Thursday, January 20, 2011

A winter wine dinner

[All photos courtesy of Meg Kassabaum. Thank you Meg!]

Last month, just to make sure everybody was properly warmed up for the holidays, we put together a full-on bring-your-A-game wine dinner. 5 courses, 5 wines, all original recipes. And I believe we can safely say it was a success...

We fed 14 people that evening, more than we have in the past, but it went off without a hitch (well, with a couple minor hitches, but none that guests ever had to know about...).

We started off with a number of small finger foods for people to snack on while everybody arrived and settled in.

There were farmer's market radishes with salt and butter.

There were boquerones (marinated Spanish white anchovies) and marinated mushrooms.

There was smoked salmon.

And there was Galician canned pulpo.

All of this with plenty of Cava Avinyó.

Off to a good start, we sat down to a spicy roasted tomato soup with garlicky NC shrimp (from our friends at Core Sound Seafood).

For wine, we drank Do Ferreiro's Rebisaca, always a winner with shellfish.

Up next, fresh whole wheat homemade paste made by Lindsey. It's topped with blanched strips of locally-grown Tuscan kale, and Turkish-spiced ground lamb.

Here we moved onto to reds, in this case the fresh, vibrant, yet powerful Garnatxa 2009 from Joan d'Anguera.

Then, it was time for some medallions of roasted pork tenderloin along with garlic brussel sprouts. The sauce is made from cashew cream, (dairy) cream, ancho chilies, and oloroso sherry to produce a deep, rich flavor.

Which of course required a deeper, richer, wine, one which could also handle some spices. For this we turned to an older Rioja, the 2005 Monje Amestoy from Luberri. I'm happy to report the wine was up to the task.

The oloroso sherry in this sauce with the pork provided the transition into our final course, which was paired with the Sangre y Trabajadero oloroso from Gutierrez Colosia.

On the plate were dried dates stuffed with a blue goat cheese, then wrapped in bacon and broiled until crispy. They sat atop a bed of spinach topped with a light and simple balsamic vinaigrette.

People had different opinions about which was their favorite dish of the evening, and which was their favorite wine, but it was pretty much unanimously agreed that this was the killer pairing.

We are already scheming about the next one....

Until then, cheers!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Quick and easy spice cake

Here's the scenario: the holidays are approaching and you're given the task of bringing baked goods for your office meeting/bridge club/lemur appreciation society/whatever, and you want to bring something homemade and seasonally appropriate. But of course you've waited until the last moment. As you open your fridge to start getting your ingredients together you realize – horror! – that you are all out of milk and eggs. What to do?

Here is the recipe for your situation: an absolutely delightful spice cake (really just a sweet quick bread) that requires no milk and no eggs. It is also great fun to play around with in various ways. You can vary the level of sugar depending on whether you want it to be more of a dessert or more of a breakfast item. For spices, you can use whatever sounds good (or whatever you have). Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, ginger, etc. – those nice holiday flavors – are all welcome in any combination you fancy. I particularly like to add grated fresh ginger to give it a good bite. But most fun of all for me has been playing around with the liquid: while water works just fine, I have so far used coffee, porter, and hard cider instead, all to great effect.

The recipe is adapted from the Tassajara Recipe Book.

Quick Spice Cake

Preheat oven to 350.

Butter and flour an 8 inch cake pan

Mix together in a big bowl 1 cup whole wheat flour, 1/2 cup white flour, 1/4 to 3/4 cup sugar (depending on how sweet you want it to be), 1 tsp. baking soda, and spices (any of the following: 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. nutmeg, 1/4 tsp. cloves, 1 tsp. allspice, 1 tbsp. ginger, or whatever else looks good).

In a small saucepan, melt 1/3 cup butter. Add to this 1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar, then 1 cup cold water or other liquid, such as coffee, dark beer, cider, etc.

[Quick note: if your butter is still hot, and your water quite cold, this will produce a very odd reaction, creating a kind of crystallized-looking mixture. Don't worry, this is fine, and it's also kind of cool looking...]

[Quick note #2: you could just use oil instead of butter and make it completely vegan]

Now mix your butter mixture in with your dry ingredients. Do not over-mix! This is a quick bread, so do just enough to moisten all the dry ingredients. It's ok if the batter is still a little lumpy and uneven.

Pour the dough into the cake pan, and bake for about 35 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

For an extra nice touch, sprinkle powdered sugar on top before serving.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cooking oils

Just a quick note today to point you towards this article by Harold McGee in the New York Times. McGee is without a doubt one of the most interesting food writers in operation. His book On Food and Cooking is absolutely essential reading.

His column in the Times this week is about cooking oil. The basic point is that most oils (good olive oil, bad olive oil, refined seed oil, etc.) are pretty much indistinguishable once heated:

We were surprised at how thoroughly heat obliterated the flavors in cooking oil until they all tasted more or less the same. Even prize-winning, and costly, extra-virgin olive oils lost much of what makes them special, though they retain their apparently healthful pungency. To get food with the green and fruity flavor of good olive oil, it seems more economical and effective to fry with an inexpensive refined oil and drizzle on a little fresh olive oil after cooking.

I've always used a slightly fruity but fairly neutral olive oil as my everyday basic cooking oil, but I might consider using more seed oil now.

Readers, do you have any thoughts on this?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Lindsey's beautiful stuffed pumpkin

Lindsey, as you may recall, loves a stuffed pumpkin. And this time she really outdid herself...

These little pie pumpkins were full of rice, caramelized onions, chunks of apple, Italian sausage (from Giacamo's in Greensboro, NC), and shiitakes from our logs (yes, we grow shiitakes in our backyard).

In keeping with the autumnal feel of the dish, basque-style cider was used as a liquid (this style of cider is not at all sweet, and pretty acidic). The whole thing was then topped with cheese and baked. The cheese melted and browned, the pumpkin flesh was softened and infused with cider, and the whole thing came out beautifully... A triumph!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

You do not need to soak your beans

I was really glad to see this article in the New York Times yesterday.

It is a common (and, to me, galling) assumption that beans need to be soaked before cooking. I have seen this myth repeated many, many places, including cookbooks where the authors should have known better (Mark Bittman is a notable exception). As beans make up a very large portion of my diet, and I am always proselytizing on their behalf, I'm glad to see the truth spoken in a major media outlet.

Yes, it is true: beans do not need to be soaked before cooking. As in the recipe provided in the NYT article, dried beans can used directly in a long simmered stew, with no ill effect. Quite the contrary, in fact: this technique does a great job at melding flavors together.

But also, it is possible to cook dry beans on their own without soaking. The difference? It will take a little longer, though not nearly as much most cookbooks say.

So why soak at all? Well it will cut down on cutting time somewhat. The other potential reason is texture. This is somewhat anecdotal, but it does seem that sometimes, when using dry beans directly, the beans don't cook quite as evenly. This only seems to happen with older beans, though, which you should try to avoid anyways. And it can also be remedied by cooking the beans slowly and gently. My opinion is that, for texture, the best thing you can do is cook your dry beans in a crockpot for a few hours. It won't save you any time, but it requires practically no labor, and it really produces great results.

But the important thing to remember here: beans do not need to be pre-soaked, so don't let a lack of soaking stop you.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

As it get colder... beer bread!

This quick beer bread might be the bread I bake most often. It is extremely satisfying and easy to make – I don't know if I've ever screwed it up. It has a warm, malty, yeasty flavor that I find very comforting, especially as the weather turns cold. And the best: it can be made in under an hour, start to finish. This means I can wake up in the morning, make the bread, eat some for breakfast, and still make it to the office on time.

If it has a drawback, it is that it's not terribly versatile. This is not a bread for mopping up sauces at dinner, and it's nearly useless for making a sandwich. But for some things it's really good: as toast with butter (obviously), and it is great with certain sharp cheeses, like cheddar or aged gouda. Also, it makes good friends with many kinds of hearty cold weather stews.

Oh and of course it's great with a beer! The best autumn lunch ever might be this beer bread with cheddar, mustard, apple, maybe a little salami, and a nice malty British style ale....

Though I just stick with the basic recipe most of the time, there are a number of possible felicitous variations here:

-Try different types of beers. This is the most obvious variable. Try lighter and darker beers for different results (but avoid heavily hopped beers, unless you want bitter bread). If you want to get a little crazy, try a pumpkin ale or other seasonal spiced beers. (As a side note, the Joy of Cooking says to use any beer except stout, but I have used porter before, and the line between porters and stouts is thin to non-existent. Does anybody know why the Joy would say that? Hit up the comments if you have thoughts)

-Add in a quarter cup of nutritional yeast for additional savoriness.

-Add in grated cheddar (or other cheese) for increased cheesiness.

-Play around with the ratio of whole wheat to all purpose flour. Or substitute some fine corn meal for some of the wheat flour for a different texture.

-A favorite at our house: bake in muffin tins instead of a loaf pan (reduce cooking time to about 20 mins.)

This recipe is straight out of the Joy of Cooking. As with all quick breads, the key is to not over-mix when you add the beer to your dry ingredients.

Quick Beer Bread

1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
12 oz. beer (not flat)

Mix together all the dry ingredients.

Fold in the beer, but don't over-mix. It's fine if the dough is a little lumpy.

Pour into a lightly greased loaf pan, and bake at 400 for 35 to 40 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Doing crab cakes a little differently

Pretty much all recipes for crab cakes require mayonnaise.

That's what I learned yesterday evening as I tried to make dinner. We had about a half-pound of crab meat left from our most recent CSF delivery, and Lindsey had requested crab cakes (a CSF is a Community Supported Fishery, like a CSA but for fish. Ours is called Core Sound Seafood – check them out they do excellent work).

Now I had made crab cakes numerous times before (pretty successfully, I believe, as the repeated request demonstrated). As per my usual cooking style, in making them previously I had based my approach on an existing recipe to get the basic idea, then taken it and done my own thing, adjusting and seasoning as I saw fit. The recipes always include some mayonnaise.

The problem was that last night I didn't have any mayonnaise. We usually make our own (much better tasting than the store-bought stuff), and I just didn't feel like taking the extra step. So I decided to wing it, without mayonnaise.

The result? Excellent! More straight crab flavor, and a little lighter. I would in fact probably do it this way again (though I have to say, a little dollop aïoli on top would be quite nice...).

Here's what I did (all measurements are very, very approximate):

I mixed the 1/2 pound of crab meat with a 1/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs. For flavoring, I used a generous dash of pimentón (smoked paprika – it belongs in pretty much everything), a pinch of cayenne for heat, a couple tablespoons of mustard, a few splashes of cider vinegar, and some salt. To bind it, I added tablespoon of olive oil and a small egg. I combined it all thoroughly, shaped it into 4 cakes, and dredged the cakes in a little flour. These were fried on medium-high heat in a mixture of butter and olive oil until nicely browned. Add a squeeze of lemon on top and it's ready.

And to drink with this? Txakoli of course!