Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Save the sprout

Flickr image/krgjumber

I’ll give this to Brussel sprouts. They are adorable. They grow on miniature trees., these tiny little cabbages, like the dollhouse version of a vegetable. Too cute to eat. I’ll give them credit for that. After I get past appearance, that’s when I have a problem.
Brussel sprouts have a bad reputation, one I have contributed to as a cook and as an eater. My encounters the the cruciferous sprout is familiar to so many vegaphobs. It was hate at first site. On introduction, they were badly prepared. Boiled, usually. Sitting in a puddle of margarine if we were lucky. And whole. Big round blobs of mushy green on the outside and semi-frozen green on the inside. I’m retching just thinking of them.
They were inedible, but a generation of parents forced us to eat them. No wonder they were as hated as broccoli.
There has been a Brussel sprout renaissance in recent years and it is all thanks to one thing: Bacon. Bacon is the cure-all for vegetables. Combine bacon with my favorite preparation method of preparation, which is dicing them up so they are no longer identifiable, and you have something I eat. This is not a healthy recipe. Dieticians will protest and I beg them to look away. But it is an excellent way to reintroduce sprouts to a palate that hides in the other room when their name is mentioned.

Carmelized Brussel Sprouts. With Bacon

Bacon, with saved grease
Brussel sprouts, shredded into thin slices
Pecan pieces
A little brown sugar and balsamic vinegar 

Fry up as much bacon as you think you’re going to need. Recipes that say 1 or 2 slices are just wrong. You need enough back to make a previously loathed vegetable edible. Take the bacon out once it’s cooked. Save enough grease to fry up those shredded sprouts. Cook over a medium flame in a big cast iron pan until they start to brown. Be aware that they may pop out at you like pieces of popcorn. Nothing about Brussel sprouts is easy. 
Once they’re browning nicely, toss in some pecan pieces and brown those up a bit. 
Personally, I toss a little brown sugar on them, because inevitably I don’t have the patience to wait for the full-on carmelization which gives the sprouts their sweetness. A splash of balsamic vinegar gives a nice depth of flavor and hides reminders of Brussel sprouts past.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Rallying with roasted vegetables

My computer crashed last week. Computers are not supposed to crash anymore. I am told as though it were a modern fact of life by every person I tell the story. But mine did and since I am lax about backing things up, the amount of work gone forever paralyzed me for two days until panic set in, followed by acceptance. Not quite Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief, but anyone who has gone through this sort of high-tech loss understands the proper reaction is mourning, followed by chocolate pudding.
It took Thanksgiving to snap me out of it. Not because it’s a cherished holiday, but because people were counting on me to provide a side dish. A vegetable. The most unwelcome of all dishes on the carnivore Thanksgiving table.
The classic green beans with French’s fried onions and mushroom soup is always welcome at family gatherings, but I had different priorities. I wanted something I liked (which is almost never something smothered in canned soup) and something I could reheat or repurpose. I settled on two options: Scalloped corn and roasted root vegetables. Whatever is left over gets folded into pancake batter and made into fritters. Drop on some sour cream mixed with chopped dill and call it dinner.
Roasted root vegetables is exactly what it sounds like. Root vegetables chopped up and roasted. The roasting caramelizes the sugar in them and you’re eating things you thought you’d never eat. 

Roasted Root Vegetables

Parsnips
Turnips
Rutabaga
Carrots
Sweet Potatos
Onion and Garlic
Olive oil and maple syrup
Thyme
Rosemary
Salt

Preheat oven to 400. Peel everything and chop it into one-inch pieces. Dice the onion and garlic. Toss it all in a big bowl. It will cook down to slightly half the size so chop more or less accordingly. Combine olive oil and maple syrup in a 2 to 1 ration. Twice as much oil as syrup. Toss in an appropriate amount of herbs. That’s kind of up to you. I like to smell them while they cook so I use at least a tablespoon. Probably more. Divide it up in roasting pans and put in for 30 minutes uncovered. Stir. Put it back in for another 45 minutes.
Serve with sour cream (particularly if you’re of Eastern European heritage) or don’t. It’s fine without it. 



Monday, October 27, 2014

Diverging Food/Memory

The stories on here often appear first in an Iowa newspaper. It's supposed to be a food column. And sometimes it is.
This column isn’t about cooking. Or eating. If it’s anything it’s stories that include food. There are recipes (sometimes) because the editor demands it. But mostly this is a few hundred words with food as one of the characters. 
I can’t say food has always been an important part of my life. For the longest time it was an afterthought. There were no nights around the dinner table as a child. Maybe a few special recipes before the grandmothers died. A holiday here or there. Depression. Disinterest. There were a lot of reasons I found a good meal was peanut butter on saltines and an adequate meal was peanut butter on a spoon.
As soon as I were old enough I got a restaurant job. 
Food became french fries and burgers. A steak if the chef happened to like you. But I didn’t learn to cook a meal until I was much older, married and raising children, and even then my techniques consisted primarily of boiling water or opening a box.
That all sounds woeful, but my point is this: If you grow up without enough food on the table you look at eating differently. Meals become important enough to plan and wasting one is a pity because there have been so many wasted chances already. The same goes for taste. There is a difference between those tinned tomatoes and ones you picked up at the farmers market. Why waste the energy on something that tastes like nothing?
If a co-worker brings in extra zucchinis — a regular occurrence as we wait for the first frost — I’m more than happy to take them because sometime soon real food, food that tastes like food, will be difficult to find. It’ll take some time and effort to bake a gluten-free zucchini bread or shred it up for fritters. 
Zucchini Fritters.
Peel and shred the zucchinis according to your tolerance for vegetables. Put the shredded zucchini in a colander, squeeze to take out as much moisture as you can. Place in a bowl and add 1/4 cup flour and a couple of eggs, salt and pepper. (Sometimes I’ll chop up an onion and drop that in too.)Try to form a patty. If it holds together nice, kind of on the damp side, you’re good. If not, add a little milk or a little more flour. 
All this time there’s been a cast iron skillet with olive oil or something on the stove on a medium-high heat. The oven is also on. Drop a couple patties in the oil. If you didn’t get enough moisture out, it’ll splatter, but no worries. Just step back. Brown one side, then the other. Put it on a cookie sheet in the oven and keep it warm while you finish the batch.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Cooking the Halloween decor

Bought as decoration, used as dinner. 

One of the first rules of entertaining is don’t serve a meal you’ve never made before. All sorts of things can go wrong in a new recipe because, like so much in life, what you see on the page isn’t always what you get. Recipes aren’t always carefully proofread and that 1 tablespoon of salt is meant to be a single teaspoon. Or the recipe creator mistakenly leaves out a very important ingredient. We’ll assume it’s a mistake although there was that one aunt who happily shared recipes, but not the whole recipe. She’d leave out an important ingredient or two to be sure that her version of the dish always tasted better than the copy. It took me years to figure that out. Years of feeling like a kitchen failure. Instead I’d lost to a cheater. A hyper-competative kitchen cheater.Don't be that person.
I’ve served more than a few meals that didn’t work, but many more that have. And yes, they’ve been served to guests. That first rule, the one about never serving an experiment is one I refuse to follow. Because of that, some friends recently had the opportunity to share a newly conceived Pumpkin Lasagna that came into existence only because there was a pie pumpkin taking up too much space on the counter. I thought it looked festive when I bought it. Then it just looked like dinner. If I'd bought a butternut squash I would have used that. 

Pumpkin Lasagna

Filling
1 pie pumpkin (or 2 14-ounce cans of pumpkin - NOT Pumpkin Pie Filling) Make sure it is a pie pumpkin. About 3 pounds. Those big carving pumpkins will not work. 
1 cup ricotta
1 cup mascarpone (or leave this out and double the ricotta. There was some in the fridge, so I used it.)
2 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste.
Sage, 1 teaspoon or more

Peel a small pie pumpkin and cut into 1-inch pieces. Toss with olive oil and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 45 minutes or until it’s fork stabbable. Puree. Should make about 3 cups. Leave it in the food processor and add the ricotta, mascarpone and egg.

Sauce
1 medium onion, diced
2 or more cloves garlic
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 to 2 cups cream or half and half
Pork sausage or 4 to 6 pieces diced Canadian bacon (optional) 

Sauté the diced onion in olive oil until translucent. Add the garlic and sauté. Set aside. Brown the sausage or bacon. Set aside. Make a white sauce with the butter, flour and cream. (Add some of the parmesan to the sauce if you’d like.) I use a large cast iron frying pan for all three of these steps. Combine the pork product and the onion/garlic mix in the sauce. Set aside.

Assemble
12 ounces of mozzarella
1 cup shredded parmesan
1 box of pre-cooked lasagna

Spread 9- by 12-inch baking dish with a layer of sauce. 
Layer 1: Noodles
Layer 2: Pumpkin filling.
Layer 3: Mozzarella and Parm
Layer 4 Sauce
Repeat, ending with a layer of sauce-covered noodles sprinkled with Parmesan.

Cover pan with sheet of oiled foil. Bake in 375-degree oven for 40 minutes. Uncover and bake 20 more. Let sit 10 minutes before serving.



Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Tyranny of Perfect Fruit


           
pear tart recipe
 Everyone knows one of these people. Ask them to bring something for a potluck and they'll arrive with a 7-tiered Venetian fantasy. It looks amazing. Like something on a Pinterest wedding board. And it tastes like decayed plaster.

Food doesn't have to be pretty to taste good. Presentation helps, but it's that judging a book by its cover thing all over again. The outside doesn't accurately reflect the inside. I was thinking about this little lesson in morals while I was looking at the bushel of pears I'd acquired.

My friend, Lillian, has an abundant pear tree. Every year, she gathers the fruit and gives it away in exchange for a donation to a charity. So every year, for as long as I've known Lillian, I end up with a lot of pears.

Pears are one of those fruits that I am loath to use. Their odd shape makes them difficult to peel. Not like an apple, round and nearly symmetrical. Pears take a little knife skill. They are needy. So they sat in the refrigerator, picked off one by one for snacking.

And after a week there were still a lot. Too many. Time to bake. So when a friend asked me to throw in a dessert for an impromptu dinner, I thought "Pear tart!" like it was an epiphany.

Anyone who has cooked a pear tart - or seen one in a cookbook - knows that the fruit is supposed to be sliced into identical wedges and lay in a pinwheel on the crust. It is a daunting task with more effort spent on creating the picture than the food. I don't do that. (And that should surprise no one.)

Ugly Pear Tart 

FILLING
6 smallish pears, peeled, cored and chopped into pieces (enough for about 3 cups)
Lemon juice
1 t cornstarch
(Some people like a spice, like cinnamon or nutmeg)

CRUST:
3/4-cup flour, plus extra
1/4-cup sugar
4 Tbs cold butter
Ice water

After chopping up the pears, toss them in a bowl with a little lemon juice so they don't get brown and some cornstarch so they don't get watery. Then make the crust just like any other piecrust. I use a food processor and then put the dough in the fridge for a half hour before pressing into a tart pan. Or a pie plate if I can't find the tart pan. Bake the crust, which looks like a large sugar cookie, at 425 for 15 minutes or until golden.
Drain the extra liquid from the pears. When the crust is done, reduce the oven to 350, dump the pears on top of the crust and bake for 40 minutes.
If I'm feeling fancy I'll drizzle some melted chocolate across the top. That happens seldom.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Rainy days and risotto


It’s raining, one of those rains that clears out the gutters and turns the river a dark metallic grey, leaving a damp chill in the air between storms. It’s been raining on and off for days and because of this I have not shopped for food. On days like these I swear I will can more. Freeze more. Set aside a stockpile because if there’s one thing I won’t do, it’s leave the house when there’s rain or snow. If it weren’t for four-wheel drive and good county road crews proving me a liar, I’d happily stay home all winter, insisting the roads were impassible if my presence were necessary.
But that particular scenario is still weeks away. And while the calendar is saying Fall, the weather is insisting “Not yet.” But today there is a chilly rain, which means it’s slow cooker weather. For years, I avoided slow cookers, embarrassed to even have one in the pantry. I’ve relented, especially on days when I want something filling. Something rich.
Today want a creamy risotto, but I don’t have the right kind of rice. A starchy rice that breaks down into a creamy goodness when cooked. I do have barley, however, which is better of its high fiber content and I can claim I chose it because it is healthier, not because it is what I have left in the pantry. Risotto isn’t just the name of the dish, it’s also the cooking method, which roughly translated means Hours Stirring Grains and Broth On An Open Flame. Which is nice kitchen performance art, but I want something easy. And good. Adding the cheddar gives it a mac-and-cheese feel without the white flour guilt.

Crock Pot Barley Risotto


  • 1 cup barley
  • 3 cups chicken broth (or vegetable if you want vegan)
  • 1/4 cup butter, cut into small pieces
  • 2 Tbs leftover non-sweet wine (optional)
  • 4 cloves garlic or equivalent garlic powder
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, diced and sautéed
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese (faux or otherwise)


Mix the  broth, barley, butter, wine, garlic, onion, salt, and black pepper in a Crock Pot and cook on High for 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Stir in cheese.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Tailgating for the non-fan

Peach Salsa, step 1
College football  has started, which around here means an empty house on Saturdays. Everyone is either at the game or watching the game somewhere else. It’s a day of catch-up for this non-fan. Reading, cleaning, cooking and just being thankful I’m not standing in a crowded stadium asking people around me to explain what just happened on the field.
I’ve stubbornly refused to become a fan. That might be different if I’d gone to a college where the football game was worth waking up for. And I know it’s possible to become a late-life convert. But there are only so many brain cells in a life. Why squander them on false enthusiasm?
There is one part of the football ritual I can get behind and that’s the tailgating. The guys man the grill, cooking manly meats. Bratwurst. Burgers. Steaks. Neighbors share, creating their own culinary currency. A breakfast bagel for 2 hotdogs. Pork burger for a veggie burger + a dessert to be named later.
The women have packed the accompaniments. Brownies, breads and baked goods. Chips and dips. Chips and salsa. A plate of cut-up vegetables that will go back home nearly uneaten because it’s football, not a bridal shower. Who tried to sneak this healthy stuff on the table? 
Tailgating is a communal meal of pre-thanksgiving, a ritual victory feast because no true fan would dare believe that there is anything but a win expected by day’s end. And like a celebratory meal, everyone brings an offering, more humble than fantastic because the setting — a truck bed as altar, lawn chairs as pews — necessitate a casual approach to both food and comfort. China is replaced by paper plates. Forks by fingers. Napkins? They’ve blown off the table in a gust of warm wind. 
On a quiet Saturday, when I’ve stayed home after waving the fanboys goodbye, I begin my own football ritual of preparing for next week’s tailgate. A mountain of peaches wait and I’ve got peach salsa on my mind. It’s 88 degrees, a horribly hot day for football and canning alike. But peaches don’t wait and neither can I.

Peach Salsa (Canned or not)

6 cups peeled, sliced and pitted peaches, about 4 pounds
2 or more jalepenos, diced
1 1/2 cup diced red onion
1 cup diced yellow, orange or red pepper)
1 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp cayenne
3 tsp garlic powder or 3 cloves garlic
1 1/2 cup vinegar
3/4 cup sugar

Combine everything in a large dutch oven and boil for 10 minutes. Reduce heat and simmer until liquid becomes syrupy. This makes about 4 quarts. Divide it up and can it with 15 minutes in a hot water bath. Or cool it in the refrigerator and eat at the next couple tailgates.  (Adapted from “Food In Jars” by Marisa McClellan)