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Friday, March 23, 2012

(FIVE) I Almost Missed my Blogiversary



I can't believe that as of yesterday, The Essential Rhubarb Pie is five years old!

I also can't believe I nearly forgot to observe the date. 



I'm not sure how long I expected this to last when I started my food blog, but it seems like only yesterday that I started and it's been 5 whole years!

I wish I had a more elaborate way of celebrating.  I would have loved to have done a blog event where I could have asked friends to contribute a virtual party recipe, or perhaps have had a giveaway - I do so badly want to do a giveaway.  Unfortuantely, as you can see by the dearth of new recipes - and by the fact that the actual blogiversary was yesterday - that I don't have much time for thinking about my blog these days.  I do hope that will eventually change, but for now, I do apologize for the lack of content.  I also apologize for the lack of a giveaway.  Another thing I don't have besides time is food companies wanting me to show off their products!



Just because I haven't been around much lately does not mean this blog is going anywhere.  Trust me, I intend to be around another 5 years.  Yes, my dear muffins, I do intend to torture you with bad puns, bad photography, and too many geek references for a good long time.

I was thinking about why this blog means so much to me. I have many hobbies, all of which are rather social.  I ride my horses and do my dance and theater and singing with other people.   I cook in isolation.  I can share the finished product with others and love doing so, but I'm always in the kitchen alone.  My husband doesn't cook.  My local friends don't cook - even most of my non-local friends don't cook.  I dont' have people I can share tips and recipes with and talk about food with.

Thanks to the food blog community I have a wonderful circle of new friends whom I can cook with virtually.  You are the people I share tips and recipes with.  You are the people from whom I draw most of my inspiration.  You are the reason I don't truly cook in isolation.

So I raise my virtual glass of champagne to you, my virtual foodie friends!  You are the ones that help me keep this blog going.  Here is a toast to you and to The Essential Rhubarb Pie!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Time for the Eatin' O' the Lamb

I'm not looking forward to St. Patrick's Day this year.  Even though I have a touch of Irish blood in me (my paternal grandfather was Irish), I think Americans make a bit too much of what is considered an important religious holiday in Ireland. 

It seems like here in the US it's just an excuse to drink too much - and Americans really don't need more excuses to drink to excess!  An Irish netpal of mine who posted for several years on the same internet forums I did, said in Ireland St. Patrick's Day is more like Thanksgiving than Mardi Gras.  It is celebrated with a quiet and special family dinner.  That hardly sounds like the chaos in the streets that we have in NYC.

There was a time when I protested St. Patrick's Day on the grounds that St. Patrick was no hero.  What's so great about supplanting the native religion and culture with Christianity?  Read Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon and St. Patrick is portrayed as a real jerk. 

I'm a little less cynical about the day these days.  After I took my trip to Ireland in 2003, I like anything that makes me think of Ireland.  While I'm not flat-out celebrating, I'm going with the flow a bit more.

This year I have a particular dread of St. Patrick's Day thanks to a certain establishment on my street called Molly Spillane's.  If you're a regular reader, you know I like to try to review all of the new restaurants in my neighborhood.  Although Molly's has been here a few years, you may notice I have never reviewed it. 

When Molly's was first under construction, it was hidden secretly under plywood for months.  None of us in the neighborhood could see exactly what they were doing in there or just how big the place would be.  When the planning board started sending notices of permit hearings to the local residents, we were told a "family restaurant" was moving into the space.  Most of the residents in my building (right across the street) had no issue with family restaurants.  We welcomed it.  We were all growing tired of the multiple pan-Asian places that kept moving in.  I liked the idea of a place where I could just get a drink and a burger. 

Once the plywood came down and the place was revealed, I grew even more excited.  It was a beautiful restaurant.  They put quite a bit of money and work into the place.  I could barely contain my excitement to try the place.

Then they had their official opening.  They opened with much fanfare.  Soon I learned this "family restaurant" had a giant party room upstairs.  You could rent it, but it also gave room for them to have bands and DJs on weekends.  The bar would be open until 4AM on weekends (unprecedented in this town where most places are dark by midnight).  The outdoor patio, which looked like an inviting place to dine, had a television screen where drunks could sit outside and watch the game. 

Despite the pretty decor, it is a truly trashy place with the trashiest, most obnoxious patrons possible.  It's a post-frat-house crowd.  Does a "family restaurant" need a bouncer?  Does a suburban town need a nightclub?

When the bands and DJs play, the noise permeates throughout the neighborhood.  Apartments in my building that face the restaurant find themselves unable to ever open their windows or sit out on their balconies on summer evenings.  Although my own place doesn't face the noise directly, I do often get to hear the noisy drunks shouting their conversations as they walk back to their cars.

Let's not forget about the cars.  I have a huge issue with Molly Spillane's and parking.  You see, my building only allots one parking space in the garage per apartment (unless you have a three-bedroom unit).  My husband has claimed the space.  I park in a municipal lot right behind the building.  I have to pay $500 a year to have that permit. Because of the lot's proximity to Molly Spillane's, people treat it like it's the Molly Spillane's parking lot.  Sometimes I'll come home after a long day to find Molly's patrons have taken every last space and taken it illegally.  I have to park two blocks away, which isn't a problem in nice weather, but if it's cold, or rainy, or I have a lot of stuff to carry, it's not fun.

The police turn a blind eye to it and rarely ever ticket cars at night, particularly not on weekends.  Every town noise ordinance has been ignored.  Every law about having outdoor entertainment or laws about bar and restaurant closings are somehow circumvented. I believe the police and the entire town government has been paid off.   I once complained on a local internet forum about how I can't go home easily when Molly's patrons illegally park in my lot, and some obnoxious guy bragged about how easy it was to get away with parking there and thanking me for paying the fee.  Yep, this is the classy type of person who goes to Molly Spillane's - the kind of people who steal from me and brag about it.  The owner of the restaurant owns a few more buildings on the block.  There is little we can do to stop him. 

What's really distressing is that the noise complaints have become so infamous on the side of my building that faces the restaurant that when potential buyers want to look for places in my building, they ask, "What side of the building is the apartment on?"  Ultimately, it's bringing down the value of our homes. 

What's the most important thing about a restaurant?  The food of course.  I've never heard anyone say the food is anything better than passable, with some people having a fondness for the burgers.  I see the Sysco truck pull up and unload there every morning when I head out to the gym.  You certainly don't go to Molly Spillane's for fine dining!

So this year St. Patrick's Day is on a Saturday night.  Molly Spillane's tries to sell itself as an Irish establishment.  It's a huge party place.  I can't imagine that chaos in the streets that will prevail on Saturday night.  I think it would be a good weekend to get out of town.  Since that's not likely to happen, I will have to hole up in my place and hope for the best.  It might be a good night to order takeout instead of going out as we usually do on Saturday nights.  I know I will not be moving my car all day.  Kevin can do all of the driving because I know someone will want my parking space if I leave it.

Ahhh...I think I have wanted to get that rant off my chest for a while.  Here I was wanting to talk about my quasi-St. Patricks' Day recipe and instead I go off on a rant.  I think this rant was long overdue for this blog though. 

(I'm wondering if Molly's has internet spies and if this blog will be deluged by supporters.  It seems whenever there is a complaint about the place whether online, in the town board meetings, or in the papers, there are always a bunch of plants saying how great the place is and what an asset it is to the town and how it would be a ghost town without Molly's.  Yeah.  Whatever!)

So what about recipes? 

Lamb stew is a very traditional Irish dish.   I have said many times before that I am not a huge fan of stew, but I do love a good braised lamb shank.  I have been wanting to make that for a long time now, but lamb shanks never seem to be available when I want them. 

The first half of this week wasn't exactly soup and stew weather. It seemed if as spring were arriving early. Wouldn't you know it that today the temps dropped back down to typical March weather? It seemed everything was in place for a good lamb braise.

I was in luck as I finally found shanks at Whole Paycheck yesterday.  They had three different varieties.  Two of them were from New Zealand, but they had local ones as well.  I decided the local ones would be the most politically correct.  I was going to buy two, but these shanks were HUGE.  I knew I could get two meals out of one shank.
If this is from a lamb, how big would the sheep be if it had grown up?  Megasheep!

I browned  carrots with onions, garlic and some fennel.  I decided to use fennel instead of celery because I love the flavor of fennel so much and wanted to see how that would affect the taste of the dish.  After they browned I added some tomato paste and then I pureed the veggies together.  I decided I would really make the veggies part of the sauce.  Did I mention I used bacon as the base?
The shank was browned and then went into the pot with some homemade beef stock (last night I simmered some roasted marrow bones with carrots, celery, parsley, and a bay leaf for my very first beef stock), red wine, bay leaves, thyme, rosemary and the veggie puree.


The resulting dish was delicious!  The fennel in the sauce made the flavor just a bit unique.  I had quite a bit of leftover cooking liquid.  I decided to freeze it and use it for future braises. You can cook a lot more than just one big lamb shank in this liquid, so feel free to throw a few more in the pot if you try this recipe.


Happy St. Patrick's Day!

The Short (dis)Order Cook's Braised Lamb Shanks

Ingredients
  • 2-4 pounds lamb shanks
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 strips bacon, cut into small pieces
  • 3 medium carrots, but into chunks
  • 1 large onion cut in large dice
  • 1 small fennel blub, cut into chunks
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbl tomato paste
  • 2 cups beef stock
  • 2 cups red wine (I used petite syrah)
  • A few sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 2 bay leaves
Heat oven to 300 degrees.

In a large pot, cook bacon down till crisp and fat is rendered.  Drain off some of the excess fat  and add the carrots to the pot.  Once they start to take on some color add the the fennel and the onion.  When they soften, add the garlic and cook another minute. 

Place the bacon and vegetables in a food processor with the tomato paste.  Puree until fairly smooth.

In the same pot brown the lamb shanks well on all sides.  Add the wine, stock, veggie puree, rosemary, thyme and bay leaves.  Cover the pot and place in oven.  Cook for 2 hours.  Uncover the pot and cook 30 minutes more.  Remove herb sprigs and bay leaves if you can fish them out, and serve.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Digging Deeper into the Liquor Cabinet

Did that just make me sound like an alcoholic or something?  One of the quirks of being on Facebook far more often than I should is that it convinces me that all of my friends are alcoholics.  People do dearly love to talk about drinking.  Even I probably sound like a huge lush on Facebook and I rarely drink more than a couple of glasses of wine or a cocktail on weekends.

Booze does make for great pan sauces though.  Many spirits I don't normally enjoy straight up make regular appearances in my dinner. 

I have been falling into another rut.  I know I haven't been posting many new recipes lately.  I have found myself in another creativity lag. Plus this spring is turning out to be a very busy one for me.  I haven't had time to sit down and draft new recipes.  I cook large amounts of my favorite standbys and eat them over two or three nights between work and dance classes and singing classes and theater group board meetings and trips to the gym. I need something fresh before TERP grows stale.

I decided that for my next new recipe I would look into the liquor cabinet and use a liquor I had never cooked with before.  I found that was harder than I had thought it would be.  I've done bourbon, brandy, port, sherry, and rum.  What was left? Vodka?  I don't know what to make with vodka other than penne vodka and Jello shots.  Scotch?  Ick! Most of what I have in my cabinet other than the basic spirits is sweet liqueurs.  Would they be too sweet for a savory dinner?


I decided to go with Cointreau.  Citrus flavors go well with meats.  I could use it with pork.  People cook pork with far sweeter substances than Cointreau.  I've seen pork cooked with root beer and Dr. Pepper . Surely Cointreau wouldn't be too sickeningly sweet.

I searched the web and found that most Cointreau pork recipes were even sweeter as they veered into barbecue sauce territory and contained ingredients like ketchup and molasses.  (Now that I think of it, Cointreau would be great in a barbecue sauce.  That's just not what I was looking for in my recipe.)  Other recipes had more of an Asian or tropical flair.  Again, I just wasn't feeling that.

I wanted to keep this as fresh tasting and savory as possible, so I tried some different ingredients.

Caramelized onions. 


Also some thyme, rosemary, fresh OJ, and orange zest.


The flavor was really intense here.  The onions were delicious glazed with the sauce.  I don't think it was too sweet either.  I would definitely try this on chicken as well.

Cointreau Pork Chops

Ingredients
  • 2-4 thick cut boneless pork loin chops
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 Tbl olive oil
  • Juice and zest of one orange
  • 1/2 cup Cointreau
  • 1 Tbl chopped fresh rosemary
  • 1 Tbl fresh thyme leaves
  • Salt and pepper
Heat olive oil over low heat in large skillet.  Add the onions and cook over low heat until very soft, sweet, and golden - about 30 minutes.  Remove from pan and set aside.

Increase heat to medium.  Sprinkle chops with salt and pepper.  Brown well on both sides.  Add juice, herbs, and Cointreau to the pan.  Simmer for about 15 minutes or until cooked through.  If the sauce reduces too much, add a little chicken broth.

Remove chops from pan and keep warm.  Simmer sauce a few minutes more to reduce.  Adjust for seasonings.

Pour sauce over pork chops and serve.