Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Big Thaw

It has been an ungodly sort of winter so far here in Chicago. It’s brought back memories of February in Montreal, the type of skin-piercing cold and bone-chilling wind I was pretty sure I had left behind when I received my diploma from McGill.

If, dear reader, you have never experienced this type of cold, count your lucky stars. It is close to indescribable, a sort of chill that permeates your entire being and keeps your insides cold long after your fingers have regained feeling. Now the cold this winter has not been as bad as the worst Montreal is capable of serving up, the -40 degree winds that forced tears from your eyes, which, despite their salt content, freeze immediately, gluing your eyelashes to one another. But it has been viciously cold, and since it’s been three years since I’ve experienced this type of tortuous winter, for which one would only stand in exchange for the chance to reside in one of the most underappreciated and gorgeous cities in North America, I have come to expect a milder sort of winter.

When it is this cold outside, there is not much that can will you to step outside. It has to be something really and truly worthwhile. Something for which you don’t really mind seemingly turning into a solid block of ice. Something thaw-worthy, that makes the achingly long process of returning blood flow to your extremities bearable. When there is no such thing, there is nothing better than staying indoors.

It is this acceptance and embrace of the indoors that makes us yearn for a slow, long cooking process, something to which we can dedicate our evening and feel totally alright. When there is no reason to go outside, it’s really best to ensure that your time inside is as warm and cozy as can be. This past weekend I was going to relax, take my time, and enjoy the process of cooking something soothing.

Well, at least that was the plan. The stars were not aligned for the relaxing aspect of my grand scheme. You see, the cork in my wine bottle was the least cooperative bugger. I had left the wine-opening for when my meat was browning, assuming that the nearly 15 minutes before the wine was to be added was more than enough time to open a measly bottle of wine. How wrong I was. After nearly triggering the smoke alarm, setting off spice bottle dominoes resulting in a smash of glass and bay leaves about the floor, and the haphazardly abstract spotting of nearly every inch of Andrew’s kitchen with wine after I realized that the only way to lure the wine out of its bottle was to force down that stubborn cork, only then was the wine was introduced to the pot with nary a moment to spare. Oh, and I forgot to add the flour when I was supposed to, but that was the least of my worries.

Yet despite the unforeseen complications in an otherwise simple recipe, the meal achieved its ultimate goal. My fears about the late flour addition were quelled once I drew the pot from the oven and removed the lid, as the deep-burgundy color immediately cast its spell and calmed me down. The meat itself had taken on the color of the wine, and its complexity and depth was visible to the naked eye. And so the thaw began.

That’s why this sort of cold calls for a certain something, a hearty meal slow-cooked in a heavy pot, the elements of which are all substantial in their own regard. Hunks of beef, cast iron, a deep red wine – now these, my friends, are the makings of a real winter feast.

When the weather is chilly enough to tempt you indoors for days at a time, I think the best bet is to get at something that warms you from the inside, that has the ability to return feeling to the depths of your body, even those that you feared were done for until the first signs of spring. Something that will make you feel rejuvenated, renewed, and warmed throughout body and mind. Mother nature, with her seemingly vengeful force, can’t even mess with that.

Jacques Pepin’s Beef Stew in Red Wine Sauce

Adapted from Food & Wine Magazine, April 2007

For the wine, I used a 2004 Bordeaux that I found on sale in the grocery store. Jacques recommends one from the southern Rhone valley. Whatever wine you choose, make sure it’s a good one; since the recipe calls for no broth or water, it is the only liquid you’ll be using. The original recipe calls for only 15 each of the onions, carrots and mushrooms, but I personally prefer more vegetables. If you choose to add more, you may need to account for this by adding more water to the pan in Step 7. I served our stew over polenta that I had cooked with garlic, onions and chicken broth. And, of course, a hunk of crusty bread.

2 pounds lean beef chuck
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion, about one medium onion
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon flour
1 bottle of red wine
2 bay leaves
1 sprig fresh thyme or ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
20 cipollini or pearl onions, peeled
20 cremini mushrooms, washed
20 baby carrots
5 ounces cured salt pork (bacon can be substituted)
1/4 cup water
Dash of sugar
Chopped parsley for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Remove visible hunks of fat from beef and cut into about 10 pieces (more or less depending on how big you want the pieces)

3. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter with 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a cast-iron pot. Arrange the meat in one layer in the pot, and season it with salt and pepper. Cook on top of the stove over high heat for about 8 minutes, making sure to brown the meat on all sides.

4. Add 1 cup of finely chopped onion and 1 tablespoon of finely chopped garlic to the pot. Cook over moderate heat for an additional 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Add 1 tablespoon of flour. Mix in well so that the flour doesn’t form lumps (since I forgot to do this at the right time I just sprinkled the flour in so I was sure it wouldn’t clump. My fear was that the flour taste wouldn’t have a chance to cook off and would taint the stew, but the wine is such a strong enough flavor that it didn’t sour the dish). Stir in 1 bottle of red wine. Add 2 bay leaves, a sprig of fresh thyme, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Stir well and cover.

5. Place the pot in the oven and continue to cook for about 1 1/2 hours; the meat should be soft and tender and the liquid properly reduced. The recipe can be prepared to this point up to a day ahead.

6. To make the lardons (if you don’t want to use these, omit this step and add a bit more olive oil to the skillet when browning the vegetables, after the water has evaporated), place the salt pork in 2 cups of water and bring to a boil in a saucepan. Reduce and simmer for about 30 minutes; drain. If bacon is being used, reduce the simmer time to about 8-10 minutes. Cut the pork into 1/2-inch slices and then cut the slices into 1-inch-wide lardons.

7. Combine the onions, mushrooms, carrots and lardons in a skillet with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 1/4 cup of water and a generous dash each of sugar, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes or until there should be practically no water left in the pan. Uncover and sauté over high heat until the vegetables are nicely browned.

8. Mix the vegetables and lardons into the stew. Add a little chopped fresh parsley, serve, enjoy and feel the warmth begin to return.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Full Embrace

When I get something in my head, it often takes a while for me to get it out. I mean hellER, I have been saying the same four lines uttered by Keasha of Shot at Love almost-fame for the majority of the last week, thanks to my friend DSchec.

A couple of weeks before that, I was playing the freecreditreport.com song on loop in my head, sometimes singing out loud, to the displeasure of pretty much everyone with whom I came into contact.

I know, I know, you’re saying, “hey girl heyyy, those are not the most “cultured” of things to have stuck in your head,” but I really have no control over what my brain decides it likes now, do I? Right. Didn’t think so.

When the something in my head is food, it is damn near impossible to get it out unless I eat or make that something. A couple of months ago I had the most unavoidable craving for grilled cheese.

I think “craving” might be the wrong word; preoccupation is much more like it.

I couldn’t move on from grilled cheese until I ate it many, many times. I had tried avoiding it, since it’s not really the healthiest thing in the world; telling myself that I didn’t actually want a grilled cheese sandwich. However, I underestimated the power melty, gooey cheese had over me. I finally gave in, and I haven’t ever looked back. Now when a certain food item is stuck in my head, I do my best to appease my brain as quickly as possible. I can’t ignore it and try to will it to go away, I must embrace it and acknowledge its unfailing power over me until I do so. So last week, when I could not get the idea out of my head that there was nothing better on this earth than a crunchy, chewy wheat berry, I knew what had to be done.

I first had wheat berries not that long ago, to be honest, maybe a year or so ago. I got a sudden urge for them recently and have been searching grocery stores for them. I finally found them sold in bulk at Whole Foods, for a rather cheap sum. The problem with wheat berries is that they take quite a while to cook. Some sources call for wheat berries to be soaked overnight, which cuts down a bit on the cooking time and allows the body to better digest them. I know my body likes a good challenge, so I just rinsed the wheat and got down to business.

Since the wheat takes so long to cook, I decided that I would make enough to have a warm salad that night and save some to make a cold salad later on, knowing full well that this preoccupation was not going to be felled by a mere salad. I bought a nice hunk of goat’s milk feta while I was at Whole Foods and went home on a mission. Since I bought bulk, my wheat berries didn’t come with instructions, so I came home and Googled “how to cook wheat berries.”

A constant theme was about three cups of liquid per cup of wheat berries, so that is what I did. Some recipes said 2-2 ½ cups, but I figured if I was draining and rinsing anyway as long as they were cooked properly it didn’t matter if there was some water that wasn’t absorbed. Better to have too much than too little, as long as I paid attention to make sure they weren’t getting overcooked. I brought the water up to a boil, threw in some olive oil and the wheat berries, lowered to a simmer and cooked, covered over low heat for about 75 minutes. Cooking time can be as much as 90 minutes, so be patient. When they’re cooked to your liking, drain in a colander and rinse with warm water. This will yield two cups of cooked wheat berries.

Warm Wheat Berry Salad with Shrimp and Feta

1 cup cooked wheat berries
1 tablespoon
6-8 shrimp, peeled and deveined
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 – ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
¼ cup cherry tomatoes, halved*
1-2 ounces of goat’s milk feta cheese, cut into small cubes**
About ten small olives, pitted and quartered
Olive oil
Lemon Juice

Allow the wheat berries to cool slightly. While those are cooling, heat the butter in a medium skillet and add the thyme and red pepper flakes. Add the garlic, sautéing until fragrant. Add the shrimp to the pan and sauté until just opaque. Remove from the heat. I cut my shrimp into bite-size portions, since I wanted to be able to get multiple things on the fork at once and didn’t want to have to futz around with a knife.

Mix the wheat berries, shrimp, tomatoes and olives. Add a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice and mix to combine. Add salt and pepper and adjust any seasonings, oil or juice to your taste. Add the feta cheese and enjoy!

*In retrospect, I should have roasted these tomatoes. They would have added more sweetness to the dish had they been roasted. In order to do this, place the cherry tomatoes on a foil-lined baking sheet and place in a 375 degree oven (a toaster oven works perfectly fine too) until they pop. Delicious.

**Obviously any feta cheese would be delicious, as would any goat cheese, really. I like the goat’s milk feta because it has a firmer texture but still maintains the tang of goat cheese.

Since I know myself so well, within a couple of days I was clamoring for more wheat berries. What can I say, there’s just something about that nutty chewiness that I adore - it’s just so wholesome. So a couple of days later I threw the rest of the wheat berries together with some more tomatoes, feta, olives and sautéed zucchini. I tossed some chopped shallot, red wine vinegar, a little bit of honey and the zest and juice of one Meyer lemon into a blender, set it awhirl and drizzled some olive oil in through the cap while the blender was going in order for the vinaigrette to emulsify. I topped it all with some freshly chopped mint and I had another meal that, while different from the first salad I made, was similar in all the right ways.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A Real Cocktail Nut

Anyone who knows me can probably attest to the fact that I really like nuts, especially almonds. I buy giant bags of raw almonds at a time, which usually leads me to attempt roasting and flavoring them, since I can usually spare a few in case it doesn’t turn out. And honestly, before recently, I never had them turn out well. Ever. I would roast and roast, but to no avail, they just came out of the oven undercooked yet somehow stale, or just plain burnt.

When I would try to season them, they were pulled from the oven, time after time, totally unflavored, with sad piles of burnt sugar and cinnamon surrounding them. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, I was always putting some sort of liquid on the nuts, either a cooking spray or melted butter, then tossing them with sugar and cinnamon or salt and spices, putting them in a warm oven, usually set at 375 and checking often to see when they were done. I never got a good batch though, not even once. You can only imagine how sad this made me. What seemed to be one of the simpler culinary endeavors was becoming the bane of my existence.

Recently, however, I’ve been seeing recipes for candied and spiced nuts all over the place, on other blogs, in magazines, and I realized what I was doing wrong. All of these recipes had different temperature settings and time recommendations, but what was constant throughout them was the use of egg white to wet the nuts before tossing them with the seasoning. Egg white!!! This whole time, all I needed was egg white. Think of all the lost nuts, the forgotten almonds that gave their existence to being coated in cooking spray! What was I thinking? Of course egg white would work better! It actually had the ability to have things adhere to it and to form a coating around the nut. This way they wouldn’t get that stale, only faintly crispy but ultimately spongy texture with which I had become oh so prone to endowing my almonds. I know you must be saying, there is no way an almond could be spongy, but believe me, I managed to torture the bite out of these poor things with crummy coatings and excess heat.

In an effort to prove myself worthy of roasting my almonds once again, I started slowly, with a recipe from Shauna James Ahern, a source that has never let me down before. I have kept the basics of this recipe, the oven temperature and the cooking time, in tact below. Though originally a recipe for pecans, there was no way this could go wrong – right?

And they didn’t go wrong, really – they weren’t the best candied almonds I’ve ever had but they were certainly good and sugary, if perhaps a bit too cinnamony. I fed them to a bunch of my friends, and they ate them without protest, so I suppose that was a good sign. I was on the up-and-up with my almonds.

Once I got the general technique and timing down, I was able to move on to more creative combinations. At first my idea was to create a steakhouse almond by adding Worcestershire sauce to some other combination of spices. Then I got the idea that I’m sharing with you below – a Bloody Mary almond. It’s the true epitome of a cocktail nut, as it is, for all intents and purposes, a nut that is flavored like a cocktail. Well, I almost got all the way there, the only element that was missing was the tomato element, but I’m not really sure how to impart such a flavor onto an almond without literally dunking it in tomato juice and having it taste nasty. If you have any ideas, feel free to leave them below. The horseradish was missing from there too, but I was at least able to give the almonds some heat with cayenne.

Bloody Mary Almonds

First: a disclaimer. I didn’t really measure anything, so please accept my apologies for that.

Wisk together one egg white, about six drops each of Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco (or other hot sauce) and a teaspoon of water until foamy.*

Combine some salt, sugar, salt-free lemon pepper seasoning, celery seed and cayenne pepper. I’m not totally sure what my exact measurements were, but the majority of the mixture was made up of salt, sugar and lemon pepper seasoning. I probably used about an eighth to a quarter of a teaspoon each of the celery seed and the cayenne. If you like your Bloody Mary Almonds a bit spicier, feel free to add more cayenne. I would err on the lower side of the celery seed measurements since it’s a pretty strong flavor, and you can always add more if you think you need some. Regardless, since I didn’t give real measurements I would suggest tasting the mixture (a simple finger test does plenty good) and adjusting to your personal tastes. Everyone likes his or her Bloody Mary a different way.

Mix the almonds into the egg white mixture to coat. Remove, allowing excess egg white to drip off and then mix in with the spice mixture. As you can probably tell from the photo above, I didn’t coat the entire surface area of my nuts – that would have probably been a bit much.

Spread the almonds out on a baking sheet and pop in a 225 degree oven. Stir the nuts occasionally (about every ten to fifteen minutes or so) to ensure even cooking. Roast for about an hour, or until the liquid on the nuts is just about dry.

Note: I’ll make these again at some point in the near future and try to report back with exact measurements. My apologies for not doing so from the get-go (I had misplaced my measuring spoons – sorry!!)**

* If you are using less than four cups of nuts, you will not need to use the whole mixture. I would suggest starting out with about half of that and going from there – if you think your nuts need to be a bit wetter, add away. You can always just add the whole mixture to whatever nuts you’re planning on using and just spill out the excess, just make sure no matter what that the egg whites are foamy when the nuts are added.

** Don’t worry, they’re back.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

My First Miso

When a friend of mine asked me what was to come next on this here website, I told him that I was planning an entry for miso soup. “Miso soup is so boring,” he said. “I don’t care,” I replied, “I could eat miso soup four times a day.”

And it’s true– boring or not, I have an unparalleled love for miso soup. I’m not quite sure why, it is such a simple thing, tasting mostly salt while faintly calling to mind the ocean (a characteristic that I not long ago discovered is imparted upon the soup by the use of a stock often made from seaweed and dried fish – in no way, of course, does this news affect my love for miso).

Miso soup had no real place in my childhood, my parents never made it for me when I was sick. There was never any miso soup when we went for dinner at my Grandma Minnie’s house – no doubt she made the best damn matzoh balls the world has ever seen, but I can only imagine that the word “miso” was not found in any of the four languages she spoke. Yes chicken soup has a place in my heart that can never be compromised – the effect of nostalgia and sentiment on this cannot be ignored though. I just really, really enjoy miso soup, nostalgia aside.

I cannot enter a Japanese restaurant without ordering a bowl – I am pretty sure I have been stricken with a mental impairment that has rendered me utterly incapable of saying no to miso. Often I am taken aback by how much a restaurant will charge for a measly bowl of soup. Borderline addicted to the stuff, I, with rare exception, comply and enjoy my miso. Especially when the weather gets cold, there is nothing that quite calms and warms me like a steaming bowl of miso soup.

When Andrew asked me the other day whether there was something I might want from Chinatown, my thoughts immediately went to miso. I figured if I could make my own miso, I could enjoy it at my will. So miso paste made its way, thanks to Andrew, from Chinatown to the kitchen.

I did a few quick recipe searches to see what else I needed and was on my way to my first miso.

The recipe I used as guidance I found on About.com. It’s a really straightforward recipe, and is in fact the first one that comes up when “Miso Soup Recipe” is entered into Google. It seemed simple and most of the recipes I looked at were essentially the same so I just went with the first one. The ingredients aren’t the most common, but once they’re in hand the soup comes together in a snap.

I found dashi at the grocery store around the corner from me. Dashi is a stock that’s usually made from seaweed or dried fish and is most commonly available in its powdered or condensed form. I looked around a bit for dried seaweed to throw in with the miso in lieu of the green onions, but I couldn’t find any in the stores around my apartment. I’m sure another trip to Chinatown would prove fruitful.

It is my understanding that the Japanese eat miso soup with every meal, breakfast included. I have never doubted their reasoning for this – the simple deliciousness and the inner warmth miso soup brings is enough to make me want to eat it three times a day. Now that I know how easy it really is to make, I might do just that.

Miso Soup
Adapted from About.com’s Miso Soup Recipe

1 teaspoon dashi
3 cups of water
3 ½ Tablespoons miso paste
6-8 ounces firm silken tofu
1/8 – ¼ cup sliced green onions

Mix the dashi into the water in a medium pot and heat to a boil. Lower the heat and bring the soup to a simmer.
Cut the tofu into small dice and simmer in stock for a few minutes. Ladle some stock from pot into a cup or bowl with the miso paste. Mix to combine until all the lumps are gone and the mixture is smooth. Return the mixture to the pot and simmer for a couple of minutes. Make sure that after the miso paste is in the pot the soup does not come to a boil. Remove from heat, add the green onions and serve immediately. Delicious.