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Recipe Megapost: FRACAS 2012

6 Dec

Each winter I go completely overboard and cook a bizarre amount of food in the span of 2-3 days for the Folger Recycled Arts and Crafts Annual Show (FRACAS). The Green Committee holds the event each December and displays creative art pieces made from recycled objects by Folger employees, family, and friends.

After I’m home from the first ingredient run, I have a brief “you are out of your mind” moment, get that five minute panic out of the way, and then move forward. Once prep lists are made and I’ve worked out what needs to be done when / how things should be stored, it’s go time.

I may not be a trained chef, but I’ve been cooking for groups since I was old enough to reach the counter. One of the benefits of being the location of choice for most family holidays was / is getting to spend days in the kitchen working on party food with my family. We put on music, everyone picks a task, and sometimes a bottle of wine even starts floating around. Sometimes grandmothers or aunts even appear, ready to help. We’ve been a pizzelle factory, ravioli assembly line, cookie shapers, manicotti fillers and just about everything in between.

It’s different to do it alone. Fortunately, I never feel alone, because when I’m in the kitchen my family is with me whether they’re physically there or not. There may be several less pairs of hands, but all of their experience sticks right with me. So when this once-a-year madness comes around I go at it with everything I’ve got.

This year, the FRACAS tasting plates were primarily influenced by dishes from France and the Mediterranean. I was inspired by the spirit of our Green Committee to think about being a responsible steward of the earth and used each ingredient in as many ways as possible. I also considered the sustainability and seasonality of what was planned and consulted with friends from the local Arlington County Farmer’s Market in order to prepare a thoughtful, respectful group of dishes. My most sincere thanks go to those purveyors for making available the many local herbs, meats, vegetables, and preserved foods (i.e. dried cherries and strawberry jam). Special thanks to the fine folks at Smith Meadows, Cibola Farms, Toigo Orchards, and Twin Springs.

We begin with the plate of tapenades, spreads, and rillettes…

Smoked Salmon Rillettes
adapted from David Lebovitz

  • 8 oz. wild salmon filet, bones removed.
  • 5 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • Juice of half of one lemon
  • 2 tbsp. fresh chives, chopped.
  • 4 oz. of smoked salmon, cut into thin strips and then diced.
  • ¼ tsp. smoked paprika

Season the fresh salmon lightly with salt and steam for 8 minutes or until cooked through. Set aside to cool. In a medium-sized bowl, mash together the olive oil and butter until very smooth and then stir in the lemon juice, chives, and smoked salmon.

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Remove the skin and flake the cooked, fresh salmon over the top of the mixture then fold it in gently until well combined. Season with chili powder and salt if needed. My smoked salmon was quite salty and so I did not add any extra salt.

Cover and chill for at least two hours. Allow the rillettes to come to room temperature before serving them. They will stay fresh covered in the refrigerator for up to three days or tightly wrapped in the freezer for up to two months.
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Pork Rillettes
adapted from Michael Ruhlman

  • 3 lbs. fatty pork shoulder
  • 8 oz. rendered pork fat (lard)
  • 1 leek, thoroughly washed and split lengthwise, leaving one inch intact at the root end.
  • 1 celery stalk
  • 1 small bunch fresh thyme
  • 3 fresh bay leaves
  • 1 yellow onion
  • 5 cloves
  • 2 qt. water or veal stock

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.

Dice the pork into 1 in. cubes and place in a pot. Cover with water by 2 in., bring to a boil, and drain the pork. Return the pork to the clean pot.

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Stuff the thyme and bay leaves into the split leek. Take the celery stalk and put it alongside the leek, then tie everything together with a piece of cotton twine. This is called a bouquet garni.

Stud the onion with the cloves.

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Add 2 qts. of water or stock to the pot with the pork in it, add the bouquet garni and clove studded onion, then bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover the pot and place it in the oven. Cook until the pork is very tender and falls apart when poked with a fork.

Remove the pork from the cooking pot and transfer it to a plate to cool. Strain the cooking liquid into a bowl and set aside.

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Once the pork has cooled to slightly above room temperature, put it in a mixing bowl and mix on low speed, adding reserved cooking liquid as needed until it is a smooth, spreadable consistency. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.

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Put the spread into individual containers and refrigerate until chilled.

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Melt the lard over low heat and then pour a 1/8 in. layer of it on top of each container of rillettes. This seals the containers and keeps the rillettes fresh. Put the rillettes back into the refrigerator and chill until the layer of fat has solidified. Remove from the refrigerator two hours before serving.

Covered, they will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week and in the freezer for up to a month.

Mediterranean Olive and Vegetable Rillettes
adapted from Michael Ruhlman

  • 1 zucchini, cut into ½ in. discs.
  • 1 yellow squash, cut into ½ in. discs.
  • 4 oz. mushrooms, quartered.
  • 2 medium sized tomatoes, quartered and seeded.
  • 1 yellow bell pepper
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 cup kalamata olives, pits removed.
  • 1 onion, diced.
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced.
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ cup basil, chiffonade cut.
  • Salt and black pepper

Broil or grill the red and yellow peppers until the skin is black all over. Put them in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and allow them to cool.

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Once cool enough to handle, remove the skin, core, and seeds and then ½ in. dice.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Toss the zucchini, yellow squash, mushrooms, and tomatoes with ¼ cup olive oil, spread on a baking sheet and roast for 20 minutes.

Saute the onion and garlic in 2tbsp. of the olive oil until soft, but not browned and then set aside to cool slightly.

Process the olives, garlic, and onions into a puree. Fold in the balsamic vinegar, roasted vegetables, peppers, and basil.

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Season to taste. Cover and refrigerate for up to a week.

Fig and Olive Tapenade
adapted from David Lebovitz

  • 1/2 cup dried black mission figs
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup nicoise or kalamata olives, rinsed and pitted.
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 2 tsp. stone ground mustard
  • 1 small garlic clove, peeled and smashed.
  • 1/2 tablespoon capers, rinsed and patted dry.
  • 1 tsp. finely diced rosemary
  • 1/2 cup olive oil

Salt and black pepper

In a medium-sized pot, simmer the figs in the water until they are soft and the cooking liquid becomes syrupy. Remove the figs from the water with a slotted spoon and reserve the excess cooking liquid.

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In a food processor, pulse together the olives, mustard, lemon juice, garlic, figs, capers, rosemary until a chunky paste forms. Add the olive oil until the mixture is spreadable.

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The reserved liquid from the figs can be used to thin the spread if needed. Season to taste. Refrigerate for at least one day prior to serving. Covered, it will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Roasted Garlic with Marinated Dried Tomatoes

  • 1 cup dried tomatoes
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 2 heads garlic
  • 2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • Salt and black pepper

Combine the tomatoes and olive oil and set aside for at least 30 minutes or until the tomatoes have softened slightly. If you have trouble getting the tomatoes to soften, you can put the mixture over very low heat for 5 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Split the heads of garlic in half horizontally and drizzle olive oil on each half. Put the garlic back together and bundle tightly in aluminum foil. Roast the garlic for 40-45 minutes or until soft and lightly caramelized. Set aside to cool.

Squeeze the softened garlic out of the peel and mash in a bowl. Drain and roughly chop the tomatoes, then mix them into the garlic with the lemon juice and thyme. If you like a chunky texture, stop and season here. If you prefer more of a spreadable consistency, you can puree this in a food processor. Season to taste. Cover and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

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…The second plate was full of cured pork tenderloin and parma ham accompanied by a few young cheeses and special condiments to brighten everything up. Everything here mixes and matches pretty well, but my favorite was a toast topped with the cured tenderloin and mustard fruit. Salty, sweet, and a little tangy, yum!

Sage and Thyme Cured Pork Tenderloin

  • 4 lb. pork tenderloin, trimmed of fat and sinew.
  • ½ gallon water
  • 1 cup salt
  • 5 tbsp. DQ Cure #1, also known as pink salt or Instacure
  • 1 cup sugar (you can use a mixture of brown and white)
  • 1 bunch fresh thyme
  • 1 bunch fresh sage

Combine the water, herbs, salt, curing salt and sugar in a pot and bring to a boil. Set aside and chill until cold in a container large enough to hold the tenderloin.

Add the pork to the container of brine and place a plate on top of it to keep it submerged. Allow this to sit in the refrigerator for 48 hours.

Remove the pork from the brine, rinse and pat dry. Set it on a wire rack over a baking sheet and refrigerate uncovered for 12 hours.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Roast the pork until it reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees, rest, and then wrap and chill. Slice thin on the bias to serve.

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Ancho Chile Spiced Ricotta

Follow the recipe found here for making homemade ricotta. Once the curds have drained, add 1 tsp. ancho chile powder and mix thoroughly. Store covered in the refrigerator for up to a week.

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Queso Blanco with Roasted Piquillo Peppers

Follow the recipe found here for making homemade queso blanco. Prior to pressing the cheese, fold in 1/3 cup diced roasted piquillo peppers. Store well wrapped in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

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Mustard Fruit
adapted from Michael Symon

  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/3 cup stone ground mustard
  • 1/2 tsp. yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 pear, peeled, cored, and chopped into ½ in. cubes
  • 1 dried sour cherries

Place the dried cherries and chopped pears in a clean, quart-sized mason jar and set aside. Cover and shake to mix.

Combine the wine, sugar, vinegar and salt in a medium-sized saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir in the mustard until thoroughly blended and then mix in the mustard seeds.

Gently pour the hot liquid over the fruit in the jar, cover, and shake gently to distribute the liquid. It should generously cover the fruit. Store in the refrigerator for at least two days and up to one month. The longer it is stored, the more pronounced the flavors will become. The dried cherries will also plump up a little bit and they are delicious.

Giardiniera
adapted from Michael Symon

  • 1 pound celery, peeled and sliced thin.
  • 2 jalapeño peppers, cut into thin rings.
  • 2-3 cherry peppers, diced.
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced.
  • 1 red onion, quartered and sliced thin.
  • 1 tsp. ancho chile powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. toasted, ground coriander
  • 1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped.
  • ½ cup red wine vinegar
  • ½ cup olive oil

Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix thoroughly. Pack into a 1 quart mason jar. Store in the refrigerator for up to a month, shaking gently every so often to redistribute the liquid.

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Strawberry Jam Tart with Walnut Crust

Follow the recipe found here for making a strawberry jam tart, but replace the cornmeal with ½ cup finely ground walnuts.

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Chocolate Hazelnut Tart
adapted from the Noble Pig

Tart shell:

  • 12 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • Zest of one large orange

Filling:

  • 2 tbsp. cornstarch
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup Nutella or other chocolate-hazelnut spread
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • Chopped hazelnuts to garnish

Preheat the oven to 325o F.

Melt the 12 tbsp. of butter in a medium-sized pot over medium-high heat and brown just a touch. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the sugar, vanilla, salt, and orange zest until the sugar is mostly dissolved.

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Put the flour in a large bowl and add the butter mixture. Mix until a soft dough forms.

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To form the crust, roll the dough into a ball and then press it into an ungreased 10 in. tart pan with a removable bottom using the heel of your hand. Push the crust approximately ½ in. up the sides of the pan.

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Freeze the crust for 15 minutes and then bake it for 25 minutes or until the edges are just becoming golden. Set aside on a wire rack to cool slightly. Unlike many tart recipes, the crust does not have to be completely cool before the filling is added. It can be warm, but you should be able to touch the sides of the pan.

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Whisk the cornstarch with ¼ cup of the heavy cream. Make sure the cream is cold when you do this.

Combine the remaining 1 ¾ cups cream, chocolate-hazelnut spread, vanilla, and salt in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the cornstarch mixture and mix thoroughly.

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Whisking constantly, bring the filling to a boil and boil for one minute or until it thickens considerably.

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Pour the filling into the tart shell.

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Top with chopped hazelnuts and refrigerate until set for at least two hours before serving. Chilling it overnight is ideal for the very easiest cutting serving. Covered, the tart will keep for 2-3 days in the refrigerator.

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Here’s the whole spread waiting to be enjoyed in our photography department. As you can see, I was not the only one contributing delicious goodies. We have a very talented staff, what can I say?

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And that doesn’t even include all of the truly special artwork that was created for the event. Tote bags, planters, wreaths, mobiles, frames, dioramas, models, origami…you name it, my colleagues thought of a creative way to make it. A personal favorite was a giant paper crane made out of a proposed engineering plan. He was pretty cool looking. For my own FRACAS piece I wanted to find a way to save all of the beautiful greeting cards Joe and I received at our wedding, so I made this wreath out of those, fabric scraps left over from making a skirt, a bow from the groomer which Dioji no longer cared to wear, and a broken embroidery ring:

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Well, I hope that this post will sustain you through December, since I’m fairly sure that I’ll go MIA during Christmas baking season. (Dare I try to break the record of 114 dozen treats?) All I’ll say is that a certain grandma gave me a pizzelle iron at my bridal shower and that it’s been calling to me from the cupboard ever since I deemed it acceptable to begin thinking about Christmas.

Warmest holiday wishes to all of you. Remember that what you always have is what you carry in your heart and head, so make it something fun!

Ciao for now,
Neen

Gouda Memories

3 Aug

I’ve written before about the way that certain foods bring back palpable memories. Fresh pasta makes me think of warm nights and long meals with my mom and dad when we visited Italy seven years ago. Wedding soup reminds me of my paternal grandmother’s kitchen, and stracciatella reminds me of my maternal grandmother’s kitchen. I can’t make stew without being transported to our old house in Forest Hills, feeling so warm and comforted by my dad’s version after swim team practice in mid-winter. Sirloin tips with thyme and mozzarella bring me back to Davenport (my college dormitory), and the first meal I ever cooked for Joe. And funnel cake, a food which most people associate with fairs, surrounds me with memories of my best friends from Northeastern, and one infamous powdered sugar fight.

Gouda has somehow woven its way into several nostalgic spots in my brain. When Joe and I went to the Netherlands five years ago, I had the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. Fresh, bias-sliced baguette bread paired with a young, sweet gouda. Crisp and toasty on the outside with a warm, creamy inside. I paid no more than two euro for the delight, and ate it while we watched boats float effortlessly down the narrow canals.

And then, Hamlet. When I lived in Cambridge, my friends and I went to see a performance of Hamlet in the garden of one of the colleges. It was the night of the Storm Bird sauvignon-riesling (an oddly cheap, but delicious wine), strawberries, a seriously good-looking Danish prince, and a rich gouda that tip-toed the line between sweet & soft and sharp & crumbly. It was just firm enough to cut slices without breaking apart.

Last, but definitely and wholeheartedly not least was the gouda we tried just recently at the Green Goddess in New Orleans, LA. It was the day Joe and I announced our engagement to my family, and the cheese was eaten it in the midst of what I can only describe as pure, giddy joy. Green Goddess’ menu illustrates the flavor and texture of it more aptly than I ever could:

“Known as the Beemster, this walks a fine balance between creamy & salty with those crunchy crystals that aged cheeses can acquire. Rich, mellow toffee notes make the Beemster perfect with many after dinner liqueurs.”

When my dad recently procured a gallon of farm-fresh raw milk for me on my most recent trip to Pittsburgh, it seemed only appropriate to try and make a cheese to remember: My very own gouda.

We begin…

Ingredients

  • Two gallons of raw, whole milk*
  • One package of direct-set mesophilic starter
  • ¼ tsp. liquid rennet dissolved in ¼ cup cold, filtered water
  • Cheesecloth

Brine solution

  • 1 gallon cold, filtered water
  • 2 lbs. salt

*Can’t get raw milk? You can use pasteurized, but add ¼ tsp. of calcium chloride to improve the curd’s firmness

Pour the milk into a large pot and set it in a water bath warm enough to heat it to 90 degrees F. Once you have achieved this temperature, add the mesophilic starter and mix thoroughly. Cover the pot and allow the milk to ripen for 10 minutes, adding warm water to the bath as needed to maintain a temperature of 90 degrees.

Add the rennet and stir in a slow up-and-down movement for 1 minute. If you have used raw milk, stir for an additional minute. Cover the pot and allow the curd to set, maintaining 90 degrees F., for one hour or until the curd breaks cleanly when cut.

Heat a small pot of water to 175 degrees F.

Cut the curd into a checkerboard pattern and then crosswise into cubes, and let them sit for 10 minutes.

Ladle or pour off 1/3rd of the whey and, stirring consistently, add just enough of the hot water to bring the temperature up to 92 degrees F. Cover the pot and maintain this temperature for 10 minutes while the curd sets.

Ladle or pour off enough of the whey to bring it down to the level of the curd, and then again add hot water as needed to bring the temperature up to 100 degrees. Keep the curd at this temperature and stir on and off for 15 minutes.

Pour off the remaining whey and gently pack the curd into a cheesecloth lined mold, breaking it as little as possible. You can see how I prepare my cheese press in the demo for Farmhouse Cheddar Cheese.

Press the cheese at 20 lbs. of pressure for 20 minutes.

Remove the cheese from the cheesecloth, flip it over, re-dress, and press at 40 lbs. of pressure for 20 minutes. (No, my press is not lopsided…I just took this picture at a terrible angle. Photography fail.)

Remove the cheese from the cheesecloth, flip it over, re-dress, and press at 50 lbs. of pressure for 12-18 hours.

After 18 hours, my cheese looked like this:

Prepare the brine solution by mixing together the cold water and salt in a nonreactive container. Put the wheel of cheese into the solution and brine for 6 hours.

Remove from the brine, gently dry the cheese with a towel and move to the refrigerator.

Air dry in the refrigerator for 3 weeks, turning every 2-3 days to ensure even drying. You may then wax it or allow it to develop a natural rind. If you notice any mold forming on the surface, simply wipe it off with a cloth dampened with white vinegar.

Age the cheese in a 56-64 degree environment with 80-85% humidity for 3-4 months. The cheese will get darker and firmer with age. Honestly, I’m not really sure how long I’ll let this one go. I guess we’ll see what it looks like a little further down the road. I’ll be sure to keep you in the loop.

Who knows? Maybe this one will be a Christmas memory.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Boerewors: A Sausage-Making Adventure

10 Oct

I always like a culinary challenge, and this one was especially intriguing given that I really had no idea how the final product was supposed to taste. My boss was looking for a butcher in the area that would make a particular type of South African sausage when I piped up that I had a meat grinder. “What’s in it?”

He showed me a recipe and I consulted a few other resources online to get a sense of the cuts of meat used, seasoning blends, and meat to fat ratio. Once I felt like I had a better sense of the flavors, I settled on the ingredients for a batch.

Boerewors

 

Ingredients

3.5 lbs. beef chuck
1 lb. lamb shoulder
1 lb. pork shoulder
5 oz. pork fatback (salted)
3.5 oz. sheep casings
5 tbsp. malt vinegar
3 tbsp. coriander seeds, toasted and then ground.
1 tbsp. salt
1 tbsp. ground pepper
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. fresh ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. allspice

Method

First thing’s first: Soak your sausage casings. Sheep casings frequently come in tubs packed with salt and can be preserved that way in your fridge for almost a year with no negative consequence. Soak in water that starts at 110 degrees F. while you prepare your meat and spice blends (or at least 30 minutes).

The fatback will also require a pre-soak, but in a medium-sized saucepan with boiling water for about 5-7 minutes. This will remove some of the excess salt. After boiling, pull the fatback out of the water and refrigerate for a little bit to firm it up.

Dice the lamb, pork, beef, and fatback into small cubes.

In a small bowl, combine the coriander, salt, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice. Set aside.

Next, grind the meat using a coarse plate.

Now it’s time to add the spices and vinegar. Take care not to smash the meat together too much when mixing everything together.

Make yourself a small patty and fry it quickly to test the seasoning. Mine needed a few extras pinches of salt and another few grinds of pepper. Otherwise, it was delicious!

To stuff the sausage, I used the 5/8 in. tube attachment for my mixer’s grinder. Before getting the casing onto the tube, find the opening in the casing and run cool water down the length of it to remove any kinks that weren’t straightened out during the soaking process. Grease the tube with a little bit of vegetable shortening and then gently shimmy on the casing. Tie a knot at the end of the casing and you’re ready to stuff!

At this point, have a pin handy so that you can prick the casing if any major air pockets form.

With the mixer on a low speed, feed the seasoned meat into the hopper and through the tube. The casing should slide easily as the meat is fed into it. Do not overfill or you run the risk of tearing the casing or having it burst during cooking.

When you reach the end of the casing, leave 2 inches or so empty so that you can tie a knot to seal it off. Roll the sausage into spirals and prick with a pin all over to remove excess air.

Hypnotizing meat spiral…mmm.

So there you have it; my first foray into making boerewors. I’m really pleased with the final product and hope that the boss-man enjoys grilling it up as much as I enjoyed making it.

Ciao for now,
Neen

Cooking from the Heart…

9 Sep

I strive to be a really positive influence on others, but we all experience times of doubt and insecurity. Sometimes, I don’t think I am as honest with my readers as I could be about the struggle that is a part of healthy eating and living. The truth is that for as often as I am happy about the progress I have made, there are days where I beat myself up. It could be that I finally broke down at the deli and bought a candy bar after months of clean eating, or simply that I woke up that morning I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. There’s a part of me during those moments that knows it’s time for a reality check, but sometimes that voice can get stifled.

Food and I have a tenuous relationship. As humans, we need sustenance to live. At a young age we come to acknowledge those who provide us with that sustenance as our caregivers. From very early on, we learn that to feed another person is to love them. When I met Joe and discovered that I liked him, one of the very first things I did for him was to make sauteed balsamic-thyme sirloin tips with mozzarella cheese. And it was not a dish I made to be particularly impressive, but because I had those ingredients in the fridge. It won him over, and the feeling of providing that kind of comfort to another person won me over. True, I’d spent the latter half of my freshman year of college cooking weekly meals with a friend for our group of friends, but that was the first time it was me alone just whipping something up on the fly for someone else. In any case, I kept cooking. I read culinary textbooks, southern cookbooks, cookbooks for every ethnic food imaginable…anything to stimulate my imagination to create new things. But at the same time, I found it difficult to avoid overeating when I was always trying out new recipes. I walk the line. I am constantly trying to balance between being passionate about the creation and sharing of food while avoiding gluttony and irresponsibly grown/created food products. It becomes overwhelming, it becomes burdensome, and worst of all…cooking becomes guilt-ridden.

And then I know it’s time to step back, take a breath, and just go home again. Time to take a day and remember why the act of sharing a meal is an act of love. Remove everything else from the equation and just create out of the desire to love another person.

And on Sunday, I did just that. Taking flour from Morris farms, eggs from Polyface farms, cheese from Blue Ridge Dairy Co., tomatoes, garlic, and basil from Bull Run Mountain Farm, and cayenne peppers from my own backyard, I brought together those who provide me with products I know are grown and raised with love and a sense of pride.

First, I made these:
I made the pasta dough from a combination of whole wheat and whole grain durum (semolina) flours, two eggs, a few tablespoons of olive oil, and a few tablespoons of water. It made a fine, elastic dough that was surprisingly light. I think that one of the keys to whole wheat pasta is to make sure that the dough gets a proper rest before it’s rolled out. The filling is comprised of part-skim ricotta, parmesan, and pecorino romano cheeses. I bound it with an egg and added a few herbs and spices to bring out the flavors of the individual cheeses.


What good are ravioli without a nice sauce? Since Leigh said that it was likely the last week for big, ripe tomatoes (damn blight) I took the bunch of gorgeous orange and yellow ones he gave me and sauteed them in a few teaspoons of bacon fat with garlic, some bell pepper, thyme, basil, and spices. I finished it with a diced cayenne pepper. I’m not really a huge spicy food fan, so I removed the seeds first. After tasting the sauce, I instantly mourned that it would be gone so quickly. Even Joe, who normally asks me to go light on the marinara sauce when I serve him pasta, asked for more of it on his plate.

And what better to serve a lovingly prepared meal on than a dish designed with the earth in mind?[FYI, that’s a seven-inch triangle plate in grass green from Riverside Design Group’s Sea Glass collection. How awesome is that color? If I didn’t already have an “Empire Red” theme going on with my kitchen appliances, I think I’d go with that green. It’s refreshing!]

After it was all said and done, I felt accomplished. Even satisfied.

But it wasn’t until Joe brought me his empty plate in search of a few more ravioli that I felt “the happiness.” There was that same look that made me feel all warm and fuzzy five years ago, and I thought “Yes. I may not always do right. I may not always make the best choices. But if I can always give this kind of comfort and love to the people around me, then I think I’ll be okay.”

-Neen

Hot Dates (with chocolate, football and mystery food)!

25 Aug

Wow–I have way too many things to update, so long post ahoy:

Numero uno, friends, is Mystery Food Week 11. It was a delicious mix of sweet corn, tomatoes (Mr. Stripey!!!), Thai basil, Italian basil, eggplant, purple potatoes, garlic, hot peppers, nectarines, peaches, and apples. So much food! And I only buy a half-share.Of course the first thing I did when I got home from picking this up was to make a big batch of tomato sauce for pasta. I love a long-cooked tomato sauce, but there’s something so sweet, simple, and wonderful about a quick summer sauce. The squash, potatoes and peppers ended up in a pot roast I made from a chuck blade roast from Polyface farms. I seasoned and seared the meat, caramelized some onions, and then threw everything into the crockpot with a splash of red wine to cook all day. When I came home, Dioji was very anxious to discover where the delicious smell that he couldn’t find was coming from (he’s not allowed in the kitchen while we’re not home–safety first!) and then whined at me when he realized it wasn’t for him. Oh sheltie.

Numero dos is that our fantasy draft for the “I Cannot Wait For Football” league was this past weekend. It went pretty well for me, although I made one really bad decision because of outdated information. Here’s the lineup for team Plaxico’s Cellmate:

QBs: Drew Brees, Jay Cutler, Chad Pennington

RBs: Clinton Portis, Steve Slaton, Joseph Addai

WRs: Chad Ochocinco, T.J. Houshmanzadeh, Steve Breaston, Michael Crabtree

TEs: Dallas Clark, Owen Daniels

K: Ryan Longwell

DEF: Pittsburgh, Philadelphia

A pretty solid draft if I don’t say so myself. The Michael Crabtree thing was a lapse in judgment, I swear. We have another one this weekend, but I’ll be autodrafting because it is the same day as my brother’s wedding. I’m not sure he’d be too pleased with me if I disappeared from the reception to draft a fantasy team.

And Numero Tres is that I’ve been craving filled pastry/cookies. I used to really like fig newtons heated up in the toaster oven when I was a kid. A week or so ago, I was in the market and saw some nice, soft Medjool dates. I remembered from when I was first diagnosed with anemia that dates were a good source of iron, but I’ve never cooked with them before last week. Recalling that the texture of my favorite kashi bar (the dark chocolate/coconut one) is made by creating a date paste, I decided to try a similar route. After several tries using the food processor to create said paste, I got frustrated because it never seemed to get sticky enough to hold everything together. The raw date bar recipes I searched all suggested that the approach would work, but it wasn’t the consistency I wanted. Finally, I found a good old southern recipe for date squares and modified it using a base recipe similar to my Banapple-Nut Bars.

I’m not saying I’m a genius, but this is kind of amazing…

Chocolate-Date Cookie Bars

Ingredients

For the cookie base:
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup mixed nuts, ground to a coarse meal by pulsing in a food processor. (I used a mix of macadamia, cashew, almond, and brazil nuts.)
1/4 cup 10-grain hot cereal or other high-protein hot cereal, dry.
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. baking soda
Pinch salt
2 tbsp. raw honey (I really like buckwheat honey in this, but anything will work.)
1 medium egg
2 tbsp. natural peanut butter
For the filling:
1/2 cup Medjool dates, pitted and chopped
1/2 cup water
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. almond extract
1 heaping tbsp. dutch process cocoa powder
10 grams 70% dark chocolate, chopped.
For the topping:
1 tbsp. shredded, unsweetened coconut
1/2 oz. mixed nuts, roughly chopped. (If you would like the recipe to be lower-fat, you can skip this and use some lightly toasted seeds, rolled oats, or cereal.)

Method

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F.

In a small saucepan, combine the dates, extracts, and water over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally until thickened. Use a potato masher or immersion blender to create a more even consistency. Stir in the cocoa and dark chocolate and set the mixture aside to cool.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the oats, ground nuts, cereal, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. Slowly drizzle in the honey while pulsing occasionally to disperse evenly.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and peanut butter, then add them to the food processor while pulsing occasionally until a sticky dough is formed.

Grease a 9×5 loaf pan and press the cookie dough into the bottom to create an even crust. Next, layer on the chocolate-date paste, and then top with the chopped nuts and shredded unsweetened coconut.

Bake for 20 minutes and cool completely before cutting into bars.

So good. Not a drop of refined sugar or flour and yet somehow full of sweet, chocolatey, nutty goodness.

Nutrition facts: Yields ten servings. Each cookie bar is approximately 138 calories, 7 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of protein, and 16 grams of carbohydrates. They are also a good source of vitamin A, vitamin B-6, folate, and iron.

I think that this recipe could be easily modified into a good energy bar recipe by adding another egg white, replacing some of the oats with some wheat bran, and maybe adding some greek yogurt into the filling or base. If you were so inclined, you could replace the 10 grain cereal with a scoop of vanilla or unflavored protein powder. I’m really trying to keep things more natural these days.

Oh, and if you want to blow your mind…mix a spoonful of the chocolate-date paste and some berries into 5 or 6 oz. of nonfat greek yogurt for a creamy treat. That’s a post-run snack I can totally get behind.

Well, I’m off to Pittsburgh tomorrow for my brother’s wedding, so I’ll be M.I.A for a little while. In advance, have a great weekend and good luck to all my fellow fantasy team owners who have upcoming drafts.

Stay local, folks!

-Neen

Attacked! (and Mystery Food Week 8!)

4 Aug

Every once in awhile, I think that our bodies decide to do something in order to remind us that they are in fact, in charge. Once the defeat of the great Perl Dragon was completed, I thought that the knot in my stomach would unwind peacefully, but alas it was not to be.

Starting out last Thursday with coffee on an empty stomach was probably mistake number one. I’m guessing that mistakes 2 through 4 were salad with at least a cup of raw, cruciferous vegetables, another cup of coffee, and a peach with the skin still on. I tried (in vain) to make it to the Capitol South Metro after work in search of yogurt at the Penn Quarter farmer’s market, hoping that would calm what I thought was just bad indigestion. (Again, I was mistaken). By the time I got to the corner in front of the Library of Congress, the $20 in my wallet was destined not for delicious yogurt, but rather for a cab to Joe’s office, where I’d parked the car that morning. We weren’t even out of the city before I admitted to Joe that yes, I thought I needed to go to the hospital.

I don’t feel like my readers need the graphic details of what a gallbladder attack feels like, suffice to say that it is the worst pain I can recall since dislocating my elbow (and I’ve had surgery twice since then). Anyway, I spent Thursday night and most of the day Friday stuck in Alexandria Hospital not allowed to eat, drink, or leave. A CT scan showed an inflamed, gunky gallbladder that was clearly not pleased. Oh well, a little anti-nausea medication and some antibiotics and I was back in action. The gallbladder gets to stay as long as it behaves, but at the remote sign of crankiness, out with it!

The weekend wasn’t all bad though. My parents had planned to come visit us this weekend, so it was nice to have them around when I wasn’t feeling great. We still had a lot of fun, actually! Friday night after I was released from the hospital we went and got a bite to eat at Legal Seafood and then picked up Dioji (who was at Roger and Lynn’s house because Joe was at the hospital taking care of me.) Saturday, I got to take them to the Arlington Farmer’s Market. I was so excited because I knew they would love all of the vendors there. Sure enough, they left with granola, heirloom tomatoes and these little baby peppers that looked irresistibly sweet and colorful. I got my usual haul minus meat because I placed an order with Polyface Farms to try out their products. Pick-up is this Saturday and I am really looking forward to it.

Our other venture on Saturday was to Agraria Restaurant in Georgetown. I originally saw them listed on Slow Food DC’s website as an area eatery that supported sustainable agriculture. Joe mentioned to me that his office frequently takes members there for a meal and after our experience, I can certainly see why. I think that fate was being kind to me because we missed our Friday reservation at Nora’s and I managed to get a table for Joe, myself, and our parents. The harbor was packed and lively, and we had an excellent meal. The dishes weren’t overcomplicated or pretentious, which I really liked. I had the pan-roasted chicken with lemon, thyme, and rosemary. It was accompanied by this really fresh corn, bean, and pepper salad and some whipped potatoes. The portion was just perfect, too. Joe tried one of their pizzas. Wow. The combination of fresh dough, heirloom tomato sauce and fresh made, hand-stretched mozzarella fired in an 800 degree oven created what may be the best pizza I’ve ever tasted. Joe says it was better than Otto, but I dunno…that might require a blind taste test for me to say for sure!
After dinner, we watched boats in the harbor and chatted for awhile. It was so relaxing and refreshing to see everyone having a good time. There are few things better than good company AND good food together. Pictures are good though!


Sunday, we had coffee, a leisurely stroll around Shirlington (with the requisite stop at Cakelove…mmm), and then lunch at Luna Grille before my parents packed up their cooler full of goodies and headed back to Pittsburgh. It was a very relaxing weekend, which was honestly just what I needed after the gallbladder excitement.

Ah yes, and even though I’m banned from eating them raw, I’ve still been enjoying my CSA treats from Wednesday.

Yay! A tomato! And potatoes, green peppers, corn, broccoli, ground cherries, peaches, and apples. All in all, a very good week. There were several fine frittatas to be had. I got some really big blackberries at the Arlington market and I think I’m going to bake them with the peaches for dessert later tonight. I basically make a crust-less pie and then toss toasted honey-cinnamon granola on top of it for a little bit of texture. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good pie crust, but anything requiring a lot of butter just doesn’t seem like the brightest idea right now.

Oh well, at least being laid up gave me some time to get into the meat of Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run. Here’s a quick blurb about it from the Washington Post. I’ll post my own review and thoughts once I’ve digested it a bit more. So far though, it is really engaging.

McDougall’s subject is the Tarahumara, a tribe living frugally in the remote, foreboding Copper Canyons in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The Tarahumara are legendary for their ability to run extreme distances in inhospitable conditions without breaking a sweat or getting injured. They are superathletes whose diet (pinole, chia seeds, grain alcohol) and racing method (upright posture, flicking heels, clear-headedness) would place them among elite runners of the developed world even though their society and technology are 500 years behind it. It’s a fascinating subject, and the pages of “Born to Run” are packed with examples of McDougall’s fascination….The book flows not like a race but like a scramble through an obstacle course. McDougall wends his way through the history and physiology of running, occasionally digressing into mini-profiles of top-tier racers and doctors, spinning off into tangents about legendary races like the Leadville Trail 100 Ultramarathon, while always looping back to the main narrative. Back on course, he describes his pursuit of the bashful, elusive Tarahumara and their secret to success on foot; his befriending of an eccentric gringo who became part of the tribe and is the key to McDougall’s communication with it; and the realization of the eccentric’s dream to pit big-name, corporate-sponsored American marathoners against the near-primeval Indians in a super ultra-marathon in the Copper Canyons. A race to end all races, in other words.

That’s all from me for now…I’ve got to get back to work!

-Neen