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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Taking a Dip: Roasted Red Peppers with Creamy Goat Cheese

Roasted Red Pepper Dip with Creamy Goat Cheese

Cooking is easy – you just add heat.” - Don Booth

Don Booth is one of the most animated characters I know. I cannot say his name among our friends without smiling. His colorful antics and determination to make life something more exciting than the life of the average Joe turn even the most common of meetings into occasions. In three simple words: Don loves life. 

Three perfect companions: onion, pepper & tomato
His abandon in cooking is a gift that I wish I could pass along to those of my friends who enjoy food but are intimidated by the kitchen. He is correct when it comes to culinary arts: cooking doesn't have to be complicated. You can spend a lot of money and a lot of hours in the kitchen, only to be left frustrated and standing in a mess – or, you can simplify things and 'just add heat'. A few basic ingredients combined and simmered are often the most rich, satisfying and memorable.

Roasted red peppers are, to me, one of those unforgettable flavors. I have never been a fan of peppers eaten raw, but the transformation that takes place when they are roasted over a flame, or slow simmered on the stove is a miracle of cooking. Their sharp acidity softens and the essence of the bell pepper flavor is exposed. Combine this with other vegetables that behave similarly; onions, tomatoes; and you have a whole new flavor experience.

This is a dip that I often make when end of summer garden produce is plentiful and freeze to use later when I am craving summer sun (now). I have used this as a stuffing for Baked Chicken Breasts, tucking a pat of goat cheese inside as well and I have cooked Italian Sausages in this versatile mixture (sans goat cheese). Those of you who hate the kitchen ~ you know who you are ~ I dare you. Pour a glass of wine or your favorite cocktail and give this a whirl. All you have to do is add heat.

Cheers, Don.

Roasted Red Pepper Dip with Creamy Goat Cheese

Quick and easy fare, this red pepper dip is devoured by my guests whenever I serve it. You can make this from ingredients you probably already have on hand in less than an hour, start to finish. 

Julienned peppers and onions

5 Tbsp Pure Olive Oil
2 Large Fresh Red Bell Peppers
1 Large Sweet Yellow Onion
3 Roma Tomatoes
1 tsp Crushed Garlic
¾ cup water
1 Tbsp Balsamic Vinegar
Kosher Salt and freshly ground Black Pepper, to taste
6 oz Chevre Cheese

Julienne cut the red peppers and onions. You should have approximately equal amounts by volume. Trim the stem end off the tomatoes and cut them into quarters. Set tomatoes aside. Sip some wine. 

Heat the olive oil in a large pot. Once the oil is good and hot, add the peppers and onions. Stir over high heat for about 5 minutes. (The goal is not to brown the veggies, only to quickly break them down.)
Reduce the heat to medium-high and add the garlic and tomatoes. Continue to stir periodically. As veggies begin to release their juices, they may begin to stick. Add water and balsamic vinegar. Continue cooking until veggies are soft. 

Once the veggies are soft (15-20 minutes), use a potato masher to crush them into a chunky texture.
Taste the mixture and season to taste with kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper.

Pour into a oven-proof dish. Place the Chevre cheese into the center of the dip and bake the dish at 375 degrees until hot and bubbly (about 20-25 minutes). Serve with crackers or toasted bread rounds.

Recipe Notes:
  • Julienne cutting vegetables simply means to cut them into approximately equal size, thin strips. The French are VERY precise when they do this and create perfectly exact little matchsticks. The more uniform the cut, the more evenly they cook. That said, I am not French. Don't worry about perfection.
  • Chevre is a creamy white goat cheese about the consistency of cream cheese. It is not too strong and pairs well with the dip.
  • Crushed garlic is a puree of fresh garlic. I love the way it cleanly dissipates into a dish vs. minced garlic whose flavor is sharper and stands out more (and gets stuck in your teeth). You can buy a special tool or use a mortar and pestle to crush your own. I buy mine ready to use.
  • If you decide to freeze this, leave out the goat cheese until you bake it just before serving.
  • If you still hate to cook after making this, come over we'll have a glass of wine together. Consider it therapy.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Spice of Life: Thai Green Curry Chicken

Thai Green Curry Chicken

Another thick blanket of snow covers the garden. Though Spring is here on the calendar, the teasing glimpses of bare muddy ground, covered the next day in white bring me back to reality. In truth, Spring in the north woods is more an idea than a season. It will be May before pots of Pansies will sit on the porch steps here; another 5 weeks or more to go and snow is not unheard of, even then. But the days are brighter now as the sun continues to climb higher into the sky. 

Chamomile in the herb garden

This is the time of year that I pour over seed catalogs and read through page after page on the Friends School Plant Sale website. This is the largest plant sale in the Midwest, held every Mother's Day weekend on the state fairgrounds in St. Paul. Looking over the online catalog, I swoon at descriptions of Vietnamese Coriander and Thai Basil, Lemon Verbena and Winter Savory. I can almost smell their heady fragrance as I warm my chilly fingers, curling them around a second cup of coffee. Living in a small northern Minnesota town where such flavors may as well come from the moon, the prospect of planting 'exotic' herbs in my own garden this spring is no small excitement. In the mean time, I look to my pantry for inspiration.

I rarely use prepared ingredients when I cook, but there are some things that are so foreign to this part of the world that the procurement of the fresh ingredients to make them would be a formidable task. Mae Ploy Thai Curry Paste is one of the items in my refrigerator that give me an instant burst of flavor and warmth whenever I reach for it.

In Minnesota there is a level of spiciness that I call “Minnesota Hot”. It is any degree of even the most minor of heat in food. Freshly ground Black Pepper falls into this category for some of our citizens. Therefore, if you are not a fan of hot food, be warned. Thai red and green curries tend to be very hot even to practiced tastes. If you like some degree of heat, add a little curry paste and taste it. As for any seasoning or spice, you can always add more but you cannot take away once it is in the dish. Alternately, try a different paste such as Panaeng curry paste, generally much milder than green curry, but the same rules apply. 

Though there are a half dozen or more different kinds of curry in Thai cuisine (red, yellow and panaeng curry are just a few examples) my favorite is the citrusy-sweet-hot flavor of green curry. When I need a burst of spice in my life to warm up both body and soul, this quick curry is one of my favorites. It can also be made in an astonishingly short amount of time.

Thai Green Curry Chicken
This is an Americanized version of a traditional Thai dish. This type of curry is usually served with rice. If you can find fresh Thai Basil, it is a marvelous addition.

1 can Coconut Milk
1 cup low sodium Chicken Stock
1 tsp to 1 Tbsp Mae Ploy brand Green Curry Paste
½ tsp Lemongrass puree, if desired
2 Chicken Thighs, skinned, boned and cut into bite size pieces
1 Carrot, split lengthwise and bias cut
Handful of Snow Peas, fresh or frozen
½ Red Pepper, julienne cut
½ Yellow Onion, julienne cut
1 cup Fresh or Frozen Peas
Kosher Salt, to taste

Jasmine Rice

If you are serving rice, start your rice cooking first. The curry cooks very quickly and will likely be finished before the rice. 1½ cups of water to ¾ cup of rice should be ample quantity for 4 people. If you dislike starchy rice, rinse the dry rice until the water runs clear before cooking.

In a medium saucepan, combine the coconut milk and the chicken stock over medium high heat. Add the curry paste and lemongrass, if using, and stir well to dissolve into the liquid. If you are making this for the first time, start with a small amount of curry paste, taste the mixture and add more until the desired heat level is reached.

Add the chicken to the coconut milk mixture and simmer a few minutes. Add vegetables, hardest texture to softest, a few minutes apart as the curry simmers. Cook until vegetables are crisp-tender. Season with salt to taste. The entire cooking process will take only about 15 minutes. Serves 4.

Recipe Notes:
  • I have used generally available local organic vegetables in this curry along with homemade chicken stock. Play with the ingredients as you wish.
  • Cutting the vegetables into approximately equal thickness looks great and allows them to cook at a relatively even rate.
  • Jasmine Rice is my preference for this dish. It is beautifully fragrant and pairs well with the curry.
  • You can find Mae Ploy curry pastes online, or at Asian and specialty groceries.
  • Chicken thigh meat lends itself much more to spice than does breast meat. It also has a more pleasing texture in soups. Buy bone in thighs, trim them and add the bones to the 'future stock' container in your freezer. Not only will you save money per pound on the chicken, once you have enough bones, carrot, onion and celery trimmings you are ready to make stock – for free.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Of Painted Eggs and Chocolate Bunnies

Lamb kebab with a spring green salad to celebrate the Equinox

I have always been a history geek. Perhaps it is the influence of my military upbringing or family roots in Celtic countries but I love to see the way we have remade ourselves and reinvented our histories, generation after generation. 

Spring greens indoors

History is written by the victors, they say, but those overthrown  are never completely willing to give up their own stories of place and purpose. Native American peoples are an example. You can force them onto reservations, place their children in missionary schools and punish them severely if they do not speak English, but you cannot take away who they are as a people. 

In 735, it was noted by the English historian Bede (a monk) that the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre had a festival lasting several days, and that her name was adopted for the Christian holiday of Easter, which falls on the Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox.

Spring peas, shallots and dill
Christianity, as it became the dominant religion of Europe, developed a strategy of 'if you can't beat them, join them' when it came to ritual festivals of the ancient world. Eostre, the goddess of Spring and Fertility (Ostara in Celtic lands) was not going to cease to be an important festival, so it was adopted by the church instead; much as was done with the winter solstice and christmas celebrations. The spring lamb, bunnies, baby chicks, hunts for painted eggs and decorating with fresh flowers on this date are all carry-overs from these ancient roots of the celebration of the earth's renewal and rebirth.

Ready for planting

Today is the Spring Equinox and while I am not a religious person of any persuasion, I do love the thought of honoring this oldest of feast days with traditional foods and celebrating a bit of nearly forgotten history. I will plant my herb seeds and then, a Spinach Salad with chopped Shallots, Spring Peas, Eggs and Dill along with Lamb Skewers with Baby Onions and Potatoes will bring together the flavors of the season.

If only I had some Mead to pour onto my garden...

Lemon Marinated Lamb Kebabs with Pearl Onions & Potatoes
Serves 2

Nothing beats the flavor of local grass fed lamb

2 Tbsp Olive Oil
Zest and Juice from ½ small Lemon
Few leaves of Dried Oregano
Kosher Salt and Fresh Ground Pepper
3/4# cubed Lamb pieces
6 Pearl Onions
6 tiny Potatoes, cooked and cooled

Oregano from the pantry

Mix together the olive oil, lemon zest and juice. Rub the oregano leaves in your palms over the bowl to release their flavor. Add the lamb, onions and potatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Toss together until well coated. Cover and place in the refrigerator 1 hour or more to marinate.

Alternate marinated lamb pieces, onion and potatoes onto skewers. Grill over a hot fire to desired doneness. Serve with a spring salad.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

My Little Lamby Pie

Shepherd's Pie

As a young child visiting her grandparents at their Georgia farm for the summer, my mother once asked her Irish grandmother where their family was from. The stern reply came in two sharply punctuated words: North Georgia. 

In the 1930's in the southern United States, if one wanted employment it was unwise to advertise the fact that your family was Irish and it was clear to my mother that she was never to ask about it again. Later, her mother Sadie took her aside and pointed on a map to County Limerick in Ireland. She quietly explained her family's geographical roots and then, like her mother, apparently never spoke of it again.

When I queried my own mother about her roots while reading The Oxford History of Ireland, she recounted the story and lamented that she did not know more. Her mother was 100% Irish and her father nearly so. 

Nothing beats a wind-up fire breathing Nun for entertainment


My own generation, like so many other latter generation Irish-Americans, has wholeheartedly embraced this Emerald Isle heritage, now diluted but none the worse for wear, especially once a bit of Irish Whiskey is applied. So today, we cook up the last of the potatoes from the root cellar, pour the Guinness and 'the good whiskey', toast the ancestors and celebrate our Irish-ness, real or imagined. 

While Corned Beef and Cabbage is standard fare on the 17th of March in this country, it is not often eaten in Ireland and certainly not on St. Patrick's Day. A more common (and to me much more palatable) Irish dish is Shepherd's Pie. Traditionally made with lamb, it can be made with ground beef, lamb or a combination. I have also used 'Gimme Lean' to make a vegetarian version with great success. 

Look for local producers of grass fed animals for the best flavor
Because I happened to have beautiful, local grass fed beef and lamb in my freezer, my choice was simple. Shepherd's Pie is an easy, relatively quick dish with lots of flavor. It also freezes well for future dinners. Brown the ground meat, toss in some veggies, herbs and a little stock while you are boiling the potatoes in another pan and in about an hour, you have dinner. 

Whether you are celebrating your own family heritage or the Saint Himself, pour a toast and tip one back to the Old Country: 

                                                                 “Here's to Cheating
Here's to Stealing
Here's to Fighting
Here's to Drinking

If you cheat, may you cheat death;
If you steal, may you steal a ladies heart;
If you fight, may you fight for a brother;
and if you drink, may you drink among friends.”

Shepherd's Pie
Modify this dish as you wish with what you have on hand. Ground beef instead of lamb and frozen veggies from last season's garden work just fine. This is sized for an Irish Catholic size family and may easily be halved for smaller portions.

1 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 c. Celery, chopped
1 c. Onion, chopped
1 c. Carrot, chopped
1 c. Frozen Peas
½ -1 c. Leek, Parsnip, Fennel, chopped, if desired – use what you have
1 Sweet Potato, chopped, if desired
Kosher Salt and Fresh Ground Pepper to taste
Fresh or dried Thyme
Fresh or dried Rosemary
2# ground Lamb
1 # ground Beef
1 tsp Crushed Garlic
2 Bay Leaves
2 c. Beef Stock

Mashed Red Potatoes – These should be mashed until soft with a bit of butter and milk to make them easily spreadable. Or use up leftover mashed potatoes if you like.

 Saute chopped veggies and peas in olive oil just until softened. Season with herbs, salt and pepper.
Brown meat in a separate pan. Add garlic and stock, and stir in veggies. Adjust seasonings.
Pour the mixture into a casserole dish and top with the mashed potatoes.
Bake at 350 degrees until bubbly and brown, about 30-40 minutes.

Recipe Notes:
  • Whenever using dried herbs remember 2 things; you will need less volume of dried than you would fresh, and always rub the dried herbs between your palms to release their flavor.
  • If you are making a vegetarian version with 'Gimme Lean' or a similar product, I find the sausage style has the best flavor.
  • This recipe is made to be improvised. Substitute what you have in your refrigerator or freezer. Lamb too expensive? Use Hamburger. No Sweet Potatoes? Leave them out. This is a peasant dish.
  • I leave the skins on the potatoes when I mash them as a matter of preference. Mashed red skin or Yukon Gold potatoes work best for this dish.