Monday, May 30, 2011

Good Memories

I'm not sure if it's because I live in a small town or I'm getting older or what, but this Memorial Day, I heard
much more about the actual people that we were honoring and a little less about Traegers and Webers.  I saw many people buying flowers and making visits to people they've lost.  Flags fluttered along streets, lawns and highways despite the persistent showers that foiled many a camping scheme.  The reminders gave me a chance to actually think about the concept of America, and what makes it so precious to live and die for.  That's a topic for a much more lengthy conversation, but I will say that I am very thankful to those that sacrificed to build and preserve a country where I have the freedom to pursue what I love--the opportunity to shape my own destiny.  There are few times and places in history where this was a possibility for all, and although it's very far from perfect, we should all be working to make it better.  Otherwise, what were all these brave people's sacrifices for?  That means less bickering, more building.  There is more common ground between us than we think, when we're constantly bombarded with divisive issues and politics.

We're all Americans, after all.  I have friends and family from all sides of the political spectrum, and we all like clean water, being able to read, and fried chicken.  Okay, my dear vegetarian friends don't like fried chicken.  But they do love a good meal, that's for sure.  Eating is the common denominator of the human experience right after breathing, and is infinitely more interesting.  Today I celebrated by making some classic American-style summer favorites, the kind of food that could bring any table of people together.  Hopefully this is where the foodie revolution will bring us:  back to basics, to the table, back to being people living together toward the pursuit of happiness. 

I knew I wasn't going to grill this Memorial Day.  It's a smidge cliche, although that doesn't usually stop me from indulging in overdone pomp and circumstance.  No, much of the day (except for a beautiful, sunny afternoon) was void of summer-beckoning sunshine, as my poor Overcast Tea could attest.  I just usually grill all summer long, and I've gotten an early start.  Tonight I wanted to do something special and different, something I wouldn't usually make but that would be fun, festive and a great use of Flex Points. 

"How about fried chicken?"  I suggested, which doesn't usually get a resounding no, especially from Matt. 

On the side would be my two summer meal standbys:  Macaroni Salad and Roosevelt Baked Beans.  I have an early Eats of Eden blog that features those great beans, a recipe gift from my mom and dad, and I've been making the same Macaroni Salad since high school.  Another recipe from Mom, I had her teach me how to make it so I could bring it along to picnics and stuff me and my odd group of friends had.  It's much lighter than what I usually think of as incarnations of that dish, which are usually super-heavy Reser's-style slop.  You just use enough mayonnaise to gently coat the salad, and I've made it even lighter before by using low- or non-fat Greek-style yogurt in place of light mayo.  Obviously it's easy enough for a klutzy high schooler to make, and the batch it makes could probably feed about 20 people.  I never pare it down, even when I'm just cooking for the two of us, because, well, there's something wrong with me. 

Since it was a holiday, I thought I'd make dessert.  Yesterday at the market I turned in all of the pretty retro glass milk jars I'd collected (against the side of me that wanted to keep them around for... something), which rewarded me a jar of Jersey cow cream for almost nothing.  The Cuisinart ice cream maker has been lonely all winter long, so I thought it would be a perfect time to break it out of seasonal retirement.  I thought about making a batch of strawberry with the berries I'd also picked up, but I wanted to branch out a little.  I remembered the jar of boysenberry preserves I had in the fridge, last seen during Ghetto Cobbler day a few weeks back.  Preserves are less thick and a little less sweet than normal jam, with bigger chunks of actual berries left "preserved" within.  You basically don't use pectin, but the natural pectin within the berries thickens it up a smidge through the cooking and processing.  A great candidate to be added into an ice cream project.
One of the best tips I can give for making ice cream at home is making sure that everything is cold.  And I mean, really, really, really cold.  I pass this on directly from the Cuisinart rep I called after receiving the wedding gift and saying I needed a replacement because my ice cream projects weren't turning out.  Don't take out the milk, cream or (if called for) eggs until right before you're going to add them.  Leave the ice spinner cylinder in the freezer until you need to use it, and give the mixed ingredients a 10 minute chill alongside it before adding to the ice cream maker for the final mix.  And don't add your flavorings (berries, nuts, pretzel sticks, whatever) until the last 5 minutes or so of mixing, when the ice cream has already begun to thicken and look like, well, ice cream.  Otherwise it will just freeze too severely, and you'll end up with teeth-cracking chunks.  It probably won't be as hard as most ice cream you buy in the grocery store, but placing it in a separate container and allowing it to freeze for a few hours before serving will help it solidify further.  That's great by me, though.  I don't like hard ice cream, which helps explain my fro-yo obsession.

I don't know if it was the combination of wonderful ingredients or there's some skill in this really easy process I'm getting better at, but this is seriously the best ice cream I've ever made.  I could have eaten that whole homemade tub (and still might... there's a lot left in the freezer).  It used up almost all of my leftover preserves, which was gratifying.  I love seeing those canning projects go to good, diverse use.  Truly full circle, that.  It was soft and rich, just like I love, with a true berry flavor and full-on sweetness. 

Now, on to the main event! 

All of this was pre-meditated, which included picking up drumsticks and thighs (the easiest, and most delicious, pieces of chicken to fry) and buttermilk.  I seasoned each piece with salt, pepper and a little cayenne pepper, then drowned it in creamy buttermilk, which it bathed in overnight.  This does two wonderful things:  one, the milky marinade makes the meat extra-juicy.  Two, it allows you to do a double-breading, which gives you a thick, crunchy crust that won't flake off.  Here's a picture of the dredging station, with the marinated chicken, a flour dredge and egg wash.  I used a very simple recipe for the coating, so my technique was basically a hybrid between Alton Brown's Good Eats wisdom and simplicity.  As Alton said, "no crushed-up crackers, no breadcrumbs, no breakfast cereal!"  At least I think that was him.  Somebody drilled that wisdom into my head, and I'm glad it stuck.  You don't need temperamental coatings when technique and simple ingredients can give you something far superior. 

Each piece was first dunked into the seasoned flour (seasoning salt, onion powder and chili powder), then into the egg, then back to the flour.  Then, ze fryer!  I don't fry stuff very often, but after a terrible failure of a Happy Birthday chicken-fried steak a couple years ago for Matt and a chicken success last year, I've learned a few things to be true.  First, only add enough oil to cover the meat about halfway.  You're doing one side at a time, and you don't want it to be submerged.  Keep an eye on the oil temperature; you want it right about 350, so when you're first warming and adding chicken you'll have to fiddle from medium-high to high to keep things consistent.  Determine the hottest area in the pan and watch that piece most closely.  Don't be afraid to pick it up and take a look, just not constantly.  They should take 4-5 minutes per side to cook and brown.  I've seen recipes that recommend you cover the pan, but I strongly protest.  This screws with the oil temp, and also traps moisture underneath the lid, compromising that gorgeous crust you've taken all that time to build.  Ditto for if you're making something like country fried steak and you're advised to put the crisped-up piece back into a bath of gravy (thus, my failure). 

And most importantly?  Trust yourself!  If it looks like it's cooking too fast, turn down the temperature.  Does it look done?  It probably is.  If you're super-nervous, poke it with a thermometer to check (after it's rested a moment on a baking rack over paper towels).  Your instincts right there, in your own kitchen, with your own food, are much smarter than the cookbook you're reading (or the blogger that's droning on at you). 

Served with a tall glass of Overcast Tea, this was one happy table tonight.  Much oohing and aahhing, even from Matt, who is usually a pretty quiet eater.  I'm usually the one all "oh my god, this is sooo good!"  It's nice when I can get a wut-wut. 

Thanks to all who have made this beautiful life possible.  I promise, we'll make you proud.

Boysenberry Preserve Soft-Serve
2 cups high-quality natural cream
1 cup high-quality natural whole milk (actually I used 1% today because it was all I had, and it turned out fantastic albeit a little softer, so I'll let you make that call for yourself)
1 2/3 cup sugar
1 tsp Penzey's Lemon extract
1/2 (ish) cup boysenberry preserves (note:  you could use frozen or macerated fresh berries if you didn't have the foresight to can preserves last year--how dare you!!)

Using a mixer on its lowest setting, mix together the milk and sugar until the sugar is fully dissolved, 1-2 minutes.  Add the cream and mix just until well incorporated but not at all whipped, another 1-2 minutes.  Stir in the extract and about a tablespoon of preserving liquid.  Allow to thoroughly chill for about 10 minutes in the freezer.

Turn on your ice cream maker and stream the cream mixture in through the top opening.  Allow mixture to process in the machine for about 25-30 minutes, until thickened.  With about 5 minutes to go, add the preserves through the top opening to incorporate into the mixture.  Empty the ice cream into a sturdy, freezer-safe storage container and freeze for about 3 hours before serving.  The mixture will be thicker, but still fairly soft. 

2002's Best Macaroni Salad
1 box of elbow noodles
2/3 cup cubed sharp Cheddar cheese
1 small dry-cured sausage, thinly sliced
2 julienned carrots
1/2 cup frozen peas
3 green onions, chopped
1/3 cup fresh parsley, minced
2 cups light mayonnaise or Greek-style yogurt (or a combination of the two)
1 tbsp yellow mustard
2 tsp cider vinegar
1 tsp Penzey's Sandwich Seasoning
Garlic salt and pepper to taste

Cook macaroni according to package directions.  Allow to fully cool before using in salad (but don't soak it in cold water or something else drastic).  To keep the noodles from sticking together, periodically stir them in the colander to separate.

Combine all ingredients in a gigantic mixing bowl.  Add more mayonnaise/yogurt if it looks too dry.  Allow to chill overnight in the fridge before tasting for seasoning, and adjusting to your taste.  Remove from the fridge about 30 minutes before serving so it's not ice-cold when you serve it.  Ice-cold pasta salad sucks. 

Memorial Day dinner dedicated to the memory of Uncle Ed and Grandpa Jensen--I wish you were here to help finish off all this chicken and see us all grown up in this wonderful world you helped make possible.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Today's Risotto

Two in a row!  Two weeks of pilgrimage downtown to the Portland Farmer's Market, where the college that wouldn't give me enough transfer student financial aid (bastards) plays host to the best natural bounty from all over the state.  This time I was lucky enough to have company, as my friend Kristine came along.  She's a great adventurous cook (and my canning buddy), so I'm always feeling braver when she's around.  Alongside some of my typical favorites like farm-fresh eggs, Jersey cow cream, Tails & Trotters bacon and more irresistible strawberries, she explained to me the wonders of garlic spears.  Like asparagus, she explained, but with a spicy garlic kick.  Garlic and asparagus fused into one super-spear!?  Couldn't say no to that one!  I've never seen these curly, elegant tendrils at any grocery store, but maybe I'm wrong and they're hiding next to the eggplant.  I never look close over there.  I do know they are common at many farmer's markets sporting any slightly exotic produce (in Portland, the Beaverton, Lake Oswego and Hollywood markets would all be guaranteed candidates).  What is even less common are those gorgeous blossoms next to Maxie-Pie, Brussels Sprouts Raab.  As the name suggests, they are similar to broccoli raab, but from the less-popular veggie.  I'd read about their existence in the latest Portland Monthly, and as a broccoli raab fanatic I had to give them a try.

I love recipes that allow you to kind of just throw whatever you want into them, depending on your fridge and the season.  Frittatas are a good example.  So are many soups, and even pasta dishes.  Best case in point:  risotto.  The basic ingredients are classic and simple, non-perishable items I always have in the pantry:  arborio rice (buy it in bulk from WinCo and save tons, as I've seen little bags at Safeway upwards of $8), white wine (two-buck chuck Chardonnay will do just fine), chicken stock, plus garlic and onions.  Otherwise, it's pretty much an open canvas.  You'll want some cheese, and traditional recipes use Parmigiano Reggiano.  True, you can never go wrong with that.  But what about fresh, tangy chevre?  Creamy, buttery Ossau-Iraty?  Raw milk clothbound cheddar from Fiscalini Farms?  The (Italian) King of Cheeses shouldn't have all the fun.

Just don't bring up that King of Cheese argument with the British.  They are freaking nuts about their Stilton. 

I digress, again.  Looking at my basket, I was inspired to cook up a Bacon Risotto with Garlic Spears and Brussels Sprouts Raab.  Before I spent all that time stirring in front of the stove, I wanted to cook and test the new vegetables out.  I started with the raab, chopping off the thicker end stems and cutting the remaining stocks into 1" spears.  Those were simply tossed into the great All-Clad super-deep saute pan with butter, olive oil, salt and pepper and cooked on medium-ish heat until they began to soften and the pieces I picked out of the pan and popped into my mouth were tender and flavorful.  They had a kind of grassy, fibrous taste of broccoli followed quickly by a very floral, musky aftertaste.  These are deep yet delicate, something that should be eaten slowly and considered.  With that said, guess who didn't like his taste test!  That's right, my picky pants husband.  So, to make a compromised risotto, I left these to myself as a side dish.  However, if you're making risotto on your own and aren't afraid of a wonderous palette adventure I heartily encourage you to put them in.  I mean, really.  If Naomi Pomeroy decided she needed a weekend off and gave me the reins at BEAST, they'd show up right there in your third course.

I prepared the garlic spears essentially the same way, which is the same way I would also treat asparagus.  They are so unapologetically green!  I love it.  And yes, they do taste like garlicky asparagus, so they were given  the clearance to show up in the entree round. 

Just to make sure I had everything ready to just add in at the very end of cooking, I also broke out the Tails & Trotters bacon and cooked as they recommended, by starting out on a mellow medium and then cranking up to medium-high toward the end of cooking.  I've never been all that great with cooking bacon (I like it crispy, so I put it on HIGH and then get distracted by a butterfly or whatever and leave the pan behind, only to come back to burnt bacon which I convince Matt is what I'd intended).  This method has definitely been working out better for me. 

Look how beautiful that is.  I just wanna dress it up and wear it around like Lady Gaga. 

Tails & Trotters bacon is great, but I'm also digging Olympic Provisions... hmm.  More taste tests are needed.  I'll schedule a re-trial for next Saturday.

Risotto has a general reputation as tricky, but that's quite overblown.  With a good recipe to use as a base--mine comes from my favorite cookbook, Pure Flavor, you won't fail if you follow instructions.  It's not a walk-away recipe; you definitely want to keep stirring and watching.  Its versatility makes it a recipe you should definitely invest a couple tries into mastering.  Tasting is also an essential part, and how can you not love that opportunity? 

Here is my risotto recipe from yesterday, representing this week at the market.  Next week will probably change, and your market will likely be much different than mine.  But isn't that the most fantastic part about the whole thing?  Make it your own moment and place in time, and homogeneity be damned!

Late May Risotto in Portland (adapted from Kurt Beecher Dammeier's Pure Flavor)
6 cups (1 box) of chicken stock
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup shredded Pecorino Romano
1 tbsp minced Italian parsley
1 cup garlic spears, sauteed and cut into 1" strips
5 strips bacon, cooked and crumbled
Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium saucepan, bring the stock to a simmer over medium heat.  Reduce the heat to as low as your stove will go to keep warm before use.

In a large, deep skillet, heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onion and salt and saute for 3 minutes.  Add the garlic and saute another 5 minutes until onion is softened.  Be sure to stir frequently and watch to ensure the garlic doesn't burn.

Add the rice to the skillet and cook for 3 minutes, stirring frequently to coat the rice with oil.  Add the white wine and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently, until the wine is almost absorbed.  Ladle 1 1/2 to 2 cups of the hot stock over the rice.  Stir frequently until all of the liquid is absorbed and your stirring spoon leaves a trail showing where it ran across the bottom of the pot.  Ladle in another 1 1/2 cups of liquid and stir until absorbed.  Continue adding stock until the rice grains are al dente, about 30 minutes total. 

Stir in cheese, parsley, bacon and garlic spears.  Season with salt and pepper to taste. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Marketing Coordinator

That's my job title, and I wish it had something to do with coordinating farmer's markets.  Today I did my first (delicious-centric) Marketing at the Portland Farmer's Market, the divine impromptu culinary metropolis that springs up Saturday mornings on the PSU campus in spring through fall.  Although the market opened in April, I haven't made it downtown until this Saturday.  With Matt flying back to Arizona and all by myself until the afternoon, I thought it was the perfect day to check it out and stock up for a celebration dinner.

Things I knew I would be celebrating tonight:  Matt's return from the great work trip, the early bounty of our region

Things I didn't know I would be celebrating tonight:  A personal essay of mine being accepted into a literary journal as my first real, official publication!

Needless to say, it was a serendipitous day for treats and toasts.

There is something leveling about relegating all vendors underneath tents, allowing the products to sing for themselves.  With the same storefront, everyone has the same chance to shine.  It's not like Whole Foods against Joe selling tomatoes out of his truckbed.  And even though living in Hubbard means I'm surrounded by many of the hazelnuts and hops and chickens that have all made the pilgrimage to market, there's nothing like seeing it all congregated together in the setting of pulsating Portland as a meeting of rural bounty and urban culture.  Basically, it makes me feel alive.

So alive, in fact, that my $40 cash withdrawal was gone before I'd even made it around to see all the booths.  I was so market-starved and excited, and there was the Tails & Trotters tent, and that great goat cheese with the inspired flavor, and artisan bacon that transcends all other artisan bacons I've ever tried--divine swine!!  And... strawberries!  Real, Oregon-grown, fragrant strawberries.  One taste of the small, slightly strange-shaped berries and you instantly remember why you've (hopefully) been avoiding the doppelgangers being shipped up from Venezuela. 

I knew I was going to make homemade lasagna and fresh-baked Italian bread for dinner, Matt's favorite and all, but the delightful glass jar of cream, speckled brown-and-green eggs and 2011's first strawberries dictated dessert.  Simple and classic:  pound cake with strawberries and whipped cream.

I found a recipe for a citrus-spiked pound cake from Gourmet magazine on Epicurious, and used Penzey's orange and lemon extracts versus the fresh fruit juices and rinds (I did have some lemon zest to use, but no juice).  As I whipped up the butter and sugar, then added the eggs one at a time, the batter became a blinding yellow-orange hue.  I've said it before, and yes, I'll say it again:  it's unbelievable how big a difference a happy egg makes.

Oh, and when I was at the organic free-range, small-flock egg stand, the woman who worked at the farm said, upon my request for a dozen, "Okay, we have our normal organic and free-range eggs, and we also have eggs from our newly Organic Oregon Tilth-certified flock, if you'd rather have those."

Portland, sometimes I absolutely, head-over-heels love you.

Not disappointing, the cake baked up into a sunny loaf that had a orangey aroma.  With strawberries (simply sliced, no sugar added) and whipped-up cream, it cemented Matt's thankfulness to be home. 

I might mention that every time I bake a loaf of something (whether it be meat, bread or cake), I am so happy to have silicone baking pans.  You don't even need to grease them with butter (although they probably recommend it, but I've never had an issue).  Just pull the sides apart, and the contents pop right out.  No more chiseling quickbreads!

Here's one final happy toast to the night:  to a divine season of fresh inspiration, no matter where you find it.

Best-Day-Ever Citrus Pound Cake
2 cups cake flour (I didn't have any, but I'll get some for the next time around to lighten things up)
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, softened
4 large eggs, at room temperature 30 minutes  (OREGON TILTH ORGANIC CERTIFIED!!!)
1 teaspoon Penzey's orange extract
1.2 teaspoon Penzey's lemon extract
1/2 teaspoon Penzey's vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325°F with rack in middle. Butter an 8 1/2- by 4 1/2-inch loaf pan.
Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.
Mix together sugar and zests with an electric mixer at low speed until sugar is evenly colored, then add butter and beat at high speed until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
Beat in eggs 1 at a time at medium speed, scraping down side of bowl frequently, then beat in juices and vanilla. At low speed, mix in flour mixture until just incorporated.
Spread batter in loaf pan and rap pan several times on counter to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Cool in pan on a rack 30 minutes, then run a knife around edge of pan and invert cake onto rack. Cool completely, top side up.

Serve with fresh berries and whipped cream. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Forbidden Noodle

I think I've said this before, but Asian food is something I messed up when I was first cooking.  I think messed up is putting it lightly.  I ruined it.  Most of my cooking knowledge at that first-apartment point was watching back-to-back Giada Everyday Italian and Rachael Ray, which convinced me that you cook everything in olive oil.  This meant that, to make stir fry or yakisoba, I'd dump a bunch of olive oil into a saute pan, crank it up to high, let the oil burn and break down and then.  An honest mistake, but I never bothered to Google some directions to figure out how not to have soggy, funny-tasting Asian food at home.  As a result, I was put on a far east experiment ban. 

My redemption began when I discovered vegetable oil.  I don't want to admit how long this took. With its higher smoke point (how hot you can crank up the pan without burning the oil and giving a weird taste to everything you cook in it) and its much more neutral flavor, it can do the job of wok-style cooking without compromising the integrity of all those ingredients you spend so much time prepping.  Speaking of prepping, I love the tools that make prep easier!  Namely?  This cheap, amazing julienne slicer from Pampered Chef.  Cheap as in not all that expensive, it's made well.  Just to be clear and all.  Just run it along carrots or whatever and you get these gorgeous ribbons that cook fast and work well in stir fry-style dishes and salads.  Did I mention it makes prep ten times easier? 

(p.s.  I'm still waiting for my endorsement check, PC!!)

The second secret?  Proper saucing at the proper time.  When I was taking Japanese in high school my sensei made fried rice and yakisoba with Okinami sauce.  Will you be able to read the label?  Maybe not--I've seen it in English and just in katakana.  But at your local Asian market, look for the orange-topped brown bottle with the smiling samurai guy with the Jay Leno chin.  Don't go tossing in a bunch of soy sauce or rice wine vinegar, as I've done tragically in the past.  And don't add it until the very, very, very end of the cooking!  Otherwise it gets crusty and gross. 

Asian-style cooking, unlike the Italian and American-style classics that I grew up very familiar with, didn't come naturally.  I had to go through a lot of failures, a lot of thrown away dishes, and invest some time reading up on what I was doing wrong.  By following the steps from people that actually know what they're doing, I've been able to redeem myself with subsequent successes, and am no longer banned from cooking up Asian noodle dishes.  Victory!!  It's nice to have that extra continent opened up on our rotating easy-but-still-fresh weeknight menu rotation.  They taste like the fun stuff you get at lunch at the bento shop, and are a good way to use up random vegetables you have laying around. 

The Forbidden Noodle!
1 package of refrigerated Asian noodles (either yakisoba or chow-mein style; I like the thinner chow mein noodle personally)
Vegetable oil
3 boneless chicken thighs, marinated in your favorite garlic or teriyaki marinade and sliced into cubes
3 medium carrots, julienned
1/2 large onion, sliced into strips
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 head either Chinese or regular green cabbage, sliced into ribbons
3 green onions, sliced into 1" strips
Bottle of Okonomi sauce (don't use the whole bottle, just have one around)

Heat the oil in a stainless steel skillet or wok on high.  Add the chicken and stir fry until golden brown and cooked.  Remove from pan and set aside on a plate for later.  Place onions, cabbage and garlic in pan and add additional oil if necessary to stir fry until slightly softened, around 5 minutes.  Replace chicken into the skillet and add noodles and green onion slices, stirring constantly until well-mixed and noodles are heated, about 2 minutes.  Add about 1/2 cup of water to the skillet and cover to allow the noodles to steam slightly, just a couple of minutes (you don't want them to get soggy).  Add okonomi sauce to your taste (I use about 4 tbsp), stir until just combined and remove from heat.  Serve immediately.
Sriracha Sauce, for garnish

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Table for One, Please

An update!  I know, right?  I'm breaking all of those cardinal rules of social media savviness I've learned in the marketing profession and writing pursuit.  That's lame of me.  I have a few updates to do that I've been saving up for this, the end of my 2nd semester in school.  I've also been hit with an unexpected bonus of time:  Matt's been sent to California and Arizona for a solid week by his company, so I'm kicking off my semester break with the cats and a beckoning kitchen.

This morning I prepped for New Seasons grocery shopping by going through my gigantic recipe file.  The goal?  Make as many meals that I can't (or technically don't) cook when feeding Matt and I.  This means all of the ingredients he doesn't like or appreciate, all packaged together into a grand festival of my awesome palette.  For tonight, I didn't even need a recipe.  I knew exactly what I wanted.


The forbidden fruit of meats, just a step below veal apparently on the abhorrent scale, the one that you always have to ask before you cook because a shocking amount of people refuse to eat it.  Matt doesn't refuse to eat it, but he doesn't like it all that much.  As such, I don't often feel like forking out the cash for it when it's just going to earn a "meh."  I love lamb.  Whenever we eat out somewhere nice, it's the first thing I seek out on the menu, and often what I order.  I've had unforgettable lamb at Ten Mercer in Seattle (with Brynne and Dan, of course, that fateful mussels meal), overrated lamb at Portland City Grill, a heavenly shank at Hall Street Grill, underground but amazing lamb shwarma at Aladdin's by Concordia.  No lamb at home though. 

The meal I had in my mind didn't require a recipe I'd ripped out of Bon Appetit or the Williams-Sonoma catalog.  It was a recipe gestating in my mind for months, inspired by the shank I had at Hall Street on my birthday and all of the Michael Symon Greek/Italian culinary pornography on Food Network.  Lamb Ragout over Crisped Polenta Rounds. 


Unlike lamb, polenta doesn't get a "meh."  It gets a "NO".  Apparently Matt had some traumatic thrown-up-cornbread incident in elementary school that has tainted all future cornmeal products.  That means my corn dog craving has gone unsatisfied since last summer, our chili is accompanied by DINNER ROLLS (WTF!??), and my entrees are void of creamy polenta goodness.  Again, I'm always scoping out polenta-heavy options when we're eating out, with different levels of success.  I remember eating at a place in Seattle's University District with Mom that had polenta fries, and they weren't nearly as euphoric as I'd hoped.  A little polenta goes a long way. 

I made my list, including stuff for the SALMON cakes with LEMON and MINT and QUINOA SALAD that Kristine and I will enjoy tomorrow night.  If my husband's food dislikes were Scrabble words, I'd be... uh, well, winning that game. 

As I flipped through the file, I noticed the lonely Desserts tab.  Why not bake something?  I'd have all night, after all.  Knowing I'd need to share whatever baked goods I cooked up with at my work on Monday to avoid complete diet sabotage, I looked for an inspiring recipe that was in individual form.  There's nothing appealing to me about bringing in a half-eaten cake to share.  What happened to the other half?  Did somebody carve pieces out with their fingers?  Lick it?  We just don't know. Cupcakes, however, don't present these worries.  Bobby Flay's Gingerbread with Candied Mango Buttercream cupcakes radiated off the ripped-off Food Network Magazine page and into my soul.  I'm not crazy about Bobby Fway or his shitty-spirited Throwdown series, where he targets small business owners with one claim to fame and tries to knock down their tiny pedastol, but hey.  The cupcakes did look tasty.  With my list in hand, I headed into the Lake Oswegan wilderness to grocery shop... alone. 

Which also has its awesome advantages.  Lingering in aisles over stuff you're not going to buy.  Poking cheese you're also not going to buy.  Flirting with the cute meat counter guys. 

I returned home to assemble some of my very favorite things.  Le Creuset, now losing her proud label but gaining so much experience on my stove.  A can of last summer's tomatoes, which have made me all snobby now.  If it's not me or San Marzano's, it's nothing.  Hunt's?  How dare you!  Pish posh.  And there it is, my own little package of lamb stew meat!  Yes, it's almost $7 for half a pound.  Yes, it's 100% worth it.  But I'll get to that later.

I began by prepping for a slow-simmer tomato-based sauce as normal, but with a lighter hand.  Less onions, no mushrooms, heavy on the herbs.  I love how full and lively bunches of parsley are now, versus the sad little bunches that look like they want to commit suicide during the wintertime.  I don't think parsley quite gets its due.  It can blame the eighties, when it was used mercilessly by every nasty diner across America as the tasteless and useless accompaniment to the twisted orange slice on the side of the plate.  The garnish.  We were literally taught that it was a useless sprig.  It's such a shame.  Real, vibrant parsley has an aroma like fresh, dewy mowed lawn with a breeze of lemon and imparts a similar flavor.  I admit it, I'm a parsley-sniffer. 

To prepare for a slow braise, I browned the stew meat in the Le Creuset, then removed and softened onions and garlic.  Once they were just turning translucent I deglazed the whole thing with some leftover Pinot that had been sitting on the counter a little too long to drink.  The lamb fresh out of its packaging, as I tossed it in salt and pepper, smelled strangely similar to the richness of the wine.  Stewing beef just doesn't have that kind of depth, no matter how nice it is.  After it had cooked down a bit, I re-introduced the meat and added all of the tomatoes, spices and herbs.  Since fresh herbs are wonderful but don't stand up as well in a dish like this, I coupled the fresh basil and parsley with dried oregano, dried basil and Penzey's Tuscan Sunset blend.  By layering you get the color and hint of fresh herbs with the sturdy, strong flavor of quality dried herbs. 

Flecks of green with that vibrant red--even flying off the cuff with my fantasies and experience with similar dishes, I couldn't be doing anything too wrong.  I brought all of the ingredients to a boil and then let it cook for 2 hours in a very low temperature oven.  This could have been Crock-Potted, but I wanted to use those brown bits that had been developed in the pan.  And plus, the Crock Pot was in the garage and I didn't feel like dragging it up and out of there.

In the meantime, I began the crazy clusterfuck that was Bobby Flay's high-maintenance, anal-retentive cupcake recipe.  The carnage included almost every dish in my cabinet getting dirty, even stuff people laughed at me for registering for when we got married, and ruined a Pyrex measuring cup so badly I had to just throw it out.  But the end result was a damn fine cupcake.  I'll never make them again, and I'm not going to post the recipe, but feel free to read it here and glean some understanding. 

Although I could have made homemade polenta, let it set in a pan and cut it into rounds... I didn't.  I bought one of the polenta logs from New Seasons and cut it like cookies, topped with olive oil, seasoning and asiago cheese shavings and baked on stoneware.  Sneaking a few rogue tastes off the pan, I found that it tasted just as good as the polenta I've made a few times before (and ended up throwing a lot away of, being the only one eating it and all).  I've still got about half a log I'll have to get creative with later in the week.  I'm thinking doing something Southwest style.  Cheesecake Factory does these amazing polenta cakes topped with pico de gallo, avocado cream and such.

Until then, I plated up a couple of the rounds and topped it with the ragout.  Of course it needed a chiffonade of fresh parsley and basil, just to echo those original flavors.  Another rule of cooking for yourself?  Serve it on your best china.  It's the perfect time to enjoy it--you only have one dish to do!  Totally beats those Thanksgiving ordeals. 

True, I'll probably get lazy later in the week.  Tuna melts will happen.  Eating out is inevitable.  But tonight, I oohed and aahed and patted myself on the back for success in completely indulging myself.  Sure, every cook loves to share their gift.  But ultimately, the only tastebuds you can fully appreciate are your own. 

Lamb Ragout and Polenta for One (or two if you don't take some for lunch the next day)
1/2 lb lamb stew meat
1/2 medium onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 quart home-canned quartered tomatoes, or San Marzano tomatoes
1 small can tomato paste
3/4 cup red wine, such as Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon
2 tbsp minced fresh basil
3 tbsp minced fresh Italian-style flat leaf parsley
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried basil
1/2 tbsp Penzey's Tuscan Sunset
Salt and Pepper to taste
Olive Oil
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
Additional minced fresh herbs for topping

For Polenta:
1/2 prepared polenta loaf, sliced
1/3 cup shaved asiago
Sprinkling of Penzey's Tuscan Sunset
Olive Oil

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.  Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat in a large Dutch oven, and place salt and pepper seasoned lamb in an even layer on the bottom.  Brown on each side, about 2-3 minutes per side.  Remove from pan and place on a plate.  Set aside.  Add onion and garlic to pan and allow to become translucent, about 5-7 minutes.  Add additional olive oil, if necessary.  Deglaze the pan with the red wine, scraping up brown bits that have formed.  Allow to slightly reduce, another 5 minutes.  Add canned tomatoes and paste, seasonings, herbs, the plated meat and salt and pepper to taste.  Bring to a boil, then cover and place in the oven for 2 hours.  Stir in lemon juice and additional salt and pepper.

To prepare the polenta, place the rounds on a stoneware baking sheet.  Brush with olive oil, then top with a sprinkling of Tuscan Sunset and even distribution of cheese.  Bake at 400 degrees until warm and slightly crisped, 15-20 minutes.  Remove and allow to cool for several minutes.  To plate, place 2-3 polenta rounds on plate and top with sauce and 1/2 of the lamb.  Fill up a Tupperware with the other half.  You will be the pride of your whole cafeteria seating area.