Monday, January 29, 2007

Chocolate Mink Heaven

I love to travel - I really do - and not in the sense of "I love going to see new places and new things". I love travel in the sense that I actually enjoy sitting in cars and airplanes undisturbed in my own little world of excitement. I know: insanity you say. But it's true, and I haven't met many people who would say the same thing. There was even once an extended argument that occurred with a hardly memorable ex-boyfriend about how anyone could possibly enjoy air travel for something other than the sake of Where They Are Going To. Was there something wrong with me, the hardly memorable He wondered? What could I say?

Since I was very young, it was what my father and I did together. Our traditions always involved car trips: small mining towns in Arizona, beautiful desert mountains and, every once and a while, a trip out to nowhere. There was an undefinable "cool" factor in it for me - we were escaping the boundaries of what held everyone else down. I have always felt that traveling people are people who are headed somewhere, in a way that means more than their physical destination. As I grew up and found myself struggling through embroiled teen angst years, my car (a 95' Thunderbird) was my escape. In it I would go, and away my troubles I would leave. When I moved out of my parent's house and picked up a rescue dog, Tori, there were two of us in it together: lonely, bored, and in need of late night adventure that didn't involve booze. Out onto the Phoenix freeways we drove. I would dream of missing my exit and ending up in California, though I am sure Tori merely enjoyed the warm desert air. When I moved to New Haven and the loneliness seemed to overwhelm me once more, my $300 car and I would hit I95, north, south, and back again, 91 towards Hartford and turned around towards the coast. Movement was escape, freedom and excitement.

From my young moments and on, I have enjoyed the sensation of being oriented in a known direction, headed so quickly towards it. Regardless of the path, even sometimes regardless of the destination, I like feeling that I'm going somewhere. Nowadays, I'm not lonely anymore, but I still savor the feeling of motion. The best part about going to Toronto for a week? Coming home - traveling towards something truly worthwhile.

(Thanks for the 'Future Mrs. Sirianni' sweatshirt, Leslie! Greg is scrubbing a salad spinner - what more could I ask for? What a guy : ) )

Philosophical reflections aside, I think I could have been spared Friday Night's travesty of a flight from Toronto to New York. I warned you that something unexpected would happen, and it did, this time in the form of an 8 hour delay spent sitting next to the two most obnoxious and morally offensive women I have ever had the unfortunate opportunity to be within earshot of. I left my hotel room at 12pm and sat in the tiny airplane at Pierson International from 4pm to 12am. I was finally dropped off at my front door by the airport shuttle at 3am on Saturday. It was excitin', let me tell you (what the hell does "your captain has been 'detained'" mean anyway?): having the wings ice over, the fuel run out, the crew leave, the flight canceled, a funny smoke fill the cabin room, being given customs forms to re-enter Canada, and oh, so many other things I honestly can't even remember. I even stood up to One Of The Obnoxious Women and gave her a piece of my mind. It was that bad. By the time we took off I was more than ready to be home.

Other than my desire to form an I Hate Air Canada Slash United Club, Toronto was great. I spent most of my time doing things for work, though I did get to wander around the city in the evenings. I ate at an absolutely wonderful French Bistro on Tuesday night, a place where the waiter was friendly and sat me in the best seat with a garden view. I ate my perfectly prepared meal while I watched the snow delicately flutter onto a fountain. It felt like I was in a snowglobe: I was Mrs. Snowman eating seared scallops in some sort of wine butter concoction that I feel like I'll never be able to recreate. Once I got back, of course, I went straight to the grocery store and picked up all sorts of ingredients to prepare for a week of cooking. I present to you tonight a trio interesting recipes, a Threefer if you will.

On Sunday night we had our upstairs tenants (Travis and Kristen, also our friends) down for a meal: Fried Gnocchi with Sundried Tomato and Roasted Pepper Cream Sauce and Chocolate Minks with Coffee Ice Cream for desert. I am a little proud of the roasted pepper cream recipe in all honesty - it was really, really good. The sundried tomatoes and roasted red peppers brought a rich, hearty sweetness that was complemented by zesty tomatoes. Cream rounded together the flavors, giving the sauce a smooth flavor that took a while to develop in your mouth. To add that necessary punch to each first bite, the gnocchi were fried in a tiny bit of butter with plenty of red pepper and salt. All and all, it created a perfectly palette-filling flavor. For desert, I found a recipe in Gourmet that was truly drool worthy. Called "Chocolate Mink", it is a flourless chocolate cake (AKA Amazing Gooey Pudding) served alongside melting coffee ice cream. It made Greg speechless (Unless, "uhhhhhhhhhhhh" counts as speech) and me contemplate licking my plate clean. If I had to live on one dessert alone, this would be the one.

As a balance to last night's indulgences, I toned down the flavors for tonight's dinner: Ginger Spiced Carrot and Bulgar Wheat Stew. I broke in the brand new (in the right color) Le Crueset! Wow. That dutch oven can cook. Thanks again to the Boy That Is Perfect, for getting me such a great holiday gift. I slowly simmered a mayan onion with 2 pounds of carrots, an entire head of garlic, one cup of red wine, a little brown sugar, ginger and schwarma spice. I served this stew with leftover spicey gnocchi on top, and although my original intention was simply to use up what was in the fridge - the spicey flavor and crispy texture of the gnocchi were a nice complement to the sweet and slow-cooked stew. I think it would be just as good to boost the spice value of this soup with extra red pepper or some cayanne alongside additional schwarma spice. I also would have upped the bulgar wheat if I had more on hand (I only had 1/2 cup. I bet 1 cup would be perfect).

It's great to be home. Enjoy!

Sundried Tomato and Roasted Pepper Cream Sauce with Fried Gnocchi
Serves 4

1 large shallot, diced
1/2 16 oz jar sundried tomatoes, packed in oil, roughly chopped
1/2 8 oz jar fire roasted red peppers, roughly chopped
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 cup crushed tomatoes
1 cup light cream
1.5 lb store bought gnocchi
3-4 tbsp butter (to coat bottom of pan)
1-3 tsp red pepper flakes (to taste)
Salt and white pepper to taste
Freshly grated Romano cheese
  1. Add 1 tbsp oil from the sundried tomatoes to a saute pan, bringing to medium heat. Saute the shallot until translucent (about 5 minutes). Add chopped sundried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, tomato paste, lemon juice and crushed tomatoes. Bring to a slow simmer and allow sauce to cook for 10-15 minutes (until flavors mellow)
  2. Puree sauce in a food processor until smooth, adding salt and white pepper to taste. Stir in light cream and set aside
  3. Start butter heating in clean saute pan with red pepper flakes. Fry gnocchi, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes, so that the gnocchi are crispy and golden.
  4. Serve dishes with sauce, gnocchi and freshly grated Romano cheese

Chocolate Minks with Coffee Ice Cream
From Gourmet Magazine
Serves 4

4 tbsp unsalted butter
7 oz bittersweet chocolate (no more than 70% cocoa)*
2 eggs, separated
Pinch salt
2 tbsp sugar
Coffee Ice Cream
Cocoa powder for garnish
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Assemble double boiler: place a metal bowl on top of a saucepan with simmering water. Add butter and chocolate and melt slowly (be careful not to overcook - the chocolate can separate). Take chocolate off the double boiler and cool for 5 minutes, whisking occasioanlly
  2. Meanwhile, beat egg whites to soft peaks. Add sugar and continue beating to stiff peaks.
  3. Stir egg yolks and pinch of salt into now-cooled chocolate. Fold in 1/4 egg whites to distribute. Fold in remaining egg whites
  4. Divide chocolate into four oven-proof ramekins. Cover in tightly cripped silver foil and place in a deep baking pan. Add boiling water to halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
  5. Bake for 30 minutes (the center will still be wobbly). Cool slightly and then unmold onto ice cream, with cocoa powder to garnish
*The chocolate should be chopped or in chips. I used Ghiradelli bittersweet chips and it was gooood
**Chocolate minks may be prepared ahead of time and either dipped in hot water to unmold or heated until warm and gooey again

Ginger Spiced Carrot and Bulgar Wheat Stew
Serves 2-4, depending on the portions

4 tbsp light olive oil
1 mayan onion, diced
3 tbsp brown sugar
1 head of garlic, crushed with the back of a knife and roughly chopped
2 lb carrots, sliced on the diagonal (1/4")
1/2 cup bulgar wheat (or more if desired)
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup red wine
2 tbsp schwarma spice (available at specialty grocery stores)
1 tbsp fresh ginger, grated
1 tbsp tumeric
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper to taste
Handful flat leaf parsley, chopped
  1. Heat oil to medium-high in a dutch oven. Add onion with sugar and cook, stirring, for 10 minutes, or until color starts to develop on the onions
  2. Add garlic, carrots, bulgar wheat and tomato paste with two cups water. Cook, covered on high heat, for 45 minutes
  3. Remove cover and add red wine with the spices (ginger, schwarma, red pepper flakes, tumeric, salt and pepper). Cook for an addition 10-15 minutes, uncovered, or until stew reaches desired consistancy
  4. Serve with freshly chopped flat leaf parsley over desired carbohydrate*
*I, of course, served this with spicey fried gnocchi, and it was delicious. I imagine this would be good with rice, hunks of good bread, or soft boiled potatoes

Saturday, January 20, 2007

What not to boil

Would you believe me if I told you that I voluntarily got up at 6:00am on a Saturday morning, when I could have otherwise been sleeping in? Well I did. Today was an important day, a day that all New Havenites across the 3 mile city have looked forward to for more than a year: The Destruction of the New Haven Coliseum. This decades-old structure was in the midst of a complicated political strife for some time, and eventually the city got its act together to finalize its destruction early this Saturday morning. Greg and I had prime seats in a city-sponsored early morning tailgate on the top of a parking garage. The garage was about 500 feet from the Coliseum, and we were on the 7th floor. Here are a few photos (sequential from upper left -> upper right -> lower left -> lower right):

Pretty cool, hu? After the explosion, we spent the rest of the morning trying to get breakfast with our friends Alex and Joy. Everywhere was packed, until finally we went to our favorite greasy spoon joint, where they serve buttery eggs, toast with little packets of jam and hash browns like they have at McDonalds. I know, not the pinnacle of all things delicately flavored - but for a slightly-out-of-it morning (e.g., following a night involving alcohol, or when getting up at 6am for silly reasons like watching a giant building implode), Clark's Dairy is just what the doctor calls. After waiting two hours for our food (Two hours! I know!), Greg prepped himself for a night trip to the 30th birthday party of a high school friend, and I prepped myself for a trip to Toronto.

Now, the last time I flew on an airplane, I was headed to Minneapolis to give a presentation in front of a group of people I was very nervous to be in front of. The night before, I tried a new moisturizer and woke with a red rash across my face so hideous I didn't even bother documenting it with a photo. Many ice-packs, some anti-inflammatory topicals and a good night's sleep left me okay 24 hours later. But the time before that trip, I flew to Arizona for thanksgiving, and I spent the night cleaning up after a very, very sick dog... then I missed my flight. The time before that, I was flying first to gut house destroyed by Katrina in New Orleans, then to a wedding in Indiana, and by the time I got home, Greg and I were engaged. I.e., exciting things happen when I travel, and it's not always what I would expect. This trip is to Toronto. It's for five days, and it's the first time I've ever been out of the country. Before leaving my blog to the mercy of the internet black hole for a week, I thought I'd post a new recipe.

In case you couldn't tell, today's recipe has something to do with cauliflower. And not just any cauliflower - this is purple cauliflower. I picked it up from a local market with the idea that I would roast it. I've been reading a lot about roasting cauliflower, and it sounds like the perfect method to cook this cruciferous vegetable: roasting concentrates and intensifies flavors. The subtle flavor of its normally creamy white version could use such culinary modification. Plus, I wanted to take a photo of it. Green and purple are complementary colors - what did the inside look like, I wondered? After I roasted it (with a few red onions to boot), the purple color became quite intense, taking on a bluish tone. I love the striations.

I drizzled 1" cuts of cauliflower with olive oil and grated sea salt. The salt helps draw out moisture to hasten the roasting process. I roasted mine for about 40 minutes, although I think next time I'd cut the cauliflower into small florets instead of slices cook the vegetable more uniformly. Once roasted, this cauliflower tasted truly wonderful: intense, earthy, but somehow not too heavy... I'm not sure if I'll bother boiling cauliflower again.

Speaking of what not to boil, I wasn't sure what to serve this with, since I wanted to the vegetable flavor to be the start of the show. I decided on a way to cook gnocchi that I've tried before. The first time I fried raw gnocchi, they were dumplings I had made myself (i.e., irregularly shaped and a little soft). It was quite good. Then I tried frying the store-bought version (i.e., regularly shaped and with a firm texture). That was awesome, and something I've been repeating lately because it was so awesome. (Yes, I will use that word). The outside of the gnocchi becomes crisp and buttery. The inside is composed of soft potatoey goodness. It's like an adult version of a french fry, except you want to drench it in butter, cheese, and anything else you'd make pasta with.

I decided to fry the gnocchi and make a quick pan sauce of red peppers, green onions and light cream. Red peppers, I give a thumbs up to. Green onion? Not so much. Although the photos have green onion in it, I would replace that with a little parsley next time - the flavor of the onion was just a too strong. I could also envision this with a sundried tomato / roasted pepper sauce. Oh yum, now I want to cook it again! Ignoring my daydreaming and back to the cooking: I served this version with green beans that turned a fantastic bright green after I steamed them. Mmmm. I think that'll sum up my review of this dish : )

Enjoy this recipe, and even if you never roast cauliflower or don't want to bother with the pan sauce... fry up some gnocchi and serve it with fresh cheese and grated black pepper. I promise you that you'll never boil gnocchi again. It's really delicious.

Roasted Cauliflower

1 head cauliflower
1 red onion
1/4 cup olive oil
Freshly grated sea salt and black pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees
  2. Cut the green base of the cauliflower and peel back any leaves. Wash thoroughly by holding upside down under running water. Slice cauliflower into thin slices (1/2-1") or cut into florets of uniform size. Cut red onion into 1/2" slices. Keeping the thickness of the cauliflower uniform is important to ensure all pieces cook evenly
  3. Place vegetable pieces on baking sheet. Brush oil over one surface, salt and pepper to taste, and repeat process for opposite side
  4. Bake for approximately 45 minutes, depending on thickness (should be fork tender). Keep on eye on the oven to prevent the cauliflower from burning

Pan Fried Gnocchi with Pepper Cream Sauce and Roasted Cauliflower
Serves 4

1 package store bought gnocchi (1lb)
4 tbsp butter
1 large red pepper, chopped finely
1/4 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped*
3/4 c light cream
1/2 tsp white pepper
1 head roasted cauliflower, cut into small florets
  1. In medium fry pan, melt butter. Once the butter starts browning, add gnocchi and toss to coat. Continually toss and fry gnocchi for 4-5 minutes, until gnocchi are soft throughout and golden crispy on the outside. Drain on several paper towels if desired (I did)
  2. Add chopped red pepper to pan and cook over medium heat until softened, approximately 3-4 minutes.
  3. Return gnocchi to pan; add parsley and cream. Simmer over low heat for an additional minute and then season with white pepper.
  4. Toss with roasted cauliflower and serve.
(*note, of course in my version I used green onion, as you can see in the pictures... but I am sure this would be much better with parsley instead... )

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Mlinci My Way

Not to be dramatic or anything (because, heck, life has enough drama without making food a item worthy of unpleasant excitement), but this recipe I am about to talk about? It was seriously one of the most interesting things I've ever made. The twist on homemade pasta is subtle, but it packs a culinary punch. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to try it.

I'm a pasta fanatic. All through high school, every morning at 6am, I would turn on the stove, boil some salted water, and cook up tiny alphabits, little shells, or miniature stars. Breakfast always had butter and Parmesan on it. Weird? Kinda. Delicious, filling and carbohydrate packed? Absolutely. The key was the shape of the pasta, I quickly discovered. Penne or Linguine were no good - it felt like dinner. But little alphabits? (And that's alphabits not alphabets!). It was like eating oatmeal. You may taunt me, but until you try it with the Tiny Pasta, you're not allowed to judge. Even today, I still get the craving for my pseudo Italian breakfast.

I learned a lesson from this strange high school breakfast tradition: size matters. We already know that some types of pasta are better suited than others to certain tasks. Although the basic ingredients to pasta are almost always the same (flour, egg and water), the form that the dough takes once rolled out and cooked determines the success or failure of a meal. Flat pasta forms are good for thin sauces. Pasta with interesting shapes need chunky sauces. Ridges need clingy sauces. Etc. The best analogy would be using different shapes of wine glasses to serve different kinds of wine - even though the wine is the true star of the show, the type of glass can make or break the flavor of the wine.

I found this particular pasta variation as I was flipping through the January 2007 issue of Gourmet. I was drooling over the gorgeous food, the romantic writing, and best of all, the beautiful photos, when I stumbled onto today's topic: a pasta dish called Mlinci. According to Gourmet, Mlinci is a toasted, irregularly broken flat pasta that is rehydrated in the cooking juices of braised meat. I was intrigued by the idea of toasting pasta in the oven, but of course meat is out of the question for me.

How is Mlinci traditionally cooked, I wondered? To random google search I headed. It turns out that Mlinci is not an Italian dish at all. It is actually Croatian in origin, and it technically refers to a crispy, flat breadish dough made with yeast, broken into pieces and soaked in steaming water for upwards of an hour. It is later lightly fried in cooking juices from meat or a little butter and cheese. Conveniently enough, I actually work with someone who is from Croatia. According to him, it is pronounced something like mlin-tsi (not mlin-chi) and he's had it boiled and tossed with pan drippings from braised meat and potatoes. He also said that the dish seemed more pasta-like than bread-like. Maybe Gourmet had it right and google had it wrong.

Fascinating. How did Gourmet reach this version of the recipe, and what was the best way to cook it without meat? I settled on the following three ways to try Mlinci:
  1. Mlinci "my way": boiled in salted water like pasta and tossed with a Broccoli, Shallot and Cream Sauce
  2. Mlinci "traditional": soaked in steaming water for 15 minutes, drained, and soaked for an additional hour. Served with butter and grated cheese
  3. Mlinici "Italian": baked dry with a spicy red sauce and peppers like Lasagna

With a food-sampler-at-hand (Greg), I proceeded. The recipe called for quite a bit of olive oil and no salt, yielding a very moist and fruity dough that was tasty all on its own. I tried rolling the dough with a pasta machine to achieve a uniform thickness, but it was too elastic and ended up tearing. I would suggest rolling by hand and adding more flour as you go along. I weighed my flour to be precise (1 cup = 120g), and still I needed at least half a cup extra.

Although the original recipe called for toasting large 11x17 sheets of dough, I wasn't that talented in my flattening abilities. Instead, I added my oddly shaped, large-"ish" pieces to hot pans in a 325 degree oven. As I rolled more dough I kept an eye on the toasting pasta, turning and flipping the sheets every few minutes. Once the dough was golden and crispy throughout, I left it on the counter to cool and proceeded with another pan. Eventually I broke the larger shapes into small pieces. I have no idea how large the broken pieces should be or how thick the original sheets are made best, but I'd say mine were about 1mm thick and a few square inches once they were broken up. After I cooked everything up, I decided thinner was better, and my several square inch size was just right to fit on a fork (smaller fell off and larger wasn't as well cooked).

Last night I tried Creation #1: Mlinci with Broccoli, Shallot and Cream Sauce. I wanted to keep the sauce as simple as possible, and I also wanted something to complement the nuttiness of the toasted pasta. Cream base it was, broccoli for mild flavor, and shallots to replace what otherwise would have been garlic. It was delicious, full of flavor and entirely satisfying. Truly, this was a fascinating take on pasta. The simple but sauce was gave subtle flavor to the toasted pasta. Greg and I loved it and together declared it one of the best recipes in memory. The salty Romano cheese that failed so dramatically in another recipe brought the flavors together perfectly in this one, since the broccoli, cream base and pasta dough all lacked salt. Best of all, even though the dough is somewhat time consuming to prepare, roll out, and toast, once the recipe is complete, the flat sheets are shelf stable for quite some time. It will be a nice substitution as we get bored of traditional Italian fare.

Next time? I think the Broccoli and Shallot sauce was sublime and simple the way we had it, but I do love cooking with wine and I'd like to try a little white wine butter sauce. I also wonder about a brown butter walnut sauce. Stay tuned for reports of the other two versions of this recipe.

Mlinci with Broccoli and Shallot Cream Sauce

*Note: I used only half of the Mlinci below, so this quantity of sauce is for two very generous servings of sauce (I figured we were getting our veggies too, so it was all right to go heavy on the sauce)

1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
2 large shallots, chopped
3 heads of broccoli, chopped into small florets (discard stems)
1 cup light cream
1 tbsp flour
2 tsp white pepper
Salt to taste
Romano cheese, grated
  1. Start a large pot of water boiling. Melt butter and olive oil together in a shallow saute pan. Add chopped shallots and cook over low heat until softened. Add broccoli and 1/2 cup water. Steam lightly until broccoli is cooked through and the water has evaporated.
  2. Add light cream. Reserve 1 tbsp and mix with flour, then whisk into sauce. Simmer gently over low heat until sauce has thickened and reduced to a creamy consistency (10-15 minutes). Season to taste.
  3. Meanwhile, stir Mlinci into the boiling water and cook until almost done - the texture will remind you of a cracker.
  4. Drain Mlinci and toss with broccoli sauce. Finish cooking over a low simmer in the sauce (5-10 minutes) until very tender. Dish up with grated Romano cheese.

Mlinci Dough
Paraphrased from January 2007 Gourmet Magazine

*Note, with ~240g of flour, this should be 4-5 56g "servings" of pasta, but in reality this makes just enough for 4 conservative (but main course) servings. I.e., this needs a good veggie or salad on the side for a complete dinner for four.

2 cups (240g) all purpose flour
2 1/2 tbsp olive oil
4 1/2 tbsp cold water
2 eggs
  1. Add flour to a food processor and pulse to aerate. Whisk oil, water and eggs together in a small bowl. Add 1/4 of the fluids and pulse to mix. Continue adding until the dough has formed a sticky ball and gathered away from the sides of the bowl. (If too sticky, add more flour. If too dry, add more water)
  2. Turn onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, incorporating more flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. Place in an oiled bowl and rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 325 degrees. Divide dough into quarters and roll out one quarter at a time into thin (approximately 1mm) sheets. Place sheets on a nonstick baking pan and toast in oven, turning every few minutes and rotating pan. The pasta is finished when it is a golden color and crispy throughout.
  4. Allow sheets to cool and break into smaller pieces. Store in an airtight container until ready to use.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Green Onions in January

Life on the East Coast has been Just Plain Weird lately. I don't get it. 70 degrees in January? Are you kidding me? It snowed (flurries) four days later. Wardrobe dilemmas aside, it leaves my tastebuds dazed and confused. Do I want the hot cappuchino or the iced latte? Hearty soup or refreshing salad? Ice cream or apple pie for desert? (Maybe both?).

Yesterday's venture into recipe avenue also led me astray. It started out with a location and all the best of intentions. I felt tired of hearty, heavy food and wanted something satisfying but relatively light that was not Yet Another Salad. I began perusing for interesting salmon recipes, whereupon I discovered "Poached Salmon with Tarragon Sauce and Fingerling Potatoes". It received absolutely wonderful reviews from everyone who had made it. It looked fresh, filling, and easy. Best of all, the flavors were delicate - a nice change from my recent adventures with mushrooms.

Now, I have a thing for salmon that goes beyond this particularly hilarious poster. My dad makes the best salmon around - grilled, fresh, with lots of garlic on top and sometimes a bit of Lawry's Seasoned Salt and bits of char where the grill marks are. Oh, I have never had better Salmon than the dinner he grills up. It is a versatile fish, because although it is somewhat fatty and sweet, it can hold up to a robust sauce in a way that other moist fish like Tilapia can't. Best of all, Wild Alaskan Salmon is one of the most environmentally responsible fish choices out there, because of the well sustained and responsibly harvested fish population in Alaska (don't be fooled by Atlantic Salmon, which is an overfished population, or farmed salmon, which is not as Earth Friendly as one might think).

If you haven't had wild salmon (look for varieties like Sockeye and Silverbright), you haven't had salmon at all - the real stuff simply does not compare to its relatively flavorless, mushy, and environmental-damage-inducing neighbor, farmed salmon. The first time I cooked wild salmon, I had to get Greg to agree that the fish was actually cooked - the color is vibrant, the texture is different, and the taste is strong and delicious. All taste aside, the development of a natural, thriving salmon population in Alaska is really something every saavy citizen should think about when choosing which fish to buy.

The recipe of interest thus follows... salmon is poached in a broth of white wine and then served alongside a creamy mayonaise based sauce with fresh taragon, chives, parsley and shallot. White wine viniger and Dijon round out the acid flavors in the sauce. The sauce was to be the true star of the show: tangy, zippy and fresh. I made up my shopping list and walked to the store with the following experience:
  1. The tarragon was wilted and dull (It's January. What on earth was I expecting?)
  2. Chives were nowhere to be located
  3. The store didn't carry shallots
  4. For some reason I came home with a bag of spinach

Given the above difficulties (why would anything like cooking dinner ever be simple?), I decided on a substitution that is perhaps an obvious but Not Quite Right match: green onion and garlic for the chives and shallot. The general flavors of onion, garlic and that undefinable "fresh" were there, true, but green onion and garlic are very harsh flavors whereas chive and shallot would have been subtle, mellow and, well, perfect, had they been available. I was worried that the sauce would have too much bite, although it turned out later that I needn't be. Seeing as I had some spinach (and no idea how it got in my shopping basket) and an impatient mood on my hands, I decided on a few more modifications:
  1. Panfry the salmon
  2. Substitute pasta for potatoes, and make a quick sauce of sliced onion, capers, lemon and butter
  3. Wilt in some spinach at the end so as to not feel entirely silly about bringing it home without a purpose.

And, thank goodness, it all worked out great. This was a wonderful meal, a completely different flavor from my more recent salty choices, and it was not very time consuming to prepare. The pasta was a bit tart and might not suit everyone's personal taste (be forewarned), but I really wanted that burst of flavor and I appreciated having a contrast to the mayonaise based sauce. I wouldn't call it a polished recipe, but it worked for what I was craving that night. The tarragon sauce, however, is a definite keeper. The recipe listed makes quite a bit extra (more than one cup for my two serving recipe!), but it's the right flavor to dip almost anything in. Literally, I think it would make overboiled cabbage taste good. In fact, we had it over eggs and toast for today's breakfast, it'll be poured on top of lettuce as a dressing for today's dinner, and I think tomorrow I'll toss in some warm diced new potatoes with whatever's left for a little upbeat potato salad.

Thank goodness for "Spring" in January, right?

Salmon with Tarragon, Green Onion and Garlic Sauce
Recipe adapted from Epicurious

For sauce
1 large bunches fresh tarragon
4 stalks green onions
3 cloves garlic
3/4 cup fresh flat-leafed parsley leaves
1 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup rice vinegar (not seasoned)
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

For fish
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup baby spinach leaves
1-2 pound salmon fillet(s)

In a food processor puree tarragon, green onions, and garlic with remaining sauce ingredients until smooth and season with salt and pepper. Sauce may be made 1 day ahead and chilled, covered. Bring sauce to cool room temperature before serving.

Heat oil in pan and add fish. Sear lightly on each side (1 minute per) and add 1 cup water. Cover to steam fish and finish cooking (approximately 5-10 minutes, depending on the thickness of fish). Plate fish and empty pan, reserving 2 tbsp cooking juices. Wilt spinach in juices over low heat (approximately 1 minute) and spoon over salmon with previously prepared tarragon sauce with freshly grated pepper.

Fettuchini with Lemon, Capers and Onion

1/2 onion, sliced thinly
1/4 cup capers
1 medium lemon
3 tbsp
Pasta for two servings (~150g - I used Fettuchini)
Parmesan to serve over the top

Bring large pot of salted water to boil for pasta. Meanwhile, add onion, capers and 1 tbsp butter to pan and cook gently over low heat until onions are soft and cooked through. When the water boils, cook pasta according to package directions. Add the juice of 1 lemon and 2tbsp pasta water to the pan. Reduce by half, stir in remaining butter and capers. Toss with drained pasta and serve with freshly grated parmesan.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Salt Induced Coma

Note: In celebration of putting together a slightly more official (and useful) wedding website at, this blogspot will indeed be a cooking blog from now on. Thanks for reading!! I will probably still post some Italy related updates, but everything is pretty much all settled.

Well I can't quite decide what's wrong with me, but I think I've settled on the explanation that I must be subconsciously assembling information for a series of books with titles like "Counterproductive Ways To Motivate Yourself To Exercise" or "1001 Reasons Why My Kitchen Will Never Be Clean". I can't seem to stop cooking. And although there was an entryless week immediately following New Years while we ate salad and carrot sticks for dinner every night, I am back to cooking and baking all things that are filling and heavy and full of salt. Oh, but it is good.

Saturday night we had our friends Kim and Ian over for dinner. I needed something yummy and suitable for our 3 out of 4 vegetarian crowd that didn't require any last minute prep. Lasagna it was. Lately I've been playing with lasagna ingredients (as you may remember the fate of the last Pesto Lasagna, which was of course re-created with a slightly different recipe the next day). Having had such recent success with mushroom risotto, I was still in the mood for something earthy and palette pleasing, and thus a recipe for mushroom lasagna was born.

A few surefire tricks to make mushroom flavor pop:

1) Don't salt cooking mushrooms. Do. Not. Salt. Salt brings out moisture, so if you add salt, mushrooms steam/boil in their own juices and cook at a much lower temperature than they would otherwise. Heating them without salt allows the mushrooms to brown up nicely

2) My favorite trick for getting flavor out of mushrooms involves deglazing with low sodium vegetable stock (for details, see the recipe below). When the mushrooms start cooking, they look something like the photo above. When they finish, they look something like the photo below.

3) Since fresh porcinis are usually out of budget, look for dried ones in a specialty food store. They can be rehydrated easily, as pictured below. Dried mushrooms are far more affordable and impart great flavor into a mushroom dish. I almost always have multiple varieties of dried mushrooms on hand.

I thought this recipe was really good with one exception: the cheese combination I used was incredibly salty and it masked the intense mushroom flavor. I think the Romano cheese was the culprit, whose presence wasn't entirely necessary anyway, given the addition of smoked mozzarella. I decided on smoked mozzarella based on Kim's own lasagna that she served us several months back - for a vegetarian dish, it lends a very hearty depth of flavor that you can't get out of vegetables alone. Plus, the sauce I used (oh do I cringe as I say this) was out of a bottle and may have contributed to the amount of salt here.. a shame that saving 10 minutes made such an impact on the success of this dish.

I used the mushrooms I had on hand, though probably any combination would work well. Baby bella's don't have much flavor - they only contribute body and moisture - so dried mushrooms are key to this dish. Next time I'd add a little rosemary. Other changes? More mushrooms, I think, and a homemade sauce. I would puree some whole canned tomatoeswith a little garlic and basil and leave it at that.

Hearty Mushroom Lasagna

1/4 c olive oil
16 oz baby bellas (2 packages), chopped finely
1-2 cups low sodium vegetable stock (look for something bitter, not sweet)
1/2 small mayan onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp ground white pepper

1 cup water
10 oz dried porcini mushrooms
10 oz dried black trumpet mushrooms

16 oz part skim ricotta
1/4 bunch flat leaf parsley
2 cups grated low moisture Mozzarella cheese
1 cup grated smoked Mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated Romano cheese

1. Add the oil to a pan and turn the heat to medium. Add mushrooms and toss to coat

2. Caramelize mushrooms in oil over the course of 40 minutes:
- Allow juices to develop and reduce until mushrooms begin to stick to the pan
- Deglaze with 1/4 cup stock
- Repeat

3. Prepare the dried mushrooms:
- Add mushrooms to 1 cup steaming hot water
- Submerge and allow to rest for 5 minutes
- Remove mushrooms, rinse under cold water and squeeze dry
- Pour reserved mushroom water through a double cheese cloth lined sieve
- Mince reserved mushrooms
- Add rehydrated mushrooms and broth to existing pan

4. Prepare the lasagna noodles:
- Cook in boiling water until a white chalky core barely remains
- Shock in cold water to halt the cooking process

5. Prepare the cheese mixture:
- Grate the cheeses and toss to mix
- Add one third of cheese mixture to ricotta
- Stir in flat leaf parsley and grated black pepper

6. When the mushrooms have finished cooking, add the chopped onions and garlic to the mixture in the pan.

7. Layer and bake at 350 for an hour. Allow to rest 15 minutes prior to serving

On to even more cooking topics...

After suffering from salt induced coma the next morning, somehow Greg and I found the will-power to join a friend at one of our favorite local places: Rudy's Bar, where they serve the best french fries you've ever had. One potato and grease saturated dinner later, we went home and sat on the couch all night. If you are what you eat, Greg and I were over-salted couch potatoes. Somehow I mustered up the caloric energy to try one more recipe, something out of my brand new Cook's Illustrated Subscription that I just Had To Try.

What was it? Fudge. Strange, hu? I've hardly ever even had fudge, believe it or not - maybe once or twice in my life. We didn't eat much candy growing up, and despite a propensity for chocolate, this particular form of it never called to me. But something about the Cook's Illustrated article drew me. It described how complex and easy to screw up traditional fudge candy recipes can be, and how the author of the article spent 4 months and manufactured 1000lb of the dense chocolate cubes before settling on what they considered to be the ultimate, the perfect, and the easiest fudge recipe around.

Here is it is in its original form. In my own recipe, I didn't have unsweetened chocolate on hand, so I added 1tbsp of espresso powder to counteract the sweetness of the semisweet chocolate. I also toasted the walnuts before adding them.

I discovered two tricks while making this recipe:
1) In order to avoid hearing "crunch, crunch, crunch" as you walk across your kitchen floor, chop the walnuts with a pastry cutter. It makes less mess than with a chefs knife, I think
2) Chop chocolate in a food processor. It may be noisy, but it'll save you the danger of doing it by hand (my knife always slips)

Old Fashioned Fudge

16 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped fine
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped fine
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
14 oz sweetened condensed milk
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

1. Cut 12-inch length extra-wide heavy-duty aluminum foil; fold edges back to form 7 1/2 inch width. With folded sides facing down, fit foil securely into bottoms and up sides of an 8=inch square baking pan, allowing excess to overhand pan sides. Spray foil with nonstick cooking spray

2. Toss chocolates, baking soda and salt in medium heatproof bowl until baking soda is evenly distributed. Stir in sweetened condensed milk and vanilla. Set bowl over 4-quart saucepan containing 2 cups simmering water. Stir with rubber spatula until chocolate is almost fully melted and few small pieces remain, 2 to 4 minutes

3. Remove bowl from heat and continue to stir until chocolate is fully melted and mixture is smooth, about 2 minutes. Stir in walnuts. Transfer fudge to prepared pan and spread in even layer with spatula. Refridgerate until set, about 2 hours. Remove fudge from pan using foil and cut into squares.

This was indeed some very good fudge, and relatively simple. I unfortunately left my on the stove just too long and the fudge ended up a little bit oily, but not bad. The texture was smooth and light, and I am glad I toasted the walnuts. Next time I'd use part unsweetened chocolate, as the recipe called for. I sliced my 8x8 pan into 7x7 cubes, yielding yummy bites of about 80 calories each. Not so bad - just don't have more than a few, and that'll be tough!