Sunday, November 25, 2012

Side Dishes with Proven Holiday Success

First and foremost, I hope all my readers had a fantastic Thanksgiving holiday this past week and were able to indulge in some phenomenal cuisine.  Although there are some staples that are hard to get around when it comes to the classic holiday meal (mashed carrots and turnips, I'm talking about you), I think every holiday table needs to stretch a few culinary boundaries.  Yes, I love a juicy, well roasted (or smoked or deep fried) turkey with all the fixings, but who says those fixings have to be bland and boring.  I'd like to share a few new side dishes I tried for our family dinner(s) this year... hey, who says stuffing is exclusively for Thanksgiving?

Apple Sausage Cornbread Dressing

1 small cortland or honeycrisp apple
1 10oz package of cornbread (preferably 3-4 days old)
1 pound sweet Italian fennel sausage
1 white onion
1 shallot
12 fresh sage leaves
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 tablespoons of butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon crushed fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

- Preheat oven to 375 degrees
- Break cornbread into 1/2 inch cubed pieces and lay out on a single layer on a cookie sheet
- Toast the cornbread for 15 minutes to remove excess moisture
- Heat a cast iron skillet on the stovetop
- Brown sausage and break into bite sized chunks, remove from skillet and reserve
- Melt butter
- Finely chop the onion and shallot and sweat out in the butter until translucent
- Chop sage, rosemary and thyme and add to the pan
- Dice apple into 1/4 inch pieces and add to to the onion mixture
- Add cinnamon, garlic powder, fennel, celery seed, salt and pepper
- Return sausage to the pan, combine well and remove from the heat
- Gently fold the sausage mixture and the cornbread together in a 9'x12' baking dish
- Drizzle with olive oil and bake for 15 minutes or until the top is lightly browned and crispy

Bacon Mushroom Risotto 

1 pound assorted mushrooms
5 strips of high quality, thickly cut bacon
2 tablespoons truffle oil
1/2 white onion
1 shallot
2 tablespoons herbs de provence
1 tablespoon porcini powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 cups arborio rice
2 boxes of low sodium chicken stock
3 tablespoons mushroom stock base
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup marscapone cheese
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

- In a nonstick skillet, toast dry rice granules until lightly golden brown
- Remove from heat and reserve
- Slice bacon into 1/4 inch strips and crisp in skillet
- Finely dice onion and shallot and add to the bacon
- Add truffle oil, porcini powder, herbs, garlic powder, salt and pepper
- Roughly chop mushrooms and add them to the skillet, sauté until the mushrooms are soft
- Remove from heat and reserve
- In a small sauce pan, combine chicken stock, mushroom base and wine and bring to a low simmer
- In a large sauce pan, combine rice with 2 ladles of the stock mixture (just enough liquid to cover the rice)
- Allow the rice to absorb the liquid (about 3 minutes) and then add 2 more ladles of the stock mixture, continue this process for approximately 20 - 25 minutes or until the rice is cooked  al dente
- Add marscapone cheese to the rice and combine well to a creamy texture
- Gently fold the mushroom mixture into the rice, adjust salt and pepper to taste

Friday, November 16, 2012

Baked Spaghetti Squash

If you love Italian flavors, but hate the carb overload that typically accompanies them, this recipe was designed for you.  I love a good fresh pasta, don't get me wrong.  There are however times when I don't want that weighed down feeling in my stomach and would love the same flavors in a lighter version.  Enter, the spaghetti squash.  If you haven't tried spaghetti squash, you're missing out on a fabulous culinary element.  It gives a dish a rich, fiber-filled quality that is incredibly filling but not calorie dense.    I was able to make a 6-serving casserole (and I mean six full servings) for well under 300 calories per portion.

Start by stabbing a whole spaghetti squash with a fork to form air vents and roast in a 425 degree oven for one hour.  Next, heat a cast iron skillet, slice four links of sweet Italian sausage and lightly brown on each side.  Set the sausage aside on a plate and use the fat rendering from the meat to brown one diced shallot, three tablespoons of minced garlic and one quarter of a medium sized white onion.  Add one chopped red bell pepper and one can of diced tomatoes to the pan.  Allow the liquid to reduce by half.  Stir in salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste.  Next, add 1/4 cup creme fraiche, 3 tablespoons of milk and 1/4 cup of beef stock and combine all ingredients well.  Turn down the heat to a low simmer and add 6 fresh basil leaves (chiffonade thinly), one tablespoon of fresh oregano and one tablespoon fresh thyme to season.  You can also add two tablespoons of nutritional yeast if you'd like to up your protein levels.

Once the squash is cooked, slice it in half (carefully, there's a lot of steam built up inside), clean out the seeds and shred the flesh of the squash with a fork into spaghetti-like strands.  As your pulling the strands, begin mixing them into your sauce in the cast iron skillet.  If you're skillet isn't large enough, you can also transfer it to a casserole dish.  Once the entire squash has been emptied and combined with the sauce, top with the seared sausage slices and 1/2 cup of grated romano cheese.  Lower your oven heat to 350 degrees and bake for 20 minutes.  This gives you six entree sized portions or 10 side dish portions.  The entire casserole clocks in around 1600 calories.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Scottish Gin... Who Knew?

After many years of being an avid whiskey purist, about two years ago while I was studying for one of my exams, I started opening my eyes to the world of white liquor.  Frankly, I always looked at is at boring and one note; my deepest apologies for prejudging.  Throughout my recent journey of discovery, I've tended to gravitate toward bolder gins - Hendricks, Plymouth and the like.  Never would I have thought twice about a gin distilled in Islay, Scotland by Bruichladdich, a company primarily known for their un-peated scotches.

Although their methods are a bit unconventional, the end product is pretty amazing.  They start with a brew of nine standard gin aromatics - juniper, angelica root, cassia bark, coriander, etc. - and then combine 22 indigenous, wild botanicals making this gin uniquely spectacular.  The 17-hour distillation produces a floral, but not perfume-y spirit.  On the nose, the first inhale is more traditional pine and cedar notes, but looking a bit deeper, you find subtle aromas of apple, menthol and lemongrass which carry over to the palate.  It finishes smooth with almost no burn, despite being 92 proof.  Try it mixed with Fever Tree Bitter Lemon soda over ice for a refreshing, not too sweet cocktail.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Cucumber Avocado Rolls with Tuna Ceviche

Lately, I've been trying to put more focus on plate presentation.  You do eat with your eyes first so it's an aspect of culinary arts I feel that I've put on the back burner for too long.   Yes, ultimately it's more important that what I make tastes good, but it I can elevate my food to appeal to multiple senses, I'm up for the challenge.  

For one of my first attempts, I took something that I know I can make well - ahi tuna ceviche, and thought about ways I can make a pile of pinkish grey chopped fish more aesthetically appealing.  The best answer I could come up with was to hide it.  Start by taking a sushi rolling mat (you can get one a Home Goods or Bed, Bath & Beyond for about $5) and wrap it in cellophane. Next take a ripe (but not too ripe) avocado, slice it in half and gently scoop out the flesh, trying to keep the halves as intact as possible.  With a Y-shaped peeler, very carefully shave off layers from the outer side of the avocado and arrange them on the mat, slightly overlapping the edges.  Next take an English cucumber, slice it in half and peel.  Once again, with your Y-shaped peeler, shave off thin layers from the cucumber and form a layer onto of the avocado.  

To make your ceviche, dice a block of fresh ahi tuna into 1cm square cubes.  The higher quality the fish, the better your final product will be.  Since ceviche is essentially a raw preparation, you won't be able to mask imperfections in the fish.  If you live in the Greater Boston area, H Mart is Burlington has the best tuna I've ever had the pleasure of cooking with.  

In a separate dish, combine the juice of 1/2 of a tangerine and one lemon with 1/4 cup high quality olive oil, three tablespoons cider vinegar, one tablespoon freshly grated ginger, one tablespoon finely chopped cilantro, kosher salt and white pepper. Pour over your tuna, gently mix to combine and allow to rest for about 10 minutes.  

Using a mesh sieve, drain the ceviche to remove any excess liquid.  Spoon a small amount onto the front side of your cucumber slices.  Using the mat, gently roll the ingredients together, pressing lightly to seal.  Use a wide spatula to transfer to your plate and score the roll to ease in cutting.  Sprinkle the top with white and black sesame seeds.  Much prettier than a pile of fish on top of a cucumber salad.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

Buzz from the Vine - volume 2

So this is a subset of my blog that I've really let slide and I've decided I need to get better at.  Just because I'm not working with wine on a daily basis doesn't mean that I should be slacking on my tasting.  Having worked as hard as I have to study wine, I don't want to loose the skill set I've developed, so I just need to make a more conscious effort to keep sharp.

First, I'd like to talk about 2007 Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon.  I happen to think this wine is a fantastic value at around $35 a bottle.  The deep ruby color with strong notes of bing cherry, green bell pepper and a slight hickory smoke on the finish make for a big, deep, rich cab that drinks like a much more expensive bottle.  It was slightly tannic, but not cloyingly so and I found it surprisingly well balanced for a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.  By U.S. standards, the 500 case production would be considered a small boutique winery so it's not the easiest wine to come by, but in my opinion, worth the search.  It should age pretty well for up to 10 years and I would predict it to peak in the 6-8 range.  We paired it with a balsamic fig-glazed pork loin and the sweetness of the dish offset the tannins in the wine quite nicely.  It definitely needs to be drank with food and I could see it pairing well with a hearty beef stew or a nutty dark chocolate.

With tonight's dinner, we opened a bottle of 2008 Justification.  This Cabernet Franc/Merlot blend is an interesting and unusual mix that pays homage to the Pomerol and St. Emillion regions of Bordeaux, showcasing their signature grapes.  It starts out a bit more earthy and rustic than your traditional California wine but mellows out on the palate with blackberry, cedar, pepper and nutmeg.  I would definitely recommend decanting it and giving it about half an hour to breathe prior to drinking.  It retails for around $46 per bottle and could easily stand up to 10 plus years of aging making it a great investment wine.  Although it's complex and smooth enough to drink on its own, if your pairing it with food, make sure the flavors aren't anything to aggressive as to overwhelm the subtle complexity of the finish.  We paired it with a mustard crusted pork loin and a roasted acorn squash with raisin chutney.  The slight spiciness of the dijon crust played against the pepper notes in the wine making them more pronounced, but still letting the wine be the star of the show.

Dijon-Crusted Pork Loin with Slow Roasted Acorn Squash in Almond Raisin Sauce

Pork loin was on sale last week at the market, so guess what we've been eating a lot of lately.  I'm very much pro-saving money whenever possible and let's face it, food isn't cheap now a days so I watch sale flyers and cut coupons for things we use anyway (I can't stand the idea of buying something just because I have a coupon).  Needless to say, we stocked up and I was presented with the challenge of making pork loin into something delicious and unique each time we eat it.

Tonight's creation: Dijon-Crusted Pork Loin.  Take your loin (mine is about 2 lbs) and rub it down with salt and pepper to season.  Next create a mixture of 2 tablespoons dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons stone ground mustard, 1 tablespoon chopped garlic and 1 teaspoon herbs de provence.  I also added fresh cut herbs to the roasting pan to help infuse flavor.  Rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano all work nicely.  Thoroughly coat the meat and roast in a 425 degree oven for about 25 minutes or until 165 degrees in the center.  Side bar - if you don't have a meat thermometer, get one.  It's the best $5 investment to prevent dried out meat.  Unless of course, you like chicken that resembles shoe leather.

As a side dish, I prepared acorn squash in our slow cooker (love the slow cooker) with an almond raisin sauce.  Combine 1 tablespoon butter, 3 tablespoons water, 3 tablespoons honey, 1 teaspoon apple pie spice, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract in your slow cooker (I always recommend using a liner for easy clean up) with a small handful of golden raisins and slivered almonds.  Quarter your acorn squash and clean out the seeds.  Lightly salt the squash and lay them in your slow cooker face down on top of the sauce mixture.  Cook on low for 5 hours or on high for about 3.  It'll make your house small amazing as a bonus.  Spoon the sauce over the squash to serve.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Faro & Veggie Stuffed Peppers

So this past Thursday, I wanted to make a side dish for dinner that was hearty, filling, nutritious and under 200 calories.  Both James and I had late evening runs planned so I didn't want anything too heavy or overpowering, but more "stick to your ribs" kind of food.  I also wanted to avoid dairy as to keep it easily digestible.  Final product - red bell peppers stuffed with faro, summer squash, mushrooms,  vine ripened tomatoes, shallots and nutritional yeast.

For those unfamiliar with nutritional yeast, it's actually a pretty cool product.  It comes in a large spice shaker, looks like cream colored flakes and has a distinctively savory aroma to it.  Vegans use it as a substitute for cheese because it's high in protein and gives a "cheese-like" nuttiness when added to food.  It gets a bad rap for being an extreme health food, but give it a shot sometime.  You may be pleasantly surprised.

Set your oven to 400 degrees.  Clean your pepper by removing the stem and seeds and slicing it in half lengthwise.  Place the pepper in the oven while it preheats and you prep the other ingredients.  This will start to soften it without overcooking.  Prepare your faro using 3:1 liquid to grain.  I used 3/4 cups of chicken stock combined with 1/4 cup white wine to 1/3 cup far.  Season the water with salt, pepper and granulated garlic prior to adding the grains.

In a skillet, saute 1 tablespoon olive oil with your finely diced shallots, minced garlic, diced tomato, summer squash and mushrooms (adding the vegetables in that order).  Season with salt, pepper, paprika and crushed red pepper flakes.  Once your vegetables are cooked  nearly through (but still firm), add 1 1/2 tablespoons of nutritional yeast and combine the mixture well.

Once the faro has finished cooking, drain any excess liquid off and add your vegetables.  Combine well and fill your bell peppers.  To make 2 servings, I used 1/2 of a small summer squash, 4 button mushrooms, 1 medium sized tomato and 1/2 of a shallot.

Bake the peppers at 400 degrees for about 8 minutes to finish roasting the pepper and infuse the flavors.  We paired with with a spice rubbed grilled chicken breast, but it works well with most proteins.  They clocked in at 200 calories, 10 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber each.

Quick plug for a product I love - my mother gave me my Pampered Chef toaster oven-sized stoneware pan back when I was in college.  You know the little metal pan that comes with your toaster oven and gets warped in like a week?  Yeah, it sucks.  The stoneware version is fantastic - it distributes heat and cooks food evenly and like cast iron, it gets better the longer you use it.  They make larger versions which are great as well, I just love the convenience of this size, especially when I'm just cooking for the two of us.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Beer for Dessert

I've decided that hurricanes are horrible for diets.  (1) Power outages encourage eating out of boredom and (2) you fear that everything in your refrigerator and freezer is going to spoil so you want to make sure you eat it beforehand.  Let's just say my clean eating plan was thrown a bit off kilter this past week.  We're back on track now but in our fear of loosing everything in our freezer, we did come up with a fantastic concoction that I wanted to share.  

On one of our many trips to The Beer Store, we picked up a large format bottle of Southern Imperial Creme Brule Stout (and letting beer skunk would have been sacrilegious).  I had also made a batch of Gingerbread Stout Ice Cream to go with mini pumpkin pies the previous week (and come on, who lets homemade ice cream go to waste?).  Although the ice cream was incredibly tasty, it was a bit tannic from the stout we had used so it needed a sweet component to offset it.  Enter the Creme Brule Stout.  This beer really was like drinking a liquid Guinness Creme Brule.  I would have preferred it if it actually was  bit hopper and less cloyingly sweet, but that really did make it a great paring with the ice cream.