Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Losing a good friend

Last weekend I went to a wake of sorts, to celebrate the passing of a friend. Does it matter that the friend was a cooking school? Nope. Culinary Communion was a place where I discovered and embraced my inner food geek. I learned to be a fearless home chef. While I don’t need CC for that anymore, I might not have ever gotten to where I am now without it. The founders created something that did truly develop into a community bound by love for cooking and cooking for love.

A high-school friend wrote in my annual “A friend is someone who knows you and still likes you.” That is the way I feel about Culinary Communion. I knew them, they knew me. Though there were days when I would see things that made me chuckle and shake my head, I always went back. And there was always someone there to welcome me and make me feel welcome - even as they occasionally chuckled and shook their heads over me.

The people I met, the meals we shared, and the learning along the way will never leave me. So RIP, Culinary Communion. Your spirit, and your recipes, will live on.

Pressure canning boo-boo

No, I didn't blow it up. Though I did allow it to do damage to me. I dropped the pressure regulator on my toes. Broke one...ack! Oh well. It could have been worse, it wasn't my big toe. The things I do for my art...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Taking a pass at passata

Passa-what? As I have learned in the past two days, passata is tomato puree. At least that’s the basic idea. Two things got me to this point: first, my darling husband got us a long-term loan of a pressure canner. Second, yesterday he was standing staring longingly at cases of roma tomatoes at the local restaurant food-supply store asking, “Have you ever made tomato puree, or sauce or something?” Well, not really because I don’t count being labor at a tomato-canning session against my will. Hey, are there that many 15-year-olds who are happy about being drafted into a marathon of tomato juice and steam? But I was game and told him that since we have the pressure canner we can, indeed, make something from those tomatoes.

Yesterday he washed and halved 22 pounds of tomatoes while I did a literature search in my cookbook library. Ah, tomato passata. And in a recipe for pressure canning novices! Put all the tomatoes in my biggest Calphalon pot and cook overnight. Today after cooling I ran them through the food mill attachment on my KitchenAid mixer. Oh, I forgot to mention that, didn’t I? I never would have agreed to do this if I didn’t already know that I have a mechanized food mill – none of that turn, turn, turn business for me.

The milling exercise only tood about an hour, if you don’t count setup and cleanup. And cleanup was a doozy, because there was tomato everywhere. Sort of like that butter-making incident I had a while back.

Right now I am cooking the puree down some more, I’d like it a little thicker. It will simmer very slowly overnight, then tomorrow I shall make my first foray into pressure canning. It’s not a worrisome thing; I use a pressure cooker all of the time. But still when you’re preserving food, you do have to be cautious in order to produce a safe and quality product and so I shall follow instructions carefully.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

From carnitas to posole

Very often one or two great ingredients can drive my cooking for several days. This week, beautiful avocados and poblano chiles are taking that role. Ive always loved Mexican border food, and when I discovered Santa Fe or New Mexico-style cooking I was over the moon. Mind you, Ive never been to New Mexico to eat. But I will be, for sure. My discovery came back in about early 1986 when I forgot to return a book club shipment notification and received, unwanted, The Taste of Santa Fe by Buckley Dent. There were no photographs, but boy, could I see what he loved to eat. From that I taught myself how to make flour and corn tortillas, tamales, and carnitas. With great carnitas and the broth from cooking the pork it was a short step to a great bowl of posole. You can use canned products for nearly all of the making of posole, in fact many cooks do, but of course when you can use some key fresh ingredients the brothy stew of meat, hominy, and chiles in a cumin and garlic-scented bath goes over the top. And you can use chicken thighs instead of pork if the mood strikes you.

Yesterday I made chicken carnitas. Today we have posole. How did I get there? Yesterday I threw half a dozen frozen whole chicken thighs into water to cover, added about a tablespoon of whole cumin, a couple of dried red chiles, and a few whole garlic cloves. Then I pulled three cups of rich chicken stock from the freezer and added that. All that cooked for about three hours then I strained the stock and picked and shredded the chicken. Stock, about five cups, went to the fridge. The chicken went for a quick sauté to get crispy edges, then rolled up in flour tortillas that I had trimmed to 10x6 from giant locally-made tortillas. (I go for authentic but I am also pragmatic; these days I cant stand in the kitchen all day without a lot of pain so I don’t always make my own tortillas these days.) I brushed the flautas with oil and convection roasted them for about 20 minutes until they were GDB. Served them with some guac (my nod to St. Patricks Day) and green salsa mixed with sour cream.

Today I am making a quick posole. Posole means the stew but also the hominy that goes into it. I am using canned today, a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Frankly, I forgot to put the dried hominy on to soak yesterday. Six more chicken thighs into water with garlic, red chile, cumin and a cup of yesterdays broth. That cooks for an hour or two then the same routine as yesterday: strain and shred. While it cooks I roast and peel two big fresh poblanos and dice them. Then chicken, poblanos, hominy and onion go back into the pot with todays broth and the rest of the stock from yesterday. If it doesnt look like there is enough green chile in it, I add a can of chopped green chile as well. Simmer for an hour or so and serve with diced avocado, jack cheese, chopped onion and flour tortilla crackers. For the crackers, brush pieces of tortilla with oil, sprinkle with salt, and convection bake at 425 for couple of minutes until just golden at the edges and crisp.

Tomorrow? Leftovers. Oh, darn.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I love split pea soup

I really do. It’s the ultimate stone soup.  Throw in a handful of split peas for just pennies, three times as much water (by volume), a little salt and you have a fine soup.  Add some thyme, some pepper, maybe a little hot sauce.  Or use chicken broth instead of water. Even better, use a rich homemade chicken stock. And we haven’t even started talking about adding pork, usually pork with plenty of fat. Fry up some bacon, crumble it, and set it aside.  Sauté some chopped carrots, onions, and celery (mirepoix) in the bacon fat, then add your stock/water, the split peas, and your seasonings.  Be a little more careful about the salt because the bacon fat will add some.  Cook the soup for about an hour then sprinkle the bacon bits over the top when you serve it. Of course there is the traditional ham hock, in which case you should sauté the mirepoix and then add the ham hock and plenty of water to cover. Do this first thing in the morning, and when you get home from work throw in a couple of handfuls of split peas.  By the time you’ve changed into something comfy and unwound with a glass of viognier (about an hour), your soup will be ready for you. I don’t even bother picking the meat off of the ham hock until after having the “first day” soup.  When you put it away for leftovers, that’s when you pick off all of the meat so you have a very different soup the second time around.

Today I got a little fancy with the vegetables and cut carrots and celery into brunoise, a very fine dice that is pretty in the soup and gives some texture contrast. I used some rich chicken stock I made from roasted chicken bones. It’s filling up the house with a nice comforting aroma, and I know Dave will smile when he walks in the door.  He says he doesn’t really like split pea soup, but I know he’ll like mine.

Your investment accounts might look a little poor these days, but you can still eat rich on a budget.