Sunday, December 8, 2013

The End of an Era

Culinary Distractions has moved! 
Please visit us at our new home

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Déjà vu: Tavern-style Pickled Eggs

This weekend I found an extra dozen eggs tucked way to the back of the fridge―something that is more likely to happen around Easter.  At the time, I was thinking about the approaching holidays and the need to clear the clutter of forgotten leftovers and near empty containers taking up value real estate.     

With hard-cooked eggs in mind, I deposited a half dozen of them into a pot of water on the stove, set them to simmer, and returned to peering in the fridge for whatever else might have been overlooked. 
Absentmindedly, my eyes fixed on a large jar of dill pickles―I had a momentary flashback to all of the jars of pickled eggs that I used to make.  In family days of yore their cool, spiciness made them a handy and satisfying snack.  Well, why not?
Once the eggs were at a rolling boil, I turned off the heat and let them stand for about 15 minutes to gently finish the cooking process.  Then I drained I them and covered them with icy water to discourage any egg yolk discoloration. 

Of course, the recipe was probably so simple I didn’t think it necessary to write it down, and the Joy of Cooking, my old standby during those days, was of no help.  A few online sites I reviewed verified that it is pretty basic and one or two accounts even confirmed my suspicions of diluting the vinegar―as full strength might toughen tender egg whites unnecessarily.      
While the eggs were cooling, I heated the pickling solution.  Apple cider vinegar was the best I could do, which I diluted with water, plus I added salt, a variety of pickling spices, garlic, and onion. 

Thanks to my refrigerator diving, I also freed up a medium glass container just the right size to hold my 6 eggs.  Of course, it was probably not necessary to chill the eggs down, since I poured the very hot liquid over the eggs.  Not sure how bright that was, as the egg I have since tested had a very slight ring around the yolk―certainly no deal breaker. 

Biting into the egg, I recalled that familiar slight resistance of the egg white, its tangy saltiness, and all the wonderful flavors that the yolk absorbs.  Oh, my.  Déjà vu.   

Tavern-style Pickled Eggs

6 hard cooked eggs, peeled
1½ cups of distilled vinegar plus ½ cup water
2 teaspoons sea salt
pickling blend:  a pinch each coriander seeds and mustard seeds, a few peppercorns and dried whole cloves, 3-4 dried red peppers, 1 bay leaf

½ onion, sliced
1clove garlic, sliced in slivers

1 qt. wide mouth jar, cleaned and dry. 

In a medium pot,  bring the salt, the vinegar, and water to a boil to dissolve the salt; add the spices and simmer 5 minutes, add the onion and garlic and simmer an additional 5-10 minutes.      
With a strainer spoon layer the eggs, onions, and garlic in clean wide mouth jar.  Pour in the pickling mixture to fully cover the eggs.  Allow to cool before storing in refrigerator. 
Chill and allow the eggs to set overnight or longer.  Since these are not sterilized, they are best enjoyed within about 2 weeks. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Real Meaning of Comfort Food

When life around you tumbles into chaos, some might argue that cooking is not always the wisest course of action.  My response to them would probably be something approximating, “Well, you’ve got to eat, don’t you?” 
That was pretty much the case this weekend.  On Friday, I made a quick dash to the store to pick up a few remaining items necessary to prepare a sultry Moroccan ragu of pork, onion, carrots, butternut squash, chickpeas, enriched with layers of aromatics and sweet spices― all simmered into a state of lush complexity.   

Back at home, it was pretty clear that I had a problem with my kitchen sink.  When the faucet was on, water flowed from under the sink onto the floor.   Once I determined the water was no longer gushing, I placed a pan under the sink, mopped up my mess, and debated my next step. Living out in the country is wonderful, but there are a few drawbacks.  Such as: calling the plumber late on a Friday.   Additional scheduling time plus higher house call fees always give me pause.      
I sent up an SOS to my neighbor, Gerald, our resident handyman.   As long as I didn’t run water, we agreed that there was no great emergency; he would stop by in the morning with his wrench and we would assess the situation then.    
So much for any big cooking plans; they were squelched for the night.  Still in damage control mode, I decided to keep a lid on making any more of a mess than necessary and opted for a simple veggie burger dinner from the freezer.

In the morning, before Gerald arrived, I warmed a loaf of whole wheat soda bread from the freezer,  set out a charming bowl of muscadine jelly, a ramekin of butter, napkins, plates, coffee cups and juice glasses.   Just looking at it made me happy! Yes, food is very therapeutic.     

Meanwhile, since my urge to cook was percolating up again, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to begin simmering a pot of chicken stock.   From the freezer, I pulled out a recently frozen roasted chicken, dropped it in a pot of water, and got it simmering on the stove.  What better to time to prep the basic ragu vegetables than while adding the trimmings to the pot?  In went a rib of celery, a pinch of thyme, and a bay leaf, too.   There!  The vegetables were all prepped, tucked back in the fridge, and ready when needed.  Simmering on the back of the stove, the stock smelled divine.  All was well.   

It also looked like it I could quickly conjure up the Moroccan pork marinade.  In a blink I had a heavenly blend of ground coriander, cumin, ginger, turmeric, paprika, and pepper, all bound with a hint of lemon juice and a dash of olive oil.   Mmmm, what a mood elevator!

 At the market earlier, I had elected to decrease the usual 1-1/2 lbs. boneless pork for a ¾ pound slice of tenderized pork plus a package of sliced cremini mushrooms.  Such a small amount, I might as well cut the pork into cubes add it to the marinade, and store it in a zip lock bag.  Then, I gave it all a good massage and popped it in the fridge.    No muss, no fuss; another step done.  
Gerald arrived to a spotless kitchen; we put our heads together, and got to assessing the situation.   Yes, it looked like a clogged drain alright, but peering under the sink he spotted other issues that looked questionable― albeit easily remedied.   Waving his arms wildly, he put forth possible scenarios.   More tools required, more mop up, the day dragged on; the kitchen was slowly unraveling.  By late afternoon, the situation had worsened and Gerald was flummoxed.  When the faucet was on, the sink leaked more than ever and water now gushed from an errant hose onto the kitchen floor.   I thanked Gerald for all his help (sigh) as he dashed out the door shaking his head.  He had football games ahead and a big screen waiting for him at home.   
It looked like I had no choice but to call in the plumber; but not today.   I surmised I was safe as long as I didn’t run water in the sink.  I had Moroccan ragu in my future and tomorrow was another day.
Notes about the recipe:  this is a very adaptable concept.  As mentioned, I substituted cremini mushrooms for part of the pork.  Preserved lemons are on my hit list, but for now, I used the lemon as indicated, plus I included the lemon remains to the ragu as it simmered. I also added 2 to 3 cups of chopped chard from the garden with the return of the pork.  Since my ragu had plenty of liquid when done, I thickened it with 2 tablespoons instant tapioca pearls.  It proved to be outstanding thickener. I served it over a simple couscous seasoned lightly with fresh ginger and a bay leaf.  Bliss in a bowl.

Moroccan-Flavored Ragu with Pork and Winter Squash

Adapted from Eating Well

2 lemons
2 1/2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 teaspoons paprika, preferably Hungarian
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground, plus 1 pinch, divided
1 1/2 pounds boneless pork chops, (1 inch thick), trimmed of fat, cut into 1-inch cubes
14 ounces chicken broth
1 cup butternut squash, peeled and diced (1/2-inch dice)
1 cup carrots, sliced (1/2 inch thick)
1 cup canned chickpeas, rinsed
1/2 cup onion, chopped
1/2 cup canned diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons preserved lemon, chopped rinsed, (see Note; optional)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco
1 Pinch ground cinnamon
1 Pinch ground allspice
Zest and juice the lemon(s) to get 1 tablespoon zest and 2 tablespoons juice; reserve the zest. Combine the juice, 1/2 teaspoon oil, paprika, turmeric, coriander, cumin, pepper and 1/4 teaspoon ginger in a medium bowl. Add pork; stir to coat. Marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or up to 4 hours.

Heat the remaining 2 teaspoons oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pork and cook, stirring, until no longer pink on the outside and beginning to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the pork to a plate.

To the pan, add broth, squash, carrots, chickpeas, onion, tomatoes, preserved lemon (if using), tomato paste, garlic, hot sauce, cinnamon, allspice, the reserved lemon zest and the remaining pinch of ginger to the pan. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally; reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Stir in the pork, return to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the pork is just cooked through, 2 to 5 minutes more.

Serve over couscous, bulgur or rice, and garnish with a blend of 1/4 cup chopped cilantro, 2 tablespoons chopped scallions and 1 tablespoon chopped mint.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Portobello Epiphany

Matsutake Mushrooms
Courtesy Cascade Mycological Society
If it’s true that in the spring a young man’s fancy turns to love, then here in the Pacific Northwest it surely must follow that in the fall a cook’s fancy turns to mushrooms.  Yes, once again, it is fall mushroom hunting season and thanks to a rainy September foragers are gleefully gearing up for a sumptuous bumper crop of boletes, chanterelles, matsutake, and even fabulous truffles. 

With such heady anticipation I’m feeling like an athlete in preparation for her next main event.  No question, I’m in mushroom training, and I need to get my practice in before unnecessarily risking it on those coveted delicacies. 

High mushroom alert kicked in while at my local market when I found myself immobilized with gaze locked, in front of the Portobello display.  They always have a great supply of fresh mushrooms, so this was nothing new.  In a shopper nanosecond I  experienced an epiphany; I visualized these beauties oddly transformed into chewy, pepper-dusted ribbons of mushroom jerky. 
Now that’s bizarre, because I certainly like beef and venison jerky, but I’d never contemplated mushroom jerky.  My course was instantly clear: I picked out the most perfect Portobellos and placed them in my cart.  I was ready for a  serious mushroom challenge.

Of major concern: issues of dirt, foreign matter, and potential critters dangerously lurking within the gills, a possible health risk in the dried product.  After a thorough cleaning with a soft brush and paper towels,  I marinated the thin slices in a flavorful soy based solution with enough salt to act as a preservative for approximately four hours.  The mushrooms were then fully cooked on the stovetop until devoid of pan liquids and the pieces were slightly caramelized.  

The size and meatiness of the Portobellos proved to be an asset in creating manageable and  appealing jerky. I set the slices on trays and stacked them in a food dehydrator for about 3-1/2 hours, until chewy and dry, but not brittle.
Final results:  a rich, elegant snack and a first-rate garnish for rainy  day soup.

Portobello Mushroom Jerky

2 Portobello mushrooms
3 Tbsp. soy sauce
3 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
½ tsp. agave syrup or honey
½ tsp. sriracha sauce (or ½ tsp. Tabasco sauce plus one clove crushed garlic)
¼ tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. freshly ground pepper plus additional for sprinkling on top
½ tsp. liquid smoke

Wipe the mushrooms well and slice them into thin strips; carefully layer in a zip lock bag.

Combine the marinade ingredients and pour it over the mushrooms. Allow them to marinate 3 to 4 hours, turning occasionally to moisten and coat all strips.

Drain the mushrooms and place them in flat in a non-stick sauté pan over medium heat.  Gently cook over medium to low heat until cooked thoroughly, 20-30 minutes. Brush half way through with more marinade.

Arrange mushroom slices on dehydrator trays and sprinkle them with more freshly ground pepper or red pepper flakes. Allow to dry for 3 to 4 hours, turning occasionally to dry evenly.  Remove when the mushrooms are dry, chewy and still pliable, but not brittle.   Store airtight. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Tribute to Trotter

Home Cooking
with Charlie Trotter
The culinary world mourns the loss of legendary chef, Charlie Trotter, 54, who was found dead Tuesday in his Chicago home.   

Diagnosed with an inoperable brain aneurysm, Trotter had spent the last year disassembling much of his extensive empire, including his internationally touted restaurant, Charlie Trotter’s, opened in 1987. 
Charlie Trotter's was known for the tasting menu concept which incorporated a series of small portioned plates, often paired with fine wines.  His unique approach to dining excellence, where money was no object, attracted a loyal following and succeeded in securing Chicago’s spot on the world map of acclaimed restaurant towns.
Although self-trained, Trotter’s often unconventional approach to food preparation was focused on a commitment to sustainability and the American farm-to-table movement, thus carving out an early niche in the emerging ‘counter culture’ food experience.  He cultivated an expansive network of producers to support his approach―which included rarified or lesser known products such as foie gras.   His food philosophy extended to innovative food preparations that celebrated each ingredient’s intrinsic qualities and opened the door to the adoption of a lighter breed of complementary sauces.
[As a note here, in Trotter’s embrace of seasonality and honoring the purity of foods, one of his quirky attributes was never to repeat a dish twice.  I completely support his approach, even in a busy kitchen.  It may be a difficult policy for staff to follow, but it is essential when food quality is the primary consideration.]

Over the years, the restaurant received many awards including Forbes Five Star award,  Wine Spectator’s  ‘Best Restaurant in the World for Wine & Food’ (1998) and America’s Best Restaurant (2000), plus  11 James Beard Foundation awards, including ‘Outstanding Restaurant’ (2000), ‘Outstanding Chef’ (1999), and ‘Humanitarian of the Year’ (2012) to Charlie Trotter.   Trotter also received the prestigious International Association of Culinary professional (IACP) Humanitarian of the Year Award. His PBS cooking show, The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter, was awarded Best National Cooking Show by the James Beard Foundation.
For the memory book, here is an example of Charlie Trotter’s unique food style along with a few comments in his own words, thanks to Leite’s Culinaria.

Olive Oil-Poached Cod with Roasted Tomatoes and Broccoli Rabe

Home Cooking with Charlie Trotter | Ten Speed Press, 2008
Poaching in oil may sound like it would produce oil-soaked fish, but it actually seals in the juices and results in tender, moist fillets. It is a good cooking technique for firmer fish such as cod, sword-fish, or salmon. The key is for the oil to be warm, but not hot. Keep the thermometer in the oil as the fish is cooking, and adjust the heat to maintain a temperature of 110°F (43°C) to 115°F (46°C). If you cannot find broccoli rabe, you may substitute one small head of broccoli.–Charlie Trotter

3 large tomatoes
3 garlic cloves
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 sprigs thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch broccoli rabe, cleaned and blanched
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups plus 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Four 5-ounce cod fillets, skinned
1 teaspoon fresh tiny green basil leaves
1 teaspoon fresh tiny purple basil leaves

1. Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Blanch the tomatoes in the boiling water for 30 seconds and then peel off the skins. Cut each tomato into 8 wedges, place in a small roasting pan, and toss lightly with the garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and thyme. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the tomatoes are soft.

2. Remove the tomatoes from the pan, season to taste with salt and pepper, and keep warm. Strain the cooking liquid through a fine-mesh sieve and season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm.

3. Cook the broccoli rabe in the butter in a small saute pan over medium heat for 5 minutes, or until warm. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

4. Warm the 2 cups olive oil in a medium saucepan over a very low flame to 110°F (43°C). Season both sides of the fish with salt and pepper and place in the warm oil. The oil should cover the fish. Cook for 3 minutes, turn the fish over, and cook for an additional 3 minutes, or until just done.
5. Place some of the roasted tomatoes in the center of each plate and top with a piece of fish. Arrange the broccoli rabe around the plate and drizzle the tomato cooking liquid and the 1 tablespoon olive oil over the fish and around the plate. Garnish with tiny green and purple basil.
Olive Oil-Poached Cod with Roasted Tomatoes and Broccoli Rabe Recipe © 2008 Charlie Trotter. Photo © 2008 Kipling Swehla. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Pumpkin Reverie

Courtesy Shannon Graven

Thanks to the previously mentioned sweet meat pumpkin score that I made shortly before Halloween, I have finally reached my saturation point, and still, I have enough leftover pulp to freeze the last of it. 

I am still basking in its utter deliciousness.  All of it―the pumpkin gnocchi, pumpkin bread, the blondies, the ice cream… even the seeds are the very best ever. 
My take away from this:  no matter how comfortable I may have been in the past with canned pumpkin, I am forever changed.  Yes, the real fresh from the field heritage variety is so much better.  

In all of my indulgences, the rich, creaminess of true pumpkin shines through―it is not overwhelmed by spices or other additions.  
Again and again, I am reminded how much the delightful earthy flavors of all of these delicious treats taste of fall―and the changing seasons. 

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds


pumpkin seeds, cleaned of membrane
salt and water
2 teaspoons olive oil
Soak seeds in a salt water solution (1 to 2 tablespoons sea salt dissolved in 1 quart warm water) for several hours or overnight.  Drain the seeds and lightly pat dry.

Spread the seeds onto a well oiled baking sheet, and lightly toss to coat with a bit of the oil.  Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 30 minutes, stirring frequently, until golden browned. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Sweet Meat of Pumpkins

Courtesy Shannon Graven

It’s probably an overstatement to say that fall is my favorite time of year, because I’m sure I say that with the arrival of every new season.  But, it is a pretty amazing time in the Pacific Northwest ―especially this year, with the absolutely spectacular display of fall colors awash everywhere you look.
Out in the fields, farmers are busy taking advantage of the warm sunny days and chilly nights; this perfect scenario has set them scrambling to take full advantage of optimum harvest conditions. 

A recent visit to support local Herrick’s Farm inspired me to take a step beyond selecting my usual generic pumpkin carving variety and to venture into lesser known heirloom territory. The farm was abuzz with the activity of screaming school kids all in the throes of Halloween excitement. Their holiday spirit was so infectious I joined in the clamor and proceeded to wrestle down my own gnomish looking pumpkin. 

Based on its sheer ugliness―and high baking praises―I trundled off with a 10-pound prize, a warty blue/green affair affectionately called Sweet Meat (a gourd in some circles).  Only at Halloween would something this creepy appear even vaguely edible.    

By early the next day I had serious plans for this pumpkin.  Armed with my largest chef’s knife and a  glint in my eye, I tackled the gnarly behemoth.  I stabbed through its thick reptilian-like skin and hazily hacked it into manageable pieces.  I pulled out its slimy seeding system and set it aside.   Then I placed its meat in a deep roasting pan, poured in a thick layer of steaming hot water, sealed it with foil, and baked it until fork tender, about 1-1/2 hours.   

 Meanwhile, I sorted through the plump seeds, gave them a good cleaning and dispatched them to a solitary brining solution for later roasting.  Finally, I gathered up the assorted pumpkin detritus and stealthy eliminated it ―all into that vast pumpkin graveyard. 

 Once out of the oven and cooled, the meat easily peeled away from its skin and was ready for a quick turn in the food processor.   In short order, the processor’s pulsing rhythm had this mass whipped into an astonishingly elegant, creamy, deep golden elegant puree.  Did I mention elegant?    

 Verily, thou art true to thy name. O, great pumpkin, thy meat is sweet. 


Pumpkin Bread

Most pumpkin breads can require up to 1 cup or more oil or butter.  With the addition of the moist Sweet Meat pumpkin pulp, I’ve used decisively less fat here.  If necessary you can even reduce the amount of granulated sugar. 

The agave nectar provides a sweet caramel flavor that enhances the pumpkin, but honey will work, too.  After it cools, wrap it well.   If you can let this tender loaf rest a few hours before cutting, it will slice like a dream.   As a variation, I sprinkled about 2 tablespoons streusel between the layers of batter and added a bit more on top of the loaf before baking. 

1/4 cup softened butter
1 Tbsp. olive oil
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. agave nectar (or honey)
1 cup Sweet Meat pumpkin pulp (or other)
2 eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
¼ tsp. each ginger and allspice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line and spray a 9x5” loaf pan.

In a mixing bowl, beat butter and sugars until light; beat in the agave syrup, then the pumpkin; when combined beat in the eggs one at a time.

In small bowl, combine the dry ingredients and gently stir into the pumpkin mixture.Spread into prepared pan and bake for 60 minutes or longer; until it begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and the center is cooked.
Cool on rack for 10 minutes before removing from pan. 
**Stay tuned for possibly unfolding episodes of Pumpkin Passion.


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