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Searching for the Perfect Risotto

I don’t get the allure of risotto. Years ago at culinary school, every student revered the dish except me, and slowly I’ve come to hate it. It’s overrated.

I’ve practiced making it at home with the guidance of some of the best cookbook authors of the day. I stand at the stove as instructed, stirring, hot broth on the back burner, and all of the ingredients at hand. Inevitably after the required 19 minutes of stirring, ladling, and coddling as instructed, I have a pot of hot, goopy rice, but I am never impressed.

I never get tired of cooking, but eventually I did tire of making risotto.

I had given up ordering risotto in restaurants long ago for the same reasons I quit making it at home. But on a chance, just like the dollar I dropped into a slot and pulled the arm as I walked by, I ordered it. I took the gamble and it too payed off, just like the $1600 slot earlier in the day.

I don’t eat at restaurants often. Not because I don’t enjoy them – because I do – it’s more that my wife, Amy, and I splurge when we go out to eat. A few times a year we spend lots of money at a few restaurants. A weekend in Napa or New York City is perfect for this. This time we headed to Las Vegas where there are lots of great restaurants tucked within a confined space. We made plans to hit several famous chef’s restaurants. It’s what we do when we go to Vegas. Others gamble, we eat.

On a whim, we decided to go into Le Cirque, the off shoot of the famous New York City restaurant. Le Cirque is whimsical. It ’s dinner under the big top, draping curtains hanging from the ceiling like a technicolor circus tent, highlighting a huge chandelier centered in a huge circular room. No corner table. Gaudy at best but it pairs perfectly with Cirque Du Soleil playing one ring over.

As I glanced at the veritable circus around us, the ringmaster balanced hot plates on his arm and delivered them to our table. The risotto dish set in front of me was the most exquisite rice dish ever. Tender rice but with a spring to it. The acidity of the white wine, added and burned off au sec, is a perfect match for the Parmesan and the starchy rice. Brothy, but not too much so. Fine dinning at its best. It is out of place in Vegas: to simple, not garish enough. Still, that rice dish will hold a place at the front of my mind for the rest of the weekend and follow me around for a long time to come.

I arrived back home with renewed determination. I had to figure out how to make risotto like that. It’s like a three-ring circus in my kitchen: ingredients spread all around while I’m stirring and ladling and stirring and measuring and stirring some more. Another carefully measured attempt ends yet again with disappointment. How could it not? I can make a perfect pot of rice, but I can’t make risotto. No amount of hope can fix that.

I did my best to just move on. There are so many wonderful foods in this world; there is no point in getting hung up on any one failure. It’s not like anyone notices a gaping risotto hole in my cooking repertoire. And what if they did? It’s only risotto.

But I do. I notice. And for me it is an empty pan smoking over high heat. Cooking is what I do. Making food the best that I possibly can is what drives me. Once my palate has experienced something new and exciting there are no lengths to which I won’t go in order to replicate that experience.

And so I head back to the stove with another recipe for Risotto Milanese, seeking yet again that illusive pairing of a creamy texture and toothsome rice. I carefully ladle in the broth, stirring and stirring and seeking to master the ultimate balancing act.

Perfect Risotto Milanese (serves 4)

2 tsp. unsalted butter

1/2 cup yellow onion, finely diced

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 cup arborio rice

1/4 tsp kosher salt

2 3/4 cup homemade or sodium free chicken broth

1/2 tsp saffron

2 TBS. unsalted butter, cold

1/2 cup Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

1 TBS. chives, minced

  1. Place a 4-quart pressure cooker over medium high heat.  Add the butter, and when it begins to bubble, add the onions.  Sauté until the onions begin to soften.
  2. Add the dry white wine and bring it to a boil.  Reduce the wine by half and add the rice and stir to coat.  Add salt, chicken stock, and saffron, and bring the liquid to a boil.
  3. Lock the lid into place and bring the pressure to high.  Once the pot is to pressure start a timer set for 7 minutes.  Remove the pot from the heat and use the cold water release method to drop the pressure.  Remove the lid.
  4. Stir in the chilled butter followed with the Parmesan.  If the risotto is stiff, add more broth 1 TBS. at a time until you reach the desired consistency.  Divide the rice into 4 bowls, garnish a little more cheese and chives.  Serve immediately.

 

 

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Bison Sirloin with Mushroom Ragu

I remember the first time I saw a bison up close and personal. It was out on the rolling prairies of South Dakota. No, it wasn’t wild. Reality is, I am not sure there are to many of those left. Maybe in Canada and Yellowstone but beyond that I think most herds are domesticated, sort of.

When you walk up on a buffalo it is like you stepped back in time, especially if they are starring at you head on. They are huge animals yielding in the neighborhood of four hundred pounds of meat. You heard that right four hundred pounds. I can’t imagine killing one of these with a bow and arrow.  I have a hard time trying to imagine how the Native Americans did it.

It is interesting to note at one time Indiana had bison that followed the Buffalo Trace on their east/west migration through the southern portion of the state. The trace was one of the first roads used by animals and people alike.

The mushroom ragu is really what this dish is all about.  I love buffalo, I can eat it plain without any toppings, but the simple addition of this simple ragu makes the whole dish.

The ragu is an umami bomb.  The deep earthiness of the mushrooms, combined with the red wine and soy, and cooked on the stove top until all the flavors are intensified by reduction makes it a great combination.  Not only is it good on red meat but it also is delicious on salmon and monk fish.

If you don’t want to mess with buffalo, of course this recipe would be great with beef.  I like to pan sear the sirloins but the grill works great too.  Use whichever works best for you.

Buffalo SirloinServes 4
one (1 1/2 to 2 pound) buffalo sirloin
5 cups assorted exotic mushrooms
2 heads garlic, roasted, see step 5
1 teaspoon marjoram
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 cup red wine
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon canola oil
parsley for garnish

  1. Place a 14 inch saute pan over medium high heat. Let it get good and hot. Then add the oil. Add the oil first to keep the butter from burning.
  2. Now add the mushrooms. Spread them out across the pan and let them sit without shaking or turning them so they get good and brown. Season them with a heavy pinch of salt and some pepper.
  3. When the mushrooms are good and brown flip them and do the same to the other side. Add the shallots and the butter. Let the shallots soften.
    Add the wine, soy sauce and garlic. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat and cook until the wine is almost all absorbed by the mushrooms.
  4. Meanwhile heat a cast iron skillet or if you are using a grill you should already have it going, over high heat. Add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan and cook the sirloin caramelizing both sides of the steak to the internal temp you want it to be.
  5. Let the steak rest, slice and serve with mushrooms on top. Garnish with parsley.
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A Life-Changing Loaf of Bread (Redux)

 

I often wonder what makes a recipe so good it goes viral. I am sure it’s lots of factors. Sometimes it’s the recipe itself, other times it is what the author expresses in words through their post, and sometimes it is simply because the author is very famous. This recipe, originally posted on the blog My New Roots, has shown up on lots of other sites and was even a Genius Recipe on Food 52, and rightly so.  At the very least it has gone viral in my circles.

There are lots of things to like about this bread, like stacking it with thinly sliced crisp cucumbers, topped with oily mackerel, shallots, and parsley like in the picture above.  I also like it with thick cut bacon and peas shoots, or simply toasted and topped with butter and lingonberry jam.  It is delicious bread.  I even bake it on my Big Green Egg to give it a more authentic, and Danish, baked-in-the-dying-embers of a wood fired oven flavor.

My only problem is if I make the loaf of bread following the original recipe it comes up short. I heard the same words of disappointment from others who tried it too. The bread can be fussy, difficult to cut, crumbles, and becomes dry.  Many I know have given up making it.

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One of my favorite ways to top this bread is with thin slices of cucmber, mackeral, parsley, and shallot.

I am sure the loaf bakes up perfect and to the satisfaction of many people every time. It doesn’t for me, but I understand when it comes to cooking and baking there are so many variables that to place fault elsewhere is simply not taking responsibility for ones own abilities. After all, it is up to the cook to get what they want from a recipe.  It is why you need to know how to cook rather then simply follow directions.  Just like different musicians playing the same piece of sheet music. The song sounds very different depending on the players abilities.  It is only because there are so many things about this loaf of bread I like that I stuck with it, experimented with it, until I got the loaf of bread I wanted, until I heard the song I wanted to hear.

I didn’t change much, although I used pumpkin seeds instead of sunflower and ground psyllium instead of seeds and I ground a portion of the oats and pumpkin seeds to create a finer crumb in the end product.  And while I use coconut oil in some recipes I didn’t use it here nor did I use maple syrup but instead brown rice syrup was substituted.   For me all these small touches made for a more manageable loaf in the end.

The fact is, made from the original recipe this loaf of bread is delicious, the taste is very satisfying, nutty, feels good to eat, and it is nourishing.  I simply made adjustments which gave me the product  I wanted to eat.  Rest assured though,  for those on a restricted diet, and those that aren’t, this seed bread is an important find.  It’s worth practicing to get it right.

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Seed bread packed into a pate mold and waiting to be wrapped up for a rest before baking. Notice the parchment handles.
Seed Bread
This recipe creates a less delicate loaf.

Seed and Grain Bread (adapted from My New Roots)

1 cup unsalted pumpkin seeds (1/2 cup coarsely ground)
1/2 cup golden flax meal, ground
1/2 cup walnuts
1 1/2 cups rolled oats ( I generally grind 1/2 cup coarsely in a coffee grinder )
2 tablespoons chia seeds
3 tablespoons powdered psyllium
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoons brown rice syrup or whatever syrup you have and want to use
3 tablespoons spectrum vegetable shortening (it’s palm oil and non-hydrogentated) or unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups hot water

1. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl. Using your hands work the mass until the shortening or butter and the other ingredients are evenly distributed.
2. Line a pate mold, or small loaf pan, with parchment. To remove air bubbles, literally, pack the dough into a 3 x 4 x 10 pate mold. Wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap and let it sit for 1 to 2 hours.
3, Heat the oven to 350˚F. Remove the plastic wrap, place the loaf pan onto a baking sheet and bake the bread for 25 minutes.
4. At the end of the baking time remove the tray from the oven and using excess parchment paper as handle lift the loaf from the pan. Place the loaf, with the parchment still under it, back onto the sheet tray and bake the bread for another 20 minutes.
5. When the timer sounds, roll the loaf so that a new side is flush with the sheet tray. Bake another twenty minutes. Do this until all four sides have been baked against the sheet tray.
6. Remove from the oven and let the bread cool completely before cutting.
7. The bread is best toasted. Store in the fridge wrapped in plastic wrap.

Note: recently I baked a loaf on my Big Green Egg. It is a fantastic way to bake this loaf. Much like it might be baked in a shop in Europe using the dying embers of a wood fired oven.

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Thai Collard Wraps (day 5 )

Today was supposed to be a day off from running or lifting but sometimes you just know it’s best to go ahead and put on your favorite running shoes, put your favorite song list on the iPhone, and get it done.  It feels better to do it than not.

My nature is not that of a runner.  It goes against everything I can think of about myself.  But I have been and with consistency.  Some days it is much harder then others but running is always better then not running at all.

Lunch today! Continue reading

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Pork Confit Parmentier (or “Sorta” Shepard’s Pie)

 

It is not generally in my nature to go out of my way to make a shepherd’s pie from scratch. Instead of cooking all the individual components — breaking them down only to put them back together — it always seems like a job best done by leftovers. I don’t mean to pick on shepherd’s pie alone — this goes for most meat and potato casseroles. And while not meat and potatoes, it reminds me of the time I looked at a recipe for turkey tetrazzini and the first step in the instructions was: Roast a turkey. Continue reading

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Turkey Meatloaf with Peas and Gravy

You can make meatloaf out of anything, from lentils to venison to duck.  You can get fancy and have the three meat combo made from equal parts beef, veal and pork or even a seafood loaf made from salmon.  The possibilities are endless.

From what you choose to make your meatloaf isn’t as important as how you make your meatloaf.  The steps you use will ultimately influence the outcome of the final product.

Meatloaf, in technical cooking terms, is a forcemeat.  A forcemeat comes in a few variations, from sausage to paté but is really nothing more then ground meat.  Sometimes it is emulsified until it is smooth such as in hotdogs and other times it is left coarse as in Italian sausage.  A binder is needed, bread crumbs, oats, rice might be typical and even eggs are sometimes used.

As you can see when making forcemeat you have options.  The one option I don’t stray from though is the ratio of fat to meat.  Without the right ratio for fat to meat you will more then likely end up with a dry meatloaf.  While it probably would still be edible it would be less then desirable.  So here is the ratio, 3 parts meat to 1 part fat.

Arguably this is tough to figure sometimes but generally grocery stores are good about marking such things as their ground beef with percentages of fat.  After ground beef though it is up to you to figure out.  I just apply a general rule of the thumb, the leaner the meat the closer to the ratio I stay.  Venison for example is very, very lean.  If I am making meatloaf from it I use 1 1/2 lbs venison to a 1/2 lb of pork belly.  On the other hand if I want a pork loaf I just by pork butt and grind it,  it always seems to be somewhere in the neighborhood of the ratio.

The other thing about meatloaf is it is designed to use less meat but feed more people or as we say it was meant to stretch out the protein and number of mouths it can feed.  To do this a filler is added.  Bread crumbs and oats are the first two that come to mind.  I used to use only breadcrumbs but over time I switched to oats and have pretty much stuck with oats ever since.  What the filler does is as important as how much fat you add.  It absorbs the fat and juices as the meatloaf cooks, hence retaining moisture.

When it comes to seasoning I find 1 teaspoon of salt per pound of meat works pretty well.  After salt you can spice your meatloaf however you want but I would be careful not to over spice it.  You need to find a balance.

Turkey Meatloaf with Peas and Gravy (Serves 6 to 8)

Turkey can be tricky in that it can become very dry.  I have found if I use equal parts ground thigh to breast meat it stays moist and succulent, of coarse the 1/2 and 1/2 soaked oats doesn’t hurt one bit either.  This is currently my favorite go-to-quick-to-prep meatloaf.  Here is why, more often then not I gently sauté any vegetables that will go into the loaf.  I do so for several reasons but the main reason is because I don’t like half cooked veggies in my meatloaf.  Sweating them before adding them to the meat keeps this from happening.  The two main vegetables I add to meatloaf are generally onions and garlic.  For this recipe I grated the onion and used garlic powder and it worked beautifully without any extra sautéing.

Note: of course you can add peas to the gravy along with the shoots or omit the shoots altogether and just add the peas.

1 pound ground turkey breast

1 pound ground turkey thigh

1/2 cup oatmeal, coarsely ground

1/2 cup half & half

2 teaspoons kosher salt

fresh ground black pepper

2 teaspoons sage

1/4 teaspoon marjoram

1 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

2 tablespoon grated onion, grated on the small whole of a grater

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly ground

1 quart homemade chicken or turkey stock or no salt store bought broth

2 tablespoons rice or wheat flour

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

ketchup (for the crust)

Pea shoots

1. Heat the oven to 325˚ F.

2. In a 2 quart sauce pan melt the butter over medium heat.  Add the flour and stir it constantly with a wooden spoon until it smells nutty and becomes tan in color.  While stirring, and stirring is very important here to keep from getting lumps, add the chicken stock.  Bring the stock to a boil, reduce the heat and let the gravy simmer till reduced by half.   Taste the gravy and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

3. While the gravy is reducing combine the cream and oats.  Add the seasonings and stir.  Now add the turkey and using your clean hands spend a minute or two mixing the forcemeat until everything is well combined.  It will be sticky.

4. Making sure you pat out any air bubbles pack the turkey forcemeat into a 4 x 4 x 8 loaf pan.  Top evenly with a layer of ketchup and bake the loaf in the oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until an instant read thermometer reads 165˚ F when inserted to the middle.  Slice and serve with gravy.

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Lentil Cakes, Red Onions and Sweet Potato Fries

Lentil Patties with Red Onions

Everyday my diet pushes further in a vegetarian/vegan direction.  I don’t know if it is because I am older,  my tastes changing, or maybe I am I just tired of all the same foods I have spent life eating.

If I really think about it, which I am prone to do, I don’t think I eat this way to be healthy.  While health is a byproduct and one I will take, I think it is because I am a lover of food.  As one whose tastebuds have been around the block a few times I am always looking for the new and exciting to try.  As my tastebuds gain experience it also becomes harder to get excited about food.

It might be connected to my garden too.  I have been lucky enough to have a garden of some sort for well over 15 years now.  With each passing year I get more excited about the growing season.  It gets harder and harder to wait for the first produce.  The other thing I know is the diversity of vegetables I grow has increased the diversity of my diet.  For whatever reason and it does not matter to me, I have developed a fondness for vegan food.

I make these lentil patties often with my lentil patty tikka masala recipe.  Today I cooked the lentils in cashew cream and added lemon juice and thyme.

Cost to make this dinner: under $15.oo

Get the lentil patty tikka masala recipe here.

For the Lentils(serves 4)

1 cup dried Lentil du Puy, rinsed and picked over for stones

1/2 yellow onion, small dice

1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger

1 tablespoon cilantro, minced

2 teaspoons garam masala

1/4 cup flour, I used millet flour

1 egg

3/4 teaspoons kosher salt

 

1. Place the lentils into a 3 quart pot and cover with water by two or more inches. Add the minced onion. Place the pot over medium heat. Slowly bring the lentils to a boil then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the lentils until tender adding a pinch or two of salt in the last 10 minutes of cooking. This should take approximately 30 minutes.

2. Drain the lentils. Let them cool but puree them in a food processor while they are still warm. They will be easier to handle when warm.

3. Add the remaining lentil cake ingredients and pulse the cakes a few more times until the rest of the ingredients are combined into the mix. Taste the lentil puree then season the puree with kosher salt and a few grinds of pepper. Taste again and adjust the seasoning.

4. Let the cakes sit for a few minutes to hydrate the flour. Take a tablespoon of the mix and make a ball. Is it really wet or is it too stiff? You want the mix to hold its shape but not be overly stiff otherwise they can be dry when cooked. It should just hold its shape. Add more flour a tablespoon at a time if you need to letting the additional flour hydrate before testing. Divide the lentils into eight balls.

5. Add enough oil to cover the bottom of a heavy bottomed sauté pan by an 1/8 inch. Heat the oil over medium high heat. Test the oil by dropping a pinch of lentil to the pan. It should begin to sizzle right away but not violently sizzle and pop.

6. When the oil is ready take each lentil ball and smash it down gently forming it into 1/2 inch thick cakes and add them to the oil. Let each side brown nicely and then remove them to a tray lined with a brown bag to soak up the oil. Keep the cakes warm, either in a low, 200 degree oven or in a warm place on the stove.

For the onions:

1 large red onion, cut into four 1/2 inch slices the onion wheels left in one piece do not separate into rings

vegetable oil

For the sweet potato fries:

4 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4 to 1/2 inch julienne slices

oil

kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

  1. Heat the oven to 425˚ F.
  2. While the oven is heating place a saute pan over medium heat.  When the pan is warm add a couple of glugs of oil.  Add the slices of onion and saute them until they have browned.  Remove from the heat.
  3. Toss the sweet potatoes with oil.  Season them with plenty of salt and pepper and toss them again to mix in the seasoning.  Lay the fries out onto a baking rack set over a baking sheet.  This will allow the heat to cook the fries from all sides(do this step or you will have limp fries). Bake the fries until they begin to brown and blister, about 20 minutes. Remove one of the largest fries and test it to see if it is tender on the inside.  Be careful sweet potatoes burn easily so keep an eye on them.  Warm the onions in the oven.
  4. Top the patties with the onion rings, serve with fries and curry ketchup!
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A Girl and Her Pig

When I used to go to the bookstore looking for cookbooks to add to my collection I could spend hours flipping the pages of different books.  It was much like when I was younger and I would buy albums, then CDs, flipping through the alphabetized record bins searching for disk in hopes of finding something new and even more importantly, something exciting. As such I am the owner of an extensive cookbook library, or at least it feels like it to me. Not as many books as in some peoples collections but enough none the less. Back when I was really buying I would head to the bookstores and it was nothing to buy two to five new books at a time.

When I got home with my finds I would take them to my night stand and set them down. I would go about the rest of my days business but every night before bed I would thumb through the books looking for the must make recipes. Sometimes straight away I wanted to get out of bed and head into the kitchen. It was hard to contain my excitement and wait until the next day to make a new dish.

In time though I began to experience the law of diminishing returns. It began to feel as if the content of the cookbooks I was purchasing was all the same. A trend would hit and everyone would follow suite. Authors would add their little twist to the fad of the moment and publish. The fads would last about two years only to be followed by the next hot trend. Duck comes to mind, slow food, then bacon and now simple scratch cooking, vegetarian and vegan. The later, repentance for our foodie excesses I suppose.

All in all, this phenomena is what I have termed the “gold rush syndrome”. It is where food professionals scurry from one region, type or style of food to the next looking for a nugget in the terroir. One person strikes gold and everyone mines it until it runs dry.  This syndrome came to reflect the foodie mentality for me and I just can’t do it anymore. It is tiring, the chase isn’t fun anymore,  and once my palette became more experienced it became harder to please.  Even so, there are still books being created that stand out and when I do find gold it is not hard to champion or to shout encouragement and praise. Especially when, from cover to cover, a book is full of useful wisdom.

There is no doubt April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig is one one of these great books, one of the best in this years cookbook class and upon giving it a closer look I discovered it is much more.  A Girl And Her Pig resonates with libertarian resolve.  It is apparent Bloomfield is someone who has taken responsibility for herself and her food and harbors no apologies.  The cover is as punk as punk ever was.  It is Abbey Hoffman.  It is Che Guevara.  It is Frieda Kahlo.

It resonates with the soul of a chef but it is a book in which a wonderful chef does what really wonderful chefs do, they please.  Which is rare in theses days of pop star chefs.  If Bloomfield has an ego she checked it at the door.    She never leaves you with the impression she is better then you but instead you feel she is one of you. Bloomfield uses a mix of classic recipes that, with time,  have become her own and then she laces the pages in-between with food she loves.  Simple dishes like bubble and squeak and chicken in adobo are obviously a few of her favorite foods but they go well with the restaurant dishes too.  What Bloomfield has done is spend time in the kitchen perfecting classic recipes, using her professional knowledge to create food to her liking and with her touch.  It is this dedication that makes the food in this book so special.

Not surprisingly as you get to know her food you get to know Bloomfield. The pages are laced with personal tales of cooking and career and with each turn of the page her passion, which is quietly infectious, builds only to remain with you long after you closed the cover. As such Bloomfield becomes a wonderful voice to have floating around in your head while you are in the kitchen much like a favorite song that always resonates deep within your soul.

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Edna Lewis: The Taste of Country Cooking

The difference between Edna Lewis’ book The Taste of Country Cooking and countless other cookbooks is she truly celebrates food. Not only is it a celebration but it is the gospel of farm to table eating, a hymn of fresh, great tasting, whole food that should be sung loudly as the new testament of eating seasonally. In short, it just might save your soul and at the very least it is extremely soul satisfying.

What drew me in the first time I opened the book was a breakfast menu that simply read Fall Breakfast and the second item listed in the menu was smothered rabbit. As if this wasn’t enough the first time I made Miss Lewis’s pear preserves I became teary eyed because it reminded me of the taste of a long-forgotten-that-was-now-brought-to-mind memory of my grandmother and the pear preserves she made.

When you realize this was published in 1976 it becomes apparent this is a last bastion to how rural America once ate. It isn’t the French influenced food made in a California restaurant kitchen that now stands as the talisman of sustainable eating, but rather, it is 100% American food made with ingredients had on hand and in season. It was written at a time when women wanted out of the kitchen instead of in and the burger joint was still a treat but unfortunately fast becoming a standard.

The book is not a retrospective of days past and food that is dated by out of style trends but it is a classic that is as current and in touch today, maybe even more so, as it was when written.

Miss Lewis does nothing short of pen a rural American classic that treats food with respect and knowledge of how to use the ingredients at hand and get the most out of them. There is nothing fussy about her food and there needn’t be because its simplicity and freshness is what makes it delicious.

In short if you care about sustainable local food you should get yourself a copy. It will fast become your how to manual.

This recipe is based loosely on Miss Lewis’s fried chicken recipe.

Bacon Fried Rabbit

Serves 4

2 fryer rabbits, cut into 6 to 8 pieces

1 piece of slab bacon, cut about 1/4 inch thick

2 cups flour, seasoned with 2 teaspoons black pepper, 1 teaspoon each of thyme and paprika, and 1 teaspoon of salt

buttermilk

peanut oil

kosher salt

1. Season the rabbit with salt and set it aside to let the salt dissolve into the meat.

2. In a large cast iron Dutch oven add enough oil to come up the side by no more than a third. Add the bacon.

3. Turn the heat to medium high and place your fry thermometer into the oil. Place the seasoned flour into a plastic bag with the rabbit. Toss the rabbit around to give it a good coating. Remove the pieces from the flour and let them soak a in the buttermilk. Remove each piece and let the excess drip off. Put the pieces back into the flour for their final coat. Don’t do this to far in advance or the coating gets brittle when fried.

4. When the temperature gets to 350F˚ remove the bacon if it is crispy and start frying the rabbit until golden brown and delicious. If you need to do this in batches do. Don’t over crowd the pot or you will have a greasy mess. So to do this heat the oven to 250˚F. As the rabbit pieces come out of the grease place them on a sheet tray fitted with a wire rack and keep them in the oven till all are done.

5. Serve.

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Dover Sole with Herb Oil and Zucchini

The delicate flavor of white fleshed fish, for me, is best when cooked simply.  In fact the most important thing is seasoning the fish properly and making sure not to overcook it, which is a good reason to salt it an hour before you want to eat and why it makes sense to finish cooking or re-warming the fish in the oven.

This dish is a great recipe for entertaining because you can brown the fish without cooking it completely and then when you are ready, you can finish it up in minutes in the oven.  I also find it is a great dish for date night at home or a special occasion dinner for two, such as an anniversary.

Finally, the fish you use is up to you.  I love Dover sole but it is hard to find, you are going to have to skin it, and then bone it too.  Flounder is an excellent alternative as is halibut.

Serves 2

1 large whole Dover Sole, skinned, or other flat fish

5 fresh basil leaves

1 sprig of thyme or savory

extra virgin olive oil, plus more for cooking the fish

3 baby multi colored carrots

1 or 2 zucchini depending on their size

1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed

kosher salt and fresh ground white pepper

1. Heat the oven to 350˚ F. Salt and pepper the fish on both sides.

2. Place the herbs into a mortar. Using the pestle grind and bruise the herbs into a coarse paste. Add a pinch of salt and a grind of fresh ground pepper. Add 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and mix to combine. Set the oil aside.

3. Heat the olive oil in a skillet(non-stick if you are more comfortable with it) large enough to hold the fish easily and comfortably. When the oil is very hot but not smoking add the fish. Brown the fish on both sides it doesn’t matter if it is cooked through or not, then remove it to an oven proof tray.

4. Clean out the skillet and place it back onto the stove. Slide the fish, and two oven proof plates, into the oven to finish cooking or warming it. Add a glug or two of oil to the saute pan, add the crushed clove of garlic then add and sear the zucchini. Season it with salt and pepper then turn it and do the same to the other side.

5. Plate the fish, put the zucchini on the plate attractively and using a mandolin or by slicing the carrots thin, garnish with the carrots. Drizzle some herb oil over the fish filets.

6. Serve.

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Smokin’ Black-eyed Sandwich

Smokin’ Black-eyed Sandwich

This is a perfect example of vegetarian food that stands on its own. Not much different than falafel which has stood its ground for years. Your could in fact replace the mayonnaise with a yogurt sauce of your liking.  Something with tomato and cucumber would draw down the heat nicely. It would go well with grilled pitas too so if you wanted to you could take the whole meal and easily give it a Middle Eastern flare. When it is a sandwich like the above I really like it with crunchy shoestring fries and I have even been known to stack the fries right between the bread with the fritter for a nice crunch.

Serves 6

2 each 14 oz. cans black eyed peas, drained

1/2 to 2/3 cup rice flour

1/2 onion minced

2 cloves of garlic, chopped

3/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

2 carrots, peeled and grated, about 1 cup

lettuce, shaved

vegetable oil

bread, buns or pitas

mayonnaise or you choice of condiment

1. Place the drained peas, 1/2 cup rice flour, onion, garlic, thyme, cayenne and a 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt and some fresh ground pepper into the bowl of a food processor. I like the mix to maintain some chunkiness but it is important for it to be fairly smooth so it holds together. Add up to 1/3 cup more rice flour as needed. So process until smooth but it doesn’t by any means need to be perfectly smooth. Add the carrots and mix, not process, them in thoroughly with a spatula. I like to let this sit for at least an hour so the rice flour has time to hydrate and thicken the mix so it stays together better. You could even cover it and refrigerate overnight. If it seems loose before you are getting ready to cook it add more rice flour.

2. Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium high heat. Add the oil and let it get hot. Form the mix into 6 balls and then shape them into patties. Fry then until crispy on both sides. Build you sandwiches and serve.

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Lentil Cakes Tikka Masala

These cakes have become a standard in our rotation.  Not always as Indian cuisine but as other styles too.  The Lentil du Puy base is a really good foil for all kinds of flavors and the texture of the meal is toothsome which is also very satisfying.  I would imagine the possibilities to be endless and I will let you know if we make any discoveries that deem reporting back to you.

Serves 4

For the Lentil Cakes:

1 cup dried Lentil du Puy, rinsed and picked over for stones

1/2 yellow onion, small dice

1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger

1 tablespoon cilantro, minced

2 teaspoons garam masala

1/4 cup flour, I used millet flour

1 egg

3/4 teaspoons kosher salt

For the Sauce:

1/2 yellow onion small dice

1 cup tomato sauce

1/2 cup cream

1/2 cup plain yougurt

pinch cinnamon

pinch tumeric

2 teaspoons cilantro

canola oil

1. Place the lentils into a 3 quart pot and cover with water by two or more inches. Add the minced onion. Place the pot over medium heat. Slowly bring the lentils to a boil then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook the lentils until tender adding a pinch or two of salt in the last 10 minutes of cooking. This should take approximately 30 minutes.

2. Drain the lentils. Let them cool but puree them in a food processor while they are still warm. They will be easier to handle when warm.

3. Add the remaining lentil cake ingredients and pulse the cakes a few more times until the rest of the ingredients are combined into the mix. Taste the lentil puree then season the puree with kosher salt and a few grinds of pepper. Taste again and adjust the seasoning.

4. Let the cakes sit for a few minutes to hydrate the flour. Take a tablespoon of the mix and make a ball. Is it really wet or is it too stiff? You want the mix to hold its shape but not be overly stiff otherwise they can be dry when cooked. It should just hold its shape. Add more flour a tablespoon at a time if you need to letting the additional flour hydrate before testing. Divide the lentils into eight balls.

5. Add enough oil to cover the bottom of a heavy bottomed sauté pan by an 1/8 inch. Heat the oil over medium high heat. Test the oil by dropping a pinch of lentil to the pan. It should begin to sizzle right away but not violently sizzle and pop.

6. When the oil is ready take each lentil ball and smash it down gently forming it into 1/2 inch thick cakes and add them to the oil. Let each side brown nicely and then remove them to a tray lined with a brown bag to soak up the oil. Keep the cakes warm, either in a low, 200 degree oven or in a warm place on the stove.

7. Drain the oil from the pan, place it back on the heat and then add the remaining diced onion. Sauté until tender then add the rest of the sauce ingredients. Stir to combine, bring to a boil then reduce the heat. Let it simmer for ten minutes to come together. You can puree the sauce to make it smooth or leave the onion chunky making the sauce rustic.

Serve with rice.

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Edna Lewis: The Taste of Country Cooking

Bacon Fried Rabbit

The difference between Edna Lewis’ book The Taste of Country Cooking and countless other cookbooks is she truly celebrates food. Not only is it a celebration but it is the gospel of farm to table eating, a hymn of fresh, great tasting, whole food that should be sung loudly as the new testament of eating seasonally. In short, it just might save your soul and at the very least it is extremely soul satisfying.

What drew me in the first time I opened the book was a breakfast menu that simply read Fall Breakfast and the second item listed in the menu was smothered rabbit. As if this wasn’t enough the first time I made Miss Lewis’s pear preserves I became teary eyed because it reminded me of the taste of a long-forgotten-that-was-now-brought-to-mind memory of my grandmother and the pear preserves she made.

When you realize this was published in 1976 it becomes apparent this is a last bastion to how rural America once ate. It isn’t the French influenced food made in a California restaurant kitchen that now stands as the talisman of sustainable eating, but rather, it is 100% American food made with ingredients had on hand and in season. It was written at a time when women wanted out of the kitchen instead of in and the burger joint was still a treat but unfortunately fast becoming a standard.

The book is not a retrospective of days past and food that is dated by out of style trends but it is a classic that is as current and in touch today, maybe even more so,  as it was when written.

Miss Lewis does nothing short of pen a rural American classic that treats food with respect and knowledge of how to use the ingredients at hand and get the most out of them. There is nothing fussy about her food and there needn’t be because its simplicity and freshness is what makes it delicious.

In short if you care about sustainable local food you should get yourself a copy. It will fast become your how to manual.

This recipe is based loosely on Miss Lewis’s fried chicken recipe.

Bacon Fried Rabbit

Serves 4

2 fryer rabbits, cut into 6 to 8 pieces

1 piece of slab bacon, cut about 1/4 inch thick

2 cups flour, seasoned with 2 teaspoons black pepper, 1 teaspoon each of thyme and paprika, and 1 teaspoon of salt

buttermilk

peanut oil

kosher salt

1. Season the rabbit with salt and set it aside to let the salt dissolve into the meat.

2. In a large cast iron Dutch oven add enough oil to come up the side by no more than a third. Add the bacon.

3. Turn the heat to medium high and place your fry thermometer into the oil. Place the seasoned flour into a plastic bag with the rabbit. Toss the rabbit around to give it a good coating. Remove the pieces from the flour and let them soak a in the buttermilk. Remove each piece and let the excess drip off. Put the pieces back into the flour for their final coat. Don’t do this to far in advance or the coating gets brittle when fried.

4. When the temperature gets to 350F˚ remove the bacon if it is crispy and start frying the rabbit until golden brown and delicious. If you need to do this in batches do. Don’t over crowd the pot or you will have a greasy mess. So to do this heat the oven to 250˚F. As the rabbit pieces come out of the grease place them on a sheet tray fitted with a wire rack and keep them in the oven till all are done.

5. Serve.

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Jambon Persillé Maison

Jambon Persillé Maison

In the heat of the summer sometimes it is good to have a dish you can simply slide out of the fridge, slice off a hunk,  add a condiment, some pickles and you have lunch or a light dinner.   Somehow and I am not sure how but I believe collagen has a cooling effect.   While I know it is great for your joints  and colds, one reason real chicken and noodle soup is called penicillin, I am not sure why it would be cooling other then it is, well, served cold, stupid I know but I have no other answer and, honestly I need to get back out to the garden and finish weeding.  But first a quick lunch.

Makes a 4 x 4 x 8 inch loaf

2 1/2 lb. chunk of ham, mine was two pieces
1 celery stalk, trimmed and chopped
1 onion, trimmed and halved
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 small head of garlic, trimmed, halved
2 bay leaves
5 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup shallots, minced
1/2 cup flat leaf parsley, rinsed, dried and minced
1 1/2 sheets of gelatin
1 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

1. Place the ham in a large pot with the celery, carrot, onion, garlic, bay, and thyme.  Add cold water to cover the ham by and inch.  Place the pot over high heat and bring it to a boil.  Reduce the heat to a simmer and simmer for two hours or until the ham is tender enough to shred with a fork.

2. Remove the ham to a sheet tray or something that will allow you to shred it without making a mess.
3. Add the half cup of wine to the ham pot and bring the broth to a boil.   Reduce the liquid to about 2 or 2 1/2 cups.
4. Shred the ham while the broth is reducing and add the parsley, shallots and a few grinds of black pepper.
When the broth is reduced taste it for seasoning.  If it needs salt add a little.  Remember this will be served cold so it needs to be seasoned aggressively but it is ham so it is already salty.  You will need to use your own best judgement.  Remove the vegetables from the broth.  I just ladled out the broth and left the thyme leaves in, remember this is a rustic dish.
5. Place the gelatin into a bowl and add some of the hot broth.  Let the sheet curl up and then flatten out then swirl the broth around until the gelatin has dissolved and then add the rest of the broth.  Add the vinegar and mix well.
6. Mix the ham well with the parsley and shallots.  Grab a good handful of the ham mixture and pat it into the bottom of the loaf pan with the authority of a TSA agent.  Add some of the broth to just come up to the top edge of this layer of ham.  Add more ham and then do the same with the broth until you have filled the pan.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.  I didn’t put a weight on top of the ham to compress it but feel free to do so if you have the urge.
7. The next day slice and serve with pickles, mustard and crusty bread.

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Smothered Chicken

The tiny bright green stars of okra and the fresh lima beans, so tender the veins show through their thin skins, are nestled into a bed of bi-color sweet corn just shaved off the cob. Together they simmer in a liquid that is mostly melted butter, seasoned quietly with salt and black pepper.

Succotash is a poor man’s dish, made popular during the Great Depression. Somehow I never feel poor when eating it — but then, I feel that way about all soul food.

While succotash is comfort food, not all comfort food is soul food. I can find comfort in foie gras, but foie gras is not soul food. Succotash is.

At the back of the stove, the chicken thighs simmer away. Their crispy brown skin breaks the bubbling surface of pan gravy made with peppers, onions, and celery. There is a reason they call this mix of vegetables the trinity. It goes beyond the Southern flavor they bring to the dish — something distinct, even ethereal.

I am feeling sad. Sylvia Woods, of Sylvia’s Soul Food fame, has passed away. Over the years, her collard greens recipe became my recipe, her Northern-style cornbread a family favorite at Thanksgiving. It was with her recipe in hand one sultry Friday afternoon some years ago that I lost my red velvet cake virginity.

I pick up the paring knife used to peel the potatoes. It is dirty with powdery white potato starch. Fishing for one of the larger chunks of potato, I stick it into the boiling water, find one, and poke it with the knife, which slips to the center of the potato like it is room temperature butter.

Carrying the potato pot to the sink, I pour it into the strainer. Hot starchy steam rushes up and around my face before disappearing upward toward the ceiling. I let the potatoes sit in the strainer to steam out excess moisture and turn to the stove to stir the succotash.

The oven timer goes off.

I grab a kitchen towel to use as a hot pad and remove the black skillet cornbread from the oven. I can smell the thin, crispy bacon fat-and-cornmeal crust that forms when the batter hits the hot skillet, hiding now under the tender yellow interior. I set the skillet on top of the stove and cover it with the dish towel.

I like this point in the meal preparation.  The point where everything is coming together and there is a final rush to get everything done at the same time so all the food comes to the table hot.

I rice the potatoes.

It isn’t a coincidence the corn, okra, and lima beans are all at their peak out in the garden today.  At least that is what I am telling myself.

I always add the butter first to the riced potatoes so the fat gets absorbed by the starch.  Then I add the heavy cream, salt and pepper.
I like that soul food is about coming together not just as a family but as a community, even more so then it is about eating.  Not that the food isn’t important– it is about the value of sharing, too — but even the food shouldn’t trump the socialization that happens around it.

I taste the potatoes.  They are just the right texture and need no further seasoning, cream or butter.  I scoop them into a serving bowl, and do the same with the succotash, and put the smothered chicken on a platter with its gravy ladled over the top.

It is always lively at our table.  This evening, it might even be more so.

For the spice mix:

2 tablespoons paprika
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

For the chicken:
6 to 8 bone-in skin-on chicken thighs
2 cups yellow onions, julienned
3/4 cups green bell peppers, julienned
3/4 cups celery, julienned
water
kosher salt
fresh ground black pepper
1/4 cup green onions, chopped
2 1/2 tablespoons flour
vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1.    Combine all the spice ingredients in a small bowl. Season the chicken thighs on all sides with salt and then with the spice mixture. You may or may not have extra spice depending on how heavy your hand is and whether or not you season 6 or 8 thighs.
2.    Place a heavy, large sauté pan over medium high heat. Add enough oil to the pan to easily coat the bottom completely. When it is hot add the thighs skin side down and brown them deeply. Once they are brown do the same to the other side.
3.    Remove the thighs to a plate. Add the onions, bell pepper and celery to the pan. Season them with salt and pepper. If the pan is to hot turn down the heat and cook down the vegetables until they are brown and soft. Add the flour and sauté everything for a bit longer to cook out the flour flavor.
4.    Add the garlic cloves and give the veggies a stir. Add the chicken thighs back to the pan and add enough water to cover the thighs by three quarters. The crispy tops should just be peeking out of the gravy. Add all but a tablespoon of the green onions to the sauce.
5.    When the gravy comes to a boil reduce the heat and simmer until the chicken is cooked through and tender, this should take about thirty minutes. Season the gravy, stir and taste.
6.    If the gravy is reducing to fast and getting to thick add more water and stir.

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Swiss Steak

This dish epitomizes Midwest and plains state farm food of German heritage.  It is something that your grandmother most definitely would have made and when you walked into the mud room to park your dirty boots on the old rag rug you would get the warm fuzzies.  You knew not only would the steak be tasty but more than likely the mashed potatoes or the buttered egg noodles with parsley and stewed green beans would be accompanied by home made yeast rolls.  Some sort of carrot salad or slaw and a piece of spice cake for dessert, well, makes for a great Sunday dinner.

Serves 4

1 round steak, 2 1/4 lbs.
canola oil
2 cups yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 red pepper, cored and sliced thin
8 oz. white mushrooms, brushed of dirt and sliced
1 garlic clove, large, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon marjoram
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoon flour
2 to 3 cups of water
kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
minced parsley for garnish

1. Season the round steak on both sides with salt and black pepper.  Let the salt dissolve before you continue.  Heat the oven to 325 degrees.
2. Heat a 14 inch heavy bottomed saute pan (you will also need a lid) over medium high heat.  Add the canola oil, it should shimmer if if doesn’t let it heat some more, then carefully place the steak into the pan.  Sear it until it is very brown and caramelized on both sides.  You want to build what is called a fond on the bottom of the pan.  The fond is the gooey brown stuff that is sticking to the pan and you want to take care not to burn it.  The fond is going to give loads of flavor to you sauce.  It is ok to let it become deep brown but if it is getting to dark to quick turn the heat to medium.
3. Remove the steak to a tray.  Place the butter into the pan and add the onion, mushrooms, and peppers to the pan.  Let them cook until they wilt and start to take on some color.  Add the flour, garlic, marjoram and thyme.  Stir the flour in and let it cook for a minute or two to burn off the starch flavor,  add the water.  Using a wooden spoon scrape up all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
4. Bring the sauce to a boil and then place the steak on top of the veggies.  Put the lid on the pan and slide it into the oven.  Set a timer for 1 hour.
5. At the end of an hour check the tenderness of the round steak.  You don’t want it to be fall apart tender but you don’t want it to be tough either.  So cut a little sliver off and give it a go.  Either bake it with the lid on for another half hour or serve.
6. To serve:  Place the steak on a platter, preferably warmed in the oven for a minute or two,  and ladle on the sauce, finally, garnish with parsley and serve.

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Banana Cream Pie

Banana Cream Pie

With the impending second storm barreling down on the Midwest it was feeling like more than a three hour tour. In keeping the castaways at ease we dove into a family baking project, used the last three bananas and watched old episodes of Gilligan’s Island.  After tasting this pie I know why the castaways never left the island.

SERVES 6 – 8

For the pie::

1 1/4 cup graham cracker crumbs

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened

4 large egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar

3 tablespoons corn starch

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

2 1/2 cups whole milk, do not substitute

1/4 teaspoon cardamom

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 bananas

For the brittle and whipped cream::

1/4 cup honey

1/4 teaspoon cardamom

1/2 cup macadamia nuts, toasted and chopped, a good time to toast them is when you bake the crust

2 3/4 cups heavy cream

1/4 cup powdered sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine the graham cracker crumbs, sugar and 1/4 cup of butter in a mixing bowl and combine with a fork until you have a mealy looking mixture.
  2. Pour the mixture into a 9 inch pie pan. Press out the crumbs until you have and even crust up the sides and bottom of the pie pan. Bake the crust until it is beginning to brown and is set. About 5 to 10 minutes. Remove it from the oven and let it cool.
  3. While the crust is cooling combine the corn starch, sugar, egg yolks, cardamom, vanilla and salt in a mixing bowl. Whisk until well combined.
  4. Place the milk into a sauce pan and bring it to a boil over medium high heat. While whisking the egg mixture add a cup of hot milk and whisk. Add the egg mixture to the milk pan and put it back over the heat.
  5. Let the pudding come to a boil and then whisk until thick. Remove it from the heat and whisk in the butter. Pour the pudding into a bowl and set the bowl into an ice bath to cool the pudding.
  6. Place the honey and the remaining cardamom into a small sauce pan and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Let it boil until it becomes very foamy.(have a cup of very cold water handy and drop a small droplet into the water. It should separate into thin brittle threads) Add the macadamia nuts and stir. Remove the brittle from the heat and pour it onto a greased parchment lined sheet tray. PLace the brittle into the fridge.
  7. Slice the bananas and layer them onto the pie crust. If the pudding has cooled pour it over the bananas. Refrigerate the pie for two hours or more.
  8. Once the pie has set make the whipped cream topping. Either with a stand mixer or a hand mixer whip the cream until it begins to thicken. Add the powdered sugar and the vanilla and whip to stiff peaks.
  9. Chop the brittle.
  10. Pipe the whipped cream onto the pie and then top with the chopped brittle. Serve.