Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Lucky 2010

I once made a frantic late night trip to the grocery store on New Year’s Eve for a can of black eyed peas. Knowing it would be closed the next day, I left a friend’s party, drove to the nearest grocery store, and came back to the party clutching my can of peas. They remained in my purse for the night, and I happily cracked them open the next day and dug in. Why, you ask, would I go to such great lengths for a can of legumes? For the first eighteen years of my life, I would come downstairs on January 1st to find my mother waiting for me to take my first bite of black eyed peas.

A Southern tradition, the eating of black eyed peas on New Year’s Day is said to guarantee good luck for the entire year. I have heard a few “rationalizations” for this legend, one being that the peas resemble coins, and eating them would guarantee wealth. Another story is that during the War, the city of Vicksburg (VA) ran out of food, and would have starved if it wasn’t for a crop of black eyed peas. Whatever the lucky significance, I have never gone a year without having at least one bite of black eyed peas, and I don’t intend to, ever.

Collard greens are another Southern food often consumed on New Year’s Day. Its vibrant green color symbolizes wealth and good fortune. Usually Southern greens are prepared with lots of bacon and pork fat. In uncharacteristic fashion, I omitted the pork and cooked them the healthier way. This way, I can drink the "pot likker," or the liquid that results from the cooked greens. It is usually eaten with cornbread crumbled into it, but I like it in a coffee mug. It's like green V-8.  Whichever way they're prepared, it's essential that they're served with a vinegar pepper sauce not to be confused with hot pepper sauce. Vinegar pepper sauce is a slender jar of clearish liquid with twenty or so small green peppers stuffed into it. Although I’ve eaten my share of collard greens, for some reason my family has always prepared black eyed peas instead. I've decided to do both for a double dose of luck. You can't have too much, you know.

In other parts of the world, such as Germany, Austria, Sweden, Spain, Cuba, and Hungary, pork is considered lucky if consumed on New Year’s Day. According to Bon Appetit, pork is said to symbolize progress because of the animal’s behavior, always rooting and pushing forward with its snout. What do you know? I barbequed two butts a few days ago. I hope leftovers are just as lucky. 

Hoppin’ John
Serves 8

3 slices bacon, chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 pounds black-eyed peas, soaked overnight
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Red pepper flakes
3 cups water
Hot cooked rice

In a large saucepan, fry the bacon over moderate heat till almost crisp and pour off all but about a little of the grease. Add the onion, celery, and garlic and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the peas, salt and pepper, red pepper flakes, and water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer till the peas are tender but not mushy, about 1 hour. Drain the peas. Serve them in small bowls over mounds of hot rice.

Collard Greens
Serves 8

2 bunches fresh collard greens or kale
1 large onion, peeled and diced
1 clove garlic, sliced paper thin
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons salt

Remove the tougher, woody stalks from the collard leaves. Smaller stems are okay. Wash the leaves and cut them into half-inch-wide strips. Put the collards in a large stock pot and cover with cool water. Add the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil and cook for at least 2 hours.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Beets Me

Beets are a rather controversial vegetable. Along with Brussels sprouts, people love to hate beets. I was the Queen of Beet Haters until I ordered a roasted beet salad with burrata cheese at Herbsaint in New Orleans. Don't ask me why I ordered it; perhaps my culinary bravado was bolstered by a few glasses of Bordeaux. It was the perfect salad.

Beets have an impossible-to-describe earthy flavor. In the same way you can taste the sunshine that ripened a summer tomato, you can taste the dirt in which beets grow. I mean that in the best way possible. Since the epiphany in New Orleans, I've made a similar salad that fits as a starter for almost every meal.
Burrata cheese is a fresh, creamy cheese encased in mozzarella. It is sublime but a suitable substitute is any fresh chevre (goat cheese). The beauty of this salad is that the beets stain the cheese a vibrant, gorgeous fushia. I love to stack the slices of beets in between clumps of goat cheese and peppery leaves of lettuce.

Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Salad
Serves 6

3 fresh beets, washed, trimmed of stem and greens
salt and pepper
6 handfuls of mixed spring greens
6 ounces of fresh goat cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wrap beets in a large rectangle of aluminum foil, making sure to seal top carefully. Place foil package seal side up on oven rack and roast for 45 to 60 minutes. Rinse beets and scrub skins off with a paper towel (the skins will slip off easily). Cut beets into wedges and divide greens, goat cheese and beets on 6 plates.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Vintage Find

This week, while at an antique store, I picked up a 1956 edition of Better Crocker’s Picture Cook Book. I have a thing for vintage anything, but it was the yellowed pages and taped bindings that made me unable to put it down and leave. I knew, for fifty years, this book has been loved and used; it didn’t hurt that at ten dollars it was a good deal. I was especially intrigued by the claim on the inside cover page: “It’s A Cook Book With A Heart.” Modern cookbooks are mostly filled with recipes accompanied by spectacular pictures. This book is vastly different. The graphics are either stylized illustrations or grainy photos no bigger than a post card. The font is tiny; the words are magnificent. From a section on vegetables: “…Vegetables are like people. By treating them with sympathy and understanding, they give us their best in color, nutrients, and flavor” (421). I couldn’t help but read aloud the witticisms present on each page. Explanations of culinary terms made me laugh: canap├ęs = “midget open faced sandwiches" (304). Despite the simplistic language, I quickly found this book held a weighty collection of meaningful recipes.

Because of the season, I flipped straight to the soup section. I was rewarded with a passage about pot au feu, a French beef stew: “All the flavors are extracted and blended during the long cooking while the kettle smiles and chuckles, but never laughs outright in a full rollicking boil” (409). Inspired, I flipped through to find directions for our dinner. Only a 1956 Betty Crocker cookbook would publish such culinary wisdom and then omit a recipe. I perused the soup recipes and found a recipe for turkey soup.

1956 Turkey Soup
Serves 6-8

Turkey soup is the quintessential end of the holidays. As the book states, it is the “curtain call of the holiday bird” (413). You can use a chicken, goose, turkey, or duck. The recipe in the book is pretty bare bones (pun intended), so I decided to add a few of my own additions.

1 bird carcass with plenty of meat
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 onion, diced
6 peppercorns
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage
8 ounces wide egg noodles

Place carcass and peppercorns in a large soup pot. Cover with water. Simmer for 2 hours. Remove meat from carcass and set aside (discard bones). Strain stock. Add meat to stock in pot. Add celery, carrot, onion, bay, thyme and sage. Bring to boil and simmer for 30 minutes until vegetables are tender. Bring back to boil and add egg noodles. Cook for 15 minutes until noodles are cooked. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve.

On a final note, who wouldn’t want to take culinary advice from a book that claims butter "promotes growth" and "builds resistance to disease”(45)? I'm all for the nutritional advice.

Cited: Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book: Revised and Enlarged. 2nd Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Homemade Treats

I love to make my own presents for the holidays. Not only is it cheaper, but it is much more enjoyable for me than shopping, and people appreciate the extra effort. From the actual baking to the packaging of the goodies, I love it all. It's always nice to have help; my neighbor has more craft-savviness in her little finger than I do in my whole body. I recently went to a cookie exchange. Before this year, I had never heard of a cookie swap. The month before, we did a soup exchange; Christmas seemed to warrant something more festive. We had nine women and fourteen different kinds of cookies at our exchange. I brought snowballs, the recipe at the end of this entry. They went fast, but all of the cookies did. It was a lot of fun; I highly recommend having one every year.
On a trip to Birmingam, Elizabeth and I stopped at Williams-Sonoma, one of my favorite stores. E picked up a box of Fleur de Sel Caramels. One word: wow. The dark chocolate-enrobed caramels are dusted with a tiny sprinkle of fleur de sel, which crunches in the teeth. At first you taste the caramel: rich, smooth and sweet. The fleur de sel crystals melt, mixing with the bittersweet chocolate. The result is smooth, salty, rich, and velvety. I decided I simply had to recreate them at home.
You don't have to have fleur de sel, but it helps. I used a mixture of Himalayan pink salt and Fleur de sel for my testing.
My first attempt at making a caramel went terribly awry. While caramelizing the sugar, I became engrossed in Food Network Humor and was brought back to reality by a cloud of smoke and black lava bubbling in my Calphalon saucepan. The second attempt was much more successful:

Sea Salt Caramels
Makes about 3 dozen
1 cup heavy cream
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon good quality large-crystal sea salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water

8 ounces dark chocolate, melted

Line bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, then lightly oil parchment. Bring cream, butter, and sea salt to a boil in a small saucepan, then remove from heat and set aside. Boil sugar, corn syrup, and water in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil, without stirring but gently swirling pan, until mixture is a light golden caramel. Carefully stir in cream mixture (mixture will bubble up) and simmer, stirring frequently, until caramel reaches the soft ball stage,* 10 to 15 minutes. Pour into baking pan and cool 2 hours. Cut into 1-inch pieces. Dip each piece in melted dark chocolate, then let harden on a wire rack.

*This stage can be determined by dropping a spoonful of hot caramel into a bowl of ice cold water. If it has reached soft-ball stage, the caramel easily forms a ball pinched between fingers while in the cold water.

Snowball Cookies
Makes 2 dozen cookies

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted

In a medium sized bowl whisk together the flour, cornstarch and salt. Set aside.In the bowl of your electric mixer (or with a hand mixer), cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy (about 2 minutes). Beat in the vanilla extract. Add the flour mixture and beat until incorporated. Form a ball of dough. Turn dough out onto a piece of wax/parchment paper. Wrap paper around the dough and place in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place rack in center of oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. When dough is firm, form into 1 inch balls and place the cookies on the prepared baking sheets spacing about 1 inch apart. Bake for about 12 - 14 minutes or until the cookies start to firm up. Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool for about 5 minutes.Meanwhile, line another baking sheet or tray with parchment or wax paper. Lay the cookies out on the sheet. Sift the sugar over the cookies, rolling the side in the sugar to completely coat.

*Side Note:  After making the caramels, if you have extra melted chocolate and Halloween Oreos you got at Winn-Dixie for $1 on hand, try this.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Quest for Ooey-Gooey

Every family has holiday rituals. I come from a long line of bakers; therefore, our holiday rituals usually involve sugar, flour, and butter. Some may even look forward to certain holidays because it’s the only time one can get that special dish. For me, it’s my father’s cinnamon rolls. Too loaded with delicious fat and delectable sugar to be breakfast staples, these softball-sized pastries are the highlight of my visits home. Every Christmas morning, I know I will awake to a buttery, gooey, and absolutely decadent treat. Calorie-wise, no one should eat even a whole one, but by noon the entire pan is licked clean.

There’s something comforting about making something as labor-intensive as a batch of cinnamon rolls. I was yeast-phobic up until recently, when I realized if I accidentally kill it I can just open another packet and start over. You combine some ingredients and watch as they transform into a cohesive, silky ball of dough. The dough magically doubles in size, after which you tenderly roll it out. After filling, rolling, slicing and baking, you have a labor of love so delicious that after one bite, you’ll hear moans of delight from your family and friends. They’re also addicting. If you make them once, you’ll make them year after year, if only because of the flood of requests.
Now, the following recipe will provide some pretty good cinnamon rolls, but they're not my dad's. It's a good starter recipe: a sweet, flaky roll with a delicious center. Back to my dad, I have no idea what he does that makes them so ridiculously gooey. We're talking melt -in-your-mouth, sweet delight. Apparently I don't have the touch. I have a plane ticket to go home for Christmas, and as God as my witness, I will never be hungry for a gooey cinnamon roll again.

Yummy Cinnamon Rolls

1 packet active dry yeast

1 cup warm milk
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup butter
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
4 cups flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
3 tablespoons cinnamon
1/3 cup butter, softened

Cream Cheese Icing

8 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup cream cheese
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. For the rolls, dissolve the yeast in the warm milk in a large bowl. Let it sit for 5 minutes. Add sugar, butter, salt, eggs, and flour, mix until the dough is elastic and smooth. Knead the dough into a large ball. Put in a lightly greased bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place about 1 hour or until the dough has doubled in size. Punch the dough down. Roll the dough out into a rectangle on a lightly floured surface, about ¼-inch thick. To make the filling, combine the brown sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. Spread the softened butter over the surface of the dough, then sprinkle the brown sugar and cinnamon evenly over the surface. Working carefully, from the long edge, roll the dough down to the bottom edge. Cut the dough into 12 even slices, and place in a lightly greased baking pan. Bake for 10 minutes or until light golden brown. While the rolls are baking, make the icing. Beat all of the ingredients well with an electric mixer until fluffy. When the rolls are done, spread generously with icing.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Pizza, Pizza!

There are few things in life better than great friends and fabulous food; in fact, as I try to come up with some, they all have to do with food. This past weekend the husband and I spent the night over on the other side of the Bay with our friends Scott and Elizabeth. The night began with debauchery, as all fabulous nights do, at the Redneck Riviera party in downtown Fairhope. There is a reason those photographs will not grace the pages of this blog: to protect the guilty in their redneck-iest getups. We drank beer and wine, and ate BBQ, in mullet wigs, cowboy boots, flannel shirts, and NASCAR t's.  It was a grand old time. After we determined the barbeque was just a snack, we ventured to an exquisite sushi restaurant, Master Joe's, and gorged on a variety of amazing rolls and gyoza. If I didn't love Fairhope before, I certainly did then.

After returning home to S&E's lovely house on the Bay, we continued our party on their pier while watching shooting stars and enjoying the cool fall weather. When we awoke the next morning, hazy from our fun the night before, nothing sounded better than grilling pizza.

There are a million reasons to make homemade pizza, including knowing it will be a thousand times better than anything you can carry out of a store. Grilling pizza is just turning it up a thousand more notches. True pizza, of the Napoli ilk, is thin and crisp, charred on the bottom and bubbled on top. It is covered in fresh, high quality ingredients like artichoke hearts, wild mushrooms, and folds of prosciutto, or mild italian sausage, pepperoni, roasted red peppers, and onions.

Pizza sauce

1 28-ounce can San Marzano whole tomatoes
16 leaves fresh basil
2 cloves garlic
2 tsp tomato paste
salt and pepper to taste

Puree all ingredients in a food processor.
Pizza Dough

3/4 cup warm water
1 envelope active dry yeast
1/4 cup whole wheat flour

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil

Combine the water, sugar and yeast in a cup and let proof for 5 minutes. We used a KitchenAid mixer, so in the mixing bowl, combine the flour and the salt. Add the yeast mixture and, using dough hook, mix until a soft dough forms. Knead on speed 2 for 2 minutes, adding more flour if necessary to form a smooth dough. Place in greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover, let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk (about 1 hour). Punch dough down. Divide in half and roll each half out with a rolling pin. Grill one side until the dough is bubbling and browned, then flip, top with sauce and desired goodies, and grill until cheese is melted and sauce is bubbling.

The Oinker

3/4 cup mini pepperoni
1 roasted* red pepper, chopped
2 mild sausage link, grilled and sliced
1/2 cup pineapple chunks, cut into small pieces
4 slices onion, roasted with peppers
4 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced
1/2 cup shredded fontina cheese
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella

*We roasted the red pepper and onions on a baking sheet at 450 degrees until the pepper was charred. Then we placed it in a bag and steamed it until the skin fell off.
Adulterated Veggie

1 can artichoke hearts
1 roasted yellow pepper, chopped
2 slices proscuitto, sliced into thin strips
1 8-ounce package of assorted wild mushrooms, sauteed in olive oil
4 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced
1/2 cup shredded fontina
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella

Monday, October 19, 2009

Short and Sweet

When I first cracked the pages of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I fell in love with the concept of butterbeer. Butterbeer is a slightly intoxicating libation which J.K Rowling deliciously describes in the third book of the series. I love anything having to do with caramel or butterscotch, so this liquid goodness seemed to be the stuff of my dreams. I have absolutely no clue why it took me this long to try to "brew" it at home.

Wintry weather descended upon Alabama this weekend, and I thought it would be the perfect time to try my hand at this concoction. My neighbor, husband and I went to the beach house, and on the way I picked up a bottle of butterscotch schnapps in preparation for my experiment. I thoroughly researched recipes on the internet; I was comforted to find others as obsessed as I am about butterbeer. I found hot and cold versions. I found recipes with melted butter, and others with spices like nutmeg and cinnamon. (I even found a recipe for pumpkin juice, which I will try closer to Halloween).  One ingredient almost every recipe had in common was cream soda, probably for the carbonation requirement. I used the diet version, in an attempt to decrease the excessive sugar in the recipe.  After throwing out the first batch due to a cream-curdling incident, we managed to concoct what I believe is authentic butterbeer. Only Madam Rosmerta can say for sure, though.

As for the taste, it's like liquid gold sliding down your throat and puddling in a buttery pool at your feet.
Serves 4

4 cups cream soda
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
4 shots butterscotch schnapps

Place cream soda in a medium saucepan and heat to a light boil. Meanwhile, microwave butter and brown sugar in a bowl until melted, stirring frequently. Pour butter and sugar mixture in the saucepan and stir until it is dissolved. Pour into 4 cups and top with a shot of schnapps. Stir and serve.  

Diet Butterbeer
Serves 4

4 cups diet cream soda
4 shots butterscotch schnapps

Place cream soda in a medium saucepan and heat to a light boil. Pour into 4 cups and top with a shot of schnapps. Stir and serve.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Roast, Pot Style

Pot roast has always been high on my list of top comfort foods, but before last night I had never actually prepared it myself. I didn't even know what cut of meat to use; that's how carnivorously uninformed I am. I grew up in a chicken family, and married a pork man. Luckily, the people at the meat farm did the work for me and plastered a large sticker proclaiming "POT ROAST" across the 2.5 pound hunk of boneless chuck. I love it when that happens.
I researched countless methods and recipes, from slow cookers to oven roasting to braising on the stove. When in doubt, braise. It is the best cooking method for tough cuts of meat. Plus, you can add all sorts of delicious things to the braising liquid, from red wine to fresh herbs to garlic and beyond. I prefer a combination of wine and broth, with lots of fresh thyme and garlic.
Before braising, it's best to lightly sear the meat to seal in juices and provide a little golden brown color. Parsnips, along with the carrots, provide a lightly sweet flavor to counteract the meatiness of the roast. For the mashed potatoes, use your favorite recipe. I mashed six or seven boiled fingerling potatoes with a fork, moistened them with a little butter and sour cream, and seasoned them with salt and pepper.

Pot Roast

Serves 8-10
2 tablespoons oil, divided
2-3 pound boneless chuck roast
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup red wine
3 cups beef broth
4 sprigs of thyme, or assorted herbs such as rosemary or sage
1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes with juice
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste
4 carrots, peeled and cut into inch-long pieces
2 parsnips, peeled and cut into inch-long pieces
Chopped parsley for garnish
Mashed potatoes to accompany

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large Dutch oven. Add the beef and brown on all sides and set aside. Heat the remaining oil in the same pan. Add the onions and saute until tender, about 5-7 minutes.Add the garlic and saute until fragrant, about a minute. Add the red wine and deglaze the pan (scraping all the browned bits and reducing slightly). Add the beef broth, thyme, tomatoes, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Add the roast, cover and cook in a preheated 325F oven until fork tender, about 3 hours. Add the carrots and parsnips during the last 20 minutes of cooking. Shred or slice meat and serve on top of mashed potatoes with the carrots and parsnips alongside.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Squash Times Two

At the beach house, we recently entertained guests from Arkansas. We had a lovely time swimming, eating, and catching up. They brought with them fresh produce from their garden, specifically a watermelon, two acorn squash, and a butternut squash. The butternut squash lasted past their visit, and I found myself staring at it at dinnertime Monday night. The husband was out; I was on my own. Even though it's not quite fall yet in Alabama, I desperately wanted to conjure fall flavors. I decided to turn on the oven, despite the humidity, and roast it. I diced, seasoned, roasted, and then transferred the buttery cubes to a plate. I ate five pieces and realized there was no way I'd finish the whole plate. It was back to the drawing board. I love butternut squash soup, and again, it's a fall staple. I had fat-free half and half and apple cider in the fridge. I used my handy-dandy immersion blender to puree the roasted squash. I had to add a little water to make it the right consistency. I transferred the puree to a small saucepan and added a few tablespoons of cider for subtle sweetness. I wanted to add a bit of cinnamon, but didn't realize my cinnamon spice jar held a cinnamon-sugar mixture. Needless to say, the resulting soup was a bit more dessert-like than I would have preferred for dinner, but it was truly delicious. Maybe if I keep making fall-inspired dishes, the weather will get the hint.

Roasted Butternut Squash
Serves 4

1 medium butternut squashed, peeled, halved and seeds and pulp discarded
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon dried sage
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Cut butternut squash into bite-size cubes. Toss all ingredients in a bowl until squash is coated with oil and seasonings. Spread in one layer on a baking sheet, roast for 40 minutes until squash is lightly caramelized and easily pierced with a fork.

Butternut Squash Soup with Apple Cider
Serves 4 as an appetizer

2 cups roasted butternut squash
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons apple cider
1/2 cup fat-free half and half (or regular)
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
salt and pepper to taste

roasted squash or pumpkin seeds for garnish (optional)

Using a blender or immersion blender, puree water with butternut squash until thoroughly liquidy. Pour into a small saucepan and heat over medium heat, thinning with apple cider and half and half. Season with cinnamon and cayenne. Stir over medium-low heat until heated through. Salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with roasted squash or pumpkin seeds if desired.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

My Side of the Pulled Pork Controversy

Pulled pork in the South is more than a picnic staple; it is an institution. Southerners guard their barbeque recipes so close, you'd think they were printed on hundred dollar bills. I'm no different. It's a serious thing to bequeath a treasure to the world. My mother spent most of her youth in North Carolina and Virginia. I grew up eating only North Carolina style pulled pork; consequently, it's my BBQ of choice. I'm not here to bash the other types. They have their merit. Face it, they all taste good. You can't go wrong with slow cooked meat, sweet and spicy sauce, and soft bread, (bonus points if there's slaw on top). There are at least five different kinds of BBQ in the South: mustard, light tomato, vinegar, heavy tomato, and dry. For me, it's the tang of cider vinegar that really revs my BBQ engine. Let's make something clear right now. I don't have a smoker. I make do with the best I can, which is a roasting pan and an oven. I make my own sauce, rub my own butt, (how's that for a little BBQ humor) and it's good. I'm not saying I make the best pulled pork in the South, but it certainly makes a crowd happy.

In a nutshell, I take a Boston butt, (the upper part of a pork shoulder, blade-in) and if it's the first football weekend, take a picture of it next to a bottle of bourbon for emphasis.

I rub it with dry spices, wrap it in plastic wrap, and let it sit in the fridge overnight. Then I stick it in a relatively low oven for six or so hours. Then I make my sauce.

After the sauce is made, it simply waits for its outfit to be done.
This is the pork after 2 hours.

After 4 hours

After 6 hours

After it's falling apart, I shred it, toss it lightly with the cider vinegar sauce, pile it high on a bun, top it with slaw, and then smile because I'm a happy girl.

Oven Pulled Pork
Makes 12 sandwiches

For meat:
1 Boston butt pork roast, bone-in (6-8 pounds)
3 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons dry mustard
3 tablespoons sea salt
1 tablespoon cracked pepper
For sauce:
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
1/2  cup yellow mustard
1/4 cup ketchup
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
3 dashes Tabasco
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
12 sesame seeded hamburger buns

Mix the rub spices together in a small bowl. Massage the spice blend all over the pork, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Put the pork in a roasting pan and bake for about 6 hours. Meat should register 170 degrees on a thermometer.
While pork is cooking, make the sauce. Combine all sauce ingredients in a small saucepan. Simmer gently, stirring, for 10 minutes until the sugar dissolves. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
When pork is done, rest it on a cutting board for approximately 10 minutes. Then shred meat by taking two forks and pulling the meat apart. For the "brown", or the charred skin and fat, take a very sharp knife and chop the brown finely. Combine the brown with the shredded pork in a large container. Pour 1 cup of sauce over the meat and toss gently.  Serve on buns with slaw (on top!) and whatever other sides you desire.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Chili time!

Because the nights are getting marginally cooler, I jumped the gun and made chili last night. It's still August, I know, August in Alabama; however, autumn is my favorite time of year, and around this time I have a hard time refraining from celebrating the impending arrival of cool weather and attractive foliage.

I busted out my beautiful, Le Creuset oval Dutch oven (in sunny Dijon) and set to work browning the meat. After coming in third place in a chili cookoff three years ago, I perfected my recipe. I'm not exactly the type to be content with third place. So I prepared enough different types of chili to practically host my own cookoff. My husband assures me I make the best chili in the world, although we differ on what exactly that entails. I like chili made with steak, where the meat shreds with a fork and melts in your mouth. My husband likes plain 'ol ground beef chili, with a little ground sausage mixed in for over the top flavor. I give in and make his ideal chili.

I'm sure he'd be content with meat and beans (thankfully he's not of the Texas beanless persuasion) but I have to have at least some vegetables. I chop a green bell pepper, a red bell pepper, and a yellow onion. They go into the pot and brown with the meat. I love it when sweet red peppers get sweeter the longer they cook, and the color is just too pretty. After the meat is fully cooked, I toss in a few cans of beans and diced tomatoes, some spices, and voila, it's chili time!

#2 Chili
Makes 10 servings

1 lb lean ground beef
1 roll hot pork sausage (I use Jimmy Dean's Reduced Fat)
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can dark red kidney beans
1 can light red kidney beans
1 can black beans
2 cans diced tomatoes in juice
2 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon Tony Chachere's Seasoning
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2-3 dashes hot sauce (I like Crystal Extra Hot)
salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot or Dutch oven, brown pork and beef over medium high heat. When meat is no longer pink, add chili powder, cumin, and seasoning. Stir and then add onion, garlic, red pepper and green pepper. Stir until peppers and onions are soft. Add undrained beans and tomatoes. Season with hot sauce and salt and pepper and let simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours until flavors are thoroughly combined. Serve with cornbread, shredded cheddar cheese, and chopped red onions, if desired.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Bloody Experiment

I was at Fresh Market yesterday buying produce for my gazpacho, and in the refrigerated section I saw a pretty bottle of juice. I've heard of blood oranges, and even purchased them a few times, but for eating out of hand I found them to be too juicy. It occurred to me then, as I was standing in front of the chilly case, that blood orange juice would be fantastic in a margarita. Let them do the work of extracting every drop of tangy sherbet-colored nectar!

Before I start with the recipe, let me make something clear. I don't do frozen margaritas. Unless I'm sweltering in Mexico or on a sultry Caribbean island, I prefer my slurpees to be non-alcoholic. There's the brain freeze, the sensitive teeth issue...I realize in July I did a pina colada recipe, but the fresh pineapple kept it liquidy enough and the Superblender pulverized the ice into oblivion, just the way I like it.

Anyway, I called my neighbor to gauge her interest in this experiment, and she was all in. I was pleased to see that this particular brand of blood orange juice was from Mt. Etna, in Sicily, the site of a live volcano which I visited my senior year in high school on a Camerata trip. I have fond memories of the burping mountain that spewed ash all over my coat, so I knew this juice was going to be good. I compiled my ingredients: silver tequila, the juice, a lime, and triple sec. The recipe is below, and the results were fantastic. It was tangy and sweet and thankfully lacked the overacidity of a traditional lime margarita. I couldn't have wished for a more perfect late summer cocktail.

Blood Orange Margaritas
Makes 1 cocktail
1 1/2 ounces of silver tequila
4 ounces blood orange juice
1 tablespoon lime juice
lime wedge for garnish

Fill a margarita (or any) glass with ice. Pour tequila over ice, top with juices. Stir and garnish with a lime wedge.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Gazpacho, anyone?

The South is hot in the summer. Yes, it is a generally known fact, but it needs reiterating. The funny (no, hilarious) thing is that we're having a cold front at the moment, which means it's in the high 80's in the day, and "cools" down to the high 70's at night. I generally love hot weather, I wouldn't be here if I didn't, but the times I don't love it are when my husband locks the A/C in at 82. Yes, that's 82 degrees inside my house. Those times I'm talking about are the months of June, July and August.

So a girl has to take matters into her own hands. Instead of fighting over the thermostat, I've developed a few lovely recipes to cool me down from the inside out. Gazpacho is my current obsession. It's cool, fresh, and tastes like a summer garden. I love to garnish it with cooked crabmeat or shrimp, or just enjoy it on its own. I also make it because it never gets old to hear my husband ask if we're having "gestapo" for dinner.

Some people have an aversion to cold soup, simply because it is difficult to wrap your mind around a chilled version of something that is “supposed” to be hot. If you are a fan of regular tomato soup, or V8, you will find gazpacho to be simply a bowl of chilled tomato juice topped with all sorts of delectable goodies. The shrimp and onions are optional, simply because everyone has different tastes. Onions may be too pungent for some, and if you are entertaining vegetarians, the shrimp is easily omitted. The most important thing is to use high quality ingredients. The tomatoes must be ripe, red, and fragrant. Heirlooms would be fabulous for this recipe, but I'd stick with the red varieties for the color. I also find that avocado is a must, because the smooth texture contrasts wonderfully with the chunky cucumbers and peppers.

Chunky Gazpacho
Serves 4 as a main course

3 medium ripe tomatoes, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 of an English cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped
1/2 of a small red onion, chopped
1/2 of a red bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
2 cups V8
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup chopped cucumber, peeled and seeded
¼ cup chopped red bell pepper
¼ cup chopped green bell pepper
¼ cup chopped avocado (about 1 half)
1/2 of a small jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
¼ cup chopped red onion (optional)
4 large cooked shrimp with tails (optional)

Place all ingredients in a large bowl and toss. In a blender or food processor, mix a few cups at a time until just slightly chunky.*Add salt and pepper to taste. Chill in refrigerator for at least 2 hours. Ladle into four bowls. Mix all topping ingredients except for shrimp in a small bowl. Place a small mound of topping mixture on each bowl of gazpacho. Arrange one shrimp on top of each bowl. Serve with crusty bread with warm goat cheese spread (below).

*this was a recipe where I was ecstatic to use my KitchenAid immersion blender. It pureed the vegetables just enough without liquifying them, and took about half a second.

Warm Goat Cheese Spread
Serves 4 as an appetizer or a side

The crowning glory on this meal is actually the side dish, a warm goat cheese spread on a crusty baguette. The pairing of the cool, crisp vegetables and gooey, salty goat cheese is a match made in heaven. Even people who claim they dislike goat cheese can’t pass it up.

1 4 -ounce log of fresh goat cheese
2 tablespoons good quality extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 French baguette, sliced
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix goat cheese and olive oil in a bowl and spread in a ramekin or a ceramic crock. Grind pepper over cheese mixture and bake in the oven until heated and creamy, about 8 minutes. Serve with bread.

Korean Tonight

I love visiting Mobile's international food markets. There's something to be said for being surrounded by hundreds of food items I have no idea how to prepare. I was faced with approximately eleven types of noodles; in characteristic style I chose the cheapest variety: $1.49 for 14.11 ounces of dried noodles. Upon closer inspection they were Korean sweet potato starch noodles, which I call glass noodles because of their sci-fi-like transparency. I also picked up a five pound bag of Jasmine rice, for $5. I can definitely jive with a dollar a pound. It reminds me of my monthly trips to the Garment District for smelly used clothing (also sold for a dollar a pound). It sounds gross but it was the 90's, so it was okay.

There was a recipe on the back of the bag of noodles. It was mostly not in English, but I could compile a list of ingredients that I would need to make jap chae, a Korean noodle specialty. It called for unspecified meat, mushrooms, spinach, onion, carrots, eggs, soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, seasame seeds, and black pepper. I decided to add red bell pepper, because it is my favorite vegetable to stirfry. It gets sweet and tendercrisp all at the same time.

Jap Chae

Makes 6 main course servings, or dinner for 2 plus lots of spicy midnight leftovers

7 ounces dried Korean sweet potato noodles
2 boneless thin cut pork chops, sliced into strips
3 tablespoons sesame chile oil, divided
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3/4 cup thinly sliced onions
2 carrots, cut into matchsticks
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 package fresh shitake mushrooms, caps sliced and stems discarded
1 package of fresh spinach
4 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon sesame seeds

Fill a large pot with water and boil. When water is boiling, add the noodles and cook for 5 minutes. Immediately drain and rinse with cold water. Drain again and toss with 1 tsp of the sesame oil. Use kitchen shears to cut noodles into shorter pieces, about 8 inches in length. Set aside.

In a separate pot heat water to a boil, add spinach. Boil spinach until cooked, about 2 minutes. Drain thoroughly. Add 2 tablespoons chile oil to spinach in a bowl and set aside.

Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet or wok. When the cooking oil is hot but not smoking, fry onions and carrots, until just softened, about 1 minute. Add the garlic. Add the pork and fry until pork is totally cooked through. Add the mushrooms, fry 30 seconds. Then add the spinach, soy sauce, sugar and the noodles. Fry 2-3 minutes until the noodles are reheated. Turn off heat, toss with the remaining sesame oil. Sprinkle sesame seeds on top of each serving.

Close-up of the noodles (sorry for the poor quality of the photo)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Impromptu Parties

My neighbor Danielle and I count throwing parties to be among our favorite things. This week, because a friend's pool party was rained out, we decided at the last minute to throw a "celebration party," at which everyone is forced to come up with something worth celebrating. The venue was Danielle and Justin's beautiful Midtown house. From bosses being out of town to healthy babies, everyone came up with an occasion. The guest list was small; we simply wanted to have an excuse to try out some new recipes, which we did with success. The menu was simple, colorful, and might I add, delicious:

A Celebratory Menu

French 86s (A variation on a French 75)
Tomato Tarts
Gruyere Cheese Puffs with Chicken, Artichoke and Spinach Salad
Olive Tapenade with White Truffle Oil
"Redneck Rolls" (Beef Tenderloin, Cream Cheese, Roasted Red Pepper, Caramelized Onion Sushi Rolls)
Champagne-Marinated Grapes
Crudites with Carrot-Ginger Dip
Lemon Glazed Pecans
Mini Cheesecakes with Blueberry-Lemon Compote

Danielle, an outstanding cook, made the cheese puffs and chicken salad, sushi rolls, crudites and dip, and cheesecakes. I contributed the mixed drink, tarts, crostini, grapes, and pecans. All were eaten with relish.

French 86s
Makes 1 pitcher, or approximately 15 drinks

We originally wanted to serve a pitcher of French 75s, which are a potent concotion of gin, Champagne, lemon juice and superfine sugar. I made a pitcher of it, and we tasted, and decided it was too strong. In went 2 cans of ginger ale. I already added the lemon slices, although if I had anticipated the addition of the soda, I would switch the citrus to lime. Because of the high alcohol content, my guests called this "Danger Juice."

1 and 1/2 bottles of dry Champagne
2 cans ginger ale
1/3 cup superfine sugar
1 cup of gin
juice of 2 limes
1/2 lime, sliced into thin rounds

Pour sugar and lime juice in pitcher, stir to dissolve sugar. Pour gin in and Champagne, stir to combine. Place a few lime rounds in the pitcher for color. Serve in Champagne flutes.

Tomato Tarts
Makes 24 tarts*

This recipe is adapted from Paula Deen of the Food Network. She used Cheddar cheese and dried thyme; I used shredded Monterey Jack and fresh basil. This was a first for me, but a raging success. Let them cool a bit before eating, because they are white hot when fresh out of the oven.

1 sheet puff pastry
5 Roma tomatoes, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/3 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup basil, finely chopped
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a baking sheet well with cooking spray. With a 1 and 1/2 to 2 inch biscuit cutter, cut 24 rounds out of the puff pastry, place on baking sheet. Sprinkle a teaspoon of Monterey Jack cheese on each round. Place a tomato slice on each round. Sprinkle a teaspoon of Parmesan on each round, and a bit of basil as well. Season with salt and pepper and bake for 15 minutes until puffed and browned.

*Because these went so fast, I would make 2 batches for my next party.

Olive Tapenade with White Truffle Oil
Makes 2 cups of tapenade, about 32 toasts

Because of the astronomical price of white truffle oil, I halved the amount in this recipe. My $22 1.4 ounce bottle is almost gone, and I'm not about to run out and buy another one. Yes, this makes me culinarily cheap. This recipe is adapted from my favorite party cookbook, "Cocktail Parties, Straight Up!" by Lauren Purcell and Anne Purcell-Grissinger. It is definitely my favorite olive tapenade: chunky, richly flavored, and quite salty.

12 ounces black olives, chopped finely
6 ounces pimiento stuffed green olives, chopped finely
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1/3 cup parsley, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a decorative bowl. Serve with toasted baguette rounds or water crackers.

Lemon-Blueberry Compote
Makes 2 1/2 cups

Danielle made the tiny cheesecakes, I made the topping. The recipe came out a little more liquidy than I would have liked, so here I have omitted the few tablespoons of water I added to the blueberries. Use the rest on pancakes, topped with whipped cream!

1 pint blueberries
1/4 cup white sugar
juice of 1 lemon
zest of 1 lemon

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir, uncovered, until mixture turns a deep purple and blueberries appear glossy and plump. Simmer until thickened slightly. Pour into a jar and refrigerate until needed.

Champagne-Marinated Grapes
Makes 3 cups

To allow the grapes to absorb more of the flavor from the Champagne, I made small slits with a sharp knife in the side of each grape. I wouldn't recommend this, since it made the grapes too soft and wilted in the end. For this recipe, I increased the marinating time and added more lemon juice to prevent browning.

2 pounds green grapes
1/2 bottle dry Champagne
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons superfine sugar
juice from 2 lemons
zest from 2 lemons

Combine Champagne, 1/2 cup sugar, and lemon juice in a large bowl, stir to dissolve sugar. Cut grapes in small bunches. Add grapes. Store in refrigerator for 24 hours or at least overnight. Just before serving, toss grapes with lemon zest and 2 tablespoons superfine sugar.

Just to tickle your tastebuds, I've included the pictures of Danielle's creations.

Crudites with Carrot-Ginger Dip

"Redneck Rolls"

Gruyere Cheese Puffs with Chicken, Artichoke and Spinach Salad

All photos by Danielle Hovey