Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Jumping on the bandwagon: Sausage, Lentil and Kale Soup

Every winter, a flurry of warm, delicious-looking soup recipes start popping up all over the blogosphere. It must be universal; everyone loves to tuck into a steaming bowl of comforting soup when it's cold outside. After seeing several recipes for this type of soup, it was all I could think about. This batch, which I whipped up on Sunday (a particularly blustery day here in the Windy City), turned out to be DELICIOUS! I've been eating it for lunch and dinner this week, and when it runs out I'll have to find another soup to recreate.

(As you've probably noticed with my recipes, I'm all about customizing to fit your preferences and what you have on hand. Feel free to make substitutions, etc - but I'll post it how I made it).

Sausage, Lentil and Kale Soup
(yields enough to feed one person for a late lunch and bedtime snack on Sunday, lunch and dinner on Monday, lunch on Tuesday, and lunch and dinner on Wednesday...so 8 servings?)

3/4 lb mild italian sausage, removed from casings/bulk
1 T olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped fine (I don't like eating big chunks of onion in my soup)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large carrot, chopped into 1/4" pieces
1 celery stalk, chopped into 1/4" pieces
2 T tomato paste
10 cremini mushrooms, quartered
1/4 t dried thyme
1 c French green lentils, rinsed and drained
2 lightly packed cups chopped kale
2 14-oz cans of low-sodium, 98% fat-free chicken stock
1 c water
1 previously saved, frozen rind of parmesan cheese (this adds a nice silky richness to soup)

Place a large Dutch oven or stockpot over medium-low heat and add the olive oil and the italian sausage. Breaking it up into small pieces with a wooden spoon, let the sausage brown until fully cooked, about 10 minutes. While the sausage is browning, you can prep all your vegetables - onion, garlic, carrot, celery, mushrooms, kale - on a large cutting board so when you're ready you can just drop them in. Remove the browned sausage with a slotted spoon to a bowl, and drain any excess fat (you just want to keep about 2 teaspoons in the pot). Still over medium-low heat, add the onion, garlic, carrot and celery to the pot and saute, stirring frequently, until just they start to sweat and soften, about 3 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir to coat the vegetables for about 1 minute. Add in the quartered mushrooms and the dried thyme, and continue to saute everything for another 3-5 minutes until the vegetables have taken on some color and the mushrooms have started to wilt and give off moisture. Add some fresh-cracked black pepper at this point, but only a little salt (the chicken broth will add salt too).

Add the lentils and kale to the pot, then pour in the chicken broth and water. Raise the heat to high to bring to a boil, while stirring the bottom of the pot to get all the brown bits off the bottom. When the soup reaches a boil, turn the heat back down so it just simmers. Add your parmesan rind at this point, if you're lucky enough to have one in your freezer :) Cover, and simmer the soup until the lentils are tender but not mushy - about 20-25 minutes. Remove the rind, and season to taste. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Impromptu holiday soup

It all started with bacon fat.

Wednesday night, amid pumpkin and apple pie baking and stuffing making, my mom decided to cook up a batch of bacon for using throughout the holiday weekend so that "the house won't smell like bacon all weekend" (which, for some reason, would be a bad thing?). After crisping up the bacon, the 12" skillet was left housing a few precious tablespoons of bacon fat, and since we obviously couldn't waste it, we started thinking about what we could do with it. Inspired by an excess of sweet potatoes and my cold-weather obsession with eating soup, this delicious and savory recipe was born.

Sweet Potato Soup
(makes 8-10 servings)

2-3 T melted bacon fat (I suppose you could use olive oil/butter...but why would you?)
1 onion, medium slice (if not using blender/processor later, mince the onion finely instead of slicing)
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 large sweet potatoes, 1/4" dice
4 small (ours were smaller than palm-size) Idaho potatoes, 1/4" dice
1 1/2 T chopped fresh rosemary and thyme (sage would be delicious as well, use whatever you have)
6 cups stock (we used fresh-made turkey, could use chicken or vegetable)
salt and pepper
For serving (optional): crumbled bacon, sour cream/creme fraiche

Note: Since I was cooking at my mom's house, I had access to a boat-motor (aka immersion blender), which is what we used to puree the soup. If I were at my apartment, I would have used a food processor. You can make this recipe work even if you don't have any of these tools. 
In a large skillet, heat the bacon fat over medium-low heat and add the onion. Season the onions with salt and pepper and cook for about 8 minutes or until the onions have softened and begun to caramelize, stirring frequently. Add the garlic to the pan and stir. Dice the potatoes while the onions are cooking, then turn the heat up to medium add to the pan. Season the potatoes with salt and pepper. Cook the potatoes, stirring frequently to prevent burning, for 15-20 minutes until just starting to yield to fork (but not fully cooked). Add the fresh herbs and stir. Add 1 cup of stock to the pan and scrape the bottom to deglaze, then add 2 more cups of stock. Simmer the vegetables in the stock for 15-20 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked through, allowing the flavors to all meld together. Then, take a potato masher and slowly go around the pan, mashing the potatoes and breaking down the soup until there are no big chunks of potato left. Add remaining 3 cups of stock. (If not using a blender/processor, keep mashing until soup reaches desired consistency). Turn the heat to low, then use the immersion blender and blend the soup until pureed to desired consistency. Serve with crumbled bacon bits and a dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche.

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving! I have much to be thankful for this year - great friends and family, and especially the fact that my first niece (and goddaughter!) was born last Saturday. :)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Food & Wine's 2010 Entertainment Showcase

I want to share some snaps I took at Monday night's 2010 Entertainment Showcase at the Museum of Contemporary Art, hosted by Food and Wine magazine. I got the chance to sample food from dozens of Chicago's best restaurants, cooked and served by dozens of talented chefs - all set to music, in a cool setting, with free wine tastings and Patron cocktails. How do I describe it? Um...I'll go with AWESOME! It was a total blast, and definitely an event I couldn't have attended if I hadn't won a pair of tickets from the awesome Chicago Foodies! Thanks guys!

Longman & Eagle pork belly confit with cheesy risotto and chestnut jus
Takashi vanilla bean panna cotta with uzu gelee, candied lemon and persimmon
Rieslings, my favorite!
Those are Stephanie Izard's hands preparing shooters with goat meat. Yup, I ate goat.
Delicious hand-rolled gnocchi with pork ragu from Nola
Mushroom crostini with about $10 worth of black truffle on top
Spicy house-made chorizo with pumpkin puree, marcona almonds and citrus vinagrette from Table 52
I think this was the lamb shoulder...love the presentation!
Collection of glasses at the Patron tequila bar
The folks at Avec assembling crostini of tuna puree with olive tapenade
Two firsts for me...spicy tripe stew from The Publican washed down with a Hoegaarden
Jess couldn't resist...she needed a picture with her buddy Graham Elliot!

By the time I left the museum I was stuffed...let's just say I definitely ate and drank the $125 value of the ticket! To read another account of the night, go here. Thanks again for an amazing time, Chicago Foodies!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Harry Potter's Chocolate Chip Cookies

Friday night, my friend Jess and I settled in for a night of Potter-watching and getting psyched for the 7th movie release (on Thursday night at midnight, in case you live under a rock). In between Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, I decided that freshly baked cookies would accompany our movie-watching perfectly. Half an hour later, we were sitting down to a batch of these. Fresh from the oven they're chewy yet crispy, and I like the nuttiness from the oats and whole wheat flour - plus, there's a little less sugar than normal.

I can only imagine that Harry, Ron and Hermione would enjoy these cookies as much as we did!

Chocolate Chip Cookies
(makes 2 dozen small cookies, or 1 dozen big cookies - if you ask me, go for the BIG ONES!)

3/4 cup rolled oats, coarsely ground in blender/food processor/coffee grinder
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1/4 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup olive oil
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 t vanilla
1 cup chocolate chips

(Per usual, adding up to 2 T of ground flaxseed or oat/wheat germ/brand is optional and encouraged!)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and spray your cookie sheets with nonstick spray. In a medium bowl, combine ground oats, flour, baking soda and salt. In a separate bowl, beat the butter until fluffy. Add oil, both sugars, egg and vanilla and beat on medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 1-2 minutes. With the mixer running on low speed, add the dry ingredients in 3 additions, and beat until just combined. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, stir in the chocolate chips. Eat an enormous bite of your dough. I used a large spring-loaded cookie scoop to make a dozen large cookies (about 2 T worth of dough), but two spoons would also work well. For smaller cookies, drop the dough by heaping teaspoonfuls onto the cookie sheets about an inch apart. If you want more dome-shaped cookies, leave the scoops as-is; if you want them to spread a little, flatten the tops with your fingers. Bake about 14 minutes, rotating cookie sheets one time. Leave on the sheets for 2 minutes, then remove to a cooling rack.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

An easy, cheesy weeknight meal

Today was pretty typical. A busy day at work, followed by the gym, followed by coming home and realizing that I've run out of leftovers and the fridge and pantry look pretty bare. Rather than resort to my 'I-have-no-food' bowl of oatmeal for dinner - which is fine for once in a while, but definitely a bummer when that's what I had for breakfast too - I paused for a minute to think about what else I could put in that bowl. 

Surveying my options, I silently thanked God for making me Italian - because one thing an Italian girl always has in the pantry is pasta! Seeing that whole wheat rotini in the back of the cabinet saved me...this time. Armed with pasta, I glanced in the fridge hoping to find something, anything that I could use to round out my meal. Then, I hit the jackpot. 

In the back of my middle shelf, there it was - a half-block of cheddar cheese. I knew immediately what I had to do. Fifteen minutes later, I was sitting down not to a bowl of oatmeal, but a delicious and comforting bowl of...

I also found a half of a cooked chicken breast in the fridge, thus the white chunks!

Easy Weeknight Mac and Cheese for One, for Two
(that is, one person, two generous-sized meals)

2 cups whole wheat pasta (preferably in a shape that will catch and hold the sauce)
1 T butter
1 t olive oil
1 heaping T flour
a pinch of nutmeg
1/8 t pepper
1/2 t salt
1 t dijon mustard
1 cup milk (I used skim)
1/2 cup 2% milk cheddar cheese
2 T boursin or other soft cheese

Fill a small saucepan with hot water and place over high heat with the lid on. Once it boils, add a generous pinch of salt and add your pasta. Cook according to package directions, which should be about exactly as much time as you need to make the sauce. In a separate non-stick saucepan, add the butter and oil over medium heat and melt completely. Add the flour, and whisk immediately to combine and prevent from sticking. Cook the flour and butter together for about 30 seconds, whisking constantly. When it's a nice blond color, add the pepper, nutmeg, salt and mustard. Still whisking, add the milk to the pan and combine until the butter-flour mixture (aka roux) is fully dissolved. Turn up the heat to medium-high, and, stirring occasionally, let the white sauce (aka bechamel, ooo getting fancy now!) just come to a boil. As soon as it boils, kill the heat. This part is very important, and was the source of all my mac-and-cheese-related failures in the past - high heat will ruin the texture of the cheese and make it grainy, so make sure the heat is off before you begin to add the cheese. Also, constant stirring as you add the cheese will help it cool down as well as turn out nice and smooth. Add the boursin/soft cheese first, whisking to combine, then add the cheddar cheese in a few batches until incorporated. Make sure to taste - depending on your specific cheese, you may need more salt. At this point, your pasta should be drained and waiting for you to dump it into the cheese sauce (aka mornay, even more fancy!). Et voila!

Note: You may think the mustard and/or nutmeg are weird additions to this recipe. I may have been made fun of more than once in my life for 'putting nutmeg in everything' - but I promise that both these ingredients are essential! The mustard helps play up the cheesiness and give it a deeper flavor, as well as provides just a touch of acidity - and the nutmeg adds a tiny underlying warmth that complements the cheese nicely.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A little taste of autumn

There's that moment every year. You know what I mean. You wait for it, wondering if it will be tomorrow, or the next day, and then suddenly - BAM! It hits you. That perfect moment when the last few leaves on the trees are all fiery reds, oranges and yellows, the fallen ones underfoot crunch that lovely sound, and the crisp wind bites at your nose and hints at the chilly winter ahead. Every year, I wait for this moment of true autumn to come - and then I make pumpkin muffins.

I love pumpkin in pretty much anything, but muffins are one of my favorites. I think it was the abundance of pumpkin muffins during my autumns in college, made by various roommates through the years with a little bit of extra TLC, that got me hooked.

My recipe has evolved over the years, and is now healthier and easier than ever. They're light and chewy in texture, moist on the inside, have a great pumpkin flavor and are just sweet enough. Feel free to substitute ingredients with whatever you have on hand or might prefer - I've included alternatives in parentheses in the recipe, and have had successful results with all of these options.

Incredibly Easy Pumpkin Muffins
(This batch made 24 mini muffins + 4 regular sized muffins)

1 1/2 cups flour (you can use all AP, I usually do 1 cup whole wheat and 1/2 cup AP but wouldn't recommend more than 1 cup whole wheat)
2 T ground flaxseed (or oat/wheat germ/bran - this addition is optional)
1 1/4 t baking soda
1 t salt
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg (I never measure nutmeg since I freshly grate it; just eyeball it!)
1/2 t ground cloves (or cardamom, or allspice, or ginger, or even Chinese 5-spice powder)
1 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 cup lightly packed brown sugar + 1/4 cup honey (I'm trying to cut back on added sugars in my baking, and these muffins aren't meant to be overly sweet - so keep the total sugar to about 3/4 cup - you can use all brown sugar, or substitute maple syrup for the honey)
1 egg
1/2 cup buttermilk (or regular milk, or yogurt)
1 T olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and spray your muffin tins (whatever size you want, or loaf pans) with nonstick cooking spray. In a medium-size bowl, combine flour, ground flaxseed (optional), soda, salt, spices and stir to combine. Add the pumpkin puree, brown sugar, and honey to the bowl, and start to mix until the ingredients start to come together. In a separate bowl, beat the egg, then add to the medium bowl along with the buttermilk and oil. Mix to combine, about 20-30 seconds or until there are no more visible dry ingredients. An ice cream scoop with a spring-loaded handle make scooping perfectly sized muffins a breeze - but regular spoons work just fine too. Fill tins 3/4 high, and bake mini-sized muffins for 15 minutes, rotating the tin(s) once. If making regular-sized muffins, bake time is a few minutes longer at 18 minutes, rotating the tin(s) once. 
I like to enjoy a few for breakfast...sometimes with Nutella!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Meeting Giada, and an Italian dessert

When I heard that Giada De Laurentiis was going to be in town last Friday for a demo and book signing - coincidentally, a day I'd already taken off from work - I knew I had to check it out. I've always been a big fan of Giada's - from her shows on the Food Network to her cookbooks (I have Everyday Italian and Giada's Family Dinners), I'm always impressed by her cooking style and the way she incorporates her heritage and family traditions.

So, early afternoon on Friday I found myself outside in Tribune Plaza with hundreds of other Giada-obssessed Chicagoans, hoping to be one of the first 500 to receive a free copy of her latest book, Giada at Home, for her to sign. She started with a demo of orzo pasta salad (I should probably mention that the event was sponsored by Target), and even though I couldn't see anything, it was fun to hear her talk to the crowd and answer questions. After waiting a loooooong time for my turn, I got to talk with her for a few seconds while she autographed my cookbook. 

So what did I say to her in those few seconds? I think it went something like this...

Me: "Hi! I'm Annie! I'm a big fan!" (note all the exclamation points; imagine this in your head as a 'squeaky-excited' voice)

Giada: "Wow, I see you have a few of my cookbooks there!"

Me: "Yup! I love them! Last night I made your Chocolate Amaretti Cake!"

Giada: "You did?!"

The end. 

But yes, folks. In that moment, I had to tell Giada that I made her cake...because I love it. It's incredibly moist, not too sweet, and just seems uber-Italian to me. My mom, sister-in-law and I were dining at an Italian restaurant and then seeing Carmen at the Lyrica Opera, and I thought this cake would be the perfect pick-me-up after the show.

I promise that my photos will get better...practice makes perfect!

Chocolate Amaretti Cake
(adapted from Everyday Italian by Giada De Laurentiis)

3/4 cup bittersweet chocolate or semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup slivered almonds
1 cup baby amaretti cookies (about 2 ounces)
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons grated orange peel (1 orange's worth)
4 large eggs

Preheat oven to 350. If you have a 9-inch springform pan, spray it with nonstick spray. If you, like me, don't have a springform pan, any 9-inch pan can work (I used a regular cake pan) - but I did find that it stuck to the bottom a little.

Microwave the chocolate until melted and smooth, stirring every 20 seconds, for about 1 minute. Combine the almonds and cookies in a food processor. Pulse until the almonds and cookies are finely ground. Transfer the nut mixture to a medium bowl.

Add the butter and sugar to the processor and blend until creamy and smooth. Add the grated orange peel and pulse briefly, until incorporated. Add the eggs 1 at a time. Blend until the eggs are incorporated. Clean the sides of the mixing bowl and blend again. Add the nut mixture and melted chocolate. Pulse until blended. 

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the center puffs and a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Cool the cake in the pan for 15 minutes.

If you want to get fancy, transfer the cake to a platter. You can serve with sifted cocoa powder or powdered sugar on top. Another great idea: serve with freshly made whipped cream, and add some orange juice from the orange you've zested.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The pursuit of the perfect pie crust

It’s very rare that I follow a recipe exactly as it’s written. I love reading recipes and cookbooks, but I typically use them as inspiration – then do it my way. However, baking is a different story. When I picked up a couple pounds of local apples at the farmers’ market last weekend, I knew that the pie I was plotting would need a killer crust recipe to match.

At this point, a lot of women (or at least my roommate J and any woman in her family) would just whip out their tried and true heirloom pie crust recipe.

I am not one of those women. I did not grow up in a house of homemade pie crusts, and I did not receive a delicate 3x5 index card with the recipe lovingly handwritten by my mother the day I moved out. My mom is a great cook – but in my house, crust is just a vehicle, and therefore, storebought.

So, wanting to do greater justice to these naturally beautiful apples than a throwaway crust, I decided to consult the best. In my one previous homemade crust attempt I used Martha Stewart’s recipe, and the process had instilled such anxiety and stress with its strict warnings that I’d taken no joy in the nice, flaky finished product. This time, I wanted something easier, faster, and less…scary.

With Martha out of the picture, I turned to the greatest culinary authority I know – America’s Test Kitchen. After some quick browsing, I found the recipe for which I was looking (yup, even on a blog I hate ending a sentence with a preposition!).

Like Washington crossing the Delaware*, I decided to boldly put my faith in the unknown and go for it.

Including prep time to assemble my ingredients and equipment, two thick disks of plastic-wrapped pie dough were chilling out in my fridge in less than fifteen minutes.

After they chilled out and rolled out, forty-five minutes and a few peeks through the oven door later I pulled a bubbling, golden pie out of the oven and breathed in the glorious, buttery scent.

The crust gets two thumbs up – it was easy to make, and turned out perfectly flaky and reaaally buttery. Gone are its days as a second-class citizen in my house! Even my mom, the crust critic, was surprised by how much she liked it.

Note: I didn’t have any shortening on hand, and pretty much never bake with it anyway – so I used all butter and it turned out fine. The original recipe calls for 1/2 cup of shortening (if you want to use it, just replace some of the butter).

Foolproof Pie Dough – my way
(adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/4 cup cold vodka (I used citrus-flavored, which is what I had on hand)
1/4 cup cold water

Add 1 1/2 cups flour, salt and sugar to your food processor bowl with blade attachment, and process until combined, about 2 one-second pulses.

Add all the butter and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour).

Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses.

Empty mixture into medium bowl. Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together.

Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

*Planned in partial secrecy, Washington led a column of Continental Army troops across the icy Delaware River in a logistically challenging and potentially dangerous operation.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mercat a la Planxa - a taste of Catalonia in Chicago

I don’t get excited about much in the morning. Usually, I’m asleep dreaming about beating Mario Batali on Iron Chef America or sweeping the James Beard awards in every category. However, when my food writing instructor told us our next class featured a specially-prepared Catalonian meal and the chance to interview a rising star at one of Chicago’s best restaurants, I knew that this was something I could get excited about!

I arrived at Mercat a la Planxa (638 S Michigan Ave, inside the landmark Blackstone Hotel) a little after 10 o’clock, and was ushered through the door into the ground-level bar area. Hopped up with anticipation – or more likely, hunger – I skipped across the dark, hip and appropriately empty room to the winding staircase that led upstairs.

Emerging in the dining room, the sunny mosaic-ed walls, the lively Catalonian music and the bustling open air kitchen oozed energy, and I was immediately transported to Spain. Some restaurants try to force 'atmosphere,' and it ends up feeling tacky – but Mercat felt just right.

Our group sat down and started in on the first course. At the risk of sounding dorky, the bacon caramel that accompanied wedges of creamy, nutty Cadi Urgelia cheese was a revelation! How have I managed to live for a quarter-century without experiencing the flavors of bacon and caramel together? The pinky-sized, sea salt-garnished, flash-fried peppers with pureed almond/garlic/tomato sauce were also terrific.

As I chewed and tried to memorize each flavor for future reliving of this meal, Sous Chef Cory came out from the kitchen and began to demo the king of Catalonian comfort food – arroz a la cazuela. Though at first soft-spoken and serious, he soon relaxed and I learned a few things about the 29-year old wunderkind.

(Okay – maybe he’s not technically a wunderkind, but what would you call a guy who got his first executive chef gig at age 21 – with no culinary training?!)

Chef Cory revealed his guilty pleasure foods (Totino’s pizza and Pepsi), divulged his hobbies (ice climbing and fly fishing) and educated us on Catalonian cuisine, all while building layers of flavor in the fragrant stew. My first reaction to the spoon they set beside the bowl was that it was HUGE – but it made perfect sense. I obediently heaped every ingredient into one huge spoonful – the tender rice, the smoky saffron-chicken broth (apparently made thicker than regular stock by using chicken feet), the tiger shrimp, and the lemony artichoke and lobster garnish. That first big bite was so luxurious and comforting. And look at the bright yellow color!

I licked my bowl clean, and promptly continued eating. Bacon-wrapped dates, chorizo and scallops ‘a la planxa’ (grilled on a metal plate), spinach with chewy currants, and a crispy-yet-melty milk chocolate ball rounded out our Catalonian feast.

As stuffed as I was by the end of this meal, I wished I could order lunch and dinner from here and bring it home with me. I'm pretty sure that if I could eat at Mercat every morning, I wouldn't have a problem waking up anymore.