Saturday, December 24, 2005

Sauteed Foie Gras with a Balsamic-Red Currant Sauce

Sauteed Foie Gras with a Balsamic-Red Currant Sauce
My good husband introduced me to sauteed foie gras (as opposed to the foie gras in terrines that are served room temperature), and I've become a convert. We've eaten it in several restaurants over the years, and I made it for the first time last New Year's Eve and I was somewhat successful in my execution of the dish. We decided we wanted it again but I needed a better recipe. The one I used last year wasn't really what I wanted. After some searching, I cobbled together enough information to write up my own.

Some learnings:
  • Buy it from a reputable butcher or specialty store who knows how to handle it and prep it for you. In Boston, I use the Butcher Shop.
  • Limit handling of foie gras. The heat from your hands makes the fat-laden liver start to melt.
  • If the butcher hasn't deveined it for you, devein using two knives. The vein, while edible, has a texture so different from the liver that it's very noticeable when eaten.
  • If it breaks into pieces, oh well. Cook them and reassemble when serving.
  • Flouring the liver helps it keep its shape when cooking.
  • If serving on a slice of bread, select a bread type that's soft and has a soft crust (or cut the crust off), and slice the bread thinly.
  • It cooks REALLY fast so be prepared to eat about four minutes after you begin cooking.
  • Any berry-laden jam could work; red currant is just a favorite of mine.

(Sort of) Southern Cornbread

I grew up in the South, and no self-respecting Southerner puts sugar in their cornbread. We eat cornbread as a bread, not as a dessert. We eat it with stews and soups, so it's supposed to be savory. Corn muffins, on the other hand, are supposed to be sweet, so you eat them when it's appropriate to eat sweet stuff, like at breakfast or for a mid-afternoon snack with your coffee at Starbuck's. You wouldn't eat a blueberry muffin with your beef stew, so why would you eat sweet cornbread with your barbeque?

I used to make a great savory cornbread from a cookbook my brother gave me a long time ago called White Trash Cooking by Ernest Matthew Mickler. This type of cornbread is an acquired taste, as it's savory (no sugar) and dry (no flour), and you eat it by crumbling it into whatever else is on your plate or in your bowl. (And the cookbook is a classic!). White Trash Cooking Cornbread Recipe

Then I married a Yankee who didn't like my Southern cornbread. That took a bit of getting used to. If he didn't like my cornbread, what kind of future did we really have? I got over that useless bit of navel-gazing pretty quick, and started hunting for cornbread we could both like.

It took some searching, as most cookbooks out there feature sugar, and a lot of it, in their cornbread recipes. Even the usually reliable Cook's Illustrated published a cornbread recipe they called Southern that was way too sweet. I finally found the solution in the Joy of Cooking, and it's become my everyday cornbread recipe.

It's got a tablespoon of sugar, just enough to appease the my good husband's cornbread sweet tooth but not enough to detract from the savory taste. Cooking the batter in bacon fat in a cast iron pan helps keep it authentic for me. I'll chop of two slices of bacon and fry them in the cast iron, then scoop out the bits and drain almost all of the fat from the pan, leaving a scant tablespoon. I'll add most of the bacon to the batter, and sprinkle the rest on about halfway through cooking. It's good cornbread and a great compromise.

One last thing - cornbread freezes really well. Each batch makes six pieces, and we can never eat them all at once. I'll wrap each individual piece in heavy freezer wrap, then put all the pieces in a freezer zip-storage bag, then I can pull out however many pieces I need later on. They thaw in about 90 minutes on the counter, then I put a pat of butter on each piece, wrap them in foil and put them in the toaster over to warm for 15 minutes or so.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Spicy Charred Green Beans with Scallions

Spicy Charred Green Beans with Scallions
This is a fab dish and is especially useful when the green beans in the fridge are past their prime. Plus it's spicy and vegetable-y and just really eatable. I got the recipe from Cook's Illustrated originally but I've tweaked it a bit and added sliced cooked sausage to it to make it a one-pot meal.

The secret - the cast iron pot (I have an old Lodge that I've seasoned myself). It gets hot enough to char the beans without overcooking them, and it gives them a great flavor. I've never cooked this dish in anything other than my cast iron; I doubt the non-stick could get hot enough to cook the beans without turning them into mush, and I bet the beans and especially the fragile scallions would stick to a standard non-coated frying pan.

I love, love, love my cast iron pot. Mark Bittman, esteemed food writer, recently extolled the virtues of cast iron in one of his recent columns in the New York Times. My good husband looks askance at it everytime I pull it out because it does in fact require a little maintenance to keep it so useful and there are a few rules of engagement. Mostly, keep tomatoes and vinegary sauces out of it, as the acid eats through the seasoning (a small amount won't hurt it), and don't let it stay wet or it will rust (it is just pig iron, after all). After cooking in it, I rinse it out with very hot water, then scrub it with a heavy wooden-headed metal brush (used only for this purpose). I put a little oil in it, put it over low heat and let it sit for five minutes. I lightly rub it out with a paper towel and it's ready for its next job. It cooks so nicely and adds such great flavor to just about anything.

A warning - pets love the seasoning of cast iron. I keep mine on the open bottom shelf of our butcher block island, and I have to keep a lid on it or my cat will lick the finish right off the pan, making little unseasoned patches in the pot. It won't hurt him - it's just a little iron and a little fat - but those naked patches of cast iron equate to sticky spots when cooking.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Cooking from the Center

I didn't work this year from mid-January to October. When I wasn't planning my wedding, getting married or job-hunting, I was thinking about cooking, reading books and blogs about cooking, and yes, actually cooking. Since I wasn't working, I had the luxury of time and I chose to spend a lot of it in the kitchen, and I've had a lot of people ask me why.

I found cooking to be a great creative outlet and a very meditative process. I could get in a good mental groove chopping vegetables or stirring risotto or sorting through the week's farm share. I rarely felt drained by cooking; it seemed like cooking gave me more energy than it took from me. It felt effortless, like what I was meant to do. I'd found my cooking center.

Now that I'm working full-time again, I had to scale back my weekday cooking. Believe me, I didn't want to but after several poorly-executed meals and a minor meltdown, I realized I had to. So now I'm trying to cook interesting but not-too-complicated food in less time. I make and freeze soups and stews on the weekends to eat during the week, and search my archives and the web for quick but good dishes for weeknight dinners. I was frustrated by the constraints but now I realize it's just an opportunity to re-center. And since we're always having to re-center ourselves as our lives change, it's good practice too.

Savory Spiced Pecans

This is my annual Christmas treat. I make pounds of them and give them away, to universal acclaim. The recipe came out of a cookbook my grandmother used to give every woman in the family upon her wedding called "The Stuffed Griffin," published in 1976 by The Utility Club in Griffin, Georgia, a small-town volunteer organization. It's a hoot to read, but pretty useful too.

Heat the oven to 250 degrees. While the oven is preheating, melt a stick of butter (no substitutes) in a large baking dish (a lasagne pan is good but bigger is better) in the oven. When the butter is melted, stir in a half-cup of Worcestershire sauce. Add 1.5 pounds of pecan halves and stir well, until all pecans are coated in the liquid. Pieces would work too but aren't nearly so nice to look at. Place in the oven and stir every fifteen minutes; it should take an hour for the nuts to absorb all the liquid.

Spread the nuts on paper towels to drain and dry. Sprinkle with salt and cayenne to taste. I've found the nuts can stand a fair amount of both. Once they're cooler and dry to the touch, store them in ziploc bags or plastic storage containers with tight lids.

A note on nuts: I live in Boston where you can't find a decent pecan to save your life (I've had people point me to walnuts when I ask for pecans - I swear!), so I order them every year from McEachern Pecans, a small farm in south Georgia, pecan-growing capital of the world! Pecan season is in the fall, so order in November for this year's crop.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Pasta with Lentils and Sausage

I've been trying to dumb down my weeknight meals so they don't take three hours and a Ph.D. to prepare. Now that I'm working full time again, I just don't want to spend hours in the kitchen after spending hours at my desk. But it's hard to quash my enthusiasm for cooking; I want to make something interesting and good, and leftovers don't always qualify as either. So I try to find the balance between cooking a little but cooking well.

One night this week I made a pasta dish with lentils and sausage. You can use any kind of sausage you like except for the really esoteric ones like lamb and apricot (I have that in my freezer and haven't figured out quite yet what to do with it). I used a pre-cooked andouille because I thought it would pair nicely with the lentils and the tomatoes in the sauce, but any robust sausage would do, like kielbasa or Italian.

So brown the sausage in a bit of oil in a Dutch oven. Add a small can of diced tomatoes, a chopped onion, some chopped carrot, several pressed cloves of garlic (don't be shy) and some dried rosemary. Saute it all until it starts to smell really good, then add just about two quarts of water (I substituted about a cup of the water with some big red wine) and two cups of lentils. Bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer for 45 minutes. At some point, I stuck my immersion blender in the pot to thicken it up a bit.

I cooked up some farfalle to go with it, and added it right at the end and let it all sit together for a few minutes. But it didn't work well as a leftover (for lunch) because the pasta got mushy. Next time, I'll spoon pasta in the bottom of each person's bowl, then ladle the lentils over it. That will mean no pasta in the leftovers but no pasta is better than mushy pasta!

It was good and it was quick, satisfying my need for a tasty dinner without killing myself.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Eating My Way Through San Francisco

I had to go to San Francisco for a meeting last week, and I had dinner out every night I was there.

On Friday night, I ate at Miss Millie's in Noe Valley (4123 24th St. bet. Castro & Diamond). I picked it for a few simple reasons - it was late (9ish), it was a short walk from my friends' house and it had the right light. I want to eat in a restaurant where the lighting makes me, my compatriots and the food all look good. That means indirect light, incandescent light and multiple sources of light. This place had it right, from the lace curtains in the windows to the waiters with ties and floor-length aprons to the really good lentil dish with spicy lamb sausage. The salad was forgettable, but the lentils made up for it. Plus it was a nice place to eat when one is by oneself. The waiter didn't treat me like a freak of nature like some do - a woman eating alone, quel horreur!

On Saturday, I ate at Home on Union Street (not in the Castro). I was up in that neighborhood admiring the lights merchants and residents had strung up, dodging the occasional holiday character wandering the streets (Frosty, Santa, etc.) and listening with pleasure to the barbershop quartet with four old guys. Home had the right light upon entering, a lot of glass, a lot of nice low indirect light and a lot of candles. There were several tables for two open in the front section with all the nice light, but the host led me to a back room that I swear looked like my middle-school cafeteria and sat me at a table right in the center of the crowded room. So I popped up and went back to the bar and sat down to have dinner. Why sit in an ugly room to eat? You know the food will taste awful. The bartender called me sweetie so I called him honey and the evening progressed nicely. The food was good, especially the charred green beans on the side. I do something like that, stir-frying green beans (especially ones that are past their prime) in a hot cast iron pan, letting them blacken just a bit. Really good.

On Sunday, my friend Rajesh and I ate at Frascati (Green Street at Hyde Street), a place I'd found in Zagat. It was cozy, in an old house with lots of little rooms. It was a little close but not uncomfortably so. Now I really like my friend Raj but he does like things just so, and isn't shy about telling me when they're not. And several things were not just so for him, and some of them I'd agree with. He had a venison carpaccio as a starter, and while the carpaccio was quite nice, the plate it was served on was freezing. I would have sent it back but he just ate it. I had a gnocchi dish with some truffle oil. Raj's opinion was that the truffle oil was overwhelming; my own was that less wouldn't have hurt but it was still pretty good. I did have a less than memorable flat iron steak; it was gristly without any offsetting flavor, and I really can't remember what Raj had as an entree. I had a vin santo (with no cookie - Raj was appalled) and he had a Bonny Doon framboise. I've had that before and should have warned him. It's a lighter version of Chambord but just as raspberry-powerful. The service was quite nice, and Raj picked up the tab so it was a good night as far as I was concerned!

Monday was the worst. The concierge at the Grand Hyatt recommended Le Central Bistro downtown on Bush Street. I was having dinner with two girlfriends and didn't want to deal with large crowds or a lot of noise. We were going to talk a lot and wanted to hear each other. It was bistro food but very, very, VERY tired bistro food. Fortunately, neither of my dinner companions held it against me but Connie did tell me I couldn't pick the restaurant next time.

New Silverware

As a wedding present, my lovely grandmother bought a set of twelve five-piece place settings for us. It's an example of repoussé, a process or the product of ornamenting metallic surfaces with designs in relief hammered out from the back, and it's also the name of the pattern. This particular silver was made by S.Kirk & Sons in Baltimore; Kirk and several other silversmiths in the area were apparently famous for using the repoussé method to create very ornamental silver.

Anyway, my aunt who lives in Baltimore went searching for some for my grandmother to give to me and she was quite successful. It was all made between 1900 and 1925, and the forks and spoons have various monograms and names engraved on the backs, like Betsy and RAMcG. I like that little touch.

We always set the table with placemats and cloth napkins, so adding silverware in place of the stainless seemed like a natural move. We put the stainless away, and put six place settings of the new stuff in the drawer. I don' t have space in the drawer for all twelve sets! I suppose I'll rotate it out every six months or so.