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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

2 Cents Worth

I'm still  basking in the glow of my smallish windfall from our casino shenanigans last week. The first evening began like a typical evening in a casino. Bet. Lose. Repeat. Droning monotony. Michael and I had gambled our hearts out, consumed a ridiculous amount of vodka, and were biding our time through the waning hours of the night when we found a skanky bank of 2 cent slot machines tucked away in a dark corner of the noisy casino. We were surrounded by hoards of bussed-in fiesty old ladies sporting crushed velvet sweat suits and matchy-matchy casual wear. Bring it.  The bar was nearby.  Bonus.

Bottoms up. We were oblivious to everything while we chatted, laughed, and sipped our low brow vodka tonics. In fact, we weren't even paying attention to our 2 cent slot machines.  Who cared? Other people always hit the big jackpots, causing their machines to explode into loud symphonies of bells, whistles, and gut-wrenching sirens.  Bitter? Hell, yeah. Bottoms up.

That particular night, things panned out differently. While nonchalantly ordering another round of drinks, my machine hit a bonus round. My bouncing ball hit the mark.  It hit big. The little white ball landed softly on 50,000 bonus credits. Really? We stared.  We screamed. We screamed and stared.

 After 30 minutes of counting down 50,000 credits, my total amounted to $1081.51. Not quite a Mega Millions haul, but it was pretty cool for a skanky 2 cent late night drunken bet.

We  celebrated quietly (pajama-clad) back  in our hotel room with cold take-out chili dogs and dill pickle spears washed down with vending machine soda.  Fancy. Living the life. High rollers.  Big spenders.

The following night, we took a break from the raucous casino chaos and continued our little celebration with a fantastic meal at Jack Binions Steakhouse. Nestled into a curved over-tufted candlelit banquette, we quietly  feasted  on succulent  pan seared bay scallops bathed in a lemony beurre blanc, deeply charred blood rare filet mignons, and crispy salt-packed buttered baked potatoes  washed down with several glasses of soft pinot noir. We stayed away from the casino. Better yet, we stayed away from the free lobster tails offered at The Paula Deen Buffet.

The next morning, we drove home. Through the woods, over the bridge, and back to reality. Click. Click. Click. There's no place like home. Serene and quiet. Perfect.

As our extreme weekend wound down, I wanted to close it out with a final homage to that humble 2 cent bet. Packed with $100 bills, I gave a  slight nod to luxuary and picked up a couple of whole steamed lobsters.

 Lobster Eggs Benedict.

I have an aversion to killing live lobsters.  The trauma of slaughtering several live lobsters with a large knife in front of a classroom filled with onlooking doe-eyed students still haunts me, so I simply buy them pre cooked. No apologies. Nope. None.

After cracking the shells of two steamed 1 pound lobsters, I removed the meat from the claws and tails before tossing the remaining parts into the freezer for a future stock.

I whipped together a quick blender hollandaise sauce by blending 2 egg yolks with 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice before slowly adding 1 1/4 cups of melted and warmed unsalted butter until the sauce emulsified. I'm not fond of gloppy hollandaise, so I added a bit more lemon juice for a slightly acidic thinner sauce.

After toasting a couple of split English muffins, I sauteed 1/2 pound of farmers' market spinach with garlic, salt, and pepper. With the hollandaise and spinach on deck, I steamed a few halved fingerling potatoes until they were fork tender before roasting them with butter, salt, and cracked pepper.

While the potatoes browned, I warmed the reserved lobster meat over a low flame in 1/4 cup of unsalted butter and slipped 4 organic Elmwood Stock Farm eggs into a bubbling vinegar-kissed water bath.When the last egg splashed into the simmering water, I covered the pan, removed it from the heat, and allowed the eggs to poach for 5 minutes before carefully removing them with a slotted spoon.

I buttered the toasted English muffins before topping them with  the sauteed spinach, split lobster tails, claw meat, and jiggly poached eggs. After spooning generous amounts of hollandaise sauce over the eggs, I showered  them with snipped fresh chives and tumbled the roasted fingerling potatoes to the side.

 When pierced, the runny yolks spilled through the hollandaise, puddling and swirling together to create an addtional bonus sauce. Win.

Bites of delicate lobster meat popped through the deep yellow yolks with hints of wilted garlic spinach, crisp buttery muffins, lemony hollandaise, and grassy fresh chives.

Rich and decadent,
it was a happy overindulgent ending to our wild and extreme weekend.

Never underestimate the value of a penny
or two.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Halleloo! Spring Has Sprung

Opening day of The Lexington Farmers' Market is one of the joyous signs that spring has sprung in Central Kentucky. It allows us to shed memories of the long drab winter months with a subtle  stamp of approval. Michael and I couldn't wait to soak it in last weekend. Early Saturday morning, I grabbed my canvas tote bags while Michael gathered our empty Chaneys milk glass bottles. In a flash, we were off to the market.  

Although we arrived very early, the market was bustling.  Perky culinary students, adorned in their university-issued  togs, scurried through the market with amused abandon.  Youthful innocence. With most of the vendors tucked underneath the  bolted glass ceiling of the open air pavillion, space was tight. With shoulder-to-shoulder shoppers crowding the various farmstands, we felt like happy human bumper cars.  Bump. Move. Bump. Repeat. The energy was fantastic.

Along with the usual early season shipped-in suspects, a surprizingly large variety of  early local produce lined the tabletops and spilled from baskets. I had absolutely no reason to want or buy purple mustard greens. They were gorgeous. Why not?  Sold.

Chanterelle mushrooms. Herbs. Baby lettuces. Radishes. Green garlic bunches. Green onions. Tomato plants. Cheeses. Breads. Flowers. Salsas. Dips. It was dizzying.
Bundles of fresh asparagus caught me off guard.  Even after our mild winter, I didn't expect to find them on opening day. With my giddiness trumping sound reasoning, I bagged 2 pounds of fresh Bourbon County spring asparagus.  Really? What was I thinking?  That's a hell of a lot of asparagus for 2 people.

Asparagus frenzy.

Round 1: After tossing 1/2 pound of  trimmed tender asparagus spears with olive oil, salt, and pepper, I roasted them in a 400 degree oven for 18 minutes. When they caramelized, I nestled them around jasmine rice alongside baked cornish game hens smothered in pureed lemon-infused roasted garlic.

Round 2: To awaken a sleepy long braised  horseradish-spiked pot roast, I shaved a few of the larger asparagus spears into delicate ribbons before tossing them with meyer lemon juice, olive oil, spring radish zest, radishes, curled green onions, salt, and pepper.   Crisp. Fresh. Raw. Perfect.

Round 3:  I banished the heavy-handedness of the previous two nights and threw together a simple pureed asparagus soup. Although most methods for preparing asparagus soup  include  potatoes and leeks, I didn't want to muck up and muddle the true flavor of the asparagus. I kept it simple and straightforward. After sweating 1/2 cup minced shallots and 1 clove smashed garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil, I seasoned them with salt and pepper before deglazing the soup pot with white wine. When the wine reduced to nothing, I added 4 cups chicken stock.  I brought the stock to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, tumbled in a pound of sliced spring asparagus, and let it rip for 15 minutes.

I pulled the cooked  asparagus from the heat and carefully pureed it in batches (with the stock) until it was velvety smooth.  After dishing up the soup, I topped it with crisped prosciutto cracklings, creme fraiche, and lemony fresh thyme.

I shamelessly licked the bowl clean,
leaving my lips and cheeks dripping with
the pure essence of fresh spring asparagus. 


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Size Matters

Pommes souffles were not on my radar. Nope. Not a single blinking blip. I planned to pair fresh  plump  'frenched' center cut rib pork chops with a thinly layered gruyere-laden potato gratin. After suffering through a disastrous undercooked potato gratin at a local restaurant recently, I banished any notion of rehashing the memory of that unfortunate vapid and limp gratin imposter.

Blip. Enter pommes souffles, fascinating little potato puffs. Pommes souffles were created by a happy accident in 1837 when a French chef was forced to refry half-cooked sliced potatoes because of an unexpected delay in service.  When he tossed the blanched half-cooked potatoes into hot oil for the second time, the trapped steam caused the potatoes to puff up and crisp.  Brilliant.

I peeled two large russet potaoes before turning them ( a knife cut used to create oblong-shaped vegetables)  into the shapes of small pointy  footballs. Not knowing which cut size would produce the perfect puffs, I used  my to mandolin to shave one potato into 1/8 inch slices and the other potato into 1/4 inch slices. Yeah, I measured them.

I soaked the potatoes in ice water for 30 minutes before draining them and patting them dry. After heating oil in a deep fryer until it reached 325 degrees, I fried the potatoes in batches until they blistered  (5-6 minutes)  before scooping them onto a wire rack to drain.

While the potatoes cooled, I pan seared the center cut chops in butter and olive oil until they were deeply browned on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. After removing them to a plate, I added minced garlic, pearl onions, quartered grape tomatoes, salt, and pepper to the sizzling  pan drippings.  When the onions softened, I deglazed the pan with 1/2 cup white wine and added 1 1/2 cups chicken stock. I brought the stock to a boil, reduced it a simmer, slid the browned chops back into the pan, covered them, and let the chops braise for 20 minutes.

After pulling the braised pork from the heat to rest, I cranked the deep fryer to 400 degrees and carefully dropped the blanched potatoes into the shimmering  molten oil. They puffed immediately and turned golden brown. Magic.

I plated the chops alongside steamed broccoli spears before tumbling the pommes souffles onto baby arugula leaves to suspend them above the puddling pork juices. 

So, here's the deal. While the thinner 1/8 inch sliced potatoes exploded into crisp pillowy potato puffs, the thicker 1/4 inch slices turned into crackling potato chips. Potato chips or potato puffs? They were both fantastic.

When shooting for
perfect pommes souffles, 
size matters.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

I Had A Farm In Africa

Moments before boarding a plane to leave Africa behind, Ababa cupped my face in her calloused hands and kissed my forehead with her dried sun-parched lips.

My family lived in Ethiopia, Africa for a few years while my father was stationed at Kagnew Station. It wasn't a farm, by any means. Kagnew Station, located on the dusty outskirts of Asmara, was a sprawling military base  surrounded by 20 foot concrete walls topped with tangled webs of razor sharp barbed wire. As a kid, I wasn't sure if the walls were there to keep people out or to keep us in.

The lone school building, perpetually covered with hot windswept  sand,  housed every grade level. Although rigid, the  International American School academics were fairly standard except for the fact that we were required to master the Italian language. We were the pupils of a post war Mussolini influence that still remained intact from the World War II Italian occupation of Ethiopia. Between astronomy and paper-mache puppet making classes, I learned the Italian language. Army life.

My brother played high school football. Our school was the only American school in Ethiopia.  The only school......with a football team. Because they had nobody to play, they fielded two teams that played against each other over and over and over again. Weird.

The isolated self-contained army base had everything we needed. Aside from  occasional weekend jaunts to the Red Sea or adventurous Kenyan safaris, we happily lived our lives within our walled-in fortress.

Ababa, a native Ethiopian, was our housekeeper and nanny. She was bussed onto the base daily with other off-base domestic workers. With a gentle grace and quiet serenity, Ababa took care of my family and me. I adored her.

Every day, before boarding the final bus to return  home, Ababa cooked for us.  Intermingled with Swanson pot pies and TV dinners, she'd prepare her curious interpretations of American food. But, on occasion, Ababa would pull out the big guns and cook her food.  Ethiopian food. Her intoxicating spicy doro wat with tangy injera bread captured my tender young heart.  I've craved it my entire life.

Without any nearby Ethiopian restaurants to satisfy my cravings, I'll occasionaly cook doro wat at home for Michael and me. It never compares to Ababa's humble long braised chicken smothered with spicy blood-red berebere sauce, but the epic labor of love it requires to prepare keeps her sweet spirit with me as a reminder of our time together on my  military farm in Africa.

There are countless methods for preparing doro wat. One very old method matter-of-factly suggests air drying a beheaded plucked rooster under the hot African sun for three entire days. Nope. While cooking doro wat can be fairly straighforward, the process reveals its essence and soul.

Niter Kibbeh.
I melted 1/2 pound of unsalted in a small cast iron skillet. When the butter started to foam, I added 1 cup of diced purple onions, 2 whole garlic cloves, 1 tablespoon of grated fresh ginger, 1/4 teaspoon cardomom seeds, 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, 1/4 teaspoon tumeric, and three whole cloves. After the onions turned translucent, I covered the skillet, turned the heat to low, and let the butter steep for 45 minutes before draining it through cheesecloth to trap the solids. Spiced clarified butter. I slid it into refirgerator and started the berbere paste.

Berbere Paste.
After toasting 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon cardomom seeds, 1 teaspoon fenngreek seeds, and 4 whole cloves, I pulverized them in a coffee grinder before mixing them with 1 tablespoon kosher salt, 1 1/2 ounces of paprika, 1 1/2 ounces ground dried pasilla pepper, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1 teaspoon ground turmeric, 1/2 reaspoon ground allspice, and 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg.  I added 1/2 peanut oil and 1/2 cup dry red wine before blending the berbere into a thick fiery paste.

Injera Bread.
Injera can be tricky. To achieve the characteristic tang of injera bread, a sour starter needs to be proofed and fermmented for several days. There are methods for quick starters, overnight starters, and three day, five day or seven day starters. I chose a four day fermenting process.

On the first day, I added 3/4 cup warm water to 1/2 cup teff flour.  After sprinkling a pinch of yeast over the mix, I covered the bowl with a kitchen towel and set it aside. Every morning, I added 1/3 cup teff flour and 1/2 cup warm water to the bubbling starter. As it slowly  fermented, gurgled, and popped, the starter exuded the familiar pungent aroma of injera batter.

 On the fourth morning, I pureed the starter before adding 2 cups each of self rising flour and teff flour.  After kneading the dough for 10 minutes, I added enough warm water to form a crepe-like batter, covered it with a kitchen towel,  and let it rest for a few hours.

After cranking an electric skillet to 400 degrees, I ladled 1/2 cup of injera batter into a corner of the skillet and tilted it to swirl the batter around the bottom of the pan.  When it covered the entire surface, I let it cook for a minute or two until holes appeared through the batter and the bread was cooked through. As each spongy injera crepe came off of the skillet, I stacked them between sheets of waxed paper before rolling them up to serve with our doro wat.

Alrighty, then. Doro Wat.
After breaking down a small chicken into serving pieces, I marinated them in fresh lime juice for an hour.  Working over a medium low flame, I slowly sauteed 3 cups of thinly sliced purple onions for 45 minutes until they were deeply caramelized.  When the onions were meltingly tender, I added 1/2 cup niter kibbeh, 1/2 cup berbere paste, 1/2 cup dry red wine, and 1 cup chicken stock.  I brought the sauce to a boil and reduced it to a simmer before adding the chicken to the bubbling blood-red bath. I covered the skillet and let the doro wat braise for an hour, adding boiled eggs during the final 15 minutes.

After lining a large platter with injera, I topped the spongy bread with doro wat, Kai Sir (Ethiopian beet and pepper salad tossed with fresh lemon juice), Gomen (braised collard greens with cheese), Fosolia (green beans and carrots sauteed with caramelized onions), and Spiced Cheese.

No knives or forks. We used the injera and ate it all with our fingers.
Sensory overload.