Monday, March 31, 2014

Southern Style Steak

When I was a kid one of my favorite books was Stone Soup. A cheerfully illustrated story of a wandering cook (or rather a wandering eater) who professed to make soup from a humble stone as villagers amazed at his progress each contributed just a turnip, a cabbage or a bone to add extra flavor. In the end every one shared in the soup and marveled how it had been created from just a single stone.

I consider myself a pretty adaptable cook. I love to look into the fridge where others see nothing and come out with dinner. My own rotating version of Stone Soup.

But tonight when I looked in the cupboard and found no garlic -- I admit I was stumped for a bit. Everything I had been thinking of making -- primarily hummus with spicy roasted chick peas (I have the cooked legumes waiting in the fridge) -- would fall flat without a hint of garlic.

Pouring through the freezer I came across a package of round steak from our CSA box-- another puzzler. Round steak can be very tough and most often I use thin tenderized slices for chicken fried steak. I suppose I could have done that. I was hoping for something a bit more hands off. Suddenly I thought of smothered steak, a long cooking stove top braise that makes its own gravy as it simmers.  A favorite of soul food spots and Southern meat and three diners.

I started a bit of oil heating in a pan and added in a couple slices of bacon for extra flavor (garlic isn't the only flavor trick I guess). When the bacon crisped I set it aside and added the round steaks seasoned with cayenne, S&P, paprika, and a bit of powdered garlic I found hiding in the back of the spice drawer and dredged in seasoned flour into the pan. I browned the steaks on both sides and set them aside. I added one sliced onion and a half basket of white mushrooms into the skillet. I think I might have tossed in a little butter at that point while I sautéed the vegetables for about 5 minutes. Then I sprinkled in about 1/3 (maybe 1/4) cup of flour and gave it a good store around coating the vegetables and cooking just long enough to lose the floury taste. Next I poured in about 3 cups of chicken broth, gave everything a stir and added the steaks and crumbled bacon back into the pan. When the liquid came up to a boil I covered the pan and let everything simmer on the lowest heat for about an hour.

Meanwhile I had all the time in the world to whip up mashed potatoes to hold that savory mushroom bacon gravy and crisp butter coated green beans.

Admittedly for just our two steaks this recipe made way too much gravy. One day down the road James may see that gravy again as the base for soup or with tender meatballs but for now it's flavor waiting to happen tucked away in the freezer. No garlic needed.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Polenta and Chard

Lucky us. 
A cool spring rain falls outside perking up the flowers and trees. Inside we're snuggled with the dogs enjoying the weather and the excuse to be lazy together.
Days with bit of chill call for hearty warm suppers. Stews, soups, and of course -- polenta.  But since lazy is the word of the day I went for an easy oven baked polenta (no stirring). 
First, so I didn't have to make a separate vegetable, I boiled some chard cut into 1/2" pieces in salted water for about 13 minutes (I put the stems in first for 3-4 minutes and then followed with the leaves for another 10). I drained the chard and reserved the cooking water to flavor the polenta. In an oven proof saucepan I combined 4 cups of chard cooking water, 2 TB of butter, a pinch of pepper and 1 cup of polenta. After the mixture baked for 40 minutes I gave it a good stir and let the polenta cook for just 10 minutes more.  It was creamy, hot and smooth (no stirring and no lumps -- oven magic) afterwards when I stirred in the cooked chard and a good sized handful of grated cheese.
With a couple minutes to spare while the polenta cooked with no effort from me, I whipped up a quick sauce with ground meat, madeira wine, capers and thyme based on Mark Vetri's lauded veal ragu` 
Warm and easy nearly fuss free cooking -- a perfect simple dinner for a drizzly spring day.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Flavor Secret

The layering of interesting flavors is what takes a dish from regular home cooking -- great though it may be -- to unexpected and exciting and well, chefly. That sort of precision requires skill and patience. But there are short cuts,
One of my favorites is the North African Chili pepper paste harissa. Commonly used as a flavoring for stew or couscous, the precise mixture varies by country and brand.  Harissa is the basis for flavorful dips and makes a wonderful rub for grilled meats. Migrating across continents with travelers and immigrants in Europe harissa can be a breakfast spread for rolls, in Israel these days it is often served on top of falafel.
In my kitchen I make a green version as topping for grilled fish and use pre-made (I've tried many brands) harissa as a flavor boost in eggs, stews, and on steaks. Tonight when James was hoping for chicken soup with the thick egg noodles he loves I saw an opportunity to add a bit of spice to a familiar dish.
As always I started with a mix of onions, carrots, celery, garlic and bay leaf sautéing in olive oil. Just as the vegetables started to soften I added in a heaping tablespoon of tasty harissa. The chili paste melted into the oil and tinted the dish a lovely red. I added in the stock and brought it to a boil and simmered cubed potatoes in the stock. James particularly wanted corn and peas in his soup and so slightly thawed frozen veggies went in next. With chopped chicken warmed through I poured James' soup over a bowl of eggy noodles.
He had two bowls.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Happy Belated St Patrick's Day

St Patrick's Day is James' favorite holiday. Or so he says.
It's not the green beer, or cheerful shamrocks or even the hint of pots of gold he loves, it's the corned beef.
He doesn't really like turkey and barely turns his head for a juicy roast prime rib. So while others wait gleefully for Thanksgiving and Christmas, James waits for spring. James was away working on the 17th this year and missed our family tradition of glazed corned beef with buttered potatoes, so tonight on his first night home it's St Patrick's Day again.
I'm sure it's not traditional but I long cook my corned beef in the crock pot (partially covered with water) along with two quartered onions, two bay leaves, 12 peppercorns and 12 whole cloves for about 10 hours on low. When the meat is cooked through I drain it and lay it in a baking pan covered in a glaze of one cup jelly or marmalade (I usually use orange marmalade but tonight I had apple jelly), four TB brown sugar and four TB of Dijon mustard. After 30 minutes at 375º one of James' favorites pops out of the oven with crispy sweet bits of glaze surrounding super tender spiced meat.
Our untraditional traditional dinner just a little bit late.

Monday, March 17, 2014

An Old Time Plant From My Childhood

My mom was no kind of gardener. I remember a few houseplants and bulbs that she may or may not have put in herself (doubtful) but mostly anything that lived in the landscape around our house were hearty perennials that thrived on plenty of rain and virtual neglect.
In the spring my mom would send me out to cut branches of forsythia with it's playful yellow blossoms for cut flowers in the house. I remember tacking the willowy branches and thinking how silly it was to bring them inside where the flowers dropped down days later. I didn't know it then but I loved the rangy, wildness of those unruly bushes.
It's funny how even now -- several years past grown up -- when I think of plants I'd like to have  I still think back to that rag tag collection by our fence -- flowering dogwood, daffodils, and bright yellow forsythia like this young shrub just outside our dining room window. Who knows -- I might just bring some branches inside.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Start Of Fruit Season . . . Well Almost

I love to see the trees flowering -- beautiful now and messengers of the delicious fruit to come. At our place the first to bloom are these young, strong plum trees. One a local favorite Santa Rosa Plum and it's companion a slightly more rare and incomparably delicious, blood red Elephant Heart Plum. It's our own back yard tribute to Northern California plant man Luther Burbank. Botanist, horticulturist, and agricultural scientist Burbank developed more than 800 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers at least one known to millions of Americans -- the Burbank russet, the very potato McDonalds fries up every day. Plums were in fact a particular specialty and since James moved the swing into this carefree spot we keep these two of Burbank's progeny company many a spring afternoon.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Signs Of Spring

 After what seemed like endless days we've finally had a couple good rains. The pond is full and the turtles, ducks, and frogs have come out of hiding. The hills are vibrant green and spring flowers are starting to show.
One of my favorites, bleeding heart (dicentra spectabilis), an old fashioned cheerful cluster of pink blossoms dancing in the breeze, brightening up shady corners of the garden.
Last year, strolling through a local nursery I stumbled upon  spirea bridal veil. I was immediately captured by the branches full of bright white flowers. I had to have it -- and now, a spring later, it greets me by my front door. Every cheerful, ever spring.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Place I Crave In LA

Way deep into the West Valley in a strip mall you might easily drive by buried in what seems like hundreds of other strip malls hides The hummus Bar, a raucous middle Eastern restaurant with crispy homemade fresh basked bread and creamy smooth hummus -- about the best I've ever had.
I love the collection of fresh salads and dips and yes the warm bread but I think what I really crave at the popular hummus bar is the sweetbread kebab. Other than a few Argentine spots I can't think of any LA restaurants with grilled sweetbreads -- one of my favorite dishes. These are quickly cooked over high heat so they are crisp on the outside and juicy inside -- just perfect to roll up in warm bread with tasty tomato salad and smooth hummus.
There is a long menu at the often crowded The Hummus bar. I've never tried anything else. I love these sweetbreads so much, even though I try and explore the menu I always end up ordering the exact same thing.
This is one place in LA that is truly worth the drive.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Quick Dinner At Home

Hands off cooking. That's what I call it. Long cooking dishes that simmer with barely any help at all. More often than not I am doing three or four other things while I am getting dinner ready. So I keep a mental catalogue of busy day dinner recipes.
At the top of that list is crock pot polenta. I don't know why I would ever make it any other way (except maybe baked). Whisk together 2 cups of polenta with 7 cups hot water  (sometimes I use part stock or milk), a pinch of salt and 2 TB of olive oil. Then whisk in a good quantity of grated cheese (12 ounces maybe) -- I like parmesan but cheddar, fontina, or pecorino are all good choices. No stirring (unless I walk by and feel like peeking in), no worrying just 2 hours on high and you have a creamy, cheesy, comforting base for dinner.
Vegetables are usually the last minute dish I am struggling to have ready with the rest of the meal. While I was slow cooking I thought I'd try a variation on long cooking broccoli rabe. I combined 2 cups of broccoli florets and peeled stems. 1 cup of olive oil, a hearty pinch of crushed chile peppers,  6 peeled cloves of garlic and a sprinkle of salt in a saucepan. I put everything over medium heat until the oil started to sizzle, tossed in 1/2 cup water, covered the pot and let the broccoli simmer on low for an hour and 15 minutes. This is old fashioned. Not modern crunchy vegetables, but soft warm deep green flavor.
I turned the polenta to low after maybe an hour and 45 minutes and let the broccoli wait while I pan fried spicy Italian sausage.
A perfect combo, homemade with hardly a moments work.