19 September 2010

The Big Yellow Canary is Back

The Cooking Channel launched recently.  It is largely what the Food Network was at its inception... actual cooking shows, not so much competitions and food entertainment programming so I enjoy several shows periodically when I have time to watch.  I was inspired by a simple and humble recipe I saw on French Food at Home: buckwheat crepes with creamed tomato.  A couple weeks after the show aired, I decided to try it for a main course.  Since we are big eaters, I thought it needed to be heartier for a main course, so I added ribbons of zucchini and several small shrimp to each plate.  It was really delicious and summery.  

Since it was easy to do and plates prettily, I decided to serve this as a starter for a small dinner party in late August when tomatoes are in their late summer prime.  One of our dinner guests said, "If you didn't feed me another thing tonight, I would be very happy."  That wasn't meant as a criticism, as in "Please don't make me eat any more of your horrid cooking."  The richness of the cream and the acidity of the tomato play off each other for balance, and then the buterrmilk-buckwheat crepes add a tart earthiness just simply brings it all together.  Get the recipe here.

The main course was a grilled butterflied boneless leg of lamb, roasted asparagus and orzo salad.  The lamb was from the Lebanese Butcher.  I rubbed with minced garlic (a whole head) and chopped fresh thyme, rosemary and oregano and refrigerated overnight.  The fridge really stunk in the morning!  On Saturday evening, I folded the meat in half, skewered it in two directions to keep it together, and then put it on a hot charcoal grill until the thickest parts were medium rare.  I tented it with aluminum foil and popped it into a warm oven until ready to slice and serve.

Asparagus -- so easy you can't call it cooking.  Place on a jelly roll pan, drizzle lightly with good quality extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, pop into a 425 degree oven until you can smell it.  When you take it out, it should be bright green, slightly shiny, and crisp.  Plate it and garnish with fresh lemon zest.

Orzo salad - also very easy.  Cook a good quality orzo according to package directions, drain (do not rinse!), and transfer to a large mixing bowl.  Chiffonade a pre-washed bag of baby spinach and add to orzo.  Add a few chopped sun-dried tomatoes.  Don't add too many because these are strong in flavor and can overpower the whole dish.  Next, freshly grate some Pecorino Romano, season to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper and either fresh oregano or thyme if desired, and a generous pour of fruity and flavorful extra virgin olive oil.  Serve at room temperature.

For dessert, we offered two options: tarte tatin and mousse au chocolat.  Of course everyone had a bit of both.

The tarte tatin is a variation on a recipe by Anne Burrell.  The recipe doesn't seem to be there anymore but there is a video.  The apples I used were Honey Crisp apples, both sweet and tart. Normally I serve this with a small quenelle of crème fraîche on top, but since I had the mousse, there was no need for the cream.

The chocolate mousse recipe is courtesy of Alton Brown.  I do have a truer French recipe but AB's has an element of guarantee about it -- gelatin! So with guests coming, I chose to have a safety net and went with AB's version.  When I first made it, it was too sweet and too chocolatey for my taste.  However, once chilled in individual serving dishes, topped with perfectly ripe raspberries, the flavors are dulled just enough to make a luscious, airy, chocolate dessert that is perfect with strong coffee.

Wines: With the appetizer, we served an unoaked, dry French Chardonnay.  For the main course, we served two kinds of red.  For the people who prefer a food friendly, light red, we served a southern French Pinot Noir.  For those who enjoy a fuller bodied red, we served a Syrah, which after a bit of air was a nice wine also.  All in all, it was a lovely night with good company, good conversation, good food.

26 October 2007

Sinead O'Connor and the Strathmore

We saw Sinead O'Connor the other night at the Strathmore in Bethesda, MD. She came out of retirement and released an album (I'm aging myself I suppose by saying "album" instead of "CD") called Theology this year. I don't own it but I'm going to buy it. It's a 2-disc release. The first disc called "The Dublin Sessions" is acoustic and the other disc ("The London Sessions") containes a plugged in multi-piece band version of the same songs. Visit http://www.sineadoconnor.com and Sinead O'Connor's MySpace page for more information and to listen to some clips.

Having never seen her live before, I thought the concert was very good but I was distracted by her constant hand-signal interaction with the sound man. She was having trouble with the drums being over mic'd at the start, once or twice with feedback in her earpiece during the show, her mic not being turned up quite enough, etc.

Her voice while still powerful and simultaneously sweet has a courser quality and lacks range at the high notes. But her delivery is haunting, vibrant, intense and interesting as always. My impression of her from her early career was that she approached music from internal rage and anger and now it seems to flow from inner beauty and peace. Even so she performed the oldies and goodies with verve with especially great renditions of "I Am Stretched on Your Grave" and "Thank You for Hearing Me". One of the highlights of the show was the acapella four-part harmony sung live of "In This Heart". I think she performed three new songs including one that is a movie theme song for a film that will be release around Christmas. All of the new work was gorgeous and soul satisfying. The mix of acoustic and full band songs kept it interesting and there was an obvious mutual appreciation between audience and artist.

Twenty years after the release of her first album, The Lion and the Cobra, Sinead O'Connor still defies definition: rock, pop, alternative, spiritual, rythmic, relevant, current... yes, yes, yes and more.

I suppose I should also say something about the Strathmore. I'd never been to this venue before but will seek it out in the future. In fact, Handel's Messiah is playing there in December and I would love to go to that. The hall is absolutely beautiful inside. The ceiling undulates like a gentle wave stopped in motion and the blond wood interior does everything it should acoustically in that space, not to mention creating a calming, modern and beautiful space. The walls and the shape of the hall made me feel what I imagine it would be like to be inside a grand piano. Go if you get a chance so you can feel for yourself what I mean by that because I can't explain it!

23 October 2007

Something like writer's block

Searching for a job sort of sucks your will to live (mine, I mean), or at least to write. I can't tell you how tired I am of tweaking the resume, writing cover letter after cover letter. It takes so much time and effort and that's a big part of the reason I have not been blogging. It's not exactly writer's block, because I am writing something every day toward my job search. I'd rather be writing the blog honestly - it's a lot more fun that writing cover letters!

Along with being unemployed, one cuts back on extra-curricular activities such as dining out and buying wine. In other words, we're not eating out at nice restaurants very much these days or going crazy at the wine shop. But one must still have nourishment of the body and mind to keep oneself sane. To those ends, what have we been doing lately?

In an effort to help bring on some autumnal weather, I made a really nice stuffed pork roast in late August. For that I used a large center loin portion of pig, opening it up with a knife 'til it laid flat on my board, and then stuffed it with a great combination of flavors. Whenever I make cornbread or biscuits, I save the leftovers in the freezer and then use them for applications like this. Crumble those up, chop up an apple, toss in a good handful of chopped pecans, chopped onion, and a healthy pinch of a spice blend I just discovered this summer, which I'll tell you about in just a sec. Anyway, put all that in a skillet with a little butter and a just a little broth but not so much that the mixture is wet, and cook it to a bread-stuffing consistency. in other words, slightly crumbly but not dry, not packed but not too loose either. Then spread this along the opened loin, roll the meat, tie it with kitchen twine and roast on 350 degrees Farenheit 'til done -- that depends on how thick the meat is, etc so I can't give specific timings. Even without a gravy or sauce, the roast should turn out nice and moist because of the filling if cooked until just done, not overdone.

As for the new spice blend I came across this summer... I was thrilled to find out that the famous spice catalog Penzeys was opening retail stores. We went to the Rockville, MD location which was the closest one to us at the time. The coolest thing about the store is that there is a sample jar of each and every item in the store which you can open and smell. I love that. Needless to say, we bought a lot of stuff that day including... drum roll please... Bavarian Seasoning. So tasty and lends an authentic Bavarian flavor to pork, AND best of all, it is SALT FREE. To tell the truth, I bought this spice mix thinking that I would make my own sausages. I haven't done that yet but still want to do that soon. I even bought casings and put them in freezer so I would having everything I need when I decide to do it. Anyhow, don't save the seasoning just for making sausages -- use it to flavor your pork roasts, turkey breast, chicken, cooked carrots and boiled potatoes and anything else you want to have that Bavarian flavor without salt! If you don't have a Penzeys store near you, order online or from the catalog. They make great gift boxes, too, which are a wonderful idea for newlyweds or a holiday present for anyone you know who loves to cook. Normally, I'm not a fan of spice blends because I tend to make up my own as a I go along, but I couldn't have replicated this particular authentic flavor by myself. Oh, btw, a Penzeys retail location opened in Falls Church, VA recently on Route 7. I was there the other day and noted that a bottle containing 3 Madagascar vanilla beans was less than $7! What a bargain.

Well, for someone who complained about being sick of writing, I sure did manage to write a lot here on the blog today. I urge you to check out Penzeys catalog, website, retail store especially for the finest quality herbs and spices. And definitely try a stuffed pork roast. Note there's no recipe - just throw a bunch of stuff together and stuff it in a piece of pork! You can hardly go wrong!

09 August 2007

Long Time No Blog

It's not that I haven't cooked at all for the past two months, it's not that we haven't eaten out. I've been surprisingly short on time for a person who is unemployed. I expected that I would have time to write this blog every day once I didn't have to go to work. But somehow or another, the days fill up and before you know it, your eyes are drooping, your head is slumping forward, chin to chest, the drooling starts, and eventually, you end up prone on the sofa with the tv blaring and all the lights on. (I don't really drool... I just wrote that for effect.)

Quick Highlights:
June: Dad's b-day/Jimmy's b-day (my step-brother)/Father's Day
We had a combination celebration at my house. Who was here: Dad, of course, Jimmy and his wife Sue Ellen, Wayne (my other step-brother), my paternal grandfather, my mother-in-law, my partner 'R', and me. The weather was fantastic so we all sat outside in the front yard. I made a pulled pork barbeque and chicken a la Minnie (recipe below) and coleslaw. To make it easy on myself, I bought potato salad and 2 kinds of dessert. My other step-brother, Wayne, brought us a watermelon.

Chicken a la Minnie is named after R's maternal grandmother who used to fix chicken this way. I never had the pleasure of eating hers but was told about it by another relative. This is a delicious, down-home, sloppy barbeque kind of food. I'd recommend wearing a bib or at least not wearing something white when you eat it.

Chicken a la Minnie
1 fresh 3lb chicken, cut into 8 pieces
1 bottle Carolina Treet sauce*

Place chicken pieces in a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil on high heat and allow to boil about 2-3 minutes, then turn the heat off and cover the pot for about 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Place chicken pieces in a baking dish. Pour about 1/3 bottle of Carolina Treet all over the chicken. Pour about 1 cup of the cooking water over the chicken. Cover with foil and bake about 1 hour, basting and turning over the pieces about half way through cooking.

* Carolina Treet Original Cooking Barbecue Sauce: I buy this at Food Lion whenever I visit Lumberton, NC. Right on the bottle it says if you can’t find it where you live, call, write or email and they will ship anywhere. Look ‘em up at http://www.carolinatreet.com

July: R and I went to Myrtle Beach, stopped in Calabash to eat some local fried seafood and meet up with R's Aunt Mary, and stopped in Lumberton (his parents' hometown) to visit other family and do some food shopping. Aunt Betsy took us around to a bunch of local farmers and we were able to buy a bushel of field peas and a bushel of butter beans. Uncle Billy made arrangements with the Scottish Packing Company for us to go buy some goodies. We bought a 12 lb wheel of Wisconsin cheddar cheese, 2 Boston Butts, some country sausage, casings and seasoning to try making our own sausages at home. When we got it all home, most of it went in the freezer. The cheese was cut (haha, having a 3rd grade moment) and some given to each of the parents. The field peas and butter beans all had to be blanched and frozen. That was a lot of work.

Also in July, the Falls Church Farmers Market is in full glory -- all the colors are truly a vision. We bought about 4 quarts of peaches which had to be skinned, sliced, and frozen. A lot of work again. And other week in July at the Farmers Market we bought a bushel of tomatoes. I remember as a girl helping my grandmother can tomatoes and tomato juice and I thought it would be a good idea to give it whirl on my own. Well, when you raise the tomatoes yourself and you have jars left over from last year and you have all the equipment already that's required for canning, it's a pretty cheap endeavor but a lot of labor. I had nothing. I had to buy jars, buy the canner, buy the tomatoes... and give blood, sweat and tears to the job. I ended up with 5 quarts of homemade tomato juice, 3 quarts of homemade Italian tomato sauce, and 4 quarts of homemade tomato soup. It took me about a day and quarter to get all that done. Of course my grandmother would have whipped that out in a couple hours, but she had 50 years under her belt and I had none. I'm not sure how often I will choose to do this in the future but I can at least say I've done it once. How good those tomatoes are going to taste this winter (!) when all that's available in the grocery are firm, gased, unripe, not-in-season, yucky things that can hardly be called tomatoes.

This summer I've also been growing tomato plants along with some pots of herbs. It has been so dry here that the plants all require some daily watering and it's just in the last week that the tomato plants are starting to bear ripe fruit. They are delicious. My grandfather started these plants from seed in March in an egg carton using the pilot light in the oven to keep them warm. He is a very experienced gardener. I don't know the breed of these tomatoes, but they are larger than a large cherry tomato but not much. These could be Campari tomatoes or something close to that breed because they are sweet like that and get really beautiful red.

This has gotten so long, trying to get caught up with the past 2 months, and I still have so much I want to write about. I want to give you a good recipe for Pissaladiere and tomato soup, for refried beans from scratch (totally worth the effort), for salsa verde. I want to tell you about our CSA (community supported agriculture) farm and what we've been getting in our share this year. I want to tell you about the dairy products we've been getting from the Farmers Market -- fresh homemade mozz and mascarpone and yogurt from a farm that raises and milks their own cows in Loudoun County. All that and more, hopefully all coming soon.

31 May 2007

A Correction and a Worry

In a previous post, I mentioned the Central Market. It is actually called the Capital City Market, and more commonly known as the Florida Avenue Market. There has long been talk of "revitalization" here, which has encountered stiff opposition. The market's future seems once more in question with a development concept to build condos above a retail commercial space. (Oooh, that's a new concept, NOT!) The Florida Avenue market is a unique and vital wholesale and retail commercial location in the District catering particularly to immigrants and restaurants. While a general "clean-up" might make it a bit more hospitable for your average upper middle class consumer, making it look and feel like every other condo complex in any city seems such a shame. I'm afriad the war against diversity is winning and that the homogenization of city scapes everywhere will prevail. See this article for details and additional links.

23 May 2007

A Real Find also turns out to be a Disappointment

We had friends for brunch on Saturday. Not in the Hannibal Lechter sense. They had a baby recently and they hadn't seen our house that we moved to in November. After trying for weeks to marry up our schedules and find a time that we could actually spend a couple hours together, we made a brunch date for Saturday. I planned a menu of potato frittata (which I prefer to call tortilla espanola), grilled asparagus, chicken breakfast link sausages, fresh fruit salad and these puffy, chewy custard buns from the Chinese bakery, mimosas and coffee. The day I went to the grocery for provisions, the asparagus was a bit wanting so I decided to make a spinach salad instead. Then I decided I would add a sour cream cake, the handwritten recipe for which I had discovered recently among my grandmother's recipe cards. I liked the name of it particularly: "Sock It To Me Cake" which is better than "Sour Cream Pound Cake."

Friday night, I made the cake so it would have plenty of time to cool before glazing. My grandmother's recipe card said cooking time of 45-55 minutes in a preheated 375 degree oven. After 45 minutes exactly, I pulled the cake out and it was, shall we say, mahogany on top -- in other words, kinda burned. I let it cool a bit and flipped it out and cut myself a piece to see if it would be serviceable for the next day's dessert. Turns out it was super light and fluffy and yummy, slightly crumby and dry from the over cooking but not burnt tasting, and I thought once the glaze was on, it would be fine, especially with coffee. I went to sleep thinking about how my grandmother's recipes come through every time. She really delivers when it comes to food.

Saturday was so much fun. We had plenty to talk about, did the house and yard tour, got all caught up on each others' news and the baby was adorable and quiet for the most part. We made it through a bottle of bubbly and oj with the frittata and everything else. Now it was time for cake, which I served with sliced fresh strawberries and homemade whipped cream and coffee. Not dry at all, not burnt tasting at all. Just about perfect if I do say so myself. Pretty much irresistable evidenced by the fact that by Monday evening, there was no evidence of it left anywhere!

I was at the grocery yesterday picking up some fresh veggies for dinner and thought I would get a boxed cake mix to make that Sock It To Me Cake again soon since it was so good and disappeared so fast. Oh, to my happy surprise the boxed cake mixes were on sale -- I bought TWO. Happiness is buying two boxes of cake mix on sale.

Get home, unload the groceries, putting away the boxes of cake mix and lo and behold on the freakin' side of the cake box is the recipe for my grandmother's Sock It To Me Cake. My "Real Find" of the recipe card written in my grandmother's graceful hand came from the side of a Duncan Hines box. The discovery of this is a disappointment but won't stop me from making it again (especially since I have TWO boxes of cake mix).

Sock It To Me Cake (aka Sour Cream Pound Cake) - as written on my grandmother's recipe card, not the side of the box!

Cake batter:
1 box Duncan Hines Golden Butter cake mix
1 8-oz container sour cream
1/2 C Crisco brand vegetable oil (other brands make the cake fall!)
1/4 C sugar
1/4 C water
4 eggs

1 C chopped pecans (I used walnuts)
2 Tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp cinnamon

2 Tbsp milk
1 C confectioners sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Blend cake mix, sour cream, oil,
sugar, water and eggs (one at a time). Beat at high speed for 2 minutes (important for lightness). Pour 2/3 of the batter in a greased and floured Bundt pan.

Combine filling ingredients and sprinkle over the batter in the pan. Spread remaining batter evenly over the filling mixture. Bake at 375 for 45 to 55 minutes, until cake springs back when touched lightly.

Cool right side up for about 25 minutes, then remove from pan. Prepare glaze and pour over cooled cake.

Asian Salad and a movie

For the past couple weeks I've been craving some seared tuna (raw in the middle) sliced thin over a crunchy, crispy salad. I like a salad with seared tuna in two main varieties: Asian or Southwestern. Last night was the night and Asian was the style.

For the dressing I used a bit of yellow miso paste, a couple drops of lite soy sauce, fresh orange juice, a few drops of Chinese rice wine, a little minced garlic, a lot of grated ginger, freshly ground black pepper, a drizzle of roasted sesame oil. (If the dressing is too thick or too salty, add a little water.)

For the salad (4 dinner-sized servings):
1/2 small head savoy cabbage, shredded
1 medium heart of romaine
big handful of bean sprouts, stringy ends trimmed off
big handful of snow pea pods, julienned
1 small yellow bell pepper, julienned
3 scallions, green part only, cut on the bias
2 medium oranges, segments only, skins removed (What's the technical term for this method? I'll have to look it up.)
big handful of sliced almonds
big handful of julienned carrots (I buy them already done)
chopped cilantro (optional)
La Choy brand crunchy chow mein noodles for topping (find in the asian packaged goods aisle in your regular grocery, usually bottom shelf)

For the tuna, about 1 pound of sashimi grade should cover your 4 main course salad servings. I drizzled the tuna pieces with a little toasted sesame oil and then sprinkled a combination of a southwestern dry rub mixed with a mild chili powder. (Well, dinner was mostly Asian inspired but needed that little bit of southwestern zip.) Get a grill pan nice and hot to just about smoking and set each piece in. Leave for about 2 minutes before flipping and cooking another minute or so. Don't forget to sear the sides also. Remove from the pan and let it rest while you toss the salad with the dressing and put the crunchies on top. Slice the tuna and set the slices on the salad to serve.

On another note, I watched a quirky movie this past weekend called Everything is Illuminated, not a movie about food but nonetheless contains a funny food scene involving vegetarianism. The film itself is a very odd road trip with interesting characters all searching for their own stories and making new memories along the way. One of the best lines in the movie comes toward the end. The old Ukranian lady who collects items to remember the dead says something so truthful to the young man, Jonathan, who comes to find out about one of them. Holding a small jar containing a wedding ring, this lady says something like, "You are not here because of it. It is here because of you." This physical thing, symbol of a history, a memory, only exists because someone seeks out that history. Without a person or a society taking that journey back in time to learn the history, the thing/event doesn't exist at all, it has no relevance. The title is so appropo for this film on so many levels. If you've seen it, I'm interested in your comments. If not, I recommend you do!