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Brazilian Shrimp & Crab Stew

19 Sep

Earlier this morning, my friend Debi over at Life Currents posted a recipe for Shrimp & Crab Enchiladas. She & her husband ‘Dan-the-Man’ apparently roam in delicious circles, as their fabulous friend Chad whipped up those incredibly delicious-looking enchiladas. Chad, you’re the man too! 

Since I wasn’t properly fed or caffeinated yet, what with having skipped breakfast and all, the thought of succulent shrimp & crab flirted with me like a fierce Russian mail order bride until well after noon. By the time I got off work, I knew I wanted shrimp & crab, but we had just feasted on Mexican food yesterday so I was contemplating what to make with it. Then, as by divine intervention, I drove past a Brazilian Ju-Jitsu place on my way to the grocery store, et voila I know! Isn’t the brain a wonderful thing?! 

The dish below is actually called “Moqueca”. A quick Pinterest study taught Me that there are about as many versions of “Moqueca” available as there are Brazilian grandma’s, but I read a few recipes and ran with it. I’m by no means proclaiming the dish below is authentic, but it tastes like a sultry day salsa dance on Ipanema Beach, steel drums & all. Perfect for a Monday eve, if you ask me.  

Serve it over rice or -like yours truly- with a big honk of crusty bread to sop up all the juices. 

BRAZILIAN SHRIMP & CRAB STEW
(Based on a handful of Pinterest recipes for “Moqueca de Camaroes”)

– 2x 16oz bags of fresh or frozen large shrimp, peeled & deveined, tail off
– 32oz of fresh crab meat, or 2x 16oz of canned premium crab meat (claw)
– 2x 12oz jars of roasted red peppers, drained & cut into strips
– 2 yellow bell peppers, cut into strips
– 2 large onions, finely diced/chopped
– 3-4 fresh limes
– 6 cloves of garlic, grated 
– 4oz of tomato paste
– 2 Tbsp of turmeric
– 2 Tbsp of ground cumin
– 2 Tbsp of fresh ginger, grated
– 1-2 tsp of Sriracha (or harissa, sambal oelek or a similar hot sauce of your choice)
– 2x 15oz cans of coconut milk
– salt & pepper 

In a large container, toss shrimp with ground cumin, 2 grated cloves of garlic and juice of 2 limes. Set aside for 30 min.

In a large heavy pot, add onions & yellow peppers in a bit of oil, season with salt & pepper, and sauté over medium-high heat until vegetables begin to soften. 

Turn heat to medium and add turmeric, tomato paste & fresh ginger to the onions & peppers. Stir to coat and cook for 1-2 minutes to release the flavors

Add diced tomatoes, coconut milk, garlic and juice of remaining 1-2 limes, and bring to a simmer. Simmer until vegetables are soft and sauce begins to thicken somewhat.

Add Sriracha and season with salt & pepper to your liking. 

Add shrimp and all their juices to the simmering vegetable mixture, and cook 15-20 min until shrimp are cooked through. Add crab meat and warm through over low heat. 

Add chopped cilantro & parsley, and serve immediately. 

Picadillo Cubano

22 Aug

I’ll come right out and say that I knew very little about ethnic food whilst growing up in my small, rural neck of the woods. My mom would sometimes experiment with ethnic food, such as that time she prepared ‘babotee’. OMG!. Babotee!. I think my brother & I are still mentally scarred from that one. Funny enough, I have no memory whatsoever of having eaten anything exotic after the babotee disaster, so I’m thinking that that African devil even struck a nerve with mom. We didn’t have much money and food was never wasted, and that was both a promise as well as curse since you knew that when something didn’t turn out quite well, we’d still be eating it! Babotee was right up there with canned bananas.

Anyway, my first ‘real’ exposure to exotic cuisine was when I went to the ‘Polé Polé Festival’ in Gent (Belgium) with a few friends and enjoyed my first Mojito and roast pork. One of the things I probably miss most from Belgium, are the sultry Summer music festivals and their colorful posters that were haphazardly tacked on wooden telephone poles & announcement boards across town. The featured bands usually hailed from Northern Africa, Central & Latin America and flamenco heartbeats like Spain & Portugal. The band names alone were enough to lure us out of our rural shell: Radio Tarifa, Youssou n’Dour, Ojos de Brujo, Cesaria Evora… The sound of African drums and the exotic smells that wafted over the concert meadow, took us far away from the sugar beet fields & farms surrounding our houses. And when the heat became too much for the atmosphere and the torrential downpour of a typical Belgian thunderstorm came rolling in, we’d all huddle in the festival tents and it felt like a tropical vacation. It’s precisely there, in that oppressive hot tent, that my love for global music and world cuisine was born. My friend also found love for Ntibanoboka from Burundi there… but we shall say no more.

African, Caribbean & Latin cuisines are the type of culinary exploration that I haven’t really ventured into yet. I can follow a recipe, of course, but it’s not like I can add a little bit of this & a little bit of that and come up trumps. I have little to no understanding of flavor combinations in exotic cooking, yet I love mostly all ethnic food that I’ve eaten at small family-owned hole-in-the-wall type eateries as well as fancy restaurants. Now that our finances are seriously strapped and firmly rooted in the chicken & ground beef realm of things, I miss going to our favorite restaurants. Havana Mania in Inglewood, CA is no exception. I love that Cuban place. Not only do they serve the meanest mojito’s there, but the owner usually welcomes us with a broad smile and open arms, as though we’re his long lost relatives finally returning home. And it doesn’t matter if we haven’t been there for months, he still greets us like we were there just yesterday. I like that kind of gregariousness.

Yesterday, I figured I’d try my own hand at Cuban cuisine. I still had 2 lbs of ground beef in the fridge, and I remembered eating a beef dish at one time called ‘Picadillo Cubano’. It’s a delectable concoction of ground beef that is slowly braised in white wine, with capers, olives & raisins. It’s usually served over white rice, with black beans and fried plantains on the side, but it turns out it’s also often used as a filling for empanadas. Some add potatoes to it, other don’t and it seems to be the topic of many debates about authenticity. Personally, I think it’s one of those dishes that has local flair and varies depending on whom you ask… Either way, it’s seriously delicious and we cleaned off our plates in record time. As an added bonus to the fantastic flavor, it’s very budget-friendly and a breeze to make. Gloria Estefan’s nana was right on the money with this one.

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PICADILLO CUBANO
(as per Gloria Estefan’s nana)
– Approx. 2lbs of ground beef, the fatty kind (any ground beef with at least 15% fat)
– 1 medium-large onion, finely diced
1 large green bell pepper, finely diced
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp of cumin
1 tsp of ground dry oregano
1 8oz can of tomato sauce
1 ½ cups of dry white wine
2 bay leaves
2 Tbsp of capers (optional)
½ cup of ketchup
½ cup of raisins
½ cup of green pimiento-stuffed olives
Salt & pepper to taste
Olive oil for browning

In a large heavy pan with lid, brown the beef over medium-high heat until crumbled, stirring occasionally. Remove beef from pan and set aside, and drain all but 2Tbsp of the grease.

Add diced onions, bell pepper and minced garlic to the pan. Sauté over medium heat until onions turn translucent, stirring frequently. Sprinkle oregano & cumin over the vegetables, and give it a quick stir for another minute or so. Then add reserved beef and all of the remaining ingredients to the pan.

Cover the pan and allow beef mixture to simmer for 30-40 min, removing the lid for the last 5-10 min.

Serve beef stew over rice, alongside black beans and fried plantains for a true Cuban experience.
This dish goes great with a mojito, or two…

Hunter’s Chicken

1 May

Legend has it that ‘chicken Cacciatore’ [catch-ah-toh-ree], or chicken in the style of the hunter, originated somewhere in Central Italy in the Renaissance period (ca. 1450-1600). You know, that part of history of awful torture, the black plague, magnificent art and ornately corseted powdered women practicing the harpsichord. Maybe Lady Gaga is on to something?

But we digress… In those times, the only people who could afford to enjoy a delicacy such as poultry, were the well-to-do Italian noblemen who indulged in hunting as a form of entertainment. Wait. Hunting chickens?! What? This almost resembles drunken history. I’m pretty sure that medieval Italy did not harbor flocks of ferocious free-roaming wild chickens in its woods, so let me go out on a historical limb and state that the Italian aristocracy probably hunted for pheasant. Possibly even quail.

Upon return to the homestead, the hunting party would stop on the trail and his lordship would turn to his page boy and say: “Luigi, picketh these  shrooms & herbs for they shalt tasteth awesome in the chicken pheasant soup”. Well, maybe not entirely like that, but the dish received its name because reportedly  the hunters would return from the woods with wild mushrooms and fragrant plants, all of which would be handed off to the house cook, who was then responsible for turning this into a meal (hm? Deja-vu much?). Rumor has it that tomatoes were added because their acidity tenderized the meat in question, and olives & onions were often added for flavor. I don’t know the history behind the aspect of wine being added, but I suspect a busty jezebel is part of the equation. The dish was served in tin bowls with big honks of crusty bread, since silverware didn’t make its debut until the 1700’s.

‘Hunters’ Chicken’ has many varieties but it’s always a tasty stew of poultry, slowly braised in a tomato sauce with mushrooms, onions, garlic and wine. The selection of herbs depends entirely on the region you are in, and olives don’t always make an appearance either. In short, there is no right or wrong way to prepare chicken cacciatore, there is only the tasty way. Below is my version and I opted for tarragon and parsley. I love the flavor or tarragon and it goes well with the olives and wine that are in this dish as well. Enjoy!

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HUNTER’S CHICKEN
(Adapted from a traditional Italian Chicken Cacciatore)
– 8-10 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
– 1 28oz can of peeled whole tomatoes, crushed by hand (or a large can of crushed tomatoes)
– approx. 24 oz of mushrooms, sliced  (*)
– 1.5 cups of dry cured black olives, pitted (or a 12-14 oz can, drained)
– 1 large onion, diced
– 4-5 cloves of garlic, minced or grated
– 1/4 cup of finely chopped fresh tarragon
– a good handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped
– 1.5 cups of dry white wine
– 4 Tbsp of flour
– salt & pepper to taste
– butter and/or olive oil to brown the chicken
(*) this may look & sound like a lot of mushrooms, but mushrooms shrink down to nothing when cooked and you want these mushrooms to be a key ingredient in your dish. I used a combination of baby bella mushrooms and regular white button mushrooms, but you can use a variety of wild mushrooms too. Just make sure they do not vary too much in cooking time.

Rinse the chicken thighs and pat dry. Season with salt & pepper set aside. Wipe the mushrooms clean with a  damp cloth, and slice into thick slices if large. DO NOT rinse your mushrooms in water, as they will absorb a lot of water and become less flavorful. If you dread this whole process, just buy a few bags of pre-sliced shrooms, and you’ll be fine as well.

Over medium-high heat, heat a bit of olive oil & 1 tbsp of butter (for flavor) in a large heavy pan. I used a 15-inch cast iron skillet for this dish, but you can use any large heavy pan. Brown the chicken on all sides for a few minutes and set aside. They will not be fully cooked, but that’s OK.

Add 1/4 of the wine and another tablespoon of butter and deglaze the pan, scraping up any browned chicken bits. Then add the onions and saute them until translucent and soft.

Dump all of your mushrooms in the pan. Don’t be alarmed. I know that ‘crowded’ mushrooms do not brown, but we’re not looking for beautifully browned mushrooms here, we just want to ‘sweat’ them out so they give off most of their juices. Continue to saute the mushrooms & onions, until the pans becomes mostly dry and the mushrooms appear slightly browned and soft.

Sprinkle the onions and mushrooms with the flour, and cook through for a minute more.

Add crushed tomatoes and their juices, the rest of the wine, garlic and 3/4 of the fresh herbs, and bring to a simmer. When simmering, nestle browned chicken thighs in the sauce and let simmer to cook through. Depending on the size of the thighs (doesn’t that sound kinky?), this will take another 30-45 minutes. Add the (drained) black olives during the last 15-20 minutes, simply to heat them through.

Finish the dish with a sprinkling of the remaining fresh herbs on top, and serve with crusty bread or over your favorite starch side.

Drunken Chicken

17 Apr

Good heavens. I’ve been working like a Peruvian mountain mule lately. Between my two jobs, the regular domestic wizardry household tasks and random chores, It’s surprising I even find time to use the loo. Let alone, cook a meal. As a matter of public confession, the Farklepants’ have pretty much been living off of pasta easy, one-pot meals lately.

A week ago, during a haggard grocery-store run on my way home, I had the brilliant idea to turn a 2-hour beer-braised beef stew into a 45-min hearty chicken stew. Wait. Before you pull that slow-cooker card, I confess that I have one. A very fancy one, as a matter of fact, courtesy of Cecilia… mother and personal whip hand extraordinaire. The thing is, even with a crockpot, you need to plan ahead and in order to plan ahead, you need time. Time to think about what to make. And there we have it: time + thinking about what to cook 24-hours prior to dinner, are a luxury commodity in my world lately. As a matter of fact, with rising at 05:00A and working a full day, I generally stop thinking after 08:00P altogether. On that note, am I alone in thinking that pajamas are perfectly acceptable attire at 04:30P? Anyone?

But we digress… As I was wandering aimlessly in my local ‘Vons’, I smelled beef stew. It was kind of a dreary, uninspiring evening and when that beefy aroma hit my nostrils, I wanted it. Like a blood hound, I sniffed my way through aisle 5, 6 and 7, before halting at the header of aisle 8, where the lovely Bernice with her Southern Texas drawl was stirring a pot of beef chili. Her well-manicured hands resting casually on a neatly stacked pyramid of cans, she beckoned me with her bright Fixodent smile and said “Try some, sweetie”. I’ll admit that it was hard to resist the call of her rhinestone embellished sweater-vest, but canned chili wasn’t going to cut it. Not even in my stupor of post-workday tiredness. Sorry Bernice.

Still obsessing over the idea of a hearty meal, I finally grabbed the usual beef stew stuff and figured chicken takes way less time than beef, and I ran with it. I thought to myself ‘how bad can it be?’, and clutched a six-pack of Newcastle ale on my way to the cash register. It was going on 07:00P and I just didn’t care anymore. Really. I tell you, this stew turned out to be rib-sticking delicious and very quick to make… It has all the traditional flavors of a regular beef stew, but takes 1/3 of the time. And with chicken being more budget-friendly, you have yourself a hearty dish of deliciousness for pennies on the dollar.

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DRUNKEN CHICKEN
(a Hungry Belgian creation)
– 10-12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
– 1 large yellow onion, diced
– 2-3 large carrots, sliced
– 2-3 stalks of celery, diced
– 3-4 cloves of garlic, crushed or minced
– 1 6oz can of tomato paste
– 6-8 slices of thick cut bacon, sliced in strips
– 16oz of button mushrooms, halved (if small enough, you can leave them whole)
– 2 lbs of Yukon Gold potatoes, cubed in 1-inch thick pieces
– 2-3 cups of chicken stock
– 12-16 oz of brown ale/beer (I used 1.5 bottles Newcastle… and drank the other half)
– 4 Tbsp of fresh thyme, chopped
– 2 Tbsp of fresh rosemary, finely chopped
– 3 bay leaves
– salt & pepper to taste
– flour, to coat & brown the chicken
– olive oil, to sauté vegetables and chicken

Dice onion & celery in a approx. equal size dice, slice carrots in discs. Chop fresh herbs and set aside. Crush garlic and set aside.

In a large Dutch oven or heavy pot, without added oil or butter, sauté bacon over medium-high heat until crisp but not blackened. Set aside and drain all but 2 Tbsp of bacon fat from the pot.

Rinse & pat chicken dry. Season with salt & pepper on all sides. Coat dry chicken thighs in flour and brown over medium-high heat on all sides in the reserved bacon fat. Set aside.

In same pot, add a bit of olive oil to the crusty bacon grease and sauté garlic, carrots, celery & onions over medium-high heat until beginning to soften. Add in tomato paste and cook for another 1-2 min over medium heat. The bottom of the pot will be quite crusty by now. Add a hefty splash of beer to the pan, and scrape all the flavorful bits off of the bottom. Adding more beer, if needed.

Add reserved chicken & potatoes into pot, stir and cover with remaining beer and chicken stock. Add half of the fresh herbs and all bay leaves, and simmer uncovered over medium-low heat for approx. 30 minutes. If liquid gets low, add a bit more chicken stock or water. After 30 min, add in reserved bacon and mushrooms, and cook another 15-20 min until mushrooms are cooked thru and chicken is fork-tender. Season with more salt & pepper, if needed.

Discard bay leaves, sprinkle remaining herbs over the top and serve with crusty country bread.

Punjabi Fish Curry

20 Jan

Lately, the Farklepants household seems to run on kryptonite. I get up before sunrise and crash-land sometime around 10:17P, which also happens to be about the time Mr. Farklepants’ intellectual algorithms start peaking and he attempts to engage me in conversation. When we’re both home, he can usually tell by the blank glassy-eyed expression on my face if intellectual conversation is going to be successful or not, but since we’re both super busy lately, we find ourselves tangled up in a text- and/or phone relationship. Mostly, by the time he breaks away from his project and phones to whisper a sweet little something in my ear, I’m already a sleeping sloth. And by the time I’m perky and full of life, he’s snoring peacefully next to me. We’re like 2 ships passing in the night, really, and there’s been many a time in which I’ve contemplated blowing his fog horn staying in bed next to him rather than getting up to go to work.

And speaking of working, I committed myself to a temporary weekend job on top of my regular full-time job for the next THREE months, which means I’m pretty much working nonstop. Sans weekends. It’s a blessing as well as a curse. On the upside, my bills will finally get paid down a bit. On the downside, mundane stuff like laundry barely gets done. And bi-weekly blogging?! Oh please, Fuhgitabboutit. Okay?

I’m only into week 3 of running this insane schedule, and I’m already having improper fantasies about having time to myself. To do nothing. Especially now that I have a gift certificate for a ‘deluxe’ 75-min pedicure burning a hole in my pocket, which my sister-in-law extraordinaire sent me a month ago. As an ironic twist of nature, I inherited my mother’s pesky affliction Teutonic sense of responsibility, and vegetating in a cushiony massage chair for longer than 10 min when there is [this much] stuff to do, seems like a capital sin… punishable by eternal hell fire. And have I told you yet that I spent my entire youth in a Catholic “school for girls”?

Also on the wickedly fun agenda last weekend, was the fact that – when I finally did manage to venture near the couch with the crazy idea of ‘relaxing’ – I stepped on something sharp in our carpet and cut my toe. Only, I didn’t actually know I ‘cut’ my toe until it bled all over our white fabric ottoman. Yeah. I’m convinced it’s karma’s way of telling me that our living room desperately needs vacuuming. POOF! There goes that pedicure fantasy…

Oh, and dinner! Yes, dinner. Always dinner. I figured that if I am to survive this crazy schedule, I need to stick with quick dinner ideas and one-pot meals. Curry is exactly that. It’s delicious, and it doesn’t need to be a labor of love with these easy tricks I’ve scooped up along my culinary path.

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PUNJABI FISH CURRY
(A blend of Internet’s best)
For the curry base:
– 2 12-15oz cans of coconut milk
– 1 cup of water, as needed
– a 1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
– 3-4 cloves of garlic, pressed
– 1 large onion, diced
– spice paste (see below)
– olive oil, as needed
– pomegranate seeds, for garnish

For the spice paste: (*)
– 2 Tbsp of Garam Masala, Punjab style
– 2 Tbsp of sweet curry powder
– 1 Tbsp of hot curry powder (like Maharaja powder)
– 2 Tbsp of red chili paste (or 1 for milder curries)
– 1.5 tsp of ground cumin
(*) I usually buy my spices from “Penzeys Spices”. You can order online here or order from “Surfas Culinary District” by clicking the orange flash link on the right side of this page.

For the veggies & fish: (*)
– 2 lbs of assorted firm fleshed fish like salmon, tilapia, pollock… whichever combination you like, but try to pick sustainable species.
– 1 lbs of shrimp, shelled & deveined
– 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
– 1 yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced
– 1 package of fresh baby spinach leaves
(*) feel free to use whichever vegetables you like best. Likewise for the choice of fish as well

Debone, rinse and slice fish into large chunks. Set aside.
Peel & devein the shrimp, and set aside with the sliced chunks of fish.

Mix all the spices together and make a paste together with the lime juice, pressed garlic, grated ginger and red chili paste. Use a bit of water if too dry.

In a large, heavy pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat and sauté diced onions and sliced bell peppers until beginning to soften and their liquid is cooked down. Add all of the spice paste and cook for a few minutes until fragrant and well blended.

Add both cans of coconut milk and bring to a boil. Reduce down to a thick, sauce-like consistency. If too thick, add some water. Consequently, if too thin, add some almond meal.

Add baby spinach and let it wilt down in the curry sauce. Add shrimp and fish, give it a quick stir and cover the pan. Cook – without stirring – for a few minutes until the fish & shrimp are cooked through. Serve over rice and sprinkle some pomegranate seeds over the top for color.

Smoky Mexican Chicken Soup

29 Nov

Yesterday was Thanksgiving here in America. It’s a day on which we are thankful for the blessings we have in our lives, and an excuse to pig out on crispy roast turkey, candied yams, creamy green beans, tart cranberries, butter-laden rolls and pumpkin pie. Heck, let’s throw in some pecan pie too, for good measure.

After roasting my favorite holiday bird with all the trimmings, eating like the end of the world was nigh, doing all the dishes… Twice!… and cutting into both a pumpkin pie and a pecan pie, I fully collapsed at 5:03P and woke up 3 hours later with Mr. Farklepants caressing my arm and lovingly asking me if I wanted to get up or sleep through the night?! Oh, you turkey, you!

I managed to get back into a conscious vertical position long enough to polish off another slice of pie and then crashed in tryptophan fantasyland until 6:17A this morning, when torrential down pours alerted my brain that I drank entirely too much yesterday. I wish I was one of those people that could jump right back on the snooze train, but once I’m awake, there’s no turning back… It’s my mother’s genes, you see. My genetic make up is the kind that creepily stands by the edge of your bed at 6A, menacingly watching your every eye twitch for a sign of life, and warning you promptly that the day is ticking away. I defiantly did go back to bed, but genetics prevailed.

I schlepped myself into our kitchen with that post-party trepidation we all know so well, and was pleasantly reminded of the fact that, pre-tryptophan TKO, I already cleaned up the turkey battlefield that is Thanksgiving cooking. Hurray! Feeling victorious, I tuned on the TV so I could get outraged at people’s pathetic behavior on Black Friday, poured myself a cup of coffee, squirted whipped cream directly in my mouth and enjoyed the last remaining slice of pumpkin pie, because…I felt sorry for it?!

I’m impressed with the dent we made into that gorgeous turkey too. And to work away some of the leftovers, nothing says rainy post-Thanksgiving what-are-we-going-to-do-with-all-that-turkey?! bliss more than a smoky hearty soup. While I named this one “chicken” soup, anything goes and it’s the prefect vessel to sail right back into tryptophan land… For all other 51 weeks, use rotisserie chicken!

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Smoky Mexican Chicken Soup
(Inspired by traditional Mexican Cuisine)
– 2-3 cups of leftover cooked turkey or rotisserie chicken, shredded
– 1 red bell pepper
– 1 green Pasillo pepper
– 4-5 ribs of celery
– 1 medium onion
– 1.5 cups of corn, thawed if frozen
– 1.5 cups of black beans, cooked or canned
– 1.5 Tbsp of ground cumin
– 1 tsp of hot smoked paprika
– 2-3 hot peppers in adobo sauce, diced (use more for a more spicy soup)
– 2 15oz cans of diced tomato
– 3/4 cup of fresh cilantro, chopped + more for garnish
– 6-8 cups of chicken broth
– 1.5 cups of smoky BBQ sauce
– salt & pepper to taste

Dice all vegetables and sauté over medium heat until softened. Sprinkle with cumin and paprika, add hot peppers in adobo sauce and sauté a few minutes more to blend the flavors.

Add canned diced tomato and chicken broth, and bring to a boil. Let simmer until all vegetables are soft.

Add BBQ sauce, shredded chicken or turkey, corn, beans and cilantro. Bring to a boil and simmer a few minutes more to warm through.

Ladle in bowls and garnish with fresh cilantro, sliced green onions, sour cream and/or grated Mexican cheese.

Finnish Salmon Chowder

7 Nov

Hurray! We’re fast approaching my 90-day binge fest favorite season of the year. Besides the fact that it’s widely accepted that legs don’t need daily shaving anymore, Winter is practically a free season pass to sweet candy, luscious pies, roasted turkeys with all the fixings, bottomless spiced hot chocolates and all kinds of other culinary deliciousness… Not to forget domestic fabulousness like plaid flannel pajamas, wickedly cool decorations, the year’s best movie releases, crackling hearths and overall homely splendor. Let’s admit it, Winter is like the ‘Hyacinth Bouquet’ of all seasons.

Back when I was still gainfully employed for an adventure travel company in Belgium, a handful of co-workers & I got invited on a 5-day dog-sledding ‘trek’ through the great outdoors in Lapland, in the very Northern tip of Finland… We flew from Brussels to Ivalo and then onwards to Kittala, located at the rim of the Arctic Circle. Upon arrival at our destination, we stopped at what looked like a log cabin and were greeted by a Finnish guide who beckoned us to come inside his ‘mud’ room and promptly fitted us for a bright red thermal monkey suit.

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We were instructed to wear this one-piece hooded suit so that only our nose and eyes were exposed. The staff was very particular about making sure we understood the importance of covering up as much as we could. We were told the hairs inside our nose would freeze, but we were reassured to not panic since our own body temperature would prevent our nostrils from freezing shut. Great! We were warned the moisture in the corner of our eyes may – or may not – freeze, causing your eyelid(s) to freeze and get stuck. “When this happens, place your gloved hand over your eye and wait to defrost”, they said, “don’t pull your eyelids, as it may cause injury”. It was -55C outside (minus 67F. MINUS, people!!!). Factor in the wind chill, and I’ve never been happier to carry 50-odd pounds of excess fat on my frame than I was then. As the days progressed, we’d mock and laugh at each other whenever an eye would freeze half shut, and we had a running tally of bets to see who’d be the first one to have both eyes freeze shut. It sounds terrible, but I’ve never laughed harder.

Those 5 days were without a doubt the most beautiful, exhilarating and eventful trip I have ever taken. Besides the fact that one of my colleagues fell madly in love with our Finnish guide and shocked us all by impulsively deciding on day 5 to not return to her husband in Belgium, we ‘yeehaw’-ed our own dog sleds through the most magnificent Winter wonderland ever…

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…and we stopped to visit Santa Claus Village.

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That’s right, I’ve been to Santa Claus in the Polar Circle. Stuff that in your pipe and smoke it. I know you’re envious! On a side note, Peggy Sue did eventually return to Belgium to resume her marriage, but we never got any detail as to what happened exactly.

Between seeing a nightly spectacle of Northern lights and eating the best cedar plank salmon I have ever tasted, I have many fond memories of that trip, but a foodie favorite of mine was ‘lohikeitto’. It’s a creamy concoction of salmon, leeks and potatoes, and it tastes great so good with toasted rye bread on a cold winter’s day. It’s Finland’s answer to New England clam chowder, really.

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Finnish Salmon Chowder
(also known as Lohikeitto… Adapted from a few recipes online)
– 3 Tbsp olive oil
– 1 leek, chopped (white and light green part only)
– 2 carrots, diced
– 3 cups of fish broth or stock
– 1 bay leaf
– 3/4 lbs potatoes, cubed and peeled
– 3/4 lbs salmon filet, skinned, de-boned and cut into small chunks
– 3/4 cup cream (or half & half)
– 1 Tbsp cornstarch (up to 1.5 Tbsp if you’d like the broth thick) + 1 Tbsp of water
– 1 Tbsp butter
– salt and pepper
– fresh dill for topping (or parsley, if you’re dill-hater)

Heat the olive in a large saucepan and sauté the leek until softened. Add 3 cups of fish stock and the bay leaf and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and carefully add the potatoes. Cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender.
Add the salmon and simmer for five minutes. Add the cream and stir to mix. Make a cornstarch slurry with the cornstarch and 1 Tbsp of water, stirring to dissolve the cornstarch. Add to the soup and simmer until the soup has thickened.
Add the butter and remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Top with plenty of fresh parsley or dill. Serve with a squeeze of lemon, if desired.

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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.

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