Archive for August, 2009

The flavors of Spain

There is a great book that I have my eye on to add to my collection, called The Flavor Bible.  It is basically a reference book for what flavors go well together, and what flavors are typical of certain cuisines.  I imagine this would be very useful for those of us who like to throw things together using the leftovers in the fridge and cabinets – for example, you could look up ‘red peppers’ and get some good ideas of what to cook using up that jar of roasted peppers in the fridge. 

To a certain extent, I do this already, but it’s based just on my limited experiences of eating and reading recipes.  So there are some things I love to put together now – blue cheese and honey, for example, or toasted peanuts on anything with curry.  Other times I have to really sit down and think, and even do some ‘research’ on Epicurious or my other cookbooks to see what one might cook with a certain ingredient.  The Flavor Bible would be, I imagine, an endlessly helpful reference book for those types of situations in the kitchen.

An ingredient that inspired a couple good dishes at our house lately was chorizo sausage.  And I have to say, despite not having The Flavor Bible around, we did a pretty good job of mixing up some yummy Spanish flavors with the chorizo!  I have loved experimenting with chorizo ever since a few years ago when I was looking for a Spanish appetizer to go with a paella dish.  (Fun tidbit: you can actually search International foods on Epicurious and look up, for example, all the Spanish recipes!)  I found a wonderfully delectable although not too pretty-looking recipe for Bacon-wrapped Chorizo-stuffed Dates.  These look like rather unappetizing little blobs but WOW do they taste good!  That was the first time I experienced cooking with chorizo sausage and I learned a couple thingss: one, there are two types of chorizo you can buy: hardened cooked/smoked chorizo and soft uncooked ground chorizo.  I prefer the uncooked ground stuff because I think it’s easier to work with and mold than the other.  But I think the other is probably pretty great with cheese and crackers when you just slice it up.  Two, I learned that chorizo had a distinct flavor from other sausages and IT IS GOOD!  I can’t really describe it…but it does not have the herby earthiness of our typical American ground sausage.  It’s orangier and tangier and it’s just great.  So when our CSA offered chorizo sausage as an option one week, I took it.

So then we had to figure out what to do with it.  I decided to make half of it into hamburgers and half of it into pizza.  I figured a little bit of it (but certainly not the whole pound) might be a delicious flavor in ground beef burgers.  And with a little chorizo in the burgers, it would be fun to come up with other Spanish-flavored toppings!  So first, of course, on any burger you need some cheese.  And of course the best Spanish cheese is Manchego.  If you haven’t ever tried it – well, just try it.  It’s a hard cheese with lots of flavor that’s easy to like.  So we got some Manchego for our Spanish burgers.  Then we needed the goopy topping – you know what I mean, the something oozy and sweet to bind the whole thing together?  So I turned to a Skena Family Favorite: Balsamic Onion and Fig Compote.

Now, we first encountered this little taste of heaven in a salad in a restaurant in Georgia that is worthy of it’s own post, and it will have it, one of these days, when I make it next and get a picture of it.  But for now, suffice to say that we make this little topping for a number of things and it always MAKES the dish.  As originally encountered, this compote (for lack of a better word…it’s sort of like a jam, sort of like a sauce) was made from shallots sauteed in balsamic vinegar and then some kind of fig added. I’m not sure what the original recipe used for figs, but I like to use fig preserves.  They are already prepared, very figgy and really sweet, and you’re looking for the sweetness to add to the onions or shallots.  Although it’s not really a recipe, let me tell you how to make this, and if you are very brave and just TRY it, you’ll find it’s pretty hard to mess up.  In fact, this last time I made it I scorched the onions and by the time I dumped in the fig jam, you couldn’t even tell!

Balsamic Onion and Fig Compote

1. Thinly slice approximately 2 medium onions or 5 large shallots (shallots have a lovely taste in this but if you don’t have them around, just use the onions).  Saute in a drizzle of olive oil, sprinkled with salt, pepper and a couple pinches of sugar (which helps them caramelize), on medium high heat til golden brown and reduced.  I don’t stir them too frequently at the beginning (every 5 minutes or so)…let them develop some color before tossing them around.  As they get browner, you may want to lower the heat some, and stir more frequently (every minute or two).  At that point, as things are speeding up, add a 2 second drizzle of balsamic vinegar.  You want enough to keep the shallots/onions moist with it but not swimming in it.  If you need still more moisture, add more olive oil.

2. Once your onions/shallots have turned a deep golden brown and seem on the verge of burning, remove from heat and add another quick drizzle of balsamic vinegar and about a 1/2 cup of fig preserves.  You can usually find this with other jams in the grocery store.  Stir it all around til the fig preserves melt into the onion/shallot mixture.  Taste a little bit to see if you want more salt and pepper.  If the consistency is too thick for you, add a splash of water to loosen it up.

So, with our flavorful jammy topping, we had our completed burger: Chorizo Burgers (2 lbs ground beef mixed with 1/2 pound of ground chorizo) with Manchego and Balsamic Fig Onion Compote.  YUM.

Dish #2 used the same components on my favorite way to eat leftovers: pizza.  Another easy Trader Joe’s pizza crust (this time the herb one, because it was all I had in the freezer), drizzled with my GOOD olive oil (the expensive one I keep for when you’ll really taste the flavor), covered with an 8-oz bag of Italian cheese blend from the grocery store and then our Spanish toppings.  I cooked the remaining ½ lb of the chorizo sausage and drained it on paper towels.  Then I scattered it over the top of the pizza, along with tiny bits of manchego, the Balsamic-Onion-Fig Compote, and some pitted olives.  I thought the burgers were good but THIS was excellent!!!  The manchego added great flavor, the olives a big zest, the fig-onion compote was perfect as always, and the chorizo was really delicious crisped up on top of the pizza.  The combination of flavors was SO good…a little unexpected but perfectly right.

So our latest adventure in chorizo led to some fun Spanish flavors – whenever I get my hands on that book I can’t wait to see what they say are good combinations with chorizo, or the standard Spanish ingredients and spices.  But this first try wasn’t bad.  And I would recommend pizza as a great way to start experimenting with these mix-and-match combos…there’s not a lot that truly is BAD with cheese and bread, you know what I mean??  So next time you have a quirky ingredient or need to empty the fridge of a few things consider the lowly pizza and enjoy your leftovers in style!  🙂

Spanish pizza - after

Spanish pizza - before


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Sauteed Pepper Pizza

Michael is a big fan of peppers, and has been so happy with all these summer peppers we’ve been getting from our CSA.  His favorite way that I make them is sauteed and reduced with balsamic vinegar.  This is SO easy…there’s not really a ‘recipe’ per se, just a process.  I do the following:

– cut a bunch of peppers into thin slices (picks the type and level of spice according to what you like)

– add the peppers to a hot pan with a drizzle of olive oil so they are all coated and shiny

– add salt, pepper and sugar by the pinchful to season the peppers (will vary according to the amt of peppers)

– adding more drizzles of olive oil as needed to make sure the peppers stay shiny, saute the peppers on medium high heat til they are reduced by half (about 15-20 min – do something else in the kitchen while stirring occasionally)

– add some drizzles of balsamic vinegar to coat the peppers and let it cook another 10 min or so until further reduced and just starting to get brown.

That’s it!  It takes a little while to cook down so just empty the dishwasher or something while you’re cooking. 🙂  I made this previously to put on top of grilled sausage, and when I made them the other day I used them for a pizza topping.  I used one of our favorite Trader Joe’s pizza doughs and drizzled a little olive oild over the top.  Then I scatter most of an 8 oz bag of shredded Italian-blend cheese on the dough and scatter the peppers around.  Since we had a lot of cute mini cherry tomatoes available, I halfed a handful of those and scattered them on top too.  Finally some chunks of goat cheese were added.

The peppers were not too spicy but had a great flavor, and the little tomato and goat cheese bites were a great flavor with the peppers.  This goes down as one of Michael’s favorites!

The uncooked pizza looked like this:


And the final result like this:


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It might sound like a dumb question, but it’s a piercing one to anyone who’s lived in and loved the city of New Orleans and hears that song.  The answer is always a resounding ‘yes!’, and you can instantly think of a dozen things that you miss profoundly.  I lived in New Orleans for an all-too-brief but perfectly wonderful year and a half while I was in graduate school at Tulane in 2003-2004.  I chose Tulane for several good reasons, but one of the major ones was that I thought I just might love living in that city, and it would be a fun adventure.  I was right.  I fell hard for New Orleans, more than any other place I’ve lived, and I still miss it almost every day.

Sara Roahen’s love story to New Orleans and its food, Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, is the most accurate and poignant description of what it means to fall under the city’s spell that I’ve ever read.  Like me, she moved to New Orleans in her twenties with little prior experience with the city; like me she talks about and thinks about food the way that North Carolinians talk about UNC basketball (which is to say, pathologically obsessed); like me she loves public radio and hates mayonnaise; and like me, she was forever ruined for other cities by becoming a New Orleanian.  I totally identified with this lady, and I thought she was hilarious.

Ostensibly this book is about the food culture of New Orleans, and it does talk a lot about the food, but as she says, “…by New Orleans food culture, of course I mean its very heart.”  You can’t really separate the food from the general character of the city, which is definitely one of the things I loved about it.  New Orleans joyfully celebrates eating well (and this almost never means ‘healthy’ or ‘lowfat’) without apology, and I love that.  Roahen’s memories of the city are pinned to food experiences and the places she enjoyed them…she’s mapped New Orleans through her stomach. 

Gumbo Tales covers some of the most iconic, and a few of the lesser known, New Orleans classics: Sazeracs, Sno-balls, Po-boys, Turducken, Crawfish, Pho (Vietnamese food!), King Cake, Coffee and Chicory, Red Beans and Rice, and Oysters.  She gives some history on the dishes or ingredients, describes the various ways it’s prepared, where you can eat the best one, and {always} a funny story about what happened when she first ate it or first cooked it.  She pretty much pegs everything – for example, that King Cake is slightly terrifying to look at, and not anything too special to eat, but nonetheless VERY important during Carnival season, and you’ll eat a King Cake (daily, sometimes) with gusto, just for the tradition.  She describes some of the fancier, famous restaurants but this girl clearly loves a dive bar or hole-in-the-wall restaurant, so there’s no food elitism going on here.  She believes that the heart of the New Orleans cuisine is in the home kitchen, and she’s talked at length with regular people to learn how they cook their specialties.

I loved reading about the food itself, because I am also a bit obsessed with this cuisine, but my favorite part of this book was the way she captured the process of arriving as a stranger to the city, and then having a conversion experience that leaves you forever changed, and never wanting to leave.  It’s remarkable how quickly and easily you feel like you belong in New Orleans.  She says,

“New Orleans is a city of friends and neighbors, restaurants and cooking, and it swells with stories about how they all interact.  Put yourself in the middle of them and you become a part of the story yourself.  Eat an Italian salad, take a long lunch at Galatoire’s, cook a pot of red beans, and you’re in.  There’s no admission price, no required reading.  Food and the people who cook it, and the rituals that honor it, and the places that serve it, and the reasons for preserving it – that’s what happens here, who we are, what matters.”

My memories of New Orleans are often pegged to food as well: drinks at the Columns hotel, alligator soup and po-boys at Frankie and Johnny’s, hitting the tourist shops around Jackson Square for multiple free praline samples (hey, I was a poor student!), that buttery spoon bread at Dante’s kitchen, everything on the menu at the frenetic Jacque Imo’s, the cheerful and elegant dining room at Upperline, cafe au lait and beignets at Cafe du Monde in the morning before the tourists get there, the best pecan pie in the world (heated in butter on the grill and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream) at Camelia Grill, and learning to cook crawfish etouffe in my kitchen that was so hot during most of the year that chocolate melted in the cabinets (no AC window unit in the kitchen).  When my husband Michael got the lucky job of going to New Orleans for work a couple years ago, I went with him and we took a few days for me to show him around ‘my’ city.  I showed him my old house, the SPCA where I adoped our dog (Nola, named for New Orleans, LA), Audobon park, the St. Charles streetcar, and all my other favorite places.  And we ate.  And ate.  And ate.  We practically rolled onto the airplane by the end of our visit.  But, that’s how you experience New Orleans best – through the spicy, rich, flavorful, unique food that mirrors the culture.  If I hadn’t known already, it would have been a great validation that I’d picked a good man, because he enthusiastically embraced my favorites as his own immediately.

Roahen says, “People love New Orleans like they love a person.”  The deep affection I have for that city, and the way that I miss it which practically borders a grief, is very like how I would feel about a close friend.  When something triggers a memory from my time in the Crescent City, I cope in one of three ways: I start using my Cafe de Monde coffee mugs for my morning coffee; I put on my New Orleans jazz playlist; and/or I cook some good food.  It’s quite possible that whenever you see a post on this blog for some good old Cajun or Creole food, the meal was inspired by my missing New Orleans.  It is also possible it was because catfish, sausage or shrimp was on sale.  But even if that was the motivation, you can be sure that while it was cooking, some Dr. John was playing in the background and my mind was miles from home, in a one-of-a-kind, can’t-keep-it-down, crazy and messy, happy and lazy, beautiful town named New Orleans.

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Shrimp and Orzo Salad

I have a little time to catch up on some dishes to share with you while enjoying a lazy hot afternoon in Rwanda.  I’ve been getting some rough sleep w/ jet lag so my brain doesn’t feel up to too much more than emailing or reading for today, and reading is putting me to sleep, so we’ll give blogging a try! 

This recipe for Roasted Shrimp and Orzo is another winner from the Barefoot Contessa.  I first tried it when Michael and I arrived in Florida after a frustrating flight, sans baggage (and bathing suits), to a long weekend with my best friends from high school.  Court had made this wonderful salad for lunch, and boy did it hit the spot after the morning we’d had!!!  We may not have been able to jump directly in the pool, but once we had a bowl of that yummy stuff in our hands, we didn’t mind.  I’ll forevermore associate this salad as the perfect sunny, warm-weather lunch, not to mention a comfort food.

The base of the salad is the teensy orzo pasta, which you combine with the olive oil and lemon juice while it’s still hot so that it starts soaking up some of the goodness and flavor.  You roast the shrimp, which is just tossing them with olive oil, salt and pepper and cooking in the oven on high heat instead of steaming.  I’ve decided I don’t think the roasting vs. steaming seems to make a very big difference in here – they still taste like shrimp to me.  So if you find it easier to steam them, you can do that too.  Then you do a lot of chopping: cucumbers, red onion, scallions/green onions, dill, parsley and diced feta.  These all jump in with the pasta and get mixed together, then you just let it sit in the fridge for a couple hours to overnight, so the flavors get to know each other, and then spoon it out into some nice big bowls and there you go!

Like many of the BC recipes I’ve shared with you here, this is a guaranteed hit.  It’s one of the dozen or so dishes that Michael calls his favorite thing that I make.  Every time I’ve served it (in stemless martini glasses at a shower, for a birthday lunch, packed to go for a weekend away with girlfriends) people go crazy.  It’s not difficult to make at all (it’s just assembly, really), and is actually BETTER made in advance, so it’s a perfect party or company dish.  It also makes quite a lot, and I learned from experience that it does not freeze well, so if you are not going to be able to eat tons of leftovers in a couple days, I’d suggest halving the recipe.  I also go a bit lighter on the herbs in here…the first time I made it exactly according to directions, and although it was delicious I thought it tasted a bit too grassy.  The fresh herbs are essential, so do put all of the different kinds in, just scale them back and add more to taste.  I’ve tried using crumbled feta in here and it just gets lost – do buy the block feta and dice it yourself, because it’s totally worth it.  And she points out in the recipe but it bears repeating, be sure to not overcook your shrimp – especially if you’re using a smaller sized shrimp, they cook fast, and they don’t taste too great when overdone.  Keep an eye on them and as soon as they’ve all turned pink all over, pull one out every now and then to check if it’s fully cooked in the middle.


Shrimp and Orzo Salad

I’m really on a Rose kick this summer, so I’m going to sound like a broken record, but you can’t beat this with a stick for a cool refreshing summer lunch or dinner with a glass of Rose out on the porch.  Bon appetit, mes amis!!!

PS: Just noticed the tomatoes in this picture…those are perfect little sungolds from our farmer’s market that pop with sweet summery goodness in your mouth.  I threw them in this batch because I thought they’d be good and they needed to be used.  I loved them with it but the dish is great without them too.  You could probably throw in several other types of vegetables if you needed to use some up too.

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A Goodbye Dinner

Well I’m off on another trip – Rwanda again.  And while I’m gone, my hubby starts business school.  BIG DAY, Monday!  I may actually not see him until May.  So to make sure he remembers me, I cooked him a special dinner for our last free evening for a while.

The inspiration came from our refrigerator and my basket of farmer’s market veggies.  We had lots of things that needed to get used up before Michael descends into bachelordom for a couple weeks: cold cheese grits, tomatoes, zucchini, corn and peaches.  With a few additions from the grocery store, and some hot Italian sausage from the freezer, this became: grilled sausage with fried cheese grit cakes topped with balsamic-roasted vegetables AND blueberry buttermilk scones with vanilla ice cream and peaches.  Sounds a little fancier than it actually was – but it WAS as delicious as it sounds!

We have LOVED our sausages from our CSA.  They have all been unbelievably tasty.  The hot italian sausage we had in the freezer comes in one large link.  I threw this on our outdoor George Foreman grill (the only outdoor kind we can have on our apartment balcony) til it’s browned and fully cooked and juicy.  I cut this into a couple large pieces for each plate.

The cheese grits were leftover from breakfast earlier this week.  I’ve learned a great way to reuse grits is to unmold them from the cold container, cut them into large squares or triangles and fry them.  You’ll see this often on menus that feature Southern food – I guess it’s a more sophisticated way to serve grits for dinner!  So the fried cheese grit cakes went on the plate next to the juicy sausages.

To use up my basket of veggies from our CSA, I decided to roast them all together to bring out the flavor and top the sausage and grit cakes.  I cut the kernels off 3 corn cobs, chopped a couple yellow and red tomatoes into large chunks, and chopped one large zucchini into large diced pieces.  This all went on a large baking sheet (I love the rimmed half-sheet pans from Williams Sonoma for messy jobs like this) and was tossed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper and roasted at 400 for about 1/2 hour.  These veggies topped the sausage and grit cakes, and were still juicy enough to provide some good moisture and juices for the plate.  Oh and a few leaves of basil were julienned for garnish.  (This is just a fancy shortcut to say “stack the basil leaves on top of each other, roll it up from the short end, and either slice with a knife or cut with kitchen shears”).

sausage with grit cakes and veg

Along with a nice bottle of Cava, this was well-recieved by the grateful hubby, who will hopefully not forget about his wife in his first weeks of business school.  (I know he loves our CSA sausage, so it was sort of a slam dunk no matter what I served with it!)  But just to make sure I sealed the deal, I made a batch of blueberry buttermilk scones (better served for breakfast, but cooked today to use up buttermilk in my fridge and thus available for dessert) and served it topped with vanilla ice cream and sweet fresh peaches.  As he would say, done and done. 🙂

Blueberry buttermilk scones

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