Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ringing in The New Year A Day Late

I know Rosh Hoshanna was Tuesday, but Tuesday night is dance class for me, so it was leftover city at our house that night. I could have made an early observation on Monday night, but I was just soooo eager to make the gnocchi and I wanted to make tomato sauce before my farmstand tomatoes went bad (as it was I had already lost one by Monday night). So I put off my New Year's Dinner till Wednesday.

I've said it many times before. I'm a gentile and I cook like one. I have no bubbe to teach me the right way to make traditional Jewish cuisine. My mother-in-law is a non-cook by her own admission (although I wouldn't know personally as she has never cooked me anything) and my husband's grandmother (said to be a fantastic cook) was dead before I ever had the pleasure of meeting her. This makes it especially difficult for me because I am The Disorder Cook. I have trouble sticking to recipes. I always want to play with things, so even if I try to use a traditional recipe, I often end up tweaking it and it becomes less authentic. I have no person to guide me to tell me the right way to do it.

For the past few years I have been making a chicken dish every Rosh Hoshanna that might not be authentic, but to me echoes the flavors of traditional cooking. It's a sweet chicken dish that consists of dried fruit, honey, and ginger. Sometimes it's tomato-based and somtimes it isn't. Sometimes I use wine, and sometimes I use cider. If it's not authentic, it is at least my way of wishing my husband a sweet new year.

Then there is the latke issue. Have I mentioned what a bad latke maker I am? I'm sure that I have done so a dozen or so times (/sarcasm). I know that latkes aren't necessary for Rosh Hoshanna - they are a Hanukah tradition after all - but I do have that big canister of matzah meal in the cabinet. It might be nice to use some of it up now.

I used to saute` spinach in butter and sprinkle it with nutmeg and dried cranberries. Then I realized that if I really wanted to be authentic, I wouldn't be mixing my dairy and meat. Bad Rachel! This year I made sauteed spinach again, but I used olive oil.

Anyway, I swore this year I would stop improvising and actually write down my New Year Chicken recipe so I would make my own Rosh Hoshanna food tradition once and for all.

My chicken recipe last night, which I hope to be the permanent one, consisted of wine, honey, ginger, cinnamon, and apricots. This is where I hit a slight snag. I only needed a handful of apricots for this dish. I usually like to shop on my lunch hour. However, due to road construction, when I tried to drive anywhere yesterday during lunchtime, there was a ton of traffic on the road. Stew Leonards is in walking distance of my office, so I decided to just go there. They have plenty of chicken and all of the vegetables I need, so I saw no reason not to go there.

I found my chicken, potatoes, onions, and spinach, and was only needing the apricots and the dried cranberries. Stew's has a whole wall of dried fruit. There is only one problem with it. Remember how I said I only needed a handful of dried fruit? This was the only container of dried apricots I could find.

I was miffed to say the least. This kind of stuff is expensive. Well, they had a captive audience, so I ended up shelling out their exhorbitant fees for more fruit than I can possibly eat. On my way out, I put a note in their suggestion box. Stew's in the kind of place where they assume everyone is shopping for a large family (the Westport Housewife demographic). Their shelf goods are wildly overpriced unless you plan to buy huge quantities.

Latkes are one thing I never wing. I am always looking for the perfect recipe. I got my latke recipe here. I like this because it lets you off the hook for grating the potatoes in a food processor. I suppose my use of the food processor to grate the potatoes is why my latkes never come out right. At least I'm sure that's what all the bubbes think.

See how I grated my potatoes. I'm sure the bubbes are cursing me now and will tell me this is why my latkes never turn out right.

Frying up in the pan.

The finished meal of chicken, latkes, and spinach sauteed with onions and dried cranberries.

Kevin loved the whole meal. He even loved the latkes. This man will eat a potato just about any way under the sun and still love it. I'm lucky that way.

The Meshhugge Shiksa's New Year Chicken

2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 tsp salt
Few grinds black pepper
1 tsp cinnamon
2 Tbl olive oil
1 cup white wine
1/4 cup honey
1 Tbl grated fresh ginger
1 cup chopped dried apricots

Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper and cinnamon on both sides. (I mixed salt, pepper, and cinnamon together in a small bowl and sprinkled on the combo for even distribution.) Heat olive oil in a large pan and place chicken in . Brown well on both sides.

Mix together wine, honey, and ginger. Add it to the pan and then add the apricots. Simmer chicken until cooked through.

Monday, September 29, 2008

More Cabinet Clean Out, Blog Inspirations, and Farm Stand Staples

I am continuing to work my way through the tons of excess stuff in my cabinet. Thanks to We Are Never Full I have decided to turn an unused bag of semolina into Roman style gnocchi. (Those folks are always giving me things to make for dinner.) I love gnocchi and I have always been intrigued by having baked instead of boiled dumplings. I knew they would be a surefire hit with the hubby too. He rarely meets a starch he doesn't like.

Amy and Jonny's recipe called for a cream and butter topping. Now I love that stuff as much as the next person, and initally planned to make them this way, but I ended up taking a different turn after spending some time in the country, viewing the last of summer's bounty at the farms and watching recent episodes of The Cooking Loft. There are still plentiful homegrown tomatoes everywhere, and this is the perfect time of year for making tomatoes into sauce now that the fruits are more mature and softer. Seeing Alex Guarnaschelli make a fresh tomato sauce on her show last week made me realize I should do a sauce while I still have time. She used yellow tomatoes in her recipes. I'm the classic type and stuck with red. I did use her idea of straining the seeds to get the extra juice out. She put rice wine vinegar in her sauce and I like to use white wine.

I started my recipe exactly was dictated in the We Are Never Full Recipe.

I'm not sure whether this reminded me of custard or gruel (or perhaps pate au choux)

Then when it came time to bake it, I topped it with parmiggiano reggiano and a few dabs of butter.

My sauce (or as my father would insist, gravy) bubbling on the stove, ready to be poured over)

Happiness on a plate.

I made a good call when I boiled the milk and semolina and thought it seemed custard like because the finished product also had a nice custard-like texture. It's quite a deviation from what one would traditionally consider gnocchi, but WANF points out that gnocchi have a long history and have been made in many different ways. However, you will never convince me that stale bread baked with tomato sauce is gnocchi.

The Short (dis)Order Cook's Fresh Tomato Sauce

8 good-sized red tomatoes
4 Tbl olive oil
Pinch of red pepper flakes
5 cloves garlic, sliced
4 shallots, finely diced
Pinch sugar
1/4 cup basil leaves
1/2 cup white wine

Have a bowl of ice water handy. Core the tomatoes and score an X into the bottom of each one. Place tomatoes in a pot of boiling water for 2 minutes or until the skin at the X looks like it's starting to pull away. Remove tomatoes and plunge into ice water. Skins should peel of easily.

Cut tomatoes in half and scoop out the seeds. Put the seeds through a sieve to press out the juice. Chop tomatoes coarsely.

Heat olive oil in a large pan. Add red pepper flakes, shallots, and garlic. Cook until soft and fragrant. Add tomatoes, juice, and sugar. Cook the tomatoes until they have fallen apart and the sauce isn't super chunky. Add basil

Carefully place your cooked tomatoes in a blender or food processor. Blend in white wine.

Serve with your favorite pasta.

A Clean-Out-The Cabinet Tart for Erika's Birthday

My friend Erika at work is awesome. She NEVER forgets my birthday. In the 9 years I have been with this company, she is the only person in my office who always remembers it and always tries to do something about it. (I forgive her for the one year she missed it when she was 6 months pregnant with her twins.) Sometimes she'll buy me a special dessert from the fancy bakery. Sometimes she'll bake something for me. Sometimes she'll even take me to lunch. Whatever the case, I can always rely on her for some kind of observation. Sadly, I don't get that from too many others I work with.

Her birthday is Thursday and she works from home most days since her twins were born, so I decided to make sure she had a special treat on the one day I know she is in the office. She deserves something in return for never forgetting my day.

It's apple season! It's time to start making the pies and tarts. I think apples and almonds rock together, so I also decided it was time to use up some more of that excess almond meal in the cabinet. I came up with an idea for a tart that would use the best of the season's fruits as well as almonds.

My invention was an Apple Almond Tart with a crust made from ground almonds and the apples would be topped with almond slices and amaretto. I'm always a little wary of making my own baking recipes, but this one was pretty good.

I love this gadget.

You know how some people artfully place their apple slices into their tarts? I'm not one of those people.
The finished product, booze and almond topped. The crust could have been a little less soggy, but otherwise, I thought it was pretty good.

Apple Almond Tart

1/2 cup almond meal
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 Tbl sugar
1 stick cold unsalted butter cut into pieces
2 Tbl cold water

Apple filling
2 pounds tart, firm apples
1 good shake ground cinnamon
2 tsp almond extract
1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup fruit-only apricot preserves
1/4 cup amaretto
1/2 cup sliced almonds

In the bowl of a food processor combine flour, almond meal, salt, and sugar until mixed. Add butter and pulse until it looks like course crumbs. Add water and pulse until dough begins to hold together. Gather into a ball and flatten into a dish. Refrigerate 30 minutes.

Meanwhile heat oven to 400 degrees and prepare apples. Peel core and slice the apples and toss with cinnamon, sugar, and almond extract.

Roll out dough and place in a 9" tart pan. Pile apples into shell. Be artistic if you would like to, but you can be rustic.

Bake for 45 minutes. Allow to cool.

Heat preserves and amaretto together until smooth and thick. Cool slightly and spread over apples in tart. Press the sliced almonds on top.

Slice and enjoy.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Recycling Leftovers with a Little Help From My Friends (and an award to boot)

I'll start this post by thanking the hilarious and brilliant Sue of Food Network Musings for bestowing the Yummy Blog award upon me. I am touched and honored.

I would like to pass this one to other bloggers whose blogs are always giving me inspiration, filling me with admiration, and making my mouth water.

First is Nik Snacks. Nikki is such a talented and informative cook. A woman, with multiple cooking jobs (I don't know how she does it all), she provides a wealth of food knowledge, and some danged yummy recipes to boot.

The next award goes to Peef and Lo of Burp! This is a blog that will get picky eaters to eat their vegetables. This blog is all about creative use of local fresh ingredients - and I do mean creative.

Finally, I want to give the award to Darius of Everyday Cooking. This is a guy who puts a creative spin on lots of classics, and you just know he'd be a blast to hang out with (oh and and he even gave me a little bit of inspiration today, so read on and find out how).

Please come and get your reward.

So, let's talk about dinner last night.

I had a few leftovers in the kitchen from earlier in the week. I had cooked a huge head of cauliflower when I roasted it to go with the steak. I also had some extra tomoatoes left over from my BLT salad. I decided to make like Robin Miller and morph them into a new dish.

Darius of Everyday Cooking did a really good post about a summery orzo salad. I took a cue from him and decided to make an orzo dish of my own using the vegetables on hand.

No recipe needed here. I'll just wing it with photos.

Start by chopping up the cauliflower into little pieces.

Splash the tomatoes with a little olive oil and sprinkle with salt and roast at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes or until they get a little burst and wrinkly.

Cook up a chicken breast and cut that into small strips.

Thinly slice an onion and slowly cook it over low heat until it's soft and golden.

Finally cook up two cups of orzo in a quart of chicken broth and let it all absorb like rice. Put it in a big bowl and add the chicken and veggies.

Now squeeze the juice of a lemon on it and stir in some chopped fresh parsley.

It's harder than one would expect artistically pose a lemon

Toss serve, and enjoy. A little grated parmesan on top will never hurt.

This dish is very versatile. You can use whatever vegetables you have lying around the house, or make it vegetarian. (Some cheese in place of chicken might be nice.) Don't think of this as a recipe. Think of it as a suggestion.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What a steak!

I've mentioned on many occasions that I'm out in the country every weekend, so I have such great access to all kinds of farm markets this time of year.

One of my many favorites is Green Valley Farm, on Route 23, somewhere between Sussex and Wantage. The stand is right on the farm, so you can really see exactly where your food came from. They also sell pies and honey and have a field full of cows.

About those cows...

Earlier this summer the stand had a big refrigerator in it with signs that said, "Coming soon - Our own beef." I was intrigued. While it's a little disturbing to think of those cows you seen contentedly grazing in the fields ending up on your plate, at least you know it didn't die in a commercial slaughterhouse. This was going to be beef closer to what nature intended. This was local cuisine that was as local as it could get (although I often remark how funny it is that I drive to NJ and Orange County in order to buy "local" food). I wanted to try a nice steak as soon as it was possible for me to do so.

Well, for various reasons, it hasn't been all that possible. Either I have other dinner plans where the steaks wouldn't really fit in, or I just haven't had time to go there and shop, or I'd be going by there on Sunday when they were closed. Sometimes I'd just forget a cooler to put them in for the long ride home.

This weekend I had a happy convergence of events. I was on the right road at the right time on the right day with a cooler full of ice in my car. I drove straight to Green Valley and bought myself a very reasonably priced NY Strip.

Come to Mama

Ever since I decided that I really wanted to buy a steak from Green Valley, I had made my decision as to how I would cook it. Green Valley began selling beef right around the same time I read this recipe on Sticky Gooey Creamy Chewy for Ribeye Steaks with a Spicy, Smoky, Cocoa Nibs rub.

Yay. And Yum.

The cocoa nibs cost me more than the steak did I think, but at least they'll last longer. Danged Whole Foods and their fancypants brands.

I used the rub and cooked the steak according to Susan's directions. I was tempted to use butter instead of oil in the pan, but decided that just for once, I'd pretend I care about my ateries.

My results?

This steak is the best steak I've ever had. Pardon the cliches, but this steak could melt in your mouth. You barely needed a knife to cut it. (I guess a good steak cliche always works.) I was afraid the flavor might be weird because grass-fed beef can get that way. I can assure you this steak tasted better than any grain-fed or grass-fed steak that has ever been on my plate. Susan's fantastic rub made it that much better. (How can you beat chocolate steak? I guess chocolate bacon would be a close call.)

Potatoes are the best accompaniment to steaks of course, so I decided to let one of my fellow bloggers help me out once more with the ongoing cabinet clean out project. I made the amazing Nik of Nik Snacks Cornmeal-Crusted Fries. I also made some roasted local cauliflower.

The red blob on the plate is a dipping sauce I made for the fries that consisted of tomato paste, cider vinegar, brown sugar, and sriracha.

I only bought one steak with the intention of cutting it in half and having the other half the next night. I wish I hadn't done that. Forget about the calories. I want a whole steak each night.

Don't worry about Sir Pickypants. He didn't starve to death because I made a steak. I made him a pistachio-crusted flounder filet. I coated a flounder with a mixture of ground pistachios, lemon, shallots, and panko then sauteed it in a little butter and oil.

He loved the fish and the fries and the cauliflower, but the dish looked so bland with so little color. Still, he really raved about everything. (Nik gets credit from both of us for the fries at this point.) It was only a minor consolation after the Jets game last night though.

My Version of the BLT

I've been seeing lots of BLT recipes among my blogfriends lately. There are plenty of creative variations out there ranging from using sugared bacon to using fried green tomatoes. There are all kinds of creative additions to them to like avocados and cheeses. This is the perfect time of year for BLTs of course because of the abundance of good Ts. Tomatoes are really what makes these sandwiches special right now (granted, nothing makes a sandwich special quite like bacon).

I decided I really wanted a BLT of my own. I decided that I would make something containing the B, the L, and the T, but I decided against doing a sandwich. I love a good sandwich, but I'm trying to keep my calorie counts low until my upcoming high school reunion, so I figured the two hundred bread calories could be eliminated from my creation. If it's a salad it's always healthful and and low calorie, right? ;-)

I made some additions of my own to my BLT salad. First, tomatoes aren't the only thing that are good this time of year. It's also all about the corn. I added some sauteed corn kernels to my salad. I also added some fresh mozzarella because what goes better with tomatoes?

This sort of thing doesn't need a recipe, so let's just get started on how I did it.

Bacon in the pan. That's always an auspicious start.

Look! I used the Bundt pan trick with the corn kernels.

Saute the corn kernel with some finely diced red onion. Did you just ask me if I used the bacon grease to saute the corn? Now why would I do something like that?

Down goes the fresh Pine Island lettuce.

Now for the tomatoes. I used these adorable little grape tomatoes from Green Valley Farm.

Panzarella brand fresh mozzarella. "Just like Italy" says the label. "The best mozzarella in the country, guaranteed" said the signs at Pennings Farm Market.

In go the corn kernels and bacon. All this needs is a little splash of your favorite balsamic vinaigrette and you're on your way.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Dinner to Join The Seasons

It's a confused time of year. It's still summer by the calendar. The weather is still warm and sunny and summer doesn't officially end for a week . Still, people have fall on their minds. The apples are pouring into the farmer's markets and the tweeds and plaids are showing up in the clothing catalogs.

The apples may be making their appearance, but the tomatoes of summer are still in abundance. It is in celebration of this strange convergence that inspired my dinner.

I decided to use the new apples and pears in an original chicken dish that was inspired by two sources. The first was that episode of The Cooking Loft reviewed a few posts ago. Alex Guarnaschelli made flattened chicken breasts with a marmalade sauce. I decided to make flattened chicken breast of my own, but I would make a totally different fruit sauce. My sauce was inspired by a fruit and red wine jam I saw in this most recent issue of Food & Wine. Their version had apples, pears, quince, and figs simmered in red wine and finished with hazelnuts. I removed the quince, added a caramelized onion, and simmered everything in apple cider and a little cider vinegar for tang.

I kept summer going with a side dish of a tomato gratin. I think all of my blogging friends can take credit for inspiring this one. I have seen plenty of great roasted tomato gratins around the blogs in the past few weeks. I suppose the closest one to the one I made was the one from We Are Never Full, which used sliced tomatoes. I sliced mine as well.

Sorry this is such a bad photo. I just couldn't seem to photograph this nicely.

I was a little irked when I went to the Food Network website looking for some precise cooking times for Guarnaschelli's chicken. The recipe has been removed. In fact, there are hardly any recipes available for her show. That knocks her down a few points in my book. I had to do some guesswork. Fortunately, the chicken breasts didn't end up overcooked or undercooked.

I liked the sauce, although the flavor was slightly sharper than I expected it to be. I am thinking of making this for my next dinner party, but I want to try some variations. I will mix the cider with brandy, add some sage, and reduce the amount of orange peel (I thought it was a little overpowering). I was surprised that Kevin liked it, but he did, so that's a ringing endorsement of the recipe. I was half expecting him to scrape the sauce off the chicken after one bite. He's not a lover of pears or apples and I was afraid he might find the tang of the vinegar to be too much for him.

Flattened Chicken with Fall Fruit Sauce
6 boneless, skin-on chicken breasts
1 Tbl butter
3 Tbl olive oil, divided
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 Granny Smith apples, sliced
2 Bartlett pears sliced
8 figs, quartered (Yes, I used figs again!)
4 cups apple cider
2 Tbl cider vinegar
2 bay leaves
Zest of one orange
1/2 cup chopped toasted hazelnuts

Heat butter and 1 Tbl oil in a saucepan over low and add onion. Cook until soft and brown. Add cider, orange peel, fruits,and bay leaves. Simmer for about 90 minutes or until the liquid has totally reduced down and the fruit has reach a thick jam-like consistency. Add hazelnuts.

Meanwhile heat two tablespoons of oil in a pan. Add chicken breasts skin-side down. Cover with a piece of aluminum foil and place a heavy, cast-iron skillet on top. Cook for about 20 minutes or until skin is nice and brown. Flip over and cook 5 minutes more.

Serve chicken breasts topped with fruit sauce.

The Short (dis)Order Cook's Tomato Gratin
2 pounds plum tomatoes, sliced (plums were the best looking ones at the farmer's market that I could afford)
6-8 garlic cloves
2 Tbl fresh thyme
1 handful fresh basil leaves
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup panko
1/2 cup grated cheese (I used a mix of romano and parmesan)

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Film a 9"x13" pan with cooking spray.
Mince garlic cloves with salt and thyme to make a paste.

Mix together the cheese and the panko.
Put a layer of tomato slices in the bottom of the pan. Spread half of the garlic paste over them. Scatter the basil leaves over them. Cover with one more layer of tomatoes. Spread the remaining garlic paste over them, scatter the remaining basil leaves, and then cover with the bread crumb and cheese mixture.

Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes, until cheese topping takes on a nice, toasty brown color.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sticky Gooey Creamy Chewy Blogaversary Event and Finding a Use for a New Herb

When it came time for spring planting this year, I headed to the nursery to buy my usual supply of herb and flower plants for my balcony garden. I was looking for the the stuff I always buy like rosemary and basil. My thyme plant comes back every year, so Ididn't need more than that, but some sage seemed like a nice addition. What I really hoped to get was some cilantro, or possibly some arugula.

Tony's Nursery in Larchmont, my favorite place to shop for plants, is quite large and never lets me down - or at least they haven't in the past. That's why I was shocked when I went there one fine spring day to discover that while they had rosemary, sage, and basil a-plenty there was not a single cilantro plant. I could not imagine what happened to the cilantro. Where was it? Why did Tony's, who has every herb in existence, not have cilantro?

Browsing the herbs looking for a suitable replacement, I stumbled across a plant called apricot hyssop. I had never used hyssop before (unless you count commercial herbs de Provence), but this plant had pretty peachy-pink flowers and smelled really nice. It smelled seductive. I bought it with the belief that I would find something to do with it eventually. Maybe I could make a sachet out of it, or brew it into a tea.

I took it home and planted it in a small pot. This was in May. We are halfway into September and I still haven't used it at all. The plant has grown to massive proportions and is begs to be used for something.

Along comes The Blogiversary Bash hosted by Sticky Gooey Creamy Chewy, in honor of her first year of blogging. The event centers around party foods. I thought it might be fun to create a new cocktail, but what kind? I'm such a sucker for big fruity cocktails, but I don't want to look like the Sandra Lee of the blogsphere by just throwing liqueurs into a glass.

Remember the plant?

Last night I went out on the balcony and took a look at the thing. I'm shocked it has even survived since it has completely outgrown the tiny pot I planted it in. I felt a little sorry for it. This plant was doing it's best to grow for me, despite my neglect, and I wasn't giving it any love. I pulled off a leaf and sniffed. It didn't smell as good as I remembered it smelling when I bought it at the nursery (who can blame it for not wanting to smell good when its scent went unappreciated all summer). I plucked off a bit of one of the flowers and sniffed. This was a stronger scent. I put the thing in my mouth and chewed it up a bit.


This flower tasted like candy - a sweet, light floral candy. How could I have spent the summer ignoring this taste? What was I thinking?

I knew what to do next. I would make a syrup out of this stuff and use it in my Blogiversary cocktail.

So what else would go into my new concoction?

I love this peach liqueur. I think it deserves to be in a special cocktail as well.

Since sparkling wine is always appropriate for a celebratory party, I decided some Proseco would be a perfect base for my new drink.

My poor plant was denuded as I stripped most of those flowers off of it to make sure my syrup had plenty of that flavor. I am such a plant abuser. I ignore it all summer and then rape it!

Now I now present my recipe...

Peach-Hyssop Sparkler
About 1/2 cup apricot hyssop flowers
1 cup sugar
2 cups water
1 cup Peach licquer
1 bottle Proseco or other sparkling wine

Bring water to a boil and pour over hyssop flowers. Leave to infuse until water is cool (30 minutes or so).

Strain the liquid and add sugar and bring to a boil. Allow sugar to dissolve and liquid to cook down a bit.

Put 1 oz. of the syrup and 2 oz. of the peach liquor in a glass. Fill the glass the rest of the way with Proseco. Stir gently and serve garnished with a peach slice or a sprig of hyssop as I did here.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Another Cabinet Cleanout Meal Inspired by Bloggers

I love making risotto and it's one of those things I currently have an excess of in the cabinet, so I decided to make risotto for dinner tonight.

This particular risotto meal was inspired by two very charming and inventive bloggers, Darius of Everyday Cooking and Proud Italian Cook. Both of them are very good at putting their own spin on the classics and have recently done these beautiful molded risottos (or should I say risotti?). They become my inspiration for my own molded risotto.

I used the Proud Italian Cook method, but I did an individual presentaion as Darius did. My filling ingredient was mushrooms, because I think mushrooms and risotto go really well together. To give the meal a little extra protein, I added a more radical touch: quail eggs (this year's ingredient obession).

Served on top of a bed of fresh greens dressed in a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar, it makes a very nice presentation, if I do say so myself.

Mushroom Risotto Cakes

For Rice
2 Tbl butter
2 Tbl olive oil
1 onion, diced small
2 cloves garlic, minced
1.5 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
3 cups chicken stock
Parmesan cheese galore

For Mushrooms
1 Tbl olive oil
2 minced cloves garlic
2 large shallots, minced
8 oz. mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup white wine
1 Tbl fresh thyme
8 Quail eggs, poached or fried, cooked to your preference.

Heat oven to 400 degress.

Heat stock to a simmer in a small saucepan and keep warm on the stove.

Prepare mushrooms. In a pan, heat olive oil and add shallots and garlic and cook till soft and fragrant. Add mushrooms to the pan and cook until soft and reduced. Add wine and fresh thyme and cook until the juices are mostly evaporated.

In a saucepan heat olive oil and butter and add onion and garlic, cooking until transparent. Add rice and stir to coat, cooking until they lose some of their opacity. Add wine and stir unti it is absorbed. Stir in a ladleful of broth and cook until absorbed. Keep adding broth and stirring until everything has been absorbed.

Stir mushroom mix into rice and add lots of parmesan. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Film 12 muffin tins with cooking spray and fill with risotto mixture. Place on cookie sheet and bake for 30 minutes.

Cook eggs to your liking.

When risotto is ready, invert 3 cakes onto a plate full of greens and top each with an egg.

Chances are good that the cakes won't be totally intact when you invert them. That's okay. The stuff is very moldable, so you can just stick it on top and flatten gently with a spatula.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Coming in Late to the Fig Party

It seems like figs have been the hip ingredient in the food blogsphere this summer. Many of my favorite blogs have featured fig recipes, and have encouraged all of us to experience the wonder that is figs.

I'm of two minds about figs. You see, I've never liked them much. My grandmother used to love snacking on dried figs, but they just didn't appeal to me. However, fresh figs are what everyone is raving about these days and I've never eaten them. There are plenty of fruits that I like in the fresh form that I'm not so crazy about in dried form (grapes, plums), so perhaps I might like fresh figs.

On the other hand I do have a very fond memory of Fig Newtons, which is probably your average American's most dominant fig experience. I was in college. I, and several members of the Advocates For Peace club headed to Washington D.C. in March of 1991 for a Desert Storm protest march. We were led by my favorite professor, a kind, intelligent, and sweet man named Gene Clemens who taught religion and was the club's advisor. It was a long day. I had never been to a D.C. protest march before. It was an uplifting and powerful experience, but it was also a tiring one. It was a chilly day. My feet were frozen by the end of it. I was also starving. There was no time to stop for lunch. At the conclusion of the march when we were gathered in the park for the speeches, several of us complained of hunger. Gene pulled a bag of Fig Newtons out of his bag and we eagerly ate them. To this day I think of how Fig Newtons sustained me that day and they remind me of Gene and they remind me of the importance of political action. For that alone, figs deserve a chance.

(He also gives me fond memories of hot pretzels. The club made a trip to NYC for something and our plans were rained out. We were sitting in the school van tired and grumpy, somewhere in the area of the South Street Seaport, when I spotted a pretzel vendor and noted that it smelled good. Gene trying so hard to keep our spirits up, said, "You want pretzels?" and ran out into the rain to buy pretzels for all of us.)

Rather than figure out what to do with figs myself, I decided to rely on those who have gone before me with their brilliant fig recipes. For tonight's dinner I chose Chicken with Figs from We Are Never Full, a blog that has provided me with quite a bit of inspiration in the past few months.

I didn't have too many worries that the dish would be good. Even if I didn't like figs as a standalone food, I thought the combination of flavors would still be good. It's Sir Pickypants that I was worried about. I couldn't help but be reminded of the last time I made a slow-cooking braised chicken recipe in the past. I made Ina Garten's Coq Au Vin and we know how that one turned out.

The first things I did was cut the chicken breasts off the bone and cut them in half. Pickypants doesn't like big, bone-in pieces of chicken. I also never put the bacon back into the pots and just sprinkled it over my portion. I didn't want him complaining about having to pick bacon out of his meal (as if a few bits of bacon would radically disrupt his digestive system).

Making it was pretty simple and straightforward. The recipe was organized in a way that I never felt as if I had to "catch up" to the next step. There was always time to prep the ingredients for the next step while the previous step was in progress. The smell of this dish while cooking is heavenly. The bacon fat, onion, garlic, and vegetables with the brandy made me want to just stick my face in the pot.

The resulting dish was pretty good. I just made one mistake.

I thought it would be good over polenta and polenta is one of those things I have an excess of right now (cabinet clean out meal). The problem is that I cooked far less polenta than I needed to soak up all of that sauce. It might not have mattered if I had served it properly. I just had this crazy idea that if I put all of the polenta down in one bowl and then threw all of the chicken on top of it, serving it family style, I would have fewer containers to deal with after dinner. My laziness bit me in the butt pretty hard.

Bad idea! The polenta was pretty much floating in the sauce. Kevin likened it to polenta soup. I should have spooned the polenta on the plate individually and spooned chicken and sauce over it.

I can't believe I'm showing you this photo of my grainy soup. You can tell this is my portion since I put the bacon on it.

We both thought it tasted pretty good. I was pleased to see Kevin reach for a second piece of chicken.

My verdict on figs is that they're not bad, but I won't go out of my way to eat them again. I would be more likely to eat them incorporated into a dish like this than I would eat them by themselves.

I would make this dish again, but I think I would use less chicken stock to help concentrate the flavors a bit.

Pie. Pie? PIE!

If you asked me to name my favorite things, my really super duper favorite things, I would likely name chocolate, bacon (really any pork products), cheese (except for blue cheese but especially mascarpone and fresh mozzarella), Nutella, and PIE.

I love pie. It's Heaven in a crust. There is just something about pie that makes people happy. Maybe it's the effort that goes into a homemade pie. Rolling out a crust and prepping fruit, or cooking custards aren't simple processes. Maybe it's pie's association with all things homey and patriotic ("American as apple pie"). I'm not sure what it is for me. I just love baking and eating pie. I love the contrast of crust against filling; the crunch of the crust against the squoosh of the cream, or the spicyness of the fruit.

The question is, do I love pie as much as these guys?

If you asked me what my favorite kind of pie is, I would really have to think about it. For cream pies do I prefer coconut over banana (and shouldn't chocolate trump them both)? I can never really be sure if my favorite fruit pie is cherry or blueberry. The only kinds of pies I don't like are mince, pumpkin, sweet potato, and shoofly. I'll eat most other kinds happily as long as they're good, tasty, well-made pies.

I've been baking pies since I was about 15 years old. For as long as I have been baking pies, I have been making my own crusts.

One would think I would be good at it by now.

Here is my problem. I can usually get a pretty good consistency on my pie crusts, but I can't get a good LOOKING pie crust. I just don't get how some people manage to roll out a perfectly intact, symmetrical, and beautifully crimped piecrust. My piecrusts are crooked and jumbled. They end up pieced together in the pie plate because I can rarely get the crust in the plate without breaking it. Adding the filling covers a multitude of sins of course and the rest just gets tucked and crimped, but my crimping is hardly beautiful either.

(I'm convinced every pie maker in this world secretly swaps out a ready-made piecrust. I just know it!) ;-)

I've learned that it's okay to add a little more water to the dough, which seems to help. I have also discovered the magic of silicone rolling mats, which make the dough much easier to rotate when rolling, and also easier to peel off the rolling surface to put it in the plate. Still my crusts are always a bit "rustic".

Anyway, I'll get to the point of this post. Depsite making a blueberry-peach galette and blueberry crumble bars this summer, I am still craving blueberry pie. Would you believe that despite my love of blueberry pie, I have never actually made one for myself?

Six people in my office are celebrating a birthday this week. I decided to celebrate this fact and indulge my craving and make a blueberry pie of my own.

Since Sweet Treat of the Week season is officially over, I didn't steal anyone's blog recipe, but used this one on Epicurious. I chose this recipe because it has a cornmeal crust, and we all know that I need to get rid of a lot of excess cornmeal from the kitchen overstock. (I didn't make the lemon cream though.)

Kevin and I had been out all day riding in (him) and volunteering for (both of us) horse trials at our barn all day, and then I insisted on stopping at the farm stands, so we got home on the late side. I wanted to get the pie started right away so I wouldn't be up all night baking, so I told him to go ahead and take a shower first. I'd start the piecrust and put the groceries away and get the berries prepped for the filling. I would shower while everything chilled. Actually, what I really said was, "I'll prep everything first and take a shower while everything has a change to refrigerate, and macerate and masticate and masturbate." Yep. I went there.

Rolling it out. Not bad. Have I mentioned how much I love this mat?

I am giving my readers a rare glimpse of something I don't normally let people see: my unfilled, raw piecrust. Note the multiple patch jobs

In go the berries. They macerated with sugar, lemon, cornstarch, and a little water.

Top crust goes on. Crimping sort of hides the sins beneath of a torn and ragged edge

Fresh hot pie out of the oven. There was a little blueberry leakage, but otherwise not bad.

So how did my first blueberry pie taste?

I thought it needed to be sweeter. That seems to be a curse for me this summer.

People were reluctant to try it at the office, although I made a note when I left it in the kitchen that it was meant to honor the birthdays of my six coworkers. Everyone thought that was very sweet of me. It still took a good two hours for someone to come along and cut it. I got glowing reviews from those who tried it, but I'm not sure any of the birthday people actually tried it.

I'm using up some more ingredients from the cabinet overstock tonight. Stay tuned...

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Checking out the Latest Food Network Offering

This morning I had a little free time on my hand, so I decided to check out The Cooking Loft with Alex Guarnaschelli. It seems that the Food Network has been trying out several dull and interchangeable female chefs/bimbos. Some stay and some go (did Mary Nolan last?) It will be interesting to see how this one does.

The show begins with Alex introducing herself. She's an executive restaurant chef who also runs a small cooking class. She tells us that today she is making her childhood favorite, fried chicken, and a flattened chicken breast with marmalade sauce. Then the class introduced. We learn the names of all of the participants and why they are there.

Alex is fairly no-nonsense. She's not unattractive, but she's pretty frumpy by FN standards. She ties back her hair and dresses in dark, pratical clothing. For the most part I like her. She doesn't try too hard like Rachael Ray, and unlike Mario Batali, she plays to the camera rather than to the people in the studio with her. She doesn't have too much attitude, although she does try to be cutesy at times with how she expresses herself. I checked out her bio and it's pretty impressive in terms of her education, pedigree (daughter of a cookbook author) and experience. She is also a cooking instructor at the ICE (where I hope to go one day), so unlike most of the folks at FN, she knows how to teach people how to cook.

She begins by cutting up a whole chicken. She considers this of utmost importance. Meh. I don't care if my pre-cut chicken parts don't all come from the same chicken and I'm willing to save a little time and not risk ruining hacking a chicken to a pulp. This is probably what I would do if I used this show as my guide to cutting up a whole chicken because she demonstrates how to do this rather quickly. She simply doesn't have enough time to really do a proper demo ala Alton Brown.

She says she feels pressured to be able to make chicken as well as her mother does. The theme of making chicken the way she remembers from her childhood is milked just a little too much.

After cutting up the chicken, she puts away the cutting board and very quickly washes her hands. Too quickly for my taste.

She uses sour cream to marinate the chicken. I found that intriguing. I usually use buttermilk. She fielded questions from her students pleasantly about other marinades. She mixes the sour cream with milk, promising us that it will look appetizing eventually, and then adds lots of mustard for flavor. I like to add hot sauce to my fried chicken marinade, so again, I found this an interesting departure. She puts the chicken in the fridge for a "sour cream spa nap". Then she gets her oil ready. She uses *gasp* shortening. She says it's because it tastes better, has a high smoke point, and is surprisingly light. She also says it's what her mother used.

Time for a commercial. I just learned Guy Fieri has a new show. It's a live show. Please, FN. Enough with the live shows. You got rid of Emeril, who is a much better chef than Guy. Now you're giving us Emeril Live with a chef who can't think beyond steak, nachos, tater tots, and Jap-Mex.

After the break, Alex brings out paper bags to coat the chicken in. She goes on and on about how this is how Mom coated the chicken and how paper bags remind her of her childhood and how the smell of paper bags makes her think of fried chicken. All of the students get their own paper bags to coat the chicken in. Coating is standard flour, salt, pepper, and paprika.

She tests the oil by sprinkling flour into it and makes cutesy comments about it. She then makes the more practical suggestion of 375 degrees. She never says how much oil is actually in the pan, or maybe she did when she first put it in and I was distracted by the mother stories.

Once the chicken is all in the pan she takes the bags from everyone and tells them to just flip their cutting boards over. What if there are traces of chicken on the boards? That was a little skeevy.

She has them chop oranges for the marmalade sauce for the other chicken dish. In a pan she heats honey with the seeds scraped from a vanilla bean. Then adds the sliced oranges and lets them cook down.

She turns the fried chicken over. I'm wondering how long it took.

We go to a commercial. I have this sudden realization. WHERE IS JAMIE OLIVER? This show is replacing Jamie!!!! What's worse is we have a new season of Sandra right after this show. They get rid of Jamie and give us more Sandra? I hate you Food Network!

Alex comes back from the break. She removes the fried chicken from the oil and let's it rest and sprinkles it with salt. She shows us her "finger wiggle" that she uses to spread salt evenly. She waxes poetic about the smell of paper bags again.

The marmalade is cooking and it's "hissing because it wants attention". She's not afraid to get cutesy again. She squeezes a lemon into the sauce, cut side up. My stomach starts to heave because it reminds me of Rachael Ray.

She gets out her new chicken breasts. These are bone-in with wing tips still attached and she makes more cutesy comments about them being handles or some such thing. She salts them and shows the finger wiggle thing again.

She browns the chicken in canola oil (yuck). I freaked out when she suddenly put a piece of foil on them. STEAMED??? No, pressed. She puts a cast iron pan on top of the foil.

She has everyone cut up some romaine lettuce and they eat the fried chicken before going to a commercial.

After the break she removes the frying pan from the chicken breasts. The look anemic, but she turns them over and they're beautifully browned on the other side.

She has the class slice some garlic and compliments them on their new knife skills. They wilt the romaine lettuce in some butter. She says that by doing this they remove the water and concentrate the flavor more. She tells them to sprinkle salt over the lettuce gently, "Like you're a romaine ballerina." They squeeze lemon over the greens and she compliments them on their lemon squeezing techniques.

Chicken breasts are served over the lettuce with the marmalade on top. The sauce seemed like it would be a little sweet for my taste (I would add a savory herb to it or maybe a little wine), but the class raved over it.

Not a bad show. The cook seemed to know what she was doing and cooked meals that didn't look difficult (one was more time consuming than the other) and were still homemade. The Food Network needs more shows like this. I like the idea of an experienced chef showing people that you don't have to cook like Rachael Ray to produce an easy meal. Anyone could make the chicken breast and orange dish and it didn't contain any crazy shortcuts or excess of ingredients.

I wonder how long this show will last.

I'd like it a lot more if Jamie were still on.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Final Sweet Treat of the Week

Summer is ending. Next week the dance and theater season starts again, so I won't have too many free nights at home to enjoy an evening of baking. That means my Weekly Sweet Treat (as stolen from other people's blogs) has come to and end. Don't despair (Maybe you're not despairing. You might be jumping for joy.) I'll still be baking, just not as often.

It certainly was fun searching around the blogsphere looking for recipes. Some of you had blogs full of recipes that I wanted to try and it was hard picking just one. I wanted to be fair and try as many blogs as possible, so I ended up never taking two recipes from the same blog. I did get some recipes from blogs that I hadn't been regularly visiting in the past, so this wasn't just a way to find new desserts, but it also gave me some great new reads. My Blogstalker list has grown this summer.

This week's Sweet Treat comes from the excellent blog, Fun and Food. Never has a vegetarian blog been able to set this carniverous girl's heart all a-twitter. There is so much delicious food there. The emphasis is on Indian food, which makes it very educational for me, but there are other Asian cuisines represented as well. It also includes a smattering of other cuisines from Italian to Mexican. Everything has emphasis on color and flavor. The photos are gorgeous. On top of that Mansi just seems so nice. You just want to go pop over to San Francisco and hang out with her for a while.

Mansi features several simple desserts on Fun and Food. Her recipes hit the spot when I just feel the need for something sweet, but don't want to do anything over the top. There are plenty of cookies and cakes that don't take long to make and use basic ingredients. I'd say they're a paritcularly good ending to a leisurely summer that is ending and turning into a hectic fall, so I decided this week I would try her Coconut Cookies.

I saw this recipe featured on the home page a few weeks ago, accompanied by a photo. When I saw it, I put it in the mental Rolodex for a possible future Sweet Treat. As coconut was one of those things I found in my kitchen reorganization, this week seemed like the perfect time to make it. Of course once I decided to actually make it, the recipe was no longer featured on the home page and I had to hunt for it. Thanks a lot! ;-)

I did make one adjustment to the recipe.

Can you tell what that adjustment is?

What can I say? I just couldn't help myself. Among the other disused and forgotten things in my cabinets, I had a bag of chocolate chips. (Don't ask me how a bag of chocolate chips ended up forgotten and disused in my cabinet. I just consider it one of life's mysteries.) Chocolate and coconut go so well together (the Mounds phenomenon) and I didn't have to buy any extra ingredients.

I melted a half cup of chocolate chips and then put them in a plastic baggie, cut off the tip of the baggies, and happily squirted it all over the cookies.

The cookies came out pretty well. They were a bit flat and very delicate. I actually froze them for an hour before packing them up to take to work because I was afraid they might fall apart on the trip. The other flaw in the recipe is that it didn't make enough! I wanted more! Next time I double it.

Despite their flatness, they had a wonderful cakey texture and rich taste. (How can anything with that much butter not taste good?) I received many compliments from coworkers about how pretty they looked. I received even more compliments about how good they tasted. The worst thing anyone said about them was that they looked like latkes. (One of the people to tell me that was my husband!)

All in all, an excellent final Sweet Treat for the summer.

On to Fall and new cooking and baking adventures!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The First Cabinet Clean Out Meal

Last night I made the very first effort to get use up hat excess stuff in the cabinet.

These are almond-crusted chicken strips with a side of brown rice with spinach and tomatoes.

The chicken recipe was insprired by something I saw in Kayln's Kitchen. I coated strips of chicken breast in a combination of mustard, mayonnaise, and chopped fresh sage. Then I coated them in almond meal seasoned with a little salt and pepper. They were roasted at 400 degrees until they were nicely golden. (That's all the recipe you're getting)

I cooked the brown rice. (BTW, Sue, I only combined the two packages of brown rice into one jar. I did not mix the white rice in with them. No need to worry.) While it cooked I sauteed a diced onion and a couple of minced garlic cloves in olive oil and tossed in a bag of baby spinach. I also tossed some cherry tomatoes in olive oil and salt and roasted them at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. I threw the tomatoes in the pan with the spinach and added some sherry. I put the new spinach-tomato mixture over the cooked rice.

Neither I nor Sir Pickypants likes mayonnaise, but we weren't bothered by the flavor of it in the chicken. The strips were a little dry (I overcooked them a bit), but the flavor was really good. He really loved them. The rice was a nice way to use up the overstock and it got some vegetables into us.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

An Almost Perfect Meal

Hope everyone here in the U.S. had a great long weekend. To avoid spending three days driving 70 miles back and forth to see the horses, we booked a room at a bed and breakfast and enjoyed a little mini vacation.

The greatest thing about staying out in Vernon for the weekend is that we're close to the Iron Forge Inn. Have you all grown tired of my telling you how much I love the Iron Forge Inn? I'm sure that everyone in the blogsphere and on the foodie forums is tired of me saying how much I love the Iron Forge Inn, but I don't care. I would shout it from the moutaintop so the whole world could hear if I could. I love it that much and I want everyone to know about it.

This is the first time I ever went there with a camera, so now I'm not just going to treat you to a description of my meal, I'm giving you photos too.

Our meal was wonderful until the very end, so read on and find out why...

It's even adorable from the outside. It's set back on a lonely country road. I'm amazed people find it.

We arrived for our 7 PM reservation and were seated in the cozy Lincoln Room. I tend to prefer the porch, but I guess they feel the Lincoln Room is more romantic for two people. We had a nice table in the corner near the fireplace.

We really are in the corner here, but Kevin doesn't seem to mind.

Right from the beginning there is a lot to be happy about. We had nice fruity cocktails and warm, fresh bread. Kevin drank an apple martini. I had something with melon and raspberry. As the desinated driver, I was cut off after this.

Next they brought out our complimentary amusee` bouche. This was a potato croquette sitting on a bed of goat cheese and drizzled with truffle honey. It was very delicious.

But no matter how hard we tried, Kevin and I just couldn't photograph it properly.

For our first course Kevin opted for a mixed greens salad topped with candied walnuts. It is supposed to have gorgonzola on it, but Sir Pickypants asked for it to be left off. (I can't blame him as I don't like gorgonzola either.)

I had ricotta gnocchi that were sauteed and served over a beef ragout. The gnocchi had nice crisp brown spots on them. They were light and fluffy and probably the best gnocchi I have ever eaten. The beef has a sweet spice going on. I could taste hints of cinnamon and possibly star anise.

I never did figure out what the long green thing on top was though.

Kevin had a monkfish special for his entree. I opted for a duck breast. The duck was a wee bit tough, but perfectly cooked in a way that reminded me of a grilled steak. There was a really nice charred area on the outside that had just the right amount of sweetness.

The duck strips rested on two potato "pierogis" that reminded me of mini knishes. Beneath that were cider glazed carrots. All of that sat in a pool of pureed almonds.

This is when things went downhill a bit.

We had a 7PM reservation. We were finished with our entrees at 8:05 and were commenting on how quickly we had been served, but that we had never felt rushed. Our meal was very well timed. It seemed that we jinxed ourselves.

Our server, who was very nice as all IFI employees are, brought us our dessert menus and took our orders. Kevin ordered a glass of muscat, while I chose an espresso. Our after-dinner beverages arrived eventually, but we still so no sign of dessert. The waitress apologized when she brought our drinks and said our desserts were coming, but we still didn't see them.

We continued waiting. The waitress came again and apologized and assured us our desserts were on their way. At this point, 20 minutes have gone by. It was 8:25. We joked that the Bellvale Creamery closed at 9 and if we left quickly, we could take a short drive up the moutain and get some ice cream.

Finally desserts arrived. We have no clue what held them up.

For me, a trio of creme brulee. There was coffee, chocolate, and a raspberry-vanilla.

Kevin opted for a simple parfait of ice cream splashed with Frangelico.

Need I tell you the Bellavale Creamery supplies the ice cream for this restaurant? Of course I don't.

Another delicious meal at my favorite restaurant. The dessert glitch was annoying, but the desserts were delicious, the setting beautiful, the service friendly and the meal, as creative and satisfying as always.

I can't wait to come back here for Kevin's birthday in October.