Friday, February 26, 2010

Coq au vin

Whoever thought of coq au vin, beef bourguignon, or anything else cooked slowly in wine, I'd like to say a resounding, Way to go, buddy! And I'm sure I'm not alone in my enthusiasm for this type of cooking. It requires a little effort on the front end, but the majority of the cooking happens in the oven, freeing you up to do any number of things. The final result is always deeply flavorful and while it seems a bit crazy to dump a bottle of wine into a pot--wine that you would otherwise happily guzzle sip--it's a wonderful dinner to sit down to, especially on a rainy night.

I used Ina Garten's recipe which can be found here. From start to finish, it took about an hour and a half. It would be a great dish to serve to company, as you could make it ahead of time and simply reheat right before serving. In fact, I'm sure letting the coq au vin sit for a few hours or even for a whole day would only deepen the flavors. I look forward to making this again, with two adjustments:

1) I probably won't use a whole chicken. Ultimately, I don't want to eat drumsticks and wings smothered in a sauce. To me, those parts are best when wielded by a pair of greedy paws, and elegant coq au vin doesn't really lend itself to such barbaric behavior. Next time I'll probably just use breast and thigh meat.

2) I will tie the thyme sprigs with a bit of kitchen twine so I can remove them easily in the end. Ina does not say to do this, and the husband and I were left pulling the woody little stalks out of the stew.

Also, I should note that I left out the Cognac. We don't keep it around, and while I'm sure it would have added great flavor, considering I might be out of a job soon, the last thing I should be doing is buying fancy bottles of liquor. While I can't live without wine, I can live without Cognac.

Here is how it turned out, all plated up.

To be honest, I almost didn't post about this because I wasn't happy with my photos. I was (as usual) in a hurry to snap them so I could get down to the business of eating, and there were some steam issues, some composition issues, and the fact that stewed things don't always look all that appetizing in photos. It's easy to lose any contrast that might exist in real life and end up with food that looks a little blobby. In this photo, for example, there's a chicken breast, crimini mushrooms, pearl onions, bacon, thyme, carrots, as well as potatoes and asparagus--but it all looks like a jumbly mess. Sorry. I figured you might forgive me though. After all, surely by now you've realized there are blogs out there with way better photos. I assume you stop by for my winning personality.

Give this recipe a try. It's simple and satisfying and gives you the excuse (if you need one) to eat a big heap of creamy mashed potatoes. While this would be nearly as good with buttered noodles,  I think we can agree that mashed potatoes are welcome on any plate, particularly if they're served alongside a lovely, rustic coq au vin.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Beef barley soup for the Olympics

When I was a kid, I took ice skating lessons at a local rink called The Winter Lodge.  I started when I was four, in the baby class, which was offered in a small, indoor rink the size of a classroom. The main purpose of the beginner class was to learn to move from one side of the room to the other without falling on your face. Over the next seven years, I skated through the different levels onto the big outdoor rink and eventually became a pretty good skater, although not competition material.

Mostly, I liked the trappings of the skating world: the pretty white skates and sparkly outfits, as well as the weird chicken soup you could buy for 25 cents from The Winter Lodge's ancient vending machine. I was also completely obsessed with the movie Ice Castles, which came out in 1978, when I was five. It's about a beautiful blond figure skater named Lexie, who, in a tragic accident, loses her sight, and then has to learn to skate all over again, but blind. Why I was watching movies like this when I was five is beyond me, but it probably helps explain why I'm a little mental as an adult.

Looking back, I suspect this movie was a big piece of garbage. But when I was little, I liked to pretend I was Lexie (pre-accident, natch), skating around to a fabulous soundtrack, my long ponytail flowing behind me as the crowds roared.

What does this have to do with food? you're wondering. Well, one of my favorite things to eat when I came home from ice skating was my mom's beef barley soup.

This weekend I got the craving for it, I think because of the Olympics. Watching the skating had me thinking about the old Winter Lodge and coming home after practice to a warm bowl of delicious soup. I had to settle for a different recipe than my mother's, though, since hers takes the better part of a day, and I didn't decide on making the soup until about 4 pm. Luckily, that old cookbook I love, Firehouse Food, came through for me yet again.

The soup was rich and meaty, full of vegetables, and thickened from the barley. We ate it with big slices of good sourdough bread while watching the Olympics, and I recommend you do the same.

Beef barley soup
From Firehouse Food

Serves 6

2 T. olive or vegetable oil 
1 lb. London broil or beef chuck, cut into 1/2" cubes (I used 1-1/2 lbs)
salt and pepper
1 small onion, small dice
3 stalks celery, small dice
1 large carrot, small dice
1/4 c. chopped parsley, plus 1 T. for garnish
6 c. beef broth
1 c. pearl barley
1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes
1 T. Worcestershire sauce
3 bay leaves
1/2 t. dried thyme

In a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot, heat the oil and brown the beef in small batches, seasoning each batch with salt and pepper. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the browned meat to a bowl, leaving as much fat in the pot as possible.

Once all the meat has been browned and removed, add the onion, celery, carrot, and parsley to the pot; cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes, until the vegetables are soft.

Return the beef to the pot along with any juices that have collected in the bowl. Add the broth, barley, tomatoes (with their liquid), Worcestershire sauce, bay leaves, and thyme. Bring the soup to a boil, then lower the heat, put the cover ajar, and simmer 1-1/2 hours, stirring occasionally and adding water if the soup becomes too thick.

Skim any fat that has risen to the surface of the soup, discard the bay leaves, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Ladle into bowls and garnish with the remaining parsley.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Welcome home French toast

The husband returned yesterday from his trip to Los Angeles. After four days of being on our own, Frances and I welcomed him cheerily back to the den, plying him with cold beer and chocolate chip cookies when he arrived so that he knew how happy we were to see him. He seemed pleased with these offerings, and in turn pulled out a compilation of mystery stories, Los Angeles Noir, that he'd picked up for me at my favorite book store, Book Soup, in Hollywood. In no time at all we were settled in the living room and he filled me in on his trip, which had been very successful indeed.

This morning, we had our typical Sunday morning: Peets coffee and The New York Times. Sometimes on the weekend I bake something for breakfast, like popovers, scones, or muffins, or the occasional crumb cake; today I decided to make French toast. We had leftover sourdough bread from last night's dinner which I thought would work nicely.

The funny thing is, I've never made French toast. But I felt confident I could do it. I mean, fried bread, right? What's so hard about that?

While the griddle heated up, I poured some milk, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a bowl and was about to crack an egg in it when the husband intervened.

"Don't do that," he said.


"You have way too much milk in there. Hand it to me," he said.

All of a sudden I'm married to Jacques Pepin?

But I was won over by his confidence. And truthfully, I had no idea whether or not he was right. So I watched as he poured out about three quarters of the milk. Wordlessly, he handed back the bowl.

I just stared at him.

"Now you can crack the eggs," he said approvingly.

I was able to take it from there. Good thing, too. The husband is responsible for handling all things car, computer, cable, stereo, and bicycle-related, stubborn jar lids, minor plumbing and electrical repairs, and anything that requires reaching a high shelf. I only have one skill to contribute to the family, which is cooking. Clearly, I need to step up my game before I'm rendered totally useless. Thinking about his French toast savvy, I wondered what else he knows that he hasn't revealed. Am I going to return home one day to find him making puff pastry from scratch?

The main thing to note, though, is that the French toast was delicious, smothered in maple syrup with fresh blueberries, with perfectly crisp bacon on the side. A good welcome home breakfast for sure.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Flying solo

The husband is traveling on business this week, leaving me to my own devices. Cooking isn't quite as interesting for one person, it turns out. So I've been eating strange dinners.

The first night, I ate some leftover roast chicken, along with the last piece of Paradise Pizza from over the weekend, and a scruffy little salad made up of some borderline butter lettuce and a questionable carrot. What's up with that?

Then, last night, I made chicken salad. Now you know I love chicken salad, but it's generally more of a lunch thing for me. But last night I mixed it up and put it on toast. Unfortunately, the bread fell apart and so I chucked the toast altogether and just dumped the salad in a bowl and ate it like that. With some tortilla chips on the side. And two glasses of wine. And my last Valentine chocolate.

I also have to mention that on top of missing the husband, work has been crummy this week. I try to keep work out of this blog because who wants to read about someone else's job? But, today was a little traumatic. The place I work is going to undergo some major changes immediately and my job may not remain intact. Even if it remains intact, I'm not sure I'd want to work there anymore.

So, while still technically employed for the short-term, I need to find a new job ASAP.

On the one hand, it's not good to have to look for another job. I've only been there a year and a half, and I wasn't planning on leaving yet.

On the other hand, it might be time for a change. Maybe a new career, and possibly a new place. I think the three of us would be very happy in Los Angeles. I'm picturing a little bungalow in Venice Beach or a garden apartment in Santa Monica. I wouldn't mind trading the hills and fog for flat streets and year-round sunshine, at least for awhile.

I ran the idea by Frances as I put my dinner together tonight. She seemed to be listening intently to every word, or maybe she was just staring at my piece of fish.

Pan-roasted salmon with arugula, radish, and mango salad. Doesn't that look sunny?

Making dinner put me in a slightly better mood. I put on some music while I cooked and shared some mango with Frances, who found it to her liking. Instead of feeling bad, I started to feel a little bit excited.  I wonder what the future will hold.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Spring is in the air

Today was 65 degrees and sunny. All of a sudden, the dim, slanted light of winter has softened to the broad, embracing light of spring. The grass up on Tank Hill near our house is bright green and sweet from all the recent rain, and at any given time you'll see little herds of dogs (including Frances) standing around and chewing it like baby cows. People are wearing shorts and flipflops.

Now, before anyone who lives somewhere where it's season-appropriately cold gets upset, keep in mind that we get no summer. From June through August, San Francisco is cold and foggy. When people all over the country are getting suntans and cooling off at the local pool, we're wearing wool sweaters and down vests, turning up the heat, and soothing chapped lips against the wind. When you're grilling burgers in July, I'm making beef stew. Instead of a normal summer, we get odd little heat waves throughout the year. Usually one comes in February, and this year is no different.

With the advent of spring in mind, last night I made a pasta I've made many times before, one I've adapted to my own tastes. For one thing, I rarely have white wine around, so I always use red. For another, the recipe calls for artichoke hearts. The first few times, that's what I used, too. But then it hit me, after decades of eating artichoke hearts: I don't really like them very much. They're often kind of tangy and fibrous and not nearly as great as I always think they're going to be. I don't know why it took me 36 years to come to this realization. I guess I'm a slow learner.

I now substitute peas for the artichokes, which add sweetness and take less time to cook. Last night I also noticed too late that I didn't have any chicken broth so I skipped the simmering step altogether. What emerged was a lighter, brighter version of a favorite winter dish: a springier version if you will.

This recipe has a nice balance of saltiness from the sausage, chewiness from the sundried tomatoes, sweetness from the peas, richness from the fresh mozzarella that you fold in at the end, and fresh herbiness from the basil and parsley.

Don't you think the colors are cheerful? They make you want to dive in! Kind of the way spring makes me feel: happy, and full of possibility.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dulce de leche brownies

Today I'm honored to be part of a special Valentine's Day blogging event, Chocolate Valentines!

Kate over at Serendipity contacted me a few weeks back and asked if I'd like to participate in this fabulous intercontinental event. The idea was for a little crew of us to each make something featuring chocolate and then link back to Kate's blog, who would in turn link to all of ours.  If you're not familiar with Kate's wonderful blog, you're really missing out. She's an American living in Belgium, and her beautiful blog describes her fascinating (and delicious!) life abroad. I couldn't say yes fast enough, especially when she added that she'd be happy to send me some chocolate from her local artisan chocolate maker.

About two weeks later, a little package arrived at my door from Belgium, containing two kinds of chocolate: chocolate for eating (which turned out to be some of the most fabulous chocolate I've ever had) and chocolate for baking. 

I had a few ideas about what to make with this special chocolate and came very close to making enchiladas in mole. But in the end, I chose the dulce du leche brownies from David Lebovitz's great book, The Sweet Life in Paris. I briefly considered making dulce de leche from scratch like Jessica did over at Apples and Butter. But in the end I took the lazy way out.

The brownies turned out highly chocolatey and laced with gooey, molten dulce de leche.

 Let's get a little closer.

I liked these brownies, but they were a tad sweet. The husband felt they were too much, although let it show for the record that he ate a rather large piece without fussing about it until afterward. I would make them again--but they are definitely the kind of brownies that need to be toted along to a picnic or party. No household of two should be consuming an 8-inch pan of these.

Thank you, Kate for organizing this fun event. I can't wait to check out what everyone else did with their Belgian chocolate. And to all of you readers, Happy Valentine's Day!

Dulce de Leche Brownies
From David Lebovitz's The Sweet Life in Paris

8 T. salted or unsalted butter, cut into pieces, plus more for greasing the pan
6 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/4 c. unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 c. sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
1 c. flour
1 c. toasted pecans or walnuts, coarsely chopped, optional (I skipped)
1 c. confiture de lait (dulce de leche)

Preheat oven to 350 and generously grease an 8" square pan and line the bottom with a square of parchment or wax paper.

Melt butter in a medium saucepan. Add chocolate and stir constantly over very low heat until melted. Remove from heat and whisk in cocoa powder until smooth.

Add eggs one at a time, then stir in the sugar, vanilla, and flour (and nuts, if using).

Scrape half of batter into prepared pan. Drop one-third of the dulce de leche in prune-sized dollops, evenly spaced, over the brownie batter, then drag a knife through it to swirl it slightly. Spread the remaining brownie batter over the top, then drop spoonfuls of the remaining dulce de leche over the batter. Use a knife to swirl the dulce de leche ever so slightly. (If you overdo it, the whole thing will bake into a bubbly mess. Just drag a knife once or twice through the batter and leave it at that.)

Bake for 40-45 minutes (mine was done in 40), or until the center feels just slightly firm. Remove from the oven and cool completely. Cut the brownies and wrap individually, then distribute freely.

DL notes that the brownies actually become better the second day, which I found to be true.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sweet pea risotto with scallops

Sometimes I like to jolt a little excitement into a plain old weeknight with something a bit decadent. One night this week, I decided to make sweet pea risotto with scallops. Doesn't that sound fancy?

Maybe so, but it was really easy. The only problem I encountered is that my scallops didn't get nicely browned the way they do when you order them in restaurants. I dried them adequately (I thought), but they emerged kinda pale, which is too bad. See for yourself.

The recipe I used was from Tyler Florence, about whom I have mixed feelings. Sometimes I think he's cute and charming; other times it's clear that he thinks he's cute and charming. There's a whiff of the overgrown frat boy in him. That said, his food often looks good, and his recipes tend to work. He did, however, say to cook the scallops over medium heat. Next time I would turn it up--way up. I want my scallops to have that gorgeous golden crust that not only adds flavor but contrasts so well with their smooth interior.

There seems to be one universal method of making risotto, am I right? Once you learn it, you barely need to read another recipe. I learned how to make risotto in 1994 and in the ensuing 16 years have found little to no variation in recipes. The only thing that was different about this recipe is that you blend one cup of the peas with a bit of chicken broth to make an electric green puree, which you stir into the risotto toward the end. The combination of sweet peas with the faintly briny scallops was delightful.


Don't freak out when I say this, but I think the recipe could be improved...

with some pork.

I was thinking a little prosciutto stirred in would be great, or even better, garnishing the whole thing with crumbled bacon.  Bacon and scallops are like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Or, for my fellow "Friday Night Lights" fans, like Tim Riggins and Lyla Garrity. Cheek-to-cheek for eternity.

Speaking of true love, I'm very excited about my Valentine's Day post, so don't forget to circle back around on Sunday. Until then, have a great weekend!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Chewy ginger cookies with cardamom and black pepper

Yesterday, during my regular rounds of food blogs, something led me to Pithy and Cleaver, which for unknown (and now remedied) reasons was not part of my daily reading. I came across a recipe for chewy ginger cookies with cardamom and black pepper and for the rest of the day could think of nothing else.

This happens to me sometimes, most powerfully with the root beer cake.  (Although I don't think this happened, I like to envision myself reading about the root beer cake and floating away from my computer in a robotic fog to the store where I purchased all the ingredients--including the bundt pan, as you may recall--and making the cake, all the while measuring and mixing with glassy eyes as if under a spell.) This may be an exaggeration, but sometimes a recipe takes hold in my head and I can't do anything until I make it.

It happened with these cookies yesterday. Luckily, this time I had all the ingredients on hand, so no trancelike trip to the store was necessary. Once I got home from work and got the dog walked and fed, I began baking. Frances settled down on her special kitchen rug (equidistant from the cutting board and the fridge so she can quickly reach any dropped bits) and watched me.

I was in the midst of rolling the dough into little balls when my sister called from New Jersey.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"Making ginger cookies," I replied nonchalantly. She seemed surprised, and jealous that we didn't live closer.

While I was chatting with her, the husband arrived home and looked at the sheet pan, half-filled with sugar-crusted gingery orbs. He also looked surprised. His look translated to, "What the what?!"

Ginger cookies, I mouthed.

One thing especially cool about this recipe, and what drew me to it in the first place, is that it calls for my favorite spice, cardamom. I've already written a love letter to cardamom here, so I will spare you another long-winded tribute. Basically, I think it's the bomb--full of ginger and pepper and earthy spice-- but tragically underused.

I also like that these cookies bake for 7 minutes. So in no time at all, I was admiring my lovely little cookies, which I stacked up to make them look arty.

I brought the husband a pre-dinner cookie to enjoy with his beer while he cursed Comcast for not airing the Kentucky basketball game, which, much the way I had been with these cookies, he had been looking forward to all day. The cookie seemed good enough to mollify him, though briefly. I thought they were outstanding--spicy, a little sweet, and as soft and chewy as promised--no gingersnaps here. Not to get ahead of myself, but these would make dynamite ice cream sandwich cookies.

The ingredient list is a bit unusual; in addition to the cardamom and black pepper, it also calls for a tiny amount of cocoa powder, as well as fresh grated ginger, and crystallized ginger, which I didn't have. Although I probably wouldn't have included it even if I had it because I don't care for junk in my cookies unless we're talking chocolate chips or possibly toffee. You can keep your nuts, dried fruit, and dessicated ginger nubs (which I will eat by themselves--just not nestled into cookies).

Next time I would add more cardamom, and a little more fresh ginger, but that's just me. They are quite delicious just as they are. So, if you are on the hunt for a perfect ginger cookie recipe, give this a try. With their pantry-friendly ingredient list and super-quick baking time, you could be eating one of these fabulous, fragrant cookies in no time flat.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Things I like and things I don't

Everyone has their preferences, and some cannot be changed.

I have very few foods that I outright dislike, but there are a few combinations I can't stand, such as fruit and chocolate. I realize that this is verboten for a foodie. But I've adhered to this opinion for more than three decades and I just don't see myself changing my mind. It doesn't matter what kind of fruit you pair with what kind of chocolate: the idea of any of it turns my stomach. So please don't start listing in astonishment all the different kinds of fruit you adore with chocolate; it will only make me dig my heels further in my anti-fruit-and-chocolate stance.

I know I'm not alone in having immutable preferences. The husband, for instance, doesn't care for eggplant. I can offer it in parmigiana, moussaka, or baba ghanoush form, all of which I find absolutely delicious, but he holds fast to his belief: eggplant is no good. And given that he eats pretty much everything else, I don't foist eggplant on him. Although I love it, I can understand why he wouldn't.

So when I mention the recipe I made the other night, yet another old faithful from Marcella Hazan, if you don't like mushrooms, you may as well not bother with this post. Mushrooms play a starring role here and there is no substitute.

But if you do like mushrooms, this might up your alley: creamy mushroom and ham sauce, tossed with fettucine. Mushrooms and ham happen to be two things I like quite well, and if you add shallot, parmesan, and cream and toss it with beautiful strands of pasta, I'm sold.

This recipe taught me how to coax mushrooms to give up their liquid. It goes like this: Start them in a pan with some butter and salt over low heat. Once they begin to release their liquid, crank up the heat and boil it off rapidly. You're left with pure concentrated mushroomy goodness.

I'm feeling a little lazy and am not going to type out this recipe. But as I said with Marcella's pot roast,  feel free to email me and I'll scan and send it to you. I cross my cream-and-butter-logged heart.

On Friday, after a long week, this was the perfect dinner to send us into the weekend. It's important to have a relaxing Friday evening, as it shapes your mindset for the weekend. So whatever that means to you--creamy pasta with mushroom sauce or chocolate-dipped strawberries-- make sure it's something that makes the work week recede rapidly into the distance and lets you focus on the delicious plate in front of you.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Crazy mango bars

I love mangoes. I love them fresh, just eaten out of hand, the juice running down my wrist. I'll happily eat them dried and chewy, and I also like them in smoothie, juice, and sorbet form. I find their rainbow skin utterly beautiful, and I enjoy how cool and heavy they feel in my palm. I even like saying the word "mango."

So I was very pleased when a couple of plump mangoes arrived in our produce box last week.

"Mangoes!" I cried to the other hungry dog, who was watching me unpack the box. "Mangoes!" I shouted a little louder, since she's losing her hearing.

She sniffed one appreciatively. That dog knows a good mango when she sees one.

Although I do buy mangoes here in San Francisco, I most often eat them when we go to Hawaii.  You know how I love Hawaii, right? Like, really love it. Here's the short list of things I love most in this world:

1. The husband and the other hungry dog (for appearances, let's just say they are tied for first)

2. My mother, sister, her husband, Mischievous Pug and Scrappy

3. Hawaii

No doubt this deep love of Hawaii, and particularly Kauai, has to do with my adoration of mangoes; anything I associate with that gorgeous place is high on my list.

Normally I would just wait for the fruit to ripen, peel it, and eat it standing over the sink. I admit to being a bit uncouth on occasion. But this time, I felt the urge to do something different.

What to do? I wondered. Mango cake? Mango muffins? 

Mango bars?

Yes, readers, strangely, that is what I decided upon, to the husband's surprise. I found a recipe in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian that looked good. Actually, the recipe was for coconut lime bars, but one of the variations was mango bars. While some of you might be cuckoo for coconut, the Hungry Dog doesn't roll that way. Mango bars it was, with lemon instead of lime, because who has limes sitting around?

Mango bars are exactly like lemon bars: you make a short pastry crust, bake it, cover it in a fruity custard layer and bake it again until it's just set. For the mango component, you just use mango puree, which is made as follows: peel and slice some mangoes, and puree them in a blender. Bittman also suggests you strain the puree, a step I skipped. It didn't seem to make a difference in the final product.

The mango bars emerged dark golden brown and lacy on the edges. I let them cool completely before dusting them with powdered sugar, my own addition, because they seemed to need a final touch. Then I cut them into squares and served one to the husband.

"It's crazy that you made mango bars," he said dubiously, which is his way of saying, "I'm not sure I'm going to like these."

Ultimately, the mango bars were fine but not a bestseller. They were a bit too sweet and lacked contrasting texture. I think if you enjoy coconut, sprinkling some over the top would be good. Me, if I made them again, I would make a crumbly brown sugar topping with macadamia nuts.

They sure looked pretty though.

What about you all? What do you do with mangoes?