Breakfast of Champignons

I love mushrooms.  I’d say that I always have, but I’m sure tha there was a forgotten and/or repressed period of my youth when I despised them as much as almost every other child (and, indeed, adult) seems to.

At this stage in my development, though, I can put away more than a pound of mushrooms in a sitting, and I’ve never found a variety that I didn’t like.  My current favorites are chantarelles (due to the astonishing flavor of the ones I ate in Germany), but creminis, portabellos, procinis, shiitakis–I love them all.  Well, I’m not the biggest fan of wood-ear mushrooms, but I really think that that’s just because of their name.  I need to get over it. 

I don’t know if mushrooms are more particularly in season in fall than at any other time, but since the weather turned chilly, I’ve been eating more and more of them.  Last week I warmed up a solitary luncheon with a salad of sauteed mushrooms, ham and parsley (1.5 lbs) and the week before I sauced some slithery linguini with a porcini-bacon duxelle (3/4 lb).  The best mushroom dish I have made this fall, though, was the simplest: mushroom frittata. 

September’s Bon Appetit had a recipe for a mushroom-caper frittata, and the idea of earthy mushrooms and briny capers combined was very appealling.   Hardly looking at the recipe (and thus, doing things in very much a different order than instructed), I set to work.  Portabello mushrooms?  Sauteed.  Basil?  Oregano?  Capers?  Chopped and mixed with the mushrooms.  Eggs? Salt? Pepper? Dijon mustard?  Beaten to a froth.  I spread the mushroom mixture into a buttered pie plate, then poured the eggs over the top and baked it until it was firm, but not dried out. 

Yes, it was a wonderful combination.  The portabello mushrooms were, as always, meaty and toothsome, and the capers, mustard, basil and oregano added complexity to the background without stealing the show.  Somehow, the mustard managed to deepend the flavors, while the herbs lightened it, at the same time.  I might have wished for a bit more caper flavor, but on the whole, the result was delicious.  It was perfect for a post-hike breakfast picnic in the woods. 

Published in: on November 2, 2007 at 1:42 pm  Comments (1)  

Ooh! OOOOH!

This is very exciting. 

Brace for geekdom, one and all: I just made bacon.  No, no, I didn’t prepare bacon, I MADE bacon.  From scratch. 

Ever since Teacherman gave me a book on curing meats (this one) for Valentine’s Day last year, I’ve wanted to make bacon.  I tried the recipe from that cookbook, and ended up with an inedible, metallic, throat-raspingly salty slab of greyish meat.  It didn’t even look like bacon.  I’m sure that the fault was mine and not the cookbook’s, but I was still afraid to try the recipe again.  (I don’t like wasting anything, even if it’s only $3.99 a pound).

Then, in April, Bon Appetit had a recipe for spaghetti carbonara with home-cured pork belly insteadof purchased bacon or pancetta.  The cured pork belly looked impossibly easy: one just rubs a pork belly with salt and ground coriander (1 tsp of each per pound of meat), then leaves it in a covered container in the fridge for 4 hours to 2 days.  I left it in for two days, hoping for the maximum amount of curing.  I wasn’t worried that it would get too salty, since I use about 1 tsp of kosher salt per pound of meat when I make sausage. 

After two days are up, one is supposed to braise the pork at 275 degrees for 2-2.5 hours, turning it every half an hour.  The recipe calls for braising it in a mixture of chicken broth and white wine, with an onion, carrot and celery stalk along side.  I was guilty of very little forethought concering this process: when it came time to braise the belly, I had no carrot or onion, just celery.  I didn’t want to have a celery-flavored bacon, so I decided to leave out the vegetables.  And my chicken stock is so powerfully chickeny that I was afraid it would overwhelm the pork flavor (bizarre, but true), so I decided to leave the stock out, too.  I upped the quantity of white wine, threw the stipulated bay leaf and whole peppercorns, and braised away.

After two and a half hours of braising the belly was still not very tender, and I was afraid that I had done something Drastically Wrong.  It was nearly 10:00 pm, though, and I was exhausted, so I just dumped the pork and its juices into a tupperware container, shoved it into the back of the fridge and went to bed. 

The recipe calls for leaving the pork belly in the fridge for 1-2 days, but I ended up leaving it there for 2.5, since I wanted to eat it for breakfast, not as part of a carbonara sauce.

When morning came, I recruited Teacherman to slice off the skin and most of the extraneous fat (leaving just a nice 1/4-inch strip on either side of the thick strips of meat), and then slice the slab into the thinnest slices he was able.  Given that his resources were a chef’s knife and a cutting board, the slices were thicker than supermarket bacon, but no thicker than premium thick-cut bacon.  There was a half-inch slab that he wasn’t able to slice anything off of, for fear of slicing his fingers as well, so we just froze it for future use as lardons. 

Half of the remaining strips of proto-bacon went into the fridge and half went into a big frying pan.  We fried them up exactly as one would ordinarily fry bacon, deviating from the Bon Appetit recipe, since their finished product (carbonara) was different than ours (breakfast).  The bacon was crisp, ruddy and, what’s most important, absolutely delicious.  The salt level was perfect, and the coriander gave it an intriguing sweet back note, unexpectedly reminiscent of maple-cured bacon. 

As I said before, this is exciting.  Not only did I make bacon and have it turn out well, but I have all kinds of ideas for making it a second time.  Next time I might substitute smoked paprika for some or all of the coriander.  Or I might throw in some cinnamon.  Or I might put juniper berries in the braising liquid instead of pepprcorns and a bay leaf.  Or I might rig up a smoker in our gas grill and see if I can smoke the belly instead of braising it in the oven. 

I think, though, that first I ought to find someone with a meat slicer.

Published in: on August 19, 2007 at 6:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Vegtabularity

Sunday was a rather vegtabular day.

Saturday’s market visit was both harried and hurried, since we started out late and I had to get to work on time, and Teacherman and I operated on the “that looks neat–let’s buy it!” level.  Saturday evening we spent at a concert in the park, so it wasn’t until Sunday morning that I began contemplating what to do with the vegetables.

Sunday was also Teacherman’s last day in town before a two-week trip to Pennsylvania, so I wanted to make the meals special, or least nice.   After discounting the items I’d be using to make my lunches and dinners for the coming week, I was left with two pounds of heirloom tomatoes–one each of four different varieties (a “pink accordian,” something equally ruffly, but smaller and purple; a “red zebra,” and a long, green-and-red striped “torpedo” that was pink on the inside)–and six ears of just-picked corn.  I designated the tomatoes for lunch and the corn for dinner, and set to work.

Actually, I set to work at doing next to nothing.  Both the corn and the tomatoes were so fresh and so delicious that I barely needed to do anything to them.  I simply made a sauce for each one, a matter of five minutes in total, and let the inherent flavors speak for themselves. 

Both sauces came from recipes I’d torn out of Cooking Light and Bon Appetit.  I only keep whole issues for one year, after which I tear out any recipes I’ve made and liked, or still want to try, and toss the bulk of the magazine.  The torn-out recipes go into an increasingly bedraggled folder, where they end up mixed and filed and smashed together until I have no idea which issue the recipe was originally from.   

For the tomates, I mixed Dijon mustard, fresh chopped dill, lemon juice and zest, and a tiny bit of salt and pepper.  I was a little worried that the sharp flavors of the mustard and lemon would overwhelm the tomatoes, but after swiping a bit of sauce over a sawed-off tomato end, I was unsure no more.  I gleefully sliced and dumped in the entire two pounds-worth and stirred it up.  After a scant 15 minutes of marinating time, the melded flavors worked together even better than before.  We ate the salad with greedily, dipping what amounted to our “side dish” of smoked turkey into the juices. 

The corn was an equally delicious, though more unusual story.  I was making a Thai-ish stir-fry for dinner, so I could have cut all the corn off the cobs and added it in, but I was feeling too lazy to deal with all of that slicing.  I had to turn the grill on for another reason (grilling up my lunches for the week) so I decided to grill the corn–a pretty standard application.  What wasn’t so standard was the idea from Bon Appetit.  After the corn comes off the grill, one brushes it with a mixture of butter, scallions, sweetener, and Thai fish sauce.  I was a little dubious, but I love fish sauce in other Thai recipes, so I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt.  If the first ear turned out to taste terrible, I didn’t have to put the resulting concoction on the rest of the corn at all. 

I dipped a finger into the butter mixture.  Yowza!  My eyes nearly bugged out from the saltiness, but the flavor combination was compelling, and I could see how the sweetness of the corn would fit into the pungent salty-sweet Thai thing.  I threw caution to the winds and drizzled the mixture over all six of the ears of corn. 

Now it was Teacherman’s turn to be dubious.  Teacherman LOVES corn, and likes it best with nothing on it–not butter, not salt, nothing; sometimes he even eats it raw.  (I think this is good, too, but I’m more willing to branch out).  After a few cursory bites of stir-fry, we jumped on the corn.  It. Was. Amazing.  The two of us, along with a visiting friend, polished off all six big ears and could have eaten as much again, if it had been available.  As much as I like to salt my corn on the cob, I never would have thought of brushing fish sauce–the Thai answer to salt–onto an ear. 

I hardly think that I’ve muted Teacherman’s love for unadorned ears of corn, but this recipe may become a new favorite.  Corn season is just beginning; luckily, we have a full bottle of fish sauce.

Published in: on August 1, 2007 at 12:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

Success!

I cannot tell you how many times I have tried to poach an egg. 

No matter what method I used, no matter what implements I used, no matter how assiduously I paid attention to freshness and temperature, nothing ever worked.  The egg would hit the simmering water and disintegrate, as if it was hitting a brick wall. 

This irked me.

It’s not that I have an Eggs Benedict habit to feed–in fact, I rarely even have poached eggs when I can have someone else cook them for me–but I was annoyed no end that I continually failed at something so basic.  I was enternally frustrated, trying more and more different and outlandish ways of poaching eggs, each touted in more and more obscure books.

From the relatively well-know ‘vortex’ method, which called for cracking the egg into the exact center of a pan of water one had just stirred madly into a simmering whirlpool (which caused bits of my egg to actually leap back out of the pan and spatter all over my shirt) to the (hopefully) almost unheard-of microwave method, which called for cracking a raw egg into a microwave safe bowl of water, then heating it on high power for a few minutes (which ended with still-raw egg splattered all over in the inside of my microwave and a burnt-sulfer smell that permeated my entire apartment, not to dissipate for almost two weeks).

Around the time of the microwave incident, I decided to give up on poached eggs.  Every time I made a recipe that called for one, I’d either steam-fry, bake, or soft-boil one instead.  This gave admirable results and the taste was probably similar, but inside, I stewed.

Last month I got the May issue of Bon Appetit, and surprised a recipe for Asparagus with Poached Egg and Miso Butter on nearly the first page.  I love miso, and this sounded intriguing enough not to let pass by.  On the spur of the moment I decide to make another try at poaching–it had been nearly a year since my last attempt, and my memories of the shrieking and swearing and kicking had almost faded. 

I followed the basic method–the one that I tried first (and fourth and tenth and seventeenth, ad nauseum) and discarded in tears each time.  I brought a small pan of water to a simmer, added a little vinegar and salt, then cracked two eggs into two custard cups, quickly dipped the cups into the simmering water and then upended them.

No explosion.

I even more quickly repeated all my actions with a second two eggs.  Again, no explosion.  The eggs stayed in neat, plump little ovals, so tall that the yolks almost rose above the surface of the water.  (In the end, I put a lid on the pan for a moment, or the yolks never would have cooked through).

They were done in about six minutes, including one with the lid on the pan.  I skimmed them out with a slotted spoon, dabbed at them nervously with a paper towel, then put two eggs each into two bowls of some vaguely arranged roasted asparagus (the original recipe called for boiled asparagus, but boiled asparagus is an abomination in the site of all that is good).

The miso butter–what originally drew me to the dish–was much more simple.  The recipe as written called for 8 Tbsp of butter and 6 Tbsp of miso (and a bit of vinegar) to cover six eggs, but since I was only serving two people (though making four eggs) , I determined to cut the quantity down.  Due to my fuzzy math skills, for some reason I cut the quantities in sixths, and made up a little two-Tbsp ramekin of the sauce.  Thank heavens I didn’t make more than that–the sauce was divine, but so rich that I don’t think I could have stood to eat any more than I did.  As it was, the quantity I prepared easily coated the eggs and asparagus in each bowl.

Yes, the eggs.  They were perfect.  They looked perfect, tasted perfect and were the most heartening cooking experience I’ve had in days.  I couldn’t tell you why they suddenly worked, after years of failure, but they did.  I’m a little afraid to try to poach eggs again, in case this was a lucky chance, but you can bet that I will, nonetheless.

Published in: on May 13, 2007 at 1:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

When the Cat’s Away

When Teacherman is out of town, I eat shrimp.  This is not to say that I do it stealthily, or on the sly, hiding my illicit shellfish hedonism, but I do only eat it alone.  Teacherman, alas, is allergic to shrimp.  He certainly doesn’t object to me eating shrimp, or to having it in the house when he’s there, but somehow, even though I occsionally eat meals alone when he is in town, I only make shrimp when he’s away.

In any case, he is off on a weekend teaching jaunt to Cleveland, leaving me with several meal to insert shrimp into, should I desire.  Given my current budget, I decided that two crustaceany splurges were in order, and tonight was the first of them.

My meal was relatively simple and entirely gleaned from other resources–Friday night after a full work week and an ill-starred concert the previous evening is no time to get elaborate, and any ‘creative’ excursions made in such an exhausted state can only end badly.  To that end I took up a recipe I’d been saving for just such an occasion, one from March’s issue of Bon Appetit: Shrimp and Scallop Posole.  I was immediately attracted to the recipe, since not only did it include both shrimp and scallops, which I love (and which, for the record, Teacherman is not allergic to), but also salsa verde, one of my absolute favorite things.  I have happy memories of childhood visits to my father’s parents in Albuquerque, and, though I’m sure I scorned it at the time, in past years my love for southwestern green chile salsa has become rather boundless.

In any case, the meal is easily made.  I have never had “real” posole, so I don’t know how this compares thereto, but it is quite good, nonetheless.  It starts as most soup recipes do, sauteing onions and garlic until soft, a procedure that always seems to take me much longer than recipes indicate, no matter how high or low I turn the heat.  After 5 (or 15 minutes) of softening, one adds a little lime peel, a diced sun-dried tomato or two, salsa verde, and enough clam juice to make it soup-like. 

At this point one is also supposed to add a can of hominy.  Hmm.  The recipe calls for one can of hominy for six servings, and I was reducing quantities of everything to feed one.  Did I really want to open a 15-oz can just for a few tablespoons?  Instead, I dumped in a handful of frozen corn; not quite the same, but the flavors are similar enough that I don’t think the recipe was ruined.   After that has simmered away for a few minutes, one adds in the shrimp and scallops, along with a handful of cilantro, and lets the shellfish cook until done (something which always takes me much less time than recipes indicate, no matter how large my shrimp are.  This time the recipe called for simmering the shrimp for 5 minutes, and my extremely jumbo specimens were done in about 2).

The finished soup was surprisingly molten, so I let it cool for a few minutes, while I quickly sauteed another serving of shrimp for a cold Thai salad tomorrow.  When the posole was cool enough to eat without lasting oral damage, I dove in.  It was exactly what I had been hoping for.  One might think that the shellfish, corn and sun-dried tomatoes, each with their own particular sweetness, would compete against each other and end up cloying, but the spicy acidity of the salsa verde cut neatly through each one and somehow tied them all together into a balanced whole.  The salsa also thickened the posole to a much more substantial consistency than the brothy soup in the recipe’s accompanying picture.  As someone who prefers soups so reduced that they might as well be a kind of medieval pottage, this thickness was quite welcome. 

The soup may not be fancy or difficult to prepare, but it’s not unattractive, either, with its bright pink shrimp, off-white scallops and red and green flecked depths.  I can easily see it making regular appearances at my solitary shrimp feasts.  Who knows: some day I might even make it with nothing but scallops, and serve Teacherman a meal he would otherwise never know he was missing.

Published in: on April 20, 2007 at 6:58 pm  Comments (1)  

Cakes and Mistakes

Would you believe that I forgot to give them the mustard?

Indeed, a fabulous party has come and gone, and more than six pounds of corned beef were consumed all without the benefit of mustardy accompaniment. I think I received more astonished praise about this party’s food than I have for that of any other event. The two biggest hits, though, were the baked items: the soda bread and the dessert.

The soda bread recipe I settled on, after brief guilt induced by the article in last Wednesday’s New York Times about what does and does not become a “true” soda bread, was in almost no way traditional. The recipe, from the February 2006 issue of Bon Appetit, contained no eggs (traditional!) but did include browned butter, fresh rosemary and black pepper. I itched to fiddle with the recipe even more (whole wheat flour! maybe some mustard seeds!) but I restrained myself. The rosemary bush on the front porch, after several months of subzero temperatures and no water, is miraculously still alive, and yielded up ample fresh needles–on soft stalks, even–to chop into the dry ingredients.

The flour, baking soda, salt and seasonings were mixed with the buttermilk and browned butter. The dough was shaggier than I anticipated–far too sticky to even contemplate cutting fancy crosses on the top of. I just glopped two mounds onto an ungreased baking sheet, shoved them into the oven, and hoped. After 45 minutes the breads looked lovely (pristine white dough with deep golden spikes on the top, flecked through with black and green from the rosemary and pepper) and smelled quite divine. I usually don’t like the smell of melted butter (an interesting abberation, since I’m certainly willing to scarf it down in great quantity), but browning it first eliminates that problem. Cooking something with browned butter already in it further intensified the nuttiness that the browning brought out, ending with an aroma that noticeably filled the mouth sooner than the nose, the very definition of mouth-watering. The breads hadn’t risen nearly at all, however, so it was with great trepidation that I whisked them onto the cutting board on the serving table.

The locusts descended. Silence reigned. I picked at the cheddar and looked at other things.

“Wow,” said somebody. “This is really good!”

The soda bread was the first thing to disappear from the buffet table, and there were plenty of people hovering nearby to vulture up the crumbs after the last slice was consumed. I don’t make soda bread very often–on St. Patrick’s Day every few years, if then–but I may be required to make this bread for all future parties of any persuasion. I think, though, that now I can trust myself to try variations. No mustard seeds do I see in my future, but whole wheat flour is definitely in the offing.

The second slavered-after baked good was my dessert. I made my standard flourless chocolate cake (10 oz unsweetened chocolate, 1 stick butter, 1 cup liquid of some variety, 1 cup sweetener of some variety, 4 eggs, 1 Tbsp vanilla and other flavorings as desired). Inspired by the visions of Irish Coffee that Teacherman had been having all week, I flavored this one with espresso and Irish whisky, which each made up half of the liquid element. The cake came out very dark and very bitter, rich enough to be a confection rather than a cake. I made it in a ten-inch springform pan (as opposed to a six-cup Bundt pan, my usual receptacle) and cut it into 20 pieces, each about an inch wide and equally high. Given the fact that it was almost a triangular truffle, this was the perfect size for the corner left in everyone everyone’s stomach and the cake was consumed (along with strawberries and clotted cream) with great alacrity.

I had hoped to have a few pieces left over (there’s always someone who doesn’t want dessert after a hearty dinner), but there weren’t even any crumbs left when I glanced at the platter, halfway through my own piece. The cake wasn’t as popular as the soda bread, but my favorite compliment of the evening resulted therefrom. “This is so adult,” said my choir director, a description that is rarely applied to me or my accoutrements by anyone. I’m absurdly pleased by that, and it makes up entirely for the fact that tonight’s dessert was half an apple.

Published in: on March 18, 2007 at 7:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cacao Nibs and Cocoa

Lately I’ve been interested in cooking savory dishes with chocolate. This isn’t exactly a new idea–Hispanics have been making mole for more years than I would care to estimate, and I’ve seen recipes for cocoa-crusted proteins in various high-end cookbooks for years. I always resisted these, precisely because of mole; or rather, because of my one experience with mole.

My father is originally from Albuquerque, NM, and when I was young and he still made dinner occasionally, he would often make Southwestern (or at least Southwestern-esque) dishes. For a Fancy Grown-Up Dinner Party once, he made real mole. I’m sure, given that it was the 80s in the midwest, he didn’t toast and grind all of his spices from scratch, but I remember the ingredient list being prodigious, and that it contained one square of unsweetened chocolate. I was in the kitchen when the sauce neared completion, and he offerred me a taste. I don’t know why I acquiesed–I was an incredibly picky child–but I did. I don’t remember what it tasted like, but I remember that I hated it. This was not run-of-the-mill hate, the way I hated lasagne and enchiladas (two things that I have since grown to love), this was a revulsion that was actually shocking and arresting. I think I may even have run from the room to rinse out my mouth. The adults at the dinner party loved it.

Because of that lone incident, one that most likely took place before I even reached the age of ten, I absolutely refused to have anything to do with savory chocolate for nearly 20 years. Even after I grew up and became a voracious devourer of cookbooks and an eater of bizarre foods, I utterly rejected the idea of chocolate in savory preparations. I would read the recipes and curl my lip, thinking: “This chef, in spite of his years of culinary training and critical and popular adulation, is obviously an idiot.” I felt vindicated when I read a Nigella Lawson recipe for a spice-coated salmon in which she confessed that she’d adapted it from another author’s book, removing that author’s addition of cocoa powder. (Cocoa powder on SALMON! The lip curled further). I was comfortable in my superiority.

But at the beginning of February I unexpectedly began to think about savory chocolate. I’d like to say that it was inspired by the Valentine’s week episode of Iron Chef, or by the lovely new Scharffenberger chocolate cookbook that I just checked out of the library, but the interest arose before I ever saw either. I was making an otherwise unexceptional salad with avocados and oranges the other week, and for some reason threw in some cacao nibs.

It was very good.

I didn’t have a revelatory experience that caused me to fall to my knees and recant, but I did enjoy the flavors. And when I saw a Cooking Light recipe for a beef stew that included cocoa powder in the spice rub, I thought for a moment, then gave it a try. Also very good. The cocoa doesn’t add anything like an aggressively chocolate flavor (if I hadn’t tossed it in myself, I’d never recognize the cocoa) but in combination with what are really prodigious amounts of coriander, it adds an ineffable _something_. It being a stew, there was a vast quantity left over, and I’ve been eating it all week long for lunch, enjoying it just as much each day. Like all tomato-based stews, the flavors mellowed and melded, which, in my opinion, is a wonderful thing.

It still wasn’t a religious conversion, but I’m now definitely in favor of trying more savory foods with chocolate–or at least with cocoa. Maybe I’ll even add the cocoa powder back to Nigella’s recipe for salmon.

Published in: on February 21, 2007 at 10:18 am  Leave a Comment  

Jugfish IS Halibut

Yesterday I made a recipe I tore of out a years-old Bon Appetit: Prosciutto-wrapped Halibut. I made it with no great expectations, but because I had both prosciutto and halibut languishing in the freezer, on the verge of getting too old. I am almost pathological about wasting food (I think this comes from finding mold on things in my parents’ fridge once too often), so I had a NEED to use up those two ingredients or everlasting SHAME would descend upon me. (I am, you might find, a bit overdramatic).

The recipe is very simple–I just sprinkled halibut fillets with thyme leaves, salt and pepper, wrapped the prosciutto around the things, seared them in an oven-proof skillet, and then baked them at 375 for 6 minutes. The original recipe calls for making a pan sauce with wine, butter and shallots, and though I did also have those ingredients, I’m not a big fan of butter sauce on fish, so I left it out, instead sprinkling a few flakes of shallot onto the fish before wrapping it in the prosciutto. Best Fish EVER. I love fish, though I didn’t eat much white fish before Teacherman came into my life, but I tend to eat it coated in spice rubs, or in many-flavored ethnic preparations. This was undoubtedly the best white fish that I’ve ever had. The paper-thin prosciutto was crisped to shattering by its searing in the cast-iron skillet, the fat in the prosciutto kept the fish from drying out in the oven, and the thyme (forgive me, I used dried) tied the two flavors together better than I might have thought. I kept putting my fork down because the taste was so astonishing.

Thyme and prosciutto is a combination that I wouldn’t have found surprising on, say, chicken, but for some reason using them with the halibut was a revelation. On the side we had high-temperature roasted green beans and shallots in a hazelnut oil and lemon juice vinaigrette. It was fine–it might even have been really good–but I ended up eating it quickly so I could linger over the halibut. Teacherman liked it even more than I did, and is now full of ideas about wrapping seafood in pork products. Hmmm–cod saltimboca, maybe?

Published in: on February 18, 2007 at 10:45 am  Comments (1)