Feelin' Crabby

Monday, August 29, 2011

   When I was applying for residency I had to take into consideration where in the country I wanted to live. It was my chance to make the big move and I knew I was tired of the bitter cold northeast. Somehow, I felt that my calling must lie in the ethereal south. Southern living has always had a strangely compelling aura about it for me. I've read lots of books over the years set in the south (The Prince of Tides being perhaps one of the most memorable); they all transported me to a place where I imagined balmy nights, loud crickets and other mysterious insects singing resoundingly in the dark. I pictured towering old elms with tendrils of Spanish moss tickling the air beneath their boughs.
   My new home hasn't disappointed me. Night time down here is probably my favorite, which surprised me since sunny days at the beach were part of what drew me here. I love the oddly bright light the night sky takes on here, the stars causing leaves to sparkle and flowers, bright during the day, to take on a strange darkness that still manages to be colorful. The crickets and other bugs I can't even begin to imagine put on such a cacophony of noise it's like being surrounded by an orchestral celebration. I love it.
   But it still was hard to leave the place I called home as a child. During the time I spent interviewing for residency positions, considering new towns and places and people, one of my favorite memories is when my dad braved ice slicked roads to drive me to Virginia for my last interview of the season.
   We arrived when it was already dark, the town seeming rather shuttered and asleep, although it was only just past the dinner hour. Because it was dark I had no concept of what lay around us; my poor geographic sense further handicapped by the tunnel vision night creates.

   We ate at the hotel restaurant, enjoying tall, chilly glasses of beer and thick steaks. My favorite part of the meal, however, was the appetizer- a dip composed of crab and other delicious, creamy things. Unctuous and yet still all about the crab, spread thick on chewy bread, it was comforting and complex at once. Even though I was in a strange state in a strange town with no way of really getting my bearings, I felt happy and relaxed, reassured that no matter where my life takes me I can always sit down for good food and conversation with my dad.
   This recipe is for him, my (too small) thank you for always watching my back, even when my antics are taking me further from home.

Crabby Creamy Dip
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup onion, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • 12 ounces lump crab meat, fresh or canned (i use canned)
  • 4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 teaspoon worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, depending on your preferred spice level
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
   Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Have at ready a shallow baking dish, approximately 8 inches in diameter and 1 inch deep.
   Heat the olive oil in a heavy bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sautee until tender, 5-7 minutes. Add the crab meat (allow their juice to cling, they need to have moisture with them and not be completely drained). Reserve crab meat liquid. Stir in lemon juice, worcestershire sauce, cream cheese, mayonnaise, 3/4 cup parmesan cheese and spices until creamy and fully incorporated. If needed, add a little of the reserved liquid to make the dip the consistency cake batter might be.
   Pour into the baking dish, sprinkle the top with remaining 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese and bake at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until bubbly and slightly browned at the top.
   Serve over slices of baguette (my favorite!), pita triangles or crackers.

An Ode to Carnivores

Saturday, August 27, 2011

   Hurricane Irene has officially passed us by. The pine trees lost a lot of cones and our lawn was well watered, but that was the extent of her mighty threat. In fact, as I write, the sun is shining through my window, making me and my orchids quite happy indeed.

   We really were incredibly lucky the storm turned out to be so mild for us. I have everyone north of us in my thoughts, I hope they all are as lucky as we were and make it through Irene's path safely.
   On a food note, I've lately been reflecting on my status as a meat eater. I would wager that most people either grew up with a family member who has tippled in the world of vegetarianism or they have tried it themselves. I'm a member of the former- my mother, for a brief time after my little sister was born, tried vegetarianism. I remember a lot of beans and brown rice and my dad making big pots of his famous hamburg and beans to satisfy his inner carnivore. I'm not sure if it didn't last because it was too much stress to make vegetarian meals that wold please all of us or if she just missed chicken and hamburgers, but in short order we were back to our roast chicken dinners and spaghetti with meat sauce.
   I have no doubt that a complete and nutritious diet can be constructed from entirely vegetarian or vegan dishes. There are so many other delicious foods to enjoy and include in our diets that there generally are two to three days a week that I don't eat meat at all, and in a given day it is part of only one meal. I've always eaten this way and it was a happy coincidence as I got older and started reading about 'eating vegetarian' a day or two out of the week to reduce my carbon footprint. My tastebuds have naturally been doing that for me for years!
   After my many ruminations I've come down to this: meat has a bad rap, for no real good reason. It's our own lazy western faults that meat has turned into the nasty, atherosclerosis causing mystery food it now is. Rather than allow our cows and pigs to roam free, eating grass and roots and whatever else they dig up to their little hearts content, we constrain them to teeny pens, overcrowded and forced to eat corn meal and other unidentifiable and industrialized grains.
   Well, guess what, folks, animals who have been abused with growth hormones, antibiotics and highly refined grains get the last laugh. All those things we poison their bodies with end up in us and all our many cells when we eat them.
   I consider myself infinitely fortunate to have grown up on a farm. One of my earliest memories is of my dad and some of his buddies showing my older brother how to butcher the chickens we had raised. Those chickens were lean and happy buggers, having been raised in huge coops with lots of grass and sun. I was too young to help at that point, but I sure as heck enjoyed the chicken soup my mom made that night.
   A lot of people I discuss this issue with dismiss the idea of eating only organic, grass fed meat as snobbish and far too expensive. Take it from someone who has eaten this way for years, many of them as a college or medical student on a seriously restricted budget: when you dedicate a handful of meals per week to quality, properly raised meat, it won't break the bank and you will reap all the tasty, healthful benefits. And I would say that having the courage to know about and have a say in what goes into your body isn't snobbish, it's just plain common sense.
   Having meat only when it counts means some of your meals do end up being entirely vegetarian. Clean meat and lots of vegetables doesn't just protect your heart and endocrine system, it will broaden your cooking horizons, tantalize your tastebuds and challenge your creativity.

   I've decided to celebrate my status as an omnivore by giving you this recipe for lasagna which is near and dear to my heart- it's full of tomatoes, mushrooms, pasta and, yes, grass fed beef! I love this recipe because the leftovers taste even better than when its fresh from the oven, and I can often stretch them to provide a good three days of lunches for me and Steve. 
 Meaty Lasagna
  • 1 1/2 pounds organic, grass fed ground beef
  • 1 medium onion, halved and sliced thin
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1-2 pinches red chili pepper flakes
  • 8 ounces baby bella mushrooms, sliced thin
  • 1 1/2 jars marinara sauce or favorite pasta sauce
  • 9 lasagna sheets
  • 1 pound ricotta cheese
  • 12 ounces small curd cottage cheese
  • 1 cup ground parmesan cheese, divided
  • 6 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 2 eggs
   Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
   Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the noodles and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil (this will prevent them from sticking to each other once you've drained them). Cook until the noodles are pliable but not completely cooked, they will finish cooking in the oven- this takes about 8 minutes. Drain completely and set aside until you are ready to assemble the lasagna.
   Meanwhile, sautee the onion, 2 tablespoons oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt in the olive oil until quite soft and starting to brown- about 5-10 minutes. Add the meat, remaining salt, ground pepper and pepper flakes and cook until meat is browned and cooked through. Drain off any excess oil and add the mushrooms, cook until mushrooms are soft. Add the tomato sauce and bring to a simmer while you prepare the cheese mixture.
   In a medium mixing bowl, mix together 3/4 cup parmesan cheese, the ricotta, cottage and motzerella cheeses with the eggs until completely blended.
   In a 9 X 13 inch baking dish, spread a cup of your meat sauce on the bottom. Layer three atop this. Spread about a 1/3 inch layer of cheese mixture evenly atop each noodle. Ladle enough sauce atop the cheese layer to cover. Repeat this process twice more until you've used all the noodles, ending with a layer of sauce. You may have some sauce and/or cheese mixture left over. Sprinkle the remaining parmesan cheese over the top.
   Bake, covered in tin foil, for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake and additional 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for a full  30 minutes (this is when the noodle absorb and those delicious juices, allowing the layers to stay together when you serve it).
   Makes 9-12 servings.

In the Raw

Friday, August 26, 2011

   One fateful day several years ago, a good friend of mine decided to eat a whole clove of raw garlic. It wasn't even a silly juvenile dare- he thought he was being a good little health nut!
   You really can't read anything about garlic without being inundated with its virtuous nutritive qualities. There are quite a few sources that insist garlic in its raw state is even more powerful and better for you than its cooked counterpart.
   Well, that harmless clove turned into a spicy, noxious chemical bomb in my poor friend's mouth and I distinctly remember thinking raw garlic would never be welcome on my palate.
   Fast forward several years when I tasted the best green bean I've ever had. Cool, crunchy, acidic and complex with a spicy bite, it was heaven. I was quite surprised to learn that the recipe called for a significant quantity of finely chopped raw garlic.

   I don't know where he picked the formula up, but this dish was first prepared for my family by my brother in law. Since then I've modified it slightly (different vinegar, more mustard) but the spirit of this spicy bean remains the same. It's all taste and crunch, all reward and flavor for very little effort.
   This can be served as a side or a simple mid afternoon snack- you could even gild the lily and sip on a crisp glass of chilled white wine. I ask only that you promise me to try eating them with your hands. For some reason, I can't bring myself to take my fork to these babies. They simply demand to be plucked from the plate with your fingers and finished off with some proper lip smacking finger licking. I think the best kinds of dishes are flavorful, complex, fun and interactive- all things these beans embody.

   On a side note, Steve and I have accidentally made this weekend an all out Carb Bonanza (can you say tuna casserole, lasagna and pizza?) and a big batch of these green beauties are going to be our nutritional saving grace!

 Garlicky Green Beans
  • 1 pound green beans, stalk end trimmed
  • Coarse kosher salt
  • 4 medium sized cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • 3 tablespoons coarse dijon mustard (the one with all the little seeds)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
   Bring a medium sized pot of salted water to boil. Have an ice bath prepared. Once the water is boiling, add your beans all at once. After 2-3 minutes they should be bright green- drain and immediately submerge them in the ice water. Drain again and place in a medium mixing bowl. In a cup or small bowl, mix the garlic, vinegar, mustard and 1/2 teaspoon salt together. Drizzle all of this over your beans and toss to coat.
   Serves 2-4 depending on how hungry you are.

Papa Eclair

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

   Inclement weather aside, I have been keeping busy the last few weeks- visiting family, working, planning for next year when I officially start my new residency... that last one tuckers me out just thinking about it! I'm looking forward to a (hopefully) quiet weekend.

   But it isn't working on my application or studying for work that is most important- most important is all the fantastic recipe testing that I've managed to squeeze in! There have been Spicy Black Bean Burritos, Coffee Rubbed Pork Tenderloin, Gougeres, Creamy Corn with Swiss Chard and Kale (a keeper- I need to recreate this, write down the proportions and share with all of you), The Infamous Turkey Chili, Chocolate Chip Cookies and- my favorite- Boston Cream Pie.

   Now, I don't remember when my love of Boston Cream Pie began, where I was when I first tasted it or who baked and served that first fateful slice. I do, however, know what I thought of the first time I tasted it: eclairs. Eclairs and all things Pate a Choux, hold a special place in my heart, and a slice of properly made Boston Cream Pie is like an eclair on steroids. All soft, sweet cake, creamy delicious pastry cream and a tantalizing ribbon of mysterious, dark chocolate... it doesn't get much better than that.

   Several years ago a good friend of mine and I made eclairs and, I don't remember why, we decided to zest a lemon into the pastry cream. I credit that heavenly pastry cream for her dad's subsequent renouncement of his diet for the afternoon.  I've never gone back to plain vanilla pastry cream- the tangy presence of lemon is welcome in any and every recipe I've used pastry cream with since.

   As a testament to the fabulousness of this cake, Steve has decided it is his new official birthday cake. And people, if you've ever seen that man with his carrot cake, you would realize the magnitude of this endorsement. It's that good.

Lemony Boston Cream Pie
Adapted from Gale Gand 
   Note: as a bonus, this recipe makes quite a bit of pastry cream and I ended up with about a cup extra. Apply to breakfast toast or warmed and spooned over ice cream to your heart's content!
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cake flour
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 milk
  • 1/4 cup cooking oil (I recommend canola)
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
   Pastry Cream Filling
  • 2 cups milk (whole or 2%)
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup corn starch
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Chocolate Ganache
  • 8 ounces high quality semisweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream 
   To make the pastry cream: in a medium saucepan, bring the milk, vanilla bean with seeds and lemon zest to a simmer over medium heat. Immediately turn off the heat and set aside to infuse for 10 to 15 minutes. In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks and granulated sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the cornstarch and whisk vigorously until no lumps remain. Whisk in 1/4 cup of the hot milk mixture until incorporated. Very slowly whisk in the remaining hot milk mixture (you want to slowly bring the eggs up to temperature to avoid scrambling them).
   Pour the mixture back into the saucepan, discarding the vanilla bean. Cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until thickened and slowly boiling. Remove from the heat, scrape into a mixing bowl and stir in the butter. Cover with plastic wrap, lightly pressing the plastic against the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Chill at least 2 hours or until ready to serve. This step can be done up to 24 hours in advance.
    To make the cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9 inch round cake pan with butter and coat with granulated sugar.
   In a medium mixing bowl combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. 
   In a large mixing bowl, beat egg whites and cream of tartar on medium to high speed until soft peaks form. Set aside.
   Add milk, oil, egg yolks, and vanilla to the dry cake ingredients. Mix with a rubber mixing spatula until well combined and very smooth. Fold in egg whites.
   Pour the batter into your prepared cake pan.  Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the top springs back when lightly touched. Invert the pan onto a wire rack. Cool for 15 minutes then remove from the pan and cool completely on a cake rack.
   To make the ganache: place the chocolate in a mixing bowl. In a saucepan, bring the cream to a bare simmer over medium heat. Pour the cream over the chocolate and gently stir until all the chocolate is melted and the mixture is very smooth. Set aside to cool until you are ready to assemble the cake.
   To assemble: cut the cake into two even layers with a long serrated knife. Place the bottom layer on your serving dish. Spread as much pastry cream as you desire over this first layer (I used enough to get about a half inch of pastry cream between the cake layers). Place the second layer atop the pastry cream and press gently to secure it in place. Spread a thin layer of ganache atop this, spreading it so it drips down the sides in places.
   Cake will keep at room temperature for up to 2 days. 
   Serves 8

This Just In...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

   I have a small admission to make: I loath the news. I especially refuse to watch television news. The anchors, all stony faced and slathered in a frightening amount of make up, seem to have only one goal and that goal is to make us believe we live in a dangerous, hateful, doomed society of war mongers and philandering political figures who only wish to steal our money and ruin the moral fiber of the communities we live in. My goodness. Depressing.
   News for me exists almost solely in the gossip columns of various websites and, of course, the dining and arts section of the NY Times!

   Not that I don't care about our political climate or the state of the world at large. I certainly keep up on major elections and the like, but as far as my daily diet of information goes, public news simply is not welcome.
   Imagine my surprise then when everyone started talking about Hurricane Irene. Wait- it's hurricane season already?! I thought summer had just begun...
   I checked with Steve (my go to source for all things news related) and indeed, this category 4 beastadone is hurtling its way toward my precious East Coast town with nary a concern for things like houses and favorite backyard trees.
   This kind of storm warning is no novelty for me. The fall of my first year in Buffalo, I was a fresh faced and enthusiastic first year medical student when an unexpected and devastating snow storm tore through us in early October. Trees, still decked out in their colorful fall colors, splintered under the incredible weight of the ice and snow and fell like dominoes. Traffic lights came down in the streets, the fallen trees destroyed cars, crushed hapless pedestrians and created a landscape not unlike something out of a Tim Burton nightmare.
   My sixth floor walk up apartment was immediately plunged into darkness. Peeking around my door I was greeted with fathomless hallways and pitch black stairwells so reminiscent of The Shining that I slammed my door and cowered on the couch for several hours before I could tentatively come up with a plan of escape. An interminable day and a half later, when the authorities finally re-opened the only highway in and out of the city, I packed up my teeny honda, braved the free-for-all intersections, and got the heck out of dodge for the next 5 days.
   I will spare you the memory of my return when, upon opening my apartment door, I realized that in my haste I had forgotten that a fridge full of produce and meat products requires electricity in order to remain in a state of freshness...
   But it wasn't the carnage in my fridge that I remember most about that time. It was how kind everyone was to each other. Buffalo is notorious for drivers recklessly charging fresh red lights like manic Indy 500 racers, and suddenly those same drivers adopted a natural and gentle rhythm through darkened intersections. After the towering trees did their damage, no one was hurt. People all over the city were welcomed into the opened arms and kitchens of the handful of houses and apartments that maintained electricity. I spent a memorable night with a few friends in one such apartment, enjoying the unlikely pairing of yogurt and beer, not to mention the camaraderie.
   All this to say, I have faith that people can come through disaster well. That said, I am thankful for the warning this time and that I have Steve, who faithfully watches the news and is tirelessly preparing our little home for impending torrential rains and gale force winds.

   My first inclination was to buy wine and make Turkey Chili, his was to batten the windows and fill the guest room with bottled water. Thank goodness I have him to remember the essentials and keep me safe!
   Between Steve and I, it should be a windy, rainy weekend spent safely sequestered indoors with good drink and food. Not such a bad pair, the two of us.

Hurricane Irene's Turkey Chili

    Chili is the perfect extreme weather food in my opinion. Steve and I have been enjoying this recipe quite a bit recently, sans hurricane. It is spicy in a complex and not overly hot kind of way, tangy and rich with peppers and lean meat. We serve it over brown rice, but some buttered egg noodles would be scrumptious too.
  • 1 large onion, medium diced
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Coarse kosher salt, to taste
  • 2 lbs ground turkey meat (I use 94% lean)
  • 1 ½ teaspoons cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes
  •    1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, depending on your preferred spice level
  •   3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 28 oz cans diced tomatoes
  • Veggie stock (about 3 cups)
  • 5 bell peppers, a mixture of red and orange, medium diced
  • 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
For Brown Rice
  • 1 cup short grain brown rice
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 tablespoon olive oil

   Place all the ingredients for the rice in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to very low and simmer gently for 40-60 minutes until the rice is cooked through. Fluff with a fork.
   Meanwhile, in a heavy bottomed soup pot or dutch oven, sauté the onion in the olive oil, sprinkled with salt, over medium heat until quite soft and translucent- 5-10 minutes. Add the spices and garlic. Cook, stirring constantly, until very fragrant, about 1 minute.
   Add the ground turkey, sprinkle with more salt, increase the heat to medium high and cook, stirring often, until meat is browned and cooked through.
   Add the diced tomatoes with their juices and peppers. Stir all this together and add enough stock so that the liquid just barely covers the peppers and meat. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally.
   Add the beans, taste and season with more salt as needed. Simmer another 5 minutes.
   As a seasoning guideline, I use approximately 2 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, total.
   Serve over freshly cooked brown rice.
   Makes 8-10 servings- perfect for left over lunches!