Gone Green

garden

Yesterday, I finally got around to my favorite summer ritual, greenifying (is this a word yet) my back porch. When you live in a city like Chicago, that radiates heat from the cement and ropes off grass, I find it’s very important to create your own oasis. This is my fourth year growing an herb garden and I look forward to it every summer. This year I’ve gone above and beyond the previous three years by growing ten varieties of herbs and three varieties of lettuce (when you eat as much lettuce as I do, growing your own just makes economic sense). All my edibles are organic, grown in organic soil and hopefully will not need any organic fertilizer since I added compost from City Farm. I wish I could grow even more, especially an avocado tree (a girl can dream). However, my porch only receives morning sun and, therefore, I cannot grow fruit producing plants. I even tried to prove myself wrong last year by attempting to grow Roma tomatoes. Needless to say, no matter how much I gave my little tomato plants pep talks, they needed lots more sun than I could provide. So this year, I’ve only planted things that will be successful in part-sun or can be moved around to follow the sun. What I’m growing this year: parsley, rosemary, basil, thai basil (specifically for pho), thyme, spearmint (this is perfect for the mojitos I plan to drink while enjoying my porch), Greek oregano, dill, tarragon, butterhead lettuce, green leaf lettuce, encore lettuce and a variety of flowers.

I dream of the day I only eat what I grow, but until that day, I am in anticipation of the wonderful dishes I will cook using a dash of what I grew in my own “backyard”.

Chicken Pho, My Kind of Chicken Noodle Soup

Pho

I am a huge fan of pho. Pho could have its own fan club here in Chicago. On the mention of it, my friends go “mmm, when’s the next time you want to do pho?” You see, one doesn’t just eat pho. Pho is an experience best shared with others. Pho fills the tummy and feeds the soul.

If you’re not part of the fan club yet, what exactly is pho? Pho, pronounced fuh, is a Vietnamese noodle soup usually of the beef variety. And when I say variety, I mean it. At my favorite Chicago pho restaurant, Pho Xe Tang better known as Tank Noodle, they have at least 20 varieties of beef pho cooked with different parts of the cow to make the broth. Some varieties include tripe (cow’s stomach). I rarely eat beef, so I am left with the one chicken pho on the menu, but it is equally delicious. Your steaming hot bowl of pho is served with a plate pilled high with thai basil, culantro, bean sprouts, hot peppers and sauces to dip your meat. I explain this because the first time I ate pho I sat and watched everyone until I could figure out how it all worked. Unfortunately, Argyle street is about an hour’s trek on public transit. So, when I found this recipe for a quick Vietnamese noodle soup on Love and Olive Oil, I couldn’t wait to try it. I had my doubts as to whether it would taste like the real thing, but as soon as I opened the lid of the simmering soup I instantly smelled that authentic pho smell. Even better, it tasted authentic.

This recipe says you can make this soup with either homemade or store bought chicken stock. I’ve tried it with both, and I would have to say that using store bought is not an option here. You just won’t receive the complexity of flavor with store bought stock, homemade really does make the difference. Not sure how to make your own chicken stock? Tomorrow I’ll be posting my favorite chicken stock recipe.

Quick Vietnamese Chicken Pho
adapted from Love and Olive Oil via Steamy Kitchen

1 lb dried rice noodles
2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
4 whole cloves
2 whole star anise
2 quarts homemade chicken stock
2 chicken breasts, whole
1/2 onion, whole
1 3-inch chunk of ginger, sliced and smashed with side of knife
1-2 tablespoons sugar
1-2 tablespoons fish sauce

Side Accompaniments
2 cups bean sprouts, washed and tails pinched off
fresh cilantro tops
thai basil
1/2 cup shaved red onions
1/2 lime, cut into wedges
sriracha chili sauce
hoisin sauce
sliced fresh chili peppers

To make the broth, heat a frying pan over medium heat. Add the coriander seeds, cloves, and star anise and toast until fragrant, about 3-4 minutes. Immediately remove from pan to avoid burning.

In a large pot, add spices, chicken stock, chicken breast, onion, ginger, sugar, and fish sauce. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer for 20 minutes, skimming the surface frequently. Use tongs to remove the chicken breasts and thinly slice the meat, discarding the bone (if you used a bone-in breast).

Taste broth and add more fish sauce or sugar if necessary. Strain the broth and discard solids.

Prepare the noodles as per directions on the package.

Ladle the broth into bowls. Divide the sliced chicken breast and noodles evenly into each bowl. Top with bean sprouts, cilantro, red onion, and other accompaniments as desired and enjoy.

{photos by Avocados and Pancakes}

The Best Thing I Ever Ate, Pt. 2

broccoli beurre blanc

The best meal of my life, crab bouillabaisse, was served with a warm side of steamed broccoli with beurre blanc. Um, it was not because of my self-dignity, it was more of my vague calorie consciousness that I did not drink the rest of this sauce in a sippy cup. If you happen to know someone who hates broccoli, try pouring this wonderful aromatic, buttery sauce over it. Since broccoli, I’ve also used it to top asparagus and brussels sprouts. I doubt you’ll find a vegetable you won’t love with this sauce poured over it.

Steamed Broccoli with Beurre Blanc
adapted from Jamie Oliver

1 cup good white wine
1 shallot or 1/2 red onion, peeled and finely chopped
A few sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley and fresh tarragon
1 bay leaf
4 black peppercorns
2 heads of broccoli, broken into florets
3/4 cup cold unsalted butter, sliced thin
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Put your wine, shallot, herbs and peppercorns into a small pot and bring to a boil, then simmer slowly for 3 to 4 minutes or until reduced by half and remove from the heat. To make your beurre blanc, pour the flavored wine through a sieve into a metal bowl. Place the bowl over a pan of water on a very low heat, whisk, and add the cubes of butter one at a time, whisking them in until all the butter has been used. The sauce will emulsify and look like a very loose custard. Use the beurre blanc immediately or keep whisking it over your pan of water. If you leave it too long, the sauce may split.

Steam your broccoli florets until they’re soft, but not mushy. Taste your sauce and adjust the seasoning, if desired. Pour beurre blanc over broccoli.

{photos by Avocados and Pancakes}

The Best Thing I Ever Ate, Crab Bouillabaisse

crab bouillabaisse

Yes, no lie, I’ve had the best meal of my life. It didn’t come from a highly acclaimed restaurant or from the kitchen of a famous chef. It was made right here in our little kitchen. The mister and I couldn’t stop talking about it the whole time we ate. We just sat there stunned at first and then felt a little more euphoric with every bite. By the end of the meal, neither of us wanted to move. We kept saying over and over to each other, “I can’t believe we just made that”. It wasn’t even challenging to prepare, and that is the real beauty of it.

tomatoes and spices

This dish is commonly made in the mister’s home country of Mauritius. A bouillabaisse, as you could deduct by the name, is a traditional dish from France. A French bouillabaisse is a soup containing various kinds of fish, shellfish, vegetables, and herbs. The Mauritians put their own twist on it and prepare it with crab. So, using our cookbook we picked up in Mauritius, the mister and I followed suit. We made our own little changes to it, using snow crab instead of the blue swimmer crabs you find in Mauritius and adding heavy cream. Adding heavy cream, in my humble opinion, will make everything better. I like to think that if they had heavy cream in Mauritius this is the way they would make it too. It was so decadent, with the spiciness of the hot peppers contrasted by the sweet, creaminess of the crab and cream. It is my idea of the perfect dish. Sorry, I’m not ready to give this recipe up quite yet. For now, it’ll be our family’s secret recipe.

chunks of crab

{photos by Avocados and Pancakes}

Spinach and Cheese Strata

spinach and cheese strata

I’m still here. I haven’t forgotten about this blog and I haven’t stopped cooking either. I’ve just been absent and it’s time for me to do my makeup homework. I would apologize to my readers, but I’m not entirely sure I have any. I mean that in all lightheartedness. This blog has never been about who reads it and who doesn’t, it’s a personal project and a personal commitment. Lately it’s been important for me to remember to just keep moving forward because these past two years surely have been draining. Last year it was the year of layoffs and wedding planning. I can’t think of another combination of words in the same sentence that could evoke more stress. And beyond that it’s been a year of false starts, both internal and external. There’s been those good times too. Like our three week honeymoon to the other side of the world, yet I shouldn’t mention that it left me with three weeks of jet lag. And knowing when I came back from our lovely honeymoon that there was a long list waiting for me. And what’s that saying? Long lists never get done. That could not be more true. So in the spirit of long lists, I will begin posting my back log of what I’ve cooked, starting with a spinach and cheese strata.

This recipe made a lot of food. It was nice and convenient to have around for several mornings of reheating, because cooking in the morning is a chore and usually not something I do. Next time I’ll make sure I have Dijon mustard on hand. The aioli garlic mustard I used instead was not the best addition, otherwise, this one’s a win in my book.

Spinach and Cheese Strata
adapted from Smitten Kitchen via Gourmet Magazine

1 10 ounce package frozen spinach, thawed, squeeze of all excess liquid, and chopped
1 large finally chopped onion
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
8 cups cubed French or Italian bread in 1-inch cubes (1/2 lb)
2 cups coarsely grated Gruyère
1 cup finely grated parmesan
2 3/4 cups milk
9 large eggs
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Sauté onion in butter in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat until soft, about 5 minutes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper and nutmeg and continue cooking for one minute. Stir in spinach, remove from heat and set aside.

Spread one-third of the bread cubes in a well-buttered 3-quart gratin dish or other ceramic baking dish. Top with one-third of bread cubes, one-third of spinach mixture and one-third of each cheese. Repeat layering twice with remaining bread, spinach and cheese.

Whisk eggs, milk, mustard and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper together in a large bowl and pour evenly over strata. Cover with plastic wrap and chill strata for eat least 8 hours or up to a day.

The next day, let it stand at room temperature for 30 minutes while preheating the oven to 350°F. Bake strata, uncovered, in middle of oven until puffed, golden brown, and cooked through, 45 to 55 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

{photos by Avocados and Pancakes}

Fried Chicken, Mashed Potatoes and Corn Bread

southern dinner

The title says it all, we’re talking about southern comfort food. It doesn’t matter where you come from, north or south, everyone loves a little slice of southern food. I know, I know, you are thinking I thought she’s from the Midwest, northern Midwest at that. This is true. However, this one may just be a win for nature vs. nurture, nature 1 nurture 0. I was never raised on southern food nor taught to cook it. So I’m going to have blame my penchant for it on my culinary DNA. For many generations prior to mine, my family resided in Tennessee. There are stories of my great-grandmother and her famous fried chicken, fresh green beans cooked with bacon fat, and corn bread served in a glass of milk. So there you go, it doesn’t get much more southern than that. This is the one meal I make that embodies my love for southern food: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn bread and creamed spinach. The creamed spinach is my substitute for collard greens. I love well made collard greens, however, it’s one thing I just don’t have the patience to make. All the trimming and slow cooking, eh, I’ll skip straight to the chopped frozen spinach and parmesan cheese. All this meal needs is a pecan pie for dessert. Bon appetitie ya’ll!

Oven Fried Chicken
adapted from Ina Garten

3 pounds chicken drumsticks
1 quart buttermilk
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt
1 tablespoon fresh ground pepper
vegetable or canola oil

Place the chicken pieces in a large bowl and pour the buttermilk over them. Cover with plastic wrap and marinade in the refrigerate for four hours or overnight. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Combine the flour, cayenne, salt, and pepper in a large bowl or shallow dish. Take the chicken out of the buttermilk and coat each piece thoroughly with the flour mixture. Pour the oil into a large heavy-bottomed stockpot to a depth of 1-inch and heat to 360° F on a thermometer.

Working in batches, carefully place several pieces of chicken in the oil and fry for about 3 minutes on each side until the coating is a light golden brown (it will continue to brown in the oven). Don’t crowd the pieces. Remove the chicken from the oil and place each piece on a baking sheet. Allow the oil to return to 360° F before frying the next batch. When all the chicken is fried, bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the chicken is no longer pink inside. Serve hot.

Mashed Potatoes

2 pounds red potatoes
4 to 6 tablespoons salted butter, room temperature
1/2 to 3/4 cup heavy cream
kosher or sea salt to taste
fresh ground pepper to taste

Note: I really enjoy my potatoes whipped. In order to make whipped potatoes without any lumps, whip them with an electric hand mixer while they are still very hot. You may also heat your heavy cream so it doesn’t cool your potatoes before serving.

Peel your potatoes and rinse them thoroughly. Chop potatoes into about one inch cubes and add them to a large saucepan. Cover potatoes with cold water by about 3 inches. [Cold water is important to ensure the potatoes cook evenly.] Bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until the potatoes are fork tender, about 40 to 45 minutes.

Drain the potatoes in a colander in the sink. Put potatoes into a large mixing bowl and add butter and heavy cream. Whip potatoes with a hand mixer for 5 to 10 minutes, until fluffy and you’re left with no lumps. Season with salt and pepper and adjust to taste.

Creamed Spinach
adapted from Tyler Florence

1 16 ounce package chopped frozen spinach, defrosted and excess water removed
1 cups heavy cream
2 fresh bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 sprigs fresh thyme
3 cloves garlic, peeled
freshly grated Parmesan, to taste
salt and freshly cracked black pepper
lemon, juiced

Place a saucepan of cream with bay leaves, rosemary, thyme and garlic over medium heat and simmer until reduced and thick. Remove the spinach from the package and allow it to drain in a strainer. Push any excess water out of the spinach using some paper towels. Set aside. When ready, remove herbs and garlic from cream and fold in the spinach. Add Parmesan, to taste, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Old Fashion Corn Bread

1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1/3 cup sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoons salt
1 cup milk
1/4 cup shortening

Sift flour with sugar, baking powder, salt, and stir in cornmeal. Add eggs, milk, and shortening. Beat with electric hand mixer until just smooth, do not over beat. Pour into greased 9 by 9 by 2 in pan. Bake at 400° F for 20 to 25 minutes.

{photos by Avocados and Pancakes}

Goat Cheese, Spinach and Onion Pizza

goat cheese spinach and onion pizza

I can’t count the number of times I crave pizza weekly. But I don’t often give into my cravings for two reasons: there’s only one pizza place in Chicago that’s up to my taste (I hear the gasps already, but deep dish is not my thing) and buying a frozen pizza never results in a favorable experience. In order to appease my budget and my cravings, I decided it was time to finally make a homemade pizza from scratch. I’ve done this before, but it involved store bought dough. Pre-made dough usually does result in a delicious pizza, but these days I don’t really buy pre-made anything for a long list of reasons. That being said, it does take some patience to make your own pizza dough, but it is well worth the wait. If you’ve never made your own pizza completely from scratch, plan ahead. It takes about two hours for the dough to rise and double in size. If you plan ahead, you can put your pizza dough in the fridge while you’re at work or overnight. The cold slows down the rise, so it may need a full eight hours in your fridge before the dough has doubled. However, I’ve been told a long rise results in a more complex flavor. Once your dough is ready to go, roll it out with a rolling pin. Should you not have a rolling pin, you can even use an empty wine bottle. Fortunately for me, the mister has pro skills in hand stretching pizza dough. Thank you to that after school job in high school. Top with your homemade pizza sauce, recipe follows, and top with your choice of toppings. Pop in an oven hot enough to melt your eyelashes, and ten minutes later you’ll have a little slice of happiness.

goat cheese spinach and onion pizza 2

This pizza was very good, with pockets of warm goat cheese and caramelized onions. Even though I was really pleased with this pizza, I’d like to experiment a little more with this recipe. Next, I’d like to try bread flour in the pizza dough instead of all-purpose flour. Bread flour has a higher gluten level, so this produces a stretchier, chewier crust. And I do love a chewy, thin crust pizza. I also recently received a pizza dough recipe that does not use any yeast at all. This means no waiting next time that pizza craving strikes. What a nice proposition!

Pizza Dough
adapted from Smitten Kitchen via Mario Batali

I doubled this recipe to yield two small pizzas, enough to serve 2-3 people.

Dough
3/4 cup warm water (may need up to 1 or 2 tablespoons more water)
4 tablespoons white wine
1 1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon honey
2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups flour

Assembly
Cornmeal for sprinkling
Flour for dusting counter

For each pizza:
1/2 cup mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1 cup baby spinach
1/3 cup onion, thinly sliced
6-8 slices of goat cheese

Whisk wine, water and yeast in a medium bowl until yeast has dissolved. Add honey, salt and olive oil and stir. Add flour and no matter how dry it looks, work it with a spoon and your fingers until it comes together as a dough. Add more water one tablespoon at a time if you need.

Sprinkle some flour on the counter and knead the dough for a minute or two. Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and let it rise for an hour or up to two, until it is doubled.

[Easiest way to tell if a dough has risen enough? Dip two fingers in flour, press them into the dough, and if the impression stays, it’s good to go. If it pops back, let it go until it doesn’t.]

Meanwhile, make some sauce, recipe below.

Preheat your oven to its highest temperature. If you have a pizza stone, sprinkle it with cornmeal and put it in the oven to preheat the stone. Otherwise, sprinkle a baking sheet with the same.

Once the dough has doubled, turn it out onto a floured counter and gently deflate the dough with the palm of your hands. Form it into a ball and let it rest on a floured spot covered with an upside down bowl. In 15 minutes, it is ready to roll out or stretch by hand.

Roll out on a floured counter until pretty thin, then lift it onto a cornmeal-sprinkled baking sheet or stone. Add pizza sauce, mozzarella, parmesan, spinach, onion and goat cheese. Place pizza in the oven and bake for about 10 minutes, checking at 8 minutes. My oven cooks very slowly, so it took my pizza about 15 minutes to achieve a golden brown crust. Slice and serve immediately.

Pizza sauce
adapted from smitten kitchen

14 ounces crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste, preference is the double concentrate paste in tube form
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Splash of white wine
1/2 teaspoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt

Pour in olive oil in a sauce pan and let it heat completely before adding the garlic and stirring it for a minute with a wooden spoon. Add the red pepper flakes and stir it for anther minute. You do not want the garlic to brown. Put the crushed tomatoes and tomato paste in the pot, along with the wine, sugar and salt, stirring to combine.

Let the sauce simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, letting the flavors meld. Taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary.

{photos by Avocados and Pancakes}