Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ghetto Cobbler!

Just a quick one today!  And normally I wouldn't include this at all, because it's no semblance of actual cooking... way Sandra Lee.  But it does fit into that whole category of how to use up 50 thousand pints of jam you made last summer, so there you go.  A little canning kindness for this phenomenally warm, sunny Saturday.

Last night we were barbecuing spicy sausages and black beans and rice for dinner.  Sitting on the patio and drinking a bottle of Kung Fu Girl Riesling, the evening just cried out in agony for dessert.  I'm not a big dessert person; I'd rather spend my calories on extra savory treats.  But every once and a while, a meal needs a sweet finale. 

I racked my brain for something, anything I could do with what was on hand.  No fresh fruit, no frozen pies, not even a box of instant cake mix.  In the fridge were two jars of preserves:  my chunky peach jam cracked for the pork roast, and blackberry preserves that Matt tried to spread on toast (not the most successful of ventures).  Mmm, delicious suspended fruit.  The perfect accompaniment to weather that they could actually survive in.  What I wouldn't give for a cobbler.


I didn't have cobbler, but we did have a bag of Schwan's buttermilk biscuits in the freezer.  Behind that was a carton of vanilla ice cream I bought a couple months ago.  I could probably bake up the biscuits and make a Chopped Napoleon-esque "deconstructed" cobbler.  I think deconstructed is just chefspeak for ghetto.  Anyway, the biscuits baked beautifully while we ate dinner, all fluffy and huge and flaky.  No, they're not homemade, but they looked better than any biscuits I've made so far in my life.  I split them up and layered peaches for me, blackberry preserves for Matt, then topped with ice cream.  Kinda ice cream sundae, kinda cobbler, so freakishly good!  The warm biscuits just kind of melting the ice cream, giving a savory-salty tint to the jam and ice cream... summer personified. 

Getting creative with the produce you can is the most fun and rewarding kitchen fun you're probably going to have, since you're making something fabulous with SOMETHING YOU MADE!  Every result tastes better, because it's absolutely yours.  As the markets poise to open in a few weekends and my shorts come out of the drawer for the first time in 7 months, I can't wait to start putting up more "secret ingredients" for our own little Iron Chef moments.  Happy Spring, everyone!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dear Readers: Help Us Happy our Easter!

The subject of Easter dinner has been a bit contentious in the Blankenhaus. First I thought I was going to have my dream come true and get to make my lamb Easter.  Then, when talking to Matt and coming to the realization that he doesn't really like lamb and it would be a really expensive endeavor for two (and basically one excited) person, I figured it wasn't actually worth it.  I proposed prime rib, but he balked at the price.  He wanted turkey, I flat-out refused to make a WINTER BIRD FOR A SPRING CELEBRATION!!  THAT'S IDIOTIC!!!  Whew.  Anyway.  I said pork roulade, he got excited but wanted to stuff it with bread stuffing and cranberries.  Again I freaked out on seasonality technicalities and said it would only be Easter-y if it was stuffed with things like kale and feta. 

Then I got an email from Jake's at The Governor advertising their decadent Easter brunch, and I pleaded to just bag the whole damn thing and be served like royalty.  This was rebuffed.  My cooking was better!  The compliment was like a prison labor sentence. 

Tonight, knowing I didn't want to go to a crazy amount of effort but still wanting something special, I proposed a compromise.  We would have spring-acceptable ham, but with's gorgeous Baked Smoked Ham with Mango treatment.  Agreed on all sides.

Now I'm reaching out to you, my beautiful readers, to help me plan the rest of the menu.  What is your favorite spring side?  Do you have a great Easter tradition? 

We had already decided on Lemon Meringue Pie for dessert and it wouldn't be Easter without not-as-good-as-my-mom's-but-I'll-still-try Deviled Eggs.  Everything else is pretty much up for grabs.  I'd love to keep it seasonal, as we're going to our first market of the season this Saturday. 

I'd love to create a new tradition, so please let me know your favorites. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

All Hail Spring!

As I wrote last year, I get a little... impatient, for springtime.  After enduring a very cold, constantly raining March and opening half of April, I'm not the only one getting cabin fever.  All of Oregon seems to be crawling the walls, dying for a chance to feel a sliver of sunshine beat down on almost-translucent pale skin.  Yesterday on Sunday, we were awarded our first sort-of-okay day of the year.  It wasn't exactly outstanding--as much as the collective population willed the temperature to hit a reasonable 60 degrees, it stubbornly stayed in the 50's.  Still, bikers dusted off the spandex and girls in Forest Park laced up the new Shape-Ups they got for Christmas to welcome kind-of-well-we'll-take-it spring to our area. 

For me, this meant setting up the backyard patio.  Matt surprised me at Target by picking out a nice, big outdoor dining table and umbrella (thank you, Oregon state tax refund!).  He set it up and we basked in the tepid glow, and brought the barbecue out from inside the garage to its seasonal position next to the patio.  To christen our new dining area, I cooked a grilled dinner that was probably slightly excessive for two people:  buffalo-seasoned shrimp and pineapple skewers, baby back ribs, tortellini salad, baked beans and garlic toasts.  Hey, that tiny glimmer needs some encouragement.  Look what happens when you're out, sunshine!  Delicious happiness!  Come back, please! 

Hearts rejoyced with the week's weather forecast, which could be heard repeated by everyone you encountered:  the valet, the gas station guy, your neighbor, your husband who heard it from you first but then told you again about it like it was new news.  Seven days of sunshine, they promised!  We decided to take our Monday night dinner plans and summer-ize them:  homemade pizza ... on the barbecue!  I've always wanted to try wood-firing my pizza on the grill, but there was always a reason not to. 

Okay, the only reason was I was scared.  Homemade pizza was the first thing I got really, truly burned on in my first kitchen.  I just couldn't get it right for the longest time.  I remember cutting into one pizza that was completely raw in the middle, and forcing myself to eat it because I refused to accept defeat.  Bleck.  Now that I've got a pretty good recipe and method down, I hate to mess with a good thing. 

I was pushed when Cook's Illustrated arrived with a thin crust pizza recipe they claimed was perfection.  They make a good case, what with their long essay on proofing theories and diagrams of yeast.  Matt's been on a thin crust kick, and my normal crust is a thicker style.  The recipe called for the pizza to cook in a very hot oven, which made it ideal for a faster cook on the barbecue. 

When we placed our experiments on the barbecue, the sky was robin's egg blue with cotton candy clouds.  "Are you nervous?"  Matt asked.  Not really; the dough had felt right in my hands, and had stretched out so thin, it was pretty much guaranteed to cook through.  He was, though.  He kept checking underneath the crusts to make sure they weren't burning, or exploding, or something. 

"It'll be good!"  I promised, and early checks looked good.  The crust was browning and the cheese as gooing at a consistent rate, and with a mid-cook turn they were cooking evenly without sticking in the slightest to the baking stones. 

Then, a chill shuddered through the air.

A dark, heavy cloud began rushing toward us, completely blocking out the sky.  A few raindrops started falling down, sizzling as they hit the 450 degree barbecue top.  "Barbecuing in the rain," we laughed, "welcome to Portland."

The moment turned, and the drops began getting heavier and heavier until they turned into full-blown, unabashed hail balls steaming up the barbecue and making proper pizza turning impossible.  It covered the table and chairs, squashing our al fresco dining plans.  The steam rising from the barrage of frozen pellets hitting the steel cover made science-minded Matt afraid the whole thing would explode from extreme temperature change.  We waited out the storm underneath the house's cover, praying that our innocent pizzas would survive our lack of attendance without charring or further disaster.

When the cloud had at last properly pummeled Hubbard and moved on toward Canby, we hurried over to the pizzas.  They looked lovely at first glance.  I did an under-the-crust check by lifting each with the spatula, and was relieved to see that only golden brown, even crispiness was to be found.  They look like restaurant wood-fire pizza, Matt noted.  A poke of the crusts confirmed that we were all ready.

This extremely crispy, thin crust was a little difficult to slice, but once I chiseled the pieces apart they tasted fantastic. Crunchy and mild, allowing the toppings to take center stage.  I used Applegate pepperoni on Matt's pizza (New Seasons deli slices it fresh for you!) and Aidell's Chicken Mango & Jalapeno sausages on mine (along with pineapple and green onion, naturally).  Just like those wood-fired pizzas that they make in those gorgeous brick ovens at chicer-than-thou downtown pizza places, the fire grilling imparted a unique smokiness to the crust that just isn't humanly possible in a conventional oven.  Apparently, according to Matt, there is now no going back.  We have evolved into the next level of deliciousness, and from now on, this is the way to go.

In the Pacific Northwest, there is spring (which is in its nature inevitably depressing and disappointing), and the pre-summer state of mind (which is thrilled to be getting back into shorts and blackberry cobbler time).  Seize your state of mind, and make the most of this fickle season, rain or shine or even torrential hail.  Your barbecue can handle it.   

Below is a modified version of Cook's recipe.  Theirs calls for tons of resting time that I just didn't have, so I didn't do it.  The results for me were still great, but if you want to go with their whole "proven professional" thing, seek out the February issue.

Whenever (Not) Wood-Fired Pizza (makes 2)
3 cups bread flour
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp instant rise yeast
1 1/2 cups ice water
1 tbsp vegetable oil, plus more for oiling the bowl
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 jar pizza sauce (I like Trader Joe's brand)
4 cups grated cheese (mozzarella is a must, either in its domestic shreddable form or in fresh, sliced versions that have been patted with paper towels to wick up excess moisture.  Otherwise it's pretty much a free-for-all:  pepper jack, monterey jack, Dubliner, chevre, Pecorino Romano, spoons of mascarpone like my mom loves... hey, it's your damn pizza.)
Your damn toppings (sliced meats, veggies, you know the drill.  Just don't do too many or you'll weigh down the pizza)

In a Kitchen Aid mixer with the paddle attached, process flour, sugar and yeast until combined, about 10 seconds.  With the machine running, slowly add the water and process until the dough is just combined and no dry flour remains, about 20 seconds.  Allow it to rest for 10 minutes.

Add oil and salt to dough and process until dough forms satiny, sticky ball that clears the sides of the bowl, about a minute.  Switch in the dough hook and knead for about another minute.  Turn off the machine, shape the dough into a ball and lightly coat with oil (about a teaspoon).  Roll the ball so it is covered in oil and then place the bowl in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. 

Remove the bowl from the fridge and divide the dough ball in half.  Roll out each ball onto a baking stone as thin as you can stretch it without tearing.  Don't be afraid to use your hands after you've gotten as good as the rolling pin will take you.  Top with sauce, cheese and toppings, then place on a pre-heated barbecue on high (should be between 400 and 450 degrees).  Grill with the lid shut for about 8 minutes, checking frequently to ensure even cooking and no other issues.  After the 8 minutes, turn each pizza to allow even cooking.  Allow pizza to cook an additional 8 minutes, or until the crust is golden and firm to the touch and when lifted, the underneath easily lifts and reveals a golden-brown underbelly.  Remove, and cool enough so you don't burn yourself (too badly) before digging in.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Last Soup of the Season

I'm very ashamed of my surplus of canned tomato chunks.  I blew through all of my tomatoes last year in just a few winter months, but this year they've stuck around, neglected and almost-forgotten.  True, we just didn't make as many giant pots of spaghetti or vats of chili as before.  No particular reason, but the subtle shift in our hearty season menus has affected the practicality of my canning shelf.  As a result, I had to think up a creative and delicious use for leftover canned tomatoes--something to redeem the beautiful summer fruits from their dust coatings.

I was open to inspiration wherever it lurked, but I really wasn't counting on finding it at The Olive Garden.  I tend to hate on Olive Garden, mostly for the bland pastas that push $20 a plate and the nickel-and-dime menu options.  Want a little side of marinara for those breadsticks?  That'll be $2.75!  And that terrible, terrible wine they try and peddle at your table!  But I do have one digression... the soup, salad and breadstick lunch is a great deal.  It's how I discovered the gnocchi soup, and it's a nice option when you're trying to watch what you eat (as long as you can resist devouring that whole basket of carbs).  We stopped in a weekend or two ago at Clackamas, and I ordered the Zuppa Toscana.  The combination of sausage and spices in a flavor-heavy broth made me hungry for my own second helping at home.  The soup I had was a light cream base, but I figured it would be healthier and more practical to invent a brothy, tomato-ey alternative. 

I decided to combine two of my favorite Italian flavor pantry staples:  Italian pork sausage from New Seasons and cheese tortellini from Costco.  Sausage-Tortellini Soup was born.  I feel guilty even writing about this recipe because it's so simple, but it was so delicious and does go through stray tomatoes.  Simply start by warming a thick splash of olive oil, then adding onion and garlic followed by the sausage and Penzey's Tuscan Sunset seasoning.  Once that's nice and browned, it's dumped into the Crock Pot along with tomatoes, beef broth and vegetables.  When I opened up the tomatoes I took a big, heavy sniff and a long "oooooohhh" just couldn't stay contained in my throat.  I haven't smelled something that fresh, almost fruity and sort-of savory in months, since those tomatoes were rotting off the vines in abundance.  I'm sorry, canned tomatoes!  I'll be good to you next year, I promise. 

The tortellinis aren't added until the last 30 minutes, which makes this one of the only soups I will ever recommend eating the same day it's finished instead of letting sit around.  Therefore it's wonderful for cooking up for a work potluck, a family dinner or any other occasion when you have a little hungry crowd wanting one last taste of thick winter flavors.

Sausage-Tortellini Soup
1 lb bulk Italian-style pork sausage (if you're local, get it at the New Seasons meat counter.  If you're not, I'm sorry :'(
1 quart canned tomato quarters, with juiec
6 cups beef broth (I use Penzey's beef soup base to make it on demand... good stuff!!)
1 small zucchini, sliced into 1/2" pieces
1 small yellow squash, sliced into 1/2" pieces
1 1/2 cups fresh green beans
1 small red bell pepper, sliced
1 medium onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil (enough to generously coat the pan)
1/2 tbsp Tuscan Sunset spice from Penzey's
1 1/2 cups refrigerated cheese tortellini
1 cup frozen spinach OR fresh kale, rinsed and ripped apart
Salt and pepper

NOTE:  The squashes, green beans and pepper I had all came from a Schwan's Mediterranean vegetable blend.  If you have a nice Schwan's delivery person who comes to your house, get a bag and use half of it.  It's a lot easier and tastes great.

Warm butter on medium-low heat.  Add zucchini, yellow squash, green beans and red pepper, season with salt and pepper, and saute until al dente, about 8 minutes.  Place in Crock Pot.

Warm olive oil on medium heat.  Add garlic and saute one minute, then add onion and saute until just sweating, about 3-4 minutes.  Add pork sausage and seasoning, saute until cooked through, crumbling nicely with your wooden spoon.  When finished, add to the Crock Pot along with oil.  Fill Crock-Pot with beef broth and tomatoes.  Refrigerate the mixture overnight to allow flavors to marinate, then cook on low for 8 hours.  A half hour before serving, add tortellinis and frozen spinach.  Stir and serve with a nice shaving of your favorite hard Italian cheese.  I'm partial to Pecorino Romano.  Living in Parm Reg's shadow, it has a saltier flavor and a nice tang. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Suspended Peaches in Motion

The secret got out to book publishers:  canning is big again.  The most significant food preservation renaissance since the 1970s has spurred cookbook and how-to sales as demand for instructions and good recipes has shot up and onward.  This year alone more than 40 new titles are slated to hit shelves.  I haven't bought too many of them, mostly because I've already run out of room on my cookbook bookshelf shelf so that Ball Food Preserving and 2 Gooseberry Patch titles are spilling onto the floor.  But there was one tome I couldn't resist picking up last year at Costco.  The Williams-Sonoma Book of Preserving is a contemporary and gourmet take on the old-school hobby that included new flavors, recipes and usage ideas.

I think usage is one of the hardest concepts when you start canning.  A few projects in and you've filled your shelf with largely condiments.  Last summer we bought a huge box of peaches, and I made the peach jam and peach butter recipes from the Williams-Sonoma book.  Most of it has sat on the shelf; I have one jar of peach butter in my fridge at work for topping frozen Trader Joe's french toast on mornings when I don't want reconstituted oatmeal, and I know I've given away a couple jars of peach jam here and there.  For clearing things out in use-up week, I knew I'd have to get creative with these amber gem jars. 


I also have beer mustard that we made a couple years ago to round out German-themed Christmas gift baskets.  To be honest, I haven't used much of it because I don't really like it.  The beer we used was a dark, hoppy variety, and the mustard seems very bitter to me.  But the sauce I had in mind for the peach jam called for a little mustard to add some acidity and cut into the sugary sweetness of the fruit, so I could condescend to letting it play in the background.

Pork and peaches are a wonderful combination.  Case in point?  Peach-scented barbecue sauce smothering a batch of pulled pork so tender you can only eat it with a spoon.  Peaches are good chicken companions as well (I'll always remember eating my mom's cold apricot chicken at the park in Puyallup when I was a kid), but today is Sunday, the day for dishes that I can't even fathom on a weeknight.  I'm thinking a braised New Seasons pork roast with... kale gratin.

Not sure why that popped into my mind, but probably because I saw a whole feature on gratins in FoodDay last week.  "Gratins," I told Matt, "came from French people wondering what to do with all their leftover fresh produce and cheese."

"Tough problems for those French," he said.

I think I totally made that up.  The French love food stories, though.  There's this cheese called Fougerous, a small soft-ripened round that always comes hand-topped with a fern leaf.  Why?  Legend has it that the first wheel had a blemish, and the cheesemaker decided to cover it up with the leaf masquerading as a garnish.  Either way, gratins ARE the perfect solution for winter vegetables and miscellaneous nubbins of cheese hanging around. 

This was the first time I'd steamed kale.  I've ripped it up and put it into soup before, but never the traditional eat-your-greens method.  I followed all the advice I'd received about salting it within an inch of its life and not over-steaming.  I added about 6 cloves of olive oil-sauteed garlic, just for good measure.  Along with toasty panko crumbs and Metropolitan Market sheep-goat's milk cheese, how could it not be charming?

I seared the pork roast on the stove to get a nice browning, and deglazed the pan with white wine.  I let it chill a second in its sauv-blanc bath while i mixed together the peach sauce.  It was the first jar of that peach jam I'd opened in months, and I couldn't believe what I found.  The recipe had left the peaches in large chunks, making them more like candied peach preserves than a thick jam.  You could eat them with a spoon, which is exactly what I did... raving loudly over the Chopped All-Star finale on TV.  "These peaches are a-maz-ing!!"  I insisted, shoving one down Matt's throat.  That's how we discovered that my candied peach jam chunks are a perfect pairing for Ninkasi Oatis beer.  Another canning usage idea?  Maybe for another day. 

When everything was done in the oven (I also made some oven "fries" with sweet potatoes), I sliced the roast into medallions and served with ladles of sauce and peach chunks.  The jam became so much more than a vehicle for toast.  And the mustard?  Well, hey.  At least I'm down another jar of that.

Peach-Lacquered Pork Roast

1 pork roast, 2-3 pounds
1 1/2 cups of homemade peach jam (or buy some...cheaters.)
3 tbsp whole seed mustard
2 tbsp brown sugar
1/4 tsp cumin
1 tbsp cider vinegar (I used Cranberry Pear vinegar, but that's a pretty specialty item.  I still need to write that vinegar store blog!  Damn it)
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup white wine
2 tbsp Vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Warm the vegetable oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. 

Mix together jam, mustard, brown sugar, cumin and vinegar.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Rub the pork roast liberally with salt and pepper. Add to Dutch oven and sear on all sides to develop a brown crust, about 3 minutes per side.  Remove the roast and place on a plate; add wine to the pan and deglaze with the white wine, using a spatula to stir up any browned bits on the pan.  Restore roast to its place in the pan and cover with the peach sauce.  Cover and roast in the oven for 40-45 minutes.  Slice and serve with sauce reserved in the pan.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Bar from a Jar

As April has officially arrived (and I still keep writing "February" on my checks) and we were treated to a day of mostly sun today--aside from a couple torrential showers and hail spells--it seems that local, fresh produce and canning season are actually going to come back.  I always get scared every year, underneath the chronic gray that takes over, that I've seen my last tomato.  Luckily so far I've been proven wrong. 

If you spent the last couple years canning up jams, pickles and other fun projects, odds are you still have leftovers hanging around your shelf.  I mean, really.  How many pints of raspberry jam can people go through in 12 months?  This week, I've decided to reinvent and use up some of these past projects.  It seems apropos, as I finally finished up my personal essay on canning.  What else can I finish up around here? 

Here is a jar of strawberry jam from a couple years ago (don't worry, jam stays shelf safe for 2 years, as long as you've sealed it properly.  Always check your lids and seals, and trust your instincts.  If it doesn't look or smell right, throw it away.  Then you've cleaned your shelf, problem solved, and no botulism.  Hurray. 

I was screwing around with my iPhone Martha Stewart Bakes Cookies app, which allows you to leisurely scroll through cookies, bars and other delicious treats while you're stranded in an airport or whatever.  It was after I'd nixed Peppercorn Shortbread and Bacon Ginger Cookies that I swiped over to Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars.  It's like deconstructing a traditional pb&j.... or reconstructing it... whatever they're doing at Clyde Common these days. 

The best tip for bars, one that Martha includes on all of her recipes... always line the baking pan with parchment paper.  The tiny extra step will save you so many headaches trying to chisel baked-on goodies out of a stubborn pan, and when it's empty and you're left with a barely-touched pan to wash, you'll just want to travel back in time and worship your savvy self. 

Not only does the recipe call for the better part of a jam pint, you will essentially use an entire jar of peanut butter.  Instead of trying to measure out 2 1/2 cups of peanut butter, which just makes a mess, I'd just empty the jar into the creamed butter and sugar mixture. 

These bars took me maybe 15 minutes to put together, and assembly is just about as easy as putting together the more traditional sandwich version.  You create a thick layer of batter on the bottom, add a layer of jam above and then create another thin crust of peanut butter "cake" right above.  Strawberry jam is great, but you could use any berry jam you have leftover--raspberry would be delicious, too.  If you like it on white bread, you'll like it here. 

50 minutes later, I had a gigantic pan of bars that... I can't eat.  Luckily, that's what co-workers are for.  Tomorrow we'll put some Peach Jam to good use in a pork roast, and I'll look for something to do with all that Blackberry Preserve I thought was super-necessary in 2008.

Martha's iPhone Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars
    • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan
    • 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
    • 1 1/2 cups sugar
    • 2 large eggs
    • 2 1/2 cups smooth peanut butter
    • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
    • 1 teaspoon baking powder
    • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
    • 1 1/2 cups strawberry jam, or other flavor
    • 2/3 cup salted peanuts, roughly chopped