November 19, 2010

Thanksgiving on our minds

Ok, so. Thanksgiving. I have a small confession: I Love-with-a-capital-L Thanksgiving, a day of family togetherness and time off work and permitted gluttony, but I have to admit I don't Love Thanksgiving food. I tend to get more excited about planning what to do with turkey leftovers (don't throw away your carcass! TURKEY STOCK!) than planning the actual meal. Don't get me wrong: I like Thanksgiving food. Cornbread stuffing and mashed potatoes and turkey with gravy? Yes please. I eat it and I enjoy it. But if I Loved, say, cornbread stuffing, I'd make it more than once a year, right? And yet we never do.

However, I am really excited about Thanksgiving this year, because we'll be spending it in cold Washington state, where it will probably snow, and because we get to cook in my mother-in-law's awesome kitchen. And I'm psyched to get into her amazing china/crystal/silver cabinet (it's a wonderland; that's what happens when your dad is a traveling china salesman) and set the table. Also, I like cooking all day so that the house smells warm and homey. Definitely one of the best parts about Thanksgiving.

We officially entered menu planning mode yesterday. (I know, a little late, but we still have lots of time... right?). Betty is picking up a fresh turkey, which we'll be treating Zuni Cafe style: salting the entire bird and letting it sit in the fridge for 2-3 days before roasting. This is how I treat my chickens prior to roasting, and it is a brilliant method that results in tender, flavorful meat. See more about the Zuni "dry brine" process for turkeys here. (I also found this article touching on pros/cons of turkey brining interesting. Food science writer Harold McGee is against wet brining turkeys and I like it. Anything that doesn't involve a flood of turkey-scented water on my kitchen floor is good with me.) Gravy will be a standard affair, per Mark's dad's request. Turkey stock and a butter/flour roux, no giblets. Something like this.

As far as sides, cornbread and sausage stuffing is the tradition in Mark's family. We'll make a skillet of cornbread, cube it, dry it out, and fold in browned sausage, fresh herbs, chopped onions, carrots, celery, fennel, turkey stock and butter. Dennis and I are big on mashed potatoes (the fluffy kind, please), though Mark predicted his dad would come down against fun add-ins like garlic or celeriac (boo! but I understand.). I usually make a chunky cranberry sauce, flavored with orange zest and Cointreau and simmered until the berries burst and the sauce thickens. The wine will be something from Washington state, for sure.

The wild cards: I'm not sure yet how to do the sweet potatoes. And we are still thinking about vegetable sides -- I like the idea of something crunchy, so shaved fennel/apple/walnut salad is a contender. But I also love simple green beans the way my mom does them -- she wok fries them with onion and oil until they are crisp and tender and fantastic -- and brussels sprouts are a favorite too. That will be a game time decision.

For pre-dinner food: My family doesn't eat until 3-4pm, so my mom always sets out a few snacky things for us to graze on while we're hanging out. Our spread always included boiled shrimp and spicy cocktail sauce, crudites with dip and a tray of Vietnamese snacks -- goi cuon (summer rolls) with peanut sauce, cha gio (egg rolls) with nuoc mam and these fabulous sweet potato and shrimp fritters called banh tom. Mark says his family eats much earlier, though, so maybe we'll forgo anything more than crackers and cheese.

Finally, Mark's contribution will be rolls (probably Parker House style yeast roles) and pie. Of course. He wants to make a sour cherry pie, which is not traditional, but he wants to take advantage of his parents' supply of home canned sour cherries and I don't blame him. I also asked him to make Cook's Illustrated pumpkin pie recipe. He plans to use his butter/cream cheese crust recipe.

OK, now that I've written all that out, I am starting to get a little excited about Thanksgiving food. If anyone has any tried-and-true sweet potato suggestions, or most favorite sides, please comment away.

November 18, 2010

Lost Coast backpacking trip

[Wheeler campsite, black sand beach, Sinkyone Wilderness]

Mark has logged hundreds of miles backpacking and climbing in awesome places like Yellowstone, the Enchantments, the Wind River mountains and Philmont (the Boy Scout preserve in New Mexico). When he described how he would strap 50+ pounds of camping and climbing supplies to his pack and hike for 2 weeks, I always thought, that's so cool ... yet so not for me. I never even wanted to camp for a day! But recently, I started to reconsider my anti-camping position. Part of it was due to Mark's enthusiasm, part of it was due to moving to the Bay Area, and part of it was due to our friends Julia and John, who inspired me with their love of hiking and camping. 

[a herd of Roosevelt elk]

A few weeks ago, I suggested to Mark that we should plan a camping trip. Many hundreds of dollars later, we had a new tent, 2-person sleeping bag and various camping supplies. I picked a spot -- the Lost Coast, the most undeveloped part of the California coastline, about 5 hours north of SF in Mendocino/Humboldt counties -- and he did all the planning.  

First, the good: The Lost Coast is amazingly beautiful. We hiked through quiet redwood groves and deserted black sand beaches and along ridges where the Pacific stretched out as far as you could see in one direction and the woods in the other. Because the Lost Coast is so remote, we never saw any other people. Surprisingly, drinking coffee and eating oatmeal was never so fun as it was in the middle of the woods on a sunny morning. And, in such a remote place, it was very comforting to be with an experienced backpacker.
[Mark, filtering water]

The not so good (not that this should stop anyone from going): The drive to the trail we wanted to take was inexplicably closed, and the worker on duty (I refuse to call her a ranger) was unhelpful in describing the consequences, i.e. that hiking that road would add an additional 6 miles of totally hilly terrain to our hike. Hiking 16 miles in 2 days while carrying a pack was not in the plan. Also, I found out that sleeping outside in a remote location is stressful. There were bear tracks all over the place, and my friend Julia Inceptioned me with the idea that a bear would attack our tent. Also, did I mention the tick infestation?

All in all, it was exhausting but fun. I'm a little proud of myself for being so (unintentionally) hard core, though at one point I admit I wanted to throw my pack off a cliff. Next time we venture to the Lost Coast, we'll try exploring King Range instead. And here is a picture of my cute husband, carrying the lion's share of the weight. Thanks Mark!

November 11, 2010

soup time: celeriac and leek soup

It all started a few weeks ago. When temperatures started dropping, I was moved to buy practically every soup-worthy vegetable they had at the market: the usual suspects of leeks, carrots, celery, potatoes and onions, but also celeriac, butternut squash, parsnips and fennel. Thus passed a week of soup where we ate soup for lunch and soup for dinner, from celeriac/leek soup to fennel/carrot to potato/leek soup to onion/potato chowder to butternut squash/fennel/carrot. 

haul from the market

As my allegiance lies with brothy, full-flavored soups with lots of noodles, I never would have guessed that I would happily eat a week's worth of pureed vegetable soups. For years, my (very negative) conception of pureed vegetable soups was based on dinner at a friend's house: I was in 6th grade, I was about to eat my first tuna fish sandwich ever and, with it, I was offered a choice of Campbell's tomato soup or cream of mushroom. One taste of each solidified my feelings about "American" "vegetable" soups for the next decade or so (though my friend also introduced me to tuna sandwiches, which I like, so we're even stevens).

This explains why, for years, I completely ignored that entire genre of soups. And then, last year, I suddenly changed my mind -- all it took was a boring sick day, when the refrigerator held nothing but grapefruit juice, a container of homemade chicken stock, a leek and a few potatoes on the verge of turning green. To my surprise, I liked leek potato soup. Who knew that vegetable soup didn't have to assault your tongue with salt and weird, fakey sweetness a la Campbell's?

Ever since then, I've been making up for lost time. There is something undeniably great about being able to make a soup from a few vegetables, some aromatics and a little liquid in 45 minutes or so. (Compare that to the chicken pho broth I simmered for 4 hours this weekend for my sick Mark.) One of our favorites is celeriac soup. Celeriac (also called celery root) may look a little intimidating, all knobby and bumpy, but when all is said and done, the ivory flesh makes a delicately flavored soup. It tastes similar to celery, but without the  assertive bite that old celery sometimes has. Thank goodness I wised up. Nice try, Campbell's.

celeriac soup

Celeriac and leek soup

This is more of an adaptable method than a recipe -- I use the same basic method for all sorts of different kinds of vegetable soups. Feel free to experiment based on what you have in your pantry. For example, when I ran out of butter, I used all olive oil; when I had no chicken broth, I used water. Regarding the liquid called for, my preference is for equal parts of chicken broth and water, but a light vegetable stock is  nice too. 

Celeriac, sometimes called celery root, is gnarly looking: knobby, covered in whiskers and sometimes dirt. Choose one that feels firm, not mushy or spongy. To prepare the celeriac, I use a sharp paring knife to cut off all the outer flesh but, next time, I might try this method. Peel it like a pineapple; genius! As for the leeks, the easiest way to clean them is to chop off the green parts (set aside for stock) and slice the remaining stem in half lengthwise. Rinse very thoroughly under running water to remove any remaining dirt. Thinly slice. If you're not sure that you've removed all the dirt, the easiest way to do so is to dump them in a sieve and run them under water again. See here.

2-4 tablespoons butter or olive oil, or a combination (for a richer soup, use 2 TB of each; for a diet-friendly soup, you can reduce the fats) 
2 large leeks or 3 small leeks, white and light green parts only, cleaned and thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
1 large celeriac or 2 small (3 pounds or so), peeled and cubed
6 cups of liquid, such as light chicken broth, water, vegetable stock or a combination (see note above)
salt and pepper, to taste

1. In a soup pot, heat the butter and olive oil over low to medium heat. Add the leeks and cook until soft and translucent, 5-7 minutes, without browning. Add the garlic and a big pinch of kosher salt. Cook another minute, again without browning.

2. Add the cubed celeriac, along with the liquid and another pinch of salt, and bring soup to a boil. Once the soup is boiling, cover and simmer until very tender, 40 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. If the celeriac is not completely tender, it will not puree smoothly, so test it using a knife. A knife should pierce it easily. 

3. Blend the soup, using either a blender or an immersion blender. Keep in mind that it is safest to let the soup cool before blending. (I get the smoothest texture in a blender, but I used an immersion blender to make the pictured soup. I don't mind a slightly chunky texture, plus I find it easier to clean the immersion blender. Do whatever you like.) Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, as necessary. If you are using unseasoned chicken broth or water only, it is important to season the soup adequately. If the texture is too thick, add a little more liquid to thin the soup.

4. To serve, rewarm the soup until steaming. See garnish/finishing ideas below.

Ideas for last-minute finishes:
4-5 tablespoons milk, stirred into the pot
a drizzle of good olive oil, on each serving
a dollop of creme fraiche, on each serving
a healthy dusting of paprika or cayenne pepper, on each serving

November 1, 2010

ode to arugula

[L to R: broccoli, bok choy, kale, kale, spinach, arugula, arugula and then empty rows where the birds ate everything.]

I have tasted the first greens from our garden, and they were spicy, pungent and a little sweet. Arugula! We planted several rows of arugula and have been snipping bunches here and there for salads to go with dinner. I am kind of obsessed with a salad Mark first made last week -- arugula, thinly sliced pear, a few crumbles of chevre and a lemon-honey-thyme vinaigrette. It's a fairly simple, why-didn't-I-think-of-that combination that is especially good with juicy Asian pears from the market. I've been making it again and again, to accompany fennel-carrot soup one night, duck confit and fried potatoes another night, celeriac soup for lunch and fresh papperdelle with ragu bolognese last night. I particularly like how the sharpness of the arugula plays off the rich dishes, but it is also just right with a simple soup.

Hope everyone had a nice Halloween! We had a small (non-themed) dinner party and I set out lots of miniature (read: adorable) pumpkins on the front steps. We had ZERO trick-or-treaters, though -- my fix for costumed kids  was not met. I'll have to console myself with all my pumpkins, but I wonder if I can return all the Halloween candy I bought? Those Snickers are not safe with Mark around...

Arugula salad with shaved pear and goat cheese
From Food & Wine

I tend to add dressing so that the leaves are just lightly glistening (i.e. not a lot) so, in our house, the vinaigrette will make enough for one big salad (for 4) or two small salads (for 2). You may like more. I keep any remaining dressing in a Ball jar in the refrigerator; just stir/shake well to incorporate the ingredients before using. I also think the recipe is fairly versatile: apple could be subbed for pear, another kind of green -- or even fennel or grated carrots -- could be subbed for the arugula, you could leave out the goat cheese and try blue cheese, you could add toasted nuts, etc.

For the vinaigrette:
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon honey, or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon chopped thyme
salt and freshly ground pepper

For arugula/pear/chevre salad:
two generous handfuls of arugula, washed and dried (roughly 2.5 ounces)
1 small Asian pear or half of 1 large Asian pear
fresh chevre, crumbled (as much or as little as you want)
small handful of toasted nuts, if desired

In a small bowl, whisk the olive oil, lemon juice, honey and chopped thyme. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cut the pear open, core and thinly slice (we used a mandoline). I like to cut each thin slice in half to make it easier to eat. Wash/dry your arugula and add to a salad bowl, along with the pear slices. Gradually add the dressing, folding the mixture as you go, until each leaf/pear slice is lightly dressed with the vinaigrette. You may not need all the vinaigrette. Top with crumbled goat cheese (and nuts, if desired) and serve.