Tuesday, May 3, 2011

For the love of Morels

It all started last spring when I went on my very first foray with the Mycological Association of Greater Washington.  It was April, and a bit like this April- damp and dreary.  I headed out into the woods near my house with several wild mushroom experts in search for the great morel.  If you are not familiar with this amazing fungus then check out what wiki has to say: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morchella, or just google "Morel" and thousands of websites will appear.  In general, they are cone shaped with a spongy look.  (Like in the picture above).  They come in black, brown-yellow, yellow and probably other colors I don't know about.  The taste is delicate, earthy and delicious - you just have to experience it to know.

So what is all the fuss about?  Well for one- they are only found for approximately 4-6 weeks per year.
Where to find: woody areas - dead elm, tulip poplar trees, conifers, and I even found 2 next to a cherry tree in my backyard!  So the other big fuss is that it is a totally obsessive hobby.  I have spent nearly 12 hours in the last two weeks searching for these precious gems; on my hands and knees crawling through the brush and fallen trees, passing snakes (and even a bat today) which I am NOT a fan of, hulling through trenches of mud, climbing tree limbs to catch a better glance.  All this to find just 4 or 5 morels- YES.  You have to try it to see what I mean.  I am completely consumed with the hunt. It's on my mind morning, noon, and night. 
I finished work early today and went back out into the woods to I spot where I found a few morels last week.  It was a success for me- about a dozen found in a little less than an hour.  The first one you find is miraculous, and then you sit on your knees scoping the forest floor for more.  Today was especially wicked on the knees, as the area I was in had a lot of foliage and tree limbs to tangle with.  I spent the better part of the hour walking at half height. 
The season is coming to a close now, but there are still mushrooms to be found.  And with all the cool weather, the season may extend a few weeks.  Best times to hunt are following a good rain.  Search the woods - especially heavily foliage areas with lots of dead wood.  Look at the trees and see if you can figure out what is what; I am very bad at this which probably is why I have only found 30 or so morels this season. 

What to do when you find some?  Take a brown paper bag or a mesh bad is even better.  Something with small holes that allow the mushrooms to drop their spores on the ground as you walk- this will ensure continuing growth for seasons to follow.  Keep the morels in the refrigerator and use within a few days.  Or you can dry them for long term storage (I've never found that many to make it worth my wild).  Morels must be cooked- DO NOT EAT RAW!   Clean off all the dirt , cut off just a bit at the stem, and leave whole or cut in half.  I like to saute them in butter with salt and pepper.  That's it - make it simple as you don't want to overpower their earthy flavor. 
Good luck and Bon App!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


For the last 2 months I have been working once a week for a Jewish family, helping them create weekly Shabbos/Shabbat (Sabbath) dinners.  It has been an awesome learning experience as the family keeps kosher so therefore, I must abide by the kosher cooking laws.  And let me tell you, there are a lot.  Dairy and meat are never mixed.  There are separate counter spaces for the two as well as separate ovens and stove top burners, different sets of plates, utensils, bowls, etc.  Certain proteins (mainly pork and shellfish) are off limits, as well as certain vegetables.  Kosher law prohibits eating bugs, so leafy greens, spongy veggies (broccoli or cauliflower to name a few) and some other odds and ends must be eliminated from the menu or carefully cleaned.  All meats, dairy, and processed foods must have the kosher symbol on them.  There are a few different symbols of which I am still learning as I do the weekly shopping.   I am also not allowed to turn on the oven/burners, so someone must be present to do this for me.  The purpose, to my knowledge, is that a Jewish person must be part of the cooking process in some way, shape, or form.

Passover is a 7 or 8 day festival celebrating the Jews' freedom from slavery and the fight from Egypt.  There are many traditions and observances that go along with this celebration.  The main observance is the removal of wheat products or leavened bread (Chametz).  The purpose stemming from the fact that the Jews' did not have time to let their bread rise when leaving Egypt.
Chametz includes anything made from the wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt, as well as the avoidance of rice, corn, and legumes - all items commonly used to make bread.  One interesting part of Passover (for those that keep kosher) is that the entire house must be cleaned (hence spring cleaning) to make sure there are no "Chametz" particles in the house.  The kitchen was cleaned thoroughly, and all the drawers were sealed shut. All surfaces (including the stove, fridge and freezer) that come in contact with food had to be covered with foil or contact paper.   
Last week I spent several days helping to prepare meals for Passover this week. When I arrived for cooking, the cleaning was just finishing.  I learned that all the food products from the pantry, freezer, and fridge, were moved out of the house and into the garage, where the family had to eat their meals for the last week.  A whole new set of kitchen equipment (mixing bowls, food processor, pots and pans, utensils, etc.) are brought out each year for this week long holiday. 
Foods (with the exception of fresh vegetables) must be Kosher for Passover (which can be hard to find- the family had to travel 3 hours to Chicago to buy the items).  The family is planning to have ~150 guests for dinner during the week = LOTS of food.  Twenty chickens, 15 pounds of carrots, 20 onions, 5 pounds of celery, and 48 squash were peeled, diced, and prepped in one day for this passover event.  We made 14 pans of brownies, 2 soups (sweet and sour cabbage and sweet and sour meatball), 100 cups of fruit salad, and many other traditional (and non-traditional) foods. 
Some Traditional foods:  Potato kugel,  roasted chicken, gefilte fish (some sort of poached fish dumpling- ours were pre-made), and charoset (a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine).  The food preparation was a lot of work, but more of an incredible learning experience for me.  I hope they enjoyed their Seder meal.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Ricotta - cheese making 101

I found an intriguing recipe for a pistachio-marzipan ricotta filled cake in the latest issue of Saveur - I so want to try and make it- looks so yummy, that with the fact I've never tried pistachio marzipan.  I've only had the traditional marzipan made with almonds.  So somewhere in reading this recipe I decided I wanted to try and make everything from scratch.  So the first step is to make the ricotta.  Yesterday I twiddled away several hours for shopping, one failed attempt, and one success for ricotta cheese.
It's actually pretty easy; the hard part was finding the citric acid.  You can find it online but then you have to pay the shipping which ends up being more than the product itself.  I checked in numerous grocery stores and vitamin shops but no luck.  I briefly wished I was back at my old job with easy access to all sorts of molecular grade chemicals (probably not the best idea)!  Finally I found everything I needed - cheesecloth, local whole milk, and citric acid - at Strawberry Fields, which is a local gourmet grocery.  It was mixed in with the spiced and baking supplies - Whole Foods may carry it too, but not sure.
At home, I broke out the Garde Manger cookbook from culinary school and found the cheese recipes.  It's been a long time since school so I had to consult my notes which weren't so helpful.   Here's how I did it:

  • Thermometer (meat one will do- need to register 185F)
  • Whole Milk- 1 gallon (good quality milk)
  • 1 tsp. Citric Acid
  • 2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 oz. water
  • Cheesecloth
  • Strainer/Colander
  • Large pot
  • Dissolve the citric acid in the water (NOTE:  make sure it is fully dissolved- I think I missed this step my first try)
  • Heat the milk, citric acid (in water), and salt over medium heat in a large stock pot.  Keep the thermometer in the pot to monitor the temperature.   Stir the milk often to prevent scorching - heat until the temperature reaches 185F (85C). 
  • When it's reached 185F, remove from heat and allow it to rest for 10-20 minutes - this will allow for curdling.
  • Line a colander with the cheesecloth and place over a large bowl.  Drain the curd into the cheesecloth-lined colander, and place the whole contraption in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour - up to 4hours. Voila- your cheese is ready.  You can store it in an air tight container for up to 1 week in the refrigerator.

Problems- well- these happen, especially during your first attempts.  My first run resulted in about 2 curds!  So without straining, I placed the milk back on the heat, dissolved another tsp. of citric acid (making sure it was completely dissolved), added a pinch more salt, and watched the temperature carefully.   When it reached 185F, I had a lot of curd.  It's all about trial and error.  Good luck!

Note- the little brown spot is from scorched milk!  Oops

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Easy weeknight dinner

The other night I wasn't in the mood for serious cooking.  After reviewing the contents of the fridge, and deciding what needed "to go" soon, I decided on a classic- burritos.  I love making burritos because the cooking and prep time are both fairly minimal, it's always soul satisfying, and I always take seconds!

I'm sure you've made burritos before, but do you have a standard recipe, or do you just throw whatever you have available in the pan?   Using some older veggies, 1/2 pack of meat, and a left-over egg white from an earlier batch of brownies, I managed to cook up some delicious burritos.   Of course I jazzed it up a bit with some cilantro spinach flavored wraps (from Trader Joe's- the habanero lime ones are awesome too), and habanero-lime salsa.  Sour cream added nice richness to the egg white and chorizo mixture.  Adding chorizo to my burritos is a new treat after finding a great local producer that sells both ground and sausage link chorizo  (Triple S Farms). 

My ingredients:
1/2 lb. chorizo
1 egg white
1 poblano pepper - chopped
1/2 onion- chopped
3 chipotle peppers in adobe sauce - diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 can black beans
sour cream
lettuce- chopped
Wisconsin cheddar- grated

Pop the wraps in the oven on low temp for just a few minutes so they are nice and warm, and the cheese will melt right away.  Saute the onion, garlic and peppers.  Set aside.  Saute the egg and chorizo - add back in the veggies, chipotle peppers and beans- cook for a few minutes.  Fill your wrap with cheese and sour cream, add the protein/veg mix, top with some lettuce and salsa.  Voila- Bon App!

PS- Please feel free to leave your comments, suggestions, criticisms, etc.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Top Chef Edition

In preparation for tonight's Top Chef finale (part1 I think- unless someone can comment on whether tonight is actually the last episode- I can't find any information!), I wanted to add a few of my favorite cocktail recipes.  Make a drink, settle in, and watch the Caribbean fun!

Old Tom Collins:

2 oz. Ransom Gin (this is a small batch, barrel aged gin- don't let the whisky color throw you- it's awesome)
2 oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/2 oz (or a good squeeze) of agave syrup (or sub. 1 tsp. of sugar)
3 oz. club soda
Mix the first 3 ingredients in a shaker preferably over ice.  Pour in glass and add soda. 


2oz of Bacardi Spice Rum
6 oz. Ginger ale (preferably a good, spicy one- Reed's Extra Ginger Brew  is good and pretty easy to find)

Pour rum over ice in a tall glass and fill with ginger ale.  Easy breezy!

Mint Julep

2.5 oz. Bourbon (Maker's Mark is a good choice)
2 tsp. water
1 tsp. powder sugar
4 sprigs of fresh mint

Muddle the mint with the sugar and water.  Add bourbon, shake well and pour over ice.

Long Island Ice Tea

1/2 oz. simple syrup
1/2 oz. triple sec
1/2 oz. vodka
1/2 oz. gin
1/2 oz. tequila
1/2 oz. rum
1 oz. lemon juice
3 oz. coke

Mix and enjoy responsibly - or you may not make it through the show!

So where did all that food come from....

In an effort to try and eat more sustainable and local foods, I have decided to try and document at least one meal per week.  This meaning that I am trying to trace down where my foods really come from, and how they were produced.  I may not find all the answers that I am looking for since the research is really only going to be done via Internet (although I wish I had the time and resources to venture across the land and explore farming like Michael Pollan).  My recent obsession of food findings is in fact due to Pollan; I have finally finished reading Omnivore's Dilemma - a fantastic read on how, why, and where our food really comes from. Pollan travels the country, interviewing many farmers, and documenting the industrial and pastoral food chains.  I definitely recommend this book if you haven't already read it.

While I was cooking my last blog meal- "The Irish Feast", I made note of the producers/manufacturer's of all the ingredients.  I'm listing the store names in case any of you interested readers shop at these same places, or buy the same brands, you will have an idea of where your food is coming from too.

Trader Joe's Note:  Quite a few items are from Trader Joe's - it's hard to get exact information since they have their own private label, however, they say that "Our customers can be assured that all products in Trader Joe's private label are sourced from non-genetically modified ingredients."  They also list that there is NO MSG, added trans fats, nor artificial colors or flavorings in any of their products.

Trader Joe's Butter
Apples - Organic from Washington Domex Superfreshgrowers.com  - tree fruit company that hasn't gotten any bad publicity as far as I can tell - that's good!
Parsnips- from Meijer - no producer name??
Onions- Organic from Peri and Sons Farms in NV  (rec'd score of A from BBB (Better Business Bureau)
Seasonings- sources unknown
Garlic- Christopher Ranch in Gilroy, CA  (garlic capital of the world FYI) - claim to use heirloom seeds; largest producer of garlic in the country...hmmm
Chicken Stock- Organic from Trader Joe's
Sour Cream- Organic - Meijer
Parsley- USA Little Bear Brand - of which I just read that their curly parsley and cilantro were both recalled in Dec. for positive testing of salmonella - great..

Meijer Naturals Old Fashioned Oats - No GMO's is the only thing I can get from this label
All-purpose flour, sugar, and baking soda - Trader Joe's
Rosemary - Infinite Herbs - whose website gives no info on how or where the product is produced
Milk - Kilgus Farms, grass fed cows with feeding pasture rotation; does not sell outside a 100 mile radius :) (and only 50 miles from my home- maybe I should take a drive out!)
Beef - Triple S Farms (local farmer whom I have met and like- still waiting to get out to his farm this spring)
Potatoes- Russets from Idaho ??
Carrots- Local from Blue Moon Farm
Peas - Organic from Meijer

Some good, some bad, some I'm just not too sure where it came from, which can be a large problem with store-brand or private-label items.  These grocers and distributors what to make their own niche in the organic market, but at what cost?  These private labels are anonymous by their own nature.  According to The Cornucopia Institue
"Our research indicates that the vast majority of organic eggs for private label brands are produced on industrial farms that house hundreds of thousands of birds and do not grant the birds meaningful outdoor access. If these grocery chains want to truly express a commitment to organics, and communicate this tangibly to their customer base, we would encourage them to specify on their label which egg producers and cooperatives they are "partnering with" and to fully participate, transparently, in The Cornucopia Institute research study and scorecard."
Now I really can't wait for spring/summer to arrive:  fresh produce from the garden and the farmer's market!
Good luck in you own shopping endeavors.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


For those of you in the Chicago land area- check out the Family Farmed Expo this weekend (Thurs-Sat.) at University of Illinois-Chicago.  http://www.familyfarmedexpo.com/

The event is packed with workshops, chef demos (including Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard), exhibits, meet the farmers, business conferences and more.  Join other fans of locally and responsibly produced food at this even promoting Midwest farmers and producers. 

St. Patrick's Day Feast

Brown Butter Soda Bread
(recipe of Chef Cathal Armstrong - Restaurant Eve, Alexandria, VA http://www.restauranteve.com/
I recently saw this recipe and thought I'd give it a try- especially since I've never made Irish Soda Bread - this is not a traditional version, rather a twist on an old classic.  In case you aren't familiar with the bread (as I was not)- it's a quick bread that uses baking soda in place of yeast, requires little kneading, no rising time (since you don't have to wait for the yeast to do it's thing), and consists of the following main ingredients:  flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk.  This version uses rosemary and brown butter to give a nutty flavor to the bread.  The cross at the top of the bread is indicative to Irish Soda bread.  Some believe it is made to ward off the devil, others (and more widely accepted) believe it is created to allow circulation and expansion of the dough while baking. 

Makes 2 medium loaves:
  • 1/2 stick of unsalted butter
  • 3 1/2 cups of all purpose flour
    1/2 loaf ready for baking
  • 1/2 cup old fashioned oats
  • 1 Tbls sugar
  • 1 Tbls chopped fresh rosemary
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 3/4 cup buttermilk (if you don't have buttermilk, add ~ 1-2 tsp of acid (lemon juice or white vinegar) to the milk and let stand for ~30 min. to allow curdling
Pre-heat oven to 375F

Stir butter in a heavy small saucepan over medium heat until melted, and then continue to cook about 3 minutes or until golden brown; remove from heat.
Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and sugar into a large bowl.  Mix in oats, rosemary and pepper.  Pour the buttermilk and brown butter over the mixture; stir with a fork until the flour mix is moistened, and then turn out onto a floured work surface.  Knead gently for a few turns - just enough to get the dough molded and a bit smooth (NOTE: overworking (kneading) the dough will result in a tough bread- you do not want to over develop the gluten).
Divide the dough in half, and shape each half into a ball.  Flatten the ball into a 6" round, and place on a baking sheet.  Brush the tops of the bread with a little melted butter, sprinkle with additional ground pepper, and cut a 1/2" deep "X" into the top of each dough. 
Bake the breads until deep golden brown - about 40 minutes.  Cool on a rack for 30 minutes. 
Excellent served slightly warm with butter.

For my first attempt, this bread turned out better than expected.  Lending off a sweet aroma, reminiscent of fresh baked biscuits; the taste was slightly sweet with a touch of rosemary and pepper. 

Irish Parsnip and Apple Soup

Parsnips, common to Ireland, were used quite often in the winter when many green vegetables were not available.  This comforting soup lends a good balance of sweet and spice.
(Serves 4-6 sides):
1 Tbls flour
1 pound of parsnips (~ 2 very large), peeled and thinly sliced
1 pound of apples (~2 large), peeled, cored and sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tsp curry powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp cardamom pods
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 litre chicken stock
3/4 cup heavy cream (or sour cream)
salt and pepper
chopped parsley

Melt the butter in a large stockpot/saucepan.  Add the parsnips, onion, and apples, cooking until just softened; Do Not brown.
Add the spices and garlic, and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes, stirring well.
Pour in the stock slowly, stirring until well mixed.  There should be enough stock to cover all the veg/fruit.  Turn the heat to simmer, cover the pot, and cook for ~40 minutes, or until the parsnips are fairly soft (may take up to an hour).  Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper.  Add the cream and mix well - Do Not let the soup come to a boil, or the cream will curdle.  Serve hot with chopped parsley. 
Irish Parsnip and Apple Soup with Brown Butter Soda Bread

Irish Stew

Traditional Irish Stew is a simple, pure peasant dish made with cheap and available ingredients of the season.  Potatoes and lamb dominate this dish since the Irish primarily grew root vegetables and raised sheep in the country's grassy hillsides.  The stew has evolved and adapted to include whatever offerings available in your area.  For instance, lamb is not as popular in America as it is in the British Isles, so beef is often substituted (as it is in the following recipe).  Other root veggies can also be substituted such as parsnips, turnips, or swedes.
Whichever you choose to include, the stew will be rich and hearty.

(Servings: 3-4)

* 1.5 pounds boneless lamb stew meat (or beef)
* 2 russet potatoes, peeled
* 3 large carrots, peeled
* 1 yellow onion, diced
* 2 Tbls chopped fresh parsley
* 1 1/2 cups of fresh or frozen peas
* Beef stock (2 -3 cups)
* salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 250F.  Cut the carrots and potatoes into fairly large chunks (as they will cook for quite a long time; pieces to small will become overcooked and soggy).  Place the chopped veggies and the meat into a large ovenproof dish (dutch oven works good) with a fitting lid.  Add 2 - 21/2 cups of beef stock to the pot, along with the chopped parsley, salt and pepper.  Be sure to season generously.  Put the pot on the stove top and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.  Then cover the pot and place in the oven for about 2 hours. 
Remove the pot from the oven and add the peas - also add more stock if the liquid is running low (the liquid should cover the meat and veg).  Cover the pot and continue to cook in the oven for about 30 more minutes.  Remove from the oven and let rest for 15 minutes. 
Bon App!

Up next:  Where did it all come from!  

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Frontera Grill

My goal here is not to write a whole lot of reviews, but I couldn't pass this one up; plus, it fits into the theme a bit, as a restaurant that practices sustainability and buys from local artisans. 
"Our aim is to serve flavorful, artisanal food grown responsibly by people we know."  -   Frontera Grill:  http://www.rickbayless.com/restaurants/sustainability.html
On a recent trip to Chicago, I seeked out a restaurant I've been dying to try for some time now- Frontera Grill - owned by celeb chef Rick Bayless.  The restaurant radiates with warm colors and is very inviting.  It was pretty crowded so we hovered at the bar waiting for open seats, sipping our afternoon cocktails - mine was a tamarind margarita, and D. had the mescal margarita which i quickly switched over to drinking as well.  The mescal drink is so delicious - made with Del Maguay single village mescal, 10yr old brandy, peychaud bitters and limonada.  I'm not sure if it's the mescal or some hidden gem they add in that gives the drink a subtle smoky flavor.  A must try!
To start with, we ordered the Verduras en Mole Verde - a casserole of roasted chayote accompanied by local winter veggies simmered in a spicy green sauce with black kale, served with warm tortillas.  If you have never tried chayote, it's a pear shaped fruit with a firm texture and a taste similar to summer squash.  The heat in the decadently creamy  sauce sneaks up on you in between the subtle flavors of the kale and chayote, and the crunch from the pepita's. 
Next we tried a sampling of entrees and sides:  Pork tacos, grilled green onions, a trio of salsas, Platanos con Crema, and Tortitias de Regueson.   The pork tacos are very simple, black beans, braised pork (from Maple Creek Farm in Wisconsin) and house made guacamole.  Looking at the plate, it doesn't scream excitement, but togther it makes wonderful sense.  The meat was tender, juicy and fresh. 
The Tortitias were a special that day, and well worth it: little cakes of house ricotta wrapped in swiss chard, and deep fried.  They lay in a pasilla sauce (dark, smoky, chili sauce) and accompanied by a peashoot salad, jack cheese, and a crispy epazote  (an ancient Mexican spice that has a rich flavor - hard to compare it to anything I know, so you must try it for yourself!)  The plantains were a traditional side:  sweet, fried, and mixed with a mild a cream sauce; tasty but not nearly as satisfying as the entrees.  A nice way to end a fantastic dining (and drinking) experience. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Kale, Bacon and Bread

Lately (by lately I mean the last 4-5 years) I've been having trouble finding decent bread.  There is a nice bakery in town, but with little variety and the hours don't suit me.  Other than that it's Meijer or County Market - I need not say more.  Every so often I tell myself I will make it my goal to bake my own bread this week.  So with my recent spare time, I searched through all my cookbooks and piles of pulled magazine pages and newspaper clippings to find, thus far, a great bread recipe.  I have been working on it for a few weeks and am fairly happy with the results - dark brown and crusty on the outside, chewy and soft on the inside. 

Along with the bread (not that I need something else because god knows I can eat a whole loaf in one sitting), I decided to go with a sort of side dish for dinner.  This is a Thanksgiving inspired side dish, one that is comforting during the long, cold winter months.  Plus who doesn't love Thanksgiving dishes.  We should eat more of them all year round as far as I'm concerned. 

No-Knead Crusty Bread (adapted from Sullivan Street Bakery in NYC)

Note:  my measurements are in metric - if you don't have a scale - go get one- NOW.  They are a must have for baking and pastry.  I use a Polder digital scale (http://www.polderonline.com/digital-scales.html).
  • 300g (grams) Unbleached bread flour
  • 75g.  Buckwheat flour
  • 75g. Wheat germ
  • 50g. Flaxseed meal
  • 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 10g. sea salt (fine grain)
  • 360 g. warm water
Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.  Add the warm water and mix (wooden spoon is useful here) just until the ingredients are combined into a sticky dough.  You may need to flour your hands and work it slightly.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it to ferment for about 8-10 hours - yes, you should start this early in the morning (or at the end of the night and let ferment overnight). 
Scrape the dough out onto a floured surface, and work the dough slightly for a few minutes- this is a new find (March 14th, 2011) that I have found to produce a bit lighter airy bread.  After kneading for 3-4 minutes, form dough into a round.  Proof the dough seam-side down in a well-floured banneton, or if you don't have one, as I don't - a floured tea cloth works just as good.  Let it proof for about 2-3 hours in a warm, draft-free place (the stove is good - make sure it's OFF please!).
Pre-heat the oven to 450F before baking.  Preheat the pan and lid as well.  A large stock pot, dutch oven or cast iron pan work well.  When the dough is risen, remove the hot pot and lid, sprinkle a little four onto the top of the dough and tip the loaf in upside down so the seam side is up.  Shake the loaf to center it in the pot, cover and let bake for 30 minutes.  Remove the lid, and finish baking about 15-20 more minutes.  The bread should be well browned and crusty.  Cool on a rack and enjoy the crackle!

Kale, Bacon and Beets (serves ~3)

Notes:  Try to buy local bacon- it's better.  I've been using Triple S Farms http://www.triplesfarms.com/index.html - it's got great flavor, and a perfect ratio of fat to meat. 
  • 5-6 Slices of Bacon
  • 1/2 large onion, sliced
  • 2 Tbl. almonds, sliced/slivered, toasted
  • 2 Tbl. golden raisins
  • 1/2 large potato, diced
  • 1 golden (or red) beet, diced
  • 1 1/2 bunch of kale, collards and/or swiss chard
  • 2 Tbl balsamic vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste
Place the potatoes and beets in an ovenproof dish, drizzle with olive oil and bake in 450F oven for about 25 minutes or until tender.
Wrip the leaves of the greens into small pieces.  Chop up the stems if using chard. 
Cook the bacon in a cast iron skillet - remove and set aside.  With 1 Tbl. bacon fat, carmalize the onions over med-low heat for about 15 minutes.  Add the chard stalks if using, raisins, and saute for 10-15 minutes.  Add the greens and vinegar, and cook for about 10 minutes or until the greens are wilted.  Mix in the almonds, potato and beets, and season to taste. 
This recipe is easily adaptable using a variety of greens, or other root veggies.
Bon App!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

In the mood for Pizza

I have a hard time finding good pizza for take out.  For the last 2 years I have been mostly eating frozen pizza's from Trader Joe's (which, by the way, are really good for frozen grocery pizza).  But seeing as there is no Trader Joe's nearby anymore (very sad), I decided this was the night to make my own.  It's been some time since I ventured into pizza dough, sauces and toppings on my own, but it's quite an easy task if you have a little time.  To me there is nothing more satisfying than making your own dough; the smell of the yeast marrying itself into the water and flour; the excitement of seeing the dough rise after an hour of two of anxiously waiting, trying not to peak; and the smell of freshly baked bread emanating through the house. 

So on to the pizza - there are all kinds of recipes out there for pizza dough.  I like the following recipe as it has a little diversity with the wheat and flax added in.  Try it out and see what you think.. or substitute for all bread flour if you're not feeling too adventurous.

Note on cookware:  I highly recommend investing in a good quality pizza stone if you don't have one - it offers a nice crispy crust, and the stone should last a lifetime.  I also like the circular steel pans with the holes in them - i have one passed down from my grandma that works great - just give it a little oil rub before putting the dough down.

Dough:  Yields one pizza (~12" round - fairly thin crust)
  • 1 1/3 cup bread flour
  • 1/3 cup wheat germ
  • 1/3 cup flax meal
  • 1/2 Tbls. yeast
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 Tbls. olive oil
  • 1/2 cup lukewarm water
Mix together the flour, wheat germ, flax meal, salt, and yeast in a large bowl.  Make a well in the center of the mix, and add the oil and water, gradually working into a soft dough.  After the dough is mixed to a fairly pliable and smooth texture, transfer it onto a floured surface (a clean counter top works well) and knead for about 8 minutes until it is elastic and smooth.
Rub some oil over the surface of the dough and return to the bowl.  Cover with a clean cloth or plastic wrap, place in a warm area (I find a kitchen cupboard works well), and leave to rise for about 1-2 hours.  The dough should be doubled in size.
Remove the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 1-2 minutes, knocking out the excess air.  Roll the dough out (using a rolling pin works best, but also stretching a bit with your hands too) into the desired shape of your pan. 
On to the sauce... I usually like to make a big batch of sauce and freeze some.  But tonight I had few ingredients and little time so here is a quick and easy sauce.
  • 1 14oz can of good quality chopped tomatoes (muir glen is a good option)
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 Tbls olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • few sprigs of fresh herbs (thyme, parsley, oregano)- if you don't have on hand, try some dried herbs
  • 1/2 Tbls balsamic vinegar
Saute the garlic for a few minutes until soft.  Add the remaining ingredients together (chop the herbs if you want them to remain in the sauce - otherwise remove after cooking).  Bring to a boil and then simmer for about 30minutes until it has thickened and reduced.  Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper.

Toppings :  your choice of course.  Diced jalapenos, sun dried tomatoes (thinly sliced), andouille sausage, fresh mozzarella and cheddar where my choices of the night.

Top your pizza dough with the sauce, toppings and cheese.  Bake in a pre-heated 400F oven for about 20 minutes, or until the cheese is golden and bubbly.  Remove the pizza and let it rest for a few minutes.  Bon app!

Monday, February 7, 2011

New dining experience - The Bread Company

After a long week we decided to go out for dinner last night.  Being in a new city for over a month now, I decided it was time to check out the dining scene in Champaign.  After several failed attempts (who knew they close restaurants for the Superbowl) we found an open spot - The Bread Company.  This restaurant praises itself to be an authentic swiss bakery.  Well, having lived in Switzerland, I think not.  Their menu is not very typical Swiss - okay there are a few items such as fondue, raclette, and some pâté (which they list as mousse) which are traditional Swiss dishes, however, the majority of the menu is fairly standard American fare.  I'm also very fond of Swiss breads - yeasty, semi-soft in the center with a hard shell.  Oh how I miss the pain noir (my absolute favorite brown bread that I cannot find anywhere else except for the little boulangerie, Jacquet). 
Perhaps it was an off night, or perhaps the bread is just not up to par, whichever the case, a plate of sliced white bread arrived which was stale, and similar to a brittle piece of cardboard which had been sitting in the sun for too long.  With that we tried to keep an open mind, and decided to go with a starter to share and an entrée each.  Our starter, braised leeks wrapped in mozzeralla and prosciutto (pictured above), arrived cold, limp and oily.  A half of one leek leaf that seemed to have been cooked hours in advance, lay wrapped in a small piece of mozzeralla and soggy prociutto.  Needless to say I was not a fan.  Moving on to the entrees, we each ordered a special: Shrimp and scallop fettucine and pear/gorgonzola/mozzeralla/walnut pizza.  At first glance, the pizza looked fairly good except for the fact that they neglected to top the outer third of the dough.  The first bite offered a punch of blue cheese and a large crunch of walnut (I forgot to mention that the walnuts were left whole and slightly scorched).  As I continued into the next few mouthfuls, there was no balance to carry the sting of the gorgonzola.  The pears were skeletal in comparison to the other ingredients, and the mozzeralla was lost in the mix.  Hungery for something mouth-watering, I swirled some fettucine onto my fork along with a sun-dried tomatoe and slice of scallop.  This did not help my cause; the scallops were overcooked, and the sauce was runny and bland. Memories of Olive Garden began to flood in, and I returned for one more attempt at the pizza. 
Well, my second dining experience here was not so great, but hope it can only get better.  In the meantime, I think I'll be back in my own kitchen this week.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Seasonal Notes and Stout Braised Short Ribs

What’s in season? Well, not too much right now seeing as the ground is covered in snow (unless you are lucky enough to be living in the tropics or some warm weather area of the world). But for the rest of us, it’s easy to be tempted by the spring and summer fruits and veggies at the grocery. But do you really want those tasteless, juiceless, dull colored tomatoes?

Most of the farmers markets are closed for the winter; however, there are a few here and there in the larger metro areas so go check them out. They are probably always selling smoked meats and cheeses as well as late-harvest fall fruits and veggies. Otherwise, check out your local Co-op (in Champaign-Urbana region – check out: Common Ground Food Co-Op )

Some great winter options include: Carrots, turnips, parsnips, rutabaga (swede), celeriac, fennel, sunchokes, leeks, beets, sweet potatoes, turnips, winter squash (acorn, butternut, etc.), collards, kale, brussel sprouts (try to buy on the stalk as they keep fresh longer), belgian endive, persimmons, pomegranates , Clementine’s, dates , and pears.

Stout Braised Short Ribs

When it’s snowing and frigid cold out, braising is the way to go. I love the technique of braising; the crisp, dark sear on the meat followed by a savory liquid to come in and eat up all the little bits of goodness stuck to the bottom of the pan. Then a long, slow simmer to harmoniously blend it all together. YUM!

Back in Maryland, I was a member of Polyface Farms buying club. If are so fortunate to live in the DC/MD/VA region and don’t know about the club – please, please, please check it out Polyface Yum.
And if you don’t know about Polyface, it’s a top non-industrial American farm run by Joel Salatin and family in Swoope, VA. The farm is self-sustaining, and is home to chickens, cattle, pigs, turkeys, and a few other creatures. All their products are fantastic – I’ve tried quite a few. In this recipe, I’m using the pork short ribs – nice distribution of fat and meat to give a succulent taste.

This recipe is adapted from Epicurous and makes for about 2 really hungry hippos as D. and I were this night.
Total time – about 5 hours including prep and cooking –this is a great recipe to make ahead as the dish develops a better depth of flavor overnight.

Spiced rub ribs


1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon curry powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
3 lb beef short ribs, cut into 4-inch pieces
1 cup of roughly chopped onion or leek – or both
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium carrots, rough chop
2-3 cups of rough chop root veggies (potatoes, parsnips, turnips, rutabaga, sweet potatoes, squash etc)
2 celery ribs, rough chop
1 bay leaf
5 cloves garlic (I leave whole- or you can slice)
1 cup of beef or chicken broth
1 12-oz bottle of Guinness

Put oven rack in lower third of oven and preheat oven to 375°F.
Stir together paprika, curry powder, cumin, pepper, salt, and mustard seeds in a small bowl until combined.
Rinse the ribs and pat dry with paper towels. Place them in a baking dish or just on a plate, and coat them all over (both sides) with the spice mixture. You will probably have some spice mix left over. You can use this later if you desire a lot of seasoning, or save for another day.
Let the ribs marry with the spice for about an hour – you can leave at room temperature.

Heat oil in dutch oven or large pot over high heat, and quickly sear the ribs on both sides (about 1-2 minutes per side). Remove ribs and set aside. Add the onion (leeks), carrots, celery, and any other root veggies you are using, along with the bay leaf and garlic to the pot and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to soften, about 3 minutes.
Add the broth, beer, and tomatoes, bring to a boil, and then reduce to simmer. Add the ribs back to the pot, cover, and braise over low heat on stove-top or preferably put into the oven for about 2 ½ hours.
Skim off any fat that has developed on the top and remove the bay leaf. Ready to serve with some crusty bread. (Note: if making ahead, cool completely at RT and then refrigerate. To reheat, place the pot in a 350°F oven for about one hour.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

To Start....

Hi – Where to start – okay- I’m currently living in Urbana, IL.  Just transplanted here after almost 3 years in the DC region and it’s quite a change.  Nothing too drastic though, since I grew up in the Midwest(NW IN). I spent my college years and a few thereafter in Ohio, then moving on to Athens, GA which offered me a clear vision of the south and a totally new perspective on southern food.  I also met my partner, Dietrich, while living the southern life, as well as attending Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta. 
After a few years we moved to Switzerland (french part) which really opened up my palate, and gave me a better standpoint on seasonal eating (we lived in a farming village)! Of course there are lots of stories here but I’ll get into that later I hope.  After too many months of struggling to get a work permit, I moved back to the US and landed a job in Maryland. I really enjoyed the booming culinary scene in DC, as well as all the foodie events in the area.  There are a tremendous amount of great meat purveyors and wineries in Virginia – some that I was lucky enough to sample- others I sadly missed the take.
Now Dietrich, I and the peanut gallery (Madi and Allie) are newbies to the Chambana (Champaign-Urbana) region in the prairie lands of Illinois. I have just started working part-time as a personal cook. Now that I have some spare time I’ve decided to take the plunge into the Food Blog world. 
My intentions for this space are to discuss fresh, fair, seasonal, sustainable and all around good food and drink.  Hopefully I can stay true and on tract with this; we shall see.  I know, I know, everyone is talking about healthy eating and organics and the likes there of.  But I know there are some really fantastic artisans of all crafts out here (and there- where you are too!), and some great food and drink can be made of such.