Basil Oil, thy time is now

Tomatoes with Basil Oil

Delicious evidence

I have several things on my plate for the next couple of weeks, but I couldn’t keep this from you. It was one of those things I made for myself and thought, dang it how selfish would I be not to share this? I’ll make this quick…

Last weekend I hit our local farmer’s market and was delighted to find tomatoes. I know, tomatoes are in the grocery store every week of the year and there’s even been hothouse tomatoes at the market for a while. That’s not what I’m taking about. I’m talking about “grown in the ground”, luscious, sweet, red (and other colors too!!) tomatoes. The kind when you smell they they have that vine-y tomatoes smell. You know it, and to me it’s summer. I have memories of canning bushels of tomatoes with my mom and my dad and making his special spaghetti sauce.

While any tomato are pretty good, but they’re even better when you try eating them seasonally. Back in the day I used to take cooking classes from a restaurant in Madison, L’Etoile (I miss those classes, dang it, Chef Tory, bring them back!). I learned so much from their chefs, but their founder, Odessa Piper was like the Midwest equivalent of Alice Waters. Very much an early adapter of the local food movement, she is a rare gem and visionary. One of my favorite classes was following her around the Madison Farmer’s Market and meeting each of her favorite purveyors. I still shop from them when I’m in the area. She always extolled the virtues of eating seasonally. How much more delicious it is to eat a tomato, or even a BLT if you haven’t for many months. Then she said you eat them when they are in season until you’re almost sick of them because you crave them so much, but it is these “culinary vacations” we have to take from certain fruits and vegetables when we eat seasonally that makes them all the more special.

Now I can’t do this, at least not completely. I’m lucky in that I live by a really great farmer’s market in central IL. I can even get peaches locally for a few months over the summer. However, if I couldn’t get local peaches I’d have to get them somehow. There’s other things like avocados that I just couldn’t live without. And I do eat the occasional tomato off season, but they don’t taste very good, and I usually regret it in the morning.

By now you’re saying, “Um, so what does this have to do with Basil Oil? Can we circle back to the point, hmm?”. Sorry for the long windup, but I’m getting there. When tomatoes are in season, basil is right there too. Basil and tomatoes, like Bert and Ernie, two very different things that go quite well together. At the market last week as I squirreled together my tomato stash, I grabbed a bunch of basil (yes, I have “basil” in my “garden” but my garden is a sad sad place where plants go to die and I’m trying to give them their space. That’s for another time. Or not).

I had been plotting to make a Margarita Pizza with my spoils when I turned on an episode of Barefoot Contessa where she was drizzling some gorgeous vivid green oil over some tomatoes. Basil Oil! I thought, well, why not? I googled up a recipe and found a good one on Epicurious. A couple of words of advice about the recipe. You need to blanch the basil or it will get muddy brown. A big part of this recipe is how beautiful it looks, so take 5 seconds and blanch it. I shocked it in ice water too, but cold water is probably fine. Also, I used a mixture of olive and canola oil because the olive oil I had was kind of spicy. I’d use all olive the next time I make it. It doesn’t have to be fancy oil, but I think all olive would have been a bit jazzier.

Oh so delicious

Mmmm, my bright green precious…

That’s not to say it wasn’t delicious. Seriously. I made a caprese salad with tomato, fresh mozzarella, and basil and it was amazing. You can see the evidence, or lack there of above and I’m not saying this lightly; it was incredible. Over the next few days I was looking for ways to use it. I made some sandwiches and used it as a spread/oil for the bread. I also drizzled it over some fish I steamed in the oven.  There are so many ways you could use this oil. Also, It lasted for several days and stayed bright green and tasty.

So um, not quick I guess, but I couldn’t help myself. ‘Tis the season for basil oil and fresh tomatoes.

Protip: Freezing Cookie Dough

Cookie PlateI love chocolate chip cookies. Not a huge leap, but it needs to be stated nonetheless. These cookies are ones I made for the social work policy class I’m teaching. I bake for my classes, it’s what I do. See what I did there? For just a nanosecond it ran through your mind that you might consider taking a social policy class in order to secure some of my baked goods, and that my faithful reader is the power of a good chocolate chip cookie.* And yes, I use my baking superpowers for good, as you will see.

But come on who can blame you, who doesn’t love warm, melty, homemade chocolate chip cookies? You could say I inherited my love of chocolate chips and cooking from my grandma. My grandma was a good cook. She was a traditional 60’s style cook, nothing fancy or haute, but just good tasty food. She liked to cook, and I guess I inherited that from her.

scan0246Wasn’t she pretty? She also made a mean chocolate chip cookie. When we’d come to visit the cookies would always be there, and when we left we’d often have a tin of cookies to take home. They were a variation on the old Toll House Cookie recipe, but they were much more cakey. Once she taught me how to make them. Her secret was basically “more flour”. She was older then and cookie dough was so stiff that her arthritis made her mix the dough by hand. I remember thinking she must love me very much to go to that much effort for me.

When I was little these cookies were magic, and so of course when I got older I wanted to make them myself. Toll House was my jumping off point too. In my opinion, regular Toll Houses are a bit thin and meh. Over the years I’ve honed my own recipe. I too add a little more flour, but less than my grandma. I toast my pecans to add some depth to their flavor. I also put in a bit more vanilla, and use good vanilla, you really can tell. With my few small, yet important tweaks I think I’ve hit on a great slightly chewy chocolate chipper with just a bit of puff.

Now we all know that the best chocolate chip cookie is warm and right out of the oven, and sadly too often we are deprived of them having to settle for a regular room temperature cookie.  Oh it is a rough world we live in, but lucky for you, I solved all that. A few years ago at the grocery store I noticed a little tub of cookie dough in the refrigerated section. I got thinking why couldn’t I do something like that myself? What I needed was a way to preserve my own cookie dough without the additives that little tub was chocked full of. Then it hit me, freezing. All I had to do was freeze balls of dough and I could have warm cookies whenever I wanted. Choco chip freezerYou’ll notice they don’t look especially ball-like. My cookies usually need a bit of a smoosh so they flatten out as they cook.  I take a small ice cream scoop**, pop a bunch of balls of dough on my Silpat lined cookie sheet and then squish them. Okay, I also top them with a sprinkle of salt because I apparently feel the need to salt everything sweet I make, but that’s pretty much it. Once they’re frozen solid they can be sealed in a baggie, just push all the air out so they stay fresher. For cooking, just toss them on a cookie sheet and bake ‘em up. You can bake up a bunch or you can bake just one or two for yourself. I usually just keep an eye on them, they’ll need a few more minutes than the right out of the mixer ones.

Choc chip cookiesAnd voila, cookies! Now you can have a warm cookie whenever the mood strikes you. So whether it’s been a long day or that special someone drops by and you want to woo him or her with the irresistible allure of warm cookies.  All you need to do is heat up the oven.

*If you didn’t think that, you are obviously a cyborg because only they are immune to the powers of a good cookie. Stop reading my blog, cyborg!

**Ice cream scoops make baking so much easier. I use a regular sized scoop for portioning out muffin batter and a small scoop for making a lot of cookies really fast. If you bake a lot try it I swear they’ll make your life so much easier, call this protip part deux.

This is the Black Bean Soup you’re looking for

Bean Soup

So I really like black beans. There was a time in my life when I would cook up a pot of black beans regularly. I’d use them in tacos or burritos, mix in white rice, and even make up a little soup. I like to use them in place of other beans. I mean, come on who really likes the kidney beans in chili? *

I can’t remember where I first ate black bean soup, but I vividly recall the experience. It was a small hot bowl, almost bittersweet chocolate in color. The taste was savory and spicy with just a bit of lime. It wasn’t totally smooth, but had whole beans swimming in the thick beany broth.

The deal sealer with black bean soup are the garnishes.  In the same way as a good chili, you need to top black bean soup with something. Preferably many somethings. This restaurant topped the soup with a scoop of steamed white rice. It was amazing. It is the flavor of that soup that I chase when I make my own recipes today.

This recipe below also busts a myth or two. You really don’t need to soak beans before you cook them. I still will soak beans if I think about it, but often I just cook up black beans for soup and it’s just fine.  Also, I added salt relatively early in the cooking process and again it was just fine. I know some claim that salt inhibits the cooking process with beans, but I haven’t had that experience, and by adding salt your beans aren’t blah.

Black Bean Ingr

For the Beans

1# black beans

1 ham hock

2 bay leaves

6 cups of water

1/8 t baking soda

1 t salt

For the Soup

3 T olive oil

1 large onion

1 large carrot

1 red pepper

2 large cloves garlic

½ t red pepper flakes, I may have used a bit more, so to taste

1 ½ T ground cumin

½ c chopped tomatoes (I used some larger pieces from a jar I canned last fall)

4 cups chicken broth

Some Garnishes

Lime juice

Minced cilantro

Red onion

Greek Yogurt

 Alternate garnish

Cooked white rice

Chopped BBS

 How to do it

Start by combining all the bean ingredients except the salt in a nice sized Dutch oven. Turn it up and get a good boil going over medium heat. Stir in salt and lower the heat to a peppy simmer.  Simmer covered until the beans are tender.  Mine took about 90 minutes, but check them. Also, keep track of the water. If it starts to get low add another cup. When the beans are tender, I put everything in a large bowl,  remove the hock and the bay. When the hock is cooled, remove the meat and chop it up to add back in.

Saute bbs

Wipe the dutch oven clean with a paper towel. Toss the oil in the pan and heat over medium high. Add the onion, carrot, pepper to the pan and stir occasionally. You’ll cook them until they are very soft and lightly browned. Add the garlic, pepper flakes, and cumin to the pan, stirring frequently until fragrant maybe a minute or two. Add the beans, cooking liquid, tomatoes, hock meat, and chicken broth to the pan and adjust the heat so you get a nice boil, then lower to a simmer for about a half hour so the flavors can combine.

Soup bbs

When it seems ready, take 3-4 cups of the soup and put it in the container that held my homemade stock. You want something tall, so you can whip out your immersion blender and frappe the soup into a smooth thickener.  Once it’s smooth, add it back to the pot and you should have a slightly thickened bean soup that still had whole beans and bits of veggies.

Whirr bbs

Then you’re done. This soup is very close to what I remember from that soup that got me hooked. It is just a little thick, but still silky with a depth of flavor that has just a bit of heat. Don’t forget when you serve it to have a little assembly of garnishes. Your guests will love  customizing their own bowls with various add ons. Let’s be honest, people usually hop up their chili until it’s more garnishes than actual chili, and that’s how it should be.

Bean Soup

Suggested beverage: Malbec or a Pale Ale.

* Answer is no one.  Kidney beans are gross.

Why you should be watching Treme

NOLA 085When I fall in love with a new restaurant, there’s nothing more fun than introducing others to it, or cooking a new recipe and watch as a friend or love’s face lights up with pleasure eating it. It’s also the same when I clue someone into a really good show. You not only get to give your friend some honest tv watching enjoyment, but you get to relive the experience with them as they discover the joy/thrill/suspense you found in the show. Now I want to do that for you, and the show I think most of you probably haven’t seen and really need to is HBO’s Treme.

I absolutely love this show. I’ve been trying to think about what exactly why. It’s a little show, not glitzy. Even though it’s on HBO it has never gotten the buzz of a Sex and the City or the Girls. It’s not about self absorbed 30 somethings in too expensive clothes or self absorbed thick brained 20 somethings in no clothes. No, it’s a small show that is tenderly and beautifully rendered about a city, people, and music that I love. Whoever writes this show clearly knows the city and loves it too.

Treme is a neighborhood in New Orleans, a real neighborhood with real people. The show starts 3 months after Hurricane Katrina and it lives in a world of musicians, chefs, and other NOLA characters who took weathered the storm and their attempts to take back their city. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t told in an easy way. People die, people you love die. There is injustice and it will piss you off and it will make you cry.

Treme shows New Orleans isn’t an easy city. It is dirty and messy and corrupt. It was before Katrina and the water from the storm didn’t wash that away. One thing that makes Treme so great is that it is honest, sometimes brutally so.

NOLA 053I’d say Treme is also about 50% music, incredible local music. It will make you want to go and hang out in every divey joint in the city because we all know that’s where the best music lives. The stories are told in short bursts, like jazz riffs. This isn’t conventional storytelling. Thoughts are sometimes started and then you move into another scene, no resolution or nicely wrapped up scene. Just bits that start and stop and circle back later. While there are a variety of characters and story lines, it isn’t really telling separate stories it is telling one large multilayered intertwined story. Strong characters fight, cry, lose, and fight the hell back. Or quit. It shows people fighting for their city and with their city. Solutions aren’t easy if they come at all, but in the end it shows the heart and soul of this wonderful city.

NOLA 75I love New Orleans. I was enchanted with the city before I even ever stepped foot in the place. It was one of those places I knew I knew would feel like home. When I was there for the first time and heard my first NOLA jazz and ate fried chicken from Willie Mae’s* I knew I was in love.

So watch Treme. There’s 3 short seasons already out and a final one airing this year to finish the story. In one episode you may cry and cheer,  yell FINALLY, only to then have the rug pulled out from under you. You will love these people, you will fall in love with this city and then trust me, you will go and the love affair will be there for life.

You’re welcome. Maybe I’ll see you there.

*if you haven’t eaten fried chicken at Willie Mae’s my darlings, you haven’t lived.  I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Seared Shrimp Salad with Blood Orange Vinaigrette

IMG_3997

It’s not every day that a recipe knocks me off my feet. I cook a few times a week and you’d be surprised at how many of the online recipes are just meh – nothing I’d make again. I’m a busy gal and nothing ticks me off more than taking the time to make a recipe only to be rewarded with something boring. So when I try something new my expectations are so low, yet the bar is really high. This recipe really surprised me, it’s simple yet oh so tasty. I think it’s the low number of ingredients used in just the right way that allows this recipe to sing. I stumbled across this recipe on the lovely Tartlette blog. I changed it just a bit to meet my own tastes and the limits of my location. Her recipe called for scallops and since I’m terribly landlocked here in the middle of Illinois, I thought a safer bet was to use shrimp.

As an unexpected bonus, it didn’t take me longer than 10-15 minutes to make this whole recipe. Yes you heard me right, a totally homemade recipe in under 15 minutes. In fact, this is so easy you really don’t need a recipe for it, but I’ll walk you through what I did.

IMG_3973The vinaigrette calls for blood orange juice, red wine vinegar, minced garlic, salt/pepper and olive oil, you can see exact amounts on the Tartlette blog. Also, don’t be worry about finding blood oranges, heck my local Schnucks had ‘em. If you can’t find them it’s fine to use a regular orange, but you won’t have the beautiful ruby red vinaigrette to drizzle and the flavor may be different and more breakfasty. IMG_3979I added everything but the oil and then added it slowly giving it a brisk whisk.  I didn’t use as much oil as her recipe, but I tend to like a more tart dressing.  If I were you I would add a bit and taste it. If it tastes good, stop, if not add more oil. You should always taste your food as you’re cooking. How else will you know if it’s delicious? And this dressing is seriously good. I didn’t use nearly all of it for the salad and am saving it for a something next week.

IMG_3991Once the vinaigrette was finished, all that was left was to saute up the shrimp. Like the recipe, I wanted to keep it simple. I dried the shrimp really well with paper towels and salt and peppered them.  I put a very light film of olive oil in my trusty cast iron skillet and set it to almost high.  It didn’t take long for the pan to have small wisps of smoke and I threw the shrimp in making sure they had plenty of room. Don’t crowd your pan or you’ll steam them and you won’t get any caramelly bits. I’m all about the caramelly bits.  12 shrimp were  enough for me, but if you’re making this for more than yourself you might want to do it in two batches, but even with doubling the cooking time on the shrimp this recipe is still wicked fast.

Now stay close to the pan, but don’t stir them or turn them or mess with them at first. Leave them alone and watch, you’ll see the shrimp change and become pink, slightly opaque, and beginning to curl. When you see this happening, check the undersides. They should release easily and be just a little caramelized. Flip ‘em and do the same to the other side. I like my shrimp firm, but cook yours until they are done to your taste. When they even pinker and totally opaque, give them a little poke with your finger. For me, the shrimp should be nice and firm, but not rubbery.  If you’re still unsure if they’re done you can also pop a sacrificial shrimp in your mouth and taste it to see if it’s right, no one’s looking.

IMG_3997When your shrimp are done mound some greens onto your dinner plate. I opted for a spring mix from our local co-op, but you can use whatever greeny lettuce you enjoy. Top with a nice serving of the shrimp and then drizzle the vinaigrette over the whole shebang. If it separated it’s fine just give it another whisk, and then drizzle away.

I think a sparkling rosé would pair really nicely with this. I had a Sauvignon Blanc already open and it was a bit tart. If you didn’t want a sparkler, I’d maybe try a dry Riesling. You don’t want something that competes too much, the dressing is a tiny bit tart, but it’s the sweet blood oranges combined with the briny slightly caramelized shrimp that dominate the flavors.

And there you have it, a delicious dinner that can be easily assembled in minutes after work. Make it for your honey or make it for yourself, but trust me you’ll want to make it.

How to make me love your wine tasting

20130413-054446.jpg

Last night I went to a wine tasting/charity event sponsored by a local wine shop. I’ve been to a few of these things over the years and honestly I have mixed feelings about them. Most of the time I’m a little suspicious about the wine the salespeople bring. Usually it seems like wine they need to move mixed in with some higher end wines that make you feel like you’re getting in on special deal on the tasting.

They’re also usually like those “lady parties” like Mary Kay, or those candles where there’s an expectation that you’re going to buy something.  At those I often end up scanning the catalog and to find the cheapest thing I can buy and make a hasty retreat, but at a wine event I’m a pretty good ferreter and can usually find something to buy that I actually like. And dang it, ferreting out wine is fun.

If you choose carefully wine tastings can be kind of great. It really depends on the venue. If it’s your small local wine shop organizing it, the odds are better that they will pick good wine salespeople to show their wares. Now the salespeople are well, salespeople.  They remind me of drug reps that I worked with back in the day at the American Cancer Society. Some are better than others, but most are solid informational resources to learn more about their wine. Word of advice to the wine reps, you don’t want to be a little douchy. I got one of those last night and Dude, you act like a jerk and I’m not going to buy any of your wine. If you’re very particular about your wine, tell them what you like even if you don’t see those wine there, they’ll help you navigate to what you might like. If you’re like me and you like a lot of different wines just say that and you’ll get to taste everything.  I said that to one rep last night and her eyes lit up and said, “oh, we’re going to have some fun” and she proceeded to give me the intel on all her wine. I did buy one of hers. A memorable wine seller sold me a bottle by calling it a “porch pounder” and dishing about what a deal it was. It wasn’t a great wine, but could I picture myself on my patio drinking it icy cold on a hot summer night? You better believe it. Also, wine sellers take note, don’t be precious about your wine, pick favorites. No, all your wine isn’t great, we all preferences, so when I ask you what you crack open after a long day, just tell me.

One of my favorite things about a tasting is you can try varietals that you’ve never had without the risk of buying a whole bottle of it at the store. It’s really exciting to learn about an unusual grape or region that you’ve never tried.  It’s also cool to serve that bottle to friends or bring it to a party when everyone else is bringing another oaky Chardonnay or tired old Cabby Sauv. If you try something new and don’t like it, just pour it out.

At a tasting you don’t want to get sloppy. Well, maybe you do, but if you want to remember anything about what you’re tasting you can’t drink every pour, especially at a large event. And they add up, faster than you’d think. My rule is if I love it I’ll drink it, if not I take a sip and pour it out. That’s what the buckets are for, so use them. And heck if you want to get a little sloppy and have fun, go ahead it’s your party, but plan ahead who’s driving home.

Finally if you really want to make my day, have the wine right there so I can leave with it in hand and give me a discount. Last night discounts started at 6 bottles, there weren’t 6 that I liked enough to buy, so I picked my two favorites, something new and of course Pinot Noir. I had two other wines I would have bought if I’d gotten at little off all of them, so that’s a small sale loss.

Oh, the wine above is a lovely little Malbec that I drank later, but did not come from the tasting. They didn’t have it right there, you got to pre-order it, so then I can’t share it here.  It’s available at Binny’s if you have one.

edited-I just noticed this is my 100th blog post. Compared to some, that’s a drop in the blogging ocean, but for me it feels milestoney.  If you’re new, take a peek back at the archives and see what you’ve been missing. I hope you like what you see and come back.

Once More into the Fray

pansiesIt’s spring, the time of rebirth and renewal, and for me a time to reboot and get back to business.  Not that I haven’t been about business in the past couple of years, but I haven’t lived here very much and folks that’s about to change.

I know you’ve heard it all before, “I’ll post more often”, “I swear I’ll change”, or “this time it’s different”, but it really is (hopefully). I was stuck in a research position for the past two years that took a lot of my time and a tiny bit of my soul. Not that what we were doing wasn’t good work, it was, it is. Heck, we’re helping young adults deal with their substance abuse issues, God’s work…but I need to get back to my own research and focus on me, so just like T.I., or Eminem, or the Ghosts from Poltergeist said “I’m Back”.

I now also have Photoshop for my Mac which will make it a lot more fun for me to play with the pictures I take and post here.  Look forward to the posts you’ve enjoyed in the past about food, but I also want to post about wine, and life.  I also might blog a bit about tv. Those posts might end up elsewhere eventually, but for now I want to share my thoughts about the shows I like and why I like ‘em. Yes, there will be bitching about academia too so you’ll just have to deal. Oh and Top 10 lists, oh yah there will be Top 10 lists. I hope to get back to bringing you my own unique set of insights and info from right on the edge of the prairie.