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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Great Balls Of Fire

Yep, I did it again.

After spending a long hot day at the pool last weekend, Michael and I kicked off the outdoor grilling season with a bang.  The thrill of the grill.

I cubed a small veal shoulder chop before threading the pieces onto soaked wooden skewers with alternating layers of  sliced Sugar Ann sugar snap peas and sliced red bell peppers. After whisking 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt, pepper, fresh thyme, rosemary, and lemon zest, I  poured the marinade over the skewers before  sliding them into the refrigerator to marinate for a few hours.

Grilled Vegetables? Armed with a bundle of market produce, I kept it simple.  Very simple. I sliced four small baby fennel bulbs into quarters, keeping the root ends intact. After peeling four candy onions and removing the dried tips, I sliced them in half before tossing them with the fennel, quartered roma tomatoes, olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Usually, Michael  lights  the fire when we grill outdoors because I tend to overdo things a wee little bit.  I'm one of those guys....buckets of coals doused with a lot of charcoal fluid. Yep. Big. Bigger. Biggest. Best.

For some reason, after prepping everything for our little cookout, I meandered out onto the back deck, and forgot our unspoken rule.

I lit the grill. 

Fire in the hole.
Raging inferno.
We had fire.

While waiting for the flaming fury to die down, I brought the veal skewers to room temperature. When the coals were ready, I carefully placed the vegetables cut side down over the hottest part of the grill. Within minutes, the vegetables melted from the heat. After turning them several times until they were gorgeously charred and caramelized, I wrapped them in aluminum foil to keep warm on the cooler side of the grill.

I filled a chilled pint glass with a crisp chardonnay, pulled a comfy deck chair near the glowing coals, and nestled the kabobs onto the grill. Sip. Baste. Turn. Repeat. Simple.  After 18 minutes, the veal kabobs were  a tender pinkish medium with bits of soft char.  I pulled them from the heat and tented them to  rest for 10 minutes.

While the meat rested, I whipped together a quick sauce by melting 2 tablespoons of butter in a small sauce pan. When the butter sizzled, I added  1/4 cup marsala wine, 1/2 cup chicken stock, and a splash of fresh lemon juice. I brought the sauce to a boil, turned it down to a simmer, and  reduced it by half.

I swirled the sauce onto our plates before stacking the skewers with  a scattering of  fresh julienned red peppers for bursts of freshness. After pulling the silken fennel, onions, and tomatoes from the grill, I tumbled them over nutty rosemary-flecked quinoa, finishing with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

Delicate, lean, and  tender, the veal  provided  a subtle background to the intensely sweet grilled vegetables. Meat on the grill.  The reason for the season, right? Almost. Yeah, the veal was fantastic, but the caramelized baby fennel bulbs, candy onions, and tomatoes changed the game. Prime time vegetables. Big hitters. Tinged with a slight char, their natural sweetness deepened from the smoke and heat, transforming them into soft bites of smoky anise-flavored vegetable jam. 

We ditched our forks and ate with our fingers, peeling the fennel layers apart and swiping them through the puddled sauce to use as wraps. Fennel-wrapped veal. Tomato-wrapped onions. Onion-wrapped quinoa.

Unintentional finger food.
Sticky, messy,
and fun.


Monday, May 21, 2012

Beam Me Up

Although I've always been fascinated  with the extraterrestial  features of fresh kohlrabi, I've never given it much thought. When I see it at the market, I'll toss it a quick glance before turning my head and attention to the normal looking vegetables.

Kohlrabi is a bulbous stemmed vegetable with leafy stalks protruding from willowy edible tentacles. It's a weird and beautiful vegetable. Both graceful and clunky. A vegetable that wants to dance, but has no dance card. Nestled between gorgeous spring asparagus, fluttering lettuces, herbs, and other more interesting vegetables, kohlrabi seems to be the market wallflower. Overlooked. Passed over. Dismissed.  Not anymore. Not for me, anyway. Last weekend, on a whim, I finally bagged a couple of  freakish alien-like Elmwood Stock kohlrabi bulbs.

A few nights ago, I surprized Michael with one of his favorite meals when he returned from a short business trip.  Turkey with dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce? Nope. That wasn't going to happen on a week night. When he walked through the front door, every nook and cranny of our cranky old house smelled like oven-braised  St. Louis-style ribs smothered in smoky sweet barbecue sauce.

I needed a tangy slaw to counter the rich meatiness of the ribs. 

Kohlrabi, welcome to the dance.

Kohlrabi Slaw.
After snipping the arms from the bulbs, I peeled the skin with a vegetable peeler. I expected the flesh to be dry and hard like turnips, but they were incredibly juicy. Juicy and tender, like apples.  They tasted like a cross between mild turnips, apples, jicama, and water chestnuts. Wow. Who knew? 

I suppose I could have grated the kohlrabi, but chose  the mandolin for uniform julienned pieces. I carefully sliced the kohlrabi (using the hand guard) into delicate shreds, shaved baby fennel bulbs into thin slices, and tossed them into a large bowl.  For texture and sweetness, I added a small julienned carrot and thinly sliced spring radishes. After giving the slaw a quick toss, I slid the  mix into the refigerator to chill.

Knowing the ribs would be unctuous and sticky,  I wanted to balance the fatty  richness with a bright acidic slaw.  I combined 1/4 cup fresh lime juice ( about 3 limes),  3 tablespoons local honey, 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice, salt, and cracked pepper. After whisking the honey into the fresh juices, I slowly  added 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil to emulsify the vinaigrette.  I set the dressing aside, poured myself a huge glass of chardonnay, and joined Michael in the parlor to chat. 

After a few glasses of wine (or more), I pulled the ribs from the oven, sliced them into double rib portions, slathered them with the pan juices, and stacked them onto two ridiculously large plates.

I quickly tossed the kohlrab slaw with the honey-lime vinaigrette and twirled the ribbons into individual bowls. After tumbling raw shaved baby beets to the side, I finished the slaw with a dusting of  citrusy sumac.

Tangy. Tart. Crisp. Refreshing.  The sassy kohlrabi slaw spanked the sleepy meat awake with crunchy mouthwatering wetness.  Perfect.

Kohlrabi, nice to meet you. 

Thanks for the lap dance. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Back In The Saddle

It's been an interesting few days. Things were going great until our gas oven suddenly stopped working. Dead. Apparently, the igniter switch....blah, blah, blah. The following night, I stupidly left my camera outside the rain. There was no joy in Mudville.

Luckily, I'd made a quick trip to the Tuesday/Thursday  farmers' market one morning before work and picked up a few heads of gorgeous Jessamine County bibb lettuce and a bundle of spring radishes. I also snagged a pint of Madison County strawberries, but ate them all during the short two block drive to work. Warm and juicy, my fingers were stained pink for most of the day.

While we waited for our oven to be fixed, Michael and I feasted on carry-out food, pizza delivery, and salads.

Although it took a few days, our oven was repaired and I replaced my camera. Back in the saddle.

After the dust settled, Michael and I had a spectacular day at the farmers' market last weekend. We went specifically  for heirloom  tomato plants. We ended up with eight varieties of Henkle's Herbs and Heirlooms tomato plants,  Elmwood Stock farm kohlrabi, Cleary Hill Farm baby fennel, Casey County baby squash, Lexington Pasta Company gnoochi, Hoot Holler Farm dill, Fresh Bluegrass Chevre chive-fleck goat cheese, and an expensive very small 2 pound Elmwood fresh  whole organic chicken. Crazy. Exhausted, we stopped for a quick cocktail at nearby patio bar, loaded our loot into the car, drove home, and went back to bed. Saturday night supper?  Cold leftover pizza. With a lot of wine. Fancy.

With a chilly rain spitting through the trees and fogging our windows, Sunday was a perfect day to piddle around the kitchen.

Sunday Supper.
I didn't want to fuss with trussing our little chicken,  so I spatchcocked the tiny bird by cutting out the backbone, (it went into the freezer with other parts) flipping it over, and pressing it flat. I sliced it down the breastbone,  tucked  the legs underneath the breasts, and nestled the two pieces into a large cast iron skillet. I slathered the chicken halves with Wallace Station Bourbon Mustard, seasoned them with kosher salt and cracked black pepper, and let them rest for an hour to marinate and come to room temperature.

After adding whole peeled garlic cloves, sliced candy onions, peeled carrots, lemon slices, fresh tyhme sprigs, butter, and 1/2 cup chicken stock, I roasted the chicken in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for an hour and 20 minutes, basting it during wine refills, about every 15 minutes. During the last 20 minutes, I drizzled  pure maple syrup over the glistening meat and cranked the oven to 425 to crisp the skin.

When the chicken was wonderfully browned and caramelized, I pulled it from the oven to rest and reduced the pan juices to a glaze.

Gnoochi.  Ok. So, here's the deal.  I love making pasta.  I can make it in my sleep. Gnoochi? Not so much. Peeling, boiling, and ricing 3 pounds of potatoes before starting the dough just doesn't work for me. Yeah, I've tried it. Lexington Pasta Company produces fresh, light, airy, and pillowy gnoochi. They enjoy doing it. Enough said.

While the chicken rested to redistribute the juices, I brought of pot of water to a rolling boil, heavily salted it, and dropped the gnoochi into the bubbling bath.  When they floated to the top, I scooped them out with a spider and carefully scattered them into a hot skillet with 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter. As the butter foamed and sizzled, the gnoochi started to crisp. Before they browned, I spooned the pasta morsels onto our plates, finishing them with grated parmigiano regginano, snipped chives, paprika oil, salt, and pepper.

 After topping the chicken with  lightly dressed peppery mizuna leaves, I slid the caramelized chicken bundles next to the buttery gnoochi and tumbled  roasted carrots to the side. Covered with crackling candied skin, the chicken was incredibly tender and moist, squirting juices with every bite. It was insane. 

The soft gnoochi  balanced the savory sweet  madness of the chicken with slight smoky paprika undertones and nutty parmigiano saltiness. Ridiculous.

While the city slept, I snuck down in the middle of the night (naked) and sucked the leftover chicken down to the bones.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Best-Laid Plans...

We had big plans.

Michael and I were supposed to spend a glorious week in New York City a year ago this week. We meticulously fashioned our week around attending the James Beard Foundation Awards.  After months of planning, we had a swanky room booked at The Muse on West 46th Street, reservations at Le Bernadin, tickets for three Tony Award Nominated Broadway shows, and prime membership seats for the annual James Beard Foundation Awards and Gala hosted by Tom Colicchio at Avery Fisher Hall. We. Were. Pumped.

To further boost my anticipation for the JBF Awards, Michael had given me copies of all the James Beard Award nominated cookbooks. I had a blast reading and cooking from them while we eagerly awaited our trip. As we counted down the days on our old kitchen chalkboard, we couldn't wait to take a bite out of the Big Apple. I couldn't wait to return to my old stomping grounds. Bliss.

In the blink of an eye, everything changed.  Unfortunate circumstances forced us to abandon our plans and cancel our dream trip to New York. So, there we were. Dazed, confused, and fucked.   It was heartbreaking.

Fast forward to the present. 

We'll probably always be a bit dazed and confused, but we couldn't be happier. So, here we are a year later. It's the week before the James Beard Awards.  Our invitation to the event has long been opened, fawned over, and tossed in the trash. Hell, we knew we couldn't attend this year.  I have one JBF nominated cookbook. Michael gave me Daniel Humm's and Will Guidara's brilliant seasonal cookbook, Eleven Madison Park. Broken down by seasons, it's a beautiful book loaded with  approachable techniques.

Eleven Madison Park.

The first strawberries of the season arrived at our farmers' market last weekend. The small bright berries dotted farmstands throughout the market, but quickly disappeared. I managed to bag 2 quarts of gorgeous Elmwood Farm strawberries before they vanished.  Armed with those juicy gems, I tipped my hat  to the upcoming JBF Awards and spent a glorious day preparing Daniel Humm's inspired Spring Strawberry Gazpacho.

I followed his method to the letter.

Eleven Madison Park
Strawberry Gazpacho
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed but kept whole
1 1/2 cups whole grain bread, crusts removed,
    cut into 1-inch cubes
2 sprigs thyme
6 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered
2 1/4 cups English cucumber, peeled, seeded,
   and diced
1 1/4 cups diced red bell pepper
3/4 cups diced green bell pepper
6 tablespoons tomato juice (I used Elmwood Farm tomato juice)
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoons salt
Tabasco sauce

Heat a small saute pan over medium-high heat.  Coat the bottom with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and add 1 clove of garlic.  When the garlic begins to sizzle, add the bread cubes.  Toss occasionally until the bread begins to color, being careful not to burn.  Add the thyme and continue to toss until the bread is golden brown. Transfer to a larger bowl. Discard the garlic and thyme.
   Add the strawberries, cucumber, peppers, remaining garlic clove, remaining 1/2 cup olive oil, tomato juice, vinegar, and salt to the bowl.  Toss to combine and cover tightly with plastic wrap.  Marinate at room temperature for 3 to 6 hours. Puree the ingredients and their juices in small batches in a blender on high speed until  very smooth.  Strain through a chinois and chill in the refrigerator until very cold.  Taste and season, if necessary, with Tabasco and additional salt and pepper.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed but kept whole
2 cups diced (1/4) inch whole grain bread,
   crust removed
3 sprigs thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
Same method as above.

Strawberry Confit
16 amall strawberries, hulled and halved lengthwise
1 1/2 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil,
   plus more for storing
1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees.  Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking mat.  Toss the halved strawberries in the olive oil to coat them lightly.  Place them cut side down on the silicone mat and dust with the confectioners' sugar.  Bake for 1 1/2 hours.  Flip the strawberries and bake them for an additional 30 minutes.  The strawberries should be deep maroon and tender but still hold their shape.  Cool them on the silicone mat before storing in a flat, airtight container that has been coated with olive oil to keep them hydrated.  The confit can be made 3 days in advance and stored in the refrigerator.

To Finish
Black Pepper
Strawberry Confit
Fleur de sel
Basil (bush, opal, and flowering varieties)
1/4 pound guanciale, thinly sliced
Extra-virgin olive oil

This was no ordinary chilled sweet strawberry soup. With perfectly balanced layers,  the gazpacho was clean, crisp, and complex. While the pureed strawberries, garlic, cucumbers, and peppers grounded the flavor base, Marquesa de Valdueza olive oil jacked it up with additional fruity underlying depth.

The garnishes were key,  brilliantly bridging the gap between savory and sweet with unabashed verve. Suspended atop the silken puree, petals of purple basil, spicy bush basil, and genovese basil provided subtle anise undertones while aromatic bits of cracked tellicherry peppercorns and fleur de sel popped with stinging heat and crunch. Finished? Nope. The kicker? Almost transparent  ribbons of thinly sliced cured pork cheeks for unexpected lip-smacking fattiness.Yep.

Be still my heart.