Tuesday, March 2, 2010

I made French Bread!

Today was a day unlike most early March days in the south--it snowed!  In my 53 years of life, I have only experienced snow in March one other time, the blizzard of '93.  Today wasn't quite like that day on March 13 seventeen years ago (snowed about 18"), but it was a day to just sit back and chill.  Only, I didn't do that, I decided to make French bread! The last time I got the urge to bake in this way was probably about 25 years ago, a time when there wasn't a great French bakery just around the corner. I actually have a real, honest-to-God, professional baguette pan; you can cook six loaves at a time.  Got it out, dusted it off (real dusty, but I decided it needed a good washing), lightly oiled two of the "cavities" and waited patiently for the dough to go through its three risings. It doesn't fit into my wall oven!  No problem, I have a heavy-duty, cavernous professional range--the door won't open!  Since I renovated my kitchen a few years ago, this professional range is only used on the high holy days--Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, just a few times a year. But now, the one time I need to use it, it's on the fritz! Heated up the pizza stone instead and cooked the loaves directly on the stone.  This is Julia's recipe, so it turned out beautifully. I can't say that it was the most perfect French bread that has ever been baked or even the best I have ever tasted. It was probably a little dense, probably a little too browned, but there is absolutely nothing like bread fresh from the oven.  JD and I ate an entire loaf almost before we could get the rest of the food on the table. With butter, with olive oil, it was so good--so much for trying to shed a few pounds this Lent!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Longings . . .

Warm weather . . . I really am a southerner, too much cold weather this year!
Frisee . . . looks like I'm going to have to grow it myself!
Squash blossoms . . .I haven't had these since Summer, 2008. 
Real, honest-to-God summer tomatoes

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Reminiscing

Tired tonight--but it's my own doing.  I'm recovering quite well from my bicycle crash on September 1 and in fact, have been back on the bike for a couple of weeks now.  Today, I biked 32 miles, not up to my pre-injury level by a long shot, but showing continued progress.  It was hard today, cold, windy and I have the sniffles. And, my bike buddies (not having any pity for my woeful lack of conditioning) pushed me a little harder today in an effort to move me to the next level. Did you know that you can sweat in 40 degree weather? So what a glorious surprise when I returned from my outing, walking into the house--exhausted and practically frozen--to smell the most incredible aroma. JD had made minestrone, that wonderful, earthy italian vegetable soup that has been a mainstay in our cooking repertoire for the entire 32 years of married life. This is another of Marcella Hazan's recipes, one that is incredibly easy to prepare yet provides a complexity of flavor that can impress the most discerning palates, but provides comfort to all who taste.

As southerners often do, I prepared a "pone" of cornbread to round out the meal. Since JD and I are empty nesters now and without the appetites of ravenous adolescents, much of the "pone" of cornbread often goes uneaten.  I haven't quite figured out what to do with the leftovers. Sometimes, I'll have a slice the next morning for breakfast, and of course, you can save in the freezer for southern cornbread dressing.  We always say we're going to reheat for the next meal, but that never really seems to happen. So, as JD and I were pondering our leftover dilemma, I thought back to the ritual of my parents when faced with leftover cornbread--they had it as dessert! As a child, I thought their concoction was "gross" (that was the word back then), or at best bizzare.  Now, I realize it was a real effort to be frugal and mindful of God's bounty. They were exceptionally adept at finding a use for every last morsel of  food, leftover or not.  I haven't yet reached that point of mindfulness. I've been spoiled, I've never had to scrimp and scrape by. I waste too much food.  But, I'm trying to do better.  I'm making a real effort to buy only what I intend to cook. So, this time, I'm going to figure out a way to savor every last bite of that delicious cornbread!  I still can't do what my parents did--crumbled cornbread, smothered by buttermilk, served in a tall iced-tea glass, eaten with a long, skinny iced-tea spoon.*** (see below)  Does anyone still drink buttermik?  I only buy it to use in cornbread, or biscuits, or occasionally pancakes, but never to drink! It seems to save forever, so it never goes to waste. How can sour milk go bad? In all seriousness, I cook enough with buttermilk that I don't have to worry about expiration dates (unlike water chestnuts!).

As I've said before, JD and I have been married a long time, and I think we have talked about everything there is to talk about, but every now and then something comes up, some little tidbit of information, that is totally new, something we didn't know about our childhood, our parents, our siblings. As we were talking about the cornbread/buttermilk dessert concoction, JD exclaimed that his parents would have never stooped to the level of eating something so "country".  But, in the same breath, he shared that when his father was out of town, his mother (sorry Faye), would eat leftover cornbread with an onion, munching on that strong, white onion as if it were an apple.  Cornbread is just too delicious to be discarded, no matter what!

*** I guess I should have used the proper terminology when speaking about that venerable southern drink--it's "ice tea" (not 'iced') or, even more southern "sweettea" (one word).  As in "honey, come on in the house and have a glass of "ice tea" or "there's a pitcher of "sweettea" sittin on the kitchen table". Something must have gotten mixed up with my southern genes, because I can't stand "sweettea".

Minestrone, a vegetarian version based on Marcella Hazan's Minestrone Alla Romagnola from the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

Uniformly chop vegetables (1/4 to 1/2 inch chop)

1 lb zucchini
1/2 cup e.v.olive oil
3 tablespoon butter
1 cup onion (sliced thinly)
1 cup carrots
1 cup celery
2 cups potatoes (I use yukon gold)
1/2 pound  fresh green beans (chopped into 1" pieces)
3 cups shredded Savoy cabbage or regular cabbage

1/2 cup canned cannellini beans or 3/4 cup dried white kidney beans soaked and cooked (or two 15 oz cans)
6 cups vegetable broth
2/3 cups Italian plum tomatoes with juice
1/3 cup grated parmigiano cheese
salt
Optional: 1 crust from a 2lbs parmigiano reggiano cheese

Method

1. heat oil and butter
2. Add onion in pot and cook in medium heat until pale gold in color.

The vegetables are added in sequence, stirred and cooked under low heat for 2-3 mins.

3. Add carrots, stir and cook for 2-3 mins.
4. Add celery, potatoes, green beans, then zucchini (each stirred and cooked for 2-3 mins).
5. Add cabbage and cook for 5-6 mins
6. Add broth , cheese crust(if used), tomatoes & juice and salt. (can season with additional salt later)
7. Cover pot and once it starts to bubble,stir, cover and simmer slowly for 2.5 hrs. Check and stir frequently. Add cannelli beans or kidney beans, stir and simmer for 30 mins.
8. Dilute with homemade broth or water if too dense and season with salt to taste.
9. Remove the cheese crust before turning off heat. Swirl in grated cheese.

The above is for 6-8 servings. This soup tastes even better the
second day.  It freezes well.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Where's the romance?

After almost 32 years of marriage, JD and I have had our fair share of wonderful Valentine's Day romantic dinners.  Tonight, there were no candles, no fancy dinners that either of us had slaved for hours to prepare, no mood music--sound incredibly boring? There are always times of the year (mostly spontaneous evenings) where puttin' on the ritz just seems the right thing to do.  But, the emphasis here is on spontaneity.  I don't need Hallmark, or the Roman Goddess Juno, or anyone else tell me that I need to be romantic tonight. At this stage in our lives, we are probably at the strongest point of our marriage. We've had some turmoil over the past few years with family illness and our young adult children's sturm und drang. But, where many couples' marriages have fallen apart upon becoming empty nesters, JD and I have taken the opportunity to reconnect. We have things to talk about; we laugh, we cry, we get angry, we are joyous.  Passion is still there. We are comfortable, open, honest--no need for facades.  Mostly we just love each other.  As we sit here this evening watching the Olympic games on TV, we take comfort in just being together. I know it's a cliche and sung beautifully by Justin Timberlake and KD Lang recently, but tonight, I say (as Leonard Cohen says) "hallelujah". "Baby I have been here before, I know this room, I've walked this floor. I used to live alone before I knew you."

Today at lunch, I couldn't resist the temptation of oysters at the 5 Seasons Brewery . What could be better than oysters and beer? I have no business admitting this on a veggie blog, but it's my one area of backsliding as a vegetarian. There's just something about these exquisite, quivering, briny bivalve mollusks that reduces my brain to basically a single cell organism (as I pretend they are). Get some damn backbone, will ya? As a result of over-indulging at the midday meal, there was no need for a formal dinner tonight.  White bean and roasted tomato bruschetta paired with a fabulous Willamette Valley Pinot Noir was enough to put the romance into any meal!

Oven-dried tomatoes

I love these tomatoes.  Incredibly easy to prepare, they put the umph back into out-of-season tomatoes.  Such a much more subtle flavor than sun-dried tomatoes. Use in pasta, on bruschetta, or anywhere you would use sun-dried.  Delicious.These can be kept for a week in the fridge.

Preheat oven to 250 deg. (F)

Roma tomatoes (plum)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
minced garlic--go easy here, don't want to overwhelm (optional)
fresh herbs, such as thyme, oregano

Quarter tomatoes, toss lightly with olive oil, salt and pepper, garlic and herbs.  Place on baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roast for several hours (2-5 hours).  You want to concentrate the flavor, but not overcook.  Low oven temperature practically ensures a perfect product.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Beans, Greens, and Grains--The Olympic Version

After the past few unsucessful meals, I had the need to cook something comforting and known to me to be good for this evening. For a few days now, I planned to sit back, relax and enjoy the pagentry of the opening ceremonies of the Jeux Olympiques d'hiver in Vancouver and needed a simple unfussy meal that calls for being a couch potato.  No potatoes tonight, but  I did prepare the most delicious pot of beans I have ever cooked!  As JD and I were supping and exclaiming over this pot of beans, you would have thought that we had dined on ambrosia, the food of the gods, or, as in times past, a cassoulet made with duck confit. Only vegetarians could express this kind of emotion over the simplest, most humble of food. My DH even commented that this particular dish could almost be compared to the pommes frites cooked in graisse de canard he enthusiastically and ravenously consumed at a local restaurant just last week (cholesterol be damned!)

A few months back during a trip to San Francisco and the Napa Valley, I found a source for exceptional quality, gourmet, heirloom dried beans, Rancho Gordo (www. ranchogordo.com ).  As I try very hard to limit the amount of "faux meat" (boca, tempeh, seitan) in my diet, and not being a huge fan of tofu, I rely heavily on beans and legumes for a legitimate source of protein.  One tires quickly of canned black beans and cannellini (and I use these often), so when new tastes come my way, I jump at the chance to experiment.  I know it's probably blasphemy to spend this amount of money on dried beans (about $30 for 3-4 lbs), but I have thoroughly enjoyed the complex flavors of these old-variety beans --black beans, white beans, brown-and-white spotted beans, green beans (not haricots verts), and tonight vallarta. I've not used vallarta beans before, in fact before I bought them, I had never heard of them. Dried, they have sort of a light golden champagne color, but when cooked become a deep rich, brown sugar color.  The flavor is intense, dense yet with a lightness, nutty, smoky, and chocolatey all at the same time.

My recipe tonight was based on Marcella Hazan's Assunta's Beans, giving reference to an old Italian woman from her young adulthood who prepared beans in a cast-iron pot over an open flame. You have to pamper these beans, drizzling with olive oil, kept at just a bare simmer with the least amount of water to keep from sticking, adding water as the cooking progresses.  It's kind of like making an Italian risotto--only over several hours vs. 25 minutes. Marcella and Assunta used fresh beans (cranberry and cannellini, respectively), but since this is winter and the only beans to be had are dried, that's what I used.  The published recipe calls only for fesh beans, olive oil, garlic, water, salt and pepper.  I modified starting off with a mirepoix, adding the pre-soaked beans, water, a little garlic, olive oil, and a few fresh sage leaves. Per Marcella's instructions, I covered the pot with a damp kitchen towel before adding the pot top.  I don't know exactly what this accomplishes, but I would guess to hold in more moisture. It took a few hours to cook, stirring and adding a little water every half hour or so . . .so you need to set aside plenty of time and be willing to fiddle frequently.  I've made this recipe twice before, once with dried cannellinis and once with fresh cranberry beans, and they were quite good.  However, I think tonight's success was a direct result of the type of bean I used.  The Vallarta bean had the body and texture to hold up to hours of cooking without becoming the least bit mushy.  Along with these delicious, earthy beans, I served a red-and wild rice pilaf (beautiful colors), and sauteed swiss chard. 

The beans, greens, and grains, together, made for a perfectly balanced, complete vegetarian repast. All in all, this was an incredibly satisfying meal, perfectly suited to a lazy, stay-at-home, watch-the-olympics kind of evening. And, I have leftovers!

Assunta's Beans, from Marcella Cucina

A pound of cranberry beans (I used dried vallarta beans-presoaked overnight), 3 or 4 garlic cloves smashed, 2/3 cup water, 1/3 cup olive oil, 5 or 6 sage leaves, salt and pepper. Put it on the stove, cover very tightly (she recommends a wet dishcloth under the lid, folded back on top of the lid), and cook over the lowest flame your stove will make for an hour and a half (about 3 hours for dried beans). Check every 20-30 minutes to make sure the beans don't go dry.  Add small amounts of water as needed (2T or so) The beans absorb the flavor of the sage and garlic, and they are just unbelievably delicious.

Note:  I began with a mirepoix, 2T each chopped onion, celery, and carrot.  I sauteed in 1 T butter and 1 T olive oil for 3-4 minutes before I added the beans, garlic, water, remainder of the olive oil, and sage.

Wehani & Wild Rice Pilaf
Serves 4
Preheat Oven to 350 Degrees

This is a variation on a recipe that I’ve made hundreds of times over the years. It can be changed to a simple French rice pilaf with herbs, a Spanish rice pilaf, one with Indian flavors, etc. The rice and cooking liquid proportions stay the same, vary the ingredients according to the type of food you are cooking. Originally based on Julia Child’s risotto from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol I, I greatly reduced the steps to produce a very simple recipe, ready under 30 minutes. This recipe works every time. 

Note:  Wild rice or brown rice cooks longer than basmati, jasmine, or regular white rice.  Increase cooking time to 45-50 minutes.

Ingredients:

8 oz (or l package) Wehani & Wild Rice (Lundberg)
2-3 Tablespoons finely-chopped yellow onion
1 Tablespoon Butter
1Tablespoon Olive Oil
2 Cups Vegetable Broth (homemade preferably, otherwise use water)
A couple of sprigs of fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon dried
Salt to taste (1 tsp or a couple of grinds of sea salt)
Freshly ground pepper to taste


Rinse rice briefly under running water. Drain. Heat the vegetable broth until simmering in a saucepan. In a 2 quart casserole***, saut√© onions in the butter and olive oil until soft, but not browned, approximately 4-5 minutes. Add rice and saut√© for a minute or two to infuse flavors. Add the salt and pepper, thyme and the simmering vegetable broth. Give a couple of stirs with a spoon to incorporate ingredients. If the rice mixture doesn’t immediately come to a boil, bring to a low boil. Remove from heat. Cover and place casserole in a preheated 350 degree oven. Cook for 45-50 minutes. Remove from oven. If you are not using immediately, do not uncover and the pilaf will stay warm for half an hour or so.

*** I use Le Creuset enameled cast iron. This pot has to be able to withstand cooking on a stovetop, as well as in the oven.



Wednesday, February 10, 2010

No more Tempeh!

I don't know why I keep doing this, but I decided to cook tempeh again today.  If I ever, ever am tempted to tread this way again, perhaps I'll look back at this failed experience, documented in black and white and take a different path. Even the definition--a partially-cooked, fermented soy bean cake--should be a forewarning that this is one of those vegetarian foods that needs to remain in the grocery cooler, not in my fridge. Longing for a traditional Italian Bolognese ragu with pasta this evening, I thought I'll just make it with tempeh! 

Everyone knows you should never go to the market when hungry, but yet, I did and ended up with more food than I can possibly cook the next few days and with a package of tempeh.  I should have gone with my first inclincation and cook a winter squash ravioli recipe found on another veggie blog--Grapes and Greens.  So, I did everything just as Marcella Hazan does in her traditional meat Bolognese, substituting the ground meat with tempeh.  I spent quite a bit of time this afternoon with the preparations.  I can't even begin to taste this dish, much less eat a whole serving!  The tempeh looks at best like ground turkey, at worst like sweetbreads or even brains!  My stomach is turning even as I write this. JD says it tastes good, but then he eats offal. I don't know what I'll do with it;  JD says he'll eat it later, but then he is always reluctant to eat leftovers.  My trying-to-be-frugal heart hurts tonight as I realize this will be one to be discarded. What a waste!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Leave this for the professionals!

OK, over the past couple of weeks, I've started and stopped many posts, had good things to say to start but not able to really bring things to a good conclusion, or able to connect my thoughts to my meal plan for the evening.  So, I've left those posts to be edited and re-edited. I really don't know what got into me this evening, but I thought I would prepare Chile Rellenos--not the baked, vaguely Southwesternesque Rachel Ray version, but the honest-to-God, egg-white, then folded-in egg yolk batter version which seems to be de rigeur for any self-respecting "authentic" Mexican restaurant.  Last week, when I was in So. Cal for a conference, a friend originally from the SD area took me to one of his favorite Mexican restaurants in the area. Although they are known for the fish tacos, being a veggie, I opted for the chile rellenos.  Delicious.  Over the years, my forays into Mexican (mainly American-styled Tex-Mex) only yielded, greasy-gross batter laden chiles.  Not so here. Fidel's in Solana Beach gave me a taste of airy-light, melt-in-your mouth, queso fresca chiles that one is supposed to only find south of the border.  I should have been satisfied. Not so, Chile Rellenos have always intrigued me, so when the deep, dark green, glossy poblano chiles beckoned me from Whole Foods, I couldn't resist. I'm a good cook; I have good skills; I have a specifically-designed copper pot for deep frying.  I CAN do this! Charred the chiles--good.  Got the skin off, cleaned out the seeds and membranes without destroying the chiles--doubly good.  Whisked, by hand the egg white batter--proud of myself. Prepared the filling (spinach and queso fresca)--yummy! But here's where it ends.  The whole is not greater than the sum of its parts!  I think I used every pot and pan in the kitchen. Overstuffed, and held together--barely--by toothpicks, the chiles were fragile at best. I think while transferring (delicately said, more like tossing) into the hot oil, batter ended up on every vertical and horizontal space.  I don't think my kitchen will ever be the same.  I'll still be cleaning tomorrow. JD said I should definitely take a picture.  NO WAY! I think after this disaster I could potentially qualify for the show "The Worst Cooks in America".  Don't get me wrong, it tasted OK, but it was not worth the time, not worth the mess, and definitely not worth the calories.  Leave this to the professionals.  The only saving grace about this meal was the tomatilla-avocado salsa--a definite keeper.  Perhaps a re-do for Super Bowl Sunday!

Tomatilla-Avocado Salsa (Salsa Verde)
4-5 medium tomatillas, dehusked, tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, roasted for approx 5 minutes (broiler)
juice of one lime
2 T chopped white onion
2 ripe avocados
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon coriander
salt and pepper to taste
cayenne pepper or cholula to taste

Combine in food processor, pulse until coarsely blended.  This is more like a tomatilla guacamole, so don't over-process.