Tag Archives: bacon

My Textbooks

2 Nov

IMG_1278

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.

IMG_1274

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!

Advertisements

Ten Apples Up On Top

25 Sep

IMG_1516

While the weather is just starting to cool down out here on the Florida/Georgia border (meaning, it’s 85 degrees with a breeze and a drizzle), it is strangely starting to feel like autumn. Every once in a while the trees rustle, and the abundance of overzealous salespeople pushing the newest crop of Halloween and Thanksgiving goods is enough to make one forget that is it is, still, technically September.

However, I must admit, I’m one of those people. Our house already has decorative pumpkins perched on the dining room table, cinnamon-scented candles burning with delight, and a giant trifle dish full of apples on the counter. My autumn inspiration started when Rob and I took a trip to Asheville, North Carolina. It’s a small town in the mountains, with farm stands, roads that wind up pine-lined cliffs, and a fabulous food-filled downtown. Really, we ate our way through the city, and still barely made a dent. One thing we did learn when our mouths weren’t stuffed with trout, or barely, or tomato bisque (but they were maybe half-full with wine from tasting at the St. Paul’s winery – we are civilized after all), was that Asheville is the 7th largest producer of apples in our nation.

What a way to welcome fall – go to a place that is inundated with the first, and one of the most prominent, symbols of the season!

Of course, I shopped. We got apples, we ate apples, I got an apple yard flag, we tasted and bought apple cider; we were, for lack of a better word, tourists.

So back to reality (aka: Kindergarten), we are starting to learn about apples this week. The kids are so excited. Apples! Is there anything more delightful? Christmas? Nah. Valentines Day? Hardly. And don’t even get me started on birthdays. The day that we “experiment” and taste and graph different colored apples is more exciting than Ronald McDonald himself delivering free chicken nuggets. When we read Dr. Seuss’ Ten Apples Up on Top, they are simply engrossed – open mouths, wide-eyed, engrossed. To Kindergarteners, apples are the crème de la crème of the new season.

To be honest, they are to me as well. All over the internet apples are springing up with cider recipes, butter recipes, pies, cakes, and roasted with pork tenderloin. So I decided to add one of my own with a simple, fresh, early autumn salad featuring, you guessed it – celery. WHAT? Ok, ok, apples are in there too, but in a different way: as the dressing.

IMG_1518

Similar to the cauliflower dressing I made a while ago, using a fruit or a veg to amp of the faux-creaminess of a dressing is a super simple, and none-the-wiser, trick. In this case, I used a Jonathan apple (I left the skin on because I like the little specks of red throughout the dressing), cored it, and whirred it in a blender with ¼ c apple cider vinegar, 2 heaping tsp honey, juice of ½ a lemon, 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, and s&p. The outcome: a non-cream, creamy dressing sweet and tangy and perfect for your favorite fall foods. Here, I was a bit mundane, trying to jazz up the humble (yet deliciousCelery, Bacon, Cheddar, and Parsley Salad (use those ingredients, add as much or as little as you want).  But this dressing would be good over chicken, pork, even as a nice addition to cranberry and walnut-laced coleslaw. Really, the possibilities are endless.

Just like my students’ excitement.

Please try the dressing and let me know how you used it! Can’t wait to hear!

Enjoy!

IMG_1519

Serious as Pie

11 Sep

IMG_0506

So there really is something magical about the South.  The culture, the music, of course the food, but also the people here can leave a lasting impression on a gal from the west.  Take, for example, the accent – it’s fantastically infectious.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself rolling words like “mama” and “y’all” off my tongue like they were vernacular I grew up hearing, let alone saying.  It gives me a feeling of fitting in and being one with the locals.  Silly, I know.  I’m not usually one to conform.  But have you ever had a conversation with a lovely Southerner?  If so, you know what I mean. 

However, there is one thing that I am missing in my budding southern lingo, and that is the cheeky, snazzy, completely amazing phrases that are used down here to describe anything from ripe fruit to an extraordinarily humid day.  For example, I would say:

“O.M.G. It’s. So. SO. Hot.”  With a big, yucky sigh. 

But a local’s tone would ring more like, “It’s hotter than a billy goat’s butt in a pepper patch,” with a sweet-as-Tupelo-honey smile.  

Now really, which one more effectively, and creatively, gets the point across? 

The problem is, I’m not originally from ‘round here, and my natural inclination to witty –isms are left to the likings of literature, art, and (my favorite) food descriptions.  So rather than wallow in the tall grasses of being an outsider, I figured if I can’t beat ‘em, I’ll join ‘em.

So I’ve been making up my own. 

Walking across the black, cast-iron asphalt that is called the Target parking lot, I found myself mumbling, “It’s hotter than Crisco in a frying pan.”  To get my students’ attention, I’ve been telling them things are as “Serious as pie.”  My favorite was when I told a co-worker that I would “chase a hog through a turd field” for a piece of chocolate.  Hmm.  All my made-up –isms naturally run to food. 

Kind of like me.

Part of what spurred on this wave of concocting cheeky phrases to replace mundane meaning has been the unbearable heat we’ve had.  I guess to many native northern Floridians, the 102-degree heat index – WITH humidity – is what they call, “normal.” I see nothing normal about it, and both Rob and I have suffered bouts of heat stroke until we realized that any sort of electrolyte drink was a new best friend.  On the plus side, we’ve also taken to paddleboarding like crazy, hanging out in the water with sand sharks, pods of dolphins, sting rays, and alligators.  Yes, we are in Gator country, folks. 

So, while the heat continues, and my tan gets better, my new creative crush for finding witty -isms has only grown.  As has my cooking repertoire. 

Years ago, when I was a pretty strict vegetarian, I learned how to cook using local and seasonal ingredients, matching my taste buds to that of the day’s farmers market.  Opposed to some classical points of view, my foundation in cooking was not based on veal stock and beef rafts, but on figuring out ways to bring out the genuine, complimentary flavors of foods without the natural flavor imparted by fat.  Jump forward a few years, more cooking techniques, a great Thanksgiving turkey, bacon broiling at my mom’s house, yada yada yada, and now I’m cooking a very flexitarian diet, full of grains, greens, with all the foundational vegetarian cooking I love, as well as using simple animal proteins.  And bacon.  Yes, bacon.  Mmm, bacon. 

Tonight’s dinner took the hog for the most flavorful bacon accompaniment.  Was bacon the main ingredient?  Hardly.  Did it overwhelm?  Not in the least.  Did it add a smoky goodness to my Harvest Summer Stuffed Tomatoes?  Absolutely. 

The weather has just started to cool down, enough that, when combined with the continual rise and fall of the start-to-football-season-on-the-tv hum in the background, it has hinted to fall at times.  So this dinner was perfect for our kind-of-cool Monday Night Football casual evening.  The applewood-smoked bacon added just enough fat, smokiness, and salt that rounded the veg-stuffed tomatoes so well, it would be a shooting match with a BLT.  As a two-pot meal consisting of a huge vegetable serving, and healthy grains, these stuffed tomatoes are sure to delight even the meatiest of meat-eaters.  I mean, the meal was slap my ass and call me Sally – good. 

(Ok, I may have stolen that last little –ism, but it totally applies). 

So make these as soon as you read this.  They are easy and so good.  Do it before the fresh, summer veg runs out.  Your health buds and taste buds will thank you.  Really.  I’m being as serious as pie. 

IMG_0507

Harvest Summer Stuffed Tomatoes
(serves 4)

  • 4 beefsteak tomatoes, tops cut off, and insides (ribs and pulp) removed (a serrated knife works best for this)
  • 1 ear corn (grilled preferably, but fine raw also)
  • 1 medium sized zucchini, diced
  • ½ small red onion, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 strips of bacon, sliced into lardon (1/2-inch width) pieces
  • 2 tbsp good quality mayo
  • ¼ tsp dried oregano
  • pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1 package frozen brown rice medley, or any sort of barley/rice grain mixture (found nowadays in most grocery stores)
  • 3 big sprigs of fresh dill, leaves finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • s&p

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a large sauté pan, cook the bacon.  When almost fully browned, add the onion and zucchini.  Let the veg soften, stirring occasionally, then add the corn, oregano, and red pepper flakes.  After the corn has warmed through, transfer mixture to a mixing bowl, and add the mayo.  Taste for seasoning (maybe pepper is needed, but the bacon and mayo are fairly salty). 

Put the tomatoes into a baking dish (I used a round cake plate), and spoon the bacon and veg mixture generously into the tomatoes.  Bake in the oven until the tomatoes just start to loose their sturdy, about 20 minutes. 

Meanwhile, heat/cook the rice mixture.  When done, add the dill, apple cider vinegar, and s&p. 

When the tomatoes are done, spoon a bit of the rice onto a plate, and nestle the tomato on top.  Pour a yummy, light, Tuesday-night wine, and serve warm (but also great as a cold salad the next day). 

Enjoy! 

%d bloggers like this: