Monday, January 30, 2012

Quasi Mystery Basket Dinner

We had a full-on mystery basket dinner scheduled for Sunday. Each couple attending brings three ingredients and we all get together, figure out how to use all the ingredients, and make a meal. Some people use this as an opportunity to try to stump me (good luck with that) while others want to learn how to cook some ingredient that they would like to try at home. We always seem to end up with far more than three ingredients per couple and we always have a blast.

Our karmic forces were clearly in disarray Sunday because from early morning on, the phone let us know that one couple after another could not make it (for very legit reasons, not the least of which is that it is prime cold season). In the end, only Kelley and Marco Due showed up, but that's plenty of people for a nice relaxed dinner. And after my week of scrambling at the restaurant last week, relaxed is just fine by me.

Kelley and Mark brought chorizo, andouille, baby artichokes, cream cheese, and a blend of Israeli couscous, orzo, split chickpeas, and red quinoa. I contributed pork tenderloin, fregola sarda, pimentón, fresh green chickpeas (far right in the photo), and goat cheese, plus some random bits from the fridge (pecorino sardo, onions, green onions, yellow tomatoes).

Prepping baby artichokes is tedious but I love them so much that I am willing to go to the effort. Though I have to say that standing for an hour a prepping a bushel of baby artichokes for the restaurant is just no fun. But as long as I'm doing them in family-sized scale and I get to eat them, game on. Everybody else shelled the green chickpeas while I got to work on the artichokes, then Mark came and gave me a hand stripping the tough outer leaves off the artichokes. Happily, I only found one that had developed enough choke in the middle that I had to remove it.

This mix of ingredients is highly coincidental—déjà vu even! Saturday night, Kelley and Mark were at the restaurant for a tasting and for one of their courses I did a "risotto" of Israeli couscous, peppers, chorizo, artichokes, and tomatoes, finished with pimentón and goat cheese. What is really too funny about this is that they bought their ingredients for the mystery basket dinner before coming to the restaurant.

That couscous dish on everyone's mind, we decided to reprise it by pitching all the ingredients into a pan risotto style and serving it with roasted pork tenderloin. I ran out to the garden and picked some sage and rosemary and minced that fine along with garlic. This became the quick rub along with salt, pepper, and olive oil for the pork tenderloin.

And here's dinner. Not too shabby! Mark and Kelley, good time!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Black Bean Cakes

You can call them black bean burgers all you want, but I reserve the word burger for meat, so black bean cakes they are in the vernacular of Ed. For some reason that remains unclear to me, we ended up having black bean cakes for dinner last evening. I know that I volunteered to make them, but why? Ann says it was because we saw some on TV the night before that looked good. Long story short, we dined on black bean cakes last evening. And they were delicious!

Did I mention that we love beans and that black beans are among Ann's most favorite? I love them all and Steuben Yellow Eyes most of all. Someday soon I will post about them; we have a date with them on the 12th of February for our Valentine's dinner. Stay tuned.

Last evening saw a couple of firsts for us: first meal that Ann has really wanted to eat since her surgery (and that is a very, very good thing) and first time that I have ever used a residential food processor (no, no, no bueno). Go ahead, call me spoiled, but I still love my big commercial machine.

And I found out the answer to the age-old question "How many 4.25-ounce black bean cakes can you get out of a #10 can of beans?" The answer friends is 26, or 13 servings.

Making black bean cakes is as simple as cooking up a sofrito (2 diced poblanos, 2 diced onions, 3 tablespoons ground cumin, 1 tablespoon pimentón, 1/2 cup minced garlic, 1/2 cup minced cilantro stems, salt and pepper) and mixing the cooked sofrito with a #10 can (6.5 pounds) of partially blitzed beans, 2 cups panko, and 4 eggs, then forming them into cakes. Refrigerate the cakes a while to firm them up, press them lightly into panko, fry them, then transfer to a hot oven for 3-4 minutes to warm through.

If you're going to the effort, you might as well make a big batch as I did. Black bean cakes freeze well.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Lentil Soup with Chorizo

I've just got to tell you about this soup. It was so incredibly good! I make good soup as a matter of course—it is my profession after all—but this soup was special for its depth of flavor and texture. I am making myself silly hungry just typing this.

Cooking has been scarce around the house of late, what with both of us being sick for over a week and then with Ann's surgery and recuperation. But finally, all the planets aligned yesterday on a perfect soup day: cloudy, below freezing, and random snow flurries.

Ann had been talking about lentil soup for over a week and I was on a mission yesterday to make it. Saturday night was miserable at the restaurant with only a handful of customers on account of the crappy weather so I left early, early enough to grab a bunch of cilantro and a pound of Salvadorean chorizo at Food Maxx on the way home. They're usually long closed by the time I am heading home. And before leaving the restaurant, I grabbed some lentils. We only have three kinds in stock now—we usually have a lot more—so I grabbed some of each to give the soup texture and variety: common brown lentils, small green Le Puy lentils from France, and tiny black beluga lentils.

Here you see the principal ingredients: lentils, mirepoix (carrots, onions, celery, and green onions), tomatoes, cilantro, chorizo, pimentón, and garlic. I feel almost embarrassed to give a recipe for soup—it is soup for God's sake! Quantities don't really matter, procedure hardly matters, spicing hardly matters. But I realize that I am in the minority where going-with-the-flow soup is concerned, and so here is the recipe. As you can see from the quantities, I'm not fooling around here. I purposefully made enough to eat for dinner, for leftovers this week, and for the freezer for some other night.

extra virgin olive oil
1 pound soft chorizo
1/2 cup minced garlic
1/2 cup cilantro stems, finely minced
1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds
1 tablespoon pimentón agridulce
2 large (1-1/2 pounds) yellow onions, diced
6 carrots (1 pound), diced
6 stalks (3/4 pound) celery, diced
1 bunch of green onions, diced
3 cups (1-1/2 pounds) mixed lentils
1 12-ounce bottle beer
1 quart peeled, seeded, and diced tomatoes
1 gallon water
salt to taste

Film a large stock pot with the olive oil. Add the chorizo and break it up as it browns. When the chorizo is browned, add the garlic, cilantro, cumin, and pimentón and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring somewhat frequently. Add the onions, carrots, and celery and cook until the vegetables are wilted, stirring once every minute or two for about 10 minutes. Add the lentils, beer, and water. Stir well and bring to a simmer. Cook at least until the lentils are tender, about a half an hour. Season to taste. I let mine cook about 90 minutes or so.

Tips to take away from this:

1. Mixing lentils gives a variety of texture and flavor.
2. Beer adds a little je ne sais quoi to beans and legumes.
3. Cilantro stems have awesome flavor for sofritos.
4. Pimentón is a gift from the food gods.
5. There is no need to grind cumin for soups.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Broiled Spanish Mackerel

Last night's dinner had a decidedly Japanese character: miso soup, rice with furikake, broiled marinated Spanish mackerel, and steamed edamame. Ann had already made the dashi from kombu (kelp) and hanakatsuo (bonito shavings) when I arrived home with the guests of honor.

I quickly filleted the two mackerels and marinated the fillets in equal parts mirin, shiroshoyu, and sake with a lot of freshly minced ginger. This is one of the most delicious ways I know of preparing mackerel and mackerel is one of the most delicious fishes that I know. It has a very high oil content—the raw flesh almost feels buttery—that lends itself to high heat cooking applications such as grilling or broiling.

While the fish was marinating (for a total of about an hour), we prepped for for Ann's delicious shiromiso soup with tofu, straw mushrooms, and green onions. And then we put on a pot of rice with a couple more pieces of kombu and the katsuobushi left over from making the dashi. In retrospect, we wouldn't add the bonito to the rice again: too fishy. The edamame come in handy plastic bags that can be microwaved, so we just let Chef Mike cook them for about five minutes. I've never done edamame in the microwave before and probably won't do it again. Much better to boil them in salted water or even steam them. Still, I'm not complaining. Some edamame is better than no edamame! While the rice was finishing and the edamame were in the microwave, the fish went on a sheet tray (on oiled aluminum foil) under the broiler for a scant five minutes. You can see the gorgeous bronze hue that the fish takes on from the marinade, almost as if it had been smoked. The result was utterly delicious!

PS. I learned something new about wine (but that's nothing really new: I'm always learning about wine). I was drinking Thistle Chardonnay Dundee Hills 2008, a fairly oaky and buttery Chard that still retains fair acid. Though I would never pair this wine with a fishy fish, I decided to try it for giggles. It was a train wreck. The wine tasted awful and the fish tasted wretchedly fishy. Yuck. Note to self.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Frijoles Borrachos

Yesterday was a pretty and mainly pleasant, mostly sunny January day and so I thought Ann and I might go for a ride along the backroads of Frederick and Shenandoah County and so arrive at Strasburg in time for lunch at Cristina's. I've liked Cristina's for a very long time and always looked forward to Mexican food there, but I noticed each time that I went, the menu was less and less Mexican. And since I was last there—don't often get to Strasburg—Cristina's had relocated down the street and lost the "Mexican" moniker, now called simply Cristina's Cafe.

The new place seems much less restaurant and more funky coffeehouse. I'm OK with that. Everyone around us was drinking some kind of coffee or coffee drink; I was the only one drinking beer. The microbrew list is very, very good at Cristina's. I had a Fat Tire Amber Ale (good, but not as good as Tröegs HopBack Amber Ale) and a Rogue Mocha Porter (also good, but not as good as Tröegs Dead Reckoning Porter). I mention Tröegs because they are my benchmark beers and the beers we serve at the restaurant. I ordered a Left Hand Milk Stout (on tap) but instead our anorectic waif of a server who was clearly out on her own planet brought me the Rogue. Not sure what she was thinking about, but the poor thing was definitely lost in space.

I ordered the only vestige of the old Cristina's on the new menu: chicken empanadas, "the best in the valley," so said the menu. The pastry was excellent and the filling OK, but lacking in flavor. A few green onions and some cilantro would have livened the chicken in red sauce. But what got me was the plate presentation—there was none—two empanadas dumped on a plate with a handful of potato chips. Potato chips? What about a little dish of chimichurri and a sprig of cilantro? A little bowl of frijoles? Nothing. Ann's panino was similarly non-plated. Ladies, have you given up?

All this back story is by way of setting the stage for dinner.

I was in a Mexican frame of mind while sitting at the table finishing my beer, missing a bowl of beans. Ann had asked early in the morning what I wanted for dinner and not really craving anything, I deferred by suggesting that we surf the aisles at Food Maxx when we got back to Winchester after lunch. But after eating lunch, the convo turned back to dinner—probably as a result of our being underwhelmed with lunch—and Ann must have been on the same Mexican wave that I was for she suggested rice and beans. That got my gears racing.

After a leisurely drive back up Route 11 and carefully negotiating the speed traps in Middletown and Stephens City, we ended up at Food Maxx where we scored beans, cilantro, green onions, tortillas, and chorizo. I think we both hit the bean aisle looking for black beans, but then Ann decided she wanted red beans instead so we got a pound of Sangre de Toro (bull's blood) beans, a small red heirloom bean that I had never worked with before. The chorizo that we selected from among the dozen or more kinds was labeled simply Salvadoran. I've never seen links of sausage tied off with strips of corn husk before. Pretty neat idea. And then I got some small fatboy Salvadoran tortillas because I need tortillas with my beans.

These tortillas were labeled hechas a mano, but they looked almost too uniform to have been hand made. What distinguishes Salvadoran tortillas is their small diameter (about 5") and their thickness, thick like an unstuffed gordita, arepa, or pupusa.

While the beans cooked (rinsed, then up to the boil, drained, fresh water, recooked until tender, and then finally drained), I prepped my sofrito ingredients: yellow onion, garlic, ground toasted cumin, sambal oelek, minced cilantro stems, and sliced green onions). While the beans were draining, I returned the pot to the heat and added the skinned chorizos. After breaking them down and browning them, I added the rest of the ingredients and cooked them until the onions were translucent (and all red from the chorizo!). The beans went back in with a bottle of Dos Equis Ambar (the borracho component) and the whole simmered until our movie was done.

I give you the best beans I may have ever had in my life, over rice with a healthy dose of cilantro and a tortilla. These Sangre de Toros are delicious and creamy and the chorizo salvadoreño gave excellent background flavor. I kept saying "These beans are awesome; these beans are awesome!" Now that's how chefs like to eat!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Is There Anything Better?

Is there anything better than arriving home after dark on day that has not been above freezing, arriving to the smell of chicken noodle soup? Seriously, could it be better than that? As a chef who cooks all day and then who rushes home on his Wednesday night off to cook dinner, I will tell you emphatically that there is nothing so good as arriving home to find that the love of your life has made a huge pot of chicken noodle soup!

I was all set to make parsnip latkes for dinner when I walked in to that delicious smell of soup. And then Ann said, "I'm not in a parsnip mood tonight. Let's have soup." Amen!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Costco Dinner

Betcha you thought a chef would never grab dinner from Costco. You guessed wrong. We're humans too and we do get tired of cooking dinner too, just like you. So why not let Costco do the heavy lifting once in a while?

Mondays I have to run to Costco to score a few things for the restaurant, stuff like black pepper and milk that we don't use in case quantities, so while I was there I grabbed some stuff for dinner: a flatbread, a roasted chicken, and a jar or organic pesto.

Back at home, Ann made dressing, tossed a quick salad, and picked the meat off both chicken legs while I caramelized about five pounds of onions—might as well do a lot at one time and keep them handy in the fridge. The flat bread got a quick schmear of pesto, a generous slathering of caramelized onions, a scattering of chicken, and a sprinkle of grated cheese. And then into a hot oven for seven minutes. Good teamwork there girlfriend! I love it when we get a chance to cook together.

And the good news is that we still have the chicken carcass and white meat for soup tomorrow.

Paired with this we had a 2008 Pinot Noir "Miller's Vineyard" Willamette Valley (Eola-Amity Hills) from Stangeland Winery thanks to friends Jen and Dewi who picked the wine up when out west. Very red fruit, reasonable acid, medium body compared to some of the heavier 2008 Pinots from Willamette, all in all a really approachable Pinot.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Cioppino—Right Coast Style

Ann had a great idea for dinner last night, after I convinced her that leftovers weren't going to do it for me. I eat leftovers most every night after I get off work. On the rare days that she and I get to dine together, I'd rather have a nice meal. But nice doesn't necessarily mean involved. For some unknown but totally wonderful reason, Ann wanted cioppino for dinner. Me too! Easy and quick to make, delicious and pretty healthy too.

After watching the latest Mission Impossible, Ghost Protocol (an almost overwhelming rapid-fire orgy of stunts from start to finish), we stopped by the restaurant and raided the walk-in for ingredients: fennel, onion, tomatoes, saffron, U-10 dry scallops, rockfish, lobster, mussels, and shrimp.

You can see the classic Mediterranean bent my soup has with the fennel and the saffron, things you don't see all the time in Left Coast (San Francisco) Cioppino. Nor will you find lobster, though they use Dungeness crab that we don't have. But the idea is the same: white wine tomato broth with the freshest seafood available. Awesome!

Beef for Christmas Dinner

I know a lot of people who can afford it go in for the big standing rib roast of beef for Christmas. And that's fine, I suppose, but I've never been motivated by the big hunk of beast. So we rarely eat beef at our house, but given that Christmas is a big deal—did you see the decorations on every surface at our house?—I suppose that is the time to break out the beef.

Frankly, though, it was Carter's idea. When Ann asked him what he wanted for Christmas dinner, the 12-year old replied, "Oxtail!" Happy to oblige. Nothing can warm you to your gizzard like a big old bowl of oxtail over creamy polenta. The great part about it is not the beef, but all that gravy co-mingled with the polenta. I could feed on that just about every day of my life.

Talk about difficult dishes to make: throw everything into the crock pot with a bottle of red wine and walk away for 8 hours! I am spoiled though. I'm used to having our oxtail for the restaurant custom cut at Attilio Esposito in Philly. These were rinky-dink little things from the local Food Maxx grocery. But enough bitching already, some oxtail is always better than no oxtail!

Linguini with Clam Sauce

It felt good to get back in the kitchen yesterday, if only for a few minutes to make a late afternoon lunch of linguini with white clam sauc...