Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Pork. Peas, Potatoes

I love peas. When spring markets offer baskets of fresh garden peas I try to use them, and often, while they are in season.
Way back in the freezer was a lonely package of pork stew meat. Sometimes in the winter I'll make a stew with pears or winter squash. Though there is still a chill in the air most evenings those wintery dishes feel out of step with our bright spring days and the lonely pound package pushed further and further back in the freezer. We needed something simple and fresh.
I set out to create a kind of French farmers stew (at least the version from my imagination) with a light broth and bright tasty vegetables. I seasoned the meat with salt and pepper and lightly dredged each piece in flour.  One chopped onion and two chopped carrots cooked in hot olive on the stove and when they were softened and just a bit golden I added in the meat and allowed it to brown on all sides. With the meat browned I spilled in about 3/4 cup of white wine, deglazed the pan and let it cook down until reduced -- just about 5 minutes. Next I stirred in some flavor -- 1TB of tomato paste, about 2tsp chopped rosemary, 1 TB fresh thyme, and a pinch (maybe 2 tsp) of chopped fresh sage.  If I'd found some parsley in the fridge or the garden I'd have added in a couple TB too. A pile of potatoes peeled and cut in nice chunky cubes went in next followed by about 5 cups of chicken stock. The stew came to a boil and then simmered for about 40 minutes until the meat and potatoes are tender. Just before serving I added in plenty of fresh shelled peas and let the pot simmer for about 4 minutes more.
In the end we had a spring stew. Not too heavy. Not too thick. Just right with crusty bread for dinner.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Fish For Dinner

I suppose it's cheating but around here a fish dinner goes down a bit easier with a little pig for flavor. Tasty but not pretty this is pan seared fresh halibut with a chorizo butter vinaigrette of sorts. Usually I prefer the Spanish style dried chorizo but in a pinch the fresh sausage more Mexican style can really make a dish sing. Simple. Two pans no waiting. In a large non stick skillet I sautéed the fillets until cooked through and golden on each side along with some precooked flattened baby potatoes for crisp golden skin. In a second skillet I fried the chorizo in a mix of olive oil and melted butter until cooked through and then splashed in a couple TB of sherry vinegar (off heat). The fish layered onto of the potato and the chorizo flavored it all raining down messily overtop. Not pretty but this plate was clean soon enough.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Happy Easter

Easter 2014. Roast ham with bourbon brown sugar glaze, scalloped potatoes, pea salad (blanched garden, snow, and snap peas with pea greens in shallot vinaigrette) and flaky homemade biscuits.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Chicken For Dinner

"They must be popular because I've never heard of them," our neighbor and self confessed luddite quipped while her daughter and I rattled on trading recipes featuring and professing our affection for Panko bread crumbs.
"James love them too," I said. "In fact he is having them for dinner tonight." And with that our dinner menu was settled.
I butterflied and pounded (just a bit) boneless skinless chicken breasts until about plate sized. I dipped each breast in seasoned milk and then in a mixture of seasoned panko breadcrumbs and grated pecorino Romano cheese. Pressing to make sure the coating adhered I laid the chicken in a skillet with hot olive oil. After about 4 minutes on each side the chicken was tender and cooked through and the crust was flaky and golden brown.
Meanwhile, beet greens -- a gift from this same generous neighbor -- sautéed in a separate pan with olive oil, garlic, and crisped pancetta.
Schnitzel, Milanese, Paillard, chicken fried, Katsu -- nearly every cuisine has a similar dish because it's quick and just plain good.
Crispy, silky, crunchy all one one plate.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Veggies For Dinner

Ever since James and I ventured to Glen Ellen to have dinner with our friend Shari at The Star I've been thinking about their selection of delicious vegetable dishes.
The Star has a minute open kitchen barely bigger than group tables at some restaurants. The center piece of the room and the menu is a understatedly beautiful blue tiled wood fired oven. Seated at the "chef's counter" I watched the kitchen staff deftly maneuver an array of prepped ingredients (par cooked cauliflower, marinated fennel, tomato sauce, ricotta gnocchi) to finish on either the stove top or more likely in the oven. From pizzas to pasta to roasted fish and meat entrées everything was well prepared and tasty but it's the vegetables that are unforgettable. The first section of the menu offers a rotating selection of vegetable dishes served in little cast iron skillets piping hot from the oven. We had brussels sprouts with brown sugar bacon marmalade, blistered snow peas with feta cheese, crisp roasted artichokes, and my favorite, whole cauliflower with tahini, sumac and almonds. We should have made a meal of just veggies dishes alone.
I love the idea of an occasional vegetable dinner so I decided to bring some of the Star to our house with home roasted cauliflower. I carefully cored the beautiful head of yellow or cheddar cauliflower I found at the farmers market, rubbed it with olive oil, sprinkled the head with za'atar and popped it in a 450º for about an hour. Meanwhile I whipped up a sauce with 1/2 cup tahini paste, 1/2 cup water, 3 cloves garlic, juice of a lemon, and S&P quickly mixed up in the blender. When the cauliflower came out of the oven it was brown and crisp outside and silky soft inside. I poured the sauce overtop and sprinkled toasted sliced almonds as a finishing touch.
I generally don't like to make things more than once but this dish was so simple and so delicious it'll be in regular rotation as long as cauliflower is in season.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Turtles Are Back

The fall was dry. The water in the pond got low. Turtles were scarce and barely any birds came to land -- except for the hawks who were thirsty and hungry (far fewer of the migratory birds they often feed on came through with the drought conditions) and perched lower in the tree than I've seen before. The pond seemed barely alive. We feared the turtles were gone for good.
But with spring and a couple good rains comes any number of little miracles. The fields are green. The trees are brimming with little birds. The turtles are lounging lazily on their homemade float and venturing up onto our rocky "beach" for a bit of sun.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Pot Roast For Company

" Do you need us to bring anything?" they asked. "No, just come" we said. And yet our friends Mike and Sally came bearing gifts. Literally a bucket of fresh beets direct from Sally's amazingly beautiful and productive garden and greenhouse, a cushion spurge she thought I might enjoy in my garden and a beautiful package of beef cheeks wrapped in white paper. Invite a rancher to dinner and if you rate you might get an enviable cut like cheeks or hanger (both tucked away in my freezer right now).
Our favorite neighbors, our friends recently came back from a trip. We missed them and wanting to hear about their travels made a good excuse for dinner at our house.
Looking into my freezer I found a chuck roast -- almost 4 pounds --really two big for the two of us (not a fact that generally stops me) so it seemed perfect to build a dinner for four around. Pot roast. Could I really serve pot roast to guests? James had advised me to make a "regular dinner" not go overboard. Pot roast is about as regular as it gets so I forged on.
Stracotto (Italian Pot Roast) in Italian officially means overcooked but the name is used for a variety of braised roasts. The meat is slow cooked in a rich sauce flavored with pancetta, aromatic vegetables, dried mushrooms and tomatoes. Jumping off from Sara Moulton's recipe I found online I started by soaking 1 ounce of dried mushrooms in a cup of warm beef stock. Then browned the seasoned meat on all sides in hot olive oil. I set the meat aside, poured off most of the fat and added a couple ounces of chopped pancetta to the pan along with a chopped onion, carrot, and celery stalk. When the vegetables softened I tossed in 4 cloves of garlic (finely chopped), about a TB minced fresh rosemary, 1/4 cup chopped parsley, 2 bay leaves and seasoned the pot with salt and pepper. Next I stirred in 3 TB of tomato paste and a whole bottle of red wine (well actually the remains of two bottles I had in the kitchen -- using up that wine was initially the inspiration for this dinner). The wine cooked down for about 20 minutes and then the beef went back in the pot along with the mushrooms, a 28 oz can of tomato purée, and enough beef stock (yes I used the mushroom soaking liquid but poured it through cheesecloth first to remove any grit) to come 2/3 of the way up the side of the roast in the pot. The meat simmered very slowly, covered for almost 3 hours. I turned it over in the pot a couple times while it cooked.
When the meat was super tender I strained the sauce to remove the aromatic vegetables and cooked the liquid down a bit (with the meat resting on the side) to serve as gravy.
When people come to dinner, though I do like to be busy in the kitchen, I to have a good number of make ahead dishes. That way the kitchen seems clean and everything well organized to hit the table at the same time without guests seeing the cook starting to sweat. I usually add the finishing touches while James and our guests enjoy a few appetizers (today it was a salt cod brandade I had tucked way in the freezer for just such an occasion and toasty French bread) Alongside the classic of make ahead dishes, pot roast, I served an oven baked polenta. -- a fuss free but still impressive side dish, especially when studded with delicious creamy Humbolt Fog goat's cheese and parmesan. With these two rich dishes instead of a heavy vegetable recipe I opted for a bitter fresh tasting arugula, radish and red onion salad with tart balsamic vinaigrette (1/4 cup balsamic, 1 tsp dijon mustard, 1/2 tsp salt, pepper, 1 minced clove garlic, 1/2 cup olive oil shaken together).
I know James said "regular dinner" but I just can't have people to dinner and not serve dessert -- especially when I know our guests, like Mike and Sally, appreciate a sweet treat. More than once James has told "you don't always have to serve dessert." But honestly I do. You go to someone's house you expect dessert -- it's what good boys and girls get. Even if it's just something simple I can't feel that I have treated guests well unless the cake plate comes out.
Usually, because I love a theme, I would have gone for something terribly Italian like budino or biscotti and vin santo. But tonight -- because I wanted to try a recipe I saw on The Kitchy Kitchen, a cooking blog with photography so gorgeous I think about quitting every time I read it -- and because we have a lot of jam around the house thanks to my annual county fair efforts -- I opted for these simple lemon jam bars. A little tart a little sweet and just sugary enough to feel special -- just like the perfect dinner for friends.