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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Un-Sunday Supper

Ok. So, here's the deal.  I had big plans for a lazy long braised Sunday supper last weekend. Sometime, between slicing fresh fennel bulbs and rinsing a whole organic chicken to air-dry in the refrigerator for super crisp skin, it occured to me that the Acadamy Awards were being broadcast that night. I couldn't wrap my head around the thought of braising, basting, and babysitting a complete Sunday supper while running up and down the stairs trying not to miss a single moment of the awards show. I wanted my full attention glued to the red carpet walks,  off-handed humor, gut-wrenching anticipation, acceptance speeches, and couture gowns.  "Who are you wearing?" Blah, blah, blah.  Well,  I wore tattered Old Navy drawstring cotton knock-abouts anchored by a somewhat coordinating ( not too matchy matchy)  distressed T-shirt.

That being said, we shelved the Sunday supper notion and decided to nosh on nibbles and snacks during the broadcast. On hand?  Poppy-cock, Caramel Swirl Girl Scout cookies, Godiva chocolates, pistachios, prosciutto, leftover chili,  and Pop-Tarts. Bring on the chic. Even with those treats banked, I felt the need to  prepare something for our little well intended coffee table awards night buffet.

I had a huge bag of winter market kale that needed a purpose. I'd planned to saute or braise it as a side dish for our abandoned Sunday supper. Instead, I re-purposed the kale for our Oscar night snacks.

Kale Chips. I know, right?  They're nothing new. They've been around forever. I was late to the party with it. Oh, well.  It just never dawned on me to throw a batch together until Oscar Sunday. Welcome to the party.

I trimmed the kale leaves from the tough stems, ripped the larger leaves into bite sized pieces, and set the remaining smaller leaves aside. I tossed the tender kale with olive oil, seasoned it with kosher salt, and tumbled it onto a parchment paper lined sheet pan before sliding it into the oven to bake for 10 to 15 minutes. I didn't leave the the kitchen. Lessons learned.  Because the market kale leaves were very tender,  they browned around the edges and were perfectly crisp at the 9 minute mark. I pulled them from the oven and carefully drained them on paper towels.

Earthy, light, and crisp, the kale chips crackled  with soft nutty sweetness from the caramelized browned edges. They were surpizingly delicate and delicious. I filed that tasty trick away.

Kale salad. After slicing  the remaining kale into thin ribbons, I tossed them with sliced watermelon radishes, golden raisens, lemon zest,  and toasted walnuts. I dressed the salad with a highly acidic fresh lemon vinaigrette and slid it into the refrigerator to macerate for 30 minutes.

Wow. The kale wilted from the salty lemon vinaigrette, leaving the leaves incredibly tender without any bitter undertones. While the sweet bits of plumped golden raisens tamed the raw watermelon radish sting,  the toasted walnuts provided additional earthy crunch.  It worked. Weird. It tasted like a wilted spinach salad collided with a tangy cole slaw. Fun.

Un-Sunday supper with re-purposed kale.

Who knew?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Storm Before The Calm

I really don't have anything against Mardi Gras. Any reason to drink, eat, and have fun gets a double thumbs up from me. Trust me. However, I spent most of the past month at work planning, prepping, and cooking for a huge Mardi Gras fundraiser held the Saturday before Fat Tuesday. After swimming in vats of creole sauce, juggling thousands of shrimp, and inhaling vast dust clouds of Cajun spices, the last thing  I wanted to indulge in was anything remotely resembling the flavors and festivities of Mardi Gras.

Last Tuesday, while most revelers washed down Cajun/creole grub with raucously potent hurricanes, we settled down in front of our flat screen tv and slurped up soothing silken  bowls of egg drop soup. Yep.

I suppose we could have ordered it from a nearby Asian restaurant, but it was simple enough to make and fun to throw together. Although preparing egg drop soup is fairly straightforward, (boil stock, add beaten egg, stir, serve) I slipped in a few tweaks and additions to elevate the soup above its standard restaurant amuse-bouche status.

 I brought 5 cups of chicken stock to a boil and reduced it to a simmer. To amp up the flavor base, I added sliced fresh ginger and whole unpeeled garlic cloves to steep in the steaming simmering stock.  While the aromatics perfumed the soup base, I whipped 3 large organic eggs until frothy, added minced fresh scallions, and set them aside. After 35 minutes, I removed the spent garlic and ginger, added a cup of cubed firm tofu,  let the stock cool, and joined Michael in the parlor for several glasses of calming chardonnay.

 The egg drop controversy. Oh, my. I discovered a litany of conflicting methods for something as simple as adding eggs to egg drop soup. Add the eggs to boiling stock?  Add the eggs to simmering stock? Stir the stock clockwise? Stir the stock counterclockwise? Drip the eggs into the stock through a colander? Drizzle them into the stock from a ladle? One method suggested pouring the beaten eggs through the tines of a fork to achieve perfectly cooked, tender, un-clumped, uniform egg ribbons.  Really?  It was soup, not a science project.

After finishing my last glass of wine, I ladled the scallion-flecked beaten eggs into a narrow-tipped squeeze bottle, (thunder clap) brought the aromatic stock to a boil, added a cornstarch slurry to slightly thicken it, removed the stock from the heat, stirred it, and drizzled the eggs into the gently swirling stocky vortex.  They cooked in seconds. Perfect.

Deep bowls of luscious egg drop soup topped with sliced scallions and red bell peppers (not traditional). For crunch, (and a nod to Fat Tuesday) I nestled fried pork-filled egg rolls with tangy sweet & sour sauce to the side of our bowls of soup.

The egg ribbons, suspended throughout the soup,  had the mouthfeel of ultra thin delicate pasta. Soft. Calming. Fabulous. I eventually put down my spoon, tipped the bowl to my lips, and drank the rest of my soup.

Mardi Gras. We traded in our beads for chopsticks, porcelain spoons, and egg drop soup.

Was it a creole cop-out? Nope. It was welcome relief from the previous days Cajun chaos.

Laissez le bon temp rouler.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Tomato Chips?

The winter farmers' market was hopping last Saturday morning. It buzzed with students from UK's Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program talking to vendors, gleaning information, and collecting memories for an on site image digitizing session. They were everywhere. The atmosphere didn't quite match  the frenzied hysteria of the outdoor market on a warm summer's day, but it was electric and great fun.

When shopping at the winter market, I usually chat and visit with all the vendors, but I'm always drawn in by the offerings from Elmwood Stock Farm. They have a knack for bringing something new, special, and surprizing to the market. Last week, they had ground corn meal, popping corn, dried beans, watermelon radishes, baby kale, organic chicken, ground turkey, and winter squash.

I was particularly smitten with tiny bags of dried tomatoes. They were gorgeous.Thinking the dried tomatoes might be similar to ordinary sundried tomatoes, I grabbed a bag. After biting into one, I knew there was nothing ordinary about them. They weren't chewy or leathery.  They were delightfully beyond crisp, crackling  with intense tomato sweetness. Tomato chips. Score.

I could have eaten the entire bag of tomato chips as a snack, but restrained myself because I had plans for them. Tart plans.

With that in mind, I had a blast tarting around the kitchen.

Using one of many standard pie dough recipes, I sifted 2 cups of flour into a food proccessor before adding 2 sticks of cubed and chilled unsalted butter, a pinch of salt, and 1/4 cup of ice water. I pulsed the ingredients until they combined before tumbling the loose dough onto a floured surface, forming it into thick round disc, covering it with plastic wrap, and sliding  it into the refrigerator to chill.

I wanted the tart dough to have a savory bent, so I clipped a few stems of snow-kissed fresh thyme from the back deck and scattered the leaves over the dough before rolling it out.  After buttering a rectangular tart pan, I snuggled the dough into the pan, trimmed the dough around the edges, lined it with parchment paper, weighted it with dried beans, and blind baked it at 350 degrees for 20 minutes before pulling it from the oven to cool.

While the tart shell cooled, I bounced around  ideas for a filling base.  Ricotta cheese? Didn't have any. Goat cheese? Had some.....tossed it.  Greek Yogurt? Uh, nope. Although I wasn't shooting for quiche, I settled on an egg base.  A thin egg base.  After cracking 3 large organic eggs into a mixing bowl, I whisked them together with 1/4 cup heavy cream, a tablespoon of minced fresh parsley, salt, pepper, and a pinch of grated nutmeg.

After scattering minced green peppers and shallots over the cooled tart dough, I carefully covered them with a thin 1/2 inch layer of the egg custard.   I smothered the eggs with a  cup of freshly grated parmigiano reggiano and nestled the tomato chips onto the cheese. To gild the lily, I dropped  bits of fresh mozzarella cheese over the tomatoes before finishing with tiny leaves of fresh thyme.

I baked the tart for 35 minutes at 350 degrees, pulled it from the oven to rest for 5 minutes, sliced it into wedges, and served it alongside baby arugula lightly tossed with a simple meyer lemon vinaigrette.

For some ridiculous reason, I fully expected the tomato chips to float on top of the thick layer of parmigiano cheese and remain  crisp. Nope. As the cheese melted into the herbed-seasoned egg custard, it bubbled up around the brittle tomatoes, rehydrating them until they exuded an insanely concentrated tomato essence throught the tart. Bathed with oozing  mozzarella and nutty parmigiano cheeses, the transformed  tangy sweet tomato chips exploded with flavor, awakening sleepy sweet memories of summer garden fresh tomatoes. 

Happy accident.


Thursday, February 9, 2012


I've been laid up with a bad back for the past couple of weeks. It's been manageable as long as I'm not standing, sitting, sleeping, cooking, walking, coughing, or laughing. Joy. Thankfully, I'm between special events at work, so the cooking load has been light. Unfortunately, I haven't cooked much at home, either. Michael has stepped up to the plate by preparing most of our meals.  He's a great cook. His tacos, meatloaf, chili, and pot roast are amazing. One day last week, he texted me asking about making lasagna. "How about I make lasagna? Sound good?", he wrote. "Don't go to a lot of trouble", I replied. His response? "Will do an easy one one."

I came home from work and found  Fresh Market bags strewn all over the kitchen countertops.  His easy lasagna turned into a day long love affair with cooking. Bliss.  Perfectly cooked al dente lasagna noodles lightly bathed in Scarpetta Marinara sauce, dotted with  fresh basil, Italian sausage, ricotta cheese, and parmigiano reggianno oozed with melted fresh mozzarella cheese. It was brilliant. It made me happy.  Play hurt.

I was still gimpy last Saturday, but we managed to schlepp down to the winter market to pick up a few black radishes and a gallon Chaney's whole milk. Simple task.  They had neither. When I asked about the black radishes, I was told that someone had beaten me by a nose and bought the entire stock of  ugly black radishes.  Really?  Weird.

We loaded our bags with turnips, sweet potatoes, onions, salsa, cabbage, jam cake, and a lone pear ginger raspberry scone before heading home.

Last night, after T-minus lasagna day 4, I hobbled back into the kitchen to throw  together a simple week night  supper.  I thought about making  turnip soup with sweet potato dumplings. I thought about it for a nanosecond.....until my culinary insanity gene kicked in.  Why settle for sweet potato dumplings when I could stuff them, fry them, and glaze them with maple syrup-infused red eye gravy? I had clearly lost my mind.

I poured myself a huge glass of wine and had a ball.

 I baked 2 sweet potatoes for an hour in a 350 oven until they were soft and tender. When they were cool enough to handle, I scraped the orange potato flesh into a mixing bowl before adding an equal amount of flour, 1 egg, salt, and pepper. After kneading the sweet potao dough until the flour was incorperated, I pinched off dough sections, formed them into golf ball-sized dumpling balls, and stuffed them.......with minced leftover barbecued pork  and mascarpone cheese. Yup.

I cranked the deep fryer to 375 degrees,  coated the stuffed balls with  egg wash, rolled them through seasoned panko bread crumbs flecked with fresh chives, and  carefully dropped them into the hot oil to fry until golden brown. As each batch browned, I slid them into a warm oven to hold.

The barbecued pork and mascarpone cheese stuffed sweet potato balls needed a sauce. I'm a saucy kind of guy. To gild the lily,  I sauteed shaved country ham slices in butter until they crisped and caramelized. After removing the ham candy to drain on paper towels, I deglazed the skillet with 1 cup of strong coffee before adding 1 tablespoon of brown sugar, 2 tablespoons of pure maple syrup, orange zest, and snipped chives. After the molten mocha madness bubbled,  reduced and thickened, I pulled it from the heat to cool.

After tossing the fried country ham back into the gooey maple-red eye gravy suace/glaze, I plated the cheesy pork filled balls and covered them with sticky the sauce.

Pork with pork. Double pork.

To counter the rich maple mocha pork sweet potato insanity, I whipped steamed tangy turnips into clouds and served them over sauteed turnip greens with crisp sliced red bell peppers for wet freshness.

Crunchy barbecued pork-filled sweet potato balls drizzled with maple-infused  red eye gravy, topped with grassy fresh chives on a bed of caramelized salty sauteed country ham.