Thursday, January 21, 2010

Rain Rx

The notion popularized by the song "It Never Rains in Southern California" is in fact a myth. It rains alright . . . A LOT. At least this week. Solid. Rain. Every. Day. I know my friends who've been freezing their tails off all winter are enjoying this news. The funnier part is that people in Santa Barbara freak out when it rains and drive like a bunch of idiots. Anyway, I digress . . . . What I wanted to say was when it rains there's a short list of possible prescriptions that seem to soothe the soul in such foul weather. It usually goes something like staying in your pj's all day, reading a book, and taking long naps. At some point you get really hungry though and nothing tastes better than a nice comforting bowl of hot soup. But you can't be bothered with some thin broth. No, you need something substantial, something that sticks to your ribs, something that feels like a blanket of goodness enveloping you. For me that's a phenomenal beef stew.

The thing is, there are some pretty lackluster beef stews out there. After some depressing "misses," I am happy to report I've finally uncovered an amazing beef stew recipe. It's an alluring amalgamation of root vegetables, beef chuck, red wine and fresh herbs. And this comes together so easily. You don't even have to brown the meat before adding it to the sauteed onions and fried sage leaves. I mean if those aren't the building blocks of a divine stew, I don't know what is. The smell alone is insane but the intense sweet and savory flavor profile will really blow your mind.

It's truly the perfect rainy day Rx. But also works great on just a plain old winter day.

Jool's Favorite Beef Stew
By Jamie Oliver

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
Handful of fresh sage leaves
1 3/4 lb cubed beef chuck/stew meat
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup flour
2 parsnips, peeled, quartered and cut into 1.5 - 2 inch pieces
4 carrots, peeled, halved and cut into 1.5 - 2 inch pieces
1/2 butternut squash, deseeded and roughly chopped
1 lb small potatoes
2 Tbsp tomato puree
Generous half of a bottle of red wine (something you'd want to drink)
32 oz carton of beef broth
Zest of 1 lemon
Handful of fresh rosemary leaves
1 small clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Toss the meat in a bag filled with the flour seasoned with salt and pepper and coat lightly. Heat the olive oil and butter in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sage and fry for 3 to 4 minutes. Then add the meat, vegetables, tomato puree, wine, and stock, and gently stir together. Season generously with pepper and a bit of salt. Bring to a boil and place the lid on top, then cook in the over until the meat is tender. Check at 3 hours but it could be up to 4, depending on the cut of meat. The only way to tell is to mash up a piece of the meat and if it falls apart easily it's ready. Once it's cooked, you can turn the over down to about 225 degrees and just hold it there until you're ready to eat.
The secret ingredient behind this dish is to mix in the lemon zest, rosemary and garlic just before serving. Simply stated, it kicks this dish into the next stratosphere. Yield: Serves 4-6.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Shout Out

I'd like to give a shout out to my new friend Brussels sprouts.

You may know him and probably think he's pretty bitter and down right torturous to eat. I have to admit I had the same opinion of him, but after I got a chance to know him in several different dishes I can attest he's actually very sweet and tasty. Sometimes people showcase him in ways that just don't suit him (i.e. boiling to the point of turning his vibrant green leaves to gray) and even make him smell like dirty socks.

For whatever reason, Brussels didn't show up much at our house when I was growing up. Over Christmas, I was dining at this amazing restaurant in Savannah with my parents and was finally properly introduced to him. I had this beautifully prepared flounder which sat on a velvety parsnip puree with roasted vegetables. It was divine with the fish practically melting in your mouth, but my first bite of the vegetables almost stopped me in my tracks. I began deconstructing the dish so I could get a closer look at what caught my attention. Low and behold, it was Brussels — all caramelized and toasty with bits of apple smoked bacon clinging to him. It was essentially Brussels dressed up and looking smokin' hot ready for a night out on the town, versus Brussels in a tacky spandex jumpsuit three sizes too small. Sadly, I think people mostly see Brussels in the latter fashion faux pas and therefore don't get too excited about inviting him to dinner.

But I must implore you to do just that: Have him for dinner. For one, he plays well with others, like cheese, butter, pork products, shallots, nuts, and so on. Secondly, he's down right cute, pimping his mini cabbage body. Thirdly, he's quite a chameleon, manifesting himself as nutty, sweet, tender, and crispy. And lastly (if you're still not convinced), he's super healthy, packed with mega nutrients and recognized as a serious cancer fighter.

If you're not quite ready to present him front and center with a meal, at least shake his hand with this truly delicious appetizer. I brought it to a friend's house on Saturday and everyone was shocked to find out they were devouring brussels sprouts underneath all the gooey cheese. The smokiness from the paprika, sweetness from the onions and the nuttiness from the brussels sprouts creates a bite layered with complex yet harmonious flavors.

It won't be long before you're calling Brussels your BFF.

Brussels Sprouts and Smoky Onions on Cheddar Crostini
Adapted from Food & Wine

1 lb brussels sprouts, thinly sliced, lengthwise
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 oz chopped pancetta
1 large onion, finely diced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 tsp sweet paprika
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
Multi-grain baguette
4 oz extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place sliced brussels sprouts on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with Tbsp olive oil. Add diced pancetta and mix to coat and lay in a single layer on the baking sheet. Pop in the over for about 30 minutes or until brussels sprouts are tender and starting to brown.
Meanwhile, heat the remaining olive oil in a large skillet. Add onion, season with salt and pepper and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until just softened, about 5 minutes. Add the paprika, stir, cover and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the onion is tender, about 10 minutes. Add a bit of water if the onion dries out.
Add the roasted brussels sprouts to the skillet and heat throughout, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper if needed.
Heat oven to 350 degrees and toast slices of wheat bread for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and turn over, mounding some of the brussels sprouts mixture on each slice. Top each slice with some grated cheese and bake until melted, approximately 5 minutes.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Sweet Caramelized Mess

I'm not trying to add insult to injury. I know most of the U.S. is freezing their tail off when it's been sunny and in the 70s during the day here in Santa Barbara. But if it makes anyone feel better, we're supposed to be bracing for an El NiƱo (read: rainy) winter. Next week you'll probably be hearing me wail about the unrelenting rain. I know for a fact I could never live in Seattle. I need the sun. Most of the time Santa Barbara delivers. However it's also delivered to me a low threshold for cold temperatures. This results in me lighting a fire when the nighttime temps dip into the 50s and a craving for wintery comfort foods even though I ate fresh ceviche for lunch in my flip-flops and a t-shirt. 

And since this is the beginning of a New Year, when we're supposed to be turning over a new eating leaf after all the rich food indulgences of the holidays, I am pretending to, I mean trying to, eat more healthy winter veggies. Granted, in of themselves, they're not much to write home about, but drizzled with a bit of olive oil and roasted in the oven for an hour — with some diced pancetta because who can go cold turkey on the healthiness index?! — they are transformed into a sweet, caramelized mess of deliciousness. I'm sure the pancetta has a little to do with it, but honestly only a little. Did I mention there's also a scoch of maple syrup? I'm not sure if that's considered a natural sweetener but it's just a tad so you can practically ignore it. It's like eating french fries off someone else's plate: No calories.  

Whether you're looking for a dish to help you honor your intention to eat healthier or simply warm you up, try this one. It's mindless to prepare and makes you forget you're consuming brussels sprouts that are as good for you as they are tasty. 

Roasted Root Vegetables
More or less by Bon Appetit

1/4 cup olive oil
2 Tbsp pure maple syrup
1 garlic clove, minced
4 beets, peeled, quartered
2 Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered
2 carrots, peeled, cut diagonally into 2 -inch-long pieces
2 parsnips, peeled, cut diagonally into 2-inch-long pieces
1 sweet potato, peeled, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 large sweet onion, peeled, quartered through root end
1/2 lb brussels sprouts (approximately 12-15 sprouts)
1/3 cup diced pancetta
2 Tbsp butter, melted (optional)
1/3 cup chopped green onions (optional)

Preheat over to 400 degrees. Mix oil, syrup and garlic in small bowl. Place all cut vegetables and pancetta on a heavy large rimmed baking sheet. Pour oil mixture over; toss to coast. Spread vegetables in a single layer. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast until tender and golden brown, stirring occasionally, about an hour. Transfer roasted vegetables to a platter and drizzle with melted butter and sprinkle with chopped green onions. Yields: 6 servings. [Note: The key here is to make sure all the vegetables are cut in similar sizes. That way they'll cook evenly. The bigger the size, the longer it will take to cook.]

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

App Envy

Although I'm extremely devoted to my Blackberry, I reluctantly admit I feel twinges of "App Envy" when I'm around my friends with iPhones. They can't seem to resist showing off their phones but more importantly the myriad of cool applications that are now available. You want to "bump" phones to exchange contact information? Yeah, there's an app for that. Want to predict flight delays based upon developing weather patterns? They've got the app. How about photoshopping the mobile picture you just took? You guessed it: The app exists. For that matter, I think you'd be hard pressed to find an app that
doesn't exist. 

While I may not have an iPhone with cool apps, I did recently serve up an app that was the envy of the party. There are times when good guac and chips hit the spot (like sitting poolside while drinking a margarita), but it's also rather uninspired. I'm always on the hunt for appetizers that pique the interest, awaken the palate, and are easy to pull off. In addition to meeting the aforementioned app requirements, this recipe also struck my fancy because it's a triple threat: (1) It's salty, (2) cheesy, and (3) is kissed with bacon. Actually, can I change that to a quadruple threat because I also want to add crunchy to the list. Wait, and it also has a little heat, so is that a quintuple threat?  OK, I think you get the picture. It's the perfect fusion of flavors and textures. Just downright scrumptious — only heightened when accompanied by a crisp glass of champagne or a frosty pilsner.

So invite your braggy iPhone friends over and munch away on these intoxicatingly good appetizers. Trust me, their apps won't hold a candle to yours. 

Potato Chips with Goat Cheese, Pepper Jelly and Bacon
from Food & Wine

6 oz sliced bacon
36 thick-cut potato chips
5 oz goat cheese, softened
3 Tbsp pepper jelly
1 Tbsp snipped chives (optional)

In a large skillet, cook the sliced bacon over high heat until crisp. Drain, cool and crumble bacon. 
Arrange the potato chips on a serving platter. Spread or pipe 1 tsp of the goat cheese onto each potato chip. Top with a small dollop of the pepper jelly, sprinkle with the bacon (and chives if you're using them) and serve right away. Yields: 12 servings. 
[Notes: The bacon can be made several hours ahead of time. Plan to have the goat cheese sit out for at least 2 hours so it's spreadable. If you don't have an icing bag to pipe the cheese onto the chip, you can also use a freezer ziploc bag with the corner snipped off. I say freezer because I first used a regular ziploc and the seam burst open within about 30 seconds with goat cheese oozing out everywhere. Quite the mess. I used my mom's amazing hot pepper jelly, which is green, but I more often see the red pepper jelly for sale in grocery stores. The best chips are extra-thick kettle chips so don't skimp here. And ideally you want a non-chipped potato chip. As such, you may want to buy 2 bags so you can sort through and find the best surface areas. Or maybe I'm just too much of a Type A personality. . . . ]

Friday, January 1, 2010

Getting Lucky

It's a tradition in the South to eat black-eyed peas on New Year's day. They bring you luck in the coming year. Each year my mom would serve up a bowl of peas with a quarter added to "boost" the prosperity of the lucky recipient. I honestly can't recall ever finding that quarter in my peas but I loved the sentiment. 

When I moved to Santa Barbara, I started making Hoppin' John, a rice and black-eyed pea dish with greens symbolizing folded money, on New Year's day. None of the locals had heard of this tradition, but no one seemed opposed to trying to get lucky in the coming year. 

I just made a big pot of it and savored my good luck serving and wanted to take a moment to wish everyone a blessed and prosperous 2010!

Hoppin' John
From Cooking Light

2 cups water
2 Tbsp whole grain Dijon mustard
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp dried thyme
2 Tbsp olive oil
3 1/2 cups diced onion
1 cup uncooked long-grain white rice
1 cup finely chopped ham
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 cans (15 oz) black-eyed peas
4 cups chopped trimmed greens (collard, turnip, and/or mustard)

Combine first four ingredients, stirring with a whisk; set aside. 
Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion to pan; saute 6 minutes. Add rice, ham, and garlic; saute 2 minutes. Stir in water mixture; bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes. Add peas and greens; cover and cook 5 minutes. Stir rice mixture, cover and cook an additional 5 minutes or until greens and rice are tender. Yields: 6 servings.