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Layered Lyonnaise

June 18th, 2012 — 6:49am
lyonnaise potatoes

Lyonnaise Potatoes

My sister called the other day. Her complaint; she had too much basil from the garden and no idea what to do with it. I would have suggested pesto, but it is not one of her favorites. Instead I suggested pureeing the basil like pesto and making ice cubes with it for use when fresh basil is not available. Problem solved.

Then I realized that I had my own basil problem. Not only did we plant two new basil plants, but four basil plants sprouted in the garden from seeds dropped by last year’s crop. I use basil in just about everything savory just to use the leaves up as fast as possible. And it sometimes ends up in unusual places with some very nice consequences. Last night I prepared Lyonnaise potatoes layered with basil. Usually I would opt for some thyme with Lyonnaise potatoes. But the basil was delicious and added a depth of character that placed the dish in the “over-the-top” category.

I took the extra step of using the mandolin to cut extra-thin slices of potato and onion. Normally I would slice the potatoes free-style. But honestly the layering allowed a better dispersal of all the flavors. And the two layers of basil leaves really made the dish seem more like a potato galette without the crust. Come to think if it, a bit of crust might have been a great addition!

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The Blogging Wilderness

June 11th, 2012 — 9:00am
catalan pastis

Catalan Pastis

Writing a food blog can be a lonely pursuit. I can actually measure the number of visitors to my site daily, noticing the trend over time keeps going up. I can also figure out which recipes are visited most frequently. Unfortunately strangers tend not to leave comments on the site so I am never really sure how well it is received.

I was honored when a Brazilian travel magazine featured my Buenos Aires restaurant reviews along with the New York Times reviews. I guess you cannot get closer to being taken seriously than that. I also see my food pictures and recipes featured on Pinterest. But who bestows this recognition is hard to figure out.

bucatini puttanesca

Bucatini Puttanesca

My good friend David Allen who has written for the blog and posts comments fairly regularly took another step for me and nominated me for a Food Stories Award for Excellence in Storytelling. I read his blog Cocoa and Lavender weekly. Sometimes it is just fun to look at the pictures. He goes to a lot of effort to make his food look great. Something to which I am not so dedicated. So, thank you David. It is nice to know at least one person who enjoys my posts! And if you enjoy it as well please feel free to post a comment.

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Garden Surprises

June 8th, 2012 — 9:18am
calabaza and butternut squash hybrid

Exterior Calabaza and Butternut Hybrid

We try to compost and recycle as much as we can. I am not sure we are trying to reduce our “carbon footprint” or we just hate to see anything go to waste. Over the past 10 years we have gone from throwing away two large trash bags of material per week to about one-third of a trash bag per week. Most of this is kitty litter and the very few things we cannot compost or recycle.

Once you start composting your realize that the pile of detritus is an amazing thing. It actually takes on a life of its own. When done correctly it is pleasant smelling, somewhere between earthy and the smell of yogurt. With enough citrus elements it actually smells a lot like a fruit drink. The color changes from greens and browns to a dense chocolate color. And when spread over the garden it yields some incredible plants, intended and unintended.

I am guessing that our compost never gets to a very hot temperature as many of the seeds that end up in the pile will germinate once added to the garden. We have become used to cucumbers growing among the tomatoes and squash sprouting around the basil. This year we have had two very surprising guests in the garden. The first are two tomatillo plants; surprising only because I cannot remember the last time I made tomatillo salsa. The second seems to be a plant that has hybridized from two foods we compost regularly, butternut squash and calabaza squash, a Mexican squash similar to zucchini although a bit fatter and lighter in color.

calabaza and butternut hybrid

Interior Calabaza and Butternut Hybrid

This hybrid squash has the interior texture and color of the butternut squash, with very tiny translucent seeds. The exterior is more like the calabaza, green and readily edible although a bit tougher than its true Mexican cousin. We have prepared it sauteed and baked. It is less sugary than the butternut, but much more flavorful than the calabaza. And since we did not grow either calabaza or butternut squash last year we have no idea how the two species could have crossed unless the compost elves did some of their magic.

We have saved some of the seeds in the hope that it is not a sterile plant like so many other hybrids. If not we may have found a new species of squash. Patent office here we come!

calabaza and butternut on the vine

Calabaza and Butternut Hybrid On The Vine

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A Turkey In Every Pot

June 1st, 2012 — 8:01am
braised turkey with white beans

Braised Turkey With White Beans

While a “chicken in every pot” is a more common sign of prosperity, in this case the more flavorful turkey brought a great deal of happiness to the dinner table recently. Turkey of the non-frozen variety is often hard to come by unless it is the holiday season. Thankfully our local Mexican market carries turkey legs throughout the year. And with such a flavorful cut I wanted to see how they could be prepared without baking them.

My fallback position is usually braising. Although the shape of the turkey leg does not easily lend itself to browning and immersion in a liquid. Undaunted I took the recipe a step further and decided to cook white beans with the turkey legs, similar to the beans and pork shank I saw served in Barcelona. What could be better than a turkey in every pot and the rest of the meal cooking with it in the same pot? I hate to clean more pots and pans than necessary.

To get the recipe to have enough flavor I brined the turkey legs first. All the browning and braising occurred in the same dutch oven. The flavor from the browning process was not lost. In addition to the usual ingredients I added onions, celery, and carrots, some bay seasoning and a large sprig of fresh sage. The whole thing was simmered in chicken broth at a very low temperature in the oven for about one and one-half hours. I finished the beans with a bit of dry white wine.

The turkey was moist and quite flavorful, absorbing all the goodness of the broth, the sage and the bay seasoning. The beans were al dente and were nicely supported by the vegetables that were tossed into the braising liquid. Braised turkey legs with white beans is one of those one pot/one dish meals that makes cooking so enjoyable.

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Variations On A Theme

May 27th, 2012 — 9:07am
gumbo pasta

Gumbo Penne Pasta

Sometimes you have the ingredients for a complicated dish but you do not feel like spending much time cooking a meal. In this case I had some andouille sausage and some frozen shrimp. This would normally lead me to making gumbo. Unfortunately that requires an investment of over an hour and a half of cooking time, with a fair amount of oversight. I have no problem throwing something in a pot and letting it cook by itself for awhile. But having to check in now in then was not in the cards.

This pushed me to find something that would cook in less than an hour and would be like gumbo. This led to one conclusion; a red tomato sauce using the gumbo ingredients. Honestly I approached this with some trepidation. I was afraid the tomatoes would overwhelm the other ingredients making it like marinara on the Mississippi. With a few tweeks, and reducing the cooking time of the vegetable ingredients, it turned out more like cajun on the Tiber.

In the end the celery and peppers were able to break through the tomatoes with a bit of remaining crunch. The addition of the pepper sauce and bay seasoning definitely gave it the hot New Orleans twist. Although I have to admit the shrimp were a bit lost with the other flavors, where as in gumbo they really hold up on their own. Not at all a bad combination if you are looking for something different on your pasta. So gumbo pasta? Not such a stretch after all.

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Odds and Ends

May 22nd, 2012 — 8:59am
cabbage and fennel gratin

Cabbage and Fennel Gratin

Sometimes you find yourself with some weird combinations of foods that through lethargy or the passage of time pose an interesting set of cooking challenges, or some would say opportunities. In this case I had one fennel bulb left in the garden that was about to flower and a head of cabbage in the refrigerator that was just about to reach the point of no return. I thought about doing some fennel and cabbage slaw. However the cabbage was not the freshest and the fennel was a bit tough having sat out in the heat of the approaching summer. Some sort of cooking was going to be required to use them in their current state.

I fell back on the old gratin idea. Although this time I used a bit of a twist. Instead of the usual briny, melting cheeses I chose to go with a milder, less intrusive queso fresco. This allowed me to add some interesting spices, fennel and caraway seeds. I browned the fennel with some red onion first. I then cut the cabbage into eight pieces and I browned the pieces while trying to keep them relatively intact. I do not like the visual of mushy cabbage on a plate. The onion and fennel went on the bottom of a baking dish. The cabbage went on top. The mixture was sprinkled with fennel and caraway seeds and topped with the queso fresco. I added a bit of broth, in this case beef broth, although a vegetable or chicken broth would have worked just as well. I baked the whole mixture covered for about an hour.

The result was really quite good. It was cheesy but not overly so. The cabbage pieces made a nice presentation on the plate. And the fennel and caraway made it just interesting enough to write down the recipe. So if you ever get caught with some cabbage and fennel you might want to try this twist on a gratin.

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Old Inspirations

May 14th, 2012 — 8:01am
chicken marsala

Earthy Chicken Marsala

As the spring harvest winds down (leeks, fennel, and greens) and before the summer harvest kicks in (tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant) there is a period of rather uninspired cooking. After a while there are only so many chicken parts to braise, pork sections to roast or grill, and pasta sauces from canned ingredients that you end up in an endless cycle of good but ho-hum meals. Without the inspiration of truly fresh ingredients I find it hard to get excited about preparing another meal.

Although certain habits never die no matter the season. Once again I had one of my oh-my-god-these-are-so-cheap moments in the grocery store and bought a huge package of skinless, boneless chicken thighs. Packaged for a family of eight or ten they were too tempting to pass up. Despite the money-saving inspiration I was dreading another pounding, breading, browning and saucing moment with the chicken thighs. I really needed a less labor-intensive project when I remembered chicken marsala.

Of course there would be some pounding, some dredging in flour, and some browning of the thighs. But the thighs could be finished in the sauce. And there is something so appealing about loads of fresh mushrooms cooked in wine to top the chicken. To make it more inspiring I used fresh sage from the garden to add another dimension to the sauce. Served over a bed of buttered fettucine, the earthy goodness of the mushrooms shone through with just a hint of the wine served with a tender, braised chicken thigh. I had long ago forgotten about this recipe. Thanks for old inspirations.

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Strange Beginning to 2012

April 6th, 2012 — 8:59am
Tornado Trying to Form

Tornado Trying to Form

With the Mayan calendar predicting the end of the world as we know it later this year, I have been keeping my eye on any strange occurrences, perhaps pointing to the final outcome. We had an unusually warm and surprisingly wet (no snow) winter this year. With all the predictions of a continued drought we are now well ahead of our rainfall for the year with some of the reservoirs releasing water to control flooding. What a difference a few months of rain can make. While we had a pretty nasty outbreak of stormy weather this week, including 10 tornadoes within 10 miles of here, our weather has been relatively quiet, albeit a bit cloudy. You can see a tornado trying to form in the picture above (hard to see but if you look at the gap in the trees you can see the clouds lowering).

bulb fennel

Finocchio Gigante di Napoli

We have had a few garden miracles this year. For the first time we were able to grow fennel in its bulb form, or more technically finocchio gigante di Napoli. Fresh out of the garden it has an incredibly mild taste. I used it to create a new rice salad recipe (sorry forgot to take a picture) and of course one of my favorites a salad of oranges and fennel.

perennial strawberry

The Miracle Perennial Strawberry Plant

Other garden miracles include a strawberry that acted more like a perennial than a fruiting annual. Kept in a pot it was planted last spring, made it through the heat of last summer, the mildness of the winter, and recently began blooming and creating strawberries all over again. Unfortunately the squirrels really like strawberries. They do not bother with the fruit ripening. So while it is nice to know we have created a perennial variety of strawberry I do not recall ever eating any of the fruit.

Another garden miracle is the blooming of the garden sage. I know that most sages will bloom but I have never seen the garden variety bloom, at least in Texas. It was moved to a new location to prevent overwatering which may be the reason for the blooms. It is just one more happy addition to the garden.

garden sage blooming

Blooming Garden Sage

With the increase in rain and the mild winter I went ahead and planted tomatoes and peppers about one month early this year. The result is that we have tomatoes getting ready to ripen and some spicy banana peppers almost ready to be harvested. Perhaps the signs for 2012 are unusual but certainly not so ominous.

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March 22nd, 2012 — 3:00pm
ancho chile relleno

Ancho Chile Relleno

We recently returned from a trip to Santa Fe which included a bit of sightseeing, a lot of snow, and a large amount of eating and drinking. With all the restaurants in Santa Fe it is pretty easy to eat out for every meal and find some incredibly good food without having to repeat a restaurant. We opted to have breakfast and lunch out and spent the evenings cooking in. We had access to a very large kitchen and close access to an extensive wine cellar. There was no apparent reason to navigate the winding roads of Santa Fe at night with such culinary potential close at hand.

We spent one morning and early afternoon at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. We opted for a three hour hands-on cooking class in “rellenos” or more specifically chile rellenos. There were four types of chile rellenos to prepare, cream cheese-stuffed jalapenos, ancho chile rellenos, the classic chile rellenos, and chiles en nogada. I had never used dried chiles for purposes of reconstituting and stuffing. As the class split into recipe groups we chose the ancho chile rellenos.

stuffed pickled jalapenos

Stuffed Pickled Jalapenos

I am always a bit loathe to take these types of classes especially on cruise ships or trendy vacation spots. Typically the class turns into more of a comedy routine and you really do not learn anything except the chefs usually do not really know what they are talking about. In this case the chef, Deena Chafetz, was entertaining and full of useful information. She was especially helpful in the basics of cooking at a high altitude; recipes using liquids tend to cook a bit slower (especially beans) and recipes with leavening have to be adjusted. She was also especially good at letting the participants have their way with a recipe without too much interference except when asked. I especially liked the large plastic bin in which you put all your dirty pots, pans, and utensils. But as Chef Chafetz pointed out they do not work so well in your own home. Unfortunately such bins do not automatically clean the dishes. Rats!

I recently recreated two of the recipes at home; the stuffed jalapenos and the ancho chile rellenos. As with every recipe I had to tinker with it a bit. I substituted ricotta cheese for the cream cheese. I felt the cream cheese was just too sweet to be used with the pickled jalapenos. And the ancho chile relleno was adjusted using some cinnamon and nutmeg to give it more of a Mexican flavor than a New Mexican flavor. As people in Santa Fe continuously point out Mexican and New Mexican cooking are entirely different. (OK, I get it! Geesh!) The original recipes are included with a tip of the hat to Chef Chafetz, and Chef Noe Cano who cooks incredible beans (which we used at the cooking school) and who also made the dirty dishes miraculously disappear into some unseen section of the kitchen. If only he could do both at my house.

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What Happened to Winter?

March 15th, 2012 — 2:58pm
broccoli seed pods

If You Can't Eat Them Arrange Them

Since the winter solstice we have had very little weather resembling winter. There were a few nights when the temperature dropped into the mid-twenties. But we never had one day where the temperature stayed below freezing for the entire day. This is quite unusual even for Dallas standards. Usually we get a string of a few days where the temperature hovers just below the freezing point.

The warm weather led to some unusual happenstances. First our broccoli grew like gangbusters only to go straight to blooming instead of forming edible flowerets. This was a boon for the bees that never actually got a chance to hibernate this year. We let the broccoli flower and ultimately it led to the stalks offering up seed pods. Something I did not know broccoli was capable of forming. So as not to be a total loss I made an arrangement of them for the table. If we were not going to eat the broccoli we were at least going to look at it while eating dinner.

meyer lemon in bloom

Meyer Lemon in Bloom

The warmer weather also allowed us to keep a handful of Meyer lemon fruits on the tree throughout the winter. Usually a prolonged cold snap finishes of the fruit and we have to hope that the spring will bring more blooms and more fruit by the end of summer. Unfortunately the heat of the summer is not so kind to the Meyer lemon tree. If you do not get a good batch of winter fruit you are pretty much out of luck. Not only do we have some fruits for harvesting in a few weeks, the tree is also in full bloom, making the backyard smell wonderful and keeping the bees buzzing around.

migrating cedar waxwings

Migrating Cedar Waxwings

Finally I went out to the garden, which already has tomatoes and peppers planted in it, and discovered that the cedar waxwings are migrating about one month early this year. They fly up on the warm southern winds from Mexico and places south stopping to eat all the red berries off the holly trees. You are lucky to see them migrating at all as they can pretty much blow through an acre of holly bushes in about 30 minutes. But there they were, a big group of happy, fat cedar waxwings on their long trek to Minnesota or points north. I guess we can assume that this winter is over for good.

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