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 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!