Search This Blog

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


It started with the ice trays. For two days, Michael and I both thought someone had mysteriously used all the ice and replaced it with fresh water-filled ice trays. Nope.

Hoping it was a minor thing, we called a reliable freezer repair person. He ran diagnostic tests before babbling a littany of  freezer lingo... coils, condensers, defrosters, thermostats, blah, blah, blah. White noise. Wasn't  listening. Blah, blah, blah.  Of course, he had to order the parts, telling  us he would get back in touch with us when they arrived.  He reassured us that it wasn't a hazard and that our kitchen wouldn't flood while we were out of town.

When the parts arrived, he called to tell us to unplug the freezer and refrigerator for two days to let it thaw before he could  work on it. Unplug the freezer and refrigerator? Um... Really?  Now, that thunder clap got my attention. The thought of it sent daggers through my heart and chills up my spine. I'm a food collector.  The freezer's literally my bountiful treasure chest full of my things. My fun stuff.  My scraps of artisinal breads for Thanksgiving stuffing, bones, meats, fish parts, calamari, doughs, and  sauces.  Unplug it  and remove it from life support?  Heavy boots.

Last night was my last chance to use what I could before we removed the plug and tossed everything away. There was so much stuff. How?  What? All in one meal? A last supper using all of my prized hoarded food collection?

I took a deep breath, pulled everything from the freezer,  and methodically set about the sad business of closing down shop.

I started by making a small batch of chicken stock with chicken backs, necks, wings, carrots, celery, onions, bell peppers (because I had them), black peppercorns, parsley, thyme, and purple basil. I let the stock bubble away while I thought about what to do next. Because I had a tons of meat tucked away, pasta bolognese quickly came to mind. I had enough of the ingredients to knock out a decent riff on the classic sauce from Bologna, so I readied the food processor for some heavy duty work.

The meat drawer.

I sliced 1/2 pound  slab of thick-cut applewood smoked bacon into lardons, fried them until crisp, scooped  them out to drain, and removed half of the bacon fat. After chopping the remaining carrots, onions, celery, and peppers into large pieces, I tumbled them into the food processor and pulverized them into mushy pulp. When the bacon fat smoked, I dropped the vegetable pulp into the hot oil along with a few tablespoons of tomato paste and thawed San Marzano tomatoes, letting the concoction pop, spit, and simmer until it was deeply caramelized before turning the heat to a low simmer.

Since bolognese is a meat-based sauce, I needed to add meat.  I had plenty of it, but it had to be broken down to create a velvety bolognese sauce.  After dicing garlic marinated filet mignons, 2 pork tenderloin medallions, 2 Italian sausages (casings removed),  and 4 pounded veal scallopinis, I dropped the meat pieces  into the food processor and pulsed them until they were ground together. Sacrilege. Meat carnage. It had to be done.


After straining the chicken stock through a cheesecloth-lined chinois, I ladled it into the gurgling sauce, brought it a simmer, and  added the uncooked ground meat mixture. I wanted the raw mixed meats to slowly cook in the sauce, releasing  their individual succulent  juices and flavoring it.  When the meat was fully incorporated, I turned the heat to low, covered the pot, and chugged a few glasses of wine.

The cheese drawer.

I had a lot of cheese. So much so that that my little riff on Pasta alla Bolognese had to be tweeked. Baked spaghetti? Spaghetti casserole?

It turned into my take on Timballo, an Italian molded baked pasta dish that, depending on ingredients, varies from region to region in Italy. 

Disregarding rules, recipes, and Italian regions, I went with what I had on hand.

I boiled a pound of spaghetti in heavily salted water for 7 minutes, purposefully undercooking it. After draining the pasta, I folded it into the Bolognese sauce and added handfuls of grated pecorino romano, grated parmigianno, shredded sharp white cheddar, smoked gouda, grated fontina, fresh mozzarella, and baby arugula leaves.

I preheated the oven to 375 degrees, poured the sauced spaghetti into a buttered parmigianno-dusted springform pan, and slid it into the oven to bake for an hour.

After several glasses of wine, I removed the Timballo from the oven, letting it rest for 20 minutes before slicing it into wedges and plating it.

With nothing else to serve with it, I simply scattered a few quartered market tomatoes around the plate for freshness.

We ate what we could and trashed the remaining Timballo. There was nowhere to store it.

We were unplugged.


Clean slate.
Time to reload.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Autumn Market Salad

Michael and I had a fun willy-nilly day at the farmers' market last weekend.  Without an agenda or plan, we roamed the market at whim, chatting with vendors and buying stuff. The results of such a carefree shopping spin? A hodgepodge odd ball assortment of fruits and vegetables that didn't relate to each other. We simply bought what looked interesting, filling our bags with Blue Moon Farm baby arugula, Elmwood Stock  delicata squash, and Raggard Creekside Farm concord grapes. Somewhere along the way, I managed to bag a beautiful sweet dumpling squash that resembled a cross between delicata and acorn squash.

With our market stash occupying every wooden bowl on the kitchen countertop, I stared at it for few days trying to figure out what to do with it. As whole, it didn't make sense, but with an out of town trip on the books, I needed to use it or lose it.

An effortless autumn salad fit the bill perfectly.

I split the sweet dumpling squash in half and scooped out the seeds. Following the outer ribs as a guideline, I sliced the squash into small crescents, tumbled them into a mixing bowl, and tossed them  with salt, pepper, olive oil, and  pure maple  syrup. After cranking the oven  to 400 degrees, I covered the squash with foil and roasted it for 45 minutes, removing the foil for the final 20 minutes.

After I uncovered the squash, I tossed a few slices of speck into the roasting pan to crisp for 10 minutes.

While the sweet dumpling squash slices caramelized in the oven, I whisked together an unconventional vinaigrette, using a 2 to 1 ratio of oil to acid instead  of the traditional 3 to 1 ratio. After squeezing the juice from an orange, I added a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, a tablespoon of Wallace Station Bourbon Mustard, salt, pepper, snipped chives, and a scant drizzle of maple syrup. After doubling the amount of olive oil to acid, I emulsified the vinaigrette by shaking everything together in a sealed Mason jar.

When the squash crescents were golden and deeply caramelized, I pulled them from the oven to cool. While they bubbled-down  in thier sticky coating, I sliced a few end-of-season tomatoes along with a small candy onion.
That was it.
When it was time to eat, I gently tossed the tender squash, baby bitter arugula, sliced tomatoes, and slivered onions with the orange maple vinaigrette.

After plating the roasted sweet dumpling squash salad, I topped it additional dressing, orange zest, toasted pecans, shaved sharp white cheddar cheese, and concord grapes. For contrast, I nestled the crisped speck under the squash for a salty crunch.


It was fun to eat with all the contrasting textures and flavors balancing each other nicely. The buttery tender squash melted under the exploding wet freshness of the tomatoes and concord grapes while the wilted baby arugula wrapped the vegetables with a slight bitterness. Tucked  throughout the salad,  slices of roasted brittle speck provided a much needed smack of saltiness and crunch. Pork candy.

For a different take on traditional roasted winter squash,
it was fantastic.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Come To My Window

Puttana: Itlalian slang meaning whore.  Pasta Puttanesca: Whore's Pasta.  There are many stories disputing the origin of the name. Some say pasta puttanesca was prepared by Italian prostitutes because it was quick and could easily be thrown together between customers. Others believe that the common Italian pantry ingredients involved with making puttanesca alleviated the need and distraction for the ladies of the evening to shop for food. The most common story (my favorite) is that the hard working girls placed  hot steaming bowls of pasta puttanesca on their window sills hoping to lure in passing  potential clientele with wafting intoxicating aromas.

Whatever its origin, I adore pasta puttanesca.  There are many methods for preparing it, but the ingredients  remain constant; anchovies, garlic, chili flakes, olives, olive oil, tomatoes, and pasta. Like any good working girl, I had the ingredients in my pantry.

I thought about tossing cooked pasta in a raw sauce using  gorgeous  heirloom "seconds" from  Raggard Creekside Farm. With Michael out of town on business a few nights ago, I knew I had the luxury of time to putter around the kitchen, so 
I decided to slow roast the tomatoes to intensify their flavors, blend them with fish stock, and serve the pasta puttanesca with fresh mussels from Charlie's Seafood.

I quartered the tomatoes, drizzled them with olive oil, seasoned them with salt and pepper, and slid them into a 325 dregree oven to roast until they collapsed, caramelized, and charred,  about 45 minutes. 

Surprisingly, I didn't have fish stock, but knew I had a bag of shrimp shells tucked under a bag of chicken backs, so I pulled the shrimp shells from the freezer and made a simple stock. After filling a small stock pot 3/4 full, I dropped the shells into the cold water along with peppercorns, onions, parsley, thyme, and chervil. I brought the stock to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, skimmed the scum, and let it bubble away until it reduced by half, creating an intense shrimp flavored stock.
I strained the stock into a blender, added the roasted tomatoes, and pureed them into a lovely shellfish tomato-based sauce.

With all the separate components in place (mise en place), I cranked a skillet to high and sauteed chili-flecked anchovie filets until they melted into the oil before adding thinly sliced candy onions and minced garlic.  When the onions and garlic caramelized, I deglazed the pan with white wine, letting it reduce by half before tossing in a handful of un-pitted picholine black olives and drained capers.

Just before the wine completely evaporated, I added the tomato sauce and brought it to a boil before tumbling 2 pounds of cleaned mussels into the spurting sauce. I reduced the heat, covered the pan, and let the mussels steam open, releasing their juices into the sauce. When the last mussel opened, I added 1/2 pound of under-cooked spaghetti to the bubbling sauce, gave it a stir, and allowed the spaghetti to absorb the sauce while it finished cooking.

I twirled piled the pasta puttanesca into a very large pasta bowl and haphazzardly scattered the mussels around the pasta.  Because I simply couldn't leave well enough alone, I drizzled the plump mussels with a decadent Sriracha lemon chive butter.

 Gratutious fresh parsely finished it off.

Ok.  So, here's the deal. The pasta puttanesca had a lot going on. It was complex, deeply flavored, multi layered, and fun. The intensly sweet slow-roasted tomato sauce was a heavenly mellow canvas for the al dent spaghetti,  pungent garlic, briny soft olives, biting chili peppers, and tangy capers. The mussels, bathed in Sriracha butter, were plump, tender, and ridiculous. Using  the emptied mussel shells as tiny spoons, I slurped the squirting mussels, mixing their juices with the fiery Sriracha lemon-spiked butter. I couldn't stop eating them. And didn't. 

With no bread to sop,
I licked my bowl completely clean until my shiny lips burned.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sunday Supper And Other Things

I'm not a DIY kind of a guy. Really, I'm not. At all.  Lately, I've found myself knee deep in projects that stupify me.  Not only are they tedious and frustrating, they keep me out of the kitchen.  Pouring concrete, re-building window frames, grouting, sanding, and painting have left little time for me to fuss around in the kitchen.

This past Sunday was filled with projects. Because they were my primary focus for the entire day, I needed our Sunday supper to practically cook itself, unattended. The ticket? A long slow languid braise.

German and Slavic flavor profiles inspire me. They're part of me. I was born in Germany, lived in Austria, and was cared for by an escaped Eastern Bloc Czechloslovakian  hotel chef.  My younger years were influenced  by the similar culinary traditions of those three countries. Frau Olga, my nanny, was a wonderful cook. She cooked effortlessly and  constantly, preparing meals inspired by her native Czechloslovakian cuisine intertwined with Austrian and German undertones. Her loving devotion to braising, simmering, and baking filled our house with warm comfortable aromas that gently wafted up and through the elaborate black wrought iron spiral staircase that anchored our 5 story Vienna apartment. I was a lucky kid.

 I craved that aroma and comfort last Sunday, so I drew from the spirit of my dear Frau Olga and adapted an unconventional version of her incredible braised Czech pepper steak.

I had projects to tackle, so I worked quickly. I sliced a well marbled (fatty) chuck shoulder into huge pieces, seasoned them liberally,  browned them in hot oil until they were crisp, and set them aside. After tossing handfuls of thinly sliced purple bell peppers and candy onions into the hot oil to sweat, I added minced garlic, tomato paste, pureed heirloom black brandywine tomatoes, and sweet Hungarian paprika.

After the tomato paste browned (adding an earthy deep flavor) I deglaced the pot with white wine and let it reduce until  the paprika-flecked evaporated wine formed small bubbles around the fond.  Just before the wine cooked completely away, I added 4 cups of beef stock, brought it to a boil and reduced it to simmer before returning the browned beef to the smouldering stock. When the liquid came back to a gentle simmer, I covered the dutch oven, slid it into a 325 degree oven, and let it braise for a ridiculous 3 1/2 hours.

3 1/2 hours gave me plenty of time to pour concrete.

And drink wine.

I did both.

After mixing, stirring, destroying, and trashing three different batches of concrete, I threw in the trowel and happily ventured back into the kitchen. Familiar territory.

As a nod to my German heritage, I made a big batch of Kartoffelkloesse (German potato dumplings) to accompany our Czech pepper steak.  Because I throw nothing away, I had a stash of  riced potatoes tucked away in the freezer. After allowing them to thaw, I measured out 2 cups of the potatoes before kneading them with 1/2 cup flour, 1/8 cup cornstarch (potato starch would have been ideal), 1 egg, and a pinch of nutmeg, adding additional flour or water to achieve a doughlike consistency. When the potato dough felt right, I dusted my hands with flour and rolled it into 2 inch round dumplings, eschewing the tradtional inserted crouton.  I set them aside, went back outside,  and ripped out a decaying 130 year old Victorian exterior window sill. Fun. 

With all my projects safely tucked away for the evening ( plastic-wrapped and duct-taped), I joined Michael in  the parlor for a proper glass of wine.  The house smelled heavenly.

When it was time for our Sunday supper, I pulled the  pepper steak from the oven to rest and  boiled  the potato dumplings in heavily salted water until they floated to the top and were tender, about 20 minutes.

After spooning  the Czech pepper steak pieces onto our plates, I topped them with thinly sliced onions and peppers to echo and reinforce the flavors of the long braised vegetables. I nestled the bulbous dumplings to the side, finishing them with fresh snipped chives.

The steak/stew, bathed in a rich smoky sauce, was meltingly tender and moist. The onion and pepper garnishes snapped when bitten, awakening the sleepy meat with needed crunch and wetness. With earthy riotous goodness swirling around our plates (and running down our chins), the pillowy dumplings provided  calm.  They were delicate and soft, perfect soppers for the fabulous messy sauce.

Although Frau Olga was a much better cook than I'll ever become, I could almost hear her broken English whisper, "You're a God boy, Tommy."
It was a good day.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


I spent most of my time tripping over ornamental gourds at the farmers' market a few days ago. They were everywhere, gingerly stacked in piles throughout the market with occasional drifters falling from the stacks and rolling onto the graval pathways. Futball, anyone?  Generally,  Michael and I are not ones to display  atumnal cornucopias, so I wasn't really there  for decorative items.

I bagged the usual suspects;  a few ears of fresh corn, Stayman apples, black brandywine tomatoes (the last two) and  candy onions. While passing the Elmwood Stock Farm stand,  I was drawn in by the glorious colors of the final neon swiss chard of the season. I was surprised to see it and had to have it. While paying for the chard,  I took a second glance at what appeared to be yet another basket of decorative dried corn cobs. Nope. The basket, half emptied, displayed organic corn on the cob popping corn.  Really? 


After asking a ton of questions about the popping reliablity of the corn, I was finally  told by the vendor that they  usually quickly sell out of it because kids love it. "*Yummy flavor. *Shell off cob and cook in pan on stove."  Where's the fun in that?

I had a different plan.

 A couple of nights ago, after having a few glasses of wine with Michael before dinner, I put my plan into action.

After removing the dramatic flared corn husks, I rubbed the cobs with olive oil and dropped them into a trimmed brown paper grocery bag. I rolled up the bag, leaving enough room for the popcorn bounty, and nestled it into our microwave.  After setting the timer for two minutes, I pushed start and waited for the fun to begin.

Nothing happened. Great.  Sucker. I fell for the pitch...or,  I didn't "shell of cob..."

I stuck the bag back into the microwave, set the timer for an additional two minutes, and started slicing leeks.


Before I knew it, the brown paper bag was hopping around the microwave from eratic popping exposions. Well, hello Mr. Redenbacher. It was hysterical. 

I called Michael into the kitchen, pulled the bag from the microwave, ripped the bag open, and doused the popped kernels with salt. Like giddy children, we stuffed handfuls into our mouths.

It. Was. Fabulous.

We could have snacked on all of it, but I reserved some as a garnish for our cheddar ale soup made with Boone Creek Creamery aged Darby Cheddar Cheese and Leinenkugel's Fire Side Nut Brown Ale.

The soup was great, but the popped corn stole our hearts.  It didn't taste like puffed air.  It had an earthy  honest essence.

Michael summed it up perfectly when he simply said, " It tastes like corn."


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Passion Fruit In The Pumpkin Patch?

I'm crazy about passion fruit. It's a new thing for me. With its brittle reddish-purple wrinkled exterior skin, I've never given it a second glance when rifling through the other more interesting looking exotic fruits while shopping. Prickly pears, horned melons, and cherimoya fruits have wonderfully bumpy and pointy exteriors that always looked like more fun to play with. Although sometimes difficult to work with, they've always been my go-to exotic fruits.....until this past weekend. For the sake of variety, I picked up a huge bag of passion fruit for a tropical fruit platter I planned to serve at an event. 

Not knowing what to expect, I was blown away when I finaly sliced one in half. Gorgeous tiny dark green seeds suspended in a gelatanous pale green yellow mass spilled from the sliced fruit.

After sucking  the seeds and pulp from the shell, I was totally hooked. Sweet, sassy, and tart, it tasted like rich guava.  Guava with attitude. Guava with tart crunchy edible jewels cacooned within the sweet flesh.

Although passion fruit is often eaten fresh, it's usually strained for the juice and used to enhance beverages, syrups, and desserts. For my maiden tasting,  I simply sucked the pulp from the shell and munched on the seeds as juice dribbled down my chin. Fabulous.

I had a few leftover passion fruits rolling around my vegetable bin that I wanted to use for something other than a delicious facial, so I decided to incorporate the pulp and juice into a glaze for sauteed shrimp and vegetables.

After slicing the passion fruit into quarters, I scraped the seeds and pulp into a seive before using a spoon to  extract the juice, allowing the vibrant canary yellow nectar to spill into a small bowl. I ditched the seeds and added fresh squeezed orange juice, lime juice, salt, and cracked pepper. To balance the acidity, I mixed the juices with a teaspoon each of caster sugar, soy sauce, and cornstarch.

After peeling and deveining a pound of 16-20 count jumbo shrimp, I sauteed them briefly in butter and olive oil  before setting them aside. With the skillet still smoking hot, I tossed in sliced purple baby bell peppers, sliced candy onions, diced mangos, halved grape tomatoes, sliced daikon radishes, and minced garlic. Just as the vegetables started to caramelize, I poured the glaze into the skillet, allowing it to spit, bubble, and thicken before adding the shrimp back into the mix to warm through.

With  the sauteed shrimp and vegetables gently napped in the passion fruit glaze, I spooned them into large bowls filled with floral jasmine rice, finishing with a dusitng  of black and white sesame seeds.

Oh, my.  Bowls of tropical paradise. The  plump briny shrimp,  bathed in a tart and slightly sweet glaze, were moist and tender while the vegetables added crisp bites of freshness. Although reminiscent of a sweet & sour stir-fry, it was cleaner and brighter. Think sweet & sour jacked up on steroids.

There was nothing seasonal about it. In fact, I couldn't have veered farther away from autumnal flavors.  
Total diversion.
And totally worth it.