Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Butternut Squash Soup

In addition to cooking a lot more in the new year, we've also been reading more and more. A couple of weeks ago, on a flight to Maryland, we picked up Food & Wine, Gourmet, and Saveur (featuring the much-discussed Saveur 100).

Anyhow, in F&W, there was one article about locavores (folks who eat local food as exclusively as possible). I didn't know there was a name for that. Jenny and I pretty much always try to eat locally grown foods, and when that isn't possible we buy as much organic as possible (the one place we get tripped up is wine; Illinois wine is simply undrinkable). In the locavore article, there were a few recipes from a guy in Vermont, including one for butternut squash soup that sounded simple and delicious. And, really, it's just about the simplest soup I've made in a long time.

Just onions sautéed until soft and brown, then cubed squash simmered in stock for about 40 minutes (until soft). Then you blend the soup, whisk in a little heavy cream, and that's it. I sprinkled a little salt and freshly cracked pepper over top just before we served it.

The original recipe called for smoked cheddar and cooked apples over the soup, but we sliced them up on the side instead. I liked the snap of the fresh apple, and the soup had enough flavor that it didn't really need the added ingredients.

For dessert, we had a bread & chocolate 3400 Phinney bar from Theo Chocolate (a States-based organic and fair trade chocolate company). It had a wonderful blend of saltiness and creaminess and would nicely balance out the rosa pfeffer bar we ate last month.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Vegetable Penance Soup

We spent the weekend out of the kitchen, visiting out-0f-state relatives. But two flights in two days means a lot of eating on the go, and today we felt the need for something fresh, light and easy.

Enter Vegetable Penance Soup. Basically: saute a medium-sized onion and a few cloves of garlic in just a dab of olive oil, then add some vegetable broth and every vegetable you can find. We used broccoli, cauliflower, chard, zucchini, carrots and cabbage. Then add in some fresh herbs (we used a couple bay leaves and a sprig of thyme) and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Simmer until the carrots are tender and eat a generous bowlful.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Olive-and-Herb-Crusted Pork Chops with Collard Greens and Goose-Fat-Fried Potatoes

So, we've been kind of quiet this week, mostly because both of us have been fighting off a nasty flu. We finally kicked it with a little leftover avgolemono, but almost an entire week has gone by since we ate this dinner.

I'd tagged a recipe on Chow that came from the Niman Ranch Cookbook. It was for lamb chops with an olive-and-herb crust, and it sounded totally fantastic. Cut to us with some rotted lamb a couple of days later, either the result of a bad batch from Whole Foods or else we just waited too long to freeze and thaw it after leaving it in the fridge for the first few days.

But I'd already mixed up the bread crumbs and the olive paste (incidentally, both took about 5 minutes in the Cuisinart, and the taste far exceeds the effort). And so we went back to the supermarket, this time opting for some bone-in, center-cut pork chops. We followed the cooking instructions in the recipe, which called for a little searing on the stove and a longer cooking time in the oven. We've seen this on America's Test Kitchen before, and it really is an easy way to get the meat cooked pretty evenly (see below).

To accompany them, I thought we'd use some of our reserved goose fat and fry up a couple of new potatoes. If you ever have reason to cook a goose, I can't recommend highly enough the use of goose fat on potatoes. They fried to a perfect golden brown, and the outside had a superb crispiness that I've never gotten before with oil.

To cut through the meat and fat, I cut up an onion and tossed it into a fry pan with just a tad of oil. Once it cooked all the way down, I splashed in a little leftover claret (which stained the onion red) and stirred in a bunch of chopped collard greens. Then I put a lid on the pan and turned off the burner. The remaining heat cooked down the greens and helped infuse them with some of the oniony wine flavor.

Now, the pork chops cooked pretty well, though we found some reddish spots near the very middle (despite our digital thermometer telling us we were well cooked). If/when we make this again, I'd use smaller chops so I could better manage the cooking time. Also, I think I was too gentle on the chops when pressing the olive mixture into them. We ended up losing a little bit in the pan, which I scraped off and piled on top for extra flavor (surprisingly, it didn't char), but it would have been better seared into the chops.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Chicken curry with rice

Tonight, we ate a wonderful meal that was half bottled and half fresh. Williams-Sonoma has some wonderful bottled curries, for those of us who have yet to attempt serious Indian cooking. We simmered chicken breasts with one of their curries and some frozen broccoli and okra until the chicken was tender and delicious.

The bottled curry alone, perhaps, is not post-worthy. But the basmati rice that accompanied our dish was so lovely that I must share it. Basically: prepare the basmati rice according to the package, adding one whole vanilla bean and one cinnamon stick to the water. When the rice is finished, fish out the vanilla and cinnamon and you're done. The rice is unbelievably fragrant and delicious without being overpowering.

Yum and yum.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Hot cocoa

Well, winter has finally hit Chicago, and for Lee that means one thing: hot chocolate (I'm more of a coffee drinker, myself).

There are a few varieties of hot chocolate mix around our place, most with spices of some sort. But once Lee fought his way through the blustery cold, he was in the mood for a classic, rich drink.

Here's what I cobbled together from ingredients on hand. It came out pretty well, I'd say.

Hot Cocoa for Lee
2 tablespoons of sweetened cocoa powder (like Ghiradelli's)
1 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup of whole milk
1 cup of skim milk

Heat the milk in a small pot and whisk in the cocoa powder once things warm up. That's it.

The two types of milk are probably not necessary: mostly, I used the whole milk to bolster the richness--skim would not have worked with the bittersweet chocolate. The mix of cocoas is the crucial detail here. The result: a perfectly grown-up, perfectly classic hot cocoa.

I even had a couple of sips.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Spicy Udon Noodles with Tofu

It started getting a little cold in Chicago this weekend, so we decided to make a batch of spicy Asian noodles to get us through the weekend. We made a fairly basic udon noodle dish out of Cooking Light with some tofu, snow peas, and mushrooms.

In general, I thought the recipe came out pretty well, but there were a few things that I would do differently next time (and there will be a next time; we love our udon around here). The recipe called for me to add chili pepper, garlic, and ginger at the same time that I added the broth. Instead, I'll probably sauté them for a little while first, so they release their oils and flavors and make a richer broth. I think we'll also make a little less broth (we used 3 cups, but 2 would have done it for the full recipe).

Overall the dish was very tasty. And we used the extra spot on our bowls to keep a blob of chili paste handy to spice up our noodles.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Butternut Squash Ravioli with Four-Herb Tomato Sauce

About a week ago, while putting together this week's menu, I started clicking around the recipe posts on the newly launched Chow. One that caught my eye immediately was this one for autumn squash ravioli with sage brown butter sauce. Seemed like a nice mid-week dinner that wouldn't take too much effort to throw together. By the time we got done with it, though, we'd turned it a little bit on its head, for the better I think.

The squash I stuck to pretty much as written. This morning I roasted two halves of the butternut squash in the oven and mashed the cooked insides together with vanilla and nutmeg. Then I let it sit all day.

By the time I get home, Jennifer and I had already decided to open a bottle of Francis Ford Coppola's claret with tonight's dinner. So, I figured the whole dish would be better with a red sauce. We had one box of plain tomato sauce and a few packages of fresh herbs: parsley, sage, rosemary, and oregano.

I started with half a red onion and two cloves of garlic. Those sautéed over medium heat while I added the fresh herbs. Then, the tomato sauce got dumped in, along with some chopped mushrooms, for texture. We simmered the sauce for maybe thirty or forty minutes, to let the flavors really mix together. By the time it was ready, Jennifer said she could smell it out in the hallway.

The ravioli was a cinch to put together, mostly because we used wonton wrappers. We tried a few different shapes, just to get a feel for what we'd serve in different contexts. For a dinner, I'd definitely stick with big squares. But for a cocktail party, we made some little rectangles that would work very well. We poured a little bit of sauce over it to serve and paired the whole dish with some of the leftover kale and cabbage.

In the end, the sweetness of the ravioli matched the herby sauce amazingly well. And the claret played expertly off the peppery sauce. This was easily my best meal this week.

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Chicken Strips with Blue Cheese Dip and Kale-Cabbage Saute

We have a few foods that we like to go back to from time to time. Some dishes that are nice and easy, and that cook up pretty fast. One thing that pops up every few weeks are chicken strips (from a recipe that we found in Cooking Light).

They're very simple. In one dish, mix milk with some hot sauce. In the second, paprika, red pepper, black pepper, and salt are sifted into flour. Heat some oil (we use organic canola) in a frying pan. Dip the chicken into the milk, then roll it around in the flour. The whole batch cooks up in around 15 minutes.

The dip is one thing we keep toying with, and this time around we discovered a wonderfully creamy blue cheese at Whole Foods. It made a chunky, flavorful dip that blended well with the spicy chicken strips.

For the side dish, I put together a kale-cabbage sauté, also from Cooking Light. We love leafy greens, and this was a neat twist on a coleslaw-like dish, served hot instead of cold and without mayonnaise. There is a little bit of fresh ginger and jalapeno in the dish, but I might increase each the next time around.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007


I forgot how easy it is to make fresh breakfast breads, even during the work week. But yesterday I hopped out of bed and went straight to work on a batch of traditional currant scones. The recipe that I used included eggs, and you can see that the scones ended up with a slightly cakier texture. This seems to have worked out well for freezing them, though we plan to make a future batch without eggs to get a more biscuity scone.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Avgolemono & Greek Salad

After receiving the America's Test Kitchen big book of chicken and poultry recipes, I was looking forward to making a true chicken stock from scratch, something I've never tried before. When Jennifer requested her favorite soup, avgolemono, I thought that would be a perfect place to start for a rainy, windy winter's day. I decided to pair it with a simple Greek salad, once again dipping into Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything.

First, the avgolemono. Made of about 4 pounds of whole legs, one diced onion, two bay leaves, and 12 cups of water, the stock simmered uncovered for three hours. I only poked at it every once in a while to skim off the foam and fat that settled on top.

According to America's Test Kitchen, you can simmer up to five hours to get a fuller chicken flavor, but we were getting hungry. So, I strained the solids and discarded them (the chicken at this point had really good texture but hardly any taste; we might have been able to save it by turning it into chicken salad, but neither one of us thought it would be worth it). Then I added a cup of arborio rice, which simmered for about 20 minutes while I prepped the rest of the ingredients: 1 cup of fresh lemon juice, 1/4 cup chopped parsley, and four eggs whisked together. When the rice was tender and plump, I whisked the juice/parsley/egg combo into the soup. I whisked as quickly as I could to keep the eggs from cooking into egg-drop strands. There were still some slight bits of white, but overall the soup was thick and creamy.

The salad was really basic, and I stuck to Bittman's recipe word for word, mostly to see how it would come out. He uses all the usual suspects (lettuce, olives, feta, mint) and one unexpected (radish). A little olive oil and fresh lemon juice on top finished it off.

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Black-Eyed Pea Dip with Toasted Pita

We rang in 2007 with black-eyed peas, bacon and collard greens for lunch. Black-eyed peas, eaten before noon on New Year's Day, are considered good luck.

I had quite a bit of leftover beans and decided today to make a dip with them. I served them with oven-toasted pita chips. Perhaps we'll wrest a little more luck out of this year, yet.

Black-Eyed Pea Dip
Drop two cloves of garlic in the food processor, pulsing until they're finely chopped. Then add about two cups of black-eyed peas (if you're using canned peas, rinse and drain them first. Better yet, use freshly cooked peas. They're so inexpensive!) and process until creamy. Add one teaspoon of natural peanut butter, the juice of one small lemon, and salt, pepper and Tabasco to taste.

Toasted Pita
Cut pita rounds into triangles. Spray the bottom of a jelly roll pan with nonstick spray, then arrange the pita triangles on a single layer in the pan. Brush the tops of the pita with a lightly beaten egg white (I suppose you could also use more cooking spray) and bake them in a 450-degree oven for about five minutes. If need be, crank the oven to broil for the last minute or so.

We ate it with Escarole and Fennel Salad with Pears and Gruyere and called it lunch.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Pork Tenderloin with Risotto and Green Beans

Lee and I had a pork tenderloin around and have been trying to find the best use for it. I saw a recipe online for pork tenderloin in a caper-olive sauce, but we didn't want the weight of a sauce--especially since I was making a risotto to accompany the meat. Here is what we did, instead.

The Risotto
Chop some vegetables (I used one onion, a couple cloves of garlic and some celery) and saute them in olive oil over medium heat until they start to soften. Then add about a cup of rice. I usually use arborio, but in the midst of daydreaming about grad school applications, added basmati instead. Surprisingly, it worked. After everything mixes together and the rice starts to turn translucent, deglaze the pan with some dry white wine (about a cup). Turn the heat down to medium-low and stir the mixture frequently with a wooden spoon. Meantime, take out a container of chicken stock. When the rice has absorbed the liquid, add about half a cup of stock and stir. Repeat this process until the rice is creamy and tender, with just a bit of bite left in the center. How much liquid this takes will depend on your rice and your kitchen, so be sure to taste the rice from time to time. Finish your risotto with a little olive oil or butter and perhaps some parmesan cheese (we added a couple ounces of parmigiano-reggiano at the end, grating it right over the pan with a microplane).

The Tenderloin
A little olive oil in the pan - sear on all sides, then turn down the heat and cover, turning every few minutes, until the internal temperature reaches 160. We didn't add a thing to the tenderloin--not even a dash of salt.

The Tapenade
Lee made an insanely delicious tapenade with one chopped garlic clove, a bit of chopped parsley, some kalamata olives and some capers. He finished the whole thing off with two teaspoons of port. It was incredible.

We served the tenderloin over risotto with some tapenade on top. On the side, green beans with toasted pine nuts. It was a successful meal, rice blunder aside, and everything came together pretty quickly once the risotto was finished.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Cheese Omelet with Salsa Fresca

Tonight, we both wanted something simple. I proposed hot dogs (we like the uncured beef franks from Wellshire Farms), but Jennifer thought we'd be better off with cheese omelets. Yes, she was right.

Right now we're eating Organic Valley's organic extra-large eggs, from cage-free hens that have been fed a 100% organic vegetarian diet. We usually look for at least cage-free, but these were a real find. They've got full egg flavor, and seemed to hold together pretty well.

I grated some Whole Foods cheddar, and Jennifer took charge of the omelet cooking. Then, I spooned some leftover salsa fresca, also from Whole Foods, over on the small side of our Vessel Fusionware dishes. A couple sprigs of cilantro and a sprinkle of fresh-ground salt and pepper finished off the presentation.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Black Bean Soup

Here in Chicago, the weather feels more like autumn than winter, but we've been craving winter foods just the same. Taking my cue from a recently acquired Williams-Sonoma cookbook, I made a fragrant, simple black bean soup for dinner tonight.

After soaking about two cups of black beans overnight, I made the dish on the stovetop. I chopped the vegetables (two onions, one red bell pepper, one seeded jalapeno, two cloves of garlic) in the food processor, then sauteed them in a stock pot with some cumin and oregano. I used just a couple tablespoons of olive oil.

Once the veggies were soft and the spices fragrant, I added the beans, one hamhock, and enough water to cover everything. The soup simmered on the stovetop for about two hours, until the beans were cooked through. I drained out some of the water and reserved it, then started processing the soup until it had the desired texture. I was going for a thick base, with a few whole black beans mixed in.

We then topped the whole thing off with a wonderful salsa crema - a fresh tomato salsa mixed with sour cream and lime juice. A little dollop of the crema with a sprig of fresh cilantro rounded out the meal very nicely.

The soup turned out well, although next time I would skip the hamhock in favor of two or three slices of well-chosen bacon. I think this dish could easily be adapted to the crock pot - just saute your vegetables first. In fact, I would guess that the soup would benefit from the longer cooking time of the crock pot. The flavor certainly matured by the time we reheated the soup for lunch the next day.

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Monday, January 01, 2007

Pan-Seared Chicken Breasts with Sweet Potato Fries

Tonight, I made pan-seared chicken breasts in thyme-peppercorn sauce with steamed green beans and brown sugar-glazed sweet potato fries. The chicken is really simple: just pound two half chicken breasts until they're about a quarter of an inch thick, then sear them on each side for three or four minutes in a bit of oil. Set them aside, and sprinkle a little flour in your pan (a teaspoon, maybe) and start scraping up the fond. Deglaze the pan with half a cup or so of chicken stock and maybe a quarter of a cup of half-and-half. Stir in a couple of teaspoons of dried thyme and a few peppercorns.

The fries were a great find from Cooking Light.

In other news, Lee and I have decided to try alternating the menu planning. We share the cooking duties, as it is, but we hope we'll cook more often if we take turns taking charge of things. So I'm playing executive chef this week. I hope he'll post his meals next week--Lee's an excellent cook.


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A Year in the Kitchen.

Happy New Year!

I thought it would be fun to document some of the things we cook in 2007.

Lee and I kicked off the new year with a roast goose, which we shared with some wonderful friends at a New Year's Eve dinner party. We bought a frozen goose from Whole Foods and, following Mark Bittman's recipe from How to Cook Everything, we roasted the goose, uncovered, in a 350 degree oven for 3 hours, pricking the skin about every twenty minutes. Geese have very thick skin, and pricking it allows the excess fat to drip off, leaving a tender, juicy bird with crackling skin.

We stuffed the goose with chestnut sausage stuffing and seasoned the skin with salt and pepper. Rounding out the dish was a plum and port wine sauce, which was good enough to drink from the pan.

This was our first time cooking and eating goose, and we were thrilled with the result! I think it may become our new holiday bird of choice.


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