Garlic-Herb Steel Head Trout and Veggie Fritters

Ok, so I know I haven’t posted in something like 3 months.  For a lot of people, summer is a break.  Even if they’re not in school, summer is the time for vacations and outdoor fun.  For foodies, summer is a time of glorious abundance of fresh fruits and veggies.

I’ve still been enjoying the summer produce, of course.  My summer, however, has been full of lots of vacation bible school planning, family gatherings, moving to a new place, and counseling summer camp.  (Dear God I am in love with camp.)  The move was the biggest inhibitor to cooking, but as soon as we got the boxes through the door, I found a place for my Kitchen-aid stand mixer and my Cuisinart food processor and felt much better as soon as I did.

Now that we’re finally getting unpacked, it’s time to cook and blog, cook and blog.  So, we’ll start with something simple, yet glorious.  I found a filet of steel head trout, and what better to bring out the flavor of the fish than a little garlic and herbs?

I served the fish with some steamed broccoli and some yellow squash/corn fritters.  It was pretty terrific, if I do say so myself.  In my sweet husband’s words: “It was doubleplusgood.”

Ready to bake

Garlic-herb Steel Head Trout:

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

Prepare a large, glass baking dish by spraying the bottom with nonstick cooking spray.  Lay the fish skin-side down and drizzle with about 2 tablespoons olive oil.  Sprinkle with sea salt.  Mince 3 cloves garlic and several sprigs of fresh baby dill and sprinkle them liberally over the fish.  Drizzle with about 2 more tablespoons olive oil.

Bake for approximately 30 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through.

Beautiful

Yellow squash and corn fritters:

one 15-ounce can sweet corn (or thaw 2 cups frozen…or cut fresh corn off the cob)
one yellow summer squash, grated with a coarse grater
three green onions, minced
salt and pepper
two fresh eggs
about 1 cup flour

Put the vegetables in a fine-mesh strainer to drain. Press them down to squeeze water out. Mix together the vegetables and salt and pepper to taste. Beat the eggs well and mix them with the vegetables, then mix in up to one cup flour until the vegetables are held together with a somewhat thin batter. I like to mix with my bare hand so I can get a feel for how thick the mixture is.

Heat about 1/4 to 1/2 inch vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed skilled and drop about 1/3 cup dollops of the batter in the oil. Fry on each side about 2 minutes, then transfer to a baking sheet. Finish the fritters in the oven while the fish cooks, turning once to brown on each side.

(I confess, I like them with ranch dressing.)


So there you have it…a tasty dinner in under an hour. It’s easy to prep, easy to cook, and it’s even full of summer vegetable goodness.

Buen Provecho

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Cinco de Mayo: Carnitas

I have to say, it baffles me when people say they don’t eat pork.  I’m not talking about Muslim halal or Jewish kosher laws.  (I’m a pastor, and I understand and respect religious practice.)  No, what baffles me is hearing people say they don’t like pork, because in my book, there are few things more delicious.  Among my favorite pork preparations is the Mexican carnitas dish.  I’m not Mexican, so my observance of Cinco de Mayo is, admittedly, just an excuse to cook tasty food.  What can I say?  I’m all about theme menus.

On the menu for this Cinco de Mayo:

Carnitas (of my very own design)
Guacamole salad
Cheddar cheese arepas
Refried black beans

Quite nearly a perfect meal.

Ok, fine, the black beans were out of a can, but I added cheese to them! Honestly, I am perfectly capable of making my own refried beans, but soaking them and boiling them, etc, etc takes time that I just didn’t have. La Preferida brand makes terrific refried black beans.

So, now for the really good stuff. What are carnitas, you ask? Quite simply, they’re pork (beautiful, beautiful pork) which has been slow-cooked until it’s tender, then pulled apart and roasted in the oven until it’s caramelized a little.

Here's my pork after it had been slow-cooking all afternoon.

As tempting as it is to tell you this is my slaved-over specialty, I’d be lying if I told you this was anything but easy. I got a big ol’ slab of not-very-expensive (read: fatty and bone-in) pork. Honestly, fat and bones add tons of flavor, especially when you’re slow-cooking, so why pay more buying some lean, boneless hunk of meat? I threw the pork in the crock pot raw, skipping the searing that’s usually the first step to braising. I really don’t think it made any difference for this dish. To the meat, I added:

1 medium yellow onion, cut in large-ish chunks
4 large garlic cloves, halved
2 serrano peppers, slit down the side
sea salt
black pepper
just enough vegetable broth to cover the meat about halfway

(I used vegetable because it’s what I had on hand, and I didn’t want to introduce chicken or beef flavors to the pork. I have not yet gotten around to making my own stock–sue me.)

I cranked the pot up to high and cooked it about 4 1/2 hours, until the meat was falling apart. Then, I transferred the meat, chunk by chunk, to a cutting board, where I separated out the bones and any unwanted fat (though I left a little). I pulled the meat apart a little bit, leaving some larger pieces, then roasted it in a casserole dish at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes. The result was tender, juicy pork with just a little chewiness on the outside.

My husband is a big fan of carnitas, and he orders them almost every time we hit our favorite Mexican place in Lawrence, Cielito Lindo.  His review: my carnitas were just as good as theirs.  I consider that a win!

As for the rest of the meal….

The avocado salad is one of my favorite dishes.  It’s fresh and bright, with just enough spice to give it some kick without being really spicy.  I’m head over heels in love with avocados, too.  The salad is just a mixture of the following, chilled.

2 ripe avodados, diced
2 roma tomatoes, diced
3 green onions, sliced thin (white and light green parts only)
1 serrano pepper, finely minced
about 1/3 to 1/4 cup cilantro, finely snipped
lime juice (about 1/4 to 1/3 cup, probably)
sea salt to taste

Note the pretty golden-brown color on the arepa at the upper right.

I can’t take credit for the arepas.  I got the recipe from Bitchin Camero (aka Melissa), a foodie whose blog I’ve come to enjoy very much.  Her crab and avocado salad is also similar to the way I make the avocado salad, but the arepas are the recipe about which I’ve been most excited.  I did take the option of adding some cheddar cheese (which she suggests), and they were incredibly tasty.

Well, there you have it–a Mexican feast for Cinco de Mayo that didn’t involve a single taco or margarita.  Who’d have thought it was possible.  Hmmm….now I want tacos and margaritas.

Buen provecho, mis amigos!

Thai-style Surf and Turf

If you pay attention around here for long, you’ll realize that I put extra effort into my meal-planning and cooking when I’m cooing for people, especially people I love. What’s more, the most epic creations happen when I’m partnering with fellow foodie nerd, longtime friend, and champion enabler: Kim.

Thursday, Kim and I bummed around our beloved hometown, Lawrence.  We even indulged in a couple of Christopher Elbow chocolates.  (Campari-grapefruit!  What?!)

As per our usual, we decided on a menu, complete with wine pairings.  In honor of the lovely spring day, we opted for a palate of fresh, bright flavors in a Thai-style surf and turf.  On the menu:

Crying Tiger steak with roasted tomato-chili sauce
Shrimp with lemongrass, chilis and lime
Lacinato kale and broccoli rabe with black pepper and garlic

Paired with a 2008 Loosen Bros. Riesling

(Recipes at the end.)

Edit: Oops!  Never blog tired.  I forgot to credit the AWESOME cookbook where I got the recipes.  It’s Quick and Easy Thai: 70 Everyday Recipes by Nancie McDermott.)

Oh my yes.

The crying tiger steak is a marinated flank steak, which I seared in my cast iron skillet and finished in the oven. If I do say so myself, it was perfectly cooked to just slightly shy of medium rare. With the roasted tomato chili sauce, it had a lovely, piquant bite with a tiny bit of sweetness from the sugar and fish sauce.

This was all melt-in-your-mouth tender. We were using my homemade bread to sop up that juicy runoff.

The shrimp with lemongrass, chilis and lime was somewhat ceviche-esque. In a ceviche, acid from the citrus is what cooks the fish or shellfish. With this dish, I poached the shrimp first, then added the citrusy-spicy mixture. We served it chilled, and both temperature and mint added nice contrast to the rest of the meal.

Crisp, spicy, and a little bit sweet.

The greens were a late addition to the menu, mostly because I thought our protein-rich meal could use a vegetable for balance. This recipe could honestly be made with any kind of greens. I went for the broccoli rabe and lacinato kale because they were the ones that looked the most appealing at our local hippie-mecca grocery store The Merc. It turns out, our afterthought greens dish was full of flavor, the sweetness of the sauce perfectly complementing the bitterness of the greens.

Surprisingly amazing.

The recipes:

Marinade for Steak
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 pound boneless beef steak, such as rib eye, strip, or flank steak

Roasted Tomato-Chili Sauce
5 small dried red chilies, or 1 tablespoon coarsely ground dried red chili flakes (I used flakes)
1/2 cup very coarsely chopped onion
3 large cloves garlic, very coarsely chopped
12 cherry tomatoes, or a generous 1/2 cup of quartered plum or roma tomatoes
1/3 cup fish sauce
3/4 cup lime juice or white vinegar (I used lime juice)
3 tablespoons sugar

In a medium bowl, prepare the marinade by combining the soy sauce, fish sauce, and sugar. Add the steak, turning to coat it, and let stand 30 minutes to 1 hour, turning now and then.

To make the sauce, dry-fry the whole chilies in a large skillet over medium heat for about 1 minutes, until darkened and fragrant but not burnt. Scoop them out onto a plate, increase the heat to medium-high and dry-fry the onion, garlic, and tomatoes, turning now and then, until nicely browned but not burnt, about 2 minutes. (If you use the dried red chili flakes, add them when the tomato mixture is almost ready; they burn fast.) Scoop everything out onto a plate, break the whole chilies apart and set aside. Combine the fish sauce, lime juice and sugar in the jar of a blender or food processor. Add the roasted tomato mixture and pulse everything to form a thick, fairly smooth sauce; stop while some chili bits and seeds are still visible in the sauce. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.

To cook the steak, I recommend grilling. Since we don’t have a grill, I pan-seared it in my cast iron skillet, then transferred the whole pan to a well-preheated 450 degree oven to finish. When it feels about done, take it out and let it rest on the cutting board for 10 minutes before cutting.

Shrimp with Lemongrass, Chilis and Lime
2 stalks fresh lemongrass
2 tablespoons thinly sliced shallots
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh hot green chilies (I use serranos for most everything)
3/4 cup fresh mint leaves, finely sliced
3/4 pound medium or large shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar

You can grill the shrimp, but again, no grill, so I poached them. Poach the shrimp by cooking them in a saucepan of boiling water until pink and cooked through but still quite tender, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Trim the lemongrass stalks down to about 2 inches, including the rounded base. Trim the root end to make it smooth, and peel off any loose, brittle outer leaves. Cut remaining stubs of fragrant stalk crosswise into very thin slices, or chop the to a fine mince, about 2 tablespoons.

Once the shrimp is cooked, drain it well and place in a medium bowl. Add the lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar and mix well. Add the lemongrass, shallots, chilies, and mint and toss well. Transfer to a serving platter and serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled.

Greens with Black Pepper and Garlic
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped garlic
8 to 10 cups loosely packed, chopped greens
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup water

Heat the oil in a large heavy skillet or a wok over medium-high heat for about 1 minute, and then add the garlic. Toss well and then add the spinach. Gently turn the pile of spinach to heat most of the leaves and add the fish sauce, sugar, pepper, and water. Toss well, and then cook, turning often, until the spinach is wilted and tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Turn out onto a deep platter, sauce and all, and serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

715 Restaurant

Ok, so 715 is this super-hip, creative restaurant in Lawrence that I have come to love for their creative cocktails (no froofy cosmos here!) and their incredible food. I have yet to be there for an actual meal, but their happy hour small plates are incredible.

Kim (of Kim and Tonic) and I love to have what we and our college friends lovingly refer to as “Lawrence Days”. These are days, preferably sunny like today, when we wander around downtown perusing shops and partaking of our favorite coffee/food/beverage establishments.

715 is quickly becoming a staple in the very best Lawrence days.

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Pork liver fegatini crostini.  It starts out sweet and then takes on a lovely, savory smoothness.  Dying of happy.

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The drinks: in the foreground, a basil rickey with cucumber infused gin, fresh basil, lavender, lime, and sugar.  It is perfectly tart and refreshing.

In the background, an amari cocktail with campari, benedictine and grapefruit.  Bitter and citrusy at the same time.  So exciting!

Potato-Leek Soup

I adore potato soup. Honestly, what could be better? It’s like two different comfort foods all wrapped up into one. My favorite is the baked potato soup that Chef Michael made when I was a student at Cottey College. It’s a super-creamy soup that starts with a roux as its base. The recipe for it is featured in the spankin-new Cottey College cookbook, and I promise, promise, promise that one of these days I will dedicate a post to it.

I have to admit, though, that all that creamy goodness can feel a little heavy when the sun is shining and the flowers are blooming outside. So, today’s post is a lovely, light-but-still-hearty soup that celebrates the flavors of spring–namely, the leek.  As much as I love a creamier soup, this one stands out for its incredible potato texture and pop of fresh herbs.

Potato-leek soup, complete with fresh herbs from my garden!

If you’ve never seen a leek, it looks like an enormous green onion, with a white bottom and dark green leafy top. It kind of tastes like a green onion too, just a little milder and crisper. To use it, you have to peel off the outer layer, then slice off the wispy roots at the bottom and the darker green part at the top, leaving only the white and light green parts. Rinse it, slice it lengthwise, and then chop it as fine as you’d like.

I sliced my leeks pretty thin.

The herbs were the other major contributor to flavor here. I was excited to get to go grab a handful of my fresh lemon thyme, which is growing on my porch. Since I didn’t have marjoram, either fresh or dried, I used a dash of oregano. It’s in the same family, and I think it turned out great. As for parsley, I used the flat Italian variety.

Thats the thyme on the right.

I like to use vegetable broth, and I do for most soups in place of chicken stock, unless it’s actual chicken soup. I think this comes from having LOTS of vegetarian friends. Hospitality is incredibly important for me, and the idea that I want to be welcoming and be able to feed everyone is pervasive, even when the only ones eating are omnivores like the hubby and me.

Here are the potatoes and leeks boiling in the stock.

You’ll want to make sure you have a good blender for this, since you’ll have to remove some of the soup and blend it, then add it back in to thicken the soup.

The soup after part has been blended and added back in.

INGREDIENTS
3 large leeks, cut lengthwise, separate, clean. Use only the white and pale green parts, chop.
2 Tbsp butter
2 cups water
2 cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth for vegetarian option)*
2 lbs potatoes, peeled, diced into 1/2 inch pieces
Marjoram – dash
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Tabasco sauce or other red chili sauce
Salt & Pepper
*If cooking gluten-free, be sure to use gluten-free broth.
METHOD
1 Cook leeks in butter with salt and pepper in a medium sized sauce pan. Cover pan, cook on low heat for 10 minutes. Check often. Do not brown leeks! Browning will give leeks a burnt taste.
2 Add water, broth, and potatoes. Bring to a low simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Scoop about half of the soup mixture into a blender, puree and return to pan. Add marjoram, parsley, and thyme. Add a few dashes of chili sauce to taste. Add some freshly ground pepper, 1-2 teaspoons salt or more to taste.
Yield: Serves 4-6.

Lamb Vindaloo

Alright, fans of Indian food, here’s a gem for you. I love vindaloo–the spicier the better–and this one is sweat-inducing spicy. Ok, so it doesn’t have to make your taste buds scream for mercy, but that’s how we like it. At the end, I’ll include how to make it milder for less masochistic palates.

The recipe I used came straight from the Penzeys Spices website. I’d had a small jar of their vindaloo powder for a while, but had yet to figure out how to use it. Thank you, Penzeys, for your lovely, easy recipe. Here’s the link.

It’s worth saying that I’m in super-forever-undying love with lamb. Think about it, how many food bloggers have two lamb posts in less than a month? For that matter, since this will be #20, I officially have lamb featured in 10% of my posts. This is true love. (Hubby is cool with it.)

In this recipe, I used 1 1/2 pounds of meat, about 4 or 5 large-ish potatoes, and one large yellow onion.

Start by prepping your ingredients.  You’ll be browning them each in hot oil, and you don’t want your hands busy chopping while you’re also trying to keep things from burning.  Plus, it’s a good time to really work on your knife work.  Try to get a nice, even dice on the onions and potatoes (as if you didn’t always, you saucy minx).  Also, pat your chunks of meat dry with a paper towel, because Julia Child taught us that, if the meat’s not dry, it won’t brown right, right?

Onions and potatoes. The recipe says red potatoes, but I used russet. Worked great.

Next, get your spice paste ready.  The mixture I used was 4 tablespoons vindaloo, 2 tablespoons cayenne, and 4 tablespoons water.*  I mixed it in a ramekin and set it aside to soak up the water.

Ok, now heat that oil in the pan over medium-high heat.  It doesn’t have to be smoking, but hot.  Throw in the potatoes and get them nice and brown.  You don’t want to overcook them, but if you don’t get a good crisp on the outside, they’ll be a lot more likely to disintegrate when you stew all the ingredients together later.

Take out the potatoes and brown the meat.  Take out the meat and then brown the onions.

Turn the heat down to medium. Throw the meat back in the pot with the onions, then add 1 cup water, 6 tablespoons vinegar, and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook 30 minutes, then add the potato and cook 30 more minutes.

I think this is a hearty enough recipe to serve it with brown rice. We like brown basmati rice for an extra little punch of flavor.

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*Ok, if you want this less spicy, here you go. The recipe says equal parts vindaloo and water (2-5 tablespoons) plus an equal portion of cayenne for street food authenticity. 5 tablespoons of cayenne is an awful lot, so even I didn’t use that much. I’d suggest cutting out the cayenne altogether if you don’t like spicy. If you’re really mild-mouthed, cut the vindaloo down to two tablespoons.

Killer Pizza

Friends, here’s a little trivia for you. Did you know that Americans eat around 350 slices of pizza per second? That’s 90 to 100 acres of pizza every day!  Each year in the United States, over 3 billion pizzas are sold.

Why is it, then, that every time hubby and I think about ordering pizza, the multitude of options in our college town seem, well, just bleh?  Don’t get me wrong.  There is a lot of good pizza to be had.  Rudy’s Pizzeria makes a quality pie, which we love, but most of it (think of the major pizza chains) generally sounds icky.  On the rare occasion when we actually do decide that one of them sounds decent, we always regret it later.

So, given my general (admittedly somewhat egotistical) attitude that I can make most things better and fresher, I decided to make my own.  I’ve had a pizza stone for some time and had recently outfitted myself with a bamboo pizza peel.  You’ve seen those long-handled, flat paddle-things that pizza makers use to transfer pies in and out of the oven, right?  That’s a pizza peel.

The great thing about making your own pizza is that you can put on it anything you want.  It’s a great way to use that little bit of several things you have left in your fridge.  You will however need a few basics.  For me, they’re things I keep anyway.  If you don’t, but you love pizza, stock up and you can have pizza any ol’ time.

You will need: flour, salt, yeast, sugar, olive oil and corn meal.  That’s all there is to the crust, which is, of course, the base of your pie.

Combine:
1 1/2 cups flour
1 package (or 1 Tablespoon) dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

Add 1 cup warm water and mix for 3 minutes.
Add an additional 1 1/2 cups flour and mix until combined. (I use my KitchenAid with the dough hook.)

Shape into a ball, place in a greased bowl, cover with a damp cloth and let rise until doubled, about 45 minutes.

Now, this is very, very important! You can press your dough into a cookie sheet or pizza pan, but if you’re using a ceramic pizza stone, you need to preheat it.  DO NOT put a cold stone in a hot oven!  It will crack.  The stone needs to be brought slowly to 400 degrees, so stick it in the oven, then crank up the heat.  I’d suggest doing this as soon as you set your dough aside to rise, so there’s plenty of time for the heat to build in the stone.

While your dough is rising and your oven is heating, get your ingredients ready.  You don’t need much of any one thing, just enough to give your pizza a little *pop* of flavor.  Here are mine:

Tomato sauce with 3 cloves minced garlic and a small bunch of chopped, fresh basil.

Thats sweet basil from my new potted herbs!

Fresh mushrooms, chopped. Oysters are nice because they have a great, but not-too-strong flavor.

Fresh oyster mushrooms from our farmers market.

I’ve had a jar of artichoke hearts in my cupboard for a while. They’re one of my favorite pizza toppings.

Diced, marinated artichoke hearts.

This is the equivalent of about 3 strips of bacon, fried crispy. I chopped it before I fried it, then gave it another good chop afterward.

Bacon--is there anything better?

I like to caramelize onions for pizza, because it makes them taste sweeter and keeps your pizza from having sorta-crunchy onions on it.

Thin-sliced yellow onion, caramelized using the bacon grease.

Once your dough is risen, dust your pizza peel with enough cornmeal to cover it. Work your dough into a round without kneading any extra flour into it, then lay it on the peel. Flatten it into a disc by pressing with your fingertips from the middle out, turning it as you do. If it starts to stick, lift it and throw a little more cornmeal underneath. You want to make sure that, when it’s time to transfer it to the pizza stone, it’ll slide right off.

Ok…build your pizza.

One...

Two...

Three...

Dust your hot pizza stone with a generous portion of cornmeal and carefully slide the pizza onto it. Bake it for about 15 minutes or so. Keep an eye on it, and use the pizza peel to take it out when it looks like this.

Beautiful!

Opening Day–a Time to Celebrate!

Oh my goodness!  Have I really not blogged in over a week?  Tragic!  By way of explanation, the Mom’s Birthday Dinner post should probably have been split into three.  Also, I have recently come down with a case of the crazy busy.

Today, though, has been glorious.  In my house, April means one thing–Opening Day!  If my Twitter and Facebook feeds are any indicator, the rest of the country thinks that Opening Day is all about baseball.  Now, I like baseball and wouldn’t want to disparage it in any way, but Opening Day in our house is all about the wonderful, the glorious, the deliciously-fresh Lawrence Farmers Market.

The opening bell rings at 7am, which, sadly, we missed in favor of a few extra minutes sleep and a stop at the ATM.  The market is full of fresh produce, plants for your garden (in my case, pots on our porch), homemade goods, farm-fresh eggs and meats, and more.

It’s a foodie’s dreamland, and totally worth getting up early on a Saturday.

Check out my basket of goodies.

That's rhubarb in the front.

The conversation in front of the booth with the rhubarb went like this:

Me: “Can we get some rhubarb?”
Husband: “What do you want to do with the rhubarb?”
Me: “Pie.”
Husband: without a moment’s pause “We can get rhubarb.”

And those are just a few of the fresh oyster mushrooms we got. Oh wow.

The guy who was selling the mushrooms was also selling some homemade fresh mushroom pâté that his mother had been tinkering with. I really wish I could claim to have invented it. It’s amazing.  These little lovelies will probably go on a pizza with marinated artichoke hearts and caramelized onions.

In addition to what’s in the basket, we also bought some lovely farm-fresh eggs and some herbs to plant.  I use tons of fresh herbs in my cooking.  Seriously, once you get into fresh herbs, dry herbs just never, ever pass muster.  The only reason I even keep any dry herbs around is that fresh herbs are insanely expensive when you have to buy them in little packages in the grocery store.  To make my Indian chickpea curry, I would ideally use two packages of dill.  That’s about $7–just for herbs.  Today at the farmers market, I spent $5 on two pots of dill plants, each of which has several individual plants in it, will leaf out nicely and last me all summer–I hope.

Here’s the rub:  We live in a 3rd floor apartment with almost no natural light indoors (and two cats who will eat plants).  We do have an east-facing porch, which is nice.  We tried a couple years ago to do potted herbs and tomatoes, but ended up with some sort of pest that we have yet to identify, and it destroyed everything.  This year we’ll try again and, with the help of the awesome local growers at the market, will hopefully be able to fend off any little beasties that want to eat my plants.

That's my dill at the top, the sweet basil in the background, and lemon thyme in front.

A better shot of my basil. I'll pinch it off pretty far down today, use the leaves in my pizza sauce, then wait for my plant to bush out. Love basil!

Rosemary--essential for my roasted chicken and just delightful.

I can’t wait for all the goodies yet to come out of the farmers market this year!  If you’d like to go and you need someone to go with you–well, twist my arm whydontcha?

Unexpected Gastronomic Delight!

I know what you’ll think: Jennifer’s off her rocker (again). No way is Totino’s pizza anything close to a “gastronomic delight”.

I would have thought that too, but was pleasantly surprised by our simple dinner last night. The night before had been my mom’s lamb birthday dinner, so I was understandably not interested in cooking anything particularly complex.  Jason stopped by the store and picked up a few of these inexpensive pizzas, and we popped them in the oven for dinner.

Who would expect awesome out of this unassuming package?

Step-by-step instructions make it accessible to anyone with an oven.

I cannot stress this enough: do remove the plastic.

You can use a baking sheet or just arrange them directly on the rack.

God bless Totinos for their excellent, user-friendly instructions. Honestly, the hardest part was waiting the 15 minutes for the timer to chime. Even though the aromas wafting from my kitchen smelled yummy, I was unprepared for how delicious the pizza would actually be. Naturally, anything frozen isn’t going to look to appealing, but the cheese melted into ooey-gooey goodness, and there was just enough sausage and pepperoni. Most pleasing, though, was the sauce. At first taste, it’s a little on the sweet side, but as the flavors spread over my taste buds, I caught a much stronger note of oregano. You may not like it, but I adore oregano.

Melty, cheesy goodness.

Needless to say, I devoured my pizza. While I would usually be happy with my Diet Dr. Pepper, I figured I’d celebrate this surprising find with a little wine.

The sweet, strawberry-citrus flavor was a perfect contrast to the spicy sauce and sausage.

"Wut u mean I no can haz nomz?"

Rack of Lamb: A Les Halles Dinner for Mom’s Birthday

I was really flattered and excited this week when my mother, of all the available options, chose to come to our place for her birthday dinner.  Naturally, I wanted to cook something really special, and I reached out to several of my foodie friends for ideas.  Although I got lots of terrific suggestions, I finally found my answer in a library book.

That’s right, I’ll confess–I check out cookbooks from the library and read them cover-to-cover like novels.  That’s the kind of food nerd I am.  A couple weeks ago I’d found Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking.*  I was poring over the recipes, attempting to control my drooling, and hit the jackpot.

The menu:
Carré d’agneau au moutarde (rack of lamb with mustard)
Gratin dauphinois (creamy, garlicky potatoes)
Sautéed vegetables
Lemon tart

Here’s the thing about lamb, for those of you who aren’t familiar with this gastronomical delight. It’s incredibly flavorful, so it takes very little “dressing up”. The flavor of the meat is sort of musky, and I always have the feeling I can taste the essence of the grass the little animal ate. It’s a little on the pricey side, so it’s not an everyday meal for most of us, but it is perfect for a special dinner.

First the pictures, then the recipes.

The meal--and sadly, the only pic I got of the potatoes before my family devoured them.

Look at that lovely little lamb.

Sweet and creamy lemon tart--how pretty is that?

Ok, so there was a particular timeline for getting this meal done and on the table without any of it getting cold. As with any cooking, make sure you gather your ingredients and do any chopping and measuring you can before you turn on your stove or oven. It’s called mis en place and it’s super important. I am not always good at remembering to prep everything first, and I pay for it in stress if not always in food-quality.

I started with the tart, since it has to chill thoroughly before cutting. I woke up early and made it before leaving for work. Also, I opted to use my standard recipe for crust rather than the one in the cookbook. I’m sure the Les Halles pastry chef makes a great crust, but there are lots of ways to make great crust, and I like mine.

For the filling: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Whisk together 1/2 cup lemon juice and 1/2 cup sugar until blended. Whisk in 4 large eggs until incorporated, then whisk in 1 cup cream. Pour the mixture into a prebaked pie crust and bake for 25 minutes, or until the custard is set. Cool thoroughly and serve with slightly sweetened whipped cream. What you’ll end up with is a more-creamy-than-tart lemon tart that is a lovely, light finish to a meal with some pretty strong flavors.

So, once I got home from work I got going on the rest of the food.  First on the list was the potatoes.  They have to hang out in the oven for a while, so I wanted to get them started. This dish was amazing! It was so creamy and flavorful. My family made short work of it, making little happy sounds as they ate.

Gratin Dauphinois:
8 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch slices
2 cups heavy cream
5 garlic cloves, slightly crushed
1 sprig of thyme
1 sprig of rosemary
1 sprig of flat parsley
salt and white pepper
freshly ground nutmeg (Tony says “go easy“)
1 tablespoon butter
4 ounces grated Gruyère cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the potatoes in a large pot and add the cream, 4 of the garlic cloves, and the herbs. Season with salt, white pepper, and nutmeg. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. After 10 minutes of simmering, remove from the heat and discard the garlic and herbs.

Use the remaining garlic clove to rub around the inside of the gratin dish. Butter the inside of the gratin dish as well so that it is evently coated. Transfer the potatoes and cream to the gratin dish and sprinkle the top with the Gruyère. Cook in the oven for 40 minutes, or until the mixture is brown and bubbling. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

While the potatoes were baking, I started the lamb. It’s remarkably easy. At first I followed the recipe, which I’ll include here as it’s written. I am, however, convinced that my oven stinks, so I ended up having to leave it in longer than the called-for 17 minutes to get it cooked enough.

You need:
2 racks of lamb, French cut**
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup red wine
2 cups strong, dark lamb stock
1 garlic clove, slightly crushed
1 bouquet garni***
1 pinch fresh thyme leaves
1 pinch fresh rosemary leaves
2 tablespoons dijon mustard
2 tablespoons fresh bread crumbs

Season the racks with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in the saute pan and, when the oil is hot, add 1 tablespoon of the butter. Once the butter has foamed and subsided, put the racks in, fat side down, and sear, turning with the tongs, until brown on all sides, about 5 minutes total. Remove from the pan and set aside.
Discard the fat from the saute pan and, over high heat, stir in the wine, scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon. Reduce by half, then add the lamb stock, garlic, and bouquet garni. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook down until thick enough to coat the spoon. Strain into a small pot and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Sprinkle half the thyme and rosemary leaves over the lamb. Then spoon the mustard over the fat side of the lamb rack and cover the are with bread crumbs. Press the bread crumbs into the mustard with your hands, so that they adhere to the mustard, forming a thick layer over the outside. Place the lamb in the roasting pan and cook in the oven for 17 minutes (for medium rare). Remove from the oven and let rest 10 minutes before slicing into double chops and arranging on a serving platter. Bring the sauce to a boil and add the remaining thyme and rosemary. Whisk in the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and serve alongside the lamb.

And finally, while the lamb was in the oven, I sauteed my veggies. I had a bunch of them, so they wouldn’t all fit in my cast iron at once. So, I melted some butter and threw in a chopped red onion to caramelize, then cooked each type of vegetable individually (keeping the onion in the pan to tie the flavors).

It went like this: get the onions cooking, add the asparagus. Salt and cook until crisp-tender, take out the asparagus. Add the peppers. Salt and cook until crisp-tender, take out the peppers. Add the mushrooms. Salt and cook until the mushrooms are browned. Dump the lot into the bowl with the other veggies and toss together. Super tasty.

Crisp, colorful veggies just waiting for the saute pan.

Nothing smells better than sauteeing peppers and onions.

Asparagus--one of the loveliest harbingers of spring.

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*After reading it cover to cover and cooking three of the recipes, I have decided that I need, need, need my own copy of this cookbook.  You should get it too.  We all know that I was already a big Bourdain fan for his food/travel show No Reservations. Now, my fangirl adoration has just increased.

**To get my lamb French cut for me, I called my meat guys at Steve’s Meat Market in DeSoto, KS.  They’re wonderful!  Look for a blog post to come, featuring my new favorite foodie place!

***Bouquet Garni: 2 sprigs fresh thyme, 1 sprig fresh flat parsley, 1 bay leaf, bundled up in cheesecloth.  It’s essential in French cooking.  There may be other variations on the herbs.