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