Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Risotto, ti voglio bene

It was raining on Monday, and when I say it was raining I mean it was a "should we tape the windows, was that Miss Gulch I just saw fly by" crazy storm. This was not typical weather for Massachusetts in January but as we all know, climate change is a myth perpetrated by the liberal media.

...but I digress.

I did not do my usual menu planning this week out of sheer laziness, so I didn't have a plan for dinner. It was early afternoon when the craving for risotto hit and I decided just to run with it.

Oh risotto, you time-consuming temptress. Your comforting, soft creaminess totally makes the 45 minutes I have to spend standing at the stove tending you worthwhile.

I have been known to order an entree' only for the fact that it came with risotto on the side. I have made risotto in my crock pot. I have tried it with the earthiness of mushrooms and chianti, I have tried it tinted gold by saffron threads served as a bed for garlicky seafood, I have tried it as a thick and hearty breakfast food with cinnamon and raisins. I have eaten it after it was rolled into a ball, coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried, then nestled into a spoonful of whipped potatoes.

(I highly recommend that last one.)

Despite my devotion, I rarely make risotto at home. There used to be the reason of cost; Arborio rice (the highly starched grains you need to make the dish work) is much pricier than it's humble cousins, brown rice and white rice. Now it is mostly lack of time that keeps me away. Risotto takes about an hour from start to finish, and you have to tend the pot the entire time. When you've got kids tugging at your proverbial apron, this may not be a project you want to take on. But, if you've got the time then the result is totally worth it.

Why does it take so much time and attention? Here's the basic science behind it:

Arborio rice is high in a starch called Amylopectin, which detaches from the grain during the cooking process and forms the creamy sauce that makes the dish what it is. By adding the broth to the dish in small increments instead of all at once, and by stirring and agitating the rice near-constantly, you are helping the Amylopectin separate itself and fulfill it's destiny as a delicious bonding agent.

As I was researching for this post (after I made my risotto), I came across this episode of Good Eats in which Alton Brown drops the bomb that you don't have to stand there and stir the rice the whole time and you can get the same result. WHAT. Whether or not this is true, I have not had a chance to find out for myself; you can bet we're having risotto again this weekend. Just for the sake of experiment. Yeah.

So, okay, fine, Alton is one to be trusted and we may never obsessively stir our rice again. FINE. Here is my recipe, in case you want an excuse to stand in one place for an hour and watch highlight clips of Oprah's interview with Rosie O'Donnell. (I will neither deny nor confirm that is what I did with my time at the stove.)

Mushroom Risotto For Sad And Rainy Days

1 heaping cup of Arborio rice
2 T oilive oil
about 1 cup of finely chopped onion (1 small onion or so, does not need to be exact)
1-2 T chopped garlic (to taste)
12 oz pkg baby bella mushrooms, finely chopped
1/2 -3/4 cup wine - I have used both white and red to equal success
chopped fresh herbs - you can pick your favorite or what you have on hand. I like to pick up the "poultry blend"; it's a mix of rosemary, thyme and sage - you want about 1/2 cup, chopped.
5-6 cups of your choice of broth, brought to a boil then kept at a simmer within reach
2T butter
1/4 c parmesan cheese

It is best to make this in a wide-bottomed pot, like a soup pot.

Saute' the onions, garlic, and mushroom in the olive oil over medium high heat. After the mushrooms have released all of their liquid, add the rice. Stir for a minute or two until you notice that everything is starting to stick to the bottom of the pot, then deglaze with the wine, making sure to scrape up all the nicely caramelized bits off the bottom. Reduce heat to medium/medium low.

Add a ladle of hot stock. Stir. When you notice that the liquid has been absorbed and the rice might start to stick - repeat. Keep doing that.

Basically you're adding a little bit of stock, then watching it absorb into the rice, then adding a little more, then waching that absorb. As you stir (it doesn't have to be a constant stir, just every minute or so give it a quick toss), the starch will separate and the "sauce" will form and thicken around the rice kernels.

You want to keep adding and stirring, adding and stirring, until the rice is cooked through but is still al dente. Not crunchy, just a little firm in the middle.

Reduce the heat again to low. Add the herbs, butter, and cheese. Stir for a minute to melt the butter and incorporate the flavors. Serve immediately.

If you have leftovers, you can make the aforementioned risotto balls. Mmmmmm.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Creative leftovers

Remember the Crispy Kale & Tofu Salad that I mentioned last post? It's very tasty! Easy to make, filling, and good for you. Even my kids liked it.

I took the leftovers, poured miso soup base over it, and ate 2 bowls for lunch yesterday. I will probably do the same today. Do you even know how easy miso soup base is? I am ashamed to say that I never really looked into making miso soup until recently. Now I feel like a fool for not having this in my repertoire all along.
Easy Miso Soup Base

3 cups water
1 tsp dashi
2 T miso

Bring water to a boil. Reduce heat to low, stir in dashi. Simmer one minute. Stir in miso. Remove from heat.
Important; do not boil the soup after miso has been added.

Seriously. That's it. Then you're free to add whatever you want; tofu, kombu, veggies, egg, rice, noodles, chicken, the possibilities are near endless. Japanese Food Report has a fantastic post about miso soup here.

It's nice to know that which will not make a good burrito* could possibly make a tasty soup.

*Holly's Leftover Rule #1; Everything solid (and non-pasta) is a potential burrito filling.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Freezer Challenge

My freezer is full. We also have a small chest freezer in the basement, which is not full, and I was fixin' to move stuff from one freezer to another when I realized my folly. If I moved all this food to the basement freezer, I would forget it there and I would have to throw it out in 6 months - thus negating the point of keeping it all in the first place.

The solution, and the challenge, was to make myself build our weekly menu out of what we have in house - refrigerator and pantry included. What I actually will end up shopping for (minus the basics like juice and lunchmeat and Oreos) will fit in a hand basket. It was kind of fun! It was like when I was a cook and I would have to come up with dinner specials. You work with what you've got, and you turn it into something interesting and (hopefully) delicious.

Here's what I pulled out of the freezer;

1 plastic container of bean & bacon soup
1 loaf of crusty rosemary bread
1 boneless turkey breast; marinated in garlic, dill, and IKEA lemon salt
1 vacuum-sealed bag of chili squash with black beans and quinoa
1 box of breaded eggplant cutlets
4 salmon fillets
1 # ground beef
4 chicken legs
2 bags of pizza dough - one wheat, one herb

Here's my menu for the week;

Monday - bean & bacon soup with warm rosemary bread (see what I did there?)
Tuesday - pan seared turkey breast with Crispy Kale and Tofu Salad (I actually already had everything for this meal!)
Wednesday - squash, black bean, and quinoa burritos with salad
Thursday - eggplant parmigiana, whole wheat pasta with aglio olio
Friday - crispy salmon with greens and noodles
Saturday - Breakfast For Dinner Party at our friends' house, so I'm bringing sausage and cheese bread made with the frozen pizza dough
Sunday - (this is the day I cook a more elaborate meal than the rest of the week) truffle stuffed chicken legs in puff pastry. I guarantee I will end up changing this recipe.
Monday - I don't know what to call this dish, because it's basically homemade Hamburger Helper. This recipe is the closest I could find to what I make.

I have to get a few things, like mushrooms and beef broth, but there it is. I also pulled a few bags of turkey neck and chicken gizzards out of the back of the freezer, so I'm gonna make some stock!

I keep a gallon sized zip bag in my freezer, and as I cook I throw all the odds and ends of vegetables in there instead of down the disposal. You want to keep things like celery bits, carrot peels and ends, onion, scallion, and leek scraps, even apple peels and cores. Mushroom stems add a nice "meaty" taste that the Japanese call umami. I tend to avoid cabbage, broccoli, asparagus, and other stinky vegetables. The taste will overpower everything else in your stock, and won't be as useful as a base if the taste conflicts with he rest of the dish.

I also keep chicken and turkey gizzards and carcasses. If I roast a bird, I'll hang on to whatever is leftover. If I buy bone-in breasts or legs and end up de-boning them, I keep the bones.

The key to a deep, rich stock is easier than you think. First, roast the ingredients. Throw them in a roasting pan at 425 degrees - I would say maybe an hour? If you're dealing with a big frozen chunk, you may want to go longer. Transfer to a stock pot or crock pot. Add a few bay leaves, a small handful of peppercorns, some fresh herbs ( I buy the "poultry mix" in winter, in summer I grab handfuls from the farm. You may want thyme, rosemary, parsley, savory, things like that). I don't salt my stock, I salt the dish that I use the stock in, but feel free to add some salt too.

Cover the ingredients with water, I'd fill the pot as much as you can. I always do mine on the stove so that I can control the temperature, but if you're using a crock pot just turn it on and walk away. If you're doing it stove-top; bring to a boil, turn it down low, then partially cover and walk away.

After it starts to boil, you're going to notice a grey foamy scuzz thing happening. Skim that off and chuck it. It's not dangerous, but it's impurities from the bones and you want to clear it out of there.

You can simmer for as little as two hours, I leave my stock on for a LONG time. Like, overnight.

Very carefully strain the stock, using a colander, into a large bowl or container. Throw away all the solids, they've done their job. Line the colander with cheesecloth and strain again. This will get rid of all of the weird little sediment that's hiding out in there. Put the bowl in the fridge for a few hours, and the fat will rise to the top and solidify - making it easier to de-fat your stock. Once that's done, your stock is ready to use!

If you're not using it right away, there's a couple of solutions. Ambitious people could can it, I freeze mine. I divide into quart size zipper bags, label and date them, and pop them in the freezer. Another good idea that I use sometimes is to pour some into ice cube trays and freeze. Then you can dump the cubes into a container or baggie (so as not to get confused and ruin your martini), and that way you have small amounts of stock for things like pasta dishes, or cooking ramen in, or whatnot.

Remember - official food safety rules say that frozen stuff is good for 6 months. Time to throw out the leftover boiled dinner from St. Patrick's Day 2008, kids.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Doctor Holly's Hangover Remedy

Last night was my sister's 30th birthday party. We (of course) ended up back at our house for a long night of Rock Band and I-Don't-Know-What-Kaliis-Put-In-This-Drink-But-Okay. Good times.

Inspired by my friend Other Holly, who makes one for New Year's Day to feed the hungover crash crowd, I made a breakfast strata. I am the only one awake, and I'm eating it right now. It's delicious. The best part is that you make it a day ahead, so all you have to do is stumble to the kitchen when you wake up and pop it in the oven. It's cheap, and it feeds a crowd. I think I'm going to put this into semi-regular breakfast rotation - I notoriously hate cooking breakfast, but if I'm prepping it the day before and I can sit and drink coffee and read the Huff Post while it bakes? Awesome.

Strata, like many things that I post about, has a basic recipe that you can tweak to your tastes. Here's how I did it;

Breakfast Strata

8 lg eggs
2 c milk
2 c -or so- shredded cheese
1 loaf of bread, cubed
2 c diced ham
1/2 tsp garlic salt
1 tsp italian seasoning

Beat the eggs, milk and seasonings together, set aside. Butter or spray a 9 x 12 pan, then layer half the bread, half the ham, half the cheese. Repeat. Pour the egg mixture all over the bread etc., cover, and pop in the fridge overnight. This lets the bread properly absorb all the egg batter, but you can kind of fake it if you're doing this last minute by tossing the bread cubes with the egg mixture and letting it sit for about 10 minutes before you put it in the oven.

The next day, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cover the dish with foil and bake for about an hour, until the top is nice and crusty and the center is cooked through.

You can swap out the seasonings, the kind of cheese, meat or veggies at will - as long as the egg batter and bread ratio stay the same. You can make this without cheese as well, but why would you do that I mean come on.

Filling ideas!

browned crumbled sausage
spinach and fresh garlic
chopped tomato
chopped, cooked potato or hash browns
onion and pepper

.....basically anything that you would throw in an omelet, throw it in here! If you'd rather go sweet over savory, then may I suggest a teaspoon of cinnamon and a splash of vanilla extract? You end up with baked french toast! Delicious with maple syrup. You can throw in dried fruit, chopped apples, a handful of berries or what have you for a little something extra. My friend Chris got me in to topping my french toast with a dollop of lemon-zested sour cream along with the maple syrup, and it's surprisingly excellent.

Ok, now to double-fist another cup of coffee/glass of ice water. Cheers!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hope & Olive

Oh my, how fast a week goes by. Let's do a restaurant review, shall we?

On Friday we finally tried Hope & Olive in Greenfield (MA). The Greenfield/Turner's Falls area appears to be going through a little food renaissance. This coincides with the fact that a lot of young first-time home-buyers, like our friends Ryan and Becca, are moving up there. I will happily make the 40 minute drive to eat at Hope & Olive on a semi-regular basis. (I know that 40 minutes is not a big deal, but we live next to a huge food town so we rarely stray very far).

The food was delicious. I started with their sake martini, called the Cukesake. It's a perfectly balanced mix of Hendrick's gin, sake, lemon juice and muddled cucumber. It's so smooth and cool, I could just picture losing a whole summer day drinking those and reading while sprawled on a hammock. *note to self: buy a hammock*

For appetizers, we went with their fried polenta with roasted veggies and balsamic reduction. It was really tasty, though I like my polenta to be super-soft in the middle (Apollo Grill does it like that) and it could have used more balsamic. We also had the fried brussel sprouts which were delicious. No batter on these, just split and fried, served with a horseradish aoli. You get a HUGE pile, so be warned! We had to make ourselves stop eating them for fear of not finishing dinner.

I had hand cut fettuccine with smoked trout, roasted tomatoes and fennel, and a dill sour cream sauce. Heavenly, even though I picked out the fennel (I do not care for fennel). They don't smoke the trout in-house, but it was moist and not overly smokey tasting. The pasta was perfectly al dente and there was the perfect amount of sauce.

Jeffrey had what he insisted on repeatedly referring to as 'The $17 Meatloaf". It was very good, served with baked mac and cheese and braised greens. Nothing outstanding, but delicious comfort food.

We skipped dessert, as we were heading over to the aforementioned friends' house for dessert.

Hope & Olive is small and comfy. The staff is young, hip, and beautiful - and extremely nice. Their drink menu is gorgeous, and they have a separate tapas-style bar menu - which makes me want to go set up at the bar for a couple hours and just try different drinks and small plates. I can't wait to go back, I have a plan to systematically bring everyone I know just to have excusues to visit.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

TomAYto Soup, TomAHto Soup

I don't want to brag, but I totally scored this Christmas. I got an iPod Touch, and almost immediately installed the Epicurious app. I was excited to find out that there is an Epicurious app, since I spend a good amount of time searching that site. My cookbooks gather dust. I also found a fun mixology app - one of the features is that you make a list of all the hootch and mixers that you have in the house, and it generates a list of recipes for you. I have a mishmash of leftovers right now, all those weird things that you buy to go into something else (in my case, truffles) and I got the most insane list of drinks. Mix tequila with Chambord? No thank you. (However, I did try the tequila/Kahlua drink and it's not half bad.) Mixology is another thing I (being the dilettante that I am) want to learn more about. I can cook intuitively, but I don't have the same feel for mixing drinks. A few of our friends are super into infusions and tinctures and carbonating things that are not normally carbonated and it is fascinating to witness. Plus I like to drink so, hey! Win/win.

Jeffrey also gave me an immersion blender and a nice mandolin, ensuring that I will be fingerless by my birthday. I'm kidding, I worked in enough kitchens to have a healthy fear of both of those instruments. It's like people who keep pit bulls - you love them and they are useful, but you know not to poke them in the eye - or in this case, really sharp blade. I have not had a chance to use the mandolin yet, but I have a gratin planned for later this week. I did get to use the blender, and I loooove it. It's short - so it's easy to manipulate with one hand, if you need to hold the pot/bowl/cup with your other hand. It's got a lot of power, for a compact non-commercial blender. I christened it in a batch of delicious tomato soup.

Campbell's Tomato Soup was a staple of my childhood. I think I probably ate it once a week until I moved out of my parents' house. We always ate it with grilled cheese sandwiches, and we always floated either goldfish crackers or Smartfood in the soup. Heaven, especially in the winter.

As I got older and ate less processed foods, I lost my taste for Campbell's. It's too sweet (there's a lot of high fructose corn syrup) and it tastes tinny to me. I don't know if that's from the can or from the preservatives. I've tried a bunch of different organic/natural brands, and they are all So Bland. It's like warm, low-salt tomato juice. So, I started making my own. It doesn't taste like my memories, but it will do.

The key here is to use really good tomatoes. Ambitious people (not me, hopefully this year it will be me) can their own tomatoes and can crack open that summer flavor in January. To the rest of us, I recommend Muir Glen Organics. I can find this brand pretty much everywhere, even in my weird little mom & pop down the street. The fire-roasted tomatoes are delicious, and I've used them in everything you would throw regular tomatoes in for a little extra flavor. They make really nice salsa, too. You can use any of their tomatoes for this soup.

Basic Tomato Soup

Two 28 oz cans of tomatoes
1 onion, chopped
chopped garlic to taste (I use a whole head, but I love garlic)
3 stalks celery, chopped -OR- 1 T celery seed
1T sugar
about 1/4 - 1/2 cup white wine (red works too, but I prefer white for soup)
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
salt and pepper

Saute' the onion, garlic, and celery in a couple tablespoons of olive oil over med/high heat until translucent. Deglaze the pan with wine. Let the wine reduce by half (this will only take a minute if your pan is nice and hot), then add the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium. Let simmer for 20-30 minutes. Remove from heat, and blend. This is where the immersion blender come in handy, failing that a regular blender works just fine. Adjust the seasonings and you're ready to go.

Now, this is just a basic tomato soup. There are so many directions that you could take this in! When we had this for dinner the other night, I swirled in some pesto and served it with baked mac & cheese, and seared kale with garlic and balsamic vinegar.

Here are a few suggestions;

*A little spoonful of curry paste or powder, some chopped fresh cilantro and a dollop of yogurt

* grilled cheese croutons - grilled cheese sandwiches cut into little cubes, floating in the soup

* Chili powder or taco seasoning, add some corn and black beans after you blend the base. Serve with a garnish of shredded lettuce, tortilla chips, and a dollop of sour cream and/or guacamole

*fresh herbs - mix them in after you blend the soup, then return to heat on a low simmer for 5 minutes to blend flavors. I like a crumble of goat cheese and some spinach in this version.

Experiment! That's part of the fun. Sometimes it works, sometimes you're trying to give away leftovers to whoever (Whomever? Can never get that straight) is wandering by.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Happy New Year!

My, it has been a long time. I didn't realize how long, until I logged in and saw the date of my last post. Sorry, 11 faithful followers.

Aside from a wild foray into truffle-making and a couple of slow-cooker successes, I have not been cooking all that much - or all that creatively. Considering that I am eating cold lo mein straight from the box and planning on combining a jar of pesto and a box of pasta for dinner later; cooking starts again tomorrow, for real.

I just wrote a really long post about where I was ten years ago, and then realized that I was off by a year. It was really emotional and nostalgic and everything. I honestly can't remember what I did for New Year's Eve 2000. I think I may have even fallen asleep on the couch. Cammy had just turned two, Eliza was just about to turn four. That was the winter that I was a baker/barista and would walk to work at 3 a.m.

What I do remember about that time in my life is that I baked my own bread every day and made everything from scratch. It was partially a personal challenge, partially because we were super broke and I wanted to be able to feed my family well on what we had. I still feel a twinge of guilt when I rip open a box of Trader Joe's mini-tacos, thinking how a) I could totally just make tacos and b) $4.99 used to be a huge splurge. I can't imagine doing that today - between running the business, the kids' schedules and my need to sit down once in a while - but I still try to keep it as DIY as possible.

So here are my food resolutions for 2010!

1) Eat breakfast. I am terrible at eating breakfast. I am also turning 35 this year and need to knock that shit off. Fortunately for my health and my pant size, I don't like sweet things for breakfast so you won't find me chowing down on a donut on the way to work and calling it good. I'm going to keep yogurt in the fridge, hard boiled eggs on hand, and bagels at arm's length unless there are veggies tucked inside. Bagels are not good for you.

2) Eat local! As I have mentioned, we have a share at a local CSA for veggies. We get our milk and eggs from another local farm, and I just signed us up for a meat CSA. We got our first share last week, and could not be more excited. I like knowing where my food comes from.

3) Bring lunch to work. There is no good reason that I should be getting takeout four times a week, and the fifth day is the one where I forget to eat lunch. Mind you, our town (though it is wonderful) does not have many choices so I mostly get sandwiches and pizza. I'm going to add lunch planning to my weekly meal plan. It will be better for the kids as well, and save me about $150 a month on school lunches.

4) Learn more about Japanese food. I looooove Japanese food, and there's so much more to it than sushi. There are two good Asian markets right near me, and I'm going to spend some serious quality time roaming the aisles and trying random pickles. This blog is an incredible resource, and I was lucky enough to meet Harris. He is a stand up guy and a wealth of information.

5) Update this journal! It's fun for me, and I hope you enjoy reading it. Have a wonderful, healthy, happy year!