Sunday, October 3, 2010

Kung Paowerful Chicken

Here’s a bright and flavorful chicken entrée that is a fast and nourishing mid-week dinner and the perfect counterpart to the Blistered Green Beans recently mentioned here.

Reminiscent of popular spicy Kung Pao Chicken, this is a remarkably simple version, thanks to the special splash of oyster sauce which adds an extra dimension. 

Kung Pao typically includes peanuts, but on this occasion I opted for a bowl of hot and spicy sesame snacks served on the side for nibbling and/or sprinkling. My personal standby is a bulk version which  includes peanuts, rice and wasabi snacks, almonds and other treats. 
 
As with with stir fries and other such fast meals, it’s a good idea to have everything gathered up, sliced, diced, and pre-mixed, so that the final flash in the pan is exactly that.   

But wait.  Besides being quick and utterly delicious, there’s more good news:  should there be any leftovers, this powerful dish is great reheated the next day. 

Spicy Curried Chicken
Inspired by Cooking Light 9/08

The Sauce
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 tbsp Oyster sauce
1-2 tsp rice vinegar or distilled vinegar
2 tsp cornstarch

 3/4 lb chicken breast or other meat, thin 3" strips
2 tbsp oil, divided
1 onion, sliced in strips
1 red pepper, in strips
1 poblano or other pepper, in strips
1 tbsp fresh ginger or more grated
1 tbsp garlic, minced
2 tsp Madras curry powder
4 dried hot red chilies
salt to taste

Garnish:  sesame snacks mix or peanuts, cilantro
3 cups cooked rice of choice

Prepare sauce and set it aside.

Heat deep skillet or wok over high heat, add oil to coat sides and bottom.  Add the chicken in 2 portions, cooking about 2 minutes or until firm and beginning to color.  Sprinkle lightly with salt and set aside.

Add additional oil, then the onion and toss to soften; add the pepper and toss.  Add ginger and garlic and toss additional minute. 

 Add curry and chilies and toss 30 seconds. Add the sauce, then the chicken and stir fry 1 minute.
Serve on rice and sprinkle with nuts and cilantro i desired.  Serves 4 ~~

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Blistered Green Beans: Holy Smokes!

I recently purchased the season’s most beautiful green beans at the market: perfectly formed, deep green, tender, and still rich with the earth’s muskiness. I bit into one and instinctivey knew that little more was necessary than a quick turn in the pan.

On the drive home, mulling over those lovely green beans, my mind did a quick search and brought up the fabulous fried beans served at PF Chang’s. The ones that are so addictive you can’t eat just one. Something like that, but without the tempura business. I recalled a Sichuan recipe I had snipped out of Cooking Light magazine with stir-fried green beans in a spicy red pepper sauce. It made my mouth water thinking about them.

I was right, these will make your mouth water, too. Beware: they are hot and addictive, so have something cool and refreshing close at hand. Here’s my highly recommended version.

Blistered Green Beans
Inspired by Cooking Light magazine 9/08

1 lb green beans, trimmed
1 tbsp oil, divided
1/4 cup onion or shallots, chop well
1 ½ tbsp garlic, mince
1 tbsp ginger, peel and grate
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tbsp Chinese black vinegar or balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp salt

Blanch green beans in salted boiling water for about 2 minutes, until tender-crisp and rinse in cool water. Drain, place on towels and pat dry to avoid pan spattering. (Can be prepped ahead)

When ready, heat large deep skillet or wok over high heat and add 1 1/2 tsp oil to coat interior. Add beans and stir-fry 3 minutes or until blistered and browned; remove them from the pan.

Add remaining 1 1/2 tsp. oil to the pan and coat interior. Add onion or shallots, garlic, ginger, and crushed red pepper; stir fry briefly until garlic begins to brown. Return beans to pan. Add vinegar, soy and salt. Toss to combine and reheat. Depending on heat tolerance, serves 4 to 6 ~~

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In a Pickle, with Corn Coblets

It’s corn season again and I've reached the point where I've managed to satiate myself with the thrill of fresh sweet corn straight off the cob, and I'm finally ready to consider new ways to cook it.

I had burgers on the grill coming up recently, and I wanted to offer a different condiment beyond standard dill pickles and such. I started mulling over the idea of Asian pickled baby corn which I use in antipasto and crudités platters, especially during the winter, when I need more variety in color or shape. They also add a nice tanginess and contrast to the standard vegetable and olive fare.

Thus, with a little luck combined with a fresh supply of corn on the cob, pickled corn coblets were conceived.  It only takes a day or two in their pickling liquid, and they are good to go.  They are a great alternative condiment - and so addictive that I even snack on them straight out of the fridge. They are a wonder at picnics and a surprise at potlucks. Here's a handy bonus: they are even good hot and don’t require any further seasoning - such as a good slathering of butter and/or lime.

Once the new thrill wore off, I even experimented with cutting the corn off the cob and I've added the kernels to salads and pasta dishes.  They give a crisp, refreshing zing - and I promise, they will certainly catch your attention.

Corn Coblets, Pickled

3 ears corn, husk, wash, trim, and cut into 3/4" coblets
4-5 sprigs oregano, rinsed

Pickling liquid
2 cups apple cider vinegar
3 cups water
1/4 cup salt
2 cloves garlic, peeled, slightly flattened
2 bay leaves
8 whole cloves
4 whole hot dried chili peppers

Prepare the pickling liquid: bring the vinegar, water and salt to a boil. Reduce heat and add garlic, bay, cloves, and hot peppers and simmer 3-4 minutes.

Add corn coblets and simmer briefly - depending on corn tenderness, an additional 2-3 minutes. Don't overcook.

Pack corn into a glass container interspersed with oregano, garlic and peppers; cover with pickling liquid and seal. Cool, and store in fridge 1-2 days before using. Will last up to a month in fridge. Yield: 1 qt or more ~~

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Duet: Chanterelles and Prosciutto

Operatic is not a word I would often use to describe pizza, but it's accurate for a recent effort. This is worthy of writing Wolfgang Puck - if he’s still creating pizza. Perhaps it tastes so good because I haven’t had pizza for a while, but I doubt it.

It’s true; I do love a good pizza. When my children were growing up, our idea of a big night out was pizza followed by ice cream. In those days, I considered the crust only a vehicle to carry the toppings. I would often nibble on the toppings and leave the crust behind. When I began making my own crust I had to reconsider this behavior; if I’m going to all the trouble of making my own, I might as well eat it. Plus, it no longer resembled cardboard; it was tasty!

It all began with fresh chanterelle mushrooms given to me by my friend Lee, the great forager. He returned from his favorite patch near the coast with more than he could handle, if that’s possible.

Even though they sat in my fridge overnight before I had time to examine them, they were still firm, golden, and glorious. I took a whiff and caught a hint of their clean, woodsy scent with a lingering whisper of apricot. I was in a rush and the best I could do was give them a light sauté in butter, olive oil, a bit of garlic and finish them with a drizzle of lemon juice, fresh thyme, savory, and chives. Yes, they were meaty and mild, but I’d have to think more on stage two later.

Visions of chanterelles danced in my head all day as I mulled over my dinner prospects.  They are a rare treat, and I wanted them to shine; to pay homage to the chanterelle’s slight fruitiness, I imagined them with pork and a flavorful pepper. Yes, I recalled I had wheat pizza dough in the fridge ready to go. Also, I had my standard stash of Romesco sauce, the one with roasted red peppers, garlic, and smoked Spanish paprika.

On the drive home I was beyond ready for my "mushroom" pizza. But first, I’d make a quick stop at my favorite deli and consider the ham offerings. Once inside, I eyed the imported prosciutto and danced an inward jig over a few lovely paper-thin slices. Oh, yes, just enough. In my head I did a quick inventory: I surely had some type of cheese that would work, but I'd best pick up a few Nicoise olives.  That's it. This was not the time for a garbage pizza - or the gentle chanterelles would be utterly lost.

At home, as I built my dream pizza, I stayed true to the plan and only further embellished it with thin rounds of poblano peppers - no onions. I was ok with a mild meltable Muenster and an aged Asiago cheese. I even nixed further flavorings; the herbs in the mushrooms were plenty pronounced.

I was absolutely right. The wheat crust offered the slight sweet nuttiness that not only provided the perfect vehicle for the toppings, but elevated it to an integral member of the team. The Romesco was smoky with an earthy sweetness riddled with garlic. The meatiness of the mushrooms was balanced and lightly brightened by the citrus and herbs. The few olives gave a rich accent of winey fruitiness. The Muenster offered the mellow cheesy gooey-ness I was looking for, and the Asiago was the crowning touch with its golden crisp nuttiness.

What can I say without ranging into double superlatives? All of these players blended into one triumphant melody line, a chorus for our stars, the elegant chanterelles and Prosciutto. Together, they soared and hit flavor notes previously unheralded. What a classy pair.

Chanterelle and Prosciutto Pizza
The Mushrooms:
3 cups chanterelle mushrooms, brushed clean, trimmed, sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1/2 lemon, juice of
salt and pepper to taste
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
1 teaspoon savory
1 tablespoon chives

The Pizza:
1 recipe whole wheat pizza dough, prebake pizza dough to set but not brown
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup Romesco Sauce , approx. (see recipe), or favorite pizza sauce
1 poblano pepper, seeded, thin rounds
1/4 cup Nicoise olives, pitted, sliced
1 1/2 cups muenster cheese, shredded
2 ounces Prosciutto, approx.
1/2 cup Asiago Cheese, or Parmesan, grated

Prepare the mushrooms: In a saute pan heat olive oil and butter, add the smashed garlic cloves and add to pan and allow to become aromatic. Add the chanterelles and toss to soften, 4 to 5 minutes; add the lemon juice and toss, add salt and pepper and toss. Add the fresh herbs and heat briefly; allow to cool, and remove the garlic cloves.

Heat oven to 475 degrees. Place pre-baked pizza crust on pan, and brush lightly with olive oil. Spread Romesco or pizza sauce lightly over top. Sprinkle the pepper rings evenly, add a layer of muenster cheese, then top with mushrooms, olives, and the Prosciutto. Finish with remaining muenster and Asiago or Parmesan.

Bake approximately 10-12 minutes or until bubbly. Cut and serve hot. Serve 4 ~~

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Market Farewell

Friday ended my tenure working with the volunteers of Springfield Farmers' Market. I completed my projects and I have finally turned my position over to Sarah, my replacement.

It's not that I won't visit again, but it's still bittersweet, because I will miss my weekly involvement and the bond with friends I've made there. Each week I have returned home from the market with special memories and treats that would make me smile for the next several days - and remind me of the folks from which they came.

My heart goes out to our regular farmers and vendors who work long hours to follow their dreams, and in turn, make the market a magical place. I wonder if shoppers think their some times slim offerings mean that the vendors don't care - or perhaps they simply had better things to do.

It has been an exceptionally cool summer so far, and crops have been slow in ripening. Tomatoes  tend to look a bit puny and lack their normal brilliance. Blueberries that should have been completely picked by now are still on their branches.

For our farmers, the planting and constant vigilance over their crops is only the beginnning.  Week in and week out they contend with the pre-market picking and careful packing. There's the transport to and from, plus the set up and creation of attractive displays that will draw shoppers in. They wait, in hopeful expectation that there will be enough shoppers to sell what they have brought. I respect their tenacity, their commitment, optimism and drive.

Our bakers arrive with trays piled with their specialties; for me it's an indication of the long hours they have worked in order to provide the freshest products possible. Barbara, our French baker, takes pride in creating mouthwatering tarts, molded cakes and cookies - she tirelessly fusses and fills her platters, not a crumb is allowed out of place.

I will miss our shoppers who return regularly and support our small market. Some pick up their weekly CSA's; they give a preliminary peek inside their box, and share their appreciation and excitement. Others arrive, shop and linger, chatting up vendors and friends; they may find a table and sample the food, have a cool drink, and enjoy the music. There's a much needed sense of community generated here, thanks to them.

I will miss our loyal volunteers, who show up with smiles on their faces, rain or shine. Each week, they do whatever it takes to make the market a pleasure for shoppers and vendors. They bring their enthusiasm and willingness; their energy, too, is reflected in the ebullient spirit of the market.

Thank you for the joy you have given me each week. I will miss each and every one of you.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Rock Garden

My mother's rock garden has taken many forms over the years. No doubt it began as a way for her to accommodate a semi-shaded space in the back yard where no grass would grow. She always loved rock gardens. When I was little I remember her industriously working with a difficult slope on the rocky edge of our small front yard. I suspect it made perfect sense to a woman who loved form, color, and natural settings.

I didn't spend much time dwelling on her latest rock garden when I visited her on summer vacations, because it was always there. In fact, she loved exploring the nearby river banks, and I suspect many of the smooth, polished rocks were finds brought home from those walks. There were also pitted and jagged lava rocks relocated from the volcanic flows further upcountry.

Early on, I remember she thoughtfully planted an angular juniper bush to one end of the garden, which became part of its basic structure. About the same time she also dragged home a weathered Douglas fir log, which she carefully positioned near the juniper for added focus and texture, and with these simple elements the garden gained a graceful kidney shape. The larger rocks spilled out from the elevated juniper and drew the eye at an angle along the odd shaped stones that tumbled and flowed downward.

She loved her hens and chicks, and the succulents were abundant in her early garden; a wise choice because they require little watering and maintenance. Overnight they wantonly pop up among the rocks in surprising spots; mom called them her volunteers.

On one of my trips home from Florida, where I was likely living on the water, I thought her garden needed a water feature. We spent much of that visit locating a tub suitable for a small pond, plus the circulation pump, electrical cords and all the other odds and ends to make it happen. We tore into her nicely defined rock garden, trading off while we dug an enormous hole deep enough to hold the tub.

My mother never talked about this major disruption to her plan. The tub sat there for years, an odd appendage that made no sense. Perhaps she was hoping I would return someday and correct the awkward mess that only served to collect leaves and attract mosquitoes.

Over the years the hens and chicks grew and multiplied and she tucked a few new plants into the rocks, but it didn't change much after that. One year my brother took up the cause and presented her with two tall hand crafted copper flowers to add to the mix. On visits, we would stand out by the garden and move the copper flowers, as if they might multiply at will when placed in the right location.

In the final months of her life I spent considerable time at her home. One of the tasks I finally took on was resurrecting her rock garden. I'd tinker there and add my own touches. I planted herbs among the rocks: oregano, thyme, rosemary, and sage and to my amazement, they took hold and settled in.

One day, when I could avoid it no longer, I tackled the removal of the bizarre brown tub. It was firmly embedded in its hole, but with unrelenting resolve, I finally yanked it out. I eyed the cavity left behind, and with waning strength I wandered about the yard and gathered up all the loose rocks I could find and filled it in. Amazingly, it formed a gentle dry river bed that looked as if it had come to an end, of its own volition. Over the top I scattered a collection of memorable stones she had set aside and never used.

It was later that same summer, and we had scattered most of Mom's ashes about her favorite haunts: along her beloved river, and at a private waterfall closed to where she was born. One night, when the moon was full, I took one last handful of her remaining ashes outside and sprinkled them over her rock garden, where I knew she would have finally approved.

It's no surprise that the herbs now flourish, and for me, the garden has become a mysterious attraction and a source of tremendous renewal. On any sunny day, if you were to look out onto the rock rimmed herb garden, you'd likely find butterflies and birds darting and dancing about the rocks and hovering over the lush beds of rosemary, sage, parsley and thyme.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Summer


Maturity no longer in doubt,
It is here.
Voluptuous youth:
Seductive, undulating, juicy,
Ready for the plucking.
No  dream,
This dazzling truth.

We endure frustration and defeat
No earthly lovers can compete,
Tempting, barely beyond reach.
When regained,
So sublimely sweet
Exceeds any wild wet breach.
When again,
At last, we are complete.

Satiated, fueled, restored.
The promise
Sustains, remains, stains
 our lips evermore.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Lavender Lustfest

This past weekend was the annual Oregon Lavender Festival and Tour. Admittedly, I have been under the spell of lavender since my first trip to the Mediterranean when I first experienced the dazzling fields of lavender and the heady passion it evokes.

It’s a bit of paradaox - this zeal that lavender generates – because lavender is most known as a calming restorative. I have no idea how a cat feels when it’s under the influence of catnip, but I suspect it must be something similar to the affect that lavender has on me. One whiff of that fabulous ethereal scent - my senses sharpen and I’m lightheaded all at the same time. Bam! Right between the eyes, I am blissfully transported. So, why wouldn’t I want more of that?

Judging from the farms and cottage industries that are springing up all over the state, lavender is becoming big business in Oregon. There are about 25 sites – each catering to their particular locale and clientele. Who knew? Some are nursery based selling as many as 100 different varieties; then there are lavender u-picks, production tours, gift shops, workshops - even wedding and event venues for up to 500.

As in France, lavender and wine seem to make good neighborly partners in Oregon. Many of our lavender growers have discovered the financial benefits of this association and market themselves as such. Of course, artists are attracted to this environment, too; so by way of this mutual interest and support, there is a fascinating collective developing.

In my own yard, I have 3 different types, including a rogue yellow variety. With my last bumper crop I dried a good supply and have had fun experimenting with it. I made a truly memorable lavender hazelnut shortbread; and it turns out that lavender and chocolate create quite a symbiotic combination, so of course, lavender brownies are essential for my chocolate loving friends.

I’ve tinkered with lavender syrup – and keep a bottle stashed in the fridge to drizzle over desserts and flavor drinks. I discovered lavender and mint are lively partners and perfect in a summer cooler with a muddle of mint, a shot of lavender syrup, and a spritz of lemon scented sparkling water.

Lavender-Mint Spritzer

2 sprigs fresh mint
1-2 Tbsp. lavender syrup, or to taste ( follows)
Ice
Lemon Scented Sparkling Water
Wedge lemon or lime

In a tall glass, place on sprig mint in bottom which has been pressed between fingers. Add syrup and muddle with mint to release the mint flavor. Fill the glass with ice, add a wedge of lemon and squeeze over the ice. Pour lemon scented sparkling water to fill the glass and give a stir with spoon. Garnish with 2nd mint sprig. Serves 1 ~~

Lavender Syrup
Inspired by Herbal Palate by Oster and Gilbertie

1 cup lavender leaves or flowers
3 cups water
1 cup sugar
Infuse boiling water with herbs. Steep 30 minutes and strain. Return infusion to pan; add sugar and boil 10 minutes. Cool and store in refrigerator.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Finocchio Fantastico

Fennel is in season again which led me to recently playing with it in the kitchen. I have fond memories of using fennel prodigiously while cooking for the Petrarca family. They were extremely proud of their heritage and the traditional Italian cuisine was an important part of their meals. On the weekends, they enjoyed entertaining extended family and friends - and the meal could go on for hours.
If the weather was conducive, we would often have brunch or dinner at one large table spread outside on the terrace in the cooling shade of the enormous elm trees. As the day wore on, sometimes Tom Petrarca would get into the mood, pull out his accordion, and play a bit. It wouldn’t take long before he’d break into song, and soon everyone would be singing along.

Fennel was a major part of these family meals. The wine would flow, and dessert could wind on while espresso was served along with dessert wines and liqueurs. We’d offer a selection of specialty desserts, and trays of cookies and sweets would be passed. Then, amidst plenty of oohs and ahs, their beloved fennel would be set in the center of the table with a sampling of specialty cheeses – plus assorted nuts, with picks and crackers for casual shelling.

It’s no wonder fennel makes me smile.  Besides the obvious snacking benefits, its bright licorice flavor is especially wonderful raw in salads and salsas. However, on this day I wanted to create a tomato sauce richly laced with vegetables and complemented with some spicy meatballs - and fennel was the object of my intentions.

I wasn’t disappointed either. The sweetness of the fennel and carrot was the perfect balance to the acid of the tomatoes.  The licorice flavor was slightly muted, even though I elected to not overcook the sauce. Fortunately, I added fennel seed to the meatball mixture, which provided the perfect balance in this duet. I also used my convection oven to finish the meatballs, and wondered why I hadn’t thought of this sooner. They browned evenly and cooked in the amount of time that it took to prepare the sauce and simmer it briefly. At this point, I set it all aside and allowed it to cool.

When I was ready to start dinner, I heated the sauce, added the meatballs and simmered the sauce for about 20 minutes; just enough to infuse the sauce and cook the meatballs thoroughly. The finished sauce had a balanced spiciness and a lovely texture - and the carrots and fennel retained their slight al dente quality. Served with linguine and a shave of Parmesan: fantastico!

Tomato and Fennel Sauce with Meatballs and Pasta

24 oz. Meatballs (see below), browned well
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small bulb fennel, trimmed and chopped
1 whole carrot, peeled, chopped
2 teaspoons mixed dried herbs, savory, oregano, sage
2 - 14 oz cans tomatoes chopped, in puree
1 - 8 oz can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons fresh oregano
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, shaved
1 pound linguine, cooked al dente and drained well

Meatballs:
24 ounces lean ground beef
1/2 onion minced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 slices day-old bread, soaked in water, squeezed dry
1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees: use convection if available. Line baking sheet with foil, drizzle with olive oil.

Combine meatball ingredients with hands and form into approx. 1" balls and place on baking sheet, roll them in olive oil and bake in oven for about 10 minutes. When they begin to brown turn the meatballs and bake for additional 10 minutes or until browned on all sides. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Meanwhile in large pot, heat the oil and saute the onion and garlic until aromatic. Trim the fennel root and leaves, remove the tough outer portion, and chop like celery. Add the fennel and carrot and cook for 4-5 minutes stirring occasionally, until vegetable begin to soften, adding the herbs as they cook. Add the tomatoes and sauce, stir well, simmer 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat.

When ready to serve, reheat the tomato sauce and add the meatballs; simmer for 15-20 minutes. Stir in fresh herbs and simmer briefly. Serve with pasta and fresh Parmesan cheese. Serves 4 ~~

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Happy Threesome

It’s funny how our minds free-associate and link favorite foods together. For example, when I think of tomatoes, basil quickly comes to mind. And when I think of cucumbers, I think of dill. And, now that dill and cucumbers are returning to the market, it’s time to re-visit one of my favorites: Dill and Cucumber Soup.

When I think of a refreshing cup of Dill and Cucumber Soup, nothing comes to my mind faster than another favorite: screaming fresh salmon. There is no question that this combination surely equals one of the Pacific Northwest’s happiest threesomes: dill, cucumber and salmon. It's important to remember that working with such classic flavors will result in an end product that is more than the sum of its parts. The point is, keep it simple.

My version of the timeless cucumber soup includes a healthy amount of yogurt - which provides a perfect counterpoint to the fresh, lightness of cucumber and dill. These bright, clean flavors perk up the appetite and perfectly prepare the palate for the satisfying earthiness of the king salmon – grilled, baked, or poached.

On those occasions when fresh salmon isn’t my planned entrée, smoked salmon is a great alternative. A lovely platter of chilled salmon, a little cream cheese, a few slices of red onion, some pumpernickel or rye bread, a few radishes for vegetable variety… and I’ve got an easy dinner.

I’ve also garnished my soup with lovely slices of cucumber dabbed with tiny spoonfuls of inexpensive Tabiko caviar or other non-fertilized salmon eggs – plus a perky feather of fresh dill. Absolutely fabulous.

Since I rarely tire of the dill and cucumber combination, I’ve planted my own dill seeds which are now sprouting - and my cucumber plants are on their way up. Oh, boy, it’s going to be a great summer!

This year, I think I’ll take up fishing… more on salmon later.

Dill and Cucumber Soup
From Soup A to Z, A traveling chef’s little black book of secrets

1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, diced or grated
3 Tbsp. fresh dill, minced
2 Tbsp. scallion, chopped
½ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. white pepper
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cups plain yogurt
2 cups defatted chicken stock (approx.)

Place the cucumbers in a bowl with the dill, scallions,the salt and pepper. Stir in the lemon juice and olive oil; combine well.

Fold in the yogurt and thin with enough stock to reach desired consistency. Adjust seasoning, add more lemon juice if necessary.

Chill thoroughly. Garnish with fresh mint or dill. Serves 4 to 6~~

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Q is for Quinoa

Lately I’ve been working long hours on a multitude of projects and deadlines and my cooking has been fast and furious. As so often happens in the throes of craziness, I had a fortuitous moment of enlightenment. This time it happened when I fell into a heap of quinoa.

Up to this point I’ve regarded quinoa as too fussy, too earthy, and too unavailable to spend too much time contemplating.

For years I’ve read about the amazing qualities of this grain/seed but have been put off by similar re-occurring caveats that it must be soaked and re-soaked before using. Apparently, its exterior is coated with saponins – toxic chemicals producing a discouragingly bitter flavor which must be eliminated before cooking.

However, quinoa’s quirkiness didn’t stop the Incas – they revered it as an instrumental part of their diet. For centuries its extraordinary health benefits have been highly regarded, with some folks ranking gluten-free quinoa as the plant kingdom’s most perfect protein. It's also a good source of fiber, phosphorus, magnesium and iron - so why shouldn’t I like this?

Well, it turns out that I do. Very much.

By accident, I recently stumbled across quinoa in the midst of a mad dash to my local bulk food store. When I read the minimal directions on the bin: cook for 15 minutes I thought I could handle it. That night at warp speed I prepared a nifty idea from Dinner on a Deadline at the great website, Married… with Dinner.

Of course, I completely forgot the washing and the rinsing of the quinoa until after it was cooked; and then it hit me.  Oh, crap! I warily peered into the pot and took a whiff of the light, lovely pearls. It smelled fine…


I cautiously sampled a spoonful and it was delicious. Not bitter or soapy, but mild and slightly nutty. I have since read that of course, most commercial varieties are pre-washed for the convenience of the American market.

Quinoa has now replaced couscous on my shelf and on my table. I have gotten into the habit of pre-cooking a nice supply and storing it in the fridge for a quick addition to a meal - or for a hot breakfast with fruit and yogurt or milk. If you are another hold out, give it a try. You might just like it, too.

Quinoa with Leeks and Poached Egg
Inspired by Dinner on at Deadline @ Married with Dinner

For each serving:
1/2 cup cooked quinoa, see below
1/3 cup cooked leeks; note: 2 cups sliced leeks cooked in @ 2 Tbsp butter = 2 servings

1/2 cup simmering chicken stock, excellent quality
1 extra-large egg
1 teaspoon minced chives or scallions, for garnish
handful of Parmesan cheese (opt.), grated as finely as possible (about 1/2oz by weight)

For quinoa: bring 2 cups salted water to a boil. Stir in 1 cup quinoa, slightly cover it and simmer for about 15 minutes or until the water evaporates. Toss lightly with fork, cover with toweling, top with lid, and let stand for 5 minutes.

For the leeks: Slice the leeks in half lengthwise and rinse well, carefully removing any sand or dirt. Slice the white and tender light-green parts into half-rings about 1/4- to 1/8-inch thick.
Melt the butter in heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add leeks and a couple of tablespoons of water. Simmer slowly until leeks are tender and almost all water evaporates, add more water if needed to further soften the leeks, about 15 minutes. Season well with salt. If using immediately, remove pan from the heat and set aside.

Drop the eggs into simmering water that has been lightly flavored with vinegar; poach for 2-3 minutes until set. Remove from heat.

To assemble: spoon about 1/3 cup leeks into bottom of each wide bowl. Top the leeks with about 1/2 cup quinoa. Remove an egg from poaching water with slotted spoon and top each mound with an egg. Ladle hot broth carefully around the leeks and quinoa, sprinkle with chives and garnish with Parmesan cheese.

Optional: add fresh mushrooms, broccoli or other fresh vegetables to chicken stock and simmer until al dente. ~~

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Excerpts From the Gardener's Notebook



"It appears we have turned the corner on a very long winter and finally, spring is more evident with each warming day..."

Returnees
The shade loving Foamflower has rallied from a long winter retreat; it has spread out and is filling an essential corner quite nicely this year! 

 


Wildflowers
First volunteers: Vibrant Columbine has popped up literally overnight and is a massive purple haze! 
Rhodondenrons are preparing for a vast showing very shortly...  



Early Edibles
First-of- the-season tomato plant is in the ground: Stupice, another unique find from the Springfield Farmers’ Market. Due date: 52 days and counting. Be still, my heart! Can this be true?
 
"Extremely early potato-leaf Czech heirloom that bears abundant very sweet, flavorful 2 to 3” deep red fruit. A 1988 comparative tasting in the San Francisco Bay area gave it first place for its wonderful sweet/acid, tomatoey flavor and production."
 


Herbs and Such
Outcropping of nearly invasive Greek Oregano and a tiny spring Strawberry is in bloom!





Weekly Forecast
"Cooling temperatures with intermittent rain. Sigh. What happened to'April showers bring May flowers'?"






Sunday, May 9, 2010

Market Memory Makers

This past Friday was the beginning of a new season for our Springfield Farmers’ Market and I was one among many caught in a blur of anticipation and excitement.  Early apprehensions over the new shift to an afternoon/evening venue were soon forgotten amidst a steady stream of enthusiastic supporters.

From my perspective, it was all good.  There was a sense of relaxed, casual enjoyment and folks were happy to linger longer and fully enjoy all that the market had to offer. 

As the sun shifted to the west the market hummed with activities for the kids, plentiful exchanges of food and drink, baked goods, fresh produce as well as a seasonal assortment of tiny starts and plants for the home gardeners.  Plus, it was a chance to follow the latest market buzz and chat up the hard working farmers, growers, and producers - even place pre-orders with a local fishmonger promising fresh salmon next week.

One highlight was my first fresh horchata this side of Mexico. It was a treat to sip this cool, refreshing drink and mingle with friends while foot-tapping music floated above the market. It reminded me of similar sweet occasions at bustling mercardos and tiendas in Mexico.

Horchata is typically made with rice pressed or blended into a milky form with water. It is flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, and sweetened with sugar - milk, fresh fruit, or nuts are sometimes included.  

Horchata
1 stick cinnamon (or about 1/2 tsp. powdered)
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups long grained white rice, uncooked
5 cups water
1 teaspoons vanilla

In a blender, break up cinnamon and pulverize it with sugar. Add the rice and blend until a fine powder.

Slowly add about 3 cups of water to blender and puree; add vanilla, remaining water and combine well.

Pour into a storage container and refrigerate for at least 5 hours, or overnight.  The following day, strain into pitcher. Adjust flavors, add milk if desired. Serve over ice. Serves 4 ~~

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Simply Fascinating

I am a big fan of plain, unadulterated yogurt. In fact, I keep a large container of it in the fridge and often substitute a portion of yogurt in lieu of high fat ingredients in sauces requiring sour cream, butter or mayonnaise – its lovely tang often adds a refreshing dimension.  I use it regularly in baking for the same reasons  - plus it improves texture enormously.   

It just so happens that we have one of the best yogurts I have found right here in my own backyard. I love Nancy’s Yogurt beyond such elementary issues as great flavor and food value - it is fermented with natural probiotics (live organisms, not quick-fix chemicals).  What I really appreciate about Nancy’s is its ability to maintain a lovely thickness that does not break down as readily as other supermarket varieties.

Of course, I prefer supporting local producers, and since the creamery is located in Springfield, nothing could make me happier. What I didn’t know is the fascinating bit of colorful Oregon history behind Nancy’s Yogurt.

The Springfield Creamery was started in 1960 by a young hard working couple, Chuck and Sue Kesey, not so co-incidentally the brother of another local legend, Ken Kesey. The business shifted when an employee named Nancy shared her family’s yogurt making techniques.

Although customers responded and demand for Nancy’s yogurt grew, it was slow going. In 1972, a bit of promotional wizardry in the form of a Grateful Dead benefit concert attended by 20,000 devotees saved Nancy’s Yogurt from near extinction. The movie, Sunshine Daydream is a record of this seismic event. 

Back in the black again, Nancy’s Yogurt flourished with the help of a very loyal clientele. More help was on the way though, when U of O graduate Gilbert Rosborne and his partner, a young Huey Lewis, the music maker, offered to market the yogurt to the San Francisco bay area. Fascinating, right?

With the growing demand, the business successfully expanded through the 80’s. In the mid 90’s a devastating fire consumed much of the creamery. As you now would suspect, loyal friends and customers rallied and within weeks the business was back in business. Amazingly after 50 years, Nancy’s Yogurt continues to thrive - further affirmation on the amazing powers of yogurt. Simply fascinating.

The following salad seems appropriate  for today, especially if you are looking for a day of quiet reflection or cleansing...

Detoxicating Salad
From Grayshott Hall Health Centre, near Hindhead, Surrey, England,  courtesy A World of Salads by Rosalie Swedlin

3 medium carrots, scrubbed
3  medium apples, scrubbed
3 stalks celery
1 handful raisins
1/2 cucumber, washed
1 small green pepper
2 pears
1 orange, or 1/2 grapefruit
1 cup yogurt, with lemon juice, no sweetening, optional

In the morning, chop all ingredients into a covered container and shake to combine. This should make enough for 1 day of 3 equal meals. Note: 1 cup of yogurt flavored with lemon juice, total can be consumed with the salad.

Begin your fast day with 1 glass hot water, lemon juice optional; consume between meals throughout the day as desired. 3 cups tea, total, may be substituted.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tabletop Garden

In the darkest days of this past winter when it was endlessly cold and rainy I decided I needed a project to bring me out of the creeping dreary doldrums. I recalled my mother must have felt the same way at times too, because when I was a teenager we regularly had a mini-indoor garden. We were big on terrariums – my mother preferred a giant brandy snifter in which she would artfully arrange her pint-sized plants. We were into the bonsai movement for a while, too – then she would patiently clip and mold tiny trees into elegant works of art.

It took a full week to locate and gather up all the necessary elements for my planned terrarium – which, in itself was an injection of pure entertainment. In the clearance aisle at TJ Maxx a tall hand blown speckled vase caught my eye.

One rainy afternoon looking for herb candidates I stopped by Gray’s, my local nursery. Too early, I was told, and instead was ushered to their dwindling indoor plant section where I prodded and debated until I narrowed it to three: a curly grass that apparently loves moisture, a charming purple-tinged shamrock plant, and a small sturdy fern. I even found a bag of activated charcoal to keep the soil sweet.

Back at home, I rooted through my arts and crafts box and came up with a bag of colorful glass baubles that would work for drainage on the bottom - instead of pebbles. Outside in my storage locker I discovered an old bag of potting soil and set it aside, too.

By the following weekend I was ready to assemble my terrarium. In short order I had my hands deep in the soft, moist dirt and was puttering and fussing - and before I knew it, I felt my spirits shift. I hummed as I gently nestled my charges into their new digs. In no time I had created my own tiny serenity garden – pretty enough to deserve a place of honor in my kitchen.

Through those long dark winter days my terrarium became a constant source of revelation and entertainment. There were times I would move it about the house – and wherever it landed it graced the space with added life and color. Mostly though, my winter garden has stayed in the kitchen - where it shoots out brilliant flashes of green that sparkle and dance as the light shifts from drab and dull to crisp and bright.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Gingersnaps meet Pork

Easter week I decided I would create a nice meal incorporating pork and cabbage. That certainly left a universe of options, so I’m not quite sure how I ended up fiddling with Sauerbraten.   I confess, I don’t believe I  had ever tasted it before either. 

With than in mind, I commence from a place of curiosity - rather than familiarity.  I suspect the reason I had never made Sauerbraten is because of the gingersnap issue. I’ve always liked the idea of adding this yummy cookie as a final fillip to the dish, but of course that would require having some on hand. Alas, this just happened to be the serendipitous situation, when I discovered a few stragglers in the freezer - left from the holidays.

Granted, Sauerbraten is traditionally made from a tough cut of beef or game allowed to sit in a flavorful marinade for days before cooking to tenderize and tame it; in the olden times it would have likely acted as a preserving agent, as well. I began with a tender and lean top boneless pork loin roast and decided to take a little creative license by searing it first, then simmering it in its marinade until tender… with a final sojourn in the refrigerator. I’m far happier accomplishing as much work as possible up front – and not waiting until crunch time.

The roast marinates in the fridge a day or so with an occasional turn to evenly absorb flavors. It is returned to the stove for a simple re-heat and kept warm while the sauce is prepared with the lovely waiting gingersnaps. It sounds crazy, but it works deliciously.

By this time, the sauce has developed some serious complexity compounded by the beautiful balance of spicy sweetness from those devilish gingersnaps against the earthy tartness of the marinade.  Dribble this noble sauce over the amazing sliced meat; offer Braised Cabbage with Juniper Berries, some Buttered Noodles with Sautéed Mushrooms, and you’ll understand why this is considered one of the world’s most famous dishes.

Sauerbraten
(loosely adapted from Bobby Flay, Food Network)

2 tablespoons canola oil
3 pounds top boneless pork loin roast, (or 3-4 lb. boned and rolled beef rump roast)
salt and pepper

Marinade
1 medium onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 stalk celery, coarsely chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and sliced thin
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 1/2 cups water
6 whole cloves, and same # juniper berries, opt.
8 juniper berries (optional)
8 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds, or whole grained mustard
1/2 tsp. thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
6 - 2" gingersnaps, finely crushed with rolling pin
2 tablespoons honey, or to taste

Braised Cabbage
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
2 pounds red or green cabbage, cored and shredded
1/2 cup reserved cooking liquid from sauerbraten
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 Tablespoons juniper berries
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Noodles with Mushrooms
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 ounces portabella mushrooms, sliced
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons chives or green onions
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound egg noodles, cooked al dente

Heat the 2 Tbsp. oil in a large Dutch oven. Season the roast with salt and pepper and sear 2-3 minutes on each side. Remove the roast.

To the pot, add the onion, celery, carrot and garlic and toss briefly. Add the vinegars, water, and seasonings through thyme, salt and pepper. Return the meat and allow to simmer 2-3 hours, turning every hour hour, until it is tender but not falling apart. Place the meat in a storage container. Allow the marinade to cool, strain it and pour over the roast. Refrigerate 1-3 days, turn occasionally to allow marinade to infuse entire cut.

To finish, slowly reheat roast in marinade, when hot carefully remove meat to a platter and keep warm.

To make the sauce: In a saucepan, heat butter and add flour to make a roux. Set aside approximately 1/2 cup marinade for the braised cabbage. Add the remaining liquid to the pan to create a thick gravy-like sauce. Add the crumbled gingersnaps, adjust with honey to taste, salt and pepper as needed.

Carve the roast, serve topped with some of the sauce, along with Braised Cabbage and Noodles with Mushrooms. Serves 6-8.

Braised Cabbage:  Heat butter in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add onion and cook until soft. Add the cabbage, cooking liquid, stock, the juniper berries, and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Cover and cook until the cabbage is wilted, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Noodles with Mushrooms:  Saute the mushrooms in butter and garlic, salt and pepper and cook to release juices, add the green onions. Cook the noodles in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain well, toss with the mushrooms, and adjust seasoning.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Eggs

My friend Becky raises chickens and literally swells with pride when she shares her eggs with me.  And for heaven’s sakes, why not? They are gorgeous. Their thick shells vary in shades from pale tan to brown, some are speckled – each is unique and unlike the next. They are nature’s original edible art.


Becky's organic eggs are a reminder of what  real eggs should taste like – and are so delicious that these days I am savoring them in their simplest forms.

For example, I’m back to poached eggs again. I love to break them into a small dish and gently slip them into simmering water, then wait and watch as their brilliant orange yolks are miraculously transformed into delicate pink orbs and their whites gather about them in firm opaque ovals. Utterly amazing.

These beauties require no special fussing, only a quick removal with my favorite slotted spoon and onto waiting toast. It doesn’t get any better than that.  Thanks Becky!

Friday, March 19, 2010

All Steamed Up

I’ve been pretty busy with other projects lately, but St. Paddy’s Day was just enough incentive to get me back into the kitchen. In honor of the big day, I wanted to come up with a more traditional dessert that was not another green concoction. Thus began the adventure of the Pear and Ginger Steamed Pudding.

Of course, steamed puddings have been around for centuries, but I’ve never attempted to make my own. The whole process seemed just a bit too daunting – and what about all that special equipment and ingredients like suet? I soon learned that many of the Irish versions include barley, oats, bread crumbs and such - a tad over-the-top. Let’s face it, there’s nothing light about steamed pudding, anyway. As my model, I finally settled on a tempting British Steamed Caramelised Apple Pudding that I found at the British Good Food Channel site http://uktv.co.uk/food/recipe/aid/598638.

I was duly warned when I read that it is classed as Intermediate and it takes about 2 hours and 15 minutes to prepare (or longer). I was also a bit put off by the total amount of cream, butter, and sugar required; but the good news is that this particular recipe uses far less than many, and I trimmed where possible. Besides, it’s St. Patrick’s Day (which is slowly getting lost in translation). 

This lovely begins with the preparation of a fairly straight forward butterscotch sauce. Instead of the suggested heavy cream, I opt for low fat condensed milk conveniently sitting on my pantry shelf - and it works quite nicely. With that done, we move on to a quick sauté of the apples (or pears, or other fruit) in butter. Then you are ready to get down to some serious work.

First, understand that pudding is a loose term used for desserts of many descriptions, and not just the creamy version familiar to most Americans. The basis of these steamed puddings frequently includes a sponge, which refers to the addition of a sponge cake batter of sorts. But wait, before actually preparing the sponge batter, it’s best to gather up your equipment:
  •  Mold (baking pan, or approx. 2 qt. ovenproof bowl)
  •  Parchment paper and or foil – and some butcher twine
  •  A large steamer pan or a pot with a lid large enough to hold the mold plus a trivet or rack to elevate it
  •  Kettle of boiling water
The sponge batter is pretty straight forward:  just remember to beat the butter until light, slowly add the sugar, and whip it well. The secret to creating a light and buoyant sponge cake is to add the beaten eggs very slowly. Fold in the dry ingredients and you are almost there. Carefully arrange the fruit in the buttered mold and pour the batter on top of the fruit.

The parchment paper layered over the baking dish protects the pudding from excess water damage;  if you remember how to fold and seal parchment from previous baking adventures you are set; if not, forget it and use 2 layers of foil secured with string. Now, lower the mold into the steamer and onto the trivet. Pour boiling water around it and half way up the sides of the mold. Cover and simmer for approximataely 2 hours, occasionally checking the water level and topping if off as needed.

Since you will have a neatly wrapped package on your hands, be sure and cook your pudding for at least 1 hour and 45 minutes, or 2 hours if in doubt. The idea of discovering that your pudding is not fully cooked after removing the parchment and foil is beyond contemplation.
  
Of course, in the British or Irish tradition, one would serve this beauty warm with a bit more butterscotch sauce and a dousing of heavy cream. I opt for a simple and convenient vanilla caramel-laced ice cream and rejoice. The butterscotch and ginger flavored pears provide the perfect foil for the incredibly moist, appealing sponge lingering beneath. All of this, set off with a dabble of ice cream tells me it is well worth the work.

Pear and Ginger Steamed Pudding
Inspired by Galton Blackiston 's Caramelised Apple Pudding
Butterscotch Sauce
2 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup light brown sugar
3/4 cup cream, or low fat condensed mik
1 teaspoon vanilla
Sponge:
1/2 cup butter, divided/ reserve a bit for buttering the mold
3 large pears or apples, peel, core, slice
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated
2/3 cup light brown sugar (not packed)
3 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Prepare the Butterscotch Sauce: In small saucepan, melt 1 Tbsp. butter and 3/4 sugar over medium heat until the mixture begins to turn amber and caramelizes. Lower the heat, carefully slowly stir in the cream or condensed milk, and the vanilla. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Saute the pears: In hot pan, gently saute the sliced fruit quickly in about 1 Tbsp butter, add the ginger and cook until they soften and begin to caramelize. Set aside to cool slightly.

For the sponge: Beat the remaining butter until light; slowly add the sugar. Add the beaten eggs very slowly, beating until light and creamy. Sift the dry ingredients and fold in.

Butter the bowl or mold and carefully arrange the fruit partially up the sides of the mold, arranging the remaining fruit on the bottom to fill in. Drizzle about 1/2 of the butterscotch sauce over the fruit. Pour the sponge batter over the fruit, smoothing the top evenly.

Cover the mold first with pleated sheet of baking parchment, and then with a sheet of foil. Securely fasten the sheets to the rim of the mold with string.

In a large pot suitable to hold the mold, place it on a trivet or steamer, and pour in enough boiling water to come halfway up the sides. Cover with a lid and steam for 1hour and 45 minutes to 2 hours, until skewer inserted in center comes out clean. Make sure the pan does not boil dry, topping off with more boiling water as needed.

Turn the pudding out onto a plate and serve with a generous drizzle of the butterscotch sauce. Serve warm with custard sauce, whipped cream or ice cream. Serves 4-6 ~~

Note: After accomplishing all of this, I later came across the idea of using a crock pot. What an amazing use of technology! Include a small trivet and cook on high for 2-3 hours.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Where Big is Beautiful...

"Phillipe Excoffier, the executive chef at the US Embassy in Paris, comes to Kitchen Stadium to challenge Iron Chef Flay. Will Chef Excoffier's Parisian culinary flare impress the judges and beat out Flay's southwestern spice? Tune in to see whose cuisine reigns supreme."
That’s the on-line teaser for the current week’s Iron Chef America on the Food Network. I stumbled across the program while channel surfing prior to crawling in bed for some last minute studying - and it looked like a completely acceptable diversion. My brother enjoys Iron Chef and I watch it occasionally as a point of conversation with him.

The subject of the evening’s competition is the sea bream or dorade, a mild fish with lovely texture and endless possibilities. The early part of the show is wild and chaotic. After much mayhem and running about the kitchen the chefs settle down and ultimately present their flurry of finished plates to the judges.

Ironically, this episode encapsulates the cultural disparities between the American appetite vs. the European approach to food. The French presentation offers carefully composed, small artful portions. The US plates are colorful splotches of unstructured boldness. The flavor profiles are mild to bland for the European plates and robust to highly-spiced for the American versions.

Chef Excoffier presents his own variation of classical items such as a seafood forcemeat in a pastry cup, and a fillet covered with scale-like potatoes - with considerable focus on overall composition of textures, colors and flavors.

Bobby Flay counters this approach offering fillets adorned with 2 to 3 sauces per plate - all soaringly brilliant. There’s carpaccio covered with a piping hot spicy sauce that would surely mask any possible dorade texture or flavor; and ceviche - which one of the judges suggests is overpowered by citrus. Another is a dorade fillet poached in butter and perched atop a lovely cioppino. The soup is presented in mega-enormous white salad bowls, easily 10” in diameter, and the judges appear dwarfed and cartoon-like behind them - as they peer into these vast super-structures.

Finally, the judges have spoken.  The decision is a crowding pleasing conclusion:  It’s a knock out.  Once again, Bobby Flay takes home the gold.  I am disheartened as I flip off the TV and head to the comfort of my bed. 

The program message is another a bleak reminder of what America has come to represent:   Where big is beautiful and more is better.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Zen of Risotto

With all the local talk of Fungal Feasts and Truffle Festivals going on at the moment I felt compelled to create my own celebration in the form of a lovely wild mushroom risotto.

There was a time when I had absolutely no interest in risotto.

I had this strange idea that rice was dull and uninteresting – that it was just a bunch of unnecessary carbs. And then, I had to get past the angst of stirring rice for 20 minutes at a time - it seemed like a lot of work for very little reward. Besides, there was usually a lot of other activity going on – like the entrée - and the darned risotto tended to be just another unnecessary culinary distraction.

When I finally had my first bowl of exquisite risotto I was an instant convert. I remember it well. It was a mushroom risotto so full of aromas, flavors, and textures that I couldn’t believe all of that could be happening in one mouthful. It was complex, creamy, and earthy; yet the grains were separate and ‘toothsome’. It was ethereal, sensual, and utterly satisfying. I was completely bewitched and transported to the other side. I was a believer. I’d had a psychic shift over rice.

Now, risotto has been elevated to the main event and surely is not a second rate accompaniment to an entrée. It is the star, and it receives the full attention that an entrée of its stature rightly deserves. When I prepare risotto the stirring of the rice and the slow addition of liquid all fall into a gentle rhythm of relaxed enjoyment and confident anticipation. Yes, it’s a Zen thing. I become one with my rice.

There are a few key factors involved in making an excellent risotto. Seek out Arborio rice -  its flavor, unique texture, and resulting creaminess will make all the difference in the world. Use a flavorful stock, because this is the basis of your risotto. The hot liquid is added in small quantities; allow the liquid to cook down and absorb into the rice before adding more. You will know when it’s time to add another ladleful, because the rice will make a hissing sound. Continue this process until all the liquid is added and the rice is creamy. In all, it should take about 20 minutes.

Risotto is very forgiving and designed for adaptation. Consider other vegetables, even chicken in lieu of mushrooms; vary the herbs and flavorings; change the stock to enhance the other additions. If not already, become a believer. Bon appetit!

Wild Mushroom Risotto
Adapted from World Vegetarian Classics, Celia Brooks Brown

1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup boiling water
4 ½ cups well flavored stock, chicken, beef or vegetable
3 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 ½ cups risotto rice, Arborio or carnaroli
9 ounces wild mushrooms, cleaned, coarse chop
3 cloves garlic, well chopped
1 teaspoon thyme
1/2 cup dry vermouth or white wine
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, fresh grated
for garni: fresh ground black pepper, additional Parmesan

Place the dried porcini in small bowl and cover with boiling water; allow to soak for about 20 mins. Strain and reserve liquid. Chop porcini coarsely.
Melt the butter in large heavy pan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté til translucent, then add rice. Sauté briskly til rice makes a crackling noise and looks slightly translucent. Add the porcini and fresh mushrooms and garlic and sauté briefly until fragrant and they begin to soften. Add vermouth and porcini water all at once and stir. When absorbed and making a hissing sound, add one ladleful of hot stock. Keep stirring.

When stock is absorbed, add another ladle of stock. Continue process until rice looks creamy, 18-20 minutes. Taste for doneness, it should be al dente. Stir in parmesan cheese. Cover and set stand 3-5 minutes. Serve in warm bowls or plates with additional cheese and plenty of pepper. Serves 4 - 6 ~~
Note: Instead of parmesan cheese on top, try a dollop Greek yogurt or mascarpone cheese instead.

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