  Fish-out-of-water, so to speak.  I managed to wrestle four shrimp into a flimsy plastic bag without spilling my basket or my dignity.

Home again, home again, jiggity jig.

I immediately grabbed my favoritte Thai cookbook that Michael gave me years ago, The Food Of Thailand a journey for food lovers.

Soup? Stir fry?  Salad?  The world was my oyster mussel.

Adapting a recipe for Phat Wun Sen, Hot and Sour Noodles with Prawns, I leaped off the culinary cliff into insanity.

Mise en place.  I prepped the vegetables by splitting 4 tiny Thai eggplants, pulling apart the stem-bound mushrooms, thinly slicing 3 bird chilis, slicing 4 garlic cloves, mincing 2 shallots, and slicing 1 red bell pepper.  After setting them aside, I cleaned the mussels, rinsed the shrimp, and sliced thawed calamari (from my freezer) into rings.



I got a large skillet screaming hot, drizzed it with oil, and sautted the peppers, shallots, garlic, and eggplant until they softened without color.  To create an aromatic flavorful steam bath for the seafood, I added baby bok choy, scallions, birds chilis, bruised lemongrass stems, red curry paste, fresh lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, and stock.  When the stock base came to a boil, I dropped the mussels into the pot and covered them to steam open.  That gave me a moment to bring a small pot of water to the boil before pouring it over the mung bean noodles to soak and soften.  As the mussels started to open, I tossed in the shrimp and calamari to cook for 2 minutes.
When the mussels were at attention and the shrimp were perfectly pink, I added  the translucent softened mung bean noodles and tossed everything together until well combined. I slid the hot and sour noodle concoction from the skillet into a large pasta bowl and topped it with fresh cilantro, sliced bird chilis, sliced lemongrass rings, mushrooms, and petite baby bok choy leaves.  Fresh lime juice finished it off.


I drink Tobasco from the bottle and it doesn't bother me. I like heat.  A lot of heat. My noodle, mussel, and shrimp concoction was in a class by itself.  It almost self-combusted.  It was fiery hot.  Lip numbing hot.  And fabulous!  I didn't cut the noodles, as suggested, so they dangled and weaved their way throughout the dish adding small calm ribbon bites.  The mussels were squirty plump, helping tame the heat with their juices along with fresh squeezed lime.  Bits of crunchy fire came from  bird chilis that fell around the plate, hidden  and forgotten until eaten.  The shrimp, unpeeled and huge, were sweet and tender.  Peeling was messy, forcing me to eat with my fingers like a ravenous pig. I didn't even mind their beady black eyes staring back at me as I devoured them.  I was in heaven.

With my plate almost clean, I took a short break and a shot of tequila before sucking the heads of the shrimp. Yep.  If food could taste like color, the insides of the shrimp heads tasted gray, like salty gray cream cheese.  Tasty!
I lost my mind in the madness.

Sated and spent.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Scraps

Salisbury steak.  Really?  Yeah, yeah, yeah. The same Salisbury steak we all know and either love or hate.

Unlike the sandwich, created under gambling duress by the Earl of Sandwich, salisbury steak wasn't created by the the Marquess of Salisbury.  Nor was it created in Salisbury, Maryland. It was invented by Dr. J.H. Salisbury (1823-1905), an American physician, and the term "Salisbury steak" has been in use in the United States since 1897. Who knew?

I actually like salisbury steak.  I know it's a bit low brow.  Skanky, even. When my family became nanny-less after my father's military retirement, our freezer was always stocked top to bottom with TV dinners.  They were very hip in the 60's.  Salisbury steak was one of the mainstays in our TV dinner rotation, served alongside glowing  bright yellow macaroni and cheese.  Heaven for kid.  We loved them.

Last night, I had bits and pieces of things tossed around the refrigerator that I needed to use.  Scraps.  They weren't even salisbury steak ingredients.  They were what they were, and I used them to make something really quite interesting. Re-invented salisbury steak.  Sort of.

Using no measurements, I tossed leftover Chinese New Year ground pork into a large bowl with panko bread crumbs, milk, sliced celery leaves, minced garlic, parsley, salt, pepper, an organic egg, and a medley of diced red, green, and yellow bell peppers.  I gently mixed everything together and formed four small wet peppered pork salisbury steak patties.




After dusting them with additional panko bread crumbs, I pan fried them until golden brown before carefully placing them in a small snug-fitting casserole dish.

I made a quick dark brown gravy with beef stock and red wine thickened with a butter/flour roux.When the gravy reached the perfect consistency, I poured it over the ground pork steaks, sprinkled a few sliced onions and peppers over the top, clamped on a lid, and slid the casserole dish into a 350 degree oven to bake for an hour-ish, give or take a few minutes.  It baked while Michael and I enjoyed a bottle of chardonnay while listening to Betty Buckley's Ghost In This House CD.

Eventually, I sauteed green beans in butter with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, salt, and pepper.  After boiling egg noodles in heavily salted water until al dente, I tossed the noodles with butter and sliced scallions before nestling the ground peppered-pork steaks into the pasta with a smothering of sauce. Sliced snipped chives finished it off.

It wasn't traditional salisbury steak.  At. All.  It was deeper, richer, and more luscious.  The savory gravy clung to the ridiculously moist patties before dripping through the buttery noodles and onto our plates, streaming  pork fat and red wine infused brown gravy into puddles for sopping...or licking.  Yep.

Our faux salisbury steaks were an unexpected and delightful surprize.

From scraps.


Go figure.




Sunday, February 6, 2011

Addicted To Love

Chocolate is probably the food most associate with love.  It contains both a sedative that lowers inhibitions and a stimulant that increases desire for physical contact. 
Researchers studying chocolate have found it to contain phenylethylamine and serotonin, which are both "feel good" chemicals that occur naturally in our bodies and are released by our brains when we are happy or feeling loving or passionate. [Discovery Health]

There are other foods with aphrodisiacal qualities.  Caviar. Although sexy on its own, caviar is high in zinc, which raises the levels of testosterone in men.  Caviar's salty snap feels sensual on the tongue and is an ideal  pairing with chilled bubbly champaigne, considered the drink of love.  Double love punch.

Asparagus. A Session Magazine article, written by Sanela,  states that asparagus is a great source of potassium, fiber, vitamin B6, A, C, thiamin, and folic acid.  The latter is said to boost histamine production necessary for the ability to reach orgasm in both sexes.  In 19th century France, bridegrooms were served three courses of asparagus during their prenuptial dinners. 

Steamed or roasted, feeding  your partner  asparagus spears by hand is erotic and stimulating before the folic acid kick in. Sexy finger licking  food.

Bananas. Rich in vitamin B and potassium, the shape alone qualifies it as an aphrodisiac. Enough said.

Oysters.  Oysters, the quentissential love food..  If oysters are the gold standard of aphrodisiacal food, consider me a sex addict.  I love raw oysters.  Yesterday, I counted 15 photographs (on my phone) of 15 chilled oyster platters from 15 different restaurants.  Further evidence that whenever they appear on  restaurant menus, I order them. Period.  I don't devour them for their aphrodisacal qualities ( on purpose), I simply love their briny sweet taste of the ocean.  Oysters are low in fat, but high in protein, zinc, and ammino acids that increase sex hormones. Nice.  A lot has been written about oysters and what they taste like.  Depending on seasonality, location, and water temperature, some say they offer hints of melon and cucumber.  M.F.K. Fisher, prolific food writer and author of Consider The Oyster says they "...are more like the smell of rock pools at low tide than any other food in the world."  French poet, Leon-Paul Farque says eating one is "..like kissing the sea on the lips."

Indeed.

Chilled oysters on the half shell are glorious. I adore the presentaion and the ritual of eating them. It just doesn't get any better. Served perched atop chipped ice for balance to preserve their glorious liquor, raw oysters are a thing of beauty.  Whenever they arrive in front of me, I simply take a moment to gaze at them. The jeweled colors of the inner shell, glistening with pearly shades of pink, blue, and lavender, are mesmerizing.   Like delicate hands, the halved shells cup plump oysters bathed in their own juices. Lovely.

I always eat the first oyster plain.  After tipping the craggy shell to my lips, I'll pour the liquor from the shell into my mouth before sucking the oyster onto my tongue. Smaller oysters allow easier transfer from shell to tongue, like giant spoons. Larger ones with larger shells require a bit more effort. I'll slurp and suck the giant oyster from its iridescent pearly bed,  causing the juicy liqour to splat my cheeks and slowly drip before my tongue captures it.  It's an art. A beloved messy art.  I chew.  Some people don't.  I do.  A chew or  two pops the plump meat,  releasing the sweet  iron-rich liquid from the squirting flesh. .  Swallow.  Repeat. 



Simple garnishes are the best.  Lemon, hot sauce, cocktail sauce, and Saltine crackers are the   standards.  If  mignonette sauce (minced shallot, cracked pepper, vinegar) is provided, all the better.  Acidity is the key.  It cuts through the saltiness and balances the briny sweetness.

I could easily eat two dozen in one sitting.




Oysters are simply sexy to eat. They're sensual, provocative, and indulgent.

Do they unleash the spell of Aphrodite?

Perhaps, but I'm not the one to ask.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Year Of The Rabbit

The Chinese New Year.

Long noodles, dumplings, and fried whole fish are a few of the foods that symbolize good luck for the Chinese New Year. I couldn't coax Michael into having fried whole fish for our Chinese New Year celebration. My half-hearted thinly vieled hopeful suggestion of it was weak and lame.

No matter.

Dumplings were a lovely compromise.  Specifically, Siu Mai  dumplings.  I love siu mai dumplings because they are easy to assemble, requiring little painstakingly precise fussy pleating.

I followed a recipe (to the letter) from Tyler Florence's Real Kitchen for siu mai dumplings and they turned out great!

Shrimp and Ginger Siu Mai Dumplings
                                    -Tyler Florence

3/4 pound shrimp, shelled and deviened       
1/2 pound ground pork                                 
1 green onion, finely chopped                        
3 garlic cloves, minced                                  
2-inch piece fresh ginger, grated                                         
2 egg whites                                                  
2 teaspoons cornstarch                                 
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon dry sherry
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

1 (10-ounce) package round wonton wrappers
Canola oil, for brushing the steamer                                          


Method:
Pulse the filling ingredients in a food processor until partly smooth but not completely pureed.  Season with salt and pepper.

Hold a wonton wrapper in your hand.  Drop 1 tablespoon of the filling onto the center of the wrapper.  Gather the edges of the wrapper up around the filling and squeeze the sides slightly with your fingers.  The sides will naturally pleat, leaving the filling slightly exposed.  Tap the dumpling on the table so the bottom is flat and it stands upright.  Repeat with remaining wrappers.


Lightly oil the bottom of a 10-inch bamboo steamer and line it with the whole cabbage leaves.  Stand the dumplings in the steamer in a single layer and don't let them touch.  Bring 1 to 2 inches of water to a boil in a wok.  Set the bamboo steamer inside the wok, then cover it with the bamboo lid.  Steam for 10 to 12 minutes or until the filling feels firm.



I don't own bamboo steamers or a wok.  I placed my dumplings on a cabbage lined rack in a stock pot and followed the cooking instructions, steaming the dumplings until they were firm.




Happy Chinese New Year!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Pepper Party

Bell peppers are one of Michaels favorite vegetables, so I try to cook with them as much as I can.  I even slip them into recipes that don't call for them.  Last night, a gorgeous purple eggplant begged to be fried into  eggplant parmesan. I had lasagna on my mind, but the eggplant beckoned.  Why not combine the two, I thought?  Although a casserole dish of eggplant parmesan lasagna  would  have been a bit easier to prepare, the idea of cold soggy  leftovers didn't work for me. At All. Traditional lasagna reheats beautifully.  Fried eggplant lasgana, not so much.

I've prepared stacked eggplant parmesan before, so I used the same principle for individual stacked eggplant lasagna.  As ridiculous as it might sound, it was a lot of fun.  Trouble?  Maybe, but I had a great time in the kitchen playing with it.  Ultimately, after all the components were individually prepared, it came together quite easily.

I started by setting up a breading station for the eggplant slices. Flour.  Egg wash.  Seasoned parmigiano-reggiano and fresh parsley panko bread crumbs.  I positioned the breading station next to a hot oiled skillet, dipped the slices in flour, egg wash, and bread crumbs before carefully placing them into the hot shimmering oil.  After frying the eggplant slices on both sides until golden brown, I placed them on a cooling rack to drain and stay crisp.








We prefer meat sauces with our lasagna. Instead of a long simmering bolognese sauce, I simply sauteed ground italian sausage with diced red, yellow, and green bell peppers. Before the peppers softened, I added 2 minced cloves of garlic.  When the sausage was cooked through and the vegetables were tender, I stirred 2 tablespoons of tomato paste into the meat mixture and let it brown to deepen the flavor.  After the tomato paste caramelized around the meat and  vegetables, I deglazed the pan with chicken stock to pick up the fond and loosen the sauce.



As a nod to bechamel sauce, I made a quick alfredo sauce by reducing 1 cup of heavy cream with 1/2 cup of parmigiano-reggiano until it thickened and coated the back of a spoon.  When the alfredo sauce cooled down, I stirred in a beaten egg yolk as a binder and additional thickener.

MIse en place, done.

Michael and I  popped open a bottle of  The Little Penguin South Eastern Australia Chardonnay, 2008  (a gift from Jason and Greg) and retired to the parlor.

After a few glasses of wine, I assembled the  eggplant parmesan lasgana stacks by layering the fried eggplant slices with meat sauce, fresh mozzarella cheese, and alfredo sauce.  I slid them into the oven at 350 to bake, warm through, and melt the cheese.

While the lasagna stacks baked, I prepared a mixed bell pepper sauce topping by slicing red, yellow, and green bell peppers into thin strips.  After flavoring hot oil in a skillet with a smashed garlic clove, I dropped the peppers into the skillet to soften and caramelize.


I plated the fried eggplant parmesan lasagna stacks next to multi-colored Israeli pearl couscous and topped them with the caramelized sauteed pepper medley.


What a fun experiment!  They were fantastic! When sliced, the cheesy crunchy panko breading revealed soft steamed eggplant flesh.  The thickened alfredo sauce loosened its hold when baked and streamed down the eggplant stacks, creating  creamy, cheesy, and tomatoey  bites of cooked italian sausage. Talk about a flavor marriage! Wow! The caramelized peppers draped the eggplant stacks with glistening candied ribbons, dripping and falling at whim, bathing the earthy crisp eggplant with peppery sweetness. 

Unlike traditional lasagna, the crisp parmigiano panko breading on the eggplant slices provided crackling texture to the melted mozzarella cheese, oozing sauce, and mellow peppers. Every bite was reminiscent of the beloved burned cheesy corners of traditional pasta-based lasagna.

Pepper party.

I had fun making it.

We had a blast eating it.


I'll have to play with my food more often.