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 m-w.com. 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.