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