Monday, November 21, 2011

fresh spinach casserole with goat cheese and mushroom cream

The casserole is the Eisenhower era's most persistent contribution to our culinary technology. If it involves more than a little bit of family--at births, deaths, Thanksgivings, Xmases--it involves casserole. But just because the casserole is traditionally built around the kinds of ingredients you'd find in the backyard fallout shelter doesn't mean it is a genre without merit, a point Faith Durand makes convincingly in her cookbook Not Your Mother's Casseroles, and over at Apartment Therapy's cooking unit, The Kitchn. I definitely lifted some ideas here from her way of doing things, but I thought the lack of spinach casserole was a glaring omission from that book. 

Anyway, inspired by this season of bland foods and Pyrex, and in possession of several cubic feet of baby spinach, I set out to make a spinach casserole that would get grandma's version banished from the holiday table. (A metaphorical grandma, since I never met either of mine, and in any case neither one probably got much fancier than a dash of salt for the potatoes and a Yorkshire pud on holidays.) The traditional fallout shelter way to do things is to thaw some blocks of frozen spinach, mix in canned condensed cream of mushroom soup and a block of cream cheese, season it if you're lucky, glop the whole thing in a 9x13" baking dish, and top it with canned fried onions for textural contrast and a last, desperate, ultimately futile bid for flavor. Bake 45 mins at 350.

Okay, so the bones of the recipe are there: spinach, mushroomy salty creamy stuff, cheesy creamy stuff, crispiness on top, and flavor hopefully somewhere in the middle. This was my vow: for my version, everything must be fresh. I would open no can, I would thaw no vegetable, nothing would crunch that I hadn't crunchified myself. And god would smile upon it, and it would fucking rule.

First, the spinach 
I don't know exactly how much I started with. It was a big bag from Stanley's, like 18" square and four inches thick. Took up a whole shelf in the fridge, which is really why I decided to make this. Two pounds, maybe? I diced and sweated a couple of small onions in butter, then a shallot, then a bunch of garlic and some vermouth. While that reduced to almost nothing, I coarsely chopped the spinach and added it in shifts until the whole mess cooked down to about two quarts, then drained it. (I probably should have drained it a little better than I did, but I was excited.)

Most nights this would have been a fine place to stop. But this wasn't just any night. I put it aside while this next business happened.

Chanterelle cream 
Next thing was to figure out some analogue to the vegetable casserole's essential precursor, Campbell's canned condensed Cream of Mushroom soup. I had some beautiful chanterelles on hand, so I started there. This is what two ounces or so looks like.

Chopped them, sauteed them with some coarse chopped garlic over fairly low heat in butter and olive oil until I got a nice fragrance going. Then I added 10 oz of buttermilk (for tangy jab) and 2 oz of heavy cream (for butterfat bodyblow) and let it cook down a bit. Then all of this went into the spinach mix, now over low heat again, along with 5-6 oz--half of one of the big logs--of room temperature chèvre (for cheesy goatiness and accent-gravitude), and was stirred till it all combined. Hard to keep the passive voice going for so long but it seems to have to have been done. 

I think chanterelles might actually have been a little milder than what I had in mind. The pieces tasted delicious when you got one, but didn't let out as much mushroomy flavor into the cream as I'd hoped. Something a little darker and more robust, like porcini or shiitake, possibly reconstituted dried ones, might have worked a little better. Here's how things looked in the pan, post mushroom cream, pre chèvre. 

(Wow these photos suck. That's creaminess, not glare.) Next, of course, glop it into Pyrex and bake it at 350 for 30 mins or so. While that's happening, process ye some bread crumbs out of a couple of stale slices of bread you thought to cut up and leave sitting out for a few hours. Toast about 1/2c of them in a pan with a little butter and some salt and pepper, and then when the casserole is done with its first 30 minutes, sprinkle the bread crumbs on top and cook it for about 15 more. I gauged ultimate doneness based on how the liquid looked from the side. When the spinach seemed to be wading in a tidal zone, rather than drowning in cream up to its neck, I called it ready.

With a nice pork chop, it was grand, and technically this is a vegetarian dish that you can feel just fine about. I really should learn to take some pictures that make things look as good as they taste, because this was one of the best things I've made in a long time.

11/29/11 update: Made it again, using 6 oz of portabellas and a couple of tablespoons of flour in the cream, and a little better draining of the spinach, and sourdough for the breadcrumbs, and that fixed what little was wrong with it first time around. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

potatoes de cheddar de beer

[This is Phil's recipe and boner commentary, but he was too lazy to post it himself. He seems to have a thing for potatoes.]

5-6 potatoes, better to have waxy but I used small russet, peeled and cut into 1- or 2-inch chunks
small onion or big shallot, minced

3 tbs olive oil in a deep skillet, then potatoes over med-high for about 10 mins until they start to brown and stick, then onion/shallot for another couple of minutes, then enough beer to barely cover.

Boil, then set to simmer. Don't let it dry out; add beer as necessary. (I used Mama's Little Yella Pils, about 1.5 cans after all was said and did.)

1 c. grated cheddar, or mix of thereof with aged Gouda
2 tbs flour, mixed with cheese

After about 25 minutes of braising, add a little more beer and left it boilubble again, then add cheese/flour mix.

Let the cheese melt, get a boner, add some chopped parsley and continue having massive burnt cheese boner, eat, have sex with pan, die happy. Mix should be pretty saucy, but not quite like a fondue.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

roasted butternut squash poblano soup

Fall for sure, so orange-fleshed squashes. This was the way to ring it all in. Everybody was impressed, so I guess I need to get this one down before I forget it.

1 butternut squash
2-3 small poblano peppers
2 small onions
1 shallot
2 carrots, peeled
2 ribs celery
6c chicken stock
~1c sherry or marsala
heavy cream
fresh sage leaves

Preheat oven to 375. Peel, half, and seed the squash and cut to roughly 1" cubes. Toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and spread it evenly on one or two sheet pans. Roast till you can easily cut it with a fork, about 25 minutes. 

Meanwhile, roast the poblanos over a stove burner until the skin is black and blistering (or else rub them with oil and roast in the oven along with the squash until the skin is blistering). Put in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap to let it finish the job. When you're partway through doing some of the other stuff below, skin and seed the peppers and chop to roughly 1/2".

Dice the onions and shallot and carrot and celery fairly small. In a heavy pan, get some oil going over medium heat and start with the onions, then the shallots, then the carrot and celery, seasoning as you go. Deglaze with a goodly amount of sherry or marsala, and cook this all down for long enough to let the alcohol burn off. Add the squash, peppers, and stock and bring to a gentle boil. 

Simmer till the carrots are pliable, then use an immersion blender to make it all pretty smooth. Check seasonings, which will probably be fucked by all the new vegetable matter and sugar freed in the last few steps. Add a cup or so of buttermilk, and a glug or so of cream. Chop several tablespoons of sage fairly fine and add to the soup. Wait a few minutes and check seasonings again. 

For a garnish/finish I reduced some port and cream together and made pretty patterns on top, but I have since have thought of a few different ways to go in a fantasy cooking world, many of which I probably couldn't even execute: a salty walnut maple brittle, or diced apple sauteed with smoked bacon, or nuts and apples together in baconfat, or maybe even mushroom something or other, or something using the squash seeds to be all snout-to-tail about it. Smoky, tart, savory, leafy, nutty, forest-floory is the palette I'm thinking of. Lightly salted port cream actually worked pretty well for that, after all. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

ten-minute marinara

Just as Master J's Bari-bought pumpkin gnocchi went into the water tonight, I realized we only had puttanesca, which would be revolting, so I had to scramble. Ten minutes later we had this. Surprisingly good for something pulled out of thin air.

Having generally relied on restaurants or jars for my red sauce needs, I know nothing about the real way to make Italian sauces. But I'd always been under the impression it was supposed to involve at least one person who had little choice in the matter, due to gender, state of imprisonment, or physical handicap, sitting there stirring all day long. But perhaps Scorsese movies provide an incomplete view of Italian cuisine. Since it relies on new world fruits and Portuguese wine and was prepared by an Irish, I have no cause to act like this sauce is remotely Italian anyway. It's just a nice and quick and red sauce that pleases somewhat finicky children and their parents too.

(makes about a quart)
a small onion, finely diced
some garlic, coarsely chopped
two 14 oz cans of some kind of tomatoes, plain as can be
madeira wine
olive oil
red pepper flakes
dried oregano

In something powerful, puree the tomatoes along with another half cup or so of water. Heat several tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat, add the onions and cook until clear, then throw in the garlic, salting and peppering as you go. When you can smell the garlic, add some pepper flakes and oregano, whatever seems right to you. I went lighter on both in deference to the toddlish palate. Once the oregano is pungent after about a minute, half a cup or so of madeira or port or another wine along those lines. (Don't worry, you're going to cook off the alcohol, but I suppose this ingredient could be optional.) Reduce by half, then add the tomato puree. Keep it moving. Season it. Cook it down for a few minutes, things brighten up, and Bob's your uncle.

Monday, September 26, 2011

pickling is the new knitting

Well, not just pickling, but "putting-by" generally--canning, jellying, jarring, jamming, curing, root-cellaring, all of it. It never really went away, but it's new to us in the urban middle class, and I think it must have to do with CSAs bringing huge masses of fresh and perishable foods to us week after week.

A friend lent me a 1973 hardcover edition of Hertzberg, Vaughan, and Greene's Putting Food By, which seems to be underwritten by the USDA and FDA. The early chapters have instilled in me a great terror of microbial contamination that I feel like I should probably read all of, but I've paged through and there's some good stuff later on about storing carrots and apples under blankets in the yard to keep them good through the winter, and even building your own cold-war era root cellar in a corner of the basement. I'm looking forward to some serious cross-seasonal preservation.

So far all I've done is quick-pickle some onions and radishes under what I'm sure are grievously hazardous conditions, but nothing bad has happened so far, and some damn good cole slaw has resulted. Anyway, that's the planned new direction for this fall and winter. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

potato salad with poblano-garlic scape aïoli

There's quite a street fireworks culture here in West Town, where every other block has its own dude who has spent the last three months hauling sticks of flying dynamite back from Indiana to outdo his counterparts two blocks in every direction. You could also see it as a Modelo-fueled mating ritual where the language is explosions and it's unclear who the quarry is. The cops don't give a shit about any part of this whatsoever, so it would be a great night to shoot somebody over and over again, if you were looking for a good time to do that. We had people over to sit on the porch to enjoy the spectacle and to grill meats and meat substitutes, and my all-American bride rightly decreed that nothing could be more all-American to serve as one of the sides than mayonnaisey potato salad.

Because I didn't grow up in a potato salad kind of house (where I come from, we took our potatoes fried and salty or not at all) I had no stake in the level of tradition involved other than that there was no fucking way we were going to buy a mixture of potatoes and mayonnaise at the store. To be even more fake-hardcore about it I decided to make my own mayonnaise, which is the cooking equivalent of riding 100 miles on a bicycle--sounds really impressive to the uninitiated, but it's something the professionals knock out every day before lunchtime without even thinking about. To be totally unamerican, and really un-anything, I made aïoli, the only mayonnaise that's metal enough for an umlaut, and filled it out with garlic scapes and roasted poblanos, and did it all in a food processor, so that no purist about anything in any region or continent could be pleased. And ain't that America.

Most of the flavor here happens in the aïoli, with the larger solids involved acting mostly as vehicles for the mayo, or agents of color and texture.

Poblano and Garlic Scape Aïoli
roasted poblano pepper, skinned and seeded
the lower 4-5 inches of a bunch of garlic scapes (or, in another season, 5-6 cloves of garlic)
1 egg yolk
1T dijonish mustard
juice of 2 lemons
1.5 c olive oil

Let everything get to roughly room temperature. Coarse chop the poblano and the garlic scapes, then puree them in a food processor or blender with about half the lemon juice and the mustard. When that mixture is fairly smooth, add the egg yolk and salt and pulse to mix. Put the olive oil in something that will be comfortable to drizzle from for several minutes (like the food pusher on a cuisinart, which has a tiny hole at the bottom that's perfect for this). Start the processor going and slowly drizzle the oil into the mixture in a steady stream. Add the last of the lemon juice and adjust seasoning. Put in the fridge for a while to let it set up. It'll be thinner than the mayonnaise you know even after it's cool.

The Potatal Vehicle
5 lbs peeled potatoes
2 roasted poblanos and 2 roasted red peppers, skinned, seeded, and chopped about 3/8"
3-4 ribs celery, diced
3-4 whole dill pickles, diced
parsley, chopped

Boil the potatoes to the traditional point, cool till handleable, then dice to roughly 1/2". Put everything together in a big bowl, add most of the aïoli, see how it tastes, adjust seasonings and aïoli levels. Let get to know self. Refrigeration is important--remember the egg yolk.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

apple fennel slaw

Central to this recipe is that everything is the same shape and the same color. Bright, tart, sweet, greenish white, and refreshing. Great with fatty meaty porky things.

one Granny Smith or other tart apple, peeled and cored
one small fennel bulb
the white and a maybe an inch of the green of one leek
olive oil
lemon juice

Using deft knifework, julienne the apple, fennel, and leek into roughly 1/8-1/4" x 3/4-1" pieces. Toss apple and fennel with a little lemon juice. Heat some oil in a pan and very gently soften the leek in it, taking care not to scorch or brown. Cool and combine with the apple and fennel. Add a little more lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and a bare pinch of cayenne. Toss together, adjust seasonings, enjoy.