Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sausage and Peppers

"At last." That was Kurt’s response when I told him what was planned for dinner last night. He’s been a trooper through several vegetarian-focused meals lately, and he’s enjoyed them, he really has. But, the thought of a meal of sausage and peppers was a true delight. I should point out right away that I used chicken Italian sausages, but just the same, there was meat being cooked and served for dinner. He was right, this was a meal deserving of excitement.

Sausage and peppers is pretty straightforward. Cook sausages, saute bell peppers and onions until they smell amazing, and combine all to finish cooking together. This time, however, I took some pointers from Lidia Bastianich. In Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen, her technique for sausage and peppers is just a bit more specific. She suggests wide strips of bell peppers and onions, some pickled cherry peppers, garlic, and mushrooms. She explains proper cooking times so the vegetables retain some texture. There are a few steps involved in browning and sautéing on the stovetop, and then everything is combined to finish cooking through in the oven. By following her instructions, this was the best sausage and peppers meal I’ve made.

I had some fresh and fabulous green peppers from Hands of the Earth farm, great job HOE, and a red gypsy pepper from the farmers' market. The size of the cut strips and the carefully monitored cooking time made for very good results. I quite liked the use of mushrooms as it upped the vegetable quotient in the dish, and I used some local shitakes. The addition of the pickled, hot cherry peppers was genius. I had never thought to include jarred peppers before, but the bit of acidity brightened the flavors, and the tantalizing heat added a nice spark. The sausages retained a nice texture by finishing in the oven, and the garlic became the delicious thing it always does. I am going on a bit about something so simple as sausage and peppers, but this was a really great rendition of it. Take Lidia’s advice, choose your favorite type of sausage, do as she says, and have a spectacular meal of it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Vegetarian Caldo Gallego

I was in need of inspiration for a vegetable-filled soup, so I looked through a few different books to get ideas. It was Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian that offered just what I was hoping to find. This book is a terrific reference for just about any vegetable cooked in just about any style. You can use the index to locate the vegetable in question, and then you’ll find several options from all around the world. As I flipped through the book, I made repeated mental notes on other dishes ranging from El Salvadoran to Indian that I want to try as soon as I can.

While vegetarian caldo gallego may be an oxymoron, it is definitely a full-flavored and satisfying soup. Traditionally, chorizo would be the source of rich flavor. Jaffrey’s recipe included onion, garlic, potato, white beans, chopped greens, and vegetable broth or broth from cooking beans. I felt that the essence of a traditional taste would be found in Spanish paprika, so I added a healthy dose of pimenton de la vera to the onions and potatoes as they cooked. Since time was at a premium this weekend, I resorted to using canned white beans instead of cooking dried ones, but I did use some homemade vegetable broth. As the potatoes, onions, and garlic cooked with the pimenton, the aroma was transfixing. I decided pimenton is my new best friend. It’ll be in everything I cook for the foreseeable future.

The finished soup was hearty and delicious. The smoky quality was there, and the potatoes, beans, and greens were a nice trio of tastes. We lunched on this soup with some chunks of manchego cheese. It might not have been completely traditional, but it was just what I was looking for this weekend. I made a double batch and can freeze some for future quick meals unless it disappears in the next few days.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Pistachio Cranberry Icebox Cookies

These festive looking cookies caught my eye on Epicurious the other day. I decided they should be auditioned for a part in my annual holiday baking extravaganza. There a few cookies and candies that I almost always make for the holidays, and then, I have to try a few new things as well. I may be outing myself as a cookie-baking geek by stating this, but I look forward to the 12 days of cookies from Foodnetwork every year. Icebox cookies are great because of their flexibility. The dough can be left in the refrigerator for a few days or even frozen for a few weeks before being baked. And, cutting them into shape is much easier than rolling out sugar cookies or gingerbread cookies.

For these, the dough was shaped into squared-sided blocks, brushed with an egg wash, and rolled in coarse sugar. To cut the cookies, I recommend using a sharp knife because you’ll want to get a clean cut through the pistachios. Several can fit on a baking sheet since they don’t spread, and that means fewer baking sheets to wash. All in all, this is a very convenient cookie to bake.

The red and green flecked cross sections and the sparkling, crispy edges make these little charmers as easy on the eyes as they are on the palate. They’re tasty and tender and full of flavor from the fruit and nuts. They auditioned well and may very possibly have earned a spot on my holiday cookie tray.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Eggplant Puree with Walnuts

Along with the many pounds of greens from our CSA last week, we also received a lovely eggplant. It could have been sautéed with the greens or included in a pasta dish at some point in the week, but I wanted to let it be the star. Baba ghanoush is always good, but I found a slightly different idea on Epicurious. This is a version of the Greek traditional eggplant spread known as melitzanosalata. Walnuts are used here instead of tahini.

By halving the recipe, the one eggplant made just enough puree for a snack for two with raw vegetables and toasted, sliced, whole grain ficelle. The green pepper was also from the farm, but the orange cauliflower came from the grocery store. The puree was fresh tasting, and the walnut flavor was just as good if not better than sesame. And, the recipe’s tip about using just a touch of sweetness worked well. The slight eggplant bitterness disappeared after a half teaspoon of honey was incorporated.

I drizzled a little olive oil on top and spattered about a bit of chopped Greek oregano for serving. A note with the recipe states that this spread hails from the northern part of Greece and that country bread is traditionally dipped into it. Any toasted bread would be good with this, especially pita, but the whole grain ficelle worked nicely with the eggplant and walnut flavors.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Seared Salmon with Tatsoi and Persimmons

Have I mentioned the greens I’ve been cooking? I have. More than once? Well, then, I’ll just mention one more meal involving them this week. Thankfully they’re delicious in addition to being healthy, and they have inspired some creativity in my kitchen. Supplied with a big bag of cute and peppery tatsoi leaves, I had a couple of ideas. I thought they would make a good side for a simply seared salmon fillet, and I imagined some sweet persimmon slices would provide a nice flavor and color contrast. Then, I decided to make things just a tad more complicated.

In my head, I pictured the salmon fillet resting atop a thick sauce with a light and leafy composition on top with a garnish of persimmon slices. So, I thought back to a recent experience with broccoli rabe pesto, and decided to try a tatsoi, pecan pesto minus the cheese. To start, I blanched about four cups of the tatsoi leaves by placing them in a sieve, lowering the sieve into boiling water for one minute, and then moving it immediately into a bowl of ice water. The leaves were then squeezed to remove as much water as possible. Blanched leaves were placed in the blender with about a half cup of pecans, a tablespoon of lemon juice, and half a cup of olive oil. This was pureed and seasoned with salt and pepper. I left the bowl near the stove for it to keep warm while the salmon was prepared.

Wild Coho salmon fillets were seasoned and quickly cooked on the stovetop. I made a lemon and rice vinegar vinaigrette with shallots and dijon, and tossed a handful or two of fresh tatsoi leaves in it. I also cut some daikon into matchsticks and tossed them in the vinaigrette with the tatsoi. The tatsoi puree was pooled onto the center of the plate and received the salmon. The leaf and daikon combination was set onto the salmon, and then, persimmon slices found their place.

This was one of the quickest meals I’ve prepared lately. I kept looking around the kitchen thinking I’d forgotten something. It was a somewhat light and very nice meal. The vinaigrette and the oil in the puree added just enough richness to the greens. The blanched, pureed greens had less pepperiness than the fresh leaves which made for a good balance. And, the persimmons brightened up the plate literally and figuratively. Their flavor was outstanding with the salmon, and all the components together behaved exactly as I’d hoped. The daikon added nice crunch but wasn’t entirely necessary. If I were to make this again and couldn’t get tatsoi, arugula would work very well.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Greens Two Ways

When your CSA gives you greens (lots and lots of greens), make, well, make greens several different ways. Here we have quesadillas with greens and then polenta with greens and blue cheese. First, the quesadillas, and that begins with a story. A few years back, I attended a Tyler Florence cooking demonstration at a wine and food festival here in Austin. He sent someone with a microphone into the audience so questions could be asked while he cooked. There was a lot of excited giggling among the ladies, and one pointed, culinary question asked was “boxers or briefs?” He feigned embarrassment and continued cooking his spicy black eyed peas to which he had added some salt pork. Then, a serious question was asked regarding how to add flavor to the peas yet make it a vegetarian dish. Tyler began his answer with something about life without pork and then said that if you really want to leave out the pork you could use a smoked turkey wing. The woman who asked the question gave him a quizzical look, and he said, oh right, vegetarian! You could add chipotles instead for smoky flavor. I’m so glad that stuck with me. That’s exactly what I did to impart a smoky character to the greens that I cooked for the quesadillas.

Multi-grain tortillas were layered with shredded dry Jack cheese and a little shredded cheddar along with the chipotle sautéed collard greens and some seeded and chopped tomatoes. The quesadillas were fried until golden on each side and served with a homemade chipotle tomato salsa and fresh guacamole with cilantro. Our CSA provided the tomatoes this week as well. Getting local tomatoes in November is one more reason to really like Austin. Shoe leather would probably taste good melted into a cheese-filled quesadilla, but these fresh, spicy, cooked greens were especially delicious in them. To about four cups of chopped collards, I added one big finely chopped chipotle as they sauteed. For the salsa, I had two ripe, medium tomatoes which I chopped and plopped into the food processor along with two chipotles, about a quarter of a cup of finely chopped onion, and the juice of one large lime. I also added chopped cilantro and salt after pulsing a few times. This was a rather hot salsa, so you could start with one chipotle and add more to taste.

The next day, greens were sauteed with garlic and served over polenta with parmigiana topped with Maytag blue cheese. I’m afraid I don’t have a story to go with this one. I just blatantly stole this idea from the amazing Herbivoracious site. I used collard greens here again, and this time they were sautéed in olive oil with sliced garlic and crushed red peppers. The polenta was simply cooked with water, and parmigiana was stirred in when it was done. The greens paired very well with the creamy, mild polenta, and the crumbled blue cheese amplified the overall flavor. This was a great dish. It was hearty and filling, and the cheeses worked perfectly with the slight bitterness of the greens.

We also received tatsoi, arugula, eggplant, daikon, green peppers, carrots, and cilantro from our share. The quality has been fantastic, and I’m having fun coming up with new and different ways to use every bit of what we receive.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Ricotta Pound Cake

The other day, I read a post on Food Gal’s site that sent me straight to the kitchen. She mentioned how we can’t waste food these days, and so she found a couple of excellent uses for left-over ricotta. Wasting food is not just economically ill-advised, it’s an environmental misstep as well. I’m usually pretty anal about planning meals and using everything before it spoils, but once in a while I end up with a bit of something that has no defined purpose. As I hungrily looked at those lovely lemon ricotta muffins, I remembered that I too had some left-over ricotta in the refrigerator. When I started rummaging through the pantry, I found I was lacking lemon and almonds and the frugality of this endeavor would be a bit diminished by a trip to the grocery store. I could have just left them out, but Kurt was in need of a dessert item, a snack cake seemed like a good solution, and so I turned to another recipe which I found online.

Here’s the twist in this story: this is from a book that I don’t own. When Dolce Italiano appeared last year, I read mixed reviews and never acquired a copy. If anyone out there has this book, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

This simple pound cake made good use of my remaining ricotta. It smelled so good when it came out of the oven, we couldn’t resist cutting into it before it had completely cooled. The crunchy, crusty edges were sweet enough as they were without a confectioner’s sugar dusting, and the interior was unbelievably tender. I may cook some apples or pears or cranberries to spoon over pieces of it tonight. The recipe states that the flavor is best the next day, so I can’t wait to find out if it’s even better than it was yesterday.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Gingered Greens and Tofu

Last week, we received a bounty of greens from our CSA, and I was determined to find some new ways to prepare it. I like leafy vegetables and cook them often enough, but I wanted to branch out this time. It had been a while since I last used the book, Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, and now that I’ve just thumbed through it again, I think I’ll be using it a lot in the near future. The aim of this book is to encourage whole-foods cooking in quick and easy ways. By limiting the number of ingredients, the "natural flavors of good basic foodstuffs" is highlighted. That concept works for me. In fact, most of the items presented in the book could easily become busy week night standard meals.

For the gingered greens and tofu, I used broccoli greens and stems. The leaves of broccoli greens are a little thicker than other greens so they hold their shape well. They have a mild taste and worked perfectly here. The tofu was marinated for five minutes in a mixture of soy sauce, dry sherry, and rice vinegar. Then, it was broiled in the marinade until browned on each side. The greens were simply stir fried with ginger and vegetable oil and then hit with some chili oil, lime juice, and cilantro. For serving, the tofu and sauce were spooned atop the greens, and all was sprinkled with cilantro and chopped, toasted cashews. I also added some sliced hot chiles to the garnishes. It was just that easy.

Kurt gets nervous when dinner includes the phrase stir fry because I usually botch it horribly. But, this time, all went well. In fact, he proclaimed this a success and would be happy with it in our regular meal rotation. I really liked it too. The chili oil and sliced fresh chiles gave it a good punch of spice, and the marinade became a delicious sauce for the dish. I’m glad I finally pulled that book off the shelf again.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Shrimp and Okra Gumbo

We started a new fall CSA subscription with Hands of the Earth farm last week. Our first pick up included lots of greens: tender, baby salad greens, small leaf braising greens, broccoli greens, and collards. Also, there were big, crunchy red radishes, serranos, green peppers, and red okra. Those last two items jumped up and shouted ‘make some gumbo.’

I need to explain how I came upon the recipe I used. In March, we attended a cooking class offered by Sara Roahen. We had some really outstanding food that night like oyster artichoke soup, stuffed mirliton, crab salad, and bread pudding with bourbon creme anglaise, and we learned a lot about preparing it all in classic New Orleans style. Her book, Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, is a collection of stories that highlight the city and the food and the people who cook it and love it. She wasn’t born in New Orleans, but she’s clearly come to regard the city and its surroundings with great affection. The stories mostly convey a pre-Katrina view but also note how things stood at the time of writing after the storm. Sadly, many of the restaurants she mentions had not re-opened when the book was published.

The first chapter is devoted to Gumbo in all its glorious, confusing, and infinite incarnations. Roahen describes how she came to understand gumbo by tasting several versions and forming a classification system of her own. One of her categories is Big Mama gumbo which she explains includes “everything but the kitchen sink.” In general, gumbos may be grouped by the thickener used in making them such as roux, okra, or file. Or, they may be categorized by the type of meat(s), type of sausage (if sausage is included), or type of fat used in making them. The only real constant in a gumbo is that it’s served with rice. There’s much more to be learned at southerngumbotrail.com.

I followed the recipe she provided at the class, and putting it all together is an event in itself. Visit Sara Roahen’s web site to read her blog, and you can ask her for this exact recipe if you’d like. We started by cleaning the shrimp and using the shells for stock the night before. The good news about shellfish stock is that it only simmers for 20 minutes. The next day, the vegetables were prepped and everything was put in place so my focus could remain on the roux. You do have to stir the roux continuously for at least 30 minutes. In truth, I got a little scared of it. I kept thinking, let it go a little darker, no wait, it could burn, stop it now. Stop thinking, keep stirring. The chopped green pepper, onion, celery, and garlic are added to the roux when it achieves the desired color. Then, that mixture is whisked into simmering shellfish stock. The cooked okra is added back to the pot with bay leaves, and it all simmers together for an hour and a half. Yes, it takes some time and patience to achieve a gumbo, but a lot of it is inactive, simmer time.

Roahen claims that something uncertain happens when gumbo ingredients spend that time together in the pot, and now I understand what she means. You already know what all those things taste like individually, but once they’ve formed a union, there’s some transformation that makes it into gumbo. The shrimp joins the simmering party just a few minutes before serving, and you should time the rice cooking by counting back from serving time.

Gumbo has a beautifully obscure look and transcendent taste of its own and a history that is equally complex. Now that I’ve got a first try under my belt, I’m ready to attempt other variations. I’ll be less timid with the roux color next time, and I’ll add even more cayenne at the end. Maybe I’ll try a duck version or add some file. The options are endless, and the flavor is always uniquely divine.

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