Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dinner Disaster

Not every meal can be a masterpiece ...

As formidable home cooks, sometimes it’s easy to get a bit cocky. But then, a series of events humbles you and you’re forced to eat disgustingly mushy broccoli.

Last Sunday we had an “easy” meal planned. Parmesan Herb Baked Flounder is a Cooking Light recipe that we’ve been making for years. I admit I really don’t like most seafood. Even the freshest piece of salmon smells fishy to me. But I’ll eat white fish like cod and halibut somewhat grudgingly. Trevor loves fish in all shapes and forms and is constantly trying to get me to cook it more often. When Trevor brought it up this week, I saw frozen cod fillets were on sale so I said we could do the Cooking Light recipe.

Because we’ve made it so often and always have the ingredients on hand, I didn’t check the recipe before going to the grocery store. I didn’t put green onions and Parmesan cheese on my shopping list. I thought I had the cheese and completely forgot green onions were called for. That was misstep number one. When I got home, I put two fillets in a bowl of cool water to defrost. When we got ready to make dinner, they weren’t completely thawed. We should have put them in the microwave to defrost them a tiny bit. That was big misstep number two.

Trevor made the topping without reading the recipe and mixed all of the wet ingredients with breadcrumbs. We did stop and correct that. Although I grated the tiny bit of Parrano cheese we had left down to the rind to have a scant amount of cheese for the second attempt. At this point, things already were not looking good. This was supposed to be an easy, quick meal. We’ve made it a million times and it’s always tasty — even to someone who doesn't like fish.

I had held off making the sautéed broccoli we were having on the side until the Persephone Yellow Finn potatoes I was boiling were almost done. We held off putting the fish in the oven, too since it usually takes 10 to 12 minutes to cook. Once the fish went in, I sautéed garlic slices in olive oil and added the broccoli, salt and red pepper flakes, then added about ¼ cup water and covered. It takes about 7 minutes with the heat turned to low. The broccoli should be bright green and crisp tender when done. I'd timed it to be ready when the fish came out of the oven. When the fish should have been done, Trevor stuck a fork in it and realized it was still frozen in parts. So it went back into the oven.

I had tossed the potatoes with a quick vinaigrette of red-wine vinegar, grainy mustard, olive oil and salt and pepper. I loved boiled potatoes with lots of vinegar and a bit of oil when I was little, but it’s not something I eat often now. With lots of potatoes in our root cellar, I thought they’d be a good quick side. Trevor had the idea of adding some crumbled bacon on top. That made them even better.

As we were waiting for the fish to cook, I turned the broccoli off, but kept the lid on to keep it warm. I’ve lost count of what misstep this is, but that was another one. As we were waiting for the fish, we started picking at the potatoes. I took one, then Trevor accused me of eating a bunch, so he took several bites. The fish still was not done and we were running out of potatoes.

Finally the fish was out of the oven. But when I went to put the broccoli on the plates, I realized it had kept cooking and was an unappetizing olive green. But at this point, we’d gone too far to call it quits. We ate our fish, remaining potatoes and mushy broccoli, shaking our heads and laughing at ourselves for making the sorriest looking meal we’d had in a long time. (And Trevor's fish still had a few parts that weren't quite done!) The Persephone potatoes were the only bright spot. They were tangy and salty with a little crunch from the bacon. And although we completely biffed the fish this time, it is a recipe worth trying. And it’s one we will eat again — when we’re sure the fish is completely defrosted first.


Parmesan Herb Baked Flounder

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Labor of Love

Food and love are inextricably knotted together. Think of a favorite childhood memory and it’s probably tied to food: baking cookies with your Grandmother, your mom making your favorite meal for your birthday. As a child, I had the most fabulous birthday cakes because my Aunt Sally was a supreme cake decorator. The one I can picture most vividly right now was a four-part choo-choo train. It was frosted in pale orange with the wheels and windows outlined in flourishes of a darker pumpkin-colored frosting. The cars of the train held mounds of candy “cargo” – licorice pieces, and I think those chewy candies in the shape of peanuts. Somewhere in my parents house is a picture of me with cheeks puffed out trying to blow out the candles on this fantastic cake train. What an ultimate display of love to take the time to create such a detailed and artistic cake.

Bechamel Sauce
Making and serving food to your loved ones says, “I love you so I want to nourish your body and give you pleasure.” In a microwave-fast, out-of-a-box, drive-through food society it’s something that’s easily forgotten. Food isn’t just calories and fuel, it’s love.

This Valentine’s Day, Trevor and I celebrated at home. Sometimes when we’re flush we’ll take a weekend trip or try a fancy restaurant we’ve heard good things about. This was not one of those years. But it wasn’t any less special. I said I’d make Meat and Spinach Cannelloni from Lidia Bastianich’s Italian-American Kitchen. And Trevor was in charge of picking up some dessert.

Lidia’s cannelloni is truly a labor of love. It takes about four hours to make, even for someone who is quick in the kitchen. But it’s a meal that just can’t be rushed. Chunks of pork butt, carrots, celery, onion (there’s the trinity again) and refreshed dried mushrooms are slowly braised in the oven with chicken stock and wine. And the liquid that remains in the pan is reserved. Then fresh pasta squares are needed. And creamy béchamel sauce has to be made. And once the meat and vegetables have roasted and cooled, they are ground up with spinach to make the delectable filling. I actually roasted the meat and veggies the day before to speed up the process a little. And as I was grinding up the filling, I couldn’t help but eat a few spoonfuls before rolling it up in the cooked pasta squares. OK, several spoonfuls.

From all that, I probably don’t even need to go into how good it tastes. It’s probably the best-tasting meal we make. And the homemade pasta elevates it even higher.

I also made Trevor’s Valentine’s Day card. What I should have put on it was, “Valentine, our love isn’t an out-of-the-box-into-the-microwave love, it’s is a four-hour plus cannelloni love.”

Rolling up the cannelloni

Ready to be topped with more Bechamel

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Versatile Sweet Onions

Caramelized Onion Tart
I’ve been trying to use or preserve our windfall of onions from Persephone Farm before they go bad. When flipping through Canning for a New Generation, I read a great tip for using lots of onions. The author suggested caramelizing about 5 pounds of onions and then storing the onion in 1-cup servings in the freezer. I though this was the perfect idea. I love the sweet taste of caramelized onions and they are so good on pizza, mixed with bulghur, or spread on a baguette slice and topped with a sharp white cheddar cheese.

So I cooked the onions in a Dutch oven over low heat for about an hour and a half. At the end, I had sweet slices of onions that practically melt in the mouth. I tucked them away in the freezer knowing I’d find a good use for them.

A couple of days later I had the perfect excuse to get some out. Some friends had invited us over for a game night and I wanted to bring something to share. It was the perfect excuse to try a recipe for Caramelized Black Bean Butter that my friend Autumn had shared on Facebook. So I defrosted the onions for a minute in the microwave, then blended them with black beans and spices in the food processor. Thanks to the onions in the freezer, a yummy dip for tortilla chips was ready in just a few minutes with no cooking! And it was vegan.

Later in the week, I thought I’d make a Caramelized Onion Tart from the Moosewood New Classics cookbook. It’s a lovely, creamy quiche that works equally well for dinner or brunch. Or it’s a great addition to a party buffet that you can make a day ahead and serve at room temperature. And vegetarian guests will be happy you have a hearty, delicious dish for them to enjoy. Again, because my onions were already caramelized, it came together very quickly. (And not to waste anything, I made little cinnamon cookies from the pie dough scraps.)

Red Onion Marmalade
Finally I canned some Red Onion Marmalade from Canning For A New Generation. It’s sweet and tangy with a hit of cinnamon. You can serve it with roast meat. Or it’s really nice on a baguette slice with sharp cheddar or your favorite creamy cheese.

Lightly cooked onions are wonderful in a number of dishes. But when you cook them for a long time to bring out their sweetness and complexity, they become even more versatile.

Moosewood New Classics Caramelized Onion Tart

 Caramelized Black Bean Butter

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Doubling Down on Sauce

Left to right, tomato sauce and Bolognese sauce

This week my grocery list included the ingredients for mirepoix or the “trinity” — onions, celery and carrots. Because it’s winter and Persephone Farm isn’t doing any farmers’ markets right now, I’ve been getting produce from a grocery store. (Although, I still have plenty of onions in my root cellar!) Grocery-store produce just can’t compare to Persephone’s fresh-picked taste and overall goodness. Also, stuff I get from the store doesn’t last as long in my fridge, so to get the most for my money, I use the produce I buy quickly and in more than one meal.

Since I needed carrots and celery for cannelloni, I decided to make Bolognese and tomato sauce, too. I hadn’t planned on making both sauces on the same day, but I started to get out the ingredients for the Bolognese (a savory tomato sauce with ground pork and beef) and realized it’d be silly not to make both sauces at once. They both start with the trinity, so if I was going to chop up celery, onion and carrots for one recipe I figured I might as well do it for both.

Mirepoix - onion, celery and carrot
I usually don’t get out my Cuisinart food processor for chopping small amounts, but since I was doing large quantities I knew it would save time. I was following Lidia Bastianich’s recipes. But I did tweak the Bolognese recipe. I doubled the amount of mirepoix and crushed tomatoes, while keeping the amount of meat the same. I also mixed a little beef broth concentrate into to the water the recipe said to add every so often to keep the sauce around the same level.

Huge can o' tomatoes
With the intent to make sauce, I picked up a huge can of crushed tomatoes from Costco, where I go every few months to stock up on things such as toilet paper and dish detergent. (I normally don’t buy much food from Costco since we don’t eat a lot of processed food.)
The tomato sauce finished cooking first. The Bolognese cooks for two to three hours, so I’d just give it a stir every once in awhile and add broth as needed.
The Bolognese turned out perfectly. It was meaty and rich. We could have skipped the gnocchi and just eaten it with fresh-baked bread and grated cheese. We’ll put both sauces in the freezer and cut off chunks as needed to sauce fresh pasta or spread on pizza crust. So I saved time by making both sauces at once — and money by not letting produce go to waste. This also means that in the future we’ll have delicious, healthful meals with a slow-cooked taste in the amount of time it takes to defrost the sauce and cook pasta. Double the sauce, double the bonus.
The Bolognese simmered for three hours

Lidia's Bolognese

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Noodling Around

I’ve had my eye on the Kitchen-Aid pasta roller and cutter attachments for quite some time. And thanks to the generosity of my in-laws, we finally get to enjoy fresh homemade pasta.

Since I had some spicy, peppery arugula from our surprise Persephone Farm delivery, I decided to make some pappardelle noodles with my new toy. We’d made Summer Pappardelle with Tomatoes, Arugula, and Parmesan from Cooking Light before and I decided to adapt it to become a winter dish.

Making the pasta isn’t hard, but it’s time consuming. After initially kneading the dough, it has to rest for at least an hour before you can roll it out. I followed the pasta recipe from Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen and used Martha Stewart’s Cooking School as a visual guide because it has such lovely step-by-step photos. The recipe called for four eggs, and I had one Persephone Farm egg left, which I used. If you look at the photo of the yolks, it’s easy to spot which one is from a chicken that roams around eating organic grass and bugs. It’s obviously a much richer yellow.  

Rolling the pasta out with the attachment was fun and I was able to do it quickly by myself. I used a pasta cutter that looked like a mini-pizza cutter to make 1-inch wide pasta ribbons. (This cutter also has a fluted-edged cutter that I’ve used for ravioli — and Trevor and my dad have used to seal a window screen, but that’s another story.)

Also, I cut some large pasta squares that I’m drying and will use it to make cannelloni for Valentine’s Day. Lidia’s homemade cannelloni is one of the reasons I wanted to get this pasta roller. I rolled out pasta by hand with a rolling pin for that meal and will never do that again!

Once the pasta was cut and rested, I made the quick sauce. Instead of using out-of-season cherry tomatoes, I used about 1 ½ cups of homemade garden tomato sauce that we usually have in the freezer. And I sautéed the arugula to wilt it slightly. I really can’t say enough about the homemade pasta. It’s completely different from commercially made dried pasta. It was flavorful, silky and light, and really let the flavors in the sauce shine. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to pasta from a box.