Sunday, October 28, 2007

Bringing the Mac Back

Last week, Dave & I hauled the mac out- Southwestern-style, yo.

It began with poblanos tossed on the stovetop for some early night roasting:

Once blackened, softened, and cooled, I chopped and double-checked my Cafe Pasquale's recipe: Things quickly got interesting:
Curly pasta cushioned loads o' butter, milk, cheddar, chiles, sharp mustard and a sprinkling of paprika. The crowning touch was shreds of prosciutto on top.
Baking magic ensued:
As you can see, this amazing beauty had me cocking my head sideways like a curious, hungry owl. This mac wasn't gooey like most, but stiffer, sharper and easily hacked into insouciant wedges of piquant goodness.

Hubba, hubba!

What a delightful way to bridge the gap between seasons!

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

5 teaspoons sea salt
1 pound corkscrew or elbow pasta
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 poblano chiles
1 1/4 pound extra-sharp aged Cheddar cheese, grated
3 tablespoons prepared yellow mustard
2 teaspoons finely ground black pepper
3 cups whole milk
2 pinches of paprika

Fill a large stockpot with water, add 3 teaspoons of the sea salt, and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and boil for 8 minutes. Check for doneness and drain in colander.
Preheat the oven to 375-degrees. Grease a 9x13-inch glass baking dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter, leaving any extra bits divided among the four corners of the pan.
Roast the poblano chiles over an open flame under a broiler, grill or stovetop until blackened all over, turning with tongs to ensure even blackening. Let the chiles "sweat" in a plastic bag for 10 minutes, or until cool enough to handle. Stem and peel by scraping with a knife or rubbing in a terry-cloth towel, then scrape out the seeds and cut the chiles into thin strips. Set aside.
To assemble the casserole, place one-third of the the cooked pasta in the baking dish and sprinkle on one third of the remaining 2 teaspoons of salt and one-third of the cheese. Smooth on 1 tablespoon of the mustard, then lay half of the chile strips over all. Scatter bits of one -third of the remaining 5 tablespoons of butter, then sprinkle on one-third of the black pepper. Repeat the process for the next two layers.
After the pasta, salt, cheese, mustard, butter and black pepper have been spread onto the third layer, pour the milk over the casserole, then evenly sprinkle the pinches of paprika over the top.
Bake for 1 hour, or until the top layer is crispy and brown. serve hot from the oven on warmed plates.

Serves 6
from "Cooking with Cafe Pasqual's: recipes from Santa Fe's renowned corner cafe", by Katharine Kagel

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Lone Food, not Lonely

As a busy, rock-star library clerk, I don't often eat alone. The exceptions being when my husband heads out to race motorcycles, or has an in-house poker night.

Then, I spread my wings. Often it takes the form of seafood, usually shrimp, mussels or scallops (anathema to my husband). Sometimes, I go for basic vegetarian fare, a stir fry of some sort.

One night, as Dave was counting out poker chips (and clearing the large dining room table from excess cat hair), I remembered plunking something into the freezer that could be quite useful.

Paging Dr. Praeger!

No, I'd never heard of him either. He's apparently some healthy-crunchy kind of dude, who just happened to have a selection of freezer-stable good-for-ya goods. Notably, "spinach cakes".Sounds appetizing, yes? But I'm telling you- bake one of those babies, ladle a softly poached egg atop, and sprinkle with a chopped, garden-fresh tomato and, well, dinner on poker night ain't so bad.

Hmm, that's a little dull, isn't it? Lets brighten things up a bit.
Tasty, satisfying, and all done in under 20 minutes. Brilliant, babes!

Poached Egg with Salsa, Tomatoes & Spinach Cakes

2 spinach cakes (or any sort of savoury cake, prepared and heated)
1 egg, softly poached
medium green salsa
chopped ripe tomatoes
Parmesan cheese, shredded

Prepare cakes according to package directions.
Meanwhile, poach an egg. While a lot of folk don't seem to care for it, I use the whirlpool method; for single eggs, it seems to work out just fine.
Lay one cake on a plate and cover with salsa, chopped tomatoes and Parmesan.
Cover with another cake, repeat and top with poached egg.
Poke egg, inhale the heady goodness, and dig in.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Three Easy Pieces

Sometimes, a girl needs to have something ready and available at last moments notice. That is where our friend Frozen Puff Pastry comes in.

[In all disclosure, I've never made puff pastry from scratch, but I've seen it done, and tasted the delicious results. I've also sampled frozen puff pastry. It's more than adequate, so it's no wonder I've become BFFs with Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry.]

While quite useful in breakfasty applications, puffy pastry swings easily to the savoury side of things, appetizers in particular. That old 70's favourite, "PINWHEELS" shines especially bright in it's glistening, butter-fat light.

I was recently requested to bring some appies to a dinner party. Two boxes of puff pastry that had been languishing in my freezer were quickly put to use.

First up, an Italian-esque spin with roasted tomatoes, pesto and fresh mozzarella:
Next, a roasted vegetable tapenade with shredded piave cheese:

Finally, I wanted something both savoury and a touch sweet. That's how I ended up with red onion, fig, walnut & mascarpone pinwheels:

I thought that perhaps a few people would like these, but they turned out to be the surprise hit of the night. "You can taste every ingredient!"

The holidays are just 'round the corner, folks. I'm just sayin'.

Pinwheels! Puff Pastry Appetizers

1 package puff pastry, thawed.
  • try:
  • pesto + oven-roasted tomatoes + fresh mozzarella (excess moisture squeezed out)
  • or:
  • prepared roasted vegetable tapenade + shredded piave cheese
  • or even:
  • prepared red onion & fig w/ porto wine tapenade + mascarpone cheese + diced toasted walnuts
egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water

Unfold puff pastry, and roll out to approximately 14x11-inch rectangle.
Spread evenly with pesto or tapenade, then layer remaining ingredients on top.
Roll tightly jelly-roll style, and place in the freezer for 15-20 minutes to firm up.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Remove pastry from freezer. Slice thinly, place on baking tray, and brush with beaten egg. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until slices have puffed and nicely browned.
Cool briefly. Serve warm, or at room temperature.

note: I get my prepared tapenades from Harris Teeter.

Not Top Chef

I've heard many great things about the Cogan's in Norfolk, but never made it over. So, it was with great excitement that I discovered a second location newly opened in the Harbour View development in Suffolk.

The draw is two-fold: pizza and beer. With that in mind, I grabbed two of my favorite men-folk to test the waters. We met up on Cogan's patio, where they were soon narrowing their choices on the latter. With 100 bottled and 6 on draft-- no easy feat! Our server soon returned to take our drink orders. She also added that the fryer was down-- this pretty much excluded the appetizers, with the exception of bread sticks.

They were out of the first two beers Jeff ordered, but finally came through with a Rogue draft ($3.50). Dave crafted an homage to the black & tan: a mixture of Guinness ($5) and Strongbow hard cider ($3.50). I settled for a simple glass of St. Michelle riesling ($4), which was quite light and nice for just sipping.

After all the confusion, our server was ready for our orders. I asked if a large salad would be enough to split three ways? "Oh, we don't have any salads tonight," she said, hoisting her pad. We laughed in amazement, and Dave asked how on earth does one run out of salad. She told us they had everything-- except the lettuce.

Our choices were becoming increasingly limited, so we simply ordered a couple of different pies. While she gathered the menus, I glanced over at the bar, visible through long windows. Crimson red walls and dark furniture gave it that upscale-dive kind of ambience, and was fairly humming with people laughing, smoking and drinking. There was also a tv in the corner, which proved useful as our wait stretched slowly along.

At the mid-point, I headed inside to use the bathroom. The dining room was very open and colorful, while the rear was lined with pool tables in a funky, space monkey vibe. I also noticed that there was only one table, a six-top that had been occupied since we first arrived.

Almost an hour after being seated, our pizzas finally came. A girl can forgive a lot when a piping hot pie delivers on its promise of goodness. Unfortunately, this pizza reneged.

The Pirate's Booty ($19) looked great, the crust golden and puffy. Pepperoni, sausage, salami, onions, black olives & mushrooms snuggled into their double sauce and cheese bed. The men pulled out their slices and dug in. Then stopped, and flipped the slice over.

The bottom was burnt. Not a little, and not charmingly charred in a spot or two- it was pitch black:

I turned to the second pie, the Mediterranean ($15). With a name like that, you won't be surprised to find spinach, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic and feta.

The surprise lay beneath, another unappetizingly blackened bottom. I took a bite.

The toppings where nice on their own, but the incinerated crust obliterated any other flavor .

Our server came by to see how things were. Upon being told that both pies were burned, she grabbed the stainless steel pie server, and peeked under both crusts.

"Oh yeah," she said, "that's pretty burned. They've been coming out of the kitchen like that all night. I don't know what's going on back there!" With a shrug, she went back inside. Needless to say, we didn't finish the pizza, or take any home.

This unfortunate night reminds me a lot of CJ on season 3 of Top Chef. I liked the guy, found him friendly, humble and enjoyable. I wanted him to win, I wanted him to do well. Yet, during his last challenge, he sent out food that was blackened and inedible. He cooked it, he knew the problem, but still sent it out. The judges did what they had to when presented with inedible food-- they sent him home. In the restaurant business, you're as good as the last meal you send out.

Cogan's... please pack your knives, and go.

Cogan's Harbour View
5860 Harbour View Boulevard, Suffolk
Phone: 686-9500 Fax: 686-9412
Specialties: pizza, subs & pasta
Price range: appetizers: $3-$8.50; salads: $3-$8; pasta: $6-$8.50; sandwiches: $5.50-$7.50; subs: $6.50-$7.50; pizza: $14-$19
Hours: 11:30 a.m.- 9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Friday/Saturday
Alcohol: beer, wine, full bar
Smoking: smoking permitted in the bar, patio and part of the dining area
Vegetarian: yes
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Payment: cash, credit cards
Noise level: conversational- noisy
Atmosphere: casual
Additional Information: large beer selection, delivery ($12 minimum), large orders welcomed (call ahead)
Star rating: food 2 1/2, atmosphere 3 1/2, service 2
(out of five stars)

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Hibiscus, reconsidered.

I think that the foodie blues visits all bloggers in some form, from time to time. Sometimes, no matter what you do, they stubbornly refuse to be cured, neither by eating food high-falutin', nor home-spun and comforting.

That's where my boy Kevin comes in.

When that cheeky impresario of Acme Instant Food recently revealed himself to be in the thralls of such a malaise, he immediately took action.

Thus sprang forth...
Acme Instant Ingredients!

This one-off event had random bloggers exchanging a unique ingredient. The recipient cooks, photographs and blogs the resulting dish.

My partner was Kevin, and that's how a packet of
Trader Joe's Dried Sweetened Hibiscus Flowers became my new culinary muse.

(I photographed these unique little buds, but lost them somewhere in my computer.

Luckily, Gastrokid let me borrow this image from
his own experience . )

They reminded me of something, and I struggled to think of what... what could it be?

An ... octopus, maybe ?

Nah, that's just silly. More of a Davy Jones, that one.
Hmmmm.... I'm still not feelin' it. Zoidberg, perhaps?

No, wait- I've got it! Success at last:
Baby octy, I could just eat you up!

Oh- eating. Yes, let's get on with it.

The strange-looking, but engaging, candied hibiscus blossom. Miss Mary (her photo is above) has yet another fantastic picture of these strange looking things. I tasted one, and it was like an odd fruit leather: sharp, intense, sour and fruity. I've never been one for fruit roll-ups, so it didn't really appeal to me. I wondered what I could do with them.

Google searches revealed mostly tea-type drinks.

I'm not big on tea, so kept looking. One day, at
work, someone donated a book that contained the recipe for something dubbed a cassata.
This wasn't a true cassata, merely an ice cream-flavoured salute to this traditional Italian dessert. It sounded good, and was easy enough to make. The flowers were soaked in rum, then added to thickly whipped cream. In layers, raspberry sorbet, the cream and vanilla ice cream are tucked into a loaf pan until frozen. I sliced, then spinkled with a little dark chocolate and some toasted pecans.
It looks like Neapolitan, but tastes like a candy-coated fairy dream.

I'd rather thought that I wouldn't like the cream layer, that the chopped hibiscus bites would make for an unwelcome texture. However, it was surprisingly good.

I never would have plucked that package from the shelves, so this was truly a fun- and tasty- experiment. So long, and thanks for all the fish!


note: I substituted the candied hibiscus for the angelica & cherries.
Serves 8

1 ounce (30g) candied angelica, rinsed, dried and chopped
2 tablespoons (30g) candied cherries, rinsed, dried and chopped
2 tablespoons (30g) chopped mixed candied peel
2 tablespoons dark rum
2 1/2 cups (600ml) raspberry sorbet
2/3 cup (150ml) heavy cream, whipped until thick
2 1/2 cups (600ml) vanilla ice cream
3 3/4 cup (900ml) terrine

Chill the terrine. Put the angelica, candied cherries, and candied peel in a bowl.
Add the rum and stir well, then leave to soak while preparing the ice cream layers.
Allow the sorbet to soften, then spread it evenly over the bottom of the chilled terrine. Chill in the freezer until solid.
Fold the fruit and rum mixture into the whipped cream. Spoon into the terrine and level the surface. Return to freezer rand freeze until firm.
Allow the vanilla ice cream to soften, then spread it evenly over the fruit layer. Cover and freeze for 8 hours.
To turn out, dip the terrine into warm water and invert the cassata onto a large serving plate. Slice and serve at once.

"this is not a true cassata, but a layered ice cream 'sandwich" that has borrowed its name. A true sicilian cassata is a bombe of liquer-soaked sponge cake filled with ricotta cheese studded with candied fruits and grated chocolate. It is often served at wedding feasts and other celebrations.
-Classic Home Cooking, by Mary Berry & Marlena Spieler