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Friday, October 21, 2011

Because I Have To Cook Again Sometime

After eating all of that fabulous food in Italy I swore I could never eat my own cooking again.  There are a couple of problems with that though.

1.  I have to eat to live.  So does my husband.
2.  I have a food blog, and food blogs aren't much use without content.

So this week I did have to drag myself back into the kitchen.

Since I am the (dis)Order cook, I do tend to do things backwards all over the kitchen.  I cook what I feel like cooking when I feel like cooking it, regardless of season.  If I want to make ice cream in January and fried chicken in June and soup in August, I will do just that .

I'm actually managing to get with the season right now.  Maybe Italy had a good influence on me.  After all, while I was there I ate vegetables grown on the farm and locally produced cheeses, eggs, and meats.  I was beginning to understand true seasonal food.

I have been thinking quite a bit about about stews and braises lately.  I want to expand my horizons with that type of cooking.  The only thing I ever braise are chickens because that's all my husband will eat, but I really want to try other meats.  It's time to make the effort and make two meals and start looking at ways to prepare lamb shanks (something I love to order in restaurants) or beef stew (like the one I had in Italy). 

Despite wanting to expand my horizons, I  wanted to start with chicken this week.  One of my favorite braised chicken recipes is my cider braised chicken with cream.  If I wanted to do another chicken braise, I should at least try a new recipe.

This month's issue of Food & Wine had an article about hard cider.  I went through one very brief period in my life where I drank hard cider.  I decided to try it when I was in Ireland 8 years ago.  I didn't love it, but it was better than beer and less fattening than Baileys or Irish coffee.  I haven't touched the stuff since.  Seeing the article made me think about how I might use it in my cooking.  Cider is a fall beverage and would be an interesting braising liquid for fall recipes.  It would be better than beer, but less sweet than sweet cider.

As an interesting coincidence is that the local Whole Paycheck was pushing a certain brand of hard cider in the Darien store this week.  I considered that fortunate and bought that very bottle.  The cook had to taste a bit before putting it in the pan.  This was sweeter than the cider I drank in Ireland, but still had a bit of bitter aftertaste that wasn't to my liking.  I knew I would rather cook with it than drink it.

I was braising chicken, which doesn't have a very strong flavor.  I needed to enhance my dish with things that could really stand up to the strong flavor of hard cider.

Bacon!

 Sausage!  (I used turkey sausage, but pork would be just as good)


Carrots, mushrooms, and lots of onions.

This ended up as one very tasty dish.  The flavor of the cider was sweeter and mellower after a good long braise and the chicken had great flavor without having to add a lot of unnecessary seasoning.  It had a lot of steps, but it was worth it.


It wasn't Italy, but it was good!  I served some braised swiss chard on the side (made me think of Italy) and some roasted potatoes (ditto).

Hard-Cider Braised Chicken and Sausage

  • 2 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into small pieces
  • 3 lb chicken pieces of your choice
  • 1 lb mild Italian sauasage (about 4 large links) cut into small links
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 large yellow onions, diced
  • 3 large carrots, cut into chunks
  • 10 oz. cremini mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 cups hard cider
  • Olive oil (as needed)
  • Chicken stock (as needed)
In a large saute pan or saucepan, cook bacon until crispy and fat renders out.  Drain off excess fat.  Set aside.

Brown the outside of the sausage links over medium heat.  Set aside.

If you feel your pan is too dry, add a little olive oil.  Sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper and add to the pan, skin-side down and brown well on both sides (about 5 minutes each).  Remove from pan.

Add your onion to the pan and saute until soft.  Add the carrots and cook them to allow them to take on a little color.  Add the mushrooms and cook until soft.

Add chicken and sausage back to the pan, nestling everything well among the vegetables.  Add the cider.  Simmer another 30 minutes.  If you need more liquid, add some chicken stock (or more cider!).

Serve with potatoes or noodles.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

I'm Back From Italy and I May Never Eat My Own Cooking Again!

I apologize in advance for the screwy formatting of this post.  Just when I thought Blogger had its act together on such matters, it goes haywire on me again.

What a fabulous trip I had!  It exceeded my expectations in every way.  I could not have had a more perfect 10th anniversary celebration.  Everything was fabulous.  This post will be about the food, of course, but you can read more detailed stories of the trip here, or just look at the full set of photos.

During our trip we did not eat out.  When I first planned this trip, I was actually a bit sad about this.  Restaurants are one of the best ways to explore a foreign country.  I had little trouble getting over that disappointment once we arrived.  The food on this trip was fabulous in every way.  Each day was full of wonderful home-cooked food from the farmhouse kitchen cooked by our host, Sadio, or their housekeeper/cook Gioia.  Most of the food was local, often coming from their own kitchen garden. 

Any regular reader of this blog knows of how I have to cook around the delicate widdle tum-tum of my darling husband, Sir Pickypants.  I never know the whims of his digestive system and often things that should be on his "safe" list leave him complaining of tummy trouble.  On top of that he is prone to migraines and has to be careful about his consumption of alcohol.

Not once on this trip did he complain of an upset stomach or a headache.  He ate cheese daily.  He drank wine - red wine - with abandon.  We both ate bread and pasta, undoing months of trying to see how removing these things from our diets might benefit us.  We were never healtheir.  Every day we ate this fabulous food and had energy to spare for hours spent in the saddle. 

It makes me wonder exactly what is in my food here in the States.  What are we all eating?  How is it being prepared?  That's why I concentrate as much as possible on fresh food these days.  When you spend time eating real food, you understand just how bad processed food is for you.  Your body knows what it needs and tells you in the subtlest of ways sometimes.

Rather than go day-by-day as I often do with vacations, I'll just showcase our meals.

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Breakfast

This was the simplest meal, eaten around the farmhouse table.  Every morning we had a selection of salame along with hard boiled eggs (often still warm).  We had homemade walnut bread daily with a selection of interesting jams.  There was cake as well and homemade yogurt.  Sometimes it was chocolate cake.  For two days we had a thin rustic cake topped with lemon curd. 





There was always a fruit bowl as well, served atop this charming table that had once been the farmhouse sink.
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Antipasto

Always served with table wine, sometimes served with an aperitif.  On chilly nights we ate them by the fire. 



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Lunch

When we rode the full day we had picnics in the fields.  There was always a cold pasta dish such as penne with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, or bowties with pesto, mozzarella and tomatoes.  One time we had spicy couscous instead.  There were always fresh garden tomatoes and a selection of local cheeses to accompany them.  The wine flowed freely. 



The days we rode half of the day we had lunch on the club house patio. 



One day it was ribollita.  Another day it was gnocchi with pecorino sauce, followed by a homemade pizza covered in cauliflower, pecorino and olives. 


On the last day lunch was this.  What's this Scooby Doo box about?
Pizza!  We decided to try the local pizzeria.  Sadio set the table with cute themed plates and we had an accompaniment of zucchini carpaccio.  My pizza was covered in prosciutto while my companions tried a caprese pizza with cherry tomatoes and an artichoke pizza.  The pizza had a very thin crust and a very nice quality cheese.  I am still pretty loyal to NY pizza though.  Italy may have invented pizza, but NY perfected it!

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Dinner

There were always two courses at dinner.  The first course usually pasta, but sometimes it was other types of starch.



Spaghetti pomodoro, followed by a lovely mixed grill of ribs, sausage and chicken (this was on my first night and it was quite a welcome to have several of my favorite foods on one plate!). The fried potatoes were so crispy, but Gioia doesn't disclose her secrets on how she got them that way. Also on the side was some braised swiss chard. They don't add much seasoning to it, so they encourage us to pour lots of olive oil over it.

Bread is typical Italian bread made without salt. It's quite bland, but once you get used to it, you understand it's meant to be eaten with the salty foods on the table.

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Chianti risotto followed by zucchini parimgiana (Sadio is a vegetarian and he tended to cook accordingly) and chick peas.  I like zucchini parmigiana more than eggplant parmigiana.  Then again, I like zucchini better than eggplant.
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Lasagne Bianche with zucchini followed by free-range beef stew and white beans with more of those crispy potatoes.   Kevin had local chicken sausage, which he shared with me. 

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Bowties with cauliflower and broccoli, followed by chicken saltimbocca. I had to apologize to Sadio about my issues with peas. He was cool with it and never cooked with peas again that week. (Our cauliflower pizza from lunch had olives on it and I had to explain that I wasn't fond of olives either. He said olives were, "big black peas." I think for the rest of my life I will refer to olives as "Big Black Peas.")

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Fettuccini with cherry tomato sauce followed by thin and delicate frittate.  One was made with onion and one was made with potatoes.  We had white beans on the side.
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Pasta in a simple sauce of garlic, oil, and parseley and then some stuffed turkey roulades.  The stuffing was made with eggs.
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Our last night was a lighter meal of Pappa Al Pomordoro (tomato and bread soup) and then eggs baked with asparagus and tomatoes (tomato version not shown).  The potatoes were thinly sliced and roasted with parsley this time.
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Dessert

We teneded to just have things like store-bought ice cream, but sometimes we would have biscotti with vin santo (sometimes we had that for lunch too!). 

We did make sure to buy gelato when we had an afternoon in Siena though.  I had my favorite - nocciola (hazelnut).

How about some chestnuts literally roasted on an open fire?

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Wine

This was a riding and wine-tasting tour, so we drank more than just the table wine served at meal times.

We joke that we drank wine with every meal except breakfast, but one day we came close to even having it for breakfast.  On our third day we rode to Arceno vineyards.  They sold mostly chianti wines with one more complex blend in the mix.  After tasting all four, I had trouble getting back on my horse.


Another day we went on foot to Castello Brolio.  This is the birthplace of Chianti wine . They have a much wider range of wines to try.  I went for a very robust chianti that day, while my husband stuck with an ice wine.


We rode to the organic vineyards of Pacina the next day.  They make a robust chianti, Collo Senese (named for the hills of Siena that surround them), a milder chianti, Secondo, named because it comes from younger vines less rooted in the soil, and a Syrah.  The Syrah grapes do surprisingly well in the dry, clay-like soil.  We were given a tour their cellars so we could see the winemaking process.




They gave us a bottle of Secondo for our picnic, which I loved.  We had a bottle of Collo Senese with dinner that night, which I found it a bit too oaky. 

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After eating all of this fabulous food it really is hard to want to eat anything else.  It's a good thing I have this blog so I am always challenged to keep going in the kitchen.

Donatella saw my interest in the food with all of my photographs and such and said I should open a trattoria back home.  At many of the meals she ate with us, she would say, "You can use this recipe for your trattoria."  Not a bad idea, but it would be hard to make such a place fly in a country where people think the Olive Garden is the pinnacle of Italian cuisine.

 Buon Appetito Everyone!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

One Last Dish Before I Go

My mind is completely and utterly focused on vacation right now.  Even before I leave for vacation I need to go out and celebrate 10 years of the Pickypants-(dis)Order alliance.  This is a big one.  We plan to go to the same restaurant where we celebrated number 7

So we go out on Thursday and leave for vacation on Friday, but we still have to eat the rest of the week.  That means I have to cook - or I suppose I should say that I should cook.  But what?  My brain is just too full to think of meals to make.

I went to the store and saw some pork tenderloins on sale.  I decided to grab one since they're one of my favorite meats.  I really didn't know what I wanted to do with them.  I bought some mushrooms.  I bought some onions.  I figured when it came time to cook I would know what to do with it all.

When it came time to cook and I started improvising, I wasn't intending to make a TERP-worthy recipe, but that's exactly what I did.  My pork dish ended up being so good I had to share it.

I started by coating the outside of the tenderloin with salt, pepper, and fresh thyme and searing it in a pan. I set it aside.



I cooked up some mushrooms, onions and garlic.  This is where it got interesting.  I decided to add some brandy, and also the cherry preserves I had left over from making the cherry-cream-cheese brownies over the weekend. 

I don't know why I prepared the pork this way, but I cut up the seared tenderloin and cooked the slices in the musrhoom mixture.  I really should have cut them into slices first before searing it all, or just cooked the tenderloin whole.  Not sure the texture of the meat was the best it could have been cooking it the way I did.  I also think I cooked it a bit too long though.



This is such a simple weeknight supper.  I was so surprised at how something I came up with on the fly when I'm totally distracted with other events could taste so good.  Make sure to use unsweetened cherry preserves with this.  I worried the dish might be too sweet and it wouldn't work against the mushrooms, but it wasn't.  This dish doesn't need any sugar though, so keep the cherries sugar-free.

Weeknight Pork Tenderloin

Ingredients

  •  1 pork tenderloin
  • 1 Tbl fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 tsp salt, divided
  • Few grinds black pepper
  • 2 Tbl olive oil
  • 1 onion, cut in medium dice
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 10 oz sliced cremini mushrooms
  • 5 sage leaves
  • 1/2 cup brandy
  • 1/2 cup cherry preserves
  • 5 fresh sage leaves
Roll the tenderloin in the salt, pepper, and thyme to coat it evenly.  Brown on all sides in a hot pan.  Set aside.

Lower the heat and add the olive oil to the pan.  Add the onions and the salt and cook until soft.  Add the garlic and cook another minute or two more until fragrant.  Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently until soft and browned. 

Mix together the brandy and the cherry preserves with the sage leaves.  Add to pan with mushrooms and onions and cook on medium-high heat for a minute or two.  Slice the tenderloin into thick slices and bring the sauce to a low simmer.  Cook an additional 10 minutes or until tenderloin slices are cooked through.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Oktoberfest Time!

Ah October.  What kinds of things do you think of when you think of October?  Hot cider? Colored leaves?  Short cool days?  Halloween?

How about Oktoberfest?

Yes, this weekend my theater group held a dinner dance fundraiser with an Oktoberfest theme.  We had all kinds of tradtional/stereotypical foods like chicken schnitzel, sauerkraut, spaetzle, cabbage, and bratwurst.  I got to be the girl who tapped the beer keg.  I even dressed for the occasion.  Later on that evening I entertained everyone (a very loose definition of "entertained") by belting out "Mein Herr".  A fun evening overall.


In addition to making a fool of myself with my singing and my clothes, I also helped out on the food end by providing some German-ish desserts. 

I made German Chocolate cake squares.  I found the recipe online and stuck to it. I also made these "Black Forest" bars.


I wasn't sure how to go about turning a black forest cake into a dessert that would be good finger food at a dessert buffet (a whole cake is kind of awkward and messy at these kinds of parties).  A traditional black forest cake is cherries, cream, and chocolate cake.

I decided to make it into a black forest style brownie.  I adapted a cream cheese brownie recipe (in this case one from Martha Stewart) with cherry jam and cherries.

I had orginally considered using plain canned or jarred cherries and putting the cherries themselves in the cream cheese part and using the liquid in the brownie part.  I used to be able to get jarred cherries at Whole Foods.  Unfortunately, they don't carry them anymore.  I had to come up with something else.

I mixed cherry jam into the cream cheese part and then spiked the cake part with frozen whole cherries that had been soaking in kirsch. 


I think I really need to keep sharp and making good desserts.  You seen, when other folks think of things that make them think of fall, they think "pumpkin".  That means every fall I am assaulted with pumpkin recipes on all of my favorite blogs.  I hate pumpkin.  I must do battle against the onslaught of pumpkin desserts with as much chocolate and apple (my nod to the season) as possible.  I will continue to recite my annual Fall Dessert Mantra: SQUASH IS NOT DESSERT!

Ah, that's better.  Here's the Black Forest recipe.  This may be the last post I make for a week or two since I'm leaving for Italy on Friday.  Have I mentioned I'm leaving for Italy on Friday?  BTW, I'm leaving for Italy on Friday.  And another thing, I'm leaving for Italy on Friday. Have I mentioned I'm leaving for Italy on Friday? (Can you tell I'm a little excited?)

Cherry-Cream-Cheese Brownies (Black Forest-y Type Brownies)

Ingredients
  • 1 pound frozen pitted cherries
  • ½ cup Kirsch
  • 1 stick plus 2 Tbl unsalted butter
  • 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 8 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 5 ounces cream cheese, room-temperature
  • 1 cup cherry preserves
  • 1 1/2 plus cups 2 Tbl sugar
  • 4 large eggs
Place cherries in a bowl. Toss with the kirsch and the 2 Tbl sugar. Allow to sit for an hour. Drain and reserve the liquid.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter a 9-inch square baking pan. Line bottom of the pan with parchment paper, making an overhang on two sides and then grease the paper.

In a small bowl, combine 1 cup flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt; set aside.

Place 1 stick butter and chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Heat until melted and smooth. Mix in 1 ¼ cups sugar. Add 3 of the eggs. Add flour mixture. You want to mix the ingredients until they are just moistened, but about halfway to that stage, gently stir in the cherries.

In another bowl whisk cream cheese with remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Whisk in 1/4 cup sugar, 1 egg, and 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour. Add in 2 Tbl of the cherry soaking liquid and the cherry preserves.

Drop spoonfuls of the brownie batter and the cream cheese mixture alternately into the prepared pan. Swirl with the tip of a sharp knife to marble.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, about 55-65 minutes. Cool in pan for 30 minutes on a rack. Carefully lift brownies out of the pan using the paper overhang and then allow to cool further on the rack on the paper. Cut into squares when completely cool.