Winter Citrus & Endive Salad

Walking here in the city is, to misquote Ralph Waldo Emerson as completely as possible, about the destination, not about the journey. It’s a great place to be a pedestrian, but it helps to be goal oriented about it. And I have to admit I’ve adapted, hook, line and sinker. I cover a lot of sidewalk day-to-day, iPod playing something in my ears that makes me fast and focused, mental route mapped out, watching where I step, navigating other pedestrians and their children, dogs, strollers, granny carts. I’ve caught myself playing sidewalk chicken and doing the classic eye roll/deep disgusted sigh/throw hands up in exasperation combo thing pretty often. I’ll even admit  (and I share this from a deeply conflicted mixture of burning-faced shame and adrenaline-fueled exhilaration) that recently, while walking to an appointment in the wintry rain, I tried to start across the street before the car coming the opposite direction had passed in order to time it as closely as I could.  When the driver stopped in the middle of the street, rolled down her window and started yelling at me for “being in the middle of the street like an idiot” it took me about half a second to start waving my arms and yelling back. In my defense, everyone I told about it thought I was totally justified, because everyone knows the drivers here are all crazy.  I  haven’t lost my common courtesy completely – sometimes I deliberately smile at people as I pass. It seems to freak a lot of them out, so win/win for me.

So I’m striding down Washington Street a couple of days ago when I came to a short, hard stop on the pavement,  arrested by the scent of hyacinths and freesia. Buckets full of those most fragrant of late winter blossoms were spilling out onto the sidewalk in front of a mini-grocery (I think people call them “bodegas”). Completely distracted from my no doubt urgent errand, I stopped and just took a deep breath and literally inhaled the beauty of the moment.

It reminded me to look up occasionally during these things that seem like something to “get through” – a commute, a north-eastern winter, a tiresome daily task – and actually notice what’s going on around me.

That the sunniest of fruits, citrus, is at its brightest and most abundant and varied in the winter is reason enough to take a little pleasure in the journey. Whether you are in California where the tree are incandescent with Meyer lemons, or you just live close enough to warmer climes to get the influx of Ruby reds, Cara Cara navels, clementines, and Sevilles that glow from the bins lining frigid northern sidewalks, they are like yellow signal lights flashing “slow down, pay attention.”

I’ve made this crunchy, bittersweet winter salad with them several times this year. Like that burst of lime squirted onto hot posole, the fragrance seems to instantly brighten the mood and the cool mixture of coral and jade is a feast for the eyes.

(I’ll just add that there are lots of lovely parks and river-front promenades where a contemplative stroll is not generally frowned upon, as long as you stay out of the jogger’s way.)

Citrus Endive Salad

serves 4

– 1 ruby red grapefruit

– 1 navel orange

– 1 Cara Cara orange (red navel orange)

– 1 largish head of Belgian endive

– 1/4 medium sweet red onion

– 2 ounces feta,  crumbled into rough chunks

Peel and section the grapefruit and oranges.  Remember, in this case, the perfect is the enemy of the good, so don’t stress about getting it right the first time.

With a sharp knife, cut the skin off the top and bottom of the fruit.With a sharp knife, cut the skin off the top and bottom of the fruit.

Slice down the curved sides of the fruit, removing the skin, pith and outer membrane.

Once the skin is gone, you can go back and clean up any pith or membrane that got missed the first time.

Cut each section out from between the white membrane. get as close as you can, but don’t go crazy; you’ll use the leftover juice for the dressing.

Once all the fruit segments are cut out, squeeze the leftover pulp into a cup to get as much juice out as you can. Save 2 tablespoons for the dressing and drink the rest.

Core and separate the leaves on the head of endive. Thinly slice, almost shave the red onion into slivers. Arrange the citrus sections, endive and onion on a platter and tumble the crumbled feta over the top. Drizzle with the citrus vinaigrette and a little of the fig balsamic and serve.

These aren’t the  3/1 proportions of a classic vinaigrette, but a lighter sweeter version.

Citrus Vinaigrette

– 2 tablespoons reserved citrus juice

– 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

– 1/2 teaspoon spicy mustard (may I suggest Figgy Mustard?)

-1 teaspoon finely minced shallot

– fresh black pepper to taste

– salt to taste

-3 tablespoons olive oil

– drizzle of fig balsamic vinegar (optional)

In a screw top jar, combine the juice, vinegar, mustard, shallot, salt and pepper. Shake to combine. Add the oil, and give everything a good hard shake until it’s emulsified into a creamy golden color.

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Chili con Carne

I did something heinous to my back about a week and a half ago, one of those things where you lean forward and when you straighten back up, you want to die, so I spent about a week lying very still and thinking gloomy thoughts about my mortality and the effects of aging on the skeletal system. In the process of all of this mulling, I came to a realization that while I am not a “world-beater” personality, I really hate being unproductive, so while I’m doing much better but not quite 100%, I’m happy to be back on my feet to potter around the house and making occasional short trips down to the river. Today I took advantage of my forced indolence to make one of my favorite winter meals for this weekend – chili con carne.

It’s probably a good idea for me to define my terms here before I get into the particulars of how I make this. Chili is one of those things that inflame the passions of purists and sticklers who claim that adding anything besides meat and chiles is heretical. I read a comment online recently where someone said of a vegetarian chili recipe that “you can call it a spicy bean soup, but don’t call it true chili”. But as I am no such food fundamentalist,  I unashamedly adulterate “true” chili con carne by adding beans and tomatoes because I like it that way. I like a rich, spicy, thick, beefy chili, with creamy beans and a little tomato to brighten and sweeten the sauce.

But really, chili con carne is all about the chiles. When we lived in California and I was growing and drying a variety of chiles in our garden, I began to appreciate their nuanced flavors and the ability to combine them into a “custom” chile powder. I love their earthy, spicy, berry fragrance when I open the container where all my chiles are stored.  The Mexican supermarkets in Concord had bins filled with ancho, New Mexico, cayenne, California, and guajillo chiles. It is these chiles that are the basis for a lot of Mexican salsas and sauces, like red enchilada sauce, and they are the flavor basis for chili con carne.

This link has a good guide for chile varieties, including substitutions and heat levels

For my chili powder, I use a mixture of ancho (which is dried poblano), serrano, California or New Mexico chiles, and a chipotle (dried smoked jalapeño) that I grind myself. The serranos add some heat, but the other two are just earthy, rich and should have a nice dried berry smell. Chipotle adds a bit of heat and a deep smoky flavor. If you don’t want to grind your own powder, I still encourage you to try to blend a couple of different good, freshly ground chiles rather than using the standard chili powder. If you think about chiles as berries, think about the difference between dried cherries and dried blueberries. They each bring something unique to the flavor of the dish, which you can control to your taste when you make your own blend. Penzeys is a good online source and they carry ground ancho and chipotle.

Another of my chili quirks is that I buy a whole chuck roast and mince it myself with my biggest, sharpest knife. It is usually hard to find “chili grind” beef and I prefer the texture of tender little chunks of beef. The regular hamburger grind seems to either disappear into the sauce or else stay a little rubbery. I just like the control that chopping it myself gives me since it also allows me to trim out gristly bits and big chunks of fat. This step is totally optional – you’ll still have a great bowl of chili without hand-chopping the meat, but try it at least once and see what you think.

The ingredients, in order of use-

-1.5 lbs ground or minced beef chuck

– oil to cook the onions

– 2 chopped medium onions

– 5 or 6 cloves minced garlic

– pinch of salt

– 6 Tablespoons chile powder

(about 6 ancho, 3 California, 3 serrano, and 1 chipotle)

– 2 teaspoons ground cumin

– 1 teaspoon Mexican oregano or a pinch of Italian oregano

– 1 tablespoon dried onion flakes

If you use whole dried chiles to make your own chile powder as do I, turn on the oven to about 350°. Put all of your chiles into a cast iron skillet or sheet pan and toast for about 5 minutes until they become very fragrant, then take them out and give them a couple of minutes to cool off enough to handle. Tear the stem ends off the chiles, shake out all of the seeds, and tear them into pieces. Grind the chiles into a powder in a small coffee grinder.

Brown the meat in batches over high heat and then remove from the pot and set aside. Add a little oil to the pot and sauté the onions. Sprinkle on a pinch of salt and use the water that they release to scrape up the sticky brown bits that the meat has left in the bottom of the pot. Once the onion has begun to soften, stir in the minced garlic and cook over medium to low heat. When the onions and garlic have softened, stir the chili powder and other spices and stir until the onions are coated with chile powder. There should be enough oil for it to get moist and toast/fry the chili powder and spices.

Add the meat and any accumulated juices back into the pot. Then add:

-3 or 4 cups cooked pink beans or small red beans. If you cook dried beans for the chili, use the cooking liquid in the chili. If you prefer to use canned beans, drain them and use a little extra water instead.

-1  28 ounce can of diced tomatoes, with the juice

-2 bay leaves

– Add water, chicken or beef broth, just to make it loose, not soupy, about 3 cups

Cover with the pot lid, leaving just a crack, and let it burble quietly over low heat for an hour or so, until the meat is tender.  Longer is fine, but keep the heat low and enough liquid in the pot so it doesn’t stick and  scorch on the bottom. The acid in the tomatoes will keep the beans from softening much more than they are, so a long simmer shouldn’t hurt them.

Taste for salt, maybe add a dash cayenne if you want it spicier. It’s better to make it a day ahead of time, say on a Saturday before a big football game or something like that.

I usually serve it with a sprinkle raw chopped onions on top and of course, it’s great with cornbread!

Baby, it’s cold outside: Posole Roja

We had our first snow flurries of the season this morning. People keep telling me “Oh, this isn’t really cold yet” but when I walked down Washington Street, wrapped to the chin in a pashmina, long coat, boots and 3/4 length gloves, to New Hoboken Farm for some radishes and apples, it only took a couple of blocks for my face and ears to stop hurting and just go numb. I’m already deep into my wooliest winter wardrobe and am going to need a lot more layers if it gets any colder. And I’m not really sure what to do about my  lips. They won’t stop peeling. And my nose looks like Rudolph’s most of the time. If this isn’t cold, then I clearly have not developed the Life Skill set nor the wardrobe necessary to cope with actual cold weather.

One polar climate Life Skill I do have, however, is making soup. I put a couple of desultory afternoon’s worth of effort into what may be the ideal “cold, but not as cold as it’s gonna get” soup: Posole Roja. This Mexican winter soup is in the spirit of chili con carne, but without the weight. Hominy soaks up the rich spicy berry flavor of dried ancho chilis and savory garlicky pork stock like tiny dumplings; fresh cabbage, scallions, and radishes add a fresh crunch; and squeezing lime wedges into the steaming bowl of spicy broth is like taking an IV drip of sunshine straight to the veins.

Posole Roja

3 pounds of pork neck with bones

1 pound pork hock or shank, cut into thick slices

6 whole cloves garlic

about 1 tablespoon onion powder ( I have some  I got at Penzey’s and it has a nice sweet concentrated flavor)

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

generous pinch Mexican oregano

6 dried ancho chiles

3 dried serrano chiles

1 large onion, chopped

water

salt

2 cans white hominy

Napa cabbage, cabbage, or lettuce, shredded

radishes, sliced thin

sliced scallions

lime wedges

This posole is made in two basic steps. The  first step is to make a pork stock and cook the pork. Rinse all the meat and put it into a large stock pot; add the garlic cloves, cumin, onion granules, and Mexican oregano. Cover with at least 2 quarts of water and bring up to a low boil. Lower to a simmer. There will be some gray foam that starts floating to the surface. Scoop that off as it shows up; it will gradually disappear. Alternately, if you won’t be able to keep a close eye on the stock making process, you can blanch the pork in boiling water for about ten minutes, then pour out the water, rinse the scum out of the pot and start over with the seasonings and water. I’m usually puttering around close by when I make stock, so I don’t bother with that step.  Simmer, maybe partially covered, for at least 2 and up to 4 hours, until the meat is so tender that the mere impact of your glance causes it to fall off the bone (or at least until fork-tender). Strain the meat and bones out of the stock and let everything cool down – I put the stock out on the fire escape for a couple of hours which was great because it was colder out there than inside the fridge and didn’t heat everything else up. I let everything chill separately overnight to make it easy to de-fat the stock and remove the meat from the bones.

OK, step two: bringing all the elements together. Pour about 2 cups of boiling water over the dried chilis (take the stems off, leave the seeds) and soak them for a couple of hours, making sure they stay submerged, until they are rehydrated. Meanwhile, put the defatted stock back onto the heat. Taste to see if it needs to be reduced for a richer flavor and check the salt. Drain and rinse the hominy and pour it into the warm stock, along with the chopped onion. Put the softened chilis and soaking water into a blender or food processor and blend into a smooth red paste. Pass the chili paste through a sieve into the pot of stock; use a spatula or the back of a spoon to press as much of the paste through as you can. This step will keep the tough skins and seeds out of the soup. Add the shredded pork back into the soup and simmer everything together to get all of the flavors acquainted.

Once the flavors have become thoroughly acquainted and shown each other pictures of their children and become friends on Facebook, ladle it into bowls and bring it to the table. In the same spirit that a big bowl of fragrant ph is customized to the eater’s specifications, mix in the cabbage, radishes onions and lime in whatever amounts you desire.

I think this is the sort of thing that is great to make a big batch of and put half into a freezer bag for a wretchedly cold day when there isn’t time to go through the long (but not necessarily involved) process from scratch. Its flavor certainly improves after a night of mingling in the fridge.

I’m also pretty confident that this could be made over a couple days using a big crock pot. I don’t have a crock pot at the moment, but previous experience makes me think that if you make the stock  and soak the chilis to make the paste the first day, you could put everything back into the pot the next morning and come home to a pretty fabulous smelling house at the end of the day. Any of you slow cookers out there, give it a try and let me know how it goes.

Another note- I got the pork at my local grocery store, but if pork neck and hocks are hard to find, using cubed pork shoulder or butt should be fine. I think that stocks made with bones and cuts like the hock that are rich with natural gelatin are substantially superior, but if it’s the difference between your making this soup or not, I’m not going to quibble. It will still be plenty good.


Happy Thanksgiving!

When I reflect on this epochal year in my life, it’s too easy to concentrate on the parts of it that have been painful, uncomfortable, overwhelming. And while I know that there is a “time to mourn and a time to dance,” there are so many things that I am thankful for this year; I’m thankful for the grace of enduring friendships, for precious time with my family, a new nephew and brother-in-law. I’m grateful for the stability of employment and healthy babies born to friends, for dear friends beating cancer, for adventure, for a sense of humor, for not going through this year alone, for love.

We’re celebrating the holiday in the South this year at my in-laws. We drove down through nine states and the remnants of a beautiful East Coast Autumn in time for my mom’s birthday, a couple of my youngest sister’s senior year events, had a hilarious evening with friends at our favorite pub in Atlanta. We have eaten a little more BBQ than I care to admit. We’ve been having weather that is warm enough to allow us to sit outside with a fire and play guitar. We’ve had time to connect with friends that usually get squeezed by the holiday rush. It’s been nice.

I’m grateful to have been cooked for a good bit on this trip. In contrast to last Thanksgiving where my brother and I did an Amazing Race-meets-Top Chef Lightening Round style turkey dinner between his kitchen and our hotel at the beach in La Jolla, the only thing I really cooked this Thanksgiving dinner was a rather homely but delicious pecan tart. The recipe comes a little late for all of your Thanksgiving dinners, but it’s also eminently suitable for Christmas dinner, or Thursday night supper for that matter.

Pecan Tart

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into squares

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/2 cup corn syrup

6 ounces pecans, toasted and broken up into large pieces

1 recipe of Cream Cheese Tart Pastry

With the oven rack in the middle of the oven, par-bake the pie crust at 325 degrees.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a heat-proof bowl over simmering water. Remove from heat. Mix in sugar and salt until all of the butter is absorbed. Beat in eggs, then syrup. Return bowl to hot water; stir until mixture is shiny and hot, about 130 degrees. Remove from heat; stir in pecans.

As soon as the pie crust comes out of the oven, reduce the heat to 275 degrees. Pour pecan mixture into hot pie shell. Bake until the center feels soft-set, like gelatin, when gently pressed, 35-40 minutes. Transfer to cooling rack and let it cool completely.

The tart shell is the same one used for the lemon tart in “Sweetart” except that I omit the pistachios.

Cream Cheese Pastry

Makes 1 9-inch pie or tart crust

1 1/4 cups all- purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened but still cool

2 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool

Lightly grease your baking tin. Whisk flour, sugar, and salt together.

Beat butter and cream cheese together with your electric mixer at medium-high speed until completely homogenous, about 2 minutes. Add flour, sugar, and salt and mix on medium low until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Increase mixer speed and beat until dough forms large clumps and pulls away from the bowl.

Form into a disk and press into the pie tin with your fingers, working out from the center and up the sides until the dough is evenly distributed.

Wrap well and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Bake at 325 for 35- 40 minutes for a fully baked crust or 20-25 minutes for a partially baked crust.

Cauliflower mac and cheese

The more perceptive reader may have concluded rightly that I am a fan of cheese. In fact, while we were in the Netherlands and Belgium, it wasn’t the chocolate shops that I wandered blissfully through, eyes alight, heartbeat elevated! The scope and variety of cheese was a revelation- aged Gouda, epoisse, geitenkass both young and old- and I happily tasted my way through.

While a simple homemade macaroni and cheese is bliss, this is a recipe that makes it into a little more of a rounded one-dish meal. I recommend a snowy night, a fire in the fireplace, and a bottle of dry white wine to go with.

1 head cauliflower

2-3 slices of bacon cut into ¼ inch strips

2 tablespoons flour

¼ cup Marsala wine

½ teaspoon salt, plus salt to cooking water

1 ½ to 2 cups milk

4 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese and Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese

6 ounces of macaroni, penne, or whatever tube pasta you like.

Preheat the oven to 350°

Fill a big pot with salted water and get it boiling over high heat.

Break the cauliflower into florets. Add it all at once to the fiercely boiling water and then bring the water back up to temperature. Cook the cauliflower for about 1 minute, just until it is still a bit crisp. Drain it into a colander very thoroughly. Remember, water has no flavor, so you don’t want the cauliflower to water down the sauce. Leave it in the colander to finish draining while you busy yourself with the rest of the dish.

Alternatively, the cauliflower can be broken up and roasted in the oven for about 20 minutes. This takes longer, but has the benefit of concentrating, intensifying, and sweetening the cauliflower’s flavor.

In a heavy saucepan or large skillet, cook the bacon until it is crisp and browned. Then remove it from the pan and drain it on a paper towel.  Leave about 1-½ tablespoons of bacon fat in the skillet and sprinkle the flour into the pan, stirring to form a roux. Cook, steadily stirring, over medium heat until the flour becomes fragrant and golden brown. Pour in the Marsala wine and stir it into the roux. It should foam up and hiss and sizzle; reduce until almost all the liquid is evaporated and the flavor is concentrated.  Slowly whisk in the milk, stirring to remove any lumps. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sauce coats the back of a spoon.  By this, I mean that your spoon should have a coating of sauce that does not immediately fill in the track left when you run your finger across it.  Taste for salt. Remove from the heat and stir in the grated cheese.

Cook the pasta to slightly underdone in salted water. Drain it thoroughly. Add the cauliflower and bacon to the pasta and stir them together. Pour the cheese sauce over and mix gently, until all of the pasta and cauliflower is enveloped in the creamy, cheesy sauce.   Bake in a buttered ovenproof dish at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes until the sauce is bubbly throughout. I use a dish with low sides to up the crusty golden brown top to creamy luscious interior ratio. Grate a little bit of cheese over the top and return to the oven until the top is melted and golden.

Please don’t feel bound by my cheese recommendations- I recommended a couple of readily available favorites. Fontina, or Gruyère melt beautifully and are full of flavor. My only caution is that milder cheeses such as Monterey jack, Colby, or mild cheddar may not offer enough to give the sauce the flavor desired.