Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Peasant Salad

I would really like to be someone who gardens. When we moved in with my parents, I had grand plans to resurrect the old box garden beds in the yard that my mom used to plant vegetables in when I was a kid. I had visions of lots of plump tomatoes, huge zucchinis, and leafy lettuces that I would use to cook with all summer. Unfortunately, my grand gardening plans never came to fruition. It rained a lot, and I didn't get around to looking up the best times to plant what. Heck, I haven't even been good at visiting farm stands and farmer's markets this year like I like to, I've been settling for the local section of the grocery store. I know there's still plenty of time to shop locally for produce, so I will make a plan to do that more, and as for the gardening, well. There's always next year.

What we DO have in the yard, thanks to my parents, are a few wonderful basil plants that I pick from regularly, some cherry tomato plants that are just starting to yield fruit, and some mint that's been growing in the front garden for as long as I can remember. Luckily, these are three of the ingredients needed to make this simple salad, so I at least am able to create a little from what we have in the yard. (When the tomatoes all come in, there will be a sauce post, oh yes. And if the grapes have any showing this year, my mom's concord grape pie may need to make an appearance as well...)

This basil has been used ALL summer and is still growing like mad (thanks to being saved a few times by my mom). I see pesto in my future...
Not quite ready...
But this one looks great!

Must remember to use more mint
I am a huge salad fan, and I try to mix it up as much as I can and have lots of different salads to rotate through. I could eat some form of salad every day, especially in the summer, and this one is so refreshing and simple, it's a natural go-to. It compliments most everything, it's light while still being flavorful, and I love it for cookouts and parties, because the more the flavors meld, the better it is.

I've had lots of versions of this salad over the years, but this is my favorite. I like it simple, and the mint, I think, really makes it. It adds that complexity to the flavor, and balances so well with the vinegar.

Now, I love onion almost as much as I love garlic. I could seriously eat caramelized onions daily. But I'm not a huge fan of raw onion. Even red onion, which I prefer, I usually find overpowering, too much bite, and a flavor that lingers in a not-pleasant way. So what I like to do for this is to slice the onion pretty thin, and then let it chill out for a while in a bowl with some red wine vinegar and some water. It takes the edge off the onion, pickles it slightly, and adds to the flavor of the salad.

Once the onions are working, I set them aside and get the rest of the ingredients ready. I used some gorgeous cherry tomatoes from the yard, but heirlooms or vine ripened would be delicious as well, if you aren't growing your own. Whatever tomatoes look and smell good at the market, go for it. But please, whatever you do, don't put your tomatoes in the fridge if you buy them ahead of time! Tomatoes should be stored on the counter, either still attached to the stems or stem side down flat, if possible (this slows the spoiling). Refrigerating tomatoes just kills their flavor and gives them a mealy texture. Not good.

After a rinse, I like to halve them, because it makes it seem like there are more, and I find them easier to get on the fork, but that's totally up to you. Then I cut up and add in the cucumber. I always go with the english cucumbers, I just like the flavor and texture better, but if you like standard cucumbers, they work just as well.

Next up: dressing. Whenever possible, I make my own dressing. It's really simple once you have the pantry staples, and once you get used to it, you'll most likely find that you'll be super picky about the bottled dressings. This one's easy: dijon, red wine vinegar, lemon zest and juice, salt, pepper, extra virgin olive oil. Ask your sous chef to whisk it up, and viola! 

Setting that aside to marry, I add in the marinated onions and the feta and then chop the herbs together to get them evenly incorporated, and toss over the vegetables.

Sometimes the baby, aka the human garbage disposal, can't wait for dinner to be ready and has to have a first course. Yay for daddy with the assist!
What? I'm starving and I like yogurt, ok?
Toss with the vinaigrette and you're done! I like to do this first, then set aside so the flavors can marry while I make whatever the main dish is. Enjoy!

Peasant Salad
about a pint of cherry tomatoes, halved, or 2-3 regular sized tomatoes, large diced
1 english cucumber, large diced
6-8 ounces of feta
1 red onion, thinly sliced
6 TB red wine vinegar, divided
3 TB water
1 TB dijon mustard
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
fistful of fresh italian parsley, chopped
2 small bunches of basil, chopped
small much of mint, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Thinly slice the red onion and place in a bowl with 3 TB of the red wine vinegar and 3 TB of water. Swirl around to make sure all us coated/mostly submerged and set aside.

Rinse tomatoes and half. Cut cucumber into a large dice so that the pieces are roughly the size of the tomato pieces and add to the tomatoes. Add in feta. Whisk together remaining 3 TB red wine vinegar, the zest and the juice of the lemon, 1 TB dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and the extra virgin olive oil. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Set aside.

Chop all the herbs together, being careful not to bruise too badly, until they are roughly chopped and incorporated. Drain the onions and add to the cucumber, tomato and feta. Top with herbs and toss to incorporate. Add vinaigrette, toss, and serve with any favorite main dish! This goes great with white wine and good bread for sopping up the dressing.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

French Meat Pie

These are the first pictures I ever took for this blog. 3 apartments ago, and I wasn't even pregnant with Declan yet. So I'd say it's been a long time coming!

One of the reasons I love cooking is that food is very nostalgic to me. This recipe is one that's been passed around my family for a long time. I always think back to a few years ago, when my parents and I were making a trek to Wegman's to get supplies for Thanksgiving dinner. My mom asked me to call her mother (my Memere) to ask if she had any requests. She asked me to make a "meat stuffing". Confused, I asked her what was in a meat stuffing. She said "Oh, you know. Beef, and pork. And potatoes. And those spices, and onions and garlic." I said that it sounded like the base for meat pie, and she said "Yes! That's what you make out of the leftovers. I'd like a meat pie." We laughed, because according to my mom, they'd never made stuffing like that, but they sure did make meat pies for holidays.

This is the ultimate in comfort food, for me. It may sound weird to you if you've never had a meat pie, but trust me, it's wonderful. Spicy and homey, and it will certainly fill up your belly. Peasant food is good that way.

Full disclosure: I cheated with this and used a pre-made pie crust from the refrigerator section of the grocery store. I know, it's shameful. I really am not fantastic at making homemade pie crust, no matter how easy everyone tells me it is. I'm working on it. In the meantime, there really are tasty pre-mades out there. You don't even have to tell anyone.

I think one of the keys to this pie (and most ground meat dishes, really) is using both ground beef and ground pork. Ground pork doesn't have a ton of flavor, but it's lighter, and really adds moisture. I use equal parts here, about 3/4 of a pound of each. You can also substitute ground turkey, chicken, veal, bison, lamb or meatloaf mix here. Just be sure to use a combination.

Another key to getting the perfect texture to this pie is one I almost forgot about. When I was pulling this together, there was a flurry of emails with my cousin Nicole and her mom, my Aunt Sue, as well as my own mom, about ingredients, proportions, timing. It's such an old family recipe that none of us (save maybe my Aunt Sue) has it written down anywhere, we make it from memory and asking each other the parts we forget. Nicole and I both forgot that one of the most important binders in this recipe is very, very finely diced potato. It's diced so small that it all but disappears into the filling, but it's essential in holding the pie together and thickening it up. I used a few Yukon golds, but a russet would work nicely as well.

It's also important, when browning the meat, that you break it up as finely as you can get it. You don't want any chunks of meat OR potato, you want it to be wholly incorporated and broken down. Sometimes I cook the meat first, pull it off into a bowl, and then cook the diced onion and garlic. Then I add the meat back and cook in the potato. Sometimes I saute off the onions and garlic first and then cook in the meat (it really depends on if I am feeling ambitious enough to drain off some of the fat. This time, I did not feel so ambitious).

Once this is all combined, it's just adding the liquid and the spices and really developing the flavor before baking it off.

Cook it all down until the potatoes are soft, then break them up. I think an important step at this point is pulling the meat off the heat and giving it time to cool before adding it to the pie crust. This helps ensure that the bottom crust cooks up crisp and not soggy. No one wants a soggy bottom crust.

This is an excellent time for a glass of wine. You can't make a French dish without a glass of wine, am I right?
I like to egg wash the bottom crust before adding the filling as well as the top crust.

Bake and enjoy!

French Meat Pie
double pie crust (homemade or store bought)
1 large white or yellow onion, diced
3-5 cloves of garlic, minced or grated (my preferred method is grated)
3/4 pounds ground beef
3/4 pounds ground pork
3-4 Yukon gold potatoes, very finely diced
1/2-1 teaspoon ground clove (or more to taste)
1 teaspoon ground allspice (or more to taste)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (or more to taste)
1-2 cups stock or water
1 egg, wisked with a few TB of water to make an egg wash
3 TB butter or olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
ketchup, for serving

Pre-heat oven to 350°. Prepare and set aside pie crusts, or take out pre-made crust and bring to room temperature.

Heat a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat and add butter or olive oil. Add in onion and garlic, season with salt and pepper, and saute until soft, 5-8 minutes. Add in ground beef and pork and cook, breaking down, until all the pink is gone and it's very combined and fine, about 10 minutes. Season with clove, allspice and cinnamon and stir to combine (note: clove is a strong spics. I go heavier on the cinnamon and allspice to start, and then adjust to taste). Add in finely diced potato and the water or stock (the liquid should just about come up to the level of all the ingredients in the pan, use as much as is needed to do that) and simmer until potatoes are soft and the liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes. When soft, mash a bit with the back of a fork to break up the potatoes. They will still be visible but start to combine, and will break down fully when baking. Taste the mixture and adjust seasoning as needed.

Move the mixture to another dish or allow to cool, stirring to help it along. This should take about 15 minutes, but it's a crucial step to the ever-important non-soggy crust.

Roll the bottom crust into a 9-inch pie dish. Brush with the egg wash. Spoon the filling mixture into the crust and smooth out so it's even. Roll the top crust over the filling and crimp the edges. Egg wash the top, and cut a few slits in the crust for the steam to escape.

Bake at 350 for a half hour, or until golden brown. You may need to use foil or a pie crust protector to prevent the edges from getting too brown. Allow to cool for a few minutes before cutting, to let the filling set.

Slice and serve with ketchup. Trust me on this one.
Comfort food defined

Notice how broken down the potato gets
Mmmm flaky crust
I know it sounds weird, but the sweet/tang of the ketchup is perfect with the spice of the filling

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Summer Corn Chowder

This blog has been set up, ready to be posted to, for about a year and a half now. I've taken pictures of the preparation of many meals, and those pictures sit neatly stored away in folders, awaiting posts to be written about them. I've composed countless entries in my head that have never been typed up. Sure, I'm busy with two kids, but I'm also an excellent procrastinator. I've finally decided that that's gone on long enough. What inspired me to finally get over it and make a post? Sweet summer corn, and plenty of it.

My little family (husband Johnny, kids Kieran, 4, and Declan, 1) has been living with my parents for the past 6 months, to save up some money and work on our plan for What Comes Next. This means that I have the opportunity to cook, and plan recipes, with my mom again. And if there's one thing my mom loves, it's corn on the cob. "Knee high by the 4th of July" can be heard quite often in the months leading up to prime corn season around here. And since the good crops are starting to be upon us, we have been buying a lot of corn. So much so that I've decided it's time to get creative, especially when we grocery shop independent of each other and end up with a couple dozen ears (oops).

Since it's finally under 97°, I decided corn chowder was the only logical dinner choice (especially since we have 3 pints of heavy cream burning a hole in the fridge, the latest in our constant attempts to rotate what we get delivered from the milk man every week, always searching for the perfect order to make our regular. Spoiler: we haven't found it yet.)

Here's what I came up with. Now, I firmly believe that recipes are only suggestions, and there is plenty of room for leeway here, so go with what you like. I happen to be a huge leek and shallot fan, but regular old onions are just as good, for example. You can substitute Idaho potatoes for the red ones. This is also easily doubled for parties, and freezes well.

Cast of characters, aside from the corn:

First things's first--getting that corn off the cob. I like to use a smaller bowl in a larger bowl, upside down, and then just use a sharp knife to cut down the cob and remove the kernals. 6 ears will get you about 2 cups.

I start off with some thick-slab bacon. Pancetta, or even a smokey sausage like kielbasa or chourice would be great if you have no bacon on hand (or, of course, you can skip if you want a meat free chowder). After the fat is rendered, in go the aromatics (leeks, shallots, garlic, pepper, celery, thyme), which I like to throw in with a little bit of butter for a depth of flavor. Season these, but go easy on the salt if you use bacon or another cured meat.

A little bit of flour will bond with the fats and thicken this up, and the starch from the potatoes will help it along. With the addition of wine, heavy cream, good vegetable stock and creme fraiche, what's not to like?

Can't cook a meal without my helpful sous chefs!

Summer Corn Chowder
6 ears of fresh corn, stripped off the cob (yield: about 2 cups)
3-5 slices of bacon (depends on how much you like/how thick the bacon is)
3 leeks, whites and light green part only, halved and sliced thin
2 large shallots, diced
3-5 cloves of garlic (depends on how much you like it--I obviously like it a lot), minced
1 red bell pepper, diced
3-4 stalks of celery (the heart with leaves if you have it), diced
5 sprigs of thyme, leaves only
1 bay leaf
6-7 red potatoes, diced
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 cup white wine (I use pinot grigio)
6 cups vegetable stock
2 cups heavy cream
creme fraiche
fresh chopped parsley
2 TB salted butter
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Cut all the corn off the cob and set aside. Heat 2-3 TB of olive oil in a heavy bottomed stock pot or dutch oven over medium-high heat. Dice the bacon and add to the oil, and render until crisp. Add in the leeks, shallots, garlic, thyme, and 2 TB butter. Cook until soft, 5-7 minutes. Add bell pepper and celery and cook 5 minutes more. Salt and pepper to taste. Once all the veggies are soft but not browned, sprinkle in 1/4 cup of flour and stir to coat. Cook for 3 minutes, to cook off the raw flour taste.

Add in a cup of white wine and scrape the bits off the bottom of the pan. The mixture will thicken up and be almost paste like. Add in the veggie stock and the bay leaf and bring to a boil. Once it's boiling, add in potatoes and heavy cream. Bring to a boil again and boil 6-7 minutes (this will help bring out the starch in the potatoes and thicken the chowder).

Reduce to a simmer and add in the corn. Taste for seasoning, and add more salt and pepper if needed. Simmer for at least 15 minutes to combine all the flavors (I'm a big fan of simmering soups, stews and chowders very low for a longer time, to meld all the flavors. The potatoes may break down a bit, but that will just thicken the chowder and make the texture better, in my opinion. If you like your potatoes to have more integrity, by all means, don't simmer as long).

Serve with a dollop of creme fraiche and a sprinkle of fresh chopped parsley. My favorite thing to have with this is just a piece of ciabatta, charred on the grill, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. But this is also excellent with a simple salad, a ham and cheese sandwich, or any grilled summer meat and vegetable you want. If you need a little kick, I like some tabasco or sriracha in this as well.  Enjoy!