Monday, December 24, 2012

The recalcitrant foodie's manifesto

Those of you who have been reading for a while know a few things about me: I like good food.  I like good wine.  I like to cook for my friends and family and to share meals with them as often as possible.

You also know that I married a man who eats because he has to.  When I rescued met my husband, he was living on frozen burritos and Jimmy John's sandwiches.  He claimed all the nutrition he needed came from a box of Kraft Dinner.  Breakfast?  What's that?  Ice cream was a meal in itself (for proof of my in vivo experience with this, see here).  Fresh fruits and vegetables did not exist for him.  They were an anathema to his way of living.  Getting a piece of iceberg lettuce and a slice of tomato on his sandwich more than met his criteria for the four basic food groups, he said.

A typical pre-nuptial meal for the hubster.

The formula below, courtesy of my husband (who helped me create this post), is the differential equation for the principles that guide his food choices.  It is also referred to as the actuarial rule of the Cs and Ss.

Coffee + Cigarettes + Coca Cola x (desire)          massive
____________________________________ =   life insurance
Sugar + Salt + Starch x (stroke)

I live to eat.  My husband eats to live.  I don't understand this--especially because the above equation seems to be based on some pretty significant risk factors.

Since the beginning of our time together, my husband has made it clear that his only goal where food is concerned is to fill his belly.  He has often shared with me his thoughts and musings on his relationship to food and wine.  He has been quite generous with those thoughts and quite prolific, and I am often treated to his philosophical renderings at the very moment he makes eye contact with the plate I've put before him.

The man who claims, "I'll eat anything--I'm flexible," actually means that he'll balk at the unknown, the feared and the unfamiliar.  He'll also define--out loud and on the spur of the moment--what he thinks is edible.  Of course, all on his own terms.  I was at first annoyed and slightly insulted by his openness about his relationship with food and wine.  He is a forthright man and speaks his mind. 

But I eventually realized that his gag reflex is often controlled by what information his wife offers about the food.  So I have learned to shut up.  Which, for me, as most of you know, is a Herculean task.  And I have not given up on my mission to convert my husband (or at least sway him) to the glorious way of life that kindred spirits understand as foodie-ism, I have merely found other ways to circumvent his intractability.  Some call this a manipulation.

I call it a marriage.

I want to share with you, in hopes of gaining a little sympathy and support, what I have come to call The Recalcitrant Foodie's Manifesto.  Those of you in similar situations will recognize your partners--and yourselves.  You have my condolences.

      The Recalcitrant Foodie's Manifesto

1.)  Welches over wine.  Always Screw caps?  No problem for me whatsoever.  You're the wine snob.
2.)  Mushrooms: the flavor is fine.  The texture is not.  Don't put them in my food.  Same goes for clams, avocados and olives.  And capers.  I mean, what the hell?  You know I hate pickles, and tiny pickles just annoy me even more.
3.)  Asparagus: no matter how you fix it, I'm not gonna like it.  Not even wrapped in bacon, although that was a good trick.
4.)  Don't tell me what you put in my food.  I don't want to know that you use sour milk in my banana muffins because the thought of eating anything spoiled makes me gag.
5.)  Lie to me.  I don't want to know that I'm eating leftovers.  I probably won't notice that tonight's dinner looks the same as last night's dinner, but just in case, smother it with cheese or ketchup.  Do not cover it with parsley or anything remotely green.  That will only make me suspicious.
6.)  Don't mess up ice cream by putting stuff in it that doesn't belong there.  Chocolate.  Vanilla.  That's it.  No sauces, no toppings, nothing crunchy.  Just the ice cream, please.  And while we're at it, it should be softened before I eat it.  That time I left the whole carton out on the counter for almost two hours was a mistake, but I can't help that I'm easily distracted by the Golf Channel.
7.)  If I decide to eat fruit, it should be cold.  If you cook it and make it mushy or put warm fruit sauce on anything, I'm probably not going to eat it.  I don't care if apple pie is supposed to be warmed and served with ice cream or cheddar cheese.  Warm pie is gross.
8.)  The only way shrimp should be eaten is fried.  The bigger, the better.  Don't try to sneak those little shrimp into pasta dishes and call it "scampi," don't try to make me eat them cold disguised in cocktail sauce, or any other kind of sauce.  I'll still know there's cold shrimp in there.  And small, cold shrimp remind me of some kind of larvae.
9.)  Chickpeas, kidney beans and white beans do not belong in pasta.  If you want to empty a warmed can of Bush's beans over my spaghetti, bring it on.  But otherwise, ixnay on the eansbay.
10.)  Anything with stems still attached to leaves will be left on the plate.  If it takes more than 10 chews to swallow it, then it will be left on the plate because it's not going down.
11.)  Tuna fish salad is supposed to be eaten cold.  It was never meant to be heated with cheese between two slices of bread.  I know you call it a tuna melt panini because it came from that fancy grill thing that takes up too much space on the counter, but warm tuna panini is still nasty panini.
12.)  To clarify my first experience with Chinese Forbidden Rice: what is this stuff that looks like rat turds?
13.)  The only two acceptable toppings for desserts are Cool Whip and Reddi-wip.  In that order.  Whipped cream is a waste of time when you can get it in the freezer section or in a can.  And Cool Whip or Reddi-wip are the only two things that belong on my pie, which should be buried under the whipped topping.  Also, please reread #7 before you put anything on my pie, especially the part about "warm pie is gross."  Have you noticed that warm pie, Cool Whip and Reddi-wip don't really work out too well?
14.)  Meatballs should never be simmered in sauce.  Meatballs need to be crispy and sit on top of the pasta and sauce.  They get too mushy when they're wet and wet, mushy meatballs are just plain wrong.
15.)  Hamburgers don't include pickles, onions, lettuce or tomatoes.  If I had wanted a salad I would have asked for one.
16.)  I like my meat cooked.  My policy is that it needs to die twice.  If you want to tell the waiter to "slap it on the rump and send it out" for you, that's fine, but don't make me eat it, and don't make me watch you eat it.
17.)  Pizza: thin crust, sauce, pepperoni and cheese.  That's it.  You know, like they do at Pizza Hut.  If you have questions about what should be on my pizza, see #15.
18.)  Toast needs to be brown and warm so the butter will melt but the bread should still be soft.  If you can't figure out how to use a toaster, I'll happily show you since you insist on toasting my bread until it's unrecognizable.  And don't use that bread with the crunchy crusts.  Have you noticed they get left behind on my plate?
19.)  With regard to my eggs, "over easy" does not mean the same thing as "hard boiled."  I can't dunk my toast in hard yolks.  Not even your toast.
20.)  I will occasionally eat a salad, but you'll notice I'll never ask for one.  You can put iceberg lettuce in it and some tomatoes.  A little red onion is OK too, but under no circumstances should you put anything in it that is a darker shade of green than the iceberg lettuce.  Let me control how much dressing goes on the salad.  I like it drowned.
21.)  Also, don't put in things that don't belong in salads: olives, pickles, hard boiled eggs, red cabbage, apples, grapes or blue cheese.  Or nuts.  Nuts belong in the can so you can eat them easier.  You know, straight out of the can like I do during the game.
22.)  If you make a new recipe and I can't recognize it or pronounce it, then number it so I know whether or not to ask for it again or to avoid it in future.
23.)  I will eat fish.  I prefer the kind of fish that comes in the yellow and blue box with the fisherman on the front.  Fish is always white inside and brown and crispy outside and is about the size of a Kit Kat bar.  Don't try to sneak salmon, halibut or mahi mahi on my plate.  I will find out that it didn't come out of the yellow and blue box.  And you know it doesn't look like a Kit Kat bar.
24.)  Also about fish: you like to try to get me to eat those nasty fish eggs on things like fancy potato chips with that cream stuff and those really small, dry pieces of bread (remember #18?).  A word to the wise: if you want me to eat fish eggs, then make sure they're hatched and fully grown up first.  Then make sure they come out of the yellow and blue box.  Do I need to say anything about Kit Kat bars?
25.)  I hope my wife knows that most of the time, I really like what she puts on my plate and I know she does it because she loves me.  I tease her about being a foodie because I know she can take it.  But I like to brag to my golf buddies that the first year we were together, I didn't eat the same thing twice.  Now, how many guys can say that?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My mother's spiced Christmas nuts

A scene from my childhood in my mother's kitchen:  Warm incandescent lighting overhead.  A week before Christmas in upstate New York.  Dinner finished, dishes done and put away.  Kitchen windows steamed over.  Darkness outside.  Sitting on top of the formica and chrome dinette table.  My mother at the stove, stirring something fragrant in her Farberware skillet.  Heady scent of warm spices in the kitchen.  My mother humming.  A large, yellow Pyrex bowl nearby with a mixture of confectioners' sugar and spices.  Small red and white tins of McCormick spices on the table.  An open box of Domino confectioner's sugar.  A roll of red cellophane and some green and red curling ribbon next to the yellow bowl, along with a pair of scissors.

It is bedtime, but I want to stay in the kitchen with my mother instead of going to bed.  I want to see what she is going to do with this delicious smell she is making.  I peer into the skillet, craning my neck from my perch on the table top and I see she is stirring peanuts in that skillet.  Two empty cans of Planter's cocktail peanuts, along with their pull-off metal pop-tops are on the countertop nearby.  I look at the blue cans and smile at Mr. Peanut.  He is so dapper with his cane, top hat and monocle.  It does not occur to my five-year-old mind that peanuts don't wear spats and white gloves, nor do they have legs and arms to hold canes, nor do they look like they are about to tip their hats at you.  It all seems completely normal.  I remember thinking that Mr. Peanut is quite charming.  I wonder if he knows what is happening to all his buddies that used to live in those cans.

Photo by Christian Montone; vintage 1960's peanut can (2009)

I can hear music, faintly.  My father, in his study, preparing lesson plans.  He likes to play Mozart on a portable phonograph while he works.  My younger brothers have both been put to bed and I have my mother to myself.  And in that skillet on the stove where that exquisite smell is emanating from, she is making her spiced nuts.  She does this every Christmas season.  She will package them in the cellophane and tie them with curled red and green ribbons and then share them with friends and family.  She will make sure that we have some for ourselves as well.  They will be kept in a Tupperware container like one of these on the counter top.  Then the nuts will be gone for another year.

The story behind the spiced nut recipe, a recipe I've never seen anywhere else in my perpetual search for spiced and seasoned nuts, is this:  My mother was part of a women's support group when she and my father were in seminary school.  The recipe was passed on by the group's leader along with the nuts.  Where the recipe originated from is not known, but it is an old recipe and it had been part of my mother's Christmas tradition every year.

Try these nuts.  They're easy, fabulously addictive and they make great gifts.

Merry Christmas and thanks for passing on the recipe, Mom!

My Mother's Spiced Christmas Nuts

     You can easily double, triple or quadruple this recipe.  I have also found that you can increase the quantity of nuts from 2 to 3 cups, make the same amount of sugar-spice coating and get great results.

3/4 cup confectioner's sugar
2 Tbs. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
2 Tbs. oil or butter
2 cups salted peanuts (if using dry-roasted unsalted peanuts, add 1 tsp. salt to spice mixture)

1.)  Blend together confectioner's sugar and spices; add salt if using unsalted nuts.
2.)  Put 3 Tbs. spice mixture in a large skillet with oil or butter.
3.)  Add nuts and stir until coated.
4.)  Heat over low heat, stirring constantly, for 8 minutes.
5.)  Cool nuts and toss with remaining spice mixture.
6.)  Store airtight.  Makes about 2 cups.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A bit of a head

She was a beaut.  Almost 10 inches across and possessed of that pristinely virginal, dewy appearance that is associated with Very Fresh Vegetables.

I found her yesterday at my local HEB, accompanied by others who were just as beautiful.  I wanted to take them all home with me, but my Inner Govenor, that voice of reason and sanity, said, "Just one, my dear."

Such are my struggles.

I brought her home, dreaming of all I could do with her.  Roasted, with Sri Lankan spices to eat with strained yogurt and fresh cilantro.  Steamed and whipped like potatoes with a little creme fraiche and white pepper as a bed for a succulent pork chop sauteed with Choucroute Garni and a buttery Madeira and shallot pan sauce.  Or perhaps those little pan-fried cakes with cheddar cheese, scallions and the chipotle cream sauce I had enjoyed so much a few weeks ago (keep in touch, the recipe for those is in the works).

But I was hungry for lunch and I had the unexpected luxury of a few hours to myself in my kitchen. So I separated out enough cauliflower for one serving, trimmed it and broke it down into small florets.  I tossed them with a little EVOO and some freshly ground sea salt and black pepper.

As the cauliflower was roasting in my toaster oven, I came up with a game plan: caraway and garlic would get gently fragrant with some EVOO in my skillet, then I would add the roasted florets, a little more S & P, then some half and half, a little creme fraiche and some leftover cooked penne pasta.  A couple of minutes before serving, I would toss in some leftover roasted lacinato kale that I had had for dinner recently (if you're like me, you often have some leftover kale in the fridge because you're the only one in the house who eats it).  Then I would heat everything through, plate it and cover it with a lot of finely shredded Fontina cheese.

And that's exactly what I did.

I felt like The Queen of Everything eating that pasta.  The bold and assertive flavors of the kale and the caraway, the texture of the roasted cauliflower and the creaminess and tang of the merest hint of cream sauce was balanced against all the chew of the kale.  Delightful and just sinfully rich enough to warrant considering a trip to the confessional.

What can you drink with this pasta dish?  Because these are assertive flavors, you'll want a bright, earthy red wine to accompany.  Try a pinot noir that is fruit forward and has a forest floor nose, such as The Four Graces Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, OR.  If you prefer white, I suggest you try one with plenty of fruit and high acidity, such as a chenin blanc, to balance the cream and cheese in this dish--there are plenty of affordable choices from South Africa.  As usual, ask your wine guy at Spec's for help.  They know their business.

Penne Pasta with Roasted Cauliflower and Kale in Caraway Garlic-Cream Sauce

2 cups cauliflower florets
4 Tbs. EVOO, divided
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2  cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp. caraway seed
6 Tbs. half and half
4 Tbs. creme fraiche or sour cream
6 cups cooked pasta, such as penne, fusilli or rotini
1 cup leftover roasted kale (optional)
finely shredded Fontina cheese or Parmesan cheese for finishing (I use a Microplane coarse grater for this)

1.)  Toss cauliflower florets in 2 Tbs. EVOO, seasoning generously with salt and pepper.
2.)  Roast for about 20 minutes on a pan in a toaster oven, or under a broiler until nicely browned; set aside.
3.)  In remaining EVOO, in a large skillet, gently heat the garlic and the caraway seed over medium heat until fragrant, taking care not to let the garlic get too brown.
4.)  Add roasted cauliflower to skillet and stir to combine.
5.)  Add half and half and creme fraiche, stirring until smooth and just beginning to bubble.
6.)  Add cooked pasta and lower heat, covering with a lid to allow the pasta to gently heat through.
7.)  Stir the pasta once or twice during this process to coat it with the sauce.  It should be nicely moist and not too saucy.
8.)  Add leftover kale, if desired, and cover again for another minute or two.
9.)  Stir to incorporate kale and then divide pasta among four plates, showering generously with the shredded Fontina cheese.  Serves 4.  

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Spiced butternut tea cakes with St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram

I like to bake, but I don't post much about baking.  Perhaps that's because I really can't bake like a pastry chef when I would really want to.  But give me a fancy pan, a dense, substantive cake or tea bread recipe and about a pound of confectioner's sugar and I'm convinced I can do anything.

Here's a recent example of my trying to look more impressive than talent allows, gilding the lily with one of my favorite fancy pans and some 10X sugar:

Photo of a chocolate and red wine cake by my friend, CG

When I bake, I love making quick bread recipes.  They're easy, almost effortless, and can be made in so many ways--muffins, snack cakes or tea cakes are my favorite incarnations.  Quick bread recipes are very forgiving, as long as you respect the wet, dry and fat ratios.  Substituting yogurt, creme fraiche, sour cream or buttermilk for milk in a quick bread recipe really enhances your baked goods.  Additionally, adding and subtracting moist flavoring ingredients, such as bananas, mango pulp and pumpkin, is fairly simple and I will often substitute some apple butter or other pureed fruit (up to 1/2 cup) for some of the fat called for in the recipe.  Incorporating dried, chopped or diced fruit (such as raisins, dates, dried cherries, prunes or diced apples, peaches or pears) is also very easy and doesn't change the procedure much except to perhaps extend the baking time a bit and make your final outcome much more delicious.

For extra special flavor, don't forget about things like orange zest, lemon zest, or any kind of citrus zest/candied citrus peel, or chopped nuts, chocolate chips, fennel pollen and crystallized ginger.  All of those additions are lovely and perfectly delicious when paired with simple, Plain Jane quick breads.  Raid your pantry and be adventurous!

Substituting liqueurs or liquor for part of the liquid ingredients produces good results too.  Bourbon or rum in banana bread is a natural; orange or peppermint liqueur in chocolate quick bread is wonderful; amaretto or hazelnut liqueur in nut bread is fabulous.  The list goes on and the possibilities are endless for experimentation.  And don't forget about drizzling liqueurs, sherry, brandy, rum or bourbon over the bread while it's still warm.  Delicious!

But quick breads don't have to be sweet.  You can make an olive, nut, herb, vegetable or cheese quick bread like the ones here.  Savory or sweet, quick breads are delightful--and even better toasted, warm or sandwiched together with a generous schmear of cream cheese or butter.

Recently, I had a surplus of leftover roasted butternut squash and thought of pureeing it and incorporating some into a savory quick bread along with fried sage, goat cheese and toasted pumpkin seeds.  Sooooo yummy with just about any kind of soup.  But then I remembered how much my husband loves his sweets.  So I switched gears and decided on a spice cake flavor profile with the moist density of pumpkin bread.

So this is what happened when I took my favorite pumpkin bread recipe, got out one of my fancy pans and then took a peek in the liquor cabinet to see what I could do to add some extra oomph.

Spiced Butternut Tea Cakes with St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram

St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram is a lovely rum-based liquer made from the allspice berry.  A wonderful addition to mulled wine and cocktails, it enhances cakes and tea breads as well.    Substitute canned pumpkin for the roasted squash puree if you'd like.  This recipe (from the Family Circle ABZ's of Cooking) will make two 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaves of bread, or 18 oversized muffins, or 24 regular-sized muffins or 36 tea cakes (which I baked in my Nordic Ware tart pan).

2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups pureed butternut squash
2 tsp. orange zest
3 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. cloves
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram for drizzling (optional)
Confectioner's sugar, for serving (optional)
Hand-whipped heavy cream, for serving (optional)

1.)  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2.)  Combine sugar and oil in a large bowl with an electric mixer.
3.)  Beat in eggs one at a time and continue beating until light and foamy.
4.)  Beat in butternut puree and orange zest, blending well.
5.)  Sift together flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.
6.)  Add flour mixture to butternut mixture, beating at low speed until blended.
7.)  Stir in nuts by hand.
8.)  Pour batter into greased loaf pans, prepared muffin tins or tea cake pans.
9.)  Bake large loaves for about 1 hour, muffins for 22 to 27 minutes (depending on size) and tea cakes for about 17 minutes, or until tops spring back when press lightly.
10.)  Drizzle with a little St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram or some brandy when still slightly warm, if desired.
11.)  When completely cool, dust with confectioner's sugar and top with a dollop of hand-whipped cream, if you wish.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Technicolor bangers and mash

What started out as a very tame dinner of bangers and mash ended up being a surprisingly delicious experiment and, as you can see in the photo below, a carnival on a plate.  Send in the clowns.

It's got the Mardi Gras thing going' on...

Can you recognize any food elements in this photo?  Pork sausage (aka banger) is near the top on the left.  Those are organic beet greens from red and yellow beets on the right.  Sauteed red and white onions are draped over the top of the sausage and that pool of yellow stuff?  That is the sauce from the onion gravy, laced with a little coarse mustard.  Now, what the heck is Barney doing hiding under the sausage and onion gravy??? 

Photo from

That violent Mardi Gras purple is actually a color found in nature.  That is what purple sweet potatoes look like when they're peeled and boiled like regular potatoes, then whipped into a pudding-like consistency with lots of butter and heavy cream.  Tweaked with a little Ethiopian spice mixture, they were amazingly creamy, plenty sweet enough on their own and beautifully harmonious with the sharpness of the mustardy onion gravy and the spices in the bangers I had bought at Central Market.  The beet greens provided an unintended but striking visual counterpoint, and were delicious just simply prepared with a little EVOO, garlic, kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.

I'm pretty adventurous in the kitchen, but working with some new recipe ideas from the Food Network site and two foods I'd never tried before made me hesitate a teensy bit.  The pan-fried bangers and the onion gravy were exceedingly simple, and deciding to enhance the gravy with the coarse mustard rather than serving it alongside made sense.  But the mash was where I decided to change things up.  Having previously baked a small purple sweet potato--acquired from my local HEB--on Thanksgiving Day, I was pleasantly surprised at its sweetness and dense, cakey texture.  I didn't want to ramp up the sweetness for this dinner, I wanted to complement it.  Adding cream and butter made sense, but what might work to enhance the sweetness and still pull the rest of the dinner elements together?  A little exotic heat.

I went on a sniffing expedition in my spice rack.  No to cayenne.  No to Hungarian sharp paprika.  No to hot chile powder.  No to chipotle powder.  No to Slap Ya Mama.  The exoticism of fenugreek, cardamom and coriander in my hot curry powder might work, but I really didn't want a curry powder profile.  I was also concerned about that violent yellow that turmeric contributes.  I remembered from grade-school art class that yellow and purple were opposites on the color wheel and mixing them together would yield a muddy color.  Then my hand hovered over a container of Ethiopian spice mixture called mit' mit' a, a pungent combination of ground serrano chiles, cardamom, cloves and salt.  One sniff (and several sneezes later) and I was seasoning the boiled purple sweet potatoes after just a moment's hesitation about "what if this is a bad idea?"  I tasted, smiled and decided there was just enough heat and depth from the chilies, cloves and cardamom that the potatoes could have been a perfect solo.  But when everything came together on the plate, it was a symphony.

So, ladies and gentlemen, what you have before you tonight is technicolor bangers and mash.  Elements of familiarity along with the unexpected.  Even my suspicious husband put aside his phood phobias long enough to not only try the purple sweet potatoes, but to clean his plate.  There were no comments except, "Mmmm, good stuff, babe." 

Thank goodness for dim lighting in the dining room...

Bangers with Ethiopian-Spiced Purple Sweets and Onion-Mustard Gravy 

     You can, of course, make this recipe with regular sweet potatoes or even white utility potatoes--Yukon golds make a fine substitution and are in keeping with the classic intention of this dish--but omit the mit' mit' a seasoning if you use white or gold potatoes and spice them with about 2 Tbs. grainy mustard instead.

2 lbs. purple sweet potatoes (or substitute the sweetest sweet potatoes you can, or even white or gold potatoes)
4 large bangers (you can find these at Central Market)
1 Tbs. oil
1 small red onion or white onion, cut into 3/8" rings
2 Tbs. flour
2 cups chicken stock
2 Tbs. grainy mustard
3 Tbs. butter
4 Tbs. cream, half and half or milk

1 tsp. mit' mit' a seasoning (can be purchased at Aster's Ethiopian Restaurant or find a recipe here; if you are using white or gold potatoes, omit the mit' mit' a and add 2 Tbs. grainy mustard instead)
Salt and freshly ground pepper

1.)  Peel and dice the potatoes.
2.)  Place potatoes in a medium-sized saucepan and cover with cold water and a little salt.
3.)  Bring to a boil and simmer for about 15 or 20 minutes, or until tender.
4.)  While potatoes are cooking, prick bangers with a fork and heat the oil a large skillet over medium-high heat.
5.)  When the oil is shimmering, add the sausages and brown them well all over, reducing heat if necessary.
6.)  Remove the sausage to a plate and keep warm.
7.)  Add the onion to the pan and cook until softened.
8.)  Add the flour and cook for 1 minute, stirring until all the flour is incorporated with the oil and sauteed onions.
9.)  Add the chicken stock and the mustard to the pan and bring to a boil, stirring well to incorporate the mustard.
10.)  Return the sausages to the pan, cooking them thoroughly, for about 15 to 20 minutes.  Salt and pepper the gravy to taste.
11.)  Drain the potatoes and add butter and cream to the pot.  Mash until smooth or whip with an electric
12.)  Stir in mit' mit' a seasoning (omit for white or gold potatoes and substitute mustard instead if you wish), taste for salt and adjust if necessary.
13.)  To serve, mound the potatoes in the middle of the plate and arrange sausage on top; cover with gravy.  Makes 4 serves.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The portly portabello

We love them for their meaty texture and deep, earthy flavor.  They astound us with their size and versatility.  They're delicious stuffed, grilled, broiled or sauteed.  But what is a portabello mushroom, anyway?  

Photo from
The simple answer is that the portobello is really an overgrown mushroom.  In its infancy and adolescence, it was once a brown-tinged crimini mushroom (also known as an Italian brown mushroom) and a close cousin of the common white mushroom.  But now, with its wide berth, it is the granddaddy of all the mushrooms on the supermarket shelf.

There are, amazingly, larger edible mushrooms on the planet; find one here.  Additionally, for a nice little pictorial compendium of edible mushrooms, go here.  You can find some lovely mushrooms, each with their own characteristics, flavor and beauty, in a well-stocked produce department.  Consider, for instance, the delicacy, charm and crisp texture of enoki mushrooms, contrasted with the dramatic beauty and exotic apricot-like fragrance of the black chanterelle.

Mushrooms, in general, have some nutritional benefits, namely Vitamin D and antioxidants, so eating them in the company of other whole foods is a great idea.  And in 2009 the International Journal of Cancer published a case-control study with compelling findings:  Chinese women who consumed higher quantities of mushrooms reduced their risk of breast cancer.  Amazingly, their risk was further reduced when mushrooms were eaten in combination with increased consumption of green tea (Min Zhang, et. al 2009).

So what are you waiting for?

Unfortunately, some of us (read, husbands) don't like mushrooms.  What's not to like?  Well, for one thing, some people don't like the flavor of mushrooms (a friend's husband once said my mushroom and barley soup tasted like earthworms!).  Then there's the texture, which can offend the Fungi Fearful.  Since my husband is a Texture Queen, he eschews things like mushrooms, asparagus, bread that is too crusty, veggies that are too crunchy and cold, cooked shrimp.  Appreciative though he is, cooking for him has been rather like wandering through a culinary landmine and I often wonder if he doesn't like to chew anything!  But I have discovered that if I wrap something in bacon or proscuitto before I cook it, he's likely to at least try it.  Ditto for dousing feared foods in copious amounts of butter and cheese, so I have resorted to this kind of culinary manipulation in order to get him to try foods he claims he doesn't like (which sometimes negates the health benefits of almost anything).  The experience has been like cooking through The Sneaky Chef for adults, which apparently is already on bookshelves.  It's good to know other wives have food-phobic husbands.

The recipe I want bring you today was one I developed on Thanksgiving Day of this year, a result of just foraging about for ingredients, which, I have found, often produces the best results for great food.  This portabello is drizzled with EVOO and dry sherry, then stacked with sauteed garlic spinach and finished with cheese, breadcrumbs and smoked paprika.  Additionally, the recipe is meatless, which makes it vegetarian-friendly.  If you omit the cheese, it becomes vegan- and Paleo-friendly, although vegans could substitute soy cheese and some Paleo eaters I know will occasionally indulge in cheese.

But for me, I'll take all the cheese I can get.

The main reason why I wasn't hungry for Thanksgiving dinner...

Portabello Mushroom Caps with Garlic-Spinach and Asiago

     These appetizers have plenty of umami even though they’re meatless.  Pair with a pinot noir, sangiovese or a not-too-oaky chardonnay.

4 portabello mushrooms, wiped clean, stems removed
1 Tbs. EVOO for cooking, plus more for drizzling
4 Tbs. fino sherry (or substitute any dry sherry)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 lbs. fresh baby spinach, rinsed well
1 clove garlic, finely minced
½ cup shredded asiago cheese, divided
Ground nutmeg
4 Tbs. fresh breadcrumbs
Smoked paprika
      Preheat oven to 400 degrees.    Rub mushrooms well with EVOO and place gill-side up in a baking dish.  Drizzle mushroom caps with more EVOO and drizzle with the sherry, dividing evenly among the mushrooms. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.  Saute spinach in EVOO with garlic, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.    Sprinkle each mushroom cap with 1 Tbs. asiago cheese, dividing evenly, reserving remaining cheese for later.  Divide sauteed spinach among the mushroom caps.   Sprinkle each mushroom lightly with nutmeg, then sprinkle with breadcrumbs, dividing evenly, followed by remaining cheese, dividing evenly .  Bake mushrooms for about 20 minutes, or until cheese is slightly toasted.    Remove from oven and sprinkle each mushroom with smoked paprika.  Makes 4 appetizer portions.