Thursday, December 25, 2008

happy merry to all!

It’s Merry Chaos here in Princeton. Has a year gone by already? The weather is gorgeously warm, which is such a treat after the brutal winter storms and their aftermath that we've encountered at home and here on the East Coast. The sky is a beautiful blue color. The turkey is in the oven. The dough for the potato rolls is rising. We're about to break out the champagne. And, my kids have each declared this to be the Best. Christmas. Ever! Surrounded by family, I couldn't agree more.

No matter where you are and what you believe, I hope that your day is filled with peace and glad tidings!

Friday, December 19, 2008

holiday cookies

My mother, a fantastic baker, always had a pan of bars or plate of cookies stashed in a special hiding spot—plain sight. But, during the run up to Christmas, she’d nestle her baked goods—cookies, candies, pastries—in deep, parchment paper-lined tins that, a decade earlier, had hosted fruitcakes. She would put the tins into cold storage—the deep freezer in our garage—until such time as when she went “visiting,” dropping in on friends and neighbors to deliver her holiday cheer.

Such is my mother’s generosity. And such was the small community and the civility in which I was raised. Friends would stop by our house, unannounced, to say “hello.” Perhaps this practice is alive and well somewhere, but it’s certainly not done where I live.

Maybe the holiday cookies—the frilly, the fussy, the fancy, the not-for-everyday numbers—were the draw. I loved my mother’s boozy bourbon balls, the date-walnut balls enlivened by rice krispies, spicy gingerbread cutouts, rich chocolate crinkles, chocolate-dipped overtly sweet coconut bonbons, iced sugar cutouts, the powder sugar explosion of Russian tea cakes, brownies with a mint-ganache layer.

My mother was also a cookie-exchange maven, so some of the treats were made by others, such as spritz cookies—extruded neon food-dyed dough, sprinkled with complementary-colored sugar. Or peanut butter blossoms, crusted with sugar and crowned by a fat Hershey’s Kiss. Or wreath cookies—cornflakes bound by a mixture of melted marshmallows, butter, and a bottle of green food coloring, shaped into a ring, and adorned with a cluster of red hots “berries”.

But my absolute favorite cookie is her whirlagig—a peanut-butter cookie base rolled, pinwheel-style, around a thin ribbon of chocolate filling. I don't know the recipe's origin and hadn't thought to ask until now—they’ve been my mother’s since the beginning of my time. I did an online search and saw nothing that approaches this particular recipe. The recipe could have come from any of the places where my mother finds baking gems—church cookbooks, special interest publications, the butter carton, the newspaper. Unfortunately, she was unavailable for comment when I began this post.

Alhough I’d eat them any day of the week, these cookies were only made for Christmas. By appearance, they lack all the impressiveness of jewel-toned jam thumbprints or the seasonality of springerle. Whirlagigs are almost ordinary, like chocolate chip or peanut butter cookies. They’re rugged—brown dough, darker brown filling. They’re not pretty—very few of mine show their potential pinwheel spiral. But, they do look interesting, and they taste amazing. Not too sweet, which I think is the biggest fault of most holiday cookies. I am a firm believer that if one is staring at a platter of assorted cookies, one should be able to try as many as appeal.

Years ago, when Hambone and I started baking Christmas cookies, I asked my mother for the recipe, which she gladly shared with us. I’d never read it before so I was somewhat surprised to learn that the chocolate filling was made a little more-ish with a secret ingredient. No, it’s not booze, though I’m sure the addition of a complementary liquor wouldn’t be bad. Rather, chocolate chips are melted with an equal amount of butterscotch chips.

I also learned that whirligigs are a little fussy to make, which catapults them into the realm of for-special-times-only. As I made this year’s batch, I struggled here and there—but don’t let that stop you. I’ll provide tips in the recipe. Eventually, I realized the logs didn’t have to be sliced perfectly. If you mash the dough together in the approximation of a cookie, it will do what it’s supposed to in the oven. In every bite, the baked whirlagig offers a golden mean of cookie to chocolate filling.

Since whirligigs are too good to make just once a year, I resolve to bake them more often in 2009. Afterall, I have a technique to perfect—and these cookies are beyond worth it.

Whirligig Cookies

1 cup butter
1 cup peanut butter (I like chunky)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, unbeaten
2 tsp. vanilla
2-1/2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1-11 oz. pkg chocolate chips
1-11 oz. pkg butterscotch pieces

In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together first four ingredients. Mix in eggs and vanilla, until well incorporated. In a medium bowl, sift flour, baking soda, and salt. Add dry ingredients to butter-sugar-egg mixture, and mix well.

Melt the chocolate and butterscotch pieces in a double boiler or in a small bowl over a pan of gently simmering water. Cool slightly.

Divide dough into four pieces, for manageability. Dough will be very soft and a bit sticky. Lightly flour a length of parchment paper and roll dough into an oblong, approximately 1/4-inch thick, though thicker works too. Spread melted chocolate/butterscotch on dough and roll as jelly roll, using parchment to form log. Wrap log in plastic and carefully (dough is still soft and now rather floppy) place in refrigerator to chill for at least 2 hours, though dough can be chilled overnight.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Slice cookie logs 1/4-inch thick and place on ungreased cookie sheet. You will need to use a light pressure to work knife through the solidified chocolate. Don't fret if the slice crumbles—you can reconstitute on cookie sheet. Bake 9-12 minutes.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

best remedy for midweek crisis

Recently, while suffering from a midweek cooking crisis, we fell back on an old reliable—simmer sauce. You know, ye olde vegetables and meat cooked in a jarred sauce. Trader Joe’s makes a decent Indian-style korma sauce that, I realize, would be a total heresy to anyone who reveres Indian food. What can I say? We were tired and uninspired, so I cubed some chicken, mandolined a fat carrot that I had been hording from my last farmers market haul, and threw in some tender tiny peas, then napped it with a jar of sauce. In the time it took to steam some basmati rice, dinner slowly bubbled to completion, practically cooking itself. I could only have been happier if I'd had some kheer.

But an overwhelming guilt cloud hung over the stove when I realized what a cheat I’d been. The only way to remedy the situation was to complicate the meal and cook a vegetable side. Completely from scratch. Enter Madhur Jaffrey's quick and easy recipes and a head of cabbage. In only fifteen or twenty minutes, I had a meltingly soulful, slightly more authentic, and utterly satisfying cabbage dish.

I love this preparation and ate nearly the entire bowl by myself. It’s soft and savory and tangy, reminding me of a beloved German staple, rot kohl. The following recipe is pretty flexible. Don’t sweat it if you don’t have all the seeds. You could certainly use a half teaspoon or so ground cumin. You could even skip the onion. But absolutely do not omit the lemon juice or the garam masala*, the Indian spice mixture that varies in composition from kitchen to kitchen. Both are crucial in making this a transcendent cabbage.

Also, as the next set of holidays approach, I think this Indian-spiced cabbage would wonderfully complement traditional roasted meats, such as beef or pork, as well as all manner of roasted bird—turkey, goose, game hens, duck.

Stir-Fried Green Cabbage (Bhuni bandh gobi)
inspired by Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick and Easy Indian Cooking

1-1/2 pounds green cabbage (half a large head)
1/4 cup grapeseed oil
3/4 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1 medium red onion, cut lengthwise in thin slices
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
2 T fresh lemon juice
heaping 1/2 teaspoon garam masala*

Remove the cabbage's tough outer leaves. Cut head in half, then cut in half again. Remove core. Put the oil in a large saute pan and set over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, put in the seeds and heat for a few minutes. Add onion. Stir fry for 3 to 4 minutes or until the onion has browned a bit. Put in the cabbage. Stir until the cabbage too has softened and browned a bit, about 6 minutes. Add the salt and cayenne. Turn down the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 7 to 8 minutes or until the onions appear caramelized and soft. Mix in the lemon juice and garam masala, and serve.

*I use Penzey's garam masala, which is a blend of coriander, black peppercorns, cardamom, cinnamon, caraway, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and kalonji (nigella).

Sunday, November 30, 2008

odds and ends

As is becoming the habit, rather than the exception, I have some photos that capture a few of the many wonderful meals eaten chez H&S. Wonderful meals that somehow went undocumented blogside. Above, a bright-eyed Beta realizes a dream come true: watching Saji-Ya's sushi chef make a plate of sushi (tekka maki, tobiko, ikura—no kidding, this kid is crazy about fish eggs) that he didn't have to share with anyone.

This was one of the moistest chickens I have ever roasted. I stuffed the free range, organic beast's cavity with lemon, a head of garlic, and whatever thyme, rosemary, and oregano could be salvaged from my garden pots (they'd survived a freeze, which I took as a sign). Next, the entire bird was given a thin veneer of melted butter, liberally salted and peppered, and roasted for an hour at 400 degrees, while surrounded by olive oil-slathered onions, fingerling potatoes, carrots, and turnips (my veggie discovery of the fall, btw). The sweet caramelized onions were my favorite.

Beef shanks, a fraction of veal shanks' price—and, with a big, beefy taste. These were browned in olive oil and removed from the Dutch oven. Veggies (carrots, onions, celery) were sauteed and browned bits were scraped up before the shanks were reintroduced. A combination of port, hearty red wine (a cab), and beef stock covered the meat and vegetables. Lid on pot, the whole thing braised in a low oven for three hours. We topped the shredded meat with a horseradish-spiked creme fraiche and served in a mashed potato nest.

Here is the best souvenir of a braised beef and mashed potatoes dinner—Shepherd's Pie, which we've led our boys to believe is our Official Family Dish. And, as Shepherd's Pie is notoriously difficult to photograph while plated—too many browns and whites, not enough oranges and greens—I thought I'd offer a cross-section. This Pyrex 9x13 baker is one of the most-used items in our kitchen.

Ending on a sweet note. On the right is a perfect pumpkin muffin specimen. It comes from Bread and Chocolate, a local St. Paul bakery, and is only available for a limited run in the fall. If memory serves correct, B&C stops offering them after Thanksgiving, which would be a shame as I have yet to reproduce a pumpkin muffin that even comes close. The anemic-colored muffin on the left was baked from the recipe on the Whole Food's 365 pumpkin puree can. Yes, I know. You get what you pay for, or something like that. I will refrain from describing how it tasted. It did not taste rich and pumpkiny and spicy. It did not taste like fall. Fortunately I never tire of B&C's pumpkin muffins. In fact, I'm planning to petition the bakery to offer them year round. Until such time, I have a recipe to perfect!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

weekend update

Friday dinner—olive-oil broiled Atlantic salmon on a bed of French lentils with Elliot's Northwoods bacon, carrots, fennel, celery, and a splash of red-wine vinegar. The salmon was perfectly cooked, flaky and moist. But the lentils were my favorite part of the meal. Thankfully I have leftovers that will be adorned with a runny-yolk fried egg.

Saturday dinner—Finally, an opportunity to satisfy a hankering for serious roasted pork. We entertained on Saturday night and, in a highly unusual move, ordered food in. Well, we ordered in part of our food—specifically, 12-hour roasted local heritage Berkshire pork from Brasa. I'm sure I have failed to sufficiently rave about Brasa, Alex Roberts' casual rotisserie, but the food—tender fall-apart pork, spicy tender fall-apart beef, or rotisserie chicken—is beyond superlatives. It's all local. Organic, when possible. If you go to Brasa, as you should, you'll be presented with a list of Southern-style sides that include fried yucca, garnet yams with andouille sausage, baking powder biscuits, a fancy coleslaw, and collard greens. We made our own sides: braised greens (enormous Swiss chard leaves) and my mother-in-law's grits souffle. Best part—we have extra pork for sandwiches. I'm thinking chipotle aioli and pickled red onions will go nicely with the salty, smoky meat, piled high on a sweet, soft bun.

Reason to live #111: Roberts is in far-from-final negotiations over a St. Paul, Grand Avenue location. If it happens, I may never eat anything else again.

Sunday breakfast—While I fried up the remaining Elliot's thick-cut bacon, Beta made the scrambled eggs. With only a little guidance, he cracked the eggs, beat them with a whisk, seasoned with salt and pepper, and added grated cheese. I turned on the burner for Beta, and he did the rest, slowly cooking the eggs over low heat. I am soooo lucky that my boys like to cook. They're good cooks, too. These eggs are creamier than I can manage. I put Salsa Lisa mild on mine. We also ate the banana bread that Beta and I baked yesterday. The recipe is a highly modified version of Mark Bittman's from How to Cook Everything. It's a super-moist loaf with nuts (we used walnuts) and coconut. Though they are completely unnecessary, we embellished with mini Tollhouse morsels.

Sunday dinner—Tomatoes, fennel, lemon slices, garlic, white wine, a healthy amount of olive oil, and a little water comprised a braising liquid for halibut. I'm fixating on how red the tomato skin appears in this photo, and what a contrast it provides to the crispy white flesh. I know this isn't what tomatoes are supposed to look like, and it's not surprising that they didn't contribute much. Note to self: as we wait for July to roll round again, use canned tomatoes or skip. The best part of the braising liquid was the olive oil, white wine, and lemon. Green olives would have made a nice addition.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Countdown to Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a week away, and I have no idea what I’m making. It's okay—this isn't a panic since we’re having dinner with friends Steve and Lisa, at their house. No need to worry over brining, salting, smoking, deep-frying, or stuffing the turkey. Even though I'd like to, I don’t have to plan an entire meal this year. Even so, I'm fully armed with the current issues of Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, and Food and Wine, as well as an inch-thick folder, filled with clippings from previous years' issues of same.

I have too many choices, and it's a bit overwhelming. I don't know where to start. Fortunately, I only need to pick one side to pass and one dessert.

If you're eight days out and still need to formulate a menu, go straight to one of the online Thanksgiving meal guides:
Star Tribune
Food and Wine
New York Times, especially Bittman's take on sweet potatoes and Melissa Clark's leftover ideas.

If you live in the vicinity of St. Paul and Minneapolis, hie thee to uber-butcher, Clancey’s for foodstuffs to make your menu special:
confit of duck hearts & gizzards, ginger spiced duck jerky, cherry wood smoked duck breasts.
silky squash soup, squid & shellfish soup, winter veal stew.
goat cheese truffles, poached gulf shrimp, rabbit liver pate.
alder smoked trout, apple wood smoked scallops, hickory smoked whole herring.
fresh turkeys, turkey gravy, turkey stock.
cranberry relish & sauce, potato gratin, traditional stuffing.
it's all roasting and rolling now...
and always good at clancey's.
Or, let my friends Amy and Heidi—the sass-tastic Chowgirls—make some or all of your meal. Their Brussels Sprouts Gratin ("smothered in melty blue cheese"), Sweet Potato Souffle, and 18-pound, maple syrup brined turkey, among others, will make a worthy addition to your feast.

Now back to planning that side dish and dessert...

(photo credit: Lisa Peardon/Getty Images)

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Bet you can't eat just one

Beta and I had a few hours to ourselves this afternoon. Hambone is in Houston visiting his father. Alpha was off meeting the Beastie Boys at an Obama rally (the video evidence is stunning!). Casting about for things to do that would keep us from lounging in front of the telly, gorging on Halloween candy, I walked into the den and tripped on two pumpkins that we'd purchased days ago but hadn't yet carved.

True confession: I've never carved a pumpkin. We're not going to go into the whys and wherefores of that travesty. And, by the looks of the finished products, I've got a lot to learn about finessing a knife through a thick-skinned pumpkin. But, we mostly bought the pumpkins because Beta requested roasted seeds. Carving faces just helped us kill time while the seeds were doing in the oven. Mind you, I've never roasted seeds either. Let's just say it was my genius move of the day.

I'm sure you could find countless techniques and recipes by doing an online search, but this is the method we employed. In a colander, rinse guts from seeds. Line a baking sheet (or as many as are necessary) with a double thickness of paper towels, then pour out the seeds, arranging them in a single layer. Blot as much moisture from the seeds as possible. Pour olive oil into a medium-size bowl (about 1 T. per cup of seeds). Add seeds and toss, sprinkling with salt. This is a good time to season with herbs or spices. Many combinations would be stunning: prepared or home-concocted curry or garam masala, za'atar, sumac berries, cayenne, cayenne and scant brown sugar, fresh-chopped thyme or rosemary. The possibilities really are endless. (N.B.: Roast in 350 degree F oven for 20-30 minutes.)

Beta and I made three batches of seeds. I found it easiest to toss seeds, oil, and seasonings in cake pans, and then do the roasting in them. This method proved to be a space saver in the oven, as well. We did plain kosher salt, curry and cayenne, and maple pepper from Golden Fig, a local fancy-food purveyor.

Quite frankly, I can't stop eating the maple-pepper version, which instantly achieved the status Ultimate Nibble up to This Point in 2008. It's salty and has a peppery sting, tempered by sweetness from the maple sugar. Stunning.

And as for Beta. He agreed the maple-pepper seeds were good. Then he singlehandedly inhaled the simply salted morsels.

Friday, October 31, 2008

October highlights

My most significant food-related highlight of October has to be gorging on fun-size Midnight Milky Ways. Okay, I’m joking. I do adore the dark chocolate and the stiffer, less caramel-tasting fondant of this Milky Way version, but I only ate one, which absolutely does not count as gorging. Unless you’re on the Sonoma Diet.

Hambone and Spice, each feeling a little tubby of late, decided to stop casting fate to the wind and follow an eating plan with the goal of losing weight. A few years ago I bought the book, The Sonoma Diet (SD), a low-carb, high-protein diet. It was appealing to me on a few levels. One, it's not as austere as the South Beach Diet (though I get a kick out of SD’s precisely calculated snacks, e.g., 11 almonds). Two, I thought it had decent-looking recipes, with ingredients and preparations that seemed familiar and accessible that could easily find a way into our repertoire.

For a few weeks of October, we were sort of on the Sonoma Diet. I tried really hard to follow the plan, but it didn’t take long to realize the absurdity of dieting. Besides, we were eating so many eggs and the cuts of meat were expensive and I could go on (and on) about how despicable I find prescribed diets. But dear Hambone has better results following a diet and thought SD would be a good way to establish portion control and to focus on healthy, limited snacking. He wasn't wrong. I’m pleased to report that, chez H&S, we each shed a few much-needed pounds.

Consequently, though, blogging suffered. Not that we’re about decadence or restaurant-quality-only food for every meal, but I struggled a lot with how we were eating and didn’t feel like airing my frustrations here. I just don't find them that interesting. In retrospect, our meals were less interesting. We cut way back on the amount of wine we were drinking, and many bottles went to waste as we’re not accustomed to deoxygenating them for longer life. And, I didn’t take any photos of our meals—just didn’t feel like it.

Suffice it to say, we’ve put the diet into perspective, focusing on grains, tons of vegetables, and lean protein for our meals. Isn’t this the way we’re supposed to be eating anyhow? We certainly feel better for it. Maybe you’ll hear about some of the repeat-worthy recipes in future blog posts.

Nonetheless, I made two discoveries this month about which I’m pretty excited. The first discovery bears mentioning in this post: broiling. Many living situations ago (1891 Grand and 2010 Marshall, respectively), we had old gas ovens with broiler drawers. The broiling element was under the main cooking chamber, in the spot where many ovens have kickplates. And, instead of a heated coil, the broiler utilized a flame for cooking at high temperature. We broiled steaks a fair amount when we had ovens with broilers on the bottom. Our current oven has a broiler, comprised of heated coils, at the top of the oven, and I have never seen fit to figure out how best to use it. Just this year, I learned how to comfortably broil fish without setting it on fire.

When the SD asked us to grill various dinner entrees, I decided, since we’ve already stored the grill for the winter, that I would, once and for all, master the broiler. We made a fantastic spice-rubbed flank steak this way, as well as sirloin-cherry tomato-mushroom kebabs, and maple-soy–glazed salmon fillets. The key is to turn on the oven's light and watch. If the food starts smoking and has nice browning, move the rack down a notch and finish cooking there for a few more minutes. Your broilables will still get the full advantage of high heat without being so close to the heating element as to ignite. I think I’m about ready to tackle butterflied pork tenderloin, as well as other fish varieties.

The month wasn’t a total wash, after all.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

and why not?

For my birthday this year, I baked myself a cake. It just seemed the right thing to do since I have a little extra time on my hands. I also have a big, fat file folder of desserts, many of which are tempting layer cakes, but I’ve needed a good opportunity of bake one. And, what better opportunity than one’s birthday?

When faced with such an opportunity, how to begin narrowing down the choices? A few days before my birthday, I pulled out the dessert folder and looked at every single clipping, selecting those that most piqued my interest. Cheesecake-Marbled Brownies. Pumpkin-Spice Bundt Cake with Buttermilk Icing. Flourless Chocolate-Hazelnut Cake. Chocolate-Ginger Cake with Bourbon Sauce. Double Chocolate Layer Cake. Spiced-Pumpkin Cake. To name a few candidates.

Then I conducted an informal survey on my Facebook page, asking friends to cast a vote for chocolate, pumpkin spice, or red velvet. Many weighed in for red velvet; one friend suggested I make all three, which I would if I had the time or could afford the calories. In the end, the season dictated baking Spiced-Pumpkin Cake, promising warming flavors and a sweet cream-cheese frosting.

I found the recipe a year ago, in Bon Appetit, and it has waited patiently in a burgeoning file folder. Cake batters are easy to whip up, and this one was no exception. In addition to the typical cake ingredients—flour, sugar, eggs—this recipe has abundant spices, including ground ginger, allspice, nutmeg, and a full tablespoon of cinnamon. In addition to pumpkin puree, the cake gets a flavor boost from raisins and coconut. I’m sure they contributed additional moistness and a little toothsomeness, but I omitted the raisins—too sweet.

Learning: I used two cake pans, as the recipe suggested. However, there was enough batter for three pans, and I would do that next time to avoid the fat layers I had with two. Also, three layers would help to use every last bit of the delectable, bourbon-laced frosting.

It should go without saying that the house smelled amazing as the cake baked. And, I think the next time the house is feeling stuffy and smelling a little musty, I’m going to bake a cake for instant air freshening.

Happy birthday to me, indeed.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

September Highlights

A few Hambone and Spice good eats from the month that straddles grill season and braising season:

lunch at Jay's Cafe: beef-carrot-potato-parsnip pasty; butter-braised cabbage; house greens

Dinner with Tracy and the Jills at 112 Eatery: My iPhone, sans flash, didn't quite capture the beauty of this grilled salmon fillet, served on Isaac Becker's pillow-soft pan-fried gnocchi, which had been tossed in an almond pesto. Stunning dish. My friends and I shared (not pictured) more pan-fried gnocchi, prawns with rooster mayo, Chinese-fried eggs, and tres leche cake, all of which are house specialties.

My first stab at a rustic tart. The sweet dough recipe I used was quite forgiving. The nectarines and Michigan blueberries were at their peak sweetness so I used very little sugar (there's a dusting of sugar/nutmeg/pulverized pecans under the fruit). Easy and fun. I look forward to making more tarts—plums beckon, as do apples and pears.

Hambone and Spice reprised all the delectable lobster feasts we savored midsummer in Maine. We invited friends Colin and Helena, and Dave and Sarah, to BYOL(obster), which we had been talking about doing for ages. In addition to fine company and delicious side dishes (coleslaw, an Alice Waters' tomato-green bean salad, corn on the cob), steaming lobsters gave me an opportunity to use Hambone's Christmas gift—a gleaming and h-u-g-e AllClad stockpot.

After company left our BYOL party, I scavenged the shells for meat, while Hambone kindly dismantled the extra lobster we had purchased. Around midnight, I heated olive oil in a stockpot, then sweated onions in the oil until translucent. Bay leaves, peppercorns, and fresh thyme sprigs went into the pot, followed by the shells from four or five lobsters. I added water to cover and brought to a boil, then placed lid on the pot, lowered the heat, and simmered for two hours. I hesistate to suggest that the movie we watched (Sunshine, with original script by Alex Garland) was part of the formula, but it did take our minds off the wait. The next night, lobster stock formed the base of a stellar lobster risotto. Would that I always had an extra lobster lying about...

I have had intentions to eat at the Harbor View Cafe, in Pepin, Wisconsin, since hearing friends and strangers, alike, rave about this restaurant. Pepin is only 90 minutes from the Twin Cities, yet, because it's achingly scenic and blissfully quiet, it seems a world away. Opportunity knocks: My mother and sister visited me last weekend and requested a day trip. We spent the better part of Sunday driving down the Mississippi on Route 35, then had a memorable dinner at the Harbor View. Pictured above is the summer cassoulet. Even though this version had no duck confit. Sacrebleu, I know! How can you have cassoulet without duck confit? Also, the cassoulet was deconstructed and looked messy. My best memories of cassoulet pivot on the way the ingredients—the beans, the garlic sausage, the duck—melt together. This is the definition of unctuous. Really! I looked the word up at All was forgiven the minute I ate a chunk of that lamb sausage, stuffed right in the Harbor View's kitchen by Adam. Seriously, this sausage, a near embodiment of perfection, was juicy and steamy and adroitly seasoned. New standards have been set for cassoulets consumed outside of only the most French restaurants—a bed of beans, napped in their liquor and topped by the best sausage and slow-cooked vegetables (tomatoes, onions, bell peppers). Sublime.

Monday, September 15, 2008

menu planning

I am a consummate list-maker, so it should come as no surprise that the ultimate list for me is the weekly menu. For years, I have plotted our meals in a notebook, which allows me to stay organized and ensure that groceries are completely consumed. My notebook of choice is a standard 8-1/2x11, narrow rule (I’m a Rhodia junkie). The full-size pages are ideal for a month of menus, which are entered on the right-hand side. On the left, I can make a reference list of recipes from magazines and cookbooks, as well as a record of the raw materials (farmers market haul, grains taking up space in the pantry, and so on) at my disposal.

Going through old notebooks has given me a great glimpse into our eating trends and favorite foods.

Recently, we painted a column in our kitchen with blackboard paint. I thought this would be a good place for the family to leave messages and reminders, but, as you can see, we posted lists. Comically, Hambone's last item on the "Weekend To Do" is "develop [cycling] training diet," which abuts the first item on Spice's dinner menu.

The list below the dinner menu is Alpha and Beta's "LEGO wish list." Sigh.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

weekend review, september 13-14

Hambone and Spice had a spectacularly foodie weekend.

Saturday, 9/13
One of the ultimate gestures of friendship is when someone cooks a meal for you. Having your belly filled with food that was prepared with care and love is so satisfying. And, being presented with a meal allows you to see a more personal side to your friend than what you might witness if you were eating together in a restaurant.

So, on Saturday night, it was with pleasure that we let our friends Tracy and Bill cook for us. Tracy, who has a knack for assembling a great cheese plate, kicked off the pre-dinner nibbles with a few cow’s milk cheeses from Iowa (one alpine style, one cheddar), as well as a pungent blue cheese (origins unknown). Bill had recently embarked upon a canning bender, putting by the beautiful fruits from his yard and vegetables from his garden, and we enjoyed his pickled wax beans. Bill also fired up one of his many grills, a put on some olive oil, garlic, and red pepper flake–marinated shrimp on skewers. Dinner was a seemingly simple “stew” of shrimp and mussels that was powerfully delicious. The seafood and a flavorful tomato-based broth were ladled over nutty Indonesian black rice. Tracy also makes a mean vinaigrette, which dressed an elegant mixed-greens. Port and more blue cheese followed as a meal-ender.

Sunday, 9/14
On our way to Alpha’s soccer match in Woodbury, we stopped at the St. Paul Farmers Market, where, well into September, the produce continues to dazzle. Tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, corn, melons, and greens are still around, but cauliflower, broccoli, winter squashes, and apples are making an appearance, as well. Peppers have never been a great love of mine, but the market’s green bell peppers on this morning were so vibrant, plump, and unblemished that I couldn’t refuse them.

Almost every ingredient in our evening meal—except the rice and the cheese (and the ketchup)—was local. The ground bison came from Big Woods Bison; the tomatoes, garlic, onion, green peppers, and the herbs from my patio garden—all came from the farmers market. Also, in a bit of handy kitchen recycling, I was able to use rice that was leftover from a meal earlier in the week.

Bison-Stuffed Peppers
serves four

4 medium bell peppers, top, seeds, and ribs removed
1 T. olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 pound ground bison
1 tsp. fresh thyme, minced
1 tsp. fresh sage, minced
1 tsp. fresh oregano, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
salt and pepper
3 medium tomatoes, chopped and drained (reserve liquid)
1 cup rice, cooked
1/2 cup manchego cheese, grated, plus extra for tops
1/4 cup ketchup (or tomato paste)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bring large pot of salted water to a boil.

In a large skillet, gently heat olive oil. Over medium-high heat, sauté onion until transparent, five to eight minutes. Crumble ground bison into onion, and season with thyme, sage, oregano, garlic, a tsp. salt, and 1/2 tsp. pepper. When no pink remains in the meat, approximately eight to ten minutes, add tomatoes and cook another few minutes.

Meanwhile, carefully place bell peppers in boiling salted water and submerge. Parboil peppers for three to four minutes, then remove. Drain, cut-side down, on a paper towel–lined baking sheet. When cool enough to handle, arrange peppers in a baking dish. They should fit snuggly so as not to tip and spill during baking.

Add rice to bison-onion-tomato mixture and heat through, about five minutes. Stir in cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning. Take pan off heat. Gently spoon filling into peppers. Stir ketchup into reserved tomato juice; ladle this sauce over peppers. Top with shredded cheese. Bake in oven for 30 minutes.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

favorite late-summer pasta

One of my favorite ways to celebrate summer’s bounty is with this pasta. It’s about the only one-dish meal we make in the summer, opting to do most of our cooking on the grill. But now that the weather is starting to take a turn for the cooler, damper days of fall, I’m trying to eke out the best summer ingredients, especially those that we’re still able to find at the weekend farmers' market.

I first made this pasta a few years ago. My in-laws were visiting, and, much to my chagrin, I hadn’t planned our meals before their arrival. It’s not often that I am able to whip up a meal based on ingredients that are kicking around the fridge. Heck, I’m not even ashamed to admit to the foodies that I seek almost all my inspiration from the recipes I find in magazines, cookbooks, and the blogsphere. But, in this instant I didn’t have time to plug “tomatoes” and “corn” into my favorite recipe search engine to see what it would reveal.

We had been to the farmers' market earlier in the day so I had at hand fresh-picked corn on the cob, vibrantly green zucchini, and plump-ripe tomatoes. I made quick work of dicing a few of each with the intention of sautéing in olive oil and butter. As I trimmed the vegetables, I mulled how best to feature my "ragout." As a bed for quick oven-roasted fish? As a topping for slabs of grilled bread? Gently stirred into risotto? Each had so much potential, but were a bit labor-intensive for the moment. And then it came to me like so many brilliant discoveries (wink!): pasta. Fortunately I had orecchiette—a cupped shape up to the task of cradling this chunky sauce—in the pasta cabinet.

It’s a simple recipe with room for a lot of flexibility. For example, you could add or replace vegetables with comparable cooking times, such as eggplant. Bacon fat lends a rich, complexity to this pasta. Cut thick-cut smoked bacon or pancetta into lardons. After slow cooking, reserve a tablespoon or so of fat for cooking vegetables, but save the meat for finishing the pasta. Any fresh herb brightens this dish nicely.

Favorite Late-Summer Pasta
serves 4

1 lb orecchiette (or similar shape, such as conchiglie)
1 T olive oil
1 T butter
1 shallot, minced
3 ears corn on the cob, kernels removed
3 sprigs fresh thyme,
1/4 cup white wine or stock
2 medium zucchini, diced
2 large ripe tomatoes, diced
generous pinch red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to boil while cutting and dicing vegetables.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, warm olive oil and butter until incorporated. Sauté shallots until translucent, about 8 minutes. Stir in corn, and season with thyme, salt, and pepper. Cook for a few minutes. Add wine or stock and cover, reducing heat, for 5 minutes. Uncover and add zucchini and a generous pinch of red pepper flakes, stirring to combine. Cook another 5 minutes. Add diced tomato and cook until they start to release their juices and break down, approximately 5 minutes.

In the meantime, pour pasta into the boiling water and cook per package directions, about 10 minutes. Reserve 1/2 cup cooking liquid. Drain.

Combine pasta and sauce, tossing to coat and thinning with pasta cooking liquid, if necessary. Serve in shallow bowls with a healthy dose of grated parmesan.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

menu: august 17-23

sunday: restaurant (Spice to Grand Cafe, Hambone and boys to Sea Salt)
monday: mystic-thunder burgers, corn on the cob, green beans w/shallot-hazelnut vinaigrette
tuesday: favorite summer pasta w/bacon, corn, tomatoes, zucchini
wednesday: beer can chicken, roasted pebble-size red potatoes, tossed green salad
thursday: chicken-stuffed chili peppers (Rick Bayless, Mexico: One Plate at a Time)
friday: Sharon Jones at the Great Minnesota Get-together (possibly fair food)
saturday: camping (tbd)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Omnivore's Hundred

I found this fun diversion at Last Night's Dinner, and I couldn't resist participating. You can play, too:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
4) Optional extra: Post a comment at linking to your results.

The VGT Omnivore’s Hundred:

1. Venison (growing up, my parents had a freezer full)
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare

5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue

8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich

14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses (at the source, Burgundy)
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
(no gall bladder, no dice)
27. Dulce de leche (at the source, Argentina)
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas

32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar (no cigar)
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat

42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut

50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads

63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake

68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe

74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky

84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers

89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab

93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox

97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee

100. Snake

Thursday, July 31, 2008

July eats

Hambone and Spice are back from an incredible, restful, and fun vacation in Maine. On either side of that trip, we've grilled a ridiculous amount of delicious food—so much so that I haven't been able to keep up on the blog front. Better luck next month, heh? Here are some of the highlights from a fruitful July, including treats eaten on our trip.

Fusilli with Alaskan salmon, peas, and pesto cream (made from the basil growing in pots on our terrace).

House-cured gravlax that Will (brother-in-law visiting from Stockholm) and Helena (his wife) whipped up while in Maine. The leftover smoked salmon was tranformed stunningly into a pasta with peas and a cilantro-lime cream sauce.

Lobster roll with the perfect ratio of sweet meat to mayonnaise and a clam roll, at Lunts. Yes, that's a bottle of blueberry ale. When in Maine...

Four squares (clockwise from top left): roasted pebble-sized potatoes*; grilled lamb rib chops rubbed with cumin, coriander, cinnamon, allspice, s & p; Moroccan carrot salad with lemon, ginger, and spices (from Alice Waters' Art of Simple Food, which has been a staple chez H&S since it was published); grilled zucchini.

*all vegetables, courtesy of the St. Paul Farmers Market

And for dessert, cherry sorbet (from David Lebovitz's Perfect Scoop, another staple). True confession: a pit found its way, accidentally, sadly, into this batch of sorbet. My super-duper Waring blender made quick work of the stone, resulting in a minefield of a dessert. I highly recommend making a batch of this exquisite sorbet, and taking great care when the cherries are processed.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

on vacation

Tomorrow morning, Hambone and Spice—and their brood—are flying to Maine for a week. We hope to have quality family time that includes seeing siblings/in-laws and cousins, as well as eating our fair share of lobsters and blueberries. As I will be without a computer while away—horrors, I know—details about my trip will have to wait until my return.


Sunday, July 06, 2008

puttanesca penne with salmon

I’m terrible with leftovers. Generally speaking, I don’t like reheating food in a microwave. I find it always takes longer than I plan to warm food in the oven or on the stovetop so what comes to table is often cold in the middle. Granted, there are more than a few hearty one-pot wonders that make a nice lunch days after you’ve had the initial meal. Soups, stews, and thick-sauced pastas come to mind. I would never reject leftover Indian curries or Chinese take-out. These are the easy leftovers.

I hate wasting food and am loathe to throw out any that remains from a meal, which begs the questions: what, besides sandwiches, do you do with extra meat?

As I was planning the menu for the week, I took a peek into the fridge to see what raw materials I might have at my disposal. We entertained quite a bit over the previous weekend and had to creatively reorganize the fridge to accommodate extra groceries so I felt like I might have a lot of options.

The vegetable crisper was playing host to a zippered plastic bag with roughly half a pound of cooked penne. My first thought was to recreate the Bolognese sauce Anne Burrell made on her pilot Food Network show, but I haven’t actually watched the episode. Besides, when the temperature is hovering above 80 degrees, a heavy meaty pasta sauce is not what I want to eat. Grilled vegetables and pesto were briefly considered, then rejected because I couldn’t find a way to make them appealing to the junior set.

Then, I stumbled upon the container boasting nearly half a pound of grilled spice-rubbed Copper River salmon, leftover from earlier in the week. A quick internet search gave me the inspiration I needed to transform the penne and salmon leftovers into a wholly new—and delicious—dish. Inspired by a puttanesca sauce, I substituted salmon for anchovies, allowing the salmon to be warmed gently in a simmering olive-caper-garlic-laden tomato sauce.

I look forward to the occasion on which I am, again, blessed with extra salmon.

puttanesca penne with salmon
2 T. olive oil, plus a measure for finishing
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 (15 oz.) can whole tomatoes, chopped, liquid reserved
1/3 cup kalamata olives, chopped
3 T. capers
a generous pinch of red pepper flakes
1 T. tomato paste
salt and pepper
1/2 pound cooked pasta, room temperature
1/2 pound cooked salmon, crumbled
a few fresh basil leaves, chiffonade

Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté sliced garlic in the olive oil briefly, until just turning golden. Add tomatoes, olives, capers, and red pepper flakes. Turn heat down to medium and allow to simmer for five minutes, occasionally breaking up tomato pieces. Stir in the reserved tomato juice and tomato paste. Taste sauce and season with salt, if necessary. Incorporate cooked salmon into sauce, then add cooked pasta and toss to coat. Heat gently until salmon is warmed through. Plate and drizzle with good-quality olive oil. Garnish with basil ribbons.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


Few would argue against the wide-held belief that M.F.K. Fisher was the greatest food writer or that she effectively established the culinary essay as a genre.

I first encountered M.F.K. Fisher in 1989, while working as a professional bookseller. The bookstore where I was employed gave me a section to maintain: cookbooks. My first thought was that the assignment was a serious mistake—I didn't cook. Why should I be expected to become an expert on cookbooks if I didn't use them?

I'm here to tell you that, in any self-respecting independent bookstore, there's more to the cooking section than cookbooks. So I didn't cook, but I did love to eat, and the culinary essay subsection whetted my appetite for any author with the sort of descriptive powers to make me feel like I was eating a fine meal. Enter M.F.K. Fisher.

Shortly after a trip to Burgundy in 1998, I lost myself in Long Ago in France, her memoir of living in Dijon, which took me right back to the France I had just visited. Still I had not read her food writing, despite owning most of it. For years, The Art of Eating, the massive multiwork volume of M.F.K. Fisher's early food writing, has been taunting from the foodie shelves of my personal library. This morning, in honor of Fisher's birthday, I pulled down AoE and dipped into Consider the Oyster (1941):
There are three kinds of oyster-eaters: those loose-minded sports who will eat anything, hot, cold, thin, thick, dead or alive, as long as it is oyster; those who will eat them raw and only raw; and those who with equal severity will eat them cooked and no way other.
There are several things to do with oysters beside eat them, although many people believe firmly in that as the most sensible course.
I'm hooked on her lavish descriptions of food, her presentation of the social, historical, cultural, and political aspects of food, as well as her personal experiences and observations.

Here is Garrison Keillor's very brief tribute from "The Writers Almanac":
It's the birthday of food writer M.F.K. Fisher, (books by this author) born Mary Frances Kennedy in Albion, Michigan (1908). She's the author of many books about food and eating, and best known for The Gastronomical Me (1943). During World War II, she published How to Cook a Wolf (1942), which suggested all kinds of ways people could eat well on food rations. She wrote, "When the wolf is at the door one should invite him in and have him for dinner.
You can read more about M.F.K. Fisher here and here, as well as at the Chicago Tribune, which offers a fitting tribute on her 100th birthday.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Kebab of the Week: Refrigerator Raid

This week’s kebabs were born, basically and simply, out of a lesson in frugality. It’s only midweek but it has been a busy week, and I didn’t feel like thinking about the optimal meat/vegetable combination for our skewers, nor did I want to put much effort into researching the most delicious imaginable marinade.

Clearing out our full-to-bursting refrigerator is always a priority so I raided the veggie bin, hoping it would turn up some serviceable goods. What good luck to find yellow summer squash, a yellow bell pepper, and a red onion. Roughly one-inch chunks of these vegetables were threaded loosely on skewers with same-size pieces of chicken breast that had been marinated briefly in white wine (the last three fingers from the previous night’s dinner), olive oil, fresh thyme, and salt and pepper.

While Hambone manned the grill I made some rice and a batch of chimichurri, rescuing a head of parsley and dregs of cilantro.

Friday, June 13, 2008

reading: Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper

Recently I finished reading Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop’s delectable memoir of eating in China. The Guardian called this book a “cultural immersion,” which is apt, as the memoir entails much more than food.

Beginning in the early 1990s, Dunlop lived in China, off and on, for over a decade. As a student—and as a professional writer—she has traveled to remote corners of the country, engaging every person she could in conversation. That rich experience certainly imbues her writing with great depth. Between descriptions of food and meals, Dunlop dazzles with history, geography, modernization, growth, and more.

In the early 1990s, Dunlop lands in Chengdu in Sichuan province—the area recently devastated by earthquakes—where she researched Chinese policy on ethnic minorities. She falls for street food, as well as the incendiary food of Sichuan province and the snout to tail eating of China. When her visa expires, she enrolls in a professional training school for chefs, as the only Western student and one of three women.

As a student of Sichuan cookery, Dunlop learned about mastering the arts of flavor, starting with fu he wei, the complex flavors. Sichuan cuisine boasts twenty-three official complex flavors, one of which is “home-style”—salty, savory, and a little hot. In her travels, she had an opportunity to challenge her culinary comfort zone by eating a lot of truly exotic foods, including civet cats, goose intestines, and more. The chapter on food textures and mouth-feel—an integral part of Chinese cooking—is eye opening.

All is not delicious. Dunlop explores the SARS health crises, which temporarily put a damper on eating in restaurants, where the risk of disease transmittal was high, especially with such practices as “public” chopsticks. She also looks at other issues, such as food safety (use of toxic food additives is rampant) and the controversial consumption of endangered species (shark’s fin and bear paws, to name a few).
In addition to Shark's Fin, Dunlop has written two authoritative cookbooks, one of which—Revolutionary Chinese Cookbookwas nominated for a James Beard Award (Asian Cooking) this year.

If you’re interested in China, food, or travel—or if you simply appreciate sparkling prose—this book is for you.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


~ The redesigned website for City Pages, the Twin Cities alternative weekly, is live. Best part—the food blog, Twin Cities Eater, is more prominent and more attractive. I encourage you to check it out. Also, Rachel Hutton reviews Obento-Ya this week. Must. Eat. There. Soon.

~ Fueling my summer passion, the Pioneer Press (by way of syndication) offers kebab recipes.

~ At the Star Tribune, Rick Nelson interviews Catherine Friend, the Zumbrota (MN) author of The Compassionate Carnivore, a meat-lover’s handbook to eating local (no matter where you live).
~ 2008 James Beard Award winners have been announced. None of our outstanding Minneapolis chefs (Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery, Tim McKee of La Belle Vie, and Alex Roberts of Alma and Brasa) won in the Best Chef Midwest category. Still I’ve thoroughly enjoyed re-reading the list of nominees, adding restaurants and cookbooks to my lengthy to-do lists. Dara weighs in on the awards with an insider's perspective.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Kebab of the Week: Barefoot Contessa's lamb kebabs

Kebabs are summer’s perfect one-dish meal. There’s nothing easier than skewering succulent chunks of meat and jewel-toned vegetables (or just vegetables, if you’re so inclined) on a stick. Few foods are quicker to prepare and cook. Typically, about five minutes of cooking time on the first side, then a flip of the skewer for five more minutes; less time if you’re using fish or seafood. Plus, there are infinite combinations of skewerables, which keeps the summer menu lively.

We’ve had best results when meat can be marinated overnight, though any amount of time will do. A quick brushing of a high-quality oil and a liberal sprinkling of salt and pepper can coax great flavor out of meat and vegetables, too.

This year for Mother's Day, oldest son Alpha thoughtfully gave me a copy of Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa at Home because he knows I enjoy watching her show. As we were flipping through the gorgeously illustrated cookbook, the lamb kebabs caught our eye. Two nights ago we seized the opportunity to make the red wine vinaigrette in order to marinate the lamb, and last night we grilled. The meat was tender and flavorful, enhanced by bathing in marinade. I cannot wait until lamb comes into the kebab rotation again. Garten's recipe includes a side sauce—stock, lemon juice, olive oil, and a pinch of rosemary, quickly brought to a boil and reduced—which we ran out of time to make. We may try it in the future, but we didn’t miss it this time round.

Lamb Kebabs
adapted from Barefoot Contessa at Home

1-1/2 pounds top round lamb
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 T fresh rosemary, minced
1 T fresh oregano, minced
olive oil
1/4 cup dry red wine
2 T red wine vinegar
salt and pepper
red onion, cut into 1 to 2-inch pieces
cherry tomatoes

Cut the lamb into 1-1/2-inch cubes. Place cubes in a large zippered plastic bag. Make marinade by combing garlic, rosemary, oregano, 1/4 cup olive oil, red wine, vinegar, and salt (to taste). Cover lamb with marinade, and refrigerate overnight.

Heat and prepare grill, per your custom.

Loosely thread lamb on skewer, alternating every few cubes with onion pieces. Thread the cherry tomatoes on skewers. Brush with olive oil. Season both sets of skewers with salt and pepper. Place the lamb skewers on the hot grill. After 5 minutes, turn the lamb. Add the tomato skewers to the grill for five minutes.

Serve the skewers on a bed of couscous or rice.

Friday, May 30, 2008

love clancey's

The last time I visited Clancey's, the Linden Hills meat and fish market, I signed up for their e-mail list. Now, I love Clancey's for many reasons, chief among them: it's a small, independent business; the owners are friendly and interested in how you're going to use the goods they've just sold to you; the meat is of the highest quality, as local as possible; the store is dog-friendly (I don't have a dog, but I get a kick out of watching the owners sneak ground beef to visiting dogs). The house-made sausages are to die for!

But who needs more e-mail clogging up the ether? I guess I do if it arrives each week with flair.

it’s in the air, and
it’s almost a summer wind;
warm enough to garden in the rain,
ideal for added heat from the grill…
so come to clancey’s:
we’ve got lamb (all cuts) and a killer garlic & yogurt marinade
we’ve got all cuts of beef (try our kebabs), chicken (try it on the grill, halved & under a brick), pork (smoke some), halibut cheeks (yum),
all kinds of sausages (that beef, blue cheese & cherry
w/ surly bender is pretty special);
invite some warmth into the weekend, some friends & neighbors into your backyard and welcome some significant change:
in the weather, in the wind, in the overall climate of
everything that matters
buy good food
from good farmers
every tiny bit
makes a difference!
love clancey’s

I think even the coldest, cruelest Grinch heart would have to love Clancey's.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The New Luxury

Sometimes luxurious meals aren’t measured by the exclusivity or the expense of the ingredients. Truffles, Kobe beef, foie gras, caviar, Barolos immediately come to mind. Rather, some meals are luxurious because you’ve been granted the space and time to spread out and cook in as unhurried a manner as possible.

Saturdays are great for throwing multi-course dinner parties. Sundays are ideal for tinkering over a slow-cooked meal. Both allow an opportunity to crank the tunes and spend the afternoon carefully peeling and chopping, sautéing and braising ingredients.

Weeknights, however, call for quicker fare. Dinner cannot take longer than an hour to prepare: We’ve got school-age children who need to do homework and take showers, plus decompress, before bed. And, twice a week, we have to factor in Alpha’s soccer games and practices, as well as drive time, all of which cut into the dinner hour.

Imagine then, when one doesn’t have a game to work around, that the hour or so one has to make dinner suddenly seems like all the time in the world.

Tonight, Hambone fired up the grill while I whipped up a lime juice-soy sauce-ginger bath and set a nearly two-pound flank steak to marinate. We poured ourselves the last two glasses of Albarino and had an actual adult conversation. The boys did their parkour maneuvers, jumping off the terraces in our “backyard” patio. Then we all tucked into grilled steak (still trying to find the sweet spot between rare and medium rare, as shown above), new potatoes, asparagus from the farmers market, and a 2005 Desert Wind Ruah from the Columbia Valley (WA), and we talked about our day.

Luxurious—like rich, creamy foie gras and crisp vintage champagne.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Viva Las Vegas

The Amateur Gourmet isn’t the only food blogger whooping it up in Sin City this weekend. I’m also off to Vegas, to help a girlfriend celebrate a milestone birthday. It’s my first visit, and aside from neon and casinos, I don’t really know what to expect. I’m not a gambler but I am a keen observer. My flight lands at McCarran at 10:30 a.m., which gives me just enough time to get to the hotel and be poolside with a cocktail and a book by noon. The group has plans to see a show and dinner reservations at the Bellagio's FIX (not linking as Flash crapped up my laptop) on Saturday night, otherwise I’m keeping an open mind and stomach for culinary experiences.

Back Monday...

RIP: Irvine Robbins

I owe a debt of gratitude to Irvine Robbins, who gave me almost unfettered access to ice cream during my foodie formative years. The perfect scoop, in myriad flavors, never failed to give me ten minutes of pleasure in a sea of mediocrity. Coconut, black licorice, lemon drop, and Daiquiri ice were a few favorites.

The only bright spot in my hometown's crappy mall was a Baskin-Robbins. From the time purchasing power was bestowed upon me I always had just enough change in my pocket for a single scoop of something. Much to the chagrin of my friends, who always chose a sugar cone, my preferernce then (as it is now) was to eat ice cream with a spoon from a paper cup.

If the chain nature of Baskin-Robbins gets you on your artisanal high horse, just remember that a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream cone, perched in a cone holder, inspired Thomas Keller's signature salmon tartare "ice cream" cone.

Photo, as it appeared in the NYT, from Tony Korody/Sygma

Monday, April 28, 2008

H&S Restaurant Week: 112 Eatery

On the Monday night of H&S 3rd Annual Restaurant Week, we visited an old favorite: 112 Eatery. It had been awhile—over six months—since we’d last eaten here. The food had begun to seem predictable and a little heavy. But I was craving the ambience—exposed brick walls, warm lighting, shotgun-style layout. Another reason 112 was an inspired choice: executive chef/owner Isaac Becker had recently been nominated for the James Beard Foundations’ Best Chef: Midwest award. The strength of Becker’s menu lies in upscale but unpretentious food, such as blue prawns with rooster mayo, grilled lamb scottodito with goat’s milk yogurt, steak tartare, a Vietnamese-style duck pate banh mi, and more.

This snowy, windy, cold April evening invited the comfort of my all-time favorites.

To start, I ordered the radicchio and duck salad—crispy, bitter radicchio and supple, dreamy duck confit are each shredded and dressed with a miso vinaigrette and garnished with slices of hardboiled quail eggs and buttery breadcrumbs. The kitchen used to send this salad out in a cup, but the portion has recently grown to fill a bowl. I shouldn’t complain about getting more of a good thing, but the cup was more elegant and better suited to being a starter—i.e., piquing the appetite rather than serving as a small meal.

Hambone took the white anchovy crostini with avocado, as beautiful and delicious as always.

My main was the stringozzi with lamb sugo—handcrafted, shoelace-thick pasta tangled in a rich, long-cooked sauce.

Also enamored by the pasta offerings, Hambone ordered the tagliatelle with foie gras meatballs. You heard correctly: Foie. Gras. Meatballs. The meatballs were so meltingly rich, the noodles seemed like a silly addition.

We shared the tres leche cake, to fortify ourselves for the treacherous drive back to Saint Paul. Wink, wink.

Chef Becker and 112 Eatery still deserve the accolades. Occasionally I feel as if we’ve eaten everything that interests us on the seldom-changing menu. Then I’ll take a closer look to see that there is an entire section I’m missing—the tweaked bar food, which includes the 112 cheeseburger with Brie, the bacon egg harissa sandwich, the gougère and fried mortadella sandwich, Chinese eggs, and, well, that should keep us busy for awhile.

Friday, April 25, 2008

H&S Third Annual Restaurant Week: An Amuse Bouche

In early April, Alpha and Beta spent their spring break at Grandpa and Grandma’s house in South Dakota. While they were away, Hambone and Spice imposed a restaurant week upon ourselves—an extraordinary treat with no need to pay a sitter ($10/hour is the going rate in these parts) or mind the sitter’s curfew. We dined out each night, in as leisurely a fashion as possible, and were able to snag a table wherever we chose, making the Cities’ hottest reservations more attainable.

Since Hambone and Spice have been on a tear lately, ticking off line items on our list of the newest and/or most popular Twin Cities’ restaurants, we decided to address our cravings and revisit our favorite restaurants. Herewith, a teaser (sorry, no photos):

La Cucaracha
After handing over the boys to Gpa and Gma, Hambone and Spice made a beeline to the Mexican restaurant nearest our house. As we pulled into La Cucaracha’s “parking lot,” we tried to recall when we ate here last. It had been a long time—late August 2006—and we had such a disappointing meal, convincing me that the end had finally come to decent Mexican food in St. Paul.

Serving solid Mexican fare—enchiladas, burritos, tacos, margaritas, and cervezas—La Cucaracha is a St. Paul institution. Hambone and I have been eating here for a long time. We'd started dating when we were each just out of college, biding time at trivial jobs during the first Bush recession, which left us plenty of time to have existential conversations at the coffeehouse. Spending $10 on an entree and $1.50 for a cervesa at La Cucaracha would have signaled a splurge.

The menu, which hasn’t changed much in twenty years (though, yes, inflation has driven up the prices slightly), still holds a few go-to items for me. Dishes such as Gina’s Yucatan tostadas—corn tortillas layered with savory black beans, sprinkled with tangy feta cheese and crisp onion slices, then garnished with creamy avocado slices—are pure heaven to me. That said, there is only one way to start a meal at La Cuc—warm, salty queso dip, slathered on homemade tortilla chips and chased by large, sweet margaritas. On this visit, I tried an item I've never before ordered: the pork guisado burrito with tomatillo sauce. Perfect in its porkiness, brightened by the salsa verde, this burrito has quickly catapulted up my list of favorites at La Cucaracha.

The decision to eat at La Cucaracha was spontaneous. I didn't have my camera with me. I didn't pull out my notebook to capture the subtleties of the meal, the ambience, or the service. And what I took away from the experience was a reminder that La Cucaracha remains a lively, comfortable restaurant, serving delicious, uncomplicated food. My faith has been restored, and I look forward to returning with Alpha and Beta.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

local food writing roundup

Dear Dara reports that, like D'Amico & Son's family-friendly Sunday dinners, the Parasole Group has rolled out an $8.95-a-person, kids-eat-free Sunday supper at three of their restaurants: Salut Bar Américain in Edina, Pittsburgh Blue in Maple Grove, and Figlio. Works for me, as the Grand Avenue location of Salut opens in June!

Also, check out Dara's eloquent review of The Strip Club. She's spot-on about the duck, and I couldn't have said it better myself.

At City Pages, Rachel Hutton has a delightful look at Lynne Rossetto Kasper's new book, How to Eat Supper.

At the Star Tribune, fourteen local restaurants join the tap water brigade and Rick Nelson profiles local CSAs.