In which the world of culinary hedonism is explored with a cup and a half of curiosity, a heaping tablespoon of passion and a dash of clumsiness.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Post #103 ~ Mussels with Tomatoes, Fennel and Caramelized Shallots

As you might have noticed, it's been a while since my last post.  Actually, it was a while since the post before that one, too.  In truth, this final semester has been a really busy one for me (as well it should be, seeing as it's my last!).  In the past four months, I've conducted a study, assisted in a study, compiled date from my own study, analyzed said data and written a dissertation.  I'm defending May 2 and walking May 11.  I can't believe how quickly it's all gone!

So, in sum, I've still been cooking, but not blogging about it quite as much.  Tonight I really felt like returning to basics and cooking a favorite meal (but with a twist) and writing a post.  For those of you who know my blog, you realize that this means a post about insalate caprese, ratatouille or mussels, and hopefully by now you know the theme of tonight's dinner.

I was researching some different ways to make mussels, and happened upon an ingredient I had never before considered: Fennel.  I don't have a ton of familiarity with fennel, outside of the rogue seed that appears on a slice of pepperoni pizza, or the anise-flavored cookies I binge on at least once every other Christmas.

But I had seen and heard great things from my favorite chefs on my favorite cooking shows, so I decided it was high time I dallied with this flavorful bulb.  So here's what you'll need for tonight's meal:

~ Mussels (between 15 mussels - about 2/3 pound - and one pound, depending on your appetite)
~ 1 shallot (sweeter than onion, IMO)
~ 2 cloves garlic, crushed
~ 3 roma tomatoes
~ 1 bulb fennel (although I only used about 1/3 of it)
~ Fresh parsley (although many other herbs would have worked well)
~ Dry white wine
~ Coarse-ground sea salt
~ Baguette

I started some EVOO smoking in a pan, and tossed in the sliced shallot to caramelize, tossing it once as I sliced everything else.  Next, I sliced the fennel.  Once knife slice told me I was making a good decision, as a spicy, familiar-yet-new aroma filled the air.  Into the pan it went, and the aromas only got better as it joined the sweet, savory scent of the caramelized shallot.  Things were heating up rather quickly, so I added some white wine.  There was lots of steam, so I stepped back and added more gradually, eventually equalling about a cup.  Next went the romas, coarsely chopped.  I added some parsley at this point, as well as some salt.  I turned up the heat and let them really cook.  I crushed in two cloves of garlic and added more parsley, and savored the aromas.  After rinsing the mussels, I slid them into the pan and covered the whole deal.  I let it simmer for 4 minutes, my usual time for cooking mussels.

In the mean time, I did useful things like put dishes in the sink, ingredients back in the fridge, sliced the bread and poured and sampled the wine.  All was well in the world.  After 4 minutes, I put the mussels into a bowl and grabbed the plate with the bread.  I was halfway into the livingroom when I swear I could hear Mireille Guiliano (see #17) yelling at me all the way from France.  So I set myself down at my kitchen table and really enjoyed the meal.  I mean, as I've said before, this is a meal for which you should eschew napkins in favor of a towel.  Hands and bread are the utensils here, with a fork at the ready as a last resort (or to avoid burned fingers).  The resulting broth was tremendously flavorful, and there was plenty of it and the other ingredients to compliment the mussels.

The fennel was amazing.  It kept a crunchiness to it, but was cooked to a satisfying done-ness.  It added an intensely spicy (as in aromatic, rather than "hot") dimension to the meal and complemented the bright, biteyness of the parsley and the acidic flavor of the romas beautifully.  The wine I chose for cooking and drinking was a Romanian Pinot Grigio by Dreambird.  It was citrussy with a nice balance of mineral.  It complemented this seafood dish like a fresh squeeze of lemon compliments a fillet of haddock.

All in all, an immensely satisfying meal.

Yours in the love of good food and wine,

The blogger is not an experienced chef. She takes no responsibility for the quality of the meals prepared while following her advice. Use your own judgment regarding cooking times and proper food handling.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Post #102 ~ Quick and Savory Onion Soup

It all started with my mother putting some weekend leftovers in a bag for me to take with me this week.  As usual, she was finding lots of other things to squirrel away in my tote.  She's a good mama.  So I had only one reply in mind when she held up a handful of onions and said, "Want some of these?"


Upon arriving back at my apartment, I noticed that I had about six baby heirloom tomatoes left in my crisper which were starting to look sad and wrinkly.  They were good for tossing or stewing, and I can't bear to toss food. In fact, I find it kind of a fun game to see what meals I can throw together using a few of these and a little of that - stuff that would be thrown out but could also come together to make a meal or two.

And so, the onion gift and sad little tomatoes were an inspiration for me to throw together a quick soup for lunch today (and a second bowl for later this week!).  So this could be a quick meal for two, or... two quick meals.  Or the title of a very strange children's book.

Here's what you'll need:

~ One cooking onion
~ Several sad little heirloom tomatoes
~ Two or three cloves garlic
~ Splash (or two) of whatever red wine you have lying around.  I'm fairly sure white would have worked fine, too.
~ Four beef bullion (more or less, according to your taste)
~ One bay leaf and random herbs on hand (I used dried oregano and basil)
~ Tsp sugar
~ Tbs or so EVOO
~ Coarse ground sea salt

I used a medium sauce pan, even though I'm fairly sure it's not normally conducive to soup.  I was only making a small batch, anyway, and I think the expanded surface area helped it to cook quickly.  I halved the baby heirlooms and diced up the onion, and tossed them into the pan with some EVOO and salt.  I let them sauté away before adding some sugar and letting them caramelize.  While they were cooking, I boiled two cups of water and poured it over the bullion and bay leaf in a separate cup.

I chopped up the garlic and added that to the onion and tomato.  By now, things were starting to smell super good.  I added the wine and then the broth.  I sprinkled some herbs over all and let the soup simmer away, stirring here and there, for about 15 minutes as I ran around tidying my apartment.  Then I spread some bread with some leftover hummus (about a tablespoon full that I had saved with the hopes of using it for something later!).  I popped the bread in the toaster oven as I turned off the heat on the soup.

When the toast was done, I ladled some soup into a bowl and enjoyed the meal that came from leftover ingredients!  And there's more for this week!

Yours in the love of good food and the "waste not, want not" mantra I grew up with,

The blogger is not an experienced chef. She takes no responsibility for the quality of the meals prepared while following her advice. Use your own judgment regarding cooking times and proper food handling.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Post #101 ~ Roasted Yams with Herb Tenderloin and Crimini Mushrooms

This was a quick meal that went from ingredients to table in 30 minutes.  And half of that time was spent on my computer, so it's "walk-away" friendly!

Here's what you'll need:

~ 1 yam
~ Sesame oil
~ Honey
~ Cinnamon
~ Course ground salt
~ Butter
~ 1 tenderloin steak
~ Fresh herbs of choice (I had oregano and savory on hand)
~ Crimini mushrooms

First, preheat the toaster oven (bake: 375) and wash and pierce the yam.  Then microwave it for one minute (my microwave is a 700 watt one, so time might vary).  Warming it makes it easier to slice.  When it's done, slice it into half-inch rounds.  Put them in a ziplock baggie with a dash of sesame oil, a bit of honey, some cinnamon, and some honey.

: : PAUSE : :

This was total improv work.  In our household, when we make sweet potatoes / yams for turkey dinners, we make a stringy, caramelly sauce to go with them.  It consists of butter, brown sugar, maple syrup, vanilla, and quite possibly more butter.  It's absolutely heavenly.  However, I have the tendency to have very little control when I'm around a pot of the stuff, resorting to eating it not only on my potatoes, but also on turkey, stuffing, spoons, and even, in one desperate moment, off of my own fingers.  So I have yet to prepare it in my own home, for fear I would go into sugar shock and die.

And then what would we do?

So I totally improvised, figuring that roasting made things sweet, and honey made them sweeter.  And cinnamon... well, cinnamon's just plain great.

: : UNPAUSE : :

So into your baggie goes the ingredients and the slices.  Shake them around really well, then lay them on a pan and bake them for 30 minutes, turning halfway through.  Spend the first fifteen minutes doing anything you like, but be on hand for the next 15, because that's when you'll cook your steak.

I decided to keep this really simple, so I did the steak and mushrooms in one pan on the stove top.  Into a pan I put a tab of butter, the herbs, and a dash of EVOO.  I quartered the criminis and tossed them in.  When everything was good and simmering, I put the steak right in in the middle.  I turned it a few times and cooked it for the remaining time until the potatoes were ready.  You may need to toss it back on for a few minutes, or it might be done enough for you at this point.

I enjoyed this meal with a glass of merlot from Red Rock.  This merlot is round, bright and fruit forward, tasting of ripe bing cherries.  It was the perfect companion for this meal - bold enough to stand up to the earthy flavors of the herbed steak and mushrooms, yet soft enough not to fight the sweet, roasted yams.

All in all, a good meal!

Yours in the love of good food and wine,

The blogger is not an experienced chef. She takes no responsibility for the quality of the meals prepared while following her advice. Use your own judgment regarding cooking times and proper food handling.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

ONE HUNDREDTH POST ~ Tomato Pesto Salmon with Lentils (sorta) and Roasted Brussels Sprouts (plus, a bonus meal!)

So a few nights ago marked my one hundredth post!  I really thought I would feel more pomp and circumstance, but to be honest, it was just another fun evening of cooking, no more or less special than all the others.  I experimented, I enjoyed some old favorites, I made some mistakes, and had some successful enterprises. All in one meal!  Pretty much summarizes the Accidental Chef journey thus far...

So last nightI decided to continue my foray with lentils. I'll tell you right now, it didn't work out as well as I would have liked, but I've learned in the process.

Here's what you'll need:

~ One fillet of salmon
~ Wegmans (or comparable) prepared sundried tomato pesto
~ Sesame seed oil (or EVOO)
~ Brussels sprouts, quartered
~ Fresh herb of choice (oregano for me!)
~ Sea salt
~ Lentils
~ Patience

After a relaxing evening of prepping for a meeting, responding to emails and (the best part!) a Skype chat with my adopted-uncle Kenton who's currently teaching overseas, I was in a very good mood, and ready to top the evening off with a good meal.  I put some Madeleine Peyroux on my GoogleMusic player, poured a glass of last night's Carmenere, and set to work.

First, I boiled some water in a shallow pan and put the lentils in.

: : PAUSE : :

Here's the thing.  Websites about lentils are not too helpful.  The instructions I found stated that lentils take "anywhere from 10 minutes to one hour."  So, I boiled them for 2 minutes as instructed, and then let them simmer while I prepped the brussels sprouts.  In retrospect, I may have jumped the gun on deciding the lentils were done.  So follow these instructions, but know that lentils take longer to cook.  I'm not sure how long, exactly.  I'll get back to you on that.

: : UNPAUSE : :

So I boiled and simmered the lentils and danced around the kitchen to Madeleine, and used a brand new tool for the brussels sprouts.  It's called an Ulu, and it's a knife native to the indigenous people of Alaska.  I actually have been in possession of it for well over a year and a half, but sadly keep forgetting to use it.  I must say, it made very short business of quartering the brussels sprouts.

I drizzled sesame seed oil over the brussels sprouts, a generous gift from my friend Darrin, who knows a guy in Austin, TX who makes his own sesame oils and roasted seeds.  I have to tell you, the sesame seeds are SO good, I occasionally grab a pinch out of the jar when I'm passing through the kitchen just to munch on.  Super yummy.  The oil is also equally good, giving any dish a certain rich, nutty flavor.  I've been using this sesame oil a LOT in my cooking (in the aforementioned "un-blogged" meals) and will have to suffer the pains (ha ha) of cooking with it a lot more so as to inform you all of its many uses.

So, over that I sprinkled sea salt and fresh oregano.  Into the pre-heated toaster oven they went, on broil, at 350.  I tossed them around occasionally as I cooked.

I drained the lentils, figuring this HAD to have been enough time (I was wrong) and put them in a prep bowl with some hot water and about a teaspoonful of the pesto.  I covered them, figuring this would cook them the rest of the way through.

Into a pan I started some of the tomato pesto simmering.  Into that I added a bit of EVOO and blended it together.  I sauteed the salmon for 2 minutes on one side, 3 on the other.  I ended up having to toss it back in to cook it just a little more, so I'd probably end up leaning toward 2, flip, 3, flip, 2.  That should do it, for future reference.

I put the brussels sprouts on the plate, spooned on some lentils, and topped that with the tomato pesto salmon.

And the lentils were NOT cooked all the way.

Everything else was very yummy, but the lentils had a certain "underdone" crunch to them.  After reading up on it, it seems that the Internet is pretty unanimous on the whole "don't eat underdone lentils" thing.  Given that the next day would be the first day of my new class, I decided not to risk it and tossed them.

The rest of the meal was fantastic, though.  The tomato pesto gave the salmon great flavor, and the brussels sprouts were infused with the nuttiness of the oil and the sweetness that all veggies seem to get when roasted.

I ended up having leftover salmon, which I saved for the next night's meal:

I added some fresh oregano to the container to infuse it with flavor while it sat.  The following night, as I said, I taught a class, so I returned home exhausted and very, very hungry.  A quick yet satisfying meal was in order.  Earlier that day, I had decided to master, once and for all, lentil cooking.  I cooked them in a small pot of water for about 45 minutes altogether.  They definitely looked more cooked, with some of them falling apart in the water, but most of them maintaining their shape.

When I returned home that night, I started some water boiling immediately, and cooked my favorite tortellini for 10 minutes.  At five minutes in, I started the salmon, some tomato pesto, and the lentils sauteeing in a stick-free pan.  When the tortellini was done, I dumped it in and tossed the whole thing around for a bit.  What resulted was a flavorful, quick, satisfying meal (that also happened to go great with the remaining Carmenere!).  All in all, a satisfying 100th post - a combination of items that gave me two meals, a learning experience, and, most of all, a fun, relaxing way to spend a few evenings.

Yours in the love of good food and wine,

The blogger is not an experienced chef. She takes no responsibility for the quality of the meals prepared while following her advice. Use your own judgment regarding cooking times and proper food handling.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Ninety-Ninth Post (One more!) ~ Cooking with Lentils

This past week, I was on a cruise with my family in the Caribbean to celebrate my grandmother's 80th birthday.  I've got to say, all the good food made me really miss blogging.

Don't get me wrong - I've been cooking and eating LOTS of good food over the last few months - I just haven't been blogging as much as I'd like.  Hopefully, that shall change.

Certainly the inspiration to reach 100 posts will help nudge me!

So, while we were on this cruise, I ordered a phenomenal pork roast dinner.  The pork was fork-tender.  The bread was crackle-perfect and the wine robust.  But what really stole the show for me (I'm sure to the chef's chagrin, should he have known) were the perfect little lentils spread under the roast.  I was immediately reminded of how much I love these little beans.  Perhaps it's because they're tied to a memory.

When I was a junior in college, I had a schedule during the winter months that allowed me to take a morning class and then drive back to my apartment for a breather before heading off to night classes.  I had, if I recall, about an hour and a half total for a break.  I'd throw my bags on the floor, take off my shoes, and prepare a hot lunch.  More often than not, it was a bowl of Campbell's soup (I wasn't such a cook back then).  One of my favorites was lentil soup.  I'd line up a re-run episode of Frasier on my DVR, sit with a heating pad on my back to relieve the chill and eat hot soup, relish in a good laugh, and, though I didn't know it at the time, build memories of my very first apartment and independent young adulthood, memories that will stay with me, steeped in nostalgia, forever.

So as I tasted the lentils, these memories came to me, and I told them to my family.  We talked about how food can be so closely tied to memories, and I resolved myself to return home and blog the very first meal I cooked.

Which happened to be lentil soup.

About which I knew absolutely nothing.

So I hit up AllRecipes, and came across this one.  I decided that my first foray into lentils would be well-instructed.  If this venture went well, I'd continue on unassisted.  One of my favorite aspects of soup is that it can be (and in my and my mother's opinions, SHOULD be) a laissez-faire kind of thing.  I decided to alter the ingredients a little to make it a bit more "throw-in-a-pot-and-walk-away."

Here's what you'll need (and as you can see, I followed the original recipe very closely but with a few substitutions in method - I'm not trying to pass this recipe off as my own!):

~ 1 (12 oz.) bag Wegmans pre-cut, pre-washed course mirepoix 
~ 1/4 cup EVOO
~ 2 cloves chopped garlic (although I think I'd press it next time)
~ 1 tsp each dried basil and oregano
~ 2 bay leaves
~ 1 (14.5 oz.) can tomatoes in whatever form you can find them in (I ultimately found "diced in juice")
~ 2 cups dried lentils
~ 8 cups water
~ good handful baby spinach, rinsed but not cut
~ splash red wine
~ fresh oregano
~ salt

I pre-measured everything before I even turned on the pot.  Doing so makes for faster dump-and-go soup-making.  While the original recipe calls for chopping onions, carrots and celery, I decided to cheat with the pre-made mirepoix.  I started the EVOO simmering and dumped in the whole bag.  I let it cook until the onions were nearly translucent, then added the garlic and the herbs (and wow, did THAT smell good!).  I added a good amount of salt at this point.  I let it cook the recommended 2 minutes, and added the tomatoes, lentils and water.  I walked away for an hour and change, coming back to stir it occasionally and take in the fantastic aromas.

Finally, I turned off the heat and let it sit for about an hour until I was ready to eat.  I turned it back on and added the final ingredients.  The original recipe calls for vinegar.  In my opinion, wine just makes me happier than vinegar.  Unless we're pouring it over curly-cue french fries.  So I added a splash of the Carmenere I got for this meal.  The recipe also calls for sliced spinach, but I opted to go for baby leaves so I wouldn't have to do anything to them.

I let the soup bubble for a few minutes while I changed into my PJs and poured the wine (mine is a comfortable household).  I ladled the soup into my bowl and topped it with a bit of fresh oregano.  Then, I grabbed my soup, grabbed a crusty rosemary roll from Wegman's bakery to go with it and grabbed my glass of Carmenere and sat down to enjoy.

This Chilean wine, by Arboleda, was on sale at the wine shop right around the corner from my old apartment (see?  I told you I was feeling nostalgic!).  It's full, ripe, rustic, and steeped in berry flavor.  It made a fine companion to this meal.

The soup also did not disappoint.  The lentils were tender and flavorful, the vegetables were perfectly cooked, and the fresh oregano gave a punch of bright flavor to the stewed ingredients.  I feel as though I may have found a new favorite bean!  Versatile enough to be a side or a main course (as well as being healthy AND inexpensive), this is not the last you shall read of lentils from THIS accidental chef!

Yours in the love of good food, wine, and nostalgia,

The blogger is not an experienced chef. She takes no responsibility for the quality of the meals prepared while following her advice. Use your own judgment regarding cooking times and proper food handling.