Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Back again, and with snacks!

Hello, again!  After being silent for a little over two months, I have returned to this blog at the urging of friends and family whose kind words and motivational nudges have convinced me to power through my writing rut and continue to share my passion with you.  Sometimes all it takes are a few people saying, "Hey, I was reading that!" to get your gear in high.  Thanks, loved ones!
Also, the dawning of a new year always gives us the kick we need to keep after our goals, old and new.  The goal of this blog may not always be to post recipes, but food will always be here!  Of course I simply can't help sharing little tidbits...my boyfriend sometimes has to ask why I was talking to a random person in Produce and I have to admit that we got to talking about Kale and how to prepare it and what you could substitute for it in certain recipes....you get the picture.  
That was last year's goal- to break in to the whole "food thing."  Now that I feel sufficiently initiated, I can try out new goals, like exploring niche food blog subjects...the first of which I will reveal very soon!  I just have to get my materials in order ;)
For now, for this post, I have to share my new favorite snack food- Spicy Southwestern Pepita and Pecan Nut Mix.  This is the perfect thing to have laying around your house, to give to friends, or to have as a party snack.  Whenever you make it, don't be surprised if you have to make it again soon, because it goes fast.

 Spicy Southwestern Pepita and Pecan Nut Mix
2 Cups shelled, unsalted raw pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
1 1/2 Cups raw pecan halves
1 Cup shelled, unsalted sunflower seeds
1 T. chili powder (I prefer spicy)
2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. ground cumin
1/8- 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 large egg white

Heat oven to 375 degrees.  Coat a baking sheet with canola/baking spray.
Combine pepitas, pecans, sunflowers seeds and spices in a large bowl.  In a smaller bowl, whisk the egg white until frothy, then combine and mix well with nuts and spices.
Spread nut mixture evenly on the oiled baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes.  Remove from the oven, break up and clumps and turn over nuts to expose everything evenly, baking another 10 minutes.

This quick cooking project is not only an addictive snack- it fills your house with warm, spicy smells.  A lot better than an overpowering candle if you ask me!  Everyone loves this and it is healthy, too.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

House-Warming Recipes: Perfect Pulled Pork

One of my favorite things about having a larger living space is being able to have people over.  I LOVE having friends and family fill my home to share great meals and fun times- who doesn't?  Hermits.  I am certainly not one of those.  So now that I have a large enough kitchen to really cook in and space for people to sit, I want to entertain as much as possible.  In the week leading up to Halloween I had high hopes for traditional seasonal activities; finding the perfect costume, going out to parties, carving pumpkins....but since for some reason I live in Connecticut we got snowed in on part night we only got the pumpkin carving done.
I originally planned on having people over the Thursday before Halloween with the intention of carving pumpkins, drinking some good beers and eating some delicious pulled pork.  We ended up eating, drinking and watching The Exorcist instead.  Not a bad evening, considering we had Exorcist virgins in the group and the food and drink did not disappoint.
For our autumnal food fest I decided to try my hand at pulled pork.  Maybe barbecue is a summer thing, but this was the perfect, warming meal for a chilly October night.  This was probably the easiest meal I've ever made other than a sandwich.  It takes five ingredients, five minutes of effort and about 18 hours to make.  Crock Pot it!  If you make this for any meat-eating, breathing thing, they will love it and you for creating such a delicious meal.
Get your hands on a 4 lb. pork butt (In my brief quest for this cut I found it was more widely available than pork shoulder, which can also be used in this recipe).  Make sure you have a bottle of your favorite BBQ sauce anywhere from 12-16 oz. in size, depending on how saucy you like your pig (I used a 14 oz bottle and I thought it was delicious).  If you can find Rufus Teague BBQ Sauce with "A Touch-o-Heat" get that.  It was perfect.  Have a can of ginger ale handy and if you want to get totally bonkers you can add your favorite beer to the mix (we added a brown ale).  Two onions complete your ingredients!
Slice one onion and put that in the bottom of the crock pot, place the butt over the onion and slice the other onion to go on top.  I modified the original recipe here by adding a beer, so instead of pouring 1 Cup of ginger ale over the pork I only used 1/2 Cup of the ginger ale and poured in the brown ale to add some smoky, carameliness.  Cook on Low for 12 hours.  After 12 hours your entire house will smell like pork and onions, so open a window.  Then drain the liquid (fat) from the pork and onions and shred the pork butt, discarding any large bits of fat.  Return onions and pork to the Crock Pot, stirring in the bottle of BBQ sauce.  Continue to cook for another 4-6 hours.
I served this with some coleslaw made with hot mustard, honey and a little bit of mayo, sliced green pepper and pre-cut cole slaw mix.  Since this was obviously a Southern-focused meal, the cole slaw went on the pulled pork sandwiches, some with pickles, some without.  Drew even shared some of the Zapp's Cajun Crawtator's my Mom shipped from Mississippi.  This meal successfully warmed and porkified our house!  Great for pulled pork taco left overs, too!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

House-Warming Recipes:Greens, Beans, and Bacon Soup

Recently I made a pretty big decision- I left my tiny 3 room apartment to move in with my boyfriend in a house of our own.  It was a whirlwind decision, so much so that the process hit us harder than we thought it would.  Packing up our relatively separate lives in less than a week, deciding what would stay and what would go, waking up in a new house filled with boxes...it was slightly traumatic to say the least.  One would think that having your own four walls would make you infinitely happier when in fact, it left me feeling lost and overwhelmed.  On top of trying to figure out what direction to take with my career, putting together a house and home was incredibly daunting.  You have to start somewhere and that place for me was of course, the kitchen.  I could easily control the organization, but mostly importantly, I could literally and figuratively feed a part of us that needed some serious nourishing.  At the end of a day of debating where this and that should go, learning how to hang drapes and endless rug shopping, we could sit down to a hot meal that made our house feel more like a home.

The first meal I made in our new house (other than that first week of ramen noodles) was Greens and Beans Soup.  I didn't want to cook creatively, and I wanted something fast, so I found this recipe in an old magazine I had lying around- sounds like I love cooking, huh?  But really, I'd made this before and it is such a wonderful comfort food for me with everything I love: kale, beans, bacon and hot sauce.  Everything about the previous sentence makes me happy.  I takes zero time and makes enough to have plenty of leftovers- a bonus when you're busy!  Now that I think of it, I may have doubled the recipe.  You really can't have enough of this stuff.

3 Slices bacon, cut cross-wise into 1/4-inch pieces
3 cups packed pre-chopped kale
2 1/4 cups water
1 cup chopped onion
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 15 oz. can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
15 oz. chicken broth (recipe calls for garlic chicken broth, but I just minced garlic and threw it in)
Hot Sauce (I'm obligated to say it's optional even though in my opinion, it isn't)

Cook bacon in a large saucepan or dutch oven over medium heat until crisp, discard all but 2 teaspoons of the rendered fat unless you want it in there for extra flavor.  Add remaining ingredients to the pot, including hot sauce, or if you're like me, just add the hot sauce to each bowl served.  Cover and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer 25 minutes.

I made some crispy skillet cornbread to go with this.  Comfort goal, reached.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Summertime Is The Right Time For Tomatoes

As everyone knows, Summer is the season for fresh fruit and for me, ripe juicy tomatoes are one of the best.  As someone whose nickname as a child was Tomatohead, I try to keep it real with tomatoes.  By this I mean treating a tomato as it should be treated, eating them when in season and eating them in abundance (this does not include canned tomatoes that can and should feed any tomato addiction year-round).  I am serious about the quality of the tomatoes I eat.  I never order sandwiches with tomato in the winter because I know they won't be any good.  Until recently I did this out of snobbery, rejecting the green or mealy winter tomato because I could not tolerate the texture and flavor (nor should I).  Along with the knowledge I've gained working in restaurants, a book that my dear Mama turned me on to has gotten me thinking about this seemingly docile fruit.  Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook has captivated me, and I'm only a few pages past the introduction.  Apparently everything we know about the tomato is in trouble.  It gets me all fired up even thinking about the loads of information I've digested after reading only the first few pages.  Basically, you need to read it.  I may never buy a tomato out of season at the grocery store ever again.  The way tomatoes are produced, not for taste, but for looks in some areas of the country is just plain wrong.  Did you know that some producers gas their green tomatoes with ethylene, to make them turn color before ripened?  Granted ethylene is produced by the fruit naturally as the final step of the maturation process, but if the tomato isn't ripe, it's not ripe.  Don't gas my tomatoes!  Here's a tidbit from the book that is particularly shocking: "According to analyses conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 100 grams of fresh tomato today has 30 percent less vitamin C, 30 percent less thiamin, 19 percent less niacin, and 62 percent less calcium than it did in the 1960s.  But the modern tomato does shame its counterpart in one area: It contains fourteen times as much sodium."  Can you believe that?!?  I guess my snobbery about eating fresh tomatoes in season wasn't unfounded, even if I was oblivious to the really important reasons as to why we should respect the 'mater a lotta bit more.

Tomatoland aside, I have been loving my tomatoes this summer, especially any heirloom tomatoes I can get my hands on.  The man friend and I attempted to grow our own, but some nasty squirrels ate our crop!  In spite of our setbacks, we have been enjoying beautiful Connecticut tomatoes all summer in every way possible.  The perennial favorite, the Caprese salad, raw vegetable and tomato salad, BLTs- I've embraced them all.  But one creation perked up my ears... the tomato pie.  Not pizza, a pie.  Believe it or not, I've never had this dish. Being Southern, this seems wrong.  So I made it right.  I researched traditional tomato pie recipes and found out that many incorporate mayo.  Hmm.  And mmm.  Most mayo haters cringe at this, but the way my Nana got me to eat tomatoes as a kid was to take big slices of fresh tomato and slather a thin layer of Bama brand mayo over the top with salt and pepper.  I can't express how good that is.  Garlic aioli is even better.  So when I saw that many pies either include mayo in the filling of the pie or slather a layer on top, it made sense.  After looking at a bunch of recipes I created my own bastardization of this Southern Living recipe that I found on food.com: Southern Tomato Vegetable Pie.  The changes I made are simple, just combining this recipe with some others I saw.  It was so good, I can't even describe the happiness.  Also, I used heirloom tomatoes and they were perfect.
3 Large Heirloom Tomatoes
1 pkg Thick Cut Bacon (applewood smoked)
1 10oz. Package of Frozen Chopped Spinach or fresh equivalent
1/2 Cup each of Cheddar and Mozzarella, shredded
12 oz. Part Skim Ricotta
1/2 Cup Fresh Basil, chopped
4 Green Onions, Chopped
1 Garlic clove, minced or chopped, I use my Microplane
1/2 tsp. Crushed Red Pepper
1 Frozen Pie Crust or fresh if you want!

Heat oven to 375.  I baked my bacon, you can fry it, but it tastes the same and a lot less mess.  I also bought thick cut, applewood smoked bacon for this.  Bake for 30-40 minutes until the bacon is to your desired crispiness- I like mine crispy.  When it's done, pat off the fat and chop it up.  Put aside.

Slice about 3 large heirloom tomatoes to be 1/2 inch thick.  Place in a colander and layer with paper towels so that you soak up the excess moisture.  Let stand 20 minutes, changing paper towels if you need to.

Drain Spinach well.  Combine with bacon, all cheeses, green onions, garlic, and red pepper.  NOTE: if you have time, drain the ricotta a bit.  The crust will not stand up to the moisture.  When serving right out of the oven, it works, but for leftovers, it crumbles.  It still tastes mighty good, though.

Spread most of the mixture into the pie crust- I had some leftover, about a cup or so.  Leave enough room for your tomatoes on top!  Place the drained tomatoes over the spinach filling, stacking if necessary.

Now here's the mayo haters dilemma: to mayo or not to mayo.  The man friend hates mayo and I did it anyways telling him, "It traditional, so this is how we're gonna make it."  And he loved it.  If you have a mayo hater, make sure to make the mayo layer thin.  If you love it, go wild, but not too wild, then it's just messy.

Top with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese and pop it in the oven for 35-40 minutes.  I didn't have any aluminum foil, so i just baked it right out in the open of the oven until the top was golden brown.  Compare with the Southern Living recipe and see what you'd rather do.

The above picture was my result.  Garnish with a little more parm and basil.  Enjoy!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Cleaning Out the Fridge: Out With the Old, In With the New

As my One-Year-in-New-Haven anniversary approaches I find myself comparing my experiences over the past year to the goals I had in mind for myself professionally (hence the "cleaning out the fridge" metaphor).  When I moved here I was bright-eyed and hopeful, determined to get a job in a kitchen and learn all there is to know about cooking.  Then within a year I would be going to Culinary school somewhere for 18 months, then off into the wide world of food writing.  It makes me to smile to think how sure I was of my path and my timeline.  Not that I'm laughing at myself, but happy that my headstrong nature has brought me to the understanding I have today.  No one could change my mind about wanting to be a chef/food writer, taking the tough and roundabout way to my dream job.  I'm glad they didn't.  If I hadn't had all the experiences of this past year, I wouldn't have the slightest clue what it is I wanted or where I was going in life.  As if many 23 year olds do!  In short, I think looking back is a very important part of moving forward.  Let's just say I'm ready for a new beginning.

At the start of my time in New Haven, after I settled in sufficiently, I started my job search.  I can sum that process up in a word: "cute."  "Here comes this girly-looking blond with the strong belief that she should get hired working in a professional kitchen, without any real experience and still get paid."  That probably what most the people thought when I applied to work in their restaurant.  I must have given a few people the laughs they needed.  I was totally clueless as to how hard it is to get any chef to want you in their kitchen, especially reputable chefs running New Haven culinary institutions.  Eventually after several chefs promised me a chance then never called again, I realized I would have to aim a little lower.  So I took a job as a hostess in a nice restaurant, with the hope that they would eventually help with my kitchen aspirations.  After about 5 months of long days, getting roped into jobs I didn't apply for (food runner) and impatience, I finally bugged the Chef enough to let me shadow or "stagiare" in the kitchen.  I learned a lot of simple things about the kitchen- the work ethic, what it means to be at the bottom of the ladder, etc.  I also fell love with the intensity of a night in the kitchen; prep, the mad rush and the sigh of relief/accomplishment after it was all over.  It was FUN.  After a few weeks "stag-ing" (stah-zhing) I knew it was time to move forward and do this kitchen thing full time.

Fortunately enough, an ex co-worker had moved on as well and offered me an opportunity in an opening restaurant as a REAL LIVE COOK!  It was like everything I had worked though- the crappy hostess job, running food- had paid off and the real deal was finally at my fingertips.  This brings us to the job around which my last few posts are centered.  What a ride.  First, getting paid for practically playing with food for a living to grueling hours and countless frustrations.  Then, the ultimate setback.  Last week I lost my job.  There are the obvious reasons for being upset, but the thing that really disappointed me was I had toughed it out through all the crap only to get let go.  I'm sure it was obvious from my last post that I wasn't very happy there, but I kept on because I knew I was a part of a team that needed me.  We were such a small kitchen that no one could afford to back down because it would affect us all.  It's not like New York where you lose an employee and you have someone in their place in an hour.  Finding a good fit was tough and I couldn't let the rest of the kitchen down just because I had had enough.  Even when we finally found some guys to help take the load off, I didn't quit.  It seems I didn't have to.  From a business perspective, cheaper labor is better and I was the more expensive option.  It is very disappointing when you realize the people you respect don't have respect for you.  At first I was embarrassed and really let down, thinking that maybe I wasn't on the right track after all.  Maybe this dream I had been working toward for almost a year wasn't meant to be.  Then I realized that it wasn't the dream that was wrong, it was the direction I was taking to get there.
I understand now after looking back over my hard-headed path toward pursuing my love of food and writing that I love to cook, but doing so in a professional kitchen is not the way to express it.  For me, at least.  If the past gives us insight to our future, it's telling me to be a little easier on myself, do what I love, which is cook and write, and to do so at home for the people I love :)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Reality Bites

This post has a different tone than my previous posts- no recipes, no "yummy," no sugar coating my pursuit and love of a culinary career.  I have new things to share, so if you're expecting a recipe for cold cucumber soup, find it somewhere else.
Unfortunately, it has become a bad habit of mine to go weeks without writing.  Maybe it's because I have been hesitant to put what I have to share on "paper."  In truth, the majority of the reason I haven't written is because I've been BUSY, exhausted and just plain lazy on my days off of work.  A small sliver of me hasn't wanted to share my first real foray into the food business because what I have to say isn't all positive.  The reality of being a young woman in the food business is tough sometimes- here's what I have to say about it so far.
The last time I shared my experiences in the kitchen, I was working in what was basically a test kitchen; testing recipes, doing tastings, designing menus, etc.  I was having a ball.  I was getting a chance to assert myself as a cook in a REAL kitchen with other professional cooks.  There was something new to learn every day not only from the other people in the kitchen, but from myself.  Knife skills, dish composition, plating- you name it, I was getting better at it everyday.  It was encouraging to say the least.
As opening week drew near, the question of staffing became a concern.  We were a kitchen staff of 5 manning a restaurant with seating for 150.  Things were looking grim.  Doubting our skill level, the owners brought in well reputed chef with a mind to change things up.  This is one thing that really gets under my skin:  just because you have money does NOT mean you know how to run a restaurant.  The owners of this restaurant where I work "bring as much value to a kitchen as rotten onions" (thanks, Mom).  Can you imagine throwing out a staff along with a menu a week before opening?  Unless you live in New York and have the resources, I'd say that's a recipe for disaster.  They didn't fire us, but it was made clear that was not beyond possibility.  Needless to say, the atmosphere in the kitchen was tense and negative.  Nothing was  good enough.  I would make lobster salad, it didn't have enough mayo.  I would make it again- what was I trying to do?!  Choke them?!  Add more mayo, idiot!  When every one's job is on the line, nothing is good enough.  This I could understand, but it got old really quickly.
At the last minute (a mere 5 days before opening night) we hired a new head chef, one capable, positive and a good leader.  A brief wave of relief passed over me.  For days I was dreading a phone call bearing news that I had been fired because of my complete lack of experience.  With our new chef I felt comforted knowing I had a competent and forgiving shepherd leading me into the scary world of an opening restaurant.  We had a menu.  We had a crew.  We had a dishwasher.  We were ready to take on the crowds.
Opening night was great- we were busy but on top of things.  Nothing got out of hand and we managed to make a good impression on the friends and family that showed up to support our hard work.  We knew we had done well, but we knew we needed to get ready for word to get out.  What we didn't realize was that word gets out fast in a small, rural community in Connecticut.  The next night we did 400 covers in a space that, as I mentioned before, only seats 150 people at a time.  For our neck of the woods, that's a lot.  In the kitchen, it's a shitstorm of epic proportions.  We didn't have the food prep to support the demand on the kitchen.  We didn't have tickets telling us what orders were coming in and when they were ordered.  We were failing in a BIG way.  The elaborate menu we created to lure in customers ended up overwhelming our tiny kitchen and ill equipped staff.  No matter how much we prepped during the day, we blew through it and then some at night.
You're thinking, the restaurant is busy, how is this a bad thing?  We still only had 6 people on kitchen staff for 12-14 hour days 7 days a week.  I also happen to live 45 minutes away from where I work.  So my days began at 7:30 AM, on the road by 8:15, in an apron from 9-11:30 PM, home by 12:30 and asleep at 12:45.  Forgive me for a moment: my feet hurt, I was hungry, I was sweaty, I was so tired, I hadn't seen my boyfriend in days.  I was at my wit's end.  The night I did see my boyfriend I had a total meltdown, complete with blubbering, swearing off the restaurant and renouncing my desire to go to culinary school.  At that point, at that pace and for the assholes whom I was working for, it was not worth it.  Not one bit.  My wise boyfriend reasoned with me to wait it out, see how a normal schedule after opening week would be and see if I still wanted to give up.  It was a fair suggestion.  So I put on my tough girl face, slapped on some foot bandages and went back in there and stuck it out when I thought I couldn't take it anymore.  I took more shit from irrational restaurant owners, I under dressed and overdressed salads, I gritted my teeth while I did lazy coworkers' prep work and I got through it.
I AM WOMAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!
In spite of all this venting, I have to admit that I enjoy many luxuries that the typical starting garde manger cook does not.  I work mostly day shifts with two days off a week (Friday and Saturday, shwing!).  I work with people I enjoy spending time with and learn from every day.  My boss and friend who hired me reminds me all the time, "After all this is over, you'll be such a badass."  And I do feel like even more of a badass every day.  Even though I feel like I've accomplished something life changing for taking on this profession and sticking with it, it's hard not to doubt myself sometimes.  At the end of the day I know I absolutely do not want to spend my career behind the line in a kitchen.  It's fast-paced, exciting and wonderful at times, but my passion is the food, not the bullshit that comes with operating a restaurant.  Then again, you have to wade through the bullshit to get to the gold.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Civil War of PIE

Some one at work asked me yesterday, "Do people in the South make pie?  I mean, well?"  You can imagine my horror and he amount of scoffing that ensued.  Of course people in the South make excellent pies!  People in New England think that everything they do well, they do the best.  Just because Ye Olde Great Great Great x10 Grandmother made the first pie in the New World does not mean it is the best.  That is not to say that people in New England don't make great pies.  They make pies just as well as people in the Midwest, out in California and almost as well as in the South.
Of course these GOONS started asking me, "What pies can you make in the South?"  So I started naming my favorites, Lemon Icebox Pie, Coconut Cream Pie, Chocolate Meringue Pie, Blueberry Delight, the list goes on.  These guys laughed and said, "Those aren't pies!  We're talking fruit pies!  Like Apple Pie!"  Well, pardon me for not being incredibly boring and thinking apple pie or fruit pie with lattice on top is the only pie worth eating.  What total goobers.  I will agree that a great, flaky-crusted hot apple pie is wonderful, but it's not the be-all, end-all.  I was raised on "cooler" pies, or pies that are room temperature or served cold.  It's hot down South, we need something refreshing.
I'm no baker (yet), but there are some pies that require almost no work at all and I've seen them vanish from a table quicker than anything.  One such pie is a Southern classic and incredible in summer: Key Lime Pie.  The recipe I make is one my Mom has made for many years now and it is a perpetual crowd-pleaser.  My best friend's step-dad has been known to devour a whole pie in less than 24 hours.
This is the easiest Key Lime Pie in the world and you can make it full or low-fat, whichever you prefer.

1 Graham Cracker Pie Crust (if you can find it get the ones with 2 extra servings)
1 Can Minute Maid Key Lime Juice Concentrate- buy the small can! (find it in the freezer section)
1 Can Sweetened Condensed Milk (I use low-fat)
1 Tub Cool Whip, thawed (low-fat also)
*This is an ideal recipe.  If, like me, you are stuck in a world where the grocery stores don't stock key lime juice concentrate, do this:
2 Regular Sized Graham Cracker Pie Crusts
1 Can Minute Maid LIMEADE Concentrate- full/regular size
2 Tubs Cool Whip
2 Cans Sweetened Condensed Milk
Split the wet mixture between the two pie crusts and freeze.  Remove and transfer to the fridge an hour or so before serving.

It's easy, but it doesn't mean it can't hit the spot.  It's a perfect summer desert!

Mix all your wet ingredients, pour into pie filling