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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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Happy Harvest Season

8 Oct

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Is there anything better than the start of autumn? The cooler weather, fresh and breezy air, and all the yummy food that arise at this time all bring about a welcomed reset button. At the first feel of a slight wind, I’ve got 5-year olds yelling, “It’s autumn! Can you feeeeeel it?!”

Years ago, when I lived in Orange County, California, I worked at a year-round school where we started the year in July and received a 3-week fall break come the end of September. Oh holy goodness that break was so exciting! For the last week in September, and half of October, I gallivanted around SoCal visiting farmers markets, specialty food shops, and cooked most of the days away. The very best part, however, was taking a yearly trip up to Napa to visit my friend, Heather, who just happened to work for a very prominent winery.

Traveling to Northern California specifically during the grape harvest is simply special. There is a magic in the air matched only to that first nose, first swirl, first sip of fabulous wine.   The wine in Napa is big and exciting – tastes of fruit, mineral, and spices inevitably convert the faint of heart. Those in Sonoma are intricate, earthy, hitting the front of the tongue with brightness and pungency and almost leaving a feeling of urgency for more. Even the everyday oyster crackers served to cleanse the palate tasted better in wine country. As written endlessly in boundless foodie mags, the restaurants are fabulous, the food is fresh, and the locavore movement is thriving. Just thinking about the smell of hot, vine-laden grapes (sweet, earthy, and pungent) and the sight of the Russian River Valley (breathtaking does not do justice), literally makes me want to pop open a bottle right here and now.

Please excuse the drool.

Moving from California to Oregon created some initial sadness, but as Rob and I quickly warmed to the cold and wet climate, and we found a whole new world of wines. Not only was the now-infamous Willamette Valley a mere day-trip away, but the Umpqua Valley wineries proved to be some of our favorites. They were smaller, quainter, and not at all stuffy as the winemakers themselves would be happy to pour a perfectly Oregon-air-chilled glass of Baco Noir and chat the day away. Our Oregon wine excursions created a brand new set of memories of the Harvest Season. We would pack a lunch, sit on a picnic table in the vines or one overlooking the cascading evergreen hills with pockets of clouds blurring their branches, sip wine, and just be. It was quiet; not much talking, and there were never any hooting wine tour buses tainting the experience, nor the pressure to “hit up” as many wineries as possible. The whole experience was so relaxing, so picturesque, so perfect it felt unreal.

Recently, my mom and I went antiquing and I found a gem of a book: West Coast Cookbook by Helen Brown. The copyright is in Roman Numerals (which I’m convinced were invented only to make people’s shoulders drop and eyes roll), and after too-much-for-an-educated person-deliberation, I figured the copyright was 1952.

This book has more character and personality then expected in a dusty, antique find, and filled with so much culinary information. Aspics, cheese, bread, game meat, coffee, chocolate, all have sections devoted to their significant history rooted in the West, and Ms. Brown discussed it with mouthwatering eloquence. Phrases like, “You can’t turn off a cow,” and “tortillas are the staff of life,” keep the pages turning and the stomach grumbling. That is, until my eyes stumbled upon this:

“This is a vinous book. Good food is nothing without good wine, and our generous use of it as a beverage and as a necessary part of our cookery has much to do with the pleasure of our table…. When I speak of our wines, I mean Californian. The amount produced in Oregon and Washington is negligible.”

What?! Oregon, Washington – insignificant wine? Sorry Helen, you’re wrong on this one. While California has its fancy viticulture charm, the Pacific Northwest has its own delicious backbone of wine history that California would be envious of (but surely never admit).

Alas, it’s a pain in the neck to hold a grudge, so I won’t. Helen is still a cool gal. So as I’m remembering Harvest Days memories, and enjoying my antique find, a fantastic meal dedicated to the West during the Harvest Season is in order. Turning to the Fish & Shellfish section of the cookbook, Ms. Brown states “fish is not a food to be eaten only when nothing else is available, but is, when properly prepared, food as good as it comes.”

Ain’t that the truth?

So here it comes: good food! To be paired perfectly with good wine, no less!

There are a few parts to this Smoked Salmon Layered Salad. First off, layering salads should be the new thang if you ask me. They are so pretty and so much fun to eat. Oh, and a whole meal served on one giant plate, family style. Easy? Yes. No fuss?   No problem. And the gourmet-ish mushroom croutons? Get out of town! Such a show stopper.

Pair this meal with a great glass of Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay, and you’ve got yourself a West Coast, harvest-inspired meal. Enjoy!

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Smoked Salmon Layered Salad
(serves 4)

  • 2 tins of quality, hot smoked salmon (for the canned version, King or Coho would be best; Chuck’s Seafood in Charleston, OR, and Josephson’s in Astoria, OR both ship throughout the country).
  • 1 lb. fresh, end of the summer green beans, cleaned and stem-end removed
  • 1 pint crimini mushrooms, finely chopped
  • 1 large sweet potato, diced into ½ -in pieces
  • 1 head tender lettuce – either romaine, red lettuce, or the baby lettuce mix from a bag. If using romaine or red lettuce, roughly chop.
  • 4-5 sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves removed and roughly chopped
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 3 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 1 ½ tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • s&p

** This meal pairs perfectly with Oregon Pinot Noir (I love Giradet from the Umpqua Valley), California Rose (Louis Martini makes a good one found in the heart of Napa), and Washington Chardonnay (Three Rivers is a great Columbia Valley un-oaked version).

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the sweet potato dices on a baking sheet and drizzle with 2 tbsp olive oil, s&p. Roast the sweet potatoes until the edges are browned and the insides are tender, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

While the potatoes are cooking, prepare the green beans by seething them in a large sauté pan. Seething is a combination of steaming and sautéing in one pan. Put the green beans in the pan with 2 tbsp of olive oil, ¼ c water, and a good pinch of s&p. Heat over medium heat, turning the green beans often, until the liquid has cooked away, and the green beans are bright and cooked through (the beans should still retain a bit of a crunch – they should not have the texture of a stewed bean). When the beans are done, set aside.

To make the mushroom “croutons,” simply put the mushrooms in a sauté pan with the 2 tbsp of butter on med-high heat. Stir, then let be to brown, stir, then let be to brown, until all the mushroom pieces are so browned and lovely, and almost crunchy. Transfer mushrooms to a paper towel-lined plate, season with a bit of salt, and let cool. They will continue to crunch-up while cooling. (Seriously, these things are addicting. They may not even make it to the salad.)

To make the dressing, mix the Dijon mustard, lemon juice, honey, and a pinch of s&p together. While pouring in the extra virgin olive oil, whisk until combined and smooth. Set aside.

For the smoked salmon, open the container, drain if necessary, and flake the salmon using a fork. Set aside.

Now for the assembly! On a large serving plate, first put down the lettuce, and then sprinkle over the sweet potatoes, and the chopped thyme. Then evenly spread out the green beans, and the smoked salmon. Top with the mushroom croutons, and serve with the dressing in a carafe on the side for individual drizzling (I’ve found that this salad has enough flavor as is, that some enjoy without the dressing).

Dig in, image you are sitting among the vines, and enjoy!

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I’m So Tired

28 Aug

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Kindergarten is hard.  There are a lot of kids with a lot of germs who need to learn a lot of things.  Last week, my mom was in the classroom modeling everything she knows regarding 5-yr old behavior management.  Thank goodness, because it’s been a long time since I’ve worked with the little ones.  But after one day of repetitive, non-expressive, repetitive, non-expressive, repetitive, non-expressive… polite requests, they got the hang of it.  Now, we are fully in the swing of things, and school is on a quick upswing towards the rest of the year.

With the beginning of the school year inevitably comes the feeling of fall, football, pumpkin spice-scented candles, and one of my favorite things: comfort food.  I tend to try and create comfort food in a more healthy way, but there are some things that you can’t get away from, like, pasta.  Pasta is awesome.  Although I know pasta can be healthy when it’s eaten in appropriate 2000-calorie serving sizes, blah, blah, blah, but really, how often does that happen?

So that spurred on the Whole Wheat Sweet Potato Pasta.  Easier than you’d think, with all the vitamins of sweet potatoes, the fiber of whole wheat, and the comfort-deliciousness-chewy-goodness-of-everything-you-crave-after-a-long-day-of-Y-E-L-L-O-W-spells-‘yellow’ that is PASTA.

Like I said, I’m so tired.  There are many stories to share, but my throat is already starting to show signs of testing the beginning of the year immunity, and my bed is calling my name.  I’ll promise to do a better job than last year at cooking and posting during the school year, and I also promise to tell the story of Rob and me paddle boarding with alligators.  Until then, make and eat this pasta.  It’s.  Downright.  Good.  Enjoy and goodnight!

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Whole Wheat Sweet Potato Pasta
(makes 4 servings) 

  • 2 c whole wheat flour
  • –       plus more for dusting
  • 2 small-medium sweet potatoes, diced and boiled until very fork tender
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

After the sweet potatoes are cooked and cooled, put through a potato ricer, food mill, or shred with a heavy fork. 

Pour the flour onto a clean stone counter, or wood board.  Make a well in the middle, and add the sweet potato.  Making another well in the potatoes, add the eggs, and the olive oil. 

Using a circular motion with a heavy fork, slowly mix the eggs with the potato and flour mixture, adding the outside layers of flour into the middle of the mixture with your opposite hand.  When the mixture starts to come together, start using both hands to combine, and kneed the dough for about 10 minutes.  The dough should be soft, smooth, and elastic to the touch.  Set aside for 20-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, set up your pasta roller (NOTE: if you don’t have a pasta roller, this dough will make a great gnocchi.  Just roll into thin logs, and cut into 1-inch pieces).  Roll until a “4”, and cut through a linguini cutter, or thinly cut with a very sharp knife. 

Boil water with a handful of salt, and boil until the pasta reaches the surface, about 1-2 minutes (fresh pasta cooks much, much faster than dried). 

Toss with a flavorful, light sauce – I like brown butter with freshly grated nutmeg, rosemary, mint, spinach, and a touch of Riesling.  Add some rotisserie chicken for a protein packed meal. 

Enjoy! 

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