Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Wine Drinker's Ultimate Garden Ornament

Bottle trees are a popular Southern tradition, whose origins can be traced back to Africa.

It was believed that bottles suspended in the trees would attract evil spirits when the sun glimmered through the bottles. The evil spirits would then be trapped in the bottles.

I'll take all the evil spirit traps I can get, but really these bottle trees handcrafted in the U.S.A., by a father and son team, are unique additions to casual gardens, as well as a way to save and show off your most colorful wine bottles.

They sell the empty bottles, but it's a lot more fun to empty them yourself. It's time to move this tradition to Yankee territory.

Fish on Friday: Striped Bass w/Blood Orange Shallots

After a week of eating various and sundry versions of Pork-a-polza from last Sunday, alternated with a bountiful portobello based recipe I tested for Cook's Illustrated, I was seriously ready for a meal that didn't include either ingredient.

Kate's Fish had the most beautiful striped bass. Isn't it pretty?

I roasted some asparagus and threw in some leftover fresh button mushrooms from a personal chef client's beef stroganoff this week, a few slices of fresh fennel and a couple of baby red potatoes.

I drizzled all with a little olive oil, and seasoned them with salt and pepper and a sprinkling of the Herbs in Duxelle that I picked up at The Olive and The Grape last week.

For the fish, I sauteed a chopped shallot in a little butter and olive oil, seasoned with the Herbs in Duxelle, and finished with the juice of one blood orange. I reserved that, heated more butter & oil and seared the fish on the presentation side for a few minutes, then flipped it and finished it in the oven for about five minutes.

Perfect - fresh, easy, delicious. TGIF.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Gadget Love: Rubbermaid Produce Saver

There's nothing worse than getting your berries out and discovering a moldy mess instead of fruity goodness. These Rubbermaid produce savers really do help keep your produce fresher longer.

There is a vented tray that fits inside that helps keep any moisture drained away so the produce isn't sitting directly in it. And there's some kind of vent that allows the produce to breathe.

The lids snap on the bottom, but I seem to struggle a bit getting them to do that just right, and there are different sizes that nest nicely for storage.

I've only tried them with berries so far, but I've kept blueberries for almost two weeks in perfectly edible shape. Pick them up individually, or boxed as sets at Wal-Mart or Target. You can download a dollar off coupon by going to the link above.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Fine Cooking Challenge: Pork with Soft Polenta

This recipe was intended to help use the bounty of roasted pulled pork from Sunday. There's still one more recipe to use it that I am planning for tomorrow.

Yummy warm, creamy polenta - you need to use a deep pot and a long whisk and spoon, that stuff spits!

I am starting to feel like marshmallow girl, so I going to pass on the rest of the dessert recipes. There is no way on earth I am making the croissant recipe which takes three days.

Well, I am debating on the chocolate mousse.....

Monday, February 23, 2009

Fine Cooking Challenge: Pork Sandwich & White Bean Dip

I squeezed a couple more in today. This evening I made the White Bean Dip with Herbs. Couple of cans of cannellinis, half a package of cream cheese, squirt of anchovy paste; whiz in food processor and stream in a little olive oil.

Tasty. Had a little with some carrot and celery sticks.

The anchovy paste was my variation. I always keep a tube in the fridge. I detest the little critters in whole form, but stuff 'em a tube and I have no problem using it. It's the key to caesar dressing. You can always slide the paste past anchovy haters - they'll never know.

For lunch I had the pork sandwich recipe that called for a homemade slaw with capers, hot cherry peppers (I subbed banana pepper rings because I had some in the frig), and fresh herbs. Delicious.

The challenge has been a good way to test my new oven. I'm still not sure if the broil feature is working because I am used to seeing the element get red hot, but it seems like the temperature would melt the paint off the walls if I left the door open, so I think it's working.

I drug my winter chunky body to the gym today. All this cooking and eating has not been kind. Thankfully the cake is history and most of it is resting on other's thighs.

Bargain of the day. My visitors/sous chefs have all said they'd like a stool to sit on while there's work going on in the kitchen. I love Home Goods and it's good news/bad news that there is one a mile from my house.

I popped in for a minute this morning on my errand run, and look what I found on clearance. Originally marked $99.99, and marked down about five times based on the number of stickers.

Today's price $18.

No kidding!

CSA : Support a Farmer Now, Get Produce All Summer

In the blur of remodeling and Fine Cooking Cook the Issue Challenge frenzy, it was almost easy to forget that the gardening season will soon be upon us. In addition to my own vegetable and herb gardens, I enjoy trolling the local farmer's markets during the season.

I was very excited three summer's ago to be able to join a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture program, which basically means you agree to fund your share of the farm at the beginning of the season, and in return you receive a share of the harvest weekly during the growing season.

The shares are designed to feed a family, so singles will usually do better to share with at least one other person. Some have work requirements as part of your share that really allow you to get down and dirty, so to speak, with your produce before it hits your plate.

I am currently a happy member of White House Gardens CSA in Sharon Center. Farmer Debbie Fox is offering some additional shares this year (most CSA's have waiting lists and fill up quickly). If you are interested drop me a e-mail and I'll get you the contact info.

I also recommend Basket of Life Farm and Baker's Fresh Produce and Honey.

Now is the time of the year to pay for and reserve your spot.

I picked up some discounted (40% off) seed packets at Marcs today. They usually have a Burpee selection, but today they had a couple of large NK displays.

I still need to get my tomato seeds ordered soon. I love, love, love the black varieties and for the most part you have to grow them from seed.

My secret plant source that has a pretty amazing variety is Hirt's Greenhouse, who also does a booming mail-order business. Check out the link for some of the unusual varieties they grow.

Think spring!!!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fine Cooking Challenge: Pork-a-Poolza & Chicken w/Poblanos

I'm too worn out for pithy commentary, so here are the last of the weekend challenges.

I have most of the Cooks Illustrated recipe ready to test; I'll finish it tomorrow.

Thankfully there is still some leftover cake to cool my tastebuds off from eating the poblano for dinner.

Fine Cooking Challenge: Create Your Own Soup

One of the 'recipes' in issue 97 is basically a formula to create your own creamy vegetable soup.

If you have the on-line subscription it brings up a page where you select what ingredients you want, starting with aromatics like onions or shallots, then you select your favorite vegetable and liquid and simmer 'til tender. Then you can print out the resulting recipe.

You can either put in in the blender in batches to puree, or take a stick blender to it and do it right in the pan on the stove.

I had leftover butternut squash and fresh ginger from yesterday, along with a cup or so of chopped fresh fennel. I added garam masala, chicken stock, and dry vermouth.

After pureeing, I finished with a splash of sherry vinegar and garnished with a little cilantro and toasted pumpkinseed. Yummy.

Market Day Part 2

I'm not sure how I missed it, but there is a relatively new stand in the corner of West Side Market called The Olive and The Grape. The original store is located in Mentor.

I am a complete sucker for good oils, vinegars, salts and seasonings, so it wasn't hard to find something here I "needed" pretty quickly.

First I selected a salt free blend called Herbs in Duxelle which combines porcini, shitake, champignon and bolete mushrooms, with shallots, lemon peel, chervil, tarragon, chives and parsley. Smells divine. It's like a fine herbes blend with a mushroom kicker.

This one will be a great delicate seasoning for fish and vegetables.

I also picked up some Ras El Hanout. Described on their site as follows: This Moroccan blend consisting of cloves, allspice, black pepper, mace, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, rosebuds, cumin, white pepper, coriander, nutmeg, saffron, bay leaves and paprika has quite the reputation!; it traditionally means it represents the best spice blend of the shop (note it contains saffron!) and it definitely is one of the best of our shop; today this blend is frequently known as a “Mediterranean curry”, a delicious one, although not hot like most people associate with curries; pairs well with lamb, game, chicken. Fish, tanginess, couscous and Middle Eastern vegetable dishes; when asked how to describe this unique seasoning people say it’s spicy, … yet has a floral fragrance, … yet it is robust, … yet subtle!

I got one of the dipping oils, which we tried last night, but it has a little too much balsamic vinegar in it to make a good bread dipper for my palate or my sister's. I'll probably figure another way to use it because the quality of the oil is excellent.

But I was most excited to see the Fennel Pollen (Angel's Dust). I have never seen it locally. It is far more delicate than fennel seeds, and has a unique, ethereal quality. Hmmm, I'm thinking scallops for dinner.

Stopped by Kate's Fish for some scallops.

This kids, is what fresh fish should look like when you go to the market.

In Ohio you have to trust your fish monger, because we aren't exactly located in a fresh seafood paradise.

We used to be able to get some pretty good local perch, but I'm not sure that a whole lot of Lake Erie fish is making it to the plate anymore.

I have never, ever had a bad product from Kate's. The scallops are 'dry' and are never floating in a phosphate liquid. They are usually absolutely huge. I've had clients rave that they were the best scallops they were ever served, and only so much credit goes to the chef. With scallops you need a good product, good technique in the form of a good sear, and don't overpower the delicate flavor.

And you always get service with a smile. If you go, tell 'em the green lady sent you.

They'll know it was me.

So I made a variation of this Joanne Weir dish from Food & Wine - Seared Scallops with Fennel and Lemon Relish.

I substituted a pinch of fennel pollen for the fennel seeds. It was heavenly.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Fine Cooking Issue 97 Challenge: Buttermilk Cake with Spiced Vanilla Icing

I'm not a baker. It usually takes special pans or equipment, lots of ingredients, lots of steps and measuring, and you have to pay attention or you'll blow it. When you cook you can almost always create and correct on the fly. Baking is for people like my sister who revel in the details.

This is only part of the ingredients. I had already measured the flour and sugar and got the eggs and butter out to warm to room temp. I also spent a fair amount of time searching my basement for my ancient Bundt pan, that probably hasn't seen the light of day in fifteen years. I'm surprised I didn't sacrifice it in the garage sale last year.

The secret ingredient in this cake was grated butternut squash. I think a lot of people are intimidated by winter squash because they don't know how to peel it and cook it.

It really isn't a big deal. A regular peeler is all you need to get a butternut naked quick, and a grapefruit spoon is my secret weapon to get the guts and seeds out.

I usually cut the neck off and deal with the bottom, seed filled part separately.

The icing was confectioner's sugar (yeah - a box buried in the pantry), buttermilk, vanilla, a little salt and freshly grated nutmeg. I buttered and floured the pan as best I could (another deal breaker for me: any recipe starting with 'butter and flour pan...') but the cake protested when I flipped it on the plate and promptly broke in half.

No biggie. I put it back on the plate and disguised the damage with the icing.

Luckily my girlfriend Liz and her daughter just stopped by to deliver my yearly Thin Mint fix so I gave them half of the cake. Because it's really, really good, and I can't risk having it around too long.

Fine Cooking Issue 97 Challenge: Smoked Turkey Reuben

This one was pretty tasty and made a great lunch. I used some of my $1 bargain cabbage, julienned most of big deli dill pickle, then tossed with a little cider vinegar and salt and let sit to drain while I prepped the rest.

The dressing was simply some mayo, ketchup and sun-dried tomatoes (recipe called for oil-packed, I only had regular ones which were pretty moist, so they were fine) whizzed in the mini food processor. So it comes together pretty much like 1,000 Island Dressing.

Went with the make shift panini press of stainless frying pan and a can of tomatoes.

Market Day Part 1

I make the trip to the West Side Market, about 30 minutes from me, every week or two, usually on Fridays. They are only open Monday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday. Saturdays and holiday weeks are just too crowded for me; it's much more pleasant during the weekdays.

My first (or last, depending on how much I am buying) stop is The Basketeria. The selection is fantastic, the organics reasonably priced, and the fresh herbs and peeled garlic are a steal at $1 each. Plus Tom and Anita and the rest of their staff are among the nicest, friendlist people at the market. Always a pleasure to load a cart here.

It's easy to get sucked into 'buy this - get this' from the fruit vendors especially, but I've learned not to go too crazy buying more than I can possibly consume in a month, let alone a week. This is my go to spot for fruit and berries. She's friendly and always takes good care of me. The other thing I like about shopping the market is that they will almost always offer you a taste. If they tell you 'it's very sweet' (a common chant), they'll back it up.

I am testing a recipe for Cook's Illustrated magazine this weekend which requires a large quantity of portobello mushrooms. This is where I purchased them. Plus two of those artichokes. I've never cooked a fresh one and that's about to change.

So here's what I ended up with:

Pineapple, papaya, quart of strawberries, two pints of blueberries, 3 plums & ten oranges - $16

8 Large Portobellos and 2 fresh artichokes - $15

Head of green cabbage ($1 clearance bin), 2 large orange and 1 red bell pepper bagged for $1 in the clearance bin, 3 organic avocados, container of peeled garlic, fresh oregano, arugula, 3 large butternut squash, head of fresh fennel, green onions, pound of brussel sprouts, 3 habanero peppers (25 cents), # of baby bellas, and 3 vine tomatoes. Total $23

One of these days I will run a comparison at the supermarket, but it's worth the drive to me. I like the quality, I like the prices, and I like interacting with and supporting small business owners.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Gadget Love: Wave Your Hand Automatic Soap Dispenser

While I agree with Michael Ruhlman in this post about anti-bacterial phobia (although I did have a shivery mental picture at the thought of my gym going nude - ack!), good sanitation practices in the kitchen are a must.

Food TV shows far too many celebrity chefs man (and woman) handling raw proteins with barely a cursory hand washing or wipe on a towel before moving on to other ingredients in a dish.

There's nothing like sitting through the Servsafe food safety training, usually given by health departments for restaurant managers, to really make you think twice about all the potential cooties and mishandling food can be subjected to that can not only make you sick, it can kill you.

When I am cooking, particularly for personal chef clients, I am prepping many ingredients for multiple meals at one time. It is very important to not cross contaminate any of the raw proteins with other ingredients, and keep separate cutting boards and do the prep in different areas.

Constant hand washing is also key and it really gives me the heebie jeebies to touch the soap dispenser with 'chicken hands' so I am constantly santizing the the faucets and soap dispenser so I don't accidently cross-contaminate.

The latest Tuesday Morning ad had a hands-free soap dispenser advertised for $20. My friend Debbie lives close to a store so she stopped by, but they hadn't gotten them in the shipment, but promised to call when they arrived. The store nearest me was sold out by the time I got there. Fortunately, Debbie's store came through and she picked up one for herself and one for me.

I just loaded it up with some soap and 4 AAA batteries and it works as promised. No more chicken hands....

Fine Cooking Issue 97 Challenge: Blood Orange and Radicchio Salad with Hazelnuts and Shaved Parmigiano

Last night my friend Debbie came over to check out the new kitchen. I was running a little late so she arrived before me and opened a bottle of Napa Cellars Napa Valley Merlot (2006).

I had the ingredients on hand for the Fine Cooking Challenge Blood Orange and Radicchio Salad with Hazelnuts and Shaved Parmigiano, even though I was a little taken aback by the $7 per pound price tag for Radicchio at Giant Eagle. I think the little head I bought was about a half a pound, and the recipe also called for butter lettuce, hazelnuts, blood oranges and good parmesan, so it's pretty pricey for a simple salad.

For dinner, I hadn't really made a plan, so we did a raid the fridge pasta dinner. I always have pancetta on hand, plus there was a head of fennel that needed to be loved, a small package of arugula, shallots, garlic, a small zucchini, as well as some really yummy portobello truffle sauce that I picked up the last Mustard Seed Market sale and a bottle of diced tomatoes. I pulled the ingredients and put Debbie to work while I worked on the salad. She requested a can of cannellini beans and I delivered.

So we ended up with a delicious sauce which we served with Orecchiette and a side of white beans with pancetta, arugula and shallots. We seasoned the beans with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper and good sprinkling of Penzey's Mural of Flavor and they were absolutely delicious.

And we got an action shot of me tossing the pasta with the sauce. I remember the first time I attempted pan flipping at a class at ICASI , let's just say it wasn't pretty. But after personal cheffing for two years, I've really come to appreciate the art of tossing ingredients in the pan. It's easy once you get the hang of it, and there are less utensils to wash. And hey, if something lands on the floor it's no big deal.

We enjoyed dinner with a bottle of Black Mountain Vineyard 2005 Pinot Noir. I think I picked this one at Trader Joe's; it was pretty good for probably an under $10 price tag.

Good food, good company, and one more recipe done for the challenge.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

It's Done, It's Done, It's DONE!

UPS surprised me with a super quick delivery from of the new pot-filler faucet a few hours before Bruce returned to finish.

The pot rack is secured and loaded with all the All-Clad that I acquired from visiting the outlet sales. The outlet covers and drawer pulls are installed.

There are a few more storage options on the walls that I am considering, but for the most part it is done! It is shear pleasure to cook in this space.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Fine Cooking Issue 97 Challenge: Fresh Pasta with Sausage and Mushrooms

This one was pretty tasty. I subbed turkey smoked sausage for the called for chicken Italian sausage.

For the pasta I used some fresh black pepper fettucine from Ohio City Pasta. It gave it a spicy kick.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sometimes an inch makes all the difference

When I got home last night the last person I expected to see was Bruce. I expected to see evidence that he'd been here in the form of a backsplash, pot filler faucet, pot rack and drawer pulls, but not poor Bruce himself, still here at 7:30.

It gets worse. He is not a happy camper. He's muttering under his breath and clanging around like Mr. Parker in A Christmas Story. The drawer pulls are still on the countertop, with the X marks the spot painter's tape I left where each one goes. The custom pot rack is hanging, but not completely screwed in, making it obvious I didn't bother with a level when I hung the curtain rod.

It turns out he's been wrestling with the backsplash for about 3 hours. He got it installed and went to install the pot filler faucet and realized there wasn't enough clearance.

No amount of monkeying with it is going give the extra inch that's needed to get it under the range hood. The plumbing is in, the hole is cut in the custom backsplash. The only solution is to get a shorter faucet.

He is very much a perfectionist and prides himself it doing the highest quality work - and that's why I hired him, so I know he's kicking himself about the error.

But it's not the end of the world. It's fixable. So goodbye Belle Fouret Oil Rubbed Bronze fancy pot-filler. The only one I could find with acceptable clearance and a reasonable price is this Danze model in stainless steel. I just barely made the 60 day exchange with UPS delivered it Christmas Eve. I spoke with customer service today and they pleasantly handled the exchange.

The only unpleasant part was a little trash can treasure hunt. Bruce accidentally threw out the little piece of bubble wrap that held the fitting for the faucet. I'm just glad the trash was nearly full and I hadn't gone too crazy cleaning out the fridge, so I didn't have to go down to far.

Freaky Food

I was stationed downwind of this freakish creation for six hours yesterday. Behold, the Grapple (say Grape - L), a registered trademarked creation that takes a perfectly good Fuji apple and does something unspeakable to it with "concentrated grape flavor and pure water", and promises it is not genetically altered in anyway.

Everytime someone walked by these quickly, a waft of grape bubble gum scent came my way - and I was nearly 10 feet away. Aside from the fact that the smell was pretty horrific, and the fact that the kids didn't seem the least bit interested in them, despite the lower shelf placement, they cost FIVE DOLLARS for four apples.

For the love of Pete, there were plenty of apples on display for $1.99 a pound, and thankfully most people were selecting them.

The product is being marketed as a solution to the childhood obesity problem by offering them a healthy snack, which is indeed admirable. But here's an idea: Buy some apples and buy some grapes, and resort to good old fashioned threats and bribery to get kids to eat them.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Fine Cooking Issue 97 Challenge: Skirt Steak with Warm Radish Pickle

After a six hour shift pouring wine samples at Giant Eagle (Rosa Regale - an elegant sparkling red wine that's like roses and raspberries, and pairs nicely with dark chocolate), I was looking forward to coming home and completing the Seared Skirt Steak with Warm Radish and Red Onion Pickle that I started the evening before.

Traffic was brutually slow at the store, except for floral. They went all out - there was even a man playing guitar stationed near floral. I am working the demo at a different store; should be interesting to see the Valentine's Day shoppers in action.

I got a little piece of skirt steak at the West Side Market on Wednesday. It's a rarely seen cut of meat outside of butcher shops, and even a lot of the market shops didn't have it. Larry Vistein's is my go-to for beef, but he must be on vacation, so Vince's hooked me up.

The marinade was extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice/zest, dijon, honey, crushed red pepper flakes and garlic.

The warm pickle was quick and easy (I know you're thinking pickles? I'm not making pickles on a weeknight, if ever...but trust me, it really was quick and easy). I love radishes, and the ones I had were actually a little sweet, with no teary eyed heat twang that you sometimes get. I eat them raw as a snack with just a little salt. There was also a carrot, a small red onion, a jalapeno and apple cider and sherry vinegars, honey, coriander, and extra virgin olive oil. Five minutes on the stove and presto, pickles.

I seared the steak in a grill pan and was very happy that my new exhaust fan, although as loud as a semi at full crank, really does the job. I got a nice sear with a little char and it was perfectly cooked. On this one I wish I had gotten more steak so I could have leftovers today.