About Me

I have been cooking my way through life for over 50 years, beginning with mud pies as a child. I've turned a corner now and feel a Renaissance in my life. Recipes and Random Thoughts is my personal spin in a blog about how to prepare good food and how it prepares you for life. I want to share with you, honest to goodness food punctuated with perspective from the special memories and moments that have marked my journey.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Savory Mushroom & Gruyer Bread Pudding

  My refrigerator happens to be at a tipping point after a week or more of house guests and  entertaining and there are lots of loose ingredients on the verge of extinction.  I simply loath wasted food so I feel inspiration in the possibilities of a stale loaf of French bread.  Most often stale bread and end pieces turn into croutons or bread crumbs but in an innocent conversation with a friend who mentioned bread pudding, I realized I had the perfect combination of past prime ingredients in my refrigerator to make a savory version. I usually reserve bread pudding for a holiday dessert when panetone is available.  It's the right occasion for a rich indulgence but a savory version can stand on it's own as a vegetarian main with a simple salad or it begs to be a side for beef.  Bread, butter, milk, egg and cheese are the base for any other variation you might want to try; spinach, artichoke, broccoli, etc. Your imagination is the best ingredient!

 In a large saute pan melt the butter over medium/low heat and add the mushrooms and shallot. Saute' for a few minutes then add the herbes de Provence. Add the white wine and continue to cook, stirring occasionally until most of the liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes.  Remove from the heat and let cool while you prepare the custard.  Butter a 8x12x2 casserole and spread the bread cubes evenly in one layer. 

Break the eggs into a large bowl and whisk together with the Dijon mustard, salt and pepper.  Then add the milk, cream, and Worcestershire and whisk all together.  Spread the mushroom and shallot mixture over the bread cubes. Slowly pour the custard over the cubed bread and mushrooms to 2/3 depth of the casserole and lightly press down to make sure all bread cubes get soaked. Top with shredded Gruyere and sprinkle with paprika.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 8 hours or over night until all the liquid is absorbed into bread cubes. Preheat oven to 350 then bake for 50 mins. or until firm in the middle. Serves 8-12.

4 cups stale cubed (1 1/2 inch)French baguette or other hearty bread
4 tbls butter + 1 tbl for buttering dish
12 oz mushrooms sliced
1/2 cup diced shallot
Herbes de Provence
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 large eggs beaten
3 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp Worcestershire
1/4 tsp fresh grated nutmeg
salt & pepper
2 cups grated Gruyere cheese

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

She-Crab Soup, The Cashmere of Soups

I was most fortunate as a youngster to dine with my parents at Perdita's in Charleston, South Carolina.  As a 12 year old, it was my first fine dining experience. I got to have a few sips of wine and thought I was soooo grown up when Daddy ordered me a champagne cocktail when I turned 16. It was just a step above a Shirley Temple; champagne with a sugar cube made pink with Grenadine in the bowl of the glass. They didn't make a big deal about your age back then, I was with my parents after all.  We always started the meal with the most divine, rich she-crab soup.  The waiter would come by with a big brandy snifter and offer you a bit of sherry for the soup. I watched my parents nod yes, so I did.  I look back on this as a special time and place to be introduced to the finer things in life.  The restaurant is long gone but not the memory.

I hosted a small luncheon for a few very close friends today.  My BFFs.  We've shared 47 years of life. Nothing but the best for these ladies!  They know things about me they will take to their grave.
She-crab is difficult to find not to mention pricey, but they are just in season on the Atlantic coast.  If you live elsewhere, you'll just have to deal with he-crabs and that's not bad either.  The meat of the "she" is sweeter and has a more delicate flavor and the soup is enhanced by the orange color, texture and flavor of roe (eggs or caviar of the "she").

I consulted several recipes, the most revered being from the classic Charleston Receipts and more updated versions like Alex Hitz's of My Beverly Hills Kitchen.  I wanted the sweetness of the crab to stand out complimented by the sherry and cream, without being too heavy handed with the cream. It's like trying to put just the right makeup on a beauty.  It doesn't take much but a little creates a glamorous creature.  

2 lbs fresh lump crab, picked, and any juices
1/2 cup roe, if available
4 tbls butter
1 cup finely diced onion
1/4 cup flour
5 cups fish stock (Swanson makes an acceptable brand if not homemade; no clam juice, please)
1 clove garlic
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp paprika
a few drops lemon juice
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
fresh ground white pepper
1/8 tsp mace or nutmeg
Kosher salt to taste (depending on stock)
1/4 cup dry sherry + 1 tbls per serving
1/2 cup heavy cream
Chives to garnish

In a heavy dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat.  Add the onions when the butter foams and cook stirring frequently for 2-3 mins. Add the flour and cook for another minute stirring constantly.  Add the paprika and mace, then begin adding the stock one cup at a time, stirring until smooth with each addition.  Add the sherry, garlic clove and bay leaf and let simmer on low for 20 mins or until slightly thickened.  Remove the garlic clove and bay leaf.  Add the Worcestershire, lemon juice, white pepper and salt to taste.  Add the crab and roe.  Simmer until heated through.  Do not allow to boil. Add the cream, heat through, serve immediately.  To serve put 1 tbls. of sherry in the bottom of each bowl and ladle soup over sherry or serve at table. Garnish with snipped chives.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Taking Stock of Things

What is very rich stock and what is the difference between chicken stock and chicken broth?  Those are questions and terms I hear tossed about without much differentiation and there is a difference.  So let me straighten you out on the subject.  Stock is made from chicken bones and aromatic vegetables.  Broth incorporates the meat of the chicken.  It's for sure homemade stock delivers a fuller flavor in your cooking but none of us home cooks could get by without store bought. It's hard for me to keep up with my own demand for homemade so I keep a supply of the other in the pantry.

A very, very important point is not to let homemade the stock or broth sit around.  Once it dips below 160 degrees uncovered or unrefrigerated, bacteria may form.   Use an ice bath or if you are so fortunate to have an extra refrigerator in the garage to cool it down.  Too hot items in the refirigerator reduce the temperature for everything else (like eggs) to spoil. Don't be scared, just be smart like the pros and have an instant food thermometer handy.

Stock:  There are two types, white and brown stock.  Brown stock derives its' color from roasting the chicken bones (and vegetables if desired). White stock doesn't require cooked bones.  The weight baring bones(back and neck) have the most gelatin and are most desirable with wings a good option.  For me, the easiest thing to do is freeze the carcase of my weekly roast chicken in zip lock bags until I have 3 to 4 pounds of bones (that's 4-5 chickens).  Alternatively, I could buy 3 pounds of chicken wings or necks and make a very gelatinous white stock.  A pressure cooker makes very fine brown stock extracting every ounce of flavor from the bones and speeding up the process considerably.  More particular cooks than I would have a freezer of both.  The white for more delicately flavored soups and sauces, the brown for a deeper flavor.

Put the chicken bones in a large stock pot with one large yellow onion, peeled and quartered, two large carrots trimmed, unpeeled and cut into 2 inch pieces, 1 fennel bulb trimmed and quartered, 2 celery stalks with leaves(the leaves have the most flavor so put in more it you have them) cut in 2 inch pieces, 2 peeled cloves of garlic, 4 stems of flat leaf Italian parsley(the stems are as important to flavor as the leaves, so don't cut them off), 2 stems fresh thyme, 1 stem rosemary, 12 whole peppercorns, 1 bay leaf, 1 tbls Kosher salt( don't try and salt the stock more than this, save that for when you use it in a recipe). 

Cover to one inch with cold water ( 6-8 cups) and bring just to a boil then reduce to a gentle simmer so that just a few bubbles break the surface.  Skim off any impurities and continue  simmering for 4 hours.  Stain  through a colander lined with cheese cloth into a large bowl.  Cover with plastic wrap and allow to chill over night. The next day, using a spoon peel off any solidified fat on the surface.  For extra richness, return stock to clean stock pot, heat  and reduce.  Cool and store in quart containers then freeze. Makes 3-4 quarts.

Broth:  Place a whole hen (remove giblets and liver) in a large stock pot with the same vegetables as above and cover to one inch with cold water.  Some may include a parsnip, leek or garlic in the vegetable mix. Heat to almost a boil, then reduce to a simmer as if poaching. Continue to simmer for 1 hour.  Remove the hen and cool.  Pick the meat and use for chicken salad, casserole or soup.  Save the carcase, of course. Strain the broth, chill and remove congealed fat, then reduce both as above.

Veal or beef stock is the same concept but it's not easy to get those bones piled up unless you're good friends with the butcher.  Demi glace' is the next step in the line of reductions.  It's generally produced by professionals as the gold standard for sauces.  Consomme' is clarified stock and the process is quite advanced involving a "raft" that collects the particulate matter.  The raft is made of ground meat and egg whites and cooked over low heat in the liquid.  Sounds odd but it produces a clear product. I'm not an expert but I'm may give it whirl some day.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Fish is the New Chicken

Fish has started to creep into my Monday night ritual of roast chicken, indeed, fish is showing up a number of times a week on my plate.  We're constantly bombarded with the virtues of fish and I'm not going to disagree with anything that will keep my arteries flexible, but all the Omega fatty acids in the universe simply do not hold a candle to one of my favorite dishes, a fine roast chicken. Until recently, Monday night was the proper time, in my opinion, for roast chicken.  Monday is the first day of the working week and the day after the weekend when we have indulged in some excess or departed from the responsibilities and disciplines of our weekday lives.  Unlike the Dowager Countess Grantham, of Downton Abbey, whose classic querie, "What is a weekend?", we live for the weekend. Monday is the time to button up, settle down and get back to work.  Roast chicken  on Monday symbolizes a certain virtuous American standard. Didn't Herbert Hoover run on a platform of "a chicken in every pot"? 

Now comes the fish swimming into favor for health reasons.  When I was growing up fish used to be a Friday event based on the Catholic ritual of giving up meat as a sign of sacrifice.  My school served fish sticks or tuna salad on Friday. Now it's the other way around.  Red meat has fallen from grace with the trend of "lite" foods and fish has become the darling.  More and more I find myself preparing fish on Monday for the same reasons I used to prepare a roast chicken.  A salmon fillet on Monday snaps us back into place from the socializing and relaxation of the weekend and might erase the effects of a hamburger and fries.  I like fish, but it's a bit more duty that delight on Monday. Fish was rarely served as a main course until the American Heart Association and insurance companies took aim at heart disease and the health craze took shape in the 1970s.

We visited Alaska a while back and ate salmon at every meal, I think.  We even sampled a white variety that isn't found it the lower 40 and is their finest quality.  I asked a young fishing guide what they ate for Thanksgiving and he said, "salmon". They had deer and elk in their freezer as a local staple also. Then I asked if he ever ate chicken and he said, "No, it's not good by the time it reaches us."  I began to consider the probability that there wasn't a single live chicken in Alaska. How grim!
Sushi has come to stay and guess what?  It's not made with chicken (but that's a thought).  No, it's got queer ingredients like raw fish and eel all wrapped up in seaweed paper.  If you consider how something that strange got it's foot in the door, it might have to do with the low instance of heart disease in Japan. You're not going to get heavy and clog up your arteries eating small bites of rice and raw fish. I took a course in sushi a while back and learned the basics.  It's more about technique than taste and I don't see the point in investing in the equipment but it's an amusing bite now and then.
Fish is just as diverse as chicken and maybe more so because there are so many varieties.  Last month I posted a recipe for roasted red pepper coulis as the perfect sauce to accompany a lightly smoked white fish but didn't discuss the fish.  I adore lightly smoked or grilled fish of any kind. Most white fish has little flavor of its' own and a few minutes in a stove top smoker or grilled over flame does wonders for talapia, halibut, amber jack, cod, mahi mahi to name a few.  Grilling takes some expertise and I'll refer you to Steven Raichlen to hone that skill.  All I can add, is be sure to really oil that grate.

I've only posted 2 fish recipes out of 122 and 0 beef. Both need more attention from me.  Chicken is dear to my heart but my heart really needs the fish.