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Turkey Day Trials 2016

16 Nov

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Here we go again, folks!  It’s Turkey Day Trials, 2016!

I’m going to invite the teacher to the blog for a moment and grace all of you with a brief history of the tradition.  Turkey Day Trials dates all the way back to November 2010 with culinary experimentation to prepare for the most anticipated foodie day of the year.  It started with prepping for the first Thanksgiving I prepared, lead to grocery store meltdowns, microwaved turkey breast, Kindergarten Turkey cooking (ironically, the frustration of being volun-told to cook for an elementary school “feast” taught me how to make the best bird), appetizers and dips galore, berry mistakes, and finally, comfort food leftovers.  There have been ups and downs, but all have been fun (except last year when I had the stomach flu and could barely scarf down the stuffing).

Clearly, I love Thanksgiving.

So this year’s Turkey Day Trial kind of happened on accident.  By my husband.

Yes, credit is due where credit is due and Chef Robert II (Chef Robert I is my dad.  And it’s pronounced Ro-BEAR by the way) came up with a most fantastic, keep in the fridge all season long, use on everything Pumpkin Butter.  It’s really amazing.

The other day, I just happened to add a bit of spice to that Pumpkin Butter and used it with some braised greens and mushrooms, making one of the best accidental Thanksgiving-worthy-yes-it-will-be-on-my-fancy-table-this-year side dishes ever.  Yes, I said it – EVER.

Sig (the dog) would disagree, but pumpkin by itself isn’t all that flavorful.  It’s a little musty and calls for brightening.  Sweetness and warm spices give pumpkin its quintessential autumn flavor, and in this recipe, water is added to turn the clumpy pumpkin into that silky, smooth, glazy texture fruit “butters” are known to embody.

The Pumpkin Butter is easy: 1 can of pumpkin puree, 1 c of water, 4 tbsp sugar, ¼ c brown sugar, ¼ tsp each of nutmeg, cinnamon, and pumpkin spice.  Mix all together in a sauce pan, and heat until the puree and the water have formed a smooth, silky consistency.  That’s it! 

Now, I did mention that I spiced this baby up.  To ¼ a cup of the Pumpkin Butter, I added 5-6 dashes of my favorite hot sauce: Tapatio.  Honestly, the chili spiciness mixed with the sweetness and nutmeg-y goodness is a flavor I can’t get enough of.  Granted – important note from Chef Robert II here – if you are going to use this Pumpkin Butter in coffee for an excelled Pumpkin Spice Latte, please omit the Tapatio.  That would just be silly.

So, onto the Turkey Day Trial side dish.

Southerners loooooove their braised greens.  Collards, actually, and I just can’t jump on that bandwagon.  This isn’t for lack of trying – I’ve had collards every which way.  But I simply do not like them, Sam I am.

But, in an accidental mix up of wild mushrooms and kale, a bit of sherry vinegar, plumped dried cranberries, and a drizzle of salt and honey, I found a sturdy cooked greens dish that could kick the chlorophyll out of those darn collards any day.  Also, it speaks heavily to my Scandinavian roots and Pacific Northwest taste buds, so there’s that for the sake of full disclosure.

Kale, basking in its endless superfood limelight, is softer than collards but still cooks well keeping integrity (it doesn’t disappear like spinach) and offering a bit of sweetness.  The mushrooms, oh the mushrooms, when those buggers are cooked till they just can’t be cooked anymore, they are amazing.  Browned, nutty, addictive; they taste like the smell of the woods next to the ocean after it’s just rained.  It’s a trick I’ve learned from my mom – let the mushrooms be.  Well, my mom and Paul McCartney.

Then – wait for it – I drizzled the Spicy Pumpkin Butter over the greens.

Un.  Bel.  Ievable.

I turned that one dish into a couple different things (Thanksgiving leftover ideas coming!  Hint hint, wink wink!).  I poured the greens on top of creamed barley for an earthy grain bowl, and I also pulled out a breakfast by shmearing some cream cheese on toast, topped with the greens and pumpkin butter, then “garnished” with a fried egg.  Again – delicious.

Time is running out on Thanksgiving countdowns, but luckily these gems are no fuss.  Rob’s Pumpkin Butter and my Mushrooms and Kale are perfect for your holiday feast.

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Mushrooms and Kale
(makes a lot, but you’ll need a lot)

  • 1 bunch curly kale (usually 7-8 stalks are in a bunch), leaves only, thinly sliced
  • 1 pint crimini mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 pint shitake mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 pint chanterelle mushrooms, sliced
  • ¼ c sherry vinegar
  • ¼ c water
  • 1/8 tsp ground nutmeg (freshly grated is better, but do just a bit less)
  • ¼ c dried cranberries
  • 1 tbsp really good local honey
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • s&p

In a large sauté pan, melt the butter over medium heat.  Add all the mushrooms and DO NOT yet season.  Stir the mushrooms, let them absorb the butter, and then finally release their own juices (without the help of salt).  Once the mushrooms start to caramelize, lower the heat to medium-low, and stir occasionally, letting the mushrooms brown, and then brown some more.  Once they are fully caramelized (and considerably smaller) lightly season with s&p.  Turn up the heat to medium, and pour in the sherry vinegar to deglaze the pan.  Once the vinegar has reduced to almost gone, add in the water and the kale.  Season with a bit more s&p, nutmeg, and add the cranberries.  Once the kale has cooked (it will wilt a bit, still look wrinkly, and have a dark green color), and the cranberries have plumped, turn off the heat.  Drizzle over the honey, and serve. 

Enjoy!

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Beet Down – A New Way to do Beets

4 May

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I’ve moved a lot, both growing up and now in my adult years.  More than occasionally I get the, “How do you do that?” round of questioning, mostly from people that consider a significant move an over-filled pick-up truck unloading across town.  Now, don’t get me wrong, a move is a move.  But some are more uprooting then others.

We’ve been in Jacksonville for about 3 years now, and I’m starting to get a tad bit antsy about where we’ll go next.  At night, Rob and I lie in bed perusing Zillow, dreaming of a possible destination for our next Coast Guard-led adventure.  Port Angeles, Detroit, Boston, not much is out of the running except for land locked areas, most of which we wouldn’t want to live in anyway (sorry, Oklahoma.  Been there, done that).  Of course we look at houses that are waaaaay beyond our means – with kitchens that just might make me famous – but it’s just a fun torturous game we play.  Like window shopping at Gucci.

Everywhere we go we try to squeeze everything we can out of the location, and we have only a year left in north Florida.  We’ve done a lot here, but definitely have a lot more to go, do, and see.  Though altogether we’ve found things we love (paddle boarding, the bird life, dolphins, good shopping), and really don’t love (the bugs, the heat, the bugs, the heat, oh and snakes.  Well, I don’t mind the snakes, but Rob runs away like a little girl).

In terms of one of the more important things in life – food – we’ve also found our regional likes and dislikes.  Sorry, Southern folk, we haven’t taken to the oddly-hairy-yet-slimy-at-the-same-time-omg-who-created-this-thing called okra, nor have some traditions (potato salad at Thanksgiving?) found a settled place in our hearts.  BBQ, however, that’s a love story.  So are the sweet onions.  Also, honey.  And so are the beets.

I’ve never actually documented the epic argument Rob and I had over beets.  Maybe one day.  But, beets!  Really?  Aren’t there better things to argue about, like sponges or spoons?

Well, we’ve grown in our relationship since arguing about beets (thank goodness) and now we can’t go a week without them.  Luckily, farms in Florida grow beets almost year round, and the months they don’t, the red roots keep for a long while in a crisper – if they last that long.  Thankfully, our CSA provides us with bunches regularly.  We eat them straight from the oven, or cold with a bit of vinegar and honey.  I’ve chopped them up into fancy tapenades and relishes, used their juice to dye Easter eggs, and have even infused vodka to make a fancy beet cocktail.  Beet options are endless.

So then why are restaurants only serving beets with the standard goat cheese and arugula?  I mean, some have pecans, some do a balsamic reduction drizzle, but really they are all the same.  It’s so sad!  Culinary monotony at its best.

So let’s turn the tables, shall we, and shake up the beet world.

With these: Beet Tacos.

Vegetarians, unite!  Meat Eaters, indulge!  Paleo folk, take a shower from your last CrossFit workout and pick up one of these tacos (sans cheese and crema)!

These are simple enough for a weeknight, but impressive enough for easy entertaining.  Having spent enough time in Mesa, Arizona, I prefer the small corn tacos to flour, and I feel their earthy flavor compliments the sweet beets wonderfully.  Chipotle crema is nothing more than 1 c Mexican cream (found now at most grocery stores), 3 chopped up chipotle peppers, lime zest and 1 tsp of agave Every Mex dish needs some beans, which are super simple to prepare.  Heat some canned black beans (drained and rinsed) in a pot over medium heat with ½ c water, 1 glove of garlic, and a sprig of mint.  Once boiling, remove from the heat, discard the herb and garlic, season the beans with s&p, and smash them with a fork.  For the star of the show: In a foil-lined baking dish, roast 4 peeled beets at 400 degrees with a dash of s&p, a drizzle of canola oil, 1 tsp cumin, and a whole jalapeno (sliced down the middle) until beets are tender, about an hour and a halfThe fresh topping of crisp cilantro (tear off stem) and soft shredded romaine (roll 2-4 leaves like a cigar then chop into thin strips) top off the bite with herby freshness For an optional creamy, salty indulgence, crumbled Queso Fresco tops the taco with ease.  Oh, and don’t forget the squeeze of that lime you zested earlier (it’s not just a margarita garnish, you know).

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When Rob and I were dating, tacos were our go-to dinner date.  Here in Jacksonville, we haven’t been able to find quite the same ole(!) experience as I we had in the South West.  Remembering those fresh flavors, I decided to create my own using one of Jacksonville’s finest produce, the bodacious beet.  Yes, bodacious.

With Cinco De Mayo coming up, enjoy these tacos with friends and maybe a marg or two.  You’ll get the best of two worlds, or at least the best of two regions of the U.S. (speaking from lots of moving – and eating – experience here, folks).

CinEnjoy!

Beet Tacos
(serves 4)
*ingredients and instructions above. 

To assemble:
Put the corn tortilla on a plate.  Spread some of the smashed black beans on the tortilla.  Top the beans with some roughly chopped beets.  Then Top the beets with the lettuce, cilantro, queso fresco, and a drizzle or two of the crema.  Squeeze the juice of a lime slice over the top, and you’ve got seriously one of the best tacos you’ll ever eat.

Enjoy!

An Aftertaste
If you like beets, check out these and these.  

My Textbooks

2 Nov

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I have cookbooks. There. I said it. It might be an obsession. My eyes simply roll imagining the scene:

Setting: an almost sterile room, with 8-9 brown, cold, metal folding chairs set in a too-close circle. Men and women from all walks of life, heads hung low, wallets empty, slowly make their way to the chairs. The linoleum floor clinks and rattles as people chose their chairs.

Enter Perky Person stage right:

“Hello everyone and welcome! We are all so glad everyone could make it, even if it did take some coaxing for some.” All eyes turn to me, as I’m suddenly aware at how fast my leg is bouncing. Ok, here it goes. It’s now, or never.

“Hi, I’m Jill. And I, I…. I collect cookbooks.”

“Hi, Jill.”

Too dramatic? Well how about this real-life scenario:

Setting: our lovely little house in Oregon, all packed up and ready to be emptied by burley movers. Rob and I are upstairs cleaning the baseboards when we hear our packer talking to the driver of our moving truck.

“It took two full days to pack up this house? There’s only two of them. How many boxes?”

“333.”

“Three-hundred and thirty three boxes?!”

“Yeah, man. She has a lot of books.”

It’s actually become a mantra in our house. Our super wonderful packer (really – he was so good), in his tired, tired, tired voice revealing my secret: she has a lot of books.

The cookbooks are everywhere – in bookshelves, on nightstands, in decorative stacks around the house holding candles, even hidden under the bed. Yet, I can’t stop.

Though it’s interesting, because I hardly ever use cookbooks as books for specific recipes. Instead, I pick very particular cookbooks – authors that I learn from, and receive inspiration while reading their recipes. Reading these books like collegiate textbooks (yes, I was a Literature major, and no it’s not a fluff major), I gain knowledge on flavor combinations, learn techniques, and experience different cultures with a page turn. I can honestly say that at one point I was teaching a friend – who had just graduated from culinary school – a thing or two in the kitchen.

Rob even finds it amusing that when looking for an idea for a very specific ingredient (for example, wild poultry), I’ll know in exactly which books to look (A Year in My Kitchen, Faviken, or Nature). Or if I’m looking for inspiration for entertaining, opening go-to classics always serve me well (anything from Ina Garten, Julia Child, Yotam Ottolenghi, or Lulu Powers). As I try to cook as clean and natural as possible, many fellow food writers’ books help with those ideas (Heidi Swanson, Anna Jones, and Amy Chaplain). Of course, I also constantly fall back on the basics (Moosewood books, Ruth Reichl, Alice Waters, and Jacques Pepin).

It is so freeing to read a cookbook with the intent to learn as opposed to the pressure and need to find tonight’s dinner.

Here in Jacksonville, this 2nd day of November, it was 91 degrees outside. Thus, for all you who know me well, I’m itching/craving/praying for/hoping/and down right begging for some fall weather. And despite as hard as I wish, controlling the weather is not one of my special powers, so the best I can do is create autumn on the inside. That means, lowering the thermostat, putting on a cardigan, turning on the oven, and creating a seasonal meal. The other day, after opening a series of cookbooks for inspiration, I read about sweet potatoes, pork roasts, bruchy hashes, and other mouthwatering comforting goodness. Thus was born the inspiration for a Sweet Potato and Bacon Gratin.

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Using only one large sweet potato, two servings of standard gratins can be squeezed out. With only a little bit of prep, a tasty, savory, autumnal dish is born.

For the Sweet Potato and Bacon Gratin, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Then, dice 4 strips of thick-cut bacon (I find applewood has the best flavor), and sauté in a large pan over med-high heat until the fat has rendered, and the pieces are crispy. Remove the bacon from the pan and set aside on a paper towel-lined plate. Then, sauté 1 diced, medium onion (your color choice, I used white because that’s what the farm had this week) in the bacon fat until the onions are translucent and start to soften. Taking a peeled, and ¼-in diced sweet potato, add it to the pan, seasoning with a bit of s&p, ¼ a tsp of ground cardamom, a pinch of cayenne pepper, and the leaves from 3 large stems of fresh thyme. Lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally until the potatoes are soft. If the potatoes get a bit browned on the edges, this is ok – the caramelization adds a great, pan-roasted flavor. Using ¼ c apple cider vinegar, deglaze the pan by pouring it in and scraping the brown bits off the bottom. Cook until the liquid has cooked off. Turn off the heat and transfer the mixture to a large, heatproof bowl. Add 2 c of chopped baby spinach (it will wilt with the warmth of the mixture), and the reserved bacon. Using a heavy spoon, roughly smash the sweet potatoes, and add a ½ c of half and half. Stir to mix, taste for seasoning, and scoop the mixture into two separate buttered gratin dishes. Once scooped in and spread out evenly, dollop a few chunks of blue cheese over the top, and bake for 15 minutes, or until the blue cheese bubbles and the potatoes are heated through. Remove from the oven, and serve in the gratin dishes with a simple baby green salad and a fabulous, earthy Pinot Noir (for me, that means Pacific Northwest, or Burgundy, France). 

This dish is kind of peasant-y, yet just perfect for inviting a friend over for a comforting meal to discuss the day.

So, yeah, I have a lot of books. But, they are more than worth it. My stomach is full, my soul is satisfied, and my mind is constantly filled with inspiration. That being said, my apologies to our next house packer, don’t hurt your back – I have a lot of books. A lot. And if you let me cook for you, you’ll understand why!

Enjoy!

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