29 March 2010

Comfort in the kitchen

Every morning Seth cooks himself a fried egg while I cook oatmeal. We're usually in the thick of keeping the boy and the dog from destroying the house while we both itemize the tasks ahead of us in the day. I enjoy this time, especially since it's usually the one meal we all share each day, but I still miss time in the kitchen with other women.

Every time I return home I find myself in my mother's kitchen and in my mother-in-law's kitchen chopping onions, cooking dinner all while we catch up, gossip and chat about this and that. It's one of the things I miss the most about living so far away from my family. That chance to be together in the kitchen with such casual purpose, just being ourselves.

Last night I hosted my book club girlfriends plus one nice, brave man who joined us as a guest. We had just read "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett about a racially divided town in the early 1960s and one junior league woman who sets out to tell the stories of the southern small town's hired help. My menu was a traditional nod to the culture with fried chicken, buttermilk mashed potatoes and cream gravy with a green salad with buttermilk ranch dressing and cornbread served with honey butter.

It sounded delicious, but by the time the guests started arriving, things took a downturn. I'd been up most of the previous night with a sick kid and spent most of the day wishing someone else would cook that meal. I was running behind and wasn't keeping my eye on the chicken while I should have. That's when my friend Kim stepped in. She finished unloading my dishwasher and then made the salad dressing. Then she started in on the gravy. We laughed about our goofs and came up with a few quick fixes while the others enjoyed a glass of wine and chatted in the other room.

In the end, the meal was fantastic. Not because of the food, but because a group of friends sat around the table and laughed the night away. It made me appreciate how nice it is to have good friends, and it made me remember how much I enjoy another woman's company in the kitchen. Whether it's drying dishes or trying not to burn gravy, it's so much more fun with a friend.

Here's one little recipe from the night. It's a fantastic cornbread recipe from Fannie Farmer and the delicious honey butter to serve it with. I hope you have someone to cook with soon. Everything is just a bit more fun when you have company.

Corn Bread
The Fannie Merritt Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook

Mix and sift together
3/4 cup corn meal
1 cup flour
1/3 cup sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 egg, well beaten
2 tablespoons shortening, melted*

Bake in a shallow buttered pan, 8 by 8 inches, at 425 degrees for 20 minutes.

*I used butter, but the book notes that butter, bacon fat, chicken fat or beef drippings can be used.

Honey Butter

1/2 stick butter, room temperature
2+ tablespoons honey

Combine the butter and honey in the bowl of a stand mixer and whip together until thoroughly combined. Taste for sweetness, add more honey as desired. Once honey butter is made, you can spoon it into a shallow bowl, fill molds with it and refrigerate or create a log and refrigerate. I filled a round mold to make a disc and placed the disk in a shallow bowl. Be sure the butter is soft when serving.

22 March 2010

The first day of spring

This weekend was one of those that reminded me the warmer days of summer cannot be too far away. It was about 70 degrees here Saturday with lots of sun, and, as if that was not enough, it was the opening weekend of the farmer's market. My apologies to my family in Oklahoma who suffered a cruel joke of a heaping snow on the first day of spring.

We spent our Saturday mostly in our backyard, working in our garden, so excited about the months to come. We just prepped the beds and transplanted some herbs that had overstayed their welcome. When you see how crazy mint grows, you'll laugh the rest of your life when you see a $4 bundle of it in the grocery store.

We also spent time doing things like this.

We got three chicks about a week ago and have been having fun watching them grow, literally, day to day. Jasper is cute and pulls his tiny lawn chair into the garage where we're keeping them for now and sets it up just outside their bin to watch them bounce around under the red light. On Saturday, we pulled them out into the yard for the first time. It was fun to watch them, although I think they were pretty scared at the expanse our tiny back yard must have appeared to them.

Before the sun sank too low, we fired up our Weber and grilled buffalo burgers and carrots tossed in olive oil and a Moroccan spice mix. Sharp shredded cheddar went atop the burgers and the carrots were tossed with arugula for a salad. It was a happy meal.

To tide us over, I pulled together a little snack. I suppose you could call it a dip or a salsa, but it seems most like a relish to me. It's simple and quick and so flexible, it can indeed find a place on your table through summer.

It's just diced avocado, a can of black beans, corn and lime juice. In the summer, I will no doubt serve up the same dish with cilantro from the garden, bright orange cherry tomatoes and sliced peppers. It's great with chips or put it atop rice, fish, chicken, tacos or quesadillas. It's addictive and simple, and you will not have to worry about leftovers. Promise.

Avocado, Black Bean and Corn Relish

1 ripe avocado, large dice

1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup of corn (rinsed canned or thawed frozen)
Juice of 1 small ripe lime

Coriander and salt to season

Combine ingredients and let stand at room temp for at least 10 to 15 minutes. Stir gently and serve immediately.

16 March 2010

Pesto Picnic

Things have been a little crazy around my house these days. In the past four days we've hosted my parents who are in town for a visit, bought three baby chickens which are now living in a Rubbermaid bin in my garage and made a late-night trip to the emergency room for a boy sick with croup.

Somewhere in there before the kid was sick, we squeezed in a trip to the zoo, and I needed a lunch that would feed four adults and a kid without much fuss. I thought given everything else that's going on, I'd just make it a theme to be fuss-free for a few days. This pasta dish is perfect for just such occasions. It's made straight from your pantry when you want something a little more upscale than a peanut butter and jelly. In fact, I made it when I catered my cousin's bridal luncheon and just topped it with grilled shrimp for a sophisticated feel.

So if you could use a recipe for a dish that can easily go from brown-bag lunch to Saturday entertaining, write this one down. And in full disclosure, in case it's not blatantly obvious, it's not my recipe any more than anyone owns a pesto recipe. This is just the way I make it.

Lemon Artichoke Pesto

1 pound pasta (I like a short-cut like rotini with lots of curls to scoop up pesto)
About 1/8 cup toasted pine nuts
About 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 can artichoke hearts, drained
Juice of 1 large lemon
1/4 cup, plus, olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Handful of arugula (or parsley or any other soft-leaf herb you like)

Cook pasta according to package directions. Once drained, toss in olive oil and let it cool. Set aside. Place the remaining ingredients in the work bowl of a food processor and whiz it all together until it combines, adding in additional olive oil until you get a consistency similar to a grainy mustard. Toss pasta in pesto and either serve immediately or refrigerate.

08 March 2010

Extraordinary, right at home

As a kid, I liked being the one at the table who was willing to try anything. Let me just make clear, though, that I'm not referring to my grandmother's aspic, and my family didn't really get past the Bible Belt in our car trips, so I'd never even heard of something like calamari. I'm talking about lamb fries, alligator and mushrooms. Yes, there was a time in my life when mushrooms seemed pretty exotic.

I might have thought I'd traveled to France, but nope, just Fort Worth, Texas. That's where my Uncle Tom and Aunt Glynis lived. I must have been in grade school, but I remember so very clearly watching Glynis cook sliced portabella mushrooms in a red wine sauce. She served them alongside steak. Everything at their house seemed a little extraordinary to me what with my older cousins, their bird and the way Santa once delivered My Little Ponies to me on Christmas morning at their house.

But those mushrooms were extraordinary. Tasting them flipped a little switch in my head, like etching in a permanent note that not all foods foreign to me were bad. Some of them, in fact, are delicious.

I'm guessing I would have gotten around to trying mushrooms whether or not Glynis made them that night for us, but I am so thankful I fell in love so early.

I now love buying wild mushrooms from a picker at my farmers' market, and I know enough to know that's the guy who knows how to cook a mushroom. Get one raw plucked from a salad bar, OK. But get one that's golden from a saute in butter with just a sprinkling of salt, and, Hell-o, Mushroom.

There is absolutely a right way to cook a mushroom, and too often cooks serve up a wet, dark mass that epitomizes the mush in mushroom. But cook them right, and you've got the start of something magical.

I made a mushroom soup last week that starts no less than 10 cups of sliced mushrooms, and just to note, the pre-sliced variety are too thick. Yeah, it's a lot of work, I suppose, but I guarantee if you taste a well cooked mushroom, it just might change your outlook on at least the rest of your day.

I worked in three batches, sauteing my mushrooms in butter and olive oil, giving them a chance release their liquid and them caramelize in it. The batches are so you don't crowd the mushrooms, which will get you a steamed, tasteless khaki blob. Much like cooking other veggies correctly, you can't stir these guys every five seconds either. They need time on the heat, in contact with pan, not sandwiched in an inch-thick layer or mushrooms. If they're cooked correctly, those 10 cups will turn in to no more than three.

The good news is that once you get the mushrooms cooked off, the rest of the soup comes together quite easily. It's a hearty, thick soup that is no doubt a meal, even for the meat eater.

There's not too much of winter left, so let's trot out those recipes that in just a few short weeks will seem (thankfully) out of season. Serve this soup with some delicious crusty bread and snuggle on the couch. You may not be going anywhere exotic, but those mushrooms just might make you feel extraordinary right at home.

Hungarian Mushroom Soup
Adapted from Old Wives Tale in Portland, Ore.

8 tablespoons butter
Roughly 6 - 8 tablespoons olive oil
Roughly 2 pounds mushrooms (such as crimini)
2 medium yellow onions, diced
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
5 cups milk, room temperature
5 tablespoons flour
1 cup sour cream, plus more, if desired
2 to 4 cups water
dried dill
salt and pepper

Thinly slice mushrooms, stems and all. In a heavy-bottomed, large pot, saute 1/3 of the mushrooms in about 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Saute until mushrooms are golden brown and the moisture has cooked off, about 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from pot and set aside. Work in batches, repeating until all of the mushrooms are cooked, remove from pot and set aside. In the same pot, saute the onions in a little olive oil. Once the onions are nearly cooked through, add the turmeric and paprika and continue cooking until onions are cooked. Remove from the pot and set aside with mushrooms. Add five tablespoons of butter to the empty pot and melt over medium heat. Once butter is melted, make a roux by adding flour and whisking for about two minutes while cooking. Then add the milk, whisking to bring together roux and milk. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a slow boil. Add mushrooms, onions and water, one cup at a time until desired consistency, to the milk mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and simmer on low heat for at least 30 minutes. Just before serving, finish with dried dill and stir in sour cream until soup is smooth.

Note: If you prefer, you can skip the roux steps and thicken the soup with a corn starch slurry, but the roux does produce a richer flavored soup.

You can give you soup another boost by adding a few chopped, dried mushrooms soaked in warm water. Then, use that soaking water to substitute the remaining water in the recipe.

01 March 2010

How could something so good be so simple?

Before I tell you about one of the most delicious dinners I've made recently, I wanted to share a recipe I found on the blog Orangette.

It's for oatmeal pancakes, and I have to say it's one of the -- if not the -- best pancake recipes I've ever eaten. And don't be turned off if you're not an oatmeal fan. Honestly, Seth would never have known there were oats in there if I hadn't told him. If you are, however, a fan of sweet, salty, buttery goodness, then warm the griddle. Check it out here, but do come back and read about my pasta dish.

So this pasta, it's the kind of quick meal that puts the whole 30-minute-meal phenomenon to shame. There are no gimmicks. It's simple and delicious, and very, very addictive.

I found this recipe a few weeks ago for Bagna Cauda Broccoli. Bagna cauda is the Italian sauce of olive oil, butter, garlic and anchovies, and if you don't believe my praises, believe that the Italians know a little something about simple and delicious.

I expanded on this recipe for some friends, tossing in cauliflower to the mix. Then one night last week when 5:30 rolled around, and I didn't have dinner on the stove, I reached for some spaghetti, cranked the oven and went to work.

I roasted some broccoli, cauliflower and carrots, cooked the pasta, made the sauce and tossed the whole mess together. There really are very few words to describe how great this dish is. I even used whole wheat pasta without batting an eye. It was unbelievable. Seriously. And the beauty of it is that the sauce takes only a couple of minutes to make. You could add any roasted veggies you want -- or none. Do add the nuts, though. Toss 'em in the dry skillet just before making the sauce to toast them slightly. I'm all about using one pan for many tasks. The dishwasher will thank you. And in my house, that's me.

Below is the recipe. And if you think you don't like anchovies, just squint your eyes and plow through this. When you're eating it, you won't even notice they're in there, and they add a salty taste that is surprisingly unfishy-like.

If you're feeling generous, share. If not, I'll understand.

Bagna Cauda Pasta

4 to 5 tablespoons butter
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

several garlic cloves, minced

4 or so anchovy fillets, mashed with the back of a fork

3 or so cups of veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower, onions or carrots, trimmed or diced

1 lemon, juiced

Splash of white wine

Handful of nuts such as pine nuts or walnuts

1/2 pound of spaghetti or other pasta

Olive oil

Parmesan cheese

S & P

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prep the veggies, cutting them all into similar size pieces so the roasting times will be the same for all. Toss veggies in olive oil to coat and season with salt and pepper. Spread them in a single layer onto a cookie sheet. Place in the hot oven until slightly browned and tender throughout (about 15 minutes if your pieces aren't too big).

Boil salted water for pasta, and cook until tender. In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast nuts, shaking the pan, careful not to burn them. Remove nuts and set aside. Now in the skillet, combine butter and olive oil and melt over medium heat. Once melted, add garlic and anchovies and cook, stirring for about three to four minutes. Add the lemon juice and white wine. Reduce over low heat for about four to five minutes then remove from heat.

Combine the pasta, veggies, nuts and sauce in a large mixing bowl and toss gently to coat. Top with finely grated Parmesan cheese and enjoy.