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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Easter Eggs

I suppose I should feel somewhat embarrassed that I believed in the Easter bunny far far longer than I
believed in St. Nicholas. Understanding those major holiday icons (the big guns) while living as a kid in Austria was a bit odd. The local folks took both holidays very seriously.  In my book, it came down to their figure heads, St Nicholas and the Easter Bunny. While I loved the notion of St. Nicholas, he came with so much baggage, both literally and figuratively. Naughty. Nice. Good. Bad. Rules. On the other hand, the Easter bunny just showed up and dropped a few eggs. Done. No expectations. Pretty cool. It was no a brainer. I believed.

Easter morning. Boom. Baskets of candy, chocolate bunnies, and Easter eggs littered our living room floor. Carnage. When the hoopla settled down, Frau Olga would slip into the kitchen and quietly prepared soft boiled eggs with toasted soldiers. Perched atop white porcelain eggs cups, the warm runny yolks and jiggly soft whites oozed through the gently cracked shells and dripped into warm yellow puddles. Dip. Swipe. Lick. Repeat. Toast soldiers. Finger food. I still dream about those Easter eggs.

Soft Boiled Eggs With Toast

So, I could have gone all artisanal with the bread, but purposely kept it very simple.

Basic white bread.
After warming 1 cup milk and 1/2 cup water, I added 3 tablespoons of melted unsalted butter and 2 tablespoons sugar. When the sugar dissolved, I poured the combined liquids over 1 package of fast rising yeast and set it aside to proof. I scooped 2 cups bread flour into a stand mixer attached with a dough hook, added the gurgling yeast, and beat the mixture for 5 minutes before adding another 2 1/2 cups bread flour. I let the dough knead in the mixer for 8 minutes until it formed a loose ball. After scraping down the sides of the bowl and gathering up the dough, I plopped it onto a floured board, kneaded the dough by hand for 10 minutes, covered it with a dish towel, and let it rise for 45 minutes.
When the dough doubled in size, I punched it down and divided it in half. Working with one half at a time, I formed the dough into 10" rectangles, folded the sides into each other, and placed the two loaves (seam side down) into loaf pans. I covered the pans with dish towels and slid them aside to rise for 45-50 minutes.

After preheating the oven to 400 degrees, I brushed the tops of the loaves with an egg wash, placed an oven safe bowl filled with ice cubes onto the bottom shelf of the oven to create steam, and slid the loaves into the oven to bake for 45 minutes.

When they browned on top and sounded hollow when thumped, I pulled the loaves from the oven and transferred them to a wire rack.  When the bread cooled to room temperature, I used a serrated knife to slice the bread into 1/2" pieces and toasted them. While they were still warm, I brushed the crusts with melted butter, dusted them with ground parmigiano reggiano cheese, and sliced them 1/2" soldiers.

The great boiled egg debate. Boiled and rested, boiled, simmered, or steamed? Pick your poison. It seems everyone has the perfect solution for perfectly boiled eggs.  Of course, many factors come into play with the ultimate outcome depending on the size of the eggs, the freshness of the eggs, the degree of heat, and the desired doneness (soft, medium, or hard).

I love hard boiled eggs. While they're great for salads, deviled eggs, and snacks, I was shooting for the warm goo of  soft boiled eggs.  After filling the bottom of a small sauce pan with 3/4" cold water, I brought the water to a boil, lowered large Elmwood Stock Farm organic eggs into the water, cover the pan, and let the eggs steam/poach for exactly 5 1/2 minutes before pulling them from the heat and running them under cold water.

To brighten things up a bit, I tossed a few spring greens, fried capers, and fresh herbs with a light lemon vinaigrette. After tumbling the salad to the side of the toasts, I tucked the soft boiled eggs into egg cups, used an egg-topper to snap open the eggs, sprinkled the yolks with cracked black pepper, and finished with delicate sprigs of fresh dill.

Easter eggs.
Toast the yolks.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Sprouts Revisted

Roasted. Sauteed. Hashed. Shaved. Chilled. Deep Fried. Stewed. Steamed. Broiled. Boiled. Skewered.

I think I've done everything possible to brussels sprouts except shellac a few to make bauble bracelets and clip-on earrings. Well, almost everything. There's always a riff up the proverbial sleeve. Some things can always be reimagined or tweaked.  The more I thought about it, the more jazzed I got about riffing on one of my own riffs. Why not take something I love and turn it upside down? My current go-to brussels sprouts crazy involves everything that's good and right with this world: gorgonzola cheese, sherry, chicken stock, shallots, heavy cream, and thick cut bacon. That was my starting point. Enough said. Game on.

Pureed Brussels Sprouts Soup with Gorgonzola Mousse and Crisped Prosciutto.
Pretty basic stuff.
I trimmed and quartered a pound of brussels sprouts (reserving a handful of leaves). After heating a cast iron skillet over a medium high flame, I drizzled the skillet with olive oil and tossed the brussels sprouts into the sizzling hot skillet.  When the sprouts started to caramelize, I added a minced shallot, 2 smashed roasted garlic cloves, salt, and cracked black pepper. Just before the shallots charred in the hot oil, I deglazed the pan with 1/2 cup sherry and let the sherry reduce by half before adding 1 cup heavy cream.  When the sherry-infused cream thickened, I added 2 cups chicken stock, brought the stock to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, covered the skillet, and simmered the sprouts until they were fork tender, about 7-8 minutes.

Using an immersion blender, I carefully blitzed the tender brussels sprouts, cream, and stock before returning the puree back to the skillet. After melting 3 ounces of crumbled gorgonzola cheese into hot puree, I added a bit more stock to loosen it up, and slid the skillet over a very low flame.

Gorgonzola Mousse.
I love this stuff. While downright perfect with this soup, it's also fantastic served alongside crisp pear chips or dolloped onto endive leaves with halved grapes.

I creamed  4 ounces of room temperature gorgonzola with 1 tablespoon of local clover honey and set it aside.  I poured 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream into a well chilled bowl and used a crappy handheld mixer to whip the cream into soft peaks. After folding the honey-sweetened creamed gorgonzola into the soft cream, I finished whipping the combo until it tightened and formed firm peaks.

Crisped Prosciutto.
There had to be pig. Brussels sprouts beg for bacon or prosciutto. Pick your poison. While I'm crazy for both, a crisped prosciutto garnish lends an incredible salty crackle that bacon can't deliver. Period. Ever. On top of that, it's so simple and quick to throw together.  I placed 3 paper thin sheets of prosciutto onto a sheet pan and slid them into a preheated 350 degree oven to bake for about 15 minutes. Done. Salty pig chips.

Soup's on.
After reheating the creamy puree (without boiling), I topped the soup with broken shards of prosciutto, quenelles of gorgonzola mousse, and snipped chives before finishing with deep fried sprouts tossed in a Sriracha vinaigrette. Yep.

Changed up a bit, the pureed soup had all the familiar trappings and flair of the original dish. Without the obvious bites of whole or halved brussels sprouts, the  pureed sprouts packed the same earthy punch in a softer way. As the whipped mousse melted into the warm velvety puree, it lightened the soup with airy hints of mild gorgonzola that countered the intense meaty crunch of the crisped prosciutto. While the chives provided grassy freshness, the deep fried Sriracha-laced sprout leaves added delicate fiery heat.

Sprouts revisited.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Lucky Pie

It happens every year.

After several hours of banging back Guinness pints with Jameson Irish Whiskey chasers, Michael and I always find ourselves stranded on a street-side curb waiting for the annual St. Patrick's Day parade to pass us by.  Stranded and hungry. Here's the deal, we don't really ignore the blatant opportunities surrounding us to chow down on Irish fare. On St. Patrick's Day, practically every bar and restaurant hawks variations of Irish Stew, Corned Beef and Cabbage, Reuben Sandwiches, or Shepherd's Pie. While food is everywhere, the day gets a wee bit complicated. During the frenzy leading up to the parade, our resolve to eat something and pace ourselves dissolves into the foam of endless rounds of beer or the melting salt of bright green margaritas.  Would you like something to eat? Hell no, wrap me up in a green feather boa topped off with a glittery leprechaun hat. Shiny clip-on tinsel hair? Yes, please. And while you're at it, I'll have another beer. Or margarita.  And so it goes. Before we know it, the haunting drone of echoing bagpipes always lures us down to the parade route.

Year after year, there we are,  trapped on a random sidewalk (far far away from the mere aroma of food) surrounded by happy families, drunken parade goers, bagpipe pipers, prancing horses, local bands, funny cars, and over enthusiastic scary clowns. Trapped and starving. What's a boy to do? This year, I might skip the parade, rent a little pushcart, and wander through the crowded revelers peddling little Shepherd's Pie Portable  hand pies. Cue music. Who will buy my hot savory pies? Such a pie I never did see. Think about it. Munchies for the merry masses. St. Thomas, the Pie Bearer.

Savory Irish Pies.
Not to be confused with Irish Pasties, the batter-dipped deep fried meat pies sold throughout Northern Ireland in fish and chips shops, Shepherd's Pies  (lamb) and Cottage Pies (beef) are fabulous common casserole dishes composed of various meats, vegetables, and potatoes.  Minced or braised meat? Sliced or mashed potatoes? Peas and/or carrots? It doesn't really matter. Whatever combination, they're nearly impossible to muck up.

Shepherd's Pie Hand Pies.
A fun little riff on shepherd's pie.

The Filling.
To accommodate the smallish nature of the pies, I finely diced 3 carrots and 4 stalks of celery (slightly larger than an 1/8 " brunoise). After trimming the roots and green ends off of 2 medium leeks, I split the white sections in half, gave them a good rinse, and sliced them into very thin half moons. Working over a medium high flame, I sauteed the vegetables until they started to sweat before adding 2 smashed roasted garlic cloves. As the tender leeks took on a bit of color, I scooped the vegetables onto a side plate and tumbled 1 pound of Four Hills Farm ground lamb into the skillet.

I used a wooden spoon to break up the ground lamb and let it brown for a few minutes before adding 2 tablespoons of tomato paste, 1 tablespoon dry mustard, 1 heaping tablespoon smoked paprika, salt, and cracked black pepper.  After swirling the spiced tomato paste throughout  the browned lamb, I let it toast to deepen the flavor. When the brick-colored lamb started to caramelize, I deglazed the skillet with 1 cup Guinness, 2 cups beef stock, and 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce. I tossed 2 bay leaves along with a handful of fresh thyme stems into the mix, brought it to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, and let it rip for 45 minutes, stirring during wine refills.

When the highly aromatic lamb concoction reduced and thickened, I added 1 cup of peas and pulled the skillet from the heat to cool.

The Pie.
While store bought pie dough would have been fine, I had the stuff to throw together a very basic pie dough. I sifted  2 1/2 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon sugar into a food processor, added 16 sliced tablespoons of very cold unsalted butter, pulsed the mix a few times until it crumbled, added 1/4 cup ice water, and pulsed it again for a split second to pull the dough together. I scooped the dough out of the processor, divided it in half, patted it into two discs, wrapped the discs in plastic wrap, and slid them into the refrigerator to chill.

After 25-30 minutes, I floured a large cutting board and rolled the dough into two 1/8" rounds. I used a 3" fluted cookie cutter to lightly score the bottom crust and mark the shapes.  After brushing the scored edges with an egg wash, I spooned dollops of leftover mashed potatoes onto the scored pastry circles and nestled heaping tablespoons of the filling into the potatoes before showering the tops with extra sharp white cheddar cheese. So, instead of trying to crimp together individual pastry pies like empanadas, I draped the second pastry sheet over the first sheet, tapped around the mounded fillings to squeeze out any excess air, and used the cookie cutter to stamp through both layers to seal them together with clean edges. I brushed the little pies with the remaining egg wash, scattered sea salt over the tops, and slid them into a preheated 425 degree oven to bake for 35 minutes. When the pies were beautifully browned, I pulled them from the oven, transferred them to a wire rack, and finished with flash-fried thyme leaves.

Cracked open, the filling spilled and oozed from the steaming pies. Tucked inside the buttery crisp shells, the mild malty bitterness of the  Guiness-infused beef stock  tempered the slight gaminess of the ground lamb. While the vegetables added subtle sweetness, the flaky salt provided a clean crunch that countered the soft earthy tang of the melted sharp white cheddar cheese. Fabulous.

Little lucky hand pies.

Bring on the bagpipes.