Saturday, March 28, 2009

Winter Wait

This long winter wait finally ends
Bone weary bleakness will fade
Chilling stark truths will soften.
The Sun, with Hope and Beauty returns
Their comforting warmth confirms.

See the Daffodils, sweet messengers of Spring!
They nod their heads, reborn
In graceful gesture and refrain
Echo Life begins again
Nothing is lost, only transformed.

June J. Kibbe 1919 - 2009

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Faith and Begorrah!

For this Irish lass, when it comes to holidays it doesn’t get much better than good ole St. Paddy’s Day. It’s largely connected to my childhood and my stepfather, Henry Patrick Keenan, who took his Irish heritage very seriously. I remember him whistling a lot and two of his favorites were My Wild Irish Rose and O Danny Boy, so it’s no surprise that Irish tunes still get me mushy and teary-eyed in a heartbeat.

We lived outside of Boston in those days and the annual St. Patrick’s Day festivities always included mandatory wearing of the green, parades, and neighborhood gatherings. It was a happy time, there was always a big Corned Beef and Cabbage spread with plenty of singing as the night wore on.

My ‘traditional’ Corned Beef and Cabbage Dinners have evolved over the years, depending on the cut and quality of corned beef available. First, rounds were popular, and then briskets, this year I’m not sure what I got, but it was heavily marbled with fat. In the past I wouldn’t have even considered this unlikely choice, but since it was temptingly reasonable I gave it a try. Due to a couple of reasons at least, it was excellent:

1. Begin by slowly bringing the corned beef, covered in cold water to a boil; reduce the heat and simmer gently for 15-20 minutes. Skim the residue from the top and discard it. Add fresh spices as indicated and slowly simmer the corned beef partially covered, 50 minutes per pound, until tender when prodded with a fork. Gently remove the beef from stock, drain and allow it to cool; cover and chill until the next day. Strain the stock, cool, and refrigerate as well. The next day, de-fat the stock and trim excess fat from the beef.

2. Use the stock to simmer the vegetables. Prepare the glaze ahead, brush onto top of corned beef and bake until crispy on top. Cover beef and let stand about 10 minutes before slicing. Serve accompanied with mustard and horseradish sauces.

Surely, you’ll be singing When Irish Eyes are Smiling, too!

Corned Beef and Cabbage with Currant-Sage GlazeThis shrinks down considerably
4 pounds corned beef, round is leaner
water to cover
1 bay leaf
3 chili peppers, small
1/4 teaspoon peppercorns, celery seed, mustard seed, coriander, thyme, each
1/8 teaspoon cloves
2 cloves garlic, smashed
6 red potatoes
2 onions, quartered
4 carrots, cut into large pieces
3 turnips, quartered
1 small cabbage, 6 wedges
Red Currant Glaze:1 jar jelly (about 8 oz.) currant, guava or similar
1/4 cup dijon mustard
2 tablespoons sage leaves, julienned

Place meat in pot with water to cover, bring to boil, simmer 15-20 minutes, and skim of any scum or grey matter collected on top with spoon. Add seasonings through garlic, cover, and simmer til tender about 3 hours. Adjust seasoning. Can be done ahead at this point - remove beef from pot to drain.

Add vegetables: in the simmering stock add carrots, turnips, onions and cook about 15 minutes, add potatoes and cook additional 15 minutes approx. Add the cabbage wedges just prior to serving and cook 10-15 minutes, or until tender.

For glaze: heat the jelly in microwave until it begins to melt, stir in the mustard and combine, add the sage. Set aside until needed.

To glaze the beef: Preheat oven to 350-375 degrees. Place the drained beef on baking dish, trim excess fat if any, brush with glaze. Bake until hot 20-40 minutes, depending on size; brush again with glaze. Continue until crispy. Slice meat and serve with vegetables. Ladle a bit of hot broth on meat and vegetables, or serve it on the side if desired. Provide hot mustard and/or horseradish. Serves 4 or more. ~~

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sweet Violets, Spring’s Charming Vixens

In our last winter storm I was out in the elements crazily dusting snow off my vexed violets, cooing and fussing over them as they braved their way into early spring. Frankly, I’m fascinated with these lovelies, but I’m just another smitten suitor dazzled by their delicate beauty.

Those charming vixens! Spring’s early seedlings of mystery wink and nod as if masked in shocking displays of purple isn’t enough, then they taunt us with their intoxicating scent and coyly retract it, leaving us begging for more.

It’s true. These fragile beauties have a darker side, and as stellar leads in nature’s early chorus line, why shouldn’t they? Violets have the disarming ability to give it and take it away. They possess ionone, a cunning chemical that affects our olfactory nerves. After one enchanting whiff it derails our senses and inhibits our ability to recapture their elusive perfume. A disappearing act! Those Spring Teasers!

Come to find out, Violets have a long and colorful past. Clear back to Napoleon’s day folks were enamored by them and wrestled for them. Shakespeare and other poets wrote odes on their behalf:

"The forward violet thus did I chide;
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal
thy sweet that smells,
If not my loves breath?”
- Will Shakespeare knew.

Throughout history Violets have been valued for their culinary and medicinal uses as well as their beauty and scent. Even Pliny recounts their power to ‘lessen anger and strengthen the heart.’ Today they are still used in healing poultices, easing inflammation and relieving bruises.

Clearly, these are no vapid underachievers, Violets have real strength and character. Sweet Violets, how I salute you!

Violet Salad with Vanilla Vinaigrette
A simple and beautiful spring salad

Vanilla Vinaigrette2 tablespoons mild vinegar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, fresh grated, preferably
Pinch sugar
Pinch salt and pepper
1/2 cup olive oil, or canola oil flavored with a bit of walnut oil if available
8 – 10 ounces field greens including radicchio
1/2 cucumber, partially peeled, sliced
Handful of violets, not sprayed, stems removed as well as bottom calyx if fuzzy

If possible prepare dressing 1 to 2 hours ahead to allow flavors to marry. For dressing, combine vinegar thru salt and pepper, whisk in oil; taste and adjust for balance.

Prepare the greens, place in bowl and top with sliced cucumber. Lightly dress the salad, toss to combine and sprinkle with violets. Serves 4~~

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bolognese: Not your Mother’s Spaghetti Sauce

It was a cold snowy afternoon and my warm kitchen beckoned, urging me to bring forth the big pot and commence filling it with some sort of sultry, scintillating, simmering concoction – a steamy dinner in the making. There’s nothing more cozy and reassuring on a chilly winter day than a gurgling pot of goodness broadcasting its tantalizing aromas, each expectant stir more promising than the last. Ah, yes, this is pasta weather at its finest and a hearty Bolognese Sauce would surely do the trick.

The old nagging debate returns as I contemplate my course of action, “Do I add the milk or not?” Indeed, why should I? Does it really matter? According to Marcella Hazan, a leading culinary authority on the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, the answer is “Yes, definitely!” In fact, Marcella adds the milk or cream after browning the meat and then allows it to reduce down before finally stirring in the tomatoes and wine. She claims this prior dairy addition counteracts any offensive acid from these two spunky partners and ultimately results in a more refined and balanced sauce.

With knife poised I begin working from 3 different recipes: my own long-time favorite, a recent clipping from Cooking Light magazine, and Marcella’s version. My recipe is one I’ve used many times, gleaned from a yacht owner utterly passionate about his Bolognese Sauce. My aim is to update mine and at the same time introduce a bit more authenticity.

A cautionary note: this meat sauce is not your mother’s Spaghetti Sauce. If yours was anything like my mother’s, throw those ideas out the window right now. Well, o.k., avoid any snowy blast and metaphorically toss them.

Ràgu, as it is affectionately referred to in the Emilia-Romagna, is frequently made with pork and/or beef. I prefer this mostly pork combination but I’ve also used portions of turkey or veal out of necessity. The addition of carrot is a signature ingredient; the sweetness is yet another nod to reducing that dreaded acid build-up.

You’ll notice the herbs and spices move toward the sweet/savory realm, reminiscent of early European cuisine where these were often used as powerful preservatives. Wouldn’t you know, Marcella keeps it simple with just a few grates of fresh nutmeg. With a judicious hand I opt for my favs: sage, a smattering of thyme and oregano, a dash of allspice and nutmeg.

Our sauce in Italy would slow cook 3 hours or longer thus ensuring an impeccably well balanced Ràgu. Back on the ranch, after an hour or so of burbling and voracious stirring, my Bolognese is meaty, intensely robust and quite thick. The color is exquisite pale sienna, the aroma utterly addictive, the flavor well balanced, lingering, unique and unforgettable. As far as I am concerned, it is well done.

The pasta of choice according to Marcella is tagliatelle or perhaps a tortellini, both worthy classics. Wide flat ribbons are ideal for supporting a thick sauce such as ours, and on this snowy winter day, fettuccine is conveniently my perfect candidate.

Bolognese Sauce A mild and meaty Ràgu from Bologna, Italy

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
24 ounces ground pork and ground beef, total, or any combo with veal or turkey
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, allspice
1/2 teaspoon each: sage, thyme, oregano
14 ounces canned tomatoes, in liquid, chopped
8 ounces tomato sauce
1/2 cup white wine

16 ounces tagliatelle, fettuccine, or tortellini
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

In sauce pot heat oil add onion and sauté til tender, 3-4 minutes. Add carrot, celery, garlic and red pepper and cook 2 minutes, til softened.

Add the meat, salt and pepper and brown well, drain of excess fat. Lower heat, simmer the milk, nutmeg and allspice til almost evaporated. Add the herb sand toss to combine and become aromatic. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce and wine. Bring to a boil, reduce to very low simmer, partially cover and cook for about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until very thick. Stir as needed. Adjust flavors.

Meanwhile cook pasta in salted water, drain. Place pasta in shallow bowls, spoon about 3/4 cup over each serving. Pass Parmesan cheese. Serves 6~~

Thursday, March 5, 2009

No Forks Necessary

When it comes to Pizza, it doesn’t get much more personal than that. It’s one of America’s true comfort foods and our preferences vary wildly depending on where we grew up, our food influences and individual preferences.

As far as I’m concerned it breaks into two major considerations: crust and toppings. I went for years selectively pigging out only on toppings and skipping the crust. No thanks, on that flavorless cardboard; I’ll just eat more of the greasy good stuff.

And so, it’s my great pleasure to announce a yummy, healthy pizza built on a yeasty homemade crust worth eating that's prepared in less than 30 minutes! Here’s my pizza solution for a quick snack or a pamper-yourself-dinner that will work equally well mid week as on the weekends.

Thanks to our secret ingredient, cornmeal, we have a pizza that meets all of my criteria: 1) a devourable crust, thin, yeasty, chewy and crunchy, and 2) flavorful toppings that do not make a soggy mess, impossible to pick up. No forks necessary!

Here, the toppings begin with a garlicy spinach base. Consider this a starting point, it’s all about preference and mood. If you wish, forget the spinach altogether and simply replace it with lovely fresh tomatoes. Unless I am craving a heavy dose of protein or a sausage of some sort, I find a vegetable combination that includes mushrooms satisfying, flavorful and filling.

A footnote on preparing the pizza crust ahead: If fussing with pizza dough at the last minute is inconvenient, pre-bake the crust. Prepare per instructions, preheating oven to 400 degrees and bake only to set dough but not color it, about 7 minutes. Set it aside until needed. This makes the final assembly simply a matter of adding the toppings and baking.

Quick Cornmeal Pizza CrustA very malleable dough, that can be rolled as thin as desired. The cornmeal gives extra flavor, body and texture. Inspired by Lean Italian Meatless Meals, by Anne Casale
2 ½ cups flour, approx.
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 package quick rise yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup hot water

In food processor: Place 2 cup flour, cornmeal, yeast, sugar, salt into processor bowl. With machine running, gradually add olive oil and hot tap water in feed tube. Run machine til dough forms a ball and is briefly kneaded, pulsing if necessary, about 50 seconds. It should be slightly sticky. If too wet, add reserved 1/2 cup flour, 1Tbsp. flour at a time, and process for 5 second after each addition until dough reaches desired consistency.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and knead til smooth and satiny, about 2 minutes. Shape into a ball and dust lightly with flour. Cover with a towel and let rest for 10 minutes. Shape, top and bake as desired. Makes enough for 2 pizzas.

Note: To pre-bake crust: Preheat oven to 400 degrees, bake in lower portion of oven until set, but not colored, approx. 7 minutes. Set aside until ready to add toppings. Or follow directions for Pizza to roll and finish.
Spinach and Veggie PizzaA healthy and delicious solution for a pizza craving: from scratch and ready in less than 30 minutes. Suitable for snack, lunch, dinner or cut into hors d’oeuvres portions - highly portable.
9 ounces pkg. fresh spinach leaves, or 1 bunch cleaned and trimmed
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, slivers or minced, divided
1/2 teaspoon each salt, pepper, red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
Assorted Veggies on hand such as:
1 onion, slivers
2 jalapeno peppers, seed and slice
8 mushrooms, sliced, 1 cup or more
1/2 teaspoon rosemary
3/4 cup Muenster, and/or combo mozzarella, Swiss, jack, grated
1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 recipe Quick Cornmeal Pizza dough
1 round or large baking sheet
spray for pan, cornmeal for dusting

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Spray pan and sprinkle with cornmeal.

Prepare the dough per instructions and let rest about 10 minutes on floured surface. (You will only need about ½ a recipe.) Note: the crust can be prepared ahead, bake at 400 degrees just to set dough, but not colored, about 7 minutes. Set aside until needed. Increase temp to 450 for final baking.

Prepare the Spinach Base: In microwave, nuke the spinach 2-4 minutes or until slightly wilted. Drain in colander to cool and squeeze dry. In sauté pan, heat 1 tbsp. olive oil, add 1 clove garlic, the red pepper flakes, the fennel and toss until aromatic, add the spinach, and the salt. Heat to combine flavors, and set aside to cool.

Roll dough thinly on floured surface. Lay the dough in pan of choice, using fingers spread evenly to form a rim. Drizzle the dough with about 1 Tbsp. olive oil and evenly combine and spread with remaining garlic... Distribute the Spinach Base, then the other veggies, sprinkle with rosemary, salt and pepper. Top with cheeses and finish with a light dusting of oregano.

Bake in lower portion of oven for 11 - 17 minutes until bubbly, browned and crisp. Let cool briefly before cutting.


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