Monday, April 23, 2018

in praise of pickled jalapenos

I am sorry for a longer than intended absence. Transitions are odd things and while I have been cooking plenty, writing has been a struggle. Thanks for checking back in and reading. Last weekend I tried a new dish that was so good I forced myself back to the keyboard to share it with you.

I think my love for pickled jalapenos started with a pizza. There is a restaurant in downtown Claremont, CA called Union on Yale. When we lived in SoCal it was our go-to for special celebration dinners and date nights. The setting is like out of a Nancy Meyer film set: a large outdoor eating space with patio tables surrounding a regulation sized bocce ball court. Strands of outdoor lights stretch from an old oak tree to the the main restaurant building, crisscrossing above diners heads and giving just the right early evening glow. There is a fire pit and the sounds of street musicians carry up the block. We sat outside year round. In the waning weeks of our time in California, it became a ritual Friday night supper, we knew we would miss it so much. In addition to amazing fried chicken and cheery seasonal cocktails, they serve wood fired pizzas. Our favorite is the spicy pickled pepper: tomato sauce, pickled cherry peppers, pepperoni, mozzarella, and prison garlic. The vinegar tang of the peppers is perfect against the salty crispy edges of pepperoni.

Although the pizza had a different kind of pepper on it (cherry), after that I started to include pickled jalapenos whenever given the option. On tacos and overstuffed baked potatoes are a personal favorite and I'd like to share a new recipe that pairs the pepper with roasted cauliflower (a constant favorite) and makes use of both the peppers themselves and the pickling liquid they're packed in.

One of the new behaviors of my life in Washington is checking out cookbooks from my local library (I also listen to a lot of classical music, but that's a story for another time). I confidently share that my town has a kick-ass library. Staffed with knowledgeable people, the new release section always surprises me with how good it is. I obtained a library card the first week we arrived. Our first landing spot was a 750 square foot rental house and most of our belongings (and all of my books), stayed packed and stacked in boxes that filled the second bedroom and unfinished basement. I missed the joy of leafing through a cookbook for inspiration. The library was a perfect solution. Even now that I have full access to my personal book collection, I have continued to check out a new cookbook every few weeks. I find that a cookbook on loan comes with it's own impetus to use it. Knowing that I have a "return by" date looming out there motivates me to try out recipes and include them in meal planning.

I recently checked out "Casa Marcela: Recipes and Food Stories of My Life in the Californias" by Marcela Valladolid (You may recognize her from FoodNetwork). Her book is filled with recipes and photos from life in a warmer climate. On my first flip through, I tagged about a dozen recipes with post-it notes. One friday night I made a jalapeno roasted chicken, which included stuffing slices of fresh jalapeno under the skin of a chicken and roasting it until crispy. In the heat of the oven, the jalapeno slices softened and basted the breast of the chicken in their juices, so the meat was infused with a smokey heat. Another night I made a kale salad coated with cilantro yogurt dressing. We wolfed it down.

One of the recipes I flagged from the start was "Roasted-Cauliflower Steaks with Pickled-Jalapeno Vinagrette." Unfortunately, we have long since eaten through the dozen jars of pickled jalapenos I canned this past fall, so I picked up a standard grocery store jar. The great thing about a recipe like this is it takes ingredients that I am likely to already have in my house and, with just a little more effort, elevates a weeknight go-to, like roasted cauliflower. The combination of sweet, char-edged cauliflower, heat of the peppers, salty parmesan and nutty pumpkin seeds is addicting. I polished off the platter by myself.

I've always kind-of side-eyed recipes for cauliflower steak. I somehow read it as pretentious- "you're just cutting up cauliflower!" But now I get it- it is actually an efficient way to prep it, saving the hassle of breaking the whole head into florets. One note: Marcela Valladolid's recipe calls for roasting the veggies on a pan lined with parchment paper. My experience is cooking on parchment paper steams veggies more than roasts them and prevents the gorgeous caramelized bits from forming. If your experience is otherwise, than by all means, please use it.

Roasted Cauliflower Steaks with Pickled-Jalapeno Vinaigrette

1 large head cauliflower (about 1 1/2 pounds)
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons jalapeno pickling juice
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
about 1/4 cup of pickled jalapeno slices (or however much you desire)
3 tablespoons finely grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons roasted pumpkin seeds

1) Preheat the oven to 375. Prepare the cauliflower by removing any leaves and trimming the stem. Set the cauliflower right side up on the cutting board and cut into 1 inch wide slices, starting from the top center. As the cuts get closer to the edge of the cauliflower, the slices will start to break into florets. That's okay. You can roast the florets along with the "steak" slices.

2) Set the cut cauliflower slices on a large rimmed baking sheet. Tuck any extra florets around the edges. Take 2 of the 5 tablespoons of olive oil and brush both sides of the cauliflower steaks. Then sprinkle with salt and pepper.

3) Cook the cauliflower in the oven until it is golden brown and cooked through, about 40-50 minutes. Unlike when cooking only florets, there is no need to toss or flip the cauliflower while it roasts. When there is about 7 minutes of cooking time remaining, scatter the pumpkin seeds on a second baking sheet and slide into a separate rack of the oven. The pumpkin seeds can roast along with the cauliflower for the last few minutes of cooking time (about 5-7 minutes), but keep an eye on them as burnt seeds are no good.

4) In the meantime, in a small bowl, whisk together the jalapeno pickling juice, sherry vinegar, and remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Give it a quick taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

5) Remove the cauliflower from the oven and transfer to a large platter. Drizzle with the vinaigrette, and then scatter over grated parmesan, pumpkin seeds and jalapeno slices. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

If you're invited to my house for dinner, here is what I am probably going to serve you (currently): pork and mushroom lettuce cups

I go through phases of what is my "go-to" meal to feed dinner guests. The criteria are I have to feel confident in my abilities to cook it and it must be generally acceptable to most people's tastes. I feel that I have overlooked some pretty obvious good blog content by not sharing my favorite dinner guest recipes here. Today is my first step in addressing this.

In my early years of learning to cook, I made for dinner guests a tomato based Penne Rosa pasta and sometimes added a splash of vodka to it. In the next phase the penne pasta stayed but I traded the creamy tomato sauce for peas and pancetta, a dish I still love. From there, I side-stepped pasta completely and went to "snacksgiving": a casual spread of veggies and dip, really good cheese, crackers, sliced pepperoni and salami, and assorted pickles and olives.

I have no real explanation for this latest evolution. Maybe it reflects my own increasing awareness of eating healthy and my guests more frequent needs to eat gluten and/or dairy free. If I were to have you over for dinner now it is likely I would serve you an asian flavor profile inspired lettuce cup, filled with ground pork and mushrooms. I love them and I love sharing them. The lettuce cup filling can be made in advance and all the veggies prepped too, which helps me avoid the panic of last minute kitchen chaos. It easily caters to guests dietary needs but without anyone feeling like they are missing out on anything. If my guests are light eaters, this is a lovely supper on it's own but if not, I can easily double the recipe, add on a a side of coconut rice and spicy roasted green beans and even teenagers can be filled up (I speak from experience here). I also like any meal that empowers guests to make their own choices: You don't like radishes? cilantro? peanuts? No problem- just don't add them.

This is a great weeknight meal but I would never actually cook it on a weeknight. I generally make a large batch of the filling on a Sunday evening and if, making just for my husband and I, it will feed the two of us for at least 4-5 lunches or dinners. All we have to do is reheat the pork and mushroom mixture and pull out the prepped veggies.

I have been making these lettuce cups on and off for about five years but in the last six months made a concerted effort to dial in the flavors. The dish starts with caramelized onions and then builds with garlic and ginger and adds a whopping 16 oz of mushrooms to serve like little flavor sponges to soak it all in. That veggie mixture is then set aside and the pork is browned and drained. The pork, onions, garlic and mushrooms are then stirred together and lacquered with hoisin and soy sauce. At the end, water chestnuts give a good crunch and lime juice, cilantro and mint provide an herbal zingy lift. If you happen to have some Thai basil, I would recommend adding it. If you have an aversion to cilantro, feel free to leave it out of the filling, but I would recommend making some available as a topping for guests. I dearly love it here and would hate for a fellow cilantro lover to miss out. This glossy goodness of filling is then dolloped into ruffle edged butter lettuce leaves and topped with chopped and diced veggies.

The topping options is where the asian theme becomes even less defined. You can be more or less fussy about these. A little frilly grated carrot adds crunch and while there is onion in the filling itself, I like the bite of fresh chopped scallions as a topping. Unless there is an allergy issue, I think the salted peanuts are a must. If I learned anything in 2017, it was that my meals are much better with a jar of quick pickles in the fridge. I love to have some of Smitten Kitchen's pickled sandwich slaw on hand, which we freely eat on nearly everything and provide a particularly good sharpness here.

pork and mushroom lettuce cups

2 large yellow onion, chopped
5 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 inch of fresh ginger, peeled then minced
16 oz mushrooms, chopped (a mixture of cremini and white button mushrooms is nice, but okay to use all one type, your preference)
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 pounds ground pork or chicken
5-9 tablespoons of hoisin sauce (about 3/4 of an 8.5 oz jar)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
8 oz can water chestnuts, sliced then chopped
1/2 lime
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1-2 tablespoons chopped mint

to assemble:
2 heads butter lettuce, leaves separated and washed
additional options:
grated carrot
chopped salted peanuts
sliced scallions
chopped cilantro
lime wedges
sambal oelek
pickled red onions and radishes

1) In a large skillet on medium heat, add 2 of the 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and saute chopped onion until translucent, then reduce heat to low to allow onions to caramelize, about 15-20 minutes. Stir occasionally. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for about 2-3 minutes, or until fragrant.

2) To the onion/garlic/ginger, add the chopped mushrooms and increase the heat back up to medium. The pan will initially be dry but once the mushrooms start cooking, they will release moisture. However, it looks like it is too dry, you can add a splash of water or chicken stock. Cook until mushrooms have cooked through, the moisture is mostly cooked out and the mushrooms are now starting to soak up the onion/garlic/ginger goodness.

3) At this point, remove the vegetables from the pan but do not wipe out the pan. Put it back on medium heat and add the last tablespoon of olive oil. Then add the ground pork or chicken and brown, breaking it up with a spatula. I like the meat pretty well broken down, so I do quite a bit of chopping with the edge of my spatula. Once the meat is completely cooked through and any moisture has been cooked off, you can drain it briefly on paper towels (if your preference is to remove some of the fat) or you can proceed. Personally, ground chicken is pretty low in fat and ground pork is too. Keeping the fat in adds a little more luxury to the final sauce but you certainly can drain it off.

4) To the ground meat, fold in the previously cooked onion/garlic/ginger/mushrooms and hoisin and soy sauce. Add 1/2 cup of water and reduce heat until it is a simmer. I will let it simmer like this for a good 20-30 minutes, adding more water as needed. As the moisture reduces out, the hoisin sauce sort of glazes everything. During this time I work on washing, chopping and slicing the accompaniments.

5) To finish, add the chopped water chestnuts, lime juice, cilantro and mint. Give a couple big stirs to incorporate. Serve with a pile of lettuce leaves and the veggies and condiments of your choice.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

cranberry and mulled spice sorbet

I know we are past Thanksgiving and I promise this is not a recipe strictly for Thanksgiving, but please bear with me while I ramble down the trail:

In numerous posts, I express my love for the many facets of Thanksgiving. In my praise, one area I have neglected is the Thanksgiving dessert buffet. From my perspective, the end to the Thanksgiving meal, especially if you're with a large family, is often an array of desserts: there is ubiquitous pumpkin pie, some type of apple dessert, and often also something involving pear. At my sister-in-laws Thanksgiving, there are generally five to six types of desserts, one of which is a pistachio pudding folded with whipped cream and studded with mini marshmallows and maraschino cherries. I dearly love it.

Just like a savory buffet, a good dessert buffet includes a balance of flavors and textures. While I would never be one to decline three types of pie in a sitting, I think there is something about having different formats represented. Four years ago, I hosted Thanksgiving and a number of my guests, for health reasons, were strictly off gluten and dairy. I wanted to provide a dessert option that met their dietary requirements, felt rich and indulgent, and balanced out the Thanksgiving dessert buffet. Enter: cranberry sorbet.

First off, it is gorgeous. Look at that color! It is the sort of vibrancy I miss in the winter months, when the available produce appears in the same shade range of pale to squash. Which is why I am sharing this recipe with you now. I suspect you, like me, have an errant bag of fresh or frozen cranberries kicking around in your fridge. Wouldn't you love to have a little tub of this zingy sweet in your freezer, just waiting to dip into? To bump up the seasonal flavor, I also include some classic "mulling" spices. We enjoyed a few rounds of mulled wine this winter and I thought the flavors would be a good match here, warming up the tartness of the berries. Finally, to cut the mouth-drying sour of the cranberries, the sorbet base includes mixed berries. I use a bag of "assorted berries" in the grocery store freezer case and it often includes raspberries, blackberries and blueberries, but really I think you could try this with cranberries plus one berry, say raspberries, if that's your preference.

I like to think of this as a winter berry sorbet and it would be a shame to limit the enjoyment of it to a singular holiday. To further the point, it would be stunning to pair a scoop of this with a scoop of mandarin orange sorbet. As I believe with all ice creams and sorbets, they are a perfect make-ahead dessert to have on hand for houseguests or a weeknight dinner party or Winter Olympics viewing party(!). I have not done the research but am curious as to how a scoop of this would do if floated in a little sparkling wine. If anyone tries it out, please let me know.

cranberry and mulled spiced sorbet

for the simple syrup:
2 cups water
2 cups granulated sugar

for the berry and spice base:
1 pound frozen mixed berries- blackberries, blueberries, raspberries
6 oz fresh or frozen cranberries
1 mandarin orange or clementine, cut in half
1/2 fresh ginger, roughly chopped
2 cinnamon sticks, roughly broken
1 star anise
3 cloves
1 cup of water

1) Make the simple syrup: in a medium sized heavy bottomed saucepan, mix together the water and granulated sugar. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

2) Make the berry and spice base: in a medium sized heavy bottomed saucepan, mix all the ingredients together. Heat to a simmer and then lower heat and cook for about 45 minutes. What you're looking for is for all the berries to have burst and broken down and the clementine too. Remove mixture from the heat and let cool slightly. Then pour the mixture through a fine mesh strainer to hold back all the pulp and whole spices, reserving the gorgeous spiced berry juice.

3) To the spiced berry juice, mix in about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of the simple syrup. How much sugar to add really depends on the sweetness of the berries and your own palette. Although, I will say that flavors dull once they are frozen and so what may be perfect at room temperature will likely not be as balanced once it whirls in the ice cream maker. I tend to lean towards the sweet side but just a smidge over. Take this mixture and refrigerate at least 4 hours, preferably overnight. Once it is throughly chilled, add to the ice cream maker and follow manufacturers instructions. Once the sorbet is mixed, I like to freeze overnight so that it is a fully firm texture.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Roasted tomato and carrot soup

I did not own an umbrella until I lived in California. I was thinking about this, last week, as I walked to my car, in what the locals call "freezing rain", and I was wearing the wrong jacket, sans umbrella. It is funny that I did not own an umbrella because where I grew up, Southeast Alaska, is considered a temperate rain forest. My hometown receives a yearly average of 49 inches of rain. But, when I lived there, I did not carry an umbrella and neither did most people I knew. I suspect there were a couple of drivers for this: first, when it rains with such frequency, you dress for it. I think most of what I owned, outwear wise, was water resistant. (The one exception being a pair of 80's "moon boots" for the snow that really served as sponges to absorb slush and water. Anyone else have a pair of those worthless things?) Second, umbrella's are kind of a pain to deal with: opening and closing while getting in and out of a car, and drying them out, bleh. In SoCal, the rain was so rare, it was a fun diversion to pull out my umbrella and rain boots, (both striped, natch.) A rainy day felt like it's own type of holiday, where we could justifiably eat hot soup and grilled cheese and stay in and watch movies. Now, living in Washington, once again rain is a regular part of my life and so I need to find my umbrella. I am learning about all sorts of new weather too- inversion fog, the aforementioned freezing rain, and a regular wind that blows so strong, neighborhood trees grow at a tilt. Soup, rather than being a holiday treat, is de rigueur.

As a I shared in my post on split pea soup, I have been stocking my freezer up, which pleases my inner Marilla Cuthburt. These past months I returned to an old favorite- roasted tomato carrot soup. I first made this about 16 years ago. That December, for my 21st birthday, my friends threw me a beautiful dinner party at their apartment. The starter was Ina Garten's roasted tomato basil soup. The finish of the meal was when the party guests took turns saying kind things to me, which included one friend confessing, to a table of people and my new husband, that he secretly had a crush on me for two years. The evening was a memorable one for many reasons.

While I do not recall how I replied to my friends confession, I do remember I loved the soup. At the time, my husband and I rented a small one bedroom second story apartment that faced a courtyard with a pool. An architectural throw-back to the 1950s, I don't believe the stuccoed walls held a stitch of insulation. When temperatures would get "chilly", in the 50 degree range, (hilarious, now that my daily high is in the 30s), I liked to cook in the oven, as the apartment was small enough that a good casserole could really warm things up.

I wanted to re-make Ina's soup, but round out the acidity of the tomatoes. Also, while the roasted tomato and basil is delicious, sometimes it reads too much like pasta sauce to my palette. The solution became adding a pan of carrots to the oven, along with the tomatoes. This addition also results in soup that is a gorgeous orangey-red, like a color from a J.Crew catalog.

Over the years, I have made many iterations of this soup, tinkering to get my desired flavor and texture. I think it is perfect all on it's own, and for those of us making more healthful choices after two months of drinking eggnog in our morning coffee (ahem), it is a good fit. But, it is also sublime when finished with a splash of heavy cream or dollop of sour cream.

roasted tomato and carrot soup

roasted tomatoes:
3 lbs roma tomatoes, halved, cored and seeds scooped out (about 15 tomatoes, but do weigh them)
1/4 cup olive oil
good pinch of kosher salt

roasted carrots:
3 large carrots, scrubbed and halved (I don't bother with peeling)
2 tablespoons olive oil
good pinch of kosher salt

soup base:
1 medium yellow onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups chicken stock (or use vegetable stock for a vegetarian/vegan version)
28 oz can whole tomatoes
3/4 teaspoon fresh thyme
salt & pepper to taste

1) Preheat oven to 400. On a large rimmed baking sheet, toss the halved tomatoes with olive oil and salt. Roast for 90 minutes or until the tomatoes lose their shape and start to char. On a second rimmed baking sheet, toss the carrots with olive oil and salt and add to the oven, alongside the tomatoes. Roast the carrots for 60 minutes or until they are tender and edges start to char.

2) Meanwhile, prepare the soup base: heat the olive oil in a large soup pot (preferably one with a heavy base). Saute the onion over medium heat until translucent. Add the garlic and cook briefly, (seriously, like 30 seconds) and then add the chicken stock. To this soup base, add the roasted carrots and simmer for about 15 minutes. (Why? The carrots have a tendency to get a bit shriveled around the edges and it do not blend up as smoothly in the final product. I like the flavor that roasting produces but recommend softening them up in the soup base for a bit).

3) Once tomatoes are roasted, add to the simmering carrots and stock and then also add the can of tomatoes and fresh thyme. Bring it all to a simmer. Remove from heat and, using an immersion blender, blitz it all until consistent smooth texture. Please take care not to splatter yourself with hot soup. If it's all a bit thick, you can thin out with a water that's been swirled in the leftover can from the tomatoes (just and idea).

Monday, January 1, 2018

a few of my favorite things- new years day edition 1/01/18

Our first holiday season in our new home was special: we hosted family for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. I felt so fortunate to have space for everyone to feel comfortable. We made Christmas cookies and then delivered them door to door in our neighborhood, singing "We Wish You A Merry Christmas".

We had a white Christmas and took afternoon drives with family into the snow covered passes around our town. At one point, we had to stop the truck to let a group of wild turkey march across the road. We decided that the group of turkeys should be called a "gobble".

During the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I did so much cooking y'all. Even I admit to being impressed with how much I pulled off: vanilla marshmallows, peanut brittle, fruit nut balls (not as well received as I wanted them to be), coconut meltaway cookies, iced sugar cookies, blueberry cobbler, chocolate loaf cake, creme fraiche ice cream, spiced cranberry sorbet, apple tart, gingerbread cake, and, as always, salted dark chocolate chip cookies. That is just the sweet stuff- does not include the ham, turkeys, brisket, roasts, etc. I think I will always remember this Christmas as the one I was not working and had the time to cook my little heart out. I suspect every holiday after this will be a bit of a disappointment to myself. But I am thankful that this year I was able to immerse myself in it. Nothing makes me happier than a table with friends and family and good food.

Like most years, we had a quiet New Years Eve. Today I will make my own resolutions and goals for 2018. Yesterrday I had a sad thought: 2017 is the last year that I will be able to say I lived in Southern California. In 2018, I will only have lived in Washington. I have been feeling pretty homesick for my SoCal friends. Just after Thanksgiving, one of my dear friends had the loveliest fresh balsam fir wreath delivered to my home. The Christmas holidays were a nice diversion but on Saturday a package arrived from two of my close friends and it was filled with so many thoughtful gifts, one of which was a small box of chocolate covered espresso beans from a favorite downtown LA patisserie and I went ahead and started crying. Change is hard and sometimes it feels like the more I settle in to my new life and surroundings the more I realize the loss of what I left behind. I really miss my friends. So, one of my goals for the new year is planning a So Cal visit.

One thing is for sure: I am thankful for this space and you, dear reader, for continuing to visit. I look forward to writing and sharing in the new year. Blessings to you and those you love!

Here are a few of my favorite things (lately):

For supper, I made this pasta dish with kale and red pepper flakes and we wolfed it down.

One of my favorite writers, Ann Patchett, wrote a fascinating piece in the New York Times about not shopping for a year.

If you're looking for something to listen to while taking down the Christmas tree, here is a link to the top ten interviews from NPRs "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross.

Something to think about as you head back to work: according to Harvard Business Review "Research: Men get credit for voicing ideas, but not problems. Women don't get credit for either."

Did you get a gift card to a bookstore (ahem, Amazon) and it's burning a hole in your pocket? Here are some of my favorite reads from this year*:
**books I read this year, but not necessarily published this year :)