Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Once Bitten: A Foodie's Year-End Reflection on Happiness

In three hours the calendar rolls over to the year 2014.

Two thousand and fourteen.

In my childhood, I had a hard time imagining the year 2000.  And, yet, tonight—tonight, 2013 is ending.  An entire year gone.  An entire year lived, breathed, consumed, exhausted.

That's how I want to live every year of my life.

True, tonight I sat at dinner alone, eating a rib-eye steak pan-roasted in bacon fat, accompanied by baby kale sauteed with garlic and lemon and a glass of 49er Blend red wine.

But as I ate my dinner, I reminisced.  I thought about my recent trip to PA to visit family for the holidays.  I smiled as I remembered the grin of my new baby nephew.  I conjured the face of my husband and felt my heart swell then melt at the thought of him.  My eyes wandered over the Christmas cards scattered rather haphazardly over the bookshelf, and a myriad of memories and wishes leapt to mind.

I am so happy, I thought.  I am happier than I've ever been in my life.

I want it to always stay that way.

Life is for living and giving and growing.  And for a long time, I did none of that. (An unpublished blog would give you an earful...)  But then entered two things.  First: Food.  Food that relentlessly caused me to fail, accept failure, and try again.  Food that made me want to not shrug my shoulders and accept Life for what I thought it was, but to yell, "Damn it! NO!" and make it what I wanted it to be, even if I had to try again.  And again.  And again.

Soon I learned something about myself.  I could cook.  And I had grown such a thing called Confidence.

It is that confidence that landed me in a seat beside a pilot deadheading to Boston and a flight that changed my life.  Enter thing number two: Chef Reiton.  My foodie soulmate.

I guess it is also that confidence that drives this blog, and, I hope, not arrogantly so. It's just that I see so many people checkout at the grocery store with carts of processed, frozen, boxed, shrink-wrapped,  expensive, tasteless food, and I want to take them by the hand and lead them to the produce section.  I want to educate them on how easy it is to eat like a snob and still be healthy and feel good to boot.

 Maybe that happens with this blog.  I would love to hear it if it is so.  But in truth, the creation and sharing of food brings me happiness, and writing about it even more so.  And that, my dear readers, is something that I want to continue and develop as long as I have a kitchen to cook in.  No, I take that back.  As long as I have anything to cook on.  Who knows what the future may bring.  All I know is this: five years ago I was bitten by the food bug, and there is no going back on the food love.

And so, dear reader, here is my wish for you: I hope this year finds you growing more in love with yourself and your food, and that you find yourself a better person for it.

Cheers to 2014!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Lessons on Using Bones for Stock

Last weekend we had my good friend/former student, Anna (now of Anna Rosie Bakes fame!) and her wonderful significant other, CDR, come up for the day and just hang and eat and drink.  We had a fantastic time, even though our dog was running around in a make-shift diaper the entire time.

After snacking on bacon-wrapped dates and poufy gougères

Gougères straight from the oven!

and imbibing several glasses of Campari-laced cocktails, we settled down for dinner.  The main event of our main course was a frenched pork loin roast, "the crown roast of pork" my butcher's assistant declared.  We used a delicious recipe from—you guessed it, BA.  It is a cider-brined pork roast in which you brine the pork for hours, dry rub it for a few more, then roast it with veggies to browned perfection.  (If you want to make a great mistake, try brining it with unfiltered cider vinegar by accident.  I think I liked it even better!)

But this post is not to be about the roast.  It is about the bones that we saved from the roast after we devoured it that night and the next day.  Bones that called to me yesterday morning through the gray drizzle on the windows and the wet leaves plastered to the driveway.  It was a day to hole up and do some winter kitchen prep: stock.

I've always been scared in the past to make soup and stock, but my food reading over the past year has really pounded into my head that when it comes to the history of peasant foods, like soups and such--there really wasn't a recipe.  It was whatever you had on hand thrown into a pot and (usually) cooked low and slow for a long time to yield whatever tasty treat your random items were going to give you that particular time.  The poor couldn't be picky, and so every time the results were different.

I decided that I was going to be okay with that and not let my anal side be bothered by the fact that I wasn't going to be able to exactly replicate this stock if I really liked it.  So I did what the peasants did.  My stockpot was soon loaded with the rib rack, old carrots, old celery, a couple halved onions, some sage and thyme that were on their last legs, a couple cloves of garlic, and a lot of salt and pepper.  I filled the pot up with water, set it on the stove over low heat, draped the lid almost on the whole way, then let it all go for hours.

Sigh. It's just delightful to me that this:

Veggies and bones in the pot for bone stock

can turn into this:

Jars of bone stock made from leftover bones and old veggies

Oh, what yummy soups these are, just waiting to be made this winter....  And all for the five minutes of prep time that it took to rinse my ingredients and throw them in the pot and the other 10 that it took to strain and jar the stock.

Good grief! I've got to do this more often!

A Foodie's Fallish Philosophy on Her Cooking Life

I've just come in from putting the dog out.  The fog is beautiful this morning.  It's not the dark, murky fog that's been creeping around all week long.  It's the kind that hovers and glows, its whispery essence highlighting the faintest of frost on the fallen leaves, inspiring deep, gulping breaths of the fall air.

My senses and imagination go into overload in such moments.  Such transcendent beauty, for me, makes time stand still, and I want to put my hand out and hold it there.  It is the freest that I ever feel, being trapped in those moments.  

And then they are gone, like waking up from a dream, and I am left with the same drive every time: bless the beauty of this world then go out and enjoy every fricking moment of your life.

And so here I am, writing you all.  You, my readers, are what I love.  You and the food that I write to you about.  It's not a choice that I make.  It just is.  Time has transformed not only food for me, but it has transformed me through food.

Michael asked me last night over a dinner of cottage pie, "Do you eat to live or live to eat?"

"Definitely live to eat," I replied.

He laughed.  "My health teacher would say that that is exactly what you should NOT do."

I smiled.  I knew what that question was supposed to mean.  It implies that living to eat is being obsessed by food and not caring about the health factors of any of it, eating "whatever you want" because you only go around once. For me, it conjures images of 300-lb. individuals surrounded by hordes of food, like Ben Stiller in the end credits of Dodgeball.  

Eating to live implies making intelligent and healthy choices about what we eat, therefore extending our quality and length of life because we aren't putting things into our bodies that are toxic in one way or another.

My food philosophy, I came to realize as we talked, is politic cooking with abandonment.  If you've read the posts on this blog over the past year, you know that I am very concerned about the healthiness of what I eat.  I understand fully that what goes in either does good or bad, and the amount of damage caused is something I will have to live with.  But that doesn't mean that I'm stuck with bran muffins and broccoli the rest of my life.  Although I love bran muffins and broccoli...  

My point is: being healthy does NOT mean that you can't absolutely love the food that you are eating, nor does it mean you can't constantly think about food. I am always thinking about the next meal because I love everything that goes into cooking and experiencing new foods.

And when it comes to sweets, The Millstone around the psychological neck of anyone starting to think of "eating healthy," here's the deal: for me--and this is truly for me, in accordance with my personal philosophy--that does not mean that I never eat something "unhealthy."  Chocolate chip cookies are not a healthy choice to eat every day.  They are not a healthy choice to eat every week.  But if I make a batch of cookies once a month to share with friends, and I eat a few of those cookies, savoring the buttery, chocolate-y warmth of every bite that makes my soul sing--that is a psychologically healthy choice for me.  Because telling myself "no" forever is just not going to work for me.  And--I could be wrong, but--eating a chocolate chip cookie or two once a month most likely is not going to shave off months of my life.

So there it is. My thoughts on my cooking life. I guess I live to eat to live.  

Oh, how fog can lead to philosophy...

So...what's yours?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Cafe Selmarie — Chicago (Lincoln Square), IL — A Restaurant Recommendation

Tucked on the corner of a cute little pedestrian street in Lincoln Square, Cafe Selmarie is a delightful place to spend a late morning, catching up with your BF after months of being out of touch.  I recently spent a summer morning here for brunch with Julissa, one of my dearest friends and a foodie soulmate.

I ordered a sandwich, and Julissa ordered dessert.  Our thoughts?

The fried green tomato BLT: PERFECT.  Crunchy coating on the tomatoes, crisp bacon, soft brioche, tangy aioli.  Delish.

Julissa's chocolate lemon torte? Meh. We both found it quite bland.

It looked awfully pretty, but it was missing something.  I almost felt like it could have used a pinch of salt.  It just finished off flat.  The chocolate could have been a bit more heady, too.

Definitely would go back, though, and give other baked items a try.  And to have that BLT again...

A Slice of Summer: The Last Fresh Peach Pie Recipe You Will Ever Need

If there is one thing above all others that I miss most about PA (besides my family), it is without a doubt the peaches.

Not many people realize that Pennsylvania's orchards are loaded with peaches, not just apples, and they are the biggest, juiciest, most peachy peaches I have ever tasted.  Granted, I have never eaten a Georgia peach off the tree—but the Georgia store peaches I have had have never compared to Pennsylvania's huge, warm, tree-ripened beauties that I ate as a kid.

With the summer coming to an end here in good ol' Wisconsin, I can't help but find myself longing for peach juice running down my arm and my tastebuds screaming with peach-induced happiness. I've tried peaches a couple times from a couple of sources this summer, and they were all awful.  Pulpy. Foamy. Dry. Flavorless. Hard. Gag.

And then the other day I was sitting beside a co-worker as she was biting into a delicious-looking specimen.  "Where did you get that?" I asked, rather intensely.

"Piggly Wiggly," she slurped.

Guess where I stopped on the way home? And, wowzers, were they good! Still not up to PA snuff, but so so so much better than anything I've had for years.

So, today, when our friends Joe and Marie invited us over for dinner at the last minute (as only good friends do), the first thought that popped into my head was: PEACH PIE!!!

I based my recipe off of Cook's Illustrated's Foolproof Pie Crust and their Fresh Strawberry Pie. Chef Reiton helped whip the crust together (and I really do mean "whip." It takes less than 5 minutes to make, then it just chills, gets rolled out, and then chills in the pie plate a little bit longer while the oven heats.).  I prepped peaches for the glaze and the filling, my mouth watering all the while.

If you are lucky enough to have amazing peaches available, make yourself a treat this weekend.  Make yourself a fresh peach pie:

Shell Ingredients and Directions:

1 1/4 cups (6 1/4 oz.) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 Tblsp. sugar
10 Tblsps. unsalted butter (1 1/4 sticks)
3 Tblsp. cold vodka
1 Tblsp. ice water

In a food processor, combine only 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, salt, and the sugar, then pulse together with a few 1-second pulses to blend.  Drop in the cold butter, cut into 1/4-in. slices, and process for about 10 seconds.  The mixture will look like curds the size of cottage cheese.  Scrape down the sides and the bottom and redistribute the mixture evenly around the bowl.  Sprinkle the remaining flour over the top, then pulse about 5 or 6 more times.  The dough will come together into a ball, and then redistribute itself around the bowl.  Dump the mixture into a medium bowl.  

Mix together the vodka and ice water.  Sprinkle the dough with the mixture, then take a rubber spatula and start smashing, folding, and flattening the vodka-water into the dough, pressing the spatula down into the dough to help mix in the liquid.  It's going to look like it's not going to do anything at first; just give it time and keep flipping, smashing, folding, and pressing; it will get there.  The dough is going to resemble Playdough when you are done. (If it looks too dry, sprinkle in the tiniest amount of ice water--like 1/2 tsp. at a time).  Gather the dough into a ball, then dump it onto a square of plastic wrap.  Lay another piece of plastic on top, then flatten the ball into a 4-inch disc.  Wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and lay it in the fridge for at least 45 minutes (you can do this up to 2 days in advance).

Meanwhile, make your peach filling:

8 large ripe peaches (your thumb should readily sink into the flesh when you squeeze the peach)
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup. sugar
2 Tblsp. cornstarch
1 1/2 tsp. No Sugar Sure-Jell (pink box)
1 Tblsp. fresh squeeze lemon juice

Halve the peaches, then peel and pit them.  Cut each half into four wedges, then cut each wedge into 6 chunks.  Weigh out about 14 oz. (about 2 cups) of the peach chunks, then puree them in the food processor until they are completely smooth and juiced with no little chunks (a random big chunk or two is okay, as long as the rest is totally smooth). You will need 1 3/4 cups of puree when you are done for the glaze.  You may have to adjust this a bit.  The rest of the peaches you can cover and put in the fridge.

In a medium saucepan, whisk the sugar, salt, cornstarch, and Sure-Jell.  Whisk in the peach puree, then heat the mixture over medium-high heat, stirring constantly (really be careful to scrape the edges and corners of the pan so it doesn't scorch), until it comes to a full boil.  Boil for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.  You will see the glaze turn from opaque to translucent.  Take it off the heat, then stir in the lemon juice.  Let it cool completely.

Now go back to your pie crust: heat the oven to 425 degrees.   Have a rolling pin, aluminum foil, pie plate, pie weights (use a bag of dried beans of you don't have ceramic beads) and a piece of aluminum foil ready.  Take the dough out of the fridge, generously flour the countertop, and plop your dough disc in the middle of it.  Flour your rolling pin, then roll your dough out to about 12 in. in diameter, flouring your rolling pin as needed.  (To roll evenly, start each roll in the center and press with even pressure as your roll to an edge.  Always roll two opposite sides one after the other.  For example, if I roll straight up, then I roll down next.  If I roll to the right, then I roll to the left. If I roll to 2 o'clock, I roll to 8 o'clock next.  Get my drift?) When your dough is evenly rolled out, place your rolling pin about 3 inches from the dough's edge, flip the edge up over the top of the rolling pin, then roll the pin backwards, wrapping the dough around the pin as you roll.  Use a bench scraper to help work the dough up off the counter if it sticks at all.  Take your pie plate, place the dough-wrapped rolling pin at an edge of the plate, and unroll the dough into the pie plate.  Adjust the positioning if you need to, then gently ease and press the dough down into the plate.  Refrigerate the plate for about 30 minutes to firm up the dough again (you can skip this step if you are really short on time, but the constant refrigeration keeps the butter chunks hard and will make your dough much flakier at baking).

Take a pair of scissors and trim the excess crust to about 1 inch of the edge of the pie plate.  (It is always better to have a bigger edge than less, so be careful not to get too close to the edge of the plate.)  Take the excess and flip it under itself, working your way around the plate.  Now press the edge down in whatever decorative pattern you want.  You can use the tines of a fork; you can push it down with your thumb at intervals; you can squish it with a knuckle on your right hand into the crevice of your left hand's pinched thumb and pointer finger.  Get creative.  Now prick all over the bottom and sides of the dough with a fork; this helps air escape that is going to heat and try to bubble up in and under the dough.  Put the crust in the fridge to firm up for about 15 minutes, then take the aluminum foil, gently press it into the pie plate, and dump in the weights.  Place the crust in the oven for 15 minutes.  Carefully remove the foil and weights, prick any bubbles that have formed with a fork, and continue baking the crust for another 5-10 minutes until the crust is nice and golden.  Cool it completely on a wire rack.

By this point your glaze should be cool.  Take the rest of the peaches out of the fridge, and dump them into the glaze, folding to coat every piece with your amazing homemade concoction.  Pour the filling into your cooled pie crust, then put the whole pie in the fridge.  Let it firm up for at least 2 hours, but no more than 5.  The CI guys say it will start affecting the crust at that point.  They also say to eat it all right away.  Darn.

Cut the pie into large slices, serve with freshly whipped cream, and savor those peaches as long as your will power possibly can.

Monday, August 26, 2013

I'm Hungry: Learning from a Cooking Disaster

Tonight was another night of scrounging the fridge for one lonely little eater, but I pulled some really great stuff together for a quick pasta dinner: a few fresh mozzarella balls; basil leaves and fennel fronds and our first tie-dye tomato from the garden; and a lemon that needed to be used. Sounds like the makings of a really tasty dish, right?


Total fail tonight.  I mean, like—if I was a beginner cook, I would have stopped cooking—forever. Dropped the wooden spoon and ran, never to return.  I think the only thing I got right was the pasta texture.  The rest of it? God-awful.

I don't know what went wrong.  The flavors totally, TOTALLY didn't blend.  I kept thinking maybe the cheese was turning, but I had tasted it before I used it, and it seemed fine.  Maybe putting lemon juice in a cast iron pan was wrong? Anyone know? Alton Brown?

I ate a salad to make myself feel better, but it didn't work. Even the last of the wine from the other night didn't work; it was off, too.


I'm going to bed.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Cooking Dinner for My Very Clean Colon: A First Meal Post Colonoscopy...

It may sound funny, but it's true. After my colonoscopy yesterday, my body is empty.  It's rather a strange feeling. I kind-of feel brand new—like starlight and rainbows...  (I'm just kidding. It really just makes you feel ice-cold, being poop-free.)

So tonight, when I thought about the fact that the ginormous organ inside of me didn't have anything to work on except what I tossed in there for my evening meal—I couldn't help but think twice about dinner.  The idea of gulping down a big spicy dish of somethin'-somethin' or a meaty hunk of whatever didn't sound so great as I stood in front of the open fridge.  I wanted veggies, but even the broccoli looked daunting to digest.  What did I have that was vegetarian but with minimal fiber for this first substantial dinner of mine after being made clean as a whistle?

Well, this is what I pulled out of the fridge, out of the garden, and off the counter:
  • that damn box of pea shoots from Trader Joe's again (I was determined to finish it off—only a handful were left.)
  • a lemon
  • a small zucchini
  • a clove of garlic
  • a baby bella mushroom
  • bacon fat
  • 3 little sprigs of cilantro
  • kosher salt
  • fresh cracked pepper
And here's what I did with it all:

1) Over medium-high heat in a 10-inch skillet, I melted a teensy little teaspoon of bacon fat.  I added the minced garlic clove and the finely chopped mushroom, tossed them in the fat, and let them sizzle, stirring occasionally, for about 2 minutes.

2) I then added the zucchini, quartered lengthwise and chopped into 1/4-inch thick slices on the bias, to the skillet.  I tossed the zucc with the fat to coat the pieces, sprinkled on salt and pepper, stirred it all again, shook the skillet to create an even layer, then let it all sit for 3 minutes.

3) With the bottom side of the zucc nicely browned, I stirred the skillet then scattered on top the handful of pea shoots (gathered up in a bunch on the cutting board then chopped right below the leaves to get rid of the stem portion) and the torn-up leaves of the cilantro sprigs.  I squeezed a quarter of the lemon over the whole mess, then stirred it all to wilt the shoots.

4) I plated the veggies, garnished it with lemon zest from the butt of the lemon, and ATE.

Time to prep? 5 minutes (if you are a slow prepper, like me). Time to cook? 6 minutes. And, oh! What a great surprise! By cooking from my gut (I'm learning!), I prepared a dish for the transition of seasons: deep and earthy from the mushrooms, bacon fat, and garlic. Light from the zucchini. Zingy and bright from the cilantro and lemon.  It was like summer and fall mingling on my plate, both vying for my tongue's attention—and both happily getting it.

Monday, August 19, 2013

An Experimental Recipe for Bob and Jerry: Mini Blueberry-Lemon Cakes

To start off this post, I must begin with: BOB AND JERRY, YOU ARE the BEST!!!

I walked into my little middle school library this morning, ready to help Bob and Jerry move some bookshelves—and they were done! I immediately yelled for no one to hear, "You guys are AWESOME!" and plunked the cake carrier I had in my hand down on the floor to survey their work.  They literally left nothing else for me to move.  Every other item on my floor plan, besides the bookshelves, had not only been put into place but thoroughly cleaned.  I'm telling you, school custodians ROCK.

So, what was in the cake carrier I had set on the floor? An experiment that came to mind a few days ago while I was at the grocery store, gazing at the plums.  They were on sale, and after making that frickin' amazing semifreddo for our anniversary party, plums have become my new friend.  I bought two, along with some peaches, blueberries, and blackberries.

Later that evening, as I was thinking of meeting Bob and Jerry and wanting to bake them something to thank them, I had this idea: what if I made little mini pound cakes in muffin tins, and what if I took slices of plum and laid them in the muffin tins first before I put in the batter, so that when I inverted the pan, I had this luscious slice of fruit on top of a golden, buttery cake?

In the book Ratio by Michael Ruhlman that I am reading (I told you it was going to come up again), he has a recipe for pound cake.  I decided to use that and then tweak it to include the fruit.   I love baking his way because he has you weigh almost everything.  I even weighed the eggs! If you don't have a kitchen scale, yet, you must acquire one.  Once you own one, you will not know what you did without it.  You can get a good one that does both grams and ounces and has a tare key (so you can weigh things in a bowl without accounting for the weight of the bowl) for under $25 on Amazon.

Anyway, with pound cake, the fat, flour, eggs, and sugar are all equal parts.  Easy squeezy to remember.  It's called pound cake because you used to use a pound of each ingredient to make the cake! That's a lot of pound cake.  So here's what I did (mildly adapted, once again) with Ruhlman's guidance:

1) While I heated the oven to 325 degrees, I gathered all of my ingredients and weighed them out or prepped them.

I buttered (with real butter) one nonstick muffin tin at this point, too.

Interestingly, Ruhlman says that allowing a finished batter to sit releases the air that you just beat into it, so you want it to go into the pan as soon as you are done beating it—hence buttering now and NOT later.

Here are the ingredients:
  • 8 oz. (2 sticks) of unsalted butter at room temperature (ideally between 65 and 70 degrees.  Never knew that before! I actually stuck a digital thermometer in it to check! Ha!)
  • 8 oz. sugar
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 8 oz. eggs, which is about 4 large eggs plus 1 yolk, also at room temperature (I cracked them into the bowl and allowed them to come to room temperature), whisked lightly to combine (which I forgot to do and it was okay)
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 Tblsp. of lemon juice from that lemon
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 8 oz. flour
  • 72 blueberries
  • ground cinnamon
2) Now I loaded the muffin tin: in each cup I dropped 6 blueberries then sprinkled a dash of ground cinnamon on top of them.

3) With the oven hot and everything ready to go, I now made the batter.  (Note: I use a KitchenAid stand mixer which uses a paddle.  This mixer is incredibly efficient and knocks the socks off of any hand or stand mixer that you can buy.  Again, I know they are pricey, but if you can get one, or get people to pool Christmas/birthday money together to buy you one, BEG for one.  They will change the way you cook, I swear.  Anyway, because of its power and efficiency, the times I am listing will be different, i.e. longer, if you are using a regular mixer.)
  • for 1 minute -- beat the butter on MEDIUM speed
  • for 2-3 minutes -- add the sugar and salt to the butter and beat it all together on MEDIUM-HIGH until the coloring is very pale yellow and the butter mixture has grown in volume about a third
  • for 1 minute-ish -- add the eggs slowly so they blend well into the butter mixture
  • add the lemon juice, zest, and vanilla and mix in well
  • turn the mixer down to MEDIUM-LOW and add the flour, mixing only long enough to blend the flour in--which isn't very long
That's it.  Ruhlman doesn't say anything about scraping down the sides, but I stopped the mixer a few times to do so, and then ran it again to make sure everything was mixed together well.

4) Using a number 40 ice cream scoop (I use this all the time to portion out dough and batter), I plopped a heaping scoop of batter into each cup, smoothed the tops a bit, then put the tin in the oven.

I baked them for 25 minutes, let them cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then inverted them out onto a cutting board.

Will I be doing this again? YES.  These babies are firm but tender, bright from the lemon and blueberries, buttery and eggy and just perfectly sweet.

But I'll try it a bit differently next time.  What I had wanted was to be able to flip these out of the muffin tin and serve them bottoms up.  I put too much batter in the cups, though, so the tops were mounded; they didn't lay flat upside down.  I need to use less batter next time.

And—did you notice? I used blueberries instead of the plums that I had mentioned. (The plums I bought weren't looking as pretty as I wanted when I sliced one open.)  Next time I'll try it with plums with a different spice and see how that goes.

So happy with these, though.  As I bit into the first one and began to chew, I felt a big smile start to spread across my face...

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Transubstantiation....of Eggplant: Learning to Coal-Roast

I may get struck down by lighting with that post title, but I cannot think of another way to describe what I just ate.  Like, JUST.  The table isn't even cleared yet.  And I'm so in awe that I cannot help but ignore the dirty dishes on my dining room table, pull out my laptop, and write.  If you knew me, that's a BIG deal.

To reference, once again, the Grilling Issue of Bon Appétit's July 2013 issue: GOD BLESS MELISSA HAMILTON AND CHRISTOPHER HIRSHEIMER.  Their article, "Into the Fire," in which they describe fire-roasting eggplants--it's just changed my life.

This is one of those food experiences where I just want to go on and on and on, etc., etc., etc.  But I'm not going to.  I'm just going to tell you--no, order you--to go witness and partake of this unbelievable transformation of the world's most disgusting vegetable, and you will be a believer of being YOUR OWN PERSONAL CHEF, I promise.

Here is my experience, including recipes (gasp!), of my dinner, this evening, for one--that is me.  Here are the ingredients you will need for ONE PERSON, and then the directions.  And they are mildly adapted--just an FYI.

For the eggplant:
1 small purple eggplant
2 plum tomatoes
2 anchovy fillets, drained of oil and chopped finely
1 small garlic clove, chopped finely
1 tsp. red wine vinegar
2 Tblsp. olive oil
kosher salt to taste
fresh cracked paper to taste
1 tsp. torn cilantro leaves

For a very yummy side dish:
1/2 Tblsp. butter
1 tsp. olive oil
2 ears of sweet corn, kernels sliced from cobs
1 small cayenne pepper, seeded and minced
1 small zucchini, quartered and sliced
1 small garlic clove, minced
kosher salt to taste
fresh cracked pepper to taste
1 Tblsp. torn cilantro leaves

1) Make a hot, smoldering bed of coals (no real fire, here; too much heat).   DO NOT USE BRIQUETTES.  Use real, natural hardwood charcoal.  It's chunks of wood that have been carbonized, not pressed with glue and chemicals that you ingest and get cancer from.  I buy it in the grill section of Menards.  Anyway, you want the coals glowing red, covered in ash.  I did mine in the fire box of our smoker, but I don't see why you couldn't do this on a bed of coals in your firepit.  (Kind of romantic, in a foodie kind of way... Make yourself a nice cocktail while you are waiting for your coals to get perfectly hot.  I made a new beer/booze cocktail.  Will blog about it later...)

2) Take your average, everyday firm purple eggplant from the grocery store and throw it on the bed of coals.  (I didn't even rinse it.  Why bother? It's going on a frickin' bed of coals.)

3) Set your phone timer to 4 minutes.  Have a conversation with your dog while you are waiting.

When it goes off, flip the eggplant with a big ol' pair of tongs 1/4 turn.  Do this 2 more times.  Here's my progression of flips:

Straight on the coals:

After Flip 1:

After Flip 2:

After Flip 3:

4) After the second flip of the eggplant, put a piece of heavy duty aluminum foil directly on a patch of  coals not taken up by the eggplant and drop 2 plum/Roma tomatoes on the foil.  Flip them every once in awhile until the skins are split, and they are sizzingly hot and squishy.

Here's what the eggplant looks like when it is done:

5) When everything is roasted to death, put the veggies on a platter and let them all cool slightly so you don't burn yourself when you skin everything about 5 minutes later.  When you skin the eggplant, you are going to feel like you are peeling off too much, but the skin is really thick, and only the soft juicy center is what is left.  Here's a pic of the eggplant skinned:

6) After you skin the veggies, put the eggplant on a cooling rack over a plate (to drain more water--see pic above).  Put the tomatoes into a fine mesh sieve over a bowl.  Let the eggplant cool while you smash the tomatoes through the sieve.  There will be a lot of gunk left in the sieve, with a pool of fine delicious tomato juice in the bowl.

7) Add the garlic, anchovies, olive oil, salt, pepper, and vinegar to the tomato juice.  Stir/whisk well.

8) Pour half of the tomato sauce into a platter.  Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and lay the pieces side by side in the juice. (The top just kind-of came off while I was slicing it.  If it doesn't, pull it off.  You don't want to eat charred eggplant skin/stem.)  Sprinkle the flesh with a pinch of kosher salt.  Pour the rest of the sauce on top and let it all soak for a good 20 minutes.

9)  While the eggplant is transubstantiating, prep the veggies for the side dish.  When ready, heat the  olive oil and butter in a skillet over medium-high heat until hot.

10) Add the zucchini, corn kernels, cayenne, garlic, salt, and pepper all at once to the pan, tossing with  the butter and oil mixture until coated.  Shake the skillet to create an even layer of veggies, then let it sit for 2 minutes.

11)  Toss, shake, and let the veggies sit for another 2 minutes.

12)  Add the torn cilantro, then toss, shake, and let the veggies sit for another 2 minutes, then plate the veggie mixture.  (I like my veggies with a bite--California style, as my mom says.  If you like yours squishy, let them go a minute or two longer.)

13)  Now back to the eggplant.  Add another fine sprinkling of kosher salt, garnish with the torn cilantro, then SERVE.

My thoughts on dinner? Sooo amazing.  Smoky, yet fresh from the tomato.  And the cilantro opens up the flavors in a way that I've never experienced before.  And the corn dish with its sweetness...  I am becoming a believer in vegetarianism.

Disregard that it looks like fish.  You have to taste!  GO.  And cook as you deserve!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Mickey's Diner — St. Paul, MN — A Restaurant Recommendation

There has always been an allure for me when it comes to old-fashioned diners (real ones, not the fabricated types). I don't know what it is about them, especially since I've never eaten in one.  Well, we're up in St. Paul, my hubby and I, for a mini  "us" weekend and a Postal Service concert, and look what popped up on Google maps as I was lounging in bed this morning, looking for a breakfast joint? 

YAHOOO!! Mickey's Diner! I couldn't believe our luck. And only a few blocks away!  Even better. We headed out for our short walk, visions of crabby old waitresses and a row of hunched shoulders dancing in my head. 

As anticipated upon entering, I was faced with a line of hunched backs and customers lining up against the walls. Who could expect anything else? The place is tiny. There's a counter and four booths--that's it. Red laminates the walls, and the woodwork, mirrors, and tableside jukeboxes look all to be original. 

The food was a long time coming, but our coffee refills were not, thanks to Chris.  He took the barking orders from the head waitress with a smile and could not have been more pleasant to his guests. 

Presentation didn't seem to matter at the diner, but after taking those first bites of piping hot food, I suddenly realized that it didn't matter to me, either.  

How can I explain it? The food was exactly what I always wanted diner breakfast to taste like; it was like eating in a dream: This is the way I've always imagined pancakes should taste. How is it that I'm tasting them for real?!? Somebody, pinch me, please! No, wait! DON'T! Everything was fried in butter.  You could smell it in the pancakes, see its golden brown influence on the tender omelet crust-- the fluffiest omelet I had ever seen. The bacon was real bacon, with my favorite mix of crunch and chew. 

I've died and gone to diner heaven, I thought as I forked one last bite into my mouth. There was still a quarter stack of cakes left, but I couldn't do it. My virgin diner experience was going to have to come to a close. 

I sighed and exhaled a "Yum." Yes, a very, very happy close. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Summer Food Fabulousness—and Tips on Making Granita

A few months ago, my sister bought Chef Reiton and I a subscription to Bon Appétit magazine.  I started getting it near the end of the school year, and I have to admit that the first few issues lay rather neglected on the bedside table (albeit with covers longingly looked at briefly every night as I fell into bed).  I was just too busy and too tired to find the time to read them.  (You all knew that already, though--hence my long periods of silence in which you all wait with baited breath for the next post...ha ha ha.)

Gratefully, the school year ended.

The day before I left to go on yet another trip this summer, the July issue, the Grilling Issue, arrived in my mailbox.  One of my musts when I fly anywhere is to buy myself a magazine to read on the flight.  Normally I do this in the airport.  It's a fun little ritual of mine to search among the wall of magazines and find one that I have wanted to subscribe to but am too cheap to spend the $25 a year to do so.  

But as I pulled BA-July out of the mailbox, I immediately knew that my ritual was going to hell.  The magazine I wanted to read was right here in my hands.  The glossy paper of the cover added a juicy effect to the extreme close-up shot of red hot chicken skewers laid across the page, delicately sprinkled with lacy cilantro leaves and torn bits of basil.  My mouth watered.  I didn't even have to open the magazine to know that that delightful little entree was going to be mine as soon as I could possibly make it.

I continued flipping.  And drooling.  An article on frozen desserts flashed past my eyes: sherbert, popsicles, semifreddo.  And there were those chicken kebabs again, surrounded by other grilled chicken recipes: beer canned.  Smoked.  Spatchcocked?  Dear God... Is this what this magazine would do to me? Why had I waited so long???

So.  Upon return from my travels, I immediately made the Sambal Chicken Skewers for Michael and I (minus the fish sauce--I didn't have any, and have never cooked well with it when I have had it, so I just substituted soy sauce, much to the chagrin of many out there, I am sure.  Sorry.  Still want to make it? Click on the recipe name to link to BA's online recipe.)

Shortly thereafter we had Chef Reiton's family over for dinner, and so we made them some smoked spatchcocked chicken,

baby potato salad (using tarragon as our herb of choice, instead of chives),

avocado and tangerine salad with jalapeno vinaigrette (thank you, Jack Johnson. Can I come out to visit and cook with you?), 

The process for making a granita is amazingly simple.  So simple that I'm embarrassed it took me so many years to actually make one, despite the fact that I had wanted to for so long.  There are only two steps, really.

Step 1) Puree your fruit of choice, sugar, liqueur, lemon juice, and salt in a blender, then pour the puree into a mesh strainer held over a 9x13" pan.  Smash and stir the puree through the strainer with a big rubber spatula and into the pan; soon all you will have left in the strainer are seeds and/or fiber.  

(BA used 4 cups of fruit, 1/2 cup of sugar, 1 Tblsp. of liqueur, and 1 Tblsp. of lemon juice.  I'm not sure if those rations are going to work equally with all fruits, but that's what I'm going to try the next time. Keep in mind, as well, that the liqueur used here was creme de cassis (about 40 proof).  My guess is that you wouldn't want to go with anything much higher in alcohol content or you might mess with the freezing temperature too much.  No vodka, okay (which usually starts at about 80 proof)?

To help, below is a shot of the actual blackberries getting sieved, but the picture below that shows what it looks like after (I had done the same process with some raspberries).  And for a vocab lesson: this is the technique discussed when you read that you are to be "pressing on the solids."  (I always wondered what the hell that meant until I poured the puree into the strainer and it just sat there, dripping drop by drop into the pan, and I thought, "This is going to take all night!")

Step 2) Smooth the top of the fruit mixture in the pan so that it is evenly distributed (you want the mixture to freeze evenly), then put the pan in the freezer at a level position for 30 minutes.  After half an hour, take it out, scrape all the frozen parts with a fork to break up the ice, then put it back in the freezer for another 30 minutes.  Do this about 4 times (depending on the temperature of your freezer).

 Just so you can have an idea of what to expect things to look like, here's what the granita looked like after scraping #1:

scraping #2:

scraping #3:

and scraping #4, the final one with the granita being all flaky and frosty, ready to be covered and put back in the freezer until it was ready to serve.  YUM.

With that rash of cooking done, all from the BA-July edition, and with all of it being simple and delicious, we decided to make a few more items from it for our month-belated anniversary party (can you believe it? Time flies when you are having fun!)

 First was the snap pea and cabbage slaw, which multiple people asked for the recipe for:

and next was the plum semifreddo, which I did not get pictures of because it was served in the middle of the party, but here is a picture of the gorgeous plums, simmering away before being pureed, pressed through the seive, then folded into a heavenly blend of glossy meringue and whipped cream before being frozen: 

 Oh, divinely, heavenly food.  Ben Franklin was wrong: it is beer AND food that lets us know God loves us.  And God bless Bon Appetit for tempting us to make it!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Random Food and Cocktail Photos

My darling husband is sitting here, being a saint and doing bills and reconciling, and I'm sitting here, drinking a French red and feeling unproductive.  My remedy? Writing you all.  It's been awhile, regrettably, thanks to my job.  Maybe one day this will be my full time job...

Anyway, due to my absence and my nuts-o schedule, I've decided to just post pics of random food/meals we've had of late, and then maybe in a few days I'll be able to get on again and bang out a recipe.  So, for now, for your enjoyment:

my first Hendricks martini:

ribs, green beans, and sweet potato fries for Michael:

gluten-free chicken tenders with buffalo sauce:

homemade "Brickhouse Cheesy Sticks" (This one's for you, Valbon.)   To get the real deal, check out Brickhouse Pizza Pub in Fort Atkinson, WI.  YUM.

a gorgeous beet I roasted for dinner one night.  Look at that color!

and, lastly—THE HOPS ARE GROWING!!! (Ignore the fact that I have not weeded.)

I'll catch up more later.  PROMISE.

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