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Saturday, December 6, 2014

Less is More

 You might call me an over-doer.
When I cook, “more is more” seems to be my style.
Is this a general personality trait, you ask? I've thought about that, and I suppose there's a strong “maybe”, when it comes to shoes...and, well, okay, perhaps handbags, but otherwise, no.

It only seems to be related to my adventures in the kitchen. It is not with shame, but with wonder, that I can point to Asian-themed dinner parties with not one, but five-too-many dishes. Weekend breakfasts that find me simultaneously trying to keep an eye on the stove, the toaster and the oven while squeezing fresh orange juice by hand. Overly ambitious holiday baking lists that can only be accomplished by late night baking sessions where I nap on the sofa with a timer between batches of cookies.

On one of our early dates, Steve invited me over for dinner at his place. I stood at his door, knocking, bottle of wine in hand, for at least five minutes with no response. Maybe I'd been stood up? But no, there was too much clanging of pots and pans coming from inside. The door swung open to reveal him standing there, wearing an oil spattered rain coat (what??) and clutching a bloody paper towel to his hand before motioning me to come in. He sent me into the living room to wait and then disappeared into the kitchen. More banging of pots and pans, some loud cursing and then a crash. I had to investigate. Turns out he was trying to cook a mult-course meal from a chinese cookbook and things were not going well. I was in love.
So, maybe I'm some kind of kitchen adrenaline junkie.

But, here's the thing...every so often, I experience a kind of epiphany when serving up a single dish that deeply satisfies, and yet doesn't involve a dozen ingredients, six different pots and pans or a kitchen blowtorch. It feels like a new realization every time it happens. I'll make something super simple, and it's delicious and everyone is happy eating it. In this age of countless food shows, food blogs and catalogues with a million different cooking tools and gadgets, it's easy to forget that yes, less can be more.

Thanksgiving last week was a simple affair for us and cliched as it maybe, it reminded me how the meaning of sharing a meal with people you love can get lost in the frenzied preparations for the big gatherings we typically host.

Some of my best memories are of humble meals with people who are very dear to me. So, now that we're in this crazy rush through the December holidays, I thought I'd share a simple dish I made last Christmas for brunch.

It's called strata and I promise you will be glad I introduced you. Strata has a lot going for it. It's kind of like a savory, cheesy bread pudding and it can be tailored to your tastes. Vegetarian? Sure! Just use cheese and spinach. Prefer cheddar over swiss? Go right ahead! You assemble the whole thing the night before, so its true beauty is apparent as you relax in a comfy chair the next morning, sipping coffee in your pj's and sniffing the delicious aromas wafting through your home as it bakes. Simple is good.

I've made it a number of times this past year, and each time I marvel...easy, no stress cooking that's delicious and makes people happy. How novel!

I'll make it again this Christmas...but you know, I was kind of thinking to whip up a little roasted pear compote, on the side...you know...to serve with the smoked salmon blini and blood orange mimosas...

BREAKFAST STRATA WITH SAUSAGE, SPINACH AND GRUYERE

NOTES: I adapted this from Cooks Illustrated and adding the sausage was a stroke of brilliance if I do say so.
This doubles really easily so you can bump up from serving 6 to 12 by going from an 8-inch pan to a larger rectangular baking dish.

INGREDIENTS:
12 slices supermarket french bread or italian bread (leave it out overnight, or toast in a low—225 degree—oven)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
4 medium shallots, minced (about ½ cup)
1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
½ lb. Bulk breakfast sausage
salt and ground black pepper
½ cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc, OR vermouth is also delicious here
6 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated (about 1 ½ cups)
6 large eggs
1 ¾ cups half-and-half

1. Butter the sliced bread on one side with 2-3 tablespoons of butter and set aside.

2. Brown the sausage in a medium nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and set aside in a medium bowl.

3. Heat 2 tablespoons butter in same skillet over medium heat and saute shallots until translucent; add spinach and salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to the bowl with the sausage.

4. Add the wine to the skillet and reduce to ¼ cup over high heat.

5. Butter 8-inch square baking dish with remaining 1 tablespoon butter; arrange half the buttered bread slices, buttered side up in a singler layer in the dish.

6. Sprinkle half the spinach/sausage mixture, then ½ cup grated cheese evenly over bread slices.

7. Arrange remaining bread slices in single layer over the cheese; sprinkle remaining spinach/sausage mixture and another ½ cup cheese evenly over bread.

8. Whisk eggs in medium bowl until combined; whisk in reduced wine/vermouth, half-and-half, 1 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Pour this egg mixture evenly over bread layers; cover surface flush with plastic wrap and weigh down. (I've used a heavy plate, or a small box of brown or regular sugar.)

Refrigerate overnight.

9. Remove dish from refrigerator and let stand for 20 minutes at room temp. Heat oven to 325 degrees and adjust oven rack to middle position. Remove plastic wrap and sprinkle remaining ½ cup cheese evenly over the surface; bake until edges and center are puffed up, 50-55 minutes (more like an hour if you're doubling and using the bigger baking dish). Cool on wire rack 5 minutes and serve.






Monday, June 30, 2014

Grill Friends

As we head into the peak summer grilling months, let's talk sides. So there's potato salad, of course.   Cole slaw...natch.  Baked beans, for sure.  And then, maybe corn-on-the-cob or a green-salad-that's-sure-to-be-ignored.

Sure there's all, or some of the above, and you could go all traditional and do the corn-on-the-cob thing, but that's because you don't yet know about corn pudding.  Yes, pudding.  Now, I never met a pudding I didn't like...sweet, savory...to paraphrase Cookie Monster, me LOVE pudding!

I became obsessed with corn pudding in particular after having it at regularly at our favorite rib joint, Redbones, in Somerville, Massachusetts.  I had never known of corn pudding, or, savory puddings in general, I guess, and their corn pudding was a revelation.   Beautifully souffle-like, yet wonderfully cheesy, with a kick of jalapeño.  Corn pudding perfection.  So, I searched high and low for a way to replicate it, as a Thanksgiving side dish actually, but the recipes I tried never made the cut.  Then, last summer, my beloved Food52 delivered the goods, with a pudding that is pitch perfect.  Airy and light, and packed with flavor, it's a winner.

So, with the Fourth coming up and summer corn at its peak...I'm thinking it's the perfect time to bust some new moves on the same old bbq sides.  Corn pudding.  Who knew? Now, you do.


My only adjustment to Lizthechef's recipe is the addition of minced jalapeño, or a couple shakes of Tabasco...call it an homage to the good old Redbones version I adored.


Spicy Corn Pudding
adapted from Lizthechef via Food52  
(serves 4)

2 tablespoons butter
2 cups fresh corn kernels, cut from the cob
4 scallions, white and light green parts, chopped
1 jalapeño, minced
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon honey
1 cup whole milk
1/3 cup grated sharp cheddar + 2 tablespoons for topping
couple fat pinches of salt and freshly ground pepper
4 large fresh basil leaves

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2.  Heat butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the corn, scallions, and jalapeño and sauté for 3 minutes.  Remove from heat.

3.  In a large bowl, beat the eggs lightly; add flour, honey, milk, salt and pepper.

4.  Add corn-scallion-jalapeno mixture to the bowl + 1/3 cup of the grated cheese.  Mix well.

5.  Roll basil leaves into a cigar shape and slice into thin chiffonade.  Add to the corn mixture and stir.

6.  Pour mixture into a buttered glass or ceramic pie plate or a square baking dish.  Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons of cheddar.

7.  Bake for 40 minutes, until puffed and golden.  Pudding must rest for 15 minutes after coming out of the oven.

 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Taste of Spring

Enough already.  
That's the steady refrain from all my friends and relations who live on the East Coast or in the Midwest and can't stand the thought of any more snow.  Everyone is very done with winter.

And I've heard more than one person tell me they just can't make any more soup.

There's a desperation in the air, so I will refrain from commenting on the genius of choosing to live in California and simply pass along this little taste of spring.  An asparagus recipe that's a harbinger of springtime, yet still hearty enough to eat on those remaining chilly days as winter takes its own sweet time heading out.

Apologies for the sad state of and lack of photographs.  We have a furry, little distraction that's arrived on the scene.

On to the asparagus.  This comes from the Food52 cookbook and it is called Absurdly Addictive Asparagus.  I can't quite say whether it is truly Absurdly Addictive, but I will say it's damned good.

I love asparagus, but prefer it roasted, grilled or in this case sautéed.   Pancetta and leeks give you that heartiness and the addition of toasted pine nuts is genius--just the right amount of crunch.  The fresh zing of lemon and orange zest will make you think of daffodils and sunshine.   It's the perfect thing for dinner, maybe even topped with a poached egg, whether your spring is a lion, or a lamb.


Absurdly Addictive Asparagus
Adapted from The Food52 Cookbook (by kaykay)

4 oz. pancetta, cut into 1/4 inch dice (I stacked some pre-sliced La Quercia pancetta)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 pound asparagus, woody ends trimmed, sliced into 2-inch pieces on the bias
1 1/4 cups thinly sliced leeks (white and pale green parts only)
2 garlic cloves, minced
Zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon orange zest
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
sprinkling of chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper.

1.  In a large nonstick pan, saute the pancetta over medium heat, stirring frequently, until fat renders and pancetta is crisp and lightly golden.

2.  Add the butter to the pan, followed by the asparagus and leeks and saute utnil the asparagus is tender-crisp, about 4 minutes.

3.  Add the garlic, lemon and orange zests, pine nuts and parsley and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute.   Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Serves 4, but it halved nicely for two of us.






Sunday, February 2, 2014

Comfort

It's been a while, I know.  And I won't pretend.
I've been sad.  
The loss of our beloved black Lab, Henry, last year put me in state of 'just getting through' for a while.  You know.  You go about the business of your life because that's what you do, but it's with a heavy heart.  

The joys of food and drink and company feel muted because you are just seeking comfort...a respite from the sadness.  But in an inversely strange way, it also makes me feel grateful... for the kindness of friends, the everyday joy and companionship that our dear boy gave us, and the very awesomeness of his short, wonderful life.

The term "comfort food" really has taken on a fuller meaning as I've trudged through this time.  There's been a bit of a retreat from dreaming of fancy dishes I'd like to try to a simple craving for food that nourishes in a quiet way.  Which brings me to the uncomplicated solace of a bowl of porridge.  

I have rather unpleasant memories of the oatmeal my mother would make when I was a kid.  It was a gluey, bland mush of Quaker oats that just couldn't compete with a bowl of Captain Crunch.  The 80s brought the worship of All Things Oat, which I duly ignored since I wasn't obsessed with my cholesterol levels.  But then some time in the 90s I discovered steel-cut oats in a memorable Waldorf-Astoria room service breakfast for which I am eternally grateful.  So I've been a steel-cut oat fan ever since, but not long ago I came across an ingenious recipe for 'porridge', as the English like to call their breakfast oatmeal, that puts the oats I've been making for years to shame.  (Clouds parting.  Chorus singing.  Rays of sunshine.  Applause.)

Hard to believe it comes from a cookbook called,  A Girl and Her Pig.  (Yes, there is a photo of the author, chef April Bloomfield, on the cover, draped in a dead pig.  Calm down everyone.)  

April's way with porridge is extraordinarily simple and oh so comforting.  The beauty lies in cooking a mix of rolled oats with steel-cut in half milk and half water with a generous amount of Maldon salt.  The resulting chewy, creamy texture when topped with a drizzle of maple syrup elevates things to porridge nirvana.


So for those of you in the frigid, polar-vortex'd Midwest and snow battered East, this hot breakfast will fortify you like nothing else for your next round of shoveling and for those of us who are feeling a little fragile at times it's like breakfast, with a hug.  Some days that's just what you need.


Porridge 
adapted from A Girl and Her Pig, by April Bloomfield
(serves 4, if you're restrained, or 2 hearty appetites)

1 1/2 cups milk (April says whole milk, but I used 2%), plus a few splashes
1 1/2 teaspoons Maldon or another flaky sea salt
1/2 cup stell-cut oats
1/2 cup rolled oats (no instant or quick-cooking here, go with regular oats)
About 2 tablespoons brown sugar
A drizzle of maple syrup

1.  Combine the milk, water and salt in a medium saucepan and set over high heat.  As soon as the liquid comes to a gentle simmer, add both kinds of oats and lower the heat to medium to keep the oats at a steady simmer.  Stir frequently and check the heat to maintain the simmer, for 20 minutes.

2.  After the 20 minutes, turn off the heat and stir in the brown sugar.  

3.  Spoon into bowls and let sit for a minute.  Drizzle with a little maple syrup.  That's where I finish and get ready to dig in, but April suggests carefully pouring a little cold milk around the edge of each bowl for little more of custard feel as the porridge sets near the cold milk.