Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Turtles Are Back

The fall was dry. The water in the pond got low. Turtles were scarce and barely any birds came to land -- except for the hawks who were thirsty and hungry (far fewer of the migratory birds they often feed on came through with the drought conditions) and perched lower in the tree than I've seen before. The pond seemed barely alive. We feared the turtles were gone for good.
But with spring and a couple good rains comes any number of little miracles. The fields are green. The trees are brimming with little birds. The turtles are lounging lazily on their homemade float and venturing up onto our rocky "beach" for a bit of sun.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Pot Roast For Company

" Do you need us to bring anything?" they asked. "No, just come" we said. And yet our friends Mike and Sally came bearing gifts. Literally a bucket of fresh beets direct from Sally's amazingly beautiful and productive garden and greenhouse, a cushion spurge she thought I might enjoy in my garden and a beautiful package of beef cheeks wrapped in white paper. Invite a rancher to dinner and if you rate you might get an enviable cut like cheeks or hanger (both tucked away in my freezer right now).
Our favorite neighbors, our friends recently came back from a trip. We missed them and wanting to hear about their travels made a good excuse for dinner at our house.
Looking into my freezer I found a chuck roast -- almost 4 pounds --really two big for the two of us (not a fact that generally stops me) so it seemed perfect to build a dinner for four around. Pot roast. Could I really serve pot roast to guests? James had advised me to make a "regular dinner" not go overboard. Pot roast is about as regular as it gets so I forged on.
Stracotto (Italian Pot Roast) in Italian officially means overcooked but the name is used for a variety of braised roasts. The meat is slow cooked in a rich sauce flavored with pancetta, aromatic vegetables, dried mushrooms and tomatoes. Jumping off from Sara Moulton's recipe I found online I started by soaking 1 ounce of dried mushrooms in a cup of warm beef stock. Then browned the seasoned meat on all sides in hot olive oil. I set the meat aside, poured off most of the fat and added a couple ounces of chopped pancetta to the pan along with a chopped onion, carrot, and celery stalk. When the vegetables softened I tossed in 4 cloves of garlic (finely chopped), about a TB minced fresh rosemary, 1/4 cup chopped parsley, 2 bay leaves and seasoned the pot with salt and pepper. Next I stirred in 3 TB of tomato paste and a whole bottle of red wine (well actually the remains of two bottles I had in the kitchen -- using up that wine was initially the inspiration for this dinner). The wine cooked down for about 20 minutes and then the beef went back in the pot along with the mushrooms, a 28 oz can of tomato purée, and enough beef stock (yes I used the mushroom soaking liquid but poured it through cheesecloth first to remove any grit) to come 2/3 of the way up the side of the roast in the pot. The meat simmered very slowly, covered for almost 3 hours. I turned it over in the pot a couple times while it cooked.
When the meat was super tender I strained the sauce to remove the aromatic vegetables and cooked the liquid down a bit (with the meat resting on the side) to serve as gravy.
When people come to dinner, though I do like to be busy in the kitchen, I to have a good number of make ahead dishes. That way the kitchen seems clean and everything well organized to hit the table at the same time without guests seeing the cook starting to sweat. I usually add the finishing touches while James and our guests enjoy a few appetizers (today it was a salt cod brandade I had tucked way in the freezer for just such an occasion and toasty French bread) Alongside the classic of make ahead dishes, pot roast, I served an oven baked polenta. -- a fuss free but still impressive side dish, especially when studded with delicious creamy Humbolt Fog goat's cheese and parmesan. With these two rich dishes instead of a heavy vegetable recipe I opted for a bitter fresh tasting arugula, radish and red onion salad with tart balsamic vinaigrette (1/4 cup balsamic, 1 tsp dijon mustard, 1/2 tsp salt, pepper, 1 minced clove garlic, 1/2 cup olive oil shaken together).
I know James said "regular dinner" but I just can't have people to dinner and not serve dessert -- especially when I know our guests, like Mike and Sally, appreciate a sweet treat. More than once James has told "you don't always have to serve dessert." But honestly I do. You go to someone's house you expect dessert -- it's what good boys and girls get. Even if it's just something simple I can't feel that I have treated guests well unless the cake plate comes out.
Usually, because I love a theme, I would have gone for something terribly Italian like budino or biscotti and vin santo. But tonight -- because I wanted to try a recipe I saw on The Kitchy Kitchen, a cooking blog with photography so gorgeous I think about quitting every time I read it -- and because we have a lot of jam around the house thanks to my annual county fair efforts -- I opted for these simple lemon jam bars. A little tart a little sweet and just sugary enough to feel special -- just like the perfect dinner for friends.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monterey Sardines

Should I feel guilty about sardines? I didn't even think twice when I saw them fresh at the fish market. A rare treat high in omega 3 fatty acids (higher than just about any other food and also high in vitamin D), a small fish that retains less of the toxins tragically found in our oceans and are quick to reproduce. It's so rare to see them fresh. I snapped them up for dinner.
Sardines made the once sleepy town of Monterey, CA into a bustling fishing center. Demand from two world wars brought the industry to it's peak and it's eventual collapse. The area was fished out by massive numbers pulled form the sea and what scientists now know is a cyclical pattern (seems like 40 years) of abundance that shifts between anchovies (the other competitor for plankton in the area) and the iconic sardine of Steinbeck's cannery row.
Higher quotas are in effect to try and preserve the catch, but evidence on the sea floor points to cycles of heavy and scarce populations daring back to the 1800's before commercial fishing and big nets came to the area.
Science to study, but for now I have fish to clean.
We're not big fish eaters so I knew an oily, strong tasting fish would be a hard sell. To cut through some of the oil and allow the clean fish flavor to come through I brined the fish (as I saw described in this month's Bon Appetit magazine). I rubbed kosher salt inside the cavity and laid the fish on a sheet pan with 1/4" layer of kosher salt and covered them with another 1/4" of salt. The fish rested in the salt for 5 minutes. Then I rinsed the fish and allowed them to soak in unseasoned rice wine vinegar for another 5 minutes. I rinsed the fish again and patted them dry, rubbed olive oil salt and pepper on the skin and placed them in a hot iron pan, also coated with a slick of olive oil. While the sardines cooked on one side I mixed a heaping tablespoon harissa, the North african condiment that's become one of my favorite flavors recently, the juice of 1/2 lemon and a glug (as Jamie Oliver who inspired this dinner would say) of olive oil. I brushed the mixture on the fish, flipped them in the pan and brushed the cooked skin.
Following Oliver's lead for a side -- though I found no couscous in the cupboard -- I cooked quinoa and mixed in lemon juice, chopped scallions, mint, and feta cheese. The leftover harissa mixture topped greek yogurt for a bright, cooling flavor to lighten the strong tasting fish.
Something different, not for everyday. Everybody has a quota for sardines.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

California Quail

Beautiful California quail. Usually skittish and preferring the cover of shrubs and woodpiles, this year the quail have made themselves at home in our yard and today settled in -- right in the open -- for a luxurious dirt bath.
 If startled they run or flap away. But undisturbed our backyard friends relaxed in the soft soil just near our biggest apple tree.
A welcome visit form the state bird. A special visitor.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Plain Baked Chicken

 Kind of a plain Jane (or plain James) dinner. Simple baked chicken, fresh green beans and steamed buckwheat.
Looking around for something a little different I happened on one of Ina Garten's recipes where she made a quick olive oil sauce to bake along with the chicken. Following the Barefoot Contessa's lead I heat 1/4 cup olive oil with 9 minced cloves of garlic. Then I added in (off heat) 1/3 cup white wine, 1 1/2 tsp oregano, a pinch of crushed red peppers, 2 TB lemon juice, the zest of 2 lemons, and a handful of thyme sprigs. I poured the sauce into the baking pan, nestled in the chicken breasts and a lemon cut into eighths and dressed the chicken with olive oil, salt and pepper. The chicken baked for nearly 40 minutes until just golden brown and the sauce became a tasty dressing for our green beans.
Simple weeknight dinner.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

It Started With Sauce

I spent Friday bubbling a deep red meaty sauce. Served it again over spaghetti last night and tucked the rest in the freezer for a future dinner. Then I was left with the braised meat that had flavored the sauce. Thick meaty pork ribs and sauce poached sausage.
Those tender ribs would be perfect as accents in a hearty bowl of bean soup.
First I sautéed 2 chopped onions in a pot of olive oil. After about 5 minutes I added in 4 minced cloves of garlic and let everything sauté. Next I poured in a pound of quick soaked beans (beans covered in 2 inches of water brought just to a boil and allowed to soak in the hot water for an hour), 1 bay leaf, 2 quarts of water, 5 cups of chicken broth, several crushed chiles, a good sized piece of parmesan cheese rind I had tucked away in the freezer for a day like today, S&P, and about 1 TB chopped rosemary. After simmering for 50 minutes the beans were tender. I tossed in a pile of potatoes cut into large cubes and 6 carrots peeled and sliced into thick disks. After 5 more minutes simmering I added in cubes of the cooked meat, sausage slices (the little bits of sauce still clinging on added a reddish tint and a savory boost to the stock) and chopped kale.
An unexpectedly big pot of soup (some times things just get out of hand). Dinner tonight, lunch tomorrow and plenty in the freezer for busy days to come from the sauce that keeps on giving.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Slow Cooked Sauce

There is something reassuring about sauce bubbling on the stove. Old fashioned long cooking red sauce. The kind New Jersey TV gangsters call gravy and Neopolitans call ragu`.
We belong to a meat CSA and after a couple months I find myself with meats I haven't used -- the packages are usually 1 pound so I end up with 1 pound of country style pork ribs or one pound of short ribs -- not enough to bother roasting or braising alone so I've been saving them for a really killer sauce -- and today is the day.
I started with an idea from Arthur Schwartz's tremendous documentation of Neopolitan cooking,  Naples At Table. Schwartz is not Italian but he has studied the authenticity of Southern Italian cooking like he was born to it and his collection of recipes is as close to having an Italian grandmother in the kitchen as most of us will ever come.
His basic ragu` uses meat with bones, stew meat, an sometimes sausage. Though Schwartz counsels cooks to use onions or garlic, I could not resist and used both.
I started chopped onions (1 1/2) and garlic (3 cloves) sizzling in a pan of hot olive oil. And my own addition a pinch of chile flakes. When the onions started to soften I added in pork ribs, beef short ribs, and chunks of stew meat. I let the meat brown for a good 10 minutes and then poured in about 3/4 cup of red wine. When the wine had nearly evaporated I poured in 3 large cans of crushed tomatoes a good pinch of salt and 4 links of Italian sausage (2 spicy -- another inauthentic touch -- 2 sweet). The sauce slowly bubbled on the stove for about 3 hours, The sausage poached in the sauce. And the bones offered their hearty flavor through the dish.
In the end we had a silky rich red sauce (topped with sausage slices) and and as they do in Naples cooked meats ready for dinners later in the week.