I live to eat and love to cook. Welcome to my life!

February 22, 2010

In the confessional

A week after the first "stirrings" of whatever strain of flu this might be, I am slowly rejoining the land of the living. I went to work doped up on DayQuil today and muddled my way through 200+ emails and multiple messages and by 4:30 I felt faint, my brain hurt and all I wanted to do was plant my ass on the couch where it's resided since last week when I got smacked with this bug. I swear I thought I felt better this morning, well enough to go to work, sit in my bubble and not breathe on the ladies I share office space with. Maybe not.

I might have been wrong, but I am only admitting this here as I use this blog as my personal confessional with you, darling reader, as my confessor.

Being sick sucks no matter what you have, how long you have it or when it comes on. I get sick very rarely, but when I do, I vacillate between the pillar of strength and the puddle of pathetic-ness....the latter of which I resembled this last week.

Huddled on the couch, swaddled in blankets I switched back and forth from my laptop and Facebook to TV and CSI (the ONLY thing on during the day that didn't make me want to claw my eyeballs out) while alternately sweating and freezing, downing tea, water and Emergen-C like it was going out of style and trying to figure out what the hell I wanted to eat....

Entertainment was solved by my Mom and my friend who dropped off movies for me....standing 10 feet away from me so as not to get infected, we had a nice interaction for about 2 whole minutes.

My big thing was.....Was I hungry or did I want to eat because I was bored out of my skull? My body wanted food, but nothing sounded good. Not fat, not carbs, not sugar...nothing. How weird. Don't think I have ever had this little of an appetite!

Everyone says "Soup!"...."Chicken Soup!" and yes, I am well aware of the wonderful healing properties of good chicken noodle soup, but I had some issues to get past. First, I can't stand the canned stuff. It tastes bad enough when I am normal, but I was finding out with this bout of sickness that things were just not tasting right even if they were decent to begin with. And to be honest I just couldn't stand long enough to make it from scratch. Second, no one wanted to come within 20 feet of me (to bring me soup, sniff...) for fear of contracting the bug and I really can't say I blame them,

I ate some pretty crappy things this last week just to sustain me. Stuff from the fridge that was easy and looked like it might fill a void and not make me nauseous. And then I actually made a couple of things that were blog worthy, however I lacked the the presence of mind to take a picture and document as I should have...I'll just have to make them again and share later.

One was Julia Child's Potato Leek Soup, simplicity in itself...it filled the order for soothing soup for my tummy and required not much more than 5 minutes over a cutting board and I was able to let the stove do the rest of the work while I warmed up my spot on the couch.

The other was a pasta dish with Italian Sausage & Rapini...I know it sounds like an odd thing to make when you are sick, but I had it up to my ears with bland food and wanted something zest and spicy. Don't think it was the best thing for my stomach, but I sure enjoyed it at the time. :)

So now we get to the part where I tell you all about the crummy stuff I ate and you give me absolution and I can go forth and sin no more. Ready?

Confession #1...Kraft Macaroni & Cheese-I know it is powdered cheese and that goes against all that is natural, but there is a place for it in my world sometimes.

Confession #2...Cold pizza from Hungry Howies. Brock must have brought it home while I was sleeping....it had thick bacon chunks on it and I was lost at that moment.

Confession #3...Quesadilla.....Cheese and carbs oh yes, you are my friend (do you see a trend here?). Poquito salsa posible? Si por favor!

Confession #4...Special K. When all else fails, reach for the cereal box. I am pretty sure this accounted for at least half of my food intake during a 5 day period.

Everything else is a little fuzzy so I am just going to cap it at that and ask for absolution. I know in my heart I should have eaten better because it probably would have helped me get better faster, but I just couldn't...you've been there, right?

So forgive me reader, I have sinned. processed cheese, too many carbs and very few veggies that I can remember. I promise I will do better next time with fresh ingredients, fun recipes and photos to tempt you. But for now, offer me the cleansing power of Catholic absolution...In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen.

February 15, 2010

Bringing home the bacon.....and sausage!

About a week and a half ago I was relaxing on my couch with a glass of wine in hand...Ipod playing my oh so random mix of music and reading whatever book happened to be on my table that night. Contemplated making dinner for myself, but was uninspired, relaxed and quite frankly a bit lazy because it was just me at home. Brock was out with the boys for the day, golfing in a tournament and would be home late....so I thought.

At 8:30 the phone rings and it is my sweetie, all fired up!

Him "Babe! What are you doing?"

Me "Couch, book, wine"

Him "Get your grubbies on, we got a pig!"

Me "OK, ready in 5!"

Now I will translate.

We have a friend with a ranch in Ventura who allows and encourages Brock and a few other guys to come and hunt wild boar on the property. The land up behind Foothill Road from Casitas Springs to Santa Paula boasts a huge number of animals ranging from mule deer, black bear, mountain lion, bobcat and the aforementioned wild boar. Most people in Ventura have never seen these and probably prefer not to in most cases. We, however are a different kind of family.

I grew up with a Daddy who hails from the Midwest and grew up hunting for fun as well as to put food on the table for his family of 11. I not only enjoy cooking and eating wild game, but also hunting it on occasion. From a health perspective, most wild game is better for you than the meat in any grocery store. Leaner, grass or "brush" fed, lacking artificial hormones or antibiotics it is mother natures best showcase of "organic" meats. There are sometimes drawbacks with wild game such as the telltale "gamey" flavor that comes with many animals or the lack of fat and marbling that comes from intentionally fattening up an animal. But dependant upon age, diet, sex (seriously-girls are better in most cases) and how it is cooked game meats can outshine feedlot animals any day of the week. I will take a slightly gamey venison steak over a corn fed, pen raised, hormone added beef steak any day.

OK...off my soap box for now!

To most of you this is alien, foreign and quite possibly off putting, for me it is normal and quite frankly kind of exciting. I went up to the ranch with Brock and our buddy and was present for the slaughter of the hog which I will spare you the details of....but I will tell you that my little head was filled with visions.....ooooohhhhhh the possibilities. I think I sat and stared at the pig for a good hour just making sure I knew exactly what I wanted.

Not since culinary school have I been presented with an animal that I could pretty much do whatever I wanted with and to it. Brock was bowing to my superior knowledge of cuts and processing and went so far as to call me at work when he was at the butcher to make sure that nothing was missed or cut incorrectly.

Tenderloins & loins...both whole for chops and medallions. Ribs-baby back for the BBQ and country style for slow cooking. Foreshanks, whole for braising. Shoulders, butt (ham) and any additional meat and fat portioned out in 4-5 pound packages so I can make sausage out of it.

Yesterday he brought the meat home in vacuum sealed packages and proudly showed me all of the different cuts that we were going to be able to "play" with over the next month or so.

Is it any surprise that I whipped out my sausage cookbook tonight and am flagging recipes? Italian (sweet & hot!) of course, Bratwurst is a must, Chorizo a strong possibility, Loukaniko, Andouille....oh my sweet Lord the possibilities are endless.

So sometime in the next week I will be firing up the Kitchenaid meat grinder and sausage stuffer and making my very own homemade sausages.

I know this makes me sound like a huge dork, but I am so excited. :)

February 10, 2010

Laissez le bon temp rouler!

Once again driving home from Ojai after a pleasantly busy day my brain was all aflutter with ideas for dinner....I was rounding the turn at the 33 and 101 when the light bulb that resides in my brain went off and I remembered that I didn't HAVE to cook! It was American Idol night at Mom & Dad's and Mom was making dinner for us.

So I mentally relaxed and stopped by my house for a nice bottle of wine and had visions of me sitting at the counter with a glass of wine writing my blog while mom slaved over the stove making delicious din din for all of us.

Not so much.

Miss Mom had to go and get herself a facial today which meant when I showed up that she wasn't there...neither was her laptop or camera. So I did what a good daughter does and I started cooking for her. Fortunately for me she left the recipe out and I started chopping, dicing, slicing and sauteing.

And what are we having tonight you ask???

Gumbo Z'Herbes For Luck, Feasts and Fasts

As yesterday was Fat Tuesday and for the last few weeks New Orleans has been celebrating not only making it to the Super Bowl for the first time, but then winning it, I thought it appropriate to write about a Cajun dish that focuses on celebrations. I have it on good authority from friends and clients that there has been a parade every day since January 23rd somewhere in the city of New Orleans. Good for them...that city needed some love. :) I kind of wish we had that many parades....we all could use a little more celebration in our lives.

Gumbo Z'Herbes is traditionally a spicy meatless dish served during Lent...but most cooks can't help but add in a ham hock or chopped up ham to it. Mom and I use the smoked turkey legs that can be found in most grocery meat aisles-this offers up a fraction of the fat and all of the flavor. The greens are fairly interchangeable, you can use just about any combination of collard greens, mustard greens, spinach, watercress & parsley. If you are short on one, just increase quantities on the others. When served on Good Friday this dish is believed to bring friendship and good luck...for every different green that is added to the stew, a new friend will be made that year.

Cheers, Salud, Slainte, Cin Cin and Prost....here's to health, luck friendship and love in this next year!

Gumbo Z'herbes
Makes 10 servings

1T tablespoons Vegetable Oil
4 C 1/2-inch cubes smoked ham or smoked turkey (about 22 ounces)

2 T Butter
6 C Sliced Leeks (white and pale green parts only; from about 5 large)
2 C Finely Chopped Celery
2 C Sliced Green Onions (about 8)
1 C Chopped Fresh Italian Parsley
5 Large Garlic Cloves, Chopped
3 T Filé Powder*
1 T Chopped Fresh Oregano
3/4 tsp Cayenne Pepper
8 C Sliced Collard Greens (about 8 ounces)
8 C Sliced Mustard Greens (about 8 ounces)
4 C Fresh Spinach Leaves
Note-Buy the pre chopped packaged ones from Trader Joes....too easy!

1/2 tsp Sugar

10 C Low-Salt Chicken Broth, divided
3/4 C Butter

3/4 C All Purpose Flour

Cooked White Rice

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in heavy extra-large pot over medium-high heat. Add ham/turkey; sauté until browned, about 10 minutes. Transfer to bowl and reserve. Melt butter in same large pot over medium-high heat. Add leeks and celery. Sauté until vegetables are soft, about 8 minutes. Add green onions, parsley, and garlic. Sauté until onions wilt, about 2 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add filé powder, oregano, and cayenne pepper. Stir 3 minutes. Add collard greens, mustard greens, watercress, spinach, and sugar.

They start out like this....

And end up like this :)

Toss to combine. Add 2 cups broth. Cover and cook until all greens are tender, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Remove pot from heat.
Working in batches of 2 cups, puree greens in processor, scraping down sides occasionally.

Or if you are fortunate enough to own an immersion blender (top 10 kitchen gadgets!) you can do like we do and dirty one less thing...

Transfer puree to bowl.

Heat butter in same pot over medium-high heat. Add flour; whisk until smooth. Cook until roux is peanut butter color, whisking often, about 7 minutes. Whisk in remaining 8 cups broth and bring to boil, whisking often. Add greens puree, then ham. Simmer gumbo 10 minutes to blend flavors. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cool slightly; chill uncovered until cold, then cover and keep chilled. Rewarm over medium heat before serving.)
Mound 1/4 cup warm rice in center of each bowl. Ladle gumbo around rice.

*A powder made from ground sassafras leaves; available in the spice section of some supermarkets and at specialty foods stores.

February 1, 2010

It's all about the pork

By now you may know I have this little tiny fondness for just about anything made from a pig. From bacon to ham, chops, ribs and loins, cheeks, roasts, sausages and shanks, there is not much I won't go "gaga" over. Oh! and lets not forget the ever lovely and sinful chicharrone with a spritz of lime, sprinkle of salt and a dash of Tapatio sauce...Mmmmmmm.

Maybe it has to do with 5 years of raising pigs for market in 4H and selling them at the fair. Forgive the mullet, it was the 80's and I thought it was cool.

The only reason we got this picture is because someone was chasing the stupid thing past me....Note the pissed off face, Chunky ran by me several times before they got the picture. After chasing him through the midway at the fair you can begin to see why when the buyer gave my pig back to me after purchasing him, I told him we would have a BBQ.

Truly, if I ever in my lifetime had some sort of disposable ridiculous income, I might open a restaurant called PFR. Pork Fat Rules. And everything would have some sort of pork in it. Somehow. And vegetarians beware, I am not kidding when I say everything.

I love pork so much that after seeing a show on the Food Network that featured a shop in San Francisco that processes all of its own salami, prosciutto, bacon and other "Tasty Salted Pig Parts" that I made a pilgrimage to see, taste and buy. When I got there, the angels...they did sing a little for me over the din of the thousand other people in the Ferry Building. And the pork was good, yes....better than good! Mortadella with truffles and pistachios, thin sliced coppa salami and brown sugar and wild fennel sausage. This place was heaven for me, it would only get better if I was able to go behind the glass walls and help them make thier next batch of salami or prosciutto. Next time you are in San Francisco, check out Boccalone Salumeria and bring some lovin' home...don't forget to try the Nduja...it is a soft ripened salami with excellent spice. Think chorizo in a spreadable form....mmmmmmmmmm.

So really my friends, it comes as no surprise that I picked out a pork based recipe for a get together at my house featuring some of my favorite people. I was super torn between the cover recipe on the new Bon Appetit and this one and the deciding factor was simple. The short rib sandwiches sounded delish and I will probably make them very soon. But really? How can I resist a recipe that has not just one kind of pork......

not even two kinds of pork...

but THREE!!!!

Oh yes, you read right. Three kinds of pork. And porcini mushrooms, which come at a very dear price but are irreplaceable in a recipe because of the insane flavor they impart. And some other stuff that I will get to eventually. That you serve over.....Homemade potato gnocchi. OK really? Did I even have to think about that one? Nope! Done deal!

As I had never made gnocchi before, but enjoyed them in many a dinner, I was pretty excited about the prospect of trying something new. Generally I see gnocchi in restaurants in a cream or cheese based sauce which is altogether delicious, but it is also the reason my friends and I refer to the little boogers as "gut bombs". They are not the lightest of starches, and tend to plop right on my ass and make themselves at home. When paired with a lighter sauce, they somehow don't feel as heavy though. :)

I stuck pretty true to the recipe, the only change I made was to make a quick roasted pork stock out of the bones from my country ribs + carrots + onion + celery. I figured if I was having such a pork laden dish, why wreck it with chicken broth???

This is a little bit of a labor of love, you can make some stuff ahead of time and hold it, but it took me about 3 hours total to make the ragu and the raw gnocchi. This way I was ready to hang with my friends, eat appetizers and then just boil the gnocchi and grate some Parmesan when it was time to eat! And in just reading the recipe right now I realized I forgot to garnish it with the basil last night....it would probably be a very nice addition, but it wasn't missed.

I actually doubled the gnocchi recipe on accident and was able to freeze the leftovers for future use. The Ragu recipe fed 6 of us, with leftovers for a couple of meals waiting for me in the fridge. :)

And to top off the night my darling friend Sarah who loves food as much as I do (we met in culinary school) was charged with bringing a salad to dinner...my only request was to keep with the Italian theme. So she brought a gorgeous salad....layers of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and avocado. With boconccini (mozzarella balls), 2 kinds of salami, crispy Parmesan toasts and a sheet of melted crispy Parmesan cheese. I am not sure what we all liked better, the salad with cheesy pork goodness or the pork goodness wrapped around fluffy gut bombs topped with cheese.

Pork & Wild Mushroom Ragu
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 1/2 cups boiling water
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
8 ounces sliced crimini (baby bella) mushrooms
2 garlic cloves, minced
Coarse kosher salt
2 1/2 cups dry white wine, divided
1 pound boneless country-style pork ribs, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 ounces 1/4-inch-thick slices coppa or prosciutto, chopped
6 ounces fresh mild Italian sausages, casings removed (about 2 links)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
2 cups crushed tomatoes or crushed tomatoes with added puree
1 cup (or more) low-salt chicken broth (Or Pork broth if you are so inclined!!!)
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
Potato Gnocchi
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Place dried porcini mushrooms in medium bowl; pour 1 1/2 cups boiling water over. Let stand until mushrooms are soft, about 45 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer mushrooms to cutting board and chop coarsely. Reserve soaking liquid.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add crimini mushrooms and garlic; sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper and sauté until beginning to soften, 2 to 3 minutes. Add 1/2 cup wine and simmer until crimini mushrooms are soft, about 4 minutes. Set aside (there may still be liquid in skillet).

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Sprinkle pork with coarse salt and pepper. Add pork to pot and sauté until browned in spots, about 6 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer pork to medium bowl. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat from pot. Reduce heat to medium. Add coppa/proscuitto and stir 1 minute. Add sausages and cook until brown, breaking up into small pieces with back of spoon, about 3 minutes. Add onion, carrot, and celery. Cover pot and cook vegetables until soft, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes. Add remaining 2 cups wine; bring to boil, scraping up any browned bits. Simmer until almost all liquid is absorbed. Add tomatoes, 1 cup broth, bay leaves, reserved pork, and porcini mushrooms. Pour in reserved porcini soaking liquid, leaving any sediment behind in bowl. Bring to boil; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered until pork is tender, adding more broth by 1/4 cupfuls if dry, about 1 hour.

If it is super liquid-y, you can pull out some of the liquid and reduce in a saucepan until it is a bit thicker, I did this and it turned out perfect.

Stir crimini mushroom mixture in skillet into ragù. Season with salt and pepper.

Spoon off fat from surface of ragù stir in basil. Add Potato Gnocchi; toss gently to coat. Simmer over medium heat until gnocchi are heated through, 3 to 5 minutes.

Potato Gnocchi
1 1/2 pounds russet potatoes, scrubbed
1 cup (or more) all purpose flour
1 large egg yolk, beaten to blend
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
Large pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon olive oil

Special equipment: Potato ricer or food mill

Preheat oven to 400°F. Pierce potatoes in several places and bake until soft, about 1 hour. Cool slightly. Cut potatoes in half. Working in batches, scoop hot flesh into potato ricer or food mill. Rice potatoes onto rimmed baking sheet; spread out and cool to room temperature.

Line large baking sheet with parchment paper. Transfer potatoes to large bowl. Add 1 cup flour; toss to coat. Form well in center of potato mixture. Add egg yolk, coarse salt, and nutmeg; stir with fork until mixture is evenly moistened (mixture will look shaggy).

Turn mixture out onto lightly floured work surface. Knead until dough comes together, sprinkling dough with flour very lightly only if dough is very sticky. Form dough into ball; divide into 4 pieces. Roll each piece between hands and work surface into 3/4-inch-thick rope. Cut each rope into 3/4-inch pieces. Place gnocchi on prepared baking sheet.

Working in batches, cook gnocchi in large pot of boiling salted water until gnocchi rise to surface of water. Continue to simmer gnocchi until cooked through and tender, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Using slotted spoon, carefully transfer gnocchi to bowl. Drizzle gnocchi with olive oil and toss to coat.

The only thing I did different here was in the shaping of the gnocchi....the recipe says just to cut them, which is fine. But I wanted mine to look like the gnocchi I see in restaurants and stores. So I individually pressed each little "pillow" with the tines of a fork to give it the characteristic ridges that gnocchi are known for. It is not necessary by any means and is pretty time consuming, but it made me happy. :) If you make too many and want to freeze them, toss them with a little flour and place in a ziploc bag to freeze. You may never buy gnocchi again, this was too easy!