Saturday, October 31, 2009

Now posting on: Improbable Pantry

I started this blog in October 2008, and have had a year to play with sharing my food experiences with you.  I've been wanting to make some changes, not the least of which was the name.  So, I've rebranded as Improbable Pantry, and hope you follow me over there.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cold snowy Sunday in October

Every once in awhile, I follow a recipe start to finish, paying careful attention to every ingredient, every measurement, every nuance, to make sure I get it just right. More often, though, a recipe will get me thinking, and the thought evolves over time. Sometimes a few minutes, sometimes hours and sometimes days. As the time unfolds, the possibilities do as well. And what I imagine at the beginning, turns into something very different, influenced by my mood, the day, what I have, whether I'm in the mood to try something different, or the weather.

A few days ago, I saw Heidi Swanson's recipe for red lentil soup pop up on her blog. It got me thinking about lentils. I liked her simple recipe -- red lentils, onions, brown rice. Nothing to it. Except I didn't have any red lentils in the house, and plenty of those plain-looking brown ones. I did have lots of onions. And I'd been wanting to do a simple lentil soup flavored with lemon, perhaps with a little spinach. Simple.

Then, Sunday came, and it was snowing here in Boston. Snowing. In mid-October. I drove up from New York City in the snow, and was looking forward to an afternoon of hanging out at home, warming up the house with something fragrant and slow cooking. I am, to my core, a sucker for an everything-but-the-kitchen sink stew. I just get started, and don't know when to stop. And there were older veggies that needed eating up. Carrots, celery, potatoes, onions, scallions, lemons. I slowly shifted gears from a simple lentil soup, perhaps as an appetizer to something else, to a lentil stew that would keep us warm while it was cooking, while we were eating, and for the next few days. Intrigued by Heidi's brown rice, I decided to go for something that didn't take so long to cook -- bulghur, and which proved to provide a silky texture to the whole shebang.

Snowy Sunday Afternoon Lentil Stew

6 cups chicken stock (or water, or vegetable stock, or whatever)
1.5 cups brown lentils (pick out stones or dirt, and rinse)
1 large onion, roughly chopped
2 medium potatoes, diced
2 carrots, sliced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup medium bulghur
1 bunch spinach, chopped
2 scallions, minced
zest of one lemon
lemon juice, to taste
soy sauce (a tablespoon, or to taste)
parmesan cheese, finely grated
salt and pepper

Saute the onions and garlic in a few glugs of olive oil, until the onions are soft. Add the potatoes, carrots, lentils, and bulghur; stir, and cover with the stock. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20-40 minutes. Add water as needed to maintain a soupy, stewy consistency. When the potatoes, carrots and lentils are soft, and it all starts to meld into a stewlike consistency, add the spinach and lemon zest. Cook some more until the spinach wilts. Turn off the heat.

I let it sit on the stove for an hour or so, letting the flavors meld (and waiting for us to be hungry). About 15 minutes before showtime, crank the heat back up to high until it boils, reduce to a simmer, and season. I added salt and pepper (about five or six big pinches of salt).

At this point, you have a blank palette, and you can do anything. I kept it simple, and added the lemon juice and a little soy for umami taste. Other options: chili powder, cayenne, pimenton (smoked paprika), red pepper flakes, cumin, cinnamon -- depending on your mood. I kept it simple, and added the parmesan and minced scallions at the table. Serve with hearty bread, and it's a meal, with plenty of leftovers for another time.

I stopped short of overdoing the flavorings, keeping it very simple. Susan was enthralled with the subtle flavor of the lemon zest. (And I was enthralled with CREATING the lemon zest, with my new microplane -- what took me so long to pick up that fabulous tool?) I am not used to cooking with flavors that don't bonk you on the head, demanding to be paid attention to. So I added a tablespoon or so of lemon juice. But that's it. The taste was rich, but not overpowering. Warming. Perfect for the day.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Start with the spinach


Friday night, tired and wired, contemplating a quick call to the takeout joint. But it was COLD in the kitchen, and I figured cooking would warm it up. It always does. And cooking does tend to improve my mood. But I really didn't want to make a big deal of it. I just wanted to eat.

Unlike most days, I hadn't been pondering the contents of the pantry and fridge in between phone calls at the office, so I was starting from scratch. For starters, there was the spinach in the fridge, from Wednesday's farm share. It wouldn't last long. Boiling some water for pasta would be easy. And warm up the kitchen pretty quickly while fixed some other things.

A half tomato sitting in the basket. Cooking might improve it's flavor -- the tomatoes hadn't been great so far this year, so cooking would be kind. And there was another big one just sitting there, so I sliced half of it. And onion. Onion makes everything taste good.

But wait. I ran out of garlic the other day and hadn't replaced it. Enter the year-old pesto cubes in the freezer. I'd been wanting to use those up for awhile. They really won't last much longer. They have garlic in them.

So. Olive oil heating on the stove, add a vidalia onion (from the share), when translucent, add the tomato (from the share). Cook for about 15 minutes while the water heats up. Fascinating how cooking tomatoes this way will reduce them to almost nothing and concentrate their flavor. When the water boils for the pasta, add a pound of whole wheat penne, which will cook for 10 minutes, and set the timer for 8 minutes so I remember to add the chopped spinach to the pasta pot a minute or so before it's done. Remember the spinach? When the spinach goes in, add the pesto cubes to the skillet, and cook a little more. Then, at the last minute, on an inspiration, toss in a frozen cube of year-old tomato concentrate. Salt and pepper

Drain the pasta when it's done, rescuing a coffee mug full of liquid in case I need it to moisten things up a bit, and add the pasta to the skillet, for a nice quick meal.

Parmesan cheese would have been a nice addition, but somehow, it had disappeared, so I substituted the parrano cheese, which worked nicely.

Gourmet cuisine? No. A good hearty meal for one with leftovers for whomever was around over the weekend. Yes.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Roasting the box

The box today came with a surprise -- corn. It's OCTOBER! And a winter squash, on top of the two I already had. Plus a load of greens, on top of the bok choy I still had leftover from the trip to the Super 88 a week and a half ago. (Those bok choy are pretty resilient!) What to do?

It's time to kick off roasted vegetable season!

Peel and cube the squash into large bite size chunks, and get them roasting in a thin coat of olive oil at about 350.

After about 15 minutes, add one ear of corn (roll it in the oil already in the pan, and add some butterflied bok choy, also rolled in the pan. And add 5 or 6 cloves of garlic -- just toss them in.

While those are going, get some quinoa in the rice cooker. I like to use the regular yellow quinoa, with about 1/8 red quinoa, for a little visual interest.

Keep checking on the veggies. The bok choy were the first to finish up, so I pulled them out, put them on a large board, and chopped them roughly. Then the corn, cutting the kernels off the cob, and finally the squash and the garlic. They all went into a large bowl, with some salt and pepper. That's it, and then squirt in the soft roasted garlic, stir around and serve with the quinoa.

The squash and the corn had enough flavor and sweetness to carry the dish, with little surprises of roasted garlic every once in awhile. Susan wanted a little more "something" and added a touch of soy sauce.

I find the combination of roasted vegetables and quinoa goes well for a meatless meal, with the quinoa providing the protein component. I love how the orange veggies add color and sweetness, whether they're squash, yams, or carrots. And potatoes are always great -- and I have a drawer full of them thanks to Enterprise. Or, if you want some meat, add a sausage to the roasting pan (just one's enough) and add to the mixture.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Secret ingredient brownies


Susan's sister Elizabeth was in town over the weekend, and somehow the conversation turned to brownies. How does that happen? In any case, she was very excited about these, with a secret ingredient - black beans. I'd seen a recipe for black bean brownies before on Heidi Swanson's blog, 101 Cookbooks, and had been intrigued, so when Elizabeth's recipe arrived by e-mail today, I ran out for a can of salt-free black beans, and got to it. I left the walnuts out, just because Eleanor always makes them without nuts (even though she's not home -- go figure). Susan couldn't wait for them to cool, and when they did, we were both thrilled with the result. Tasty. Good texture. Next time I may add five minutes to the 30 minutes.

They use 1/4 the sugar of the baker's chocolate package recipe. And no one would know that they had beans. The recipe comes from the Whole Foods website.

Next time I may try 101 Cookbook's version, which uses agave nectar. Or maybe I'll swap in the agave in these. Stay tuned.

Flourless Brownies

Makes 16

1 (15-ounce) can no-salt-added black beans, drained and rinsed
3 large eggs
1/3 cup melted butter, more for the baking dish
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon gluten-free vanilla extract
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons cane sugar
1/2 cup gluten-free semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/3 cup finely chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 350°F.

Butter an 8-inch baking pan. Place the black beans, eggs, melted butter, cocoa powder, salt, vanilla, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and blend until smooth. Remove the blade and carefully stir in the chocolate chips and walnuts. Transfer mixture to the prepared pan. Bake the brownies for 30 to 35 minutes, or until just set in the center. Cool before cutting into squares.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Cooking what's inside the box

The fridge was full of farm share that hadn't been eaten, and I was going away for a few days, which meant that Saturday night was cook the farmshare night.

Tomatillos. I'd never cooked with these before. I've seen them before, but had never been moved enough to buy them. But there they were, a bag of perhaps a dozen plastic bag tied at the top, each in it's green husk. A quick perusal of my usual online recipe sources turned up little else than roasted tomatillo salsa. So I figured I'd go with the flow and make some. Since I'd never cooked with them, I figured I'd make this up as I went, tasting often along the way to get a feel for the fruit.

Roasting the tomatillos seemed to be pretty standard, and I saw two different approaches, both involving the broiler. In one, they're done whole, and moved around a bit during cooking to avoid burning. In the other, the tomatillos are halved, with no turning. I started out with the first method (why bother halving them if I don't have to (halve to?), but after a little while I saw the advantage of a stable flat surface, pulled them out, halved them and put them back.

The tomatillos by themselves are a bit sour, but not unpleasant. Susan was horrified...she was expecting something tomato like, with some sweetness, and the only resemblance really is the appearance. I thought that adding some lime juice might add a little interest, and onions and jalapeno peppers a little bite.

At the same time I broiled the one remaining chili pepper from the week before, and then remembered that I'd want to roast up some onions. These were all done dry, without oil.

In the meantime, I steamed the three ears of corn, figuring those would go well in the salsa.

Once everything was cool (well...tepid anyway), I chopped up the tomatillos, onions, pepper, cut the corn off the cob, added some lime juice, a bit of olive oil and salt and pepper, and served them up with some tortilla chips (the black sesame and flax version from Trader Joes).

The lime juice and onions worked well to temper the sour of the tomatillos, and the little bit of hot pepper added some interest. Two of the ears of corn added some sweetness. The recipes I looked at said that this should be better the second day, so Susan will have to fill me on that aspect. If I came across tomatillos again, I'd probably make something similar, but I'm curious about other uses.

Simple recipe:

- A dozen or so tomatillos, halved
- Two ears of corn, steamed for ten minutes, cut off the cob
- One hot pepper, halved and seeded
- One onion (not sure what's an elongated thing from the share box)
- Salt and pepper
- Juice of two small limes
- tablespoon of olive oil

Roast everthing under the broiler under they start to char just a bit. No oil needed. Chop, combine and add salt, pepper olive oil and limes. Taste, and adjust seasonings to your liking.

In the meantime, I had a bunch of dinosaur kale, and some beet greens. The lesson with the beet greens is to eat them within a day or so of arrival, because they don't keep well. But the dinosaur kale kept nicely, and I went with a pretty much straight rendition of Molly Wizenburg's recipe on her Orangette blog -- braised kale with garlic, onions and chickpeas. The key here is the low heat braise of the greens to bring out some sweetness. I added kernels from the last ear of steamed corn as well.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Weekend lunch al fresco

Summer's waning, it's not too hot anymore, but very pleasant to sit (in the sun!) in the backyard. What better than to put together the salad-ables from the farm share into an afternoon respite from the house chores.

Several handfuls of arugula and mixed greens
Tomato, diced
Cucumber, diced
Leftover corn on the cob, de-cobbed
Can of white kidney beans
Mint, chopped
Juice of one lemon
Olive oil, couple of glugs
Tahini, a tablespoon, or more to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste

Just throw in the veggies, and dress by drizzling the oil, lemon and tahini, then mix. Serve with a hearty bread.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Eye Candy

Just a fun photo to liven up a business trip. I took this photo a couple of years ago after a very satisfying takeout meal from Shangri La in Belmont. These were the remnants.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Too hot!

It's been too hot to light the grill, so it was time to clean out the fridge. Last week's CSA lettuce was history, and we'd just gotten another pile. There was some leftover meat and smoked fish from the other night, fresh artisan bread from the Arlington Farmers market, so there was no need to heat up anything.

I rubbed the wooden salad bowl with a clove of garlic, and piled in the new lettuce leaves, old tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, new cucumber, leftover corn on the cob (now off the cob), and chiffonaded basil (from last week's share) and a couple of scallions cut on the bias. Dressing? Simply a few splashes of olive oil, salt, pepper (Susan's suggestion, and a good one!)

It was just the right amount of effort and just the right taste, texture and temperature. I'd never done the garlic clove trick, and was surprised that you really could taste a hint of garlic. And the chiffonaded basil worked nicely with the scallions.

Being at the farmers market was tough today. We're heading on vacation in a few days and are trying to eat down the inventory. And we hadn't yet picked up the farm share. So, we passed on everything but two loaves of bread, one from the Danish Pastry House, the other from Mamadou in Winchester. Susan and I polished off half the Mamadou multigrain loaf with no problem. I suspect Eleanor will take care of the other one.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Eggplant, up a notch

There are some subtle things creeping into the blog posts that you may have noticed. One, that I moved recently. And that's taking up a lot of time, though I am still cooking a lot, I'm not writing much about it. And sometimes I cook, take photos, and do something dumb, like use the wrong white balance. So that's why you haven't seen some of my great slaw experiments. Coming soon, as soon as I get the camera kinks worked out.

The other subtle thing with big impact is that I joined a CSA a few weeks ago. CSA -- Community Supported Agriculture. Where I buy a share of the farmers crop and get a surprise box every Wednesday. It's been almost 10 years since I've been in a CSA, but since Susan likes vegetables and likes when I experiment, the time was ripe again.

There's a certain amount of stress that goes along with the CSA. That is to find something to do with everything before it goes bad. So there's a bit of triage that's needed when I open the box. Fortunately, Enterprise Farm, in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts gives me a day or two head start by sending out a newsletter at least warning me of what's coming. I know I need to deal with the softer leafy greens pretty quickly, and build my cooking routine around what needs to be eaten, tempered by what I feel like eating and what I think other people will feel like eating. There was a lot of basil and parsley the first few weeks, and since I grow those in pots, that was a challenge.

And arugula. Lots of it one week. And lots again this past week. That's a lot of peppery greens, but Susan's got a plan for those. Lots of dark leafy greens, which is great by me, but they take up a lot of room in the fridge. And beets, which fortunately keep for awhile (the bulbs, not the greens), since I ODed on those earlier in the season and over the winter with the beet and carrot salad.

In any case, I knew there was eggplant coming, and I've only recently started to like eggplant. It's been blazing hot lately too, so doing anything in the house with the stove was out. I did some web investigating for grilled eggplant recipes, which I've never done, and found that one in Kalyn's Kitchen provided the best inspiration -- Spicy Grilled Eggplant with Red Pepper, Parsley and Mint

I found Kalyn's Kitchen through a couple of routes. It turns out that Kalyn is a friend of Bobbi, an old friend of Susan who just came to visit. And she mentioned Kalyn when I mentioned that I food-blogged. So I was even more inclined to look closely when one of her recipes popped up on by Google search for grilled eggplant.

I followed the basic directions for working with eggplant, including sprinkling with salt and letting drain. I did find that the end product may have been a bit too salty, even though I rinsed the salt off and squeezed out excess water -- I may have to use less salt next time. So, look at Kalyn's recipe for the basic technique.

What made this concept fabulous was pouring the marinade of the hot, freshly grilled eggplant. It was made up of olive oil, lime, garlic, and I used Chimayo Chili powder (Kalyn had aleppo pepper)and some red wine vinegar. I loved it. Susan thought it was a bit too spicy. So next time, I think I might try some pimenton, smoked paprika, instead. Looking forward to next time. When I hope to remember the parsley and mint (it was great without, but I'm sure it will be great with!)

I have a feeling this technique will work well with some other things, but the spongy eggplant seems particularly perfect to soak up a post-cooking marinade. I'm using a variation on that theme tomorrow to pre-marinate some steaks.

What made this meal work so well was that it was blazing hot out, so all the cooking was outside. We started with a board of meat, fish and cheese. It started with the smoked mackerel from Whole Foods, which had an assertive, but not overwhelming flavor. And a very tasty Roth's Private Reserve, raw milk cheese, obtained from Whole Foods to impress our recent French visitors with American cheeses. This is also assertive, but was a good complement to the fish. There was a goat cheese which was good, and some pepperoni, which was almost overwhelming, but had a nice kick to it. And a raw milk cheddar, which was pretty nondescript among all the stars, and could have been skipped. All with a fresh baguette.

And some fresh corn and green pepper, both on the grill rounded out the meal. I tried the corn two ways -- lightly rubbed with olive oil and set on low-medium heat, and wrapped in foil with a tiny bit of water leftover from rinsing the ears. I had the naked version (which I loved) and Susan had the clothed version (which she loved). When it's too hot to steam corn inside, you know it's hot.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tribute to one of a kind

I opened my e-mail this morning to a wonderful story by Kim of her last visit to Phoenicia, telling of the delightful experience that we had always come to expect. Direct from Kim:

I've been wanting to relate the tale of my last visit to Phoenecia. It happened while my SF friends Rebecca and Phill were visiting. Of the half dozen or so times I've been, each visit seems to contain just a bit more magic, and this time did not disappoint.

I had to hype it, Phoenicia that is, quite a bit this time. Friends from out of town's, "Where should we go?" is sometimes not the open-ended question it at first appears, especially if, like me, you live in the downtown core and the restaurant you're proposing is a car trip away to far-flung sounding "West" Seattle. Wouldn't the prime restaurateurs be just steps away from my door? What about these touted rockstar chefs?

I whipped out your "Interpreter of Food Desires" phrase for my marketing angle, made a quick call, and a half-hour later we snagged parking on a very sunny, very busy Saturday eve, not far off the cruisey strip plied by motorcycles and convertibles. And, only half a block away from the restaurant. On entering, we were met by Hussein's wife. Her eyes darted among our faces, as though she was hoping to recognize us, to find a familiar look or gesture among us. It was an entrancing moment, her standing there in front of that low table loaded with wine, probing us with her curious eyes as I began to speak, and at that very moment, under his breath, my friend Phill, who was standing behind me, says, "oh, yes," quite convinced now apparently, that this, indeed, was the place to be.

At the table, a window table—a table with a view of a particularly beautiful Seattle sunset over the dusky islands and mountains at the far end of the Sound—Phill says, "I wonder what 'bread salad' is?" As I was explaining this peculiarity, a dish I've only had in Seattle, as "a normal salad, heavily dressed, heavy on the croutons, but the croutons aren't toasted," bread appears on the table, and, of course, as you would imagine, a little dish of Hussein's curious dip.

This time as last, the dip is the same but different, and therefore 'how?' becomes the question (but only in my mind). 'Perhaps it has more oil and less pomegranate,' I wonder, 'or more of that lemony herb?' but in any configuration, as you know, it is unfathomably delicious. We were each clutching the menus with one hand and dipping wildly with the other, when suddenly a salad arrived. Hussein himself brought it, saying, "Very special balsamic, very very special," and then he was gone. Phill's eyebrows went up, Rebecca said, "Wow," and the three of us speculated aloud as to how he knew we wanted—needed—bread and salad. Then we attacked the salad.

"This is always how it is," I say and recommended the creamy fish stew, the pink one that goes over the rice and grain dish that's sweet and nutty; Jewel of the Sea I think it's called. Do you remember it? The first dish we had there? Phill says, "I'm thinking 'lamb'" and Hussein abruptly returns, takes Phill's menu, and says, "You like lamb." Rebecca laughs. Phill orders the lamb. Hussein says, “I make you a curry, a lamb curry, very special.” Phil nods. What else can you do? Rebecca and I order the fish stew. Hussein leaves and the three of us discuss whether it's likely that the table is itself bugged.

We drink wine. Hussein buzzes through the room, charmingly unsettling the other diners, while we eat our bread and salad. He has adopted table-flaming, with a blow-torch, what appears to be a creme brulee. I keep hearing behind me the unsettling sound of pressurized butane, on fire, and directed at food.

You know the rest. The food's brilliant. Hussein continues to arrive suddenly, always as if on queue, asking his accusatory questions with a friendly smile. The wine he recommends is inexpensive and balanced to the table's needs: light enough for the fish, substantial enough for the lamb. As diners, we are relaxed, delighted, lost in time.

Perhaps his only failing that eve was to not push the creme brulee, which one imagines must have been delicately scented with orange and roses, as was that first desert he insisted we had, the one with the ice creams and the delicate, rolled and filled cookie. Sadly, Hussein died this past weekend. A note appeared in the West Seattle Blog from his daughter.

Stories and condolences are piling up. Hussein was greatly loved. As one person put it, “I’m sure the shockwaves are traveling round this globe today, for the loss of our beloved Hussein is just such a shattering blow."

Phoenicia was my favorite restaurant in the world. I would tell people this, and they wouldn't believe me, but I believed. The meals were always magical, and Hussein was always gracious, humble and charming. I looked forward to my business trips to Seattle with the hope I would have the time to be able to go. Each time I went, he asked where I was from, and when I said "Boston", he would say, "you must be a doctor!" And when I brought my daughter with me last time, he gave her the advice to not marry the first man that came along. He was always willing to share some (but not all!) of his culinary secrets with me when I asked.

I blogged about my experience last October. I did find out on my last visit a few months ago that rather than coconut milk, he used cream with very ripe banana for his special seafood bowl -- something I will have to try!

I will miss him, his food, and his spirit.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

In lieu of words

It's been a busy month, what with moving and all. I haven't had much time to write, but have had some time to cook and take pictures. I'll never catch up with the food stories, but here are some of the pictures, with as much as I can remember.

Raspberries from Tyler Ave, courtesy of Christie and Brian. And the mint courtesy of my porch plants. How much simpler can you get?

The first meal cooked at "the Park". Sausages, with some grilled veggies.

What was this?! Quinoa. With grilled veggies. Some olive oil and tomato paste in there as well, and some seasonings I can't remember.

I think this was an early attempt from the first farm share. Cilantro and cukes from the share, with some lettuce. And some leftover brown rice from the very wonderful Chinese restaurant here in Medford.

This was good! And it was today, so I remember! A can of white kidney beans, cucumber, tomato, basil, mint, olive oil, lemon juice, a little tahini. And a Ak Mak cracker.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Urban farming

I'm moving from my apartment to a house in less than two weeks. Knowing that this change was upon me meant a scaled back urban farming operation this year. I chose the essentials -- tomatoes, which you can't buy in the regular groceries and cost dearly if you get them at farmstands. And some herbs -- basil, parsley, and mint...the most popular in this household.

The first tomatoes started to appear a few days ago, so this post is in celebration!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Cabin Cooking, Part 4

May 30, 2009
Black bean chili

1 C dry black beans
1 medium onion
3 cloves garlic
1 14 oz can diced tomatoes
Ancho chili powder – several tablespoons
Cinnamon powder – ½ teaspoon
Salt and black pepper
Cilantro, a handful, roughly chopped
Brown rice, cooked
Tabasco sauce, to taste

It just takes time, and time is what I had. The meal started to coalesce in my mind at the grocery store in Hayward on the way up to the cabin. At the grocery, I bought the black beans and a small can of diced tomatoes. And the garlic and brown rice and onions. Figuring all of these things would be good for something, somehow.

The cinnamon came from the inspiration from the previous meal. The ancho chili powder was a big surprise find at the Cable grocery store, as was the cilantro.
The beans needed to soak, so those started the night before. 1 cup of beans to 3 cups of water. While having breakfast the next morning, I started them cooking, adding a halved onion to the mix part way through. The package said to cook for an hour, so I did. After the hour, the beans were still a bit hard to my liking, which was going to be fine, because there was more cooking in store. I cooled the beans on the stove, and then stashed them, pot and all, into the fridge to await the evening.

About an hour and half before I wanted to eat, I set the pot of beans on the stove and brought them to a boil, then a simmer. Added whole cloves of garlic, and the can of tomatoes, and let that simmer while I got the brown rice going in a separate pot. (It would be interesting some time to try just cooking the rice right in the bean pot – add some more liquid, and see what happens. Why not?)

Then, back to seasoning the beans, with the chili powder, a good handful – I’m guessing three tablespoons at least, and a little cinnamon, salt and pepper. When it was all done, I tasted again, and adjusted the seasonings, knowing that as the beans cooled they would start to take on a richer, more complex flavor. It’s always difficult to know what something will really taste like when it’s boiling hot – the tongue can’t really interpret what’s going on properly. But let it cool a bit, and the flavors really start to come through.

When it was all ready to serve, I chopped the cilantro, a nice generous handful, and added those to the pile of rice and beans on the place. Before adding the Tabasco, I tasted first – I was curious as to what it would taste like with no heat. The chili powder and cinnamon made a complex combination. I was glad I chose not to add cumin – while that may have been good, too, it would have changed it entirely. Some allspice or cloves would have made a fine addition.
The Tabasco I added cautiously, just a few drops, to one corner of the pile, not wanting to ruin the whole batch if my instincts turned out wrong. My instincts were good, however, and the little bit of tart heat from the Tabasco (vinegar, pepper) was a welcome addition – though I could have easily done without. (What I think would be even better would be the Siracha pepper sauce – that Thai/Vietnamese sauce with the rooster – next time!)

With the Tabasco only dotted on one section of the beans, what I found was that the heat spread slowly through the rest of the pile, easing in intensity as I ate through it, which was a welcome variation in the flavor over the course of the dish. Like changing the volume of music, or the color of a painting, some variation.

Oh...and wine in little jelly glasses, was just the right amount of class for this cabin cooking...

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

This started off as a quick chili

Spring has come and almost gone. And I finally had another opportunity to walk to work (and home). It's 2.8 miles and takes me about 40 minutes each way, and it's a good workout. I need to wear hiking gear and change at the office, otherwise it's just way too sweaty.

All of which is just to say that when I do this, I have 80 minutes of unencumbered time to let my mind wander. I don't do earbuds. So -- no music, no NPR, no books on tape. Just me and my brain and whatever the scenery, sounds and smells happen to be. So sometimes, especially on the way home, I get to think about dinner.

I have a pretty good sense of what's in the pantry and what's in the fridge, so I can compose themes and variations in my head. And let the concepts emerge, percolate, simmer, and then when I get home, all I have to do is make it happen.

This started out as a simple, quick black bean chili. I'd done a very nice black bean chili from scratch at the cabin (post coming soon!) and I was eager to try something with black beans, even if they were canned, again. The canned black beans had been in the cupboard for months, as had the canned tomatoes. So those were a given. Seasonings I could make up -- probably cumin, maybe some others. Onions, garlic for sure. And there was this big bunch of mustard greens that Eleanor and I had picked up a few days ago. I figured that would make a good addition.

So I got a roughly chopped onion and a few cloves of garlic going in the olive oil as soon as I'd changed out of the walking clothes, had a long drink of water, and got my heart rate down to something manageable. AFter they started to sweat just a bit, I added a good teaspoon or two of cumin, another of fenugreek, and another of coriander, mixed them around a bit and then the drained black beans and a chili-infused diced tomato can and got them to simmering. That part was on auto pilot. And I added about 3/4 cup of the rest of the bulgur and about a cup of water...I figured that would add an interesting texture.

Then what? The greens. There were A LOT of greens. A BIG bunch. The last time I'd used them, I also had a lot, and they'd cooked down to almost nothing, so I figured they would just be a nice addition to this "chili". I pulled out the center rib and chopped them up and added them, covered, and waited for them to wilt.

While that was happening, I was pondering some additions. I recalled the idea of using fish sauce in small amounts in unusual places to add some umami, so went with about a half teaspoon (probably less, actually). Then, I'd been playing with seaweed a bit lately, and toasted a handful of laver to just smoking. This was probably too far, but they didn't taste burned, and they made a good addition. I could've probably used five times as much if I'd wanted them to be a little more dominant. Lesson learned -- don't put laver in the toaster oven and walk away. They go to smoking pretty quickly -- a lot quicker than the 5-7 minutes at 350 that the package suggests. Some salt and pepper rounded out the seasonings.

As you can see, calling this "chili" would be a stretch. It's greens. With some beans and tomatoes and other interesting flavors. The mustard had a nice bite, but not overwhelming, that went well with the built in chili flavor of the tomatoes. The fish sauce and laver added a nice umami element, but not overwhelming. And I added a few sunflower seeds at the table for crunch.

All told, a pretty good effort that I'd easily try again with mustard or any other kind of greens, different grains, and maybe some other flavors. Maybe some anchovies? Or smoked fish chunks? Or...pork of course....

Friday, June 12, 2009

Cabin Cooking, Part 3

May 28, 2009
The free range, super duper organic chicken bought from the farmer who raised it was sitting in the fridge, defrosted, and waiting for its turn. Today was the day. The weather was PERFECT. The fire pit in front of the cabin was equipped with a hanging grill. I’d never cooked over an open fire before, and here was the chance.
I was going to try out three new things here. One, cooking over an open wood fire. Two, using a super duper free range organic chicken. And three, salting and seasoning the chicken well in advance, as advised by Cooks Illustrated, to first draw the moisture out, and then return the salt and seasonings to the interior of the meat. I’d tried the last of these once last week when cooking some steaks, and the results were fabulous – but in that case, there were no other seasonings – just salt and pepper. I tried it again a few days later with some chicken pieces on the gas grill – this time with salt, pepper and pimenton. Again, fabulous. So, I guess I knew that that technique worked. But I still wasn’t very experienced with it.

This time, the seasonings were salt, pepper, cumin, cinnamon, allspice. Part of my usual “middle eastern” mix. My day of adventuring on the Bayfield Peninsula in northern Wisconsin went quite a bit longer than I thought it would. And I didn’t get home (the cabin) until after 6 PM. Why I look at the clock or wear a watch here is beyond me. When I’m around the cabin, I don’t wear it at all, and I should cover the clock!

The first step, then, was to get the bird split and seasoned, which was a quick affair. Then, to the fire. I knew that I would need to be patient, build a fire, and wait for a good bed of coals to set. I had no idea how long that would take, but I figured at least a half hour, and more likely longer. The advantage to eating alone was that I could be patient – this activity could take as long as it needed to. A few rosemary olive triscuits and some grapes was enough to hold me over till the main event.

I built a nice roaring fire...that settled into a nice smoldering pile of wood. Still burning, still coal-like, but still, not really anything that I would cook over. I needed to give it some more oomph, so added some small pieces to build up the flame, to encourage the wood to burn. In the meantime, I prepped the rest of the meal – small red potatoes coated lightly with olive oil, salt, fresh ground pepper (new pepper mill!), rosemary and oregano – and the last of the asparagus, coated in olive oil, with just some salt and pepper. These were ready backstage, waiting for their cue.

The fire took over an hour to be ready. More like an hour and a half. Which was, I think, a good thing. It gave the salt and seasonings a chance to do their job. And it taught me some patience. And let me enjoy the evening full of wind rustling the trees and birdsong. Punctuated by short periods of activity to tinker with the fire.

Finally, finally, the fire was ready. A nice glowing hot red bed of coals. With enough wood remaining to fuel the fire for what was likely to be a half hour to an hour of cooking. My biggest fear was hanging the chicken over the fire and have it ignite and burn immediately. And then be unable to extract the bird from the blazing inferno. So I was cautious. I hung the bird (and the potatoes) a good height from the base of the fire (maybe a foot, perhaps even 18 inches) with the skin side up, to give the bird a taste of the flames and the heat. I figured this was probably too high, but I could always adjust downward. Remember, there were still flames dancing around…it wasn’t just a bed of coals (as you can see in the pic).

This seemed to work pretty well. In retrospect, I was probably too cautious. After about fifteen minutes, the amount of time I would normally flip chicken pieces on my gas grill back home, I took a look. I had certainly not burned the underside of the bird, but it was cooking nicely, although perhaps a little slowly. I flipped lowered the bird a few notches of chain, and watched to see what would happen. It took to the new heat nicely, and I let it go another ten minutes or so.

By now, it was almost 8:30. And it was still daylight! But the light was starting to fade. I flipped the bird (he he), flipped the potatoes, and added the asparagus. Waited to see if skin side down would cause fat to drip into the flame and cause a conflagration. But it did not. I let it go another half hour, continuing to lower the bird as the flames died down, and the coals were big, glowing and hot. One more flip of the bird somewhere along the way, along with a surprise phone call in the middle from Jeff to see how I was doing in the cabin, and I figured I was done.

The asparagus were clearly nice and done. A little limp, but with a teeny bit of snap remaining. The potatoes seemed done – a little firm, but done nonetheless.
The chicken – I wasn’t so sure. By now, it was darker – not dark dark, but dim, and it was hard to see what was going on. I moved around the leg joint, and it was still pretty firm – which I didn’t think was a good sign. I was eager to try it, so I piled the vittels onto a dinner plate, headed outside to my table lit by a single candle (the sky now in the final stages of light – almost 9:30!) and tried the chicken. It was tough, and clearly not done.

Fortunately, Jeff and Emily have a microwave in their rustic cabin. And I was able give it another five minutes or so of quality cooking to make finish it off. Those last five minutes were the toughest to wait out.

Back outside, back out to the plate, for the first taste, and it was a winner. The chicken was tougher than I was used to, but I think that may be the free range part. It was tasty – very tasty. I could taste the chicken and I could taste the seasonings, all the way through the bird. My mistake, if there was one, was to do all three new things at once. I would have like to have tried the super duper bird with minimal seasonings, just to see what the bird tasted like without all the help I gave it. But I didn’t, and I was happy with the outcome.

The potatoes were the perfect foil to the flavorful chicken. And the timing of appreciating the role of potato as perfect foil was perfect as well, as I had just read an essay by M.F.K Fisher on the topic. And grilled asparagus takes the natural complex flavor of the vegetable to a new height. I’ve had grilled asparagus several times now this season, and I think it is my favorite way to eat it.

So, a fabulous, slow meal. With many lessons learned. And an entire meal of leftovers remaining. The fridge now contains at least two meals of leftovers, which means I don’t think I’ll be cooking tonight. What will I do with the time?

The cabin...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Cabin Cooking, Part 2


So the first night, May 26 was asparagus, potatoes, carrots, corn. The second night May 27, I concocted a variation on that theme, because that's what I have the cabin. I didn't want to do potatoes again so I did onions instead. And to make sure I had enough protein, and enough to eat in general, I made up a batch of mixed white and red quinoa (about ¾ white and ¼ red), with a generous handful of chopped parsley added after it was cooked.

There's not much to say about them, the picture is worth 1000 words. As you can see, all I had with salt and pepper and the pepper was already ground -- so I used lots and lots and lots of it. A nice simple meal for a simple place. The onions in particular were a real pleasure. They were cooked so that their sweetness started to come through, slightly browned, but they still had some of that onion “bite”, with the edge taken off.

The other revelation was the parsley in the quinoa. I had not planned this when I bought the parsley. I just knew that parsley would come in handy somehow. This part of the dish was like hot tabouli. The quinoa by itself doesn’t taste like much, so it needs something. And I gave it enough parsley to make that flavor a dominant theme…with parsley being my greens for the evening…just like I enjoy tabbouli. I would do this dish again without blinking, even if I wasn’t in a remote cabin.

By now, I had gotten a little bit of a feel for the place, so here's a little bit to give you a feel for the place!


Thursday, June 4, 2009

Cabin Cooking, Part 1

I am writing this from a personal retreat and cabin in northern Wisconsin, with no running water, no cellphone service, and no internet. Perfect! Without the internet service I stashed away a few blog entries for posting upon arrival back in civilization. I'm back, so now I'm posting. Here's the first.

May 27, 2009

After scouting out the accommodations (thanks Jeff and Emily!) the first order of business was to make some food. Emily took me to the the Farmer's Market in St. Paul, which was conveniently running this Tuesday morning, and purchased some olive tapenade cheese (from the cheesemaker), summer sausage made a bison (from the sausage maker), and some asparagus (from the asparagus grower). The asparagus was the only fresh vegetable available, which is not surprising given that it's only late May. I also picked up a frozen free range chicken that was sustainably raised. At the grocery I picked up some carrots, various grains, potatoes and sweet corn.

I did not want to spend a lot of time cooking as it was a little chilly in the cabin. I thought using the oven would be a good thing. So I decided to roast the asparagus, corn, carrots, potatoes in the oven with a little olive oil and salt. There was only spray olive oil, but it was worth a try. Roasted at 350 the asparagus and carrots were done first. The asparagus and carrots were done to perfection, and the first ear of corn was pretty good but still a little hard, so I left the other ears of corn a while longer with the potatoes. While this was cooking, I kept myself busy with the summer sausage and cheese and some rosemary Triscuits.

The simple roasted veggie meal was the perfect easy meal that also served to heat up the chilly cabin. Filled me up, provided some leftovers, and got me familiar with the kitchen. The lack of running water will be a fun challenge...

Monday, May 18, 2009

"Have you ever tried wheat berries?" she asked.

"I've been making a yummy salad with wheatberries, veggies in a sesame oil/ginger/garlic/honey/red pepper flake kind of dressing with cashews on top. I love the texture of that grain," Emily wrote in the e-mail (actually, she started it in a game of Lexulous.) I hadn't cooked with wheat berries for 30 years, I'm sure. And I had a fridge drawer full of grains, but I couldn't resist, so I picked some up at the Whole Foods, and waited for inspiration to strike.

Sometimes, inspiration comes all at once, and sometimes it just percolates all day until something yummy emerges. This time it was the latter. I felt pretty good about the ginger, sesame oil, red pepper flake tastes. I thought about the garlic but decided to leave it out for once. It is not necessary to have garlic in everything! I wasn't sure about the honey.

So, I started the wheatberries (1 cup dry) the night before with an overnight soak, then got them to cooking after breakfast. Followed by some french green lentils (another dry cup)-- I thought those would make a nice combination, like they did a few weeks ago with farro). So these were ready well before lunchtime, and stashed in the fridge for quick action after coming back from the new Star Trek movie (perfect movie, by the way!) And let the rest of it come to me over the course of the day.

There was that half a butternut squash that was in the freezer. And I had picked up a nice green crunchy bunch of parsley. That could go well.

I cubed up the squash and put it in a skillet with some water and olive oil, and simmered for about 15 minutes until the squash was getting tender. Part way through I remembered, "onions!" and tossed in some chopped onion, right in the water. When just about ready, I cranked up the heat to evaporate the water so the squash and onions would sizzle in the oil and create a little caramelized crust -- I got a little of that, but I wasn't patient enough to wait. I also tossed in some grated ginger and a light shake of red pepper flakes (less than half teaspoon, I imagine).

When that was just about set, I dumped in the cooked wheat berries and lentils with some more olive oil, cooked over medium heat for awhile, and tasted. Salt. A few hefty pinches. Then, some more grated ginger -- the grated ginger I had cooked with wasn't really coming through. And sesame oil, a few tablespoons, for taste.

It was starting to feel right, but I wanted a little more in the way of veggies, so I tossed in a few handfuls of frozen spinach for some green. I had bought that bag of spinach a while ago waiting for just such an occasion. Taste. More sesame oil. More salt. A little sweet would be good, so I put in a few squeezes of agave nectar. Parsley in just before serving, and it was ready.

I served it hot (not cold). And forgot about the nuts, until we thought "nuts would go well with this," but didn't do anything about it. The wheat berries really do have a fun texture. They squeak a little when you bite into them. And have a nice earthy taste.

Tonight, for leftovers, I added some feta cheese and walnuts, plus a little sesame chili oil for a little more heat and was happy with the second-night result.

Next time, I might go a little more savory and do some tasty mushrooms. Maybe add a little miso or tamari? And remember the nuts!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sometimes, it's just about the butter

I didn't start thinking that it was about the butter, but by the time the evening was over, butter was clearly the theme. It started out being about the mushrooms. I'd been wanting to play with mushrooms for a long time -- not the white mushrooms, or the criminis, or even those gigantic portobellos that you see in all the stores. No. it was about grown up mushrooms. The ones in those bins at Whole Foods labeled $29 a pound. I didn't know which ones I'd end up with, but that was the mission. Some interesting mushrooms that I'd never cooked with before, and some scallops. In olive oil. With some garlic. Over pasta. Simple.

I'd been wanting to do the mushrooms since Michael Pollan's Omnivores Dilemma, which had a whole chapter on the topic. Mushroom hunting. I believe he was after chantrelles. Or morels. I don't recall. But I was going to try some. It's been a couple of years -- what's taken so long?

I went for the morels. I don't know why. A small handful. Maybe five or six, small to medium. Came to a whopping $3.00. Not even. I figured they'd be enough for me. And I figured right. I thought mushrooms were an autumn thing, but there they were, bins and bins of all sorts. Wonder where they come from. Somehow I don't think they're being hunted in the wild like Pollan hunted his chantrelles.

And then around another corner there were the fiddleheads. Those are spring. They define spring. And there were lots of them. A handful, into the bag. They were the first course. Sauteed in butter. I had intended to add some shallots and garlic, but entirely forgot to add them (they were not wasted, they just made it into the next dish). Simple -- olive oil and butter mixture, with some fiddleheads that had been well rinsed and boiled (simmered really) for 10 minutes. Spring. That's all there is to say. Eat them while you can.

Then the morels. First some shallots and garlic in olive oil and butter, sauteed slowly, until the garlic just started to turn golden. Then the morels, chopped roughly. I figured I'd just saute them until they started to release their liquid into the butter and wilt a bit. Which then did, and which filled the kitchen with that earthy mushroomy aroma that defies description. There's some umami going on there, for sure.

When the kitchen smelled right, I added the scallops, turned those translucent, and then added the cooked ziti. Some salt and pepper, and it was ready. Sometimes, you just hit a home run, and this was one of those times. The butter, olive oil, mushrooms, garlic, shallots, scallops -- they just were made to go together. The flavors blended perfectly, and needed nothing else.

The question now is...what's next with that bin of mushrooms?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Can't get much easier or tastier

Just back from a quick vacation in NYC, and back at the office today, I started pondering the dinner opportunities while on a long conference call. There was the broccoli that's been in the fridge for over a week. Some TJs frozen shrimp that has proven itself to be very tasty in the past, and some very tasty chorizo (not too spicy, but packed with flavor) picked up a few weeks ago at Russos. That was a good base to start with, together with some braised pasta.

I got the pasta water started, and while I was at it reconstituted some shitake mushrooms. I took 7 medium frozen shrimp out of the freezer and defrosted under a thin stream of cold running water.

Once the pasta water boiled, I plunged the cut-up broccoli in for a minute or two and set it aside. In the skillet, sauteed two cloves of minced garlic and a couple of tablespoons of shallots in a few glugs of olive oil for a couple of minutes, till softened. Added a single, small, diced chorizo sausage (maybe three tablespoons worth), and let those mix together for a couple of minutes, watching the oil turn a luscious shade of chorizo red/orange. Then, in with the brocolli and mushrooms, followed quickly by the shrimp, until the shrimp went from the gray to translucent. Some salt and pepper, adding in the drained pasta with a tablespoon or two of the pasta water, topped with a few tablespoons of chopped parsley in need of a mission and I was ready to eat. I added some fresh grated parmesan (though I know the purists turn their nose up at cheese on seafood, but I don't care, I like it).

Start to finish, probably 20 minutes. Hard to beat for a weeknight, and cleanup was quick too.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Food is beautiful

Sometimes the image is a good as the taste. And the taste of this was great. Beet and carrot salad. Gushed over before, but repeated often.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Savory Breakfast, redux

I learned it from Tea and Food ( you really have TWENTY ONE posts about savory breakfasts?!), and Bittman made it popular. And it's still yummy, and I haven't grown tired of my morning oats and protein. Usually cheese, but sometimes egg...which is way more attractive. And sometimes some other grains, but not often enough. I had some leftover bulghur the other day that worked well.

Some pics, just because.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I almost didn't cook tonight

The beet greens wilting in the fridge were weighing on my conscience, and I knew I had to do something soon. But I had just driven back and forth to Hartford (two hours each way) for a one hour meeting and I was worn out and a little stressed from work. I did the quick change out of business armor and into my comfies, when I thought that a walk would do me good. But even the thought of a walk was overwhelming. Meditate. Why not meditate? I'd learned how from the book "The Relaxation Response" that had been written up somewhere or other recently, and found that it worked pretty well at reviving me -- even better than a nap. And it did! Fifteen minutes, eyes closed, saying "one" every time I exhaled, another five minutes to come back to the world, and I was raring to go. A fifteen minute walk livened me up even further, and I was eager to get going.

It became the evening to take care of the guilt. There was a butternut squash sitting on my counter since CHRISTMAS. And it's almost the end of March! It was time. I've always been reticent about using squash, because I think it's too much work to split open, peel and seed. Not so. At least with a good sharp knife. My new chef's knife went through almost as easy as butter. And the seeds came out in a snap, and my peeler made short work of the outer peel. Butternut squash is my squash of choice because of the smooth skin that lets you take nice long strokes with the peeler. Those acorn squash with their ridges are just impossible. So I got half the squash cut nicely into cubes, and then into a few splashes of olive oil in my new All-Clad 12 inch skillet.

The knife and skillet were new acquisitions, courtesy of the advice of Cooks Illustrated. It was hard to resist their gushing over these two. But I digress -- I think a separate post on the new equipment is in order. Soon.

The trick I learned this weekend with cooking potatoes I applied to the squash. The trick came from this FABULOUS recipe from Heidi's 101 Cookbooks, what she called a Lentil Almond Stirfry -- but I think I'd call a Lentil Brussels Sprouts Stir Fry, with almonds and dates. Either way...I made it pretty much the way she suggested (perhaps a few more brussels sprouts), and it was a big hit. Click on the link, and you'll see her recipe and her pictures -- because I neglected to take any. And I managed to avoid increasing the quantity of dates (only TWO!), and that was the right choice. The little sweetness surprises every once in a while was perfect.

The trick, though, is to cook these winter veggies in their own steam with a few splashes of olive oil. I had read another recipe somewhere that suggested adding some water for a braise, then when the veggies were getting close to tender, crank up the heat, and they brown nicely in the oil (which doesn't evaporate). Cool. Very cool. And it worked perfectly for these squash.

So...cubed squash, into a few splashes of oil heated on low-medium heat, creating just a hint of a sizzle, then about a half cup of water and cover, and turn low. Meanwhile, I sliced up a half onion, and just dumped those in with the squash.

While that was all going on, I prepped the beet greens. Just sliced the leafy part into thin ribbons (half-inch wide maybe), and when I got to the tougher stems, I cut those up into smaller pieces and kept them separate.

Once the squash were tender, and the onions fragrant (15 minutes or so), I cranked up the heat to get rid of the water...maybe five minutes, then another five minutes still on high to get some browning on the bottom of the squash. While the squash were browning, I plopped the beet green stems on top, to get those cooking a bit. I left the whole thing undisturbed to get the browning to work (that new skillet is great for browning!) In the picture below, you can see that I wasn't too careful about keeping bits of leaves from the tough stems -- no matter -- those beet greens can take it.

Oh...and I added a tablespoon or so of pancetta, for a nice umami-flavor.
Once everything was a few minutes from wanting to be done, I topped it all with the leafy part of the beet greens, and folded it all together.
The beet greens cooked down pretty quickly -- no cover needed. Maybe five minutes more, in a nice steamy, aroma filled pastiche.
This needed nothing more than a little salt and pepper. It was sweet, a little salty and very tasty. I could see all sorts of additions you could make -- some red pepper flakes or serrano chile for some heat. Pimenton for smokiness. Some herbs. But really -- it was very clean and tasty just as it was. And that deep orange, deep green and red pallate really works for me.

And I still have half of the squash in the freezer (cut into chunks) ready for the next experiment.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Tapas night

While on vacation in Vegas (yes Vegas) Susan and I stumbled upon a fantastic, inexpensive, happenin' tapas joint not far from The Strip. Called Firefly. Well...we didn't really "stumble" upon it....there was a bit of research on Yelp involved. People were raving, and it was a tough reservation to get, and did I mention it was inexpensive?

Now...seeing as how this was WEEKS ago, and can't really remember all the things we had, but the one thing that stood out was dates wrapped in bacon, stuffed with goat cheese in a red wine reduction. Yummmm. And, I thought, "I can make that!"

So, a few Friday nights ago I decided to do tapas night at home, starting with a variation on the Firefly theme. Dates wrapped in proscuitto (actually "speck", which seems to be a smoked proscuitto). Pan fried in my cast iron skillet. That's it. No cheese. No red wine reduction. But it was fabulous. Sweet dates wrapped in the salty umami of the speck. Just the right starter to get me going for the rest of the evening.

Next up -- pan roasted parsnips and carrots. Now...I'm head over heels for roasted veggies in the winter. All sorts -- carrots, parsnips, turnips, brocolli, cauliflower, sweet potato, pototo, sqaush, onions, cabbage...whatever. Usually with rosemary and thyme, salt and pepper (though that big jar of herbs de Provence has been getting the call from the bench lately). It just needs to be tough enough to stand up to 45 minutes to an hour in the oven and roasted to a carmelized crunchy sweet hearty filling treat. Well....I didn't want to wait 45 minutes, and I wanted to keep it simple. So I simply sliced the carrots and parsnips (just white carrots, eh?), tossed in olive oil and the herbs, and skillet roasted them. Perfect. Like al dente roasted veggies. They had a bit more crunch, but not much, and the parsnips still had a little of their bitter edge to them, but not much -- the sweetness really came through.

And then the beets. I love beets, because you get at least two meals out of them -- one for the greens and one for the bulbs. And I'd just read about making a raw beet and carrot salad on Chocoloate and Zuccini, and was inspired. I followed her recipe pretty much verbatim, so I won't repeat it here, but the keys are cider vinegar and spicy mustard, and not overdoing it on anything. And those green flecks are cilantro, which worked well.

The last one was a little inspiration from wishing for something sweet. A few days before I had had the brainwave that if you take dried fruit and soak it in water overnight, you get reconstituted dried fruit. Now, for some of you, this may seem obvious, but for me, it took awhile to come around. I'd had fruit compote before, but I'm pretty sure that was cooked. This is simple -- just apricots, prunes and water. And after a few days, the water gets all syrupy. And I had a little sour cream in the fridge, leftover from something, so I added that as a garnish, and was very happy indeed.

What I liked most about the meal (aside from the food) was the pacing of the meal. One little bit of bites at a time, let it settle, move on to the next course in the kitchen and enjoy. And then think up the next course. An entire evening of entertainment!