Friday, May 28, 2010

A Peas-ful Weekend

I hope you're not disappointed, but I'm not writing a posting on a "traditional" Memorial Day holiday weekend recipe. No ribs, burgers, or hot dogs. Nothing grilled. Cue the rounds of boos.


Okay, that's enough. Knock it off. No more booing.

Here's the deal. Nathan and I are celebrating our 6th wedding anniversary a weekend early by doing something we almost never do. We're going away together. Off to Stillwater in Minnesota for a nice romantic excursion. See? Now you feel a little bad for booing at me, don't you?

While it's much more likely that I'll be ordering off a menu this weekend (as I relax on the waterfront, swirling a glass of wine...ah.) rather than slaving over a hot grill, I do have a nice little recipe to share that I tested earlier this week. Lately I'd been thinking about trying my hand at pasta alla carbonara - a classic pasta dish that seems quite easy although I'd never actually done it. All carbonara recipes essentially just require pasta, eggs, pepper, bacon (or pancetta, or similar) and parmigiano. Ingredients which I almost always have hanging around, so why I've never done this dish before is truly a mystery.

I read several different recipes and variations while determining how I wanted to go about this. I was most inspired by Marcus Samuelsson's version, which included peas and basil. This pasta dish is a perfect meal on a day when it's too hot to heat the grill or the oven, or when you just need a break from ribs, burgers, and brats. Plus there are about a million variations on classic carbonara so feel free to take some creative licensing.

Recipe for Pasta Carbonara with Peas and Fresh Herbs (serves 2 with leftovers):
  • A fist full of angel hair pasta (about 4-5 ounces)
  • 4 thick cut slices of bacon, diced into thin strips
  • 1/2 of a small yellow onion, diced
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tsp heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup of peas (frozen works great)
  • 1 generous tbsp fresh chopped basil
  • 1 generous tbsp fresh chopped parsley
  • Olive oil
  • Fresh grated parmigiano (or pecorino romano)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Lemon zest (for finishing)

Bring a pot of water to a boil and cook the pasta to al dente. Drain the pasta and toss with a little olive oil; a couple teaspoons should do the trick. Leave aside. Bring a small amount of water back to a boil in the pot and cook the peas for only a few minutes. Drain separately and rinse under cold water.

Meanwhile, in a large heavy pan (either a fry pan or braising pan - something big enough to toss all the ingredients later), drizzle a small amount of olive oil and cook the onions on med-low heat for several minutes until they start to soften. Add the bacon and cook until done but not crisp. Meanwhile, in a small bowl beat the egg with the cream and stir in a large pinch of cheese, and a little salt/pepper.

When the onions/bacon are done, with the heat still on, add the pasta and combine. Add the peas next and combine. when the pasta has heated back up, pour the egg mixture all over and toss. Keep tossing until the ingredients are combined and the egg mixture has coated the hot pasta. The heat from the pasta will cook the egg, leaving you with a nice light sauce. Taste for salt/pepper.

Transfer to whatever cute serving bowl you'd like to use and mix until it looks nice and even. Sprinkle the fresh chopped herbs all over and add lemon zest (about a half a lemon should do) and fresh cheese to the top.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Farm-to-Table Sunday

The morels (previous article below), fresh spinach, and herbs I gathered on Saturday morning at the Minneapolis Farmers Market seized their destiny yesterday in a zenith of Sunday Dunch (like brunch, but closer to dinner than breakfast) perfection. Fresh food, family bonding, epic meals consequently followed by epic naps - it's the stuff of life.

I had made plans post-Saturday market to meet up with my mom (Bette) and stepfather (Ernie) on Sunday for a post-church meal. Often you don't need a reason or occasion to make plans with loved ones. Sometimes you find several reasons at the farmers market. I think spring produce is an occasion all its own. For those following along with my new stovetop struggles, you'll also understand that I find Bette and Ernie's stove to be an occasion all its own. It's serious business - like something you'd find in a very legit restaurant kitchen. Four huge gas burners, warming lights and racks, more bells and whistles than I can imagine. My husband dreams of owning a motorcycle. I dream of owning this appliance.

Another dream of mine - for the past 3 years - has been to attempt to recreate one of the most memorable dishes I tasted while working at Kitchen Conservatory is St. Louis, and the missing ingredient has always been an abundance of fresh morels. Chef Joe Herbert's popular "Sauce Boss" classes became famous for his amazing sauce artistry and would always sell out fast. As a privilege of working the class, I was able to taste along, and smuggle copies of the best recipes. His recipe for Chicken with Morel and Truffle Sauce holds firmly in my memory of one the best chicken dishes I'd ever tasted. The sauce was rich, fragrant and comforting, and slightly enigmatic given my lack of experience with the mushroom. I'm sure it would be just as tasty if other wild mushrooms filled is as substitutes, but I always wanted to recreate it with the morels.

Bette and Ernie live near a fantastic meat and fish market called Clancy's, and they ordered some chicken breasts (skin on; easy on the bones) just for the occasion. And of course I couldn't leave without also purchasing some deli ham and bacon/chive/Gouda sausage. At home we set the table with farmers market flowers and got to work on the chopping and prepping.

Having never worked with this mushroom before, I sliced them lengthwise, per Ernie's advice. "You don't want to cut rings," he pointed out in his inherent English accent.

Meanwhile, the chicken crackled on high heat in a stainless steel All-Clad pan, a pan with a flat bottom and high walls, ideal for meat-searing-followed-by-oven-cooking-followed-by-sauce-making. I love pans that do all the work.

Despite a brief panicky moment when I thought I botched the sauce, and a minor notion that I may have oversalted a wee bit (a tendency of mine; I adore salt) the final product turned out just as delicious as I remember. Judging by the silence at the table I knew that Bette and Ernie agreed.

Here's the recipe, adapted slightly based on number of people at the table and what I did a little - that is, inconsequentially to the end product - differently.

Recipe for Chicken with Creamy Morel-Truffle Sauce:

  • 3 chicken breasts, skin-on
  • 1-2 cups chopped fresh morels
  • 1 and 1/2 cup of heavy cream
  • 1 tbsp white truffle oil
  • 1 tbsp olive oil or grapeseed oil
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh herbs - rosemary & thyme
  • Dry sherry for deglazing pan (you could also use dry white wine, original recipe calls for Madeira, just don't use anything too sweet)
  • Salt & pepper to taste

You'll also need: A deep, heavy bottom pan that can go from stovetop to oven back to stovetop, and time built in after the meal for a nap.

Heat the oven to 350. In your pan, heat the olive/grapeseed oil on high heat. Rub the chicken breasts with salt & pepper and about half of the chopped rosemary/thyme. Sear the chicken skin-side down for 6 minutes. Flip and sear the other side for 3 minutes. Flip the chicken back over to skin-side down and transfer to the oven. Cook in the oven for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, place the pan back on the stovetop and set the chicken aside on a platter to rest.

Heat the pan to med-high heat and add the mushrooms. When the mushrooms have softened and absorbed the pan juices, deglaze the pan with a couple of splashes of sherry. When the sherry has been reduced/absorbed, add the heavy cream. Keep the heat high while stirring for a while, until the cream reduces by about half and starts looking more like a saucy consistency. Turn the heat down and stir as the sauce continues to thicken. Finish the sauce by stirring in the truffle oil and remaining herbs, and taste for salt & pepper. Serve the chicken with the sauce poured over the top.

Serve warm crusty bread on the side for mopping up the sauce, and a green salad to balance out the richness.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Cue Halleljah Chorus

It's been a cloudy Saturday morning spent at the Minneapolis Farmers Market, where, I am not ashamed to confess, I ate a foot-long corndog for breakfast. I am a glutton of the highest order.

On display: the most gorgeous exhibition of fresh morel mushrooms I've ever seen! Treasure!

Yes. I bought some. It was no foraging, but that's ok.

Someday I will find my own. Today I snatched up 6 in one fell swoop.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

ISO: Biscuits

Lately I've had a major hankering for biscuits. The good ones. The ones that are fluffy and warm and buttery and big. The ones I had on a visit to New Orleans earlier this year.

I remember a time in my life where I would never - seriously, never - eat breakfast. It was when I was in college and shortly after where no one was around to make me eat it, so I could just roll out of bed and head to class, and really, I wasn't even hungry because I had probably been eating an entire pizza at 11 p.m. (or later) the night before. Now at this pushing-30-stage, where I am in bed long before 11 p.m. without a belly full of carbs to start my day, I find myself wanting a big fat biscuit at sunrise.

My husband and I ate brunch at a fantastic little spot in NOLA off the beaten path aptly called EAT. **I should disclose that my experience exploring The South is limited to this one weekend in New Orleans before I declare that EAT is where I had the best biscuit I've ever tasted.** Last week I sent an email to EAT begging them for the recipe of this biscuit. They have not responded, so I am left frustrated by unfulfilled craving.

Can anyone point me to a decent - No. No decent. Scratch decent - a mouthwateringly brilliant recipe for buttermilk biscuits?

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Morel of the Story

First, I should reiterate that I am actually thrilled to be living in Minneapolis again. I must make this very clear. It is exactly the direction I have wanted my life to take, and I can't wait for the many, many food adventures I will have here. Including, but not limited to, learning how to effectively go foraging for morels, per my recent Twitter post (morels are in fact the Minnesota "state mushroom," so they must be around here somewhere). The point being emphasized because I am about to whine, just a little, about how desperately I miss New York today. And not because it snowed this past weekend. Well, maybe that has something to do with it. Just a little bit.

Morel photo courtesy of (read: "courteously borrowed without permission") Wikipedia.

I mainly miss New York because one of my dearest friends is there, and she happens to be my foodie soulmate. I've mentioned Genny in previous posts. She is a no-nonsense 100% Mexican force-of-nature who has opened the restaurants of famous chefs (you may have heard of Philippe Chow), speaks rapid Spanish (much to my awe and envy) during margarita happy hours, and can make a kick-ass rack of ribs, along with just about anything else. Not to mention she has guided me to some of my most memorable new food and dining experiences, fed me many comforting meals during movie nights at her apartment, and is just an overall sweet and amazing lady. We are in the process of considering business plans needed to open a taco truck, and travel the country tortilla-style. But that's a whole different story altogether.

We celebrated my last week in New York the best way we knew how - with eating. She took me to one of her favorite restaurants, one that she'd been telling me about for ages but we never seemed to make it there until it was almost too late. Mario Batali's Casa Mono is a place that Genny would frequent with her Spanish boyfriend, Frank, so my lack of ability to fully translate the menu didn't matter because she already knew what to order. It's probably better that I didn't know what I was getting myself into anyway. I'm all about trying new foods, in fact I would say with confidence it's something I live for, and I also trust Genny with my life and taste buds. But when I hear "cow stomach lining," aka tripe, will be one of our main dishes, images from the 2001-2006 TV show "Fear Factor" begin to develop in my mind. However, when Genny explains, 1) the care in the process that the restaurant goes through to clean and prepare it, and 2) that it was a key dish in her childhood, much like meatloaf to me, and how much it would mean to her if I gave it a shot, I am much more at ease with this whole situation.

The entire Casa Mono experience was one of my most exciting dining experiences to date, a perfect way to end my 2-year stint in NYC. I wish I had taken photos of each dish we tasted, but since I had fully embarrassed my lunch date with this very sneaky and quite un-glamorous self-photo below (dining next to signature orange Croc-clad Mario Batali himself) I decided to "play it cool" for the rest of the meal.

We sampled the "Fois Gras with Cinco Cebollas," which tasted like butter. I've never had fois gras that was seared so perfectly; I actually didn't know what it was at first. Paired with the five varied onions and a subtle reduction sauce, it was heavenly. We also tried the "Pork Croquetas with Green Tomatoes" which was warm croquetas served over diced tangy green tomatoes, and some special seasonal additions of cuttlefish (which reminded me of fish french fries, because they were firm and mild, almost like calamari - cuttlefish and squid are Cephalopod Mollusk cousins - but were shaped like french fries and were garnished with a fresh herb aioli) and some delectable little clams topped with fried angel hair pasta.

I was toiling over how to effectively describe the unique look and texture of the tripe dish ("Tripe and Chickpeas with House-Made Morcilla." I asked Genny, "What's morcilla?" She wisely replied, "Eat first. Ask later." Morcilla, also known as "black pudding" or "blood sausage" is essentially sausage made from dried blood. I thought it was morbidly delightful.), and I found the tripe itself impossible to describe. I literally could not think of anything to draw a parallel. Until I was obsessing over morels earlier today! See the morel photo above? That's what the tripe looked like. It was thin and holey, tender and apparently has no real flavor - I could only taste the chickpea and morcilla and whatever the spicy, middle-eastern inspired sauce was. Genny informed me that tripe actually absorbs the flavors of whatever you cook it with. One of her personal favorite tripe dishes is "Warm Tripe 'alla Parmigiana'" on the antipasti menu at another Batali locale, Babbo Ristorante. It's tripe that's been simmered with a robust tomato sauce and topped with fresh parmigiano cheese. She claims it's the best tripe dish in the city.

We also polished off a bottle of wine, and after fighting over the check, we strolled through the Gramercy neighborhood, loopy and laughing, totally blissed-out from the meal. It was a perfect way to spend one of my last afternoons in the city.

I'm looking forward to a lifetime of discovering all that there is out there to try. While I do miss NYC for so many reasons, it doesn't offer everything. Now, who wants to go foraging with me?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

New Kitchen, New Challenge: Must. Be. Alpha!

Wow. Cross-country moving. Not for the faint of heart. I finally made it to Minnesota last week with my sanity (top importance), our 2 pugs (also very important), and, eventually, all our worldly stuff. I unpacked the kitchen first, naturally, and I finally cooked something for the first time in almost 3 weeks. It had to be something easy (necessary), warm and comforting (holy smokes, it can get cold here!) and capable of generating leftovers (always good).

The thing about our newly rented home - a lovely little town home near downtown Minneapolis - is that, selecting it sight-unseen left us little room to be picky. We actually did very well for ourselves - we really love the space. However, lurking in the kitchen, I discovered one of my biggest fears nestled in and taking residence between the pantry and the fridge. An electric stovetop. One of those flat thingys that are nice and easy to clean, but I never know what the hell it's doing with those little disks of varying size when I turn the dial to, say, the number 4. Is that hot? How hot is that? What's happening down there?? Why can't you just be a gas stovetop I can get along with? Why must you taunt me with your crazy uneven heat?? We also have a microwave, which I have absolutely no use for, and it's just taking up space where I could be storing my hand mixer, but my husband is thrilled because he now feels empowered to prepare his own food.

As I unpacked the kitchen, I found myself occasionally pausing to glance inadvertently and uneasily at said stovetop as if to size it up. Thus beginning several days of our unspoken dance for kitchen dominance. I knew I'd have to confront it eventually. Hey - watch it, stovetop. What's your problem, stovetop?? Tomorrow night, stove top. Seven o' clock, sharp. You. Me. We tangle.

Thankfully, my first dinner on the flat stove went without a hiccup (even WITH my All-Clad cookware, thankyouverymuch. I refuse to buy special flat-friendly equipment for you, stovetop! You will make it work, I say!). It was a pot of chili so it was pretty easy (again, necessary), but I'm still proud of myself in spite of that fact. Tonight I'm making a pizza (I better go get started on the dough, so it can sufficiently rise) and we'll see how the oven fares. I'm wasting no time giving it the ultimate test of heat - the hotter for my pizzas, the better. I'm curious to see how high this baby goes.

I have a sneaky feeling this isn't over between us, stovetop. It has only just begun.