Tag Archives: comfort food

Cottage Pie with Root Vegetables

28 Aug

In exactly 44 days, my mom will land at Los Angeles Int’l airport. It’s an event the Farklepants’ household is already mentally preparing for, if nothing else, than to cross off the days on our kitchen calendar to see precisely how much more time we have left to bring the cleanliness & organization of our apartment up to military Cecilia’s standards.

It’s no easy feat. My mother, bless her heart, is a densely woven tapestry of arduous self-imposed rules & regulations, enforced daily by a deep, unrelenting desire for order & control. Flying by the seat of your pants, which is pretty much the mantra in our house, is something my elderly mom has a hard time coping with. She unwittingly, and with the best of intentions, attempts to smash & stuff our souls into her daily mold of how things ought to be, and at times this collides with the chaotic habits of my free-thinking creative family. She also takes planning and organization to uncharted heights. You know, the kind of heights Martha Stewart can only dream of reaching with her hand-carved & antiquated Scandinavian pinewood ladder.
On the other hand, underneath that regimented ice cap of self-imposed order and control, hides the woman that walks into a grocery store in Spain and buys a box of cat food by pointing her index finger into her wide-open gaping mouth and speaking the words ‘meow meow’. The same woman who has mastered the art of overly dramatic Japanese Kabuki-style facial expressions to anything that she finds a) odd, b) inappropriate, c) silly or d) all of the above (*)… It sometimes brings me to the brink of embarrassment, evoking a sheepish smile and a spontaneous “I’m sorry, she’s not from around here” response.
(*) Per example, she once addressed an unassuming diner waitress with a Maori battle cry when the poor woman came around to kindly refill her beverage and caught my mother off-guard. You see, Cecilia doesn’t believe in wasting any food or drink (and isn’t that a good Christian virtue?!), so even though she is full, her own set of imaginary rules mandates that she MUST finish whatever is presented to her. Also… she did NOT want any ice in her drink!!!!

This year, since our apartment is at full capacity and my mom fully expects me to lodge her in my house regardless of that fact, I tapped into my professional travel network & award points and was able to conjure free lodging for an epic 7-day road trip through the Southwest USA. It’s an adventure we’re both excited for, if it weren’t for my car having trouble with its right front wheel all of a sudden. We don’t even have enough money to make it through the month at times, let alone that I’m now having to face a dreaded trip to the mechanic, so he can take a look at it and tell me it’ll be $637.41 or so to fix it… Hurray! Let me write you a check. Right. This. Minute. I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I guess God will take care of that predicament in due time. Note to self: have faith.

If our financial situation was a person, it would probably be a circus freak. Maybe even the Elephant Man. Or Quasimodo. I picture this is what mom went through as well as a single parent with a delinquent ex-husband. I pretty much spend my entire days worrying in anxiety biting every penny in half, whilst scouring Pinterest in search of hearty rib-sticking meals that cost mere pennies. Our protein-plan exists out of chicken & kielbasa, and the occasional ground beef. We haven’t had ribs or a juicy roast in a good long while, and steak & fish have vanished off of our menu entirely due to their price tag. The thought of Thanksgiving & Christmas dinner currently gives me the willies. Pray that by then, we’ll be blessed by the hand of the forces that may.

Mom cooked a lot of ground beef recipes, and I do too. One of my beloved cheap(er) dinners is ‘Cottage Pie’. It’s flavorful, hearty and it feeds my family of 3 hungry men + yours truly for pennies on the dollar. To add bulk, I use a gaggle of root vegetables that caramelize slowly, which gives the whole dish another depth of flavor that I find very tasty. The recipe below fills my large 15’ Lodge cast iron pan + a smaller oven dish, and it typically feeds us twice.

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COTTAGE PIE WITH ROOT VEGETABLES
(a la Hungry Belgian)
For the beef mixture:
3 lbs of ground beef, at least 15% fat
1 onion, diced
2 rutabagas (or 2 small), diced
3 carrots, diced
2 parsnips, diced
1 celery root, diced
3-4 ribs of celery, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 6oz can of tomato paste
A handful of thyme & rosemary tied together in a bundle
A few dashes of ‘kitchen bouquet’ browning liquid or Worcestershire sauce
3 Tbsp of flour
1 16oz bottle of Stout beer or a dark beer of your liking
Salt & pepper to taste

I use a Dutch oven to cook the filling, but you can use any heavy large pan. Start by dicing the vegetables into even dice so they all cook at the more or less the same speed. Mince the garlic and have everything ready to go.

Start by heating up your pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the ground beef and a few dashes of browning liquid, and crumble while browning. When it’s all browned, take it out of your pan and set aside. Drain some of the fat, but leave some so we can caramelize the vegetables in it.
Turn the heat down to medium-low, add all of your diced vegetables (excl. garlic) and let them slowly caramelize a bit for 30 min or so, stirring regularly to achieve an even browning.

When vegetables are browned, add beef back to the pan and turn heat to medium-high. Add tomato paste and brown the tomato paste with the vegetables & beef for 2-3 minutes. Then sprinkle a few tablespoons of flour over the lot, and brown another 1-2 minutes. Your pan will be cruddy on the bottom, but don’t worry, this crud adds a ton of flavor!
When mixture appears well browned, after 3-4 minutes, add beer and scrape all of the tasty bits off of the bottom of your pan over medium-high heat. Add minced garlic, rosemary & thyme bundle, then add salt & pepper to taste. Turn heat to medium, and let the mixture reduce & thicken for another 20-30 minutes. If too thick, add some water or beef broth. If too thin, keep simmering and I promise it will reduce further. When it’s done, take rosemary/thyme bundle out of the pan and allow the mixture to cool a bit.

For the cheddar mashed potatoes topping:
5 lbs of Yukon gold potatoes
4-6 Tbsp of butter
Approx 1-1.5 cups of milk
1 cup of grated white cheddar
1 tsp of grated horseradish (not horseradish sauce!) (completely optional)

Peel, cube & boil potatoes until soft. While the potatoes are cooking, warm the milk & butter in the microwave until melted & combined. Add salt & pepper to milk mixture, per your preference.
When potatoes are soft, drain them and mash them as usual. They will be lumpy, which is what I like best. Add warmed milk mixture to mashed potatoes a little a time, until you achieve a soft but form mash and the milk mixture is well-incorporated. You may have to use a bit more or less.
Add grated cheddar & horseradish (if using), and fold until blended. Your potato mash should be firm and not too soft.

Butter or grease your oven dish(es) and spread all of the beef mixture on the bottom(s). Top the beef with the mashed potatoes to fully cover the beef layer. My personal cottage pie math is, is that I like to have 2/3 beef mixture and 1/3 potatoes on top. You can do half/half, it’s whatever you prefer, really. With a fork, make a few lines or crimps in the potato layer, so that when it brow in the oven, you’ll get crispy edges on those ridges. Alternatively, you can also pipe your mashed potatoes on top of the beef mixture ‘duchesse’-style.

Bake in a 375F oven for approx. 30-45 min until the edges of the potatoes are well browned. Serve hot, with a pint of Guinness and an Irish joke or two.

Bon appetit!

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…

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.

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.

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.

Spaghetti Bolognese

18 Aug

Yesterday was one of those rare days on which I didn’t really feel like cooking. We’d been mostly in our ‘weekend lazy‘ mode, and I didn’t get out of my purple penguin pajamas until well into the afternoon. Up until that moment in which I actually traded my cozy pj’s for cozy jeans & a tee, my most strenuous activity was whipping up grilled cheese sandwiches & a tomato salad for the beau & I… It took 20 minutes of thumbing through the newest edition of ‘Food & Wine’ whilst slouched in the couch, to recover from this sudden burst of activity. I know I will pay dearly for this laziness in the upcoming week, but it was nice for once to actually not be running up & down the stairs with laundry baskets and hauling 20 bags of groceries inside, as though I’m in some wacky episode of ‘Survivor-Special Homestead Edition‘.

The result of this pointless Saturday lull, was that after hours of watching my stepson play ‘Portal 2’ on his Xbox and browsing Pinterest and the likes on my phone, I actually started enjoying the nothingness of my Saturday and I morphed into the mother of all laziness. The longer it went on, the more ‘nothing’ I felt like doing… and then dinner time hit me. Like the hand of God himself striking me down for my indolence.

A quick peek in the fridge brought ground beef, onions & basil to the forefront, so spaghetti it was! I realize that I’m not adding an earth-shattering culinary oeuvre with posting a recipe for ‘spaghetti bolognese‘, but I thought I’d share my version of this classic nonetheless…

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SPAGHETTI BOLOGNESE
(Adapted from a recipe by Anne Burrell)
– 3 shallots, finely diced
– 2 large carrots, finely diced
– 3 ribs celery, finely diced
– 4 cloves garlic, minced or grated
– 3 lbs of lean ground beef
– 2 6oz cans of tomato paste
– 1 28oz can of crushed tomatoes
– 3 cups full-bodied red wine
– salt & pepper
– olive oil
– a pinch of cayenne pepper
– 3 bay leaves
– 1 bunch of thyme, tied in a bundle
– 1.5 lbs of dry spaghetti
– 1/2 cup grated or shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano

In food processor, puree onion, carrots, celery, & garlic into a coarse paste (or blend with a hand mixer).

In large pan heat olive oil and sauté veggie paste with a generous helping of salt, until most water has evaporated and they start to brown, approx 15 min.

Add ground beef & season generously with salt as well. Allow the beef to brown slowly, 15-20 mins.

Add tomato paste & cook til brown, 4 to 5 mins. Add red wine. Cook til wine reduces by half, another 4-5 mins.

Add crushed tomatoes and toss in bay leaves & bundle of thyme. Stir to combine all. Bring to boil, reduce heat to simmer and -ideally- simmer 3 1/2-4 hours to develop all the flavors. If the sauce gets to thick, add water. Finish sauce with salt & pepper to taste, and add a pinch of cayenne pepper for a bit of heat.

During last 30 mins, bring a large pot of water to boil. Pasta water should always be well salted, so don’t skimp on this. When water comes to a rolling boil, add pasta & cook for 1 minute less than package says. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water.

Meanwhile remove 1/2 of the sauce from pot & reserve in a separate bowl.

Drain the pasta & add to the pot with 1/2 the sauce. Toss pasta to coat. Add some reserved sauce to achieve an even ratio between pasta & sauce.

Add reserved pasta water and cook pasta & sauce together over med heat until the water reduces. Turn off heat.

Give a big sprinkle of freshly grated or shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and a generous drizzle of good quality olive oil.

Buon Appetito!

Butter-braised Savoy Cabbage with Speck

16 Aug

Yesterday, my new Facebook friend Linda V. K. asked me if I knew what ‘wirsing’ means in English? While the word ‘wirsing’ is actually German for a lovely dish of butter-braised Savoy cabbage, the dish is decidedly Belgian in nature. Belgium is a land of country cooking & hearty food, and what could possibly be more country than cabbage?!

Whenever I see cabbage, I am instantly reminded of the frosted-over cabbage fields sprawled out over the western Flemish farm belt. The fields stretch for miles on end and are planted in perfectly straight rows, with dirt pathways cutting through the geometrical pattern like goat trails. Lone farmers tend to their crops with their weathered hands clad in woolen fingerless gloves, their rosy cheeks glowing like red beacons of life on the otherwise desolate, bleak fields. I used to cycle alongside these fields on my way to or from school, often pulling my sweater’s sleeves over my hands to give my fingers some relief from the icy morning fog that blankets these lands in Fall & Winter. I’m sure my mother’s ‘Don’t forget your gloves!!’ must have echoed a million times through our hallway.

When kicking off our snow-covered boots and darting over the frigid garage floor in our socks, the warmth of the kitchen and the aroma of butter-braised cabbage and browned sausage felt like the culinary equivalent of sitting by a warm hearth. In my post about braised red cabbage, I already proclaimed my love for the deep purple vegetable, but dark green Savoy cabbage was never all that popular. It’s a universal phenomenon for kids to dislike leafy green vegetables, and Belgian youth is no exception to this. I remember Bert & I used to heap butter and some of the sausage’s pan drippings over the green cabbage, to make it more palatable.

The recipe below is for Linda. As promised, it’s imported directly from a trusted source in small rural Flemish village. Photo courtesy goes entirely to Belgian celebrity chef Jeroen Meus.

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BUTTER BRAISED SAVOY CABBAGE WITH SPECK
(Adapted from a recipe by Jeroen Meus)
– 1/2 head of Savoy cabbage (or green cabbage)
– a small pinch of sodium bicarbonate, to retain the cabbage’s bright green color during cooking (*)
– 8 slices of thick cut bacon, chopped into small pieces
– ground nutmeg, to taste
– salt & pepper, to taste
– 3 Tbsp of good quality butter
– ¼ cup of heavy cream
(*) This is completely optional but safe and flavorless! Sodium Bicarbonate is similar to Alka-Seltzer, for instance, or other stomach acid drugs. You only need a little bit for a whole pot of water, and it will not affect the flavor of the dish, nor is it unsafe to use. Sodium Bicarbonate ensures that the bright green color of cabbage is preserved in the cooking process, as otherwise the cabbage turns into somewhat of a drab brownish green. Many restaurants use this trick to preserve the bright green color of many green vegetables.

For an authentic flavor, you will need a head of Savoy cabbage (see picture below), and you will also need 2 large pots or Dutch ovens.

Start with filling one of your pots with water and bring to a rolling boil. While the water is heating, clear tough ‘older’ leaves from the outside cabbage and discard (or compost!). Cut cabbage in half, reserving one half for later. For the other half, cut the hard core out of the middle and cut that half in half again, so you end up with 2 quarter cabbage parts. Slice each cabbage quarter in very thin strips.

When the water is boiling, add a pinch of sodium bicarbonate to ensure the cabbage retains its bright green color. Add chopped cabbage, and simmer (blanch) for approx. 3-4 min until cabbage is crisp tender. Pour cabbage into a colander, and drain very well.

In the second pan, add 1 Tbsp of butter and brown bacon pieces until crisp, approx. 10 minutes. Reserve a few bacon bits for garnish. Add well-drained cabbage and sauté for 2-3 minutes more until cabbage is soft and well combined. Fold 2 Tbsp of butter and cream into the braised cabbage, and season with salt, pepper & ground nutmeg to taste. Sprinkle reserved bacon bits over the top and serve with browned sausage or you favorite protein.

Another Belgian classic! Enjoy!

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Wine Braised Cabbage with Plums & Bacon

14 Aug

The other day, I discovered a smoked turkey sausage in the back of my fridge. With ‘it’ being far removed from my much more popular non-processed food corner, I didn’t even catch its presence until famine set in and I nosied around in the fridge for a quick dinner idea, or shall we say, in a desperate attempt to save myself a trip to the grocery store. And there it was. Sitting proudly in the ‘man corner’ of the fridge, right next to the hot dogs and beer. I’m usually pretty good with keeping a detailed inventory of our fridge’s contents in the back of my mind, you know, in that special lobe that keeps track of all practical things, but that darn sausage snuck up on me. I’m not ‘big’ on things that have an unnatural and/or freakishly long shelf life, but with our finances seriously strapped these days, a sale on $5.00 smoked sausage goes a long way…

Just like Velveeta, I believe there’s a place for kielbasa in this world as well. However, when I bought that sausage, I must have not been entirely sure where exactly that place was. Come to think of if, this is probably why it ended up on the ‘man shelf’ in our fridge in the first place. Then, as per divine intervention, I remembered: ‘Rookworst met rode kool’! Braised red cabbage and sausage is not only popular in Belgium, but in Holland as well. Although our northern neighbor traditionally opts for braised kale or ‘boerekool’, rather than red cabbage. Either way, braised cabbage is everywhere in the lower lands and many a Flemish child grows up on that stuff.

With my flavor palette a bit more refined these days, I fancified my vocabulary this cabbage a little bit. Rather than braising it traditionally with just bits of apple and vinegar, I opted for a more flavorful combination of red wine, dried plums and bacon.

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WINE BRAISED CABBAGE WITH PLUMS & BACON
(A “Hungry Belgian” original…)
– 1 small head of red cabbage, shredded thinly or chopped finely (+/- 1.5 lbs shredded)
– 2/3 cup of good quality red wine + more for soaking (*)
– 2-3 shallots, chopped into small dice (or 1 medium size red onion)
– 10-12 dried plums, slivered
– 2 small pears, peeled, cored & diced
– 2 sticks of cinnamon
– 2 cloves
– 1 laurel leaf
– 4-5 slices of thick cut bacon, sliced into small slivers
– salt & pepper, to taste
(*) The age-old adage is: if you don’t like the wine for drinking, don’t cook with it either!

Soak plums in a bit of red wine to soften them. Place a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over high heat and brown the bacon until crisp. Remove from pot and set aside.

In the bacon fat, brown shallots until translucent. Then add shredded cabbage with wine, pears, spices and salt & pepper to taste, and fold so everything is well combined. Cover the pot and braise over medium-low heat for approx. 45 min until cabbage is soft. Add plums, and simmer 10-15 min more to allow most of the liquid to evaporate. Remove cinnamon, laurel leaf and cloves, and add bacon bits back in.

Serve braised cabbage alongside your preferred choice of crisp browned sausage links.

Cajun Pumpkin Soup

11 Aug

Fall is by far my favorite Season. There’s several things I like about Fall, but the biggest charm for me is that all vegetables that remind me of a stormy day in Belgium are in season: parsnips, pumpkins, rutabagas, turnips… And, you get to spice everything warmly because ‘t is the season. Sadly, Southern California has only two seasons. The difference between the two being that in Fall & Winter you may need to take a sweater with you, you know, for when the sun sets… what with temperatures dropping below 65F and all.

Every October, when the last residual heat of September slowly ebbs away, I’m excited to start feeling the crisp chill in the beach air and occasionally hear the sound of rain pounding my apartment’s roof. I confess that I didn’t like rain when I lived in Belgium. Rainy days would turn into soggy weeks, then into months, and eventually you’d start wondering if you should start building an ark and save yourself?! It’s only after several months of dry heat and blistering sun that I learned to appreciate a cool, wet day. Fall in Southern California is bliss. Day time temperatures remain a steady 60F-70F, and evenings get cool enough to cuddle with my beau and sip on spiced wine without risking a hot flash. An added bonus is that with 60F, we can still crack our windows open just a smidgen, and let the earthy smell of the damp beach sand & wet wooden boardwalk permeate our humble home.

It’s on these days that the soup below tastes fantastic. Decades ago, when my brother still lived in Amsterdam and mom & I would drive up for a weekend visit, he would frequently invite us for dinner at a restaurant called ‘The Louisiana Kitchen’, off of the Ceintuurbaan in the heart of the city. At the time, I was already thinking about relocating to the USA and eventually, my brother bought me the Cajun bistro’s cookbook as a parting gift. I’ve since adapted the recipe to my own preference, but the base recipe comes out of the book.

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CAJUN PUMPKIN SOUP
(Adapted from a recipe out of ‘The Louisiana Kitchen’ by Rob Van Berkum & Andre Numan)

– 8 cups of chicken broth
– 35 oz of cubed pumpkin
– 2.5 cups of good quality dry sherry
– 1.5 cups of heavy cream
– 3 large shallots, diced
– 3 ribs of celery, chopped
– 2 Tbsp of Cajun seasoning + more for the shrimp
– a pinch (or two) of cayenne pepper
– a cup of sliced or chopped mushrooms (any kind)
– 1 lbs of large scampi-size shrimp
– 5 slices of bacon, cooked & crumbled

Place a large soup pot on the stove over high heat. Add a splash of olive oil, and saute the chopped shallots & celery until translucent and starting to brown. Douse with sherry, and cook for a minute or so to burn off some of the alcohol. Add chicken broth and chopped pumpkin, and bring to a boil. Let simmer until pumpkin is soft and cooked through.

In the meantime, saute sliced mushrooms until browned and cooked through. Set aside.

Cook bacon, drain or pat dry and crumble. Set aside.
Shell & devein shrimp, toss in a bit of olive oil and grill in a 450F oven with a sprinkling of Cajun seasoning until done , approx 10 min.

When pumpkin is soft, blend the soup until smooth and velvety. Add cream, 2 Tbsp of Cajun seasoning, grilled shrimp, bacon and browned mushrooms and warm through in the soup. Season with salt & pepper, and add a pinch or two of cayenne pepper for a bit of heat.

Ladle in soup bowls, sprinkle with a bit of parsley and serve with corn bread.

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