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Rolling Tart Dough

Nurture. What a great word. So many meanings, so much promise. Full of hope and faith in the future.

As I mentioned way back when, at the start of 2012, Matt and I have a tradition: in lieu of New Year’s resolutions, every year we choose a single word to live by. A mantra to remind ourselves what really matters. This year during our New Year’s Day hike, when I asked Matt what he thought our 2013 word should be, “nurture” was the first word out of his mouth. And it was perfect. At the time, I was about 6 months pregnant, (now only 7 weeks, yes I said weeks, left to go!), and just starting to feel the movements of a new life taking shape inside me. We had nurtured the hope of becoming parents for a long time, and now it seemed it was really going to happen.

For us, the word contained not only the obvious meaning of nurturing our child, and cultivating the types of values we want to pass along as parents, but also a reminder to nurture ourselves and each other. To steady ourselves against the all-consuming, life-changing event on the horizon.

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I found myself thinking about this promise last weekend, as I was preparing a meal to drop off for my friend Clare who just had a baby. Most of the time, nothing gives me more pleasure or satisfaction than cooking for the people I love. And going above and beyond with a few culinary details (homemade chicken stock for my soup, pie dough from scratch), especially for people who might not have the time to do it themselves, is a gift I love to give. But last weekend, as I was rolling out pie dough with my great-grandmother’s wooden rolling pin (we’ll get back to her in a moment) and rushing to get my tart in the oven, I discovered that at 8-months pregnant, standing in the kitchen for hours is not as fun as it used to be. As much as I wanted to make the meal of all meals to soothe the bodies and souls of a family with their hands full (newborn AND toddler!), what I wanted and needed even more was a nap. In my quest to nurture others, I had forgotten to nurture myself.

Gramma in the iris bed

Now back to my great-grandmother, Mary Blanche. She knew a thing or two about how to nurture. For Christmas every year, she gave us each a tin of homemade cookies and new flannel pajamas, lovingly sewn. And when I visited her as a little girl, we would make snickerdoodles and tapioca pudding, and serve it up on her finest china at tea parties for prestigious guests (my dolls, stuffed animals, and other dignitaries.) She would pull a step stool up to her kitchen counter so I could be her kitchen apprentice, kneading and mixing at her side. I loved her wrinkled hands, talcum-scented and soft as pie dough. But in addition to all the loving touches she doled out to those around her, Mary Blanche was really good at taking care of herself. Of hearty Michigan farm stock, she had a streak of independence and gumption that served her well all her life. She lived out her final days alone in her house, and as family legend has it, was making herself a pot of homemade chicken soup from scratch on the day she died, at age 96.

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When I finally arrived at Clare’s house with a basket of homemade goodies, flustered from rushing around all day, I was greeted with a very calming reality-check. The whole family–mom, dad, newborn, and toddler were settled in for a Sunday afternoon nap. Rosy-cheeked, and pleasantly tired from a hike, they greeted me in PJs and bed-head and invited me into their cozy cocoon. Invited me to slow down. Leading by example in the most nurturing way.

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I was really happy to share a lovingly prepared meal with this family, and I know they sincerely appreciated it. But I also know they would have equally appreciated a much simpler gesture. And so, after that visit, I vowed to give myself permission to simplify. And naps. More naps!

Thank you Clare and Mary Blanche for helping me remember to nurture myself.

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The meal:

Sausage & Kale Dinner Tart, recipe from Food 52, posted by My Pantry Shelf. (Whose blog My Pantry Shelf  is definitely worth checking out.)

This recipe is fantastic. I’ve made it before. This time around, I made a few minor modifications in an effort to reduce the guilt I feel about eating pie for dinner: used a lower fat turkey sausage and substituted 1/2 cup of the flour with whole wheat flour. But then again, I probably negated those efforts by adding slightly more cheese (ricotta AND goat’s milk feta) than the original recipe calls for. Oh well. Delicious either way.

Served with cauliflower soup (recipe from The French Market: More Recipes from a French Kitchenby Joanne Harris & Fran Warde) and salad greens from our garden, with a homemade Dijon vinaigrette.

At least I was “self-nurturing” enough to double the recipes so we could also enjoy the fruits of my labor!

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This year, we hosted a mellow Thanksgiving dinner with a few friends. I cooked for days, and all the usual suspects were at the table: turkey, stuffing, green beans, the works. But my surprise favorites of the day were the butternut squash soup and sun-dried tomato shortbread that I served as appetizers.

Maybe it was my favorite because the soup looked so pretty in those espresso cups passed down from my mother-in-law. The ones her mother brought back from Vienna, which had been sitting in my cabinet for ages just begging for a chance. Maybe it tasted so good because we had just come in from a long hike, rosy-faced and ravenous, and hot soup was waiting. Maybe it was the smell of turkey in the oven, and the anticipation of the feast still to come. The sound of laughter and wine glasses clinking. The sun setting on the cusp of a four-day weekend…

Okay, let’s be honest, it was probably the bacon. Culinary cheating. Maybe it’s wrong, but it tasted so right, and I’ll definitely be making this combo again.

Butternut Squash & White Bean Soup

Adapted, ever so slightly, from this recipe, posted on Food52 by Brussels Sprouts for Breakfast. I first tasted the soup when someone made it for a Food52 potluck party that I was lucky enough to attend. (more on that in another post). I reversed the balance of the flavors a bit here by increasing the squash and decreasing the beans–mainly because I have to be sneaky about the use of beans in my cooking if I want to fool “Mr. T” into eating it. (Which worked beautifully in this case. Again, it’s probably the bacon.)

1 medium-sized butternut squash
6 slices thick bacon, each strip cut into about 4 pieces
2 shallots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery coarsely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed slightly
1/4 cup sherry (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves
15 oz can of cannellini beans
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 shallots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery coarsely chopped
2 carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 cups chicken or turkey stock
1/2 cup half & half
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut the butternut squash in half the long way, brush with olive oil and put on a baking sheet, cut-side up. Roast for 30-40 minutes, until squash is soft all the way through when poked with a fork, and a little brown around the edges. Allow to cool slightly, then scoop seeds out with a spoon and discard.

Heat a little olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add bacon and saute until sizzling and cooked through. (Don’t worry about getting it crisp, as it will all be pureed in the end.) Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and place onto a plate lined with a paper towel. Pour off all but one tablespoon of bacon fat.

Add  shallots, celery, carrots, and garlic to pan and saute over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add a little olive oil if necessary to prevent burning. Add salt, pepper and red pepper flakes and cook for about 10 minutes until vegetables are softened and just beginning to brown. Add sherry to deglaze pan, stirring with a wooden spoon to scrape up brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook for a minute or two to allow alcohol to burn off. Transfer mixture to a large pot.

Add beans, bacon and rosemary to pot and cook over medium heat for 1-2 minutes to allow flavors to meld. Add all the stock to the pot, raise the heat and bring to a simmer. Cook for about 10 minutes, and then turn heat off, allowing mixture to cool slightly.

Using a spoon, scrape the flesh of one half of the roasted squash from its skin and place it into the bowl of a food processor. Ladle a few spoonfuls of the soup mixture on top of the squash and blend until smooth and then return pureed mixture to the soup pot. Repeat until all the soup and squash have been pureed. If you have a hand-held immersion blender, lucky you, you can skip the food processor and just blend it all together in the soup pot. If you want to make the soup ahead of time and freeze it, stop here, and follow the final steps just before serving.

Heat pureed mixture over low heat. Mix in the half and half and stir to combine. Add more broth and/or half and half to achieve desired consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Savory Shortbread with Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Thyme

These little riches were inspired by Rhode Island chef and caterer, Chris Whirlow. I had his savory olive shortbread at a party and asked him for the recipe. (He calls them “Scourtins aux Olives de Nyons”, which I must admit sounds way fancier, but I like the simplicity of shortbread.) I decided to swap the olives for sun-dried tomatoes and thyme to complement the flavors of my soup.

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped (I used the kind that come in a jar with olive oil, and left them pretty wet with oil. If you’re using the dried out variety, you’ll want to reconstitute it first, and may need to add some extra fat.)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt

Cream  butter and sugar. Drizzle olive oil and mix in with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Stir in the flour by hand just until the dough is smooth. Add the sun-dried tomatoes, thyme and salt and stir just until they are evenly
distributed throughout the dough.

Dough will be a little crumbly. (Ok, at this point in the recipe, I must fess up. Chris’s recipe said the dough would be a little sticky and my plan was to roll it into a log, freeze it, and slice and bake. Sounds easy, right? But my dough wasn’t a little sticky. It was a lot crumbly. Probably because I converted his recipe from weight measurements since I don’t own a kitchen scale. It’s on my Christmas list! If you are a better baker than I, you can probably tweak this recipe back into shape. But the crumbly version was really good too, so I’ll call it a happy accident.) Press the dough into a baking pan, using your fingers to make it hold together and to get an even thickness. I used 9″x12″ pan. A little larger would be okay for thinner shortbread. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate the dough for at least 45 minutes, or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until ever so slightly brown around the edges and evenly dry on top. Allow to cool for a few minutes and cut into squares. As you can see in my photo, I didn’t end up with perfect squares, but the rustic-looking crumbly shapes were okay with me. Now you know the truth about why I couldn’t give them a fancy name like “scourtins”. Whatever you call them, they taste pretty delicious dipped in soup, with a fire in the fireplace and some good friends to be thankful with.

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I recently spent a lovely week in New York, combining business and pleasure–which for me of course, means friends + food. The October weather could not have been more perfect: crisp, sunny and heart-breakingly fall. Living in California, I really miss fall. Winter, not so much. But sunny October days on the East Coast fill me with longing and make me want to do all kinds of cliché autumn things like apple-picking and pumpkin carving (which I checked off my list during this trip with my friend’s daughter Gabbie, who is missing her two front teeth, just like the Jack-o-Lantern we carved.)

Fall also brings cravings for warm, stick-to-your-ribs meals savored leisurely over good wine and good conversation in cozy, tucked away nooks. Another item checked off my list in NYC, thanks to my friend Jenny’s excellent dinner choice: Fedora in Greenwich Village. It was one of those small little spots hiding below street level in a brownstone building on a tree-lined street, contributing to the feeling that we had discovered a great little secret. Which apparently is not so secret after all, because the place was packed and Jenny and I practically had to lean nose-to-nose over our table to hear our own conversation above the Saturday night barroom buzz. Despite the acoustic challenges, we enjoyed an immensely satisfying meal of comfort food with playful twists. I couldn’t stop thinking about my entrée: a juicy pork chop with roasted figs and crispy kale chips scattered on top. So I tried to recreate the magic at home.

After searching online for some good pork brining recipes, I stumbled upon this mouth-watering recipe for Cider Brined Pork with Calvados, Mustard and Thyme by Oui, Chef on Food52. I used this recipe as my jumping-off point and made a few modifications inspired by my meal at Fedora. I followed the brine recipe precisely (except I only brined for about 8 hours because I hadn’t planned far enough in advance for an overnight brine. It was still good, and I’m sure would only get better if allowed to bathe longer.), and then made a few modifications to the sauce and pork preparation, as detailed below.

I still have not mastered the art of food photography after the sun goes down (which makes it especially hard to get good shots in the winter), so I’ll have to leave most of this to your imagination. You’ll have to trust me that it’s a very pretty dish. Fresh figs and kale chips make lovely accessories.

Cider Brined Pork Chop with Figs and Kale Chips
Serves 2.

Oui, Chef’s Cider Brine:
2 cups apple cider
1 1/2 cup water
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup lightly packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
3 sprigs fresh thyme

Place all brine ingredients in a medium saucepan, and stir over low heat until the salt and sugar have dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool. Place pork in a in a shallow bowl, cover fully with brine, wrap and refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight. When ready to cook, remove the chops from the brine, rinse well under cold water, and dry with paper towels before continuing.

While the pork was soaking, Mr. T and I decided to take the kayaks for a little spin along the waterfront to work up an appetite. (Okay, October days in California can be pretty sweet too.)

Then back to the kitchen…

Pork Chop and Fig Sauce (Modified from Oui, Chef’s recipe):
A large 2″ thick pork chop
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup brandy
1 shallot, finely minced
6 fresh figs, stems removed, cut in half
1/3 cup apple cider
1/4 cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely minced

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Heat oil in a heavy (preferably iron) skillet over medium-high heat. Season pork with a little salt and freshly ground pepper. Add pork to skillet and sear until nice and brown, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer pork chop to plate and set aside.

Reduce heat to medium-low. Add shallots to pan and stir with a wooden spoon for 1-2 minutes, allowing them to brown slightly. If it seems dry, or like they are starting to burn, add a splash of oil or a pat of butter. Add figs and cook for one more minute. Turn heat up slightly to medium and de-glaze the pan with the brandy, scraping the brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Stir in broth and cider, then mustard, stirring well to combine. Add thyme, then return pork chop to the skillet, and place the skillet in the oven for about 15 minutes, or until center of pork chop reaches 16o degrees.

Remove skillet from oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Carve pork chop into thin slices and plate (I served it over a creamy polenta) with fig sauce spooned on top and kale chips scattered on top and around the sides. We enjoyed this meal in our backyard, with a nice bottle of wine by the fire–savoring a crisp California fall night.

Other food highlights from my trip to NYC: A great dinner at Craft with David & Gary (everything was delicious. The octopus with harissa was a revelation, hen of the woods mushrooms were to die for, and I wouldn’t mind a chance to bathe in the vermouth sauce they served with the scallops); I’m still dreaming of the chocolate caramel pignoli tart with sea salt that Julie, Sharyn and I shared (fought over?) at Recipe; and oh how I wish I had been hungrier when I stumbled upon Donna Bell’s Bake Shop in Hell’s Kitchen. I could’ve climbed into the coconut layer cake for a nap (after my vermouth butter bath, perhaps?), but alas, I only had room for some sweet tea. Just another reason to return soon.

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