Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Fish Tacos for Dinner

Of all the "four letter words" known to the Gods and moral censors... none is more heinous to Big Mary than D-I-E-T. Oh it's a cranky Mary that wakes to a world devoid of a sesame bagel with cream cheese. But the years march on (that's the good news) and they aren't so gentle when you're toting around an extra pound or 50. So between the aching legs, sore back and nudging physician I've embarked on a slimming regime.

It's amazing how much you immediately begin to crave foods you haven't consumed in months the minute they get labeled forbidden. Eve sweetheart, we should sit down and talk among ourselves... This afternoon I was a quick phone call away from Cold Sesame Noodles from my local Chinese; something I haven't ordered since I learned how to make them better myself a few years back. Nevertheless for a brief moment of desire, they were my reason to live. A cooler head than the noodles persevered and Spicy Tofu with Vegetables and Brown Rice were actually a perfect choice for now and a snack tomorrow of the leftovers. But still.... those noodles , hmmmmm.

So, I felt it in my best interest to start developing calorie friendly versions of what I was craving. As you know by now if you've been reading, my taste runs to the ethnic. Not the most typically diet (there's that word again) friendly cuisines. But I think I really developed a winner with my recent Mexican dinner. Yes I know that tortillas can pack a hefty punch to a slimming plan, but if you have only two and fill them chock full of all the ingredients and garnishes, you just might fool yourself into feeling like you're getting away with a secret treat.

An additional plus to this recipe is that it is a great place to use Tilapia. Not usually a favorite of mine, but widely available at a budget price, and really a good choice here.

Fish Tacos with Refried Beans, Salt Cured Cabbage and Salsa

Now, this is going to be another case where I don't give you an exact recipe, just the ideas. Tacos are just way to casual for you not to improvise on what I set out here. Just make sure you get the cabbage slaw started early.

Salt Cured Cabbage

Very thinly slice about half a small green cabbage, avoiding the core. Toss with several tablespoons of salt, preferable Kosher, and set in a colander or sieve over a bowl to drain for at least an hour, preferably several. The salt will pull moisture from the cabbage, sort of curing it, which allows it to stay crisp and damn tasty. After the hour(s) of draining, taste the cabbage. If it's overly salty, rinse it and spin it dry. If not, proceed. Put cabbage in a bowl, and right before serving add some chopped scallion, thinly sliced radish, chopped jalapeno and fresh lime juice. Place in a bowl and serve soon.

Refried Beans

I'd really encourage you to save time and go with canned beans here, though if you have the time and inclination, dried beans are an economical alternative. If you can afford it, use organic canned beans. It's a product I truly feel warrants the extra cost. They are much lower in salt and somehow seem free of any tinned taste.

Chop a small onion and saute in a small bit of butter. Add a can or two of drained and rinsed beans. I prefer black beans, but pinto or red beans work great and are probably more traditional. Saute with a healthy dash of ground cumin, smoked sweet paprika and dried ancho chile powder. (Here's where you can season to the call of your inner chef, substituting chipotle chile, adding garlic, a pinch of ground cinnamon ... go crazy young chef!) Add maybe 1/2 a cup of water (or cooking liquid from the beans if you've cooked dry beans), turn down the heat and simmer for several minutes. When the beans begin to soften a bit more and the liquid is reduced, perhaps 10-15 minutes; remove from the heat, and using a flat bottomed metal or plastic cup begin to mash the beans. If calories are not a concern, throw in a healthy knob of additional butter (and know I detest you). Continue to mash beans until pretty smooth. Return beans to heat and cook to dry them out if necessary, knowing they will dry further as they cool. Check for seasoning and set aside.

Salsa, etc.

Feel free to purchase a top quality salsa, there are several these days; I love Mrs Renfro's Tomatillo Green Salsa. If you want to make something fresh...
Pico de Gallo is a fresh relish of finely diced tomato, red onion, jalapeno, cilantro and salt. Works great on these tacos, and on just about everything else except Cheerios.
Top other choices to garnish would be diced avocado or guacamole, sour cream or Mexican crema. Drained low fat yogurt works and keeps these fish tacos swimming leanly. Also thinly sliced olives could be tasty. Personally I'd avoid any shredded cheese as cheese and fish just doesn't work for me... but feel free to disagree and shred on. Maybe I could be convinced to consider a mild queso fresco.
In any case, arrange them in bowls to be ready to serve once everything else is ready.

Salpicon of Fish - the main event

As I mentioned, if budget concerns you, Tilapia or Mahi Mahi are not bad choices here. If budget isn't in your vocabulary, you should invite me over for dinner. Then we could enjoy Red Snapper, Striped Bass or Grouper.
Thinly slice a medium or large onion, a red pepper, a poblano(or green)pepper, and chop a garlic clove or three. Saute in a large frying pan or skillet with a few tablespoons of oil. After the onions and peppers soften add some chopped, peeled and seeded fresh tomato. Or do as I do and open a can or two of petite diced canned tomato. Just depends on your location and the season. (If using fresh tomato you may need to add some water to have enough liquid to poach the fish.) Add a dash of ground cumin and cinnamon, some dried Mexican oregano, salt and pepper.
Simmer over low heat until the flavors begin to meld. Add the fish filets and cook slowly. When the filet is half cooked, flip over to finish cooking the other side. If necessary remove the cooked fish to a platter and cook remaining filets. When all the fish is done, gently combine the fish with the tomato cooking mix, breaking the filets into large chunks and finish with some chopped fresh cilantro. Hold in a warm oven as you toast off the corn tortillas over your gas or electric burners, and rewarm the beans.
Bring it all to the table and let your guests assemble the tacos as the imagine them most delicious.

Oh my lovelies, you're just gonna love this. And it does all come together quicker than this might seem. Substitute leftover rice for the beans once in awhile, use baby greens with oil and vinegar instead of cabbage, try sliced rare tuna. You get the idea.
Or throw caution to the wind and garnish with Margaritas! Make mine with salt...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Gazpacho for August

Will I ever be able to make or enjoy gazpacho without thinking of Pedro Almodovar's classic "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown"? Hopefully not! Just the thought of an icy pitcher of sleeping pill laced gazpacho invites my queer mind to head off into plot possibilities even the great Spanish cinematographer might have blanched at the mere mention of...

But then there's also the exquisite sense memory of a blazing hot Andalusian summer afternoon in Seville; a city where the houses are purposely built so close together that the eaves almost meet, to provide street shade from the blistering sun. What else would you want for lunch than a tall glass of chilled liquid salad with a gloss of perfect olive oil? There lies the real reason gazpacho and I will always share a secret. Only travel can give you such a priceless souvenir.

In the years after that memorable sun stained vacation, my thoughts on gazpacho have relaxed and expanded. I've learned about the mellow and rich almond gazpacho from Malaga, and have been teased into a more global perspective of such a perfect hot weather solution to sustenance. It's important to remember that with most traditional foods, an important factor in the recipe was to use leftovers and the bounty of the garden in interesting and flavorful ways. More classic recipes for gazpacho will include a judicious handful of ground bread to add substance and sustenance.

In the recipes I'm setting out in the sun, only one uses the traditional thickening of pureed bread. And there it enriches the texture. Most modern recipes forgo the extra calories in lieu of a lighter fresher dish.

Classic Andalusian Gazpacho
10 plum tomatoes - peeled and seeded
1 red pepper - peeled and seeded
2 English (seedless) cucumbers - peeled and seeded
3 medium shallots - peeled
1 very small garlic clove - peeled
1 jalapeño chili - seeds and membrane removed
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tablespoons Sherry wine vinegar or to taste
salt & pepper
2 cups tomato juice - approximately
1/4 cup diced peeled and seeded cucumber (optional)
1/4 cup diced and seeded yellow and/or red pepper (optional)
1/4 cup diced radish (optional)

(Note - I try to use a Y-Shaped vegetable peeler on tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Blanching & shocking, or roasting cooks the vegetable more than I like)

Puree all of the vegetables in a blender(or use a food processor for more texture). With the machine running add oil, vinegar and S&P. Stir in tomato juice as desired. The better the tomatoes you use, the less juice you'll need.

Serve chilled with optional garnishes.

Personally I love the romance in the idea of keeping a pitcher of gazpacho at hand in the refrigerator, for heat and humidity swept summer lunches or break times. However the sophistication of the next recipe could also sit pretty on a weekend al fresco dinner table meant to impress.

White Almond Gazpacho in the Style of Malaga - sereves 4 - 6

4 ounces top quality bread - crusts removed (about 5 slices)
1 cup cold water
4 ounces sliced, blanched almonds
1 medium garlic clove, minced (about 1 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 small cucumber (peeled, seeded and chunked - about 1 1/4 cups)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar (preferably reserva quality)
2 cups ice water
24 green grapes, peeled and quartered

Tear bread roughly and soak in water for a few minutes. Squeeze slightly dry and set aside.
In the work bowl of a blender (or food processor) combine almonds, garlic and salt. Grind until as fine as possible. Add soaked bread, bit by bit until it has pureed with the almond mixture. If you are using a blender you may need to add a few tablespoons of the ice water to get the bread to achieve a puree.
Next add the small pieces of cucumber and process until smooth.
With the motor running, slowly drizzle the olive oil into the mixture. Add the sherry vinegar, and finally the ice water. Stop processing the soup.
Place a fine sieve over a bowl and strain the soup completely. Press on the solids left in the sieve to extract all possible liquid.
Cover bowl and chill for at least 3 hours or overnight. Check seasonings, adjust salt and/or vinegar if necessary.
Serve in small chilled bowls and garnish with peeled grape quarters.

And now, to insure that you my lovelies, continue to think outside of the box, here's a gazpacho that might be more at home in the equally sun baked sands of Phuket than the Costa Brava. I'm feeling a tall icy glass served by a Thai beauty in a sarong, nursing me from a morning hangover as I sit by the sea, my beach chair garnished with an umbrella. Heaven!

Thai Watermelon and Tomato Gazpacho with Siamese Basil - serves 6 - 8

1 pound plum tomatoes - peeled and seeded* (see notes in preceeding recipe)
2 pounds seedless red watermelon flesh - rind removed before weighing
3/4 pound kirby cucumbers* - peeled and seeded
2 cups tomato juice - Looza brand preferred
3 tablespoons fresh ginger - peeled and minced
1/4 cup fresh thai basil leaves - loosly packed *
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves - loosely packed *
1/4 cup fresh cilantro - loosly packed
1 tablespoon jalapeno - peeled, seeded and chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
salt & pepper to taste

* Notes - Tomatoes and cucumbers are weighed before peeling and seeding
If Thai Basil is unavailable substitute Italian basil and increase mint to 3 tablespoons

And so beautiful readers, here's your chance to fill that blender with something besides Margarita mix. For us in the northeast, my sisters in the Midwest and my sexy mountain boys, we've only got another month or so to celebrate the sizzling hot and all the bounty it brings. Throw it in the Osterizer and push liquefy.
Happy eating my sweets.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Sicilian Eggplant Capunata

I'm not exactly sure why I grew up in an eggplant free zone. The first explanation I might toss out would be that my father didn't like it. To be sure, there were damn few things that landed on our dinner table that didn't carry his imprimatur. However, during those years when he was spending several nights a month on the road, my duo dinners with Mama Magel saw all manner of previously rare grocery discoveries. Many of which, most independently minded 10 year olds would have snubbed on principle. Spinach salad, pickled beets, casseroles of any kind - Tuna Noodle, 7 Layer Casserole, Johnny Marzetti (more on that some day), and our shared pleasure, calves liver & onions. All enjoyed with gusto. I suppose it had something to do with rebellion. If Dad hated them, I would love them.

Still, however, no eggplant. So perhaps Dad wasn't the culprit. Which brings us to my second suspicion. Eggplant remains one of the few vegetables not really available canned or frozen, at least not in it's pure state. There were few vegetables that made it to our table without the help of some form of processing. Corn in August and September, green beans round about the same window of opportunity and home grown tomatoes which were pretty much the only thing (other than rose bushes) deemed worthy of planting. From time to time our family might be gifted with some overflow of zucchini from a more agriculturally inclined neighbor which would be quickly dispatched into quick bread, the only approved use of zucchini for Mama Magel.

But to be fair, I think this was pretty much home cooking as we knew it in the center of Ohio circa 1964, until Ms. Julia Child landed in our living rooms and swept out the cobwebs of Middle American kitchens. And although Julia's influence missed Mama Magel by several tablespoons and a generation, I'm proud to report that our kitchen was mostly free of Hamburger Helper, instant mashed potatoes, "Cheez Whiz", frozen pies and other culinary conveniences of the 1960's. I say mostly because of course I pestered Mama Magel into trying them. In the same way I pestered her into buying all those boxes of cereal which I NEVER ate, only so I could capture the prize inside.... Yet frighteningly enough, some of those conveniences stuck! Witness what Gladys christened (and you know I loved her)...

"Quick Spaghetti"

Brown a pound or so of ground beef in a skillet (preferably electric). Add a "Family" size can of Franco American Spaghetti in Tomato Sauce. When hot, transfer to a large bowl. Serve with Kraft Shredded Parmesan and Iceburg Lettuce Salad.

Which brings us to the third possible explanation for the absence of eggplant in my childhood. We just didn't have any Mediterranean neighbors! I couldn't begin to define any of our neighbors ethnicity past "lily white"! Peanut Butter Fudge was about as ethnic as it got. And so it was that the move "home" to Brooklyn was what finally got me thinking about involving myself in a relationship with that big purple bruiser of a veg.

It might well have been a brush encounter with babaganough that made me sit up straight and pay attention to this new flavor possibility. But it was definitely the house made capunata when I worked at "Rosemarie's" in Tribeca that made me submit and worship. That week in Mykonos with the eggplant salad in every restaurant may have cemented the relationship... but then again Mykonos cemented several relationships... (more on that later as well)

Capunata for me, is the sexy, misbehaved brother of ratatouille. Just more bang for the buck shall we say. And my ratatouille can make your knees tremble just a little.
But sugar, this capunata, brings those same knees home to the floor.

This is my version of Capunata, which I enjoy serving very chunky and rustic. The zucchini and celery should still be "al dente". That's my aesthetic. Typically it's served cut smaller and more completely cooked. You find your own capunata bliss and cook accordingly.

Big Mary's Capunata

6 tablespoons olive oil
5 cups eggplant, cut into 1 inch dice
3 cups zucchini, quartered, seeds cut away, & cut into 1/2" - 1 " pieces
2 cups yellow onion, rough cut into 1/2" pieces
4 med cloves garlic, minced
1 cup celery, veins stripped and cut into 1/2" pieces
2 cups red pepper, cut into 1/2" pieces
3 1/2 cups tomatoes, (peeled, seeded and diced) or canned diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons fresh marjoram, chopped (optional)
1/2 cup yellow or black raisins
1 cup chopped black & green pitted olives, very roughly chopped
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar (or to taste)
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
Salt & Pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh basil leaves, chopped
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted

In a large skillet, heat several tablespoons of olive oil. When shimmering hot, add eggplant, season with salt & pepper and cook until browned on most sides. Remove to a bowl.
Saute zucchini in the same manner and add to eggplant in the bowl.
Being careful to not overcook any of the vegetables, saute the onion/garlic mixture and the celery and red peppers in a similar separate manner.

Combine the sauteed vegetables in the bowl. Heat a larger skillet with some remaining olive oil. When hot combine vegetables and add tomatoes and marjoram. Cook over medium heat, just until tomatoes start to break down and "glaze/sauce" the capunata. Then add raisins and olives. Simmer for 3 minutes. Add vinegar and sugar to taste, and cook several minutes to combine flavors. Adjust salt, pepper, sugar and vinegar. Stir in basil and garnish with toasted pine nuts.
Serve room temperature, as a condiment or side dish.

And that, my sweets, is the eggplant that stole and continues to tempt my heart, Make it for a party. The true Italian will search you out. And THAT, is rarely a bad thing.

Remember my pretties, food seduces, so get cooking...
Big Mary

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Absolute BEST Buttermilk Biscuits

It's always sweet when Life takes you by the hand, invites you on a quiet stroll 180 degrees away from stress and sits you down to a reminder of how perfectly simple a blessing "homemade" can be. Even better if she sits you down next to a generous serving of sweet butter, some strawberry preserves or local wildflower honey. If she's feeling you are particularly deserving, perhaps she's got some sausage gravy up her sleeve..... Eewwww wait. Lets backtrack.

Mama Magel was a strong contender in the kitchen when it came to baking. Her pecan pie, even after her death, can still bitch slap my version into a corner... whimpering, tail tucked and submissive. And I've passed her Poor Man's Pie recipe into so many NYC restaurant kitchens that she's probably achieved legendary status in the home kitchens of immigrant cooks when they return home.

Nevertheless, her frame of reference on a few items was as contained as any housewife of the 1960's. And in the 60's, biscuits came out of a tube, (slammed against the side of a counter), or mixed from a box named Bisquick. Mama Magel opted most often for the "Poppin' Fresh" option. I can only assume that before those refrigerated tubs were an option, my Ohio bred sisters and friends never knew biscuits outside of a literary reference here or there.

And so it is I offer the following recipe to my sisters and you all, dear readers. This was passed to me from my 2nd favorite catering chef (myself retaining the #1 position) soon after I realized I'd be spending more than a passing fancy with this world of food. He describes it as basically a ramped up version of the one from "Joy of Cooking". Seems he's not only correct, but also astute in his ramnping up instincts.

The key to this recipe is not processing the butter too much. If using a KitchenAid (as I do) don't let the butter get smaller than pea size. In reality, you can only err by processing the butter TOO MUCH.

Danny Boy's Biscuits

4 ounces unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup buttermilk for brushing

Cut butter into 1/2" cubes. Place in a bowl in freezer. Sift dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. When butter is very cold, add butter to dry ingredients. Using the paddle attachment process butter and flour until butter is pea sized. (If making by hand, use your fingertips to process flour mix to the proper size.)
On low speed, add buttermilk until barely mixed. Wrap mix in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm.
On a floured board, roll out biscuit dough until 1/2" thick. Fold in thirds (like puff pastry dough) and roll out two more times. (The idea being we are distributing the butter into layers to help the dough "puff" into layers as they bake.)
Return to the refrigerator to allow it to chill completely. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Punch out biscuits with a cutter of the desired size. Refrigerate again, or freeze before baking. Brush with buttermilk.
Bake 10 - 12 minutes

Cheddar biscuits
Reduce butter to 3 ounces
Add 3 oz cheddar to dough at the last minute of mixing. Brush with buttermilk and and top biscuits with additional 1 oz. shredded cheddar. Bake as described.

Add 1 teaspoon chopped rosemary (or chives, etc) with the butter. Proceed with baking as described.

Sweet ones, you will be surprised at how much better these biscuits get the less you process the butter. You are going to thrill at how something so simple is so soul fulfilling. Don't shy away from some sausage gravy if you are feeling especially Southern! And don't hesitate to layer some Cheddar Biscuits with Ham and Honey Mustard. Ready, Set, Go!

Big Love,
Big Mary

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Fresh Home Made Ricotta

OK, this is by and large, a total plagiarism from a Wednesday edition of the NY Times. But let me steal with a pinch more respectability. It's so easy to pass over the weekly info-blast that is the Dining In/Out section. Such a breeze to tear out this recipe or that destination, and file it for future reference. Really no sweat to peruse an article, check it off as potentially needed data and turn the page. We New Yorkers could turn blasé into the new black... Big Mary is here to shake you out of your fog and say... TRY THIS, IT'S WORTH IT!

Let me tell you. If you try this once, you'll probably never buy ricotta again. AND you'll find yourself cooking with ricotta about 5 times more often than ever before. My only caveat would be to advise you to please never share with your dinner guests just how simple this process is. Stress the precision timing and temperatures necessary, the importance of sourcing only the freshest milk and of course that indescribable magic possessed by the most seasoned culinary artist which allows the curds to separate from the whey and hold shape as delicate pillows of ricotta. Yes sweet friends, baffle them with bullshit!

This mystic revelation of curd gathering could not have fallen into my lap or plate with a more perfect opportunity for appreciation. I've been so focused on the clarity of summer's flavors, that it seems preordained I should be introduced to the purest form of milk manipulation at this point in time. Home made ricotta tastes of milk times 3. I haven't experimented myself, but I'm reckoning that this may be the prime opportunity for some organic milk or raw product in it's available.

No need to tease you further. Here's the recipe the NY Times published and adapted from “Michael Chiarello’s Casual Cooking” (Chronicle, 2002)

Home Made Ricotta Cheese
Time: 1 hour

2 quarts whole milk

2 cups buttermilk.

1. Line a wide sieve or colander with cheesecloth, folded so that it is at least 4 layers thick. Place in sink.

2. Pour milk and buttermilk into a heavy-bottomed pot. Cook over high heat, stirring frequently; scrape bottom of pot occasionally to prevent scorching. As milk heats, curds will begin to rise and clump on surface. Once mixture is steaming hot, stop stirring.

3. When mixture reaches 175 to 180 degrees on a candy thermometer, curds and whey will separate. (Whey will look like cloudy gray water underneath a mass of thick white curds.) Immediately turn off heat and gently ladle curds into sieve.

4. When all curds are in sieve and dripping has slowed (about 5 minutes), gently gather edges of cloth and twist to bring curds together; do not squeeze. Let drain 15 minutes more. Discard the whey.

5. Untie cloth and pack ricotta into airtight containers. Refrigerate and use within one week.

Friends and Any Others......... Make it this week! You deserve it!
And here's a few suggestions on how to enjoy it.

Grilled Bruschetti with Herbed Fresh Ricotta

Grill sliced sourdough, rustic Italian or baguette toasts with olive oil until charred lightly. Season fresh ricotta with a healthy pinch of salt, and a few spoonfuls of chopped fresh herbs (parsley, tarragon, chives, basil, marjoram,etc.)
Spread on Bruschetti and enjoy.

Toasted Pound Cake with Ricotta and Honey Crushed Berries

Crush some fresh berries with a potato masher until chunky with juices flowing. Stir in a few tablespoons of top quality honey and set aside to macerate.
Slice homemade or store bought pound cake about an inch thick. Saute with a knob of butter in a skillet until golden brown. While still warm, place cake on a plate and top with a generous spoonful of homemade ricotta. Garnish with a generous amount of the berries and enjoy.

Cavatelli with Tomato, Bacon, Parmesan and Fava Beans

12 ounces whole fresh fava beans
4 ounces sliced bacon (thick sliced) diced into 1/4" pieces
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 Tablespoon fresh garlic, minced
14 ounces canned diced tomatoes (or petite diced) - you may substitute
1 pound peeled, seeded and chopped fresh Roma tomatoes)
1/2 cup dry white wine
12 ounces frozen cavatelli pasta
1 cup home made ricotta
6-8 large fresh basil leaves
freshly ground Parmesan Reggiano to taste
salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Peel fava beans from outer pods and blanch in salted boiling water for 2 minutes. Remove from boiling water and drop into ice water. When well cooled, drain again and peel second skin. Set aside.
Saute bacon in a large skillet until brown and moderately crisp. Drain and set aside. Return bacon fat to skillet and add olive oil.
Saute sliced onion in olive oil mix. When the onions are translucent, add red pepper flakes and minced garlic Saute for an additional minute. Add tomatoes and white wine. Simmer a few minutes to "deglaze" the pan. Add reserved bacon and reduce heat to a bare simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Put on a large pan of salted water for the cavatelli and bring to a rolling boil. Meanwhile roll basil leaves into a skinny tube and thinly slice into a chiffonade.
When water is boiling, add cavatelli and cook according to package directions.
When cooked to your preference, drain cavatelli and add to simmering tomato sauce.
Portion into warm pasta bowls, and divide reserved fava beans onto the pasta. Finish the dish with a generous dollop of ricotta, basil, ground black pepper and Parmesan.
Serves 2 - 4

Well that should be enough to send you out to the milk shelves and garden to explore your own inspirations of how to exploit this new found goodness. I expect friends and family to pull me to a new obsession before I exhaust my ideas on how to enjoy ricotta. Trust that I'll be sharing them with you as well. Remember to please support your local farmers markets as we swell into the season of all things green... and red, and yellow, and orange...

Contented eating sweeties,
Big Mary

Monday, June 02, 2008

Chocolate and Goat Cheese Truffles


Am I the only one? These early days of Summer, well Pre-Summer, have me so primed for all the bounty of tomatoes and corn I’m so eagerly anticipating that I’m ready to throw on a pair of overalls, a straw hat and go running through the fields singing the entire score of Rogers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” with full choreography.

Out at La Casa Amarilla in the Poconos, the herbs are spilling out, tomato plants are installed in the 4 square feet that receive enough sun to bear fruit and the morels have already been harvested and consumed. Bring on the season! Just last week, the Handsome Venezuelan and I enjoyed a Friday night dinner at the ever Elegant Wendy’s home in Milford , Pennsylvania. Wendy’s partner is a quietly handsome, sexy and oh so smart musician who also happens to be a vegetarian. The Lovely Ms. W. put out an exquisite buffet of potato salad, cucumbers in cream, tabouleh, cornbread, and poached chicken with homemade mayonnaise for anyone feeling carnivorously deprived.

Let me tell you we all went ga-ga for the vegetable fare. Mind you, I wasn’t the only one to slather some extra mayo on my french style potato salad. But, we were all so enamored to be dining al fresco, and feasting on platters of vegetables, grains and herbs, that the chicken (as delicious as it was…) took second billing to the abundance of freshness. Every June I find myself vowing to spend the next 4 months wallowing in the decadence of crisp radishes, luscious tomatoes, tender greens and sweet corn. Perhaps this year, I’ll get my fill.

I’m imagining platters of oven roasted ratatouille, bowls of grilled corn and black bean salad, or perhaps Oaxacan corn salad exquisites (grilled corn kernels slathered with mayo, lime juice, cayenne and cotija cheese), sourdough panzanella, and Caprese Salad with Brandywine Tomatoes, hand pulled mozzarella and garden basil.
Sadly. I’m weeks ahead of myself… But I can always take the spirit to heart and prepare myself and my readers for the treasures ahead. In the next few weeks I hope to share some great simple, clean and fantastic recipes and ideas to gird our loins and thighs for the upcoming farmer’s markets, beaches, picnics and park concerts.
Knowing the Elegant Wendy has a soft spot for chocolate I prepared these truffles for her as a hostess gift. In actuality I was rolling them in her kitchen last minute…. But they were no less appreciated. Remember don’t take yourself too serious this summer.

Chocolate Goat Cheese Truffles

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1/3 cup heavy cream
3 ounces crumbled, soft goat cheese, room temperature
1/8 teaspoon lemon extract (optional)

½ cup cocoa powder
1/3 cup confectioner’s sugar

Combine chocolate and cream in a double boiler and melt over low heat. When chocolate has begun to melt, add goat cheese. Stir to combine smoothly and add extract if using. Transfer to a small bowl or sheet pan and chill until firm.
Combine cocoa and confectioner’s sugar in a bowl. Scoop truffle mix into small balls or squares and coat generously in cocoa/sugar mix. Alternately if time and budget allows, you can roll the truffles in tempered bittersweet chocolate coating, a WAY better idea.
Store truffles in an air tight container in the refrigerator.

OK dear readers… there’s a head start. Coming up, sooner than later I hope, will be some thinking on Ricotta Cheese (you’ll never buy it again!) and Italian Sausage, Broccoli Rabe and Orrechiette.

Savory Salacious Dreams,
Big Mary

Monday, April 21, 2008

Asparagus Soup and Reuben Soup

Hello dear ones. Oh GoodGoddessAlmighty I’ve been a lazy Mary. Life throws us all a few curves from time to time, and I’ve been swinging far and wide to keep up to tempo. Forgive me and let’s dive back in to some intriguing ideas about food, feeding and fun stuff.

You all know how easily thrilled I am by wringing multiple meals from singular shopping and cooking endeavors. So it’s understandable that recent refrigerator reviews led me to some rewarding market basket experimentation. One was a work related inheritance of asparagus trimmings, the other a typical leftover layover. Either way, the message behind my words is “Think before you trash it.” There’s a long history of savoring more from what we see as less, and that’s a tradition we need to reinvest in; not only as a recession response, but as a sign of respect to all that Momma Earth provides.

Along with daffodils, robins and wide open windows, the return of sweet, fresh local asparagus is one of the welcome signs of spring around our home. I tend toward abusing my relationship with these crisp green stalks by popping them into our meals 2 or 3 times a week when the price makes it too seductive to avoid. If you share a similar April frenzy, then you won’t have any problem saving up enough trimmings to try this idea for asparagus soup. I find the trimmed ends of the stalks keep several days in the refrigerator if wrapped in damp paper towel and stored in a plastic bag.

Here’s a tip for you when preparing asparagus. To determine where the tender part of the stalk begins to shift to a tougher woody texture – Hold an asparagus stalk with the tip in one hand and the base of the stalk in the other. Gently bend the asparagus until it snaps in two. Most likely this is where the tender part shifts to a tougher texture. After snapping a few, you can cut the rest of the bunch using the snapped stalks as a guide.

Asparagus Soup
Serves 2 or 3

I like this version without any additional milk or cream. It’s a more intense hit of asparagus. But feel free to spoil yourself with a splash of cream if you’re feeling the need to be indulgent.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove fresh garlic, chopped
1 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 pound asparagus stems & peelings
3 cups (approx) vegetable broth or chicken stock – canned low sodium is fine in a pinch
1 small (3 oz) Yukon Gold potato (or russet), peeled and cut in half
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
salt & pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon chives, parsley or tarragon, chopped

Heat a 2 quart pan over medium flame. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion softens and begins to turn translucent. The onions should not take on any color. Stir in the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds. Add the asparagus trim and sauté for another minute or so. Drop in the potato and add enough broth to just barely cover the asparagus. Bring the soup to a boil, and then lower heat o maintain an easy going simmer. Don’t cover the pot as this will unnecessarily grey out the asparagus. Cook until the potato and the asparagus as extremely tender. Drain the vegetables reserving the liquid, and let cool.
When the soup solids are cool, transfer part of them to a blender. Puree the vegetable mixture, adding the soup liquid as you go to get as smooth a mixture as possible. Pour the puree into a medium fine sieve set over a bowl. Using a large ladle push the soup through the sieve, and throw out the solids left in the sieve. Repeat the process until all the soup solids have been strained. If there is any more liquid remaining, pour that through the sieve into the finished soup.
Rewarm the soup when ready to serve and adjust seasonings. Garnish with chopped fresh herbs.

Clearly a product of some retro thinking after our St. Patrick’s Day meal, I was inspired by the Handsome Venezuelan as he returned several times to refresh his bowl of Corned Beef & Cabbage with more broth. Later that week when faced with some leftover corned beef I remembered how meaty and clean tasting the broth was. Forgoing my initial plan for Reuben Sandwiches, I came up with the following alternative.

Initially I tried using the rye bread and cheese as croutons in the style of French Onion Soup, but the result was way too much busyness in the bowl. Not wanting to sacrifice any chance to indulge in warm melted cheese though, I suggest serving them on the side.

Reuben Soup with Cheesy Rye Toasts
Serves 3- 4

2 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 cup green cabbage, roughly cut
1 bay leaf
1 medium plum tomato, peeled, seeded &diced (or ½ cup canned diced tomato)
¼ cup sauerkraut, rinsed and squeezed dry
1 quart reserved corned beef cooking broth, fat removed
1 cup corned beef, rough cut
2 slices rye bread, cut in half
2 teaspoons olive oil
2/3 cup swiss or gruyere cheese, shredded

Heat a 2 quart or larger pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil and then the onions. Cook the onions, stirring often until they begin to soften. Add the cabbage and continue to sauté with the onions for 2 or 3 minutes. Add the bay leaf, tomato, sauerkraut and broth and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until cabbage is well cooked. Add the corned beef and continue to simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and check seasonings.
When ready to serve, preheat an oven to 375*. Brush rye bread with olive oil and place on a small sheet pan. Place in oven and toast the bread for 6 minutes. Turn slices of bread over and top with grated cheese. Return to oven until cheese is melted and bubbly.
Serve with hot Reuben Soup.

So there you have it favored readers; a small, but well meaning reward for your patience. And a promise to shape up and get more words onto Word documents and stuffed into the Blogosphere. I can’t afford to have you abandon Big Mary for a more punctual food maven!

Wishing you indulgent cravings.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Fettuccini with Roasted Cauliflower, Caramelized Onions, Pancetta, Pine Nuts and Parmesan 
Lately we’ve been trying to be so “good” about pasta consumption that I’ve developed a blind spot. A few years back, when the Handsome Venezuelan embraced his Weight Watcher’s regime to acclaim and belt tightening results, I shifted our kitchen over to the newly marketed full grain pastas crowding the market shelves.  It made spaghetti pretty much guilt free, and as any gourmand with a full time job knows…. Pasta is the solution at least once a week.  Good Goddess, it’s just so easy to love.  Sadly though, the echos of carb free preaching continue to taint the lip smacking goodness of a bowl of fine, lovingly prepared maccheroni.
So it was that I finally awakened from my pasta-phobic coma last weekend to hear the very same Handsome Venezuelan saying – “Maybe this weekend we can make pasta?  I’ve been asking for a month!”  By “make pasta” he so wisely means, MAKE pasta.  The very noodles themselves. 
The previous summer we had enjoyed our first fresh made pasta bliss moment when we rescued a classic Italian crank and cut pasta roller from yard sale purgatory.  It was an absolute revelation.  And this was a month after our return from 2 weeks in Italy mind you.  That 2 minute old pasta was brand new and never before known, something neither of us had ever enjoyed before. We had entered Nonna’s kitchen territory, and we knew it.
So it was with excitement that late last October we had opened our home to a SIMAC pasta maker discovered at a country auction.  It was ours for a thin greenback dollar.  After reviewing our purchase at home I found a few things to be missing, primarily the instruction booklet. Quickly our bargain grew to a minor investment.  Yet I still imagined myself the Duke of Ziti, Marquis of Mosticelli and  Lord of Linguini.  If we had thrilled to the tender strands of egg pasta last summer, imagine the excellence of what a true Italian pasta machine could achieve. This modern marvel promised equal flavor with the thrill of a Play Dough Factory adventure.
The instruction book arrived, an underwhelming Xerox and staple construction.  But it wasn’t until I began to plumb the intricacies of its Italo/Anglo translation that I truly began to appreciate the experience I was about to embark upon. The pre-adventure involved the assembly of the machine. Mostly smoothly accomplished, though I did realize that the tightening wrench for the pasta disc was missing. Not so important I declared.............. ha!

Measure the flour, dump it in, measure the water, attach the lid, engage the kneading blade, add the water slowly for one minute, check your dough, should be lumpy, the size of walnuts.......... Walnuts?
Mine was a raggedy mix with no discernible lumps of any size. Process more..... OK... add more water or flour a tablespoon at a time. Don't let it form a smooth ball.. what? And most importantly don't process for more than 5 minutes total time! What time is it now???

OK, enough, can't let it form a ball. Let's make penne. Remove the shutter slide and let the dough move to the pasta disc and extrude. Oiled knife at the ready, I watched and waited for the pasta to push through the template... OK, any minute..... Ah there it is, should be pushing through now.... OK...OK...It's going no where right? Hmmmm. Oh look, the entire pasta disc and lock nut are prying loose as the dough extrudes everywhere except through the pasta disc. Shut it off, shut it off, shut it off. Somehow I knew I had made a wrong turn right next to those walnut sized lumps.

The manual assures me that the more I work with the Simac PastaMatic700, the more I will learn to judge when the dough is sufficiently kneaded. Until that day, I will do as I did last Sunday, and pull out my tried and true hand crank model and enjoy linguini, fettucine or taggliatelle that still amazes and enthralls me like the very first time. Plus it demands a pasta making partner, and that makes a dinner like this even more of an occasion.

Here's the sauce we enjoyed with our most excellent fettucine that night. It's a little out of the box, but 100% delicious, and while not meat free, certainly more veggie focused than most pasta meals. 
Fettuccini with Roasted Cauliflower, Caramelized Onions, Pancetta, Pine Nuts and Parmesan 
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, sliced thin, crosswise
2 ounces pancetta, sliced into thin strips
3 cups cauliflower, cut into medium florettes
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
¾ pound homemade fettuccine (or ½ pound dried)
to taste Parmesan cheese
to taste freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh parsley chopped (optional)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Preheat oven to 450*.
Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil and the sliced onion. Stir onions often. When they have just begun to go limp add the pancetta and mix very well. Turn heat to low and cook until onions are deep caramel color. Stir often.
In a large mixing bowl, toss cauliflower with remaining olive oil. Season with salt & pepper.
Place on a baking sheet and roast in preheated oven until well browned, tossing after about 5 minutes.
The cauliflower should take between 8 and 12 minutes. When cooked and browned, remove from often and reserve as it cools.
When onions are ready, drop fettuccine to cook. Add cauliflower and pine nuts to onions and warm. When fettuccine is tender, drain and add to onion, reserving some pasta cooking water. Toss pasta and onion mixture, add some Parmesan cheese and a few tablespoons of pasta water to loosen sauce. Portion into warm bowls, garnish with more Parmesan cheese, parsley and enjoy

Babies, I hope you make this soon. It is absolutely Life affirming. And so, I'll leave you sated and sassy. And hungry for more.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Country Pork Ribs with Salsa Verde

OH lovely readers, let me tell you something. Big Mary is not the strapping, ever ready, bounding with energy, marathon groomed cheflet he once was.

OK… I never was strapping or marathon groomed or a “cheflet” for that matter. But bounding with energy? Of course! Ever ready? No doubt! And now? Geritol grabbing, foot soaking, ginseng gulping, moaning and groaning. I have returned to the realm of the freelancer.

For those of you uninitiated; there roams in NYC a tribe of freelance chefs and cooks who sell their skills to various and sundry caterers and restaurateurs in the city. These are a sturdy breed of different drumming knife wielders who for personal reasons have taken a path less chosen than the armies of sous and sub-sous chefs scattered about the city. They are also some of the most resilient, fire tested, ingenious, subversive, quick thinking and quirky kitchen comrades you could ever share a stove with. A mixed bag to say the very least.

It’s a lifestyle choice to be sure. A typical week of three double shifts in four locations, a 3 hour party in the Hamptons with 6 hours of travel time, a bar mitzvah for 200 with omelette, pasta and dim sum stations, followed by a week where NO ONE has work. And of course, no paid vacation, no health insurance and no personal days off.

But then again there’s minimal commitment, you can schedule 2 weeks in Mexico when the February slow down hits and you get to choose who you work with and when. And you make a significantly better wage than your average line cook. It’s not for everyone, but these days it IS for Big Mary. And let me tell you, those 14 hour days when they happen, set my feet to howling like a cranky beagle and sentence me to hours in the Epsom salted tub.

All of this is a long winded way of apologizing for my absence. You’ve never been far from my thoughts; it was all about dragging it out of the tub into the computer chair. Of course this was after my happily accepted daily duty whipping up dishes spectacular and spontaneous for the Handsome Venezuelan. Here’s a Mexican inspired dish we enjoyed recently. It’s minimalist, clean flavored and so perfectly satisfying on either a blustery late winter day or a sunny pre-Spring surprise of a Sunday.

As you might know, chilies are a known fickle commodity. Poblano’s are a typically mild chile, though I’ve known a few that could burn you like a bitter queen. Likewise jalapeno’s can fluctuate wildly on the “picante” scale. Taste as you go and adjust knowingly. Remember the fiercest heat is in the seeds and white membranes inside the chile.

Pork with Mexican Salsa Verde (serves 2 or 3)

1 ½ pounds Country style pork ribs

1 large Poblano peppers
1 pound Tomatillos, husked and rinsed
¼ large Yellow onion, cut in half
1 large Garlic clove, peeled
1/4 cup Chopped Pecans, toasted and chopped very fine
1 medium Jalapeño (optional)
Salt and Pepper to taste

½ cup Chicken stock

½ large Yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 teaspoons Fresh Lime Juice
2 tablespoons Cilantro leaves, chopped
1 pinch Kosher salt

Preheat oven to 300*. Season pork ribs with salt and pepper. Place on a broiling pan, or on a rack over a baking sheet so that the fat can render as the ribs cook.
Cook ribs for 30 minutes allowing the excess fat to run off.

Meanwhile, roast poblano peppers over a gas flame (or under a broiler if your oven is electric). Turn the peppers, allowing them to char evenly. When peppers are black and blistered, remove them to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a plate. Let cool. When cool peel away the blistered skin and discard. Remove stem and seeds as well.
In a medium sauce pot place the tomatillos, onion chunks, garlic cloves and jalapeño. Cover with water and place over high heat. Bring to a boil. Cook for a few minutes until the tomatillos change color from bright green to a muted grey green. Remove from heat and carefully drain. Separate jalapeño. Place tomatillos, onion, garlic and poblanos in a blender. Puree until smooth. Add the pecans and puree again until smooth. Remove stem and seeds from jalapeño and cut into 4 or 5 pieces. Season the tomatillo salsa with salt and pepper. Puree as much of the jalapeño into the salsa as you wish.

After the pork has cooked for 30 minutes remove the ribs from the oven. Increase the oven heat to 350*. Transfer the meat to an ovenproof baking dish. Add the salsa verde and ½ cup stock. Return the dish to the oven and cook another 30 minutes or so, until the ribs are fork tender.

Combine the sliced onion, lime juice, salt and cilantro. Serve on the side as a condiment to the pork ribs.

And THAT, my pretties, should open up the oven door of satisfaction for anyone lucky enough to grace your table. As always, there’s plenty room for experimentation. You know how Big Mary loves an upgrade. A little Mexican oregano on the ribs could intrigue…. Or think how sweet some chopped pineapple could be in the onion condiment… Personally I’d double or triple the salsa verde part and throw it in the freezer for a quick meal another day. Seared Jumbo Shrimp with Salsa Verde? Um hum, now you’re cooking.

This post is dedicated to all the freelancers past and present who make me proud. You know who you are, but especially Cesar, Sue, Peter, Reynold, David, Kevin, Gary, Sydell, Sui Lon, Nancy, Michelle, Jennifer and Mary.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

“Chutney” Sauce for Pork Chops, Chicken Cutlets, Turkey Scallops …

I’m not entirely sure how it happens, but any refrigerator I’ve ever owned somehow becomes a halfway house for partially eaten jars of preserves, jams and marmalades. I have already confessed to an affinity for cooking and canning jams and such, so I suppose I have to take responsibility for creating an environment where these scraggily jars of fruity goodness might feel so totally comfortable to crash and nod about, forgotten in the junk yard of Smucker’s and such.

And while I’m claiming responsibilities, I have another small confession. As much as I enjoy creating preserves and purr like a fat ol’ cat counting up the jars on my basement shelf, a jeweler with his gems… I really don’t eat them so often. I think they taste incredible; it’s just not usually what I want first thing in the morning. And I’ve yet to schedule enough time for afternoon high tea. Though just the mention of it does make a lot of sense!

So it was with serious smug satisfaction that I was struck with inspiration last night as I studied a pair of naked pork chops destined for dinner. Now, when I begin to think about how to serve pork, my Midwestern heart opens up to fruit of any kind. I suspect this may be better attributed to Mama Gladys than the Midwest. To that lady, serving ham without applesauce was somehow as inappropriate as serving scrambled eggs raw.

I have plenty of friends whose kitchen history speaks more to pork chops with vinegar peppers, or thin fried pork chops smothered in gravy. But for me, I’m always looking to add some fruity sweetness cut by spice, smoke, citrus or herb. By now you see where I’m going, no?

Discretely bathing in the 40 watt glow of the top shelf of my refrigerator was a partial, dare I say half FULL, jar of Chambord Four Fruit Preserves from France. Gourmet quality the label boasted. Before it could say “Mon Dieu”, I had snatched it up and was headed toward the stove. A little onion, some left over red pepper, a few staples and I was on my way.

Try this on pork chops, of course, but I think it could also perk up grilled chicken breasts, sautéed turkey paillards, ham or maybe even grilled shrimp – depending on the fruit preserve you choose and adding lemon juice. Save any leftover sauce for sandwiches. It should last a week or more refrigerated.

Chutney Sauce for Pork, Chicken or Turkey

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup onion, finely diced
1/3 cup red pepper, seeded and finely diced
1 pinch crushed red pepper flakes
1 large garlic clove, minced
¼ cup vermouth or wine, red or white
½ cup preserves or marmalade – any flavor
½ cup chicken stock, preferably homemade
¼ cup water
1 teaspoon demi glace (useful if using canned broth, but optional)
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon picante smoked paprika (or chipotle chile powder)
½ teaspoon whole mustard seeds
salt & pepper to taste

Heat a medium sauté pan over high heat. Add oil and then onion and peppers. Sauté, stirring often until onion begins to soften. Add chile flakes and garlic. Stir for 1 minute. Add wine to deglaze pan. Then add preserves, stock, water, demi glace and spices. Simmer over high heat to reduce and thicken. When it reaches your desired consistency, season and serve.

I just know you are going to get some mileage out of this my lovelies. I’m not sure this will be successful with jellies, but beyond that, feel free to push the envelope. Make it just for sandwiches. Serve it with your cheese platter. Go guava, go fig, push pineapple, who said mango?

Later you beautiful people…
Contented eating,
Big Mary

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Cabbage and Cauliflower with Orange Spice

Often, in my desire to cook in sync with the seasons I overlook obvious vegetables. Such was the case the other day when I discovered a forgotten half head of cabbage in the vegetable drawer earlier this week.

While I happily indulge in the occasional German Braised Red Cabbage, I instinctually relegate green cabbage to cole slaw. Something I really love, but that big green head deserves to relish in its full 15 minutes of fame. Maybe even a half hour or more, as I really love the richness it gets from slow cooking.

I have long been a fan of braising a thick cut shred of cabbage with butter and stock, which I then fold into rough mashed potatoes. An around the corner homage to Colcannon, a classic Irish dish. And I’m on it like clockwork every Saint Paddy’s day with my Corned Beef and Cabbage.

However, a few days ago, my discovery of the forgotten cabbage in the fridge coincided with my inkling to make a chicken curry dish. I dimly remembered dinners past in the curry mall of E. 6th Street here in NYC. Every dish it seemed , arrived with braised cabbage and dhal (yellow split peas). So, no blind monkey here, I recognized the potential for a happy marriage of the cabbage and the curry.

As the curried chicken was big on flavor, I was looking to create a dish that had enough balls to hold it’s own, while adding sufficient mystery to round out the plate. I happily submit the results.

Cabbage and Cauliflower with Orange Spice (serves 2 or 4)

½ cup onion, chopped
¼ head small green cabbage, cut into one inch squares
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt & pepper
3 whole cloves
1 ½ cups cauliflower florettes (approximate)
1 teaspoon tangerine zest (or orange)
¼ cup dry vermouth
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add oil and when hot add onions and cabbage. Sauté, stirring constantly to avoid browning. Add salt, pepper and whole cloves. If needed, add a tablespoon or two of water to slow cooking. When Cabbage is about halfway cooked, add cauliflower, zest and vermouth. Cover and continue to cook over medium low heat. After 2 minutes toss in the butter, swirl it around and return to heat with cover. Continue to cook until cabbage is soft and cauliflower is cooked, but still has a “bite”. Check seasoning, remove the whole cloves and serve.

And so my niblets, I encourage you to grab a “head” and get busy. Cabbage is just mild enough to be the canvas, yet present enough to tint the paint.

Contented eating and sassy sautéing,
Big Mary

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Indonesian Style Beef Brisket Rendang

Oh, ya know, sometimes I just need to shake it up! Big Mary’s been cooking without a major audience for several months now. Much as I don’t miss the daily grind of shoveling hotel pans of tilapia and pounds of pasta salad of the day out the door, I must confess to falling into a routine of home cooking that doesn’t exactly keep my tasting spoon at the ready.

That is why, when faced with a lovely, beefy cut of brisket the other day, I stopped myself from grabbing the classic mirepoix and instead sat myself down in front of my library. If you are anything like me, you have cookbooks you’ve forgotten you ever bought, let alone really read. Case in point, Fire & Spice – 200 Hot & Spicy Recipes from the Far East by Jackie Passmore. When I first found this book, (in a marked down section of some used bookstore no doubt), I was immediately drawn to the HUGE flavor profile all of the recipes have. If you’ve ever graced my table, you know I’m no timid flower when it comes to flavor. So, all her talk of Asian chilies, sambals, lemongrass, kaffir lime, Szechuan peppercorn and coconut milk were a siren’s song of Southeast Asian seduction to me.

That being said, one I managed to resist for years, given the build up of dust on the binding! Nevertheless, there I was, brisket in hand, searching for inspiration. Oh Lord, what a picture! I was caught by her recipe for Beef Rendang, a dish I’d made years ago for an Indonesian ristafell. Beef Rendang is normally a somewhat dry, braised dish of beef strips, glazed by a reduction of coconut milk, spices and onion. Why not, I thought, treat my beautiful brisket in this manner. Turns out, it was an inspired perversion. Here is my Indonesian Beef Brisket freely adapted from her recipe.

Beef Brisket “Rendang”

2 ½ pounds beef brisket, cleaned and trimmed
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
salt and pepper (szechuan pepper if possible)
2 small dried bay leaves
1 1/3 cups coconut milk
1 small tomato - peeled, seeded, chopped (or ½ cup canned diced tomato)
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
¼ teaspoon whole szechuan peppercorns
1 ½ teaspoon whole coriander seed
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoon whole cumin seed
1 medium onion – chopped (1 very generous cup)
2 medium garlic cloves – chopped
1 stalk lemongrass – cleaned and tender section chopped
2 tablespoons fresh ginger – peeled and minced
2 tablespoons cilantro stems
1 teaspoon Sriracha hot sauce
1 tablespoon tamarind paste (thick Indian style)
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
¼ cup cilantro leaves, chopped

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Preheat a medium skillet over high heat. Season the brisket with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in skillet and brown brisket on both sides to a rich deep brown color.
Transfer beef brisket to an oven proof dish with lid. Add 1 cup coconut milk, bay leaves, tomato and soy sauce. Cover dish and put in the oven for 15 minutes.
In the meantime, toast Szechuan peppercorns, coriander seed and cumin seed in a dry skillet over high heat. Set aside to cool and grind in spice grinder until finely ground. Add ground cinnamon.
Put prepared onion, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, cilantro stems, spices and Sriracha sauce into a blender. Add remaining 1/3 cup coconut milk. Process until smooth.
Heat a sauté pan and add the onion coconut milk mixture. Simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes or so. Sauce will darken slightly.
Remove beef from the oven after the 15 minutes, and add the onion coconut milk mixture. Pour the mixture over the beef, stir to combine and return to oven for another 2 ½ hours or so. Beef Brisket should be fork tender.
Remove from oven and stir in Tamarind paste and brown sugar. When cooled 30 minutes or so remove brisket and slice thinly across the grain. Serve with re-warmed sauce from the casserole and basmati rice. Garnish with chopped cilantro leaves.
Note: can be made 1 or 2 days in advance and reheated.

You’ll still want to make your Mamaw’s version of Braised Brisket when that’s what you want, but this will likely become your alternate version for “shaking it up”.
Contented Eating and Inspired Cooking my sweets.
Big Mary

Monday, January 14, 2008

Roast Salmon with Yogurt and Horseradish

Over the holidays, we had a superbly delicious dinner at Tanoreen, a Palestinian restaurant deep in Brooklyn. I would have never known about it without an invitation from one of my dear friends and great Chef, himself a Mid East mutt with a trans border heritage of Israeli, Palestinian and Greek. The place is a small, table packed, home style jewel run by an enthusiastic Nazareth native as a paean to the cooking closest to her heart.

As she circulates, only occasionally, through the restaurant to check on her customers, she does so with the immense pride of someone who KNOWS “how everything is”. She’s just too much in control of her kitchen not to know. Yet that tight reign seems to have a gentle hand, and in fact that’s what makes the food so bright in flavor, so light on the tongue. This food manages to taste familiar, at the first bite. No matter if you grew up, as I did, in deep Midwest, generation upon generation removed from a grape leaf or chickpea. I feel this is all a reflection on the honesty with which Chef Rawia Bishara treats her ingredients.

Should you ever have the treat of visiting her restaurant at 7704 3rd Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, spend a few moments with Chef Rawia tableside and learn a bit about how she approaches cooking. It’s easy, just ask her anything about how a dish is made, or where that new/old familiar flavor is coming from in the lamb shank, or the kibbeh, or the cauliflower salad. That’s how I learned they make all of the yogurt they use, in house; cultivated from naturally occurring bacterium. The difference is delicious.

Inspired by her purity of flavors and commitment to quality, I have been dusting off my spice grinder and sifting through the middle eastern markets of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Though not quite ready to whip up a batch of home cultured yogurt, I was excited to find a quart of whole milk plain yogurt with which to make some yogurt cheese. While you can make yogurt cheese with the more common lowfat yogurt typically found in supermarkets, you’ll enjoy a much richer result if you can source a full fat/whole milk product. Try natural food stores or ethnic markets.

Making yogurt cheese is second only to boiling water when it comes to ease of preparation.

Find a clean sieve and set it over a larger bowl where it can rest securely with sufficient clearance beneath to catch the draining liquid. Line the sieve with 3 or 4 layers of cheesecloth. I have also substituted coffee filters for the cheesecloth with great results. Place the plain yogurt in the lined sieve, cover loosly, and refrigerate the entire contraption for at least 12 hours.

The consistency of the yogurt cheese is entirely up to you, depending upon how you wish to use it. If I plan to make it into Tzatziki, I might let it drain a little more than if I plan to use it in my salmon recipe. It’s all up to you. My talented Chef buddy who introduced me to Tanoreen lets his drain for several days until he can roll bite sized yogurt cheese “truffles” which he marinates and cures in his special sourced Israeli Olive Oil. These are precious gifts he shares with his friends, of which I am happily and graciously one.

I’m not going to give you exact recipes as I want you to find the balance of flavor that seems perfect to your palate. I will give you an indication of what works for me.
Set aside 1 cup of drained yogurt cheese. Peel one large cucumber and cut it into 3 inch sections. Using the large holes of a box grater, coarsely grate one section of the cucumber, stopping when you reach the seeds. Rotate the cucumber until you have grated all of the “meat” and discard the center seed section. Continue until you have grated all of the cucumber pieces. Place the shredded cucumber in a bowl and toss generously with kosher salt. Use at least 2 teaspoons. Place the cucumber in a sieve, place plastic wrap directly on the cucumber then cover with a plate and something to weigh it down. I find canned good work great. Place the weighted sieve over a bowl to catch the juices which will be released form the cucumbers. Allow to sit at room temperature for a minimum of 20 minutes, but an hour is better.
Meanwhile, take one small clove of garlic and mince it finely. When it is finely chopped, add a few pinches of salt. Using a table fork, mash the garlic with the salt until it forms a paste. Add this to the reserved yogurt cheese. In addition, add about ½ teaspoon of dried mint leaf. Set seasoned yogurt cheese aside.
When cucumber has rested and drained, remove sieve from the bowl (reserving drained cucumber juice) and rinse the cucumber thoroughly under cold running water. Squeeze the cucumber dry and mix into yogurt mix. Stir in a tablespoon or so of excellent extra virgin olive oil. At this point I like to stir in a bit of the reserved cucumber liquid. Not traditional, but I enjoy the boost of cucumber flavor. When the Tzatziki is at your desired consistency check for salt and pepper, season to taste and enjoy. It is great served with warm pide bread or pita toasts. Also delicious as a relish for grilled meats.

Another use I have developed for yogurt cheese is …

Salmon with Yogurt and Horseradish – serves two

¾ pound salmon filet
1/3 cup yogurt cheese
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish, lightly squeezed
1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon fresh dill, finely chopped (optional)
salt & pepper

Preheat convection oven to 350*, conventional oven to 375*.
Clean salmon filet of pin bones and remove skin. Cut into two portions, season with salt & pepper and set aside. Combine yogurt cheese, horseradish, nutmeg and dill (if using). It should be about the consistency of cake frosting. If the yogurt was drained to an extremely thick texture, you may want to add a tiny bit of water. Cover the tops of the salmon portions with the yogurt mixture, as if frosting a cake.
Place on a lightly oiled baking sheet and roast for 5 – 10 minutes depending on thickness of filets. My preference is for the salmon center to be still rosy. It will continue to cook after it leaves the oven.
This is delicious served with orzo, all grains, even tabouleh.

Now go have fun and experiment with yogurt cheese. It keeps for over a week if the yogurt was fresh when you bought it.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Pecan Chipotle Soup

Breaking a long held and deeply cherished tradition of isolationism, Big Mary and the handsome Venezuelan hosted a New Year’s Eve dinner last December 31st. Nothing too boisterous, just a tasteful dinner for 6 of our best friends, a careful assembly of personalities and intelligence that would encourage a smooth yet entertaining entry for the New Year.

Now you should know about me that the mere mention of a party of any sort sets into motion a temporary storm of “Bi-Polarism” that forms a black cloud over my head and follows me into any nook or cranny where I might hide. I love the idea of cooking for friends and feeding them, yet I equally hate the idea of risking serving a dish less than perfect. I love the idea of serving a table full of interesting, perfectly purchased cheeses, cured meats, breads, smoked fish and condiments, but I hate my imagined belief that my friends are arriving, expecting me to whip up something truly show stopping. I love the idea of sitting with friends for a leisurely repast of simple foods and outstanding wines, yet I seem incapable of creating a menu that allows for me to be anywhere other than stove-side assembling said “leisurely repast”. Well, by now you have the idea.

True to form, my first menu for the evening consisted of 3 hors d’oeuvres selections, followed by 8 courses of small plates, dessert and petites fours. All lubricated with five wine selections, port and prosecco. It’s like a disease!
But thank the Goddess, at some moment the little voice in my head began to wail and keen with grief over the apparent loss of my mind, and that somehow got my attention. With the calm presence of someone flirting with reality, I was able to edit this meal into a feast that was celebratory yet didn’t require two intermissions.

Here is the menu I ended up with. Still a bit over the top, but it shows gallons of growth for me!

Crudites of Haricots Verts, Radish and Sugar Snaps with Lemon Dill Aioli, Sweet and Savory Roasted Almonds and Walnuts, Plantain Chips

Pecan Chipotle Soup – Served in DemiTasse

Seviche of Sea Scallops with Meyer Lemon and Blood Orange
On Shaved Fennel, Hearts of Palm and Avocado Salad

Braised Boneless Short Ribs of Beef
On Mashed Yukon Gold Potatoes and Celery Root

Baby Arugula with Roasted Beets, Pistachios and Proscuitto
Pistachio Vinaigrette

Caramel Roasted Pears on Sesame Pastry Disc with Sour Cream Gelato

The Soup was pretty much universally applauded, so I have included my recipe for it below. It is adapted from a recipe of Iliana de la Vegas.
It’s outrageously rich , so small portions are in order. Depending on the quality of your blender and how finely you strain it, this soup can be presented anywhere on the spectrum of high-end finesse to homey and soul warming. I prefer it somewhere in the middle.

Pecan Chipotle Soup – serves 6 - 12

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons fresh garlic, minced
½ cup onion, finely chopped
8 ounces pecan pieces
2 ounces country white bread - not sourdough – cut small
3 medium canned plum tomatoes
4 cups whole milk
1 ½ cups strong chicken stock
2 tablespoons canned chipotle chiles in adobo – chopped
1 pinch fresh grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
fresh chopped cilantro for garnish

In a large pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add garlic, onion, pecan pieces and bread and gently sauté until all ingredients are toasted and aromatic. About 8 – 10 minutes.
Transfer pecan mix into a blender. Add tomatoes, chipotles, and some of the milk. Puree until VERY smooth.. Return to the pot and add the remaining milk, stock and nutmeg. Warm and check seasoning for salt & pepper. Strain through a sieve, discarding remaining solids. Soup may be cooled and refrigerated at this point for several days.
When ready to serve, rewarm gently, add lemon juice, check for seasoning and serve garnished with cilantro.
NOTE: This soup may be made vegetarian by substituting more milk for the chicken stock..

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Chicken with Leeks and Fennel

Once again, a New Year; which means economy; both financially and calorically. Normally this would be enough to send me into a two week spiral of bitterness and revenge. After all, what’s Life without treats?

On the other hand, my freezer really has been begging for reorganization and restoration. And this will be the last chance to use up those extras from the New Year’s Eve soiree.. So I thought a refrigerator surprise dinner might be just the challenge I needed to snap me out of my feelings of deprivation.

After jettisoning a few freezer burned pork chops, regretfully dismissing some of last summer’s tart cherries that never made it to the preserving pot, and tossing several sauces that refused current identification; I was left with some forgotten but still useful pints of chicken stock, pancetta scraps that will come in handy for flavoring braises to come, and chicken thighs that were still in serviceable shape.
The refrigerator enjoyed a similar purging of the forgotten and unusable, and rewarded me with a few leeks, half a bulb of fennel, rosemary remnants and leftover cauliflower. I liked what I saw, and began to feel more pampered than deprived as I set the chicken thighs to defrost.

Braised Chicken Thighs with Leeks and Fennel
Roasted Cauliflower and Brown Rice
– Serves 2

4 Chicken thighs on the bone – skin removed
1 Leek - sliced thinly crosswise and WELL washed – about 2/3 cup
½ head Fennel – core removed and thinly sliced
Rosemary – finely minced – about ½ teaspoon
White Wine and Chicken Stock
Cauliflower – cut into medium florettes
Brown Rice

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cook brown rice according to package directions. When finished, stir in some chopped scallion if desired and keep warm.

Heat a small/medium sauté pan. Over medium heat, brown the seasoned chicken thighs in oil. Don’t let the pan get too hot, and patiently achieve delicious color on the thighs. When browned on both sides, throw about ½ cup wine into the sauté pan. After the wine has simmered up, remove the chicken thighs to a small casserole. Scrape the pan to get up all of the flavor and then pour the reduced wine over the chicken.

Return sauté pan to heat, add a bit more oil and heat to medium. Add leeks and sauté for a minute or so. Add the fennel and rosemary, season with salt & pepper and continue to sauté until vegetables are beginning to soften. Add chicken stock and heat until simmering. (Note: adjust seasoning if using canned chicken broth. Homemade stock will need more salt typically) When hot, pour mixture on top of chicken thighs.

This dish will cook best when it loosely fills the casserole. Too tight and it won’t cook evenly, too much space and the flavor will be weak. Cover casserole tightly or wrap with foil and set in preheated oven. Cook about 30 - 40 minutes, until chicken is very tender, but still lightly clinging to the bone. Remove from oven and keep warm in the covered casserole.

Raise oven heat to 450 degrees. Place a foil lined baking sheet in the oven to preheat. Toss cauliflower lightly with oil, salt and pepper. When oven is preheated, remove baking sheet, pour cauliflower on sheet and place in oven. After 6 minutes toss cauliflower to achieve even browning and return to oven until cooked to desired consistency.

Serve chicken thighs over rice accompanied with cauliflower.