Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Assorted Holiday Stuff: Cookbooks for Grad Students / Dreaming of a 75 Degree Christmas

If you've got a special grad student in your life, chances are he or she is probably perpetually near-broke. One of the reasons I started this blog was to showcase how to eat well and economically from my own community, and I didn't get there by dining nightly at my favorite local restaurants (much as I would have liked to). I owe a lot to these cookbooks, so I thought I'd pass on my recommendations in case you still need a gift for your own grad student.

Top Picks:

The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. This cookbook has been a lifesaver. Waters starts with the basic building blocks of a flavorful meal (how to pan-fry a pork chop, how to build a delicious stock, how to properly season vegetables) and offers several variations on most dishes. You've probably seen these kinds of recipes before, but Waters shows how each step in the process, each seasoning and each stirring, culminates in something, well, simple, but also magical. It's pretty easy to mix and match recipes because Waters starts with whole foods, so everything goes with everything else. My kitchen is pretty pared down, and I hate waste. I don't have a lot of extra condiments or spices that I'd only use in one dish. What I like most about this book is that the majority of the recipes call use the same basic oils and herbs, so I'm not spending precious time tracking down ingredients or having to store them afterward. Hands down, this is my number-one-most-used cookbook.

What I've Made: Check out the Caramelized Onion and Sausage Quiche (nature's most perfect food), Swiss Chard Frittata, or the Onion and Dried Tomato Tart.

Local Flavors by Deborah Madison. This cookbook is a bit more aspirational than Waters'. It's built around seasons and food categories (think greens, eggs & cheese, nightshades) rather than single whole foods. It's a great book for thinking about how what "grows together goes together" and for getting inspired to cook the things you find at the market that you've never dealt with before. Think sorrel, wild mushrooms, or crazy-hot peppers. The cookbook incorporates Madison's travels to various farmers' markets around the country, so some of the ingredients you might not be able to find in Memphis. I've had success adapting her recipes, though. Also, while I do not have Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, I have used it while house-sitting for friends and find it truly easy to cook from. Wish list!

What I've Made: Adaptations include Corn Fritters with Feta and Bok Choy (subbed for arugula and cheddar) and Strawberry Cream Tart (instead of raspberries). Straight-up deliciousness includes Eggplant Gratin.

Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann. Yeah, it's kind of a corny name, but if there is one absolute essential item for a grad student kitchen (beyond a sharp knife and a wooden spoon), it's a Crock-Pot. Your grad student is going to have days when she is buried under a pile of eighteenth-century manuscripts or page-long string citations or is at the theater until all hours of the night, and it will be a godsend to come home to a ready-made dinner. This cookbook covers it all, from breakfast to soups to big chunks of animal protein to dessert.

Honorable Mentions:

The Produce Bible by Leanne Kitchen. Jessica's mom got me this as a birthday present and I need to cook from it more often. It's more educational than cookbook-ey, but it's got some great recipes I've been eyeballing. I made a ridiculously tasty Carrot and Winter Squash Risotto from here not long ago.

This Organic Life by Joan Dye Gussow and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. These two go together because they are both part-memoir, part-gardening how-to manual, part-meditation on industrial agriculture, part-cookbook. Gussow's narrative interweaves with her renovation of an old house and her husband's death, while Kingsolver details her family's year in eating only from their own land, turkey slaughters and all. They're both great reads with innovative recipes. In particular, I like Gussow's Eggplant Bhurta and have made Kingsolver's Sweet Potato Salad and variations thereon more times than I can count.

The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones. Though Jones writes as someone who's seen her household empty out, a grad student would probably still appreciate this cookbook for its respectful treatment of solitary cooking. When it is time to cook something nice for yourself? All the time. Life's too short to eat crap. Her Potato Dish for Julia (as in Child) is simple and amazing.

The green cookbook in the middle, Treasured Recipes from Near and Far, is one of our Mennonite cookbooks. Most of the contributors were farm women of a certain age, so there are all kinds of gems that include Coca-Cola products, Karo syrup, and crushed Cornflakes. The only recipe worth mentioning, however, is my grandmother's, which gets its own photo:

In other news, I'm home in Florida for the holidays and am happily running to and fro in a tank top, short-shorts, and flip-flops. Lord knows I love Memphis, but I was born here. Today I drank coffee and watched these guys on the homestead:

Also, 'tis the season: beers my mother got at a company gift swap and doesn't want.

From left, a Southern Tier Old Man Winter, a Smuttynose Winter Ale, a Heavy Seas Winter Storm Category 5 Ale, a Flying Fish Grand Cru Winter Reserve, and Lost Coast Winterbraun. I haven't tried any of these, so I'm pretty excited. Has anyone had one of these beers?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Eggnog, Closings & Openings, and Attention Last-Minute Shoppers

I look forward to a few things every December: exams being over, smugly packing my suitcase full of short-shorts and swim suits for my vaycay home in Florida (although I don't know if that will happen this year... ugh), and eggnog. It's really easy to make for parties because it only has 6 ingredients.

Anyway, yeah, it's got raw eggs in it, but so does that stuff you buy at the store. I always use locally-sourced eggs from farmers I know and trust. Donnell Century Farms has been my go-to place lately, but great eggs can also be had from Flora Farms, West Wind Farms, Bonnie Blue Farms, Newman Farms... there are probably more. It seemed like eggs at the market was the biggest thing in 2009. I started seeing a lot more raw milk in 2010. Will 2011 bring an abundance of asparagus? Crossing fingers and knocking wood.

Homemade Eggnog
From the Bartender's Black Book

Separate 6 eggs. Beat the yolks with 1 cup sugar until thick. Then blend in 1 cup dark rum, 1 cup brandy, 1 cup cream, and 3 cups milk. Chill. Before taking to your final destination, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form, then fold into the nog. Definitely top with nutmeg.

In Cooper-Young neighborhood news, Restaurant Grace is closing. Chef Ben Vaughn will focus more on expanding his Au Fond farmtable concept. I'm sorry to see Grace go; I had a wonderful, low-key, elegant birthday there in 2009. But I'm glad to see that Au Fond will expand into the space and give Vaughn more room for the "market" concept of Au Fond that has fallen by the wayside lately. The Reef, which just opened this year in the old Blue Fish space, will also close. An Italian restaurant is set to open in the old Dish space, though. I think the key to succeeding in this little crossroads is to focus on more casual, moderately-priced things. Preferably things you can drink. On a patio. Sweet Grass and the Beauty Shop are holding the market for fancier places, which, I think, may have contributed to Grace's closing. But I never see the Deli, Ole, or Celtic dead. This new place should take note.

Finally, I stopped by the Trolley Stop Market on Madison yesterday for some local honey (itching to make another Honey-Thyme Apple Pie, for real). While the restaurant was in the late-afternoon quiet, the shelves were stocked with great last-minute holiday gifts: pretty items like goat milk soap, delicate robins-egg mugs from Brigman Pottery, and lovingly handcrafted bacon from West Wind Farms. I would be delighted to have any of those things show up under my potted Christmas palm (just kidding guys; just because I'm from Florida doesn't mean we decorate palm trees... my family has a long history of decorating potted magnolias). The TSM is run by Jill and Keith Forrester, who own Whitton Farms. Between their CSA, several farmers' markets, and the TSM, they seem to have been in a thousand places at once these past 6 months. And yet they are never too busy to talk and are some of the nicest people I know. Things must really be going their way -- their blog says they'll be opening a new restaurant in 2011. Keith and Jill, we are so lucky to have you in our community.

One more: the SO and I are headed to St. Louis this weekend for a little winter getaway. In between editing my law review note (did you think I was just baking and blogging this week?), I've been checking out Chowhound for restaurant recs, but do readers have any suggestions? We'd like to find a pub with solid food and lots of local brews on draft, preferably in the Loop or the Central West End. We're also open to a fancier place for dinner one night.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Beer in the Kitchen: Shiitake Mushroom Ragout & Goat Cheese Polenta

Behold, the ragout! It smelled so very good while cooking. I will admit to a kitchen fail though: I thought I would only make a half-recipe, so started prepping half-ingredients, including half the garlic. Then I changed my mind and made the full recipe (which I'm glad I did, as much leftoverage ensued), but neglected to up the garlic. And it really needed some more garlic (what doesn't?). So, 4 cloves of garlic, ya'll. At least.

Red wine would have given this a different taste, too.

Shiitake Mushroom Ragout & Goat Cheese Polenta
Loosely cobbled together from recipes here and here

For the ragout:
A mess of shiitake mushrooms. I'm sorry I can't be more specific than that. Mine came from Whitton Farms and filled up a large berry basket. The recipes all say 2 lbs of mushrooms, but I'm kitchen-scale-less and didn't weigh them. So, I recommend the amount of mushrooms that pleases you. Clean, de-stem, and slice them.
Olive oil, salt, and pepper
4 or more (!) cloves of garlic, smashed to a paste with salt (my own garlic!)
1 large onion, cut into thin strips
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried sage
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons tomato paste (I cooked down some edible garden tomatoes I had in the freezer with a little olive oil to make a paste-like consistency)
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 cup beef broth
1 cup dark ale or red wine (I used New Belgium's 1554)

For the polenta:
1 cup Delta Grind polenta
4 cups water
4 tablespoons butter
a few ounces of Bonnie Blue Farms chevre

Faux-tomato paste

First start the ragout. Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan or skillet and add the onions. Cook on high heat until they are browned, then lower the heat, season them with salt and pepper, and cook for about 5 minutes more until caramelized. Set them aside.

(About this time, I started my polenta.)

Return the pan to the heat and add 3 more tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the mushrooms and stir so they all get coated with the oil. Keep the heat high and sautee the mushrooms until they start to brown.

Season the mushrooms with salt, pepper, thyme, sage, garlic, and red pepper flakes and stir well. Then add the onions and tomato paste and stir again. It should be drier at this point. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring. Add the flour and stir in.

Add the hot beef broth, stirring well so that the mixture thickens. Turn the heat down to medium. Then add the beer or wine and cook for another 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning. If it is too thick, add some more liquid; if it is too thin, it can be cooked down some more.

Polenta! So easy. Bring four cups of salted water to a boil, then whisk in the polenta. Lower the heat to a simmer and add the butter. Cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Incorporate the goat cheese just before serving, which will make it tangy and creamy.

You know the rest. Plate, spoon over, crack open another 1554, and have a warm dinner on a cold night.

I'll have what he's having.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pear Custard Pie

Mmm, the mark of a truly great pie: that you can eat it with coffee for breakfast the next morning. Ahem. As I am doing now.

This recipe is from The Kitchn, but I cut way, way down on the sugar. It calls for 2/3 of a cup to be sprinkled on top and I reduced that to, oh, three tablespoons. It's already lightly sweetened with the evaporated milk, and I really wanted the pears to shine through. This Keiffir pear from Jones Orchard has such a delicate flavor. The rest of the bag I bought back in October will keep for a while in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer.

Pear Custard Pie
Adapted from a recipe on The Kitchn

1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon white sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons milk

3 tablespoons firmly packed lightly brown sugar
5 tablespoons of flour, divided
1 or 2 pears, peeled, cored, and sliced thinly (the recipe recommends Bartlett; I used 1 mediumish Keiffir)
1 (12-oz) can evaporated milk
1 large egg, slightly beaten (an Araucuna from Donnell Century Farms)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons white sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
pinch nutmeg

First, make the crust. I did this the night before and stuck it in the fridge. It was seriously the easiest crust I have ever made.

In a medium bowl, sift the flour, sugar, and salt. Make a well in the center and pour in the oil and milk. Mix with a fork until it comes together (it will be a little crumbly), then press it into the bottom of a 9-inch pie plate. Put it in the fridge, forget about it, go over to see your friend's new apartment and watch key episodes of Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Then (the next day?) make the filling.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar and 3 tablespoons of the flour. Sprinkle the mixture over the bottom of the unbaked crust.

Arrange the pear slices in a radiating pattern over the bottom of the crust. Don't feel you have to fill it up--you want plenty of room for the custard.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk, egg, and vanilla, then pour it over the pear slices. To prevent the edges from burning, do not overfill the pie.

Side note, the inside of the Araucuna was very pretty.

In a small bowl, combine the remaining flour, sugar, and spices, and sprinkle the mixture over the top of the custard. Into the oven it goes, for 45-55 minutes or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.

It's good both warm and cold.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Beer in the Kitchen: Seafood & IPA Risotto

These old Midtown houses were not designed with Floridians in mind. It's pretty cold. I'm warming up my hands with a cup of licorice tea before tackling tonight's dinner -- shiitake mushroom ragout over goat cheese-d polenta, with pear custard pie for dessert. "Do you really cook like that?" one of my friends asked at the MFM's winter market yesterday. Nope. The answer is no, I really cook mainly pasta as October bleeds into November. And then from mid-November onward, I eat the Madison Avenue diet: Fino's, Pho Hoa Binh, Kwik Check, Memphis Pizza Cafe. Lather, rinse, repeat, at least until exams are over. But they are over now, as a matter of fact, and as I'm slowly recovering and putting my house (and life) back in order, I'm feeling the cooking urge coming back. Hence the schmancy dinner. There will be posts later.

But, until then, here's a dish I made a few months ago while house-sitting for friends, one of whom happens to be a very serious (and legit) homebrewer. This risotto used his homebrew IPA, and it was super tasty. You can't really taste the beer in the finished product, but it lends a depth of flavor and somehow made the scallops and shrimp taste sweeter. Also, risotto and I are new BFFs, so you'll probably see more posts about us going shopping and gossiping about boys soon.

Seafood and IPA Risotto

4-5 sea scallops, the same of shrimp
1/2 a small red pepper (my friends get a CSA, so I know it was local... the exact provenance, however, is unknown :)
1 cup risotto rice
1 cup I(ndia) P(ale) A(le) (brewed in the bathroom; you can't get much more local than that)
6 cups of hot chicken or vegetable broth, but you might not need all of it
about a half-cup grated Parmesan cheese
butter, salt, pepper, and chopped parsley

Seed and dice the red pepper, set aside.

Melt a tablespoon of butter in a large heavy skillet. Dry your scallops and shrimp well and lightly salt them. Place your scallops and shrimp in opposite halves of the pan. Let the scallops sear for 4-6 minutes on either side, but move your shrimp around to keep them from overcooking. They'll be done before the scallops, so remove them, then remove the scallops when done. I cut up the seafood at this point to make the risotto a little chunky, but do what you want.

Add a little more butter and the diced red pepper to the pan and sautee until the peppers start to smell good. You want them to stay a little crunchy, though. Then add your rice and stir until it gets translucent. Cook the rice for a bit, then add your beer.

Stir the risotto until all of the beer has been absorbed by the rice. Then repeat with the broth, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring all the while and waiting until each bath is absorbed fully. Stir stir stir; develop excellent upper arm tone. This will probably take 25-35 minutes.

After maybe 10 minutes.

After about 25 minutes.

After the last addition of broth, add back in the scallops and shrimp, and also add the cheese and a tablespoon or so of butter. Mix well. The starch should be well-developed by now and you'll have a nice, creamy risotto. Definitely have with parsley on top --- I forgot for this picture, but it adds a good herby counterpoint to the savoriness of the dish.

And have with an IPA, of course.