Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas Dinner Disaster

I like to experiment in the kitchen. Trying new ingredients and new techniques keeps the daily grind of meal preparation fresh. And, once and awhile, a new discovery will work it's way into my repertoire of regularly prepared meals.

This Christmas, we decided to do something different. We have a longstanding family tradition of Christmas Eve dinner at Lawry's, which is famous for its hand-carved prime rib. So, beef is usually not on the menu on Christmas day. No one wanted ham, turkey is kind of boring. My husband suggested duck. Beside the fact that he loves duck, he recalled a particularly delicious specimen that we enjoyed at our country house last fall. So, we procured two frozen ducks at our local grocer and began to plan.

One of the challenges to cooking duck at home is the prodigious amount of fat on the bird. On more than on occasion, we have nearly been smoked out of the kitchen when attempting to roast duck in the oven. So, I looked for a different preparation method. Alton Brown's Mighty Duck recipe looked promising. He suggests brining the bird (always a good idea), and then steaming the quartered pieces until most of the fat has rendered off. The duck is then cooked in a hot oven on a preheated "NASA hot" skillet, which crisps the skin and finishes the meat.

My sous chef/husband and I followed the recipe carefully, excited at the prospect of tender, moist duck meat combined with crispy, crackling skin. The result? Abject failure. The meat was too salty and either tough (legs and thighs) or undercooked (breast) and the skin was scorched, unpleasant, and unevenly browned.

A Christmas dinner disaster? Heavens, no! It was loads of fun to try a new method and to work with a meat that rarely graces my kitchen. The whole experiment got everyone into the kitchen, poking and prodding and prognosticating on what looked good and how long to leave that piece in the pan and what might work better next time.

I look forward to more failures in the kitchen, and more good times cooking and sharing meals with people I love.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Memories of the Berghoff

It was a very busy weekend, and I was in need of comfort food and the distinct pleasures of cooking. The lovely veal cutlets at Costco immediately made me think of wiener schnitzel. Wiener schnitzel always makes me think of the Berghoff, one of my favorite restaurants growing up in Chicago. This is my homage to their weiner schnitzel plate, complete with creamed spinach and a baked potato.

Weiner Schnitzel

1 1/2 pounds veal cutlets
1 cup flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
3 eggs, beaten with 3 tablespoons milk
1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 lemons

Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Lightly pound the veal cutlets until they are a uniform thickness. Dredge in the seasoned flour; pat off excess. Dredge in the egg mixture; let excess drip off. Dredge in the panko and coat well. Place prepared cutlets on parchment-lined baking sheets in one layer; cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least one-half hour. Heat vegetable oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan with over medium high heat. The oil should be about 1/2-inch up from the bottom of the pan. When the oil begins to smoke, cook the cutlets in batches for 2-3 minutes per side until browned and crisp. Place cooked cutlets on a paper-towel-lined baking sheet, and keep warm in a low oven until ready to serve. Serve with lemon wedges.

Creamed Spinach

8 cups spinach
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon nutmeg

Pack the spinach in a glass bowl; cover with plastic wrap. Microwave for 3-4 minutes until spinach has wilted. Leave in covered bowl until cooled. Remove spinach from bowl and squeeze in a clean dishtowel to remove as much water as possible. Lightly chop the spinach and set aside. In a large saucepan, melt the butter and saute the chopped garlic until fragrant. Add the flour and cook and stir for one minute. Add the milk, and whisk until the sauce comes to a boil and thickens. Add the chopped spinach and stir thoroughly to coat with the sauce. Add the nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm until ready to serve.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Weeknight Fondue

I called my little hipster kids from work late this afternoon to ask them what they wanted for dinner, and the answer was "fondue." I deflect this most of the time, but, after yesterday's disaster at the polls, tonight felt like a night to do some ironic "celebration."

Fondue always makes me think of my favorite scene from Heidi, when her grandfather skewers a hunk of raclette cheese on a stick, toasts it in the fire like a marshmallow, and scrapes the melted cheese off of the hunk and onto a slice of fresh bread. Swiss comfort food. In lieu of a fireplace in the kitchen, this is my best, quick fondue, suitable for a weeknight dinner.

Weeknight "Celebration" Fondue

1 tablespoon olive oil
3 shallots, minced
1/2 bottle Goose Island India Pale Ale
8 ounces cream cheese
8 ounces Gruyere cheese
8 ounces raclette cheese
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Saute the shallots in the olive oil. Add the beer and bring to a simmer. Add the cheeses, one at a time, and melt. Add the Worcestershire sauce and taste for seasoning. Serve with cubed bread, asparagus, cherry tomatoes, and sliced sausage.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Milk-Braised Pork Shoulder

Inspired by a fabulous dinner at the Purple Pig, we decided to try to braise the pork shoulder that my dear husband procured at Costco this weekend in milk. There are many fine recipes for milk-braised pork online, so we cribbed from a few of the best looking ones, and then did our own thing.

What a fabulous, easy way to cook an inexpensive cut of pork! Our pork shoulder was boneless; would be interesting to try a bone-in cut to see what that added to the sauce. We served ours with lightly buttered egg noodles and steamed sugar snap peas. It would have been equally at home with polenta or potatoes.

Milk-Braised Pork Shoulder

3-4 lbs. boneless pork shoulder
1 onion, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 shallots, minced
3 cups whole milk
1/2 cup white wine
5 springs thyme
2 bay leaves

Liberally season the pork with salt and pepper. Put a large dutch oven on the stovetop to heat; add a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Brown the pork on all sides; remove to a pan. Saute the onion, garlic, and shallots in the pot; cook until translucent. Add the pork and any accumulated juices back to the pan, along with the milk, wine, thyme, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil. Cover the pot and cook in a low oven (300 degrees) for 3-4 hours until the pork is very tender and beginning to fall apart. Remove the pork from the pot and cover with foil to keep warm; strain the liquid from the pot, pressing down to extract all of the juices. Place the liquid into a gravy strainer and allow the fat to rise to the top. Pour all of the gravy back into the pot, and add 1/2-3/4 cup of cream. Bring the sauce to a boil and reduce until it coats the back of a spoon; taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Return the pork to the sauce and heat through. Serve with noodles and a green vegetable.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Last week, I awoke to a story on NPR about canning featuring a blogger new to me, Mrs. Wheelbarrow. It was a great piece, full of enthusiasm about the serendipity of the farmers' market and the simple joy of preserving fresh fruits and vegetables for another day. I've already made pickles this summer, but Mrs. Wheelbarrow inspired me to want to do more. I was particularly intrigued by her simple, but beguiling recipe for fig confiture. As luck would have it, I found some beautiful figs on sale at Whole Foods this week, and so I made a batch.

The figs are soaked in boiling water to soften, quartered, and married with some thinly sliced lemon, honey, and a bunch of thyme. The resulting loose jam is divine with a good cheese. A lovely gift for your favorite lover of food.

I had so much fun with the confiture, that I followed up with a variation on Mrs. Wheelbarrow's cardamom peach pie filling. The peaches, which have been particularly fragrant this year, are just ending here in the midwest. I did not have any clear gel on hand, so my peaches loosely swimming in syrup, but I figure I can thicken them when I use them, or not depending on the recipe. Wonderful stuff! Thanks for the inspiration, Mrs. Wheelbarrow!

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Late Summer Dinner Party

Nick and I got up early and headed to the Green City Market to see what looked good. It was only 7:30 a.m., but the market was already quite crowded, and we spent an enjoyable hour wandering, tasting, talking with purveyors, and filling our market bags. We were having guests for dinner; here was the menu:


Marcona almonds
Manchego cheese
Crocodile tears from Capriole Goat Cheese
Assorted grapes from Mick Klug Farm


Smoked turkey
Marshall grilled for five hours on the rotisserie over hardwood. It was moist, smoky, and delicious.

Watermelon, feta, tomato salad with basil vinaigrette
A nice, late summer salad. Used heirloom tomatoes from the market and basil from my garden.

Zucchini and summer squash with chili, mint and toasted almonds
Found some beautiful yellow squash at the market. OK recipe, could have skipped the almonds.

Sweet potato gratin with creme fraiche, bacon, and onions
A fantastic recipe, sweet and savory, and perfect with the turkey. Beautiful fresh sweet potatoes from the market.


Peaches poached with basil, served with vanilla ice cream
Absolutely delicious, prepared ahead, light and fresh dessert. Would use more basil next time. Would be outstanding with some creme fraiche or lightly sweetened marscapone cheese.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Stuffed Pattypan Squash

On the way home from dropping my son at camp this weekend, we stopped at a farm stand at the side of the road and found these beautiful pattypan squash for only 50 cents/apiece. I usually find much smaller versions of pattypan squash at the market; these bigger specimens were begging to be stuffed.

Inspired by a recipe of Laura Calder's that I saw on TV over the weekend, I thought it would be nice to combine the smokiness of bacon, the bitterness of swiss chard, the saltiness of almonds, and the sweetness of raisins in a soft, custardy filling. An (almost) meatless Monday. With a warm baguette, a full, delicious meal.

Stuffed Pattypan Squash
4 large pattypan squash
5 slices bacon, chopped
2 shallots, minced
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1 bunch swiss chard, leaves cut away from stems and chopped, stems chopped
1/2 cup raisins
3 eggs
1/2 cup crème fraiche
1/2 cup Gruyere cheese, shredded

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Slice the tops off of the squash and use a melon baller to scrap out the inside, creating a space for the stuffing. Rub the insides and the tops of the squash with olive oil, salt and pepper the squash, and roast in the oven for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, in a saute pan, cook the bacon until crisp. Set aside on a paper towel to drain; in the reserved bacon fat, saute the shallots until translucent; add the chopped swiss chard stems and cook until partially softened. Add the chopped leaves of chard and cook until wilted. In a small saucepan, toast the almonds until lightly browned. Combine the cooked chard/shallots, bacon, almonds, and raisins. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs and add the crème fraiche; salt and pepper to taste.

Now for the excitement. Stuff the parbaked squash with the chard/bacon/almond mixture. Pour the custard/egg mixture into each squash, dividing among each. Top each squash with the shredded cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, or until squash is cooked through, custard is set, and cheese is melted and beginning to brown on top. Let rest for 10 minutes and serve.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Beautiful Blossoms

I found some zucchini blossoms at the grocery earlier this week and bought them just because they were so beautiful. Not sure what to do with them, I asked my Twitter followers for suggests, and got some good ideas. Ultimately decided to stuff them with cheese and herbs, dredge them in a light batter, and quickly fry them. I don't often fry, but this seemed like it would be relatively simple and tasty treat for the family.

Squash Blossom Treats

12 squash blossoms
1/2 cup whole milk ricotta
1/3 cup Parmesan
2 tablespoons basil leaves, chopped
vegetable oil
1 cup water
3/4 cup seltzer

Mix the ricotta, Parmesan, and basil; salt and pepper to taste. Set aside. Carefully open the blossoms and remove the stamens. Stuff each blossom with a spoonful of cheese mixture; twirl the top of the petals to seal. Refrigerate the stuffed blossoms for half an hour to firm them up a bit. Meanwhile, in a shallow bowl, mix the flour and the seltzer water into a batter. Add a bit of salt and pepper to taste. Heat about 3/4-inch of vegetable oil in a shallow pan until hot enough to fry. Test the oil by dropping a few drips of batter into it; the batter should immediately float and begin to brown up. Dredge each stuffed blossom in the batter, making sure to cover it completely, and then fry, one or two at a time, until the batter is crisp and golden. Remove to a surface lined with newspaper; lightly sprinkle with salt while still hot from the pan. Serve immediately.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Rhubarb Chutney

I stopped by the Chicago Farmstand on Friday afternoon to buy a cookie, and ended up with over $30 worth of fresh produce and cheese. The last of the spring rhubarb was irresistible, and I bought two bunches not sure what I was going to do with them. This weekend is my dear husband's birthday, so I decided to make a rhubarb chutney to top the thick-cut pork chops we grilled for dinner. A tasty, savory way to use rhubarb.

Rhubarb Chutney

1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
1/2 purple onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 jalapeno, finely diced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
5 cups chopped rhubarb
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup cider vinegar

Saute the onion in a scant amount of vegetable oil until translucent but not brown. Add the garlic, jalapeno, and ginger, and stir over the heat until just fragrant. Add the rhubarb, brown sugar, and vinegar, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb falls apart and the chutney takes on the consistency of a chunky applesauce. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Kumquat Vinaigrette

Nick and I recently had a wonderful afternoon in the kitchen at Custom House Tavern, part of a package I had gotten at a charity auction at the school's annual benefit. Four children (and their parents) were invited to cook lunch with the staff, which we later all enjoyed at a lovely table in the restaurant. Knowing how much Nick enjoys cooking, I thought that we would have fun, and we did.

Chef Aaron Deal, a wonderful young chef, worked with Nick on the salad course. He taught Nick how to make a deliciously piquant and citrusy kumquat vinaigrette, which they used to dress a salad composed of greens, shelled pistachios, Prairie Fruits Farm fresh chevre, and edible flowers. Easily the best dish of a fine luncheon.

Happily, there was quite a bit of leftover dressing, which the chef kindly shared with us. So Nick recreated the salad on Memorial day at a party with friends. In lieu of edible flowers, he used some chive flowers snipped fresh from our balcony garden. Delicious!

Thanks again to the wonderful staff at Custom House Tavern. Looking forward to a date night here soon!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why I Cook

Having just returned to full-time work, I have not been cooking as elaborately as I had been, although I am still preparing meals for my family almost daily. Although I miss that relaxed hour or two preparing a delicious meal, and I am confident I will find my way to a new weekday cooking style that may not be gourmet but will be a cut above 30-Minute Meals.

As I struggle to find a new normal, and inspired by Michael Ruhlman's recent blog post, here are some of the reasons that I cook.

  • I love to eat. It is one of life's greatest pleasures.

  • I enjoy sharing good food with other people. Especially family and good friends. Meals are an important social activity and build bonds between us. My cooking is an expression of my love from those I care most about. And I am making memories at the table every day with my husband and my children.

  • It is relaxing. At the end of a day working with my head, I enjoy an hour spent working with my hands and my other senses (smell, taste) to create something savory.

  • It is fun. There is always a new challenge available--a new cuisine, a new dish, a new ingredient.

  • It is a great way to teach your kids about culture--their own and others. One day, we try an Asian spring roll or an Indian curry and imagine faraway lands; the next day. we enjoy the apple pie recipe handed down from grandma and remember where we came from.

  • It is important to sustaining my family's health and well-being. I know that the food I prepare is (usually!) healthy and fresh. My children are learning to eat a variety of foods, including lots of fruits and vegetables. And I am saving money by cooking at home more and eating out less.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Weeknight Pozole

Here is a comforting, quick, and healthy weeknight meal that can be thrown together from pantry staples. Although not traditional, I like a mix of hominy and fresh corn in my pozole. This time of year, avocados are plentiful and inexpensive, and they make a lovely garnish on this soup. You can also crumble a few tortilla chips in the bottom of the bowl to fortify the soup.

Weeknight Pozole

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 white onions, chopped
8 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon oregano
1 box chicken stock
4 cups water
1 can tomato paste
4 chicken breasts
1 30-ounce can hominy, drained and rinsed
2 cups frozen corn

garnishes: thinly sliced radishes, chopped ripe avocado, crumbled queso fresco, chopped cilantro

In a large soup pot, saute the onions in the oil until they have softened. Add the garlic, chili powder, and oregano, and stir over heat until the spices become fragant. Add the chicken stock, water, tomato paste and the chicken breasts. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and cook for 25-30 minutes until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the chicken to a cutting board and let cool for a few minutes until it can be handled. Using two forks, shred the chicken; return it to the pot. Add the hominy and the corn, and heat the whole thing through. Serve, garnished with chopped avocado, queso fresco, thinly sliced radishes, and chopped cilantro as garnishes.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Roasted Cauliflower-Spinach Risotto

It's been a tough winter (emotionally, not meteorlogically), and I craved comfort food tonight. Nothing is more satisfying to me on a sad, cold night than a bowl of risotto. It's like savory hot cereal for dinner.

I had a cauliflower cooling its heels in the crisper, which I had planned to roast. Roasting brings out the sweetness in most vegetables, and cauliflower, which is abundant in January, will surprise you. Why not toss it into the risotto? I added a bunch of spinach for some color and green goodness, and tossed in a generous handful of cheese and some cream to balance that goodness with some evil. Delicious.

Roasted Cauliflower-Spinach Risotto

1 cauliflower, cut into florets
1 yellow onion, sliced thickly
1 bunch spinach, washed and chopped
1 shallot, minced
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
6 cups chicken stock
3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 cup cream

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss cauliflower and onion on a large cookie sheet with a little olive oil. Salt and pepper. Roast in the oven, tossing occasionally, for about 30 minutes or until the cauliflower is beginning to brown. Remove from the oven and set aside.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, melt the butter and saute the shallot until softened. Add the rice and saute until translucent. Add a cup of the stock, and stir over low heat until most of the stock is absorbed. Continue adding the stock a cup or so at a time. With the last addition, toss in the spinach and cook and stir until the spinach begins to wilt. Add the cauliflower and the onion. Season to taste with salt and pepper. When most of the last bit of stock has been absorbed, toss in the cheese and stir to combine. Add just enough cream to loosen the risotto to desired consistency. Serve.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Dishes Men Like

Cleaning out my father's kitchen yesterday, I found this cookbook. "Dishes Men Like: New and Old Favorites, Easy to Prepare...Sure to Please," looks to have been prepared by Lea & Perrins, because every one of the 168 recipes in the book features Worcestershire sauce.

The introduction sets the stage:

If you have husband who likes to cook, pamper him! You are lucky indeed, even though you find yourself only a fetch-and-carry handmaiden while his genius glows. But men are wise, not one in a thousand really wants to take over the job. They usually have a few specialties to produce on occasion and leave the rest of the cooking to us.

So, what to do? It goes without saying that most women choose dishes men like.

So, what do men like? According to this book, during the "Cocktail Hour," men like Sardine Stuffed Eggs and Mystery Cheese Ball Spread. For dinner, men like Jellied Chicken Loaf and Rink Tum Diddy Rabbit. Steaks on the barbecue are always good; What Men Like recommends 2-inch thick steaks, cooked 18 minutes on each side for medium, 20 for well done. (I'm thinking that, after 40 minutes on the grill, you can use your steak as fuel for your next barbecue.)

And if your man had a few too many cocktails last night, try the Pick-Me-Up:

Note for husbands! Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce if taken on "the morning after" will immediately set you right for a good day's work. Here are two suggestions:
  • Add 2 teaspoons Lea & Perrins to a raw egg, stir and swallow.
  • Add 2 teaspoons Lea & Perrins to an 8-ounce glass of tomato or sauerkraut juice and drink contents as quickly as possible.