OMG – What’s happening?

I realize it’s been a while and probably none of you are still around, and that’s fine.  I would’ve quit me too.  It was a rough year last year and heck blogging is like journaling and I always sucked at that, so there.

I’m back though and am doing a little TV blogging to over at my other blog What I Watch Now or https://wiwnow.wordpress.com    It’s my little reward for getting my work done for the day and I do like blogging and it’s fun. So if I’m not here I’ll be there and so forth.  Unless I’m not either place, then I’m hopefully working which is good.  Mamma gots to finish.

What has brought me back is I’m doing a little experiment on my patio.  I had a big beautiful mint plant in a pot this summer. It was glorious. I use pots because mint is a weed and will take over your yard in like 5 minutes if given half a change. But I have to have my mint (mojitos!), so there you have it.

I noticed a few weeks ago it was on its last legs. I pretty much give up watering come August and unless we get rain stuff that needs water starts to die. It got rangy and I was having guests over, so I tried to rip out the plant, but all I got were the stems and the let’s call it “main plant” that was left above ground. The roots were too deep.

Being busy (read-lazy) I just left it there and noticed there was some activity. Well that voracious grower hasn’t disappointed me, this is the mint today

2014-10-01 12.56.35

HOLY MOLEY! It’s totally back. Two weeks ago this was just dirt and now it’s going to town.  I know this won’t last, but I’ve decided to just let it go and see what it does.  I’m going to leave it all winter too and see if it comes back.  This is basically a mint throw down.

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.

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.

Home Cured Corned Beef

I enjoy being Irish.  I can remember parties when I was little and wearing the “Kiss me I’m Irish” buttons.  I usually celebrate in some way, but this year I decided to kick it up a notch and although corned beef and cabbage might not be something traditional over in the homeland, it is in the US and this year I was going to represent, old school.

So, I’ve had this recipe for a couple of years about how to make your own corned beef from scratch.  It’s from Michael Ruhlman and it takes a bit of forethought and planning.  It calls for “pink salt” which is brings the curing mojo and allows the meat to become that deep pinky color we associate with corned beef.  I could have left it out without any repercussions to taste, but heck, I was all in.  If I was doing this from scratch I was doing it right.

First, I procured a brisket from Triple S Farms, which is always a good start.

Next I mixed up the pickling spice, and I made my own.  This meant I toasted whole coriander, allspice mustard seeds, peppercorns and then mixing it in with the other spices, like red pepper flakes, mace, cinnamon sticks, and bay.  The recipe has you use part of the spices in the brine and save some for later.

I also had to take water, kosher salt, the pink salt, garlic, some of the pickling spice, and sugar and heat it to dissolve the salt and make it all meld.  Then I cooled it overnight.

The next day we (the corned beef and I) began our 5 day brine.  I put the brisket into the cooled brine and used a plate to weigh it down and make it soak up as much briney goodness as possible.  This imparts flavor and “corns” the beef.  I flipped it half way through and started to stress because it wasn’t pink.  I’ve brined a lot of meat in my day from pork chops to  a 2 day brine on a Thanksgiving turkey (it’s awesome btw, if you want the recipe let me know), but this was my first cured meat and I was sweating that lack of pink, but soldiered on. And by soldiered on I mean ignored it for the next few days.

I got up early on St. Patrick’s Day and thought I’d cook it up early since I was planning on a long slow cook.  I wanted to do it in water to make sure there was an opportunity for the salt to boil out of the meat, but I wasn’t looking forward to monitoring it for several hours on the stove top.  I’ve got an electric stove and that’s so hard to manage a long slow simmer.  So I went off my original recipe and moved on one from Suzanne Goin that allowed for a slow poach in the oven.

First, I rinsed the meat and placed it in a pan with water and the rest of the pickling spice.  Also, in the pot were some carrots, celery and onion went in and I brought it to a boil on the stove top.  Once it was boiling, I took some foil and covered the pan and snugged the lid on tight and in it went to a 325 oven.

I had to run some errands, and came back an hour and a half into the cook and was blasted with spice when I opened the door.  The corned beef magic was definitely happening, but I was also glad it was warm enough to crack a couple of windows.

I gave it four and a half hours hoping that was long enough so it was falling apart tender.  And it was.  Goin’s recipe calls for a parsley mustard sauce which sounded amazing, but my meat was just a tad too spicy for a spicy sauce.  Next time I will cut back on the spice just a bit and I think it’ll be perfect.  She also says you can give it a brief broil to crisp up the fat on top and I tried that with some and it is sure tasty too.  And it turned pink.  When I cut into the meat it was tender and succulent and a deep pinky color that called out corned beef.

I boiled a few potatoes, some cabbage and carrots in the broth and of course made some soda bread to round out the meal.

So would I do it again?  I think it’s a resounding YES.  The meat had a great taste, made amazing sandwiches the next day.  I had the satisfaction of making it all myself and I had total control over what went into it.  Yes, there was a little work and planning, but the results were so worth it. Heck, if you start now you have 364 days to prep.

The links are here for the Ruhlman and Goin recipes.

This is what we do…We cook

I’m very reticent to call myself a food blogger, but I do sometimes keep a blog and I mostly blog about what I’ve cooked or baked, so I suppose in some slackery universe I am a food blogger.

Today I checked in on a blog (here) I read regularly of someone who is a real world food blogger and I discovered she had suddenly lost her husband.  Her beautiful words to us in this worst of all times, was encouraging us to make a peanut butter pie (her husband’s favorite) and share it with those we love.

Life is fleeting, it flies by before we know it.  So often we put off the things we most love and cherish for another day.  I think “I’ll paint tomorrow, or I’ll see him next week”, I’m too busy with work and school, there isn’t time for the extras.  The possibilities are always there unraveling into the future like an intangible savings bond that we hope to cash one day.

Only sometimes that day doesn’t come.  You delay and delay so often that fate, or God or the universe intervenes and it is gone- forever out of grasp.

Time is precious, and so often we squander it caught up in the minutia of daily life. I know that’s “living life”, but I think we should do a better job of jam-packing our lives with what’s vital, cherishing the people we love and enjoying the things that fill us with joy.  Maybe that means a missed deadline or a messy kitchen, but I somehow doubt we’ll regret filling our lives with substance.

And so while I can’t comfort Jenny personally I can do what I love and share it with people who are important to me, like she asked.  And as I see my twitter feed fill up other food bloggers, cooks and just plain good folks are baking pies today, I see I’m not alone.  You see we can’t always fix everything, sometimes we can’t fix anything , but we can cook.

It’s what we do.

I made mini peanut butter pies, more love to spread around.