Monthly Archives: February 2008

Holy Tomatoes, Batman!

Roughly 24 hours later, the progress on the bounteous bounty is staggering! Look at those puppies go! You can practically see and hear them growing in this still picture!

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Bounteous Bounty Abounds

Don’t look now, onions, but the Black Plum tomatoes are hot on your tail!

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It’s Day 7, and we can barely keep up with all these plants!

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Houston, We Have Onions

Day Four of the Bounteous Bounty revealed the following signs of bounteousness:

Onion Sprouts

We’ll be eating Maple Hoo Onions before we know it!

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The Bounteous Bounty Begins

Five days ago, Maple Hoo Garden looked like this:

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Looking across that imposing blanket of snow (yes, yes, Gentle Reader, we know, all that snow was gone less than 12 hours later) it’s hard to comprehend that in six months, that same space will be a green, leafy, vine-y wonderland. Also hard to believe? That said wonderland will come from this:

Seed packets

The seeds arrived in the mail months ago but it’s only just now turned to that magic time of year: “8 weeks before the last frost”. And here at Maple Hoo that means only one thing — onions. We dedicate one entire 4′ x 8′ bed to onions, which we harvest all at once. Schnookie then spends hours chopping them and into the freezer they go. (Oh yes, the goggles will be there.) The first year of Maple Hoo we grew Riverside yellow onions and Southport Red Globe red onions. Since we don’t use red onions much we opted for Riverside and Newburg yellows this year. With thoughts of piles and piles of chopped and frozen onions dancing in our heads, we set to planting the seeds. (In addition to the onions, we started Habanero and Nardello peppers, and San Marzano and Black Plum paste tomatoes.)

Planting Seeds

Each one of those seeds holds such promise!

More seed planting

Each one is tucked into its new home with love and care.

Action shot!

Action shot! Look at those planting chopsticks fly!

Grow, little seeds, grow!

Grow, little seeds, grow!

Placed carefully in our dining room out of direct sunlight (wha-huh?!) until the seedlings sprout in 10 days or so, the trays quietly incubate the beginnings of what we hope to be Bounteous Bounty ’08, Maple Hoo-style.

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Is It Summer Yet?

Today I made another cocktail from The Ultimate Bar Book. It’s a Haitian Cooler, and you just put one lemon wedge, two lime wedges, two tangerine wedges and a tablespoon of sugar in the bottom of a glass and muddle it all. Then top with ice, top with two ounces of Rhum Barbancourt (my liquor store doesn’t carry Rhum Barbancourt anymore, so I just used a sugarcane rum from Jamaica), then top that with three to four ounces of ginger beer. Stir, and enjoy. On a gray wintry day in central New Jersey, you can do a lot worse. (And I’d talk about how tasty this is, but based on what went in it, that would hardly be surprising. It just… delicious.)

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(I’ll be honest — I’m kind of wondering what this would taste like if made with a harder-edged rum. It’s soda-sweet as written, and while I’ve got no beef with that, I think it would also be great if it had more bite.)

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Slow-Cooked Saturday

Last night was the final night of my Week Of Trying, which meant it was time for a new recipe for a pasta dish (since Saturdays are our traditional wine-and-pasta-and-hockey nights). I decided to go to the always-reliable Marcella Hazan for something exciting and unlike what we normally eat on Saturdays, and The Essentials of Italian Cooking didn’t let me down. It was with great eagerness that I opted for her “Smothered Onion Sauce”, which is basically just a whole bunch of caramelized onions tossed with spaghetti noodles.

In order to get this started, I needed six cups of thinly-sliced onions. I am not a good onion-chopper, and after getting advice from Katebits that goggles really do work to solve the crying-while-cutting-onions problem, I decided it wouldn’t be stupid to ask for Baker’s Catalog’s onion goggles this past Christmas. Pookie and Boomer came through for me, and let me tell you, these things are a miracle. Armed with my goggles and a glass of wine, I was confident in my ability to chop as many onions as Marcella could throw my way.

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I know. You’re wondering how I make cooking so sexy. What can I say? I was born with it.

My grocery store was stupid this week, and they only had wee little onions the size of golf balls (and yes, there’s an insult about the relative masculinity of my grocery store in there). So in a perfect world, I’d only need to slice up, like, four onions. Instead, I had this:

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My goggles are a beast. I got through the pile like a breeze, and before they even knew what hit them, they were sliced up and ready to be caramelized.

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The recipe said to put the onions and a sprinkling of kosher salt in a pan with two tablespoons of butter and two tablespoons of olive oil, and let them cook, covered, over low heat for about an hour, until they’re soft. Then take the lid off, turn the heat up to medium and cook them for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they’re all golden brown and all the liquid the onions have given off has evaporated. Done and done.

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Then you stir in 1/2 cup of dry white wine and cook, stirring frequently, until most of the liquid “bubbles away” (I love Marcella Hazan’s way of writing recipes). Season liberally to taste with fresh ground black pepper and salt (I used sea salt), then stir in two tablespoons of fresh chopped flat-leaf parsley and toss with pasta. She recommends spaghetti, and I went with linguini fini. Once everything is incorporated, top the whole kit and caboodle with a nice grating of fresh Parmesan (about 1/3 cup, per the recipe).

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This pasta is so delicious. Caramelized onions are basically nature’s candy, and their sweetness here, balanced with the salting and Parmesan cheese, was just perfect. The sauce ended up very smooth, and had enough syrupy liquid to it that it coated the noodles deliciously. Basically, I had a love affair with this dinner. And I think it reciprocated.

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What To Do With Mountains Of Butt Steaks

The biggest challenge (and most exciting new recipe) of my Week Of Trying this past week came from Bruce Aidell’s Complete Book of Pork, for Beer and Mustard Braised Chops. The recipe was for a fattier chop than your standard pork chop, and specifically suggested getting “4 butt steaks” that were all 1 1/2 – 1 3/4 inches thick. I sent Boomer to Whole Foods with the instructions, written verbatim from the cookbook. The person at the meat counter interpreted them thusly:

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Yeah, that’s almost seven pounds of sliced-up Boston butt. That was… more pork than I needed. But we all had a good laugh at it, considering we don’t often eat “cuts of meat” types of meat around here, and considering we’d found ourselves in possession of what can only be described as a mountain of butt steaks. Who wouldn’t find that funny?

Anyway, I put half the butt steaks aside for later use, and proceeded to beer-and-mustard braise just two of these monster butt steaks. The recipe started with a flavor rub of 1 tbsp each of fresh chopped thyme, rosemary and sage, 1 tsp each of ground mustard, sweet Hungarian paprika and kosher salt, and something like half a teaspoon of fresh ground black pepper. The steaks needed to be rubbed all over with the spice mix, then left to sit at room temperature for an hour (or wrapped tightly in the fridge for up to 24 hours, with the explanation that the longer it sits with the rub, the tastier the pork will be).

While my butt steaks were enjoying their rub (hee!), I got to work chopping and dicing to get my two cups of thinly sliced yellow onions and 1/2 cup diced carrot. Once everything was ready, I heated a tablespoon of olive oil over moderately high heat in a large skillet and seared the butt steaks on both sides, for about three minutes a side, until they were browned. Then I removed the pork from the pan, lowered the heat to medium, and added the onions and carrots to the pan. The onion/carrot mixture then got covered and left to cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring them frequently, until they were super-soft.

Once the onions were crazy soft, it was time for things to get saucy. I added 1 cup of chicken stock and 1/2 cup of dark beer (I had a growler of Triumph Brewery’s Amber Ale on hand — probably not as dark as it could have been, but plenty dark for me), and stirred up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Then I stirred in one tablespoon of coarse-grained mustard and one tablespoon of cider vinegar (the recipe said you could go with balsamic vinegar instead if you so desire), then brought everything to a boil, ready to get braising. The butt steaks (and accumulated juices) went into the sauce, the lid was slapped on, the heat was adjusted to have everything at a simmer, and then I waited about an hour, until the pork was succulent, tender and falling apart. Mmmmm…

To finish off the sauce, you take the pork out of the pan, skim off the fat, and then boil it down until it reduces to a syrupy consistency. Then stir in half a cup of sour cream (or creme fraiche), and serve over the pork. Of course, there was a little work left to be done, as Pookie is not one for carving meats, and moreover, a butt steak is not the world’s most beautiful piece of meat to be confronted with on a dinner plate, especially a butt steak the size of my car. I decided to trim the meat and then cut it into nice chunks, for ease of carving while eating in front of the TV; in the end the presentation was pretty much stew-like. I served this with heaps of sour cream smashed potatoes and some steamed carrots.

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And seriously, despite this taking about three hours from start to finish, on a work night, it was well worth the trouble. The sauce was hearty and rich, while also fresh-tasting with a nice tart zing, and the pork was outrageously tender and succulent. Granted, the pork wasn’t Pookie’s favorite (it made her too conscious of the fact that she was eating a meatstuff), but when she dug into her first bite of the sauce and potatoes, she flipped. I am ever so pleased that the centerpiece recipe of my Week Of Trying turned out so well!

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This Doesn’t Look Like Real Cornbread To Me

So last night I promised Pookie and Boomer that I would make cornbread to go with leftover chili for dinner. I’d done it before where I added some corn that I’d frozen over the summer and it was scrumptious. This time, though, not so much. I guess I ended up adding too much liquid, and my aromatic, lovely-looking cornbread was revealed to be, after cutting into it, a gooey mess. Pookie and Boomer tried to put on good faces about it, but the disappointment was palpable (Pookie: “No, it’s okay. I had just been looking forward to cornbread all day… but it’s okay.”). To make up for it, I made brownies during the Devils/Senators game. I spent the first intermission measuring everything out and melting the chocolates and butter in my new double boiler (yes, it’s just a silicone bombe mold, but Baker’s Catalog sold it as a double-boiler insert, and it’s awesome).

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Then I spent the second intermission whipping everything together and slapping the pan into the oven. So while the cornbread was a soul-crushing failure, it all worked out in the end, because we had delicious brownies to enjoy during Project Runway after the game!

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Step 2 In A Week Of Trying

So this week I’m actually making an effort, and have plans to cook some actual, thought-out meals on more than one day. Most weeks I make one reasonably involved dish and six cop-outs. So far this week I’ve done turkey burgers (on a night I went grocery shopping after work, might I add!), and tonight I decided to try Chicken Garlic Bread Soup from the “Daily Soup” cookbook.

This starts out with the garlic bread element of the soup. You cube up a sourdough baguette, toss it with a tablespoon of olive oil, a teaspoon of garlic salt and half a teaspoon of kosher salt, and bake at 300 degrees (F) for 40 minutes.

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While the breadmeats are baking, the recipe has some long, convoluted step involving poaching a cut-up chicken in mineral water, and straining it, and skimming it, and cutting up the meat, and skimming off the fat, and blah blah blah. Please. I had a massive pot of chicken stock in the fridge, ready to have its fat skimmed and be parceled into freezable units, so I just set aside six cups of that and used boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into small pieces and sauteed until browned. From there, though, I followed the recipe as written:

Take 1 large Spanish onion (chopped), 2 leeks (chopped and rinsed), 2 ribs of celery (chopped) and 2 cloves of garlic (sliced), and sweat in a few tablespoons of olive oil in large stockpot for about four minutes, until softened. Add 2 teaspoons dried thyme, 2 bay leaves, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, and a generous grinding of black pepper and stir for a couple of minutes. Then add the chicken, the stock, 1 28-oz can of whole tomatoes (drained and chopped) and 1 three-inch piece of Parmesan rind. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes. Remove the bay leaves and Parmesan rind. To serve, add some croutons to the bowl, let sit for five minutes, and then top with a generous shaving of Parmesan cheese.

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Now, for some reason, after reading this recipe I thought the soup would be creamy. I have no idea why, but there you go. So I was stunned that it turned out… brothy. And tomato-y. I’m not very smrt. That said, this was insane. So good. So. Good. It was really flavorful but not staggering, and the croutons were crusty enough that they held up really well to the soup even while mopping up the bowl. I realized halfway through my bowl that I was neglecting my wine. And neglecting breathing. I just snarfed this whole thing up and went looking for more. I love this soup.

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Think Smaller… And With More Legs

We don’t ever eat fast food in these here parts, in large part because there is no fast food in these here parts. In its stead, I will often find myself, on a cooking-lazy day, making turkey burgers for dinner. Of course, like the Krusty Burger Ribwich, my turkey burgers are not made with turkey (exclusively). They’re a half-and-half mix of turkey and pork, with whatever seasonings I have on hand. Tonight I went with a pound each of turkey and pork, three minced shallots, two heaping tablespoons of mustard, two tablespoons of chopped fresh sage and about a tablespoon of fresh thyme. Very straightforward. And since it’s something insane like 2 degrees out, I did not grill — this was all griddle, baby.

Now, the fast food-y aspect of turkey burgers for dinner comes largely from the fact that I tend to serve frozen fries with them. I used to be an Ore-Ida girl, just because that was the most present brand at my grocery store, but Boomer recently introduced me to these crazy “Alexia” fries. They have olive-oil-and-sea-salt steak fries, and tonight I also decided to try the steak fries with “garlic and rosemary” seasoning. The seasoned fries were nasty on their own, but outrageously delicious with ketchup.

Oh, and the burgers were served with my homemade burger buns. It’s been a really long time since I last had them, and in that time I’ve developed quite a taste for my grocery store’s kaiser rolls on burger nights. Holy crap, how could I have forgotten how good these homemade buns are? They are so rich and soft and bready and delicious, and go so well with a nice mellow burger and a little smearing of mustard. Scrumptious!

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