Making a list, checking it twice

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We crossed our Christmas shopping finish line today. I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief; I’ll be working flat-out at the store until Christmas Eve selling Christmas goodies, putting the finishing touches on customer’s holiday meals with cheeses and bottles of wine. I feel good knowing that my bases are covered at home now. Because, of course, when I speak of Christmas shopping, I am talking about shopping for our Christmas dinner!

We met up this morning in Chelsea for brunch after S had a doctor’s appointment and then went to Chelsea Market to pick up groceries. First stop was Dickson’s Farmstand Meats. I want to make something porchetta-ish. The traditional porchetta is a pork loin wrapped in pork belly with all the spices inside then roasted, a volume of meat that would daunt even the most committed pair of carnivores. I knew we wanted leftovers (just not for the next 4 months) so I consulted with one of the women behind the counter about options – pork belly only, pork belly wrapped tenderloin, pork shoulder…she offered to cut to size, talked about the amount we would need. I needed to think about it and get the rest of my provisions now that I knew what options were available so I told her I’d be back in a few minutes.

Next, the Italian market Buonitalia to get semolina flour and dried porcini mushrooms for our Christmas Eve lasagna bianco. Naturally, because it was the week before Christmas and surely one of their busiest days of the year, their register system was malfunctioning, grim-faced staff trying to ring  up the growing line of customers, a manager clutching the counter and muttering into the phone. Eh, these things happen.

Manhattan Fruit Exchange is one of my favorite places to shop, one of my weekly stops for groceries. It comes the closest to replacing some of the great produce markets in the Bay Area (not even close, but the closest option I have available) with a huge variety of produce, from sea beans to quince to chiles to lacinato kale at not-fancy prices. I got baby artichokes and lacinato kale (cavollo nero), sprigs of rosemary and sage, king oyster and shitake mushrooms, sour oranges, red navel oranges, and little gem lettuce for the salads and seasonings and green parts of our dinners.

Another favorite, we walked through The Lobster Place to ogle the gorgeous seafood. It looks like jewels laid out on crushed ice, luminous under the lights. The fishmongers were breaking down whole salmon today, filleting them as cleanly as unzipping a dress. I love good knife work (and get pretty snippy about lackluster work). It’s something I enjoy practicing when I’m cooking myself and work hard to cut as cleanly and precisely as possible at work. I couldn’t resist a pretty little filet of pearly pink  fish to take home for tonight’s supper.

So back around to the butcher shop: I decided to get a pork sirloin roast with a beautiful white cap of fat, butterfly it, and as the late Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe’ Cookbook taught, “early salt” the meat with a herb mixture for a few days to infuse the meat with herby goodness. The counter woman found a nice sized one and then had a butcher with a sharp curved knife slice it open like a trifold wallet, fold it back up, and wrap it up for me. I also got a link of salt and pepper sausage for the lasagna.

I have a grocery delivery coming in the morning before work with some of the heavier things I normally order (truly, you can get almost anything imaginable delivered to your door here) like orange juice, eggs, bacon (for Christmas breakfast bacon oatmeal scones), milk and butter. It makes life a lot easier not to have to carry all of that home from the store but I can’t stand not to pick out my own meat and produce. I need to see how my fruits and vegetables look and smell,  and I don’t like buying a pig in a poke either literally or figuratively.

I may pick up something here or there if I happen to run across something interesting, and I’m sure I’ll bring home some cheese from the store but it is so relaxing to have it all in hand, to be cooked and enjoyed at our leisure but, there it is, Christmas shopping done with a bow on it. And I am deeply grateful for the luxurious gift of an overflowing refrigerator.

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Brussels Sprouts and Wild Rice with Mustard Vinaigrette

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Back in May, I talked about our decision to adjust our diets and try being mostly vegetarian for a while. It had been a rough winter, especially in the kitchen, and we were really craving fresh, crisp, flavorful fruits and vegetables. I wouldn’t say we’ve become vegetarian, because if the craving for something hearty and meaty hits, we go for it, but we’re definitely vegetable enthusiasts. I’ve really been creatively invigorated by the challenge of re-thinking what a dinner plate looks like without meat as a regular anchor. I’ve grabbed as many unfamiliar vegetables and fruits and I can find at the farmers markets and figured out what to do with them. Some experiments have worked out better than others, but even with failures, I’ve learned something new every time.

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I’ve been using a wide variety of whole grains. I have always loved brown rice with beans and whole grain grits with sautéed mushrooms and barley in vegetable soups, and it was love at first bite when we were introduced to faro in Italy. Whole grains are just so satisfying and hearty. You aren’t left feeling hollow an hour after you eat like you might after eating a salad. I’ve posted several of our favorite (and somewhat unusual) whole grain dishes hoping to encourage you to give some of these great grains a try. This wild rice with brussel sprouts is another, perfect for Fall and it would rock as a side for Thanksgiving dinner. Bear in mind that once you are comfortable with preparing the grains, they are very adaptable and great to experiment with. I love the smoky richness that the hint of bacon adds, but if you are vegetarian, leave it out and add a little smoked paprika to the pecans and sage.

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Brussels Sprouts and Wild Rice with Mustard Vinaigrette

serves 4 as main course, 6-8 as a side

 1 pound brussels sprouts

¾ cup wild rice

4 cups salted water plus more to cook

1 piece natural smoked bacon

1 shallot or 1 small red onion

3 teaspoons dry crumbled sage leaves (about 8-10 leaves)

¼ cup pecan pieces (or ¼ cup cooked chestnuts if you prefer)

2-3 tablespoons olive oil (approximately)

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

salt

1/2 to 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

 the wild rice method:

Option 1: soak the rice in about 4 cups of water overnight before cooking.

 Option 2: In a large pot, bring the rice and about 4 cups water to a boil, turn the heat off and let the rice soak for about an hour.

 After an hour add a couple more cups of water to the soaking water and rice. A generous amount of water, similar to what you would use to cook pasta, will help the grains cook evenly and more quickly and evenly. Add about a teaspoon of salt bring to a rapid simmer and cook for 30-45 minutes until the kernels have begun to blossom and pop open and the rice is chewy but not hard or crunchy. Drain in a sieve and set aside.

 The sprouts:

Wash the sprouts, and with a sharp knife trim the tough ends off the stems. Cut each sprout in half and then each half into 4-5 slices. You can shred them in the shedder of a food processor or use a mandolin if you have the equipment but I like to use a knife. Slice the shallot or onion into thin half moons. Mince the strip of bacon into very small pieces.

Heat a large skillet, sauté pan or wok over medium high heat. Add the bacon pieces and a splash of olive oil. When the bacon has begun to crisp, add the onion or shallot slices and stir. When they have wilted, add the nuts and crumbled sage and stir to toast both. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan. Boost the heat to high and stir in the shredded sprouts a handful at a time. Stir occasionally, but give the sprouts time to have contact with the hot pan so that they will caramelize. The sprouts will turn bright green, soften and start to get a little brown on some of the edges.

 Test the tenderness of the sprouts after about 5 minutes. When they have a little browning and are still a little chewy, turn down the heat to low and stir in the drained cooked wild rice. Add a generous pinch of salt.

 While the sprouts cook, mix the mustard, apple cider vinegar and a generous amount of black pepper (½ teaspoon or more depending on how much spice you like). Once the rice and sprouts are combined, pour the mustard mixture into the sprouts and toss everything together. Let the vinaigrette warm through. Remove from the heat.

 Taste for salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Anyone ever feel like your vacations don’t last long enough?

I do.

This is how I made my vacation last into the weekend (at least on my plate).

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That octopus dish I had at the shore was preying on my mind, haunting me with memories of lemony deliciousness. I was combing the web for recipes and techniques for cooking octopus, thinking about how to recreate a similar dish at home. The octopus info was quite frankly, a little daunting. Then Saturday morning, I noticed a new seafood vendor at the Uptown Hoboken Farmers Market. He had lovely fresh calamari from Long Island, and I thought “hey, they’re both Cephalopods, I can cook calamari!” and grabbed a pound. Cooked with lemon butter, a shaved fennel and parsley salad tumbled on top, and juicy fried lemon on the side and I’m right back, salty breeze in my hair, sand between my toes.

What I ended up with was more a reminder than a faithful recreation of the octopus dish. That’s the point- re-entering real life is inevitable but the reminder of a fun relaxing trip can make even a mundane workweek in the kitchen feel more celebratory.

What’s a memory of a great trip or a great meal you can tug out and use to make your daily grind a little more like a day at the beach?

Sweet Potato Casserole

I’ve been trying to think of ways to say this without sounding like a strident bossy health obsessed food tyrant, but really, when it comes to sweet potato casserole, YOU PEOPLE ARE DOING IT ALL WRONG!!!!

I’ve been reading Laurie Colwin’s  Home Cooking in which she states in her chapter “How to Fry Chicken”: “As everyone knows, there is only one way to fry chicken correctly. Unfortunately, most people think their method is best, but those people are wrong.” Her method is not 100% correct – she uses a chicken fryer instead of cast iron –  but I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. A short, non-scientific survey of a number of my cookbooks bears me out. They all tell you to add at least a cup of sugar to your sweet potato casserole! Outrageous!

It’s a SWEET potato. When roasted, it has very tasty, flavorful, SWEET flesh. If one adds a cup or more of sugar, the tongue (figuratively) throws in the towel and refuses to taste any more flavors. All of the lemony spicy goodness is lost in a bland tidal wave of sugary sweetness. If you like a little sweet crunch for contrast, add the nutty streusel to the top. It’s plenty.

Which brings me to my second point: the spices. If you desire a creamy orange dessert with the flavor of cinnamon, cloves and allspice, make a pumpkin pie. Pumpkin is delicious with cinnamon. But the flavors that truly make a sweet potato sing are nutmeg and lemon. If you don’t believe me, feel free to take it up with Edna Lewis’s  In Pursuit of Flavor, page 47 “Baked Sweet Potatoes with Lemon Flavoring”.

This is the only way to make sweet potato casserole correctly-

Sweet Potato Casserole

– 6-8 medium sweet potatoes

Bake whole unpeeled potatoes at 400 for 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours until they are soft when squeezed with a pot holder. Allow them to cool to the point at which they can be handled without inflicting terrible burns on yourself (or completely). Peel and scoop out the flesh into a bowl and mash until it has the consistency you desire. I like to use the paddle attachment on my mixer, but a potato masher or even a fork will work.

With the potatoes in a large bowl, add the following:

– 5 Tablespoons butter (melted if the potatoes are cool)

– 2 teaspoons salt

– 1/2 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg

– 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

– 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

– 1 teaspoon of lemon extract (or lemon juice/ zest)

– 4 egg yolks

Beat together until smooth. If the mixture is really thick, add a little half and half , milk or cream to thin it out slightly. Since sweet potatoes can be a little fibrous sometimes, I use the whisk attachment or the beaters of an electric mixer to whip everything together; any little stringy bits that wrap around the beaters get thrown away. Those things are bad for getting stuck between your teeth. Pour everything into a buttered baking dish (about 9×13)

If you like, scatter the top with this:

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Crumble together with your fingertips into a nutty rubble:

– 5 Tablespoons of cold butter

– 1/2 cup flour

– 1/3 cup brown sugar

– a little salt and

– 4 oz chopped pecans

Bake for 45 minutes at 375 degrees. The sweet potatoes should puff up a little and the topping should be a crisp brown lid. Cool a little before serving or it can be eaten at room temperature.

I’m so glad I got that off my chest. I feel much better now.

White Christmas!

 

I wrote this in a message last week after I got to Alabama: “Another Life Skill I’ve developed for Coping with a Polar Climate is fleeing. I have been outside on a patio in Alabama this afternoon in a long-sleeved t-shirt (What!) tapping busily away on my computer. I even took my shoes off for a little while, not because it was that warm, but  really just because I could.”  Clearly I spoke too soon! We drove about an hour north to my parent’s in Georgia for Christmas and it’s snowing! It’s the first white Christmas I remember for a long time.

 

 

We had Christmas with my family this year, with four children at my parent’s house and my absent sisters in North Carolina and Vietnam via Skype. With all of us living all over the world, it’s hard to get everyone together in one place at the same time, but technology definitely helps keep us connected. We opened Vietnam presents on Christmas Eve here, Christmas morning in Saigon, and had a look at the stuffing Grace was making. She sent me a purple silk scarf from a factory she visited where silk went from silk worm to scarf right on site.

When we finally rolled out of bed late Christmas morning, my youngest brother Peter made all of us a Christmas brunch of sesame seed bagels with cream cheese, capers, red onions and smoked salmon. It was gorgeous and delicious. Peter is probably my most culinarily experienced sibling; we’ve been cooking together since he was about 12 and it’s not unusual to get a call from him that begins “Hi Christine, I’m in the grocery store and I was wondering…”. He remembers my making his birthday cake when he was 4 or 5 and being “very generous with the beaters.”

 

 

I got  a red spoon with  a little face in it for Christmas. I made giblet gravy and carved the turkey, burned my knuckle. I’ve been watching Cat play with a snowflake ornament on the Christmas tree and watching snowflakes fall outside. We are making a piñata for our Dad’s extended family reunion tomorrow, tearing up strips of newspaper and smearing them over a big balloon. Israel is trying to make it impenetrable since most of the cousins are extremely fit 20 somethings and is coming up with all kinds of concoctions to make the flour paste stronger. The rumor is that it’s going to look like Lord Voldemort. We’ll see what Peter comes up with.

 

We’re going to spend the day with my dad’s parents, lots of aunts, uncles, and cousins tomorrow. It’s a yearly event I always hope to be able to attend and look forward to. Then we’ll head into the slow pre- New Year week. Should be chill (and chilly).

 

I hope you all had a lovely Christmas.