Thursday, May 29, 2008

Party Food

On Sunday I had a picnic to go to and I needed to whip something up really quickly as I had lots of other things going on. I decided on a simple but very tasty little snack with only a couple of ingredients.

Caramelized Onion and Gorgonzola Tarts

2 T. olive oil
1 large, sweet onion, sliced into thin strips
3/4 c. crumbled gorgonzola
black pepper
30 mini-phyllo cups

Caramelize the onions for about 45 minutes, then crumble up the cheese into the mix, add some black pepper and snippets of chive for color, scoop a spoonful into each phyllo cup and bake in a 350 degree oven for about 10-15 minutes. How do you love that? Add more cheese if you like, or sub a different kind of cheese.

Then Tuesday rolled around and I decided to make a big, disgusting tray of macaroni and cheese to celebrate Maria's last Tuesday as a single woman. I saw this recipe on one of my favorite food blogs. This recipe was being touted for its reheating ease-or not turning into a hard, congealed lump of solid cheese after cooling. It definitely stayed creamy after reheating but I would have liked the flavor to be a bit cheesier. Still a good, basic recipe though.

Martha Stewart’s Creamy Mac-and-Cheese
Martha Stewart Living Cookbook: The Original Classics

Now, please be warned, this makes a ton-a mac-and-cheese. Not interested in going on an all-mac, all-the-time diet this week, but wishing to try the recipe at last, I halved it and guess what? We still had three dinner’s worth of mac-and-cheese, or a full six servings. Which is, of course, what the recipe said it would make if halved, but I was in denial.

Serves 12

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for casserole
6 slices white bread, crusts removed, torn into 1/4- to l/2-inch pieces
5 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons coarse salt, plus more for water
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 1/2 cups (about 18 ounces) grated sharp white cheddar cheese
2 cups (about 8 ounces) grated Gruyère or 1 1/4 cups (about 5 ounces) grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 pound elbow macaroni

1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter a 3-quart casserole dish; set aside. Place the bread in a medium bowl. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Pour the melted butter into the bowl with the bread, and toss. Set the breadcrumbs aside.

2. Warm the milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons butter in a high-sided skillet over medium heat. When the butter bubbles, add the flour. Cook, stirring, 1 minute.

3. While whisking, slowly pour in the hot milk a little at a time to keep mixture smooth. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick, 8 to 12 minutes.

4. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in salt, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper, 3 cups cheddar cheese, and 1 1/2 cups Gruyère (or 1 cup Pecorino Romano); set the cheese sauce aside.

5. Cover a large pot of salted water, and bring to a boil. Cook the macaroni until the outside of pasta is cooked and the inside is underdone, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the macaroni to a colander, rinse under cold running water, and drain well. Stir the macaroni into the reserved cheese sauce.

6. Pour the mixture into the prepared dish. Sprinkle the remaining 1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, 1/2 cup Gruyère (or 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano), and the breadcrumbs over the top. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes (though we needed a bit more time to get it brown, but your oven may vary). Transfer the dish to a wire rack for 5minutes before serving.

*Notes: I didn't like the look of the cubed bread, I used panko instead.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sayings I Can't Freaking Stand

Disclaimer: Please forgive me if one of your favorite phrases is on the list, it's just my personal preference.

"Hot mess." Why is it hot? Are messes typically hot, warm or even tepid? This doesn't make any sense to me.

"All sorts of_______." People love to use this phrase with just about anything, "all sorts of crazy, all sorts of wrong." It is not all sorts, it just is. This is a good example of being unnecessarily wordy.

"Ain't that about a bitch?" Umm, I don't know, is it about a bitch or is it just a bitch? Again, overly wordy=making no grammatical sense.

"I just threw up a little in my mouth." It's been a while since I've had the displeasure of said activity, but isn't that where one usually vomits? I understand that people use this phrase to express their revulsion (like hearing about that nasty Austrian guy who kept his daughter locked up in the basement and repeatedly raped her)but a simple "that makes me want to throw up" is perfectly acceptable and accurate to boot. Stating that one just threw up in their mouth is most likely not true and stating the location/origin is just pointing out the obvious.

"You do you and/or I'll do me." What? Is this the post-modern way to say "I will attend to my affairs, please stay out of it and take care of your own and we will both complete these activities independently of one another?" I believe this is a classic case of subject-verb disagreement, or at the very least, a loose interpretation of proper usage. One really doesn't "do" themselves, this is poor grammar indeed or else a gross indecency.

Incidentally, after reading an article written by a friend of mine, and lambasting him for using possessive punctuation when he was actually trying to pluralize, he sent me this link. I am white and I do love grammar, or picking out particulary egregious mistakes on other people's behalf so maybe you'll find this as amusing as I did. Regardless, please add to my list, I'll be sure to think of a million more as the day progresses. Feel free to point out any of my mistakes, just because I pick on others doesn't mean I don't commit my own grammatical sins!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Aida's Graduation Party

I headed to Rochester this weekend with Dominick to celebrate his sister-in-law, Aida's, graduation from nursing school. In typical Rodriguez family tradition, I knew that this would involve lots of delicious food, gutbusting laughter and a serious workout on the dance floor.

We got there a few hours early to help out and spent a frantic few hours chopping, arranging, squeezing (limes that is, for the margaritas), slicing, peeling and so on. When the offical hour arrived, I couldn't be happier because I was starving. The first round included shrimp, a beautiful fruit salad with blackberries, strawberries, pineapple, watermelon, blanched asparagus and bell peppers made up the crudite, bruschetta, olives and a fantastic cheese plate. There was some triple-cream cheese ( I didn't get the name and I am kicking myself for it) that was truly amazing, fluffier than brie but just as creamy. I wanted to make out with this cheese, that's how meltingly delicious it was.

Around this time, Dom's mom, Cuca, started making the arroz con gandules. That woman is amazing. First she whipped out a caldero that was just about as big as the stove. She added oil, achiote and recaito. Now, to put this in perspective, when I make rice and beans, I use about 1/3 cup of recaito. Cuca must have used a pound! See below.

Next, she let the recaito cook down into the achiote oil.

After adding her other mysterious ingredients, Cuca threw in a measly 8 POUNDS of rice, a few pounds of gandules and I don't know how much meat. Now, at this point, I was torn between filling up on cheese and shrimp and throwing down on Cuca's rice and the smell wafting out from the kitchen was more than I could handle. Do you know how long it takes to cook 8 pounds of rice? A very, very long time.

Finally, though, it was dinner time. Along with the rice, there was guineos en escabeche, which is a green banana salad in an oil-vinegar dressing, green salad, potato salad (with apples! Mmm!), macaroni salad, cole slaw, you know, the usual suspects. Aida decided to take some help where she could get it and ordered ribs, chicken and wings from the famed Dinosaur BBQ. The ribs were phenomenal but the wings, in my opinion, were just okay. I was shocked to hear that even in Rochester, a mere 70 miles away from the Chicken Wing capital, there are no good wings to be found. That is most unfortunate.

After dinner, we cut the cake, which was made by none other than Cuca. She cooks a mean rice and beans and she also can bake. It almost seems unfair to be that good, doesn't it? One time, she made this cake that I can only describe a Lemon Pound Delicious. In true, seasoned cook style, when you ask her how she made something, she just shrugs. Anyway, her cakes are legendary, this one was great but I still can't get that lemon cake out of my head and I think that was over five years ago.

Once the mountain of food was consumed and a pinata was visciously attacked by a horde of candy-starved children, the dancing began. We went from Hector Lavoe to Chaka Khan to Elvis Crespo to Lisa Lisa, a wild knot of swirling bodies directly in front of the speakers, where else?

The party had to end sometime though so we took our tired selves and our throbbing feet back home. I was exhausted but it was a good party and the best of all, was that I came home bearing a big, old plate of Cuca's rice.

Friday, May 9, 2008

I'm Starting to Sound Like a Broken Record

Isn't that phrase kind of funny and dated? Perhaps "I'm starting to sound like a scratched CD" is more accurate. Anyway, I have ONE MORE thing to say about ramps and then I'm done, promise. At first, I didn't get what was so special about them, I mean, just use leeks or onions or garlic or a combination, what's the big deal? My theory was that they are so highly touted only becasue they herald spring and are available just briefly. But when I tasted them in the chowder I made this week, I understood. When the greens are sauteed, they become lush, velvety, satin-esque and sensuous. I can't even compare their loveliness to any other sauteed green, spinach could perhaps come close but I've never had them melt so deliciously and also spinach leaves that nasty feeling on your teeth. OK, I'm ramped out, done, as promised.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Ramps Part Deux

Last night, after eating some quiche, I was still feeling a bit peckish and had most of my ramp greens left over. The wheels in my head started turning and my inner dialogue went something like this, "I'm starving. But I don't want to eat a third piece of quiche. And I hate to waste all those greens. Hmm, what else do I have? Tofu? Ugh. Cheese and crackers? Boring. Peanut Butter Toast? No. Sweet potatoes?! I could saute the sweet potatoes with the ramps, it would be sort of like my papa's amazing fried potatoes with onions, wait, ramps are like onions are like leeks and sweet potatoes are a different twist on potatoes and, THAT'S IT! Sweet potato and ramp chowder!" Incidentally, that's what it's like in my head most of the time, dizzying, isn't it? This took me a while because I roasted the sweet potatoes for maximum flavor but once that was done, the soup came together in minutes.

Sweet Potato-Ramp Chowder

2 large sweet potatoes
The rest of your ramp greens, or pretty much the entire bunch
1 T. olive oil
1 T. butter
12-16 oz stock or water, depends on how thick you want to consistency to be
1 ounce cream
salt and pepper

Roast the sweet potatoes until completely soft, about an hour at 350 degrees. While they're cooling coarsely shop the ramp greens and saute in butter-olive oil for a few minutes and turn off the heat. Now peel the sweet potatoes and puree them in the food processor, add the cream here so they have a bit of liquid to get them going. Add the pureed sweet potatoes to the pot with the ramps and pour in stock/water until you achieve the consistency that tickles your fancy. Salt and pepper to taste.

Notes: If you don't have ramps, sub leeks, or even onions. However, the ramps add a nice contrast in color so you might want to consider adding a handful of baby spinach or watercress, which I did anyway to amp up my vegetable intake. I am a huge fan of sweet-hot flavor combinations and so I wanted to offset the soup with a little heat. I threw in a dusting of chipotle powder, which was fine, but not what I was after. Heat with a more subtle flavor. I'll keep working on it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Late Night Quiche

My mother said she had some ramps for me on Sunday and when could she drop them off. I was only vaguely aware of what ramps are, I thought they were a green associated with spring and that was sort of true, more on that later. Anyway, she was in a hurry, I told her not to rush and she said soon, though, soon, they're fresh! She was so excited about them that I made a point to scurry over the next day to get them. But I had no clue what to do with them.

So, ramps, or Allium trociccum, are indeed associated with spring but they're not a green like lettuce or arugula that you'd want to nibble on in your salad. No, ramps are in the onion family and commonly known as wild leeks. The bulbs are much smaller though and the greens much leafier and less fibrous. Apparently they are considered a delicacy in Appalachia and in famers' markets all over Manhattan. They're the ingredient du jour.

I very simply prepared them in a quiche that was deeeelicious, using both the bulbs and the greens, adding some cherry tomatoes and cheese. I call this late night quiche because, being the genius that I am, I decided to whip this up at 10pm last night when I got home and had to stay up late wating for it to bake. It would also probably be a good late night snack or I thought so when it came out of the oven anyway.

1 9 inch pie crust, make your own or buy it, take help where you can get it
4-5 eggs
1/4 c. milk
1 bunch of ramps, cleaned and trimmed (use all the bulbs and about 1 cup chopped leaves)
1/2 quart cherry tomatoes
4 oz goat cheese (I know you don't like that Mamma, sub cream cheese or ricotta)
Salt and pepper

Have you made a quiche? This is easy. Preheat the oven to 350. Saute ramps and tomatoes. Whisk eggs and milk together. Dump everything else in. Bake for about 35minutes or until you can see the quiche set up and get golden. This probably would have been great with basil but alas, I had none.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Wild Rice and Barley Salad

I alluded to this salad in my West Coast Wrap-up post and, as it was tasty and healthy and a good balance of fiber and protein, I made it again when I got home. However, it was so different from what my sister and I made that it's almost a different recipe now. Of course, this kind of salad I like to think of as a vehicle for a number of different flavors; adding some sort of acid, dried fruit, nuts and herbs will always be good. Inspired by my sister, I haven't been eating much meat lately and have been trying to focus more on eating my "superfoods" like barley and beans and berries. Fortunately, this salad has all three!

1/4 c. wild rice or brown rice
1/4 c. pearl barley
1 c. chicken stock or water
1/2 cup rinsed and drained canned white beans
1/3 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup thinly sliced onion
1 T. red wine vinegar
1 t. extra virgin olive oil
1 t. Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
zest and juice of one small to medium orange

Combine first 3 ingredients in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 40 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat, and let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Spoon rice mixture into a medium bowl. Add beans, cranberries, and onions.
Combine vinegar and next 4 ingredients (through pepper) in a small bowl; stir with a whisk. Pour over barley mixture; toss well. Cover; chill 2 hours. Stir in cilantro and orange.

If you look at the original recipe, you can see where I made substitutions and additions, based mostly on what I had at home. I though both versions were very tasty, but the orange zest really perked up the revised recipe.

West Coast Wrap-Up

So I just got back from a mah-ve-lous week in Portland and Seattle. I went to Portland for a conference and got to stay with an old friend from New Orleans who now lives there. It was great to see him and even better to have him cook me some of my New Orleans favorites, including gumbo with crab, shrimp and sausage, fried chicken, dirty rice and bread pudding with a butter-rum sauce. The gumbo was up in the highest echelon of gumbos I have ever tasted, bravo my dear!

We also went out to dinner one night at a restaurant called Mint. This retaurant was created by a woman named Lucy Brennan, a certified mixologist. This means that the drinks were fantastic and the food was inspired. I ordered, with a bit of trepidation, a cocktail with a local vodka, cilantro and lemon-lime juice. It was bright and refreshing, with just a hint of cilantro so that it didn't overpower the drink. We shared some Dungeness crabcakes with ginger-remoulade that was fantastic. I also had a mahi-mahi ceviche with apple and red onion. It was perfectly passable but was just kind of flat-tasting. A special that night that I sampled included grilled asparagus, dusted with parmigiano-reggiano, topped with a poached duck egg and garnished with edible flowers and grilled pork belly.

Isn't that pretty? It was nice, the pork belly was a fascinating study in texture and I really enjoyed it. The duck egg though? It was a chicken egg and a flavorless one at that. I think I've ranted here before on the topic of eggs with those horrible, anemic-looking yolks so I won't elaborate.

I headed up to Seattle on Thursday to see the love of my life, little Lucy Rose. She is really the most luminous, delightful child I have ever laid eyes on. She melted my heart when she held her arm up to me and said "Yaya?" (I can only interpret that as a 15 month old version of Laila). Lucy is a great eater, taking after long line of hearty epicures. Her repertoire mostly consists of bananas, avocados, garbanzo beans and yogurt but she is adventurous and appreciative of most everything she tries. My kind of girl! My sister and I mostly cooked at home during my visit and we made a lovely wild rice and barley salad, as well as a spinach salad with avocado and mango, both from the most recent issue of Cooking Light. We also went to a place called Tutta Bella. Apparently, restaurants can go through a rigorous training process and become certified as being an authentic vendor of Neopolitan-style pizza. I've never been to Naples but I have had pizza in Sicily and this was just as marvelous; the dough was airy and flavorful, the ingredients graced the pizza without weighing it down and the balance was just right. I had a pizza with prosciutto, arugula and thick shavings of Grano Padano that melded perfectly together. Eat it all at one sitting though, the leftovers don't hold up so well.

We wrapped up our weekend by taking a stroll through the Ballard farmers' market There were fresh ramps and wild morels, a crepe stand, assorted wild honeys and I had to stop at the vendor who had foraged mushrooms to pick up some porcini mushrooms. All in all, it was a very nice getaway except now I've got a big, gapin hole in my heart that can only be filled with more Lucy time.