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Monday, October 31, 2011

Baking with Beer: Not Your Mother's Gingerbread

It's he-ere (imagine this said in a scary, Halloween-y voice).

David and I woke up yesterday morning to find that it had snowed.  It was less than an inch, and it promptly became ice on the streets, but I was happy to see it.  This apparently is not a normal reaction to snow, but I was happy.

Maybe it's because the gray and brown that had taken over for the past few weeks were now clean and white.  Maybe it's because it's now time for the holidays.  Maybe it's because I didn't have anywhere to be until 6 p.m. last night.  Who knows?  All I can say is that I got a little giddy.

My brother-in-law Philip, who lives in Brooklyn, couldn't believe that it snowed in Manhattan before Anchorage.  Here is a totally random photo from our front window yesterday morning, which was initially as close to the snow as David wanted to venture:

I hope it doesn't keep what is usually a flood of trick-or-treaters from our door tonight--I may have overstocked on candy a little.  Oops.  Whoever comes will be greeted by our not-very-well-crafted pumpkin that we carved this weekend at our friends' annual pumpkin-carving party.

 I can't believe October is over today.  Not only does this remind me that my play opens in 26 days (eek!), but it brings an end to the Oktoberfest cooking with beer festivities.  For the last installment, I wanted to try using beer in a dessert.  

This dessert is adapted from a fun cookbook called All Cakes Considered, and is written by a National Public Radio staffer who began taking cakes to work and eventually was dubbed "the cake lady."  There are worse nicknames.

This is some seriously zingy gingerbread.  I can't taste the beer, although it might be contributing to the malty quality of the cake.  It's the perfect dessert for sliding (or, as I said the other day, slouching) into winter.

I may not be good at carving pumpkins, but at least I buy good candy.

Not-Your-Mother's Gingerbread
Adapted from All Cakes Considered by Melissa Gray

For the gingerbread:
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tbsp. dark brown sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 cup dark molasses
1 cup dark beer
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
Small pinch of kosher salt
1/2 crystallized ginger, roughly chopped

For the frosting:
3 ounces reduced-fat cream cheese (Neufchatel)
1/2 unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 tsp. ground ginger

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and center a rack in the middle.  Using either butter or nonstick baking spray, coat an eight-inch square baking pan.

Cream the butter with a hand mixer on medium speed, then add the brown sugar and beat to combine.

Continuing on medium speed, add the egg, beer and molasses all at once and beat for up to two minutes, until well-combined.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, spices and salt in a medium bowl.  Add to the butter mixture in three separate installments, beating well each time.

Gently stir the crystallized ginger into the batter and pour the mixture into the prepared baking pan.  Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until a toothpick stuck in the cake comes out clean.  Cool thoroughly on a baking rack.

While the cake is cooling, prepare the frosting.  Cream the cream cheese, vanilla and butter using a hand mixer on medium speed.  Add the powdered sugar in three installments, beat after each one.  When the mixture, is thoroughly blended, add the ginger and beat until combined.

Spread the frosting over the cake.  When serving, garnish each piece with a small chunk of crystallized ginger.

Serves 12-16, depending on how much you feel like sharing.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Slouching Toward Winter

It has been a long week here, I'm telling you.

It began with not feeling great and hit an apex midweek when one of the actors in my play called me at 10:30 at night to say that he hadn't realized the show performed on Saturday nights and he had another gig on Saturdays.  Really?  Really?  I don't think it takes being a theatre person to know that in theatres all around the country--nay, all around the world--shows perform on Saturday nights.  But okay.

It didn't help that this was the most difficult role to recast.

Then, as I was leaving my office for a meeting on Thursday afternoon, my car wouldn't start and it had to be towed off to the shop when it became clear that it was not just a dead battery.

I'm pleased to say that things started looking up yesterday.  I'm feeling better, we found a new actor and it turns out that my car battery was cracked and needed to be replaced--sure, not great, but better than the dead alternator that all the lawyers in my office predicted it was.  (As an aside, a clump of lawyers standing in a parking lot in the middle of the afternoon prognosticating on what is wrong with a car while said car is being towed makes for great comedy.)

I even had last night off and practically didn't know what to do with myself.  Who am I kidding?  I was going to cook.

It is, amazingly enough, still fall in Alaska.  Parts of Anchorage in the upper elevations have had a dusting of snow, as has one of the suburbs.  At my house, there's been a hard frost in the morning for a couple of weeks now, but no actual snow. 

I'm calling this recipe "Yearning for Summer" pasta because it has the flavors of summer but doesn't rely on ingredients only available in summer.  If you still have access to fresh corn, knock yourself out and use that.

Yearning for Summer Pasta with Herbs and Ricotta
Adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine, June 2008

1 large head of garlic, with the top 1/2 inch removed
4 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 10 oz. bag of frozen corn, thawed
4 tsp. grated lemon or lime zest
6 tbsp. fresh lemon or lime juice
12 oz. dried capellini (angel hair) pasta
1 large leek, white and pale green parts only, chopped
4 cups mixed greens (arugula, radicchio, baby spinach)
1 cup fresh part-skim ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1 cup finely chopped mixed herbs (basil, chives, parsley--use whatever is in your refrigerator)
Kosher salt and freshly-ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Take a large piece of aluminum foil and place the garlic in the middle.  Drizzle with two tablespoons of the olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Wrap the bulb in the foil and place in the center of the oven.

While the garlic is cooking, spread the frozen corn on a baking sheet that has been sprayed with a nonstick spray.  Set a large pot of salted water on to boil.

After the garlic has been cooking for fifteen minutes, place the baking sheet with the corn in the oven.  Bake for another fifteen minutes, then sprinkle the leeks over the corn and return to the oven for another ten minutes.

Even frozen corn tastes so much better after it's been roasted.
Remove the baking sheet from the oven.  The garlic should be soft at this point, and the corn and leeks should be lightly roasted.  Carefully (it will be hot!) squeeze the garlic out of its husks and add to a medium bowl.  Mash the garlic a bit, then add the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil, plus the zest and juice.  Stir the mixture--it will be thick.

This is so good that you might need to have a bite or two before adding it to the pasta. 
Just to test it, you know.
Cook the pasta until al dente and drain, reserving a cup of the cooking water in case it's needed to thin the sauce.  Return the pasta to the pot it was cooked in and add the greens, parmesan and garlic sauce.  Toss to coat the pasta, adding a little of the pasta cooking water if necessary to thin the mixture.

Transfer the pasta to a warmed serving bowl, season with salt and pepper and serve with additional parmesan if desired.

Serves four as a main course;  six as a pasta course.

Food/wine pairing:  Serve with a wine that will pick up the flavors of the citrus--American or South American Sauvignon Blanc or Vinho Verde.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On My Bookshelf: The Fabulous and Terrible Life of an Immigrant Restauranteur

On my bookshelf, otherwise known as "odd things Krista reads while on the elliptical at the gym." 

Seriously, I confound my personal trainer, who wonders how I can possibly read about food while exercising without getting hungry or wanting to eat all the bad things described in the book or magazine.

Of course, my trainer has been trying to convince me that I shouldn't eat carbohydrates after 4 p.m. for the past four years.  Yeah, like that's going to happen. 

Although I love food literature, I am not normally a biography reader.  Pino Luongo's biography Dirty Dishes:  a Restauranteur's Story of Passion, Pain and Pasta intrigued me because Luongo was an Italian immigrant who came to the United States with no formal culinary training, barely a lick of English and running from conscription in the Italian military.  Along the way, he marries (and divorces) a longtime girlfriend to get his green card and starts several apparently prominent Manhattan restaurants, only one of which still existed at the time the book was written.  (Incidentally, I just searched for Luongo's website and that of his last restaurant, and couldn't find either.)

Photo from

Although I finished the book and it was a relatively quick read, I cannot recommend it unless 1) you really like immigrant stories or 2) you are interested in this particular man.  First of all, the book is written in a somewhat stilted manner, particularly the first fifty pages.  This may be a result of an uneven collaboration between Luongo and his cowriter, but it makes for a slow start in what is the most interesting part of the story.  Luongo's description of his mother's cooking and its influence and his contentious relationship with his father sets up most of the decisions he makes as an adult, but it is told in an impersonal and circuitous manner.

Although the writing smoothed out a quarter of the way in, I sensed that Luongo wanted to be presented in the most favorable possible light and the co-writer followed suit.  Underneath the stories about how generous Luongo was with his employees and how much he cared about his business reputation was an undercurrent that Luongo was a selfish hothead who made impetuous business decisions. 

There is a great immigrant's story here, but it is buried in what often feels like a vanity project.  The book also missteps in having the co-writer narrate long sections (which are italicized for even greater irritation) about his conversations with Luongo while writing the book.  Andrew Friedman is a decent writer--a better book he edited is here--but since it seems that he is santizing his subject he becomes an unreliable narrator.

Anyone else read this book?  If so, tell me what you thought.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Manic Monday

Ah, Monday.  I can always tell when it's Sunday afternoon because I feel instantly less relaxed and begin preparing for the eventuality:  Monday's coming.

I've talked about starting rehearsals for a play I'm directing called "Inspecting Carol," a mash-up of "Christmas Carol" and "Noises Off"--a small professional theatre company's trials and travails putting on an underrehearsed production of "Christmas Carol" in light of National Endowment for the Arts funding cuts, actors behaving badly and sets falling apart. 

I always feel nervous when I start directing a show.  If it doesn't come together, I'm ultimately responsible because it's my job to be the leader.  (My low point yesterday was when I whined at my husband "Why do I have to be the leader?"  The logical response would be that I have directed a dozen shows, but David knew better than to try logic).  This all gets much better, mind you, when rehearsals actually start.  Anticipation is a killer.

Yesterday afternoon, in advance of our first rehearsal, I combated my stress by cooking.  What started as a slow-cooker chicken chile verde morphed as I realized I didn't have all the ingredients I needed.  Instead, it became a smoky, flavorful and healthy soup of chicken chunks, Guajillo pepper flakes and onion, served over rice.  In other words, the perfect take-to-work lunch.

My lunch, sitting on the chaos that is my desk.
The recipe originally called for a can of minced jalapeños and their juice.  I used a whole dried Guajillo pepper, pounded in my mortar and pestle, which added the smoky flavor but not much heat.  It takes a couple of minutes longer, but I would recommend using either a good dried pepper or fresh poblanos, depending on what you have available.

Slow-Cooker Guajillo Chicken Soup
Adapted from Slow Cooker:FoodMadeFast

3 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut in 1-inch cubes
1 large dried Guajillo pepper, pounded in a mortar and pestle
2 cups chicken broth
2 tbsp. rice wine vinegar
1 large yellow onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. dried fennel seeds

Look at the pretty new backsplash!
 1 tbsp. hot sauce, plus more to taste
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste

Sour cream, chopped cilantro and white rice, for serving

In the pot of the slow cooker, add the chicken breast chunks and sprinkle the pepper over them.  Then add the broth, onion, oregano, garlic and fennel seed.

Here it is just going into the slow cooker.  Not so appealingat this point--it gets better!
Set the slow cooker to cook for four hours on high heat.  At the halfway point, add the hot sauce and vinegar and taste the broth.  Add more hot sauce or vinegar if it needs more heat or acid, plus salt and pepper to taste.

Now that's a better color.  The soup took on the color of the pepper, along with a hit of color from the hot sauce.
Serve over rice with the sour cream and cilantro.  If you have lemon or lime wedges on hand, serve on the side for squeezing over the soup.

There's no added fat in this soup;  to keep it healthy, I served it with reduced-fat sour cream.
Serves 6 as a main course.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Something Out of Nothing: Makeover Edition

I  started rehearsals today for the new play I am directing, which means that for the next five weeks I will almost never be home for dinner.  "Dinner" will be protein bars, fruit and some tea grabbed between leaving my office and arriving at the theatre.  Whoever said theatre was glamorous had another think coming.

For the last week, I have been cooking as often as I can, using whatever was in my refrigerator and pantry to inspire meals.  On the day of the bosses' day lunch, for instance, here is what came home with me:

That's right.  No chicken adobo, but about 8 cups of jasmine rice.  Add some shrimp and a few things out of the pantry, and you've got shrimp fried rice.  I don't actually like restaurant fried rice:  it seems greasy, heavy and salty.  It's not something that I would ordinarily choose to make, but I have a thing about wasting food and I wanted to see if restaurant fried rice could be made over into something appetizing.

Good news:  it can.  I'm not going to lie, fried rice is, you know, fried.  However, the oil can be minimized without sacrificing the flavor.  Dare I say, it actually improves the flavor. 

Made Over Shrimp Fried Rice
Adapted from Cooking Light Magazine, January 2001

2 tbsp. reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 tbsp. white wine*
1 tbsp. fish sauce*
1 tbsp. reduced-sodium soy sauce
1 tsp. sesame oil
1/4 tsp. black pepper
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 large eggs, whisked
1 cup chopped scallions
1 tbsp. fresh ginger, peeled and minced
5 cups cooked white rice (I had jasmine rice)
1 lb. medium shrimp, peeled, cooked and roughly chopped
10 oz. frozen peas, thawed

Whisk together the first six ingredients in a small bowl.

Warm a large saucepan or wok over medium heat, and add the oil.  When the oil is shimmering, add the eggs and stir fry until a wet scramble forms.  Add the onions and ginger;  stir and cook for one minute.  Add the rice, shrimp and peas and cook until the rice is heated through. 

When the rice is thoroughly heated, add the wet mixture and stir to coat the rice.  If it is still too dry, add a little more broth or fish sauce.

Serves four as a main course.

*The original recipe called for two tablespoons of rice wine or sake, neither of which I had on hand. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Let Them Eat Cake (and Prepare to Marathon!)

I have a complicated relationship with cake.

On one hand, it's (usually) totally bad for you.  On the other, it's (usually) delicious.

I've previously talked about my paternal grandmother, who was the town baker in a small town in Nebraska.  She was a terrible cook, but a brilliant baker.  You would suffer through her dinners to get to the dessert afterward, which was universally spectacular.

I love to bake, and can make a very good layer cake and great coffee cakes, quick breads and other less-complicated sweets.  However, I claim no mad skills (or should that be "skillz"?) when it comes to beautiful decorations or foo-foo sweets.

Last month, when I saw an invitation on FoodBuzz to join the Cake Slice Society, I totally jumped at it--a chance to work on my baking skills, plus see the work of lots of bakers more talented than I am?  Yes!  I am in! 

The point of the group is for far-flung food bloggers (say that fast three times) to bake the same recipe from the same cookbook once a month and post on the same day.

I made this cake for the pre-half-marathon dinner I went to last Friday.  It was pronounced good race fuel, and besides that it was wicked good.  It has the added bonus of holding up well for a few days.

Ah, fall in Alaska.  It'll last for about another five minutes.
As an aside, if you tell your spouse/partner/colleague that you just have to blog tonight or you won't meet your Cake Slice Society deadline, you may be mocked.

Pre-Marathon Apple Cake with Maple Frosting
Adapted from The Cake Book by Tish Boyle

For the cake:
1.5 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2/3 cup buttermilk
2 cups Granny Smith apples, cored and chopped*
1/2 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

For the frosting:
6 oz. cream cheese, softened
3 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground ginger
Pinch of nutmeg, preferably freshly ground
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1/8 cup pure maple syrup**

For the cake:

Start your oven to preheating at 350 degrees and make sure there is a rack in the middle.  Spray a 9-inch square baking pan with nonstick spray, preferably one with flour.

Combine and whisk the following ingredients in a medium bowl:  flour, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, baking soda and salt.

Look at me, being all organized.
Using an electric hand mixer and a large bowl, beat the butter at medium speed until it is creamy.  Add the sugar gradually and beat at medium speed until light in color.  Add the vanilla, then the eggs one at a time.  Scrape the sides of the bowl down to make sure the entire mixture is blended.

Bring the mixer to low speed and add the dry ingredient mixture in three additions, alternating with the buttermilk.  When the mixture is blended, stop mixing and stir in the apples and walnuts by hand.

Using a spatula, scrape the batter into the baking pan and level the top.  Bake for 30 minutes, or until the cake is golden and a wooden skewer or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  At that point, remove the cake from the oven and cool on a baking rack.

While the cake is baking, start the frosting:

Using an electric  mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter until well-combined.  Add the vanilla, maple syrup and spices until just combined.  With the mixer on low, gradually beat in the powdered sugar until the mixture comes together;  then, increase the mixer speed until the frosting is fluffy.

Serves 12, even with people doing a half-marathon the next day.

*The original recipe calls for peeling the apples, too.  I was feeling busy and lazy at the same time (complicated, but true), so I didn't bother.  No one seemed to notice.

**The original recipe calls for 1/8 teaspoon of maple extract.  Being a dunce, I didn't have maple extract and added the maple syrup instead.  If this is wrong, I don't want to be right--the maple flavor was pure and natural. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Of Zombies, Half Marathons and Office Lunches

The words "office lunch" don't conjure up images of great food, do they?

Today we had a bosses' day lunch, which mostly meant that everyone brought bags of chips and trays of cold cuts, as well as sweets.

I like sandwiches, but I prefer something warm for lunch.  And if given the opportunity to bring food to work and cook here, sending good smells throughout the office, why wouldn't I do that?

I have a beautiful All-Clad slow cooker that I think I received as a wedding present when David and I were married two and a half years ago.  It almost never leaves its perch on the top shelf of the pantry--maybe it's been used about three times, but I can't get rid of it because it's so shiny, pretty and potentially useful.  A friend once called me a raven because I was attracted to shiny things.

I prepped everything last night, all 15 minutes of it, and started the slow cooker at 7:30 this morning.  By 10 a.m. the office was filling with the mellowing smell of onions and black pepper, and by 10:30 everyone was asking when lunch was.  It's the perfect dish for throwing together and setting aside while actual work is being done.  It's like the Filipino variant of Southern, vinegar-based barbecue:  savory, meaty and tangy.

On another note, I finished my last race of the season on Saturday, the Anchorage Running Club's Zombie Half-Marathon.  Although many people dressed up, I have wicked sensitive skin and didn't think a layer of zombie makeup would help matters any.  Here are a few friends and David just before the start of the race:

Check out my friend Arlitia and her nephew, dressed as "preppie zombies."

Although I wasn't out to set any records that day, I finished the race with a personal best time that shaved about a minute and a half off the time of my last half-marathon.  This really confirms that I'm dropping from a marathoner to a half-marathoner for future races!

Coming up soon:  The delayed reviews of three Portland restaurants--Gruner, Beast and Irving Street Kitchen--along with a recipe using this month's "mystery ingredient."

Slow-Cooker Chicken Adobo
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma FoodMadeFast:  Slow Cooker Cookbook

4 halved yellow onions, sliced
6 cloves garlic, crushed
2 bay leaves
1.5 tbsp. fresh-ground pepper, plus more to taste
3 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of residual fat
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup fish sauce
1 tbsp. sugar
Cooked jasmine rice

Add half of the onions to the bottom of the slow cooker in an even layer.  Add the two bay leaves.

Layer the chicken thighs on top of the onions, then cover with the remaining onions.  Sprinkle with pepper and add the vinegar, soy sauce and fish sauce.  Sprinkle with the sugar.

I mixed the wet ingredients ahead of time, but strictly speaking it's not necessary.
Cover and cook on the high heat setting for four hours, or the low heat setting for eight hours.

OK, so the presentation isn't super-pretty, but this was all that was left after my office chowed the entire contents of the slow cooker.
 This serves 6-8 as a main course, ladeled over jasmine rice.  Your hungry office (or family) will love it.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mystery Ingredient

My good friend Krista Scully took me out to tea today at a new tea room--actually, maybe it's the only tea room in Anchorage.  I haven't done any research on this.

It is at the new outpost of Summit Spice & Tea Company,  a place that I think of as a slightly less fun Penzey's, my favorite spice store.  There isn't a Penzey's in Alaska, so I always stock up when I visit people in the Midwest.

I had some time to poke around the store before Krista arrived, and let me be totally honest--I don't need spices.  David goes through the spice cupboard once a year and pulls out all the things barely used since the year before.  Over my protests, he dumps a few and I generally don't miss them.  It gives me the space to buy a few more random things.

Here's the thing about most spices:  a small jar is inexpensive, takes up very little space and holds the promise of making something potentially fascinating.  In short, spices make great impulse purchases.

I was generally restrained today, buying champagne vinegar and a few little tasting spoons.  However, I couldn't resist buying one random spice:  porcini mushroom powder.

I have absolutely no idea what to do with this, but am going to find out.  Hold me to that, or else it will be the thing that gets purged the next time David goes through the cupboard.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Back to School

I like school, other than the fact that I have nightmares about it.

That's not totally true.

I like learning, particularly about things that help me out not at all in the real world.  Offer me a class about cooking, wine, theatre or literature and I'd be there.  I'm convinced that I'm going back to school to either become a chef or a sommelier later in my life.

It's just math classes and not remembering my locker combination that feature in my nightmares.  A psychologist could almost certainly have a field day with this, but occasionally I have nightmares about being unable to remember my locker combination, failing a math test or forgetting to drop a class until the end of a term.  Hmm.

But I do love learning, and with this in mind I went to check out a new-ish cooking school on Tuesday night and dragged David (quite a good cook in his own right) with me.  I wasn't sure what to expect, other than the class was Italian Food.

The problem was that it was cooking for beginners, which was great for most of the people there.  The instructor was friendly and boiled things down to the basics, but once I caught that there wasn't much to be learned I played around with making the perfect puttanesca sauce.  I make sauces all the time that are almost puttanesca, but this time I was going to follow the recipe to the letter.  Except, you know, for adding an extra anchovy, which I totally recommend.

Fun fact:  puttanesca means "like a whore" and is named for the dish that (ahem) prostitutes would make between clients.

The photos show sauce for one, but I've quadrupled it for a standard size recipe.

Too-Easy-For-Words Puttanesca Sauce
Adapted from Let's Cook Alaska and

4 cloves garlic, chopped
8 anchovies packed in oil, rinsed and chopped
4 cups good-quality crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup chopped black olives
2 tbsp. capers, drained
2 tbsp. fresh oregano, chopped or 1 tbsp. dried
1/2 tsp. hot red pepper flakes
1/4 cup olive oil
12 oz. dried spaghetti
Kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper

Start a large pot of water boiling for the pasta;  when it reaches a boil, salt it well and add the pasta.

Add the olive oil to a large saucepan over medium heat.  After a minute, add the garlic, anchovies, red pepper and a pinch of salt.  Sauté for up to two minutes, until the garlic is just golden.  Be careful not to overcook.

Add the crushed tomatoes, breaking up the chunks with a wooden spoon, along with the olives and capers.  Turn the heat to low, add the oregano and cook, stirring occasionally, while the pasta cooks.

When the pasta is done to your taste (I prefer mine al dente, which usually means less than 10 minutes boiling time), drain well and add to the saucepan.  Toss with tongs and add salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste.

Sorry for the blurry quality of the photo;  the light was not good in the dining room.  The chopped salad was terrific--I'll post that recipe soon, too.
Serves 4 people, or 2 with plenty of leftovers.

Variations:  For a strictly vegetarian dish, omit the anchovies.  If you are a cheese lover, you could grate fresh parmesan over the pasta.

Food/wine pairing:  Chianti, baby.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Meal Worth Coming Home To

It's been an eventful five days since I last wrote on this blog.

On Sunday, I did the Portland Marathon with my friend Paul.  It wasn't our best time, but it was a good race and I will take any excuse to travel to Portland.  I tried three new restaurants, made two pilgrimages to my favorite bookstore and decided--again--that I was going to retire from doing marathons.  I'll still do half-marathons, but the training for a full marathon takes up valuable cooking, reading and writing time.  We'll see if I stick to it.

As much as I love eating in restaurants--and I love going to new restaurants--it was nice to cook again last night.  Which is a good thing, since today the new appliances arrived and it looks like some sort of war (what would a kitchen war be called, I wonder?  Discuss.) broke out in my kitchen.

This dish could easily be doubled, and don't skimp on the marinating time for the prawns--you can work on something else during that half an hour.  If you're feeling adventurous and it's more than 40 degrees outside at night, you could cook the shrimp on an outdoor grill.

Post-Marathon Prawns and Saffron Orzo
Adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine, June 2011

For the prawns:
1 lb. prawns or large shrimp, in their shells
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 small peperoncino dried pepper, or 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1.5 tbsp. low-sodium chicken broth
1 large fennel bulb, thinly sliced and with fronds reserved
Sea salt and fresh-ground black pepper
1 small head radicchio
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

For the orzo:
1 pinch saffron
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup orzo pasta
Sea salt and fresh-ground pepper

Put the pinch of saffron in a small bowl with 2 tablespoons hot water and set aside to steep.

Heat one tablespoon of the olive oil in a small sauté pan over medium heat;  add garlic and red pepper and cook for about 30 seconds or until the garlic is light brown.  Keep an eye on this, because the garlic can scorch very quickly. 

Cut the fennel fronds from the stems, and chop enough to equal 1 tablespoon.  Pour oil mixture into a medium bowl, add the fronds and chicken broth.  Stir in salt and pepper to taste.

Cut a slit in the back of the prawns and devein if desired.  Add the prawns to the oil mixture and toss.  Marinate at room temperature for half an hour.

Remove the outer leaves of the radicchio and slice thinly.  Toss the fennel bulb and radicchio and set aside.

For the orzo, put the chicken broth on to boil and add the saffron with its steeping water.  When the water has boiled, add the orzo and cook for up to 12 minutes.  It will need a minute or two less if you'd prefer it al dente.

Heat an indoor grill or panini pan to high.  While it is heating, drizzle lemon juice and last tablespoon of oil to the fennel/radicchio mixture.  Add a little salt and pepper and set the salad aside.

Grill the prawns for two minutes on each side, brushing with the marinade.  The shells should take on a caramel color and the prawn meat will turn bright pink.  Don't overcook--prawns are too good to be tough.

Plate the salad greens and arrange the prawns over them.  Serve with a side of orzo.

Makes enough for two people with leftovers.

Food/wine pairing:  Serve with a lively, bright white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc, Vinho Verde or Viognier.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Cooking with Beer, Part Two: Mussels in White Beer-Mustard Sauce

Is there an unexplored market out there for people wanting to cook with beer?  The last cooking with beer post had an overwhelming response.  I kept thinking of a line from that 10,000 Maniacs song "Candy Everybody Wants":  "give 'em what they want."

Seriously, I'd forgotten what a good song it was.  Check it out.

But I digress.  It's been that kind of day.  I leave tomorrow for Portland to do the marathon on Sunday and I'm running around in circles. 

Hence, the need for a simple but satisfying fall dinner.  This recipe is adapted from a Bon Appetit recipe that called for five fresh herbs and about fifteen other ingredients.  I've streamlined it to use what I had in my fridge, but you could substitute whatever fresh herbs you had around:  the others in the original recipe were chives, tarragon and chervil.  Don't go crazy buying herbs for this, because whatever you've got will be just fine.  It's that kind of meal.

The recipe calls for Belgian white beer, but I went local again with another beer from Midnight Sun Brewery

Once again, who names these things?  Check out the Lady Godiva-esque figure.  Riding a caribou, no less. 
This goes together in less than half an hour, assuming you don't get all fancy about it.  I recommend against it.

Mussels Steamed in Beer with Parmesan Croutons
Adapted from Bon Appetit Magazine, May 2010

3 slices hearty white or sourdough bread, cut into 3/4 inch cubes
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, shredded
1 tbsp. olive oil
3/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2/3 cup 2% milk
2 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 tbsp. grainy mustard
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp. fresh thyme, chopped
2 lb. mussels, scrubbed
1/2 cup green onions (white and pale green parts only), chopped
1 12-ounce bottle white beer, local if possible
Fresh-ground black pepper and salt, to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Toss the bread cubes, cheese and oil in a small bowl until the cubes are coated;  add extra oil if necessary.  Spread the cubes on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown.

While the croutons are baking, whisk together the milk and mustards in a small bowl and set aside. 

Chop the parsley and set aside.

Melt the butter in a large pot that has a lid.  Add the garlic and chopped thyme, stir for a minute until the garlic starts to brown.  Add the mussels, green onions and beer.

Add the mustard mixture and some pepper, then cover with the lid and allow to steam for 3 minutes. 

Add 2/3 of the parsley and cover the pot again.  Allow to cook for another 5 minutes.

Take off the lid and get rid of any mussels that are cracked and unopened.

Serve the mussels in a bowl with the broth poured over them;  garnish with the croutons and remaining parsley.

Makes up to 6 appetizer servings;  serves 4 as a main course.

Food/wine pairing:  David drank the leftover beer and I managed to try it--I think if you like beer, it's a great match.  Otherwise, pair with a high-acid Spanish wine such as Albariño.