January 28, 2014

Chicken and Dumplings: A Mr. B Favorite

Chicken and Dumplings
Usually people go south for the winter, but this year, it looks like winter went south and not just figuratively, but literally, too. Back home, the family's excitement about the possibility--and reality--of snow is almost palpable and while I'm thrilled for them, it just adds to my winter woes--why can't we have winter, too?

Sigh. I've no interest in snow, but it sure would be nice to have a little chill and a lot of rain. Instead, it's another sunny day with blue skies and a warm breeze. The daffodils are already poking up and the tulips won't be far behind.

It may not be the kind of weather that warrants braising a roast, but it's still January and it's certainly acceptable to make a pot of Mr. B's favorite chicken and dumplings. This recipe is simple to throw together, takes little time to cook and even on a warm winter day, the pillowy soft dumplings make for a welcome meal. Toss together a simple green salad o arugula, parmesan and balsamic and open a bottle of wine.

 And for my family and friends 'enjoying' the snowy show: stay warm!

January 23, 2014

Sweet Winter Citrus: Blood Orange Sorbet

Blood Orange Sorbet
 It might seem crazy to be writing about sorbet in the middle of winter, but since it's the season for blood oranges and we haven't even seen winter this year, I think I've got good reason.

Usually, by January, I've seen my fair share of rain--and chilly temperatures--but this year, we've scarcely had even a few rain drops. So, instead of spending the majority of my time in my warm kitchen, I've been spending my time in the warm weather dragging my hose around the backyard. While I'm still holding out hope for a late rainy season, in the meantime, I've decided to throw myself into this strangely summertime weather and enjoy coming up with a few seasonably unseasonable delicacies.

One of my favorite things about this time of the year is the bounty of winter citrus. That may sound like an oxymoron--winter citrus--but there are so many varieties of citrus, each with its own particular season that fresh citrus is available all year long. For me, the winter citrus are my favorite, mostly because of their obscurity, but equally for their uniqueness.

Topping the list is the blood orange. First grown in Sicily and throughout Spain, there are several varieties of the blood orange, some barely tinted, while others are deeply crimson and magenta. The color is determined by a number of factors, including the type of orange and the growing conditions, but most notably by anthocyanin--a water-soluble pigment that can appear as red, blue, or even purple. So, the same pigment responsible for giving the blood orange its blood red hue is also responsible for the red in cherries, blue in blueberries and even the purple in cabbage and eggplant. Additionally, anthocyanin is a powerful antioxidant associated with a high level of flavonoids, which means more than just adding a pretty tint to fruits and vegetables--colorful fruits and vegetables can slow the growth of cancer, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure and even make you feel happier and more positive about life. Plus, they contain loads of vitamin C--one blood orange can have up to 130% of your daily requirement--potassium and Vitamin A.

Blood oranges have a lot going for them when it comes to upping the nutritional ante and while I'm thrilled about all of the health benefits, I most love them because of their violently crimson flesh--cutting into them is like taking a crash course in horror film special effects, which in my book translates to having a little fun in the kitchen. Usually, I peel them and use them in salads, but with the warmer weather, I decided to make sorbet. This recipe is ridiculously simple and ever so delicious. If you happen to live somewhere where it really is winter, I urge you to turn up the furnace, put on your woolens, and make this anyway; it's just too tasty to pass up, even in the midst of a blizzard!

January 22, 2014

The Skinny: Crock-Pot Carnitas

Crispy, Spicy Carnitas
Mr. B's a sucker for pork. Although he likes to think of himself as a well-rounded carnivore, the mention of anything containing pork--or pork products--will have him squealing for a taste.

One of his all time favorites happens to be carnitas--that Mexican delicacy of twice cooked pork--the first, by a low and slow braise and the second time, with a toss into hot lard until the meat is crispy, caramelized, and deeply golden brown. And really, who could blame him? What better to heap into warm corn tortillas and top with chopped onions, cilantro, and spicy salsa?

Most of the time, we live in a "No Fry Zone," not because I'm opposed to anything deep fried--at least not when it's done well--but, mostly because Mr. B and I tend to cook in a style that can often be referred to--fondly, of course--as guerilla cooking, which means, we like to push things to the edge. Unfortunately, that usually means dismantling smoke alarms, opening windows, and praying for the best. For reference, I've seen Mr. B attempt a lobster bisque with a blow torch--a real, professional blow torch, and me, well, I've certainly had my moments of not clearly thinking through my culinary pursuits.

Up until this point, we've always managed to avoid disaster, and I wasn't about to tempt fate so early in the New Year by bringing a large pot of lard to a near boil. After thinking long and hard about how I could go about replicating crispy carnitas without frying, I finally latched onto the idea of using my crock-pot for the braise, and then employing my broiler to 'crisp' up the meat.

The results were wildly successful--even Mr. B, my carnitas expert, gave them a thumbs up. And, to make things even better, they're healthier than their fried counterpart--as long as you don't gobble them up by the pound.

January 17, 2014

Riffing on A New Orleans' Classic

A Play on Eggs Sardou
Back in the day, when the streets of New Orleans were my stomping grounds, one of my all time favorite things to do after a night of cocktails and people watching was to hit any one of my beloved late night restaurants. Unlike a lot of other places, New Orleans had her fair share of late night eateries--from the seedy to the fairly upscale where at 2 a.m. you could find not only a good bloody Mary, but white tablecloths and waiters in ties and jackets.

My decision of where to eat was always made on the spur-of-the-moment, but when it came to what I wanted to eat, there were always two things on my mind: bowls of buttery grits and the ever sumptuous  and supremely rich eggs Sardou--poached eggs perched on artichoke bottoms and piles of creamy spinach and dolloped with the most decadent of Hollandaise sauces all made even more satisfying by the late hour.

Like any late night foodie, I knew a few places where I could always get my fix and so, for many years, eggs Sardou were part of my regular repertoire, but then when I moved to California, like so many other cherished dishes, I wasn't likely to find it any where other than my own kitchen. Granted, these days it's more of a treat than a staple, but when it comes to brunch worthy egg dishes, this is still one of my favorites.

Recently, Mr. B and I decided to kick 2014 into gear with a few bloody Marys and a feast of eggs Sardou. There wasn't a white tablecloth and we weren't eating at 2 a.m., but there sure was a lot of lip smacking and plate licking.

January 16, 2014

One Box Wonder

Famous One Bowl Brownies with a Little Something Extra
I've always had a penchant for reading boxes and cans. While most people go through the supermarket mindlessly tossing packages into their carts, I like to linger at the shelf. It's not that I haven't better things to do or extra time on my hands, it's just that I have a deep appreciation for all the words and phrases that live on labels.

I'm fairly positive that much of the writing on various packages is generated from kindered spirits--creative writers who've left behind careers of uncertainty for a regular paycheck and while I certainly can't fault their choices (who doesn't appreciate electricity and food on the table?) the least I can do is stop long enough to read what they've written. Besides, labels are a veritable gold mine for great verbs, like slather, dollop, sprinkle, and smother.

And sometimes, on the back of the box, you can find a really good recipe. The sort that you hang onto for years and make over and over again. The sort of recipe that becomes such a go to that you no longer even need the box as a reference point. Not only have you memorized the exact measurements, but you've also developed a few variances that make the recipe all yours.

For me, that recipe is the one on the back of the box of Baker's chocolate for their famous one bowl brownies. While there are literally thousands of good--and complicated--brownie recipes around, this is the one that I rely on when the need for a good brownie strikes out of the blue, usually late at night when I'm deeply engrossed in a movie I'd never even intended on watching.

This recipe is quick to whip up and get into the oven during a commercial break and while the brownies are delicious warm from the pan chased down with a big glass of cold milk, they're even better the next morning with a cup of coffee.

I've stayed true to the original recipe, except for a few changes, like adding bourbon instead of vanilla and tossing in a few hefty handfuls of milk chocolate and toasted pecans.

January 14, 2014

On a Wing and a Prayer

Sticky Wings with Peanuts and Cilantro
It's no secret that when the Saints play, I get nervous. Really nervous. Maybe even a bit superstitious, too. Of course, I'm always undecided about whether or not I should wear my Saints gear, especially since one year, after a particularly embarrassing defeat, I was stuck in full dress next to a group of screaming, disgusting Cowboy fans who were celebrating their team's win with just a bit too much smugness.

In past seasons, I've flat out refused to watch games and instead busied myself in the kitchen or opted for a little afternoon--or evening--gardening. While I love watching football and can enjoy most games, with the Saints it's a whole different matter. Somehow, watching them play turns me into someone else, someone who screams and curses and even throws more than an insult or two.

I'll let you in on another secret--Mr. B has no problem pointing out that my support, or lack thereof, makes my fan status a bit questionable. Granted, I can see his point, but I never let him down when it comes to providing a fabulous game day menu.

This time, since the game was in Seattle, we decided to try our luck with chicken wings, a dish that seems a lot easier to execute than it actually is--sort of like the game the Saints were facing. Chicken wings, while tasty and darn addictive when done right, have a whole lot of fat and very little meat. Fat is a good thing for moist meat, but too much fat, too much unrendered fat, well, that's not such a good thing.

We started out with the intention of recreating wings that Mr. B once ate in Portland and that have now become pretty famous--Pok Pok wings--fried crispy and and served with a sticky concoction of fish sauce and garlic--except, we weren't planning on frying our wings, and as usual, we planned on adding a few more ingredients to the mix.

After a full week of hashing out our strategy, we finally came up with a method that we felt pretty confident about, and unlike past years, I took my seat on the sofa right at Mr. B's side and settled in to watch the big game. Over the next few hours, we cheered and winced, jumped and cursed, all the while taking in the crazy good aroma of those cooking wings. And then, just as the clock was ticking down and the Saints fell behind for what appeared the last time, Mr. B stood up and left the room.

Gone. Outta there--his spot on the sofa still warm to the touch.

I heard him in the kitchen, opening the cabinet, ice tumbling into a glass and I knew, he was fixing a much need and deserved drink. It had been a long season. And then, I called out to him to hurry back--the Saints had the ball and it was looking like they might be able to pull it off. Nope, he yelled--it was over. It was done. Finished. He wasn't coming back.

"You can't do it," I yelled back. "You're not a fair-weather fan like me; you're much better than that!" And it was true; he climbed the ladder and hung the Saints flag; he always wore his gear; he never left the room until the game was really, truly, unquestioningly over.

The clock ticked; a few more seconds gone and then, just as I knew he would, he reluctantly came back into the room and took his seat. Unbelievably, it looked like the Saints just might pull it off, miraculously so, all on a wing and a prayer, but then, there was that final mistake and all too quickly, it really was over.

Perhaps there would have been tears, or long periods of silence and remorse, but in the end, there was much to celebrate--we'd cracked the secret to incredible wings. At least one of our prayers had been answered!

January 10, 2014

The Romanian Reuben

Ham, Sauerkraut, and Swiss on Homemade Sourdough
Let's be honest: nothing beats a grilled sandwich oozing with cheese and stuffed with any combination of goods that you can imagine. Plus, with a few variances in breads, spreads, and fillings, one basic sandwich can be reinvented into multiple taste sensations.

That's sort of what I was thinking one night last week when Mr. B said that he'd be quite happy with a sandwich for dinner. Truthfully, I was hankering for a big, stinky Reuben when I opened the refrigerator door and found myself eye-to-eye with the last of the New Year's ham. And then dawned on me--there was a turkey Reuben, so why not a Reuben made with ham?

I decided to call it a Romanian Reuben because it had all the fixings that would have made my grandfather proud: my own sourdough bread from my own 'aged' sourdough starter, my homemade sauerkraut, shaved ham, several thick slices of stinky Swiss cheese, and two equally thick smears of horseradish and spicy brown mustard.

The verdict: after several more guest appearances over the next few days, the sandwich was deemed a favorite by Mr. B. While I encourage you to make your own bread and ferment your own kraut, you could just as easily pick up the ingredients at your local grocer and have this grilled up in time for lunch.

January 09, 2014

New York! New York!

Dense New York Cheesecake with Dark Morello Cherries
Whenever Mr. B and I go out, we're both keen to see what's on the dessert menu, but when it comes to actually ordering something, we're both pretty picky. It's not that we don't like sweets--we do--or that we can't appreciate a good chocolate cake or apple pie--we can--it's just that years ago, when we were 'regulars' at a restaurant close to our house, we were spoiled by real New York Cheese Cake.

In fact, the owner of the restaurant was such of fan of the real deal, that he had the cheesecakes flown in from New York's famed Carnegie Deli. The cheesecakes that Zagat said, were "the classic cheesecakes by which all others should be judged."

New York cheesecake is dense and rich, thick and golden; it stands tall in a buttery shortbread crust; there are no graham crackers in this recipe. Sometimes served with a fruit topping, in my opinion, this cheesecake is best eaten plain where every bit of rich, creamy, lightly sweetened heaven can slowly melt on the palate.

This is the cheesecake that I first made at 18 and that I've perfected all of these years later. I've used it to court Mr. B, to impress dinner guests,and to wrest favors from family members. While most purists will go to great lengths to avoid any cracks in the exterior, I like them--their caverns provide textural interest and for Mr. B, the little crevices are the perfect nooks where extra topping can pool.

This recipe comes straight from the pages of the Rombauers's Joy of Cooking (still one of the best cookbooks out there) and begins with the most captivating lines of any cooking narrative, "Do not be afraid of the extreme oven temperature..."

January 07, 2014

Kicking Off a Carnival Season

Yesterday, after a productive workday, Mr. B slipped on his new slippers and rolled into the last of the holiday season. I found him parked in front of the television, sipping away on a Manhattan and watching the last of the bowl games, albeit, the biggest one of them all--the BCS Championship game.

Usually, during football season, there's a lot of conversation that goes into meal preparation. Mr. B delightfully--and happily--tucks into whatever my latest culinary creativity has me obsessed with, except when it comes to sporting events and especially if I seem to be incorporating a few too many vegetables into the menu. Nope; when it comes to football, Mr. B demands meaty, rib-sticking, football approved, man-style fare.

So since yesterday's big game coincided with the beginning of Carnival Season, I decided to surprise him with a big pot of his much beloved jambalaya. Now, you may be thinking that if jambalaya happens to be one of Mr. B's favorite dishes, I must make it all the time. But, you'd be wrong, because it's hasn't been one of my favorite dishes--at least, not until I whipped up this quick and nutritious variation. It's good and spicy and chock full of big pieces of andouille sausage and pan seared shrimp, plus, I broke with tradition and used brown rice instead of the usual white.

You may have missed last night's big game, but Carnival Season is just getting started.  So, get out your Mardi Gras beads, tune into WWOZ for some Carnival music, and whip up a big pot of this jambalaya. The real holiday season is just getting started.