Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Hill of Beans

I’m so very excited! After months and months of procrastinating, I have ordered some Rancho Gordo heirloom beans. I wanted to experiment on some plain old beans first. This was likely a dumb choice; plain old beans are often extra-old (no extra charge!) and I’m betting that they don’t taste as good. Eating old, strange-flavored beans doesn’t seem like a smart way to get myself on the bean wagon, but that’s me – always thinking.
I was not able to foil myself so easily, though. I am so excited by the amount of food in beans that I am undeterred – I believe that Rancho Gordo will be the end all, be all of beans, quality and flavor-wise. According to the day dream I had while eating leftovers earlier, they will require little but some good olive oil and garlic, some lemon zest and chopped parsley.
I’m planning to try this recipe for Brazilian Black Bean Stew from Simply Recipes, this recipe from Heidi Swanson, which led to my first bean purchase, and this recipe, which was posted on Orangette before it made it to Bon Appetit. And of course, I'm looking forward to trying this with my new beans!
I ordered a lot of beans – making up for lost time, I suppose!
In non-bean related news, my mustard went awry. It was god-awful. I may have left it too long. I’m going to take another whack at it, though. In semi-bean-related news, we thawed some chili from this recipe last night and it’s confirmed: that was damn good chili.
Happy Leap Day!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Secret Sauce: Wicked Basic Tomato Sauce

My stepmom is the reason I came to cooking.  When we were kids, we had meals from around the world and dinner as a family nearly every night – even if it was a little on the late side to accommodate everyone’s schedules.  She’s fearless – she’ll try any recipe; she made cooking seem…doable, limitless.   Also limitless: her creativity.  I was in my mid-twenties before I realized we’d eaten chicken in one form or another pretty much seven days of the week.

One of my favorite meals hands-down was always her sauce – meat sauce, meatless, meatballs, I loved it all.  It wasn’t exotic, but it was magnificent, every time.  My seconds were always just sauce.   Sauce on a plate.  To this day, I crave tomato sauce on a regular basis.

I have a couple of recipes on deck  that, like the Sausages Baked with White beans recipe, that call for basic tomato sauce.  While I do worship at the church of Rao’s jar sauce, it’s super expensive, plus, it’s nice to make your own.  So, here’s my basic tomato sauce recipe – enjoy!

Wicked Delicious Basic Tomato Sauce

½ cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
1 28oz can whole plum tomatoes
1 large onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, grated
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/8 tsp crushed red pepper
½ tsp coarse kosher salt
1/8 tsp ground black pepper
5 leaves fresh basil


In a medium-sized heavy-bottomed pot, sautee onion, carrot and garlic with salt and black pepper in olive oil until translucent.  Add tomatoes, crushing by hand as you add them to the pot, and all of the juices in the can.  Add basil leaves whole.  Bring to a simmer and keep on low heat for an hour, stirring occasionally.  This is a matter of preference and application, really. If it's getting a bit dry, you might need to put the lid on it for a bit.

Using an immersion blender or food processor, blend until relatively smooth.  Test for salt and pepper.  If it taste a bit acidic, add a tablespoon of butter and a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar and give it another taste. 


Using a blender isn’t recommended – it tends to aerate the sauce too much for my liking.  Also, if your basil is super sweet, you may want to taste-test before blending; remove the basil if it’s already on the sweet side.  Finally, I like a little more kick in my sauce as a rule, but I almost always add a little extra when I use the sauce in preparation, so I go easier here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Everything's Better with Mustard

I get great joy out of life’s small pleasures: fresh jammies and clean sheets, a new notebook and a pen that writes smoothly, a picnic with girlfriends. The only thing better than a picnic with girlfriends is a picnic with girlfriends at a winery.

 A month or so ago, three great ladies and I went to Malibu Family Wines for a catch up and a wind down. The weather was glorious, and the company was spectacular. There were tiny leek tarts and cheeses, kale salad, roasted potato salad and farro salad. If I can get that leek tart recipe, you bet I will – shattering pastry, creamy insides. Oh my goodness. All washed down with some great local wines.

That Saturday morning as I prepared my contributions, the faro salad and the potato and shallot salad, I thought about which recipes I was excited to post here. Very quickly I realized that almost everything that came to mind involved mustard somehow. I apparently have an immense love for the stuff – a quick count of the fridge yielded no fewer than six kinds of mustard, plus three more in the pantry, including both Colman’s mustard powder and the paste version in the tube.  When we grill sausages, I use it as an excuse to consume obscene amounts of Dijon.  It becomes a side dish in itself.

One of my absolute favorite kitchen tips, which was a tip from Dorie Greenspan, most likely from her website, is mustard-related (don’t toss that mustard jar, use the last bits by making a vinaigrette right in the jar! GENIUS!). I did a little search and came up with a few recipes for mustard and I’m taking a stab at it. In a couple of days, there might be mustard – stay tuned! I’ll have the recipes for the faro salad with roast cauliflower, kale and feta and the roasted potato and shallot salad as well.

 I will spare you the recipe for the banana and dark chocolate chunk cake I made last night, though. It rose disturbingly high and tasted like metal. Yum!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Wicked Delicious Chili, England-Style

My family wasn’t big on vacations – no annual trip to Cape Cod for a week or Disney World vacations that went on three years too many.  Ever couple of years, we'd visit a family friend's house in Biddeford, Maine.  I've been there only once or twice since I was a kid, but even just looking at the picture up there, thinking about climbing out on the rocks, the smell of the ocean filling me, and I'm calm.  

We did take one epic family vacation, though.  Hijinks did ensue, but there was very little drama.  We flew to England and drove to Scotland for my Great Aunt Jane’s 80th birthday.  We landed at Heathrow in August of 1990 dressed for your average English weather, but we were met with a heat wave.   We were in jeans and long sleeves and sweaters and we climbed into a rental car the size of a bathtub with 22 days worth of luggage for four and drove through a couple hundred miles of countryside, smelling almost as charming as the sheep out the window. 

There were only a few radio channels with only a few songs and a couple of radio shows, which we started listening to after the weirdness of listening to Johnny Gill sing “I Wanna Rub You the Right Way” with our parents became too much.  To this day, my family can recall the full and extended – and invented – lyrics to Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner at the mention of a cow or sheep.   We’ve been known to burst into song – just try us.

My sister wasn’t much of an eater then.  She was your classic picky ten-year-old – ten times cuter than she was accommodating at mealtime.  The one food she was willing to order and continued to eat nearly daily was chili.  The first time she ordered it we were completely perplexed – those crazy Brits!  We’d never seen chili served over rice before.

Now I recognize the genius of it.  First, it helps stretch a pot of chili for a crowd.  Second, a bowl of chili is essentially a giant bowl of meat, which is really more meat than a person needs to eat in a sitting, zombies excepted.   At our house, chili is always served over rice and our California living-inspired additions are Greek yogurt, local pepper jack cheese and fresh cilantro leaves and chunks of avocado. 
It’s taken a few goes, but I can say for certain this is now our official house chili.

Wicked Delicious Spicy Chili

2 pieces speck, bacon, or prosciutto
3 lbs ground beef
½ tsp coarse kosher salt
¼ tsp cracked black pepper
1 large onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 Tbs Ancho chili powder
3 Tbs medium-hot chili Powder (see note below)
2 Tbs hot chili powder
1 tsp cumin
1 Tbs plus 1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1 14 oz can of diced tomatoes, preferably fire roasted
1 cup (8 oz.) low salt beef broth
2 14 oz cans of beans, drained (kidney, pinto, or one of each)
1 Tbs plus 1tsp cider vinegar
1 Tbs coarnmeal
2 dashes of Worcestershire sauce
A dust – barely a smidgen of allspice

Add speck or other pork choice to a cold large, heavy bottomed pot.  I most often use my Le Creuset Enameled Cast-Iron 7-1/4-Quart Round French Oven, Flame.   When the speck has surrendered it’s fat and your pan is glossy, add the beef, salt and pepper and brown thoroughly.  Take your time – this builds flavor.  When it’s satisfactorily browned (this could be 10 – 15 minutes, easily), add the chopped onion and garlic and simmer, turning regularly, until the onion is translucent. 

At this point, if you’ve used fattier beef and your beef is wet with drippings, ladle off most of the fat. Add all of your chili powders, cumin, tomatoes with juices, beef broth, and cocoa powder.  Simmer on low heat for at least an hour with a tight-fitting lid on; alternately, cook on low in slow cooker or in the oven at 300 for 90 minutes. 

Now test for salt – you may have lost some in the ladling of fat.  Add beans, vinegar, cornmeal, and Worcestershire sauce.  Stick your finger in some Allspice and the rub your fingers over the pot – I’m telling you, going too far here could be disastrous.  But getting it right – it adds that certain je ne sais quoi….

At this point, test for heat – if you need more kick, add cayenne to taste.  Most people will find this just right as is, and many people will find it too hot as is.  Know your dinner guests, but don’t be afraid to take a risk – the rice, cheese, yogurt or sour cream, cilantro and avocado will all balance the heat.  And you can always put some sliced jalapenos on the table, too.


For spices, I’ve grown attached to Penzey’s.  You can get big pouches of the chili powders more cost effectively than at the grocery store.  If you’re in SoCal, I’d also try your neighborhood market, if it stocks lots of Mexican foods. 

The deal with the speck is this: we’re eating less meat on a daily basis, but being able to add a small hint of smokey, meaty flavor to beans or greens makes such a huge difference to the final dish.  We can get some local speck and prosciutto made in Iowa that’s great – I keep a pack in the fridge and use a single slice or two as I need it.

I buy really good quality grass-fed ground beef, but I buy the higher fat stuff then just assume I’ll have to drain off fat after I’ve browned it.  

Finally, one of the things I love about chili is how well it freezes.  I put a few cups of chili in a small freezer bag and let it freeze flat, for easy defrosting.  This recipe should make three quart-sized freezer bags of chili, plus a bit.  Each bag will serve four, or three bountifully, if you serve it over rice.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On Love, Rent and Valentine's Day

Our Valentine’s evening last night was perfect – candles, roses, laughter, good food – five good friends and take out Indian food.  More than a decade ago I ate my last meal out on a Valentine’s Day.  My then-boyfriend and I, truly young people in love, made a reservation at the Hungry I in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston.  It was well outside of our price range (that in itself a testament to our love) and the kind of place with a website declaring, "You don't have to be planning to propose to your loved one, but if you are, it's the perfect place."

I in my ballgown (seriously – gunmetal gray and shimmery) and he in his cap, set out for a meal – and a young lovers’ trap.

That the old brownstone the restaurant is in is stunning is not up for debate – fires roared in each fireplace, grand flower sprays framed each doorway, and staff so kind they must have known we were bordering on spending our rent that night for a meal.   But the tables were packed in and there was no smiling server who could make it feel private.  We had our first adventure with quail (such tiny bones) that was a good laugh, but the prix fixe menu wasn’t quite what we’d hoped for – a little limiting.  And as we squeezed through the crowd at the end of the night, trying not to clear the tables with my skirt, as we wended down hundreds-year-old brick stairways after having a meal whose preparation was painstaking but cost was breathtaking, I looked at my date for a moment. 

“Are you thinking about Monday?” he asked.  I nodded quickly, embarrassed.  “So much better,” he said, “and we’d still know where rent was coming from.”

We’d had our traditional Monday: take out barbeque on the living room floor while watching Monday Night Raw.  (Oh, the things we do for love.)

We realized then that we’d been fleeced by the restaurant-Hallmark-industrial Valentine’s Day complex and I haven’t been out on a Valentine’s Day since.

Here’s hoping your evening -- in or out-- with friends, a special romantic person, or solo, was just as you hoped it would be.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Weekend Pork Roast

The slow roasting of a pork shoulder over the course of a weekend afternoon has become a ritual for me. I love having a versatile starting point for a large meal with friends or small meals through the weekend, from shredded pork tacos to a warm pork sandwich with pickled onions, sharp cheese, and plenty of mustard. Oh – and a potato, pork, and greens hash makes a heavenly resting place for poached eggs.

Walk in the door to this smell after a long day and you’ll feel what home smells like.

My go-to spice blend has been Herbs de Provence, however, I’ve begun to stray – branch out, really. Vary your spice blend by your choice of accompaniments: use a Greek blend and serve chunks of pork on a lemony salad with olives and avocado, tomatoes and a little feta and some cucumber. Use an Italian blend and roast some broccoli rabe with garlic and chili flakes, finished with balsamic.

I really do love the Herbs de Provence and would encourage you to try it (perhaps with a potato and fennel gratin and a greens salad!), but sometimes the lavender can be a bit overwhelming – try a mixture of dried thyme, rosemary, and fennel if the lavender isn’t your speed. Whatever blend you choose, just make sure it is salt free. If you can't find a pre-mixed product you like or want to use what you have in the house, try a combination of fennel, basil, oregano, thyme and sage. The cut of pork is non-negotiable -- you will NOT have the same result with a pork loin roast.  It's just too lean for this kind of cooking and you'll end up with a brick, and you'll want to throw it through my window.

Weekend Roast Pork

4.5 lb boneless pork shoulder, sometimes called Boston Butt
.5 oz blended dried spices
1 tsp crushed red pepper
2 Tbs coarse kosher salt
1 Tbs crushed black pepper

Remove the roast from the fridge 30 – 45 minutes prior to cooking.

Preheat the oven to 275F.

Pat your pork dry. Salt and pepper all surfaces. Combine remaining spices and crushed pepper and fully coat the roast -- anywhere you see pink, add more herbs mixture. This is what's going to create a flavorful crust as the fat starts to render during cooking.

I like to set up everything I'm going to put on the pork directly on my prep surface in advance, so that once my hands get all porky, I can put my hands on what I need without worrying about contaminating anything in my kitchen.

Roast for 6 ½ hours, basting with drippings 2 -3 times during the last hour of cooking.
Remove from the oven and rest 15 – 20 minutes before serving.

I like to pull chunks from the roast with tongs or a spoon (it's that tender) rather than slice – it’s not going to be pretty any way you cut it.

I roasted this all afternoon yesterday while I was pottering about the house getting ready for my other half to come home after a week away.  When we got home from the airport, the house was cozy and fragrant.  When he was settled in (but by no means unpacked) I made a salad of avocado, tomato, butter lettuce and some leftover baby Yukon gold potatoes and finished it with a mustard and sherry vinegar dressing, which helped balance the richness of the pork.  Bon apetit, indeed!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

There Is No Polite Picture of a Sausage: Sausages Baked with White Beans

As much as I love a long Sunday afternoon in the kitchen surrounded by my farmer’s market bounty, I dislike weeknight cooking. It’s not that I mind standing at the stove after working all day – the actual cooking I can still enjoy. The challenge is in finding something to make for dinner when I’ve gotten home at 7:30 that takes under an hour to prepare, that doesn’t create another hour’s worth of dishes, that says, “I love you” instead of, “oh, just eat it.”

I added a new weeknight special recently and it does more than tick the aforementioned boxes. It’s the kind of dish that is comforting and kind at the end of a long day, that feels hearty on a cool night, and that can be on the table in 40 minutes flat. It has that lasagne feeling but with significantly less guilt.

This recipe is adaptable – I’ve used Italian sausage, andouille sausage, and both pork and chicken sausages with good results. The quality of the individual ingredients is key because there are so few of them. For the sauce, I either use my own or a higher-end jarred sauce called Rao’s, which is silky and extremely flavorful. For the beans, I prefer to use dried, which I prepare (method below) and freeze in 1-2 cup portions in storage bags. I think they hold up better in this dish than canned, but if you only have canned, give it a shot and just be gentle with them so they don’t turn to mush.

I tried over and over again to show you this dish plated in all of its glory, but there is no polite pictures of a sausage.

Sausages with White Beans and Tomato Sauce

4 sweet or spicy Italian sausages
3 cups large whites beans (dried, cooked)
3 cups homemade or good quality jarred tomato sauce
½ c herbed breadcrumbs (recipe below)
3 TBS grated Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

In a 3 ½ quart dutch oven or medium sized skillet, brown your sausages until they have some good color. There’s no need to cook them through, they’ll finish in the oven. Add your sauce and the beans and bring them just to a simmer. Top the with the bread crumbs and cheese and bake for 25 minutes until bubbling and brown.

Serve with a greens salad and a lovely glass of wine.

Cooking note: If you’ll be preparing this in a baking dish that isn’t flame proof, brown your sausages in a skillet. Move them to the baking dish and warm your sauce through in the skillet. Pour the heated sauce over the white beans and sausage, add your crumbs and cheese, and bake as directed.

House Breadcrumbs

I use this recipe as a base and add different herbs to top various gratins or pastas – with a little chopped tarragon and a small amount of Dijon mustard, you have a great topping for a zucchini and leek gratin. I don’t use these in my meatballs or in most places where breadcrumbs are used for binding; I like using these when they’ll have real impact in a simple dish.

1 Tbs butter
1 ½ Tbs extra virgin olive oil
½ tsp crushed red peppers
½ c wheat panko crumbs
½ Italian seasoned panko crumbs
3 Tbs chopped parsley
2 Tbs chopped basil
1/8 tsp fresh ground black pepper

In a small sauté pan, heat butter and olive oil on medium-low heat until just staring to foam. Add crushed red pepper and swirl pan once. Add remaining ingredients. Stir occasionally at first. Once crumbs start to turn golden, reduce heat and turn more often until mixture is uniformly light golden brown. Depending on what you’re doing with these, they may get hit with more heat when added to a recipe, so you’re better off slightly under toasting.

Dried Beans

I’d been wanting to switch to using more dried beans for some time – I feel like the canned products are really inconsistent but mostly tend toward the mushy. It was a bit daunting, though; I didn’t want to need 12 hours notice to serve beans or risk having them refuse to soften (there was a hummus incident once…) Then I read Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks recommend freezing the finish product for future use. From a comment on a Rhulman post about cooking dried beans I found I could skip the soaking and prep my beans in the oven. Now we’re talking.

1 cup dried beans, picked over and rinsed
4 cups water (or, four times the volume of your dried beans)
1 carrot, halved
1 onion, peeled and quartered
1 stalk of celery, halved

Preheat oven to 275 F. Bring beans and water to a boil in a heavy lidded pot. Once they’ve the reached the boil, add the carrot, celery and onion and transfer the pot to the oven. Set your timer for 75 minutes and expect the beans to need 90 minutes, depending on size and age.

I’ve done this with Christmas limas and small white beans and have had great success. When they are finished, I drain them well, dry them as much as possible, and freeze them flat in freezer bags. If you freeze them flat rather than in a clump, they’ll defrost faster. Enjoy!