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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Bread and Butter

I'm a fool for bread puddings, so when I snagged a few gorgeous baby leeks from Elmwood Stock Farm I was downright giddy about whipping up a batch of Thomas Keller's savory Leek Bread Pudding. Whether they're sweet or savory, bread puddings seem fairly straightforward. Bread. Cream. Eggs. Stuff. Piece of cake, right?  The bread base for Keller's bread pudding was his recipe for brioche. Yep. Brioche. Butter bread. With tons of butter and eggs, brioche is bread pretending to be pastry. What the hell,  I embraced the madness.

Two days later, (after mixing the dough, proofing it for 3 hours, punching it down, chilling it it overnight, molding it into loaf pans, proofing it for an additional 3 hours, brushing it with egg wash, and baking it for 45 minutes) I had two small loaves of brioche.

The  leek bread pudding didn't happen. Overkill. My two-day romp with Keller hit the proverbial wall, so I scrapped it and re-purposed everything for a riff on onion soup. I reserved one of the buttery loaves and threw the rest of the bread into the freezer for Thanksgiving stuffing.

Michael and I both love traditional French Onion soup. It's hard to resist bowls of deeply caramelized onions simmered in a beefy red wine-infused stock topped with croutons and melted gruyere cheese. That being said, I wanted to lighten it up a bit.

Leek Soup.
Stock. Chicken stock felt like the way to go with the delicate baby leeks. After thawing hoarded chicken parts from the freezer, I tossed them into stock pot with chopped onions, carrots, celery, green peppercorns, bay leaves, fresh parsley, lovage, and thyme. I filled the pot with water, brought it to a boil, reduced it to simmer, and let it gently rip for 4 hours.

Leeks. I trimmed the leeks by removing the dark green stalks and root ends. Not wanting to waste anything, I tossed the sliced dark leek ends into the stock pot to fortify the leekiness of the stock. After slicing the leeks as thinly as possible, I rinsed them well and patted them dry. I melted 3 tablespoons of butter in a dutch oven, added a drizzle of olive oil, and tumbled the leeks into the pot. When pale rings started to sizzle, I showered them with salt, turned the flame to low, and simmered them for 2 hours.  Every 20 minutes or so, I stirred the leeks and skimmed the scum from the stock.

Brioche Croutons. While the stock and leeks mindlessly simmered away on the back of the stove top, I sliced the brioche loaf and used a biscuit cutter to create 2 inch round croutons. After brushing them with melted butter, I sprinkled them with sea salt, and slid them into a 350 oven to toast for about 15 minutes.

When the leeks collapsed into tender pulp, I pulled them from the heat to cool.
After 4 hours, I strained the stock through a cheesecloth-lined colander, quickly cooled the stock in an ice bath, removed the fat, and set it aside.

Soup. I re-warmed the leeks over a medium flame. When they started to spit and stick, I deglazed the pot with 1/3 cup sherry and let it reduce to a glaze before adding the chicken stock.

After simmering the soup for 45 minutes, I ladled it into 2 crocks, floated the brioche croutons on top, and smothered them with grated Boone Creek Creamery Smoked Gruyere cheese before sliding the bowls under a preheated broiler. When the cheese  browned, I pulled the soup bowls from the oven and finished them with a scattering of fresh thyme.

It's funny how things can spin on a dime.
Weighed down by the mounds of melted gruyere, the fragile brioche croutons disintegrated in the gelatinous stock and absorbed  the leeky broth. As the smoked nutty cheese collapsed into the swollen mix, it swirled through the suspended leeks and puffed croutons. Within seconds, the bread, broth, cheese, and leeks plumped into a wonderfully wet accidental riff on leek bread pudding.

Full circle.
Go figure.

Friday, November 15, 2013


When it comes to Thanksgiving, I gave up trying to reinvent the wheel. I've mucked up quite a few Thanksgiving staples attempting to reinterpret our favorite family stuffings and side dishes. I won't even mention what I've done to countless turkeys over the years. There was no limit to my insanity. Lessons learned. Some things should be left alone.

Nowadays, we keep things simple and honest.  In the end, it's about remembering our families with the food that we  love.  That being said, on Thanksgiving, Michael has to have his stuff and I have to have mine. When combined, we have enough food for a small army. An army of two. Booya. While we keep the non-negotiable big ticket items rooted in tradition, we leave wiggle room for the bonus stuff. The unexpected extras. We've never been sticklers for the green stuff on Thanksgiving, so we'll mix things up from year to year by throwing together quick steamed broccoli with hollandaise, skillet roasted green beans with fried shallots, buttered green peas, or brussels sprouts. While those play second fiddle to the heavy hitters (in our world), the green stuff is always a nice respite from the array of oranges, grays, and browns. Balance.

Brussels sprouts. You either love them or hate them. We love them. Most people are turned off by the sulfuric taste of mushy overcooked brussles sprouts. When prepared properly, they're nutty, sweet, versatile, and sensational. Whether shaved into salads, deep fried, shredded into slaw, or oven roasted to bring out their inherent sweet nuttiness, brussels sprouts are no longer culinary wallflowers. They're the sophisticated belles of the ball.

Brussels sprouts just might be the perfect Thanksgiving side dish. However they're prepared, they deliver just enough fantastic cruciferous  funk to perk up the savory richness of everything else on the table.

It's hard to resist stalks of fresh brussels sprouts. When I ran across a few nestled on crushed ice in a basket at Good Foods Market and Cafe, I knew I hit the vegetable jackpot.

Oven Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Prosciutto with Pomegranate Molasses.
With a little forethought, they were a cinch to prepare. Because I have a tendency to get ahead of myself when roasting things together with different cook times, I stepped back and decided to add the ingredients in layers. I've burned my share of onions and scorched plenty of roasting pans with sheer impatience. Trust me. Ask Michael. We have a pot graveyard in the garage.

Using a small paring knife, I snipped the sprouts from the woody stalk. I sliced the larger sprouts (from the bottom of the stalk) in half and left the smaller ones whole.  After tossing them with olive oil, I seasoned them with salt and pepper before tumbling them into a large cast iron skillet.

Brussels sprouts caramelize better and cook faster with high heat, so I slid them into a preheated 375 degree oven to roast for 40 minutes. After 15 minutes minutes, I added 2 sliced purple candy onions from Elmwood Stock Farm and returned the skillet to the oven.  15 minutes later, I pulled the brussels sprouts from the oven and deglazed the hot skillet with a 1/4 cup homemade chicken stock.

When the stock reduced, I drizzled 2 tablespoons of tart pomegranate molasses over the sprouts, gave them a quick toss, draped torn pieces of prosciutto around the glazed vegetables, and slid the skillet back into the oven for 10 minutes to crisp the prosciutto.

After allowing the caramelized brussels sprouts to cool for a bit, I finished them off with a scattering of fresh pomegranate seeds and delicate Long Valley Organics radish micro greens.

Here's the deal,  pomegranate molasses is a misleading misnomer. We tend to think of typical molasses as a wonderfully thick sticky sweet syrupy goo. While pomegranate molasses has the sticky part down, it's  incredibly tart with dark sweet undertones. Combined with the saltiness of the reduced stock, it created a soft slightly acidic tart glaze.

Nutty. Sweet. Tart. Intense. Mellowed by the high heat, the charred brussels sprouts were both crisp and tender. As the crisped prosciutto melted through the soft sprouts, the salty fat tempered the subtle sassy tang of the glaze and countered the vibrant wet crunch of the pomegranate seeds. Killer.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


I tasted my first bite of spoonbread years ago when Michael and I had dinner at Historic Boone Tavern in Berea, Kentucky. I had just moved back to Kentucky from New York City to live with the boy of my dreams in a small townhouse apartment located a few blocks from downtown Richmond. Nestled on a steep embankment surrounded by a sea of pavement, the apartment had ample parking and a tiny deck overlooking Interstate 75. With romantic innocence, we simply pretended that the relentless roar of the interstate traffic sounded like continuous crashing ocean waves. High tide all the time. Cozy.

There wasn't much to do in Richmond circa 1985. We were both college graduates living on the cheap in a college town. Aside from sunbathing on our asphalt beach (drinks in tow), date nights at Ponderosa Steakhouse, or occasional trips to Lexington for late night drag shows at Johnny Angel's Disco, we spent  most our free days driving around the rolling back roads of Madison and Estill Counties. Windows down. Music blaring. Trips to nowhere. On one particular drive, after hiking up the pinnacles of Indian Fort Mountain just outside of Berea, we passed Boone Tavern and thought it would be great fun to live large and return for a sampling of their classic southern fare. Reservations? Check. Jackets? Nope. Back in the day, Boone Tavern had a dress code. Gentlemen were required to wear jackets at dinner. Period.  If anyone arrived without one, they were invited to browse through their lovely complementary selection. I didn't have a jacket. As a transplanted New Yorker, I landed in Kentucky with a lone suitcase filled with Andy Hardy-esque cuffed baggy pants, skinny ties, weird dress shirts, and saddle oxfords. Yep.

Undaunted by my hip hapless wardrobe, we arrived  for dinner. After rifling through the complementary jacket closet, I dressed like a wayward clown and joined Michael for dinner in the old dining room of Historic Boone Tavern. Within minutes, a student-server glided by our table offering dollops of fluffy souffle-like spoonbread with butter. I have no idea what else I ate that night. It was all about the light and airy spoonbread. Swallowed in my ill-fitted borrowed jacket that certainly didn't match my saddle oxfords, the spoonbread got to me.

Spoonbread is totally southern. Cornmeal. Eggs. Milk. Butter. Humble ingredients. It's like a crazy cross between cornbread, souffle, and savory corn pudding. It's like nothing else. Spoonebread is simply spoonbread. There are countless variations.  Some folks like to gussy it up with various add-ins. Sometimes, less is more.

I went the less-is-more route. I wanted the real deal. I wanted the one served to Michael and me several years ago under the painted watchful gaze of Daniel Boone at his namesake tavern, so I went straight to the source. Served as an appetizer or southern amuse before every meal, Boone Tavern has been kicking out killer honest spoonbread for decades. It's what diners remember and crave. Richard Hougen, restaurant manager of Boone Tavern for over 30 years, compiled regional Kentucky dishes and his restaurant favorites in three cookbooks, including the recipe for spoonbread.

Boone Tavern Southern  Spoonbread.
3 Cups Milk
1 1/4 Cups White Cornmeal
3 Eggs
1 Teaspoon salt
1 3/4 Teaspoons Baking Powder
2 Tablespoons Butter

Stir meal into rapidly boiling milk. Cook until very thick, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. The mixture will be very stiff. Add well-beaten eggs, salt, baking powder, and melted butter. Beat with an electric mixture  for 15 minutes.  Pour into well-greased pan and bake at 375 degrees for 20-30 minutes. Serve from pan by spoonful with butter.
        Look No Further - Richard T. Hougen

It was fairly straightforward. I boiled the milk, added Weisenberger Mills unbolted plain white cornmeal, stirred it into a thick cornmeal mush, let it cool, added the remaining ingredients, and beat it with hand mixer for 15 minutes. Here's the deal, beating anything for 15 minutes seemed ridiculous. Determined to follow through, I actually attached my hand mixture to an extension cord, sat on the couch, and watched football while I mixed the spoonbread ingredients.

During the first 10 minutes of beating, I was very tempted to toss in snipped chives or cheese because it seemed downright boring. After 15 minutes, the weirdest thing happened.  The mixture transformed from a grainy cornbread texture into a silken batter.  I didn't want to muck it up with extra stuff, so I poured it into a well buttered dish and slid it into a preheated 375 degree oven to bake for 30 minutes.

When I pulled the puffed spoonbread from the oven, it deflated immediately. I slathered the top with 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter, cracked it open with a large spoon, let the butter slowly ooze into the center, and spooned dollops onto small serving plates.

Spoonbread butter bombs.
Just as I remembered.
No jacket required.

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Late One

A late One. Ale-8-One. Ale-8. Whatever you call it, the local soft drink owned by the same family and bottled by The Ale 8 Bottling Company down the road in Winchester, Ky since 1926 is a beloved homegrown Kentucky icon. Flavored with citrusy ginger undertones, the Bluegrass favorite contains less fizz, a bit more caffeine, and fewer calories than most other soft drinks. It's great straight out of the bottle or spiked with bourbon over ice. When taken out of its drinkable comfort  zone, Ale-8-One is a fantastic ingredient.

Bourbon & Ale-8-One Braised Short Ribs.
I love short ribs. With a little prep, they practically cook themselves. Season. Sear. Braise. Like a lazy Sunday pot roast, short ribs are very forgiving. For a wine guzzling forgetful cook like myself, short ribs are the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free cards. They're impossible to mess up.

Typically, I braise short ribs with mirepoix in red wine and beef stock.  When braised for hours, the burgundy stained ribs collapse  into sultry shreds of wine-infused meat candy. Perfect. Classic. That being said, I wanted to shake things up a bit, so I used the same method with different ingredients for an unconventional rustic riff on the classic braise.

Mise en Place.
Doubled mirepoix.
Carrots. Onions. Celery. Parsnips.
For the braising mirepoix, I peeled and quartered 1 bunch of rainbow carrots (reserved half), chopped 3 stalks of celery into 2" batons, diced a large candy onion, peeled whole Madison County baby parsnips(reserved 4), and smashed 3 unpeeled cloves of garlic before setting them aside.

For the finishing mirepoix, I combined the reserved carrots and parsnips with a pint of peeled pearl onions. Oh sure, pearl onions are pesky and impossible to peel, but they're also fabulous. While there are fussier methods for peeling them, I simply snipped off the root ends, tossed them into salted boiling water for 4 minutes, rinsed them under cold water, and slipped the tender onions from their tough outer  skins.

I took a little wine break and cranked the oven to 350 degrees.

Braise on.
After liberally seasoning 3 gorgeous slabs of grass fed short ribs with salt and pepper, I seared them on all sides until they were well browned to create a great crust, seal the meat, and render the fat. After 15 minutes, I removed the ribs to a side plate, drained off the fat, added a drizzle of olive oil, and sauteed the uncooked carrots, onions, celery and garlic until they were tender, about 10 minutes. As an homage to my Bourbon Cooking School stint at The Kentucky Bourbon Festival, I cranked the heat to high, deglazed the pot with 1 cup of  Bulleit bourbon and let it reduce to a smoky amber glaze before adding 2 bottles of Ale-8-One.

When the liquid came to a simmer, I added canned  hand-crushed whole San Marzano tomatoes, 2 cups chicken stock, and a gorgeous knob of impossibly fresh Casey County ginger. I brought  the soda-infused stock to a boil, tossed in 3 large fresh bay leaves along with a bundled  bouquet garni (fresh parsley, rosemary, thyme, and lovage), sealed the lid with foil, and slid the pot into a preheated 350 degree oven.

While the ribs braised, I blanched the reserved carrots, onions, and parsnips until they were fork tender before shocking them in an ice bath to stop the cooking process.

The aromas wafting through the house were distracting. Intoxicating. I could taste the air as the invisible flavors dripped down the fogged kitchen windows.

After 3 hour hours, I carefully pulled the lacquered ribs from the intensely reduced sauce, slid them onto a plate, and covered them with foil. After skimming the fat from the sauce, I strained the sauce through a fine mesh strainer, pressing the solids through the strainer for extra texture and flavor. I ladled a cup of sauce into a small cast iron skillet, added the blanched vegetables, seasoned them with  black pepper, and simmered them over a low flame.

I returned the sauce to the dutch oven, added the ribs, and placed them back into the oven to warm through. After basting the ribs until they were sealed with layers of the rich mahogany-hued sauce,  I carefully nestled the jiggly meat onto beds of cooked spaetzle, haphazardly scattered the vegetables to the side, and  finished with a perky  fresh horseradish, parsley, and lemon/lime gremolata.

Whether we drink it
or eat it, cheers to you, Mr. Wainscott.