Sunday, May 31, 2009

Patio Herbs

I began to fully understand how the term “container garden” came to be in use, when I started thinking about writing to tell you about my “pot garden.” I might eat granola and have a slightly more laid-back lifestyle than is in vogue these days, but if you really know me, you know that really is oregano growing on my porch. To keep myself out of trouble, I’ll try to refer to my stash of culinary herbs on the back patio as a container garden or patio or porch garden (although I might become more google-able if I use the word “pot”).

Anyway, the herbs are growing, and only a few need to be transplanted to larger pots. (I had to buy some more potting soil…don’t you just hate buying dirt?) I should be able to supplement my dishes quite favorably (or flavorably) all summer. I have the “Scarborough Fair” quartet (parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme), oregano, four kinds of mint (spearmint, peppermint, orange, and chocolate), dill, tarragon, and summer savory, something new to my cooking that goes well with tomatoes and green beans. I also have a spicy salad greens mix just coming up from seed, and I planted two kinds of basil seeds that were pretty old, and I don’t know if they’ll come up.

I bought most of the herbs as plants from garden centers, but a few are leftovers from last year that I managed to keep alive over the winter. The oregano has actually survived two winters, at least. In magazines and such, they’ll tell you that you can keep a fresh herb garden at a sunny window all winter, but I think those bits of advice were written from places where the angle of the sun is higher in the winter than it is here in southeastern Minnesota. I can keep some things from dying during the cold months, but nothing really grows.

The thyme plants I bought were very well developed and there’s a lot that’s ready to eat, so, to celebrate my porch’s bounty, I used thyme to flavor some quick and easy drop biscuits. I didn’t have buttermilk or yogurt in the house, so I tried sour cream to make these (I had juuuuuust enough), with good results. We enjoyed these biscuits with scrambled eggs with more fresh herbs and cheese for Sunday brunch.

You could use knives or even your fingers to cut the butter into the flour mixture for these biscuits (or anything else that uses a similar procedure), but I really like using a pastry blender. The one I like is in the photo below, and has blades rather than thick wires as I have seen in other models. I also strongly recommend a Microplane grater for removing lemon zest. It takes off just the nice fragrant, flavorful yellow part, leaving the bitter pith behind. (I used my kitchen shears to harvest the thyme and the whisk to stir the flour mixture, so they got in the shot too.)

The dough for these biscuits is quite wet, but results in a nice crust and moist interior. They can be simply dropped onto a baking pan rather than rolled and cut.

Sour Cream Drop Biscuits with Lemon and Thyme
adapted from Cooking Pleasures magazine

1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small cubes
½ cup sour cream
¼ cup milk
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

Preheat oven to 425 F.
1. Place flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. Stir well with a whisk. Add butter and cut in with a pastry blender until the butter is well-distributed and the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

2. Mix the sour cream, milk and lemon juice together in a measuring cup or small bowl. Add to the flour mixture. Add thyme leaves. Stir gently just until the mixture is no longer dry. Do not beat or overmix.

3. Scoop out dough in equal portions and place on a baking sheet that has been greased, or lined with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. I made large biscuits and got 5 out of the dough.

4. Bake at 425 for 12-15 minutes or until the outside of the biscuit is beginning to brown. Cool slightly before consuming. These are best right away, but are just fine later, and can be frozen as well.

Makes 5-6 large biscuits

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Waiting (Im)patiently

I am not a patient person (although I acknowledge this problem and am working on it, thank you.) My first CSA* delivery will not be until June 2, but the “seasonal” recipes using spring vegetables and baby salad greens have been featured in cooking magazines for at least two months. We will most likely be getting asparagus (nice, healthy, sweet and crunchy organic asparagus) in our box from the CSA, but some pretty decent asparagus has been coming to town, just to taunt me as I try to eat more and more from local sources. I finally gave in. Asparagus season is short after all.

With the last bundle of pretty nice asparagus spears that I bought, I made Spring Vegetable Tabbouleh but had plenty left to make something else, so I fell back on an old favorite, a sautéed asparagus with a balsamic-tarragon vinaigrette from Cooking Light magazine. My patio herb garden is going strong (I wanted to post some photos of that, but it’s been raining every day since I planted) and I had plenty of tarragon. I didn’t want a side dish, however, so I increased the volume of the sauce and made it a pasta dish.

The sauce for this dish, which is mostly reduced balsamic vinegar and some sugar, is a bit sweet, but somehow the asparagus seems to soak up some vinegar before the vinegar reduces in volume and increases in sweetness, maintaining a bit of a tart quality that is a nice contrast. If you find the sauce too sweet (or think you will upon reviewing the recipe), just reduce the amount of sugar.

The Pernod (or other anise liqueur) is optional in this dish. It simply bumps up the anise flavor contributed by the fresh tarragon. It would not be necessary to buy a bottle just for the 1 tablespoon I included in this recipe. If you happen to have some around, however, I think it adds some character to the sauce. If you don’t groove on bacon (I’m having a hard time refraining from commenting, since I strongly respect a vegetarian lifestyle…I also, however, have strong feelings for bacon) you can leave that out of the dish as well and it will be entirely vegetarian. Just replace the bacon drippings with olive oil.

I’m a bit squeamish about making recommendations, especially for something that costs more than a pack of gum, but I had a very nice wine with this that I think really made the meal. I’m not a big drinker of alcohol, but I’ll have a bit of wine if I think it will compliment a dish at dinner. With this one, I tried Gazela Vinho Verde (2008), and thought it was magnificent. Vinho Verdes are young Portugese white wines that are quite inexpensive. The Gazela was tart rather than dry and a little fizzy, which really cut through and complimented the sweet sauce. I hope you can find it and give it a try.

Asparagus and Pasta with Balsamic-Tarragon Sauce and Bacon
To be honest, I’m not sure exactly how much asparagus I had left to use in this recipe. The moral of the story is, use what you have and it will still be good (simply because it will still be asparagus!)

3 strips thick-cut bacon
8 ounces bow-tie or other short pasta
½ cup thinly sliced onion
1 pound asparagus, tough ends removed and cut into 1-inch pieces
½ cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon Pernod (or other anise-flavored liqueur), optional
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
salt and pepper to taste
½ cup toasted chopped pecans

1. Cook the bacon in a frying pan until crisp. Remove and drain the bacon, reserving 2 tablespoons of the drippings (“drippings” is such a nice word for salty liquid pork fat).

2. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until it is done as you like it. (I like “al dente.”) Drain the pasta, reserving ½ cup of the pasta cooking water.

3. Heat the reserved bacon drippings in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally for 4 minutes, or until the onion starts to brown. Add the asparagus and sauté 2 mintues, stirring occasionally.

4. Add the balsamic vinegar and sugar, stirring well to dissolve the sugar. Cook several minutes until the vinegar has reduced by about half and has become slightly thicker and syrupy.

5. Add the Pernod and tarragon, and salt and pepper to taste (I used about ¼ tsp of each). Add the pasta and some of the reserved cooking water. Toss well. Crumble the bacon into the pan and stir it in. Garnish each serving with pecans.

Makes about 4 servings

* Community Supported Agriculture. The one to which I subscribe is here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Pan and a Plan

Just a few housekeeping items before I hold forth about my new bread-baking pan. First of all, many thanks to all who have been reading this blog. I am so appreciative of your compliments and encouragement! And thank you also for telling your friends! As I wrote to one of my dear friends, strangers are just friends you haven’t blogged to yet.

Second, I’ve learned that some of you have had difficulty posting comments. I wish I knew what was up with that. Harry and I have been testing it and it seems that sometimes when one attempts to post anonymously, the comment gets rejected, other times it does not. I do monitor all comments, but have never rejected any myself. At the end of the post titled Sprung, Harry has left a comment including some basic instructions on what has worked for him when commenting. I can only ask you to keep trying! If you continue to have difficulty leaving comments, feel free to contact me via e-mail. My address is given near the bottom of my profile page.

Finally, I have added a new recipe index. You can access it at the right under THE MESSY APRON EXTRAS. It’s a bit crude at this point, but, since many of my post titles have nothing at all in common with the recipes in them, I hope it will help you (and me!) find what you need.

I am a little surprised that I have made as many posts to The Messy Apron as I have and managed to hold myself to only one post about bread. Truthfully, I haven’t been making much of it lately, and, with much warmer days coming, I probably will be giving the oven more time off (though I intend to work on some grilled flatbreads and such.)

For some time, I had been on a quest for mesh trough pans for baking baguettes. They seemed to have come and gone in the kitchen and home stores, and I was even having a hard time finding one online. Williams Sonoma carries one, and it is quite lovely. I’m on a budget, however, and it is a little more than I want to spend at this time, especially since I had no idea whether I was going to like using it.

Finally, on a recent shopping trip after liberating a couple more lonely cookbooks from the shelves of a used bookstore, I found a mesh pan more suited to my budget. It was at le gourmet chef at that crazy retail behemoth known as the Mall of America. This pan is smaller than the one at Williams Sonoma, that is, it is for baking a narrower loaf sometimes known as a flute.

I was invited to a Memorial Day weekend al fresco dining experience (at my favorite place to be invited to dinner…thanks Aunt Beth and Uncle Bob), so I thought I would pick up some wine and bring some bread. Really, I’ll admit, it was an excuse to test my new pan.

I have a baguette recipe adapted from Cooking Light magazine, which has been good to me for a few years, so I used it to try out my new toy. I have to say, it worked very nicely and may have taken this recipe to an all new level. The bread had a consistent, crunchy crust through all 360 degrees of its surface. Oh ya, it tasted great, too!

I let the dough rise on the counter rather than in the pan, so the dough wouldn’t poke through the holes as it puffed up. (I didn’t want little porcupines that I couldn’t get out of the pan.) I then transferred the rising loaves to the mesh pan. You could certainly make this bread on a regular sheet pan, as I have for years with good results. Just let the loaf/loaves rise on the pan and skip the step of transferring it from the counter (not the easiest thing to do without ruining the bread…for me anyway.) You could also make a larger (fatter or longer) loaf, but you may need to adjust the baking time. The egg wash is optional, but I find that it really gives the bread a nice crunchy, golden crust.

BaguetteAdapted from Cooking Light Magazine

2 teaspoons active dry yeast (1 envelope)
1 ¼ cup warm water (100 to 110 F), divided
3 cups bread flour, divided (about 14 ¼ ounces)
1 teaspoon salt
Nonstick cooking spray
1 egg (optional)
2 tablespoons water (optional)

1. Dissolve yeast in ¼ cup warm water in a large bowl (such as the bowl of a heavy duty stand mixer). Let the yeast mixture stand 5 minutes or until foamy.

2. Add the remaining water and 2 cups flour to the yeast mixture. Stir until a soft, batter-like dough forms. Use the paddle attachment if using a stand mixer. Cover the dough and let stand 30 minutes.

3. Add the salt and ½ cup of remaining flour. Knead (using the dough hook or knead by hand) about 10 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic, adding enough remaining flour a little at a time to keep dough from sticking. The final result will be a slightly tacky dough.

4. Place dough in a large bowl coated with cooking spray. Spray the top of the dough and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Cover with a towel and let rise about 1 hour or until double in size.

5. Gently deflate the dough without completely squashing it. Reform into a ball. Cover and let rest 5 minutes. Divide the dough into 3 equal pieces. Working with 1 portion a t a time, roll each portion on a floured surface into a long, narrow loaf. Place the loaves on a well-floured surface. Cover with a towel and let rise 20 minutes.

6. Carefully lift the loaves onto a mesh baguette baking pan. Avoid deflating them as much as possible. Cut 3 to 4 1/4-inch deep slits into the top of each loaf. Cover with a towel.

7. Preheat oven to 450 F. Uncover the dough. Beat the egg with the water to make an egg wash. Brush the tops of each loaf with the egg mixture. (Leftover egg wash can be kept for a few days in the fridge. It can be used on other baking days or cooked as scrambled eggs.) Bake at 450 F for 20 minutes. Remove from the pan and cool on a wire rack.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Spring has fully sprung in southern Minnesota. In fact it has probably become a bit excessive in its exuberance, and overshot its goal (it was 90 degrees on Tuesday). But everything is green and the lilacs are blooming beautifully. I couldn’t resist taking a bunch of photos, and tried to show some restraint in posting them here. This is a food blog after all, and as far as I know, you can’t eat a lilac, although placing a bouquet of them on the table can significantly enhance a dining experience.

I might not be able to eat the lilacs, but they are the heralds of delicious spring produce. I get particularly excited about asparagus when it is in season, and in this home, we love radishes. Since I had an over-abundance of medium-grain bulgur in the cupboard (after buying a package when I already had one…happens a lot around here), I decided to try a spring vegetable take on Tabbouleh, a hearty salad of Middle Eastern origin. All the Tabbouleh recipes I’ve seen have lemon juice, olive oil, and lots of herbs. My porch garden is going strong (more about that in another post, I hope), so I had the herbs covered, and I try to keep a lemon or two around for just such an occasion.

I find asparagus to be one of those fruits of the earth that can be totally ruined by cooking it (especially over-cooking), and I actually quite like it raw. I chopped the asparagus and radishes into pieces roughly the size of the peas. I find that salads of chopped vegetables are more appealing when the pieces are of similar size. Fresh peas can only make this salad better. I didn’t have any, but helped tidy up the freezer by using up the last of the frozen ones I did have. I’m waiting (not so) patiently for the first box of vegetables from the CSA so I can make this salad again. It’s a big bowl of salad, but will last several days in the refrigerator.

Spring Vegetable Tabbouleh
Use thin asparagus spears if you can and chop them and the radishes about the same size as the peas.

1 cup medium grain bulgur
1 ¼ cup boiling water
1 teaspoon salt, divided
¼ cup lemon juice
1 garlic clove, minced
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup finely chopped thin asparagus (about 12 spears)
3 large radishes, finely chopped
½ cup peas, fresh or frozen
¼ cup chopped green onions
¼ cup chopped parsley
¼ cup chopped fresh mint

1. Place the bulgur in a large bowl. Pour boiling water over the bulgur. Add ½ teaspoon salt and stir. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand at least 20 minutes or until the bulgur absorbs the water.

2. In a small bowl, combine the garlic and lemon juice. Let stand 10 minutes. Add the olive oil and whisk until well combined

3. Add asparagus, radishes, peas, green onions, parsley, mint, and remaining ½ teaspoon salt to the bulgur. Stir gently to combine. Add lemon juice mixture and stir well. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes.

Makes 6-8 servings, and leftovers can stay in the refrigerator 4 days or so (if they last that long).

Third photo on this page by Harry Leckenby (he's just a better photographer than I am!)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bacony Goodness

There seem to be a few insurmountable obstacles to me ever becoming completely vegetarian. Some of them are simply issues of convenience (and I’m working on those, thank you very much.) One of the greatest, however, is bacon.

…And you know you love it, too. (Okay, okay, I know there’s at least one of you out there who doesn’t like bacon…thank you for reading this anyway!) If you’re anything like me in size, shape and metabolism, as well as environmental and health consciousness, bacon is more of a guilty pleasure…A delicious, smoky, salty, crunchy guilty pleasure. (Stop drooling! You’ll short out your keyboard!)

There is good news for bacon lovers, however, and I came across it recently in the June issue of Bon Appetit magazine. In an article titled “The Terrific 10” by Daniel Duane, bacon is included as a member of the healthful diet team. No, it wasn’t backwards day. It turns out that 45% of the fatty acids in bacon is oleic acid, which is the same bad-cholesterol-lowering stuff that is in olive oil. How exciting! The author of the article seemed excited, too and wrote, “Some could argue that bacon is about half as good for you as olive oil and about 100 times more delicious.” Sometimes life is just so great I can hardly stand it.

Duane also suggested seeking out artisanal varieties of bacon to avoid preservatives. Lucky me. I had just discovered an old fashioned brown sugar cured, applewood smoked, heritage breed bacon in my local supermarket. I felt so superior!

This stuff is good, too. Really good. When I took a bite of a perfectly-cooked slice, I couldn’t help think, “Now that’s how a really great fat is supposed to taste.” It was thick-cut, not too salty, meaty, subtly flavored with a little sweetness and spice…now I’m shorting out my keyboard!

There are lots of ways to cook bacon. I’ve been known to cook in the microwave, wrapped in paper towel when I just need a couple slices quickly, or in the oven on a wire rack set in a sheet pan at 400 F if I need a lot. My favorite way to make bacon, however, is to cook it over medium-low heat in a frying pan on the stove, turning it often to keep a nice, straight slice. The bacon basically gets deep fried in its own rendered fat. Mmmmmm. I can cook it super crisp the way Harry and I like it, or remove it early for those weirdos who like their bacon floppy.

Now, the best way to eat the exceptional bacon I recently enjoyed is from betwixt thumb and forefinger. (Since this was artisanal stuff, a pinky extension may be in order as well.) Along the lines of the “give a man a fish…,” adage, I would say that if you give someone a slice of bacon, he tastes bacon once and it is gone. If, however, you put bacon in a dish, the whole dish is made better by the bacon.

Here is a sort of dinner-time quiche that I like to use as a vehicle for bacon. You could probably make it in a regular pie pan if you don’t have a tart pan. I made a pie crust with butter and black pepper, but you could use whatever recipe or ready-made crust you like. You could even use pizza dough. I’ve made it with both fresh and frozen corn, and have to admit that fresh corn is much better. But it’s really about the bacon, isn’t it.

Corn and Green Onion Tart with Bacon

3 slices bacon
1 ½ cups fresh or frozen corn kernels (thawed if frozen)
½ cup chopped green onions (scallions)
½ cup milk
2 large eggs
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup grated Swiss cheese
crust for a single-crust pie, rolled out

Preheat the oven to 375 F.
1. Cook the bacon in a pan over medium-low heat until crisp. Remove the bacon from the pan and drain. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the rendered bacon fat.

2. Add the corn and green onions to the pan and sauté over medium heat for 3 minutes.

3. In a large bowl, beat the eggs with the milk, salt and pepper until well-blended. Add the corn mixture. Crumble the bacon and add to the corn and egg mixture. Add the cheese and stir until well-blended.

5. Carefully place the crust in a 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Gently press the crust to the sides of the pan. Avoid stretching the crust, as that will cause it to shrink when it bakes.

6. Prick the crust all over with a fork (don’t poke all the way through the crust to the pan). Cover the crust with aluminum foil. Place pie weights (or pebbles, dry beans, etc., anything that will hold the crust down) on top of the foil. Bake at 375 F for 10 minutes. Remove the foil and weights. Bake another 8 minutes.
7. Remove the crust from the oven and pour in the corn mixture. Return to the oven and bake for 25 minutes, or until set. Remove the outer ring from the pan. (Use something like a bowl as a platform to hold the pan bottom while slipping off the ring as in the photo below.) Cool on a wire rack 10 minutes before serving.

Makes 8 side dish or 4 main dish servings. Leftovers can be reheated and enjoyed (for breakfast the next morning!)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Pomegranate Preference

One Saturday I heard a story on The Splendid Table (an American Public Media program about food and cooking aired on National Public Radio) about POM354, a program headed by James Brett that seeks to replace opium poppy farms in Afghanistan with pomegranate orchards. As stated on the POM354 web site, “POM354's primary aim is to assist Afghan farmers in their move from poppy cultivation to a sustainable alternative livelihood. The objective is to alter circumstances in rural Afghanistan that will enable the (re)creation of a stable and fair market for pomegranate products.”

The POM354 site is loaded with information about the project, including how you can support the project and even adopt a pomegranate tree.

This story fascinated me, and made me even more interested in eating (and drinking) pomegranate products. (Why not increase the demand for the alternative while saying "no" to drugs?) While I’ve never actually bought a whole pomegranate, I do enjoy pomegranate juice and juice blends. They are perky and have an extra lip-smacking fruitiness that is hard for me to describe further. I particularly like a Cranberry-Pomegranate juice blend, which is delicious mixed with diet lemon-lime pop (soda for the rest of you) and sipped through a straw.

Pomegranate juice is also used in Middle Eastern cooking, and I especially enjoy it in its concentrated, syrupy form known as pomegranate molasses. I found my bottle at an upscale market but it is also available online at places like this one.

Pomegranate molasses has an unusual sweet-sour flavor that I find to be fantastic on fruit, especially when mixed with honey. For a super-easy fruit salad, just drizzle about equal parts honey and pomegranate molasses over a mixture of your favorite fruits cut into bite sized pieces. I really like this with oranges and pineapple. I bet grapes would be good, although I would cut them in half so the syrupy goodness can stick a little better and blend in with the juice on the cut side. I can hardly wait until late summer when I can get some perfect local melons to try this with, too.

Pomegranate molasses is great in savory applications as well. Its sourness makes it a perfect candidate for inclusion in a vinaigrette, and its exotic flavor makes anything taste special, even the lowly and perhaps overly-familiar carrot. Here is a simple shredded carrot salad that might just be the solution to the sorry salad greens blues that can hit us all in the winter, or, if you’re like me, right now when the first CSA box is just a few weeks away and you just can’t buy another head or bag of lettuce that comes with its own stamped passport. Of course, I’m also waiting impatiently for those unbelievably sweet local carrots, and the carrots I used to make my salad probably came from just as far away as any lettuce would have, but…well, it seemed like a good showcase for pomegranate molasses. What can I say?

I like to use the food processor to shred the carrots. I also cut the green onions into short ribbons that mimic the size and shape of the carrot pieces. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, after all, and I think cutting the green onions this way flatters the salad nicely. Orange or lime juice would probably also be good in place of the lemon juice.

Simple Shredded Carrot Salad with Pomegranate Molasses Vinaigrette
Don’t let the fact that you already ate a few carrots out of the bag stop you from making this. I actually made it with about ¾ pound, and thought the dressing would also stretch further.

2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon lemon juice
pinch kosher salt
a few grinds of black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound carrots, peeled, trimmed and shredded
3 green onions, roots trimmed; cut into strips lengthwise, about the same size as the carrot pieces

1. Combine the pomegranate molasses, honey, lemon juice, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Stir well with a whisk. Gradually whisk in the olive oil until completely blended.

2. Add the carrots and green onions. Toss well to coat.

Makes about 4 servings.

Monday, May 11, 2009

I Am the Enter-Tater

It was Mother’s Day weekend, and I had the opportunity to entertain ten people, besides myself. We ranged in age from 3 to 88 years, would probably all prefer a casual meal (four people would be sitting at the card table after all), and everyone would appreciate that I was cooking for them. (Entertaining Rule 1: If the people you entertain don’t appreciate your gestures of hospitality, stop inviting them). I would be giving honor to my mom and grandmother, who had come from Michigan, as well as two other moms, but they had always enjoyed my meals in the past. It would be a satisfying group to cook for, so I wasn’t nervous (much).

My kitchen is small, but its heart and ambitions are big when it comes to its extremely infrequent chances to entertain. The apron is always up to the challenge, probably because it always has backup in the closet. This time of year, the kitchen has its own backup as well, in the form of a decent-sized gas grill that saves me significant sweat in the kitchen on warm days.

I opted for the classics: burgers, bratwurst and hotdogs on the grill, with veggies, dips, a pasta salad and a few other snacks on the makeshift buffet table. I also wanted something that everyone would like, but that might be a little different than everyone expected. But this was the great Midwest, after all. What goes with meat better than potatoes?

There are probably thousands of recipes for giant casseroles with titles like “Company Potatoes” or “Potatoes for a Crowd,” but if I was going to grill, I was going to grill, and half the point was to keep it from getting too hot inside (even though it turned out to be a rather cool day). Besides, I had not ever tested any of these recipes myself. (Entertaining Rule 2: Don’t make something for your guests that you’ve never made before.) What I had done many times during last year’s grilling season, however, was grill potatoes.

Now I know as well as you do that it is nearly impossible to grill raw potatoes, since they get black before they even consider losing their vegetable crunch. And so I cheat. I use the microwave to par-cook the potatoes, then cut them into cubes or wedges (I went mostly with finger foods, so I made wedges this time), dress them with plenty of olive oil, salt and pepper, dump them in a pan made for the grill, and put them to the flames. They need to be watched carefully and turned when they begin to darken, and if, like me, you’re also cooking something that tends to flare up on the same grill, the potatoes can get pretty dark before you know it. Not that I mind a crispy potato. In fact, I’m convinced they make the world go ‘round.

I love these potatoes with an herbed dipping sauce, like the one I adapted from Better Homes and Gardens Magazine. It can be easily customized to fit your personal taste or whatever fresh herbs you have available. I used parsley (which seems to be always available), oregano and thyme. I think it would also be great with ground coriander, cumin and cilantro or with dill and lemon juice in place of the lime juice.

The potatoes were a big hit. In fact, I nearly forgot to take a photo of the finished product until they were almost gone and scrounged what was left from the bottom of the bowl for their glamour shot (every cook loves an empty serving dish!). I think we really all had a great time (Entertaining Rule 3: Have fun at your own party!) There was a violin concert, a brilliant commentary on what a hat is for, and a great dance routine performed to Weird Al’s “Yoda” by a young Batman with a blue-blanket cape. Aaah, memories. And mmmmm, potatoes!

Grilled Potatoes with Lime-Herb Dipping Sauce
This is really a method for cooking the potatoes rather than a recipe. The sauce can be halved, doubled, quintupled, whatever you need.

For the potatoes:
Potatoes (I used some nice large red potatoes, but use whatever looks nice)
Olive oil (I use extra-virgin for just about everything
Salt and Pepper

1. Cook the potatoes in the microwave (3 to 5 at a time) until they are partially cooked all the way through, but are still firm enough to cut. A knife inserted in the potatoes will meet with some resistance, but not the crispy kind of a raw potato. This should take about 6 minutes. Turn them over about halfway through the cooking process.

2. Set the potatoes aside until they are cool enough to handle. This can be done significantly ahead of time, even the day before. Cut the potatoes into large wedges.

3. In a large bowl, toss the wedges with olive oil to coat. Add salt and pepper to taste and toss well.

4. Preheat a grill. Place the potatoes on a grilling pan over medium to high flame (depending on your grill’s power) and grill until they are browned on one side. Turn the potatoes with tongs and grill the other side until brown. Serve with Lime-Herb Dipping Sauce.

For the Lime-Herb Dipping Sauce (adapted from Better Homes and Gardens Magazine)
½ cup mayonnaise
½ cup sour cream
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 finely chopped green onions (scallions)
1 clove garlic, very finely minced
½ teaspoon salt
about 3 tablespoons minced fresh herbs

1. Mix all ingredients together. Chill until ready to eat.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Noodle Noir, Part 2

(Continued from Part 1)
After many turns of The Roller’s crank, lots of sweat, and a few choice words (but no tears, not this time), I finally had fresh pasta that I could fill, cook and sauce (see Noodle Noir, Part 1). I also had a suitable filling (also see Noodle Noir Part 1), but sauce?…I needed a sauce.

After all the labor of the noodles, I needed to use my head. The sauce had to be simple. I would have loved fresh herbs in this sauce, but it was only April, and I was still in Minnesota. I needed to use what was in the cupboard. I also only needed enough for two, so I made half the recipe.

Simple Tomato-Garlic Sauce

1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
16 ounces tomato sauce
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
salt and pepper to taste

I sautéed the garlic in the hot oil, until it started to brown a little, being careful, oh so careful, not to burn it. I then added the pepper flakes, then the tomato sauce and the seasonings. Satisfied that it would behave itself, I set the sauce to simmer on a back burner while I dealt with the ravs.

I had to work quickly, before the raw noodles dried out. I spooned out the filling by heaping teaspoons (any more and it would bust out of the ravs and make an ugly mess) onto the lower third of the long side of the noodle strips. I left a couple inches breathing room between each blob. It would be best if they didn’t contact each other. I think you understand why. I brushed some water on three sides of the filling, to help the noodle pocket stick together, then tucked the blobs in for a nap by folding the top part of the noodle over the filling. I pressed the noodle together around the filling, keeping as much air out of the pocket as possible. I then cut the ravs apart from each other and pressed the edges together pretty hard, satisfied that the spinach and ricotta would not see daylight until dinner time.

When all the ravs were made, it was time to really put the heat to some, and put the rest on ice. Remember, I was only cooking for two, and would save the rest of the ravs for another, busier day. I brought pot of salted water to a boil for the hotties and froze the rest in a single layer on wax paper-covered pans. I was careful, having learned from experience that if these babies are stored too close to each other, they’ll stick together better than even the toughest crime families. Once they were frozen, I locked them up in freezer bags in their new, icy home.

Once the water was at a simmer, I put in some ravs, giving them elbow room, not too many at a time. I also didn’t want them to completely fall apart under the pressure, so I didn’t boil them hard. Just a simmer. There are some who would say these babies will float like corks when they are done cooking. I don’t believe them. The last piece of detective work I needed to do was to investigate my cooked ravs. I didn’t want to go through this much work only to eat raw dough. I checked a representative sample by cutting into a piece of pasta to see if it was done. 3 to 4 minutes of gentle simmering and they were cooked. I removed them from the pot. I repeated this process with the rest of the ravs, keeping the cooked ones warm in the oven.

When they were all done, I poured some hot sauce over each serving and topped it with grated cheese-Parmigiano Reggiano for me, please. Tasting it all was the real test of my day’s work, and I passed that test. Passed it with flying colors. The nuttiness and firm texture of the whole wheat pasta were a welcome change, and the increased WFQ* was just a bonus. The filling and the sauce were equal supporting partners. This was good. This was really good. I was in my happy place.

With a warm fuzzy feeling, I watched the April rain and thought of those spring foods that were still to come to Minnesota. I would wait. Perhaps not patiently, but I would have to wait. And a sexy vegetarian ravioli in a spicy red sauce would go a long way toward making me feel better that they weren’t here yet.

The End.

* Whole Food Quotient


I checked back, perhaps a little over a week later, on the ravs in the chiller. They had served enough time, though I suppose they could have lasted in there a month or more. I sprung them from their confinement, simmered them (a little longer since they were frozen) and sauced them. It was the right thing to do, and it confirmed my earlier suspicion: their only crime was being delicious.

(Photo at top by Harry Leckenby)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Noodle Noir, Part 1

It was a dark and stormy April Sunday. The newspapers and food magazines had declared asparagus the shining star of the moment. The Food Network website exclaimed that peas were at their peak of the season. This was all news to me. I live in Minnesota.

It could be another month before the lusty spring greens and other flirtatious fruits of the newly-awakened earth would dare to show their pretty faces around these parts. I couldn’t wait that long. I would be hungry by evening.

I had pretty good leads on this case: a hankering for fresh ravioli, a desire to bump up its WFQ*, and a pretty good idea of where I could find some homemade ricotta and maybe even a box of frozen spinach. It took some digging, but the spinach was there in the deepest, darkest, coldest corner of the freezer. Whether it knew it or not, I was rescuing it even as I was apprehending it.

Now that I had what I needed, I could do this. It would take time, but I had time. I had all the rainy Sunday I needed. And I had to eat something.

First, I tackled the dough for the noodle blanket for my savory filling. I adapted it from my most reliable source on the subject, The Ultimate Cookbook by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough.

Whole Wheat Pasta Dough

1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting and stickiness
1 cup whole wheat flour
½ teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Some would use a spoon, some a machine to do the work of mixing the dough. Maybe they’re smarter than me, but I had my own way. I got in up to my elbows and got my apron dirty. I made a crater in the middle of the mixed flours and salt right on my kitchen counter, in plain sight. Then, I beat the eggs well with the olive oil and poured that into the crater.
I mixed the whole mess together with my hands, coaxing a little flour at a time into the liquids until I had a rough dough that needed a bit of schooling. I showed it who’s boss by kneading it several times, forming it into a nice, disciplined disk and cutting it into four pieces. Divide and conquer. That dough would give me less trouble when separated, and I rolled each piece into a ball and covered them with a cloth. I let them sit that way, stewing in their own juices and thinking about their offenses for about 15 minutes.

I was getting tired, but I had to press on. I had just enough time while the dough rested to mix up the filling for the ravs. Luckily, this part proved as easy as I hoped. I just mixed these things together:

Spinach-Ricotta Pasta Filling

about 10 ounces ricotta cheese
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ of a 10-ounce package frozen spinach, thawed
and squeezed as dry as possible
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
(and an optional spicy little number
– about 1/8 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg)

Now the hard part would begin: the grueling task of sending that dough through the wringer and getting something, anything I could use from it. I’d done this before, though. I knew I couldn’t be squeamish. I had to be tough, use rough language if necessary. I had to use The Roller Machine. It turned out to be a tougher noodle to grind than I had expected. Usually just 10 times through the ol’ #1 setting on The Roller and I had a smooth, pliable candidate for noodlensss. But this one was of wholer grain. It took more like twenty times, but I eventually managed to make a well-kneaded strip of dough ready for the next phase.

I then put on the real squeeze, rolling the noodle strip through thinner and thinner settings on The Machine until I reached the last one, #6 and had thin, raw noodles. Things were looking up, but I had to do this for all four balls of dough. It was hot and sweaty work.

At about this time, as I cranked and cranked the handle on The Roller, I began to hear “Pop! Goes the Weasel” and expected to see a clown head on a spring pop out of somewhere. I was losing it. I had to focus….

…to be continued in Part 2

* Whole Food Quotient

Final photo on this page by Harry Leckenby