Monday, October 28, 2013

To clear my head

I was hoping to dazzle you here today. I've been in the kitchen quite a bit lately, and I'm eager to get some of my new fall favorites into this space. I wanted to relive a cider-braised pork roast last Sunday and capture it for the blog - and oh, that will happen soon. (Did I mention the caramelized onion and apple confit? Oh. You just wait.) But instead of cooking and taking photos, I found myself mostly under blankets. A cold snuck up on me over the weekend and left me with what feels like an anvil on top of my nose. 

It's not a horrible cold, but is enough to slow me down and leave me a bit fuzzy in the brain. Today at work, for instance, I sent out a meeting invite with a conference dial in number. When I typed in the passcodes, I wrote:
Participant passcode: xxxx
Hoar passcode: xxxx

Seriously. I sent it out to seven or eight people like that, and didn't notice until six hours later when I was heading to the meeting. I think I was going for host, not hoar; but really, who knows.

Yes, a bit fuzzy in the brain.

So the cider-braised pork roast will have to wait, but it's high on my list of life to-dos. For now, I'm after something simple and hot to soothe my throat and clear my head. I'm not much of a chicken noodle soup fan, so when I'm looking for brothy soup with healing powers, I choose this simple cabbage soup.

I wasn't sure if I wanted to share this recipe here, because it's so simple and homey. Not really a dazzler. But the truth is, we make this probably once a month in the winter. A few pieces of smokey, sweet bacon flavor a rich base of chicken stock, with a spoonful of caraway seeds to add a depth of flavor that reaches to your bones. Shreds of cabbage and onion, a bit sweet from cooking with the bacon, round out the dish. With a slice of buttery wheat toast and a pint of dark beer, it's one of our classic cold-weather meals.

Another bonus - it's cheap! (So cheap. Poor Man Soup, we've called it since the beginning; cabbage and potatoes, stuff of peasant food), and decidedly German - I like to think my Grandma Laura had something like this in her repertoire for cold Minnesota nights.

I hope you're feeling well. And if not, feed a cold, eh?

Poor Man Soup (Cabbage and Potato Soup with Bacon and Caraway)
Adapted from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman

Notes: There's not much to this one, so make sure to pick high-quality, flavorful ingredients. For bacon, I've had good results with Trader Joe's apple smoked bacon and Whole Foods black forest bacon. For chicken stock, choose a darker brown stock (rather than a lighter yellow stock); I like Kitchen Essentials in the yellow carton.

4 pieces thick-cut, very flavorful bacon, diced (1/3 pound or so)
1 large yellow onion, halved and sliced
1/2 a medium head of green cabbage, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon caraway seeds (crushed in a mortar and pestle if you have one)
8 cups good-quality chicken stock
4-5 small red or yellow potatoes, diced
Salt, to taste

In a large pot over medium heat, cook the bacon, stirring occasionally, until the fat is rendered and bacon is almost cooked through, about 5 minutes. Add the onion and cabbage to the pot; stir into the bacon pieces and fat, and cook until the veggies have softened a bit, 5-7 minutes. Stir in the caraway seeds, then add the stock and potatoes. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15-20 minutes, until potatoes are tender. Season with salt, to taste, and additional caraway seeds if desired.

Serve with buttery wheat toast and, preferably, a pint of good porter or stout. Tastes even better the next day.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Is that a deal breaker?

We are on the hunt for a house, Adam and I. And what you hear about the real estate market is true: the good homes get snatched up in a flash. At least in the Twin Cities, there's not much sitting out there for sale that's of any interest (if it's been on the market for more than a week, it seems, there's probably a reason). So it's mostly new listings that spark our interest at this point.

I monitor the listings hourly. Ask anyone who has ever thought about buying a home: it's an obsessive practice. And when a new listing pops up that matches our criteria and looks cute, I immediately 1.) get excited, 2.) add it to our favorites list, and 3.) picture Adam and me standing with a SOLD sign on the front step.

Last week, a new listing popped up that met our criteria - a cute little red home in South Minneapolis, near a movie theater and wine bar, a short walk to the river. As I flipped through the pictures, my internal monologue sounded something like this:
3 bedrooms - nice
wood floors - cute
nice kitchen - cute!
nice yard - cuuute!
sunroom, lots of windows - cute, cuuute!!!

There were no other good listings that day, so I was forced to flip through the pictures of the red house again and again, and daydream about the garden I would plant in that cute backyard. Then I decided to click on the See supplements for this property link, which I never do, because it's mostly boring legal documentation - I figure we'll get to that later with our realtor, if we find that we're really interested in the property.

I skimmed through checked boxes reporting no known issue with wells, water damage, etc. And then, there was this:

Um, oh.

Is that a deal breaker?

I think that's a deal breaker.

I told Adam about the house, it's proximity to the wine bar, it's history with meth production. He had the same reaction - to laugh, then pause and ask, Well ... is that a deal breaker? It was probably a long time ago. I'm sure there's protocol for cleaning it up.

I still think that's a deal breaker.

Especially given our unrelenting infatuation with Breaking Bad. I really don't think a meth house is a direction we need to head.

And so the search continues!

I had another almost deal-breaker situation on my hands last week - some turkey meatballs that went awry. I guess I got a little cocky about the other turkey meatballs that I love so much, and thought that I would whip up some sort of Italian turkey meatballs with garlic and spinach - and cover them in tomato sauce for a comforting, healthy dinner.

The turkey meatballs tasted of nothing - just sad little flavorless lumps on a cookie sheet. Ground turkey at its worst. But! The tomato sauce I made to smother them in saved the dinner. It was simple and rich, a touch sweet and classically tomatoey - just the staple thick marinara sauce that I wanted for my repertoire. I piled it on top of the meatballs and scooped it up on slices of baguette to save dinner. I see this as the perfect sauce for smothering chicken parmesan, or good meatballs - any dish that you want to top with a sturdy and flavorful tomato sauce.

But turkey meatballs? Nope.

Classic Tomato Sauce
Adapted from a recipe by Giada De Laurentis

Note: I recommend good quality canned tomatoes here; I used Muir Glenn organic crushed tomatoes with basil

2 tablespoons or so olive oil
Small onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, small dice
2 28 ounce cans of crushed tomatoes
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt, to taste
3 tablespoons butter

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions soften, about 5 minutes. Add the diced carrot and a pinch of salt. Cook another 5 minutes or so, until the carrots soften a bit. Add the cans of tomatoes and bay leaves; heat over medium until the tomatoes bubble, then turn down to low and partially cover the pot with a lid. Cook at a lazy simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens and flavors meld, 45 minutes to an hour. Add the sugar, a good pinch or two of salt and the butter; stir and taste. Adjust sugar or salt to suit your preference.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Those lucky bastards

Welcome to Columbus Day, friends. One of my favorite days of the year. A day I've been counting down to since Labor Day, with anticipation just short of creating a paper chain. No, it's not that I love history or Christopher Columbus.

It's because I don't have to work! And everyone else does!

There are few joys in my world simpler and greater than not being at work when it seems like I should be. Two weeks ago, I had an 8 a.m. dentist appointment at an office near my apartment. Afterwards, I stopped at the nearby Whole Foods to grab a cup of coffee and extend my morning for a few extra minutes before driving into the office. As I pulled into the parking lot, I looked at the handful of people parking their cars and walking casually into the store.

Who are these lucky bastards? I thought. Who goes to Whole Foods at 9 a.m. on a Monday? Don't these people have to work?

Today, I am them. I am those lucky bastards.

On my agenda today:
1. Watch The Price Is Right
2. Buy myself a treat

Just those two things.

I'm also happy to take advantage of this gloriously empty, wonderfully gloomy morning to drink coffee in my pjs and tell you about this unbelievable soup I made over the weekend. This is it. This is the one. It is unbelievable.

We have a soup competition coming up at work. Last year, my team won first place with the original Butternut Squash Soup with Rosemary. Safe to say that was my proudest professional accomplishment to date. In planning for this year's competition, I've had coconut curry soup on the brain. We sold a really nice version of this at the coffee shop I worked at in Seattle - warmly spiced and creamy with coconut milk, with sliced veggies and lentils to round it out. My thought was that this soup would be unexpected and special enough to wow the tasters and stand out among the 10 versions of tortilla soup we'll see again this year. I did some poking around online to find a recipe that sounded similar the the version from the coffee shop - and signs pointed to this one, from chef Michael Smith. It sounded similar to what I was looking for, and the chef says right off the bat that it's the most requested recipe in his repertoire. I gave it a whirl on Saturday night.

I'll say it again: this soup is unbelievable. With layers and layers of flavor - the warm heat of curry, a slight tang of lemongrass and lime zest, the spicy punch of grated ginger, all held in a base of creamy coconut milk and spiked with a salty splash of fish sauce - it blows to shreds any idea I had of coconut curry soup. I ate two bowls, and couldn't keep my spoon out of the pot on the stove. And I can't stop thinking about the leftovers in the fridge.

Competitors, be warned: Team Soupremes is hangin' on to that golden ladle.

Coconut Curry Soup
Adapted from a recipe by Chef Michael Smith

Note: You could make this vegetarian by subbing in vegetable broth for the chicken broth, leaving out the chicken (cubed tofu or a handful of lentils would be a great substitute), and skipping the fish sauce - I would suspect you'd want to add a bit of soy sauce or extra salt in its place. Let me know if you try it.

2 14 ounce cans coconut milk
1 heaping tablespoon Thai red curry paste
half of the stems from one bunch of cilantro, rinsed well and finely chopped (leaves reserved)
2 cups chicken broth
2 carrots, sliced
4-5 small red potatoes, diced
4 oz or so of sliced cremini or white button mushrooms
2 stalks lemongrass, halved lengthwise
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 lime, zest and juice
1 small knob (about 1 inch or so) ginger, peeled and frozen
Shredded rotisserie chicken - 2-3 cups (I used the breast meat from one chicken)
Leaves from 1 bunch of cilantro

To serve: cooked brown rice, sliced green onion

Set a large saucepan over medium heat. Open one can of coconut milk, and scoop out the thick cream layer into the pot. [Note: the coconut milk I was working with hadn't separated into the two layers (thick coconut cream layer and thin coconut water layer) - so I just poured about half of the can into the pan and proceeded.] Add the curry paste to the pot and stir into the coconut cream. Continue stirring as it melts over the heat. When melted and combined, add the rest of the coconut milk (whatever is left of your first can, as well as the second can), plus the chopped cilantro stems, chicken broth, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, lemongrass, fish sauce, lime zest and juice. Grate the frozen ginger into the pot using a microplane or fine grater. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, until the flavors have blended and the carrots, potatoes and mushrooms are tender.

Remove and discard lemongrass stalks, and stir in the shredded rotisserie chicken. Season with a good pinch of salt, to taste, and stir in most of the cilantro leaves. To serve, place a scoop of hot brown rice into a bowl, and ladle soup over. Garnish with a pinch of cilantro leaves and a few slices of green onions.

And try to pace yourself.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

My apologies

I've got an A+ recipe for you here, buried in a C- blog post.


1. This recipe is best made in the season we just tip-toed out of*
2. The photos are bad**
3. General lack of ambition was displayed on my part***

Sorry about that!

*Still, I proceed - with all my fingers and toes crossed, in hopes that we'll find a few precious baskets of little tomatoes at the farmer's market this weekend so you can give this one a whirl. My mom is, after all, still pulling tomatoes out of her garden - some the size of pumpkins! - so maybe there's a chance. This baked tomato sauce cannot wait until next summer.

It's truly one of my favorites; a highlight of the summer for me. Little cherry tomatoes are topped with small handfuls of breadcrumbs and parmesan, then roasted in the oven until the topping toasts slightly and the tomatoes slump into their own juices. Then, you stir in some sliced basil and season with salt, and then stop and do nothing else but scoop it onto pasta - for it is perfect right there. It's simple cooking at its absolute finest.

**And now, to excuse the photos: I had a night to myself recently, and a goal to write and publish at least a B+ blog post before Adam got home from his happy hour. The plan was as follows: make this pasta sauce, take photos for the blog, have a nice dinner for one, then write a blog post in the gloriously quiet apartment. But then, there was that half bottle of wine leftover from the the night before beckoning to me from the corner of our empty kitchen, and Wheel of Fortune was on with no objections from the man who wants to watch watch SportsCenter. And the apartment was so gloriously quiet. So the night got away from me. Dinner happened closer to 8:30 when the sunlight was long gone, so the nice camera (re: food photography needs natural light) was out of the question. Enter the iPhone photos you see above.

***So, to summarize: please try out this pasta sauce, and sorry for everything.

Pasta with Baked Tomato Sauce
Found on The Wednesday Chef, originally from Best American Recipes 2000. I tweaked it slightly.

Few tablespoons olive oil
1 pound ripe cherry tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/3 cup grated or shredded parmesan
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Few pinches of salt
1 pound dried pasta
1/4-1/3 cup fresh basil, sliced

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Slice the tomatoes in half, and set them cut side up in a 9x13 inch baking dish. Drizzle with 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil.

In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, parmesan and garlic. Sprinkle over the tomatoes to coat.

Bake for about 20 minutes, until the tomatoes are very soft and the topping is beginning to brown around the edges. Remove from oven and stir in basil. Stir the mixture with a fork to smash up the tomatoes. Season well with salt; drizzle in another 1-2 tablespoons olive oil if the mixture seems too dry.

While the tomatoes are baking, cook the pasta until it's al dente. When it's ready, top the pasta with generous scoops of the sauce. Enjoy!