23 February 2009

It's not just for breakfast

When someone I know opened up a bed and breakfast a few years ago I told them they should cook bacon every morning. When asked why, I said "Because everyone loves the smell of bacon, and most people probably don't cook it at home too often."

Seth agrees with this sentiment, at least the smell-good part. He's long been a proponent of a bacon-scented candle. My cousin Nathan agreed recently over dinner that everyone loves the smell of bacon -- "Except vegetarians," he said. "To vegetarians bacon smells like violence." Ha! Probably true, but so, so sad.

I grew up in the heart-smart '80's when margarine was in and eggs were out. My mother's work as a registered nurse in a cardiac unit at the local hospital meant that even as a third-grader I knew the heart-healthy diet no-nos. So, we ate a lot of turkey bacon. I think it was just becoming popular and what else should we cook in our brand new microwave (Which, by the way, along with the cordless phone ensured me that we were indeed rich, I tell you.)?

I don't remember the last time I tasted turkey bacon, but I do remember enough to know it does not taste like pig bacon. Bacon is salty, crispy, perhaps slightly sweet, and is proud of its flavor-inducing fat. Thanks to the "Eat This, Not That" guy, it's become popular trivia that turkey bacon is actually not great for you. It's got more sodium than the real deal. More sodium than salty piggy bacon? Yes. So why take a turkey when it's a pig you want? I say, don't.

Bacon isn't just for breakfast. It's a pantry staple in my house. It's cheap. And you can cook it quickly and make just the right amount. I put it in pasta, atop my pizza, on a sandwich, in a salad. It turns an otherwise ordinary meal into something memorable. It satisfies a meaty craving in a veggie-heavy dish. And because we most often eat it in strips alongside eggs, we're mesmerized at how great it tastes for dinner.

So, in case you don't often have bacon in the fridge, pick some up. Here are a few pointers and recipe ideas:
  • Look for nitrite- and nitrate-free bacon. These are preservatives that aren't necessary.
  • For the most versatility, buy the plain stuff. Don't get sucked into applewood-smoked or peppered stuff. That way, your bacon will fit the flavor profile of many more dishes.
  • Compare prices with the prepackaged stuff and what's in your grocer's deli case. Bacon freezes well, and it doesn't spoil as quickly as fresh meats (remember bacon has been cured). And remember at the deli case you could buy as little as two slices if you'd like.
  • Read labels and ingredient lists. There shouldn't be chemicals or fake-sounding things, especially if it's labeled nitrite- and nitrate-free.
  • Forget the splatter. Line a rimmed cookie sheet with parchment paper or foil and lay flat as many slices of bacon as needed. Cook in a high-heat oven (approx. 400 degrees) or under the broiler. Watch closely as it will cook fast. Remove when cooked to desired doneness and place on paper towels to drain. When I'm making bacon for a dish such as pizza, I cook it in my preheating oven.
  • Use the rendered fat from cooking bacon to saute onions or other veggies for your dish. This imparts a wonderful flavor and is a great way to stretch your bacon even further.
  • Cook an extra slice one evening and store in the refrigerator covered overnight. Add to your brown-bag sandwich the next day. What a treat.
  • Around my house, two to three slices of bacon is enough per person for dinner portions. If your crew is a bit more meat-eatin' than that, up it to four or so slices.
  • Combine baby spinach, sliced mushrooms, crumbled bacon, blue cheese, apple slices and an apple cider vinegar dressing for a delicious entree salad.
  • Toss good pasta with parmesan, arugula or spinach, bacon and olive oil.
  • Grilled cheese + apple slices + bacon = DINNER! (the apple and bacon go inside the sandwich)
  • Bacon, egg and biscuit sandwich is one our breakfast favorites around here.
  • Use cooked bacon as a pizza topping like this.
  • Use bacon to top soups. Here's an idea: Bake russet potatoes. Mash 'em, skins and all and combine with enough milk to make it a soup instead of mashed potatoes. Add salt and pepper. Add butter for more yummy. Then top with shredded cheddar and bacon.

16 February 2009

Feel Better

I know that just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a soup, so I had some reservations about mentioning soup again. Technically it's still winter, though, and pretty much every one seems to be recently over a cold or getting one. So, soup it is. Again.

My cousin Nathan visited last week to do some amazing carpentry work on our unfinished staircase. It looks great, and we're pleased -- even Seth! During his visit I had the chance to cook for him, which was fun. But somewhere along the way I lost my voice. Maybe I should take it as a hint. After a couple of days of practically no voice, I was feeling very much like I wanted someone to cook for me. I wanted to snuggle on the couch with a cup of hot tea and have some delicious soup.

In a slight fog, I managed to pull together a soup that took very little effort and made me feel a bit better. We ate our soup snuggled in the den watching "Get Smart." It was the perfect not-feeling-well movie. It was funny and didn't require any brain power to watch it. It's like for a couple of magical hours I was able to be on autopilot. And we even had a couple of chocolate cookies for dessert thanks to a chocolate craving I had earlier in the weekend.

Hope everyone else is feeling well. Spring cannot come soon enough!

Sausage and Fire Roasted Tomato Soup
1 (or 2) links of good Italian sausage, casing removed

1 medium onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled, quartered and sliced

1 28-ounce can of fire roasted tomatoes (I like Muir Glen Organic)

Approximately 3 cups of vegetable or chicken stock
2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 cups small or short-cut pasta

2 handfuls of spinach, chopped
Red pepper flakes to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

Brown and crumble sausage add onion and carrot, cooking until vegetables begin to soften. Add stock and deglaze the pot. Add canned tomatoes and paste. Bring to a slow boil, stirring occassionally and adjusting seasoning. Add pasta and continue to cook on a slow boil until pasta is al dente. Do not overcook the pasta as it will continue to cook in the soup once you turn off the heat. Just before serving, stir in the spinach. Top with parmesan and enjoy!

09 February 2009

Delicious combination

This post is about a pizza, but really, it's not about pizza. It's about what happens when you bring salty, sweet and tangy together in one bite. It's also about taking a few ordinary foods and making something that tastes extraordinary.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a pizza snob. I'll dig into a pepperoni pizza with red sauce and tons of cheese any day of the week. It's just that I make pizza at home about once a week, and I never seem to have the traditional pizza ingredients on hand. So instead, I top my pizza with whatever I've got around -- olive oil and parm are always in my kitchen, and that's a good start for any pizza, right?

The most recent pizza I made was topped with olive oil, parm, crumbled bacon, caramelized onions, pear and blue cheese. If that didn't sound good, then go call Domino's because I cannot help you.

The combination is delicious. Salty bacon and parmesan balance the sweet, ripe pear and caramelized onions, and the blue just adds enough of a bite to make the entire thing come together. These ingredients also pair nicely over pasta or even sandwiched between two pieces of good bread.

I hope this encourages other home cooks to think outside of the Pizza Supreme box. Getting creative with pizza isn't about taco pizzas or the 5-pounds-of-meat variety. It's about using what you have and being confident to try something a little bold. Try apple instead of pear or roasted red grapes. Add pesto instead of olive oil. Leave off the blue and add some argula instead for a little bite. Heck, good pizza dough, olive oil, parm and red pepper flakes is good -- I call 'em breadsticks!

Do what sounds good. And the only real rule to remember is to not use the Pizza Big Guys as the guide. A delicious pizza doesn't have to weigh in at 10 pounds or be covered in gooey cheese. In fact, the more simple it looks, the better it will probably taste. Red sauce and mozerella are not a requirement.

Try it just once. I bet you'll be hooked, too.

Here's the crust recipe I always use. It was given to me by my former neighbor Kim Mahan who owns a cooking school and catering business. I use it to either make two thin-crust pizzas (think pizza and bread sticks). If you don't need both crusts as once, you can freeze one.

Pizza Crust
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup of warm water
1 package (or 2 1/2 teaspoons) yeast
Olive Oil

The dough is easiest made in a food processor fitted with a dough blade. It can be made by hand, but expect a more consistent crust with food processor.

Combine flour and salt in the food processor. Add yeast to the warm water and stir to combine. Turn the processor on and pour the water mixture in slowly followed by a light drizzle of olive oil. Process until the dough forms a ball, then process for about 1 more minute. Remove dough from processor work bowl and place in a bowl at least double its size. Drizzle olive oil over top and smear around with your fingers. This will keep the dough from getting an outer crust on the dough ball. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a dish towel. Let the dough rise for approximately 1 to 2 hours, until it has doubled in size. Once dough has risen, use quickly or store in the refrigerator in tightly-wrapped plastic for about 1 day or freeze.

Bake crust (topped with pizza ingredients) for about 10 to 14 minutes (depending on the thickness) in a 450 degree oven. A pizza stone is best, but a cookie sheet would do.

02 February 2009

A Winter Treat

I don't like going to the grocery store. Don't get me wrong -- I love shopping for food. But when you combine a budget and those glowing lights and high ceilings, it just doesn't feel so fun. For a while I was writing a weekly menu and shopping exclusively for that menu. I dreaded writing the menus, and, while it took the thinking out of the nightly dinners, it also felt constraining at times. Maybe when Wednesday rolled around, I didn't feel like Turkey Meatloaf Patties. Or maybe it sounded good, but I just didn't have the energy.

Basically, I'm just not a planner. I simply operate better when I don't think and just do. Sometimes that makes for a very bad dinner. But thankfully, more often than not, it leads to something much better or more creative than if I'd planned the entire thing out a week in advance. Plus, I've noticed that I am being more resourceful with my pantry and not wasting as much (which is always the danger if you buy an ingredient with just one dish in mind).

This is how I came to know a beautiful dish I named Roasted Butternut Squash and Golden Beet Risotto. I guess I used all my creativity to make the dish, not name it.

I had a big squash awaiting my attention and decided to cube it and roast it one afternoon. I added the golden beets because I was afraid I might forget I had them if I didn't cook them at once. I wasn't quite sure what I'd do with the roasted veggies, but I knew if I took the time to roast them in the afternoon, a dinner would come much easier. As I reached in the cabinet for the polenta (anything on top of polenta makes a meal in my book), I noticed the Arborio rice. I instantly could picture a delicious golden risotto.

So, that's how the dish came about. It wasn't really very insightful, but wow, it was good. The roasted squash and beets take on a subtle sweetness, and the squash practically melts in to the dish while the beets maintain their cubed shape, making for a nice texture overall.

Of course the trick to a good risotto is paying attention and checking the grains during the cooking process. Otherwise, you could end up with a pile of mush. Another risotto tip is that if you'll be adding parm or another salty cheese, go easy on the seasoning until the end. It would be easy to over salt and turn all of your hard work into an inedible meal.

Oh, and in keeping with my latest trend, I topped my risotto with crumbled bacon. It was delicious, of course, but a vegetarian version would be just as delightful.

Roasted Butternut Squash and Golden Beet Risotto
1 large butternut squash, peeled and cubed

3 golden beets, peeled and cubed (reserve greens for garnish)

1 medium onion, diced

1, 32-ounce box of chicken or veg stock (Pacific is organic, easy to find and affordable)

2 cups Arborio rice
3/4 cup + finely grated parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil

Toss cubed squash and beets in olive oil, pepper and a pinch of salt. Liberally sprinkle baking dish with salt and add veggies. The salt on the pan will help keep veggies from sticking. Roast squash and beets in a 400 degree oven until a knife easily slides through. Be sure the squash and beets are all cubed to equal size, so cooking time will be even. Roasting will take approximately 25 minutes for a cube a little smaller than 1-inch. Once cooked through, remove and set aside. This step can be done ahead. Store covered in the refrigerator after completely cooled. Bring to room temperature before adding to final dish.

Pour stock into a sauce pan and heat over low heat. In a wide-bottomed pot, saute onion in olive oil. Add rice and cook over medium heat, stirring, until grains just begin to turn translucent on edges. Add a ladle or two full of stock to the rice and stir. Continue stirring and adding stock. There should be just enough stock to almost cover the grains. Do not add more until the stock has been absorbed. Continue this process, checking occassionally to see if the grains are cooked through. When they are nearly cooked through, go easy on the stock, trying to make sure that the liquid is cooked down at same time the rice is done. Add in parm and veggies and stir lightly until incorporated. Add seasoning to taste. More cheese could be added for a richer, saltier taste.
Serve immediately topped with additional cheese and garnish with chopped beet greens.

Alternate method: Top with bacon if desired. Cook bacon in wide-bottomed pot and saute onion in bacon drippings instead of olive oil.

This recipe will make approximately three to four meal-size portions or probably double that for a side dish.