An Irishman, An Italian and A Portuguese Walk Into A Kitchen…

Look at this soup, just bursting with healthfulness. Well, that and butter.

Last week, like millions of other mutts all across America, I celebrated my fractional Irish heritage (in my case, the fraction is a respectable 1/4) by cooking a corned beef and a great, warm, buttery pot of colcannon–and then foisting them on my pizza-and-hot-dog-loving family. The children loved the meat, as well as the carrots I’d cooked along with it, and Daughter Dearest even scarfed down most of her colcannon. Who says that “you can’t even TASTE the green stuff!” isn’t a ringing endorsement?

In the following days, the corned beef was put to delicious use as sandwich innards; I had a couple of butter-soaked and Bacon Salt-ed bowls of colcannon late at night, when no one was looking. Nevertheless, I was left with an awful lot of leftovers–including half a large bag of kale. There also happened to be a few cans of white beans and some lovely Yukon Golds in my pantry, so it occurred to me that I might make a batch of caldo verde, or possibly some simple beans and greens. Or–and here inspiration started to gain momentum, like a runaway go-cart headed downhill–both. Together. Beans, greens, potatoes, chicken broth, garlic. With the leftover colcannon! Perfect!

And so was born my bizarre love child stew, the offspring of an Irish side dish, an Italian side dish and a Portuguese soup. Except it’s not bizarre at all, really; it’s rather serendipitous. Greens, garlic and potatoes are all elemental foods in many cuisines, and come together deliciously. The beans add a punch of protein, and the pureed part of the soup imparts creaminess, while leaving some chunks of potato and slivers of kale whole elevates this from the realm of pabulum or sickbed food.

Now, I’m assuming that you don’t have a giant container of leftover colcannon in your fridge, so I’m going to both scale this back and adapt it for scratch cooking.

Caldo Colcannon

6 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
smidgen olive or canola oil, or butter, or bacon fat
1 quart chicken broth
1 cup milk
1 can small white beans
1 lb. Kale, washed, chopped and blanched
parsley, if you have it on hand
1 T. lemon juice

Heat the olive oil together with the minced garlic in a large pan or stockpot. When it becomes fragrant, add the onion and potatoes; cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly to ensure that the garlic doesn’t burn. Add the broth and the kale. Lower heat to medium and simmer, for 20-30 minutes, until the potatoes are tender.

Remove several ladlesful of the soup and puree in a blender until smooth. Return to pot. Add milk, beans and remainder of the kale. Simmer for another 5-10 minutes. Add the parsley, if using, salt and pepper to taste, and the lemon juice. If the stew seems too thick, add more milk. Remove from heat and serve. If you like, garnish with cheese (parmesan or cheddar would be nice), bacon crumbles, scallions, or all of the above. Enjoy!

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Hot-Plate Carbonara, OR, the Last of the Homemade Bacon

A few weeks ago I had an amazing experience–I got to spend an entire week at a rural country house with friends from college, most of whom I hadn’t seen in mumbledy-mumble years (and when I say “mumbledy-mumble,” I mean, “upwards of 19 but not that many, for chrissakes, how old do you think I am?”). It was remarkable how comfortable we all were with one another, almost instantly, even though many of us had lost touch for eons and only re-connected via the magic of Facebook. There were few, if any, awkward moments. At least until it came to the cooking.

Now, I was perfectly happy to eat out, or to subsist on nibblies like hummus and pita chips and potato chips and brie and fruit and olives and vodka, and to be sure we did plenty of that. Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to not cook–especially when I am trying to relax, because I enjoy cooking. This house, however (which shall remain nameless, except to say that it is the former home of an eccentric couple who make even eccentricker pottery and home furnishings), did not have a functional stove; it had an Aga Cooker.

Aga Cookers are like really, really expensive pioneer stoves. You can’t just flip one on to whip up a quick omelet or cup of tea. No, these tanks take hours to heat up, and provide heat to the entire county. So in August, in upstate New York? They’re pretty much just decorative.

The vacay house did, however, have an electric teakettle, an abnormally large toaster oven, a microwave, a gas grill and a double hot plate. As one of the reunion attendees said, it was like overdecorated camping. But you know what? I love camping. I love the make-do, improvisational challenge of camp cooking. So I took my teeny baggie of leftover homemade bacon, and some parsley from my CSA, and some eggs from my chickens, and I made Hot-Plate Carbonara.

Looks pretty damn good for an impromptu dish made in an unfamiliar kitchen, huh?

Hot-Plate Carbonara

1 lb. Thin spaghetti or other pasta
2 eggs
½ cup white wine, leftover champagne or pasta cooking water
½ to 1 cup parmigiano-reggiano cheese, finely shredded or grated
small (or large) amount cooked bacon or pancetta
fresh parsley, chopped
salt and pepper

After a thorough (and sometimes frightening) search of the cupboards in your vacation home, take the largest pot or pan you can scrounge up. It will be a crappy, lightweight pot that looks like it spent the better part of the 1990s in a thrift store. That’s OK. Fill it with water and set it on the bigger burner of the hot plate. Go away and read in the hammock for 45 minutes, or until the water comes to a boil.

Take down the biggest pottery bowl from the top shelf of a cupboard, standing on a rickety painted chair if necessary. Wash the dust out of it. Crack your two eggs into it and beat. Add a generous glug of last night’s champagne, which some non-drinker or thoughtful inebriated person corked up with a twist of aluminum foil and left on the counter. Marvel at the fact that the foil actually kept the champers kind of bubbly. Drink the rest of the leftover champagne, even though it’s warm. Add the parmigiano-reggiano to the egg-champagne mixture and stir to combine. Plunk a couple of wooden spoons or salad tongs into the bowl.

When the pasta is cooked to your liking, drain it in an antique colander that looks like something your grandmother would’ve shucked peas into. Working very quickly, dump the hot pasta into the bowl, then start stirring and tossing with alacrity. Why alacrity? What’s at stake, you ask? A delicious, creamy pasta sauce is at stake. Otherwise you will have a bowl of pasta in scrambled egg sauce, and a long damn wait while the pizza delivery guy finds your rural vacation home and putt-putts up the cobblestone driveway in his 1994 Corolla. Or an opportunity to uncork some more champagne, preferably cold this time around, and begin where you left off, telling stories of escapades past and friends not forgotten.

Oh, P.S.: After tossing the heck out of it, top with the parsley and bacon; season with salt and pepper. Duh, Nick!

It’s Beginning To Taste A Lot Like Nickmas

If you like potato pancakes, and corn, and zucchini, and Tex-Mex flavors, and standing over a stove in August frying things, you'll love these!

Years ago, before I met the man who would eventually become Long-Suffering Husband, I briefly dated a man from Buffalo. We’ll call him “Briefly Suffering Boyfriend.” I remember only three things about him: he had a tattoo of an old grandfather-clock face, showing the time his son was born, on his arm; he had a room in his house called Jesus’ room because there was a Jesus statuette in there, and not much else; and he coined the term Nickmas, to describe the period of celebration, merriment and indulgence otherwise known as my birthday. He didn’t last long–it could have been the distance between us, or it could have been the Jesus whiff, although as I recall, the statuette was ironic–but “Nickmas” has entered my lexicon, and that of many others, I daresay. The Nickmas season lasts anywhere from a week or 12 days to several weeks, depending on what festivities are planned. This year, since there will be an auspicious, if alarming, number of candles on the cake, I plan on living it up from today right until Labor Day, but the high holy day is the 14th.

Last year, I hosted the First and Only Annual Girls-Only BaconFest, at which eight of us consumed approximately 10 pounds’ worth of bacon, wrapped-and-toothpicked around various small pieces of food (olives, Townhouse crackers, water chestnuts, dates, etc.). I had planned on making an entire bacon-themed menu, from goat-cheese-and-bacon lollipops to peanut-butter-bacon truffles to bacon-dulce-de-leche ice cream, but–due to some BaconFest Eve celebrations that got slightly out of hand, I was too whooped to do more than shove toothpicks in shit and call it a day. What can I say–people get carried away with the Nickmas spirit. Or spirits. Did I mention that we also had bacon-infused bourbon and vodka? Yeah.

This year things are going to be a little tamer and a little less artery-clogging–but no less delicious, I hope. Tonight we kicked off the season with the traditional Nickmas Corn and Zucchini Fritters. After all, it’s right around this time of the year that local sweet corn and zukes tend to overflow the farmer’s market, and taste their most delicious. Since I love Tex-Mex flavors, I spice my fritters with cumin, chili powder and jalepeno, and serve them with a cilantro-lime sour cream. They’d be equally good with some freshly made pico de gallo, or even just plain sour cream.

Nickmas Fritters are both a half-year reminder of Hannukah–the deep-fried holiday–and a tasty way to make the most of seasonal produce. They freeze well (although they won’t be as crisp upon reheating, of course) and also make an excellent breakfast, topped with a fried egg, a spoonful of that pico, and perhaps some queso fresco or shredded jack cheese.

Nickmas Corn and Zucchini Fritters

1 ½ c. masa harina or cornmeal
½ c. all-purpose flour
½ c. parmesan cheese
1 t. baking powder
1 t. garlic powder
½ t. salt
½ t. cumin
½ t. oregano
½ t. chili powder
2 c. fresh corn kernels
3 c. shredded zucchini
2 eggs, beaten
¼ c. minced onion
1-2 jalepenos, minced
1 c. milk
oil for frying

Place shredded zucchini in a colander; sprinkle generously with kosher salt. Let sit 15 minutes in a bowl or in the sink. Squeeze zucchini, removing as much water as possible; you may wish to place it in several layers of clean dish towels and wring. Combine corn kernels, zucchini shreds, eggs, onion and jalepeno.

Stir together dry ingredients. Add to wet ingredients. Begin adding milk, a splash at a time. Depending on how much you squoze your zucchini, you may need anywhere from ½ – 1 cup or even more. You want this about the consistency of pancake batter.

Heat a generous amount of oil in a skillet (hey, if you need more explicit instructions than that, go ask someone who gets money for writing recipes). Using a 1/3 c. measure or ice cream scoop, make pancakes with the batter, flattening slightly. When they brown around the edges, turn. When the bottom is brown, remove to a paper-towel-lined plate (I mean, c’mon, you know how to fry things, right?).

Serve with:

Cilantro-Lime Sour Cream

1 c. sour cream or Mexican crema
juice of 1 lime
½ c. cilantro, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

P.S. Why, yes, I do! Thanks for asking.

Because That’s How I Escarole

Looks like lettuce...

Do you know from escarole? Despite my self-proclaimed status as a “foodie,” it was only this last winter that I discovered escarole. Picked up a head on a whim, which turned out to be one of the smartest whims I’ve ever had (which, frankly, isn’t saying much, as most of my whims end disastrously–being wiretapped by the USMC, for example. Or stranded at a train station, 60 miles from my ultimate destination, with three pillows, a large comforter and only $40 to my name).

I’ve heard that you can enjoy escarole raw–and, indeed, it looks much more like lettuce than any of my standard green leafies–but the way I prepare it is just so darn good that I can’t bring myself to deviate. I’m stuck in a bit of an escarole rut, but what a yummy rut it is.

I think my only qualm with escarole is that is morphs from that nice, vibrant, healthful-looking green to a sort of military drab color (although that might be my lingering fear of the Marines speaking). I mean, this ain’t pretty:

...cooks like: greens, leafy, standard issue

but, like a lover who is only moderately attractive but who has other virtues, I’ve learned to love the way it looks, because I love the way it tastes. Wait, that doesn’t sound quite right…

Braised Escarole with White Beans

1 head escarole, cleaned and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
pinch red pepper flakes
splash EVOO
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 ½ to 2 cups cooked great northern, navy or butter beans
juice of one medium lemon
good dry Italian cheese—parmesan, asiago, romano, etc.

Heat the olive oil, red pepper flakes and garlic together in a large, shallow pan. When the garlic is fragrant, but before it browns, add the chopped escarole—it’s OK if it’s still very wet from having been washed. Toss to coat with the oil, then add the stock. Stir, bring to a bare simmer. Cook for a few minutes, tossing occasionally, until the escarole is wilted down. Add the beans, then cover.

Cook until the escarole is tender, 15-20 minutes. If you like, you may uncover to evaporate some of the liquid. Remove from heat. Add the lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste, and a sprinkling of the cheese.

Serve in a wide soup bowl, preferably with crusty bread. You could also certainly add some small pasta shapes to this—orzo would be nice, or tiny shells.

Enjoy!

Food on Sticks

Skewered food FTW.

Sometimes–just to keep myself entertained–I like to plan meals around arbitrary themes. Today was just such a time, and today’s theme was “Food On A Stick.” I marinated some shrimp in lemon, a little EVOO, and some herbs from the CSA (garlic scapes, oregano, rosemary, chives). Stuck ’em on a stick. Et voila, les crevettes delicieaux.

Thing #2 loooooves shrimp, much in the same way that a kitten I once had loved shrimp, in that she doesn’t really distinguish between where the shrimp ends and where your fingers begin. She just bites. Thing #1, not so much. So I pulled a long-lost package of L’il Smokies (and, incidentally, can I just say that I hate when people or companies write “l’il” instead of “little,” but apparently not enough to cause me to boycott L’il Smokies) out of the freezer and stuck those on sticks, too.

Who were those horrible killers who put their victims’ heads on pikes? I would’ve been a good one of those.

Mini sausages, on a stick. Does it get any better than this?

I haven’t yet mastered the art of skewering brown rice, so for a side dish I made a quick quinoa salad. Do you know from quinoa? It’s a funny little grain, which blossoms into curlicues when you cook it, and which has a good dose of protein. It’s not unlike couscous, only better for you, and lends itself well to cold salads and pilafs. It’s also lovely as a breakfast porridge, with milk and raisins and cinnamon and so on.

All in all, the dinner was a huge success. I forced the children, upon threat of not getting their Rice Dream Nutty Buddies, to eat some baby carrots along with their tiny processed meats. Long-Suffering Husband made various orgasmic noises while eating his shrimp and veg, but then again he was starving after a day of kayaking and installing our new back door.

All plated and ready to be devoured


Herb-Marinated Grilled Shrimp

1 lb. Raw shrimp, in the shell
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
2 T lemon juice
chopped fresh herbs—oregano, rosemary, thyme, basil, parsley
minced garlic
minced scallion or shallot

Mix all ingredients except for shrimp. Add shrimp 30 minutes before grilling.

Simple Summer Quinoa Salad

2 c. quinoa
½ cucumber, peeled and diced
1 tomato, diced
1-2 scallions, diced
1/4 c. parsley
¼ cup slivered almonds
EVOO
lemon juice

Rinse quinoa well in a strainer (this removes the saponin, which is a natural, bitter coating that keeps birds from eating the quinoa in its natural habitat). Cook the quinoa with 4 cups water, stirring occasionally. When the water is all absorbed, fluff with fork and cool. When cool, add to other ingredients in a large bowl. Toss. Season with salt and pepper.

A Happy Accident

A few days ago I made a batch of what I thought was brown rice, except that it was crazy chewy even after (hyperbole alert) six hours’ worth of simmering. I called it barley, asked Long-Suffering Husband to get me the fixins for beef stew, and went on about my merry way. Not until today when I went to grind some whole wheat for rolls to accompany said stew did I realize that the mystery grain was actually wheatberries.

That should be the new smartphone for hippies: the WheatBerry.

The wheatberries tasted a heckuva lot like barley, though, so I forged ahead like the intrepid and frugal cook I am. Hence, the happy accident of Beef Wheatberry Stew. I lost the alliteration of “Beef Barley” but gained the internal rhyme. That works for me. Life’s all about the trade-offs, after all.

Don’t worry, the chickens got some wheatberries too. And I’m sure they will get the kids’ portions of stew after the kids melt down and refuse to eat, try or even look at it.

Beef Wheatberry Stew

2 large carrots, diced
2 celery ribs, diced
1 medium onion, also diced
3T tomato paste
1 lb. top round, cut into stew sized chunks
1 cup (more or less) red wine
5 cups beef broth
bay leaf
2 cups cooked wheatberries (or barley, for the purists)
1 container baby bella or button mushrooms, sliced
1 cup frozen peas
parsley
salt, pepper

Saute the aromatics in an oil of your choice (I used non-EV OO). Add the tomato paste and cook over medium heat, stirring. Add the meat and brown (you may need to remove aromatics from the pan and add more oil to do this, depending on the size of your pan). Add the liquids and bay leaf. Simmer gently until the meat is tender.

Add the mushrooms and grains. Cook until the mushrooms are, well, cooked.

Add the peas and parsley. Stir. By the time you’ve stirred and served it, the peas should be heated through.

Season to taste. Serve with Martha Stewart’s No-Knead Dinner Rolls, in which you can easily substitute half whole-wheat flour. That is, if you haven’t already cooked all the wheat by accident.

Enjoy!

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