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Thursday, October 10, 2019

Blue cheese—love it or hate it?




Some people love it, others detest it. There’s no in-between with this strong-flavored cheese. But blue cheese is a generic term for any cheese with blue veins in it. These veins are caused by the mold or fungus, penicillium--sometimes infused into the cheese, other times from the soil in the area where the cheese is produced. The cheese is often said to be an anti-inflammatory.

This generic terms encompasses several kinds of cheeses, and they come from several countries. Some of the most common you may have heard of are Gorgonzola, Stilton, and Roquefort. Gorgonzola is from northern Italy and is made from unskimmed cow’s milk—it tends to be buttery, salty, and can be crumbly or firm. Some people believe that it is milder than, say, Roquefort. I know a man who detests blue cheese but will eat Gorgonzola—go figure!

Stilton is the English contribution to the blue cheese world. Only cheese made in three counties in England can be labeled Stilton—Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire. It typically has a strong taste and is crumbly. It is made by piercing holes in the rind of a cylinder of cheese and allowing the air in.

Roquefort, made from sheep’s milk, is France’s contribution to the label. True Roquefort must be aged in the caves of the Roquefort area of France, where there is penicillium in the soil. It is tangy, crumbly, and slightly moist.

In our supermarkets, particularly upscale, we see a dizzying variety of blue cheese, many domestic. One of my favorites is Maytag—yes, the people who make washing machines. Another popular one is Point Reyes. But you simply must experiment until you find the one whose taste most pleases you. You usually can buy a block of cheese or crumbles—I much prefer the block, which will keep longer. I don’t know this, but I suspect crumbles are what’s left from cutting blocks or wedges out of the original wheel. With crumbles, you are usually offered only a generic blue cheese.

There are countless ways to use blue cheese:

Crumbled in a salad

Put a dab of honey on an apple or pear slice topped by a small piece of blue cheese

Melt a small chunk top of a steak or lamb chop us before serving

Stir a modest amount into your next chicken salad

Make a post-Thanksgiving sandwich of turkey, lettuce, mayo, and blue cheese

Use as the base for a good stuffing for a chicken breast or hamburger.

Here’s a simple dressing that’s great for a wedge salad or a tossed salad—or used as a dip.

Creamy blue cheese salad dressing

2 Tbsp. each mayonnaise, sour cream, and buttermilk

            Note: you can substitute plain Greek yogurt for sour cream

1 tsp. lemon juice (or lime juice)

¼ tsp. pepper

¼ tsp. Kosher salt

1 anchovy filet, mashed (optional)

Blue cheese – crumbled, 2-3 Tbsp. to taste

1 finely chopped scallion

Diced tomato (for garnish)

Crumbled bacon (for garnish)

Mix mayonnaise, sour cream, buttermilk, lemon juice, anchovy, salt and pepper adding cheese last. If dressing is too thick, sparingly add more buttermilk. For wedge salad, reserve the green onion. Top a lettuce wedge—or layers of lettuce—with the dressing and garnish with crumbled bacon, diced tomato, and green onion

Creamy blue cheese dip

To use the recipe above as a dip, simply add more buttermilk to reach the consistency you want. You may not need any additional thinning. Don’t let it get too runny, so that it drips off the chip. Mash the blue cheese crumbles with a fork so that they blend into the dip, rather than remaining unmanageable chunks.

Top with green onion which serves as garnish and adds a nice, crisp zing but is still easy to manage with a potato chip. Serve with crudities or good potato chips—I really like Trader Joe’s potato chips.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Quick pastas for those last-minute suppers




The mail carrier brought me a bountiful gift today: the latest copies of Southern Living and Bon Appetit. Couple those with the Food & Wine already on my desk, and it’s a recipe-reading day for me. Once upon a time, I had a large collection of cookbooks, but many drowned when a deluge broke through the flat roof over one part of the house, and most of the rest were surrendered to the great downsizing. So now I don’t cook so much by the book, but by pages I’ve torn out of various magazines. Problem: my collection of recipes is once again headed toward appalling.

But here are two quick and good pasta ideas that you can make at the last minute. We all have those days—it’s five o’clock, the kids are hungry, and you haven’t started dinner yet. Or you don’t get home from work until 5:30 and you didn’t defrost anything before you went to work. These come right out of your pantry.

Bonus: you shouldn’t end up with a kitchen full of dirty dishes with these dinners.


Truffle linguine


            This always makes me think it’s an easier version of cacio e pepe, which is typically hard to master—you have to get the spin of the wrist just right. I find this easier.

1 lb. linguine – (reserve the pasta water)

½ cup good butter, divided use (I use Kerry Gold for everything these days)

2 oz. good, fresh grated parmesan or pecorino (I like the slightly sharper flavor of pecorino)

1 oz. truffle oil—(Oh, go ahead, splurge a little and keep it on hand)

Melt butter in skillet and set aside, dividing into two portions.

Cook linguine; use tongs to transfer it from saucepan to skillet with half the butter in it. Stir to coat. Add 1 cup pasta water, a bit at a time, and stir until water reduces a bit and forms a creamy sauce (you may not want all the water). Add the rest of the butter and stir.

If you want to approximate cacio e pepe, sprinkle generously with fresh ground black pepper.

Remove from heat and divide into four bowls. Sprinkle generously with cheese and drizzle with truffle oil.


Fast tomato sauce with anchovies


2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 tsp. minced garlic

4-6 anchovy filets with a bit of their oil

1 28 oz. can tomatoes, drained of juice and crushed (I prefer San Marzano)

Salt and pepper to taste

Cooked long pasta

Grated pecorino or Romano cheese

            Heat oil to medium in saucepan and add garlic and anchovies, stirring until anchovies break up. Add tomatoes.

            Bring to a boil and cook about 15 minutes. Sauce should thicken as it cooks—serve with linguine and top with pecorino or Romano cheese.

Buon appetito!


Thursday, September 26, 2019

Football season




Time to beef up your repertoire of hearty dips and snack food for when folks gather to cheer on their favorite teams. Whether you’re hosting or asked to bring something to someone else’s house or tailgate party, here are some dips that should please those hearty appetites.

Creamy Jalapeno/cilantro dip

            This is a variation of the dip/salad dressing served at Chuy’s restaurants.

¾ cup sour cream

¾ cup mayonnaise

1 pkg. dry ranch dressing mix

¼ tsp. garlic salt

½ cup or more tightly packed cilantro

Pickled jalapenos plus juice— ¾ cup is recommended, more if you like it hot; I personally cut way back and sometimes just use the juice and not the peppers.

½ cup buttermilk (or as desired)

2 tomatillos

2 tsp. fresh lime juice

Mix sour cream, mayonnaise, ranch dip, and garlic salt.

In food processor, puree cilantro, jalapenos, tomatillos, cilantro—use enough jalapeno juice to make it blend smoothly.

Add puree to mayonnaise mixture. Stir in buttermilk a bit at a time to get the consistency you want—not too thin for a dip so that it won’t drip all over. Add lime juice.

Serve chilled with corn chips, good heavy potato chips, or fresh vegetables. Will keep several days in refrigerator.

Guacamole with feta

3 avocados

1 cup diced tomatoes

1 medium red onion, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

2-3 Tbsp. fresh lime juice

2 oz. crumbled feta cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

Mash avocados, add remaining ingredients except cheese, mixing well. Finally add feta, saving some to sprinkle on top for eye appeal.

Colin’s queso

This is a favorite of my oldest son, Colin. Serve it warm with chips to dip or put chips in bowl and spoon queso over them—then serve with spoon.

1 lb. hamburger

1 lb. sausage (use hot, medium, or mild, according to your taste)

1 lb. Velveeta

1 can mushroom soup

1 jar Pace picante sauce  (again, use hot, medium, or mild, according to your taste)



Brown hamburger and sausage, breaking up the chunks of meat until it is all crumbly. Drain and put in the crockpot. Add Velveeta, cut in chunks, and melt. Add  mushroom soup and picante sauce (really works best if you use Pace).



May the best team win!




Thursday, September 19, 2019

Goulash—or slumgullion




Goulash! Even the very name sounds like stew or mish-mash of some sort. I’m sure I’ve eaten it, but I don’t remember when. I do remember one attempt to cook it that I thought was unsuccessful. But recently I came across a mention that rekindled my interest, and I set out to find a suitable recipe. Of course, I fiddled with the recipe I did find, but it turned out to be a keeper. With Fall coming on, it’s a good dish to keep in mind for chilly evenings.

Goulash is traditionally thought of as a Hungarian dish characterized by the use of a lot of paprika and caraway seeds—and that sort of sums it up. I might say it’s stroganoff on paprika. It is, however, eaten in many Central European countries, often with a distinguishing spice or addition. In the American South or Midwest it is sometimes called slumgullion and bears scant resemblance to the Hungarian version. Slumgullion often has pasta, tomato (sauce, paste, or canned), onions, garlic, and ground beef. I think what I did is sort of a mix of Hungarian and American traditions.

The basic recipe I ultimately settled on comes from the New York Times and calls for a pound of beef stew meat. I have a problem with stew meat—when I ask the butcher to cut it into one-inch pieces, I get these huge, untrimmed hunks with lots of fat, and I spend too long trimming the meat. Besides I started this late in the day and didn’t have time for stew meat to stew and get tender. So I used hamburger.


Goulash

2 Tbsp. butter

1 medium onion, chopped fine (you can slice onion, but I dice out of kindness to some in the family who really don’t like onion)

2 Tbsp. good, sweet Hungarian paprika (I got it from the spice bins at Central Market—so much fresher and cheaper)

1 tsp. caraway seeds (I omitted because I don’t particularly like them and didn’t miss them in the finished dish, but they are traditional)

1 lb. ground beef

½ cup flour

2 c. beef broth (or as needed)

1-1/2 tsp. salt

½ tsp. pepper

1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

Wide egg noodles

Sour cream

Melt the butter and sauté the onions until soft and translucent. Add paprika and caraway and cook briefly. Add ground hamburger and sauté until there is no pink. Sprinkle with flour and stir to incorporate thoroughly.

Add the beef broth a bit at a time, cooking after each addition. Check consistency as you add. I used about 1-3/4 cups; the full two cups would have made it to runny.

Just before serving, stir in salt, pepper and lemon juice.

Serve over wide egg noodles and top each serving with a good-sized dollop of sour cream.

This is one of those dishes that tastes better the next day, if you have time to plan—and cook—ahead.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Baking Brownies—or a near kitchen misadventure.




I blogged a bit about this a few days ago, but in case you missed it, here’s the backstory to this recipe. My neighbor and good friend Mary Dulle posts on the Facebook NYTimes Community Cookbook page, as do I, and the other day she posted that she had made the brownies she remembered from her childhood, and they were dry. She needed help but confessed she had substituted whole wheat flour for white and added flaxseed. No brainer! No wonder they weren’t right. Online I advised her to just go back to the original recipe. Over wine a couple of nights later, she was resistant (putting it mildly) to that idea. Okay, I could go with the flour change but not the flaxseed. I decided there was nothing for it, but I would have to make the original recipe.

My first hurdle was that Central Market online listed pages of chocolate but no semi-sweet chocolate bits. A phone call solved that—the online shopper would be glad to add them. So instead of the Nestle’s, which the recipe called for, I went all gourmet with Ghirardelli bits. They were only available in a 12 oz. package, but I only needed 6 oz. So now I have 6 oz.in my pantry drawer (yes, my pantry is in a deep drawer).

Please realize that I don’t bake much in my tiny kitchen. I could bake a pie in my toaster oven--a friend does it all the time—but I was never good at pies. And lots of baking dishes don’t fit in the toaster oven. Limited storage means I only keep dishes and pans that I use regularly. So when it came to brownies, I didn’t have a pan. Jordan was out of town, so I asked Christian for a square, 8-inch pan. I was sure there were several in their kitchen, because I’d left them there, including the one Colin, as a toddler, poked holes in (it would still hold a thick brownie batter).

He dutifully brought one to me, but an instinct I should have listened to told me it was a 9-inch. But I proceeded. Still suspicious, I vowed to take it out of the oven early, but twenty minutes goes by quickly. Long story short, I overbaked the batter and ended up with cake, not brownies. Good flavor but a dry texture. Nice if you wash it down with a bit of wine, but not the brownie I had dreamed of.

When I got the ingredients all mixed, when I realized I don’t keep baking powder either. I called Christian again, sure that he would beg me not to cook because it’s too much work for him. But he sent Jacob out—with baking soda, which I had and did not want. Jacob trudged back, got the powder from his dad, and handed it to me without a word.

So get out your eight-inch pan (and a ruler if you’re not sure). And put away your whole wheat flour and flaxseed! This is the way you remember baking brownies when you were a kid.

Mary’s Brownies

Melt: 6 oz. chocolate bits and 1/3 c. butter. Let cool a bit, so you don’t cook the eggs in the next step.

Beat until pale lemon in color: two eggs and 1/3 c. sugar

Separately mix: 1/2 c. flour, 1 tsp. baking powder, and 1/3 tsp. salt.

Combine chocolate and egg mixtures; slowly stir in flour mix. stir in 1 tsp. vanilla extract

Pour into greased 8-inch pan. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes (or a minute or two less, never longer).

There’s a lesson here of course and one we tend to overlook: the size of the pan does matter. Now all I need is an 8-inch pan—I’ve still got that other 6 oz. of chocolate bits!

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Kitchen Oops! And a keeper chicken recipe




Kitchen fails! We all have them, and I’ve had a couple of doozies lately. I tried a New York Times (sorry, Sam Sifton) recipe for zucchini with garlicky bread crumbs, following it as best I could while reducing it to one zucchini instead of two. The recipe didn’t say to scrape out the seeds—or I overlooked that—and what I got was too much bland zucchini. I usually love it, but this was a mouthful, and the bread crumbs didn’t cut it. I discarded the other half, regretting the waste.

I’ve had a recipe for some time for salmon with a soy/molasses glaze—looked and sounded wonderful, so I tried it. For some unfathomable reason, I followed the directions to the letter—and grossly overcooked the fish, which was dry and without flavor. Couldn’t even taste that glaze. This time I at least made lemonade out of lemons—I cooked some spinach fettucine and let it sit in hot water. Sautéed garlic and a bit of onion in half butter, half olive oil. Added about a half cup of chicken broth and a bunch of frozen green peas and let it cook until the peas were defrosted. Stirred in the salmon and gave it all a good squeeze of lemon. By then, the broth had reduced nicely. Using tongs, I fished the pasta out of the water and added it to the salmon—it’s my new pasta technique since with the hot plate I can’t cook two things at once or I’ll trip a circuit breaker (I still call it blowing a fuse).

I stirred the salmon and pasta mix over medium heat until it was warm through and then added a generous dollop—maybe more—of sour cream. Really good—got a meal and a half out of that leftover and prided myself on having saved the salmon to some extent. I may be off salmon for a while though.

Fortunately my failures have been balanced by at least one outstanding success. My family loved the green chili chicken bake I did the other night. I don’t know where I got the recipe, but I doctored it because I have an intense dislike for dry chicken. This project required I borrow a large baking dish, that wouldn’t fit in my toaster oven, from Jordan and then send the dish into the house to be baked—one of the advantages of a tiny kitchen attached to a house with a full kitchen. But I forgot to “borrow” my metal meat tenderizer, which they have in their kitchen—Christian is loving pounding out chicken. I tried tenderizing with the edge of a small plate—minimal success, and I resigned myself to thick chicken pieces but with lots of sauce.

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 8  oz. package of cream cheese, softened

½ tsp. garlic salt

¼ tsp. cumin

¼ tsp. fine ground black pepper

1 4 oz. can green chilies

1 can cream of chicken soup, undiluted

1 cup Monterrey Jack cheese, grated

Pound the chicken flat and lay pieces in a greased 9x13 baking dish. Combine next four ingredients thoroughly; then stir in the chilies. Make sure it is well blended. Add chicken soup—you could use cream of mushroom if you prefer or you might want to dilute just a bit with broth. The way I did it made a thick sauce—delicious but pretty rich. Spread the mixture evenly over the chicken and bake 30 minutes at 350. Top with Jack cheese and bake another ten minutes, or until cheese is melted and begins to brown.

Serve with lime wedges—the juice cuts the richness a bit. We accompanied the dish with wild rice, but you could use noodles or, to be authentic, beans. This is a keeper recipe, according to my family.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Fried mush, johnny cakes, and polenta




I grew up in Chicago. I stress that because I used to wonder in retrospect how my mom, from a German family in a small, central-Illinois city, came to make mush, which I think of as southern. But she did. I don’t remember the process, but I remember the result: slices of mush, probably fried in margarine (war time, you know), and served with maple syrup. Mush is simply cooked cornmeal, either white or yellow, allowed to sit, usually in a loaf pan, until it is firm. It turns out it is common on the eastern seaboard and in the Southeast. Even the Amish eat it.

Lately I’ve been fixing fried mush occasionally for my breakfast. I fry it in butter, never margarine, until it is crispy on the outside and soft inside. With pure maple syrup, it’s a real treat. I mentioned it to a friend who came by one morning, and he made a face. But when he talked, he said, “We call that a johnny cake.” Also known as hoecake in the South, johnny cake is often more a fried gruel than the solidified mush. Today it is common in New England, and some say it originated in Rhode Island. Truth is, it probably came from South Carolina.

And all this use of ground corn traces back to the indigenous people of this land.

But take a great jump across the pond to Italy, where they have the same dish and call it polenta. I was well grown before I knew a thing about polenta. In fact, I discovered it when I wanted to make a casserole that was sort of  international in flavor—a Mexican-style meat and bean sauce between layers of polenta instead of tortillas. I found I could buy ready-made polenta in the store, shaped like fat round sausages, and slice it. I’ve also cooked it in a cake pan, sometimes adding whole kernel corn, and sliced it into wedges. Wonder where that recipe is that told me how to make a mushroom ragout to put on it.

Recently I tried making soft polenta and was really pleased with the result. Italians sometimes substitute soft polenta for pasta, and I tried a new recipe for roasted meatballs (I get so frustrated trying to get an even crust on them when frying) in marinara sauce with soft polenta on the side. To make it even easier, the recipe called for ready-made “good quality” marinara and specified Rao brand, which I found in the store.

So here’s the recipe for soft polenta. Be forewarned: it takes a lot of time and a lot of stirring. But it’s even good, served warm and alone, for breakfast.


Soft Polenta

Ingredients

4 cups chicken stock, preferably low sodium

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup yellow corneal

1 tsp. kosher salt

½ tsp. black pepper

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan

½ cup crème fraiche, or substitute a bit less sour cream

2 Tbsp. butter

            Pour broth into a deep pot, because it will splash vigorously as it cooks. In fact, I also recommend wearing hot pad mitts while stirring. Add garlic and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to medium, and slowly and cautiously, stir in the cornmeal, a bit at a time. Add salt and pepper. This is when you have to stir and stir to prevent the mixture from clumping and/or scorching. Stir from the bottom of the pan, where it’s likely to form a congealed layer. It’s cooked when the mixture thickens, but this can take 10-15 minutes. You can step away from stirring periodically for a few seconds—to rest your stirring arm, if nothing else—but don’t turn your back on it for long.

I also found that vigorous boiling and spitting a hazard, so I turned the heat to low for brief spells and then back up again.

When it is sufficiently thick, take if off the burner and stir in the cheese, crème fraiche, and butter, and stir in thoroughly.

Serve hot. If serving with marinara, let the two sauces overlap in the middle of the plate.