Celebrations + Odd Duck's Broccoli with Cheese Sauce & Crispy Shallots

Ben & Mer reading baby books

There's been a lot to celebrate around here lately. I don't know if you heard, but... I'm going to be The Greatest Aunt Ever™ come August. As if that wasn't enough, two great friends got hitched in a sweet and personal ceremony (officiated beautifully by another dear, wise friend) and we danced barefoot in the barn until last call, then returned back to the hotel and caught up with old friends til the early hours of the morning. We traveled to Brooklyn for a long weekend full of amazing food, romps with old friends (and new!), we ate all the pastrami (and much of the corned beef) and my cousin married the love of his life on their ten-year anniversary in a truly lavish and gorgeous wedding.

And then, just upon returning home from New York, my favorite person turned 28. If you can believe it, there's even more excitement coming to us this year (three more weddings, Palm Springs, Vegas, San Francisco, oh my!) so we're keeping birthdays pretty low key. We headed just down the street to Odd Duck for a late, lingering dinner. If you're headed to Milwaukee, Odd Duck is not to be missed (and not to be attempted without a reservation, fyi). Creative small plates, inventive cocktails and stellar, friendly servers. One of the many plates we ordered was so simple but totally luscious: broccoli rabe with cheese sauce and crispy fried shallots. I immediately scrawled down notes (on the back of an old paycheck laying in the bottom of my purse) so I could recreate it at home. Now if only I could figure out those friend green tomatoes...

Happy birthday, Jus. I love the shit out of you.

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Broccoli Rabe with Cheese Sauce & Crispy Shallots

2 bunches broccoli rabe 1 tablespoon unsalted butter 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided 1 ½ cups milk ½ pound cheddar cheese, shredded 2 tablespoons parmesan or pecorino cheese, shredded 1 small shallot, sliced thinly olive oil salt and pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and have a large bowl of ice water standing nearby. Cut the thicker stems off the broccoli and separate them from the fluffier, flowering ends. When the water is boiling, drop the stems into the pot to blanch for 1-2 minutes, then add the flowery heads of the broccoli in for 1-2 minutes more. Using tongs, pull the broccoli from the boiling water and immediately drop it into the ice water to shock it. Once cool, drain the broccoli and set aside. Note: this whole step could be done ahead of time, if needed.

In a small bowl, toss the shallots with 1 tablespoon of flour to evenly coat. Heat a small sauté pan over medium-high heat, then add olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan by about a quarter inch. Shake off the excess flour and add the shallots to the oil, frying until golden brown. Remove the shallots and drain on paper towels, set aside.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat then add 1 tablespoon of flour and cook, stirring constantly for 30 seconds. Pour the milk in, whisking like mad to avoid lumps, and continue to stir until the mixture thickens—about 5 minutes. Stir in the cheddar until it melts completely into the sauce, then add the parmesan or pecorino. Taste and season with salt and pepper, if needed. Turn the heat to low just to keep warm until broccoli is heated through.

Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add a tablespoon of oil, swirl to coat the pan, then add the broccoli (stems and tops). Sauté until heated through and crispy about the edges—3 to 5 minutes.

Top broccoli with cheese sauce, sprinkle with crispy shallots and serve.

Matambre Arrollado (Stuffed Flank Steak)

IMG_0938Matambre and I go way back. Ten years back. I had never even left home for sleep-away camp so you can imagine how eye-opening it was to hop on a plane (then another plane, then a train and a bus) to spend a summer south of the equator, working in a children's shelter and living with the most generous, welcoming Argentinos I could've ever dreamt up. In Gualeguaychú, I spent the day working with the poorest of the poor and came home to a gorgeously lavish home with an inner courtyard, a wood-burning fireplace with the most comfortable armchairs where I spent so. many. hours. inhaling book after book... I smoked my first cigarette, I drank from these (and had my first sip of this), I learned how fun it is to go dancing in a country where the boys can actually lead. Somewhere between singing Maná at the top of my lungs with my hermana, Flor, and arguing furiously over American politics with Tía Ana-- I realized rather suddenly that I had stopped "translating" inside my head. Flash forward ten years to the age of Pinterest*, when everyone I knew was pinning a recipe for "stuffed flank steak"-- MATAMBRE! I had it many, many times during that southern hemisphere summer. In Argentina, you'll sometimes find it in a burger-like sandwich or covered with tomato sauce and cheese (a matambre pizza?).

I only found two small (grass-fed, responsibly raised, antibiotic-free, local) flank steaks at the co-op so I split the filling in half and made two mini matambres. I'd recommend using one, larger piece of meat if you can find it. This dish is easy, fast and looks impressive. You could even prep it through the tying step ahead of time, then just bring to room temperature and roast when you're ready. The filling is easily customizable to your tastes and pantry-- sub sundried tomatoes for the peppers or crumbled blue cheese for the feta. Matambre comes from matar + hambre: it will literally kill your hunger.

*Say what you will about the less than flattering picture of American culture that Pinterest provides but it has changed the way I save and sort through my recipe bookmarks and that alone makes it worth sifting through the bullshit.

Matambre Arrollado

1 ½ to 2lbs flank steak 1 package frozen spinach, thawed ½ c. crumbled feta 1 (7oz) jar roasted red peppers, drained and chopped 2 Tbs Panko breadcrumbs 1 egg yolk 2 cloves garlic, finely minced 1 Tbs olive oil salt + pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 425. Carefully with a very sharp knife, butterfly the flank steak, cutting parallel to your cutting board so that the flank opens like a book. Season both sides of the steak with salt and pepper, set aside while you prepare the filling.

Wrap the spinach in a clean, lint-free dishtowel (paper towels will work, too) and squeeze the living daylight out of it until it is as dry as possible. In a medium bowl, mix the spinach, cheese, chopped peppers, breadcrumbs, egg yolk and garlic until well combined.

Spread the filling over the steak, leaving a 1” border around the edges. Carefully roll up the steak from the short side so the grain is running right to left. Tie the rolled steak with twine (directions here). Rub the outside of your steak roll with oil and season all over with salt and pepper.

Place the steak on a foil-lined baking sheet and roast for 35 minutes, turning once. Remove from the oven, tent with foil and allow it to rest for 15 minutes before slicing and serving.

Frico Carrots

IMG_0872 When I'm thinking of what to blog here, I try not to get too complicated. I want you guys to have whatever I'm having that I can't stop thinking about. This is not a recipe that will change the world-- it's barely a recipe at all, but rather a technique.

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A technique that subscribes to my personal philosophy of taking something boring but healthy and covering it in fat and cheese til it tastes better. A technique that makes me want to frico every edible in my house. And, dear ones, a technique that will no doubt change how you feel about cooked carrots.

I am of the "cooked carrots are the next axis of evil" camp. Because, um, ew. But these, you guys? They are at once sweet and savory, crispy and chewy. They are poppable little finger food bombs of umami held together by lacy, salty FRICO. IMG_0891

You know that great, lacy edge of just this side of burnt cheese that you get on your grilled cheese? THIS is that, ALL OVER the place but on carrots. So you can eat a pound of it and no one will judge you (ahem).

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I'm also fairly certain that my very youngest readers would delight in these scattered across the tray of a high chair. You yourself might want to consider eating these with your fingers. A fork will only slow you down. They will save you from the mid-winter root vegetable doldrums. Go forth. Frico.

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  Frico Carrots A rough recipe to serve one deliciously or two if willing to share

½ pound of carrots*, cut wobbly 1 oz (about 2 fingers worth) Parmesan cheese, grated and then divided into thirds 1 TB olive oil salt, to taste  

Preheat the oven to 375. Sprinkle a third of the Parmesan cheese all over a baking sheet covered with a silicone mat (if you have one) or foil (if you don’t).  Wiggle the pan a bit on the counter to redistribute the cheese into an even layer. In a medium(ish) bowl, toss the carrots with the olive oil and salt to taste. Sprinkle the oiled carrots with another third of the Parmesan and toss to coat. Now, mindfully summon your patience and carefully place the carrots onto your baking sheet—you need them in one layer, no overlapping, and with a bit of space between them all to ensure that they crisp up and roast instead of steam. Sprinkle the remaining third of the Parmesan evenly over the carrots, filling in any cheeseless gaps along the way. Roast for ~15 minutes, watching carefully to ensure the cheezy lace doesn’t burn.  Remove from the oven and rest for a few minutes so the cheese will crisp up. Use a spatula to gently remove the carrots in great lacy sheets of frico. Using your fingers, inhale the carrots with reckless abandon.

*the rainbow carrots are obviously not necessary, they just make me endlessly happy.

Croque Madame

IMG_0834 Oh, I'm sorry. Did you come here looking for an anemic salad to start your new year off right? Sorry I'm not sorry.

A while back, I shared a long brunch with friends on a very lazy Sunday at one of my favorite under-the-radar Milwaukee establishments. The croque madame I had was served open face, doused in mornay sauce and it was simple and totally scrumptious. We lingered over another round of bloodies, chatting about nothing and everything and upcoming weddings and how far we had all come since we met at Marquette.

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Croque madame has haunted me ever since so, obviously, I'm here to get you hooked. Don't let the Mornay sauce freak you out-- it's just a cheesy béchamel sauce. Does making a béchamel freak you out? It shouldn't. Once you've got this mother sauce under your belt, you're on one slippery slope to better macaroni and cheese,  soups, lasagna... not to mentioned smothering biscuits, impressive souffles... It's a gateway drug. My secret is adding the milk to the roux slowly, a cup at a time, whisking like mad after each addition to avoid any lumps. Then just simmer away, whisking it up every few minutes. The recipe below will yield a LOT of mornay sauce, so feel free to halve the sauce recipe or invite your friends over for lunch.

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And if you're one of those poor souls who thought I'd serve you up a healthy salad first thing outta the 2013 gates, feel free to assuage your guilt by serving this with a big, fresh bowl of dressed greens on the side. Truth time: I had two bunches of kale for breakfast this morning.

I know. I don't know what's wrong with me either.

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Croque Madame Serves 2 as a hearty meal or 4 as a part of a bigger spread

4 slices of good bread, lightly toasted 4 tablespoons Dijon mustard 8 thin slices baked ham 1 cup shredded Gruyere cheese Mornay sauce (recipe follows) 4 eggs

Move an oven rack to the uppermost position and preheat your broiler. Meanwhile, line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or foil. Lay the bread on the pan and spread each with a tablespoon of Dijon. Top each slice of bread with a couple slices of ham and about ¼ cup of cheese. Place the pan into the oven to melt the cheese and crisp up the ham under the broiler—about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and quickly top each slice with a dollop of Mornay sauce. Return the pan to the broiler for 3-4 minutes until the sauce is heated through and sinfully bubbly. Watch carefully so it doesn’t burn!

Meanwhile, fry your eggs in a well-greased skillet over medium heat until the whites are firm and the yolks remain liquid. Top each slice of bread with an egg and munch to your heart's content.

Mornay Sauce:

3 tablespoons butter 1 shallot, finely minced ¼ c. flour 1 bay leaf 4 peppercorns 4 whole cloves 4 c. milk ¼  c. grated parmesan 1 c. shredded Gruyere nutmeg (whole is best, ground will do) salt to taste

In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Once melted, add the shallot and cook until translucent, about 2-3 minutes. Sprinkle in the flour while stirring constantly and cook for another 3-4 minutes. Tah-dah! You’ve made a roux. Increase the heat to high and then, whisking like a maniac, slowly pour in the milk and whisk until the mixture comes up to a simmer.When you’re simmering, turn the heat back down to medium-low and add the bay leaf, cloves and peppercorns and continue to simmer for 30-40 minutes until it looks thick, rich and creamy. Be careful not to scorch it— this means that the proteins and sugars in the milk have burnt (and stuck!) on the bottom of the pan. Stirring it fairly frequently and watching your heat levels should help avoid this. If it scorches, just throw the sauce into another pan and continue to cook (on lower heat and stirring frequently). Once thickened, take the sauce off the heat and strain into a bowl. Add the cheeses and a few gratings of nutmeg (or about a ¼ teaspoon if you only have pre-ground nutmeg). Taste the sauce then add salt to your preference.

 

A Toast: Spiced Pomegranate Bubbly

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I adore the coming of a new year. Burrowing into the stillness leading up to it, I read and write until I can make some sense of it all. Turns out... 2012? Not my year. There was plenty of The Good-- a new home, a new neighborhood, a new part-time job that let me cross another item off my Mighty Life list... But, oh man, were there tears-- while trying to fall asleep, while crumbled up on the cold tile floor of the kitchen and, often, a few big,  drops shed silently on my yoga mat. I lost myself in the hubub, the schedules, the long workdays, the totally horrific stories on the news. I saw myself slipping away and I was on such a pity party merry-go-round that I couldn't bring myself to get off the ride. Which explains, in part, why we haven't seen much of each other these last nine months.

Resolutions have always been a mixed bag for me. This year, I'm trying to focus on the feelings behind all the "wants" that come up when I think of what is to come. The words that keep coming up: challenged, creative and connected. And this small endeavor in my humble corner of the internet is going to help. So, lovebugs, I'm back. This time for keeps.

And if any of you are still around, I want to offer up this toast to you. While this year was not my best work, you held my hand, sent sweet notes to say you missed my cooking and updates here, you took me to the beach and for massages and when I texted you, "can you talk?" you called me right away because that's usually the first sign of trouble 'round these parts.

In 2013, I hope I can be as true to you as you've been to me and that all of us can be more gentle with each other.

Spiced Pomegranate Bubbly 3 cups pomegranate juice 3 tablespoons brown sugar, honey, agave or maple syrup 1 cinnamon stick 2 whole star anise dry white wine (optional) Champagne, cava or prosecco

In a saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the pomegranate juice, sweetener of your choice, cinnamon and star anise to a boil. Once boiling, lower the heat to medium-low and simmer until the liquid is reduced by half-- this may take 30-45 minutes depending on your flame and the size of the pot. Remove and discard the cinnamon and star anise*. Allow to cool and then refrigerate to chill.

To serve, pour 1-2 tablespoons of the pomegranate syrup into the bottom of each glass. Top with an ounce or two of wine (if using) and top with bubbly.

*the star anise makes for a lovely cocktail garnish, though, if you're into such things

 

Twiced-Baked Potatoes with Corned Beef & Roasted Cabbage

Given that I live with a Very Nice Irish Young Man, I felt it was my duty as a loving partner to give my man some corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick's Day. As I tend toward the masochistic in my cooking pursuits, I immediately set off on preparations to corn an entire brisket. Thing is, a brisket can run up to 10-12 pounds. There's two of us in the house and even with Soup taking his fair share, we'd never make it out alive.

Enter Melissa Clark and her newest book, Cook This Now. My copy is already well worn and taggedwith post-its. Melissa Clark also writes for the New York Times and keeps a blog of her own but I really would recommend you pick up her book, too. Her recipes are fresh riffs on classics with a new spin on ingredients and a streamlined method (no redundant steps, millions of dishes or marathon cooking sessions unlike some other cookbooks, ahem!). One of my favorite features of the book is at the end of each recipe where Melissa offers you alternatives/additions to recipes ("What Else?" she asks,) or offers you an entirely different variation on the same dish ("A Dish by Another Name).

These twice-baked potatoes are a great option to celebrate the holiday while keeping your waistline, pocketbook and dignity in check. The entire recipe uses only one large mixing bowl which makes clean-up a snap. If you're in a rush, you can bake the potatoes off ahead of time. Or bake the potatoes, make the filling and re-fill the potatoes ahead of time and later re-bake them to warm through when you're ready to serve. Easy. Fast. Festive. Look at you go.

I served them with roasted cabbage and you guys? Roasted cabbage is AWESOME. I was so skeptical. It sounded outdated at best and bland and soggy at its worst. But a little rubdown with olive oil, a scatter of salt and a grate of parmesan later, I was nibbling it straight off the sheet pan before I had even called Justin in for dinner. No soggy bland mess in sight. Roast yourself some cabbage and treat yo'self.

One last note: if you know what's good for you, you'll serve this with a green beer.

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Twice Baked Potatoes with Corned Beef adapted from Melissa Clark's Cook This Now Serves 4-6

4 russet potatoes, scrubbed well ¾ pound thinly sliced corned beef, coarsely chopped 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened ½ cup sour cream (or plain Greek yogurt) 1 heaping tablespoon fresh dill, chopped* 1 heaping tablespoon fresh chives, chopped* ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese kosher salt black pepper, ground

*Save yourself money and effort and instead of buying a whole bunch of fresh chives and fresh herbs, buy a “Seafood Pack” from the herb section of the grocery store. It will have just the right amount of dill and chives for this recipe, plus a little parsley as an added bonus.

Preheat your oven to 425. Rub each potato with a pinch of salt and pierce twice with a fork or knife. Place potatoes on a foil-wrapped baking sheet and bake for 60-70 minutes until the skins are crispy and the potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork.

When the potatoes have cooled enough to handle (or sooner, if you’re inpatient like me), lop off the top third of the potato and scoop the fluffy insides into a large bowl, leaving a ¼ inch of potato still attached to the skin.  Add the corned beef, butter, sour cream (or yogurt), dill, chives and a good pinch of salt and pepper to the bowl. Mash it well. Taste for seasoning.

Stuff the potato skins with the potato mixture, mounding it up on top but being careful not to rip the potato skin. Top the potatoes with the Parmesan cheese, sprinkling evenly. Throw the potatoes back in the oven and bake until heated through, about 10 minutes (this will take longer if you baked the potatoes ahead of time and your potato mixture is cold from the fridge).

Roasted Cabbage

half a big-ass green cabbage, cored olive oil kosher salt 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 425. Carefully slice the cabbage into 1-inch-thick steaks. Place on a foil-lined baking sheet and rub with olive oil on both sides. Sprinkle the slices with a generous seasoning of salt. Roast, turning once, for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with Parmesan and return to the oven for another 5 minutes until crispy and browned.

Winter Slaw with Creamy Tahini Dressing: my new favorite salad

Reasons I love this salad:

  1. So many colors! We've slid smack into winter's dearth when the only seasonal produce left tends to be in varied shades of white and brown. These shards of green, white and orange lift the spirits. I imagine you could even add some radicchio or purple cabbage...
  2. Texture galore. Fresh cabbage crunches. Kale has some chew to it. Roasted sesame seeds pop.
  3. Healthy healthy healthy and it still doesn't make me feel like I'm eating rabbit food. This may or may not have something to do with the tahini dressing which is magically creamy.
  4. The ingredients keep for more than a week in the fridge. You know, in the event that you forgot to make it for a week (or two, heh) after buying the ingredients.

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Winter Slaw with Creamy Tahini Dressing Adapted only slightly from Sarah over at My New Roots Makes a lot

6 cups of shredded greens: cabbage (purple, green or Savoy), kale, radicchio 2 cups shredded carrots 3 scallions, sliced on the bias 1 cup chopped flat leaf parsley ½ cup chopped mint ½ cup sesame seeds

Dressing: Makes 1 cup 2 Tbsp. olive oil juice of one lemon 1 Tbsp. liquid honey (or maple syrup) 1/3 cup tahini a couple pinches of salt (check to make sure your tahini is unsalted first!) pepper, to taste zest of 1 orange

Directions: 1. Wash, dry and shred the greens. While you could use the shredding blade of a food processor for this, avoid it-- I find it makes slaw into a watery mess.  Instead, put on some good tunes, take your time and a sharp knife and loose yourself in the rhythm of the chop chop chop chop. Dump the greens in a large bowl. Shred the carrots on a box grater or finely julienne them. Add to the greens. Chop the parsley finely and add it to the greens along with the sliced scallions. Roast sesame seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until they begin to pop and smell delicious. Remove from heat immediately.  Pour over salad ingredients.

For the dressing: add all ingredients except for salt to medium-sized jar. Cover the jar tightly and shake into oblivion. If the dressing is too thick for your liking, add a little water, a tablespoon at a time. Once you have the consistency you like, taste for seasoning. Salt, pepper and acid should all be balanced. Mess with it til it seems worthy of pouring over anything in sight.

If serving the entire salad immediately, toss everything together and serve. If serving the salad a few hours from now, wait to toss with dressing until you're about to eat or it'll get wilty and limp and no one will see its beauty. If your partner or family won't touch this slaw with a ten foot pole and it's just going to be you eating it a bit at a time (ahem), keep the greens in a plastic bag lined with one layer of paper towels. The salad should keep this way for 2-3 days in a cold fridge. Toss with dressing prior to serving.

Sunny Winter Vegetable Mulligatawny

I was planning on posting a recipe for oven-baked gnocchi with white beans and chard this week. To boot, I've made this oven-baked gnocchi three different times, adjusting the flavors, textures and procedure to make sure it's filling, warming and quick enough to be worth making after a long day at the office.

But alas, last week when I happened to have some of the Round 3 Gnocchi for lunch, I got a rather voracious stomach bug that lasted several days and provided some rather spectacular pyrotechnics. I'm quite sure the gnocchi wasn't to blame-- it's more than likely that one of my many tiny clients who frequently cough or sneeze INTO my mouth during therapy is the culprit.  Anyway...

Gnocchi and I are on a break.

Instead, I'd like to offer you this gorgeous soup. "Soup" doesn't really do it justice-- it's so thick, so textured and chunky that it's closer to a stew. Filled with root vegetables, sprinkled with beans and enriched by coconut milk, it will keep you full and happy for the better portion of the day. Plus, there's nothing like turmeric's sunny glow to banish your winter blues. I know this will be a staple for me in the coming weeks of gloom and frosty cheeks-- hope it brightens your days, too.

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Sunny Winter Vegetable Mulligatawny Adapted slightly from here Serves 8-10

1 cup dried red lentils 1 Tbsp coconut oil ½ tsp mustard seeds (ground mustard would also work) ½ Tbsp ground turmeric ¼ tsp cayenne pepper ½ Tbsp ground coriander ½ tsp salt 3 Tbsp. minced ginger 2 small onions, chopped 4 cloves garlic, chopped 1 red bell pepper, diced 6 cups diced mixed root vegetables** 1 cup cooked (or canned) chickpeas 1 14oz. can diced, no-salt tomatoes 1 14oz. can light coconut milk 4 cups vegetable broth juice of ½ lemon

**I used carrots, parsnips, a sweet potato and a Yukon Gold potato but any kind of squash, celeriac, turnips, daikon, kohlrabi, sunchokes would all work, too.

In a large stockpot, heat the oil and add all spices and minced ginger (not the garlic). Stir often so spices do not burn. When the mix smells fragrant, add the onions and cook until softened, about 5-7 minutes. If it seems like the mixture is too dry or the bottom of the pot gets too dark, add a little of the tomato liquid and continue to stir.  Add garlic and cook a couple minutes more.

Add the chopped vegetables and stir well to coat with spices. Cook for 5 minutes. Add chickpeas, if using, and cook until heated through. Add canned tomatoes and coconut milk.

Add the lentils to the pot along with the vegetable broth. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to simmer. Cook for 20-30 minutes until the lentils are soft and the root vegetables tender when pierced with a fork. Add the lemon juice to the soup. Season to taste. Serve hot!

 

 

The Best Roast Chicken You'll Ever Make

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that while I feel quite confident in my cooking prowess, for years I avoided... chicken. Oh sure, I'd throw a couple of boneless, skinless chicken breasts in the oven once in a great while but you know what? Boneless, skinless chicken breasts often taste like sawdust. Affordable, virtuous, protein-filled sawdust. There is so much more out there, chicken eaters. So much more.

Mainly: Judy Rogers. I worship at the mighty church of Judy Rogers' Zuni Cafe (and it's bible). If you've been around the foodie blogosphere for a while, you've likely heard about Judy's infamous Zuni Roast Chicken recipe. In her book, the recipe is four pages long but a good chunk of that is dedicated to prep work and the accompanying bread salad. The whole dish looks effortless and tastes divine but for our purposes, we'll just focus on the chicken.

Some tips:

  • Plan ahead. If you're like me, you're not roasting a whole chicken on a daily basis anyway, so this won't be too hard. This chicken makes will make your Sunday night-- you just have to start it on Friday. More on that later.
  • Contrary to what you might think, a smaller chicken will work better. Judy recommends you shoot for a bird between 2.75-3.5lb instead of getting a big "roaster" which will be too lean and not be happy in the high heat we'll be using. At the meat counter, ask for a "whole fryer" and you'll be more likely to get a bird that will roast quickly, evenly and stay juicy. As always, I encourage you to shop responsibly for animal protein...
  • Pick a pan that's just a bit bigger than your bird. For me, that's a 10" cast iron skillet that cost me around $20 but you might have a frying pan, tin pie plate... whatever works for you as long as there is no plastic involved-- this baby's going into a high heat oven.
  • The salting thing is *not* crazy. It will *not* dry out your bird, contrary to popular belief. Essentially, you're brining or curing the meat. Giving the bird a couple of days in a salt rub helps the seasoning move all the way through the food (osmosis for the win!), helps to dissolve some of the proteins and other nasty tough stuff which is not good eats and makes the meat more uniformly moist and succulent (reverse osmosis for the win!).
  • When I say preheat the pan and dry the chicken well, I mean it. Take the time to let the pan preheat and be sure the chicken is dry to the touch before placing it in the pan. This will serve you well later on when it comes time to flip it. Hot pan + dry chicken = easy to flip bird without ripped skin.
  • If carving a chicken intimidates you, check out this video. It does take practice but really? It's going to be delicious even if you totally botch the cutting of the thing.

Have I convinced you yet? You want to try this chicken. You need to try this chicken. You can absolutely cook this chicken and amaze your friends and family.

2012: the year you learn to roast a whole bird.

Zuni Roast Chicken

One small chicken, 2.75-3.5 pounds small handful of herbs: thyme, marjoram, rosemary, sage salt black pepper

Seasoning the chicken

(1-3 days before serving. The bigger the bird, the more time this will take.)

Check out your chicken. If there's a lump of fat inside of it, remove and discard it. Thoroughly dry the chicken with paper towels inside and out (this will help ensure it gets golden brown and delicious instead of steaming later). Place the chicken on a board with the cavity facing you. Slide a finger just under the skin but over the meat of each breast to make two little pockets. Very gently, do the same on each thigh, making a little pocket on the outside of the thickest part of each. Shove a sprig or two of the herb of your choice into each pocket, taking care not to rip the skin.

Wash your hands and then do the math: measure out 3/4 of a teaspoon of salt per pound of chicken. Place this salt in a small bowl near your board. Grind a good amount of black pepper into this small bowl (I used about a teaspoon, but I'm a pepper girl). Mix the salt and pepper together then season the chicken all over with the mix. Make sure to give the thick sections more salt than the skinny bits (wings, bony tips, etc.). Toss just a bit on the inside. When finished, twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders as if your bird were kickin' back and relaxing poolside. Cover the bird loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate on the bottom shelf of the fridge.

Roasting the chicken: Preheat the oven to 475. Preheat a shallow flameproof roasting pan/dish barely larger than the bird (or use a 10" skillet with an all metal handle) over medium heat for a minute or two. Wipe the chicken really, really dry and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle. Well done, you.

Carefully, place the pan in the middle of the oven. Hang out and listen, it should sizzle and start to brown within 20 minutes or so (if not, raise the temperature bit by bit until it does).  If the chicken looks like it is charring or the fat starts to smoke, lower the oven temp by 25 degrees or so. After 30 minutes, turn the chicken over and roast for another 10-20 minutes. Then flip the chicken over again, breast side down, just to crisp it up for 5-10 minutes. Total process should take between 45-60 minutes.  When ready, remove the chicken and let it rest for a few minutes so the meat can become more tender and uniformly delicious while it cools. Cut and enjoy!

 

Wherein I Gush About Girl and The Goat

My hair, my shirt, my jeans all smell like meat. Delicious, succulent, fragrant goat to be specific. And you guys? Goat is the shit.

One of my gifts from Justin this holiday season was a trip to Girl and the Goat, Stephanie Izard's restaurant in Chicago. You might remember Steph from this little television program.  I've wanted to go for over a year now and Justin had to wait almost that long to secure a reservation for two. Just kidding. It was only 4 months. The menu is organized into three sections of small plates: veg, fish and meat. Plus there are daily specials centered around freshly baked bread and spreads, oysters and of course, the goat.

Our server, Andrea, coursed everything out beautifully and we never felt rushed. She was warm and personable but totally unobtrusive and didn't blink an eye when I dragged out my giant (new!) (fancy!!) (brought tears to my eyes when I undwrapped it!!!) camera to snap a shot of every course. Well done, Andrea.

Buckle up because Ima gonna gush. Here's the play by play:

I went 26 years without eating oysters and I plan on making up mightily for lost time. These were my first cooked oysters and they were perfect and hard to describe without keeping my head out of the gutter. Slippery, warm, briny... let's just say it was very good for me.

 

Crudo was a fresh, clean first course full of texture: rich fish, chewy pork belly, pop of caperberry, crispy croutons. Made my tongue fire on all cylinders. Speaking of tongue...

 

This was one of my favorites because it was so perfectly, seemingly effortlessly balanced. The duck tongues were crispy and so rich. Justin and I inhaled it and I barely remembered to snap a shot of it before we cleaned our plates. Don't freak out about the tongues, you guys. You could go to Girl and the Goat and get pork ribs, or grilled chicken or pasta with sugo and I'm sure those dishes would all be delicious but you can get pork ribs, chicken and pasta with meat sauce at the Olive Garden, too. Be brave! Be adventurous! Send up a little gratitude to the 20 ducks that no longer quack! You won't regret it. (Unless you're a vegetarian and then I'd recommend the chickpea fritters or the pan fried shishito peppers.) Cheers!

 

Oh, the ham fries. There are a lot of french fry variations out there in the gastropubs these days. It's really too bad that these blow all of them out of the water. Imagine the thinnest, most crispy-on-the-outside-creamy-on-the-inside french fry you've ever had. Then give it a quick bath in pork fat and sprinkle it with housemade ham salt. (Andrea told me they dehydrate the ham in the wood oven then grate it into sea salt. I think we'll be trying that out at home... ham salt for everyone!!). While you're at it, you should probably dip those hot, porky fries in cheddar beer sauce. Then pop a Lipitor (or twelve). We picked at these for the remainder of the meal and I'd recommend that you ask them to be brought out at the start of yours.

 

This was one of the goat specials of the night. It was Justin's favorite plate of the night and I don't blame him. I need to figure out how to cook fennel this way because it was so soft and sweet without any of that harsh anise bite it so often carries when I do try to cook it down. And kids, goat belly is the new bacon. Get some.

We tried to recommend the goat belly to the nice, young couple sitting at the next table by explaining that it was basically the same cut as bacon but you know, in a goat instead of a pig. The girl replied, "Oh, I don't eat bacon." Well, obviously, we couldn't let a comment like THAT go without a little detail. Apparently, this poor young thing eats plenty of pork, but NOT BACON because of "a religious thing." Jesus wants you to eat bacon, honey. He told me so. Besides that, it's GOAT. Jesus probably ate a lot of goat back in the day, too, by the way. But I digress...

My family was about as excited for my meal as I was. They're waiting for all the details when I see them for dinner tonight. They urged me to take pictures so they can vicariously oogle the food porn. I took a copy of all the menus to make sure I get the details right (my nerddom knows no bounds!). I couldn't go home to share my experience without having ordered this next plate. They'd never let me live it down. We ordered this for the greater good, I swear:

 

Allow me to reiterate in case that caption font size is too small: Wood roasted pig's face. Have no fear, this dish does not consist of Babe staring up at you. This is basically the breakfast of my dreams: slabs of pork cheek and jowl, bathed in egg yolk, punctuated by crispy potato strings and zapped through with cilantro and wine-y maple syrup. We were instructed by the runner and Andrea to chop and smear and mess the whole pretty presentation up so that you get a mishmosh of everything in one bite. This dish is absolutely a must when you visit. Pig. Face. Don't miss it.

We could've ordered oh... 4 more plates. Everything looked, sounded, smelled divine. Instead, we decided to peek at the dessert menu. The no-bacon evangelist and her boyfriend next to us recommended the chocolate-thai chili gelato with chocolate cake, peanut fluff, pomegranate and stout. Obviously, they could no longer be trusted. We chose this instead:

No regrets here. It was perfect, clean and refreshing after a very rich meal. Every bite tasted a little different depending on the balance of the components.

To sum up, Girl and the Goat is officially my favorite restaurant in Chicago (with Chuy's Chilam Balam coming in a very, very close second). I cannot recommend it highly enough. I can, however, advise that you plan FAR, FAR in advance if you'd like to go for dinner. I hear from Chicago friends that it can be easier to walk in for lunch but when we arrived for our 6:45pm reso on a Monday, the wait was 2 hours for two people. We overheard a couple ask to make a reservation for 12 and the host responded they were booked out through April. Go hungry, keep an open mind and try at least one cocktail.

If you don't get the pig face, you're dead to me.

Girl and the Goat 809 W. Randolph Street Chicago, IL 60607 (312) 492-6262

 

Cooking with Estelle-- Chicken Stock & Matzoh Ball Soup

The wisdom, history and whimsy our grandparents hold is to be treasured. More often than not, the knowledge is lost to the universe as the older generation passes on. Add to that the fact that in today's day and age, many Americans are not learning to cook in a family-centric way. Home cooking is making a rebound, no doubt, but rather than learning to cook from recipes written on stationary cards kept in keepsake boxes, passed down from generation to generation, we learn from the multitude of cookbooks, food blogs (oh hi), and television programming devoted to the craft. And while Epicurious and Ina Garten have their merits, unless we begin to ask, begin to document, begin to learn to share a kitchen (still learning that skill myself), we'll lose those recipes that have been passed down from one Great Auntie Nunu to Nana Estelle on a newspaper clipping from 198-? with handwritten notes beginning to disintegrate in the already yellowing margins.

Not too long ago, I spent the day cooking with my Nana, Estelle. It was tough to decide which recipes to tackle together first but I decided to start with the classic dishes she has always made for holidays: matzoh ball soup and cocktail meatballs. The cocktail meatballs will be another post but-- how totally awesome is that recipe card?!

Cooking with my Nana was a blast. She made it very clear that I was going to be the cook-- she was merely there to show me her methods, pass down the recipes and insure quality control. At first, she demured-- she's really "a recipe cook!" And, "Look, the soup recipe is straight out of this book! It's really very simple!"

Nit geshtoygen un nit gefloygen, Nana. [Yiddish for "it never rose and it never flew," or, alternatively: "bullshit."]

That book certainly contains a recipe for basic chicken soup, but it ain't Nana's matzoh ball soup. And while Nana admitted in hushed tones that the matzoh ball recipe is actually off the Manischewitz box, that box is actually the family secret ("The whole family uses the box now!"). Nana's soup recipe is below. It is the result of nearly an entire day's work and four pages of careful notes in my Moleskin. Rosh Hashanah is coming up later this month but even if you aren't celebrating the New Year with your family you might want to try your hand at some matzoh ball soup. It'll set you right as rain.

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Estelle’s Matzoh Ball Soup

Yield: a LOT of soup. At least 10-12 bowls. At. Least.

For the chicken stock:

One 6lb. capon, quartered* 2 stalks celery, peeled and chunked 2 large carrots, peeled and chunked 1 parsley root with leafy tops, root peeled and left whole, leafy tops bundled and tied with kitchen twine 1 parsnip, peeled and left whole 1 leek, cleaned and left whole (trim so only 3” of dark green remains) ½ small onion, cleaned and skin-on (Estelle says: “for color!”) 1 tsp. kosher salt 6 black peppercorns 1 bay leaf

For the matzoh balls: 1 packet of Manischewitz Matzo Ball Mix (each box contains 2 packets) 2 eggs 2 Tbs vegetable oil

*Estelle says: “Never use a supermarket chicken for The Soup— get the very best chicken you can find [L: Estelle recommends Harrison’s on Waukegan Road]. You can have the butcher quarter the capon for you and you can add gizzards, necks and feet to the stock if you have them. Chicken feet are good for body but they have to be fresh. And have the butcher take the nails off, yech!! You’ll be best off with 6-8 feet per batch of stock.”

To make the chicken soup, In a 16-quart stock pot (or the largest you own), bring 5 quarts of water to boil. (Estelle says: “If you add the chicken to the cold water and then bring it up to a boil, there’s more yeccch to skim off the top later. Boil the water first. Then add the chicken.”) Once the water comes to a boil, add in the chicken. Let the water come back up to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Cover partially and simmer the chicken for 25 minutes, being careful to ensure the water doesn’t boil. As the chicken cooks, occasionally skim off “the yeccch” with a slotted spoon and discard it, being careful to get the sludge that hangs out around the edges of the pot. (Estelle says: “Never cover the pot. Leave a bit of an opening.” “Why?” I asked. E: That’s what I read somewhere!”).

After simmering for 25 minutes, add all the remaining ingredients. Continue to simmer (E: “never boil!”) for an hour and a half. Taste the stock for seasoning, adding salt or pepper if necessary.

 

Remove the soup from the heat and discard the larger solids except for the carrot (Estelle says: “You can absolutely eat the chicken, but it’s kinda bland by now. It’s still good for a nice chicken salad or something. Or you can add pieces of the meat to the soup. I always put the carrot into the soup, but if you’re making it ahead of time you have to store it separately with a little bit of the broth in its own container otherwise it leeches flavor and makes the soup too sweet.”). Set a large mesh strainer into an even larger bowl [Laura says: this needs to be a big bowl, kids. It’s a LOT of soup.]. Set a smaller, finer mesh strainer into the larger mesh strainer. Ladle the soup carefully into the smaller strainer, ladle by ladle, making sure the strainers catch any remaining “yeccch.” [Laura says: Yep. This is totally ridiculous. I brought up that point to Estelle (“you know, they make larger strainers than this. Or you could strain it through cheese cloth if you’re really worried about the clarity of the soup. And I’m strong enough to pour it through instead of using the ladle!”). She didn’t have any of it. That’s the way she has always done it, so that’s the way I did it. Ladle. By. Ladle. Teeny. Tiny. Strainer.] If you are still with us after that process, you can serve the clarified broth immediately or refrigerate or freeze it for later use.

 

To make the matzoh balls, follow the instructions on the back of the box—adding the eggs and oil to the contents of one packet and stirring very well until evenly mixed. (E says: “For the yuntif [Ed: read: holiday], you can make a big batch of stock ahead of time and place it in the fridge overnight. In the morning, skim the schmaltz [Ed: read: chicken fat] off the top and use that instead of the vegetable oil.”). Set the mixture in the fridge to chill for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, set a 4-quart pot on the stove with 2 ½ quarts of water to boil. Salt the water lightly. (Estelle says: “By the time the water boils, you can take the mix out of the fridge.”) Using wet hands, roll a heaping tablespoon of mix into a ball. Continue until you have 8 matzo balls. (Estelle says “That ‘makes 9-12’ stuff on the box is nonsense. One packet makes eight.”) Carefully drop the matzoh balls into the boiling water then lower the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 20-25 minutes. (E says: “You cook them first before you add them to the soup. If you cooked them in the soup, the broth would get all cloudy. Cooking them in water separately keeps the soup nice and clear.”) Remove the matzoh balls carefully with a slotted spoon and drop them into the soup to serve. If you’re making the matzoh balls ahead of time, let them cool on paper towels before storing them in a Ziploc bag in the fridge.  They freeze beautifully, too.

Matzoh ball soup is best served on special holiday occasions surrounded by boisterous family, when one suffers a rather annoying illness (i.e. chest cold, mononucleosis and the like) or to heal up heartbreak.

Corn & Tomato Risotto with Goat Cheese and Bacon

This stuff is summer in a bowl. It comes together in about 45 minutes, reheats great and is easily adaptable. I've made it twice in as many weeks. Go forth. Make this. Extra credit if you enjoy it outdoors with a cold glass of white wine.

Variations:

  • Topped with scallops or grilled fish instead of the bacon.
  • Feeling fancy? Blitz some parsley and basil with olive oil in a food processor. Drizzle over and around the plate.
  • Veggie/vegan: use vegetable broth instead of chicken (I actually prefer veggie broth but I had loads of chicken broth left over from the next recipe you'll see here so that's what I used), use all olive oil for the oil + butter, leave out the cheeses and nix the bacon. (But really, what fun would that be?)
  • A wee bit of extra time to devote to this dish? Grill the corn on the cob until just beginning to char. Allow it to cool, then proceed with the recipe as written.
  • No longer summer? Use frozen corn. Defrost it first if you have the forethought. Otherwise, it'll just warm through as the risotto finishes.

----------------------------------------------------------------------- Grilled Corn & Tomato Risotto with Goat Cheese and Bacon

4-6 cups chicken stock [homemade makes a big difference here] 1 pint mixed cherry tomatoes, halved 2 teaspoons fresh thyme, minced 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil 1/2 of a medium onion, finely minced 1 1/2 cups arborio rice 3 slices of bacon 3-5 cobs of sweet corn, kernels removed [use this trick!] 3 oz soft or semisoft goat cheese 1/2 cup grated parmesan 2 tablespoons parsley, minced [basil is great here, too!] salt and pepper, to taste

In a medium pot, bring chicken stock to boil then lower to a simmer. While the stock heats up, in a small bowl combine the cherry tomatoes with 2 teaspoons of olive oil, the thyme and season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside to get happy.

In separate large sauté pan, heat 2 tbs olive oil. Then add the onion and cook for 3-5 minutes, or until tender but not browned. Mix in rice and stir for another minute until it begins to toast. Add a ladle of chicken stock. Stir frequently until you see the liquid is almost completely absorbed, then add another ladle of stock. For the next 25 minutes or so, continue, stirring the rice until it looks nearly dry, then adding more liquid. While you're doing the stirring-ladling dance, throw the bacon in the microwave between several layers of paper towels and cook until crisp [in my microwave, this takes two 3-minute zaps with a flip of the bacon in between]. Set aside to cool, then crumble. Taste a spoonful of rice every once in a while-- it should be al dente, like pasta, when it's ready to be finished. When you feel it's nearly ready, add the corn kernels, goat cheese and parmesan and cook for another 3-5 minutes, stirring and adding liquid if it begins to look too dry. Remove from heat.

Stir in parsley and tomato mixture before serving. Serve in individual bowls and top with the crumbled bacon, more grated parmesan and a drizzle of oil, if you're feeling it.

 

MightyLife: Sonoma Valley: Good Eats!

If you know my family, you know that any major event (family vacation or otherwise) revolves largely around food. We pick where we'll eat before we ensure there's a roof over our head. Once we've got a plate in front of us, we taste, we discuss the complexities, we ooh and ahh, spear the tasty morsels awaiting us on someone else's plate across the table, only to discuss their plate's complexities, ooh, ahh, repeat. We're really quite irritating to be around.

Anyway. I can say we did not have a single bad meal in California. In truth, we had some incredible meals in California. And while I'm only just getting the hang of this food blogging stuff, I know full well that someone snapping photos of everybody's plates, taking notes at the table and asking for menus at every stop is awfully grating.

So I only did it at a few stops:

The Healdsburg Bar & Grill: Stumbled upon in the midst of our first day of tastings. Highly recommended. Don't judge the mac 'n cheese. That salad is larger than it may appear and one must carb up for a day of wine-tasting. Also: bacon.

              

 

Ad Hoc: the casual, one-prix-fixe-menu-per-night, you'll-eat-it-and-you'll-ADORE-it step sibling of The French Laundry. This is the only photo you're going to get because I would not dare disrupt a Thomas Keller Experience by snapping photos. Some things just have to be experienced. Like the pork belly. And the creamy polenta cake. And the panna cotta.

Things that I'd like to never experience again? The hairpin turns around the cliffs on the pitch black roads over the mountains in the rented minivan and the carsicknessohmygodthecarsickness. This was one of the greater meals I've had-- but next time I think I'll helicopter in.

Boon: A tiny, casual storefront restaurant with friendly staff and elegant touches: glasses that feel great in your hand, big glass bottles of chilled water on the tables, simple white dishes in creative but unobtrusive shapes. Small plates, charcuterie, yummy cheese, panini and beautiful, original salads. Local, organic, hormone-and-antibiotic-free, sustainable good food. Am I gushing? I'm gushing.

I had the prosciutto panini with pepapto, arugula and fig jam. And ginger ale. It was spectacular. This place is not to be missed. So much of it was what I would want in my own restaurant. You know. Someday. Go there. Go there now.

 

You should stop here after you climb the rocks and investigate the tidepools of Sonoma Beach State Park. About a block from the restaurant is Boon Hotel + Spa. Make a weekend of it! Also happens to be a lovely location for recovering from TheCarSickness. California, why must you be so hilly and windy with the turns and the bumps?!

Russian River Brewing Company: Craft beer and great pizza. That's the full sampler (about half IPAs and half Belgians) below between my brother's giant paws.  My sister-in-law and I split the Belgian sampler which was only one side of the board. Such delicate ladies are we!

Bi-Rite Creamery: Much has been written about this teeny ice cream joint in San Francisco. It was high on my list of California must-do's and lo, was it worth it. I ordered a very small scoop of the salted carmel and the brown sugar with ginger caramel swirl flavors, asking the nice kid at the counter, "Is that a good decision?" "It'd be a better decision if you added a scoop of ricanelas [cinnamon ice cream with snickerdoodle chunks], " he shot back. You, sir, know what you're talkin' about. This little bowl of heaven was the best ice cream I've had since I lived in Argentina 10 years ago. Argentina takes their ice cream very seriously. If you're ever in the hood, the salted caramel flavor will warp your mind.

More still to come!

Mighty Life Update: Sonoma Valley Edition

Remember that "ridiculously cushy wine trip" item on my Mighty Life List?

Yeah... well, this month, I checked that one off. In a big, big way.

That shrubbery in the background? Them there's grape vines, kids. Far as the eye can see.

We crammed a lot of life into seven days in the Sonoma Valley and I'll be posting pictures in a series of posts in the coming days and weeks. For now, here are a few favorites of the scenery:

 

... more soon.

Beer & Pretzel Marshmallows

SDC11146 Ya'll.

Some things defy explanation. I take no credit for this idea but can tell you that not only is it brilliant-- it is slap-yo-mama good. Salty. Sweet. Creamy. Toothsome. Light. SDC11152 It is everything good in the world: salt, sugar, chocolate and beer.

If the idea of making marshmallows from scratch intimidates you, let me assure you: if you can read a thermometer, you can do this. You could do this while you're drinking the beer you use in the recipe (though you probably shouldn't because magma-hot sugar + alcohol = disaster). Marshmallows are so easy and the results taste so much better than store-bought.

SDC11157

For this batch, I used a bottle of homebrew-gone-wrong. The resident brewmaster left out some sugar at the bottling stage which resulted in a flat batch which was not so good for drinking but turned out to be great for cooking. Also: everyone should have a resident brewmaster. Homebrews are the best grown-up science experiment.

My mind is already reeling with other flavor combinations for these. After making the carbomb cupcakes for Justin's birthday, I'm pretty sure that flavor combo would be tasty. Also I'm fairly certain that candy bar flavors would work well-- Almond Joy? Snickers? Anyway. Get thee a candy thermometer and go play!

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Chocolate-Dipped Beer & Pretzel Marshmallows

Adapted only slightly from the original recipe on the Kitchn Makes 18-22 marshmallows, depending on how you cut them

For the Bloom: 1 1/2 tablespoons (just under 1/2 ounce) unflavored gelatin 2 teaspoons vanilla extract 1/3 cup (2.5 ounces) flat dark beer

For the Sugar Syrup: 1/4 cup (2 ounces) flat dark beer 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons (5 ounces) corn syrup or sugar cane syrup 3/4 cup (6 ounces) granulated sugar pinch salt

For Coating and Topping 10-12 ounces semisweet chocolate 2-3 teaspoons canola oil, optional - for thinning the melted chocolate 1 cup stick pretzels, bashed up into fairly fine pieces (nearly crumbs)

To flatten the beer, open the bottle and let it sit overnight. If you're in a rush, pour it into a bowl and beat the beer with a whisk to release as much of the carbon dioxide as possible.

Spray one standard bread loaf pan (8.5" x 4.5" or close) with nonstick spray or line it with parchment paper and then spray with nonstick coating. If using parchment, tape the flaps to the outside of the pan so the paper stays in place when you spoon in the marshmallow.

For the bloom, sprinkle the gelatin in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix the vanilla and flattened beer, and pour this over the gelatin. Whisk until no lumps remain. Set the bowl back into your mixer and fit the mixer with a whisk attachment.

For the sugar syrup, combine the flattened beer, corn syrup, sugar, and salt in a 4-quart saucepan or larger. Clip a candy thermometer to the side. Turn the heat to medium-high and bring the sugar mixture to a boil. As the syrup heats, it will foam up to nearly fill the pan. Keep an eye on it so it doesn't boil over. When the mixture is between 225° and 230°, let it bubble for another 5 minutes and then remove it from heat. (Ideally, the syrup should reach 240° - 250°, but because of the foaming action of the sugar, it may be difficult to get an accurate reading on your thermometer. If your syrup starts to edge up toward 250°, take the pan off the heat and proceed with the next step.)

With the mixer on low speed, carefully pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the gelatin bloom. Turn the mixer to high once all the syrup has been added and let it whip for 8-10 minutes, until it looks like glossy meringue and is very thick. Pour the marshmallow into the loaf pan and let it cure, uncovered, for 10-12 hours or overnight.

When the marshmallows are cured, turn the marshmallows out onto a cutting board. Cut into 18-22 squares of equal size. Pour the pretzel bits into a wide, shallow pan or plate. Toss in a few marshmallows at a time, shaking the pan well to coat the marshmallows with pretzel bits. Remove and set aside. Repeat until all marshmallows are covered in pretzel bits.

Melt the chocolate in 30-second bursts on HIGH in the microwave, stirring between each burst until the chocolate is melted. If the chocolate seems too thick, whisk in the canola oil one teaspoon at a time until the chocolate is thin enough to coat.

Dip each marshmallow halfway into the chocolate (or entirely, choose your own adventure!). Set them on a piece of wax paper to dry. The chocolate might have difficulty setting up if the weather is very humid; try putting the marshmallows in the fridge to help things along.

Marshmallows will keep in a covered container for several weeks. In the summer, store in the refrigerator to prevent the chocolate from melting.

 

So, March happened. Also: The Mars Cheese Castle!

Oh, March happened. I promise. I was there. Sorry I missed you. It was great! We celebrated a birthday with a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure surprise ambush and I made these insane cupcakes in honor of my favorite Irish boy. Shortly thereafter, my favorite Irish boy and I house/dogsat for my parents in the Chicago suburbs. The quest for a coffee table we don't hate (side note: do not, I mean, you know, ever, buy a glass topped coffee table, mmkay? trust.) led us to Kenosha. And you know what that means:

For those of you not from the Midwest, you may be unfamiliar with the dairyland beacon that is the Mars Cheese Castle. The original was built in 1957 with its iconic sign just off Highway 94 between Milwaukee and Chicago but by 2010... well, it was Wisconsin chic. Well-trodden floors had warped and sloped. The scent was a bit... pungent. The bathrooms? Negative. Danger! Abort mission!

The shiny new building is 25,000 square feet of cheesy (hehheh) goodness, complete with turrets but no moat. Damn!  Aisles of local cheeses, deli meats and souvenirs plus a nice wine and beer shop with a great selection of Wisconsin microbrews. They also have a order-at-the-counter restaurant with old school cafeteria trays-- you can enjoy your brat at one of several tables in the shop or bring it into the tavern.

The tavern is... awesome. We were there at 2:00 on a Saturday afternoon and the place was PACKED. The crowd consisted largely of regulars, many of whom Bartender Trevor  knew by name. One sweet, older gentleman badgered Bartender Trevor about the "lovely" beige paint color on the pub walls. The other bartender chatted about his labradour's new litter of puppies in gritty detail. Justin and I grabbed a pint of one of the many Wisconsin microbrews on tap and made small talk with the locals while Bartender Trevor passed around a giant vat of Merkt's cheese spread and crackers around the bar-- so much better than stale bar pretzels. More sanitary? Unlikely.

We finished our beers, bought some cheese curds and mozzarella whips for the road and complimented Bartender Trevor on his service and the new digs as he closed out our tab. "You really have to love cheese to be in this business," he responded.

Mars Cheese Castle 2800 120th Avenue Kenosha, WI 53144 (262) 859-2244

Soupy Snacks

Dogs are the best—we’ve only had ours for a year and already can’t remember what life was like before he started waking us up with his Chewbacca impression, taking residence on his own private couch and welcoming us home every day with a tail wagging so hard, he repeatedly flogs himself in the face.

And so, when my friends who have been pining for a dog of their very own since they were very young finally found the perfect companion, named him in homage to The King of Cool and provided him with plenty of J.Crew skinny belts for snacking—well, that, dear ones, merits celebration!

As part of my intention to send more care packages (“love bundles?” oooh, that sounds rather obscene) to friends far away, these homemade bones are going to be on their way to Houston soon to welcome Steve McQueen to his forever home.

Obviously, the recipe below is flexible. I don’t know about your dog, but the dogs in my life don’t have particularly discriminating tastes (I’m looking at you, Harry “Poop-eater” Perlman). It is free of people-friendly but dog-toxic ingredients like leavening agents and garlic. The parsley will supposedly act as a breath-freshener... Not sure about that claim, but the color sure is purdy!

However, a care package cannot consist of dog treats alone. Nay! Stay tuned for the people treats that make it into the love bundle. Heh.

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Soupy Snacks*

2 cups white whole wheat flour (or other flour, see notes) 1 cup rolled oats (regular or quick-cook is fine) 1 tablespoon dried parsley (or 2 tablespoons fresh, chopped) ½ teaspoon salt 2 large eggs 1 cup peanut butter ½ cup milk

Preheat the oven to 300F. Lightly grease or line two baking sheets with parmchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, oats, parsley and salt. Add the eggs and peanut butter, stirring to combine. The mixture will be crumbly. Add the milk slowly, stirring until you have a cohesive dough (you may need a bit more or a bit less of the milk, so add slowly).

Use a tablespoon to drop the dough onto the baking sheets, flattening each ball to ¼” of thickness. Alternatively, roll the dough out to ¼” thickness and cut with the cookie cutter of your choice. Re-roll the scraps until you use all the dough.

The biscuits can lay close together on the baking sheets—with no leavening agent, they will not rise or spread too much. Bake for 40-60 minutes (depending on the size of the biscuit) or until dark golden brown, dry and crisp.

*really sorry about that name, guys. I couldn't even help myself.

NOTES:

  • Flours: Apparently some dogs are gluten-sensitive. News to me, but if yours is [or has some other allergy] you can substitute the wheat flour with the flour of your choice. If you don't have white wheat flour on hand, you can substitute with all-purpose flour.
  • As these are free of animal ingredients, they should keep well in a tightly-sealed container for... up to two weeks? Maybe longer? Clearly, I'm an expert at dog treat longevity. Use your best judgment, mmkay?

Slow Cooked Pork with Gremolata Root Vegetables and Polenta

Oh, Interwebz. Are you feeling neglected? Yikes. My bad. Let me make it up to you with a bangarang recipe that will warm your bitter heart.

Weekends at the InWideningCircles kitchen are not exactly wild and crazy. It might be the 50+ hour work weeks, but lately, I’d rather spend my Saturday night lost in the quiet repetition of peeling, chopping, stirring and straining than gettin’ tipsy in the clubz. Apparently, 25 is the new 40. Yeesh…

On one such Sunday, I spent… oh, 6 hours preparing dinner? Yeah. There was a timeline-- a coordinated time-synched schedule of events all leading up to one meal eaten on the coffee table later that night. Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin is one of my most-well-loved cookbooks. Organized by seasons, Suzanne presents three-course menus, each more delicious than the last. I’ve made a number of tasty morsels from her pages: the chocolate-stout cake (Justin’s birthday last year), the green goddess salad dressing (riffed on for a Thanksgiving antipasto plate in 2010), the braised beef short ribs (NOMMMMM); the Meyer lemon tart that has a layer of dark chocolate between the citrus custard and the shortbread crust (dessert for a family dinner, meant for a certain famous grandma who loves lemon more than most things in life)… And on one infamous Sunday: “Spiced pork stew with polenta, root vegetables and gremolata.” And it damn near killed me.

Don't believe me? BEHOLD!

So first, Madame Goin would like you to toast cumin, coriander and fennel seeds (individually!!) and then pound them to dust (individually!) in a mortar and pestle. These spices are combined with garlic, some herbs and cayenne to form the marinade for the pork shoulder. Oh! And that pork shoulder? It wouldn’t be too much trouble to cut those 4 pounds of rather tough meat into 1 ½-to-2 inch chunks, would it? Yes, dear ones, it would. Especially with my knives that desperately need a sharpening. I should have told the butcher to do this for me.

Right, so now the pork that you have painstakingly butchered is marinating in that spicy lovefest overnight. No big deal! Get some rest, you’ll need it for tomorrow. The meat comes out 45 minutes before you cook it to get another rub down with salt and pepper. Why the salt and pepper isn’t incorporated into the initial spice mixture, I have no idea. Zuni says to salt early, after all. Why not?!

Your very well loved meat now gets a crusty sear in a screamin’ hot Dutch oven. But as we all know, too much matter in a screamin’ hot pan will only cause said matter to steam, not sear. (Do we all know that? Don’t crowd and don’t stir too often! This goes for searing, sautéing and roasting. Seriously. Put down the wooden spoon and let shit cook. You’ll thank me later.) So what to do? Oh, no problem, just cook your four pounds of meat in batches. Took me three of them and about 30 minutes. After this dance, a chopped mirepoix goes in along with the reserved spice rub spices, a crumbled chilé, a bay leaf… Some white wine joins the party to scrape up the fond from the pan (Maillard reaction, ftw!). Two different stocks go in (you have veal stock lying around, don’t you? Riiiiiight.).

The pork jumps back into the pool, some herbs and lemon zest get tucked around the meat, the pan gets covered and cooked at 325 for 2 ½ hours.

After an hour and a half, you start the polenta. Madame Goin explains in the recipe notes that the polenta recipe was “perfected” by the “lovably obsessive-compulsive” chef de cuisine at Lucques. I can knock out a pretty tasty polenta in 20 minutes or so. But NO! Madame Goin insists that your polenta cooks for an hour (or. more.), with you stirring frequently so it doesn’t scorch.

Forty-five minutes after you start the polenta, you need to start sautéing the vegetables. These need to be cut to equal sizes which is tough when only 2 out of the 3 vegetables have a similar shape. Parsnips and carrots and long and thin; turnips stout and round. But sure, I’ll slice them all into long quarters… And since we never crowd a pan, we’ll need to heat up TWO large sauté pans (I don’t OWN two, Ms. Goin!) to divide the veg between. Salt, pepper, thyme. Caramelize. Then butter, more sauté action. Then some shaved shallots. Toss with gremolata (finely chopped lemon zest, garlic, and parsley).

While you’re stirring your polenta and sautéing your root vegetables, you’ll need to remove the meat form the oven, crank it to 400, strain the braising juices into a saucepan, return the pork to now hotter oven uncovered to caramelize, skim the fat from the braising liquid and reduce it over medium high heat for 7 minutes to thicken it. No big deal-- delegate that to your butler.

Then you pour the thickened broth over the browned meat, scatter the meat with the gremolata-coated root veg and serve, exhausted, with a bowl of obsessive-compulsive polenta.

Seems a bit much, no? Even a masochist like me agrees. And even though it was damn tasty, 6 hours is just too much for a stew and some root veg.

There has to be a better way.

Thus, my neglected readers, I present to you my simplified homage to Madame Goin’s recipe that nearly killed me. The things I do for you!

I employ the slow cooker which does a brilliant job of braising the meat and keeps you (or your butcher) from having to chop up 4 pounds of meat into bite-sized pieces. I still recommend a sear in a hot pan prior to the soak in the slow cooker because I think this aids in both the flavor and the texture departments of the final product, but if you’re truly pressed for time I suppose you could even skip that step. Roasting the vegetables (instead of sautéing in multiple steps as the original recipe intended) is a hands-off technique that yields an end result almost identical in texture and flavor. The polenta is my own bastardized recipe that has Italian mamas everywhere rolling their eyes and shuddering, but hey, it works for me. I think polenta is a pretty individualized thing—I probably like my version only because I’ve never had “proper” polenta. Truthfully, you could even use the store-bought kind they sell in rolls for another time-saving step and be just fine.

I give this recipe three “So Good!”s on the Sweet Caroline Scale of Goodness. It is warm, comforting and yet doesn’t feel overly indulgent. The sweetness of the roasted vegetables goes hand-in-hand with the spicy, savory pork and the creamy polenta just bonds everything together in one big spicy lovefest. Enjoy!

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Slow-cooked Pork Shoulder with Gremolata Root Vegetables and Polenta

Inspired by Suzanne Goin’s “Spiced Pork Stew with Polenta, Root Vegetables and Gremolata” in Sunday Suppers at Lucques

Serves 6

Slow-cooked Pork Shoulder 1 tablespoon cumin seeds OR 2 teaspoons ground cumin 2 tablespoons coriander seeds OR 1 ½ tablespoons ground coriander 2 tablespoons fennel seeds OR 1 ½ tablespoons ground fennel seed 3-4 pounds pork shoulder, fat trimmed 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper 6 cloves garlic, smashed** 1 tablespoon oregano leaves, plus 3 whole sprigs 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1 cup onion, diced ½ cup carrot, diced ½ cup fennel, diced (if you hate fennel, I think celery or even bell pepper would be fine here) 2 bay leaves 1 chile de árbol, crumbled (for the love of God, wash your hands after crumbling!) OR 1 teaspoon red chili flakes (or to taste, more if you like it hot, this measurement yields a mild stew) 1 cup white wine (I used red the second time around, tasted fine to me!) 2 cups chicken stock 1 cup veal/beef stock (I used store-bought beef demi-glace mixed with water for this) zest of one lemon 4 sprigs cilantro (I forgot this the second time around, no big deal)

**To smash garlic: place the peeled clove on your cutting board, lay the broad side of your knife over it and give it a good thwack!

If using whole spices, toss the cumin, coriander and fennel seeds in a large skillet over medium heat just until slightly toasty and fragrant. Remove from the heat and bash them about in a mortar and pestle until mostly ground. If using ground spices, skip this step (obviously). Place the pork shoulder in a large glass dish and rub all over with the ground spices, the garlic, the cayenne, the oregano leaves, 1 ½ tablespoons of salt and1 tablespoon of black pepper. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

The next morning, remove the pork from the refrigerator. Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat until very hot. Pour in the olive oil and wait a minute for it to heat up. Lightly brush off the pork so no large pieces of spice/garlic remain and reserve the spices, aside. Sear the pork for 2-3 minutes on all sides until well-browned and caramelized. Remove the pork from the pan and place into the slow cooker. Pour the white wine into the sauté pan, using a wooden spoon to scrape up any crusty bits in the bottom of the pan. Allow the white wine to reduce by half, about 5 minutes.

Add the onion, carrot, fennel, bay leaves, crumbled chile, and reserved garlic and spices to the pork in the slow cooker. Pour the white wine mixture over the meat. Add the chicken and veal (or beef) stock. Tuck the strips of lemon zest and the sprigs of oregano and cilantro around the meat. Cover the slow cooker and cook on the low setting for 6-8 hours.

When the meat is tender and falling off the bone, remove it from the slow cooker. Remove the bone and shred the meat. Place the meat on a large platter or serving dish. Strain the remaining braising liquid over a small saucepan. Heat the braising liquid over medium-high heat until it simmers and eventually boils, allowing it to reduce by almost half and thicken. Pour the liquid over the beef and toss to coat.

Roasted Root Vegetables with Gremolata zest of 1 lemon 2-3 cloves garlic, minced ½ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped 3-4 medium carrots, peeled 3-4 medium parsnips, peeled 1 good-sized sweet potato 3 tablespoons extra-virigin olive oil 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves 1 cup shallots, sliced thin as you can get ‘em salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 425.

Peel the zest off the lemon with a vegetable peeler, then chop it coarsely. Mix with the garlic and parsley, chopping the whole mix together until very fine. Voila, gremolata!

Slice the carrots, parsnips and sweet potato into wedges that are approximately equal in size. Toss with the olive oil and thyme, season with salt and pepper and spread onto a sheet pan. If it looks too crowded or the vegetables can’t lay in a single layer on the pan, split them between two sheet pans. Sprinkle the shallots over the vegetables.

Roast the vegetables for about 20 minutes or until they are cooked through and caramelized around the edges, tossing occasionally to ensure even color. Remove from the oven and toss with the gremolata in a large bowl. Serve warm.

Polenta

1 cup medium-grain polenta 1 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter (or more, to taste) Kosher or sea salt

In a heavy-bottomed pot, bring 5 ½ cups of water and 1 tablespoon of salt to a boil over high heat (Note: if you are using fine grain salt or typical iodized table salt, use only a couple of teaspoons). Once the water boils, add the polenta slowly, whisking continuously. Turn the heat down to low and continue cooking for another 20 minutes, stirring often. At this point, taste a bit. If the texture is to your liking, whisk in the butter, taste for seasoning and serve. If it doesn’t seem quite done, add ½ cup of water and continue whisking. Repeat until it tastes the way you like, then add the butter, taste for seasoning and serve.

Snowy Day Lasagna

As a kid, lasagna was a no-go for me. Frankly, it's usually still a no-go for me. I'm not wild about a slab of smooshy noodles mortared into place by Icky Cheese (ricotta's alias during my childhood) and covered in a sweetly bland tomato sauce. So heavy. So monochromatic in texture. Meh.

Not anymore. Behold!

I saw this recipe for Meatball Lasagna on The Kitchn a while back. Incorporating meatballs (I love meatballs!) would surely tackle some of the textural complaints I have with lasagna... Plus, it called for a hefty amount of mozzarella cheese in addition to the ricotta cheese whereby rendering the Icky factor practically unrecognizable. But what with this being the new year and all, well... Some tweaks were required for the sake of waistlines across America.

I replaced one layer of the pasta here with thinly sliced zucchini. Zukes hold a lot of excess water which could potentially make the final product soggy, watery, and generally nasty so I salted them while doing other prep work to avoid any pending disaster. You could also use eggplant if that's what turns your crank. Next time, I would consider adding zucchini to the other layers of pasta or even using zucchini instead of pasta all together. Using whole wheat pasta here is another great tweak that will go largely unnoticed. Furthermore, you could use ground chicken or turkey for the meatballs to make it even healthier OR replace the meatballs with sauteed mushrooms to make it meat-free. I upped the herbs to make it fresher during these dark days. I did not, however, change the cheese factor. I'm a Milwaukee girl, folks, I have principles.

With or without the health tweaks, this lasagna is the perfect comfort food for a weekend hibernation. I think it would pair particularly well with football. It feeds a crowd. Serve it with a big salad and a glass of wine. Because I said so.

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Meatball & Zucchini Lasagna Inspired by The Kitchn Serves 8 For the Meatball Sauce: 1 lb ground beef [preferably grass-fed, organic and antibiotic-free] ¾ cup panko breadcrumbs [normal breadcrumbs are fine here, too] ¼ cup skim milk ¼ cup fresh parsley, finely chopped 1 egg 2 ½ tablespoons Parmesan cheese, finely grated salt & pepper, to taste 2 tablespoons olive oil ¾ cup red wine 32 ounces tomato sauce

For the Lasagna: 16 ounces fresh part-skim mozzarella; torn up [notice how I didn't say "1 pound"? Heh.] 15 ounces fresh part-skim ricotta cheese 1 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese; grated?and separated** 2 eggs ¼ cup fresh parsley; finely chopped ¼ cup fresh basil; finely chopped salt & pepper, to taste ½  pound lasagna noodles [this was half of a box for me] 2-3 medium zucchini, sliced thin (1/8”)

** [or whatever. Asiago, Romano, Pecorino whatever. You’re not gonna screw this up.]

Line a colander with the zucchini slices in a single layer. Sprinkle just lightly with salt. Add another layer of zucchini, salting, layering, and so on. Set aside.

Mix together the ground beef, panko, milk, parsley, egg and Parmesan just to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Shape into one-inch balls, about 18 meatballs in total.

Add olive oil to a large skillet or cast iron pan and fry the meatballs until brown on all sides; about 8-10 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel to drain. Meanwhile, deglaze the pan with red wine, scraping up all the yummy crusty bits. Stir in tomato sauce. Return the meatballs to the sauce/wine mixture and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Cook meatballs in the sauce, covered, over low heat for about 15 minutes until they are cooked all the way through. Remove the sauce from the heat and gently cut the meatballs in half (or bite-size chunks). Set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to boil and season it well with salt. While the water comes to a boil, stir together mozzarella, ricotta, 1 cup of the Parmesan, eggs, herbs, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Set aside. Drain the zucchini slices by pressing them between layers of a clean towel (or layers of paper towels), taking care to remove any excess slat. Dry them well.

Drop the pasta sheets into the boiling water for two minutes [NOTE: if you only have a dinky-ass pot like I do, you will want to do this in batches. Lesson. Learned.]. Remove pasta from the pot and drop the sheets in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking [this is called “shocking”].

Preheat oven to 350-degrees F. In a 9x13 pan (or two 8x8) pans, spread a thin layer of tomato/meat sauce on the bottom of the pan. Spread 1/3 of the cheese mixture over top. Layer evenly with 1/3 the cooked pasta sheets and then spread with 1/3 the remaining tomato mixture. Repeat this two more times using the sliced zucchini instead of pasta in one layer. Sprinkle the remaining 1/3 of the parmesan cheese over the top.

Bake 30 minutes covered with foil. Remove foil and bake 45 minutes more, or until the top is browned and bubbling around the edges. Allow the lasagna to set for 10 minutes prior to cutting. [ It will be schloompy at first but will set up and look pretty like the first photo as it cools. Schloompiness does not affect tastiness.]