Tuesday, July 20, 2010

There's no place like home...

When I was much younger (by 18 years to be exact) my mother made a dish we referred to as "pork and beans". This is what I would call poor people's food - a package of hot dogs, a can of baked beans with five or six diced potatoes. My mother's food is never lacking for flavor, so the meager ingredients did not reflect in the taste of the meal. Her hot dogs were sauteed and generously seasoned. Her beans were simmered with a mixture of onions and green peppers. When I think of this meal I remember not how little money we had then, but instead how happy we were together, how sweet, spicy and savory the meal was, how warmed I was by the food. When I hear the term "comfort food" this is the dish that comes to mind.

Arriving home after a long day of class last night and surveying the contents of my fridge, the defrosted package of Argentinean sausage inspired me - perhaps I could revisit this "classic" family dish.

- 6 Yukon Gold Potatoes
- 1 Package of Argentinean Sausage (5/6 links)
- 1 Package of Turkey Polska Kielbasa (2 links)
- 1 can Publix Organic Corn Niblets
- 1 can 365 Organic Maple & Onion Baked Beans
- 1 medium sweet yellow onion

The potatoes were chopped and placed in a pot of water with freshly ground sea salt and peppercorns. I typically boil them until right before they are done. Given the way baked beans tend to kind of melt in your mouth this meal tends to taste better when the potatoes are a little robust. I added the corn right before taking the potatoes off the stove. The onions I sauteed until right before they were translucent and then put to the side. In the same pan I fried the sausage in extra virgin olive oil until they were a pretty brown on the outside and then took them out, cut them into thin slices and put them back on the stove with the kielbasa. Argentinean sausage has in my mind an acquired taste and look. There is something about the consistency of the meat that is different from other kinds of pork sausage. It's a little bit tougher, and also tends to stay fairly pink even after it's been thoroughly cooked. I usually have to talk myself into believing they really are finished :-)
To make the sauce I put the onions back on the stove in a saute pan and added the beans until it all reached a simmer. After about 5 minutes I added the meat for another 10 and finally I folded in the potatoes and corn until they were almost entirely coated with the beans and meat. The result was the tasty reincarnation of a childhood favorite - familiar enough to bring back treasured memories with a bit more substance and quality than the original.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Italian Potluck

It's 5pm and I'm behind schedule. No shock there but I've got 2 hours to prepare some kind of "italian dish" for a postponed company party. Strolling the aisle in the supermarket I call my homegirl and fellow blogger, Kay. Inspiration hits: Meatballs! Fast, affordable and perhaps a little boring. Time and cost is crucial but what can I do to spice them up. Kay suggests stuffing them with mozzarella, PERFECT! Standing in front of the ground meats I do her one better, three-meat meatballs made with ground chicken, turkey and pork sausage stuffed with mozzarella and mixture of sauteed onions, mushrooms and spinach. By the time I get into my car, I've spent $18 and consumed 35 minutes of my two hour window.

A five minute car ride and ten minutes of unpacking and I'm standing my favorite place in the whole house - in front of stove with all my ingredients laid out in front of me.

- 1 1/2 pounds of ground chicken
- 1 1/2 pounds of ground turkey
- 1 1 1/2 pounds of mild Italian sausage
- 1/2 pound of diced mozzarella (part skim)
- 1 cup of spinach
- 1/2 medium sweet yellow onion
- 3 medium mushrooms
- 2 tbsp italian breadcrumbs
- 2 tbsp minced garlic (store bought)

I wash my hands, don a pair of disposable gloves and dig right in mixing the meats together with the breadcrumbs, garlic along with freshly ground sea salt and mixed peppercorns.

Setting it aside, I mince the onion, mushrooms and spinach and saute in about 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, adding pepper flakes, hot chili powder and McCormick grilled vegetable seasoning. I cut the mozzarella into little squares: 2 pieces per meatball. Because of the stuffing the meatballs have to be a good size. My "method" is to grab a table spoon of meat and use the tip of a teaspoon to dig a hole in the center of the meat and put perhaps 1/4 teaspoon of the vegetable mixture into the center of the meatball, top with two diced squares of mozzarella and fold the meatball into a ball. It got a little tricky with the oil from the sauteed vegetables but for stuffed meatballs patience is a virtue.

I always fry my meatballs before putting them into sauce. I probably learned my lesson about the importance of firm meatballs back when I was 16 or 17. Typically I fry on all sides (perhaps 4 or 5) until the meat is brown and clearly holding together well. Once the meatballs were done I put the remaining 3-4 tablespoons of sauteed vegetables into a Le Cruset 4 quart pot and slowly added a 28 ounce can of fire roasted crushed tomatoes and a jar of basil garlic tomato sauce. Once the sauce comes to a slow simmer, I add the meatballs one at a time, stir them into the sauce and cover the pot for about 30 minutes. Right before I take the pot off the stove, I add a few pieces of diced mozzarella, stir and cover the pot. When it's time to serve the melted cheese peaking through the sauce makes for a pretty presentation.

Lessons Learned:
  • Don't ever put hot spinach on a glass cutting board, or at least not the glass cutting board I purchased at Bed, Bath & Beyond for $6 a month ago. I was in love with it, but I was decidedly not in love with the millions of pieces of glass which sprayed all over my kitchen when I attempted to chop the hot spinach. By ruining all my vegetables and requiring careful cleanup this "minor" kitchen disaster set me back about 30 minutes.
  • When making 35-40 meatballs a 4-quart pot of sauce is not enough. I ended up put 10 meatballs aside cause they couldn't fit in my pot.
  • This process is kind of painstaking and not in any way a quick meal. Don't make this if you are in a rushed to panicked state of mine :-) I finished around 8:15pm, thankfully arriving at the party just as the other guests were pulling in.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mmmm mmmm Two good dogs!

So like any serious lover of food I have an addiction to the Food Network. It makes for perfect background noise when I'm at home on a "mental health" sick day or when I'm cleaning or marinating on what I will make for dinner. By far one of the most hunger pain inducing shows on that channel is Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. I didn't know how obsessed I was with barbecue until I started watching the show. When I saw that a cookbook had come out recently, I had to pick it up not for the recipes but for the delightful to-eat list the catalog of good eats provided.

So when I got my edition of Daily Candy last February, and read about the opening of Bulldog Barbecue on North Miami, I was ready to go all in. Cheddar grits, corn pudding and burnt end beans? After I read that chef/owner Howie Kleinberg hailed from North Carolina "barbecue pedigree" and was a former contestant on Top Chef, the deal was sealed. I had my purse in my hand and was walking out the door.

For a restaurant only open a week, I was surprised and encouraged by the 45 minute wait. We took the opportunity to drive a few blocks up Biscayne Blvd to Total Wine and pick up a few bottles of beer to warm our stomachs until we were seated. I'll digress here for a moment because I have to mention, I don't like beer or wine. I dislike it enough that even getting drunk cheaply in college was not enough to get me to drink the stuff. I love Total Wine stores because of the sheer possibilities they present. I walk in there and I believe I COULD like beer and wine. I was intrigued by a brand called Blue Dog, some kind of ale infused with blueberry. I'm a sucker for good branding and the bottle's label had a great design concept. I will also note that Blue Dog has a higher alcohol content that most beer at a whopping 8%. When I popped the bottle and took my first gulp I was pleasantly surprised. It tasted enough like ale to be genuine, and slightly sweet enough to be tasty. Just when I thought the sweet was too much the ale flavor came back. I've tried and tasted quite a few beers and this is definitely my favorite by far. At that point even if the barbecue sucked, I would have been happy to have found Blue Dog!

So we get back to the restaurant and place an order for a white chili appetizer and for dinner a full rack of ribs, with corn pudding, burnt end beans and slaw. I was starving and the white chili did not disappoint. It was savory and sweet all at once with a slight crust of toasted homemade croutons and bread crumbs on top. As a non beef eater I rarely have chili, and this version was truly inspiring. By the time our main course arrived (a speedy 7-8 minutes later) my expectations had gone up a notch. The ribs were smoked sweet and tender, the burnt end beans had just the right amount of char, and the slaw was exactly how I like it, robust and crispy. The entire meal all I could do is moan quietly to myself about the yumminess of it all. We topped the meal off (just barely) with a fried apple turnover. I steeled myself to attempt the 3rd course against my better judgment, and Bulldog didn't disappoint. I thought they would drop the ball, but no, the quality of dessert was on par with the rest of my meal. Did I mention that for two, our bill (including a $15 Bulldog T that reads "Nice Rack") was under $50?

Suffice to say I will definitely recommend this place to my friends. Not question either about whether I'll be back. The question is only how soon!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Apple Cobbler - Well done!

My apartment of six years was small. My best attempts to get my property manager to reward my loyalty by giving me a better, newer oven failed miserably. What I got instead was a slightly wider oven, with the same chipped cracked paint on it's stovetop as the prior version. The oven heated fast and burned quick. Combine that with the fact that I am not the best baker (too easily distracted) and you can rapidly have a disaster on your hands. Having the day off from work inspired me to make a two course meal - main and dessert. I must tell you that I rarely eat dessert. First, I don't like sweets much. I'm really more of a savory girl. My sweet tooth (were I to refer to it as such) draws me to foods like cinnamon raisin bread and scones, not chocolate or candy. Second, I am not certain I know anyone who eats dessert with a meal. If you like to eat, and you eat out, you rarely have enough room after a two course meal for a third course. Dessert is best saved for a separate meal, a one course experience.

Now my philosophy about baking usually focuses on ingredients. I make an amazing banana bread, but I have to be honest and admit that a hatred for any banana more than 2 days ripe is what first motivated me to open my Good Housekeeping Cookbook and try out their recipe. So I was making Apple Cobbler because I had a bunch of granny smith apples I wasn't willing to eat. I was also using a pear cobbler recipe I swiped online, and hoping the apples wouldn't mind. I was planning to take a small version to work, and since we don't do dessert, I divided the recipe into 3 small loaf pans.

Something told me that the 4oz of butter for the bottom of the pan (below the layer of batter and layer of fruit) was a little excessive. But I split it into three parts and forged ahead. When the oven started smoking approximately 30 minutes later, I knew it was the butter. It took me four open windows, a disconnected smoke alarm and 45 minutes to troubleshoot the problem. Ultimately the bottom of my oven was black and the 3 mini loafs were combined into a large loaf sans layers. The smoke cleared in time for dinner, and the picture is a plate of the final product next to a tablespoon of La Loo's Vanilla Goat's Milk Icecream. The taste? bready enough for my inner carb addict, and slightly sweet - a perfect fit for my sweet tooth!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

"I'm making peas and carrots"

Although this is a classic combination of vegetables, I've never had the two together. I can't honestly say I've ever bought frozen peas but I was looking at a recipe for chicken pot pie on Food Network's website and peas and carrots were on my ingredient list. I drove to the supermarket for my weekly visit, with my shabby version of a menu. Forced to decide on an alternate dinner plan after I priced boneless skinless chicken breasts (EX-pensive), I was inspired by the frozen peas and got the idea of making some peas and carrots. I cooked these in a custom ratatouille spice blend I picked up at the Farmer's Market a few months ago, and some white cooking wine. The result was crisp, fresh, tasty veggies, although the amount of times I repeated "I'm making peas and carrots" as a song Sesame Street Style during diner prep nearly drove my partner batty!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

First Course...

One of the only things I like more than cooking is eating. (Well perhaps there are other things, but they require far more emotional and physical investment than I am willing to discuss here.) This blog is born out of a workday conversation with my baby sister, about those few things in life which bring me bliss. Cooking and eating happen to rank high on the list. I intend for this blog to be an exploration of all things culinary - from choosing the best spices, to adventures in local restaurants, to late night home-cooked meals. It could be fun, instructional and perhaps even entertaining! Primarily I plan to savor the experience of chatting (mostly with myself) about just why I so love - FOOD!

So here's to cooking, eating and making merry :-)