Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mussel Madness

Summer is almost upon us, the sun finally came out the other day, and the average temperature got above 40.  This means plenty of outdoor time, as well as travel around the east coast.  Since neither Joe nor I are from Maine, we have friends and families to visit every summer.  Also, because we are traveling to various locations we tend to bring Maine goodies with us wherever we go. 
A few summers ago, while planning menus with Joe’s dad for a holiday weekend, we decided to find some nice fresh shellfish that I could bring with me.  Being new to Maine, I did a cyber search for good places to buy fresh shellfish on my way out of Maine.  I landed on a wholesale distributor near the border of Maine and New Hampshire that upon asking, will happily sell shellfish to locals if they stop by the distribution center. 
Of course this being a wholesaler means that you have to be willing to buy large quantities of shellfish.  Joe’s dad and I decided that mussels might be a nice option for the holiday weekend, so I placed my order and agreed to pick up the mussels early in the morning on my drive to upstate New York.  Now, when I said large quantities of shellfish I meant it.  Typically in the grocery store you buy a 1 or 2 pound bag of mussels.  That’s enough for two or three people for a sizeable dinner.  I had ordered a 10 pound bag of mussels.  Nice plump, large, Maine mussels in a bag the size of a rolled up sleeping bag. 
It barely fit into the cooler I had, especially with the bag of ice generously added at the distribution center.  The thing with mussels is that you can’t suffocate them.  So I had to keep the cooler unzipped a little, and whenever I stopped for a stretch break or for gas, I opened the bag to make sure they were all still alive.  Basically, the mussels should make snap crackle pop noises as they move the water and juices around inside their shells.  They should smell like the ocean and they should also close quickly when you squeeze them. 
So yes, mussels are alive when you cook them.  But don’t worry, I’m sure they like the warm fragrant bath you put them in.  Plus the resulting dish is totally worth it.

Needless to say, the mussels were a huge hit at Joe’s parents’ house.  I cooked them in two batches and we managed to plow through them with a couple loaves of bread and a couple bottles of wine.  I highly recommend replicating this feast if you can find large quantities of mussels and have an evening you wish to spend around a table.

 Mussels with Chorizo and tomatoes
I purchased a few pounds of locally made chorizo to accompany the mussels.  This was a key ingredient.  If you have a favorite brand of chorizo, you can use that, or any spicy fresh sausage you like.  I have scaled the recipe back here, but if you want to make 10 pounds of mussels, I’ve got a guy who can make that happen.

2 pounds mussels
2 Tb. olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, diced
½ fennel bulb, diced with some fennel fronds reserved
1 pound chorizo, cut into chunks
1 can diced tomatoes, with liquid
½ c. dry red wine
2 Tb. fresh oregano
1 sprig fresh thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
First, soak the mussels in cool tap water and let sit for about 5 minutes.  Then drain the water and repeat.  As they are sitting, remove any beards on the mussels, by pulling them towards you while holding the shell still.  If the beards are tough, use the side of a steak knife to give you more leverage. 

Keep the mussels in the water until ready to use.  Next, heat oil in the bottom of a large dutch oven.  Add the onions, garlic and fennel.  Sauté for about 5 minutes until fragrant and then add chorizo.  Continue cooking until chorizo is just about cooked though.  Then add the wine and tomatoes.  Toss in oregano, thyme, salt and pepper stirring to combine.  FInally add in mussels and stir quickly to coat in sauce.  Cover and cook about 7 minutes, or until all of the mussels are open.

Move mussels into a serving dish and sprinkle with reserved fennel fronds.  Serve with bread, salad and more wine. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Proving His Chops

What happens when you put your boyfriend in charge of dinner? You get giant hunks of meat. I assume this is a fairly accurate statement for many men, but I will try to resist the urge to typecast. To be fair, I should also mention that the ingredients for two different vegetable sides were also purchased, but the pièce de résistance was of course the mammoth veal chops.
I had a work conference this past weekend, and Joe came down for one evening. Sunday morning, when the full weight of the weekend was starting to hit me, I directed Joe to be in charge of dinner. Typically, I like to visit the Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s that are in Portland when I am in town – since they are both about an hour from where we live. Since both stores are a treat we do not take advantage of very often, I typically can justify the spending of horrific amounts of money on small amounts of cheese, bread and wine.
I assumed that since Joe was in charge, there would be no $15 stinky cheese for dinner, as he is far more practical that I when it comes to the grocery store. So imagine my surprise when I shuffled into the kitchen to find fava beans, golden beets, soprasetta, wine, cheese, bread and two enormous veal chops. You may think I am exaggerating, but I am not. They were gigantic. I was also duly impressed that Joe had purchased and was amenable to preparing all of the said ingredients for dinner.
However, my overwhelming exhaustion forced me to take an hour long nap on the couch only to wake up and groggily eat a lovely meal before passing out again. And actually, we did not eat the veal chops that evening. Instead we had them the next night, after marinating in olive oil, thyme and rosemary for 24 hours. Joe dutifully grilled them up, and I made broccoli and egg noodles.
So really, I am going to share with you my recipe for roasted broccoli and tease you with pictures of veal chops. Since the recipe for the veal chops are pretty much listed above: rub with olive oil, thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper; let sit for 24 hours – grill. So now that we have perhaps enticed you to head out to your nearest Whole Foods and purchase 2 one pound veal chops, here’s the broccoli recipe.

Roast Broccoli with a nod to Nana
Joe’s Nana used to put lemon pepper in a lot of dishes she prepared. And I bought some just to have on hand. But roasting broccoli with a homemade garlic, lemon, salt and pepper blend is pretty darn good. Roasting the broccoli makes it a bit nutty in flavor, and well, who can go wrong with lemon pepper?

2 large heads of broccoli, cut into large florets
2 Tb olive oil
2 cloves garlic
¼ tsp. Kosher salt
½ tsp. grated lemon zest
Large pinch of black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375°. Toss the broccoli with the olive oil in a large bowl to lightly coat each floret.

Smash the garlic cloves, and roughly chop. Next, pour the salt over the garlic, and chop the two together until you get a rough paste. Add lemon zest and pepper and continue to chop together. Sprinkle this over the broccoli and toss to spread the paste over all the florets.

Move broccoli into a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes, turning once.

Serve immediately.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Pursuit of Sweet Potato Perfection

There are certain food items that I am on a quest to find the perfect version of. A recipe that replicates Entemann’s chocolate chip cookies (original), a risotto that once finished you pour red wine into and sweet potato rolls. I’m sure that there are other items on the list, but these come to mind first.

Allow me to elaborate on each of these sought after foods.
First, original recipe Entemann’s cookies. These were (and still are) a family staple on vacation and during holidays. Somehow we can consume insanely large quantities of these cookies, and I refuse to know what the nutritional values are for them because of it. When Joe first came on family vacation he was horrified and secretly pleased when no one batted an eye about plowing through a box of cookies a day. I mean, there are 14 of us, so that’s not improbable to accomplish. If I could make these cookies – well then we could potentially save like $30 a week on cookies.

Next, the risotto recipe. When I was living in Germany, my friends and I took turns cooking dinners at one another’s dorm rooms. Produce was extremely cheap there but refrigerator space was not. Thus, multiple trips to the store or farmer’s market happened every week. If someone was too excited and bought a ton of produce, then we would have a large meal for everyone so that nothing went bad. One evening, a friend was making her family’s risotto recipe for us. I seem to remember that it was a traditional Milanese style risotto, but once it was served, we poured a bit of red wine onto the side of the bowl and let is seep into and around the risotto. It was glorious.
It may have been one of those meals that is the perfect combination of friends, ambience, food and fun to make the dish stand out even more so than usual. Plus, that evening we managed to go through numerous bottles of wine, so much in fact that in pictures all of our mouths are a deep purple. But when you can buy a bottle of wine for 2 or 3 euro – how can you pass up the opportunity to stockpile.

I’ve never seen a recipe like that. Ever. And perhaps it was a different version of risotto that I am not accustomed to, or maybe it was just something her family happened to do. I just remember it being so interesting and flavorful that I may have had more than my fair share at the time.

Lastly, the sweet potato rolls. This has no fun story, I just really want a good sweet potato roll. I want it to look gorgeously orange and taste like sweet potatoes. I want to unveil them at Thanksgiving and have people swoon. So far I have tried at least 4 unsuccessful attempts, using recipes I found.

This weekend, I decided to take the challenge upon myself. I cut the amount of flour in half and increased the amount of sweet potato. The results were a lovely orange, but alas no strong sweet potato flavor. I thought I would share them with you anyways, and perhaps as I continue working on them, we will reach the end of my quest together.

Sweet Potato Rolls
I like to roast the sweet potatoes in their skins to get the most flavor from them. A medium-large sweet potato, pricked all over with a fork and wrapped in aluminum foil, can be roasted at 375° for about 45 minutes, or until the potato is very tender. Then cool it and scoop out the flesh from the skin.

1 packet yeast
1/3 c. warm water
2 tsp. honey
¾ c mashed sweet potato
½ tsp salt
1 c. bread flour
2 c. white whole wheat flour
1 tsp. olive oil
1 egg beaten (for brushing on the rolls)

Combine the yeast and water in the bowl of an electric mixer, let sit until foamy, about 5 minutes. Add honey and sweet potato, again let sit for 5 minutes. Next, with the paddle attachment running, add salt and flours, one cup at a time. Continue to work the dough until it all holds together and does not stick to the sides of the bowl, about 5 minutes.

Remove dough from bowl, then wipe out bowl and add teaspoon of olive oil. Return dough to bowl and turn to coat in the oil. Cover and allow to rise in a warm place for an hour, or until doubled in size. Punch the dough down and allow to rise again, until doubled in size, about 40 minutes.

Grease a 9” round cake pan. Shape the dough into balls slightly larger than a golf ball and place in cake pan with just a little space between each ball, until the entire pan is full. Cover and allow to rise for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375°. Brush rolls with beaten egg, and repeat just before placing into the oven. Bake for 20-25 minutes until the tops of the rolls are golden and the rolls make a thump sound when you flick them with your finger. Allow to cool slightly then remove from pan, pull apart and serve.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Holy Guacamole!

Ah an excuse to eat Tex-Mex food and drink coronas, not that you need an excuse, but it is nice to have one every now and again. Any holiday with an emphasis on food is ok by me. So really, most holidays are ok by me.
I think I really managed to get into the celebration of Cinco de Mayo while in college, because various bars would offer large quantities of Coronas in a bucket for one very low price. This of course is not the true meaning of Cinco de Mayo, but who am I to complain?

In case you don’t have such beverage opportunities where you are, and you plan to stay in and celebrate, I have a recipe for you. You see a couple of summer’s ago, my friends decided to have a guacamole competition – a Guacamol-off.
I traveled from Maine down to the Jersey shore bringing with me knives, bowls, cutting boards, spoons and one profane apron I received as a gift; all the necessary accoutrements to produce a winning guacamole. Yes, that’s right I said winning.

Now, don’t think I took this lightly. I made 4 different versions of guacamole and forced my coworkers to sample and rate each and every one before I determined what my entry into the Guacamol-off would be. And, if you have ever tried to purchase avocados in Maine, this was no cheap feat. Plus my indecisiveness and waffling between recipes made this whole process far more all-encompassing than necessary.
All the entries in the Guacamol-off
However, when the time came, we got down to business. There was guacamole making on counters, tables, chairs and ledges both inside and outside. Voting was based on appearance, flavor and something else (I forgot), then the totals were tallied and winners announced. I know it was a close contest, and that I only won by one or two points (and I’m sure that forcing your boyfriend to vote for you doesn’t hurt either). But I am confident that you will like this guacamole. Oh and in case you were wondering if I won anything - my prizes included maracas, a sombrero, mardi gras beads, and a bottle of tequila. 
The winning guagamole
A lot of good guacamole was had that day, and in honor of guacamole and Cinco de Mayo I have decided to share this recipe with you. The inspiration for it came from a coworker of Joe’s while we were in California. He had brought in a mango to work and sprinkled it with the Chipotle flavored Tabasco sauce. When Joe tried it, he fell in love. I thought it might be a nice addition to my standard guacamole. So if you too are entered into a guacamole competition, feel free to use this recipe; as long as you are willing to share your winnings with me.

Mango Chipotle Guacamole

2 large cloves of garlic
1 tsp. kosher salt
3 ripe avocados
1/3 c. finely diced red onion
1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped
1 ripe mango, in a small dice*
Juice of 2 limes (or more if necessary)
½ tsp. Chipotle Tabasco sauce

Crush the garlic with the side of your knife and remove the skin. Roughly chop the garlic and then sprinkle salt over it. Using the side of your knife, work the salt into the garlic until a paste forms. Scoop this up and place in a bowl.

To use the avocados, run your knife all the way around the avocado, while touching the pit. Then twist the two halves and pull apart. To remove the pit, firmly whack your knife into the center of the pit, and then twist the pit and pull it out of the avocado while it is attached to your knife. Then, you can slip the pit off the blade and repeat with the other avocado. Scoop the avocado flesh into the bowl with the garlic and salt mixture. Begin to mash the avocado with a fork or potato masher.

Next, add the red onion, cilantro and mango. Stir slightly to combine. Then add in the lime juice and Tabasco. Taste, and add more lime juice, Tabasco or salt if necessary. Serve immediately or sprinkle with more lime juice, and cover with plastic wrap so that the plastic touches the top of the guacamole and refrigerate until ready to serve.

*To cut the mango, hold the mango so that the narrow side is facing you. Run your knife parallel to the length of the mango, moving it out if you hit the pit. Once you know where the pit is, cut the remaining 3 sides of the mango in the same manner.

Then, score the mango into the size chunks you want, being careful to not piece the skin. Pull the skin down, like you are trying to open the mango, and the squares of flesh should pull apart from one another. Then use your knife to cut along the skin and the cut squares of mango should release. You can then cut these squares smaller if so desired.