Friday, February 27, 2009

Mexican Squash Casserole

Last weekend, a look down in our basement pantry told us that we still had a BOATLOAD of winter squash to eat before we start mowing down on delicacies like fresh spring asparagus. So, we decided we'd better get back on the squash bandwagon. Fortunately for us, squash is a pretty versatile veggie.

Unfortunately, after eating it as a side dish, throwing it into chili, making it the star of a Thai-style curry, and pureeing batches and batches of it for soup, we were pretty tapped out on the idea front. Fortunately, a handful of kitchen staples came to the rescue.

We happened to have a handful of kale, the end of a bag of frozen corn, a can of black beans, some onions, and a few stale tortilla chips lying around. Without thinking too hard about it, I decided we might be able to create a reasonably decent dinner.

I cubed up the squash, tossed it with olive oil and chili powder, and tossed it in the oven for about 25 minutes to roast. Meanwhile, I sauteed the kale with an onion and a few cloves of garlic. I added a bit of cumin, some red pepper flakes, and a teaspoon or two of Mexican oregano.

When the squash was finished roasting, we threw everything together with the frozen corn and the black beans. It made a lovely little melange.
A grating of cheese and a sprinkling of crunched tortilla chips, and we were ready to throw the impromptu casserole into the oven.
We each took a big scoop of the finished casserole -- which was just cheesy enough to attract Paul's attention, and colorful enough to make me want to take a series of photos. But it didn't just look great, it also smelled fantastic. Sweet and smoky, with a hint of toasted corn from the chips, we were pretty intrigued. I blobbed a bit of fresh avocado on mine and took a taste.
I have to be honest, I wasn't expecting much from this dish. I had little doubt it would be edible, but I had absolutely no idea it would become what Paul affectionately calls a "kickasserole". This was seriously good impromtu food -- pretty healthy, chock full of veg and fiber, and seriously delish. I probably don't need to tell you that we mowed quite happily that night.

And then, we mowed again -- eating the succulent leftovers the next morning. Prepared quite simply with an egg on top, some sour cream, and a liberal sprinkling of siracha... this casserole made some seriously good brunch food.

Who knew all that "leftover" squash could taste this good?

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Mardi Gras: Christmas Past Bread Pudding

When Mardi Gras is upon us, I usually reach for my trusty jambalaya recipe. After all, it's February and we can use some nice spicy fare to warm us up. But, this year, I decided to opt for something on the sweeter side of things.

I happened to have a loaf of homemade stollen in the freezer. It was a loaf that we didn't have time to eat around the holidays, so it sat around on the counter getting stale. Before we realized it, the bread was dry and relatively unpleasant. But, we don't like to waste food. So, we wrapped it tightly in aluminum foil and tossed it into the freezer. Yes, there was a good chance it would get lost in there and never been seen again; but, there was also a pretty good chance that I'd find a use for it later.

Looks like later came earlier than expected.

I took the bread and diced it up (frosting and all), and threw it in the biggest bowl I could find.
I was feeling like a little bit of extra effort might be nice, so I threw a few cups of milk together with a scraped vanilla bean, and let that steep for a few minutes over medium heat.
I also poured some warmed whiskey over a 1/2 cup or so of raisins -- to plump them up and make them into little boozy flavor vehicles.
I whipped up a few eggs with some sugar and put them into the bowl with the bread, stirring so that the bread was evenly coated. I tossed the raisens in as well, with the residual whisky for good measure. When the milk & vanilla was steeped, I poured that over the top of everything and let it sit to soak for a few minutes before I poured it all into a greased baking dish. At that point, it looked something like this.
I like making my bread pudding bain marie style -- so I plopped the baking dish into one of my deeper baking pans, and poured in a few cups of boiling water.
Then, I closed the door and let the pudding bake for about an hour or so until the pudding was set and the top was nice and browned.
If I'm honest, I'll admit that I look forward to bread pudding more for the bourbon sauce than for the pudding itself. But, this particular batch of pudding didn't need it; it was moist and tender, and the frosting from the stollen offered bursts of sweetness in many of the nooks and crannies. We opted instead to sprinkle the warm pudding with a bit of whiskey and call it good.
If you have time for a bit of dessert after your Fat Tuesday feasting, maybe think about whipping up a batch of bread pudding. Here's my usual recipe.

Bread Pudding

Happy Mardi Gras, everyone!

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Black Bean Burgers with ... harissa!

Harissa being the flavor of the moment over at our house, I've been stretching my usual repertoire to include more of this beloved condiment. We've been eating blobs with roasted veggies, smearing it on sammiches, eating it with eggs, and spreading it hither and yon.

Turns out we're not the only ones enjoying harissa. A quick blog search turned up a number of posts about this delightful chile-heavy condiment.
Being in the mood for sammiches, we decided to try our hand at black bean burgers with harissa posted by Becky over at Becky and the Beanstalk. And she gets a big shout out from the both of us.

These were some of the best veggie burgers we've ever tried. In addition to being tasty, they were quite attractive, held together very well (particularly as bean burgers go), and were a cinch to throw together.
We liked the idea of serving the burgers on whole grain buns with goat cheese and avocado, but we decided to kick things up a notch by mixing together a bit of leftover harissa with the goat cheese to make a spread. OH YUM... what a discovery. Can't wait to serve this delicious spread on crackers at our next get together.
The burgers were pleasantly spicy with good texture. They held up to the whole grain buns well, and a slice or two of avocado was the perfect condiment. Absolutely lovely (and healthy) when served with a side of Blasted Broccoli. This is a vegetarian burger that even a carnivore would love.

Next time, we'll have to try out the 5 minute buns...

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Stir Fry with Tofu, Sweet Potatoes, Red Cabbage, and Hoisin

We're getting to that dreaded point of winter. The point where I'm seriously stretching my poor interior brain parts to think of ways to survive on what's left of the winter vegetables.

I've already resigned myself to the fact that most of the available salad greens are coming from California. And there's little hope of finding a bright young sweet pepper that hasn't traveled all the way from Mexico just to hang with the (decidedly pastier) local mushrooms at our little Wisconsin food co-op.

I must admit that we didn't exactly stow away quite enough of the summer harvest to get us through the winter, so I've been anxiously perusing the grocery aisles to see what I can find that's... well... seasonal. Not a ton out there -- but sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised. One of the storage vegetables that we can seem to find from local sources well into February is cabbage. Thank goodness for the lowly petite au choux! I was even more thrilled when I picked up the latest issue of Bon Appetit magazine and found a recipe for a delightful stir fry inside. Not only did it use red cabbage, but it made use of another winter staple -- the sweet potato.
I wasn't convinced that I was in the mood for chicken, which was supposed to be part of the stir-fry, so I turned to a package of tofu from our local soy purveyor, the Simple Soyman. They make THE BEST nigari-style tofu I've ever had, and it's simply perfect when crisped up a bit and thrown into a stir fry. So, we went with that instead.

As I was glancing through our spice cupboard, I found a small jar of Szechuan peppercorns. They looked so lovely and peppery, I poured a few out and gave them a photo op.
Most recognized for the part it plays in Chinese five spice and Japanese seven spice powders, the Szechuan peppercorn is definitely worth seeking out. Really a seed from the prickley ash tree, this "peppercorn" offers both a unique flavor and aroma to any dish in which it is used. Not quite as pungent as black pepper, Szechuan pepper has a floral aroma and slight lemony overtones. Perfect for this dish, if I do say so myself.

We added a bit to the stir-fry to kick it up a notch, and I really liked the flavors it brought forward when paired with the sweetness of the potato. We threw everything on top of some soba noodles and called it dinner.

The whole affair turned out to be quite the lovely dish. The vegetables cooked quickly, which is a bonus on a weeknight. And the flavors warmed our winter bellies quite nicely while giving us a boatload of nutrients to boot.

I'd call that a bonus at this time of the year.

Original Recipe: Chicken Stiry Fry with Yams, Red Cabbage, and Hoisin (Bon Appetit, February 2009)

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Wishes and Cakes and Such

We will never win any awards for our cake decorating skill over here at BURP!... but we do luv us a creative outlet. So, sometimes we create delicious, buttery masterpieces just for fun.

This beauty was created four our newly-nine-year-old niece, Olivia.

Underneath all the glitz (and yummy chocolate glaze) is a chocolate chip pound cake filled with whipped chocolate ganache. And since we believe that even the decorations should be edible, those are made with dark chocolate.
Mmm. Probably a heart attack waiting to happen, but even the adults couldn't resist a nice big slice of this cake.
Most of the damage came from the Whimsical Bakehouse cookbook (Kaye/Liv Hansen). Not only are Kaye and her daughter, Liv, tremendously talented, but this book actually contains recipes that TASTE good.

Which brings me to a (deeply) personal rant about cake decorating (and food, in general, when it all comes down to it). I have the utmost respect for individuals who place emphasis on the presentation of food. However, when the food is ALL presentation and no flavor... I get irritated.

In the cake decorating world, I'd just like to ask: What's with the gorgeous cakes that LOOK fantastic, but that are made of completely nasty things? At the top of my list:
  1. Buttercream made without... er... BUTTER (The classic example of this horror is the frosting you'll typically find on a wedding cake -- made of sugar, shortening, and imitation vanilla. Real butter and real vanilla would turn a white cake into an OFF-white cake, so most people opt for appearance over flavor. YUK.)
  2. And don't get me started on how you don't need nasty hydrogenated oils to make a moist, flavorful cake...
  3. I am also NOT a fan of nasty, tasteless purchased fondant. Wilton, I'm talking to you. (Seriously, if you're using fondant, you've GOT to make your own... totally worth it... )
  4. Another waste is imitation butter flavor. Good for the heart, maybe, but completely wasteful in the flavor department (see #1; see, you're not fooling anyone... people CAN tell)
  5. Black and red frostings that taste horrific because they're comprised of mostly food coloring.

On the upside, if EVERY cake tasted good, I'd eat a heckofa lot more of it. And that, my friends, would not be pretty.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Orange Harissa Chicken

Now, I couldn't just go on and on about my love for that delectable condiment, harissa, without giving you something more to gnaw upon. Could I?

Of course not.

It took me years to stumble upon one of the best flavor pairings ever -- harissa and orange. But, once I discovered it, I couldn't get enough. The sweet acidity of orange juice pairs so incredibly with the sharp heat of the harissa... I can't think of a more pleasant way to give my tastebuds a bit of a kick in the pants.

The flavor combination would probably be great all on its own. But, it's even better used as a marinade for a roasted chicken. The concept is fairly simple -- though you'll want to think ahead with this recipe, since the chicken is best when it's allowed to marinate for about 24 hours.

If you can, start off by making a bit of your own harissa paste. I generally start with a liberal handful of the harissa spice blend from World Spice Merchants.
I grind the spices roughly -- which expedites the rehydration process significantly, and gives you a smoother product to work with. I like my harissa just a bit chunky. But, you can grind as finely as you like, depending on your own tastes.
Add a bit of water -- a few tablespoons at a time -- until the spices rehydrate and begin to form a paste. Then, add a couple of cloves of fresh garlic to the mix.
Add a bit of olive oil to the harissa paste -- both to give it a bit of sexy mouth-feel AND to offer the oils in the spices yet another vehicle by which they can transport their memorable flavor. Once you have the paste together, you can store it in a jar in the fridge, topped with a light film of olive oil. for... quite a long time. A month or more, based on my experience.
Now, all you need is a 3-4 pound roasting chicken to get started.

Begin by mixing the harissa paste with some orange juice, orange zest, apple cider vinegar, and cinnamon. The mixture will be soupy, but that's not a bad thing. You'll loosen the skin of the chicken and pour that marinade right down underneath. Also pour some in the cavity... and pour the remaining "sauce" over the top. Marinate overnight.

When you take the chicken out after marination, you'll want to cut up an orange to stuff into the cavity. This offers some VERY lovely aromatics, as well as ensuring that you'll have an extraordinarily tender bird.

Roast at 350º until the bird reaches an internal temperature of 170º when tested in the deepest part of the thigh.

To prevent the chicken from over-browning, you can actually take the time to baste your chicken... but for the lazy among us, leaving the bird without a bit of extra attention works just fine. You'll note that OUR chicken got a bit dark around the edges. But, don't be fooled. The crisp skin encloses a succulent interior -- redolant with the flavors of the orange and chile, and backed up by the sweet kick of the cinnamon.

If you haven't already planned your own Valentine's Day feast, allow me to recommend you try a bit of orange harissa chicken. If this doesn't perk you up, there's really no hope!

Orange Harissa Chicken

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Monday, February 9, 2009

Harissa, Mon Amour

One of the highlights of my college career was a trip to Tunisia that I made with a mentoring professor and a few other lucky students. Although I was already seriously interested in cooking, and a flat-out push-over for trying new ethnic cuisines, I credit this trip with giving me first-hand insight into the brilliance of culturally inspired fare.

The trip centered around the examination of Roman ruins on the North African country-side -- fascinating history lessons accompanied by long, hot bus rides, scrappy terrain, and sparse desert landscapes. We trekked through the ruins at Carthage, Dougga, and El Jem.
I had the opportunity to travel with a band of Berbers on camel-back. I took tea overlooking the sea at Sidi Bou Said.
I even mastered the art of bartering in the open air markets of Tunis, Sousse, and Hammamet. Despite all those adventures, the highlight of the trip was still, remarkably, culinary.

It would be irresponsible to go without mentioning the gargantuan prawns I ate for lunch at a small road-side restaurant off the coast of the Mediterranean. And a shame to leave out the experience of eating the freshest (and most delicious) local figs one evening for dessert. And certainly the egg and shrimp brik (Tunisian filled pastry, sometimes known as a burek) I ate during a dinner at my hotel is worth mentioning. But, it was something much more simple... a condiment... that captured my heart.

We flew into Tunis early in the day. After an exhausting (and loud) bus ride to our hotel, we were not only extraordinarily jet-lagged, but also particularly famished. So, most of us headed down to the hotel's restaurant for a bite to eat. The restaurant offered an extensive buffet, which included interesting variations on German fare (meant to accommodate the German tourists) and a variety of Tunisian stews. Since the spread seemed a bit overwhelming for the uninitiated, a group of us opted for some small plates -- selecting our food from a smaller "antipasti" bar of sorts, featuring a wide variety of olives, pickles, condiments, and freshly baked bread. Among the offerings was a deep red, oily-looking paste that we were told we could eat with stew or spread on sliced bread.

One bite of the spicy spread, and I was hooked. Harissa became my condiment of choice -- and the flavor accompanied me, without exception, for the remainder of my trip.

Harissa, as I've known it, isn't much more than a paste made of dried, smoked chiles, a bit of garlic, and some olive oil. But, for those who have sampled it, it's a pleasure that goes well beyond the sum of its humble parts. Smoky and sharp with a definite kick, harissa livens up just about anything.

The sauce is excellent when served simply -- as I first encountered it -- with a loaf of crusty French bread. However, it's extremely versatile and makes a great accompaniment for grilled meats, a superb addition to pasta and pasta sauces. It's also excruciatingly good spread on a sandwich.

World Spice Merchants in Seattle makes up a very nice harissa blend. Not quite as I remembered, but the best I've found so far.
If you haven't had enough after all of MY ramblings, check out Amy Scattergood's flattering ode to the North African condiment, which was published in the LA Times in 2007.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Spiced Cranberry Oatmeal with Cocoa Nibs

There's nothing better on a cold winter morning than a hearty bowl of steaming hot oatmeal to fill up your empty belly. But, really. Plain old oatmeal just gets boring after a while. So, we like to mix it up a bit.

Usually, it's just a matter of adding a bit of dried fruit and maybe a pinch of cinnamon. But, this time, we pulled out the big guns.

Remember the mornings when your mom mixed a little special something into your morning bowl of hot cereal? In my case, the favorite was Malt-O-Meal with a dash of cocoa powder... mmm, that chocolate goodness. Perfect way to fool me into thinking she was feeding me dessert for breakfast.

Well, this oatmeal is a little bit like that. We added a stick of cinnamon, a few cardamom pods, some dried cranberries, and a nice handful of cocoa nibs.

Yeah -- cocoa nibs. One of my favorite new toys.
They're only slightly less addictive than crack. They up the chocolate quotient in chocolate chip cookies... and provide a pleasant crunch in that unsuspecting handful of healthy homemade granola. And, in this case, they ramp oatmeal way up to VIC status (that's Very Important Cereal, if you must know).
Creamy & spicy...
Tart, yet sweet...
With a hint of chocolate.

This oatmeal is definitely the adult version of the classic. I recommend giving it a try.

Spiced Cranberry Oatmeal with Cocoa Nibs

Oh -- and if you're intrigued, but you can't seem to find cocoa nibs in your area, they're available for ordering online through one of my favorite sources for high quality spices, The Spice House. And, if you happen to be into trivia, Patty Erd, one of the co-owners of the Spice House, just so happens to be the daughter of spice Mogul, Mr. Penzey himself, who sold the family business to her before he retired. So, she knows a little bit about the spice business.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Collard-cannon with ale-braised onions & raw milk cheddar

Who can resist a nice, steaming bowl of mashed potatoes?
Alright, maybe SOME people can. But, I am afraid that I am not one of them.

When we're in the mood for comfort food, not much compares to a bowl of sultry, creamy smashed taters. But, mashed potatoes alone don't exactly comprise a very healthy meal. So, we've taken to ramping them up a bit by adding some greens to the mix.

In the mood for a mid-week casserole, we decided to go with variation on the Irish/Welsh dish, colcannon, usually comprised of potatoes that are mashed with cabbage or kale, and mixed with any variation of leeks, butter, cream, chives, garlic, and other variables.

We happened to have a healthy handful of collard greens on hand, so we started there. We removed the tough portion of the collard stems, and chopped the leaves into manageable, bite-sized strips. Then we threw them into the steamer for a few minutes until they were nice and tender.

We chopped up a few potatoes, leaving the skins intact, and put them to the boil in some salted water.
While the potatoes and kale were cooking, we caramelized some onions in a nice large pan. When they were nicely browned, we deglazed the pan with a cup or so of brown ale -- gathering up all those delicious browned bits that clung to the pan and granting the onions a bit of that delicious beer-y flavor.When the potatoes were soft, we mashed them up with a glob of sour cream (you can definitely use a non-fat variety here to save on calories... you will never notice the sacrifice in the finished dish). And we folded in those beautiful brown onions.
Of course, we also happened to have a nice block of Castle Rock organic raw milk cheddar in the fridge. The raw milk variety has an unmistakeably deeper cheddar flavor than the pasteurized varieties -- and a nice, "cheesy" edge that I can't quite describe, except to say that it's absolutely delicious.

Being curious about the regulations surrounding raw milk cheese, I glanced at the FDA guidelines and discovered that the current FDA law stipulates that any cheese made from raw milk must be aged for at least 60 days before it can be sold to consumers. The 60-day aging reduces the chances of contamination by bacteria, like Listeria (which can present a danger to immuno-depressed individuals and pregnant women). Raw milk cheesemakers are obsessive about the health of their animals and the care they take with their equipment, procedures, and products -- so raw milk cheeses present very little danger to the consuming public.

The Castle Rock cheese is a bit on the crumbly side, as you can see from the photo. But, it was just perfect for grating into this dish. As you can see, Peef couldn't wait to get his hands on some of this cheesy goodness, so I set him to work grating it!
We greased a large, shallow baking dish and spread about half of the mashed potato mixture on the bottom of it.
We sprinkled the potatoes with a bit of the grated cheddar...
... and then piled on the steamed collard greens. Just look at that fantastic color.
Once the collards were evenly distributed, we added the remaining mashed potatoes to the top, spreading them to cover.
We topped the casserole with a final grating of cheese... and then slipped it into a 375º oven for about 30 minutes.
After that period of time, the casserole was heated through nicely, and the cheese was melty. But, I was craving a bit more color. So, I put the casserole under the broiler for a few minutes. The final product was... er... very tempting.
Scooping into the "collard-cannon," as Peef affectionately named the dish, we discovered heaven. Delicious layers of potatoes, onions, tangy cheese, and collard greens...
Vegetarians can enjoy this as a delightful main course. Carnivores can add a side of Irish sausage, a breast of chicken, or even a slice of roasted (or grilled meat). Whichever way you choose to enjoy, collard-cannon is a winter treat that shouldn't be missed!
And there's more! We're entering this lovely dish into the February Potato Ho Down. Cuz we're potato hos and that's the way we roll.
You can check out the roundup of potato recipes on Noble Pig beginning Wednesday, February 18, 2009.

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