Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Staging a wine tasting any time soon?

'Cause I am. If you happen to have any winemaker friends, maybe you'd like to do the same. It's great way to help them move merch before the holidays. And it's also a great excuse to eat all afternoon and justify your nonstop nibbling as a "palate cleansing" necessity.

Some of you longtime loyalists may remember my mention of Stark wines from a very early posting. This weekend, I’m hosting a wine tasting for those very same Starks to showcase their newest vintages, including 2 syrahs and 2004 viognier.

I’m still dreaming up the menu selections, so let me know if I’m overlooking some obvious, must-have accompaniments. Right now, I’m considering the following:

For the Syrah

5-spice Chinese riblets
Mushrooms with sage & sherry stuffing
Lamb sausages with mustard
Rosemary roasted nuts
Spanish olives marinated in citrus & spices

For the Viognier

Roasted figs stuffed with chevre & drizzled with honey
Manouri cheese layered with apricot preserves & toasted pine nuts
Shallot and fennel flatbread

Sound good?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

On this day, November 23, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Six

Thanksgiving always makes me nostalgic. All holidays do, I guess. But this one especially reminds me of my youth, so I'm always compelled to revisit things that take me back. That always means watching The Macy's Day Parade and today it also meant listening to The Police's entire oeuvre while I was cooking. Well, that's not entirely true; I started with Regatta de Blanc rather than Outlandos D'amour. Even though I appreciate their early punky flair, that first album is too raucous for cooking accompaniment. Anyway, there's nothing like Sting, Stew and Andy to take me right back to 12. I had discovered music by 8, but 12 was the year that saw me become obsessed with vinyl, plaster my walls with rock portraits and just generally sell my soul for rock 'n roll.

So anyway, a little music from back in the day is the best way I know to throw myself into Thanksgiving reverie. That, and making a list of everything I'm thankful for. So here goes.

I'm thankful for my lovely husband, who's sweet and thoughtful and even tells me I'm hot when I'm sick or wearing a showercap.

I'm thankful for my parents, who excelled at acheiving that perfect parental balance of unconditional love and stern discipline.

I'm thankful for my sisters and their husbands who always liven up the holidays with their stories and competitive croquet spirit and well-picked wine.

I'm thankful for my little niece Emma who just discovered Queen and loves to rock out, big arena anthem-style.

I'm thankful for my Irish in-laws who pretty much defy the laws of what in-laws are supposed to be.

I'm thankful for my girlfriends who are generous, hilarious and always dressed impeccably.

I'm thankful for my puppers Ruby who now has a happy life and will never know abuse again.

I'm thankful for my health.

And of course, I'm thankful, for cheese.

There's a lot more, of course, but the pressure's on to get over the river and through the hills to Graham-brother's house.

Happy thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Just in time for your Thanksgiving feast: my sprouty piéce de résistance

So some of you have suggested attempting the brussels sprout recipe included a few weeks back on your day of giving thanks. While I've done it in the past, I don't recommend it if you have more than 4-6 people at your table. This year, I need to make a veggie side for 25, and if you think I'm hand-peeling enough sprouts to feed that many, you're sorely mistaken. Instead, I'm going to make this alternative option which is just as tasty, maybe even more so (see: addition of bacon).

I don't know what to call it, other than a hash, because it's got all kinds of things thrown in. And yes, it came about as a result of my fridge-cleaning extravanganza. It calls for sprouts, bacon, pear, thyme and acorn squash.

What you'll need:

sprouts (this number according to how many you're feeding;
estimate at least 7 sprouts per person)
1 pkg bacon (I used applewood smoked)
1-3 acorn squash (again, depends how much you're making)
1 sprig thyme
2-3 pears
coarse sea salt
coarse ground black pepper

What to do:

Pre-heat oven to 450. Halve your acorn squash, scooping out the seeds and pulp, but leaving the firm flesh intact. Pour olive oil into the "bowl" of the squash halves, brush it around so it covers the exposed flesh and then flip cut-side down in a pyrex dish. Bake the squash for 30-45 minutes, They're done when the flesh is bright orange, soft throughout and easily scooped from the rind with a spoon. Remove from the oven, let cool and set aside.

Prep your sprouts by washing, cutting off and discarding the bottom/base and then quartering them. Some of the leaves will come loose, but just keep them in the mix, they'll add nice texture.

Now take your pears, peel them and cut them into a fine dice, forming cubes that are about 1/2" around. Pretty small, you know? I think 1-2 pears is more than enough because you just want a touch of sweetness, not a flavor that overwhelms the savory nature of the dish. Now lightly sauté the pear in butter or olive oil, till it gets soft, but not mushy. Remove and set aside.

Now it's time to fry up that bacon. Choose a nice pig-to-sprout ratio. Don't overwhlelm, but make enough to distribute it evenly through the finished dish. Once it's all nicely browned, remove to cool and retain the grease in the pan.

By now, your squash should be cool and scoop-able. Scoop small spoonfuls of it, or extract it using a melon baller or dull knife. You just want it in 1" bits that will be tossed into the sprouts. Set aside.

Add your sprouts to the bacon grease and sauté, lightly tossing them to they cook through and begin to wilt without getting soggy. This doesn't take long (a few minutes) but taste one to be sure the core is cooked and not raw-tasting. Add your thyme by picking individual leaf clumps off and dropping them in. As always, don't be lazy and rip the whole twiggy stem. I would use a fair amount of thyme, like a couple tablespoons, but season it to your taste. Crumble your bacon on top, toss in your pears and acorn squash and mix everything gently. Season with s&p. Serve immediately.

Believe me, even people who don't like sprouts will dig this dish. The husband made a pig face about this dish (pulling his nose up with his finger) when he learned it had sprouts AND squash, but then he scarfed it down like a happy little porker feeding at the trough. He even asked for seconds. See what you think....

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Pure & simple, every time

So today I walk into my sometime place of employ, an agency that contracts me to do freelance work, and among the usual array of quaint baked goods (today: chocolate pumpkin mousse fudgie squares) and nasto trans-fatty grocery store snax, I spied an altogether unexpected offering: fresh jijcama, cut into generous cubes and splashed with lime juice.

People, it’s delicious.

The crunchy texture! The clean, fresh taste! The tart flavor explosion! It was like a bite of Florida. And by that I mean sunshine, and citrus and sea breeze, not trailer park and monster truck and cheese doodle. Anyway, I can’t think of anything I might have enjoyed more on this bleary, wine-weary morning. It's the best morning-after remedy since my sister introduced me to her swear-by concoction of freshly-squeezed pink grapefruit juice and ginger ale.

So look into it. Next time you’re hung all the way over and wake up with little woolen socks on all your teeth, you’ll thank me.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Sunday surplus strategy

Being an avid eater and loving to cook is one thing. Being unable to resist buying every damn edible that looks enticing is another. And it's an increasing concern. Do they have food-shoppers anonymous meetings? Because I am ready to admit that I have a problem and I need help.

Whether I'm loitering around the cheese counter looking for handouts or nosing around Farmers Market stalls, I always end up with an overflowing basket of unquestionably delectable, but mostly impractical items. (See: recent purchases of candied rose petals, violet confit, orange flower water and honey made with flower nectar from Provence.) Can I help it that the descriptions of these products is so sublime? I may not be using my MFA in poetry these days, but allowing my senses to experience edibles like the above feels as poetic as any words I ever committed to paper.

And that being the case, I forgive myself these little food splurges. It's a pasttime that's mostly replaced my clothing binges and it's decidedly less expensive than a shoe habit. Plus, it provides infinitely more pleasure. The problem arises when I open the fridge and see an array of gorgeous food that's not being consumed at the rapid rate with which it's being purchased. Additionally, I recognize that eating this way is a pleasure, but it's also a bourgeois privilege. With so many people hungry in the world, wasting food is really unacceptable. With this in mind, I set out this morning to attack the problem.

I made a list of everything perishable or in current fridge rotation and then created a week-long menu using only these items. This way, nothing gets wasted and everything gets used. And I have to say, the process was more fun than anticipated. As a result of this little experiment, we'll be eating some unexpected, but very welcome dishes this week. And now I'll know not to buy additional food when there's more than enough to enjoy right here. I am so pleased with the outcome of this project, I think I'll institute it as a Sunday staple.

What I found:

1/2 pkg. applewood-smoked bacon
2 half-eaten containers fresh pesto
1 lb. pea greens
1 lb. brussels sprouts
1 sheet fresh pasta for ravioli
1/2 yellow onion
Leftover french green sauce with parsley and egg
2 dozen fresh eggs from a friend's hens
1 quart homemade chicken stock
Dijon mustard
English cucumber
Sprigs of fragrant lemon verbena
2 cartons heavy cream
Sprigs of sage
Arborio rice for risotto
Canallini white beans
1 lb yukon gold potatoes
1 acorn squash
2 bags pine nuts
Cheddar cheese curds
1/2 bulb garlic

What I'll make:

Check it out. This list of dishes uses every last thing on the above list, takes care of menu-planning for the week, encourages me to get creative in the kitchen, saves me from buying unnecessary food and prevents waste. Genius!

1. Acorn squash and pine nut ravioli in sage butter.
2. Pasta carbonara (uses eggs and bacon)
3. Pea green salad with canallini beans, cucumber and green sauce
4. Pesto risotto (also uses the onion)
5. Quiche with brussels sprout leaves and cheddar cheese curds
6. Roasted potatoes in garlic mustard sauce
7. Lemon verbena ice cream

Sounds good right? And it's all made by playing refrigerator surprise. Bravo, me.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

...and now the latest installment in our continuing series: Snazzing Up Unpopular Vegtables

I must confess, right up front, that I've not tried this recipe. But since it was relayed by my very gourmet sister, I can assume it's délicieux. I think you'll agree, just by reading the ingredients, that these modest foodstuffs will add up to A Taste Sensation.

So the unpopular vegetable in question? Lima beans. I know, I know. "Limas?" you say, skeptically. It's true. Frankly, it's not hard for me to believe they are the base of a scrummy vegetable dish, 'cause I'll eat them all day long with nothing more than butter and salt. But when I heard the following preparation, I imagined a new pinnacle of lima enjoyment.

Lima beans a la Trenholme

1 package good ole frozen lima beans
1 package turkey bacon (or real stuff/prosciutto if you want full fat flavor)
1 small white onion, finely chopped
parmegiano reggiano
1 lemon
coarse sea salt

As always, I'm going to guestimate amounts. This is the sort of dish you can throw together favoring whichever ingredients tickle your taste buds.

Boil the lima beans, or blanch them or whatever. I can't really imagine the down-home packaging of Birds Eye veggies calling for "blanching" anything, but I think that's sort of what you'll end up doing.


We interrupt our regularly-scheduled recipe to bring you a totally unrelated tangent...using the word "blanch" reminded me that the very same sister who offered up this recipe played Blanche in her high school production of Streetcar Named Desire. I just had a flashback of living in Iran, being 5, sitting on her bed and watching her bring the drama with a Stevie Nicks-style fringed shawl and a Southern accent like molasses. There was probably some nag champa burning and Joni Mitchell playing in the background for added ambiance and artistic mood. I don't think I ever saw the full production, but I gave the practice monologues 2 tiny thumbs up.....

OK I'm back. Thanks for indulging me there.

So you've blanched/boiled your beans, and then drained them of the water. Set them aside and fry up your bacon or bacon-like substance. Be sure to keep all the good greasy stuff in the bottom of the pan for the following ingredients. Once the bacon's done, remove and set aside. Sauté the onion in bacon grease and once it's lightly translucent, add your thyme and tarragon. I'm thinking maybe 1 tablespoon of each, though you'll have to taste it and see. And remember, with the thyme, you'll want to pick the little leaves from the stem. Don't be lazy and cut the whole sprig, or you'll be picking bits of twig from your teeth later. Same for the tarragon--pull the leaves from the stem for the best flavor and texture. Then chop 'em finely, but not so much as to create a juicy, minced mess. So you've added your herbs. Season with salt and pepper, then throw the lima beans in and crumble the bacon on top, stirring everything until it's mixed and warmed and coated in fried, fatty goodness. Remove and plate, then top with grated parmegiano reggiano and a few drizzles of lemon. C'est magnifique! Actually, I don't know that firsthand, but I feel pretty good throwing that out there. These are not your mother's lima beans. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What are you doing reading food blogs?

Get to the polls and vote!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Some sage advice on sprouts, plus sherried crab with raclette

OK, sorry. As soon as you realize this entry is literally about sage, I know you’ll be groaning at that there title. You have to excuse my temptation to use all the facile puns I am routinely denied when writing advertising copy. I can’t really help it, but right here and now, I’ll promise this: no forthcoming entries on beans titled “waxing poetic.”

But really, what nicer autumnal herb than sage? Sure, I can get down with rosemary this time of year, but nothing compares to the heavenly smell and velvety texture of fresh sage. When it’s around, I feel compelled to tear a leaf from the stem and rub it along my cheek so I can feel its lovely softness and simultaneously enjoy its aromatherapeutic effects. I think I’d like a luxe pillow and duvet set made wholly of sage leaves. Note to self.

In any case, my latest herby adventure paired sage with Brussels sprouts. And while you’d think the ungraceful bulk and bitter flavor of the sprouts would overwhelm the delicate nuance of the sage, its nothing a little butter and patience can’t overcome. The butter sweetens everything up. The patience comes into play with a peeling technique that transforms the sprout entirely. If you’ve never peeled the individual leaves from your sprouts, I’m about to change the way you experience this less-than-popular vegetable. Once you pull all the soft leaves from your sprouts, you turn the tough, chewy bulbs mom used to boil into a light pile of flavorful greens you can gently sauté. It’s a somewhat painstaking process to be sure, which is where the patience comes in. Especially if you’re preparing enough to feed more than 2 people. But if you can approach the task with your meditative, Zen mind, and a generous glass of wine, it’s a relaxing, gratifying process. I chose to quaff a 2003 Cuvée Saint Christopher rhone from Domaine de Cassan. It’s dry and smoky and gorgeous, and sadly, the case I bought is already down to 3 bottles. Note to self.

So, the recipe. I came up with this combo after modifying an older version of peeled sprouts with pistachios and thyme. That one’s good. This one is, dare I say it, divine.

Brussels sprouts with sage and pine nuts

A big mess o’ sprouts
½ cup pine nuts
Few sprigs of sage
Sea salt
Olive oil

Sorry I can’t be more specific about the measure of sprouts. It really depends how many you’re feeding. And as you know by now, I’m not very precise in the kitchen. I guess as a general rule, a handful and a half of sprouts is enough for one person.

So to peel the little guys, wash and cut off the tough base of the sprouts. Then start folding the individual leaves off and collecting them in a colander. If the peeling gets tough, cut a little more base off, working your way down ‘til you can’t peel any further. You’ll be able to peel them down to a nut-like little core, which you’ll then discard. I think that’s where the real bitterness resides, which is why this preparation is so much sweeter and more subtle than the expected sewage-y mouthful of sprout.

So you’re peeling. And peeling. For a while. Until you have an impressive heap of leaves. The one nice thing here is that they won’t shrink and wilt in the pan like spinach. Whatever you see in your bowl is more or less the amount you’ll end up with, post-cooking. Now that you’ve completed that bit, the hard part’s over.

Set aside your bounty and toast up your pine nuts. You can do this under the broiler or in a large frying pan, just take care to see that they’re only golden brown and not burned. It’s preferable to do them in a dry pan on a burner so you can keep an eye on them. Give them a shake here and there to ensure they’re evenly toasted. Once done, remove them and set aside.

In the same pan, melt a 1 - 2” pat of butter and then keep the flame low so it doesn’t burn. Add your sage leaves and let them crisp up without browning more than a little. I use about 6 sage leaves if I’m preparing this dish for 2-3 people. If you’re making more, up the herb content. Same goes for pine nuts. You want them to be sprinkled through the dish in the same ratio as, say, blueberries in pancakes. Enough to flavor everything, but not overtake it. Another example of my exacting culinary precision, that. Anyway, at this point, the butter should be gently bubbling around the leaves, filling your kitchen with a savory scent that’ll live in your olfactory memory for weeks to come.
Once the sage is just gently crisped, remove the leaves from pan (leaving the infused butter), transfer them onto a cutting board and cut into rough slivers. Set aside.

Now, heat the same pan, adding a pour of olive oil to the butter. Again, make it hot enough to sauté your greens without burning anything. Add your sprout leaves and gently toss them in the warm oil until they start to soften up and turn a brilliant, bright green. Cook just long enough for all of them to be softened up and warmed through, but not overly worked. Toss them with the pine nuts, sage and a few sprinkles of sea salt and serve immediately.

(Note: this pic shows pecans, though I prefer pine nuts.)

Now that all of that took so many words to convey, the thought of detailing the crab raclette melt is pretty daunting. So, I’ll give it to you as a DIY homework assignment. You’re going to have to be resourceful and read these instrux to ascertain the ingredients, but don’t worry—it’s easy to make and hard to mess up. You won’t regret it.
In loose terms, you’re going to

1. Make a simple roux (butter and flour) from any of the countless instrux online.
2. Add some heavy cream to thicken and create a more substantial base.
3. Grate in some parmagiano reggiano and season with salt, pepper and a touch of nutmeg
4. Stir in fresh crab.
5. Add a healthy pour of decent quality dry sherry (be sure it’s nutty and golden, not thick and syrupy like port)
6. Cook down 'til there’s no liquid, just thick, soupy crab goodness.
7. Spoon into individual tart ramekins and shred some mild raclette on top
8. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and some finely chopped Italian parsley
9. Bake until cheese is golden and bubbly on top
10. Serve with champagne for a simple but decadent winter meal

An aside: I just noticed it's been nearly a month since my last entry. Sorry, if anyone's noticed. I see I still get regular hits on the site, so thanks to those who continually return, despite my truant ways. I smell a New Years resolution...