Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Red Carrots

At the farmer’s market the other day, I was amazed and awed by one vendor’s carrots. They were ruby red to deep purple with healthy knotty knobs exploding from the sides. I don’t think I’ve thought this about many root vegetables before, but these carrots were beautiful. I asked the vendor about them, and apparently a wet spring combined with a cool summer is the perfect weather combination for glorious root vegetables.

I bought the carrots pictured a few weeks later at another market. They weren’t quite as lovely as the first ones I saw but that ruby red color was captivating. In the picture, I took a vegetable peeler down one side of it to show the orange-y center. These guys just scream, “eat me, I’m healthy and flavorful!” According to the USDA, the reason some carrots are red is because they are rich in lycopene, the red pigment found most commonly in tomatoes. More traditional carrot specimens are laden with orange-tinted beta-carotene, hence their orange color.

Red carrots are all part of the magic of the farmer’s market. Surprises like this will keep me coming back for many moons to come.
Sunday, August 16, 2009

Rancho Gordo Heirloom Beans

I have been wanting to write a post about Rancho Gordo beans for a long time. They’re a brand of heirloom beans I first heard about at a foodie convention (International Association of Culinary Professionals annual meeting) in New Orleans two years ago. Steve Sando, creator of Rancho Gordo, was speaking on the topic of heirloom beans and foods native to the Americas. With his passion for flavor, heritage, and protecting unique varieties of “glorious, old-fashioned heirloom beans,” as the Web site says , I was instantly intrigued. It wasn’t until the next year at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market that I got the chance to buy some Rancho Gordo beans (they are based in Napa). I purchased “eye of the goat” beans, which were said to be good for beginners, and have an earthy, almost beefy taste.

Last weekend I got the chance to make these dried delicacies for myself. I had never worked with dried beans before so I was doubly excited. First, I soaked the beans in water for about six hours. Then, I drained them, placed them in a shallow pan, covered them with one inch of chicken broth, and turned the heat to a low simmer. I kept them mostly covered for the majority of cooking time so the liquid wouldn’t evaporate too quickly. Meanwhile, I sauteed a classic mirepoix(celery, carrots and onions) in olive oil, which I added to the beans during the last ten minutes of cooking along with a healthy dose of salt. The beans took around two hours to cook (I may not have soaked them long enough?). When I took them off the heat, there was a good amount of liquid left, which got mostly absorbed after they cooled. The next day, the remaining bit of liquid turned into a rich, dark brown sauce.

The beans were tasty! I enjoyed the process of soaking, cooking and sneaking samples to determine when they were done, and I definitely enjoyed eating them. However, at the end of the day, while they were a nice variety of beans with an interesting back story, they tasted like, well, beans. I’m sure a bean connoisseur would appreciate the subtleties in flavor compared to other beans, but unfortunately with my inexperienced bean palate, I wasn’t wowed, though I appreciated them for what they were.
However, I definitely enjoyed the simplicity of the cooking process, and the wholesome nutrition they provided. My bean exploration will continue, and I’m glad to say my first experience was with one of the best around.
Sunday, August 2, 2009

Peach Jam

I find it amusing how so many things in life function in cycles. Children turning into their parents, in their lifestyles, gestures, habits. The latest fashions of the day recycling themselves every few decades. It cracks me up to see beards, tapered leg jeans and neon back in style. As a child of the ’80s, I honestly thought these stylistic nuances — especially neon — were dead and never coming back, but amazingly, it’s happened.

And food and drink is no different. Take the cocktail. Vintage cocktails are all the rage these days! From Sazeracs to the Dark and Stormy — countless restaurateurs and mixologists are inviting these old-time libations back to their menus at breakneck speeds.

I’ve been noticing this cyclical phenomenon with canning. The very idea of canning is a romantic one — old-fashioned Ball brand jars stocking the shelves of grandmothers’ basements for generations, quaint little screw top lids, the magic of preserving farm-fresh flavors for the winter months. It all just seems very sweet. But in the reality of generations past, canning is no more a trendy project than grocery shopping today is a hobby. Canning was a way of life — a way to ensure vegetables and fruits for the winter months. And now it has somehow cycled around to become popular again after many years of silence. I’ve seen numerous foodie magazines featuring stories on the lost art of canning, newspaper food pages devoting entire center spreads to the process, and local cooking schools offering up half-day workshops on the topic. And I am drinking the Kool-Aid in big gulp cups.

So I recruited my mother, and we made jam. To determine what kind, we visited a local farm stand to see what looked good, and the peaches spoke to us. Intoxicated by the idea of making a big batch of jam to share with family and friends for months to come, we mistakenly bought a 30 pound basket of peaches, which was WAY too much considering our recipe called for three pounds per batch. We ended up freezing the leftover peaches in slices for pie-making down the line.

We used a recipe from a box of Sure-Jell Pectin (recipe available online here), and we made six or seven batches. In short, the process is as follows: cook peeled, diced peaches with one box of pectin until boiling, then add 5 cups of sugar until that’s boiling, and let it cook down for one minute (we added an additional 20 seconds in the later batches to help the mixture set better). By this time the mixtures is syrupy with small bits of peach chunks scattered throughout like little gems. Then, pour the mixture into sterilized jars (to sterilize, clean with hot soapy water then boil for 10 minutes). Finally, once the tops are tightly screwed on, boil each jar for another 1o minutes, then remove and cool. We used an old-fashioned wire rack of sorts, to aid in the removal of the cans from the boiling water. At this point the jars seal themselves (through suction, the hot mixture meets the cool air and condenses, causing the tops to “pop”). This is the most gratifying part! It’s like magic to listen to the jars seal one at a time, over the next five to 10 minutes.


It was remarkable how different each batch turned out. The first was foamy, and looked sudsy in the jar. To remedy this, the recipe suggested adding 1/2 teaspoon of margarine to the first step, and this did the trick in subsequent batches. The second didn’t set properly, and thus we added the additional 20 seconds to the second step to reduce the amount of liquid. The other batches turned out pretty well, though some of them were more syrupy than others.
All in all it was a grand experience! The simplicity of the process was really wonderful, and I will definitely do this many more times in my life with whatever I can find (blackberries, blueberries, maybe apple butter). I see why this time-honored tradition has experienced a resurgence. In these times of frugality, and do-it-yourself economical endeavors, capturing the fresh, simple, flavors of summer in a jar at very little cost is appealing. I think this is one trend that, at least for me, will stick around.

Not sure I feel the same way about the whole neon thing though.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Hot Watermelon Salad

One of my absolute favorite things about cooking is introducing someone to something new. It’s especially gratifying if they’ve gotten it into their heads that not only would they not like this new item, they would hate it. And I don’t love changing people’s minds with just things I make –although that is nice — it can be anything from fruits, dishes at restaurants, condiments, drinks — whatever.

From my perspective, really, why would you form an opinion about how you think you’ll like something before you’ve tried it? With a whole world of flavors and foods out there to combine and try, how could one know their preferences on everything? Granted I am probably more adventurous than the average Jane, but I think something at least must be tried a few times before a real opinion can be formed.

Speaking of adventuresome, my manfriend and I tried roasted pig heart with cauliflower at City House in Nashville the other weekend. The texture was sort of that of a portobello mushroom and it was very full-flavored. More than anything, the roast flavor came through loud and clear. And while it was a pig heart, it didn’t taste much like pork, just a lean, tender muscle. I liked it.

Now just because I started this post off with notes on a pig heart, doesn’t mean this hot watermelon salad takes the same sort of adventurousness. It is actually quite an approachable recipe. Few ingredients, fresh fruit and herbs, and a sweet/savory/hot flavor profile that is just perfect for summertime.

I’d had versions of watermelon salad kind of like this before, but had never made one on my own. This recipe is adapted from one I found in Bon Appetit magazine last summer.

The recipe was a wild hit with my friends the evening I made it. And it was so easy! As I said above, I love love LOVE surprising someone with a new dish, but what’s even better, is when it is simple and straightforward to make, like this recipe was.

Hot Watermelon Salad
1/4 cup hot chili sauce (such as sriracha)*
1/4 cup grapeseed oil or olive oil
1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1 1/4 teaspoons honey
2 tablespoons minced jalapeƱo chiles
2 cups 1/2-inch cubes seedless watermelon
chopped fresh mint

Whisk hot chili sauce, oil, vinegar, and honey in small bowl; season dressing with salt and pepper. Place chilesand watermelon in large bowl. Toss with dressing and let marinate 30 minutes to 1 hour. Make Ahead: You can prepare everything as directed without the watermelon in advance; the watermelon will get soupy if it sits too long.

* Available in the Asian foods section of many supermarkets and at Asian markets.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Smashed Salmon Salad

I attended college at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, a small town near the Indiana border. While I took away many fond memories from that time, one of the ones I relate most often is about a salad. Am I a sad food dork? Maybe. Was it a really great salad? Hell yes. So good in fact, I made a diversion on a recent road trip, just to have it again. Didn’t see much else on campus but had to have that salad.

The Smashed Salmon Salad at Kona Bistro is a really interesting combination of textures and flavors. The dish starts with a bed of spinach, layered with garlic mashed potatoes, a piece of grilled salmon, fresh roma tomato slices, and a dollop of homemade mango chutney. A piece of crusty bread gets served alongside. There is no dressing, but when you “smash” the layers together, each bite is flavorful with just the right amount of wet and dry ingredients, and contrasting textures. Delicious! I am not one to order the same thing twice at any restaurant but this is where I make an exception. Whenever I’ve gone back to Kona (a great restaurant all around, by the way), I just have to have it. Make sure to hit it up the next time you’re in Oxford…

This salad was notable to me for three reasons. 1) It has mango chutney. I had never even heard of mango chutney the first time I ordered this salad. It remains one of my favorite condiments to this day. Stonewall Kitchens makes a good bottled variety. One of these days I’ll call Kona and get the recipe for their chutney so I can make it myself. While we’re on the topic, I just had some really great chutneys at Veerasway in the West Loop of Chicago the other day. They’ve got this coconut one that was really addictive. 2) This salad was one of the first times a meal caused me to stop and think — I started noticing flavors, textures and became conscious of wanting to try new foods I’d never heard of before (the chutney). 3) The salad was only $6! Can you believe that? As a poor college student, this was absolutely the icing on the cake (or maybe the chutney on the salmon … sorry, couldn’t help it). Five years later it’s $10.75 … my how the times change.

I’ve since made this salad a couple of times. The ingredients are pretty straightforward, so it’s easy to try to replicate (although my attempts have never produced anything quite as good as the original). In addition to being tasty, it’s also really colorful and pretty. The above pic doesn’t really do it justice (I forgot to take the pic until I was halfway through it…) but you get the idea.

You should try it. You won’t be sorry you did. It’s easy enough to make for one during the week, or it’d be a really great dish to make for guests too. Super simple but impressive in its ingredients. Let me know how it turns out!
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Poached Eggs Make My Day

I made the best dish yesterday. And it was arguably one of the simplest there is, which I think, made it even better. It completely made my day. Isn’t it amazing how good food can do that?

After quickly sauteing some fresh asparagus (I know, I know — try as I may, I just can’t get past it this spring!) in olive oil for a few minutes in a hot skillet until crisp-tender, I finished it with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper and topped it with a sweet little poached egg.

I love a good poached egg. They are so impressive yet so easy. Whether in eggs Benedict, over a simple salad, or even just over asparagus, as I did here, I will never get tired of them.

Part of the reason this dish was particularly satisfying to me was because I’d never successfully poached an egg before. I tried this time with newly found confidence from a Chow.com video. My fatal flaw before was trying to poach in boiling water, which destroys the egg and leaves you with something like a soggy scrambled egg floating in the water. Not good. Thanks for the help Chow! The videos on the site are short, to the point, and cover basic techniques quickly and clearly.

The only thing that would have made this dish better would be some crusty bread to sop up the extra egg with, and maybe some bacon. Next time…

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Asparagus Soup

There have been days this spring where I think to myself that if I read another article about the bounty of the spring rhubarb and asparagus crops, the “harbingers of spring” as so many have written, I think I might start banging my head against a wall. Yes, rhubarb and asparagus are in full force in spring, and yes in the cold and short growing season in Chicago there’s not much else to talk about, but come on. Let’s talk about sweet butter lettuce and snap peas. Or sprouts and spinach! What’s going on with those crops? Why must it always be rhubarb and asparagus? I need another veggie to catapult me out of this spring rut.

And then I remember that rhubarb and asparagus are so delicate and tasty, and their seasons so short and fleeting, and I realize why so many authors and writers have devoted columns, blogs and newsletters to these vegetables. And then I read this article in the Chicago Tribune about a fresh spring asparagus soup, and I was forced to bite my tongue.

The recipe is simple, but as the article describes, it has a wonderful velvety texture. The bright green color is really pretty, too. I garnished it with a little sour cream as suggested, along with some sliced green onions. What I loved most about this soup is its bright, sparkling flavor (which is enhanced with the right amount of salt and definitely the lemon juice). Sweet, fresh flavor like this, in my experience, is really only possible to attain when using the first, most delicate spring vegetables. Like asparagus. I think I will shut up and eat my soup.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Texas Popcorn

I have been fascinated by okra on two occasions that I can recall. I was first introduced to the vegetable when I discovered through some Internet research on popcorn that fried okra is a popular snack/side/delicacy in the South, where it is sometimes known as Texas Popcorn. A) I’m not sure I’d ever had or really ever known of fried okra before that moment, and B) I certainly didn’t know it was sometimes called Texas Popcorn. As one who is interested in regional dishes and eating traditions, learning about a dish ubiquitous to a fairly large region, with such a whimsical name to boot, intrigued me.

The second time okra surprised me was during a recent trip to New Orleans where I learned that the sticky, slimy innards of okra make a great thickening agent for soups and gumbos, again in the South.

While at a farmer’s market in Nashville this past weekend, I picked up some okra with the intention of using using it in one of the above two ways (thickener for soup or straight-up fried). I got on MyRecipes.com, a recipe database owned by Time Inc, the publisher of Cooking Light and Southern Living, among others, and found a very simple recipe:

In a medium bowl, soak 15 okra pods sliced one-half-inch thick in a beaten egg for 10 minutes. Dredge in seasoned corn meal, and fry in vegetable oil until golden brown. Drain on a plate covered with a paper towel.

Here’s where things could have gone better. Not having cornmeal, I used unbleached white flour instead which left something to be desired. I once read that when seasoning the breading for fried chicken, the flour/cornmeal is seasoned sufficiently once you can taste the salt if you place a pinch of the mixture on your tongue. Not wanting to over-salt the flour, I left it too bland.

It sure was pretty though. As my Texas Popcorn began to turn golden brown in the oil, the house filled with the down-home smell of “fried,” and it felt like a really nice Sunday afternoon.

As we ate the greasy morsels, I salted a ketchup/sirracha chile pepper paste mixture to help coax out the flavor of the fried okra. It’s really amazing to me how salt can brighten up a dish, enhancing its taste. This helped a little but it would have been better if I’d used well-seasoned cornmeal.

Nonetheless it was a good process and a tasty treat in spite of my failings. My experimentation may have even left me a little more intrigued with this little slimy pod that I was before.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Can’t Judge a Cake By Its Cover

This the tale of an ugly cake. Perhaps the ugliest cake I’ve ever seen.

It all started one Sunday afternoon. I was ambushed by the overwhelming urge for something sweet. I thought about going out with a friend to Hot Chocolate or Uncommon Ground here in the city for an indulgent dessert, but all of a sudden a storm blew in, complete with thunder, lightning and lots of wind, just like that. Gotta love the spring in Chicago.

I’ve lately been on a quest to use up everything in my pantry since we’re moving soon and nobody likes to haul canned goods around. Having recently taken stock of the random cans of Italian Wedding soup, boxes of stuffing and a 2 pound bag of crawfish boil seasoning, I suddenly remembered seeing a box of Betty Crocker Cinnamon Swirl cake mix tucked away in the back. That initially seemed like the perfect solution, but as one who likes to cook and experiment in the kitchen, a cake mix seemed too easy, the outcome too certain. So I decided to jazz it up a little.

I managed to scrounge up raisins, coconut, dates and whole nutmeg, which all seemed like they’d complement the cinnamon flavor profile of the cake mix well. So I added in about a half cup of each of the first three ingredients, and grated about half a nutmeg seed into the batter. The box offered two ways to make the cake, the normal way with 3 eggs, oil and water or the decadent way with 4 eggs, butter and milk. I chose the latter of the two, figuring the rich batter plus my tasty ingredients would make for a pretty good cake.

Doctoring a cake mix like this is nothing new; in fact some people have even written whole books on the practice, like The Cake Mix Doctor and The Cake Mix Bible to name a few. And it makes sense: essentially a cake mix is a starter kit for a cake with the flour, sugar, salt and leavening agents pre-mixed for you. It’s like a blank canvas ready for color and flavor. And colorful and flavorful I hoped my caked would be.

As my masterpiece was baking, I whipped up some simple icing out of powdered sugar, butter and milk. I’d wanted to bake a round cake so that I could have the gooey icing in the middle between the two layers, but not having the proper pans I settled for a 13×9 inch cake instead. Once the cake came out, I thought I could get the stacked effect by cutting the rectangular cake in half, icing the first layer and stacking the second layer on top.

Here’s where things started getting ugly. I tried to let the cake cool sufficiently before removing it from the pan, but got impatient. I figured that with the amount of butter I used, it should easily slide right out if I inverted it over a cutting board. Wrong. A large chuck stayed in the pan as I flipped it, leaving a big tear the long side. So I patched it back together the best I could, and let it cool further. Then I sliced the thing in half, iced the first layer, messily heaved the other layer on top, iced that piece, all the while filling in the gaping holes and “gluing” the chunks that kept falling off back on, and called it a day.

The cake was ugly, but boy did it taste good. It was super moist, with great texture and crunch from the coconut. The raisins and dates were warm and gooey and seemed to melt into the spongy cake. I had a slice of that cake after dinner all week long, pouring a little milk on top as it b
egan to slightly dry out.

Guess this goes to show that like many things in life, the beauty of this sugary disaster was on the inside.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Lox Love

Last weekend I threw together a lox dip for a casual get-together my parents had with me and our neighbors, Dale and Cathy. It was just a few ingredients and turned out pretty darn good, if I don’t say so myself.

When I was opening the package of lox, I got to thinking about smoked salmon and lox and wondered if there was a difference. After a little research, it turns out that lox is a type of cold-smoked salmon, that’s also been brine-cured to give it that wonderful saltiness. Apparently sugar can be added to the brine, too, though what we had was not sugary. With regards to smoking, cold-smoking gives the salmon a smoky flavor, but it doesn’t cook it completely. This process takes anywhere from one to three weeks and the smoke temperature never rises above 100 degrees. The hot-smoking process involves hotter smoke and takes just six to 12 hours. This method actually cooks the salmon in addition to adding smokiness to the flavor. Because it’s cooked completely, hot-smoked salmon has a very different taste and texture than the cold-smoked variety. Before I understood these nuances, I experienced this difference myself when I ordered a lox-and-egg scramble for brunch at Noshville in Nashville (love that name!). When I dug in I realized the heat from the eggs had cooked the lox. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting but still pretty tasty.
Here’s the recipe for my lox dip. It’d probably be good with capers and dill too. What do you think?
PS: Thanks for the food photography Dad!
Lox Dip
3 tablespoons reduced fat mayo
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon prepared horseradish
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
2 garlic cloves, chopped
12 oz. lox or other cold-smoked salmon (if you don’t like the added saltiness), roughly chopped
Rye crachers or toasts, assorted crackers or anything crunchy and dippable!
salt and pepper to taste
Combine first six ingredients in a medium bowl; mix thoroughly. Stir in lox. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Makes 4-6 appetizer servings