Tuesday, August 18, 2009

summer vacation '09: Sweden

Hambone and Spice are just back from a ten-day trip to Sweden. With Alpha and Beta in tow, we flew to Stockholm to visit Hambone’s brother Will and his little family. For years, Will has been begging us to come to Sweden for Medeltidsveckan, Visby's Middle Ages week. Even though we’d decided to stay close to home this summer and explore our nation’s splendors, we caved to Will’s wishes. Besides, Alpha and Beta love our annual excursion to the Renaissance Festival. They could easily imagine how incredible it would be to fully immerse themselves in medieval Sweden.

Once we had decided upon our destination, it wasn't long before the vacation turned, happily, into a larger family affair. Hambone's brother Ben and his wife and their little family, as well as Grandma Dorothy and her husband, David, plus a family friend and his traveling companion descended upon Stockholm with us. We were 16 people! Remarkably, Will found a house in Visby that slept 18, which became our home base for the week we were there.

This the 13th century house, built over the street, where we stayed in Visby. Display windows on the street level made us think the house once served both residential and commercial interests. The best way to describe this home is a warren of rooms over multiple levels. Hambone and I had a couple rooms in the attic. We woke when the sun rose, at 4 a.m., to a scene not unlike this (though many mornings a cruise ship or ferry would sit in the middle of the frame):

We went to Sweden for family, for long daylight hours, to be on the water. We did not go for the food, which isn't to say that the food wasn't good. Gastronomy wasn't the priority. When we travel in a large group, where nearly half of the members constitute the Under 10 Set, the adults have found it easiest to take turns making meals in our rental house. That way, we can feed the children before they achieve meltdown. The food we eat is healthier so we feel better throughout our trip. And, by shopping in the local markets and grocery stores, we can still sample regional foodstuffs. Since John's brother lives in Sweden and has a Swedish wife, we had insider guidance to "must eat" traditional Swedish fare. As a result, endless varieties of sill (herring), dry sausages (boar, elk, and reindeer), and Gotland cheese (many of which were similar to gouda or havarti, and very, very good) were well represented on the dinner table.

Even if we aren't cooking for ourselves when we travel, I love to "sight-see" in grocery stores. I'm fascinated by how fresh food is displayed, especially in food halls (time didn't permit visiting Stockholm's famous food halls and indoor markets, pooh). But I also marvel at food packaging, especially for treats...sweets and chips. One of the things I noticed at the large grocery store in Visby was that little of the produce had been grown in Sweden. Most produce came from the Mediterranean—Spain, Cyprus, Italy. There was a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including melons and nectarines. The produce section had a remarkably familiar. I'm certainly not complaining about having many options when it came to fixing a meal, but at this time of year—the peak of the growing season—I am accustomed to shopping at the farmers market or having local produce (corn, tomatoes, green beans, zucchini) at our grocery stores, and I would have loved to have tapped into the fruits and vegetables grown in Sweden.

Sheep is the major livestock on Gotland, and lamb is a must-eat when you're in Visby, especially when roasted over live coals at a medieval banquet. Truly, the best lamb I've eaten. If you flirted with the guy serving lamb, you got the choice bits—slices of leg, topped by an amazing sauce—otherwise, you got delicious bits that engulfed by connective parts. We also partook of roasted lamb, served with a rich dark gravy and a lovely potato casserole, at a restaurant on Visby's main square (stora torget).

All over Sweden, crayfish parties are a traditional August celebration, marking the end of summer. One evening, Will and Helena treated us to a mess of mudbugs, and, since one couldn't possibly eat enough crayfish to fill oneself, other food was served—an exceptional tomato and mango salad, crusty bread, and a few chunks of cheese, one of which was studded with cumin seeds. The crayfish are sold frozen in large boxes or bags, which you cook at home in a vessel of boiling water that has been infused with spices. Right next to the freezer in the grocery store, paper products, essential to a crayfish party, are displayed: lanterns, plates, napkins, and cups, each with a crayfish motif, but also songbooks. Drinking songs kick off icy aquavit shots and are an important part of the meal! Since crayfish parties traditionally take place outside, we headed out to the garden and pushed cafe tables together to form a long banquet table.

Breakfast of champions. This was the complimentary breakfast at the Columbus Hotell, where we stayed for a few nights in Stockholm. Witness a spread of cold cuts, including skinka (ham) and farmer's cheese slices, but also liver pate, anchovy paste, sweet pickles, cucumbers, and tomatoes, which are meant to be assembled on bread (wasa, knackerbrod, hearty wheat rolls, rusk crackers), for open-face sandwiches. The spread also included yogurt (more sour than sweet), granola, other dry cereals, sweet rolls, and fruit, as well as hard- and soft-boiled eggs. My preference, first thing in the morning, is for something sweet, but when in northern Europe.... I loved the open-face sandwiches for breakfast and have adopted this practice now that I'm home.

Scene from the market: These candied apples with a crisp, sweet shell were one of many treats the Alpha and Beta tried at the medieval market. The boy on the left was swirling apples on a stick through hot syrup. Some of the apples were then rolled in crushed almonds or rolled oats. When the boy on the right wasn't collecting money, he swatted wasps. By comparison to the Minnesota RenFest, the medieval market had fewer food stalls, which were more selective and higher in quality. Other foodstuffs at the market included toffied almonds (exceptional), burgers (chicken, beef, lamb), roasted lamb, smoked turkey legs, mead, and fudge (licorice was unique, vanilla was solid, but those made with smoky, peaty scotches were amazing!).

And now for dessert—Swedes love their ice cream. Thank goodness. You can find ice cream treats in many shops and stands in Visby, most of which are similar to Good Humor or Kemps. Then, there's Visby Glass. Near the East Port ferry station, Visby Glass has 100 flavors in the cooler at any one time. Overwhelming, yes. Some of these flavors are from Swedish ice cream giant, Sia, but others are made on site. You've got fruit, an array of chocolate flavors, nut, licorice (a category unto itself), and spices, as well as many combinations of the above. Given my devotion to ice cream, naturally we took many long walks to Visby Glass. I had an opportunity to try saffron (only so I could confirm that I don't like saffron as a primary ingredient in anything), mint chocolate chip (with the largest imaginable chocolate chunks), violet (beautiful color, perfumey taste), and salted licorice (pictured above, intensely tar-black). The latter was a taste sensation that I'm still thinking about...salty, cold, creamy...and licorice-y.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

cold-weather cooking revival (in july)

As I cast about the blogosphere, I can’t help but notice that, from coast to coast, 2009 weather has been unruly. It’s mid-July and still blazing hot in southern California and the desert Southwest. But the rest of the country is beginning to resemble Seattle, with overcast skies, midday drizzles, and lower than usual temperatures. The Upper Midwest is no exception. For a few days last week the high temps here in St. Paul hovered at 63 degrees, about twenty degrees below average. I’m not complaining. I like it cool, which is not to be confused with cold! I like to wear sleeves or long pants. I like to sleep under blankets. And, when it comes to cooking, I like to fire up the oven with impunity.

Since all those no-cook meals and whole-grain or pasta salad recipes that I had filed for hot-weather cooking are languishing, I thought I’d dip into the rib-sticking fare I associate firmly with winter. I preheated the oven to 375 degrees F and looked up a recipe for a favorite potato dish that we usually eat at Christmas, Jansson’s Temptation (Jansson’s frestelse).

I was first introduced to “the Jansson’s” in the late 90s. My brother-in-law, Will and his girlfriend, Helena, who is now his wife, would visit from their home in Sweden and prepare a Julbord with all the goodies they had smuggled in their suitcases. The smoked eel and smoked reindeer, the cornucopia of sill, and the countless varieties of aquavit were all treats, but the Jansson’s was the centerpiece of these sumptuous buffets. Rich with fragrant cream bubbling in the corners of a crusty top, Jansson’s can best be described as a potato casserole that gets a big boost from onions and anchovies (more on the anchovies, below), which are not immediately identifiable but give the dish an utterly unique and highly addictive quality.

Legend has it that the dish was created by the nineteenth-century opera singer, Pelle Janzon,
who, entertaining late one night, threw together everything he had in his pantry. According to wikipedia, the name was borrowed from a 1928 film, Jansson’s frestelse, and a dish created by the director's mother and her housekeeper, specially for the movie. Regardless, Jansson’s is one of the most iconic dishes in Swedish home cooking (husmanskost). It’s hearty, warming, and comforting, and tends to make an appearance at table as a main dish, rather than as a side, like potato gratin. Aside from the Julbord, Jansson’s is often serve at the end of many parties, especially wedding receptions. Judith Pierce Rosenberg writes in her wonderful book, A Swedish Kitchen, that Jansson’s is “traditionally meant to warm guests for the long sleigh ride back to their farms.”

Hambone and Spice ate Jansson’s recently for a number of reasons. We were cold. I had a tin of sprats fillets in the fridge and don’t know what else to do them. Also, we leave for Sweden next week, and I couldn’t wait until then for my fill of potatoes, onions, anchovies, and cream.

Jansson’s Temptation
A Swedish Kitchen (Judith Pierce Rosenberg)
serves 4

1 tablespoon butter
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch wide matchsticks (5–6 cups)
1 (3-1/2 ounce) can anchovy-style sprats fillets in brine*
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1-1/2 cups half-and-half
2 tablespoons dry bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a 2-quart baking dish. In a medium-size pan, melt the butter and sauté onions on medium heat until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes.

Cover the bottom of the baking dish with half of the potatoes, then add the onions. Place the anchovies, along with a little brine, on top of the onions. Cover the remaining potatoes.

Stir the salt and pepper into the half-and-half and pour over the potatoes. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs on top.

Bake until the potatoes are tender and the top is beginning to brown, about 45 minutes. Serve immediately.

*Do not thinly slice the potatoes as you would for a gratin. The matchstick cut lends a particular aesthetic to the dish. And, of course, it’s traditional, and I've been told that if you mess with this tradition, then the dish doens't taste the same.

** I will tell you straight away that anchovy sprats fillets are different from the Italian and French anchovies you find
easily at the grocery store. Anchovy sprats are cured in a brine made of salt, sugar, and spices, such as cinnamon, sandalwood, and ginger, lending a very specific taste to Jansson’s and creating a perfect counterpoint to the smoked and cured meats and fish with which it’s served. Since Will and Helena no longer smuggle Swedish anchovies into the country when they visit, they’re often at a loss for an acceptable substitute. I live in a city with population that celebrates their Scandinavian heritage, and Ingebretsen’s Scandinavian Gifts and Imports on Lake Street carries anchovy sprats—and you can order them online. You may find other online sources, and it's worth the effort to look, but in a pinch, you can use oil-packed anchovies, which should be rinsed well and soaked in milk before using.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

cocktail skewers are the new black

I ate the yummiest thing last night, and I cannot stop thinking about it.

My friend Michael, who was hosting our book group, served skewer appetizers (not pictured) that were so simple and so tasty. He pre-loaded double pronged toothpicks with a large basil leaf, a roasted red pepper slice, and a quartered artichoke heart, then added a one-inch chunk of sausage. All of which you were meant to eat in one bite. Michael used a variety of sausages, including chicken-apple and maple chicken, which gave a bit of sweetness to the other pickled or roasted or salty or green flavors.

The whole was brilliant and may have knocked meatballs off my list of favorite cocktail nibbles. Anya von Bremzen has a wonderful list of tapas skewers (banderillas) in The Spanish Table. I’ll go back to this book for inspiration but I’m also dreaming up my own palate-tickling combinations.

Photo credit: Dallas Morning News, which ran a feature on banderillas last summer

Saturday, May 02, 2009


Around these parts, the surest sign of spring isn’t the appearance of tulips and daffodils or green leaves unfurling from buds or the return of songbirds or a day where the temperatures reach 60 degrees. Spring arrives in St. Paul when SeaSalt opens.

Located within Minnehaha Falls park, SeaSalt serves the highest-quality seafood from the teeniest kitchen. For the most part, seating is outside, where you’re serenaded by the roaring waterfall. Service is cafeteria-style, and, since the line typically snakes out the door, you’ve got an opportunity for good eavesdropping. The menu is posted on a blackboard behind the counter where you order. You can count on fish tacos with your choice of tilapia, fried fish, calamari, grilled marlin (my choice tonight), or shrimp. There are fat po’ boys with crawfish, fried oysters (Hambone’s favorite), or fried shrimp. Crab cake sandwiches and soft-shell crab sandwiches are divine, accompanied by exceptional coleslaw. Oil pans are loaded with pickled herring, shrimp cocktail, and raw oysters, then rounded out with a pitcher of beer or a bottle of wine to slake your thirst. Alpha and Beta can easily make a meal out of the calamari appetizer or the clam fries. Quite frankly, so could I.

SeaSalt is a leisurely fifteen-minute bike ride from our house, which means, if I have room, I can spring for a scoop of ice cream before the ride home.

Friday, May 01, 2009

salsa verde

This past week has been an exceptional week for outstanding food. I had my first bratwurst of the season. And there was a red chile enchilada at Barrio, the Minneapolis tequila bar—a flour tortilla casually folded over a chorizo filling and topped with a fried egg—that I can’t stop thinking about it. But the show-stopper on our menu this week was a condiment.

I had a gap in the menu that was filled when I spotted a display of Niman Ranch organic pork chops at the grocery store. Now, we love pork chez H&S, but this is a cut we don’t often eat. Both Hambone and I remember the overly chewy, nearly indigestible pork chops of our respective childhoods and assiduously avoid cooking them as adults. Silly, I know. The Niman Ranch meat was irresistible, providing an opportunity to reconsider the pork chop. I consulted Alice Waters’ Art of Simple Cooking for a pan-frying technique, which seemed (and proved to be) pretty foolproof to execute. I briefly contemplated making a pan sauce with the fond, a little minced shallot, and white wine, which I can make in my sleep, but was a fixated on something green.

Salsa verde is, as the name suggests, a green sauce, such as Argentinean chimichurri or tomatillo salsa. An Italian-style salsa verde traditionally contains parsley, lemon, capers, and anchovies, chopped and blended with olive oil. This rustic sauce is precisely what I had in mind. Long ago I flagged a page for chopped herb sauces in Tyler Florence’s Eat This Book. Basically you dump all the ingredients on a cutting board and give it a rough chop, tip into a bowl, give a squeeze of lemon, and mix in some olive oil. The ingredients—parsley, golden raisins, anchovies, pine nuts, and capers—were an elegant blend of sweet, salty, sour, bright, and mysterious. And it really made something more out of those pork chops. I don't think I'd want them any other way.

The salsa verde gave a great flavor boost to the meaty pork chops, but also proved its flexibility by accompanying fresh Alaskan halibut later in the week. I see more chopped herb sauces in our future and look forward to experimenting with different combinations of fruits, nuts, acidity, and herbs.

Monday, April 20, 2009

burger of the week: bison chili cheeseburgers

Hambone makes the best burgers I have ever eaten. Contrary to patty-making "best practices," which typically suggest barely handling the ground meat as it's shaped, Hambone works each portion well, passing it from hand to hand a number of times before patting it into a burger. This makes for a tender and juicy burger every time. Also, he seasons the patty well, on both sides, before frying in a hot cast-iron skillet.

Hambone has a signature burger, which is the one he treats us to 99 percent of the time, and I have no complaints. I do, however, have a file folder bursting with some fresh recipes for myriad burgers—pork, beef, lamb, chicken, fish, and more. Inspired by warm spring days and anxious to grill, our summer theme is set—burgers.

First up: bison chili cheeseburgers. Whole Foods has been running a special on ground bison so we picked up a 1.5 pounds, a somewhat experimental quantity. Alpha and Beta, who are growing like weeds, have recently demonstrated that they can eat a bit more than their usual quarter pounders. As Hambone was forming the patties, he worked in half a seeded, finely minced jalapeno. The patties were seasoned with salt, pepper, and curry powder, then browned in a cast-iron skillet on each side, and topped with a slice of American (I know, but it is the best for consistent melting) cheese and a generous dollop of handmade guacamole.

What are your favorite ways to prepare burgers?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Salty Dog Chocolate Bar

The Twin Cities is home to a number of exceptional chocolatiers, chief among them B.T. McElrath. Ever since my friend Colin introduced me to McElrath's elegantly chocolate-dipped ginger-flecked toffee squares, I have had to fight impulse purchases whenever I go to the grocery store. On the rare occasion that I visit The Golden Fig, where McElrath's truffles are available individually, I treat myself to a morsel. I'll admit, it's hard to choose just one when they come in such incomparable flavors as passion fruit, chile-limon, zinfandel balsamic, and lavender-black peppercorn.

Recently, McElrath debuted chocolate bars, and that short time, I've devoured my fair share of Salty Dog Chocolate Bars—70% dark chocolate with butter toffee bits and sea salt. Chocolate and sea salt is one of my very favorite combinations. These bars are pretty sensational and very affordable ($5.50 per bar, where other luxury chocolates are edging up near $8).

From the packaging:
You have a choice. Eat our Salty Dog Bar salt-side up and you're invited into its rich, dark chocolate charms, only to discover the spiky crunch of toffee and sea salt. eat it salt-side down and feel how the sharp pop of salt ushers in notes of chocolate and caramel. So what's it gonna be: mellow or bold? Or both?
Definitely both.

If you can't find these bars where you live, The Chocolate Shoppe ships anywhere.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

comfort food: steakhouse meets diner

Last night, both Hambone and I were looking for a meal that would be homey and comforting, so I whipped up a batch of diner-worthy meatloaf. When I made the first meatloaf of my adult life, I reconstructed my mother’s method. She never used a recipe, having learned to make meatloaf at her mother's elbow, but it consisted basically of ground beef (or, when I was a kid, more likely elk or venison), salt and pepper, and a beaten egg to bind—pretty simple and tasty, if memory serves correctly. I’ve since tried many recipes, trying to find the easiest, most delicious concoction. What I’ve arrived at is quite flexible and very delicious.

In large bowl, I whisked together a couple eggs, 1/4 cup whole milk, 1 teaspoon ground mustard, 1 teaspoon dried thyme*, salt and pepper to taste, 1 teaspoon hot sauce, and 1/2 teaspoon worchestershire sauce. To this mixture, I crumbled in a 1/2 pound each ground veal, beef, and pork**, as well as 1-1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs***. With my hands, I incorporated the ingredients, until the egg and breadcrumbs were well distributed within the meat. (Typically I also add an onion that has been diced fine, sautéed in olive oil, and cooled slightly, as well as a few minced garlic cloves, but omitted—just this one time—to accommodate the boys' onion phobia. BTW, they’ve asked for the onions to be reappointed.) Then I turned the mixture onto a foil-lined jellyroll pan and formed it into a loaf. A combination of 1/2 cup ketchup and 1 tablespoon each brown sugar and apple cider vinegar was painted on top the meatloaf. Placed in a 375 degree oven, it baked for an hour.

I firmly believe that meatloaf must be consumed with potatoes. Steak can be served with many other carbs—polenta, other root vegetables, or whole-grain pilafs, but meatloaf needs the mealy, starchy potato as a counterpoint to the, well, meatiness. Not to mention that it’s meatloaf’s equal in the comfort department. I had a hankering for
The Palm’s hashbrowns and turned to Julie Child and Jacques Pepin’s pommes de terre macaire.

While assembling the meatloaf, I had four medium-size russets baking in a 425 degree oven, which I then swapped for the meatloaf. I allowed the baked potatoes to cool just enough to be handled (fifteen minutes or so), then removed the skin and, using a round cookie cutter, scrumbled the potatoes into large chunks. During the last ten minutes of the meatloaf’s cooking time, I heated olive oil and butter in a heat-proof skillet, added the potatoes, seasoned generously with salt, pepper, and fresh-ground nutmeg. After a few minutes, I flipped the potatoes to incorporate the seasoning, then pressed down the top and stepped away for six or seven minutes. When the meatloaf came out of the oven, I cranked it back up to 425 degrees and put the potatoes in for 15 minutes.

And what, besides a chewy red wine, goes best with red meat and steakhouse potatoes? Why creamed spinach, of course. A peek into the crisper revealed a lack of spinach but possession of a fine head of lacinato kale. While the meatloaf rested and the potatoes browned, heated 1 tablespoon each butter and olive oil in a large skillet into which I tipped a minced shallot and sweated for a few minutes. Next I added the kale, cut into 1/4-inch strips. Before I lidded the pan, I added a 1/4-cup chicken stock. Five minutes later, I seasoned kale with salt and pepper, tossed the wilted leaves with a teaspoon of flour, and cooked another minute before adding approximately a 1/3 cup half-and-half, which was allowed to bubble and thickened. A grating of fresh nutmeg finished the vibrant green side.

And instead of being transported to every great steakhouse meal we’ve ever had, we set our own new standard.

*Almost any dried or fresh herb, such as savory, rosemary, or herbes de Provence can be used to good effect.
**Venison or bison, alone or in combination with beef or pork, makes a stunning meatloaf.
***Dried breadcrumbs or crumbled crackers also work.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Happy Fat Tuesday

The little boys—who, if you'll remember, don't like chili—devoured the crawfish. Next year in New Orleans!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Back in the Saddle: Venison Chili

I have, sadly, been neglectful of Hambone and Spice. And not because I haven’t been cooking blogworthy food, either. Most assuredly, we've been eating incredibly well at home and in restaurants, doing our best to keep the local economy alive! No, I just have not been able to find my writing voice lately. My dear friend Caryl gave me a nudge today. She didn’t know that I was planning a comeback, either, but without her quiet encouragement, I could have put off food blogging until…I don’t know when.

Caryl and I regularly have breakfast together, mostly, but not exclusively, to talk about books. Last week we met at the Longfellow Grill, an upscale diner just across the mighty (frozen) Mississippi from where we each live in St. Paul. We shared a cheesy/eggy/potatoey dish, as well as a stack of Jack cakes—hearty oatmeal pancakes adorned by granola, salted peanuts, fresh blueberries, bananas, and honey. Plus, we drizzled real maple syrup over the top and between the layers—all over. These cakes are the ultimate in sweet-salty tastes and are so comforting. Caryl took this photo and sent it to me for inspiration—thanks! See, this is what friends are for: support and indulging in over-the-top breakfasts!

Dinner is slowly simmering on the stove right now. We’re having venison chili. This past fall, my brother Nik shot a mule deer in South Dakota and very kindly shared some of his bounty with us. Before I crumbled in the ground meat, I had to make note of its color—a velvety, iron-rich purple. Also, the venison was incredibly lean with almost no obvious fat studding the pat.

My little boys aren’t big fans of chili. I know: a lot of kids don't like chili. But I think it's crazy. I loved chili when I was their age and even endured anemic strands of stewed tomatoes lurking throughout an egregiously underseasoned sauce. But I love my boys and want them to eventually embrace chili, and I ask that they eat no more than a half cup of not-very spicy brew, ladled over corn chips (“Frito pie,” a concession to Hambone’s Texan roots), with a chocolate pudding chaser for dessert.

This chili is by no means authentic Texas chili but I’m not going for authenticity on a Monday night in February. All I require is delicious and somewhat quick, though you can simmer the chili as long as you like, thereby intensifying the flavors. Because the venison is so lean, I used more oil than usual and really sweated the onion so as to provide as much extra moisture as needed. Also, I felt like the wild game might be, well, gamey, which isn't a bad thing, it just means that the meat can support stronger spices, in larger measure. So I amped up the spice mixture with more chili powder and cumin than usual and added a bit of ancho chile powder, which I would never use in ground beef chili (between you and me, I’m not wild about ancho’s smoky flavor). The browned meat is soft, lacking the gristly toothsomeness of ground beef, and has a rich flavor.

venison chili
2 T. olive oil
1 pound ground venison (or beef, bison, elk)
1 medium onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeno, minced
2 T. chili powder (I like Penzey’s medium hot)
1 tsp. ancho chili powder
1 T. cumin
1 T. salt
1 tsp. oregano
1 bottle beer (I used Left Hand porter because I had it on hand)
1 (15 oz.) can red beans (drained, rinsed)
1 (8 oz.) can tomato sauce
2 T. tomato paste

For serving: chopped onions, sour cream, Fritos, shredded cheddar cheese

In a Dutch oven, over medium-high, heat oil until it shimmers. Saute onions, garlic, and jalapenos in oil until vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes. Add ground meat and break into large pieces. Season with salt, chili powders, cumin, and oregano. When the meat is browned, add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, lid the pot, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for at least 30 minutes (for best results, simmer an hour to two hours). Serve on a bed of Fritos, garnished with chopped onions, sour cream, and shredded cheddar cheese.

Monday, January 05, 2009

a quick pasta for a Monday

I don't thrive on throwing myself back into the fray of a work/school week. In no time at all, the effects of a relaxing weekend completely fade. The last thing I want to face after a long day at the office is a hot stove and an ambitious recipe. Mondays call for easy, tasty meals.

As a mother of school-age kids who have weeknight homework, not only does meal preparation need to be unfussy but it also needs to generate the fewest dirty dishes possible. This simple shrimp-tomato-feta pasta fits the bill—clean, bold Mediterranean flavors combined with ease and a modicum of speed.

It's also a flexible dish. You could substitute salmon for the shrimp. Any fresh herb—basil, thyme, oregano, dill—could easily take the place of dried herbs. As I was cutting the serviceable grape tomatoes that are available year round, I couldn't fight the memory of the brilliant, sweet yellow pear tomatoes that we buy at the Farmer's Market in July and the thought of how awesome they would be in this pasta.

You can even get your kids involved and chat about their day. Beta helped by measuring the olive oil, pouring it on the tomatoes, and seasoning with salt, pepper, and dried herbs.

Orzo with Shrimp, Tomatoes, and Feta
serves 4

1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 T. olive oil, divided
3 garlic cloves, minced
pinch red pepper flakes
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 T. dried green herbs, your choice (up to 1/4 cup if using fresh green herbs)
salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup orzo
4 oz. feta
1 T. fresh lemon juice

Bring a pot of water to boil. Meanwhile, cut cherry tomatoes in half and place in a large serving bowl. Toss with 3 T. olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, and herbs.

Once water reaches a boil, add salt (about a tablespoon) and orzo. Cook for 8-10 minutes.

While pasta is cooking, prepare shrimp. Heat 1 T. olive oil in saute pan on medium-high. Add shrimp. Season with a healthy pinch of salt, red pepper flakes, and minced garlic. Turn shrimp after 1-2 minutes. Cook another minute or two, until pink. Stir and turn off heat.

When pasta is done, reserve 1/2 cup liquid, then drain. Add pasta, along with cooked shrimp, lemon juice, and feta, to tomatoes. Toss to coat, adding pasta cooking water if pasta seems dry. Adjust seasoning and serve.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Best of 2008

Happy New Year! Hambone and Spice continued to eat well in 2008. We enjoyed many fantastic and memorable meals in restaurants, in our friends’ homes, and in our own home. Food was an important balm during a difficult year, but also helped to cement friendships and fueled many delicious conversations. We had a blast cooking with our kids—each took bold steps to become the very best sous chefs they could be.

We had no particular theme this year, though, during grilling season, we skewered just about every protein and vegetable imaginable to feature a kebab of the week. Many of our favorite items featured citrus, either as an assertive, bright flavor or as a subtle element that pulled a dish together.

Here are some highlights from our year in food and drink:

Cocktails continue to quench our thirst. Gin and tonics, scotch and sodas, and vodka gimlets will always have a place at the table, but in 2008, these classic cocktails were joined by the sazerac (rye, Peychaud’s bitters, Pernod), the Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth, club soda), and the side car (brandy, lemon juice, Grand Marnier) at home, as well as Porter and Frye’s refreshing Siciliano (Campari and blood orange juice laced with gin). We were also introduced to Flat Earth Brewing, a local microbrew that makes a few crisp beers. Flat Earth beers went missing for much of the year, however, as the brewery pulled their beers off the market due to a problem with a second fermentation in the bottle. As a reliable source told me, bottles were exploding on liquor store shelves. By Thanksgiving, Flat Earth was back—and we’re certainly glad to see them and their Belgian-style pale ale, though my absolute favorite is the Element 115 lager.

favorite cooking techniques: grilling and broiling
In 2008 we grilled apace. Hambone even tackled fish on the grill—salmon, arctic char, walleye, and halibut. When grilling season ended, we pulled the broiler pan and cooked meat—flank steak, fish, pork tenderloin, and shrimp—under high heat in our oven. A glass jar of a very versatile, homemade spice rub (paprika, dry green herbs, cumin, coriander, salt, pepper, and brown sugar) stood by the grill and the stove and was replenished when emptied.

cooking highlight: making soup with Caryl
Handsome husband aside, I have only ever cooked with one other friend, but it’s something I’ve long wanted to do. I’m so glad that my friend Caryl suggested it. We had a wonderful time chatting as we sliced and diced our ingredients, comparing notes as we tended to the soup, and documenting the process. I anticipate future kitchen sessions and hope that one of these will culminate with a meal we can share with our families.

Caryl and I made caldo verde, a Portuguese kale and sausage soup, from The Soup Peddler's Slow and Difficult Soups. David Ansel is the Soup Peddler and he delivers soup—on his bike—to the eclectic folk who populate Bouldin Creek in Austin, Texas. Caryl sourced the sausage—linguiça—from Kramarczuk’s, the Nordeast Minneapolis restaurant that specializes in sausage. And, she brought lacinato kale, which, as opposed to the extremely curly kale, is like a thick spinach leaf. Basically, we browned the sausage links, in their casings, in olive oil, and removed them when they were cooked (about 10 minutes). Then we sweated onion (1) slices and sliced garlic (6 cloves) in the remaining olive oil, densely permeated with the linguiça’s salty, smoky juices. After 5 minutes we added the chicken stock I made that morning, as well as diced potatoes (enough small red potatoes to equal four normal-sized potatoes) and simmered for 20 minutes. The sausages, which had since been cut into coins, were returned to the soup with a bunch of finely chopped kale and simmered for another 5 minutes. That’s it. Easy, hearty, nourishing. I’m looking forward to our next soup session!

favorite food stores
France 44’s cheese counter (passionate cheesemonger Benjamin is blogging here), Golden Fig for local speciality items (Talmadge Farm’s horseradish jelly, B.T. McElrath’s unique chocolate truffles), Izzy’s for the very best ice cream (the nut versions—praline pecan, butter pecan, black walnut, hot brown sugar—are my favorites)

best things eaten this year, restaurant category
hazelnut torte at Meritage, sort of a grown-up Kit-Kat bar
sausage plate with roasted grapes at Porter and Frye
Sebastian Joe's spumoni, with honey, almonds, candied orange peel
pho and the pork loin sandwich at Ngon (and sweet potato fries with sriracha aioli)
Khyber Pass’ lunch buffet, especially the hummus and korma e murgh
smelt fries and elk stroganoff at Red Stag
fresh lobsters in Maine
house-made lamb sausage at the Harborview Café
lamb burger topped by hummus and feta at Shish
soft and crispy confit duck leg with sweet and juicy roasted grapes at Strip Club

(photo credit: Tracy Adams)

favorite things eaten at home/friends’ homes
John’s softshell crab sandwich
red beans and rice with pickled pork
lobster risotto with homemade lobster stock
Alice Waters’ Moroccan carrot salad with lemon, ginger, and cumin
bison meatballs with cilantro-yogurt sauce
smoked trout spread with apples and celery
pumpkin spice layer cake
Will and Helena’s house-cured salmon
Tracy’s shrimp stew on black rice

worst things I ate this year
~smoked chocolate ice-cream at Porter and Frye, which was just plain weird
~bone marrow at Red Stag—for those of you who compared bone marrow to eating foie gras, I beg to disagree. Not remotely similar. I really wanted to like bone marrow. I really did. But it was about the nastiest thing I’ve ever eaten (and I’ve eaten lamb brains and sweetbreads and tripe and oysters and shrimp heads). Too salty, too fatty, too not at all what I dreamed it would be.

favorite restaurants
Though we enjoyed many meals in local restaurants in 2008, only one meal stood out—Alma’s tasting menu, for four people, which allowed us to tell the server to “Bring us one of everything” on the menu. In addition to Alma, chef Alex Roberts has Brasa, a Southern-style barbecue joint in NE Minneapolis. I love all of the pulled meat (beef and heritage Berkshire pork), as well as his rotisserie chicken. We look forward to a St. Paul location later this year.

favorite new restaurants
~Porter and Frye, Steve Brown’s eagerly anticipated kitchen delighted us on a few occasions
~Meritage, Russell Klein put his own stamp on the brasserie, filling the former Au Rebours space in downtown St. Paul
~Heidi’s, Stewart Woodman’s jewel-box restaurant in south Minneapolis, highly innovative food
~Strip Club, the Town Talk Diner folks and J.D. Fratzke’s gastrotavern overlooking downtown St. Paul
~Red Stag, one of the first LEED-certified restaurant in the U.S., eclectic menu