Monday, August 29, 2011

We Licked Our Plates

Unfortunately, when I sit down here I don't come alone.  My shadows come, too.  The devil on my left shoulder, the resistance in my belly, the ghost of potential failure--they show up sneering.
I'm not the only one with this problem.  Molly of Orangette fame, who in addition to her blog can count Bon Appetit articles and both a published book and a book in the works among her accomplishments, recently wrote a post about the difficulty in just doing the writing, despite her passion for her subjects and her undeniable complusion toward the craft.  She compared getting ready to write to sitting outside a dark cave, afraid to go in.  So many commenters shared her feelings, including me.  Welcome to my cave.  

It's not all dark and scary in here.  The food is quite good these days.  Occasionally something is so good that I know I must brave the dark inside to nail it down.  Like this beauty being kissed by the setting sun's warm rays.

How silly that I used to protest limitations. They are such fodder for creativity now, a Cinderella story waiting to be told. Sunday night I had two egg whites left from a sabayon whimsy and nearly a pound of dark, sweet cherries that wouldn't be resting quietly in the fridge much longer. I recalled David Liebovitz's recipe for cherries in red wine syrup before I remembered the waning egg whites, then realized with delight that they could be quite the match, a beautiful and frugal pair with a swan song worth hearing, or eating as the case turned out to be.

To the puny devil that tries to tie down my fingers and my heart, I say take that!  He used to show up in the kitchen, too.  My mental gears used to grind to a halt while he smirked in self-prophesied satisfaction when I tried audaciously to work with who I am and what I had.  But I didn't let him win.  I went to culinary school anyway, even though I wasn't sure how I'd pay for it, or if I'd ever use all that education professionally, and even though I sometimes felt like quite the imposter in those kitchens.  I brushed right past the cobwebs enough times that I got what I personally wanted in my own kitchen--his absence and purring gears.

We'll also eat three meals this week that are my own creations for good or ill.  So I win.  Air out the cave. I'm coming in with a dessert as deeply red as a blood sacrifice but way less painful.  Pure pleasure in fact.  Gently fracturing meringue, winey (but not too winey) sweet cherry flesh, and a soft cap of whipped cream.  My husband loves me more now.  Again.  And we licked our plates just to spite all demons of despair everywhere.  

It won't be too long before I share this with guests. (The little punk demon used to say that I couldn't do that either.  Shows what he knows.)  It's perfect for company after all.  The cherries and meringues can be made up to days ahead.  Just whip the cream, assemble, and wait for the groans.  They'll want to lick their plates, but they'll be too polite.  Poor guests.

I feel much better now.  Almost as good as I did about the time my plate looked like this.

And aren't those colors wonderful together?

Cherries in Red Wine Syrup
from David Liebovitz, bless him, with minor tweaking

1 pound fresh cherries, stemmed and pitted
1/2 cup 2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/4 cups red wine
2 teaspoons corn starch
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Put the cherries and sugar in a large, wide saucepan.

Mix one tablespoon of the red wine with the corn starch in a small bowl until it's dissolved and set aside.  

Add the rest of the wine to the saucepan.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low boil and cook, stirring frequently, for about 12 minutes, until the cherries are completely wilted and softened through.

During the last moments of cooking, stir in the corn starch slurry and let the mixture boil an additional minute or two, to thicken the juices.

Remove from the heat and stir in the almond extract.  Cool to room temperature.

Storage:  The cherries will keep up to one week in the refrigerator or can be frozen for up to six months.

Meringue Nests
Makes 6

2 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Put the egg whites, cream of tartar, and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer.  Mix on high speed until soft peaks form.  Gradually add the sugar, beating until stiff peaks form.  Form into six nests on parchment lined baking sheets.  Place in oven and turn off the heat.  Leave in the turned-off oven overnight. 

Sweetened Whipped Cream

1/3 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar

Place whipping cream and powdered sugar in chilled bowl.  Whip by hand or with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A New Job and a Good Idea

For days and days I've wanted to record my above mentioned good idea, but the also above mentioned new job got in the way.  As of yesterday, I'm now teaching Basic Baking at a nearby community college's culinary school.  Boy, have I learned that teachers have a lot of work to do before they ever even see a student in the classroom.  I've had to do all sorts of new things--create syllabi, prepare for lecture, find teacher resources, and navigate the administrative requirements of being new to the institution.  All of that thas been challenging, wonderful--and preoccupying.  I haven't had a spare focused moment to tell you about this. 

And you need to know about this.  A good old fashioned hamburger upgraded with smoked cheddar and caramelized onions.  So simple and so good.  You don't even need a recipe, just the idea.

Well, you might need to know how to caramelize onions if you haven't before.  That's not hard. Slice some onions (I prefer purple/red/whatever you call them, half of one per person), toss them in a skillet with a little oil over lowish heat, and let them cook until they're deeply browned, thoroughly relaxed, and transformedly sweet.  Stir them occasionally for eveness.  Add a smidge of water if they seem stickish.  That's about all the maintenance they'll need for their 20 to 30 minutes or so of cooking time. I started mine and let them turn marvelous while I prepared the rest of the meal. 

And marvelous they are.  I cannot now believe that I didn't fall in love at first taste with caramelized onions. All that slow cooking and browning (here we go with the powers of browning again) vanquishes the biting, sulfurous side of the onion and reveals the hidden sugars in all their mellow glory.  I'm still working on 100 percent unadulterated endorsement of the texture of cooked onions, but the taste helps me ratchet up to at least 90 percent.

Those tasty, slippery sweet onions are mightily complemented by the smoke and tang of the cheddar.  And don't just go for smoke here.  Get a sharp cheddar for the duo.  Our second helping of this combo wore a milder one, and we missed what my mama would call the wang.

According to my research, some wild people even add a dollop of barbecue sauce as well.  That could happen here at the barn.  But what really leaped to mind while devouring this burger was a pizza with smoked cheddar, caramelized onions, arugula, and bacon.  One good thing leads to another, you know. Eventually. When I'm not inventing professional wheels.  Until then, this goes in the repertoire.  Consider it for yours.

Now, back to playing teacher!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

White Beans and Cabbage and the Sin of Envy

Here's another easy dinner that's full of nutritional goodness and graced by a tiny fillip that makes it special.  Beans, veggies, a touch of carbohydrates, and a smidge of thyme.  Dinner out of Granny's cast iron skillet but not grandma style.  Because it's Heidi's idea.

Heidi Swanson, that is.  She's definitely no grandma.  She's currently a darling of the foodie world, with a popular blog (101 cookbooks) and now two cookbooks of her own.  Jaden Hair at Steamy Kitchen (among many others) posted this recipe from Heidi's latest book, where I found it in an ingredient based search, quite by accident.  It was a good enough dinner that it got repeated.  Always notable around here.

I'm thinking that one of the secrets of the dish is browning.   Apparently Heidi understands the power of caramelization, or the Maillard reaction, whichever the case may be.  (Unless you're an Alton Brown wannabe, just go with browning.)  First, diced potatoes are pan-fried. And let's face the truth here: any meal that starts with fried potatoes shows promise, whether fancy or down home.  No one is immune to their appeal.  Then the beans and onions are added to the skillet and, yes, browned.  More fond appears, the fancy French word for the flavorful bits left on the bottom after browning, sauteeing, etc. 

Here comes another trick.  The cabbage goes in only briefly.  Nothing sulfurous has time to happen.  The wholesome vegetable ends up barely and pleasantly cooked, with no gas warfare. 

The final fillip mentioned earlier is a bit of thyme.  Now, to be frank, thyme (or to be more specific, dried thyme) makes me wary.  Everyone has their sensitivities; thyme is one of mine.  If used too liberally, it seems to elbow every other flavor out of the way.  It gets....well....pushy on my palate.  Maybe that's a personal problem. Maybe I'd like it much better fresh, if I ever get some planted.  Either way, I adjusted the amount to suit my fear level. That said, I was pleasantly surprised that the thyme seemed just right.  It was the grace note that completed the elevation of this skillet supper beyond uninspired to interesting.

Oh that Heidi and her tricks.  She inspires me to envy, but that's really my problem.  Truth be told, she takes beautiful photographs and shares/creates healthy, usually quick and simple food.  So I certainly get what all the fuss is about.  I don't know that I'll ever be able to afford even half the things on her occasional favorites lists (I don't even know what some of them are.  They're probably only available in big cities, where I am determinedly not.), but I do understand and crave beauty.  That, she knows.  And a few good dinners besides.

My only quibble with this particular nurturing concoction is the alleged quantity. The recipe states that it will feed four. We only get about three servings out of it, and I am a bird eater not known for dishing out honking servings. Just ask my husband. To prevent a bed time snack the second time around--and to help use up an open tin--I added anchovy toast to our menu.

Anchovies are something else that I've found scary in the past.  I tried them on pizza once and did not like their exposively salty, briny, fishy flavor. I have since matured and learned that balance is required in all things.  I minced up a couple of fillets with chopped cilantro, grated Parmigiano, extra virgin olive oil, and a little ground mustard.  Spread on toasted rustic bread and topped with more Parmigiano, the combo was quite good--salty, yes, but grounded by the fats in the oil and cheese to a pleasant level.  Plus it added a little protein to balance out the extra carbohydrates in the bread, in case you need to worry about such things.  And I do.  

I'm also tempted, especially during the winter, to add a bit of sausage or bacon to Heidi's dish.  I can't help myself.  I'm cured-pork dependent!

By the way, my favorite part of the (non-Heidi-quality) photo is the color of the rose wine against the deep blue of the ticking stripe table runner.  That's a beauty bonus for me.  Dinner with a side of pretty rather than envy!  May it ever be so.

White Beans and Cabbage
from Super Natural Every Day via Steamy Kitchen

Serves: 3-4

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 ounces potato, scrubbed and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or 3-4 springs fresh thyme
1/2 onion, minced
One 15-ounce can white beans, drained and rinsed
3 cups very thinly sliced or shredeed green cabbage
Salt and pepper to taste

Warm the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the potatoes and spread them out evenly in the pan.  Cook the potatoes for five minutes or until cooked through, scraping and tossing them to make sure they brown on all sides.  

Add the thyme, onion, and white beans and spread around the bottom of the skillet.  Let cook undistrubed for 2 minutes or so to brown just a bit, then scrape and toss again.  Cook until the beans are nicely browned on both sides.  (Unless they start to fall apart, which my cannellini beans did.  Still tastes good though.)

Stir in the cabbage and cook for another minute. Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Remove from heat when cabbage is just wilted and serve. 

Anchovy Toast

Covers 2 slices rustic bread.  

2 anchovy filets
1 clove garlic 
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro or parsley
Pinch or two ground mustard
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Extra virgin olive oil
2 slices rustic bread, toasted

Mince up the anchovy filets and garlic and place in a small bowl.  Add the chopped cilantro, ground mustard, and half the grated Parmigiano. Drizzle in enough olive oil to make spreadable.  Spread on toasted bread and top with remaining cheese.  Place under broiler or in microwave oven briefly to soften the Parmigiano if desired.