Saturday, August 25, 2012

Hankerin' for Fall

I always get antsy towards the end of summer.

I'm tired of being hot. 

I want to buy school supplies and wear cute sweaters.

So I thought I would force the issue by cooking with some fall flavors.  And meat.

Beer Poached Sausages with Caramelized Onions and Balsamic Apples
Mmmm...grilled meat.

Nothin' screams fall like some fancy, schmancy tailgate food.  This can be made ahead of time...just toss the sausages on the grill and gently reheat the apples and onions.

1 lb Italian sausage, in casing
1 pint beer (something dark)
1 large onion, quartered
1 clove garlic, smashed
3 bay leaves
1 Tbl coriander seeds
3 dried chilies

In a large pot, bring all of the ingredients, including sausages, to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes.  Remove sausages from poaching liquid and transfer to a hot grill.  Char on all sides.  Serve with onions and apples and coarse ground mustard.

For the Onions and Apples

1 large onion
1 Granny Smith apple
4 Tbl butter
2 Tbl balsamic vinegar
salt 'n pepper

Slice onions into long, thin pieces.  Melt butter over low flame and add onions.  Season with a pinch of salt and toss to coat.  Let them do their thing for a while (about 30 minutes), stirring occasionally so they won't burn.

While onions caramelize, peel and core the apple.  Slice into quarters, then into thin wedges.  Once the onions have begun to turn a golden brown color, add sliced apples and cook for about five minutes.  Apples should be tender but not mushy.  Turn up the heat and add balsamic.  Cook until vinegar has reduced by half.  Remove from heat, season with salt and pepper.  Yummy.

Friday, August 24, 2012

It's Tofu Time: Breakfast Style

 I was never one for breakfast.

Usually I was still full from the night before or I had overslept and had to get out of the house or I thought skipping a meal would help my waistline. 

And then I started making smarter choices about food, and I have fallen in love with breakfast once more.  Consuming less animal products means a better night's sleep, less bloating, and, basically, not feeling weighed down so much.

One of my new faves is a tofu scramble.  Nothing against the humble egg (in fact, I have become quite the poach master general in our house), however, one egg contains almost 70% of the daily recommended dietary cholesterol values.  Oy!  So to be a little more heart smart, I have discovered the wonders of tofu.

On its own, tofu tastes like...nothing.  But with a little bit of love, it can transform into something versatile and delicious for breakfast.  Combine with a few leftovers from the fridge (quinoa, pesto, collards, spinach, tomatoes, salsa, etc.) and you have a fast, flavorful, and nutritious breakfast ready in minutes.

Culinary Terms of the Week:

Sweat:  When you sweat vegetables, you release moisture from them and they start to smell...just like you do when you sweat.

Bloom:  Blooming a spice mean maximizing the flavor by heating the dried spice for a short amount of time. When you bloom a spice in oil, you lose the gritty texture and have a more pleasant mouthfeel.

Mouthfeel:  Perhaps one of the grossest-sounding culinary terms in the book.  It just a way to express the texture of your food (i.e. smooth, crunchy, creamy, etc).  Please, never use this in my presence.

Basic Tofu Scamble
Scrambled Tofu with Spinach

A basic recipe that's great to play with.  The turmeric provides a beautiful golden color, and makes the tofu look like scrambled eggs! Perfect with whole grain toast and fruit.

8 oz firm tofu
4 green onions, chopped
1 Tbl olive oil
2 tsp turmeric
salt n' pepper

In a large skillet, heat oil and turmeric over medium heat.  Bloom the turmeric for about a minute.  Add onions and sweat the vegetables until tender but not translucent.  While onions cook, place tofu between a couple of sheets of paper towels. Gently press to release as much of the liquid as possible.  Crumble tofu into skillet, season with salt and pepper,  and cook for about five minutes until heated through. Serves two.

Once you've mastered this basic technique, you can play around with different combinations.

Breakfast Burrito

This is perfect for those workout days.  The beans and quinoa give you an extra punch of protein.  A great way to use leftover black bean Confetti Salad.

Tofu Scramble
1/2 cup cooked quinoa, divided
1/4 cup Confetti Salad
1 avocado, sliced and halved
2 whole grain tortillas

Prepare Tofu Scramble.  Divide quinoa and beans among the tortillas.  Top with tofu and fold over.  Top burrito with avocado slices.

Tofu Scramble with Pesto Quinoa, Sauteed Spinach and Tomatoes

A perfect dish for brunch! Just adjust the quantities (this recipe serves two).

Tofu Scramble
1/2 cup cooked quinoa
3 Tbl pesto
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
2 cups spinach
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbl olive oil
Pinch of crushed red pepper
Salt and pepper
Basil to garnish

Prepare Tofu Scramble.

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat.  Saute garlic for one minute.  Add tomatoes, season with salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper, and cook until they begin to soften, about five minutes. Add spinach and cook until just wilted, no more than two minutes.

Combine quinoa and pesto.  To serve, divide pesto quinoa on to two plates, topped with spinach and tomatoes, then the tofu.  Garnish with basil.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Power of the Sofrito

Folks in the culinary world are always talking about "depth of flavor," but what exactly do they mean by this?  Quite simply, you are trying to get the most bang for of your buck and coax out as much of the delicious goodness from your food.

One of the best ways of achieving great depth of flavor in your cooking is through braising, a process of cooking something for a long period of time in liquid.  AND, one of the best ways to braise is to start with a sofrito.  A sofrito is a combination of aromatics, such as onions, garlic, and celery, that are chopped up super fine and cooked for a long period of time.  A staple in many different cuisines, this slow cooking process caramelizes the natural sugars in the veggies resulting in a rich, dark flavor that is perfect as a base for soups and sauces.

At this time of year, when farmers markets are practically overflowing with eggplant, I like to make a large batch of Eggplant Ragout and freeze it for future use.  This hearty, earthy sauce is a wonderful substitute for traditional marinara.  Use it in lasagna, as a sauce for grilled mushrooms or tofu, or add cannellini beans and fresh herbs and serve over grilled bread for a rustic, peasant meal.

Yes, it takes time to prepare, but you will have a TON of sauce (about 8 cups) that freezes so well for future culinary adventures that it is well worth the time.  Patience, my friend...patience.

Eggplant Ragout
Eggplant Ragout with Yellow Tomatoes and Cannellini on Grilled Bread

2 large eggplants
3 carrots (peeled, chopped into 1" pieces)
3 celery ribs (chopped into 1" pieces)
1 red bell pepper (chopped)
5 cloves garlic
1 6oz can of organic tomato paste
1 cup dry red wine (optional)
3 cups vegetable stock (plus 1 cup is you omit the wine)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 bay leaves
10 sprigs of thyme
4 sprigs of oregano
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (or more to your liking)

Preheat oven to 450.  Using a fork, poke holes in the eggplant and place on a baking sheet.  Roast in the oven until the insides are all roasty toasty goodness and the outside looks like a deflated balloon.  About one hour.

Combine carrots, celery, bell pepper, and garlic in a food processor.  Pulse until a moderately chunky paste forms.  You may need to do this in batches.  This will look kind of soupy, but remember you have just mashed up a whole lot of veggies with a high water content.

Over a medium flame, heat oil in a heavy Dutch oven.  I use cast iron for this.  Transfer mixture and brown that veggie paste, stirring occasionally and careful not to burn the veggies. This takes some time, about 30-45 minutes.  Season with salt, pepper, and crushed red.  Be sure to taste and adjust the seasonings!  After about 15 minutes, when some of the liquid starts to reduce, add bay leaves and a bundle of thyme and oregano.

Once the veggies have caramelized, add tomato paste and...brown it.  This should take about 5 minutes.  Once you have a fragrant glop on your hands, de glaze the pan with the wine.  Reduce liquid by half (this is important other wise your sauce will taste like wine).  Add vegetable stock, bring to a boil, and simmer.  Remove bay leaves and herb bundle.


By this point, your eggplant should be roasted.  Remove from oven and cool slightly so that you can handle it.  Slice eggplant lengthwise.  Scoop out the flesh and add to the sauce, discarding skins.  Here is where an immersion blender comes in handy to smooth out the sauce.  If you do not have one, puree eggplant in a food processor before adding it to the sauce.  The ragout should still be a bit chunky.  If thinner sauce is desired, add water until you have attained the desired consistency.

Ladle sauce into air tight containers.  Keeps in the fridge for about 4 days, freezer for 3 months.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Two fer...

I love soup.  It's homey, comfort in a bowl.  And I especially love the cooling goodness of a chilled soup in the summer.

Plus it's super easy to make.

The trick is to layer your flavors into your pot instead of just doing a whole lot of chop and drop.  Thomas Keller, of French Laundry fame, speaks of the importance of taking time with your food preparation.  Not to say that you need to spend hours over a stock pot, but allowing the flavors of each ingredient to develop (especially when you use so few) adds tremendous depth to your food.  Once you have a handle on the basic methods, you can play around with the ingredients. 

Here are two variations on a carrot soup that will knock your socks off!

Chilled Curried Carrot Soup

This refreshing soup is great as an accompaniment to a Kale Salad or Curried Israeli Couscous.  The tartness of the lime juice plays nicely with the sweetness of the carrots and coconut.

1 lb carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2" pieces
1 Vidalia onion, chopped
2 Tbl olive oil
3 Tbl curry powder
1 tsp salt
5 cups water
1 can of coconut milk
zest and juice of one lime
2 green onions, chopped

In a stock pot, heat oil and curry over medium heat, stirring for about one minute.  Add onions and saute until tender.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Add carrots and stir to coat with curry infused oil.  Cook for 10 minutes.  Add stock and bring to a boil.  Simmer for 15 minutes.

Using your perfectly functioning immersion blender, puree until smooth.  Pass soup through a sieve, discarding all of the solids.  Stir in coconut milk and lime juice and zest.  Chill completely.  Serve with a wedge of lime and chopped scallions on top.

Change up the herbs slightly and you have a totally different taste experience...

I'm sorry...I love this picture.

Chilled Carrot Soup with Dill

This is a fantastic little soup for hot summer nights. Serve with a salad and some crusty bread and, vi-oh-lay, you've got dinner!  I find that veggie stock muddles the taste of this soup, so I recommend using water.

1 lb carrots, peeled and sliced
1 yellow onion, chopped
5 cups water
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
3 sprigs dill, plus 1 Tbl finely chopped
2 sprigs thyme
2 Tbl olive oil

In a large pot, heat oil over a medium flame and add onions. Saute for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Create a bundle with the dill and thyme, and throw it into the pot.  Add carrots and cook until they soften a bit.  Add stock, zest, and lemon juice and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.  Remove from heat and discard the herb bundle. Using an immersion blender, puree the soup. Ladle the soup into a bowl through a sieve, pressing on solids and discard the pulp. Stir in reserved dill and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled. Garnish with a sprig of dill (and maybe a dollop of yogurt or sour cream).

Monday, August 6, 2012

Feelin' Just Peachy

When I was 16, I shot my first commercial.

It was for a St. Louis based grocery store chain called Schnucks.  I know...unfortunate family name, no?  The spot was one of those "how many happy people can we show eating fruit in a minute" type situations.  It was spring time, and they were getting ready for the summer fruit push.

I had stumbled into the gig; a mother of a friend of mine was a food stylist on the shoot and they needed a few fresh faced teens to stage a car wash and laugh and eat peaches.  A lot of peaches.  I think I ate about 27 in an hour, while being squirted with a garden hose in a parking lot on a beautiful (and chilly) spring day.  We tossed peaches to one another, taking a bite and making smiley faces to the camera.

It took me a while to muster up the strength to eat another peach.  Like Prufrock.  Only younger.

Fortunately I have lifted my peach embargo and have been enjoying this seasons crop of particularly delicious fuzzy fruits of the South.  Last week, Jerre and I, mountain weary, traveled to St. Louis to celebrate my mom's birthday.  And we made this...

Roasting brings out the natural sugars and intensifies the flavors.
Roasted Peach and Red Onion Salad with Bitter Greens

The sweetness of the peaches and onions is balanced with the bitter bite of arugula and radicchio.  Soak the radicchio is cold water for 15 minutes or so to reduce some of the bitterness.  If it's fired up, try grilling the peaches, onions, and radicchio for a fun variation!

4 peaches (almost ripe - firm to the touch, but not quite soft)
1 large red onion
3 Tbl fresh tarragon, finely chopped (plus two whole sprigs)
5 sprigs thyme
4 cups arugula
1 cup radicchio, sliced into rounds
1 English cucumber
1/4 cup hazelnuts
1/2 cup orange juice
2 tsp rice vinegar
zest of 1 lime
4 Tbl olive oil, divided

Preheat oven to 425.

Slice each peach in half, removing the stone.  Slice into quarter and then into eighths.  Place on a rimmed baking sheet.  Slice onion in half through the fuzzy bulb end.  Remove outer skin and slice off most of the hairy end but not all.  This will hold your onion slices together.  Slice onion as you did the peaches, first into quarters, then eighths.  Add them to the peaches and drizzle with 1-2 Tbl oil and season with salt and pepper.  Toss to coat.  Scatter thyme and tarragon sprigs about the baking sheet and roast in the oven for 15-20 minutes until they begin to brown.  Remove from oven and set aside. Discard herbs.

On a smaller baking sheet, roast hazelnuts for 5 minutes or until fragrant. Remove from oven and set aside.

While the peaches roast, bring orange juice to a boil in a small saucepan and reduce by half.  Skim off any foam that may rise to the top.  When the juice has just about reduced, add the finely chopped tarragon and lime zest.  Set aside and cool slightly.  Add vinegar and slowly whisk in remaining oil until you have achieved your desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper.

Toss arugula, radicchio, and cucumber with the vinaigrette.  Divide among four plates, and top with peaches and onions and sprinkle with hazelnuts.