Thursday, February 28, 2013

February: Glad that's over

Guys, the sun was shining after work this week. Did you see it?

Did you see it?

Do you feel alive?

I feel alive.

I hereby declare that spring is here, mostly because I want it to be. I have had about all the darkness and hibernating I can handle this winter. We've spent one too many Saturday nights buying vacuums at Kohl's. I am ready for barbecues and bare feet. I want to ride my bicycle.

Thank God the tide is turning.

Cabin fever is hitting me hard lately. I'm starting to feel like a hamster in one of those plastic balls, circling the baseboards of a tiny room looking for an exit. My skin has barely seen the light of day since last November, when the sun started setting in the afternoon long before I piled on layers and shuffled my way out to the bus (except for that glorious week in January). My freckles are so far gone; these days, I'm just a blur of pale, pale skin.

So you can understand why a glimmer of sunlight after 5 p.m. was enough for us to throw open the curtains, pull on our boots and set out for a walk. We wandered away from our apartment, stepping over puddles and reveling in the sunlight. About 20 minutes into our walk, we popped into Whole Foods to grab what we needed for dinner. When we came out, the sun was down.

But we saw it!

Fleeting, yes, but at least there was a sign of better times ahead. Lawn chairs and wheat beers can't be too far away - maybe even with a plate of fresh tomato bruschetta on the side. It can't come fast enough.

For now, we're still dealing with the dearth of fresh produce that Minnesota winters plague us with, so I'm trying to be creative in the vegetable department. I came across this sassy little recipe on Epicurious one cold night when we were looking for something outside of the usual chicken and roasted root veggies. It's a light shrimp pasta that packs nutrients and color with arugula and (canned) tomatoes - both among the few acceptable options this time of year.

It's bright and soft, nicely saucy, and just the tiniest bit indulgent - a little white wine and a touch of cream never hurt anyone. Adam declared this a 4.5 star recipe - one of his new "go to" requests when I ask what we should have for dinner (the list looks like this: "Pot roast. Shrimp pasta.") I would call this a bit subdued to be a showstopper of a meal if you were, say, entertaining the queen or something. But, it comes together in not much more time than it takes to boil the pasta, making it a great option for a weeknight meal. Especially if you've got better ways to spend your time, like chasing after the sun.

Pasta with Shrimp, Tomato and Arugula
Adapted from Gourmet, December 1993 (found on Epicurious)

Note: The original recipe calls for one bunch of arugula, washed, stems discarded and chopped; this would be great, but to save time, I bought a tub of pre-washed baby arugula and used a few handfuls of that instead. Three handfuls will look like a ton at first, but it cooks down to nothing.

2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp dried hot pepper flakes
1 onion, chopped
28 oz can diced tomatoes
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup heavy cream
3 handfuls baby arugula
1/3-1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
Parmesan cheese, for serving (optional)

In a large, heavy skillet, heat the oil over medium. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Quickly add the shrimp. Cook, stirring, 1-2 minutes, until the shrimp is pink on the outside, but not quite cooked through (you'll finish cooking it later). Remove the shrimp to a bowl using a slotted spoon, taking care to leave as much of the garlic in the pan as possible. Set shrimp aside.

Add another glug of oil if the pan looks dry; add the onion and cook, stirring often, 3-4 minutes until it begins to soften. Pour in the white wine and the can of tomatoes with their juices; raise heat to bring to a boil,  then reduce heat back to medium, and simmer about 10 minutes, stirring often, to thicken the sauce. Stir in the cream, then the shrimp and arugula. Cook 1-2 minutes more, until shrimp is cooked through and arugula has wilted down. Just before serving, stir in the basil.

Serve spooned over hot pasta, topped with a dusting of Parmesan.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Just a girl and her pot roast

I am 28 years old, and I am aware of my shortcomings.

I can't get myself out of bed in the morning.
My interior decorating skills are slim to none.
I have a weird taste in most things. (As in, Netflix recommending a new category for me: visually striking father-son movies.)

In the past 6 months, I have not
been to the dentist
washed my car
mailed in a single Netflix movie

In the past 6 months, I have
read the entires series of the Hunger Games
watched the entire series of Breaking Bad
begun re-watching the entire series of Breaking Bad, yo

Right now I am not
having children
buying a house

Right now I am
not worrying too much
happy with how things are

I sometimes wonder if I should get my act together more. The truth is, I'm just not there yet. This is the most freedom and least responsibility I have ever had, and I'm enjoying the heck out of it. I can leave town on a weekend and not look back. I can stay out too late on a Friday, and roll out of bed and waste my Saturday. It's OK if my life is in shambles come Sunday night, with no clean laundry or food in the fridge, because I'm the only one who has to deal with it. Hey, at least we can say we had fun!

But, I also know that this can't last forever. It doesn't escape me that my peers are buying homes and having beautiful children in increasing numbers, and I'm still going to theme parties, dressed in 70s disco attire. I'll turn 30 in a little more than a year, and I suppose I'll want to feel a bit more put together by then. It will happen, in time.

For now, I celebrate the things I am good at - the small accomplishments of my regular days. And that, my friends, includes putting a roast into the oven, and cooking it long and slow.

Also, I'm good at Wheel of Fortune, and at making jokes - but we'll save that discussion for another time.

Being able to cook a proper pot roast doesn't rank up there with any actual life milestones, of course, but it does make me feel grown up, in a way. It is a sort of cornerstone for how I was raised, and there's great reward to me in being able to do a bang-up job in recreating the classic dishes that my mom made (and I'm sure her mom made as well). I feel like I'm moving in some direction, at least, and that works for me. For now, anyway.

When I make a pot roast (which is celebrated like a holiday by some in our household), this is the only way I do it. Beef chuck roast + red wine + sliced onion; maybe tuck in a few carrots and potatoes toward the end. That's all I put into this baby, and I don't want it any other way. The red wine infuses the roast and then mingles with the juices, creating a meaty, rich reduction that is perfect for spooning over your plate. I like to crown the roast with rings of sliced onion, which caramelize a bit after roasting in the oven - a tip we can all thank my mom for. By the time you pull the roast out of the oven, the meat is so tender it slumps onto your plate, and you could eat it with a spoon - which might be perfect for scooping up the red wine sauce.

Bon appétit!

Red Wine Pot Roast
Note about the wine: For this, I have been using a light, fruity wine - Blue Fin Pinot Noir from Trader Joe's ($3.99!) is perfect for this recipe, and to drink alongside it.

Beef chuck roast - about 3 lbs
Small yellow onion, peeled and sliced into rings about 1/4 inch thick
1/3 bottle Pinot Noir
Tablespoon vegetable oil
Salt and pepper
Veggies (optional) - a few carrots, peeled; a few small red or yellow potatoes, peeled or not

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Season the roast well on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat; when the oil is glistening, carefully set the roast inside and brown on one side, about 3-5 minutes (if the roast feels stuck to the pan, it's probably not ready to flip yet - it becomes unstuck when it has browned properly). Flip and brown on the other side, about 3-5 minutes. Remove pan from heat, and spoon out and discard as much of the extra fat in the bottom of the pot as possible.

Pour in the 1/3 bottle of wine, and place the onion slices on top of the roast. Cover pot, and set in oven. Cook for about 3 hours total. If you're adding vegetables, squeeze them in around the roast after about two hours of cooking (you want the vegetables to cook for about an hour or so).

After three hours of braising in the oven, remove the pot and check the roast - it's done when the meat is impossibly tender and falls apart against your fork. If it's not quite tender enough, replace the lid and put it back in the oven, checking after 20 minutes or so.

When the roast is done, skim off any excess fat from the red-wine sauce (if there looks to be a layer of oil floating on the top; this isn't always necessary). Serve the roast and vegetables with the sauce spooned over.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Your highfalutin lifestyle

I'm a nerd about words - was an English major in college, love me some Boggle, etc., etc. Every once in a while, I come across a word that I like so much, it gets stuck in my head for days. (That's weird, right?) I've had periods of svelte and kerfuffle rolling around in there, and a long, unrelenting phase with bamboozled. Last week, a new one crossed my path - highfalutin.

I had a need to write this word in an email (as in, "Yes, I have already spent my paycheck trying to keep up with your highfalutin lifestyle") - and had to look it up on to figure out the spelling (I was looking for "high faluting" - isn't that how you would spell it?). And there it was, in all its glory -

highfalutin: pretentious, fancy

It's one word when it seems like two; there's no 'g' at the end where there should be. It's pretentious and fancy. I love it.

And, serendipitously, that word came to me just before a series of highfalutin things came my way this weekend - a 50mm camera lens (check it out!), a brand new vacuum (hey, hey!), a dramatically drapey ivy plant (tres chic), and this utterly fancy dish - Chicken with Apple Cider Glace:

I'll tell you right away - the fancy name is just a ruse. There is nothing more to this dish than chicken browned with a toasty blend of spices, and an apple cider and onion sauce that has simmered away to a softened, lightly sweet glace. (Glace, pronounce "gloss," it turns out, is just a highfalutin term for a reduction of stock - I had to look that one up, too). I could eat the sauce in little succulent spoonfuls from the pan if I had to, but it's even nicer poured into a puddle around the chicken to mingle with the spices, and anything else on the plate.

This recipe is such a keeper - simple and light enough for a weeknight, but elegant enough for a dinner party. For a fancy plate, I like to place the chicken on a small handful of mixed greens (arugula or baby spinach, for instance) for a pop of color, with a scoop of mashed potatoes on the side. The sauce can, and should, go over everything, of course. 

Chicken with Apple Cider Glace
Adapted from Kitchen Window

For the chicken:
6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp kosher (or other coarse) salt
1/4-1/2 tsp black pepper
1 Tbsp vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. 

Pat the chicken dry. Stir together cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and pepper; coat both sides of the chicken with the spice mixture (for 6 chicken thighs, I used almost the entire spice blend).

Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium high heat. When hot, carefully set the chicken in, skin side down, and cook until nicely browned - about 3-4 minutes. Turn the chicken and cook the other side, 3-4 minutes. Move chicken to a baking dish and bake in oven until cooked through - the time will depend on the size of your chicken thighs; mine were smallish and took about 20 minutes.

For the Apple Cider Glace:
1 1/2 Tbsp butter
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
1 bay leaf
2 cups apple cider (I've used a nice local cider as well as Simply Apple juice - both worked great)
1 cup chicken stock
3/4 tsp apple cider vinegar
3/4 tsp honey
Salt and pepper, to taste

In medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Saute onions, garlic and jalapeño pepper until just translucent. Add the bay leaf and saute a minute more.

Add the cider, chicken stock, vinegar and honey. Increase heat to bring to a boil, then reduce to medium heat and keep at a decent boil until reduced to about two cups, about 15 minutes. It will be slightly thickened, but still mostly liquidy. 

Serve sauce over chicken, and anything else that graces your plate (especially, mashed potatoes; a handful of spinach or other greens under the chicken is also nice).

Friday, February 15, 2013

Ah, the wintry mix

I spent most of last weekend in my apartment; specifically, in the kitchen (more specifically, in my sweatpants). The cold weather and threat of impending doom a snow forecast for Sunday gave me the excuse to tinker around indoors, and to not properly dress myself either. I ran errands on Saturday for a bit, and learned my lesson quickly - never go to Trader Joe's when there's a storm brewing. Every Tom, Dick and Harry was there stocking up on cheap wine and snacks before the snow rolled in; I barely made it out of there alive. Then again, Trader Joe's is always kind of like that.

We had plans to have two good friends over on Saturday evening for dinner, so I spent the latter part of the afternoon futzing my way through a few new recipes (they say you're supposed to try all new recipes when having people over, right?). And then on Sunday, I woke up to pebbles of sleet clinking against the cold windows of my apartment. They call this a wintry mix, I guess, which I have always found to be a misleadingly playful term - like a bowl of party snacks, or compilation of enchanting songs, or, "Ooh, just what is in this wintry mix?" Of course it just means rain and sleet and snow, and that you're not going anywhere if you don't have to. So on Sunday, I kept the doors shut, dug out a few recipes from my to-try list and shuffled my way back into the kitchen.

In the course of those two days, I worked my way through a strange combination of recipes - a blueberry version of these muffins, coq au vin, pan-fried mahi mahi, potato-mushroom hash, tomato sauce with onion and butter, a failed vanilla bean pudding and then a redeeming chocolate version (which really was just a vehicle anyway for the roasted banana whipped cream). Maybe you're thinking, Does this girl have a life? And my answer is, Yes, I have a life, and apparently it is food.

Anyway, all of this is to tell you that, after two days of cooking, the best thing to cross my plate was this salad.

This is a spinach and date salad with toasted pitas and almonds, from the very celebrated new book Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi. I will disclaim that I found this recipe about two weeks ago, and have made it at least three times since; I already knew it was a winner.

There's a lot to love here. First, at a time of year when my list of acceptable vegetables are mostly of the root kind, a bowl of bright green baby spinach tangled with fuchsia red onions (they turn quite bright after you dress them in white wine vinegar) is a lovely start. Then you toast a torn up pita and handful of almonds in a skillet, and wake up the whole thing with a spice called sumac. It's a dark red spice of ground berries that adds a tangy, zesty warmth to the mixture. This was my first time using - or even hearing of - sumac. As my mom said, the only sumac I knew of before this salad came along was of the poison variety. (Rest assured, they are not related.) But it's really worth seeking out for this recipe - I can't think of anything quite like it. I got mine at Penzeys.

This salad is fantastic as-is to start a meal, but I have also added cooked chicken tossed in lemon juice and spices (recipe below) - which rounds it out to one of the best lunches I have packed for myself in recent memory. Enjoy!

Baby Spinach Salad with Dates, Almonds and Toasted Pita
Tweaked only slightly from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, by way of Lottie & Doof

Note: The pita should be crispy in the salad. The version of this recipe I read says to cook the pita and almonds in the skillet until the pita is toasted and crispy - but when I make this, the pita never seems to get very crispy in the skillet (and then I fret over the prospect of having floppy pita in the salad). However, it does crisp up when it cools. I recommend taking the pita-almond mixture as far as you can in the skillet without burning the almonds (the pitas will at least look a little toasty), and trust that it will all work out.

5 oz. baby spinach
3-4 oz Medjool dates; pits removed, roughly chopped
1/2 of a medium red onion, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 small pitas, torn into 1 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 cup unsalted almonds (I used roasted), coarsely chopped
2 tsp sumac
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
2 Tbsp lemon juice (about 1/2 of a lemon)
Spiced chicken, optional (recipe below)

In a small bowl, combine sliced onions, chopped dates, white wine vinegar and a pinch of salt; toss to combine. Set aside and let marinade for 20 minutes; the flavors of the onions and dates will soften. Pour off any extra vinegar.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and 1 Tbsp of the olive oil. Add the pita and almonds; cook, stirring constantly, for 5-6 minutes until the pita is brown and toasty (keep an eye on the almonds to make sure they don't burn). Remove from heat; stir in the sumac, red pepper flakes and a pinch of salt. Set aside to cool.

To assemble the salad, toss together the spinach, onion-date mixture and pita-almond mixture. Drizzle over the remaining 1 Tbsp of olive oil, and squeeze the 1/2 lemon over. Toss in the chicken if you are using that. Toss all to combine; add another pinch of salt if desired.

Spiced Chicken
1-2 cups of cooked chicken, shredded (breasts from a rotisserie chicken work marvelously)
OR, bake two bone-in, skin-on thighs at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes, until done. Let cool; remove skin and discard. Remove meat from bones and shred with your hands.

Squeeze over the shredded chicken: juice of 1/2 lemon

Season with spice blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and pepper (my recommendation for quantities is below)

Spice Blend for Chicken
1/8th tsp cinnamon
1/8th tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp kosher salt (or other coarse salt)
1/8th tsp black pepper

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Guarding the couch; or, the laziest of dinners

During vacation, I had my typical "How can I make my regular life better?" daydream. My mind typically wandered there at night, while sitting on the beach digging my feet in the cool sand with a can of Corona in hand, a tiny blush of sunburn lingering on my cheeks. What is different about life here that I can take home with me? 

Sadly, I knew I couldn't resolve to do the obvious - drink more beer with lime wedges and eat guacamole every day. So, I decided to focus on a different change - less TV. I don't think I watch more TV than the average person, but it is very true that, when I'm stuck indoors during the winter, if there's nothing going on in the evening after work, too often I eat dinner and then plop down on the couch and see what's on. Before you know it, I've watched Family Feud and the Lakers game, and it's time to brush my teeth and go to bed. 

So, I came back from Mexico with a plan to keep the TV off. I told myself I would be done with the mindless TV watching, and only turn it on to watch my "programs" (pronounced "pro-grums") - the few shows I actually like. I would cut out the part where I just see what's on, and would be left with so much extra time to stay organized and do quality things, like reading or playing the train game (don't judge).

Let's just say, this hasn't happened. In fact, the evening we returned from our trip, we decided to extend our vacation for one more night by ordering pizza and opening a bottle of wine (and after they way I ate on vacation, why not?). Without thinking, we took our usual spots at our round dining table - not at two chairs facing each other romantically across the table, but two chairs huddled one one side, pointing toward the TV. As Adam slid the cardboard Pizza Luce box onto the table, I got up and swiveled the TV in our direction and joked, "Well, should we just see what's on?" 

Now it's been two weeks since we returned home, and in addition to catching up on Love It or List It, I'm working my way through re-watching all five seasons of Breaking Bad. Let's face it - a more realistic resolution for me would have been to have a pina colada at 5:00 every day. When the sky is dark by the time you climb on the bus at the end of the day, and your car is crusted shut with a week's worth of rain and snow - it can be nice to hunker down and guard the couch, as my dad likes to say. What is winter for, if not for catching up on all of the programs? 

Anyway, if you're like me and like to spend wintry nights guarding the couch, I have a recipe for you. Or if you just like food that comes together with less than 5 minutes of work (not exaggerating here), bubbles on the stove, then blows your mind, I have a recipe for you. 

This simple tomato sauce with onion and butter is it - it's an incredibly lazy and rich version of basic tomato sauce, and comes together with only the three ingredients listed in the name of the recipe. Let me summarize the steps to this dish here: open a can of tomatoes, slice off a chunk of butter, cut an onion in half and peel it. It all goes into a pot and simmers. That is it. Given the effort to rewards ratio, it might be the most satisfying recipe in my repertoire.

The wonder of this recipe comes from the flavor of the onion softly stewing in the tomatoes, and the butter boosting it into a rich, comforting pot of sauce. I make this almost weekly for dinner, typically doubling the recipe to have leftovers. I also don't hesitate to serve it to guests for a simple dinner party - it really has a bit of a wow factor, I think.

Because I make this so often, I try to get away with cutting the butter down to four tablespoons, and it's still great - but I urge you to try the five tablespoons the first time you make it. And, like TV watching, winter is really not the time to be concerned with those things anyway.

Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter
From Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan

1 28 oz. can of whole peeled tomatoes, preferably organic, roughly chopped (I just open the can and then poke a butter knife around inside to break up the tomatoes)
1 medium yellow onion, cut in half and peeled
5 tbsp. butter

In a medium saucepan, toss in the can of chopped tomatoes and their juices, the onion halves and the butter. Cook over medium heat until the sauce comes to a simmer; reduce heat to keep the sauce at a lazy simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally and breaking up the tomato chunks with a spoon as they soften.

After about 45 minutes, you should have a thickened, somewhat lumpy tomato sauce. Discard the onion and toss with pasta. (Actually, the onion is delicious, and if a few petals of onion end up on my plate, I don't mind one bit.)

Serves 4, unless you're like me and sneak extra spoonfuls of sauce out of the pot, in which case it makes more like 3 servings.

Friday, February 1, 2013

I thoroughly gained 5 pounds

Well, well, well. We went on vacation. And as you can tell by the title of this post, I enjoyed myself.

Last week, Adam and I had the fortune of living the dream on Isla Mujeres, a small island off the coast of Mexico near Cancun. Before this, I hadn't been on a beachy vacation in my adult life - the only traveling I have put my money and effort into has been the adventure kind (Europe, the Pacific NW) or the thrifty kind (camping, long weekends on the North Shore). It took me a while to come around to the idea of spending my limited money and vacation time to relax on the beach for a week, but let me tell you - it is awesome.

There were so many good things about our trip, and most of them you can expect - white sand, ocean waves, cans of Sol and Coronas on the beach with a slice of lime clanking around inside, being utterly away from everything. Beyond this, though, what tickled me most was dining on some of the best cheap food I've ever had. If you step off of the main tourist stretch of the island, there are tons of tiny mom and pop shops to eat. Incredible shrimp tacos - 3 for about $4. Fresh lobster, chopped down the middle and thrown on the grill, caught by the man who waited on your table. The lightest calamari I could ever wrap my mind around. A new salsa at every stop. So much guacamole. Chicken pitas, served with apple chutney, that you can smell roasting from blocks away. A simple white fish fillet in butter, served to you on the beach at night, where you're overlooking the dark waves and digging your feet into the sand floor of the beach-side dining room. It was really something.

Have you had chiles rellenos? I had this for lunch one day, recommended by a Canadian man who was sitting at the table next to us. He visits the restaurant we were at every year when he stays on the island. People! It's a poblano pepper stuffed with cheese and ground beef, coated in some kind of eggy mixture, pan fried I'm sure, then smothered in a tomato sauce. Holy. I ate this - for lunch. - before going to the beach. - where I wore my two-piece bathing suit. Let me tell you, I did not regret a single bite. I did, however, lounge on my beach chair longer than usual that day before I was willing to lose my little beach dress and tip toe into the water. The price you pay.

One night, after a fantastic meal, we went out for a drink and I decided to order myself an after dinner taco. What?? It was roasted pork and had a grilled pineapple slice on it - totally worth it.

We didn't hold back much on this trip, no siree. I think we went to the ATM four times, each time underestimating the extent of our "eh, who cares!" attitude when deciding how much to spend on dinner and whether to order another round. It was exactly what we needed.

And now I'll be dreaming of lounging in a beach chair with a cold margarita in my hand, a white plastic table with chips and guacamole at my side, trying to keep myself tucked in the shade of the umbrella, Adam bobbing way out in the ocean far from shore raising his arm to wave to me - until a trip like that comes my way again.

In the mean time, I've got a chiles rellenos recipe to figure out. Or maybe it's best if I don't.