Archive | October, 2013

Spiced Cranberries with Port

30 Oct

A decade ago, I apparently crafted a legendary cranberry sauce. Who knew?

Certainly not me. I wasn’t aware of its legacy in Harry’s mind, until I met my ex-colleague’s wife Yvette during an industry event several years later.

Harry & I both worked for the same laid-back outdoorsy-type tour operator in 1999-ish. Every year, we’d host an informal pot-luck Christmas luncheon in our warehouse-type office building, and since this was my very first employer in the USA and my first official ‘American’ Christmas party, I was eager to make an impression and volunteered to bring cranberry sauce. Truthfully, having been in the country for only about 6 months at the time, I hadn’t the faintest idea about traditional American holiday dishes. Candied yams, green beans with crispy onions, stuffing… it was all foreign, to me, but I knew cranberry sauce so – pen in hand – I jumped on our pot luck list like a pouncing tiger and victoriously jotted down my name for it.

I don’t recall receiving any compliments for that sauce, but that could easily be because I was too busy being mesmerized by Ken’s unfazed deep-frying of 2 turkeys in our warehouse’s back parking lot. He, Harry and a handful of others had moved some of our tour vans out of the way and were about to drop 2 fat turkeys in what looked like a homemade contraption of a few camping stoves and metal pots, the latter filled with oil that bubbled hotter than lava… This was all too much for Ebenezer Scrooge our British boss Tony, who lividly charged at us, clutching a ‘Safety in the Workplace’ pamphlet in his white-knuckled hand, and yelled a series of unsavory choice words I cannot repeat on here. I will never forget this, because Tony’s anger rattled me so, that I practically saw my work visa shredded before my eyes for even partaking in such unauthorized holiday hooliganism… in the work place, no less! And deep-fried turkeys? Whoa. Shut the front door. That, was entirely a new concept for Flemish old me.

Fast forward 12-13 years, and apparently, Harry is still talking about that cranberry sauce. When I met his wife Yvette again after nearly a decade of hiatus, and we got past the initial ‘hey, where do I know you from?!’ awkwardness, she animatedly explained to me that ‘my’ cranberry sauce has become THE standard by which her husband Harry has measured all other cranberry sauces for the past twelve years… “The sauce from that German girl in my office”, he labeled it.

Well, Harry, you’re forgiven for labeling me German in the first place…. And without further ado, you can now rest assured that your holidays will be properly sauced, provided you make it worth Yvette’s while. You’re welcome.

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SPICED CRANBERRIES WITH PORT
(The way Harry likes it…)
– 2 packages of fresh cranberries (2x 12oz)
– 2 cups of Ruby port
– 1.5 to 2 cups of white sugar (depending on your own personal taste)
– 1 stick of cinnamon
– 2-3 cloves + 1 star anise (in cheese cloth, so you can easily remove them)
– 1 small orange, juiced
– 1/2 whole peel of the orange, not zested!

In a sauce pan, heat port with cinnamon stick, orange juice & peel, cloves & star anise over medium-high heat until bubbly. Immediately add fresh cranberries & sugar, and stir to combine. Simmer until berries spontaneously burst and are beginning to break down, and sauce thickens. Approx. 20-25 min. Take from heat, remove cinnamon stick, orange peel and spice packet. Serve at room temperature or allow sauce to cool in the refrigerator. When cool, this sauce should be the consistency of a thick jam. Makes about 4 cups.

Appalachian Onion Soup

22 Oct

Yes. You read that right. This is ‘Appalachian Onion Soup’ because a) it’s made with Kentucky Bourbon and b) who doesn’t want to stick it to the French? Don’t be shy, raise your hand. I haven’t decided yet whether I hate the French or like them, but I sure do love their cuisine. You can’t go wrong with all that butter, cream and wine… n’est-ce pas? In all honesty, I secretly love the French and their curly moustaches. But being that I am from Belgium, and that I’m decidedly non-Francais and speak ‘funny’ French, I can’t be loved in return… You see, it’s against ‘The Code of Honor’ between the French & the Belgians. I understand. At least we have better chocolate. OH SNAP!

But we digress…. When I discovered that I had half a dozen of onions in my fridge and feared they would meet their early demise, I decided my family’s dinner destiny had to be French onion soup, for starters. The only problem, it was already pushing 07:00P and with zero ambition to schlepp myself to the store to go pick up white wine and a few random ingredients that go in an authentic ‘soupe a l’oignon’, I decided to get creative with my American pantry. And since the French would rather die than to endorse this version of their beloved classic, I can’t shame myself further into naming it French onion soup. It’s not proper. And besides, I’m Belgian… what do I know? Tsk!

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APPALACHIAN ONION SOUP
(Adapted from a recipe for classic French Onion Soup)
– 6 large onions, halved and cut into half rounds
– 4 small cloves of garlic, pressed or minced (or 2-3 large ones)
– 3 bay leaves
– 3 Tbsp of ground thyme
– 1 Tbsp of ground sage
– 1/2 cup of aged balsamic vinegar
– 1 cup of Kentucky Bourbon
– 3 cups of beef broth
– 3 cups of chicken broth
– a few slices of 2-day old sour dough bread, toasted
– a handful of grated white cheddar cheese
– salt & pepper, to taste
– 2 Tbsp of butter + 2 Tbsp of olive oil, to caramelize the onions (or 4 Tbsp of ‘ghee’ or clarified butter)
– 1 Tbsp of maple syrup, to caramelize the onions (optional)
– fresh thyme, finely chopped (for garnish)

Heat oven to 500F.

Cut each onion in half, then slice each half into half-moon rounds. Chop fresh thyme finely.

Heat butter and olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. The oil will prevent the butter from burning. Add bay leaves and sliced onions and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are caramelized and a rich amber or golden brown color. You can sprinkle the raw onions with some maple syrup or honey/sugar, which will help them caramelize quicker. This is an optional step, though. Caramelizing the onions will take upwards of 30 min., so be patient and stir only occasionally! If the onions seem to be burning, turn the heat down a notch and add in a splash of water. The water will evaporate in the process and will not water down your soup, but it will prevent the onions from burning.
When the onions are beginning to color lightly, add in the pressed garlic and ground thyme & sage. Stir to combine and continue to simmer the onions until they have reach an amber-like color.

When the onions are browned and caramelized, remove bay leaves and add the balsamic vinegar and half of the Bourbon to the pan, and deglaze the pan by scraping up the browned bits. Add the rest of the Bourbon and both broths, and bring to a simmer. Allow to simmer for an additional 10-15 min without the lid, so the alcohol burns off and the flavors can develop further.

In the meanwhile, take your slices of 1-2 day-old bread and brush them lightly with olive oil. Lay bread slices on a flat baking sheet and toast in the hot oven for approx. 10 min. Keep an eye on them, as they can go from crispy to burned in a matter of seconds. Take the toasted slices out of the oven and lightly rub a clove of garlic over each slice.

Ladle soup into oven-safe bowls, and place a slice (or 2) of toasted bread on top of each bowl. Sprinkle cheddar cheese over bread, and place bowls under the broiler for a few minutes until cheese is melted and bubbly. Sprinkle some fresh thyme over the bubbly, melted cheese and serve right away.

Mustard Braised Chicken with Tarragon

22 Oct

When mom was here a week or so ago, I asked her – in a moment of temporary insanity – if she would mind helping me clean out my pantry. Oye Vey! That’s all I’m going to say about that. Why on earth I thought this would go off without a hinge with my ultra-organized mother is beyond me, but I think there was wine involved when I posed the question. Perched from a stepping stool, I handed her things to throw away that dated back from the time in which Walkman cassette players were all the rage, some of which had a distinct Belgian label and clearly came from another era one of her past visits, so naturally, that yielded my mother’s trademark disapproving eye… and I completely deserve it, really. The thing is, I’m so Scrooge-like with my goods from Belgium that I sometimes forget I even have stuff like ‘Royco Asperge Minuutsoep’… or worse yet, save it for a ‘special’ occasion. If you’re from Belgium, try not to laugh. Okay?

And then there are those times in which I find myself dillydallying in the Manhattan Village mall, usually killing some time waiting for a flight to come in at LAX or so, and inevitably end up buying nonsense from places like ‘Harry & David’ or ‘Williams-Sonoma’, because I am famished and bored I saw a need for silly things like powdered Tikka Masala mix (can I plead the Fifth here?) or a box of jalapeno corn bread, both of which get shoved next to the Vidalia Onion Dressing mix that was gifted to me in a company Christmas basket earlier. And all of which live clandestinely underground in my pantry for years, until I can’t take the clutter anymore and I go on a cleaning spree… Please tell me I’m not alone in this madness?

Anyway, amid our frenzied pantry reorganization, lurking behind my basket of ‘usual’ suspects, I did notice a baggy of dried tarragon from Penzey’s Spices and suddenly remembered my impulsive ambition to try and recreate a mustard-braised chicken stew I saw Jacques Pepin make on our local ‘Create’ television network…. last Winter! Well, I’m happy to report that ‘last Winter’ has finally arrived and the recipe is listed below. I made this one in my super-duper slow cooker, but you can easily use a heavy Dutch oven as well. If so, turn the time down to 2 hours or so.

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MUSTARD BRAISED CHICKEN WITH TARRAGON
(Adapted from a recipe by Jacques Pepin)
– 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
– 4 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
– 2 packages of button mushrooms, large ones halved
– 1 package (8-11 oz) of frozen artichoke hearts (*)
– 1 lbs of small Cippolini onions, halved (or pearl onions, whole)
– 1.5 cups of chicken broth
– 1/4 cup of Dijon mustard
– 1/3 cup of dry white wine
– 3 Tbsp of dried tarragon + a few sprigs of fresh tarragon for garnish
– 1/3 cup of heavy cream
– salt & pepper, to taste
– olive oil, to brown the chicken
(*) You can use fresh or jarred artichoke hearts as well, but they have a tendency to disintegrate in the cooking process in a slow cooker.

Wash and pat the thighs dry, then season with salt & pepper. In a heavy pan, heat the olive oil and brown the chicken thighs on all sides. When browned, transfer to the insert of your slow cooker.

Without rinsing the pan, add a tablespoon of butter and brown the mushrooms, onions and garlic until all of the liquid has evaporated. Deglaze the pan with the wine, scraping up all of the browned bits. Stir in half of the dried tarragon, simmer a minute more and transfer contents to insert of slow cooker. Add frozen artichokes to insert as well.

Combine chicken broth with remaining dried tarragon & mustard, and stir well. Pour over the chicken in your cooker, and braise on ‘low’ for approx.. 4.5 hours until the chicken is fall apart tender.

Add heavy cream to slow cooker, stir and let simmer for another 15-30 minutes or until the sauce has thickened a bit more. Finish off with a few sprigs of chopped fresh tarragon immediately before serving. This dish pairs well with roasted potatoes or rice.

Balsamic Chicken with Figs & Port

15 Oct

How is it, that 10 days flew by so fast? Yesterday, I dropped my mom off at LAX airport from what seemed like a 10-day visit at mach 3 speed. We spent a few days driving through the Angeles and Sequoia National Forests, and onwards through Yosemite NP and Death Valley NP. The parks were ‘officially’ closed due to our infamous Government shutdown, and we received stern warnings from the Park Rangers that stopping or getting out of our car was strictly prohibited, but – given the ridiculousness of this situation – I felt that this policy was open for creative interpretation, so we stopped and took beautiful photographs. Right? The only downfall was that all restrooms were bolted as well, and with a 2.5 hour drive through Yosemite NP, this meant that my unscrupulous desperate 70-year old mother may or may not have ‘wild peed’ behind a tree at Tuolomne Meadows… Please forgive her. If you were in Yosemite around 11:42A last 7th Oct, you needn’t wonder any longer if the national park is habitat to some sort of rare ‘sierra flamingo’. You merely caught a glimpse of my mother, clad in hot pink pants, precariously perched somewhere off-road in between the pines. I’m deeply sorry.

Besides being a colorful character, it also became apparent during this trip that my mother excels in charging stuff to her Belgian visa card, and neatly folding those receipts into her wallet with mathematical precision. “To verify the charges, when the bill comes in”. Among various kitchen gadgets and other pleasantries, she gifted me a really nice 6.5 quart Cuisinart slow cooker and a fantastic Nordic Ware waffler, which happens to be the best frigging waffle iron I have ever owned. While I’m tickled pink with the waffler, it’s the slow cooker that really fills a void in our home. When my old one died in the midst of slow-cooking a satanic 3-lbs Mojo-marinated Cuban pork shoulder, it broke my heart. But now that Cecilia-in-hot-pink-pants flew to the rescue, we have a shiny new 6.5 quart fancy Cuisinart cooker for our Fall & Winter enjoyment. Hurray!

To pay proper respect to my mom’s visa charge, I’m dedicating this recipe to my mother. It’s sweet and tangy, a wee bit odd and chockfull of character… kinda like Cecilia.

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BALSAMIC CHICKEN WITH FIGS & PORT
(A Hungry Belgian original)
– 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
– olive oil, to brown the chicken
– salt & pepper to taste
– 1/2 cup of good quality balsamic vinegar
– 1/2 cup of Ruby port
– 1/2 cup of chicken broth
– 2-3 Tbsp of chopped fresh thyme
– 16 dried figs, roughly chopped
– 2 shallots, finely chopped
– 4 oz of Spanish chorizo, finely chopped

Rinse chicken thighs under cold water & pat dry. Season with salt & pepper, then brown in a skillet in a bit of olive oil.

Place browned chicken thighs in the insert of your slow cooker. Add chorizo & shallots to the pan, and give them a quick flash fry for a few minutes.

Deglaze the pan you used for browning the chicken & chorizo with the balsamic vinegar & port, scraping up any browned bits. When done, add broth and pour liquid & pan drippings over the chicken in your slow cooker, including chorizo & shallots.

Add the thyme & figs, and stir to combine.

Cover the slow cooker & cook on high for 2 hours, until the sauce is thick and somewhat syrupy. Serve with roasted potatoes or over rice.

Lemony Pasta with Peas & Mint

3 Oct

Back in 2010/11, Belgium went without a government for 589 days. Five hundred and eighty nine days! Parks remained open. Government agencies functioned. And our senators tightened their suspenders and showed up for congressional meetings with or without a chip on their shoulder. There was juvenile bickering and fighting amongst members of the congress. There was finger pointing, name calling, red-faced huffing and puffing. There was a 589 day governmental stalemate.

… so what do you do?

You cork a few vats of beer and PARTY! After all, breaking a ‘Guinness World Record’ for being the country with the longest ever recorded absence of Government in the history of civilized mankind, calls for fanciful fireworks and drunken city-wide celebrations. You invite the international press to the festivities, you show off your patriotic colors… on body parts we can’t show on national TV… and you make your mark on global history by displaying loud ridiculous behavior and madly proudly waving your country’s flag whilst yelling nonsensical talk at cameras, in a language nobody but Holland understands. This, is how Belgium handles political strife.

The Belgians aren’t entirely hitting a foul ball with their seemingly ludicrous celebrations… In times like these, what else is there to do but to laugh at your own misery and indulge in good food and a few libations among friends and family? And what better dish to bring people together than delicious and effortless pasta? Pasta is both heartwarming for the soul as well as your wallet’s bottom line. It’s a culinary super hero and a beacon of happiness during hard economic times. So instead of making lemonade with all the sour lemons Congress is throwing at us, why not make a creamy lemony pasta instead?

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LEMONY PASTA WITH PEAS AND MINT
– 1 package of fettucinni, or a pasta of your choice
– 2 cups of fresh English peas, par-boiled (or 2 cups of frozen peas, uncooked)
– 1/2 cup of crème fraiche
– zest of 2 lemons
– 2 Tbsp of chopped fresh mint
– a handful of chunks of Gran Padano cheese or another salty hard cheese of your choice
– salt & pepper to taste
– smoked salmon (optional)

Boil the pasta in a large pot of salted water until almost cooked through. Rather than drain the pasta, take the pasta out of the pasta water with tongs and transfer it to a shallow pan, and don’t worry if some of the pasta water comes with it. We need this extra bit of wetness to create our sauce.

While the pasta cooks, boil some water in a small sauce pan and par-boil fresh English peas in boiling water for approx. 2 min, until almost tender. Shock in a bath of ice water to stop the cooking process. If using frozen peas, there is no need to par-boil those.

Stir the peas in the hot pasta, along with the crème fraiche, lemon zest & mint. Season with salt & pepper. Add a splash of olive oil to finish.

Serve with chunks or slivers of cheese sprinkled over the top… and/or for extra protein, add sliced smoked salmon.

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