Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Bolognese has a First Name, it's D-E-L-I-G-H-T

Growing up in the Garden State  allows people across the country to make several inferences about you, if not always correct ones:
1) we all talk like Joe Pesci (or Snooki)
2) it's law that you call it "down the Shore"
3) we hate all New Yorkers (not true; only hate Staten Islanders!)
4) we all have a cousin in the "business"  (re: The Sopranos)
5) we all eat pork roll like it's going out of style
6) it's state law that every town must have at least one 24 hour diner (see above)

And finally, my least favorite of them all, and unfortunately the most common:
We're all Italian. Or, as we say here, I-Talian (you natives know what I mean!)
      As sorry as I am to disappoint you, I myself am from German and Polish heritage, as is a good proportion of the north Jersey natives. Suck it, Tony Soprano! Sausage rules!
     HOWEVER, I will give it to my Italian friends - they do make a mean sauce, and pasta is a dish of statewide prowess. I happen to have a favorite though, and my love began not here in my home state, but in a little Italian trattoria in South Florida...
...you see years ago, when I did college the first time (!), I paid a good portion of my way through hard work. This little place,  which I  shall leave unnamed for fear they might whack me for copyright infringement (damn Sicilians) made pasta dishes that would turn your stomach over crying Uncle before you even began. My love on the menu, however, was not your typical noodle. I was introduced, for the first time, to the gnocchi bolognese.
     If  you've never had one before, I highly recommend...a gnocchi is a tiny, pillowy puff of light and airy potato dough, boiled until  they just float, and usually sauced in brown butter and pepper, or used in baked dishes. They hold the line between dumpling and pasta in their own tiny universe of delight, a category of Italian genius all their own. In my trattoria, the gnocchi was not house-made, but the sauce certainly was - and this is where the story lies. Our gnocchi came smothered in bolognese sauce; here it was ground meat, pink like a blushing bride, laden with onion, garlic, and lust. It was meat sauce to the nth degree, and it was love at first bite. I ordered it nearly every day for the entire 4 years I worked there - needless to say, when I quit, I lost about 10 pounds. Just saying, it was THAT good.
     I immediately went to my bible, the Joy of Cooking, and looked up bolognese, and promptly made it. Was it the same? Not a chance! The JOY version used real cut meat, not ground, took hours, and tasted amazing....just not the same as my trattoria version.
     As I repeated this experiment, over and over, I slowly came to the realization...that it wasn't a real bolognese at all. The sauce they fed me was in fact a meat sauce mixed with vodka sauce, frozen peas, and sauteed onions; a line cook concoction. My idealistic Italian shattered around me like an amaretti cookie in a toddler's hands. It was  a fallacy, an elaborate hoax on the American consumer. I was, in a word, devastated.
     But like any good culinarian, I sludged on through recipe after recipe, hoping to recreate my love in  pure form, not a pre-fab one. I tried pork; I tried beef; I tried turkey. I ground fresh meat, used store-bought. I busted my hump to find the sauce I loved. And, I think I did it.
     Nowadays, I look back on that era of my life in hindsight splendor, the kind of idealistic visions you can only achieve from looking backwards on an otherwise ridiculous time in your life. But I will always remember my trattoria, and the nasty (but cute) Sicilians I worked for, and the smells and taste of Italian-American cuisine that shaped my early twenties. And I relish every bite of my bolognese sauce, ladled over steaming whole-wheat fusilli or spinach penne, for I have graduated the extra-calorie school of daily gnocchi. That, my friends, is reserved for special occasions only.

Ground Beef Bolognese with Spinach Penne

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 large carrot, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 medium onion, diced
1 pound ground beef
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried marjoram
1 tbsp. dried parsley
2 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. fresh ground black pepper
¼ tsp. red pepper flakes
½ c. red wine
½ c. chicken or beef stock
24 oz. canned diced tomatoes in juice
2 bay leaves
1 c. milk
1 large Parmigiano-Reggiano rind (optional)
8 oz. dry spinach penne, or similar fat pasta shape
grated Parmesan, for garnish
In a large sauté pan with high sides, heat olive oil over medium high heat. Add carrot, celery and onion, cooking 1 minute. Add ground beef, basil, marjoram, parsley, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes; cook until beef is all browned but not dry. Raise heat to high, add red wine and stock, and reduce by half. Add tomatoes with juice and bay leaves; bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, stirring. Add Parmigiano rind if using. Cover pan halfway with lid. Add about ¼ c. milk every 15 minutes for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions in boiling salted water.  Drain without rinsing. When sauce is done, remove bay leaves and rind. Divide noodles among 4 shallow bowls, and top with Bolognese sauce. Pass grated Parmesan at the table to top. Serve hot.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Leftovers 102: Vegetable Neglect, and Why So Much Pumpkin??

WHAT??? I'm STILL eating leftovers??? You bet!
     Oh, dear friends of the food blog community, I have an insatiable appetite for turkey. I like it roasted, I like it plain with mayo, I like it in meatballs, in soup, in spring rolls. I could eat turkey until I sprouted wings and a wattle.
     This week is mental detox week in our home; i.e., the hubby and I are drinking and eating to our heart's content (I am preparing for a large move, so it's totally necessary!). In light of the low-effort movement, I chose to (finally!) clear the fridge of any lingering leftovers, from turkey day and beyond. In the dark, deep recesses of my crisper drawer, hiding beneath a clump of wilting kale and cellophane wrapped parsley, lay -*gasp!*- a small bag of brussels sprouts I had purchased and INTENDED to eat on Thanksgiving, but completely forgot about! I immediately felt sorry for the tiny cruciferous orbs of delight, as my fear was their imminent wiltedness and demise, and wasted food (I HATE wasting food).
     Let me guess - you hate brussels sprouts. Blame your mother for boiling the sh*t out of them. That is NOT how a b.s. should be treated!
     After a thorough inspection of my neglected veggies, I discovered that due to their remarkable vegetative lineage, the b.s.'s held up extremely well, and only needed a trim and a layer removed to find very edible stuff underneath. Yay! My dinner plate ideas included slapping a boatload of Hellman's on some turkey, eating it cold, and maybe adding some leftover pierogi (that's another blog entirely). Now I had a green veg - which always makes me feel better about eating half a pound of mayonnaise.
    I sliced the sprouts in half, then sliced up each half into narrow shreds. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a pan, saute a shallot, add sprouts on high, and stir-fry until crisp-tender. Yup, that's it, and they'd be great just like that...
....but I can't leave a good thing alone, you know. I made a vinaigrette from roasted walnut oil (my new fave), white balsamic vinegar, and Dijon. I chopped the turkey, stirred in the cooling sprout saute, just a touch of whole-berry cranberry sauce, and poured in the vinaigrette. Top with a few chopped toasted walnuts. Mmmmmmm, warm turkey brussels sprout "Waldorf" salad! The results were incredible, simple, and nutritious. I felt leftover-accomplished. And not so sorry now that I failed to roast the sprouts on Thanksgiving.

Roasted Turkey and Brussels Sprout "Waldorf"

8 oz. leftover roasted white meat turkey (or chicken), skin removed
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 large shallot, sliced thin
1 pound fresh brussels sprouts
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 c. whole berry cranberry sauce
1 tbsp. mayonnaise
6 tbsp. roasted walnut oil
2 tbsp. white balsamic vinegar
2 tsp. whole grain Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 c. toasted walnuts, chopped

Chop the turkey into small cubes; add into a large bowl. In a large saute pan, heat olive oil on medium high and add shallot, tossing until fragrant. Meanwhile, trim ends of brussels sprouts and peel off outer leaves. Cut in half lengthwise, then cut into thin shreds. Add into hot pan,  turn heat to high,  and sprinkle salt all over, stirring and tossing until sprouts and shallots are beginning to brown in spots and are crisp-tender. Remove from heat and set aside to cool 5 minutes.
Once cooled, add sprouts to the bowl with the turkey. Add mayonnaise and cranberry sauce, and stir to combine. In a small bowl, whisk the oil with the vinegar and Dijon, and pour all over the salad. Sprinkle in the pepper, and toss thoroughly. Top with walnuts. Serves two.

Part Deux: Pumpkin Puree is like Refrigerator Torture.

So, as always, I made the quintessential pumpkin pie on turkey day. It is a personal favorite of mine, and as of late, is one of the three food groups that my daughter will eat (not the squash group - the sugary dessert group). If you, like me, have always bought the big can of pumpkin in the supermarket, you've inevitably been faced with leftover pumpkin puree. Unless you were smart and read the recipe on the can, which always seems to use the whole can...well, I don't.  I follow the Joy of Cooking custardy recipe, which I adore, and has always worked for me. So, as usual, I am faced with leftover pumpkin puree, the most useless of leftovers from Thanksgiving - even worse than lumpy gravy, which could at least be redeemed into open-face sandwiches. And yes, I know - I wrote the pumpkin soup recipe! Why am I not making that?? Believe you me, friends, I have plans for soup...as soon as I finish the soup in my freezer already!
     I decided instead to treat my loving family to a hearty breakfast, which is not a common occurrence in our home. I came up with waffles, since my nonstick iron is in rare use, and is easier to clean up than a pan or griddle for pancakes. They came out crunchy, chewy, sweet, and delicious - especially when topped with whipped maple cream! I recommend making a big batch, and freezing them. They make excellent and healthy quick breakfasts when you're on the run, heated in the toaster until warm (sans cream).

Harvest Pumpkin Waffles
  • 1 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 c. whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 c. stone-ground cornmeal
  • 1/4 c. old-fashioned oats
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tbsp. baking powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 3 large eggs
  • 4 tbsp. melted unsalted butter
  • 3/4 c. milk
  • 1/4 c. honey
  • 3/4 c. pumpkin puree
  • 1/2 c. finely chopped walnuts or pecans
  • 1/4 c. maple syrup
  • 1 c. heavy whipping cream
  • Have a heated and greased waffle iron ready.Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl. In a separate medium bowl, combine eggs, butter, milk, honey, and pumpkin, whisking to thoroughly blend. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients; combine gently so mixture still has some small lumps. Stir in walnuts. Using a small ladle or cup measure, spoon about 1/4 c. mixture into center of hot iron. Cook to desired doneness - a light golden brown is preferred (follow the waffle iron instructions). Lay done waffles in a single layer on a baking sheet and keep warm in a low oven until ready to eat.
  • Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whip cream to very soft peaks. Whip in maple syrup gently to combine.
To serve, give each person 1 or 2 waffles, and spoon whipped maple cream over top. Drizzle with additional maple syrup or honey as desired. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Rubbermaid Brigade - Tackling Leftovers 101

This morning, I sat down to a breakfast of fried mashed potato cake topped with a cheddar omelet. Ah, Thanksgiving, how I love thy bountiful refrigerator harvest.
     I know what you're thinking...
Christine is up at 7 am??
     Very funny.
Yes, foodists, due to a toddler with an accident in bed at 5 this morning, I was up to make coffee and eggs early. Lucky me. Fine, need to get used to rising at a decent hour. But what made me smile was the notion that it's OK to eat fried mashed potatoes for breakfast. Why? Well, it's the Holiday Season! Eat, drink, and eat some more! Hooray, Hassah!
  It made me ponder the remaining leftovers that are lurking in Rubbermaid cloaks from Thanksgiving. Yes, there is the primordially delectable turkey/stuffing/mayo sandwich, of course, and mashed potatoes are good any time of day or night, but what to do with, say, that pound of cranberry sauce, or the gravy? Or the dark meat portion of the bird that NOBODY seems to eat anymore?
     And, did YOU use the giblets and neck?? Of COURSE you did!
See the steam? Our bird, hot from the oven!
It's been 6 days, folks, hard to believe December and Christmas (and Hanukkah) are upon us...time to get rid of that carcass taking up half the refrigerator, and make something useful! To start, I give you two simple recipes - first, a solution for leftover bits and pieces of dark and white meat (if you have any left) plus gravy and cranberry sauce, and then simple stock to make good use of the carcass. Because, as any good foodie knows, you simply do NOT discard a perfectly good animal carcass without culinarily sucking the life out of it!

Turkey Croquettes, with choice of sauce
1 c. milk
1 small onion, peeled and halved
2 bay leaves
4 cloves
¼ c. unsalted butter
¼ c. flour
1 tsp. dry mustard
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. white pepper
¼ tsp. fresh ground nutmeg
4 c. shredded or finely chopped dark and white meat from a roasted bird (use your fingers and pick!)
1 tbsp. chopped fresh tarragon
¼ c. chopped fresh parsley
¼ tsp. red pepper flakes
For coating:
½ c. flour
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. white pepper
1 tsp. paprika
2 large eggs
1 ½ c. finely chopped fresh breadcrumbs, or panko (if you have leftover rolls or bread from T-Day, pulse in the food processor to make fine fresh crumbs)
Oil, for frying
Attach 1 bay leaf to each onion half using 2 cloves. In a small saucepan, heat milk and onions, bay leaf side down, until just steaming. Turn off and let steep 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in another medium saucepan, melt butter. Add flour, dry mustard, salt, and ½ tsp. white pepper, cooking 1 minute and stirring to smooth out. Slowly pour in milk, whisking constantly, to make a smooth sauce. Cook on medium heat, stirring, until sauce is bubbling and very thick. Add nutmeg, and taste to adjust seasonings. Pour into a shallow bowl and press plastic directly on surface.  Let cool 10 minutes.
In a bowl, combine shredded meat, parsley, tarragon, and red pepper flakes with the cooled sauce, mixing thoroughly. Taste and check seasonings, using additional salt and white pepper as needed. Press plastic onto surface of mixture, and chill for at least 2 hours.
Heat oil in a Dutch oven or deep fryer to 350 degrees F. In three shallow bowls, arrange first the flour, salt, white pepper, and paprika; then the eggs, beaten in the second bowl; the breadcrumbs should go in the third bowl.  Form the chilled mixture into little football shapes about the size of your palm, packing mix together tightly in hand. Roll first in the seasoned flour, shaking off excess, then the egg, and finally the breadcrumbs, pressing tightly to adhere. Place on a plate, and complete with the remaining mix. Fry the croquettes in batches of three for about 5-7 minutes, until the coating is a rich golden brown. Remove to paper towels to drain. Serve hot with one of the sauces.
Sauce options:
1) In a small saucepan, heat 1 c. leftover gravy with 2 tbsp. grainy Dijon mustard and 2 tbsp. heavy cream or sour cream; stir in 1 tbsp. chopped tarragon and season to taste.
2) Mix 1/2 c. leftover cranberry sauce with 1 tbsp. grainy Dijon mustard, 1/2 c. mayonnaise, 1 tbsp. minced shallot and 2 tbsp. finely chopped parsley.
3) Mix 1/2 c. mustard, 1/2 c. honey and 1/2 c. mayonnaise
**The last two options are also great sandwich spreads for turkey or chicken!

Turkey stock

1 turkey carcass, legs and wings removed from body, breastbone broken away from spine, all useful meat removed, plus any accumulated aromatics/jellied juices/roasted skin left on the platter (everything in the pot!)
2 stalks celery with leaves, broken in large chunks
2 large carrots, unpeeled, in large chunks
1 large onion, unpeeled, quartered
1 large bunch herbs - thyme, parsley, sage combo
2 bay leaves
20 peppercorns
5 cloves

Add all ingredients to a large stockpot; cover with water just over the carcass. Cover pot and bring to a simmer on medium heat. Skin off any fat and scum, and continue to simmer on low heat for 3 hours, skimming scum as needed. Have a small bag ready (for garbage) and another large pot at hand. Rest a fine colander on the empty pot. Using a ladle, carefully scoop stock through the colander into the clean pot; continue until you can't get the ladle past the carcass. Lift bones, veggies, etc. out of the stockpot into the garbage bag, and continue to ladle stock. When you get to the bottom, GENTLY pour the remainder through the colander - the goal here is a clear stock, so do NOT press on the solids. Discard any remaining ingredients. Cover the pot with stock and place in the refrigerator overnight.
   The next day, remove the stock from the fridge. The fat will have accumulated and solidified on top - discard this. Bring stock up to a boil, then reduce and simmer uncovered until reduced by 1/3. Voila! You made turkey stock!
At this point, there are several directions to go - here are your options:
1) make turkey soup - add leftover meat, fresh chopped vegetables, and herbs to stock; simmer until veggies are cooked through. Taste and adjust for seasonings. Keep in mind that stock is much lighter in flavor and body than traditional soup bases, so it is recommended to reduce the stock further to intensify the flavor - or you can cheat and add some chicken base or bouillon.
2) you can spoon the stock into 1 or 2 cup portions and freeze in zip top bags for convenient future uses in cooking.
3) you can make tiny, intense cubes of turkey goodness by continuing to reduce the stock until it's a mere 1/4 of it's original volume; pour into ice cube trays and freeze, then store in zip top bags. The cubes will not be able to be diluted to make regular stock, like a base would, but they are very valuable in intensifying and fortifying sauces, gravy, and regular soup. The flavor they infuse is incredible, plus they're easy to store.

Gobble, gobble, the turkey is kaput!