Monday, November 14, 2016

A Sweet New Chili For Chilly Days

When people say they love fall, do they include the month of November?  When I think about November, I can't relate it to the basic blather about fall leaves and crunchy air.  November is just a cold, dark, prelude to winter.  Daylight Saving Time is over and every day grows painfully shorter.  The pretty leaves have fallen from the trees.  The weather is cold and sometimes even wintry.  Other than Thanksgiving, November has few redeeming qualities (unless you are one of my friends who was born in November of course).

Food bloggers are eternal optimists though.  Whatever unpleasantness exists outside, a food blogger will always spin it as inspiration to cook.  Is the weather cold and the sky dark?  Well that's all the more reason to cook up comfort food.  If the only fresh vegetable available is a root vegetable, let's find a creative way to cook it.

As a master cynic who tends to shun the cliches of the season, I'm not immune to the need for comfort food on a cold dark day.  I spend my weekends outdoors no matter what the season and I appreciate a warm, heavy, meal at the end of the day. 

Since I am out all day on weekends, my slow cooker has been helpful in allowing me to eat more home-cooked meals.  It used to be when I would come home from a long day with the horses, I wouldn't feel like cooking. That meant putting on decent clothes and going back out into the cold to a restaurant.   My slow cooker makes it possible for me to sit down to a hot meal with no waiting and I can wear what I want and stay warm.  It can be challenging coming up with new recipes for it.  How many times can I make my standard turkey chili?  (Not enough if you're my husband.  My standard turkey chili is one of his favorites.)

Chili is such an easy dish to make and it offers so many variations (unless you're a Texas chili purist and I am cool with that).  I am so picky about how I like my chili that I don't go too far from my standard formula.  When trying to come up with a new chili recipe, I do try to remember what my standards are for chili and how will the recipe follow them.

1.  It must be meaty (unless I'm making a vegetarian chili of course).
2.  It must have a thick, substantial sauce.  I want a stew and not Sloppy Joes.
3.  It must be spicy
4  It can't contain vegetables other than tomatoes, onions, garlic, and hot peppers. Most vegetables turn limp, slimy, and unappetizing after long cooking.

There are many regional variations for chili and I doubt I'll ever really know them all.  I know Texas chili is made from stew meat cooked in hot peppers with no beans.  I know Cincinnati chili is made with ground meat and sweet spices and served over spaghetti.  Until recently I never knew Vermont had its own version of chili.  It was no surprise it featured Vermont's most famous ingredient - maple syrup.

What chili recipe would scream "Fall Comfort Food" more than one made with maple syrup?  (Don't say a chili recipe with pumpkin or butternut squash please.) Even though I say I don't like my chili to be sweet, I became curious about a sweet-spicy chili.

 In order to be more health conscious in recent years, I usually double the amount of beans and cut the meat in half (reversing my classic recipe).  For this recipe I put a little meat back in.   I only used one package of turkey, but I added some sweet sausages. There is a vendor at my local farmers' market who makes the most creative homemade sausages.   I used smoky spices to complement the sweetness and did not add my traditional lethal mix of hot peppers.  Some dried chili powder and a single jalapeno were sufficient.

I added a bit of Jack cheese (leftover from the tortilla frittata night) and served some necessary homemade cornbread on the side. 

I find after I spend time cooking something new, I have a hard time tasting it objectively.  My taste buds grow weary after hovering over the same pot.  I wasn't sure this tasted too different from my regular chili recipe.  I didn't think the sweetness of the maple syrup and the smokiness of the spices came through.  My more objective husband assured me this didn't taste like my regular chili, but that it did taste good.

Spicy Sweet Maple Chili

  • 1 Tbl oil 
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 1-2 jalapeno peppers (according to taste) seeded and chopped
  • 1lb ground turkey meat
  • 4 links sweet sausage (such as apple breakfast sausage) cut up into chunks (fresh or pre-cooked)
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 Tbl chipotle powder
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 4 cloves garlic 
  • 1 15 oz. can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 15 oz. can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 20 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • Salt to taste
Heat oil in a large pan.  Add onions and cook until they soften.  Add the cinnamon, paprika, and chipotle powder and stir to coat the onions.  Cook until very fragrant.  Add the garlic and jalapeno and continue cooking until the pepper softens a bit.  Add the sausage if you are not using pre-cooked sausage and cook until lightly browned.  Add the turkey, breaking it up as you put it in the pan and cook until browned.

Mix together maple syrup and tomatoes.  Add these to the pan along with the beans.

You can continue to simmer this on the stove top for another hour, or transfer to a slow cooker and let it cook on low for 4 hours.  Serve with shredded cheese and a side of cornbread.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Return of Casual Friday - Tortilla Frittata

I noticed I haven't done a Casual Friday post for a long time.  For those of you unfamiliar with this type of post, Casual Friday is the kind of meal I make on a Friday evening when I have to cook, but don't want to make a huge effort.

Frittata is one of my go-to meals for when I don't feel much like cooking.  There are few things simpler than throwing some eggs and tasty bits of this and that in a pan.  This week I decided to have some fun and use something other than the standard vegetables and cheese.  I went with a Mexican theme and added whole tortillas.

I left the tortillas whole creating a sort of layered dish.  I would almost call this an egg-adilla, but that just sounds too corny.  Besides, unlike breakfast burritos or quesadillas, I had tortillas in the eggs and not eggs in the tortillas.

For my version I used (store-bought) fresh salsa made with tomatoes, onion, jalapenos, and cilantro along with plenty of Monterrey Jack cheese.  For my husband's  serving, I just used the salsa.  I think you could also do some sauteed peppers, onions, and tomatoes, or beans (whole or refried), or chorizo.  Really just add whatever you want to add.

I suppose if I cut the tortillas into strips this would more closely resemble migas, but I liked the aesthetic of a whole tortilla.  In order to keep the tortillas centered within the egg, I cooked one serving at a time in a small pan.

I'm not going to give an actual recipe because this is a truly free-from dish.   However, I will show how I did it and hope I can provide some inspiration for your future Casual Fridays.

I heated some oil in a small pan over medium heat and added my first tortilla layer in the pan.  Salsa and cheese went on top of the tortilla.  Yes, I know I should have shredded my cheese.  It's Friday and I don't want to be bothered.

I put a second tortilla on top of the salsa layer and repeated the process with more salsa and cheese.  Then I capped it off with one more tortilla and a bit more cheese.

I added 3 eggs to the pan over the top of all the tortillas.  It would look  more charming if the eggs didn't flow around the tortilla stack, but how a food looks is irrelevant on Casual Friday.

I let the eggs sit for a while.  When the edges were set, I would lift the edge up and tilt the pan to allow the uncooked eggs on top to flow to the bottom of the pan and cook.

 Once most of the excess liquid egg was gone from the top I put the frittata under the broiler for 3 minutes until set, puffed, and golden.

Invert on a plate for a pyramid effect and put a bit more salsa on top.

Eggs, gooey, cheese, spicy salsa, and the corn flavor of tortillas.  It's a great and easy combination.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

October is Celebration Time!

Ah Fall!  The cooler weather!   The changing leaves .  The apple orchards.   The cute boots and sweaters! The pumpkin pie.

Dear Lord, I hate it!

The reality?

The cooler weather!  (Hey, it's cold outside and I can't go swimming.)

The changing leaves! (Those gosh-darned leaf peepers create traffic jams every weekend.)

The apple orchards! (I would laugh at the apple pickers fighting for parking spaces at the orchards and then paying for the privilege of doing manual labor while the owners of the orchards laugh, but they are also responsible for those traffic jams.)

The cute boots and sweaters!  (Why would I want to confine my body in heavy clothing.  Can I have a sundress and some cute sandals please?)

The pumpkin pie!  (Do I need to explain this one?)

I'm also tired of the hype of Halloween.  The older I get, the less into Halloween I am.  I couldn't figure out what made me such a Halloween Grinch.  Then I read this article.  Item number one was the reason in a nutshell.  Halloween is too much investment of time and money with too little return.  

I don't really hate the season.  I have stated this on both of my blogs many times before.  I have three issues with the season called autumn.  The first is that it's not summer. I love warm weather (SWIMMING), long days, and farmers' markets filled to brimming.  I hate seeing summer end.  The second is I hate the hype.  I'm just sick of hearing people (and maybe I should just bluntly say women) doing the basic blather about how wonderful fall is and how it's their favorite season and all the accompanying drivel about cozy sweaters and changing leaves (no one seems to notice how short the days are).  Then of course there is my distaste for that giant nasty-tasting orange squash known as pumpkin.

For any other fellow pumpkin haters out there, I want to reassure you this blog always has been, and always will be a pumpkin-free zone.  On this blog you will not see any pumpkin pie, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup, pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin cake, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin jam, pumpkin pickles, pumpkin salad, pumpkin candles, pumpkin deodorant, or pumpkin mouthwash.  Consider this blog a "safe space" for pumpkin haters.

I remain convinced most pumpkin lovers don't really love pumpkin.  It's the stuff used to flavor pumpkin that most people love.  They love cinnamon and nutmeg and allspice and brown sugar.  Does anyone gut a jack-o-lantern and think, "Yum.  This looks delicious?"  My guess is they feel as nauseated as I do when I'm gutting a pumpkin.  It's pretty nasty stuff.

So fall foods may not be my favorites, but at least the next few weeks will still have choice products at the farmers' markets.  While I am losing some of my favorites (corn), I'm gaining a few others like carrots, peppers, broccoli, and cauliflower.   I can still have big family occasion dinners filled with farm fresh produce.

October may be tragically dark (although not as tragic as November and December) and not very warm, but it does have a bounty of celebrations.  October is my wedding anniversary, my father's birthday, my nephew's birthday, and Kevin's birthday.  There are so many occasions to celebrate in October and that's why I am writing this post today.  I'm not just here to complain about the changing seasons.  I'm here to introduce some new seasonal recipes I used in Dad's birthday dinner.

What is more comforting than a hearty pork roast?  It's one of my favorite dishes.  I cooked my pork shoulder in the oven with a sweet-spicy rub and then slathered it with a new twist on barbecue sauce.  My sauce included my most favorite soft drink of childhood - root beer.

After a slow roast for 5 hours, I turned up the oven and slathered my sauce on top to glaze it.  Once it was glazed, I pulled it and let my guests add extra barbecue sauce to it.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo of the completed pork.  I only have the phone photo of it from when I took it out of the oven and posted the photo on Instagram.

Dessert was made from that delicious fall staple, the apple.  To me, apple is the king of fall fruits.  No pumpkin can ever compare.   My apples were sauteed with butter, brown sugar, and brandy and added to a charlotte made from a brown sugar caramel mousse.  I seasoned the mousse with a gentle pinch of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and ginger, to get that seasonal "pumpkin spice" flavor without any actual pumpkin.

A good party starts with a good cheese tray.  I tried to have my cheese reflect the heartiness of the season and the rest of the dinner.  I used a sharp English cheddar, smoked Gouda, and a soft Brie.  On the side I had marcona almonds, fresh figs, and dry sausages.  One was a simple and mild French sausage.  The other was a spiced duck sausage, flavored with cinnamon, clove,  and allspice.

Dad enjoyed his birthday dinner immensely, and so did the rest of the family.  Try this pork for your favorite October celebrations.

Pulled Pork with Root Beer Sauce

  • 1 4.5-5  pound bone-in pork shoulder
For the rub
  • 2 Tbl brown sugar
  • 1 pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 Tbl salt
 For the sauce
  • 12 oz root beer
  • 1 6 oz can tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 2 tsp garlic powder, divided
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 Tbl salt
  • 1 Tbp  mustard*
  • 1 tsp onion flakes
Mix together rub ingredients.  Rub this all over the pork and let stand for an hour or two until it comes to room temperature.

Heat oven to 275 degrees.  Place the pork in a dutch oven and cover.  Roast 6 hours.

To make the sauce, boil the root beer in a small saucepan for several minutes until reduced and syrupy.  Mix together the tomato paste, mustard, and vinegar along with salt, paprika, brown sugar, mustard, and onion flakes.

Add the mixture to the root beer and simmer 30 minutes or until thick.

When pork is done, you can spread a bit of the sauce over it and place it under the broiler uncovered  for 3 minutes to give it a bit of a glaze.

Let the pork stand 15 minutes.  Slice or pull and serve with more of the root beer sauce.

Caramel Apple Charlotte

  • 4 firm apples, sliced thin
  • 4 Tbl  butter, divided
  • 1 cup + 2 Tbl brown sugar, divided
  • 2 Tbl brandy
  • 2 packages Ladyfingers (or more if you are using a bigger baking dish)
  • 1 cup evaporated milk
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • Pinch of nutmeg
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3 Tbl cold water
  • 1 envelope unflavored gelatin
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
Line a baking dish with plastic wrap (I used a round souffle dish).  Lay a layer of ladyfingers in the bottom, breaking them up to fit as necessary to cover the bottom.  Stand the ladyfingers up vertically around the perimeter of the dish.

Heat 2 Tbl of butter in large skillet.  Cook apples in the butter until they soften.  Stir in the brown sugar and continue cooking until it is dissolved.  Add the brandy and cook until it is evaporated.  Lay the apples in the bottom on the baking dish.

In a small saucepan heat the evaporated milk and brown sugar over medium heat bringing to a boil, swirling the pan occasionally.  Cook until the mixture is thick and a dark amber color.  Remove from heat and add butter, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and salt.  Allow to cool, but not completely.

Place cold water and gelatin in a small dish and allow it to bloom.   Add to the warm caramel and stir until melted.  Cool it completely.

Best cold cream in a chilled bowl until stiff peaks form.  Gently fold in about three quarters of the caramel.   (Drizzle the extra over the apples or save it for your ice cream tomorrow.)

Spoon the mousse on top of the apples in the baking dish (It won't all fit in the dish, if you have a small dish, so you may have some left over to snack on).  Chill several hours or overnight.  When ready to serve, invert over a plate and carefully remove plastic wrap.

*A good foodie always has some hotty-totty dijon mustard lying around.  Well, I always say I'm a failure as a foodie.  I took it for granted that I had mustard in the house when I made this.  There aren't any grocery stores in my neighborhood anymore, so going out to buy mustard would have taken more time than I had available.  There is, however, a convenient CVS with a small grocery section.  The only mustard they carry is the yellow bottle of French's (which I admit I rather like on a hot dog or a bologna sandwich).  I don't think the cheap mustard negatively affected the sauce.  I also don't think a better mustard would affect it either.  What I'm trying to say here is it really doesn't matter what kind of mustard.  Use what you have or what you prefer.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Simple Pulled Chicken Sandwiches

Although there are still a few weeks of summer left on the calendar, the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are gone.  I won't be taking any more vacations in 2016.  I won't have the time to be browsing markets for hours.  I won't have many evenings free to prepare a fresh meal every night of the week.  September brings new commitments and more activity.  I'll be back to dance classes and play rehearsals (or at least play production duties).  The short days and increased darkness will give me less energy to put into elaborate meals.

I continue to be grateful I made the decision to buy a slow cooker this year.  In the past my evenings away from home meant more takeout and more restaurant meals.  Now I can prepare home cooked meals even when I'm out of the house.  As theater production season is already here and dance classes start next week, I'm already dusting that baby off and working on new recipes to make in it.

The onslaught of pumpkin may be on its way and the roads leading north are already clogged with apple pickers, but I'm still dreaming of summer barbecues. I want juicy cheeseburgers and ribs slathered in sauce.  I want my chicken to be shredded into bits and slathered in sauce so it goes down that much easier.

My craving for summer grilling and barbecue is one that stays unsatisfied all summer long.   My readers out there know my pain.  I live in an apartment.  I have no yard to place a grill or a smoker. I can only lust after my friends posting online photos of their grilled meals on Instagram or the endless articles about summer grilling in the food magazines I read.

I have a few options if I want to pretend to grill.  I have a grill pan.  I have an electric grill.  I also have that slow cooker.  My slow cooker will cook meats in that low-and-slow mode so I can pull them apart and slather them in barbecue sauce.

I experimented with using balsamic vinegar for my acid element and molasses for the sweet.  I wanted to see how the sweetness balsamic vinegar changed the flavor profile.

The major flaw in the sandwiches was overcooking.  These should not have been cooked more than 4-6 hours, but I am away from home much longer than that.  Even with all the sauce on them, the meat was dry.  I shouldn't cook chicken in the slow cooker when I'm going to be at work all day.  Chicken, even with the skin and bones on, can't be cooked 9 hours at a time.

The other flaw was the molasses.  It overpowered the balsamic and had a slight bitter edge.  If I make these again, I would either cut back on the molasses, or use brown sugar.

I use bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts because they have more flavor than the boneless and skinless variety.  Some cooks might worry removing the bone is too much work, but the meat pulls away from the bones easily after several hours in the slow cooker.

My side dish was sweet and sour coleslaw with apples.  I mixed pre-made coleslaw mix with lime juice, thinly sliced granny smith apple, and honey.  

This recipe makes 4 moderate sized sandwiches.  You can add more chicken to the recipe, but you probably won't need to make too much additional sauce unless you are cooking more than 4 pieces of chicken at a time.

Slow Cooker Balsamic Pulled Chicken Sandwiches


  • 2 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 Tbl molasses
  • 1 Tbl soy sauce
  • 2 Tbl tomato paste
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 4 sturdy rolls
Sprinkle the meat with salt and pepper.  In a large frying pan, brown them well on both sides.

Mix together vinegar, molasses, soy sauce, tomato paste, paprika, and garlic.  Slather the sauce all over the chicken and place in slow cooker.  Cook on low 4-6 hours.

Remove from slow cooker and remove the skin.  Use forks to pull the meat off the bone and shred.  Serve on rolls with coleslaw.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Czech Out This Delicious Food City

Ha ha ha.  I'm just so funny. As if that weren't the most obvious pun in the universe.

Now that I got the pun bit out of the way, let me go about my usual business of boring readers to tears with an endless food travelogue.

Prague is the most unique city I have ever visited.  I don't think I have ever seen a more visually stunning city.  Even Paris doesn't compare.  Prague doesn't just contain UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Prague is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  When I first arrived in Prague I felt the endless grand facades, the winding streets, and massive crowds were too intimidating to ever be able to feel relaxed and comfortable, but the place worked its magic on me and by the end of Day 2, I felt able to walk the streets with confidence.

If you would like to see my non-food photos, I have archived them here.  (If you want to know what you are looking at, click the comment link and you will see my explanations of the photos.)

What is the food like in Prague?  I can describe it in five words:  meat, carbs, gravy, carbs, and meat.  I can also use five words to describe the beverages:  beer, beer, beer, beer, and beer.  The Czech Republic is the second fattest country in Europe (UK is first).  They don't care much for vegetables (although they work wonders with cabbage) and beer is the cheapest beverage you can drink (and they drink a lot of it).  Prague has an excellent public transportation system, but I got around mostly by walking because my body was just begging to get rid of some of those calories.   

I suppose I stayed too much within the Tourist Comfort Zone because in all the restaurants I went into, I had the luxury of English menus and English speaking staff.  What I found most interesting was even tourists from other countries who spoke a variety of other languages, would speak English when talking to the Czechs.

So let's talk a bit about what I ate.  What were my daily meals like?

Day 1:  I arrived in Prague at lunch time, exhausted from the red-eye flight, but eager to start exploring.  The whole family stayed in the beautiful Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) in the historic Old Town Square Hotel.   Kevin and I  wanted to stay close to "home" for our first day so we looked at the local sites.  We explored St. Nicholas church and wandered a few side streets. When hunger took over our curiosity, we ended up at an open air restaurant on the square called Kotleta.  It was a scorching hot day and the restaurant had plenty of canopies and also sat next to  a shady park.

Despite the Czech food reputation, there were salads on the menu.  I chose one with arugula, baked goat cheese on toast, prosciutto, asparagus, strawberries and walnuts.  The dressing seemed to be made out of pureed strawberries.  The worst part was the abundance of walnuts.  There were almost enough to trigger my allergies.  Other than the heavy strawberry flavor, it wasn't too different from similar salads back home.  I was happy to have found something light after the long flight.

Kevin took a different extreme and ordered the schnitzel.  It came with a side of butter with some mashed potatoes underneath.

In the evening Kevin and I met up with the rest of the family for dinner. We had no reservations anywhere that night, so we wandered around a bit until we found a restaurant that would easily accommodate my stepmother's scooter.  We found a place called U Dominikana, a restaurant in a former Dominican monastery.
The staff was pleasant (contrary to the typical Czech reputation) and the restaurant had a beautiful garden room in the back. 

I had a typical Czech dish that night called Svickova, which is beef sirloin in cream sauce with bread dumplings.  The dumplings I had at Dominikana were different from the dumplings I had on subsequent nights.  These dumplings reminded me of balls of Thanksgiving stuffing.

I had to have dessert of course.  This brownie was to die for.  It was dense and chocolatey and the sour cherry compote on top complemented it perfectly.

After this meal I was ready to say goodnight to Prague and see what adventures lay in wait for the next day.

Day 2:  We went out for a family breakfast Sunday morning.  My brother found a place near the Kafka memorial called Pastacaffe.  We went to an Italian restaurant for a Czech breakfast.

This was a small, but airy and sunny spot serving mostly Italian food.  They had a special going on for lunch and dinner where if you ordered spaghetti amatriciana, they would make a donation to the earthquake relief fund in honor of the devastated Italian city of Amatrice. 

 It was breakfast time, so I stuck with something more traditional. 

This was their version of Eggs Florentine.  This had spinach, tomato, egg, sausage, and grilled bread.  I wasn't sure what to expect with the sausage, but it was the most unique part of the dish.  I can't explain the flavor, but it was not like any other sausage I have ever eaten.

Kevin and I spent the next few hours exploring the Jewish quarter.  After visiting three synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery, we realized we had used up much of our afternoon and needed some nourishment.  We ended our tour right where we started by the Kafka statue and the Pastacaffe.  We decided to have lunch across the street at a place called Nostress.  Was that meant to be read as No Stress?  I never bothered to ask.

We sat at a sunny table near the window.  I ordered a rice noodle salad with green mango, cucumber, and chicken.  It was perfect after that heavy breakfast.

Did someone say something about heavy meals?  Let's talk about dinner.

My brother found a restaurant called U Pinksau (so proud of his discovery he posed in front of it with my nephew).  This place dates back to 1843 and was the first restaurant to serve Pilsner in Prague. Now Pilsner Urquell is the most popular beer in Prague.

We sat in the outdoor garden.  Many restaurants in Prague have little to no air conditioning, so sitting outside is a better bet in hot weather.  The drawback to outdoor spaces is the lack of smoking regulations in Prague.  It's not illegal in smoke indoors, although restaurants in tourist areas tend to be voluntarily nonsmoking.  Unfortunately, that doesn't apply to outdoor spaces.  I wasn't feeling too well at the end of the meal because the smoke around me got too heavy.

You wouldn't believe how big the servings of pilsner are in Prague.  This photo can't do it justice.

I stayed away from the beer and drank wine with a pork neck accompanied by braised white cabbage and potato pancakes.  I don't know what the kitchen does to make this cabbage so creamy.  It had just enough sour taste to it and complemented the salty, ham-like, pork neck well.

I would have loved to have tried the ubiquitous pork knuckle instead of a neck, but the pork knuckle servings are huge in every restaurant.  I am known for a big appetite, but even I have my limits.

We didn't stay here for dessert.  Kevin and I returned to Old Town Square and had sundaes at a cafe near our hotel.  This one was coffee ice cream with Baileys.  It's fun to hang out at the square at night.  There is plenty of interesting people watching and someone is always playing live music.

Day 3:  Room service breakfast are included at our hotel, so we took advantage that this particular morning.  We spent most of the day on a tour of Prague Castle.  It was late afternoon by the time it was over and we really just wanted a snack to tide us over before what was likely to be another heavy dinner.

We found a small pastry shop and had some pastry and cappuccino.  This little cake looked far better than it tasted.  The cheese layer and the crust were both dry and crumbly.

Dinner that night was at the magnificent Municipal Building in their basement restaurant Plzenska.

The interior recalls the Art Nouveau period with it's decor.  The overall feel is 19th century kitsch.  The food is thoroughly traditional without apology.  The menu is written in multiple languages, which feels a bit touristy, but I was a tourist after all.

I started with duck.  Traditional bread dumplings as well as potato pancakes accompanied it.  There was also some of that tasty cabbage beneath.

 I had traditional Czech pancakes for dessert with plenty of ice cream and creme anglaise.

We also had an accordion player serenading us throughout the night.  I never saw a more cheerful guys.  He had a massive (but genuine) smile plastered on his face the whole night.  We should all love our jobs so much.

Day 4 - Our final full day in Prague was our best food day of them all.  We took a food tour with a company that specializes in Prague food tours. 

This was the one day where we spent time outside the main tourist area.  This tour took us through the neighborhood of Karlin.  During the communist era this area was mostly industrial and housed both the factories and the workers.  It remained a working class neighborhood after the revolution, but a flood in the early part of the century forced the neighborhood to rebuild and revitalize.  Now it is becoming something of a hipster area.  

We had to wait a few minutes for our guide to meet us at the subway station, so I decided to have some ice cream to tide me over.

The tour took us through 4 different types of restaurants and different types of meals.  Some were traditional and some reflected the future of Czech cuisine.

We started at a bakery called  Simply Good.  Here we sampled traditional Czech breakfast pastries.  We had a blueberry kolache and puff pastry with lemon curd.

That's our guide Leona in the pink shirt.  She was awesome.  She was not just informative about the food, but she had extensive knowledge of the history and culture and was able to answer all of our stupid questions and give us a lot of background to the places we went and the foods we ate along with the stories behind them.

The second stop took us away from the traditional and into the emerging locavore movement.  We went to a restaurant called Eska.   If traditional Czech food is all about carbs and meat, this meal truly deviated from tradition because there was no meat.  

The decor is made from reclaimed items and they have an open kitchen - rare in Prague.

We started with a kefir dip and sesame crackers.  There were all kinds of nuts and flowers and I don't know what else on top.
Next we had fermented red wheat with roasted celery root, raisins, and walnuts.  The celeriac was the most obvious flavor here.

The third dish was a potato roasted in ash surrounded with more kefir dried egg yolk, and smoked fish.  I pushed the fish bits aside and enjoyed the rest of the dish.
This meal is nothing I would have ordered if I were on my own, but I enjoyed it.  I'm glad I was pushed out of my comfort zone and tasted some dishes that were truly new to me.

Our next stop was Lokal Hamburk.  Lokal is a small beer hall chain throughout the city.  The one in Karlin is named after Hamburg because it is near the river port that starts the major route to Hamburg.  The decor playfully imitates the communist era. 

The theme for this stop was traditional beer snacks.  Our first dish was steak tartare.  In France this is a high end dish.  In Prague you eat it with your beer.  It is mixed with pickles and egg and a bunch of other stuff and it's so delicious I could have eaten the whole pile of it.  You rub garlic on the little toasts provided and spread the beef over it.

We also had nakladany hermelin - pickled Camembert cheese.  It sounds bizarre, but it was delicious.

Finally we had Prague ham that you eat on bread spread with a mixture of whipped cream and horseradish.  During our walks around the square I saw many street vendors roasting ham on spits and it gave me a huge ham craving.  Unfortunately once I finally tasted Prague ham, I didn't think it was anything special.  This was the weakest dish of the day.

Our final stop on the tour was a small cafe called Maso a Kobliha, which literally means Meat and Doughnuts.  The owner also owns a butcher shop, so the restaurant is a way to make use of his product.  I'm not sure how the doughnuts came into play, but I won't complain.

Oddly enough, we didn't have meat.  We had more cheese.  This was a huge hunk of fried cheese on a bun with tartar sauce.  I don't know how I managed to eat it after attacking the bar snacks.

We finished with the doughnuts.  This was a delicious pastry stuffed with homemade vanilla custard.   I don't think a better custard doughnut than this exists anywhere.

Beverages were included in the tour and we had a few traditional and non-traditional options at each stop.  At the bakery we were offered coffee, but I stuck with iced tea (bottled).  At Eska they had Czech wine.  I drank a white.  I decided to alternate the alcoholic beverages, so at Lokal I had a raspberry soda.  At Meat and Doughnuts, I went for hard cider.

What I found interesting about Czech soft drinks is that every non-soda option is called "lemonade" whether it contains lemons or not.  The raspberry drink I had was lemonade.  The ginger soda my niece drank with her doughnut was lemonade.  If it's not Coke, it's lemonade.

I still wonder how I was able to eat dinner that night after all of this food.  I knew I had to make the effort because it was my last night in Prague and I still hadn't tried all the Czech dishes I wanted to.

We stayed in Old Town Square and at a restaurant Leona had recommended call Mincovna.  Mincovna means mint and the building once housed a mint.  The decor consists of giant replicas of old coins.

I decided to try the Czech version of goulash.  There were dumplings of course.  There are always dumplings.  I was so full and tired I barely remember it.  I'm sure it was good because it it had been bad, I would have remembered that.  The dumpling were less bread-like here.

 I didn't order dessert.  Someone did.  I took a photo, but I don't remember what it was.

Our trip was brief.  We flew back to New York the next day.  It was worth the long journey.   I would have liked a few more meals and seen a few more sights, but I'm happy to have had this experience.

Now I need to go to the gym!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Giving Another Classic A New Twist - Spicy, Smoky, Corn Risotto

In my last post I decided to shake up common expectations of pesto and made a green sauce that visually resembles your basic Pesto Genovese, but takes the taste buds in a completely different direction.  Sure there was some traditional basil, but the sauce was all about the shiso.

This week I took my love of summer produce and rebuilt (or some people might say destroyed) a classic risotto recipe.  This time of year many cooks will incorporate fresh summer corn into risotto.  I wanted to take it one step further.  Most risotto recipes rely on the same Italian formula: onions, garlic, wine, parmesan, and occasionally seasonal vegetables.  I wanted to ditch the formula and give that bowl of creamy rice a different flavor altogether.

Is this wrong?  Should it not be done?  Am I spitting on the sacred?

Anne Burrell is not my favorite cook on TV, but she did say something that made sense to me.  She said risotto is a method, not a recipe. 

So I don't care.  I want to have fun with my favorite recipe bases, and keep creating, and keep finding new ways to use my favorite ingredients.  This food blog would be boring if I made the same recipes the way everyone else makes them.

I have talked about my love of smoked turkey tails.  They are the best unhealthful, fatty, treat in the world next to bacon.  If you are cooking for someone who doesn't eat pork, you can get that richness and smokiness with a tail or three (and it's way better than turkey bacon which is just weird and processed tasting).  While Sir Pickypants has become far less picky and now does eat pork occasionally without gastrointestinal incident, I don't want to always be serving him pork when I don't need to.  This is why I used the tails instead of the classic pancetta.

I also substituted the traditional white wine with whiskey.  I felt strong liquor would hold up to the strong flavor of the turkey tails and still complement the sweetness of the corn.

I used caramelized onions, cayenne, and smoked paprika for the flavoring.  This was way off the beaten path for Italian risotto.  Mine had a definite southwestern flair.  I used too much cayenne when I made this.  I thought a half teaspoon would be enough.  The recipe below cuts that amount in half.  The risotto was delicious, but a half teaspoon cayenne straddled the line of being overpowering.

I bought cilantro with the intention of adding it at the end and forgot.  I encourage anyone trying this recipe to add it and see if it improves the recipe or not.

Sorry for the hastily-snapped phone photo.  Risotto is something you have to eat right away, so I didn't want to fuss with the light box and camera settings.

When I see you again I will have a travel post to share with you.  I am leaving for a short trip to Prague on Friday.  I am looking forward to the meat-and-carb-fest that is Czech food.  I will be taking a food tour while I'm there, so I should have plenty of interesting meals to share. 

Spicy Corn Risotto
  • 2 ears fresh corn, cooked and kernels cut off the cob
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup whiskey (bourbon is optimal, but Irish will do just fine)
  • 3 smoked turkey tails, cut into small pieces*
  • 1 Tbl olive oil
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • 2-4 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 diced red pepper
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 2 Tbl chopped fresh cilantro (optional)
Heat the chicken stock and whiskey in a small saucepan.  Keep warm on the back burner.

In a medium saucepan cook the turkey tail pieces over medium heat until the fat is rendered.  Remove from pan and pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat (roughly).  Add the olive oil and cook the onions until they are very soft and starting to turn golden.  Add the peppers and cook until they begin to soften.  Add the garlic and cook another two minutes.  Add the rice to the pan and cook another minute or two until they are well coated.

Begin adding the stock mixture one ladelful at a time.  Stir well after each addition, adding more after the previous one has been absorbed.  Keep adding liquid and stirring until the liquid is absorbed and rice is tender.

Remove from heat and stir in the pepper, cilantro, and paprika.  Sprinkle with cilantro.  Stir in the corn kernels and serve immediately.

*You can use bacon, smoked sausage, turkey bacon, or your favorite vegetarian bacon facsimile.  Just make sure you use something with a smokey flavor to complement the flavor of the whiskey and the corn.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Farm Market Experience Continues with a New Twist On Pesto

During my trip to Hawaii this past winter I discovered shiso.  It is a large-leafed, herb that has minty and citrus flavors.   It complements tomatoes well.  I couldn't wait for summer when I could get my hands on some at home.  I was pretty sure Lani's Farm would be selling it at both of the farmers' markets I attend (Larchmont and Dag Hammarskjold plaza).   There doesn't seem to be an exotic green they don't carry.

When I had it in Hawaii, I ate it whole as part of a salad.  I felt the unique minty flavor would be perfect in a pesto sauce.  Would my pesto have cheese?  Would the traditional parmesan go well with the shiso?  Maybe pecorino would work well (pecorino and mint make a delicious pesto when mixed with pistachios).  I knew I was in short supply of those cheeses at home and that would mean a trip to the supermarket for cheese.  Were there any cheeses I could buy at the farmers' market that would be suitable?

The salad I ate in Hawaii contained goat cheese.  Coach Farm just happens to have a booth at the market.  Why not try mixing goat cheese into the sauce?  I went to the booth and inquired about their firmest cheeses.  The vendor suggested a well-aged, raw milk cheese.  I took a taste and was surprised it didn't have any of the funky flavors raw milk cheeses tend to have. I thought the shiso, the goat cheese, some shallots (I had onion mignonette in the salad in Hawaii), basil from my garden (to make sure there was some expected flavor in the sauce), and  toasted pine nuts would be perfect over gnocchi for dinner.  I also included some roasted, heirloom cherry tomatoes.

I would love to have served this to someone without saying what the ingredients were and then watching that person taste it. I was kind to Kevin and gave him a warning.

Gnocchi with Shiso-Goat Cheese Pesto and Roasted Tomatoes

  • 1 shallot, finely diced
  • 2 Tbl rice wine vinegar
  • 20 heirloom cherry tomatoes
  • 1/4 +1 Tbl olive oil
  • Salt
  • 1 bunch shiso (about two cups of leaves)
  • 1/2 cup basil leaves
  • 2 Tbl toasted pine nuts
  • 4 oz. firm, aged goat cheese
  • 1 package of your favorite gnocchi
Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Place the shallots and vinegar in a small bowl and allow to sit while you prepare the rest of the sauce.

Toss tomatoes with 1 Tbl of olive oil and sprinkle with salt.  Roast for about 10 minutes.  You want them soft, but try to avoid having them burst.

Combine basil, shiso, remaining olive oil, pine nuts, shallots, and vinegar in a food processor.  Process until fairly smooth.  Add the cheese and pulse until combined.

Cook gnocchi in salted boiling water until they float to the top of the pot.  Combine with the pesto and top with the tomatoes.