Thursday, March 29, 2012

Roasted spiced candied collards

I'm going to tell you about a vegetable that usually gets mistreated.  It gets dismembered, chopped, cooked past the point where resurrection (or recognition) would ever be possible, doused in acid, drowned in fat and then made to taste presentable with sugar.  Yes, I'm talkin' 'bout collard greens.

To be fair, I like collard greens cooked the Southern way.  There's something magical that happens when collards (or any greens, for that matter) have been cooked down with bacon fat, cider vinegar and a little brown sugar.  Sometimes I want to spread that silky deliciousness on a piece of toast or puree it and drink it like a soup.

But last night, along with some BBQ'd sockeye salmon (slathered and grilled with my friend Steve's incredible BBQ sauce) and the double-garlic oven fries (you don't have to twist my arm--the recipe's below), I did something to collards that made me want to eat them every night.  I roasted them with a little EVOO and a lot of Jim Tabb's BBQ Rub.  Oh my, my, my.  Tender, crispy, salty, sweet, spicy, I could have eaten the whole pan by myself.  And next time I will.

If you haven't made Jim Tabb's rub after all the noise I've made about it, get the recipe here and do up a batch for yourself (and for your friends).  It is an excellent rub and it's my favorite for pork, chicken and wild salmon.  It smells beyond fabulous when it combines with the fat on searing meats.  Now Tabb's rub is my favorite for collard greens.

Here's what you do to make some great veggies:

Roasted Spiced Candied Collard Greens 

1 large bunch collard greens, stems and tough ribs removed, torn into large strips and washed and drained
EVOO to taste
3 Tbs. (more or less) Jim Tabb's BBQ Rub

1.  Combine torn collard greens with EVOO and dry rub in a large bowl, using enough EVOO to coat collards evenly; use enough BBQ rub to coat at least half of each piece of collard.  Toss well to distribute seasoning.
2.  Roast on a baking sheet at 425 degrees for about 15 to 18, turning with tongs and tossing to cook evenly.
3.  Collards are done when they are dark green, glossy and some of the sugar in the rub is caramelized on the pieces.  Be careful not to over-cook or the sugar will burn.  Serves 2 to 4 people as a side dish.

Double Garlic Oven Fries
These are not just good, they're freaking good.  The freshly ground black pepper adds bite and a little fruitiness in the finish, especially if you use Tellicherry pepper.

2 medium baking potatoes, scrubbed well, cut into 1/2" wedges
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper (this is important to the overall flavor of the fries)
dried granulated garlic or garlic powder
2 small cloves fresh garlic, minced

1.  In a medium bowl, toss together the potato wedges with a generous amount of EVOO, kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper and granulated garlic or garlic powder.
2.  Spread potatoes out on a large baking sheet and roast at 425 degrees for about 20 to 25 minutes, until browned, crispy on the edges and tender inside.
3.  Before serving, sprinkle a little freshly minced garlic on each serving while the potatoes are still hot.  Serves 2 to 4 people as a side dish.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Beyond the four seasons, part the third

Today's lesson is about pork and beef.  Do I cook veal?  Yes, but not often enough to make a list of seasonings, since it's usually ground up with other things (like meatballs--a favorite entree in my house), or it's a delectable plate of osso bucco, which takes several hours to prepare, but smells absolutely heavenly while it's cooking.  Again, a separate post for another day.

And as for lamb, I love it.  Every Easter that we spent with my maternal grandparents, we ate a very succulent roasted leg of lamb, stuffed with garlic cloves, rubbed with oregano, EVOO, kosher salt and cracked pepper.  My grandfather was particular about the source of his lamb: a butcher he had been friends with for years.  But it was what my grandmother did with the lamb that made it so memorable: she served a delicious apricot sauce that was laced with brandy alongside the roast lamb, which is not your typical mint jelly, all unnaturally green and overly sweet.  In fact, I don't prefer mint jelly at all with lamb, but last year, I had a mint gastrique that won my heart, served alongside some beautifully seared lamb chops at Hasler Bros. Steakhouse.  But many people don't like lamb, or don't serve it on a regular basis, so I'll discuss lamb and all of its delectable qualities at a later date.

Basil--before grasshoppers

For the most part, we've been focusing on cooking proteins a la minute with some dishes requiring a little advance prep work.  Generally, my goal has been to provide some guidance as far as flavor profiles for various proteins and suggestions for how to cook them to show off their best features.

I've neglected to mention in the two previous posts that you should not overlook good-quality spice mixtures from establishments such as Penzey's, The Spice House and Pollen Ranch.  There are countless other good-quality spice mixtures available, but these three companies are my favorite sources.  Now that you'll have some skill and knowledge under your culinary belt, you'll be able to choose mixtures (or even make mixtures and rubs) on your own and match them successfully with the protein of your choice.  Typically, a commercial spice mixture will suggest on the label what goes best with that particular blend, so part of your homework is done for you.

There are a multitude of cooking methods and ingredients to be used with pork and beef.  This little missive will only scratch the surface; for instance, we're not discussing any braising techniques here.  But once you get a few new ideas in your head, you can run with it and make a few fabulous dinners of your own.

Pork, or why I simply cannot become a vegetarian:

~ Make a marinade of equal parts soy sauce, peanut oil, and dry red or white wine; add a little sugar, some curry powder and some crushed red pepper.  Marinate cubes of boneless pork for at least 2 hours; skewer and grill.  Excellent with jasmine rice, mango salsa and fresh lime for squeezing over the pork.
~ Brine extra thick pork chops for up to 3 days in a mixture of salt, sugar, fennel seed, coriander seed, crushed red pepper flakes, bay leaves and smashed garlic cloves.  When ready to grill or pan fry, pat chops dry and roll fat around edge of chops in fennel pollen.  Cook medium to medium-well (this is an Anne Burrell recipe).  Serve with polenta or pasta dressed with butter, garlic and parsley.
~ Make this Garlic Peppercorn Pork Brisket, easily adaptable to a pork loin roast, or even a pork tenderloin.  It takes time, but it's OUTSTANDING!
~ Grill seasoned pork chops simply, then serve on a bed of thinly sliced apple, fennel and celery which have been tossed with fresh lemon juice, EVOO and a little Dijon mustard.
~ Season pork chops with kosher salt and Penzey's French Four Spice (or make your own: 1 Tbs. white pepper, rounded 1/4 tsp. ground cloves, 1 tsp. ground ginger and 1 tsp. grated nutmeg).  Pan fry in a little EVOO until nicely browned; remove to a platter to keep warm.  Deglaze the pan with brandy or Calvados; add a little butter and caramelize some minced shallots and sliced apple, adding a pinch sugar to create a slightly syrupy sauce.  Season to taste with S & P, then use as a sauce for the pork chops.
~ Chop a combination of fresh herbs (such as rosemary, thyme, flat leaf parsley) and mix into a paste with EVOO, kosher salt, minced garlic, a little dry mustard and some freshly ground black pepper; use for pork loin or chops to roast, grill or broil.
~ Combine coriander seed, white peppercorns and fennel seed; crush with a mortar and pestle or smash with a mallet between double layers of plastic wrap.  Mix crushed spices with EVOO, minced garlic and kosher salt to make a paste.  Use to roast, grill or broil pork loin or chops.
~ Combine ground cumin, dried thyme, dried sage, ground cinnamon, garlic powder and kosher salt.  Coat a pork loin with orange marmalade and then roll pork in spices.  Roast in oven until desired doneness.
~ Combine zest of one lemon, chopped fresh thyme, minced garlic, EVOO and S & P to make a paste for pork loin or pork chops.  Roast, grill or broil.
Don't forget Jim Tabb's BBQ Rub Recipe for pork chops, country spareribs, baby back ribs and the like.  Simply the best dry rub I have ever tried and makes a great hostess gift!

Graduate from Lipton Onion Soup Mix--what to do with beef:

~ Combine panko, freshly grated Romano cheese, granulated garlic, lemon zest and S & P in a pie plate; beat an egg and add a little water in a second pie plate.  Dip thinly sliced, pounded steaks into egg mixture, then coat with seasoned panko mixture.  Fry in a little EVOO until browned and crispy; serve topped with good-quality marinara sauce and more cheese; also serve spaghetti simply seasoned with garlic, EVOO, S & P and parsley on the side with a green salad.
~ Ever had classic Steak Diane?  If you had you wouldn't have forgotten.  Fry a tender steak that has been generously seasoned with S & P in EVOO and butter in a hot pan for about 2 minutes per side.  Remove steak from pan and keep warm.  Add some minced shallot to the pan, sauteing briefly, then add a little Worcestershire sauce and the juice of one lemon.  Simmer for about 1 minute, then pour sauce over steak and serve, garnished with chopped fresh flat leaf parsley.
~ Marinate flank steak or London Broil in bourbon, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce and S & P at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours.  Grill to desired doneness.
~ Combine soy sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil, minced garlic and chopped green onion and marinate thin slices of sirloin for at least 1 hour.  Thread on skewers and grill until slightly crispy on the edges.  Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve with steamed rice.

~ Season tender steaks well with granulated garlic and S & P, or with a good-quality steak rub.  Pan-sear in a little EVOO to desired doneness, making sure pan is hot enough to caramelize beef well.  Set steaks aside; add a little butter and some minced shallot and capers to pan, saute until shallots are golden, then deglaze with brandy.  Use sauce as a gravy for the steaks.  YUM!
~ Finish grilled, broiled or pan-seared steaks with any compound butter; i.e., chili powder, lime zest and tequila butter; Meyer lemon zest and thyme butter; tarragon-garlic butter; rosemary-garlic butter; orange zest and black pepper butter; Gorgonzola and garlic butter...get creative!
~ Mix together some softened butter, minced garlic, horseradish, thyme, rosemary, sage, S & P.  Smear seasoned butter on beef tenderloin or steaks to roast, grill or broil.
~ One of my readers gave me this recipe for marinade: 1/3 c. soy sauce, 1/3 c. fresh lemon juice, 1/2 c. EVOO, 1/4 c. Worcestershire sauce, 1 1/2 Tbs. garlic powder, 3 Tbs. dried basil, 1 1/2 Tbs. dried parsley, 1 tsp. ground white pepper, 1 Tbs. minced garlic, 1/4 tsp. hot pepper sauce.  Put all in a small blender to emulsify and use to marinate steaks for at least 8 hours.  Fabulous when cooked on the grill!
~ Use any good-quality steak seasoning to liberally season tender steaks, then pan-sear until desired doneness.  Before you cook the steaks, however, you will have a large baking pan of oven fries (slices or wedges of potatoes tossed with EVOO, salt and pepper) that are crisping in a hot oven (or you can use commercially prepared French fries).  The kicker?  You're going to mince up a couple of cloves of garlic and scatter them over the hot oven fries and serve them with the steak.  Boy oh boy...
~ Don't forget to try Nick's Blue Cheese and Jalapeno Burgers, a recipe passed on to me by one of my wine guys.  And be sure to ask him what wine goes best with these burgers, or any other ideas I've passed along to you.

OK, so we've talked about some seasoning and cooking ideas for pork and beef.  I hope you have fun with some of these ideas and I hope they inspire your inner chef.   Happy eating, happy sipping, happy tastebuds!  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Beyond the four seasons, part the second

Chicken is a frequent dinner item in my house; I'm thinking that it is in yours as well.  What could be more versatile (or comforting) than a whole roasted chicken, simply seasoned, that you transform into other meals during the week?

But roasting a whole chicken is not always practical and often you need to throw together something quickly.  If you can prepare partially ahead (like marinate before you go to work in the morning), you can have a top-notch dinner that night (or, if you freeze what you marinate, which works very well in many cases, you can have a top-notch dinner another night).

If you want to extend yourself beyond the usual lemon and pepper seasoning, seasoned salt or jar of store-bought BBQ sauce, I've listed some ideas for you below.  I'm not going to suggest seasonings for duck, goose, grouse, pheasant, turkey, or other game birds on the premise that those kinds of birds are usually for special meals.  To properly and elegantly cook a turkey or any other exotic bird deserves forethought, time, and often, specialty ingredients.  We'll leave the exotic poultry to a post of their own sometime in future.

Meanwhile, here's what works well with chicken:

~ Sweet paprika, minced garlic, oregano, S & P on boneless or bone-in pieces to grill or broil.
~ Any kind of pesto to grill or broil, or even as a topping after cooking.
~ Chopped garlic, fresh lemon juice, EVOO and fresh rosemary, S & P to grill or broil.  Add cayenne if you want classic "deviled chicken."
~ Marinate pounded boneless breasts in balsamic vinegar, a smashed clove of garlic, EVOO and S & P.  Pan fry in EVOO or grill.  Serve with a chopped herb salad on top, dressed simply with EVOO and fresh lemon juice.
~ Pound boneless breasts thin; dip in beaten egg, then in a mixture of panko, chopped fresh rosemary and freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese.  Pan fry in a little EVOO.  Deglaze pan with red wine vinegar, remove from heat and add a little more EVOO.  Serve chicken breasts with an arugula salad on top; drizzle warm vinaigrette over salad.
~ For boneless chicken breasts, use any kind of spice mixture combined with good quality mayo, coat chicken breasts with mayo mixture and roll in panko or crushed cornflakes; bake or broil.  Yes, you can use ranch dressin' mix.
~ Bone-in chicken pieces marinated with EVOO, lemon slices, chopped green olives, freshly ground black pepper and ground cumin; grill or broil.
~ S & P on pounded boneless breast pieces; pan fry in EVOO and a little butter.  Remove breasts and keep warm.  Add more butter to pan.  Combine lemon juice, capers, a little chicken stock or dry white wine.  Reduce by 1/2.  Use as sauce for chicken breasts.  Or, after adding more butter to pan, add 1/4 cup minced shallot and caramelize.  Deglaze pan with a splash of brandy.  Add madeira or marsala and reduce by 1/2.  Add some chopped fresh herbs, such as sage, thyme or tarragon.  Use as sauce for chicken breasts.  Garnish either sauce with freshly chopped parsley.  After you cook chicken this way, you will understand why the French are so revered in the kitchen.
~ Sprinkle bone-in chicken pieces with S & P, lay thin garlic and lemon slices over.  Sprinkle with a generous amount of cracked Sicilian olives (you can substitute Spanish olives).  Drizzle with EVOO and 1/2 cup white wine and roast, uncovered, until chicken is done.  Similar to a suggestion above, but roasting this combination of garlic, lemon, olives and white wine does something very special to chicken.  Try it.
~ Season bone-in chicken pieces with S & P; brown on all sides in Dutch oven.  Saute diced or pearl onions in butter and EVOO (or better yet, diced bacon) in small sauce pan; deglaze with brandy.  Add to Dutch oven, along with some thyme, a little chicken stock, about a cup of dry red wine and more S & P.  Roast or cook on stove top until chicken is tender.  You can garnish with mushrooms sauteed in EVOO and finished in sherry, along with some chopped fresh parsley.
~ Sprinkle bone-in chicken breasts with S & P and roast in oven.  Meanwhile, combine some orange juice concentrate with some honey until you get a glaze consistency.  Use to brush on chicken while it's roasting.
~ Combine hoisin sauce with fresh grated ginger, soy sauce, lime zest, sesame oil and minced garlic.  Marinate boneless chicken breasts for about 2 hours in this mixture and grill.  Alternatively, cut boneless breasts into 1 1/2" pieces, marinate and skewer before grilling.
~ Combine 1/4 cup honey, 1/4 cup yellow mustard and 2 tsp. curry powder to use as a glaze for chicken wings or thighs.  Bake in oven until crispy.  You can also use this sauce for pieces of boneless chicken breast that you skewer and grill, brushing with sauce frequently.
~ Saute1 large onion, sliced, in oil in frying pan until golden and soft.  Remove onion from pan and sprinkle 4 bone-in chicken pieces with S & P, then brown on all sides in same pan.  Remove chicken to plate to keep warm.  Add a little chicken broth to deglaze pan, then stir in a generous amount of Hungarian paprika (don't skimp on this ingredient--use the real thing) and 2 Tbs of minced green pepper.  Return chicken to pan and lay slices from one small tomato on top of chicken.  Add more chicken broth if necessary; cover and simmer until chicken is tender, spooning sauce over from time to time during cooking.  Just before serving, stir in a generous dollop of sour cream and garnish with freshly chopped parsley.
~ Combine several cloves of garlic, smashed, a few green onions roughly chopped, some fresh ginger, roughly chopped, soy sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil and freshly ground black pepper with boneless, skinless chicken thighs pounded thin.  Marinate for about 2 hours.  Grill chicken pieces and garnish with sesame seeds. 
~ Make Tish's Sweet Salsa Dump Chicken: combine a pkg. of taco seasoning mix (or make your own), 1 cup apricot jam and1 1/2 cups salsa.  Add 4 to 6 pieces bone-in chicken and marinate for at least 2 hours or freeze for later use in a large zip-lock bag.  Bake chicken in sauce until tender.  Kids love this!

Please know this is not an exhaustive list, but it should get you started.  Write or call me and let me know what you did to make chicken special!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Beyond the four seasons

Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.                                
                                                                                   Henry David Thoreau

Yes, spring is here.  That brief, elusive period in central Texas that is gone before you can say "heat rash."  It is only March and already I've been using air conditioning in my car.  My neighbors and friends have started using air conditioning in their houses.  But I just can't bring myself to do it yet.

Hummingbirds are near!

The last time I experienced four seasons was when I lived in upstate New York.  There, I felt a clear demarcation between summer and fall, winter and spring; spring was so welcomed after a long, dark, harshly cold, interminably snowy winter in which too many watery, half-hearted stews and soups feebly limped to the dinner table, their flavor and robustness (and my psyche) diminished by the brutal, icy blasts.  Here, in central Texas, spring slid in slyly after a very mild winter, sort of like a latecomer to Sunday morning church services, surreptitiously and almost penitent.  But this winter was one in which we suffered not nearly enough penance with the electric company.  I'm anticipating that that will be rectified with summer cooling bills, however, having been traumatized by last summer's almost interminable drought.

But let's change seasons.  Or, as John Cleese would say, "And now for something completely different..."

One of my wine guys, who has become a good friend to share food and wine with, loves to cook.  He often, flatteringly, approaches me for suggestions and advice on how to season foods he is preparing for his family.  He has requested at least twice that I write a post on which seasonings and spices pair well with various proteins and vegetables.

The reason I've stalled on this, I think, is because there are so many choices that it would be impossible to do an exhaustive list.  So common sense tells me to just start somewhere.  But where to start?  It is during these kinds of tasks that my adult ADD diagnosis is confirmed.

So, Bastrop Wine Guy, here is my attempt to help you out.  We'll start with swimmers, diggers, burrowers, crawlers and bottom-feeders.

Fish Fillets and Steaks:

Generally, lighter, less oily fish, such as talapia, basa, catfish, flounder, sole, etc. can take on a large variety of seasonings because they are a neutral medium that will carry flavors well.  Here are some combinations that I've tried that have worked well:

~ Dill, minced shallot, butter, S & P to broil, bake or grill.
~ Lemon slices and dill with S & P to broil, bake or grill.
~ Any kind of richly flavored compound butter.  For any reason.
~ Chopped tomato, orange juice, minced red onion, EVOO, capers, kalamata olives and rosemary.
~ Mayo mixed with any kind of seasoning (don't over look fresh citrus zest), spread on fish fillets, sprinkled with panko and/or grated cheese and broiled.
~ Chopped tomato, red onion, kalamata olives, lemon juice, EVOO and feta cheese as a "sauce" to bake or broil.
~ S & P, powdered ginger, drizzle with butter or EVOO, slices of lime or lemon to bake, grill or broil.
~ Brown butter, toasted almonds and capers for delicate, pan fried fillets.
~ Butter, minced shallot or green onion, white wine (simmer until reduced by 1/2); finish with chopped fresh herbs (tarragon is especially nice).
~ Basil or spinach pesto and Asiago, Parmesan or Romano cheese.
~ Simple mango or fresh tomato salsa with lots of EVOO.
~ Slivers of aromatic vegetables and herbs, a pat of butter, S & P, a splash of dry white wine.  Wrap in parchment or heavy duty foil and bake until tender.
~ Simply seasoned broiled or grilled fish with a fresh chopped herb salad (tossed with a little fresh lemon juice, EVOO, S & P) and served on top the the fish.
~ Fresh fennel sliced very thin, S &P, butter to bake or broil.
~ Use any good quality store-bought vinaigrette for marinating/baking sauce.
~ Wrap fish in toasted banana leaves and grill after spreading cilantro pesto and chopped green and black olives, or use a commerically produced Thai curry paste (choose yellow, red or green) that has been thinned to spreading consistency with a little coconut milk.
~ Tikka masala paste (find in ethnic foods section) mixed with yogurt and spread on fish to bake or broil.
~ Creme fraiche or thinned sour cream mixed with a generous dollop of grainy mustard, minced garlic, minced shallot, capers, S & P and chopped fresh parsley as a sauce to bake fish fillets.
~ Mint, cucumber, sour cream/yogurt, S & P as a sauce after grilling fish that is simply seasoned with S & P.

Shrimp and shellfish love intense flavors, such as:

~ Fresh minced garlic, cracked pepper, EVOO, fresh lemon juice, fresh rosemary to grill or broil.
~ Smoked paprika, minced fresh garlic, EVOO, S & P.
~ Bacon (cooked crisp and crumbled) with anything: thyme, minced garlic, cracked pepper; minced garlic, breadcrumbs, freshly grated Parmesan or Romano; a splash of Pernod or any pastis-type liqueur, chopped fresh parsley, lemon zest, lemon juice, EVOO, S & P, finish with freshly grated Parmesan; pico de gallo, lime juice, Monterey Jack cheese; finely chopped cooked spinach, dill, S & P, EVOO, grated cheese of your choice, get the picture.
~ Good quality store bought vinaigrette for marinating shrimp (my personal favorite is La Madeleine balsamic vinaigrette or Newman's Own anything).
~ Coarsely chopped cilantro, green onions, fresh ginger, garlic a bit of jalapeno or serrano pepper; add fresh lime juice and oil for a marinade for shrimp.

Heavier, more oily fish such as trout, salmon, tuna, swordfish and halibut can take more seasoning.  Try some of these ideas:

~ Marinate salmon and trout in bourbon or scotch with a little brown sugar and kosher salt.  Smoke or grill.
~ Make a loose "sauce" of chopped juiced and seeded ripe tomatoes, chopped parsley, minced garlic, capers, EVOO, salt and pepper; use to top grilled or broiled fish.
~ Make a tapenade: finely chop together pitted kalamata or nicoise olives, roasted red peppers, capers, fresh basil; add some anchovy paste (optional) and enough EVOO to bind; use tapenade after grilling or broiling fish as a topping.
~ Miso paste (don't choose blonde--too delicate) thinned with soy sauce and a little sesame or peanut oil as a coating for tuna before it's broiled or grilled.
~ Tamari, ginger, scallion and black sesame seeds for tuna as a marinade before it's broiled or grilled.
~ Any compound butter (i.e., grainy mustard butter, fresh tarragon and chive butter, rosemary butter, etc.).
~ Soy sauce, fresh minced ginger, lemon zest, minced garlic, Dijon mustard and a little peanut oil is especially good as a marinade on swordfish and halibut.

So, I've emptied my brain on seafood for the moment.  Check back for more installments on poultry, meats and veggies.  May your tastebuds dance the Sazon!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

It's only because of the dill

I suppose that, as far as central Texas is concerned, winter is now officially over and that spring has already begun without my permission or participation.  I didn't get a memorandum notifying me that someone had requested an early spring, and it's not even the 21st yet.  Being a Yankee, I suppose that's where the trouble starts.  But we did change our clocks one hour forward this past Sunday.  So I guess that's the official first step.  The time change has been difficult so far; it gets harder each year as I get older, getting up when the mornings are still so dark.  This week, I am tentatively venturing onto my patio to listen to the waterfall during a time when it would formerly be getting dark.  It feels new and strange, this spring.

Even though I welcome the brilliant green shoots in my gardens and flower beds and my potted plants are venturing outside the greenhouse (I can imagine them squinting in the prolonged sunlight), I feel a certain sadness that the chill of winter has gone so fast.  I didn't have enough fires in the fireplace, crackling, glowing and warming me against the wind and icy rain outside.  I don't feel as though I got enough braising, stewing, roasting or baking done.  The smells of winter--the heady aroma of bread in the oven, simmering soups full of herbs, leeks and garlic, braising short ribs with that magical alchemy of red wine and aromatic vegetables (an aroma more powerful than the Pied Piper's flute)--all gone too quickly.

Already I am missing the cocoon of nightfall on a winter evening, the way the dusk would creep in, enveloping me and wrapping itself around me while I watched it deepen through the kitchen window.  Already I am missing preparing a warming and satisfying dinner of roasted vegetables and grains, a flavorful pan sauce studded with sauteed mushrooms, or something tender and succulent in the crockpot that smells insanely delicious as you step through the door.  Already I am missing sipping a glass of silky red wine, browsing through cookbooks under warm, incandescent lighting.  Or doing the dishes contentedly (from my new stainless steel sink) while I hear the tea kettle softly whistling behind me.  I miss sitting in the evening after dinner with my cup of tea, warming my hands, thinking about my next dinner party.  It's my little winter ritual.

You don't get to do those things in the spring or summer in Texas.  Well, I supposed you could, but it's just not the same.  Instead of being snuggled up on the couch, surrounded by recipes, food magazines and cookbooks, the glow of golden incandescence creating a halo of inspiration, you're on the patio, sipping rose (which is not a bad thing), fending off baby mosquitoes (who can really put a hurtin' on ya), wondering if that plant would look better there.  Or you're in the house, in front of a fan, because it's a tiny bit humid and the air is not moving much at all (in fact it's downright suffocating), and it's far too early to even think about putting the air conditioner on.  I do not associate creativity and motivation with warmer weather.

So I reluctantly acknowledge that spring is here and I cannot stop it from coming.  I cannot turn back the clock, so to speak, because that won't happen again until the fall.  I  must be pulled along (rather stubbornly) into the new season, the Carolina jessamine being that one immutable sign of spring that reminds me profusely, every day, that spring is here.  It fairly trumpets spring with its bright, cheery, yellow blossoms which can put on quite a show when there's been plenty of rain.

And so, resigned, I do what I can to allow spring to come.  I lay in several bottles of rose.  I trim back dead leaves and branches, visit the local nursery.  I make warmer-weather foods.  Having been gifted recently with a large bunch of fresh dill, I did what any self-respecting woman reluctant for spring to come would do: I made gravlax.  I posted another gravlax recipe last summer (also known as gravad lax), which was very good (I made it three times last summer--it was that good), but that recipe uses dried dill pollen, not fresh dill, so I am trying another technique.  And this is what it looks like on the first day of the curing process:

Can you say "blini"?

And then I made enough fresh dill salad dressing to share with the friend who gifted me with the dill.  Even enough to share with my friend's friend.  So that all of us can see that bright, vivid green and taste that sweet, herbal taste of dill and know that it is spring, however reluctantly we may know it.

So spring is here.  I reluctantly give way.  But it's only because of the dill.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Soup like Nonna used to make

I don't have a Nonna.  But if I did, she would make soup like this:

Mama Mia!

Sunday, needing a homey meal, I made this roast chicken.  Along with the lemons, there was plenty of rosemary and garlic in the cavity of the chicken.  It was a lovely roast chicken with a crispy, golden skin and moist, succulent breast meat.  We ate a lot of that breast meat; I ate a drumstick and nibbled some more on the leftovers over the next two days.  And in the pan, underneath the rich cap of chicken fat, there were a lot of juices (because I had also eaten most of the roasted onions too).

On Wednesday, I made chicken soup out of the carcass and pan juices.  I am proud to say that having walked over 50 years on this planet, I finally can make chicken soup better than my mother.  But not by much.  This chicken soup was simple and rustic, with a rich broth and a deep, sophisticated flavor.  What really made this soup special was the olive-oil braised escarole, the freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese (buy the best you can afford) and the cracked black pepper.  You can add pasta if you wish, but keep it tiny--like acina de pepe, or mini farfelle or orzo.  But it's wonderful all on its own.  And beautiful too.

As an accompaniment, I can only recommend Dan Lepard's Olive Oil Polenta Crackers  (bottom recipe in this link), which when rolled very, very thin and dusted with fresh herbs, asiago cheese, cracked black pepper and sea salt before they're baked into their thin, crispy, lovely selves will shatter in a heavenly way in your mouth.

This is how I made the soup:

Nonna's Chicken Soup

You can use a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, but it will lack that beautiful lemon/rosemary/garlic dimension.

1 leftover chicken carcass (remove lemon and herbs beforehand), skim pan juices of fat and use all remaining congealed pan juices
2 cloves garlic
1/4 large onion
handful fresh parsley, with stems
2 tsps. (or more) of salt
2 Tbs. EVOO
2 cups washed, loosely packed escarole leaves (you can substitute kale, bunch spinach or kale)
salt to taste
1/2 cup cooked pasta or rice (optional), kept warm
Pecorino Romano for grating on top
freshly ground black pepper

1.  Place the chicken carcass (with bones and skin for flavor), pan juices, garlic, onion, parsley and the 2 tsps. salt in a 3 or 4 quart pot.
2.  Cover with just enough water to come over the top of the chicken carcass.
3.  Cover partially and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and let simmer for about 45 minutes.
4.  Remove all the solids, strain broth and return broth to pot. 
5.  Cool chicken on a plate; remove all skin and bones when carcass is cool enough to handle; return meat to pot with broth and keep hot.
6.  Heat the EVOO in a small skillet over medium heat.
7.  Chop the escarole leaves into large sections (about 2 to 3 inches each) and add to skillet.  
8.  Reduce heat to medium low and gently wilt the escarole.  Season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside until ready to serve.

To serve the soup:  Divide the wilted escarole and the pasta (if using) between two large bowls.  Ladle soup broth and chicken over greens and pasta.  Grate a generous amount of cheese on top and season to taste with freshly ground black pepper.  Serves two hungry people as a meal or four people as a starter.

Mangia bene!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Perfectly passive pork tenderloin

I've cooked a lot of pork tenderloins in my day and plan to cook several more.  And I've used lots of methods to cook pork tenderloins, including but not limited to the timed method (not a favorite of mine), the meat thermometer method (can someone please recommend a reliable meat thermometer?), and most often the guess method (sometimes works, mostly doesn't).  It wasn't until recently that I was noodling around on the web and found this technique.  I've used the passive cooking technique with other cuts of meat, such as bone-in pork roast and pot roast of beef, but hadn't thought of doing a pork tenderloin this way.

Dinner will be ready in about an hour.
 Passive cooking has a lot of benefits and is a technique often used in wilderness cooking experiences, where efficiency is key.  If you have a pressure cooker, you can also use the passive cooking method to cook a variety of foods.  And now that I have this roasting technique in my arsenal, cooking meats and vegetables in the oven with passive heat is a favorite method of mine.

Let me assure you, Beach Girl, the author of the pork tenderloin recipe I referenced above, has done her homework.  And I can also assure you that pork cooked this way is succulent and tender and perfect every time.  Not to mention it's ridiculously easy.  Just set it and forget it, as Ron Popeil used to say.

I plan to be cooking a lot of pork tenderloin from now on.  And cooking a lot of pork tenderloin for parties is pretty easy since, as long as they all weigh pretty much the same, you can spread them out on the baking sheets and roast quite a few at a time.

But wait!  There's more!  Here are some of my favorite ways to season a pork tenderloin before roasting:

Chop 2 garlic cloves finely.  Combine with 1 1/2 tsp. each fennel seed and coriander seed, crushed.  Add salt and pepper to taste, then add enough EVOO to make a loose paste.  Cover the tenderloin entirely with this mixture and place on a foil-lined pan.  Proceed with Beach Girl's directions.

Combine 1/2 tsp. each cinnamon and ginger.  Add a 1/4 tsp. each white pepper, nutmeg and cloves.  Add salt and pepper to taste and mix well.  Rub spice mixture on a lightly oiled pork tenderloin and place on a foil-lined pan.  Proceed with Beach Girl's directions.

Chop 2 Tbs. fresh rosemary leaves and combine with 2 Tbs. chopped garlic.  Add salt and pepper to taste, then add enough EVOO to make a loose paste.  Cover the tenderloin entirely with this mixture and place on a foil-lined pan.  Proceed with Beach Girl's directions.

Or, try any dry barbeque or seasoning rub you create yourself or find on your grocery store shelves.  You can also do a wet marinade several hours in advance, drain the pork tenderloin well and proceed.  It's all up to you, but the method is the same.

May your tastebuds dance!