Category Archives: Cooking

Seasonal Spotlight: Asparagus Part 2

As much as I love Asparagus, it is not something that I have ever really considered growing. This Spring, however, an old acquaintance from college posted some pictures of a few beautiful spears of asparagus that he had grown, mentioning in the post that he had a bumper crop after two years of careful tending. He grew them from seed and watered them persistently at first but, once established, they don’t really need much watering. They require dedicated beds because they develop a pretty extensive root systems and they need well drained soil, so he tilled sand into the beds. The whole process seems pretty intense but it sounds like, if you are willing to put some elbow grease into it, you can get a lot of bang for your buck. With 35 mature plants, he said that he is able to harvest about 14 spears 1-2 times per week. Wow! Having recently spent $23 on asparagus, I found that pretty appealing. 

While I may not be starting asparagus production this year, I can still enjoy the season’s bounty by cooking with it in a variety of ways. So far on the blog I have discussed the salty, saucy way:

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But there are also more subtle treatments that let the asparagus’ sweetness shine through even more. The other weekend, I made an asparagus soup. The recipe is found in Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson and was super simple and quick (30 min or less). It was almost a little too simple in my opinion so I gussied it up with lemon juice, which really complimented the brightness of the asparagus, and some goat cheese which, swirled into the soup to finish, added a nice savory note. It is a great soup for spring/summer because it is amazing both hot and cold and keeps for several days, so you can make it ahead and have a very elegant lunch without trying too hard.

Asparagus Soup, from Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories

Serves: 4 

INGREDIENTS:
1/2 cup butter
4 small leeks, white parts only, trimmed and chopped
3 cups water
1 potato, peeled and chopped
salt and pepper
1 lb fresh asparagus, peeled and trimmed
1 cup heavy cream

INSTRUCTIONS:
Melt butter and stew leeks until soft.

Add water and potato and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 15 minutes.

Chop the asparagus and add to the soup. Boil rapidly for 5 minutes.

Blend Thoroughly and pass through a china cap or medium/fine sieve.

Add cream and check seasoning.

Serve Hot or cold.

Source: Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson, 1994 (p. 13)

To close out my Asparagus triad, I made a lovely almost pasta salad with orzo, just steamed asparagus, olives, sliced bell pepper, Feta, and a lemony dressing. Courtesy of our friends at PCC, this was a perfect accompaniment to our Sunday Roast chicken.

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Seasonal Spotlight: Asparagus Part 1

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Photo by Miti on Unsplash

Without restaurants being open declaring their seasonal specials and leisurely grocery store trips, it’s easy to forget the culinary seasonality that is Spring’s gift. Morel mushrooms with their craggy domes and earthy aroma, crisp sweet peas, and of course asparagus. 

Out of season asparagus is an expensive and rather dingy vegetable in my opinion. In-season, locally grown asparagus, however, is slightly less expensive but miles above the more commercially produced, year-round stuff. It is sweet and bright, tender and crisp. It is great simply steamed or quickly broiled with a squeeze of lemon and some flaky sea salt to finish. It is delicious chopped up in some fluffy scrambled eggs or in a delicate soup. 

Last week’s PCC newsletter naturally featured asparagus and coincided nicely with a grocery delivery order I was putting together. I bit the bullet and ordered 2 pounds and planned out my menu. I would start on Saturday with a preparation featured in one of my favorite cookbooks, Roast Chicken and Other Stories and roll into Sunday afternoon with an asparagus soup from the same book and then, as an accompaniment to our Sunday roast chicken dinner, a bright asparagus and orzo dish from the aforementioned PCC newsletter.

The asparagus arrived…$23 worth, closer to three lbs, but I won’t complain. Then Saturday came and we had a late lunch so I planned for a late light dinner. I browsed the recipe a bit and mentally ran through the steps. It was a bit fussy, as this particular cookbook can be, but I wasn’t too worried. 

The recipe is called Delices D’Argenteuil. According to the cookbook, the Argenteuil region which is outside of Paris is famous for its asparagus. This is a pancake dish that combines the classic flavors of egg, asparagus and ham. The author calls them “pancakes” but it is essentially crepes with asparagus and prosciutto rolled up inside them. And because it is French, covered in hollandaise. Simple enough I thought to myself. Mmmm, yeah, not really.

  1. Pro Tip: When working with milk and eggs and melted butter, make sure that the milk and eggs are close to room temp before you add in the melted butter. If not, the butter will quickly solidify and thwart you as you try to pass your batter through the fine sieve required by the recipe.
  2. It has been an age since I made crepes so it took some doing to get 6 decent ones.
  3. One does not just whip up a hollandaise, as the book casually declares at one point, unless one is a chef or makes it frequently and in that case, one is probably not as healthy as one would hope to be.

I got all my little crepe and asparagus/prosciutto rolls all ready and in the oven, and  then conscripted Andrew who has a much better grasp of the whole emulsified sauces thing than I. I halved the hollandaise recipe because one stick of butter per person seemed a little wrong, especially as it was nearing midnight. We biffed the first attempt but luckily before we added the butter. The second round took nicely and we soon had a beautiful silky sauce. That was spooned over the rolls and broiled so the sauce just melted in and the resulting dish was both sweet (without any added sugar) and savory, from the prosciutto, and fresh with a nice crunch, courtesy of the asparagus. Served with a sparkling Rose cava just before midnight, totally worth the wait.

We went to bed satisfied and even a little triumphant, having done this seasonal treat justice. Next stop, Asparagus soup!

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Photo by Oklahoma Academy Country Store on Unsplash

 

Anatomy of a Cuban Sandwich

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During the post holiday malaise of January and February, it’s nice to have something to look forward to, a fun trip, a staycation, a cooking project that results in a fun and delicious meal. During the month of January, I’m usually a little burnt out from holiday excess and in the midst of a yoga-fueled health kick. That doesn’t mean there isn’t time for a little treat though! That’s why, when Sosios in the Market left me a message saying they had Seville Oranges in stock, five precious cases that were sure to go quickly, a plan involving the best pressed sandwich there is began to take shape.

The origin of the Cuban sandwich isn’t necessarily “shrouded in mystery” but it is a bit murky. The sandwiches were popular with workers in Cuba’s sugar mills where entrepreneurial folk would set up restaurants inside the mills and sell them to workers on their lunch breaks. A Cuban type sandwich called a “sandwich mixto” was common in cafeterias and restaurant menus in Cuba by the 1930s and there were mentions of the same in Tampa during this time as well. The cigar industry in Florida had shifted to Tampa in the late 1800s and tens of thousands of Cuban workers moved there over the next 30 or so years, so some believe that these old mixtos became the Cuban sandwich as we know it today. Miami, drawing a large influx of Cubans after Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959, also claims a stake in the Cuban sandwich game and by the 1960s, the Cuban was common among the expat community there as well.

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There are a few slight variations to the Cuban – some use a salty Serrano in place of a sweeter ham and others add an olive salad similar to a tapenade to the mix. The building blocks, however, are always the same: pork, ham, swiss, pickles and Cuban style bread. Now what is Cuban style bread exactly? Its unique properties make it ideal for pressing because it develops a uniform crunch on the outside with a soft inside breadiness that smooshes down to a perfect bread to filling ratio,  while remaining sturdy and actually quite portable. No messy filling falling out situation here!

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Besides the Cuban bread, the other unique ingredient in this delicious sandwich is the Seville or sour orange. Seville oranges are prized worldwide for traditional English Bitter Orange Marmalade as well as the Mojo Criollo marinade for our Cuban sandwich pork. Here in Seattle, the only place I have found them is the aforementioned Sosio’s in Pike Place Market and only for a couple weeks in January/February. This is why I am on their call list and so, a couple Saturdays ago, we headed down to the market to pick up our precious bag of citrus. I always love visiting the stalls in the market because the purveyors are so passionate about produce. They wax poetic about asparagus and all but sing sonnets about pears. And they love food nerding it up with regulars and telling tall tales to tourists. So fun!

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Citrus acquired, we called up El Diablo Coffee Co, a Cuban inspired cafe on Queen Anne and the only place in Seattle where we have been able to find legit Cuban bread for purchase. Given enough notice, they are happy to order 3-10 extra loaves for us. When we first started doing this, they made the bread in house but after some turnover, they started sourcing it from Miami. Now I think they are baking it in house again and it is just as amazing as ever!

If you are going to do it all in one go, set aside a full day for pork roasting for the Cubans, and if you are a prepared type of person, make the mojo the night before to give that shoulder a good long time in the marinade. In a pinch 2-3 hours in the mojo is fine but on top of that, you will be looking at 3-5 hours roasting time. All that Seville juice, garlic, oregano and porky goodness will make your house smell amazing!

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Since most of the time on this is hands off, you will have plenty of time to whip up a couple pitchers of mojitos and relax. About at hour before go time, take your ham and Swiss out of the fridge to come to room temp. Then, when you are ready to griddle, smear some of the porky mojo onto the bottom slice, top with pickles, then sliced pork, ham and Swiss, a swipe of yellow mustard on the top bun, onto a buttered griddle and smash  that baby down with a heavy pot, (clean) brick or sandwich press.

And Voila!

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You can find the recipes I used for both the pork and the Cuban sandwiches on my Trello Board HERE and HERE. These Sandwiches are great for a crowd or just a few friends and they make great leftovers! They reheat amazingly in the oven wrapped in foil and are delicious cold, trouncing that sad slice of pizza that you forgot you ordered last night.

Florida isn’t good for much, but thanks to some entrepreneurial expats, you don’t have to leave the lower 48 for an amazing sandwich and, once in a blue moon, the culinary stars align to bring such a wonder to this PNW Hungry Ginger.

 

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Of Comfort Food and Culture Wars

Two years ago France and Italy came to near blows over a recipe for spaghetti carbonara that was Frenchified with the addition of onions, creme, fraiche and, gasp…parsley!? It was a simpler time back then. One can argue that conflict over recipes is infinitely preferable to whatever shitstorm characterizes the political climate these days. International issue or not, spaghetti carbonara is my go-to comfort food. I always have eggs, pasta and parm/pecorino in the house and Trader Joe’s has these 4 oz packages of diced pancetta that are perfect for carbonara for two.

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If you can get it, buccatini, a hollow spaghetti, is great for the silky clingy carbonara sauce, which works its way deliciously both inside and outside each noodle. Carbonara is something I can make in just about any state: hangry, hungover, late at night drunk on tequila, you name it! I spent a lot of time trying different recipes for carbonara and finally settled on one that is simple and classic. You can see it HERE.

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A few carbonara commandments that I learned along the way:

  1. Don’t use milk or cream. Fat, starchy pasta water and cheese are all you need for an incredible sauce.
  2. Eggs are necessary and, if you want a richer sauce, use more yolks.
  3. Do not make your sauce in the pan you cooked the pancetta or bacon in. This can lead to scrambled eggs. Instead, fill a large bowl with hot water and let it sit while you are prepping your other ingredients. Then, when you are ready to mix everything together, dump out the water so you are left with a warm bowl that will gently nudge your sauce to silkiness rather than strong arm it.

Following these rules will result in a luscious, subtle sauce that is both rich and light, a far cry from the calorie bombs that can be found on some Italianesque restaurant menus, and on French food blogs apparently. However, I won’t judge if you prefer it creamy and/or parsleyed. I have a good friend who uses bacon bits and sour cream and I really enjoy her version as well. This is what is so great about comfort food. It is all about what makes YOU happy. We have enough to worry about in the world these days without drawing battle lines in our kitchens as well.

Burritos – The Ultimate Convenience Food, Infinitely Riff-able

I loooove me a good burrito! Be it all snuggled in its foil wrapper, easily eaten on the go, or slathered in sauce and the size of a small infant, I am there for it, baby! I am a frequent visitor of taco trucks and hole-in-the-wall taco joints. This truck and this taqueria in my home town of West Seattle are two of my favorites. However, there is something to be said for not having to leave your house and having a delicious burrito ready and waiting for you in your freezer, mere minutes away from your mouth after a quick trip through the microwave (or in my counter-space challenged and thus microwave free home, a slightly more lengthy stay in the oven). Regardless of how you heat ’em up though, freezer burritos and breakfast burritos can seem like small miracles when you just can’t even but want something delicious and comforting to fill your belly.

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Zoe can’t even…

Over  the years, I have played around with this convenience food, trying different recipes and filling combinations and have discovered that the beauty of the frozen burrito is that there is no ULTIMATE RECIPE but rather, it is a dish that endlessly customizable and delicious in its many iterations so long as you follow a few basic principles of burrito making and a couple small but important freezer guidelines.

Burrito Principle #1: Have a variety of textures – No one enjoys a burrito that is just all mush. I mean, I love hella cheese and refried beans as much as the next person, but part of the joy of eating is variety – in texture as well as flavor. So, toss some cooked rice into that tortilla along with black or pinto beans that have been cooked and mashed slightly. Or leave your beans whole, but for the love of all that is sacred, make sure that they are cooked fully. No one likes under-cooked beans in their burrito. Then balance out the relatively soft textures of the rice and/or beans with some veggies like bell peppers and onions cooked to the point where they maintain a little crunch. And of course cheese and salsa to your liking!

Corollary of Burrito Principle #1: For breakfast burritos, replace beans and/or rice with hashbrowns and eggs scrambled with a little cheese, salt and pepper. I like to defrost some frozen hashbrowns or even tater tots and toss them with the cooked veggies.

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Hashbrowns and veggies in the background and scrambled eggs with ham and cheese in the foreground destined for Denver Breakfast Burritos.

Burrito Principle #2: Don’t muddy the flavors – It may be tempting to really raid the spice cabinet here. I mean, when else are you going to use that artisanal ancho chili powder that you got at the farmers market last year? Or was it two years ago? First, check the sell by date. Odds are, many of your spices are past their prime and won’t be doing you any favors in whatever dish they land in. Second, be judicious about when and where you spice. For example, I like to use a boxed Mexican or Spanish rice for convenience sake when making my burritos. Near East is a brand that is readily available at grocery stores and makes a flavorful light (read: not gummy) rice for burritos. If I use a boxed rice, I ease off on the spices elsewhere. Maybe just some chili powder added to the veggies along with a splash of lemon juice and a half teaspoon each of cumin and coriander added to the beans. However, sometimes I will do a cilantro lime rice a la Chipotle and in that instance, I may add some more spices to the vegetables like paprika (sweet or smoked) and ancho or chipotle chili powder.

Burrito Principle #3: When it comes to cheese, its all about location, location, location! – Don’t just toss a handful cheese into your burrito and call it a day. You have been so thoughtful up to this point. Don’t leave, what is arguably the most important part of the burrito, to fate or your questionable rolling technique! It is always a little disappointing when we get to the very bottom of our burrito and there sits a large glob of cheese that would have been put to much better use lovingly woven throughout the whole. Slightly better, though not ideal, is when we bite into the burrito and see the clear demarcation if rice and beans and other fillings to cheese. Battle lines were drawn and the cheese stands alone to one side. Yes, it all comes together in your mouth, but perfection it is not. The answer to this, is to lay out your tortilla and then sprinkle shredded cheese all over that bad boy. Then add your other fillings to one side and get rolling. This way, the cheese is distributed throughout. It is cozying up to your other fillings but it is also hanging out between layers of tortilla, a happy cheesy surprise that makes every bite perfectly balanced. And, if you want to get REAL crazy, dollop some cheese sauce on top of your fillings to create a molten cheesy core. Take care: This technique is only for advanced burrito rollers and cheese fiends.

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Ok, so you have got your burrito with all the fixins’. Is it ready to be rolled and frozen? Wait, step away from the burrito and attend to these two freezer guidelines:

Freezer Guideline #1: Don’t go crazy with the dairy – I mean, you went crazy with the cheese and that’s fine, but for these frozen burritos, leave the sour cream in the fridge. The water content in more liquid dairy products does not lend itself to home freezing, which is a slow process, inviting the formation of water crystals. No one wants ice in their burrito, which will melt and, separated from that fat, can turn your tasty creation into a soggy mess. Check out this really interesting article on the science behind freezing ice cream where the same fundamentals apply. You are totally welcome to heap sour cream on your warmed up burrito (or eat it straight out of the carton alongside…). I won’t judge.

Freezer Guideline #2: Keep the avocado on your toast and out of your burrito – Freezers do weird things to our favorite hipster health food.  I am sure there is some science behind the phenomenon, involving enzymes and oxidation. Perhaps, I’ll do a deep dive into this in another post, but for now, trust me, just don’t do it. As with the sour cream, feel free to go crazy with the guac when it is time to eat the burrito. On top, on the side, EVERYWHERE!

Now you have filled your burrito and followed the freezer guidelines like the A+ student that you are, and now it is time to roll those babies up and toss them in the freezer, a down payment on your future happiness. If you plan on baking them in the oven later, roll up in foil and then stack in a gallon freezer bag. If they are destined for the microwave, roll in parchment paper, then foil and the gallon freezer bag.

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That’s it! Happy rolling! Below are a few articles that I found online and used as inspiration for my burrito adventuring.

Tablespoon.com – Freezer Friendly Denver Omelet Breakfast Burritos

Good Cheap Eats Freezer Burritos

The Kitchn How I Make Burritos to Freeze