Thursday, February 26, 2009


Steak is the perfect meal. It's quick and simple to cook, pairs well with just about everything, and turns any dinner plate into a frame for its earthy red beauty. And the fact that we got two different kinds of steak in the last meat CSA delivery reminded me of how the little difference of bone-in versus out, or an inch of thickness, plus a slight variation in the same old sauce creates the kind of variety that makes it a perfect weekly staple.

Rub any medium to high-end cut of steak with crushed pepper and coarse salt, and let sit on counter for 30 minutes. Sauté at high heat for 3-4 minutes per side, put on a plate and into warm oven, covered.

In the pan, make a sauce. Here’s where it gets fun and gains enough variety to easily become a weekly regular.

1.Sauté in the pan with the drippings some kind of onion: shallot, red onion, sweet onion, regular onion, leek, green onion, garlic

2.Deglaze by adding some kind of alcohol and scraping: red wine, white wine, champagne, brandy, cognac, Marsala, Madeira, sherry...

3.If you want, cut it with some kind of non-alcoholic liquid: broth or stock, juice (apple, unsweetened cranberry…...

4.If you want, add some kind of mushroom: fresh, reconstituted dried...

5.Cook down until the liquid is reduced at least by about half (about 10 minutes usually but you can adjust time by adjusting flame).

6.Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Salad Blues

Green salad is one of those dishes that I feel guilty if I don't serve, and bored if I do. My go to is lettuce, tomatoes, and either carrots, cucumbers, or green peppers. Really, really boring, especially in the winter when all of the ingredients are grown in California or a greenhouse, or both. I have a friend who is ridiculously good at making creative salads, sautéing beans, roasting garlic, going really crazy. His salads are always different and always delicious. I'm not close to that, but if I can put a little effort into it, I can come up with something pretty good. My husband is great at salads, because he thinks outside the box and adds raisins, dried cranberries, nuts, leftover pasta salad. So, in an effort to be more interesting, I've decided to write down some of the good salads I've made, and hope it will inspire me to make them more often. I think the key to a good salad is being willing to add the unusual.

All of these are without amounts, because in the end, who really measures ingredients for a salad?

Green salad with raw beets

Green peppers
Thinly sliced raw beets

Fancy spinach salad

Raw spinach
feta cheese
fresh raspberries
candied pecans or walnuts
vinaigrette (see recipe below)

To candy nuts, heat a frying pan, melt butter, add nuts, stir often until browned, add a generous sprinkling of sugar, stir constantly for another minute, remove from heat.

Chef's salad

hard boiled egg
green pepper

Spinach bacon onion

sauté onions
cook bacon, saving grease
toss grease into raw spinach
crumble bacon on top and add onions
add mushrooms or green beans or something else, if desired

Renée's Vinaigrette

equal parts olive oil and balsamic vinegar
add a generous splash tamari
add country style mustard (or any mustard you have)
add garlic powder and ground pepper
add dried basil, oregano, thyme, etc.

shake up and serve. Something about the tamari keeps this dressing from separating.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

I'm late I'm late I'm late

seems to be my theme this week - so dinner is down to a bare minimum. Thankfully, the standing freezer holds not only chopped fruits and blanched veggies from the summer, but also whole meals made in some long distant past when I made extra things just in case. Last night, we had lasagna. The month or two it spent in the freezer only deepened its flavor. Not only is this lasagna delicious for adult palates, it's a hit with the kids and it packs into their little tummies green and red veggies along with the always favorite cheese and pasta.

1 large portion of quick tomato-meat sauce
2 cups ricotta cheese
1 pound blanched and chopped spinach (previously frozen, by you or some company, works perfectly)
2 eggs
1 cup grated romano cheese
1 pound (2 store-bought packages) mozarella cheese
1 box lasagna noodles (15-18 noodles)

Bring a large pot of water to boil. While you're waiting, make the tomato-meat sauce. In a medium bowl, mix together the two eggs, the ricotta, the spinach, and the parmesan. Mix well. Once the water is boiling vigorously, add a dash of olive oil. Cook the lasagna noodles in batches of 5-6 till just done (remove with tongs or a slotted spoon so water is ready for next batch. Cut the mozarella into 1/4 slices. Assemble by layering in this order: 5-6 noodles, 1/2 of ricotta mixture, 1/2 of mozarella, 1/3 of sauce. Repeat. Top with last batch of noodles and last 1/3 of sauce. Bake at 350 about half an hour. Serves 4-6. To freeze, let cool, then cut in half or thirds and slide, carefully, into freezer bags.

With a salad, this makes a fantastic full meal.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Winter to the left of me, Spring to the right, here I am . . .

I'm stuck between Winter and Spring. My body wants Spring, but the weather is not cooperating. It's only February, after all, so my reasonable side, the part that studied environmental science, would be seriously concerned if tulips were popping up now. But I still dream! A good snowstorm would cure me of my longing for a bit, but looking out at the sunny weather, I imagine it's 50 degrees. Ah, okay, pull yourself together, Renée. Below is an old family favorite that should bring on snow, or at least make good use of the lovely pork chops from the CSA. Country Journal was a Vermont publication which I don't think exists anymore. My father used to write articles for them on woodburning, so my parents have many old magazines. This recipe was a particular favorite and has remained in the menu rotation for over 20 years.

Cider Pork Chops (from Country Journal Oct. 1987 Ken Haedrich)

4 pork chops - 1 inch thick
dust w/ flour
heat 2 TBSP oil in large skillet or enamel pot
add chops
brown 3 to 4 min. each side
add 1 c. cider, 1/4 c. apple jack and 4 to 8 large prunes
once liquid boils, reduce to simmer, loosely cover pan
simmer 25 to 30 min. until fork tender
remove chops and prunes and keep warm in low oven
strain juice into 2-cup sized measuring cup and add enough cream or 1/2 + 1/2 to make 1 1/4 cups. If not appley enough, add more cider/applejack
melt 1 1/2 TBSP butter over low heat, add 1 TBSP flour, stir and cook gently for 2 min. (brown slightly)
wisk in liquid and 1/4 teas. thyme (or more), stir often over low heat 5 min. season w/ salt and pepper
pour over plated chops

And, a dessert. Keja and I noticed that the freezer is frosting up, which is not uncommon. So, we made a pact to try to use everything up in the next few months so we can defrost it in the Spring. I tend to let things linger in the freezer until they are unrecognizable, so it feels good to have a plan! Last night I pulled frozen rhubarb and strawberries out. I dumped them into a bowl together, tossed with some sugar, and put them into a deep pie plate. I made a regular crumble/yum yum topping (equalish parts flour, brown sugar, butter, oats all mashed together), covered the fruit, and popped it into a 375 degree oven for 45 minutes. The kids refused to eat it, which meant more for the adults.

Friday, February 13, 2009

oh winter

While the February thaw sweeps Renee into Spring, it's caught me quite to my surprise longing for a little more winter, the coziness of those cold days when however busy I am I really don't go out that much, and the tightly sealed house fills with the smells of a slow flame under some deep-flavored something. Well, luckily for me it is only February, and even though the snow is melting, when I step out the front door in the early morning I slip and slide on frozen runoff. And even though we opened the windows to air out the house in the afternoon, we locked them down again by four o'clock, and were very happy for pears slow poached in red wine. This is one of my favorite winter desserts because it is both rich and heavy feeling, and fantastically healthy. It also uses up left over red wine. I'm always a red wine fan, but in the winter it feels particularly perfect with just about every meal. Which somehow leads to a constant line of mostly-used bottles of red wine in the pantry. At first, I'm thrilled to know that there's always some around to dash into a pasta sauce or a soup, but then the bottles build up. And then the line grows, and the pantry starts to look a little like the alley behind the liquor store. Time for a seriously wine-based dish.

Pears slow poached in red wine

4 hard pears
about 3/4 bottle of red wine, a mix of types is fine
1/2 cup sugar

Peel the pears and core them from the bottom, leaving the pear intact and the top stem on. I use a paring knife, and do have to dig around a little . Pour the wine and sugar into a pot just big enough to hold the pears. It doesn't matter if they lie down or stand up, but the pot must allow the pears to become mostly covered in the wine. Put the pears in. Bring to a very gentle boil, then turn down the flame and let simmer, very low, for about 2 hours, turning the pears every 30 minutes or so. The wine should reduce, slowly, so that there's about 1/2 cup of syrup at the end. Serve alone, or with vanilla or chocolate ice cream.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Gardening Bugs

I caught a gardening bug over the weekend. I ordered seeds from an heirloom seed group called Seed Savers, I ordered a seed starter from Gardener's Supply, and I bought a Square Foot Gardening how-to book by Mel Bartholomew. The book cracks me up; it's like the script to an infomercial, but I love it. I am contemplating digging out the backyard of snow so I can start my garden right now! Mel is super positive and pretty much guarantees a successful garden. I am pretty sure someone recommended his book to me during an earlier post lamenting my lack of knowledge of, light available to, and space for a garden. I should have paid attention.

Anyway, I am really excited about this. My 3-year old and I have been discussing what to plant and how to build a scarecrow. The Square Foot Gardening method, as best as I can tell, maximizes a small space and allows for easy staggered planting. Like many parts of my life, I am spontaneous to a fault, and seed buying was no different. The eggplants looked gorgeous. Do I eat them? A few times a year, but that didn't stop me. Lettuce? The more kinds the merrier. Some berry I've never heard of? Yes, please! I was imagining a huge crop ripening all at once, and lining up people in my head that I could give 12 eggplants each. Staggering sounds great, and is something that hadn't occurred to me. So, I think this is the perfect method for me because it will help me be organized, which I really like in my life, and allow me to take baby steps as I learn about gardening.

And, as a preview to the summer to come, I pulled out a bag of peaches from the freezer and made yum yum (click here and substitute peaches for apples). I'm embarrassed to admit they were the first I'd used. They were amazing. They were sweet, peachy, so much better than from a grocery store. And I had the added satisfaction of knowing I had prepped them myself. I did discover that freezing them in a ziploc bag works great, except that I didn't pull them out in time enough to thaw so had to heat them in a pan, and the shape they had frozen into was too long to fit. I think this summer, I'll put the bag into an empty yogurt container just until it's frozen, so it will be a more manageable shape.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Soup Night

Monday’s are soup night at my house in the winter. Somehow the simple imperative to make soup every Monday night inspires my creativity. I don’t want to make the same soup twice. Usually, when I start to try to branch out I go to my cookbooks. Well, this week’s recipe, the fresh mushroom soup from Gourmet, sure sounded good, and quite new to me. Only as I chopped and stirred, a strange feeling of déjà vu started to come over me, and as I looked down at the nearly finished product, I had a clear image of the last time I made this soup, only a few weeks ago. So I went back to the pantry, grabbed a fresh pot, and added a whole new series of flavors and textures. I love pretty much everything I cook from Gourmet exactly as it is, but this new concoction is one of the best mushroom soups I’ve ever made. It’s so rich that it might be best in small doses, as an appetizer, but what a treat to eat a whole big bowl.

Cream of Mushroom Soup
½ lb fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 oz dried mushrooms (I like a mix)
2 cups vegetable, chicken, or beef stock
2 cups milk or ½ and ½
1 tsp. salt
2 T butter
2T flour
1 onion
½ bay leaf
½ cup dry sherry

Bring the dried mushrooms, sherry, and ½ cup water to a boil in a small pan. Cover and set aside for about 30 minutes. Scald the milk or ½ and ½ (bring it to a quick boil then turn it off and set it aside). Sauté the mushrooms and onion in the butter for about 10 minutes. Add the flour and stir. Then add the stock, in a slow stream, stirring constantly. Then add the milk, reconstituted mushrooms with liquid, salt, pepper, and bay leaf. Cook on a low heat for about half an hour. Blend using an immersion blender if you have one, or in batches in a standing blender.

This soup, like so many, is best with home-baked bread. About 5 years ago, my mother got me Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery. I followed the directions in it to make a starter, which I’ve kept alive, ever developing its flavor, in the back of the fridge ever since. I bake bread a few times a month, two big loaves at a time, so that I always have some on reserve in the freezer. The bread is absolutely delicious. Our friends visiting from France last month said it was like a loaf they’d buy at the boulangerie—that’s about the best compliment I can imagine! I’m just starting to play with the recipes a little, partly because I’m a slow learner but mostly because they’re just so perfect as is.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Groundhog Day

I had the opportunity to explain Groundhog Day to my 3-year old, which confirmed the ridiculousness of the whole ceremony. I cannot remember the last time Phil did not see his shadow. And how much more winter would we supposedly have if he ever came out to a shadow-free day? However, I think the underlying reason for this tradition is that by February, those of us in the northern climes are getting a touch of cabin fever. We want the hibernation to end, and, as Keja pointed out a few weeks ago, Spring is a countable number of days away.

Though our winter has been amazingly snowy and therefore, amazingly fun, I'll admit to a bit of yearning for Spring. But, it also means I need to figure out my garden for this summer. I have my planters and know where they go. But what will I plant in them? And do I start my own seeds or buy strong seedings? Or both? And if I start my own, when? I need guidance!

But, before we go over entirely to Spring themes, let me give you a cold weather recipe. We got pork chops from the meat CSA and yum!

Pork chops with shiitake mushrooms and apples

Serves 4, prep/cook time: 1 hour

Preheat oven to 375 degrees
Wash, peel, core, and slice two apples into 16 slices each
Saute in a few TBSP olive oil in an oven proof pan for a few minutes over low heat
Add 2 cloves medium chopped garlic
Add 1 cup sliced shiitake (or white) mushrooms, stems removed if shiitake
Salt and pepper mixture
Salt and pepper 4 pork chops
Push mixture to side of pan and lightly sear both sides of chops, moving mix around to make room. As soon as second side goes down, chop can be covered with mushroom/apple mix
When all chops covered, put into oven and cook until done, approximately 30 minutes. Serve with mix on top of chops.